And yet it was at hand, now, after all those months of agonising fear, just when she deluded herself with the sweet thought that it might never come at all. Greifenstein came home in the dusk one afternoon, and found a letter upon his desk in his own room. He broke the seal and read it while his teeth ground upon each other, and his face turned grey. He did not utter a sound, he did not strike his forehead nor clench his fist, nor fall into a chair. He only stiffened his neck a little and stood silently gazing at the fire. After a moment's reflexion, he tossed the letter into the flames and waited until it was quite burnt. Then he rang the bell.
'Listen, Jacob,' he said to the servant who came, and his voice did not tremble. 'A friend of mine has written to say that he is coming to the forest to shoot. He comes alone, as I go myself. It is bad weather, and he may find his way here at any hour. When he presents himself, bring him immediately to this room and send for me. I will not go far from the castle until he arrives.'
The servant asked the gentleman's name.
'Herr Brandt,' answered Greifenstein without hesitation.
The letter had informed him that Rieseneck's application to be included in the amnesty had been absolutely refused, and that he had fled a second time under an assumed name. He appealed to his brother to help him over the frontier to Constance, and said that he might arrive at any time after his letter.
When he was alone, Greifenstein sat down to consider the situation, after carefully filling and lighting the pipe his son had brought him at his last visit. He was in the habit of doing this every day when he came home, and it seemed to him that to omit any detail of his ordinary life would be to show an amount of emotion quite unworthy of himself. It was one of those small acts, performed alone, which are the truest indications of a man's character. If he was not able to smoke his pipe as usual, it must be because he was unable to bear calmly what had come upon him, and consequently was not fit to meet his wife at dinner without betraying his anxiety. It was not an act that showed indifference, as many would think. On the contrary, it was the expression of his indomitably conscientious nature. To change one small thing in his demeanour, even when he was alone, would have been to begin badly and at a disadvantage.
He scrupulously put his feet upon the same spot on the fender at which they usually rested when he came home, he sat in his accustomed attitude, and he smoked with his accustomed solemnity. It would be a mistake to exaggerate the importance which Rieseneck's coming had in his eyes, as far as any material consequences to himself were concerned. There was no ruin before him, no inevitable disaster. He dreaded the moral side of the incident, and worst of all the possibility of his being obliged to tell Clara of the existence of his disgraced brother. He knew well enough that the newspapers would contain an account of Rieseneck's attempt, and he feared lest some journalist with a long memory should recall the fact of the relationship. Like most men who have formerly lived in a capital, he fancied that every one still knew him, and respected him, and he attached immense importance to the mere mention of his name. That he should be called the brother of a disgraced and criminal officer in a journal, seemed to him a terrible calamity, an almost unbearable blow to his pride. He did not guess that he was as really forgotten as though he had been twenty years dead. The days when he had worn a uniform seemed very near to him still, and he could not realise that his own youth could seem so distant to those who had once known him. His whole nature revolted against the thought of meeting Rieseneck, and though he was not troubled by an active imagination he could not help thinking of the bitter words he would use in the interview. There was nothing cynical in his moral composition. To him, honour was a fact and not a prejudice, a priceless possession of his own, a household idol for which he was at all times ready to sacrifice every other consideration. The existence of his brother was a rent in the wholeness of that fact, a flaw in his title to that possession, a stain upon the divinity of that domestic god. Greifenstein was very unhappy, and his trouble took the form of resentment against the offender, rather than of a mild and harmless self-pity. He was hindered from forgetting and he would not forgive, for the injury was real, as he saw it. In crowded cities men have other things to do than to trouble their peace concerning ideals. A neighbour, a friend, a relation, falls into overwhelming disgrace—they pause a minute and then pass on, reflecting with all the certainty gained by long experience, that the world will soon forget, and that, after all is said, their brother's infamy is no concern of theirs. But when men who are scrupulously honourable themselves, and who respect their own family traditions of honour more than anything else on earth, are shut off from the world for many years, they cannot look at such matters as city folks do. The less they have to do the more they think of their household history, and the greater is the pride they feel in reviewing the biography of their race. A sort