Mutter Schwegel by G. Ranger Wormser

He was tremendously disappointed. The house was empty. He had thought it looked uninhabited from the outside. It made him a bit dreary to have his people away like this. That uncertain feeling came over him again. The uncertain feeling never quite left him of late. He was conscious of it most of the time. It formed an intangible background to all his other thought.

He decided he would go down to the lodge presently. He was certain to find Bennet at the lodge. And Bennet's wife; and Bennet's three children. He grinned as he thought of Bennet chasing his children out of his gardens. He could imagine the old gardener's gladness at his homecoming.

Going quickly up the last flight of stairs, he could see that the door of his room stood ajar. He wondered at the yellow glow of light trickling in a long narrow stream out into the dark of the hall.

He went rushing along the corridor.

He pushed the door open.

The same old room. The familiar, faded wall paper. The high, mahogany bed. The hunting print he had so cherished on the wall facing him. The table just as he had left it; the books piled in neat stacks on its polished surface. The lamp standing lighted among the books. The two big arm chairs.

He took a deep breath of surprise.

Some one was seated in the chair facing from him.

He saw the top of a man's head. He had a dim recognition of feet sprawling from under the chair. On either arm of the chair rested a man's hand. There was something he knew about those hands; the prominent knuckles; the long, well made fingers. The heavy, silver signet ring on the smallest finger of the left hand was a ring he had often seen.

He crossed the room.

"Otto—!"

Standing there in front of Kurz, he wondered at the change in him. He looked so much older. There was no trace left of the boyishness which he had always associated with Otto Kurz. There were gray streaks in Kurz's heavy hair; gray at the temples of the wide forehead; gray behind the ears. The mustache and beard were threaded with grayed hairs.

He was astonished to find Otto Kurz in his room.

"Otto—! I had no idea that you would be here—!"

He could not understand the rigid attitude of the man's great body; the set mobility of the man's large hewn features.

He moved a bit so as to stand directly in the line of those fixed staring eyes. He wanted to interrupt the wooden expression of those eyes.

"Otto—It was good of you to come."

Kurz's eyes raised themselves to meet his eyes. He quivered at the look in Kurz's eyes.

"My God!—What is it—?"

The glazed, deadened eyes with the live, dumbed suffering behind them widened.

"Ach—Charlie—!"

"What's happened, Otto?"

"I—do—not—know. I was waiting, Charlie—for—you—to—come."

"Good old Otto!"

He saw Kurz's hand with the heavy, silver signet ring on the smallest finger go up trembling to his beard. It was the old familiar gesture.

"Good?—Did you say good of me, Charlie?"

"Yes, yes!" He insisted eagerly. "Of course it was good of you to come and meet me."

"I—had—to—come."

For he a second he wondered.

"But how did you know?—Who told you?—I only just got here. No one—knew. How could you have known I was coming?"

He heard Kurz sigh; a long sigh that quavered at the end.

"I—? Ach!—how—I—hoped—!"

"That I would come?"

"That you would come, Charlie."

He could not fathom the look in Kurz's eyes. He had never seen a look like that in those eyes. He thought that it was not a human look.

"See here, Otto—What is it?"

Kurz made a little, appealing gesture with his long, trembling hands.

"Later—I—will—try—to—tell—you—"

"Later?"

Kurz nodded his great, shaggy head up and down.

"How did you come in here, Charlie?"

He was surprised at the question.

"How? Why, with my latch key, of course!"

He glanced over at the windows. The blinds were up. He could see the dark pressing against the glass; pressing tightly so that it spread. He started for the window. Kurz's voice stopped him.

"And your family? You have then seen your family, Charlie?"

He smiled.

"No. Not yet. They weren't here when you came in, were they?"

"No—no!—I—have—seen—no—one. I could not bring myself to go before any one. There was an old man. He was going down the hall. I waited till he passed. He must have come to light your lamp."

"Well, old Otto—They're not here. I've hunted all through the house for them. I rather think they must have gone down to Surrey. They've taken the servants with them. After a bit we'll walk over to the lodge and ask Bennet where my people are. That must have been Bennet you saw up here."

"Then you do not know?"

"Know what?"

"About your family?"

"But I just told you, Otto; they must've run down to our place in Surrey. I only came up here to get a look at the old room. I'll go down and ask Bennet presently."

A quick moan escaped through Kurz's set lips.

A sudden thought flashed to him.

"You, Otto—How did you get in here?—With them all away?—With the servants gone?"

He saw the muscles of Kurz's face twitch horribly.

"Ach—! You must not ask, Charlie. A little time, Charlie. There are things I do not myself know. Later—I—will—try—to—tell—you."

"Things you do not know, Otto?"

Kurz's mouth twisted itself into a distorted grin.

"I do not blame you for ridiculing me, Charlie. I always thought I knew everything. Later—; you will see."

"Why not tell me now?"

