UGUST GAVE A shrill shriek like a hare's when it is caught for its death, and threw himself on his knees at his father's feet.
"Oh, father, father!" he cried, convulsively, his hands closing on Strehla's knees, and his uplifted face blanched and distorted with terror. "Oh, father, dear father, you cannot mean what you say? Send it away-our life, our sun, our joy, our comfort? we shall all die in the dark and the cold. Sell me rather. Sell me to any trade or any pain you like; I will not mind. But Hirschvogel! it is like selling the very cross off the altar! You must be in jest. You could not do such a thing-you could not-you who have always been gentle and good, and who have sat in the warmth here year after year with our mother. It is not a piece of hardware, as you say; it is a living thing, for a great man's thoughts and fancies have put life into it, and it loves us, though we are only poor little children, and we love it with all our hearts and souls, and up in heaven I am sure the dead Hirschvogel knows! Oh, listen; I will go and try and get work to-morrow; I will ask them to let me cut ice or make the paths through the snow. There must be something I could do, and I will beg the people we owe money to, to wait; they are all neighbours, they will be patient. But sell Hirschvogel! oh, never! never! never! Give the florins back to the vile man. Tell him it would be like selling the shroud out of mother's coffin, or the golden curls off Ermengilda's head! Oh, father, dear father! do hear me, for pity's sake!"
Strehla was moved by the boy's anguish. He loved his children, though he was often weary of them, and their pain was pain to him. But beside emotion, and stronger than emotion, was the anger that August roused in him: he hated and despised himself for the barter of the heirloom of his race, and every word of the child stung him with a stinging sense of shame.
And he spoke in his wrath rather than in his sorrow.
"You are a little fool," he said, harshly, as they had never heard him speak. "You rave like a play-actor. Get up and go to bed. The stove is sold. There is no more to be said. Children like you have nothing to do with such matters. The stove is sold, and goes to Munich to-morrow. What is it to you? Be thankful I can get bread for you. Get on your legs, I say, and go to bed."
Strehla took up the jug of ale as he paused, and drained it slowly as a man who had no cares.
August sprang to his feet and threw his hair back off his face; the blood rushed into his cheeks, making them scarlet: his great soft eyes flamed alight with furious passion.
"You dare not!" he cried, aloud, "you dare not sell it, I say! It is not yours alone; it is ours-"
Strehla flung the emptied jug on the bricks with a force that shivered it to atoms, and, rising to his feet, struck his son a blow that felled him to the floor. It was the first time in all his life that he had ever raised his hand against any one of his children.
Then he took the oil-lamp that stood at his elbow and stumbled off to his own chamber with a cloud before his eyes.
"What has happened?" said August, a little while later, as he opened his eyes and saw Dorothea weeping above him on the wolfskin before the stove. He had been struck backward, and his head had fallen on the hard bricks where the wolfskin did not reach. He sat up a moment, with his face bent upon his hands.
"I remember now," he said, very low, under his breath.
Dorothea showered kisses on him, while her tears fell like rain.
"But, oh, dear, how could you speak so to father?" she murmured. "It was very wrong."
"No, I was right," said August, and his little mouth, that hitherto had only curled in laughter, curved downward with a fixed and bitter seriousness. "How dare he? How dare he?" he muttered, with his head sunk in his hands. "It is not his alone. It belongs to us all. It is as much yours and mine as it is his."
Dorothea could only sob in answer. She was too frightened to speak. The authority of their parents in the house had never in her remembrance been questioned.
"Are you hurt by the fall dear August?" she murmured, at length, for he looked to her so pale and strange.
"Yes-no. I do not know. What does it matter?"
He sat up upon the wolfskin with passionate pain upon his face; all his soul was in rebellion, and he was only a child and was powerless.
"It is a sin; it is a theft; it is an infamy," he said slowly, his eyes fastened on the gilded feet of Hirschvogel.
"Oh, August, do not say such things of father!" sobbed his sister. "Whatever he does, we ought to think it right."
August laughed aloud.
"Is it right that he should spend his money in drink?-that he should let orders lie unexecuted?-that he should do his work so ill that no one cares to employ him?-that he should live on grandfather's charity, and then dare sell a thing that is ours every whit as much as it is his? To sell Hirschvogel! Oh, dear God! I would sooner sell my soul!"
"August!" cried Dorothea, with piteous entreaty. He terrified her, she could not recognise her little, gay, gentle brother in those fierce and blasphemous words.
August laughed aloud again; then all at once his laughter broke down into bitterest weeping. He threw himself forward on the stove, covering it with kisses, and sobbing as though his heart would burst from his bosom.
What could he do? Nothing, nothing, nothing!
"August, dear August," whispered Dorothea piteously, and trembling all over-for she was a very gentle girl, and fierce feeling terrified her-"August, do not lie there. Come to bed: it is quite late. In the morning you will be calmer. It is horrible indeed, and we shall die of cold, at least the little ones; but if it be father's will-"
"Let me alone," said August, through his teeth, striving to still the storm of sobs that shook him from head to foot. "Let me alone. In the morning!-how can you speak of the morning?"
"Come to bed, dear," sighed his sister. "Oh, August, do not lie and look like that! you frighten me. Do come to bed."
"I shall stay here."
"Here! all night!"
"They might take it in the night. Besides, to leave it now."
"But it is cold! the fire is out."
"It will never be warm any more, nor shall we."