Hans had stolen all the egg money—again.
Annalisa Werner’s chapped fingers trembled against the frayed edge of the apron she’d turned into a basket. The burden of walnuts stretched the thin linen so that it seemed to groan in protest.
Her husband had gone too far this time.
“I can’t bear another day of his foolishness.” In the quietness of the thick grove, her native Deutsch tongue echoed harshly. And yet the words were only a whisper compared to the clamoring inside her aching heart.
Ahead, Gretchen cocked her head, a gentle breeze teasing her silky blond hair. “Mama?” The two-year-old peered up at Annalisa with her trusting baby eyes.
“Ach, liebchen.” Annalisa forced a smile to her tired lips. “Did you find another nut for Mama?”
The little girl held out a faded green fuzzy ball.
“You are a big helper to Mama.” Annalisa took the fleshy fruit and added it to the pile in her apron. “Now can you find another?”
They would need every nut they could gather if they were to survive the harsh Michigan winter that would soon be upon them—especially since Hans had found the crock she’d hidden in the darkest corner under the bed in their small log cabin.
She shook her head, and the long braid down her back swished with all the anger that had been tightening her body since she’d learned of her husband’s latest gambling trip.
“Who’s the dummkopf now? Who?”
She was the dummkopf, that’s who. She should have known better.
She thought she’d finally found a good hiding place, somewhere she could keep their pittance of earnings safe from his wasteful ways. Besides, after gambling and drinking away much of their profit from the recent harvest, she’d hoped he’d learned his lesson.
And yet, when she’d returned from town a short while ago and pulled out the crock to add the money she’d earned from selling eggs and butter, she’d discovered that everything she’d saved over the summer was gone.
He hadn’t left a cent.
Just like the last time.
Ja, she was the dummkopf.
Dry leaves crunched under the thick calluses of her bare feet as she followed Gretchen’s dawdling footsteps. How would she be able to give her sweet little girl a better future if she couldn’t keep Hans from using up their savings?
A buried cry of distress scraped at Annalisa’s chest and pushed for release.
If only she didn’t need a husband . . .
“More, Mama.” Gretchen picked up another walnut. Its brownish-green flesh was gnawed away, revealing a rotten, empty cavern.
“That one is no good.” Annalisa shook her head. “Some wild creature has already eaten the nut.”
The October sunshine ducked through the fluttering cascade of dying leaves overhead and touched Gretchen’s hair, turning it the same soft gold as the butter Annalisa had churned early that morning.
“You have the same color hair as Rapunzel.” This time she gave her daughter a real smile, one that contained all the love that filled every crevice of her soul.
Gretchen dropped the nut and lifted her beaming face. “Story?”
Annalisa combed the loose strands of the little girl’s hair off her forehead, seeing in her daughter a miniature reflection of herself—from the smattering of freckles across her nose to the wide lilac eyes to the golden hair.
Her daughter was like her in almost every way, even in her longing for fanciful stories of princesses, knights in shining armor, and true love. The difference was Gretchen hadn’t learned yet—like she had—that fairy tales were only dreams and that there was no such thing as a happily ever after.
“Nein, liebchen. No story. Not now.” Annalisa straightened and pushed down the sudden uncomfortable wave of nausea. “Tonight. At bedtime. I’ll tell you the story about the princess who tended the geese.”
Gretchen clasped her hands together and smiled. “I like ‘The Goose Girl.’”
“I can’t think of a story you don’t like.” Annalisa tweaked the girl’s nose gently. Then she took a deep breath and caught the smokiness of burning brush.
The smoke didn’t alarm her. In fact, the billows of black clouds rising to the south of the cornfield brought nothing more than a rush of renewed anger.
At least now she knew where to find Hans—if she wanted to.
Similar to many of their immigrant friends on the adjoining farms, Hans had been spending part of his workdays clearing more land so they would have additional acreage available for planting in the spring. But of the forty acres he’d purchased on loan four years ago, he hadn’t cleared as much as their neighbors.
If only he hadn’t been so busy running off to Saxonia Hall every chance he had. If only he thought about how his wastefulness would lead to another sparse and hungry winter for her and Gretchen.
Maybe she should march over to where he was working and confront him about taking the money. She’d given up her dreams of a fairy-tale life long ago, but that didn’t mean Gretchen had to suffer, did it?
Annalisa’s fingers tightened again on the tattered edge of her apron.
Did she dare try to talk to him about her concerns? If she didn’t, how would they be able to keep their farm? How would they survive?
“Come withMama.” With one hand Annalisa clutched the apron full of walnuts, and with the other she reached for Gretchen, trying to keep from trembling. “Give Mama your hand and we’ll take a walk.”
Gretchen’s chubby fingers slid into hers. “Go to river?”
“Maybe later.” As much as she’d grown to despise the river that ran through the property and all the problems it had caused with E. B. Ward and with Hans’s gambling, she couldn’t deny the delight it brought to Gretchen. The river’s edge was always a restful spot, a cool retreat for her sore feet, and a place where she could escape her troubles, even if only for a moment.
“Nein, first we must go speak with your papa.” Annalisa started forward but slowed her steps to match those of the little girl. Gretchen was barefoot like her, and although the skin on their feet was thick and toughened after a summer without shoes, Annalisa chose her path carefully over the sharp twigs and through the crackling leaves that had already fallen.
“Soon we must get you shoes,” she said, not knowing how they would afford a new pair now. Hans had never provided them with essentials such as shoes. To Hans, getting the horse shod took priority over buying shoes for a mere daughter. He would only tell her a horse was more valuable to the farm than a girl.