"No—no—!" Kurz's voice whined frantically. "I do not know if you yourself understand."

"I was only trying to help you, old chap."

"Help—! It is that I want. It is that which brought me here. It is because I must have you help me."

"You've only to say what you want."

"Your help—"

"You know I'll do whatever I can for you."

"Yes—; I hoped that. I counted—on—your—help."

He waited for Kurz to go on. Kurz sat there silent. The long, shaking fingers fumbled at each other.

"Well?"

"Later."

"All right—I don't know what you're driving at."

"Are—you—sure—you—do—not—know—?"

"But—If you don't want to tell me now; why, tell me in your own good time, old fellow."

"Yes. You are not angry? You do not care if I say it later?"

"Of course I don't care."

"Not—care—If—you—knew—; if—it—is—true—; you will care!"

He could not make out what Kurz meant.

"It's mighty nice seeing you," he said after a second's silence. "It's been a long time. Years since I've seen you."

"I came though, Charlie;—I had to come, Charlie."

"I'm jolly well glad you did!"

"You knew I would come."

He drew his brows together in a perplexed frown.

"I knew we would meet sometime."

"Yes. Sometime."

"And the sometime's now. Eh, Otto?"

"Now?" Kurz's big body strained forward. "What—is—it, Charlie—; this—now—?"

The frown stayed over his eyes.

"We were bound to come together again, old Otto. You and I were pretty good pals back there at your university. What a time we two had together! And old Mutter Schwegel! How old Mutter Schwegel fussed over us! How she took care of us! It all seems like yesterday—!"

Kurz got out of his chair.

"Old Mutter Schwegel—;" he muttered.

"Dear old Mutter Schwegel!"

Kurz's eyes stole away from his face.

"Later—I shall tell you of Mutter Schwegel too."

"And the talks we used to have—! The nightlong talks. We settled the affairs of the world nicely in those days. Didn't we, old Otto?"

"The—affairs—of—the—world—"

"And old Mutter Schwegel coming in to put out the light. And then standing there to hear what we had to say of life and of death."

"Of—life—and—of—death."

"And not being able to tear herself away to go to bed. She thought we were wise, Otto. She used to drink in every word we said. And then she'd scold us for staying up all night. Old Mutter Schwegel. I've thought of her often—"

Kurz made a movement toward him.

"And of me, Charlie?—You had thought of me?"

"I say, rather—! Many a time—when they called me back from the university—even after I went out to France—I thought of you."

His mind was muddled a bit. He put it down to the excitement of his coming home. That uncertain feeling came over him again quite strongly. But he had thought of Otto. He remembered he had thought of Otto a lot.

"And what was it you thought of me, Charlie?"

It came back to him that there had been one time when he had thought of Otto particularly. That one time when something tremendous had happened to him. He could not quite think what. He knew he had been glad when he thought of Otto because he had been spared inflicting the thing on him.

He could not get it clear.

He avoided looking at Kurz.

"Why—; why, I wondered what you were doing. All that sort of thing. You know what I mean."

"Yes. I know. I did go into the army, Charlie. It was that sort of thing you meant, Charlie?"

He felt himself start.

"I was afraid you would do that;" he said involuntarily.

"Yes. I, too, was afraid."

Kurz's voice was low.

"You? Afraid?"

"Ach, Charlie!—You know it. The fear it was not for myself!"

He walked over to the window. He stood there looking down at the huge boxwood hedges looming in thick gray bulks up from the smudging reach of the heavily matted shadows.

He turned.

"You funked meeting me—in—war?"

"Ach!—God forbid!—That—I—should—meet—you—in—war—!"

"I too;" he said it quickly. "I too was afraid that I should come upon you. It haunted me—; that fear I might harm you. It stayed with me—; day and night. I shouldn't want to hurt you, Otto. I—I prayed." It came back to him how often he had prayed it. "I always prayed that it might never be you!"

"Yes—; I know."

He went and stood close beside Kurz. He found himself staring at Kurz intently.

"But you're here;—in England. I say, did they make you a prisoner? Could my people get parole for you?"

"No. I do not think they do that here in your country. I do—not—need—parole, Charlie."

"I thought perhaps—"

"No—!"

"But how did you get here, then?"

"Charlie—; Charlie!—ach!—will—you—not—then—wait?"

"Come, come, old Otto. You've got something to tell me. If you don't want to say how you got here, why, all right. Only, you'd best get it off your mind. Whatever it is you'd better come out and say what you came to say."

Kurz slid back into the chair again.

The room was still. Heavy with silence.

"Yes. I'll tell you—if I can. Charlie, it is hard to say."

He tried to help Kurz.

"It's about this war of ours; that's it, isn't it?"

"About the war? Yes—!"

"Then tell me."

He saw Kurz's massive shoulders jerking.

