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Smiling to himself in his usual good natured way, Otto von Goff closed the kitchen door and leaned against it. Despite the soft urgings of his dog to get on with whatever had made him take her from a warm bed into the frigid outdoors at four o'clock in the morning, Otto gave himself a moment to get used to the cold while his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
When his oatmeal coloured setter, Haferbrei, became visible as a moving patch of paler dark against the dense black of the stairs in front of him, Otto realised there was no point in waiting any longer hoping to see better. Taking his ever-present pipe from his mouth, he grumbled affectionately to Haferbrei, "If you'd told me it was going to be this dark, I would have brought a lamp."
He heard her tail thump against the stone walls of the stairs as she wagged in response. He made no move to go back into the house to get a lamp. Instead, he held his pipe behind his back, as far from his nose as he could reach, so that, as he mounted the half-flight of stone stairs up to ground level, he walked up through the cloud of smoke he'd made into the fresh air.
Knowing the stairs so well he could climb them without looking, Otto reached the back yard ahead of the pipe smoke and took a deep breath to test the air, his eyes closed in concentration.
The winter air was still, with hardly a breeze. Crisp, but nowhere near as cold as he had expected. No scent of rain, or snow. Why so dark then?
Puffing on his pipe, Otto searched the skies. He couldn't see a single star, nor any sign of the moon. There was not so much as a moon-glow behind the clouds which had moved in silently over night.
Heavy cloud cover, then; heavy enough it's acted like a blanket for the living earth. That's put an end to that bone-chilling cold we've had since Christmas.
He told Haferbrei as he started to walk towards his stables, "It'll be as good a day as we can get for travelling in February, but we'd better be back by tonight. If a wind comes in and clouds that thick let go, it'll come down heavy whether it comes down wet or white."
There was no other human being outside with him, not even the slow-witted man who was usually splitting kindling over in the corner by the time Otto ventured outside. The glow of the embers in his pipe, which reddened when he drew on it, was the only light he could see.
Sure footed in the dark from fourteen years of walking from his manor house to his stables and back again several times a day, Otto walked with Haferbrei along the earthen path that took them diagonally lengthways across the back yard, the Gutshof, his hands in his pockets to keep them warm, his pipe clenched in his teeth. He felt rather than saw the looming density of deeper darkness on his right, which was the great mass of the manor house. On his left another sensation of solidness and size was the huge stable complex, second only to the manor house in bulk and presence.
As he walked Otto tested the path, concentrating on the way his boots felt against the surface, and the sounds they made. He was pleased to find the earth firm beneath his feet. No feeling of mud or ice. He stomped harder a few times to be sure, then nodded to himself, satisfied that there would be good footing for his horse.
When he heard his boots on the cobblestones before the stable door, he stopped to put his pipe out before going in. As soon as Otto stood still, Haferbrei padded off as she always did, down the path between the poultry sheds and the stables to wait for Otto at his usual exit door. Otto looked back across the Gutshof towards the poultry sheds, walled gardens, berry patches, and orchards, which he could not see in the dark. Shaking his head at himself for his force of habit, he turned his attention back to his embers, making short work of extinguishing every last one when the darkness showed them up so clearly.
Once he was satisfied there was no chance of a stray ember to fall onto loose straw, Otto slipped his pipe into his pocket and stepped into the black well of the thick old stable wall. The door was set back into the wall to give protection from the weather to those entering. On a normal winter morning the lamp that hung over the door would have been lit for him, but he was too early even for that. He found the door latch by feel, and let himself into the familiar warmth of the stables. After the fresh outside air, the fuggy stable smells hit him at once.
Soon the stables would be a hive of activity, but now the rows of horse stalls stretched away from him, dark and quiet. He could see nothing, but he could hear the horses put their heads out of their stalls, whoofling softly to one another, shuffling and stomping, snorting great breaths of curiosity. As he passed each stall he murmured lovingly to the horse inside to reassure it. He felt his way along the aisle from the Gutshof door to the corner by running his fingers lightly along the stalls as he went.