At the edge of the clearing she stopped and took another deep breath of the smoky air. She exhaled, but a dizzying wave of nausea swept over her again.
“Ach.” She swallowed hard, fighting against the unsettling sensation, focusing on the field ahead.
They’d raised three acres of corn, which was one crop that would grow among the stumps left from the clearing. Of course, they’d lost some of the crop to the deer, raccoons, and turkeys, but they’d been able to take a good portion to the docks in Forestville to send to market in Detroit.
They’d also grown wheat and oats in the cleared land closer to the cabin and barn. The crops had been plentiful and had brought them the cash they desperately needed.
Until Hans had so foolishly gambled away the profit . . .
Pain twisted through her. She had to prepare herself for the possibility that they might end up homeless. What hope did they have of meeting their loan deadline next fall if Hans kept squandering their hard-earned money?
Maybe if she pleaded with him to stop . . .
“Let’s go find your papa.” Annalisa forced her feet forward, trembling at the intensity of her need to keep him from harming them any more than he already had.
Could she really confront her husband?
If she did, she knew she’d make him angry again. In their three years of marriage, he hadn’t used physical force against her. But he wouldn’t hesitate to punish her in other, more subtle ways—as he usually did whenever she displeased him.
Only the past evening he’d forced her to skip supper because she’d forgotten to grease one of his traps. It hadn’t mattered that she’d been busy all day, pulling up the last of the root vegetables—carrots, beets, and turnips—and covering them with sand in their shallow cellar in preparation for winter.
Her brother Uri had witnessed Hans’s discipline and had later brought her something to eat. But even so, should she risk angering Hans again?
Gretchen stumbled next to her, and Annalisa clutched her daughter to keep her from falling. Thick clods of dirt littered the ground as if trying to stop Annalisa from going to him. Dried, empty cornstalks snagged at her skirt like brittle fingernails attempting to grab her and hold her back.
“Gott, help me.” She pulled Gretchen to a stop. Why did she think Hans would care what she had to say?
“Pray, Mama?” Gretchen peered up at her.
“Ja, let’s pray.” Annalisa closed her eyes. But even as her soul cried out to Gott, her plea died on her lips. Gott wouldn’t care about the problems of a young woman on a fall afternoon—especially a poor immigrant girl like herself. If Gott were like all the other men in her life, then He was busy with more important things.
Gott was probably at the farm across the road, helping her family, especially her vater. After all, Vater was as religious as a good Lutheran could be and deserved Gott’s help.
“Look.” Gretchen tugged Annalisa’s hand. “Papa’s sleeping.”
Annalisa’s eyes flew open, and she straightened with a start. “What? Your papa? Sleeping? Impossible.”
She followed the direction of Gretchen’s finger, and the tumult in her mind came to an abrupt halt.
There, on the ground next to a pile of burning slashings, lay Hans. From the middle of the cornfield where they stood, it did indeed appear as if he’d decided to take a nap.
With the flames blazing nearby and the sparks shooting into the air, why would he do something so irresponsible?
Like all the settlers, he knew the dangers of fires fanning out of control and spreading.
“Come, liebchen.” She walked faster, and Gretchen’s short legs had to work hard to keep up. “He must be sick.”
Why would Hans waste time sleeping when he could amuse himself in more entertaining ways like playing cards and drinking?
Unless he was sick?
When she reached the edge of the cornfield, she halted with an abruptness that caused Gretchen to bump into her backside.
She eyed the bright flames dancing in the undergrowth of bushes and vines piled into a windrow. The dry burning brush popped like gunshots in the silent afternoon.
The distant scolding and chattering of a migrating flock of passenger pigeons echoed through the stillness. Otherwise, the farm was too quiet, too motionless.
“Hans?” She couldn’t bring herself to move another step toward him.
“Wake up, Papa.” Gretchen let go of her hand and skipped ahead. For as little attention as Hans gave their daughter, the girl’s love never wavered.
But even as Gretchen bent over to pat his back, wariness wormed through Annalisa’s unsettled stomach. “Don’t touch him!”
At her sharp command, Gretchen pulled her hand back as if she’d burned her fingers.
“Don’t touch,” Annalisa said again, trying to force a calmness to her voice she didn’t feel.
Gretchen stepped back, fear flittering in her widening eyes.
Annalisa forced her feet forward until she stood over her husband. “Hans? Are you sick?”
He didn’t move.
She stooped and jabbed him through the coarse linen of his homespun shirt. “If you’re not well, I’ll tend the fire for you.”
Still he didn’t respond.
Her heart thudded like a dasher beating up and down against fresh cream. Slowly she reached for his arm. At her slight nudge it fell away from his face, revealing charred skin with patches of roasted pink flesh underneath. Some places had burned away down to the white bone. Amidst the blackness, his eyes were open and stared unseeingly straight ahead.
A scream burned in her throat. “Gott, help us . . .” She stumbled backward, tripping and falling painfully to her backside, spilling the nuts they’d collected. “Oh, Gott, help us!”
Gretchen began to move forward.
“Nein!” Annalisa scrambled toward the girl, grabbed her and buried the little girl’s face into her empty apron. “Nein! Don’t look.”
What had happened to Hans?
Her body shook with sudden chills. She wanted to run away and hide, but her gaze returned to the awful sight.
Blood seeped from a deep gash near his hairline. Bright crimson smeared his sandy hair, turning it a muddy brown.
As angry as she was with Hans, as much as she despised his wayward ways, she hadn’t wanted him to die.
The truth was, she couldn’t survive without a husband. Not in this wilderness. Not as a woman alone on a forty-acre farm.
Bile rose in her throat.