of medieval twilight descends upon their latter years, and their souls receive the heraldic vision. They brood gloomily over the misdeeds of some long-dead ancestor, and their faces glow when they think of their crusading forefathers. They fight again the battles of long ago, they charge with Welf or Weiblingen, they follow the Kaiser to his coronation in imperial Rome, they strive through the press of knights, they perish with Conradin in Naples, they prick hotly after the standard of the great Rudolf, they kill and riot throughout the Thirty Years' War, they shed their heart's blood with Frederick, they fall at Austerlitz, they rise at Leipzig, they are with Blucher at Waterloo, with 'Unser Fritz' at Koniggratz, with Schmettow's gallant cuirassiers in the deadly ride of Mars la Tour, and they land themselves each evening before the carved escutcheon of the old chimney-piece at home, the proud descendants of a race of heroes known to fame. And yet, though all be true from first to last, fame knows little of them. Who remembers their names? Their fathers for ages were gentlemen like themselves, never very great or powerful, sometimes poor, almost insignificant in the great throng of light-hearted soldiers on whose necks empires have rested, and by whose hands kingdoms have been overthrown. Probably not one of all those dead knights ever felt half the pride in himself that is felt in him by his representative in the nineteenth century, nor experienced half as much pleasure in gazing at his battered shield with its half-defaced cognisance, as now brings the blood to his descendant's cheek as he looks at the carved stone semblance of the original. In the trained sight of this modern gentleman, the past is more real than its own reality was long ago; he is more loyal than the law, more royalist than the king, more protestant than Luther, more conservative than a Chinese sage. An insinuation against any member of his race, though he have been dead since the first Crusade, is a direct insult to himself, to be wiped out by personal combat. His sleeping passions, if roused, take but one direction, to fight for something, his king, his religion or his honour. His memories and his prejudices are complicated, interwoven and entangled beyond all belief; his character is simple, for his only principle is that those prejudices and traditions are alike infallible and unassailable, and that no sacrifice must be spared in defending them. Such is the old-fashioned German country gentleman, and such was Hugo von Greifenstein.
Rieseneck, a traitor to his country, the betrayer of a military trust, condemned, a fugitive and publicly infamous, was about to enter the sacred place of his brother's idols. For a few hours at least he was to abide under the roof which sheltered such precious memories. His abominable presence was to defile the honourable dwelling of all the Greifensteins. Worse than that, his execrated name was to be coupled with that of Greifenstein himself in the public prints. Matters could not be worse, in the estimation of the iron-grey man who sat solemnly smoking his pipe before the fire, and straining every faculty to maintain his usual composure even in his solitude.
The situation seemed unbearable, and yet it must be borne. Every moment was in all likelihood bringing Rieseneck nearer, every minute might be the last before his coming. There was nothing to be done. Greifenstein had not even the diversion of making preparations for the man's hurried journey, since any show of preparation might be detrimental to the scheme. His plan was to start in the early dawn of the next morning with guns and dogs as though for a shooting expedition, to ride as far as possible, then to leave the horses and to cross the frontier into Switzerland. Nothing could be easier, and he knew that Rieseneck was aware of the fact from his knowledge of the locality. Moreover it was probable that although the application for pardon had been refused, no attempt would be made to arrest the fugitive. He would be allowed to leave the country unmolested, as it would be considered impolitic to increase the scandal by consigning him again to the fortress whence he had escaped so many years before. Greifenstein had nothing to fear for himself, and he cared nothing what became of his brother, provided that he were not caught. Nevertheless, he suffered extremely while he waited, for he dreaded the meeting, as he could not have dreaded any material danger.
He was making a calculation with the object of fixing some limit of time within which Rieseneck must arrive, and he came to the conclusion that the catastrophe could not be far distant. Rieseneck would probably come to the nearest railway station by train from Stuttgardt, and walk thence to Greifenstein, leaving any luggage he might have with him to be forwarded after he had made good his escape. In that case, if he had started on the day when he wrote, his coming might be only retarded a little by the fact of his being on foot, whereas the lad who brought the post was mounted.
A knock at the door interrupted his reflexions. Something told him that Rieseneck was at hand, but he turned his head with studied calmness so that he could see the servant's face, and held his pipe steadily between his teeth.
