The dark man wound his legs around him

Marie Grubbe had never had money of her own, and the possession of a
large sum gave her a sense of powers and possibilities without limit.
Indeed, it seemed to her that a veritable magic wand had been placed in
her hands, and she longed like a child to wave it round and round and
bring all the treasures of the earth to her feet.

Her most immediate wish was to be far away from the towers of
Copenhagen and the meadows of Tjele, from Erik Grubbe and Aunt Rigitze.
She waved the wand once, and lo! she was carried by wheel and keel,
over water and way, from the land of Sjæland to Lübeck town. Her whole
retinue consisted of the maid Lucie, whom she had persuaded her aunt
to let her have, and a trader’s coachman from Aarhus, for the real
outfitting for her trip was to be done at Lübeck.

It was Sti Högh who had put into her head the idea of travelling, and
in doing so, he had hinted that he might himself leave the country
to seek his fortune abroad, and had offered his services as courier.
Summoned by a letter from Copenhagen, he arrived in Lübeck a fortnight
after Marie, and at once began to make himself useful by attending to
the preparations necessary for so long a journey.

In her secret heart, Marie had hoped to be a benefactor to poor Sti
Högh. She meant to use some of her wealth to lighten his expenses on
the trip and in France, until it should appear whether some other
fountain would well in his behalf. But when poor Sti Högh came, he
surprised her by being splendidly attired, excellently mounted,
attended by two magnificent grooms, and altogether looking as if his
purse by no means needed to be swelled by her gold. More astonishing
yet was the change in his state of mind. He seemed lively, even merry.
In the past, he had always looked as if he were marching with stately
step in his own funeral procession, but now he trod the floor with the
air of a man who owned half the world and had the other half coming to
him. In the old days, there had always been something of the plucked
fowl about him, but now he seemed like an eagle, with spreading plumage
and sharp eyes hinting of still sharper claws.

Marie at first thought the change was due to his relief in casting
behind him past worries and his hope of winning a future worth while,
but when he had been with her several days, and had not opened his
lips to one of the love-sick, dispirited words she knew so well, she
began to believe he had conquered his passion and now, in the sense
of proudly setting his heel on the head of the dragon love, felt free
and strong and master of his own fate. She grew quite curious to know
whether she had guessed aright, and thought, with a slight feeling of
pique, that the more she saw of Sti Högh, the less she knew him.

This impression was confirmed by a talk she had with Lucie. The two
were walking in the large hall which formed a part of every Lübeck
house, serving as entry and living-room, as playground for the
children and the scene of the chief household labors, besides being
used sometimes for dining-room and storehouse. This particular hall
was intended chiefly for warm weather, and was furnished only with a
long white-scoured deal table, some heavy wooden chairs, and an old
cupboard. At the farther end, some boards had been put up for shelves,
and there cabbages lay in long rows over red mounds of carrots and
bristling bunches of horse-radish. The outer door was wide open and
showed the wet, glistening street, where the rain splashed in shining
rivulets.

Marie Grubbe and Lucie were both dressed to go out, the former in a
fur-bordered cloak of broadcloth, the latter in a cape of gray russet.
They were pacing the red brick floor with quick, firm little steps as
though trying to keep their feet warm while waiting for the rain to
stop.

“Pray, d’you think it’s a safe travelling companion you’ve got?” asked
Lucie.

“Sti Högh? Safe enough, I suppose. Why not?”

“Faith, I hope he won’t lose himself on the way, that’s all.”

“Lose himself?”

“Ay, among the German maidens–or the Dutch, for the matter of that.
You know ’tis said of him his heart is made of such fiery stuff, it
bursts into flame at the least flutter of a petticoat.”

“Who’s taken you to fools’ market with such fables?”

“Merciful! Did you never hear that? Your own brother-in-law? Who’d have
thought that could be news to you! Why, I’d as lief have thought to
tell you the week had seven days.”

“Come, come, what ails you to-day? You run on as if you’d had Spanish
wine for breakfast.”

“One of us has, that’s plain. Pray have you never heard tell of
Ermegaard Lynow?”

“Never.”

“Then ask Sti Högh if he should chance to know her. And name to him
Jydte Krag and Christence Rud and Edele Hansdaughter and Lene Poppings
if you like. He might happen to know some fables, as you call it, about
them all.”