A fly buzzed above the oozing and blistered flesh of his forehead.
Her stomach revolted. She turned away and retched on the hard barren ground.
“Annalisa must have a new husband.” Vater’svoice rose above the loud deliberating that had been ongoing since the men started their meal in the log cabin farmhouse that belonged to her parents.
“We are not disagreeing with you on this, Peter.” Herr Pastor reached for another slice of the thick brown bread on the platter in the center of the table.
With a crock of butter in one hand and a coffeepot in the other, Annalisa rushed to Herr Pastor’s spot. She plopped the crock next to him.
“Thank you, Annalisa.” He smiled and held out his mug for a refill. The whiskers around his mouth were spotted with the crumbs of all he’d already eaten.
She nodded but couldn’t form her lips into a smile, not even the barest semblance of one. She hadn’t been able to smile since yesterday—not since finding Hans.
Some of the neighbors had come to the consensus that Hans had merely suffered an accident, had hit his head and fallen unconscious into hot coals. But others—including Vater—decided that the greedy businessman, E. B. Ward, had murdered Hans so that he could finally get the land and build his mill.
It was all anyone had talked about at the funeral that afternoon, and now at the meal following the service. The men crowded together on the hand-hewn benches and scant chairs around the long table.
“We don’t disagree with you,” Herr Pastor said again. “But I’m only saying we may need to consider finding a God-fearing man from outside our own people. James McCann might be an Irishman, but he’s a Protestant and a hard worker—”
“Absolutely not!” Vater slammed the table. The spoons and knives rattled. Coffee sloshed over the edges of the steins. And silence descended through the crowded room. Even the women who’d clustered near the wood-burning stove ceased their chattering.
The sourness of a cabin full of sweaty men, unwashed after a long day of hard work, assaulted Annalisa anew. Her stomach swirled with the growing bouts of nausea. The stuffy heat, the spicy caraway of Mutter’s rostbratwurst, the tanginess of the sauerkraut—none of it eased her discomfort.
And it didn’t help that she was the center of the discussion.
“Nein! We won’t even consider it.” Vater pointed the nub of his missing forefinger at Herr Pastor. “It’s a good thing you’re a man of God or I’d send you running like Samson did to the Philistines.”
Annalisa leaned against the cool log wall with its mud and hay chinking and let it soothe the heat of her back. She longed to scoop up Gretchen, who was playing with the other children in the loft, and go home to bed.
She was tired of listening to everyone discuss Hans’s death, and she was tired of worrying about what would happen next.
But she couldn’t leave—not without knowing the fate Vater decided for her.
As hard as it had been with Hans, she knew there were men who were worse, men who wouldn’t hesitate to beat her or Gretchen.
Herr Pastor took a bite of bread, seemingly unruffled by Vater’s outburst. Of all the men in the room, Reverend Hermann Loehe was the most educated and spoke English well enough to converse with the locals. He’d resided in Forestville the longest and had helped their community in countless ways since they’d arrived. They couldn’t afford to alienate him.
His wife, Frau Pastor, broke away from the group of women in the corner and bustled to the table with more kartoffelsuppe.
“I could post a letter to my former parish down in Frankenlust,” Herr Pastor offered. “They may have an unattached man who might be willing to relocate.”
“Good idea, dear-heart,” Frau Pastor said, ladling the soup into his bowl. Her fleshy cheeks were flushed and curved into a dimpled smile. She was the only woman who ever dared entering into the men’s conversations. “I’m sure there would be a man worthy of our dear Annalisa from among the congregation.”
“A complete stranger is no good,” Vater bellowed as he held out his plate to Mutter.
As if Mutter had been watching for his summons, she scurried to the table to do his bidding and refill his plate. She still wore the same woolen peasant garb she’d brought with her from the Old Country. In fact, the plain brown dress and matching headscarf were the same she’d worn on the ship six years ago when they’d sailed out of Hamburg.
Even during the long months when they’d had to live in Detroit before finding land to buy, Mutter had insisted on wearing her sack-like garb. Most of the other Saxon women, when faced with ridicule over their heavy woolen clothes, had quickly conformed to the American styles.
But not Mutter. She would not think of wasting even the smallest length of thread to reshape their dresses.
“It’s too bad Leonard was the last of our men needing a wife.” Vatercrossed his hands behind his head, revealing round damp spots under his arms. His sweaty hair stuck to his wide sun-browned forehead. Even though the door was open to invite in the cool evening air, the windows were sealed with oiled paper instead of glass, and the welcome fresh air refused to enter.
At the end of the table, Leonard belched. “Maybe it’s not too late to make an exchange, Herr Bernthal.”
Vater only harrumphed and waggled his hand at Mutter, trying to hurry her along with his second plate of sausage.
“I’ll give you back Idette,” Leonard continued, “in exchange for Annalisa.”
Annalisa stiffened. Next to her, Idette sucked in a breath.
“Idette is a lazy wife, and she has no experience with children.”
Vatersat forward and stared down the length of the table at Leonard. “I don’t know what kind of nonsense you’re speaking. None of my childrenare lazy. I’ve raised them all to be hard workers.”
Annalisa groped for Idette’s fingers. At seventeen her sister was only two years younger than she. Even so, inheriting five children on one’s wedding day would have taxed the most matronly of women. So far her sister had done the best she could. Couldn’t Leonard see that?
“A cow could manage my children better than she does,” Leonard grumbled.
The muscles in Idette’s hand tightened under Annalisa’s hold. Color infused her sister’s pretty face, and she learned forward as if she would defend herself.
“Then maybe I should have given you a cow instead of my daughter.” Vater leveled a stern look at Leonard.