It wasn't until he was nearly at the corner that he saw a faint glow from oil lamps in the transverse aisle. His eyes were so used to the dark by then that it took very little light for him to have enough to walk confidently towards the corner without feeling his way. When he rounded the corner he blinked as he faced the light.
"Mein Herr," the stableman, Helmuth Schmidt, greeted Otto, adding with disapproval, "You don't got no light." Helmuth was standing by the west side door with the head groom who was sleepily preparing Otto's favourite saddle horse for a winter excursion. When he heard Otto's voice, Artur did his best to appear fully awake rather than chilled and just pulled from bed.
"Helmuth, Artur," Otto answered, acknowledging them both, but with eyes only for his horse, Mechtild. She stretched her neck towards him, moving her rubbery lips in soundless greeting. She was already out of her stall, brushed and wearing a riding bridle.
Helmuth looked askance at the great caped coat Otto was wearing. "Too cold to ride out. Her'n catch a chill," he warned, sucking air in through the holes in his teeth with a whistling sound the way he did when he disapproved of something.
"Put a blanket on her, then," Otto advised, petting and nuzzling Mechtild, taking no offence that his stableman grumbled at him.
Helmuth grumbled about everything, but he gave first rate care to the horses, and for that quality of work Otto would have put up with a lot more than dourness from Helmuth. "Terrible cold," Helmuth persisted while Artur put a blanket on Mechtild, then left to go and fetch her saddle. "You doesn't even wear a hat outside. Freeze your brain, you will. Cousin Frieda worked for a man once what wouldn't wear a hat. Terrible that was."
"What was so terrible?"
"Cousin Frieda didn't have no one to work for no more. Terrible hard for a widow woman with all them children and no work. Her had to marry again."
Using every ounce of self control that he could summon up, Otto prevented himself from asking any more questions, and, what he was even more proud of, didn't so much as twitch a lip in amusement. Like an obedient child he showed that he had a hat, scarf, and gloves in his pockets, telling Helmuth. "Your lady wife made me promise to put them on when I ride. I swear, I'm the only Gutsherr in all of Prussia who's surrounded by a flock of clucking hens. I have to go, regardless. Today the probate is reading Frau von Puttkamer's Will."
Helmuth glanced around to see if Artur had heard him called a clucking hen, but Artur was out of sight and ear-shot. Although Otto was only of average height, Helmuth was barely above his shoulder, needing to look up to grumble at him, "No good can come in a year what comes to us behind a coffin. Start the year wearing black, sorrow all year."
Otto nodded. He had not liked his mother-in-law, and was relieved to be free of her constant criticism and disapproval, but she had been Gutsherrin, mistress, of Schönwald for nearly forty years and the people of Schönwald grieved for her. "That isn't as much an omen as a statement of fact," he said gently. "The first year after a death is always the hardest."
Helmuth would not be swayed. "No good comes in a year as starts with a death," he insisted in sepulchral tones, bobbing his greyed head up and down in his earnestness. "First thing her done in the New Year, her died. Never said good morning to nobody; not good day nor happy New Year. Put a foot on the floor, stood up, and dropped down dead. That's not a good sign, that's not."
Otto hastily cleared his throat. Turning towards the door to hide a persistent twitch that threatened to break out of his control into a smile, he clamped his molars together and pressed so hard that a sharp pain in his jaw killed the twitch. In the most sombre tone he could manage he assured Helmuth who was following him with a lamp, "D'you know, I don't believe it was die Frau's choice to die without wishing anyone happy New Year."
"Her'n the Gutsherrin. House run on her wishes. Her didn't wish no good on the house this year."
Otto held the door open for Helmuth, then closed it behind them. With relief he took his pipe out of his pocket as soon as he was outside, and proceeded to create a smokescreen around his head to hide the expressions on his face from Helmuth. He took Helmuth's concern seriously. He might not share the superstitions, but he knew better than to ignore them. This time sincerely, he attempted to reassure Helmuth. "Actions speak louder than words. A Gutsherrin can bless her house with her actions even more than by her words. Frau von Puttkamer might not have been able to give any last words, but she loved Schönwald and tended the house well for a lifetime. She gave her blessing for the New Year in everything she did for Schönwald every day of the year." Otto would have preferred that his wife, Hildegard, ran her own house, but he couldn't admit that to Helmuth.