'Herr Brandt has arrived,' said the man, quietly, as though nothing unusual were occurring. Greifenstein, even in that moment, had the courage to scrutinise the attendant's features, but their expression betrayed no suspicion.
'Show him in,' returned the master of the house in unshaken tones. He rose slowly to his feet and stood with his back to the fire. The light of the flames was far brighter than that of the solitary lamp that stood upon the desk, and threw the vast black shadow of Greifenstein's gaunt frame against the opposite wall, so that it towered up like a spectre of fate from the floor to the carved brown beams of the ceiling.
The servant threw the door wide open and stood aside, as a tall old man entered the room.
It is doubtful whether Greifenstein would have recognised his brother, if he had met him under any other circumstances. Forty years had passed since they had met, and both were old men. The difference between their ages was not great, for Greifenstein's father had died within the year of his son's birth, and his mother had married again three years later. In her turn she had died when both were young men, and from that time Greifenstein had seen little of his half-brother, who had been brought up by his own father in a different part of the country. Then young Rieseneck had entered the Prussian service, and a few years later had been ruined by the consequences of his evil.
Greifenstein saw before him a tall man, with abundant white hair and a snowy beard, of bronzed complexion, evidently strong in spite of his years, chiefly remarkable for the heavy black eyebrows that shaded his small grey eyes. The latter were placed too near together, and the eyelids slanted downwards at the outer side, which gave the face an expression of intelligence and great cunning. Deep lines furrowed the high forehead, and descended in broad curves from beneath the eyes till they lost themselves in the beard. Kuno von Rieseneck was evidently a man of strong feelings and passions, of energetic temperament, clever, unscrupulous, but liable to go astray after strange ideas, and possibly capable of something very like fanaticism. It was indeed not credible that he should have done the deeds which had wrecked his life, out of cold calculation, and yet it was impossible to believe that he could be wholly disinterested in anything he did. The whole effect of his personality was disquieting.
He entered the room with slow steps, keeping his eyes fixed upon his brother. The servant closed the door behind him, and the two men were alone. Rieseneck paused when he reached the middle of the apartment. For a moment his features moved a little uneasily, and then he spoke.
'Hugo, do you know me?' 'Yes,' answered Greifenstein, 'I know you very well.' He kept his hands behind him and did not change his position as he stood before the fire.
'You got my letter?' inquired the fugitive.
'Yes. I will do what you ask of me.'
The answers came in a hard, contemptuous voice, for Greifenstein was almost choking with rage at being thus forced to receive and protect a man whom he both despised and hated. But Rieseneck did not expect any very cordial welcome, and his expression did not vary. 'I thank you,' he answered. 'It is the only favour I ever asked of you, and I give you my word it shall be the last.'
Greifenstein's piercing eyes gleamed dangerously, and for an instant the anger that burned in him glowed visibly in his face.
'Your—' He would have said 'your word,' throwing into the two syllables all the contempt he felt, for one whose word had been so broken. But he checked himself gallantly. In spite of all, Rieseneck was his guest and had come to him for protection, and he would not insult him. 'You shall be safe to-morrow night,' he said, controlling his tongue.
But Rieseneck had heard the first word, and knew what should have followed it. He turned a little pale, bronzed though he was, and he let his hand rest upon the back of a chair beside him.
'I will not trouble you further,' he said. 'If you will show me a place where I can sleep, I will be ready in the morning.'
'No,' answered Greifenstein. 'That will not do. The servants know that a visitor is in the house. They will expect to see you at dinner. Besides, you are probably hungry.'
Perhaps he regretted having shown his brother, even by the suggestion of a phrase, what was really in his heart, and the feeling of the ancient guest-right made him relent a little.
'Sit down,' he added, as Rieseneck seemed to hesitate. 'It will be necessary that you dine with us and meet my wife. We must not excite suspicion.'
'You are married then?' said Rieseneck. It was more like a thoughtful reflexion than a question. Though he had written to his brother more than once, the latter's answers when he vouchsafed any, had been curt and businesslike in the extreme.