“She’ll adjust,” Herr Pastor said quickly, glancing between Vater and Leonard, his whiskery eyebrows furrowing.
“Yes, give the child time,” Frau Pastor added. “After all, the wedding was less than three weeks ago. She’s young, hardly older than your children. And these things aren’t easy.”
“I’m doing the very best I can,” Idette said.
Annalisa knew she ought to stop Idette from speaking disrespectfully to her husband. But she couldn’t, not when she’d always admired Idette’s spirit and courage and wished she could have just a small measure of it for herself.
Idette lifted her chin and continued, “And I do everything I’m told.”
Leonard rolled his eyes. “That’s the problem. I need a wife who will see what needs to be done and do it without having to be told like a child.”
“You must gently instruct her,” Herr Pastor said. But his words were drowned by the guffaws and loud protests of the other men at the table. Pastor’s advice was as foreign to them as many of the American customs.
Idette glared at Leonard. “He’s a brute,” she whispered to Annalisa. “You’re lucky to be rid of your husband.”
Lucky? Annalisa knew better. Having a bad husband was better than no husband. What hope did she have for her future without a husband?
For several minutes the room filled with the usual boisterous noise, as all the men were talking at the same time.
Finally, Vater swallowed his last bite of sausage and shoved his plate to the center of the table. “I still have not solved the problem of what to do for Annalisa.”
If only she had a golden apple, or a golden goose, or something gold from one of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. Then she would be able to provide Gretchen with a better life.
Vater’s voice rose to dominate all the others. “If she doesn’t have a husband, she’ll lose the land.”
“Why not sell it to Ward since he wants it?” someone said.
“Nein, I won’t sell—” Annalisa caught herself and reined in her words, even though everything within her rose in objection. How could she stand back and let them sell her home and property to a crook like Ward? Where would they live? What would she do? She had no training or skills. How would she take care of Gretchen?
She pressed a hand to her abdomen. And maybe she’d have another life to care for. With the increasing nausea and the tenderness of her bosom, she had begun to suspect she was with child. It wasn’t good timing. But she was sure she would love a new baby as passionately as she loved Gretchen.
As far as she could see, babies were the only good that came out of marriage.
But it would mean she must work all the harder. And how could she do that if she allowed Ward to take over the farm?
Thankfully, Vater was already shaking his head. “That dummboozle is as bad as Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites. We’ve already fought to free ourselves from the slavery of the dukes and barons of the Old Country, and we won’t allow any man to control us again.”
A chorus of jawohls and nods met his words.
“I won’t give that man the satisfaction of buying Hans’s farm, even if he puts a gun to my head.” An angry scowl creased the thick beefy roundness of Vater’sface. “If we let him build that sawmill, he won’t do us any favors. He’ll only empty our pockets by overcharging us for boards.”
Like everyone in the room, Annalisa knew Vater’shatred wasn’t directed so much at Ward as it was at Baron von Reichart, the nobleman whose selfishness and cruelty had cost Vater the life of his oldest son.
If not for Baron von Reichart, they might never have left their homeland and all their family.
If not for Baron von Reichart, they might not have had to give up mining and learn a whole new way of living.
If not for Baron von Reichart, Vater would have two cherished sons, instead of one.
“Nein,” Vater said. “We’ll find a way to help Annalisa keep the farm.”
“Why bother helping her?” Leonard said. “As reckless as Hans was, she won’t be able to pay off the loan by next fall anyway.”
Annalisa ducked her head and moved away from the wall. Even in his death, Hans was still shaming her. She bustled toward the shelves where she had left her pies cooling earlier when she’d brought them from home, and she refused to meet the gazes of the other women.
No one else needed to say anything. They all knew Leonard was referring to Hans’s foolishness with their money.
“If she loses the farm next fall, so be it,” Vater declared. “But at least the land will default back to Jacob Buel, and Jacob is a good businessman. He despises Ward as much as we do. I have no doubt he’ll find another Deutscher to loan to.”
Idette whispered into her ear, having followed her to the pies. “Don’t listen to them. They’re all dummboozles.” Her sister’s scandalous tone mimicked their father’s.
Under normal circumstances, Idette’s playful banter would have cheered Annalisa. But not today. Not when she was tired and sick . . . and worried. She might be free from Hans and all of his problems, but she’d gained an even bigger problem. She had exactly one year to pay the remainder of the loan on the farm or lose everything. The loan had been set at four hundred dollars plus interest, and she still had over one hundred left to pay.
After Hans’s poor management of their profits, she was already behind on what she needed to earn. Without the help of a strong man to run and maintain the farm, she was doomed.
Annalisa slipped her hand under the pie, baked from the last of the apples she and Gretchen had picked early that morning. The earthenware pan was warm against her palm, and she breathed deeply of the sugary cinnamon scent.
“Let’s hide the pies.” Idette reached for the other pan. “Then we can eat them for ourselves later.”
“Ach, you’re as silly as always.”
Idette flashed her an impish grin.
But Annalisa’s lips were stiff, like the crust of day-old bread. Her sister was only trying to coax a smile from her, but how could she ever smile again? Not now with so much at stake.
She wound her way to the table and slid the pie onto the edge near Herr Pastor. Then she stood back and watched his face.
His eyes lit, and he rubbed at the whiskers on his chin as if making space for more crumbs. “Annalisa, you bake the best pies I’ve ever tasted.”
The words of praise spread warmth to her heart as they usually did. What had she done wrong that Hans had never praised her?
She slid a fork under the perfectly flaky piecrust and lifted out a wedge for Pastor. She’d hardly slid it onto his plate before he sank his fork in.
