Ulrich did not return to Alt Waldnitz, that lies hidden in the forest beside the murmuring Muhlde. They would think he had gone to the war;he would let them think so. He was too great a coward to go back to them and tell them that he no longer wanted to fight; that the sound of the drum brought to him only the thought of trampled grass where dead men lay with curses in their eyes.
So, with head bowed down in shame, to and fro about the moaning land, Ulrich of the dreamy eyes came and went, guiding his solitary footsteps by the sounds of sorrow, driving away the things of evil where they crawled among the wounded, making his way swiftly to the side of pain, heedless of the uniform.
Thus one day he found himself by chance near again to forest-girdled Waldnitz. He would push his way across the hills, wander through its quiet ways in the moonlight while the good folks all lay sleeping.
His foot-steps quickened as he drew nearer. Where the trees broke he would be able to look down upon it, see every roof he knew so well--the church, the mill, the winding Muhlde--the green, worn grey with dancing feet, where, when the hateful war was over, would be heard again the Saxon folk-songs.
Another was there, where the forest halts on the brow of the hill--a figure kneeling on the ground with his face towards the village.
Ulrich stole closer. It was the Herr Pfarrer, praying volubly but inaudibly. He scrambled to his feet as Ulrich touched him, and his first astonishment over, poured forth his tale of woe.
There had been trouble since Ulrich's departure. A French corps of observation had been camped upon the hill, and twice within the month had a French soldier been found murdered in the woods. Heavy had been the penalties exacted from the village, and terrible had been the Colonel's threats of vengeance. Now, for a third time, a soldier stabbed in the back had been borne into camp by his raging comrades, and this very afternoon the Colonel had sworn that if the murderer were not handed over to him within an hour from dawn, when the camp was to break up, he would before marching burn the village to the ground. The Herr Pfarrer was on his way back from the camp where he had been to plead for mercy, but it had been in vain.
"Such are foul deeds!" said Ulrich.
"The people are mad with hatred of the French," answered the Herr Pastor. "It may be one, it may be a dozen who have taken vengeance into their own hands. May God forgive them.""They will not come forward--not to save the village?""Can you expect it of them! There is no hope for us; the village will burn as a hundred others have burned."Aye, that was true; Ulrich had seen their blackened ruins; the old sitting with white faces among the wreckage of their homes, the little children wailing round their knees, the tiny broods burned in their nests. He had picked their corpses from beneath the charred trunks of the dead elms.
The Herr Pfarrer had gone forward on his melancholy mission to prepare the people for their doom.
Ulrich stood alone, looking down upon Alt Waldnitz bathed in moonlight. And there came to him the words of the old pastor: "She will be dearer to you than yourself. For her you would lay down your life." And Ulrich knew that his love was the village of Alt Waldnitz, where dwelt his people, the old and wrinkled, the laughing "little ones," where dwelt the helpless dumb things with their deep pathetic eyes, where the bees hummed drowsily, and the thousand tiny creatures of the day.
They hanged him high upon a withered elm, with his face towards Alt Waldnitz, that all the village, old and young, might see; and then to the beat of drum and scream of fife they marched away; and forest-hidden Waldnitz gathered up once more its many threads of quiet life and wove them into homely pattern.
They talked and argued many a time, and some there were who praised and some who blamed. But the Herr Pfarrer could not understand.
Until years later a dying man unburdened his soul so that the truth became known.
Then they raised Ulrich's coffin reverently, and the yonng men carried it into the village and laid it in the churchyard that it might always be among them. They reared above him what in their eyes was a grand monument, and carved upon it:
"Greater love hath no man than this."