Helmuth persisted. "Her'n brought back the curse on Schönwald."
Otto shook his big, blond head. "Frau von Puttkamer never cursed anything in her life."
"The curse were started when young master Nicholaus died on the New Year of 1800."
"That had nothing to do with any curse. He got drunk celebrating the new century and fell off the roof. Anyway, that was sixty years ago. Schönwald has not had sixty years of bad times. As a matter of fact, she's never done as well as she's doing now."
"That's as maybe, but there been no sons born to no Gutsherr of Schönwald since. Old Gutsherr, him had five fine sons 'til then, got no more and lost them one by one 'til only Herr Friedrich left to be Gutsherr, and him not the pick of the litter." Helmuth hastily made a warding sign to protect himself from speaking ill of the dead. Otto stared in surprise that Helmuth would say such a thing. "And him had no sons and two daughters and you got no sons and only one daughter. What else can happen to we if'n it all starts again?"
Otto, who couldn't think of what to say to that, was very glad to have Artur open the door and lead Mechtild out. To buy himself time to think of something to say, Otto checked Mechtild's tack carefully, and made sure he ended up standing on the opposite side of Mechtild from Helmuth to hide his face behind her. He realised now that Helmuth was deeply afraid. Scrambling to find something, anything, that might mitigate the fear a bit, he insisted, "That was not Frau von Puttkamer's doing, and there's no curse involved in her death. It's God who decided her time had come, not her, and you can't tell me anything God does is a bad thing."
Helmuth persisted, "New Year's Day were the Sabbath. Not the right way to spend the Sabbath."
Caught by surprise, Otto was very glad he could hide his expression behind Mechtild. He wiped the amusement off his face by pulling one hand over his beard and giving it a sharp tug. Struggling to produce a serious tone of voice, he said, "I don't think die Frau did any work on that Sabbath."
"Others had to," Helmuth countered gravely. "I had to send Artur here to get that doctor what did her no good."
"Now you can't blame the doctor for that. She was dead before he got here. There's nothing any doctor could have done. They aren't supposed to involve themselves in resurrections, you know. That's religious work." He could not resist that last remark.
Helmuth missed the flippancy. "And I had to send Artur to get the minister. It's all work, you know, for me, for he, for the horses. And it's work for the minister to tend the grieving and the dead, and you can't tell me it's not work to lift the dead up off the floor."
Otto, who had lifted Clothild's body with the help of the butler and a couple of footmen, had to concede that point. "I have to leave," he announced.
"Can't go by your own," Helmuth objected. "Has to take extra care when signs is bad."
"I'm not waiting for anyone else to saddle up now."
Otto mounted Mechtild while Helmuth droned on. "Young master Adalbert went riding by his-self when signs was bad, and look what happened to he."
"He was galloping full out in the forest like an idiot and broke his head on a low branch. Even when I was young and foolish I was not that foolish, and I'm no longer that young. I'll thank you not to compare me with any more of Herr Friedrich's long lost brothers. Now listen to me, Helmuth, I'm serious. I am going to Eberswalde for the reading of the Will then back home, and nowhere else. You are not to send search parties all over the countryside. Is that clear? Nothing will happen to me. I'll stay warm and dry, and I'll make sure Mechtild does, too."
"If'n Artur was to catch you up him could take better care of Mechtild than them mews grooms."
"No! Enough!" As he whistled Haferbrei to Mechtild's side, Otto was amused to see the look of stark relief on Artur's face.