Vater reached for his plate, and his eyes regarded her with narrowed seriousness. “I’ve made up my mind. The only thing left for me to do is write to my brother, Matthias, in Essen and ask him to find a young man from among our kin to come over and marry Annalisa.”
The other men chorused their agreement.
Their calls fueled Vater’s plan. “Herr Pastor,” he said eagerly, “will you write the letter this very night? Then we can post it tomorrow.”
A husband from among their kin? From their homeland? Annalisa let the idea sift through her. Of course they had many relatives still living in Saxony. Would marrying one of her distant cousins provide the solution to her problems?
“Matthias is a wise man. He’ll find someone good for Annalisa.” Vater nodded at her, as if to tell her he understood the difficulties she’d endured with Hans and that this time he hoped to find her a better match. “If we’re very lucky, he’ll come to us in time for spring planting.”
She nodded in return. She knew Vater was doing what he thought was best for her. And she would submit to his authority. But she still couldn’t keep from wishing somehow things could be different—that she could be more important to the men in her life, that she could make them love her, that she could find a way to earn God’s attention.
Maybe if she’d been a better daughter or wife . . .
“In the meantime,” Herr Pastor said between bites, “we must all work together to help Annalisa through the winter.”
His suggestion was met with several unenthusiastic ja’s.
“You’re right, dear-heart.” Frau Pastor patted her husband’s cheek with an affection that Annalisa often saw between them but couldn’t understand. “I don’t like the idea that Annalisa will be all alone. We all know E. B. Ward can’t be trusted.”
Vater shoveled in a forkful of pie from the slice Idette had given him. “I’ll send Uri and Eleanor over to check on her and to help.”
The tension eased from Annalisa’s back.
Her younger sister would soon be of marriageable age and could shoulder a woman’s work. And if her brothercame to help—even though he was only twelve—she would be just fine. She hoped . . .
At least until her groom arrived.
Carl von Reichart peered out the lone barred window of his dungeon cell.
In less than four hours, he would die.
The frigid January air squeezed through a crack in the window and reached around his neck, grabbing him, sending chills over his skin, reminding him that all too soon his head would be severed from his body.
He pressed his thin cheeks against the icy steel of the bars.
He didn’t know why he wanted to look outside. He should be on his knees in prayer—as he’d been most of the night.
But he couldn’t help himself. It was as if some unseen force had magnetized him and wouldn’t let him rest. The tormenting force kept fanning the hope that maybe—just maybe—he’d look out and see that things had changed.
And yet there in the earliest hours of dawn in the middle of the courtyard in his father’s ancient schloss, stood the guillotine, in exactly the same spot it had been only an hour before. And the hour before that. Exactly where one of his father’s servants had erected it the previous day.
It was still there with the winter moonlight gleaming upon the sharp blade, and the stone positioned where he would lay his cheek. Even the basket sat where it would capture his bloodied head.
His father had spared no effort for the public spectacle.
With a mirthless laugh Carl lowered his heels back to the bench. He stepped off the rickety slab of board that boasted the only furniture in the cell that had been his home for the past two weeks.
The flicker of an oil lamp in the dungeon’s long dark hallway cast a gaunt light over the rotten straw that covered the floor. A rat scurried along one of the stone walls, probably stealing the crumbs that remained on the platter from his last meal.
Carl dropped to the bench and gave a half grin. “Rat, you have committed more crimes than I have with your thieving ways. How is it that you have the freedom to come and go, while I am stuck in here?”
Of course, the rat didn’t stop to answer but instead scuttled through the bars on the door and disappeared into the blackness of the passageway. He hadn’t expected the creature to strike up a conversation, but the loneliness of the cavern pressed upon him more heavily this night than on any other.
“Too bad you cannot speak to me audibly, Lord.” He lifted his eyes, but all that met his gaze were the low beams of the ceiling. “I know you’ll remind me that many innocent men have been martyred in centuries past. Perhaps one sat in this same spot praying to you the night before his execution just as I am.”
Carl leaned his head against the damp wall, heedless of the mold that covered the stone. He’d lost all sense of cleanliness many days ago. The stench of excrement and decay that had overpowered him for the first couple of days had all but disappeared, likely deep into the pores of his filthy skin.
“But I cannot complain. At least my father has had the civility to feed me well.”
The problem was that he had no appetite and hadn’t since the awful night two weeks ago when the bomb had exploded in the duke’s palace, killing a servant and severely injuring one of the nobleman’s sons.
The investigators had easily located the supplies left behind by the murderer. The wires, chemicals, and other items of destruction had all belonged to only one person in all of Essen—Carl von Reichart. Him. Everyone knew Baron von Reichart’s son was a physicist and an inventor and had a laboratory full of every kind of chemical imaginable.
Carl had been mortified to think his laboratory supplies had killed a man and almost murdered an innocent child. In fact, he became sick to his stomach every time he thought about it.
But he hadn’t expected everyone to turn on him, to think him capable of the horrible deed, even if the evidence pointed directly at him.
How could anyone believe him guilty of such a heinous crime? What reason did he have to murder the duke or his son? He was a wealthy nobleman, not one of those whining, malcontent peasant rebels.
With a groan Carl slid off the bench and got on his knees. He bowed his head and folded his hands. “Pater noster, qui es in caelis . . .”
Should he try something besides the Lord’s Prayer? Maybe something in his native German language instead of Latin?
Would anything really help?
The words of the prayer died on his lips.
It was January first, anno Domini 1881, the year he would turn thirty-one.
But he would not live to see the light of that future day, nor any other.
He might as well stop praying for deliverance and accept the fate that had been handed to him—whether he deserved it or not.
