In the neighborhood of three hundred years ago the Swallow's Nest and the larger castle between it and Neckarsteinach were owned and occupied by two old knights who were twin brothers, and bachelors. They had no relatives. They were very rich. They had fought through the wars and retired to private life--covered with honorable scars. They were honest, honorable men in their dealings, but the people had given them a couple of nicknames which were very suggestive--Herr Givenaught and Herr Heartless. The old knights were so proud of these names that if a burgher called them by their right ones they would correct them.
The most renowned scholar in Europe, at the time, was the Herr Doctor Franz Reikmann, who lived in Heidelberg. All Germany was proud of the venerable scholar, who lived in the simplest way, for great scholars are always poor. He was poor, as to money, but very rich in his sweet young daughter Hildegarde and his library. He had been all his life collecting his library, book and book, and he lived it as a miser loves his hoarded gold. He said the two strings of his heart were rooted, the one in his daughter, the other in his books; and that if either were severed he must die. Now in an evil hour, hoping to win a marriage portion for his child, this simple old man had entrusted his small savings to a sharper to be ventured in a glittering speculation. But that was not the worst of it: he signed a paper--without reading it. That is the way with poets and scholars; they always sign without reading. This cunning paper made him responsible for heaps of things. The rest was that one night he found himself in debt to the sharper eight thousand pieces of gold!--an amount so prodigious that it simply stupefied him to think of it. It was a night of woe in that house.
"I must part with my library--I have nothing else. So perishes one heartstring," said the old man.
"What will it bring, father?" asked the girl.
"Nothing! It is worth seven hundred pieces of gold; but by auction it will go for little or nothing."
"Then you will have parted with the half of your heart and the joy of your life to no purpose, since so mighty of burden of debt will remain behind."
"There is no help for it, my child. Our darlings must pass under the hammer. We must pay what we can."
"My father, I have a feeling that the dear Virgin will come to our help. Let us not lose heart."
"She cannot devise a miracle that will turn nothing into eight thousand gold pieces, and lesser help will bring us little peace."
"She can do even greater things, my father. She will save us, I know she will."
Toward morning, while the old man sat exhausted and asleep in his chair where he had been sitting before his books as one who watches by his beloved dead and prints the features on his memory for a solace in the aftertime of empty desolation, his daughter sprang into the room and gently woke him, saying--
"My presentiment was true! She will save us. Three times has she appeared to me in my dreams, and said, 'Go to the Herr Givenaught, go to the Herr Heartless, ask them to come and bid.' There, did I not tell you she would save us, the thrice blessed Virgin!"
Sad as the old man was, he was obliged to laugh.
"Thou mightest as well appeal to the rocks their castles stand upon as to the harder ones that lie in those men's breasts, my child. They bid on books writ in the learned tongues!--they can scarce read their own."
But Hildegarde's faith was in no wise shaken. Bright and early she was on her way up the Neckar road, as joyous as a bird.
Meantime Herr Givenaught and Herr Heartless were having an early breakfast in the former's castle--the Sparrow's Nest--and flavoring it with a quarrel; for although these twins bore a love for each other which almost amounted to worship, there was one subject upon which they could not touch without calling each other hard names-- and yet it was the subject which they oftenest touched upon.
"I tell you," said Givenaught, "you will beggar yourself yet with your insane squanderings of money upon what you choose to consider poor and worthy objects. All these years I have implored you to stop this foolish custom and husband your means, but all in vain. You are always lying to me about these secret benevolences, but you never have managed to deceive me yet. Every time a poor devil has been set upon his feet I have detected your hand in it--incorrigible ass!"
"Every time you didn't set him on his feet yourself, you mean. Where I give one unfortunate a little private lift, you do the same for a dozen. The idea of your swelling around the country and petting yourself with the nickname of Givenaught--intolerable humbug! Before I would be such a fraud as that, I would cut my right hand off. Your life is a continual lie. But go on, I have tried my best to save you from beggaring yourself by your riotous charities--now for the thousandth time I wash my hands of the consequences. A maundering old fool! that's what you are."
"And you a blethering old idiot!" roared Givenaught, springing up.
"I won't stay in the presence of a man who has no more delicacy than to call me such names. Mannerless swine!"
So saying, Herr Heartless sprang up in a passion. But some lucky accident intervened, as usual, to change the subject, and the daily quarrel ended in the customary daily living reconciliation. The gray-headed old eccentrics parted, and Herr Heartless walked off to his own castle.