'I have been married five and twenty years,' Greifenstein replied. It was strange to be informing his brother of the fact. Rieseneck sat down upon a high chair and rested his elbow upon the table. Neither spoke for a long time, but Greifenstein resumed his seat, relighted his pipe, and placed his feet upon the fender, taking precisely the attitude in which he had been when his brother was announced. The situation was almost intolerable, but his habits helped him to bear it.
'I was also married,' said Rieseneck at last, in a low voice, as though speaking to himself. 'You never saw my wife?' he asked rather suddenly.
'She died,' continued the other. 'It was very long ago—more than thirty years.'
'Indeed,' said Greifenstein, as though he cared very little to hear more.
Again there was silence in the room, broken only by the crackling of the fir logs in the fire and by the ticking of the clock in its tall carved case in the corner. A full hour must elapse before the evening meal, and Greifenstein did not know what to do with his unwelcome guest. At last the latter took out a black South American cigar and lit it. For a few moments he smoked thoughtfully, and then, as though the fragrant fumes had the power to unloose his tongue, he again began to talk.
'She died,' he said. 'She ruined me. Yes, did you never hear how it was? And yet I loved her. She would not follow me. Then they sent me some of her hair and the boy. But for her, it might never have happened, and yet I forgive her. You never heard how it all happened?'
'I never inquired,' answered Greifenstein. 'You say she ruined you. How do you mean?'
'She made me do it. She was an enthusiast for liberty and revolution. She filled my mind with ideas of the people's sovereignty. She talked of nothing else. She besought me on her knees to join her party, as she called it. She flattered me with dreams of greatness in a great republic, she illuminated crime in the light of heroism, she pushed me into secret societies, and laughed at me for my want of courage. I loved her, and she made a fool of me, worse than a fool, a traitor, worse than a traitor, a murderer, for she persuaded me to give the arms to the mob, she made me an outlaw, an exile, an object of hatred to my countrymen, a thing loathsome to all who knew me. And yet I loved her, even when it was all over, and I would have given my soul to have her with me.'
Greifenstein's face expressed unutterable contempt for this man, who in the strength and pride of youth had laid down his honour for a woman's word, not even for her love, since he had possessed that already.
'It seems to me,' he said, 'that there was one very simple remedy for you.'
'A little lead in the right place. I know. And yet I lived, and I live still. Why? I do not know. I believed in the revolution, though she had forced the belief upon me, and I continued to believe in it until long after I went to South America. And when I had ceased to believe in it, no one cared whether I lived or died. Then came this hope, and this blow. I could almost do it now.'
Greifenstein looked at him curiously for a moment, and then rose from his place and went deliberately to a huge, dark piece of furniture that stood between the windows. He brought back a polished mahogany case, unlocked it and set it beside his brother upon the table, under the light of the lamp.
Rieseneck knew what he meant well enough, but he did not wince. On the contrary he opened the case and looked at the beautiful weapon, as it lay all loaded and ready for use in its bed of green baize cloth. Then he laid it on the table again, and pushed it a little away from him.
'Not now,' he said quietly. 'I am in your house. You would have to declare my identity. It would make a scandal. I will not do it.'
'You had better put it into your pocket,' answered Greifenstein grimly, but without a trace of unkindness in his voice. 'You may like to have it about you, you know.'
Rieseneck looked at his brother in silence for a few seconds, and then took the thing once more in his hands.
'Do you mean it as a gift?' he asked. 'You might not care to claim it afterwards.'
'I thank you.' He took the revolver from the case, examined it attentively and then slipped it into his breast-pocket. 'I thank you,' he repeated. 'I do not possess one.'
Greifenstein wondered whether Rieseneck would have the courage to act upon the suggestion. To him there was nothing horrible in the idea. He was merely offering this despicable creature the means of escape from the world's contempt. He himself, in such a case, would have taken his own life long ago, and he could not understand that any man should hesitate when the proper course lay so very clear before him. He went back to his seat as if nothing unusual had happened. Then, as though to turn the conversation, he began to speak of the plans for the morrow. He did not really believe in his brother's intentions, but as an honourable man, according to his lights, he considered that he had done his duty in giving the weapon.