Today, he would finally meet his Lord and Maker. He would stand before the throne of the Almighty.
Part of him trembled with anticipation. But the other part rebelled against the idea of having to leave his life on earth so early, and in such a gruesome fashion.
“Lord, couldn’t you have put me out of my misery sooner?” The echo of his voice sounded weary, as weary as every nerve in his body. “Maybe you could have had one of the rebels bomb me instead of the duke?”
The Lord only knew how many of the miners hated his father as much as they hated the duke. As owner of most of the surrounding coalfields and several large iron and steel plants, his father’s industry had brought him great wealth and prestige.
But with the growth had come all the problems inherent to the working class. The miners were never satisfied no matter what concessions were made. They always wanted more, and of late had become more obstinate in their demands.
Carl was sure a band of rebels was behind the bombing. Recently they’d been grumbling about the duke’s new villa overlooking Lake Baldeney, that it was too extravagant, that the duke should use his money to improve living conditions among his workers.
Of course, Carl hadn’t agreed with the rebels and wanted to tell them to stop all of their complaining. But he’d kept out of their problems as he usually did. They’d never been his concern.
Until now . . .
Now, he couldn’t prove them guilty, especially since the evidence had pointed squarely at him. Not even his friends nor his family had believed him or stood beside him.
In a few hours everyone would join together in the parish church to celebrate The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. Then afterward they would gather inside the old walls of the castle to watch him die—their entertainment for the New Year’s Day.
He rubbed his stiff fingers together and blew into them for warmth.
A creak at the entrance of the dungeon pricked the back of his neck and raised the hairs there. He sat up and peered down the passageway.
They weren’t coming for him yet, were they? Had they decided to change the time of his execution?
The scuff of footfalls drew steadily nearer.
Carl rose to his feet, unfolding his lanky body like a corroded length of copper. He held his breath, waiting.
Without a light to guide the way, the cloaked figure moved toward Carl slowly. Each step closer filled him with greater dread.
Finally the figure reached the bars of the cell and stopped.
“I suppose this is it,” Carl began.
“We must be quiet” came a muffled reply.
Carl scrutinized the outline of the face hidden within the folds of the hood. “Matthias?”
“Shhh . . .” The man pulled a set of keys out of the deep pocket of his cloak, revealing his thick arms and hands.
The bulky torso belonged to only one man—Matthias, his manservant, the one who had raised him from boyhood, the one who had been there for him far more than his father ever had.
“It is you,” Carl whispered as relief burst through him.
“We don’t have much time.” The keys jangled together much too loudly, as if Matthias held a hundred of them instead of half a dozen. “We must hurry.”
Suddenly Carl realized exactly what was happening and his heartbeat sped up.
Matthias was freeing him.
“What about the guard?”
“He’s been called home for a family emergency.” Matthias twisted the key, and it scraped in protest as if hesitant to release its captive. “His sheep have all escaped from the pen.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“These kinds of accidents have been known to happen on occasion.” The older man’s voice carried the hint of humor Carl loved.
He grinned. But just as quickly the grin dissipated. “If you free me, what shall I do, Matthias? Where shall I go?”
The lock on the cell door finally clicked. Matthias swung it open, and the squealing of the rusty hinges was loud enough to raise the bones of the skeletons buried beneath the floor.
“When the duke finds out about my escape, he’ll put a price on my head. I won’t be safe anywhere on the Continent.”
Matthias cast a glance over his shoulder, then put a finger to his lips. “Let’s go. We will talk as we walk.”
Carl didn’t resist when the older man motioned him forward. He had nothing to gather from the cell. He left as he’d entered, with only the clothes he wore—albeit they were much degraded from their original condition, rumpled and filthy with the stench of prison ingrained into every fiber.
Instead of leading him down the corridor toward the entrance of the dungeon, Matthias ushered him in the opposite direction. “The servant assigned to replace the guard became stuck in the wardrobe,” Matthias whispered.
“Stuck?” Another grin tugged at Carl’s lips.
He could only imagine. He had no doubt Matthias had plied the servant well ahead of time with enough beer to make it impossible for the man to remain at his post.
“The troublesome door won’t hold him but a few minutes.”
Carl ducked under a low beam, spider webs catching in the scruff that covered his normally clean-shaven face. “Since we’re headed away from the door, I’m suspecting there’s another way out of this place that I don’t know about.”
“I always knew you were a bright boy.”
When they reached the end wall of the dungeon with an empty cell on either side, they stopped. The dim light from the lone oil lamp hardly touched them.
Matthias moved toward a coffin leaning against the wall. The medieval casket was covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs.
His servant made a weak attempt to lift it away from the wall.
“Let me help.” Carl stepped forward, gripped the cold stone, and strained to lift it. “I’d like to use the excuse that my body is weak from the lack of activity these past weeks, but you know as well as I do that I’m not an overly strong man.”
Compared to the miners who swung their hammers in caverns deep in the earth, and the peasant farmers who labored in the fields, he was weak and thin. But he was after all a nobleman’s son and a scientist and had no need for the strength of the common man.
He grunted, moving the coffin only a fraction. “What’s in this thing anyway?”
“A stone statue of the Virgin Mother.” Matthias slid his hand along the wall behind the coffin as if searching for something.
Carl wished he had time to pull off the lid and examine the statue. But now was neither the time nor place for an art and history lesson.
“There it is.” The older man pulled out a key, dropped to his knees, and began counting the stones on the wall. He pried several before one finally budged. “Seventh from the cell door, just as he said.”
“Your father.” Matthias wiggled the stone, and it scraped against the floorboards, revealing a secret keyhole.