Riding along the tree-lined avenue past the west wing of the manor house to the road, Otto automatically looked towards the third floor of the east wing where his daughter, Luise, lay sleeping, even though he could not see it. He allowed Mechtild to find her own pace in the dark, feeling his tensions relax and his good humour restoring itself. He knew exactly what to expect from the Will. Clothild would have left everything to Hildegard, except for mementos to Luise, servants, friends, and her side of the family. If Otto was mentioned at all, it would only be in directions on how Clothild wanted him to administer Hildegard's inheritance if she hadn't trusted Hildegard to do it herself.
Even his tension over Helmuth's fears subsided. The loss of all four of Friedrich's brothers belonged to previous generations. Most of it had happened before Helmuth was even born. All Otto had to do was keep to his normal routines and the fearfulness would fade. So cheered, he chuckled a little at the memory of the look on Artur's face when he heard he didn't have to scramble onto a horse and ride all the way after Otto without a chance to wake up properly or have anything to eat first.
* * *
Later in the day, when she finally awoke in the east wing of the manor house, Frau von Goff, Hildegard, the lady of the house, lay in her darkened rooms, grieving the loss of her mother, utterly prostrate. Her lady's maid, Philomele Hübner, took care of her tenderly, moving about in the gloom with hardly a sound. "Try to take a little rest, meine Frau," she coaxed. "It will do you good."
"I can't go on, I can't go on," Hildegard whimpered.
"There, there, meine Frau." Philomele soothed her brow with cool, scented, damp cloths.
"Whatever shall I do? I can't go on without meine Mutter." She broke into tortured sobs. Eight weeks after her mother's death, Hildegard still had not stirred from her rooms, where she spent the days in protracted weeping interspersed with loud sobbing and occasional wailing. The drops and potions she took to settle her nerves gave her nights of heavy sleep from which she woke groggily, too disoriented to get up. When the restorative drops given to her in the morning brought enough clarity of mind that she could remember again her devastating loss, waves of despair overtook her, especially if she recalled the responsibilities that were now hers alone.
"Frau von Puttkamer would expect you to go on, meine Frau."
"It's too much for me. I'm not strong like she was. She knew that. Oh, how could she leave me like this?"
Philomele spoke gently, soothingly, "It will take time, meine Frau. Don't fret yourself. The day will come when you'll be just as good a hausfrau as your dear mother was."
"Oh, I can't. I can't. Whatever shall I do? Where's Frau Blücher? I need her."
"She'll be here shortly, meine Frau. When you wake she'll be here."
* * *
Down the hall from Hildegard's rooms, Otto and Hildegard's daughter, Luise, dressed all in mourning, sat alone on the floor beside her parrot's cage, whispering to him. Her elderly governess dozed in her chair by the fire, snoring slightly.
Careful not to disturb her governess, Luise pulled the drapes back a crack to open the window and let in some fresh air. Her big red macaw fluffed his feathers appreciatively. A few minutes later, bored in the silence and stillness, Luise looked around the nursery for some entertainment. The new nursery maid was diligently hemming a sheet by the light of the candelabra above the table. Luise knew talking to her would be taking a great risk of waking the governess and being put back in front of her schoolbooks. Not willing to return to her lessons, Luise waited until the maid wasn't looking, then slipped carefully through the servant's door, tiptoed down the narrow switchback stairway until she was sure she was far enough away, then dashed triumphantly down the flights of stairs, all the way down to the kitchens to be indulged by the stout cook.
* * *
By the time Otto returned to Schönwald at the end of the day, his cheer was gone. The first numbing shock that the Will he had expected to be a mere formality had, in fact, turned his whole world upside down, had worn off during the ride home leaving a boiling rage. At the end of the day Otto was marching across his fields blindly. "How could it have come to this?" bellowed inside his head as if he'd roared it out loud, though the only sound he was making was the thump of his boot heels hitting the hard packed path with bone jarring thuds. "How could it? How did this happen?" he demanded mentally as he strode away from the stables to put some distance between himself and his household so that he wouldn't hurt any of them. It wasn't their fault things had taken this nasty turn.
Excerpted from PRUSSIAN YARNS by Laurie Campbell Copyright © 2011 by Laurie Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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