'We can ride a long distance,' he said, 'and then we can walk. When you are once at the lake, you can find a boat which will take you over. I warn you that it is far.'
'It will be enough if you show me the way,' answered Rieseneck absently. 'You are very kind.'
'It is my interest,' said Greifenstein, unwilling that his feelings should be misinterpreted. Then he relapsed into silence.
Of the two, Rieseneck was the more at his ease. Possibly he did not realise how his brother despised him. Moreover, he had associated during many years with people of many nations, and he did not feel at once that his brother was so very different from these, or so very differently situated towards him. His mind, too, was somewhat unbalanced by the shock he had lately received, and his attention was concentrated upon himself rather than upon the things and persons he saw. During the greater part of his life he had made use of his acute intelligence in his dealings with the world, and under any other circumstances he would in all likelihood have made a determined effort to gain his brother's sympathy. But in the refusal of his application for a pardon he had believed certain, he had suffered a severe blow. Deep in his tortuous nature there existed at least one sincere and good quality, which was his passionate love for his native country. It had been distorted indeed, through the influence of another strong affection, the love for his wife while she had lived, and, being misdirected by her agency, the very strength of his patriotism had been the chief cause of his ruin. Now, however, forty years of exile had effaced all belief in parties or in the efficacy of revolutionary change, and had left him nothing but the original love of his native land, for itself, as it was, or as it might be, were it empire, kingdom, or republic. What did it matter, whether Germany were subject to one form of government or to another? Time had softened his hatreds and had spread its dim mantle over his own disgrace, while it had exalted his beloved nation among all the nations of the earth. Germany's victories, Germany's unity, the glory of her imperial race, the pride of her iron statesmen, the untold possibilities of her future existence, all were his, as they belonged to every born German by right, to share in and to rejoice over with all his heart. For forty years he had dreamed of returning, if it were only to live under an unknown name in some quiet hamlet, if it were merely for the sake of feeling that he was like a nameless drop of the blood that flowed in his country's veins. He asked nothing but the permission to end his life upon the soil whereon he had been born. Few years remained to him, and he could have done no harm, even had he wished it. His request had been refused, as Greifenstein had foreseen that it must be, on the ground that he was not a political delinquent, but a military criminal, on the plea that the forgiveness of such a misdeed would be contrary to all precedent, and would constitute a very bad example. Those unbending principles by which Germany had risen to her high place would not yield a hair's-breadth for all the supplications of a man who had betrayed his trust, though he were old and broken down, harmless, and even, perhaps, somewhat to be pitied. The law was not made for the young rather than for the aged; it was the same for all, unchangingly just and pitilessly conscientious.
But Rieseneck had suffered in the one tender spot that remained in his heart, and the wound had deadened his sensibilities in all other respects, while it had slightly disturbed the balance of his faculties. It is hard to believe that he would have spoken of his dead wife as he did, if he had realised exactly what Greifenstein felt towards him. The sufferings of the last week had revived in him the memories of long ago, and he had talked almost against his will of what was in his mind.
He sat silently by the table, and finished his cigar. As he threw away the stump that remained, Greifenstein looked at the clock and laid down his pipe.
'We dine in a quarter of an hour,' he observed, rising to his feet. Rieseneck rose, too, and spread his broad thin hands to the blaze of the fire.
'There is a room here which is conveniently situated for you,' said Greifenstein opening a door, and then striking a match to show the way. He lighted the candles upon the dressing-table and turned to his brother. Rieseneck was looking at him with a singularly disagreeable expression, which Greifenstein could not understand.
The simple action had roused the exile's hatred and jealousy. During the last hour he had thought little of where he was; now he suddenly realised the extent of what he had forfeited. There was nothing especial, in the simply furnished bedroom, to account for his feelings. The thought that hurt him embraced far more than that. He saw his brother rich, honourable, respected, living in his ancestral home, in his own country and possessing a full right to all he enjoyed. He did not know that there were rarely guests in Greifenstein; he only saw how natural it was that they should come, and he hated his brother for his power to live as his fathers had lived before him, and to entertain whom he pleased under his own roof. He thought bitterly of his own beautiful home in Chili, for his affairs had prospered in his exile, and he had lived in a princely fashion. He had lacked nothing for many a long year, saving only the right to build his home upon an acre of German ground. But that he could not have, and that he envied his brother with all his heart. Greifenstein, however, paid no attention to the angry light in Rieseneck's eyes.
