The excitement and suspense of the major and Amy can be imagined when news of the accident reached them. Their gratitude and relief were intense when Helen appeared next morning, with the faithful Hoffman still at his post, though no longer able to disguise the fact that he was suffering from his wound.
When the story had been told, Karl was put under the surgeon's care, and all remained at Heidelberg for several days to rest and recover.
On the afternoon of the last day the major and young ladies drove off to the castle for a farewell view. Helen began to sketch the great stone lion's head above the grand terrace, the major smoked and chatted with a party of English artists whom he had met, and Amy, with a little lad for a guide, explored the old castle to her heart's content.
The sun set, and twilight began to fall when Helen put up her pencils, and the major set off to find Amy, who had been appearing and disappearing in every nook and cranny of the half-ruined castle.
Nowhere could he find her, and no voice answered when he called. The other visitors were gone, and the place seemed deserted, except by themselves and the old man who showed the ruins.
Becoming alarmed lest the girl had fallen somewhere, or lost her way among the vaults where the famous Tun lies, the major called out old Hans with his lantern, and searched high and low.
Amy's hat, full of flowers and ferns, was found in the Lady's Walk, as the little terrace is called, but no other trace appeared, and Helen hurried to and fro in great distress, fearing all manner of dangers.
Meanwhile Amy, having explored every other part of the castle, went to take another look at the Tun, the dwarf, and the vaults.
Now little Anderl, her guide, had a great fear of ghosts, and legions were said to haunt the ruins after nightfall, so when Amy rambled on deeper and deeper into the gloom the boy's courage ebbed away with every step; yet he was ashamed to own his fear, seeing that she had none.
Amy wanted to see a certain cell, where a nun was said to have pined to death because she would not listen to the Margraf's love. The legend pleased the romantic girl, and forgetful of waning daylight, gathering damps, and Anderl's reluctant service, she ran on, up steps and down, delighted with little arched doors, rusty chains on the walls, glimpses of sky through shattered roofs, and all manner of mysterious nooks and corners. Coming at last to a narrow cell, with a stone table, and heavy bolts on the old door, she felt sure this was poor Elfrida's prison, and called Anderl to come on with his candle, for the boy had lighted one, for his own comfort rather than hers. Her call was unanswered, and glancing back, she saw the candle placed on the ground, but no Anderl.
"Little coward, he has run away," she said, laughing; and having satisfied her curiosity, turned to retrace her steps,--no easy task to one ignorant of the way, for vault after vault opened on both sides, and no path was discernible. In vain she tried to recall some landmark, the gloom had deepened and nothing was clear. On she hurried, but found no opening, and really frightened, stopped at last, calling the boy in a voice that woke a hundred echoes. But Anderl had fled home, thinking the lady would find her way back, and preferring to lose his kreutzers to seeing a ghost.
Poor Amy's bewilderment and alarm increased with every moment's delay, and hoping to come out somewhere, she ran on till a misstep jostled the candle from her hand and extinguished it.
Left in the dark, her courage deserted her, and she screamed desperately, like a lost child, and was fast getting into a state of frantic terror, when the sound of an approaching step reassured her.
Holding her breath, she heard a quick tread drawing nearer, as if guided by her cries, and, straining her eyes, she caught the outline of a man's figure in the gloom.
A sensation of intense joy rushed over her, and she was about to spring forward, when she remembered that as she could speak no German how could she explain her plight to the stranger, if he understood neither French nor English?
Fear took possession of her at the thought of meeting some rough peasant, or some rollicking student, to whom she could make no intelligible appeal or explanation.
Crouching close against the wall, she stood mute till the figure was very near. She was in the shadow of an angle, and the man paused, as if looking for the person who called for help.
"Who is lost here?" said a clear voice, in German.
Amy shrunk closer to the wall, fearing to speak, for the voice was that of a young man, and a low laugh followed the words, as if the speaker found the situation amusing.
"Mortal, ghost or devil, I'll find it," exclaimed the voice, and stepping forward, a hand groped for and found her.
"Lottchen, is it thou? Little rogue, thou shalt pay dearly for leading me such a chase."
As he spoke he drew the girl toward him, but with a faint cry, a vain effort to escape, Amy's terror reached its climax, and spent with fatigue and excitement, she lost consciousness.
"Who the deuce is it, then? Lottchen never faints on a frolic. Some poor little girl lost in earnest. I must get her out of this gloomy place at once, and find her party afterward."
