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Andreas crossed himself as became a pious Christian. “Do not blaspheme the Saint. Ask his prayers rather. This is a noble time for the gnomes and pixies to go hunting in the Marienthal for just such blithe rascals as you. So pray hard and run harder.”
Small need of this. Gnomes and pixies had been much in Johann’s mind since goodwife Kathe, his mother, had thrust the basket on his reluctant arm, and haled him by an ear to the inn door. It was nigh as bad as wandering by night, to thread the forest on a day like this. As he quitted the gate, from east, west, south, was pressing the green Thuringerwald,—avenue on avenue of stately beeches, lofty as church spires, graceful as the piers of some tall cathedral. He could see their serried, black trunks running away into distance, till his eye wearied of wandering amid their mazes. A clearing next, fresh chips, young weeds, a carpet of dank leaves—but the wood-cutters were gone. Then the path opened enough to give one glimpse to the westward and southward, toward the leafy peak of the Hainstein; and beyond and higher, to a proudly built castle,—with a scarlet banner trailing through the rain,—the Wartburg, one-time fortress of the Landgraf of Thuringia, now the hold of Baron Ulrich, boldest and wickedest of all the “ritters” who watched the roads in these evil days which had fallen upon Germany.
The glimpse of the Wartburg cheered Johann. Man was there—and what was a “robber-knight” beside a redoubtable pixie? Likewise, what likelier place for pixies than those glades just before? Johann had not forgotten the wise tales of old grandame Elsa; and there it was,—the stone cross, where forty years ago the griping burgomaster Gottfried had been found lying stiff and cold, with purse untouched, and never a scar, save a little one behind his ear. “He had gone to meet the Devil, and the Devil had stolen his soul;” so said Father Georg in church. It was heresy to doubt it.
Johann was sure it was best to pray at the cross. He plumped on the wet grass, said two Aves and a Paternoster. At the last “Amen,” whir!—went something off behind. A gnome? No; only a partridge. He trudged on happier. Now the glade was narrowing; the trees thickened, the brook sang over rocks and sands. One could see the slim trout shooting in the pools. Johann’s stride lengthened. The forest closed all view. He crossed the stream on stepping-stones, and drew a long breath. “Only two hundred paces more!” It had ceased raining, but all the trees were hung with pearls, and shook down showers at every sweeping breeze. The air was suddenly grown warm. The last hundred paces, Johann seemed walking into a sheer wall of rock, whence the stream crawled from under a tiny fissure. What dwelt beyond—dog-men who fed on babes, or only ordinary and commonplace devils, Johann did not care to guess. Ten paces from the precipice he halted, crossed himself as a precaution, laid down the basket, and turned to a sapling whence dangled a rusty helmet by a leathern thong.