And Rex meant what he said. He was incapable of seeing that he himself had done anything more than his plain and honourable duty. He knew that he had overcome what had seemed most base in his own eyes, but he would have been amazed if any one had suggested that any credit was due to him for that, since he had but obeyed the law of honour, the only law he knew or recognised. In his own estimation he was not less contemptible for having harboured a thought which would have been dishonourable only if it had been base and gross, but which, being so pure and sacred, was but the natural expression of a noble heart. But he saw in Hilda and Greif a generosity which seemed boundless when confronted with the evil of which he judged himself guilty, and he felt that genuine gratitude which only a high-souled being can feel in such a case.
Perhaps, if the truth were told, Rex was himself the noblest of the three. It is certain that he had suffered most, and he had assuredly suffered bravely, and fought against what he hated in himself with an earnestness and true-hearted purpose worthy of a good man. Hilda and Greif thought so, at least, as they walked slowly away from his room.
'We have seen a strange and wonderful sight, my beloved,' said Greif, as they came out together again upon the terrace. They had returned thither instinctively in order to be alone.
'Wonderful indeed. Ah, Greif, you were right when you said that he was a grand man. I never thought that there were such men as that nowadays.'
'And we were wrong to say that he was cold.'
'You saw his hair! I was frightened when I thought of what he must have suffered, to make it change like that! Oh, Greif, is it my fault? Have I any fault in it? I should never rest again, if I thought so.'
'What fault of yours can there be?'
'Do you remember, long ago, on that day when you came to ask my mother, here, on this very terrace—I told you to speak to him?'
'Yes. What of it?'
'Perhaps it was vanity after all. Perhaps, if I had let him hate me, or dislike me, or whatever it was—all this might never have happened. It is my fault, it is, I know it is!'
'No, darling—it is not. Things could not then have gone on as they were going, and we both did right. You heard his story—you know how truthful he is. He told us exactly what had happened to him, and he told us for that very reason, in order to make it clear that he had not known it all along, but had realised it suddenly, as he said he did. If he had guessed before that he was in danger of loving you he would not have stayed a day under our roof. But it came upon him all at once, and when it came upon him it was too strong, and too great.'
'And besides, he knew that you were his brother, from the first. That made it worse. How wonderfully he has kept the secret through all this time!'
'There is nobody like him. There is only one Rex in the world,' said Greif in a tone of conviction.
'And there is only one Greif in the world,' Hilda answered.
'Fortunately. Do you know? I feel as if Rex were really going to make it easier for us.'
'Easier to keep this thing from your mother. Hilda—it is a fearful story! As we stood there together, when you were speaking, I felt it all, I saw those other three, I heard their voices, I knew what they must have felt and thought and said, on that night. It must have been an awful scene. And here are we—two brothers, as they were—ah, the difference is in you, darling—how can I ever thank you for being Hilda!'
'By loving me, sweetheart. Do not think of that in any other way. Besides, you owe me nothing. I cannot help loving you. If I did not love you I might hate you, though I think I should admire you, all the same.'
'Admire me!' exclaimed Greif, with an honest laugh.
'You were grand to-day—you were so generous!'
'I do not see much generosity—'
'You are not a woman. How can you see anything! Do you think that every man would have put out his hand to another who loved his wife and said so? It was splendid—I was so proud of you.'
'What else could I have done? And then, I was not jealous, I am not now, I never shall be, of him.'
'You are right in that, dear. That is not the sort of love that a man need be jealous of. It is not love at all, as we think of love, strong as it is.'
'How much you know!'
'I know about love—yes, a great deal, for I have thought about it, ever since I first loved you, when I was little. Yes, I know much about love, much more than you would think. What Rex feels, is a sort of wild adoration, half ecstasy, half imagination, which he connects in some way with my face and the sound of my voice. That is all. It is not like what I feel for you, or you for me. He would not be sorry if I died. It would make it easier for him. He would build temples to me, and kneel before a picture of me, and be quite as happy as he is now. One sees that. And yet it is all so real, and he suffers so fearfully, that his hair has turned white. Poor fellow, and I am so very fond of him!'
'What makes you think all you say, Hilda?' asked Greif, growing interested in her strange view of the case.
'The whole thing. He is as fond of you as ever, and more so, just as you are of him. Now if it were our sort of love, you two would instinctively go and cut each other's throats, and that would be the natural ending. Instead of that, you love each other like brothers as you are. Do you not see that it must be a different kind of love from ours?'
'Yes. You are right. But it is not less real.'
'Less real? No! It seems more real to him than ours could ever seem, if he were capable of it. That is the reason why he is so grand, and true and noble—being placed as he is. If he loved me as you have always loved me, I should hate him, even if I pitied him; I should want him to go away, so that I might never see him again, nor hear of him. I should be miserable so long as he were under the roof. And instead of that—I feel that he is a dear brother and a true friend.'