Marie stopped and looked long and fixedly through the open door at the
rain. “Perhaps you know,” she said, as she resumed her walk, “perhaps
you know some of these fables, so that you can tell them.”

“Belike I do.”

“Concerning Ermegaard Lynow?”

“Concerning her in particular.”

“Well, let’s have it.”

“Why, it had to do with one of the Höghs–Sti, I think his name
was–tall, red-haired, pale–”

“Thanks, but all that I know already.”

“And do you know about the poison, too?”

“Nay, nothing.”

“Nor the letter?”

“What letter?”

“Faugh, ’tis such an ugly story!”

“Out with it!”

“Why, this Högh was a very good friend,–this happened before he was
married,–and he was the very best of friends with Ermegaard Lynow.
She had the longest hair of any lady–she could well-nigh walk on it,
and she was red and white and pretty as a doll, but he was harsh and
barbarous to her, they said, as if she’d been an unruly staghound and
not the gentle creature she was, and the more inhumanly he used her,
the more she loved him. He might have beaten her black and blue–and
belike he did–she would have kissed him for it. To think that one
person can be so bewitched by another, it’s horrible! But then he got
tired of her and never even looked at her, for he was in love with some
one else, and Mistress Ermegaard wept and came nigh breaking her heart
and dying of grief, but still she lived, though forsooth it wasn’t much
of a life. At last she couldn’t bear it any longer, and when she saw
Sti Högh riding past, so they said, she ran out after him, and followed
alongside of his horse for a mile, and he never so much as drew rein
nor listened to her crying and pleading, but rode on all the faster and
left her. That was too much for her, and so she took deadly poison and
wrote Sti Högh that she did it for him, and she would never stand in
his way, all that she asked was that he would come and see her before
she died.”

“And then?”

“Why, God knows if it’s true what people say, for if it is, he’s the
wickedest body and soul hell is waiting for. They say he wrote back
that his love would have been the best physic for her, but as he had
none to give her, he’d heard that milk and white onions were likewise
good, and he’d advise her to take some. That’s what he said. Now, what
do you think of that? Could anything be more inhuman?”

“And Mistress Ermegaard?”

“Mistress Ermegaard?”

“Ay, what of her?”

“Well, no thanks to him, but she hadn’t taken enough poison to kill
her, though she was so sick and wretched, they thought she’d never be
well again.”

“Poor little lamb!” said Marie, laughing.

Almost every day in the time that followed brought some change in
Marie’s conception of Sti Högh and her relation to him. Sti was no
dreamer, that was plain from the forethought and resourcefulness he
displayed in coping with the innumerable difficulties of the journey.
It was evident, too, that in manners and mind he was far above even
the most distinguished of the noblemen they met on their way. What
he said was always new and interesting and different; he seemed to
have a shortcut, known only to himself, to an understanding of men and
affairs, and Marie was impressed by the audacious scorn with which he
owned his belief in the power of the beast in man and the scarcity of
gold amid the dross of human nature. With cold, passionless eloquence
he tried to show her how little consistency there was in man, how
incomprehensible and uncomprehended, how weak-kneed and fumbling and
altogether the sport of circumstance, that which was noble and that
which was base fought for ascendancy in his soul. The fervor with
which he expounded this seemed to her great and fascinating, and
she began to believe that rarer gifts and greater powers had been
given him than usually fell to the lot of mortals. She bowed down in
admiration, almost in worship, before the tremendous force she imagined
him possessed of. Yet withal there lurked in her soul a still small
doubt, which was never shaped into a definite thought, but hovered as
an instinctive feeling, whispering that perhaps his power was a power
that threatened and raged, that coveted and desired, but never swooped
down, never took hold.

* * * * *

In Lohendorf, about three miles from Vechta, there was an old inn near
the highway, and there Marie and her travelling companions sought
shelter an hour or two after sundown.

In the evening, when the coachmen and grooms had gone to bed in the
outhouses, Marie and Sti Högh were sitting at the little red painted
table before the great stove in a corner of the tap-room, chatting with
two rather oafish Oldenborg noblemen. Lucie was knitting and looking
on from her place at the end of a bench where she sat leaning against
the edge of the long table running underneath the windows. A tallow
dip, in a yellow earthenware candlestick on the gentlefolk’s table,
cast a sleepy light over their faces, and woke greasy reflections in a
row of pewter plates ranged above the stove. Marie had a small cup of
warm wine before her, Sti Högh a larger one, while the two Oldenborgers
were sharing a huge pot of ale, which they emptied again and again, and
which was as often filled by the slovenly drawer, who lounged on the
goose-bench at the farther end of the room.