Lifting the slight figure in his arms, the young man hurried on, and soon came out through a shattered gateway into the shrubbery which surrounds the base of the castle.
Laying her on the grass, he gently chafed her hands, eying the pale, pretty face meantime with the utmost solicitude.
At his first glimpse of it he had started, smiled and made a gesture of pleasure and surprise, then gave himself entirely to the task of recovering the poor girl whom he had frightened out of her senses.
Very soon she looked up with dizzy eyes, and clasping her hands imploringly, cried, in English, like a bewildered child,--
"I am lost! Oh, take me to my uncle."
"I will, the moment you can walk. Upon my soul, I meant to help you when I followed; but as you did not answer, I fancied it was Lottchen, the keeper's little girl. Pardon the fright I've caused you, and let me take you to your friends."
The true English accent of the words, and the hearty tone of sincerity in the apology, reassured Amy at once, and, rising, she said, with a faint smile and a petulant tone,--
"I was very silly, but my guide ran away, my candle went out, I lost the path, and can speak no German; so I was afraid to answer you at first; and then I lost my wits altogether, for it's rather startling to be clutched in the dark, sir."
"Indeed it is. I was very thoughtless, but now let me atone for it. Where is your uncle, Miss Erskine?" asked the stranger, with respectful earnestness.
"You know my name?" cried Amy in her impulsive way.
"I have that happiness," was the answer, with a smile.
"But I don't know you, sir;" and she peered at him, trying to see his face in the darkness, for the copse was thick, and twilight had come on rapidly.
"Not yet; I live in hope. Shall we go? Your uncle will be uneasy."
"Where are we?" asked Amy, glad to move on, for the interview was becoming too personal even for her, and the stranger's manner fluttered her, though she enjoyed the romance of the adventure immensely.
"We are in the park which surrounds the castle. You were near the entrance to it from the vaults when you fainted."
"I wish I had kept on a little longer, and not disgraced myself by such a panic."
"Nay, that is a cruel wish, for then I should have lost the happiness of helping you."
They had been walking side by side, but were forced to pause on reaching a broken flight of steps, for Amy could not see the way before her.
"Let me lead you; it is steep and dark, but better than going a long way round through the dew," he said, offering his hand.
"Must we return by these dreadful vaults?" faltered Amy, shrinking back.
"It is the shortest and safest route, I assure you."
"Are you sure you know the way?"
"Quite sure. I have lived here by the week together. Do you fear to trust me?"
"No; but it is so dark, and everything is so strange to me. Can we get down safely? I see nothing but a black pit."
And Amy still hesitated, with an odd mixture of fear and coquetry.
"I brought you up in safety; shall I take you down again?" asked the stranger, with a smile flickering over his face.
Amy felt rather than saw it, and assuming an air of dignified displeasure, motioned him to proceed, which he did for three steps; then Amy slipped, and gladly caught at the arm extended to save her.
Without a word he took her hand and led her back through the labyrinth she had threaded in her bewilderment. A dim light filled the place, but with unerring steps her guide went on till they emerged into the courtyard.
Major Erskine's voice was audible, giving directions to the keeper, and Helen's figure visible as she groped among the shadows of the ruined chapel for her cousin.
"There are my friends. Now I am safe. Come and let them thank you," cried Amy, in her frank, childlike warmth of manner.
"I want no thanks--forgive me--adieu," and hastily kissing the little hand that had lain so confidingly in his, the stranger was gone.
Amy rushed at once to Helen, and when the lost lamb had been welcomed, chidden, and exulted over, they drove home, listening to the very brief account which Amy gave of her adventure.
"Naughty little gad-about, how could you go and terrify me so, wandering in vaults with mysterious strangers, like the Countess of Rudolstadt. You are as wet and dirty as if you had been digging a well, yet you look as if you liked it," said Helen, as she led Amy into their room at the hotel.
"I do," was the decided answer, as the girl pulled a handkerchief off her head, and began to examine the corners of it. Suddenly she uttered a cry and flew to the light, exclaiming,--
"Nell, Nell, look here! The same letters, 'S.P.,' the same coat of arms, the same perfume--it was the baron!"
"What? who? are you out of your mind?" said Helen, examining the large, fine cambric handkerchief, with its delicately stamped initials under the stag's head, and three stars on a heart-shaped shield. "Where did you get it?" she added, as she inhaled the soft odor of violets shaken from its folds.