“What does my father have to do with this?”
“I wouldn’t know any of these secrets if not for your father.” Matthias jabbed in the key and struggled to turn it. Suddenly a creak rent the air and the floorboards cracked open.
Carl knelt next to Matthias, and together they wrenched the boards apart, revealing a hanging trapdoor.
A waft of dank, cold air greeted them.
“This is incredible.” Carl peered down into the black pit. He tried to examine the pulley that had lowered the door, but he couldn’t make out anything in the darkness of the corridor. “Whoever made this secret door was a genius.”
“Your father said it’s been here for generations.” Matthias had removed the key and was already shoving the stone back into the wall. “It was an escape route during times when the castle came under siege.”
“Why didn’t I ever know about this?”
“No one knew except your father.”
“Not until last night.”
Carl’s pulse clattered to a halt. So Matthias wasn’t orchestrating the escape by himself. Was his father involved too?
Carl stared up at him through the faint light.
“You’re his only child. He may not show his love very often, but deep in his heart he doesn’t want to see you die, criminal or not.”
“I hope you know I didn’t do what they’re accusing me of—”
Matthias cut off his words with a wave of his hand. “Even though trouble seems to follow you wherever you go, I know you’re a good man.”
Gratitude swelled in Carl’s throat. “Thank you, Matthias.”
“We don’t have time for sentiments now.” The servant cast a furtive glance over his shoulder toward the other end of the dungeon. Then he nodded at the hole in the floorboards. “We need to keep moving.”
Carl climbed into the pit first. After a descent of approximately two fathoms, his feet touched the hard earth. The blackness of the cavern threatened to swallow him.
In a matter of minutes, Matthias had closed the hatch, blocking out every trace of light. Carl would have believed himself trapped and alone except for the groan of the ladder and the scrape of Matthias’s boots as he descended.
Matthias’s huffing breath finally brushed Carl’s cheek. There was a moment of scratching and the scent of red phosphorus, then a tiny flame danced to life.
The flicker from the long match lit the narrow chamber and revealed a torch on the wall. Matthias wasted no time in lighting it and leading the way into a tunnel.
“Let’s pray there are no collapses in the wall or ceiling.” Matthias stooped low.
Carl’s back grazed the top of the tunnel, and he had to arch his neck at an awkward angle to see Matthias. “I take it my father hasn’t been down here in a while?”
“There haven’t been too many sieges recently.”
The wryness of Matthias’s tone brought a sense of renewed calm to Carl’s spirit. “True.” He inhaled a deep breath of the earthiness of wet soil.
“So where am I going?”
Carl stumbled to a halt. “You cannot be serious.”
America was a place for homeless serfs, unhappy peasants, and discontent miners. He’d heard his father tell more than one of his employees who’d come to him with complaints over wages or working conditions, “If you don’t like it, go to America.”
That distant country an ocean away was not a place for a nobleman like him.
“I couldn’t possibly go there.”
Matthias stopped, and his eyes censured him. “What? You’re too good for America?”
“There must be a place more suitable to my status.”
“Well, now you’re penniless and homeless.” Matthias started forward. “So you’ll fit right in.”
“What about England?” Maybe he could find another position as a tutor. Or a professor at one of the universities.
“And if Lord Faust hears of your return?”
Carl sighed. If his former employer, Lord Faust, discovered he’d stepped foot into England, the man would track him down and put a bullet in his heart. Lord Faust wanted him dead just as much as the duke did.
“So there’s no other place?” He scrambled after Matthias.
For a moment they trudged in silence, the steady drip of runoff water echoing with their footsteps. The light of the torch illuminated the winding tunnel, aiding their navigation through the roots and stones. The damp chill penetrated Carl’s coat, and he tried to shake off the depressing thought of having to leave his homeland.
He should be grateful. The Lord had graciously answered his prayers and decided to spare his life. He would get to keep his head on his body—if he made it out of the tunnel and the castle without being caught.
But America? Could he really go there? It was so far away. So foreign. A place for poor dissidents. Besides, where would he live?
“You’ll go to live with my brother,” Matthias said as if he’d overheard Carl’s thoughts.
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
And its echo in the tunnel confronted Carl and made him stumble with shame. How much did he know about the personal life of this faithful servant who’d been a part of his father’s household for more years than Carl had lived?
Apparently not much.
“I received a letter from my brother two days ago. He wants me to send him a groom for one of his widowed daughters.”
“Wait a minute!” Carl straightened and bumped his head against the rocky soil of the ceiling, sending a shower of dirt down upon himself. “If I must go to America, then so be it. But I won’t marry a complete stranger as part of the deal.”
Matthias stopped and turned. The torchlight cast long, eerie shadows over the walls and turned his servant’s face into that of a ghoul. “Of course you won’t marry my niece.” His voice was hard, and the glimmer in his eyes pierced Carl with a strange shaft of guilt.
Certainly Matthias knew he couldn’t marry a woman who wasn’t of noble birth.
“I’m sure your niece is a nice enough girl.” For a peasant.
The unspoken words hung between them.
“Besides,” Carl spoke quickly, “I won’t marry someone I don’t know or love.”
Suddenly the image of Barbara came to mind, the baroness his father had been pressuring him to marry. She was every bit as noble and rich as he was, but that was about as much as they had in common and ever would.
He refused to consider putting a woman through an arranged marriage—like his parents’. He had witnessed firsthand what a loveless relationship had done to his mother. And he’d vowed he would never make a woman as miserable as she’d been.
“Well, then that’s good.” Matthias resumed his stoop-shouldered motion forward. “Because I wasn’t asking you to marry my niece.”