Marie and Sti Högh would both have preferred to go to bed, for the
two rustic noblemen were not very stimulating company, and no doubt
they would have gone, had not the bedrooms been icy cold and the
disadvantages of heating them even worse than the cold, as they found
when the innkeeper brought in the braziers, for the peat in that part
of the country was so saturated with sulphur that no one who was not
accustomed to it could breathe where it was burning.

The Oldenborgers were not merry, for they saw that they were in very
fine company, and tried hard to make their conversation as elegant as
possible; but as the ale gained power over them, the rein they had kept
on themselves grew slacker and slacker, and was at last quite loose.
Their language took on a deeper local color, their playfulness grew
massive, and their questions impudent.

As the jokes became coarser and more insistent, Marie stirred uneasily,
and Sti’s eyes asked across the table whether they should not retire.
Just then the fairer of the two strangers made a gross insinuation. Sti
gave him a frown and a threatening look, but this only egged him on,
and he repeated his foul jest in even plainer terms, whereupon Sti
promised that at one more word of the same kind he would get the pewter
cup in his head.

At that moment, Lucie brought her knitting up to the table to look for
a dropped stitch, and the other Oldenborger availed himself of the
chance to catch her round the waist, force her down on his knee, and
imprint a sounding kiss on her lips.

This bold action fired the fair man, and he put his arm around Marie
Grubbe’s neck.

In the same second, Sti’s goblet hit him in the forehead with such
force and such sureness of aim that he sank down on the floor with a
deep grunt.

The next moment, Sti and the dark man were grappling in the middle of
the floor, while Marie and her maid fled to a corner.

The drawer jumped up from the goose-bench, bellowed something out at
one door, ran to the other and bolted it with a two-foot iron bar, just
as some one else could be heard putting the latch on the postern. It
was a custom in the inn to lock all doors as soon as a fight began, so
no one could come from outside and join in the fracas, but this was the
only step for the preservation of peace that the inn-people took. As
soon as the doors were closed, they would sneak off to bed; for he who
has seen nothing can testify to nothing.

Since neither party to the fight was armed, the affair had to be
settled with bare fists, and Sti and the dark man stood locked
together, wrestling and cursing. They dragged each other back and
forth, turned in slow, tortuous circles, stood each other up against
walls and doors, caught each other’s arms, wrenched themselves loose,
bent and writhed, each with his chin in the other’s shoulder. At
last they tumbled down on the floor, Sti on top. He had knocked his
adversary’s head heavily two or three times against the cold clay
floor, when suddenly he felt his own neck in the grip of two powerful
hands. It was the fair man, who had picked himself up.

Sti choked, his throat rattled, he turned giddy, and his limbs relaxed.
The dark man wound his legs around him and pulled him down by the
shoulders, the other still clutched his throat and dug his knees into
his sides.

Marie shrieked and would have rushed to his aid, but Lucie had thrown
her arms around her mistress and held her in such a convulsive grip
that she could not stir.

Sti was on the point of fainting, when suddenly, with one last effort
of his strength, he threw himself forward, knocking the head of the
dark man against the floor. The fingers of the fair man slipped from
his throat, opening the way for a bit of air. Sti bounded up with all
his force, hurled himself at the fair man, threw him down, bent over
the fallen man in a fury, but in the same instant got a kick in the
pit of the stomach that almost felled him. He caught the ankle of the
foot that kicked him; with the other hand he grasped the boot-top,
lifted the leg, and broke it over his outstretched thigh, until the
bones cracked in the boot, and the fair man sank down in a swoon. The
dark man, who lay staring at the scene, still dizzy from the blows in
his head, gave vent to a yell of agony as if he had himself been the
maltreated one, and crawled under the shelter of the bench beneath the
windows. With that the fight was ended.

The latent savagery which this encounter had called out in Sti had a
strange and potent effect on Marie. That night, when she laid her head
on the pillow, she told herself that she loved him, and when Sti,
perceiving a change in her eyes and manner that boded good for him,
begged for her love, a few days later, he got the answer he longed for.

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