As we ascended the rocky eminence the oaks became fewer, and scattered birches, straight and white as marble pillars, divided the dark green of the forest pines, when in a moment, as we issued from a thicket, the ancient stronghold stood before us in a heavy mass, its dark surface studded with brilliant points of light.
Sperver had pulled up before a deep gateway between two towers, barred in by an iron grating.
“Here we are,” he cried, throwing the reins on the horses’ necks.
He laid hold of the deer’s-foot bell-handle, and the clear sound of a bell broke the stillness.
After waiting a few minutes the light of a lantern flickered in the deep archway, showing us in its semicircular frame of ruddy light the figure of a humpbacked dwarf, yellow-bearded, broad-shouldered, and wrapped in furs from head to foot.
You might have thought him, in the deep shadow, some gnome or evil spirit of earth realised out of the dreams of the Niebelungen Lieder.
He came towards us at a very leisurely pace, and laid his great flat features close against the massive grating, straining his eyes, and trying to make us out in the darkness in which we were standing.
“Is that you, Sperver?” he asked in a hoarse voice.
“Open at once, Knapwurst,” was the quick reply. “Don’t you know how cold it is?”
“Oh! I know you now,” cried the little man; “there’s no mistaking you. You always speak as if you were going to gobble people up.”
The door opened, and the dwarf, examining me with his lantern, with an odd expression in his face, received me with “Willkommen, herr doctor,” but which seemed to say besides, “Here is another who will have to go away again as others have done.” Then he quietly closed the door, whilst we alighted, and came to take our horses by the bridle.
Following Sperver, who ascended the staircase with rapid steps, I was still able to convince myself that the Castle of Nideck had not an undeserved reputation.
It was a true stronghold, partly cut out of the rock, such as used formerly to be called a chateau d’ambuscade. Its lofty vaulted arches re-echoed afar with our steps, and the outside air blowing with sharp gusts through the loopholes—narrow slits made for the archers of former days—caused our torches to flare and flicker from space to space over the faintly-illuminated protruding lines of the arches as they caught the uncertain light.
Sperver knew every nook and corner of this vast place. He turned now to the right and now to the left, and I followed him breathless. At last he stopped on a spacious landing, and said to me—
“Now, Fritz, I will leave you for a minute with the people of the castle to inform the young Countess Odile of your arrival.”
“Do just what you think right.”
“Then you will find the head butler, Tobias Offenloch, an old soldier of the regiment of Nideck. He campaigned in France under the count; and you will see his wife, a Frenchwoman, Marie Lagoutte, who pretends that she comes of a high family.”