“Oh.” Carl started after his servant. “If you don’t want me to marry her, what do you want me to do with her?”
“I have already spoken to one of my cousin’s sons, Dirk, who has been saving to travel to America. And he has eagerly agreed to step in as my niece’s husband.”
“Good for him.”
“Yes, it’s a good opportunity for a man like him to go to America and inherit a forty-acre farm.” Matthias stretched the torch out in front as if trying to see the end of the tunnel. “He’s very excited about the possibility.”
“Excited about the farm or the marriage?” Carl couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his question.
“Some people don’t have the luxury of being so choosey about whom they marry.” Matthias’s voice was equally sarcastic.
Guilt pricked Carl again. In many principalities, the nobility still had the authority to permit or deny marriages among the farmhands and rural workers who resided on their lands. Serfdom might have been abolished, but the ancient laws were not so easily eliminated.
“Dirk will have a better life in America,” Matthias added, “but he can’t go until he finishes earning the rest of the money he needs for the ship fare.”
“How long will that take?”
Matthias shrugged. “Perhaps another month or two—if I’m able to help him.”
“Maybe I can help too.”
“What will you give him? Your dirty lice-ridden clothes?”
“I have a purse of money in my chambers—”
“Not anymore.” Matthias stopped abruptly, and Carl had to catch himself to keep from barreling into the servant. “The duke sent some of his servants to your rooms and sequestered all of your belongings.”
Carl could only shake his head at the injustice. How was he to survive without his overflowing purse?
The flickering light of the torch revealed a wooden door, barred from the inside and locked with a chain.
Matthias handed Carl the torch, then pulled out the same key he’d retrieved from the false compartment in the coffin. He wiggled it into the rusty lock on the chain and labored to free the door of its barriers. Finally he shoved his shoulder against the planks and opened it a crack.
He peered outside and then pinned Carl with his most serious look. “You’re to travel to America to my brother in Michigan. And you’ll offer to help my niece until Dirk arrives.”
Unease gurgled in Carl’s stomach. “But I’m a scientist—”
“Not anymore.” Matthias’s expression turned grave. “You’re no longer Gottfried Charles von Reichart. From the moment you step out of this tunnel, you’re Carl Richards, a poor schoolteacher unjustly accused of a crime against a duke, which you did not commit.”
Matthias pressed a letter into Carl’s hand. “Give this to my brother.”
Carl took the letter hesitantly. “I cannot live a lie.”
“It’s mostly true. Besides, it’s only a disguise to keep you safe.”
“For how long?”
“I’m never to come back?” But even as Carl said the words, he knew that as long as the duke lived, he wouldn’t be safe in his homeland.
“In time, when the duke’s anger has subsided and he stops looking for you, maybe you’ll be able to go to a big American city and find work. I’ve heard there are many jobs. But until then, you’ll be safe with my brother.”
Carl fingered the letter. He didn’t like a single detail of the escape plan. But what could he do? Where else could he go?
Matthias shoved a small leather pouch against him.
The heaviness of the bag and the hard round lumps attested to money.
“Your father’s given you enough to pay for the cost of your travels. But that’s it. From now on, no more allowance.”
Carl shifted the pouch, jangling the coins, trying to get an idea of how much it contained. It was a mere pittance compared to what he was accustomed to having. “How heroic of him to be so generous.”
“If a large sum ended up missing from the baron’s coffers, the duke would hear of it, and it would raise his suspicion. And if your father sends you money in America, the duke will hear of that too. As it is, we’ll already incur a great deal of suspicion once he learns of your disappearance.”
“Heaven forbid my father should take a stand against the duke on my behalf.”
“He’s risking his life for your escape.” Matthias shoved at the door again, opening it further.
A tangle of weeds and vines covered the exit, concealing the door from the outside. But the opening was wide enough to let in a draft of the bitter winter air. It slithered up Carl’s legs and torso and then wrapped around his neck as it had earlier, as if to remind him that if not for Matthias’s bravery and faithfulness, he would have felt the stinging blade of the guillotine cutting through his flesh.
“Thank you, Matthias.” He pushed down the disappointment at his nonexistent relationship with his father. This was hardly the time and place to dwell on bygones. “You put your life at risk for me too. And I’m grateful.”
Matthias extinguished the torch, plunging them into darkness. “You must run now. And don’t stop until you’re far beyond the boundaries of Essen.”
Carl took a deep fortifying breath and moved to the door and into the tangle of lifeless shrubbery.
Matthias’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.
He turned and found himself enfolded in Matthias’s arms in a tight embrace. “Godspeed.”
Carl squeezed his faithful servant. “Good-bye.” And with that one word he knew he was also saying good-bye to his home and the way of life he’d always known.
His chest constricted.
“Now go! Make haste.” As suddenly as Matthias had hugged him, he just as abruptly shoved him away.
Carl stumbled forward.
“Oh, one more thing.” Matthias’s call followed him, and it contained an urgency that hadn’t been there before. “Don’t ever tell Peter—my brother—who you really are, that you’re the baron’s son. If he learns your true identity, he’ll kill you.”
“What?” Carl wanted to stop, to yell at Matthias for making such foolhardy plans.
But Matthias pushed him through the shrubbery so that he stood exposed by the moonlight in the middle of the scant woodlands bordering the river behind the castle.
Long shadows spread out around him like the ghosts of long-dead knights, waiting to pounce on him and drag him back to the dungeon.
The barking of a lone dog in the distance and the frigidness of the air sent shivers of fear up his back.
“You’re free,” Matthias whispered behind him. “Now run. Run for your life.”