Then she flew to tell the company her success, and the applause she received made her glad and proud she had undertaken her mission, since all alone she had accomplished what the multitude had failed in.
At midnight, that night, after the usual feasting, Conrad was taken to the haunted chamber and left there. He fell asleep, by and by.
When he awoke again and looked about him, his heart stood still with horror! The whole aspect of the chamber was changed. The walls were moldy and hung with ancient cobwebs; the curtains and beddings were rotten; the furniture was rickety and ready to fall to pieces. He sprang out of bed, but his quaking knees sunk under him and he fell to the floor.
"This is the weakness of age," he said.
He rose and sought his clothing. It was clothing no longer. The colors were gone, the garments gave way in many places while he was putting them on. He fled, shuddering, into the corridor, and along it to the great hall. Here he was met by a middle-aged stranger of a kind countenance, who stopped and gazed at him with surprise. Conrad said:
"Good sir, will you send hither the lord Ulrich?"
The stranger looked puzzled a moment, then said:
"The lord Ulrich?"
"Yes--if you will be so good."
The stranger called--"Wilhelm!" A young serving-man came, and the stranger said to him:
"Is there a lord Ulrich among the guests?"
"I know none of the name, so please your honor."
Conrad said, hesitatingly:
"I did not mean a guest, but the lord of the castle, sir."
The stranger and the servant exchanged wondering glances. Then the former said:
"I am the lord of the castle."
"Since when, sir?"
"Since the death of my father, the good lord Ulrich more than forty years ago."
Conrad sank upon a bench and covered his face with his hands while he rocked his body to and fro and moaned. The stranger said in a low voice to the servant:
"I fear me this poor old creature is mad. Call some one."
In a moment several people came, and grouped themselves about, talking in whispers. Conrad looked up and scanned the faces about him wistfully.
Then he shook his head and said, in a grieved voice:
"No, there is none among ye that I know. I am old and alone in the world. They are dead and gone these many years that cared for me. But sure, some of these aged ones I see about me can tell me some little word or two concerning them."
Several bent and tottering men and women came nearer and answered his questions about each former friend as he mentioned the names. This one they said had been dead ten years, that one twenty, another thirty. Each succeeding blow struck heavier and heavier. At last the sufferer said:
"There is one more, but I have not the courage to--O my lost Catharina!"
One of the old dames said:
"Ah, I knew her well, poor soul. A misfortune overtook her lover, and she died of sorrow nearly fifty years ago. She lieth under the linden tree without the court."
Conrad bowed his head and said:
"Ah, why did I ever wake! And so she died of grief for me, poor child. So young, so sweet, so good! She never wittingly did a hurtful thing in all the little summer of her life. Her loving debt shall be repaid--for I will die of grief for her."
His head drooped upon his breast. In the moment there was a wild burst of joyous laughter, a pair of round young arms were flung about Conrad's neck and a sweet voice cried:
"There, Conrad mine, thy kind words kill me--the farce shall go no further! Look up, and laugh with us--'twas all a jest!"
And he did look up, and gazed, in a dazed wonderment-- for the disguises were stripped away, and the aged men and women were bright and young and gay again. Catharina's happy tongue ran on:
"'Twas a marvelous jest, and bravely carried out. They gave you a heavy sleeping-draught before you went to bed, and in the night they bore you to a ruined chamber where all had fallen to decay, and placed these rags of clothing by you. And when your sleep was spent and you came forth, two strangers, well instructed in their parts, were here to meet you; and all we, your friends, in our disguises, were close at hand, to see and hear, you may be sure.