'So do I.'
'And he will be all we expect of him. You and I must try to make his life happy, Greif. He is a very lonely man. He is much older than we are—just think! He is nearly as old as my mother. But he looked old to-day. Poor Rex! I would do anything to make him happy.'
'You have made him happy already.'
'You have made him forgive himself, and you have made him feel that he is one of us, more than ever before. Only a woman could have done that, Hilda—perhaps no woman but you.'
'Do you think I did that? I should be very glad—'
'I am sure of it. He never yields unless he is convinced. He is a man of iron and steel. If he had still believed that he was to blame for all this, no earthly power would have made him consent to live. And now, he will live, and he will be happy. He owes his life to you, darling.'
'As I owe yours to him.'
'As I owe mine to you both. Surely, no three were ever so bound together as we are. It is strange and wonderful.'
'But the bond is closest here, my beloved!' exclaimed Hilda, as her arms went round him.
'Ay, closest and best!' answered Greif, as their lips met.
During that long and eventful morning Frau von Sigmundskron had been alone. Of all the four she only knew no sadness. When she went from time to time and gazed upon her little grandson, she felt as though her heart would burst with gladness. There, in his small cradle, lay the realisation of a hope she had thought vain for nearly twenty years. There lay a little Sigmundskron, a sturdy little baby with white hair and bright eyes and rosy mouth, his tiny hands clenched stubbornly in the first effort to feel his own mimic strength, fair as a Gothic child should be, without blemish, perfect and noble in every point. There he was, and his name was Sigmundskron as well as Sigmund, and the day would come when he should be tall and strong. In his veins there stirred that good blood that had never known fear or dishonour, untainted still through nigh a thousand years. Not only had he the name, as Greif had—that little child had the blood also, and he would surely have the loyal heart and the strong hand. And he should have brothers, too. Never again should the fate of the ancient race hang by the single silken strand that had borne its burden so bravely. And that little child was to have not only the name and the lion's soul, and the bare walls of Sigmundskron. He was to have broad lands and princely wealth. He was to have the power, as well as the will, the worldly greatness befitting the son of such a high and lordly line.
It seemed too good to believe, too good to think, too good to see. Day after day from his birth the white-haired lady came and looked at him and never tired of the wonderful truth. All had been wonderful of late, but the rosy little Sigmund was the best of all her wonders. She had grown to care for little else. She loved them all with a great love passing words, but she loved them best for what they had given her, for what lay in the cradle in the great cool nursery.
The tears would come, and she let them flow on unheeded, day by day. But they were not the old tears of long ago, that had left cruel stains upon her cheeks and aching fires in her brain. Their soothing streams came from the fountain of a new life and washed away the pain of the grey years in their healing flood. Instead of the pale dye of grief, they left behind them soft, faint hues as of returning day; instead of fierce, smarting heat, they brought the clear light of other years to the eyes that had seen such horror of death, such misery of want, and that now gazed tranquilly on such sights of unspeakable joy.
To-day, she spent long hours alone beside what she loved best in the world. The christening had given a new impulse to all she felt, and it seemed to her that the child was more her own than ever. A long time she stood with folded hands before the tiny bed, thinking, thinking always of the great deeds that little boy should one day dare and do, for God and king and country. Many times she stooped and kissed his dazzling face, that seemed to glow with light from within, and each time her cheeks were wet, as the sudden and almost unbearable thrill of certain happiness leaped through her heart. Then all at once she smiled, then turned and went out softly and entered her own room.
The glory of the summer's day streamed in through the lofty window, shedding a blaze of light upon all within, upon the smooth matting that had replaced the patched old carpet, upon the old chest that held so many of her dearest treasures, upon the broad expanse of black velvet whereon were hung the most precious things she owned, two swords in their scabbards and a leathern helmet with a gilded spike.
She went up to the place and stood a moment, looking at the three objects. Then she took down the sabre and held it in her two hands, lovingly, as she would have held the child she adored. Her white hand grasped the hilt, and the burnished blade leaped from its sheath like a meteor into the blazing sunshine.
There was not a tarnished spot upon the good steel, not a speck of dust upon its gleaming length, not a shadow along the bright bevel. But she was not satisfied. With endless care she polished the shining surface again and again, with leather and silk, as she had done every day since she had brought it back nearly twenty years ago. She sheathed it then in its scabbard, and rubbed that, and last of all the hilt. Then she was satisfied.
Once more she paused and gazed at the spot where it had hung so long, as though asking herself whether she could part with it. But her hesitation was short, and the bright smile came again to her face as she went back to her grandson's cradle. With her own hands she drove two nails into the tapestried wall above his head. As the clock struck twelve, she fastened the burnished weapon securely in its new place.
'It is the sword of his fathers,' she said softly. 'God give him strength and grace to draw it in good cause!'