Half an hour later, Hildegarde was standing in the presence of Herr Givenaught. He heard her story, and said--
"I am sorry for you, my child, but I am very poor, I care nothing for bookish rubbish, I shall not be there."
He said the hard words kindly, but they nearly broke poor Hildegarde's heart, nevertheless. When she was gone the old heartbreaker muttered, rubbing his hands--
"It was a good stroke. I have saved my brother's pocket this time, in spite of him. Nothing else would have prevented his rushing off to rescue the old scholar, the pride of Germany, from his trouble. The poor child won't venture near him after the rebuff she has received from his brother the Givenaught."
But he was mistaken. The Virgin had commanded, and Hildegarde would obey. She went to Herr Heartless and told her story. But he said coldly--
"I am very poor, my child, and books are nothing to me. I wish you well, but I shall not come."
When Hildegarde was gone, he chuckled and said--
"How my fool of a soft-headed soft-hearted brother would rage if he knew how cunningly I have saved his pocket. How he would have flown to the old man's rescue! But the girl won't venture near him now."
When Hildegarde reached home, her father asked her how she had prospered. She said--
"The Virgin has promised, and she will keep her word; but not in the way I thought. She knows her own ways, and they are best."
The old man patted her on the head, and smiled a doubting smile, but he honored her for her brave faith, nevertheless.
"How much for this precious library, just as it stands, all complete?" called the auctioneer.
"Fifty pieces of gold!"
A brief pause.
A longer pause, while the auctioneer redoubled his persuasions.
A heavy drag--the auctioneer persuaded, pleaded, implored--it was useless, everybody remained silent--
"Well, then--going, going--one--two--"
"Five hundred and fifty!"
This in a shrill voice, from a bent old man, all hung with rags, and with a green patch over his left eye. Everybody in his vicinity turned and gazed at him. It was Givenaught in disguise. He was using a disguised voice, too.
"Good!" cried the auctioneer. "Going, going--one--two--"
"Five hundred and sixty!"
This, in a deep, harsh voice, from the midst of the crowd at the other end of the room. The people near by turned, and saw an old man, in a strange costume, supporting himself on crutches. He wore a long white beard, and blue spectacles. It was Herr Heartless, in disguise, and using a disguised voice.
"Good again! Going, going--one--"
Sensation. The crowd raised a cheer, and some one cried out, "Go it, Green-patch!" This tickled the audience and a score of voices shouted, "Go it, Green-patch!"
"Going--going--going--third and last call--one--two--"
"Huzzah!--well done, Crutches!" cried a voice. The crowd took it up, and shouted altogether, "Well done, Crutches!"
"Splendid, gentlemen! you are doing magnificently. Going, going--"
"Three cheers for Green-patch! Up and at him, Crutches!"
And while the people cheered and shouted, "Crutches" muttered, "Who can this devil be that is fighting so to get these useless books?--But no matter, he sha'n't have them. The pride of Germany shall have his books if it beggars me to buy them for him."
"Going, going, going--"
"Come, everybody--give a rouser for Green-patch!"
And while they did it, "Green-patch" muttered, "This cripple is plainly a lunatic; but the old scholar shall have his books, nevertheless, though my pocket sweat for it."
"We are saved, father! I told you the Holy Virgin would keep her word!" "Blessed be her sacred name!" said the old scholar, with emotion. The crowd roared, "Huzza, huzza, huzza--at him again, Green-patch!"
"Ten thousand!" As Givenaught shouted this, his excitement was so great that he forgot himself and used his natural voice. He brother recognized it, and muttered, under cover of the storm of cheers--
"Aha, you are there, are you, besotted old fool? Take the books, I know what you'll do with them!"
So saying, he slipped out of the place and the auction was at an end. Givenaught shouldered his way to Hildegarde, whispered a word in her ear, and then he also vanished. The old scholar and his daughter embraced, and the former said, "Truly the Holy Mother has done more than she promised, child, for she has give you a splendid marriage portion-- think of it, two thousand pieces of gold!"
"And more still," cried Hildegarde, "for she has give you back your books; the stranger whispered me that he would none of them--'the honored son of Germany must keep them,' so he said. I would I might have asked his name and kissed his hand and begged his blessing; but he was Our Lady's angel, and it is not meet that we of earth should venture speech with them that dwell above."