"How—can—I—tell—you—? I do not think you understand. I do not even know if it is what I think it is. I cannot reason it out to myself. The power of reasoning has left me. I had no other knowledge than my reasoning. I do not know. Now, I do not know where I am—or—what—I—am—"

The maddened urge of Kurz's words struck him.

"You're here, old Otto;" he said it reassuringly. "Here with me. In my room. In England. You're with me, Otto!"

"Yes—with—you." And then beneath his breath he whispered: "Where—are—you—?"

He caught the smothered insistence of that last sentence. He smiled, forcing his lips to smile.

"Standing right in front of you, old man. Waiting for you to say what you came to—"

Kurz interrupted him.

"I—had—to come. I felt that I must come. I—came, Charlie. I got myself here, Charlie."

"Quite right, Otto."

"I want you to know first that I thought of you. That I was, as you say you were, afraid I might in some way injure you. I want to tell you that first."

"Good old sentimental Otto!"

"Sentimental?—Ach!—I am not sentimental. But I do not think you can understand how much you were to me back there at the university. I do not think you yourself knew how much you joyed in things. How happy your kind of thought made you."

He laughed.

"I always managed to have a rather corking time of it," he admitted.

"You loved everything so," Kurz went on. "At night when we talked it was you who believed in what you said. It was you who saw so clearly how well all things of life were meant. It was always I who questioned."

"But, I say, old Otto, your mind was so quick; so brilliant. You could pick flaws where I never knew they existed."

"It was you who had so much of faith, Charlie."

"How we did talk;" he said it to himself. "Talk and talk until old Mutter Schwegel, who was so keen for us, grew tired of listening and came and turned out the lamp."

"And how you spoke ever of your beliefs," Kurz's voice was hoarse. "It was so easy for you to know. You never questioned. You believed. It ended there, with your belief. You were so near to what you thought. It was a part of you. I—I stood away from all things and from myself. I would tell you that the mind should reason. I stayed outside with my criticism, while you—ach, Charlie!—How you did know!"

"And how you laughed at me for that!"

"But now, I do not laugh!" Kurz protested with wearied eagerness. "Now I come to you. I ask you if you know those things—now?"

"What things, Otto?"

"The things of life. The things of death."

"I know what I always knew," he said slowly. "I know that life is meant to live fully and understandingly and that death is meant to live on; fully and understandingly."

"And—you—do—understand—now?"

"I understand that always."

"You would not be afraid?"

"Of what?"

"Of—death?"

"No."

He stared out of the window.

The dense, opaque shadows pressing down on the garden. The shadows hanging loose and thick on the high, boxwood hedges. The dark, smooth, night sky.

And suddenly a faint tremor ran through him from head to foot. He pressed his face close to the glass. His hands went up screening a small space for his eyes.

In the still block of shadows, in the black mass of them, he had seen something; something had moved against the quiet clumping shadows.

"I say," he whispered. "There's some one coming up through the garden."

"Yes—yes."

They were silent for a long time.

Once he looked at Kurz huddled in the armchair; his face white and drawn; his eyes staring before him.

He thought he heard footsteps coming softly up the stairs; footsteps that came lightly and hesitated and then came on again.

"Charlie—!" Kurz stammered. "Charlie—!"

He felt that some one was standing in the open doorway.

He turned.

His eyes took in the well known figure. The sweet face with its red cheeks and its framing white hair. The short body. The blue eyes that were fixed on him.

"Mutter Schwegel!" He shouted.

Kurz leaped to his feet.

"What!"

He started for the door.

"Mutter Schwegel, who would have thought of your coming here. It has been a long time. I say!—But I am glad."

"Stop—!" Kurz's voice thundered behind him.

He wheeled to look at Kurz.

Kurz's eyes were riveted on the woman standing in the doorway.

"Aren't you glad to see Mutter Schwegel?" He asked. "When we've been talking of her all night?"

Kurz was muttering to himself.

"Mutter—Schwegel—;" Kurz mumbled. "Mutter Schwegel—! It—is—that—I—wanted—to—tell—you—about—Mutter Schwegel. It—is—as—I—thought. It—is—ach!—it—is—then—that—way—with—us—!"

He felt that the woman was coming into the room.

He turned and looked at her.

"Mutter—Schwegel—is—dead;" Kurz stammered.

He saw that the old woman smiled.

"She—is—dead. Dead—!" Kurz mumbled.

He smiled back at her.

"Dead—;" Kurz's voice droned shaking.

He saw the old woman go to the table.

He and Kurz watched her take the lamp up in her hands. He and Kurz saw her fingers fumbling at the wick. Kurz's quivering face stood out in the lamplight. The old woman was smiling quietly.

They saw her try to put out the light.

The lamp still burned.

"Mutter-Schwegel—is—dead—!" Kurz's voice quavered; and then it screamed. "Dead—," he shrieked; "we—are—all—of—us—dead—!"

That uncertain feeling came over him. And suddenly it went quite from him.