Amy blushed and answered shyly, "I didn't tell you all that happened before uncle, but now I will. My hat was left behind, and when I recovered my wits after my fright, I found this tied over my head. Oh, Nell, it was very charming there in that romantic old park, and going through the vaults with him, and having my hand kissed at parting. No one ever did that before, and I like it."
Amy glanced at her hand as she spoke, and stood staring as if struck dumb, for there on her forefinger shone a ring she had never seen before.
"Look! look! mine is gone, and this in its place! Oh, Nell, what shall I do?" she said, looking half frightened, half pleased.
Helen examined the ring and shook her head, for it was far more valuable than the little pearl one which it replaced. Two tiny hands of finest gold were linked together about a diamond of great brilliancy; and on the inside appeared again the initials, "S.P."
"How did it happen?" she asked, rather sternly.
"Upon my word, I don't know, unless he put it on while I was stupidly fainting. Rude man, to take advantage of me so. But, Nell, it is splendid, and what shall I do about it?"
"Tell uncle, find out the man and send back his things. It really is absurd, the manner in which German boys behave;" and Helen frowned, though she was strongly tempted to laugh at the whole thing.
"He was neither a German nor a boy, but an English gentleman, I'm sure," began Amy, rather offended.
"But 'S.P.' is a baron, you know, unless there are two Richmonds in the field," broke in Helen.
"I forgot that; never mind, it deepens the mystery; and after this performance, I'm prepared for any enormity. It's my fate; I submit." said Amy, tragically, as she waved her hand to and fro, pleased with the flash of the ring.
"Amy, I think on the whole I won't speak to uncle. He is quick to take offence, especially where we are concerned. He doesn't understand foreign ways, and may get into trouble. We will manage it quietly ourselves."
"Karl is discreet; we will merely say we found these things and wish to discover the owner. He may know this 'S.P.' and, having learned his address, we can send them back. The man will understand; and as we leave to-morrow, we shall be out of the way before he can play any new prank."
"Have in Karl at once, for if I wear this lovely thing long I shall not be able to let it go at all. How dared the creature take such a liberty!" and Amy pulled off the ring with an expression of great scorn.
"Come into the salon and see what Karl says to the matter. Let me speak, or you will say too much. One must be prudent before--"
She was going to say "servants," but checked herself, and substituted "strangers," remembering gratefully how much she owed this man.
Hoffman came, looking pale, and with his hand in a sling, but was as gravely devoted as ever, and listened to Helen's brief story with serious attention.
"I will inquire, mademoiselle, and let you know at once. It is easy to find persons if one has a clue. May I see the handkerchief?"
Helen showed it. He glanced at the initials, and laid it down with a slight smile.
"The coat-of-arms is English, mademoiselle."
"Are you sure?"
"Quite so; I understand heraldry."
"But the initials stand for Sigismund Palsdorf, and we know he is a German baron," broke in Amy, forgetting prudence in eagerness.
"If mademoiselle knows the name and title of this gentleman it will not be hard to find him."
"We only fancy it is the same because of the initials. I dare say it is a mistake, and the man is English. Inquire quietly, Hoffman, if you please, as this ring is of value, and I wish to restore it to its owner," said Helen, rather sharply.
"I shall do so, mademoiselle," and with his gentlemanly bow, the courier left the room.
"Bless me, what's that?" cried Amy, a moment afterward, as a ringing laugh echoed through the corridor,--a laugh so full of hearty and infectious merriment that both girls smiled involuntarily, and Amy peeped out to see who the blithe personage might be.
An old gentleman was entering his room near by, and Karl was just about to descend the stairs. Both looked back at the girlish face peeping at them, but both were quite grave, and the peal of laughter remained a mystery, like all the rest of it.
Late in the evening Hoffman returned to report that a party of young Englishmen had visited the castle that afternoon, and had left by the evening train. One of them had been named Samuel Peters, and he, doubtless, was the owner of the ring.
A humorous expression lurked in the couriers eye as he made his report, and heard Amy exclaim, in a tone of disgust and comical despair,--
"Samuel Peters! That spoils all the romance and dims the beauty of the diamond. To think that a Peters should be the hero to whom I owe my safety, and a Samuel should leave me this token of regard!"
"Hush, Amy," whispered Helen. "Thanks, Hoffman; we must wait now for chance to help us."