'You will find the room convenient,' he said. 'You can lock your door, and if there should be any pursuit and the police should come here you have only to go through that press. There is a door in the back of it. Look.'
He opened the panel and held the light forward into the dark way beyond.
'Where does that lead to?' inquired Rieseneck.
'To a small room in the thickness of the main wall. Thence a winding stair descends to a passage. Follow that and you will come out in the Hunger-Thurm.'
Such devices are common in buildings of the old time in Germany, and Rieseneck manifested no surprise. He only nodded gravely. Greifenstein closed the panel and then left him alone. Rieseneck, however, determined that before going to rest he would follow the passage to the end and ascertain whether it really afforded a means of escape, or whether his brother had contrived a trap for him. In the meanwhile the ordeal of dinner was before him, and it was necessary that he should assume the part of the visitor, lest Greifenstein's wife should suspect anything. He wondered vaguely what sort of woman she was and whether she knew of his existence.
Greifenstein took the precaution of sending word to his wife that there was a visitor in the castle. In her nervous state he feared lest the sudden appearance of a stranger might agitate her, and although he had long abandoned the idea that she knew anything of Rieseneck, his cautious mind admitted the pure possibility of their having been previously acquainted. Even in that extreme case, however, he could not believe a recognition probable, for he himself would certainly not have known Rieseneck, nor admitted that the bearded old man was the person from whom he had parted forty years before. Greifenstein's chief thought was to get the man away and out of the country without any unpleasant incident, and in order to accomplish his purpose he forced himself to behave in his usual manner. After all, twenty-four hours would settle the matter, and the first of the twenty-four was already passed.
When Clara heard that there was to be a guest at dinner, her first sensation was one of extreme terror, but she was reassured by the information her maid gave concerning the general appearance of Herr Brandt. The woman had not seen him, but had of course heard at once a full description of his personality. He was described as a tall old gentleman, exceedingly well dressed, though he had arrived on foot and without luggage. The maid supposed that his effects would follow him, since he had chosen to walk. Beyond that, Clara could ascertain nothing, but it was clear that she did not consider the details she learned as descriptive of the person whose coming she feared. On the contrary, the prospect of a little change from the usual monotony of the evening had the effect of exhilarating her spirits, and she bestowed even more attention than usual upon the adornment of her thin person. The nature of the woman could not die. Her natural vanity was so extraordinary that it might have been expected to survive death itself. She belonged to that strange class of people who foresee even the effect they will produce when they are dead, who leave elaborate directions for the disposal of their bodies in the most becoming manner, and who build for themselves appropriate tombs while they are alive, decorated in a style agreeable to their tastes. Clara arrayed herself in all her glory for the feast; she twisted the ringlets of her abundant faded hair, until each covered at least one obnoxious line of forehead and temples; she laid the delicate colour upon her sunken cheeks with amazing precision, and shaded it artistically with the soft hare's foot, till it was blended with the whiteness of the adjacent pearl powder; she touched the colourless eyebrows with the pointed black stick of cosmetic that lay ready to her hand in its small silver case, and made her yellow nails shine with pink paste and doeskin rubbers till they reflected the candlelight like polished horn. With the utmost care she adjusted the rare old lace to hide the sinewy lines of her emaciated throat, and then, observing the effect as her maid held a second mirror beside her face, she hastened to touch the shrivelled lobes of her ears with a delicate rose colour that set off the brilliancy of the single diamonds she wore as earrings. She opened and shut her eyelids quickly to make her eyes brighter, and held up her hands so that the blood should leave the raised network of the purple veins less swollen and apparent. The patient tire-woman gave one last scrutinising glance and adjusted the rich folds of the silk gown with considerable art, although such taste as she possessed was outraged at the effect of the pale straw colour when worn by such an aged beauty. Another look into the tall mirror, and Clara von Greifenstein was satisfied. She had done what she could do to beautify herself, to revive in her own eyes some faint memory of that prettiness she had once seen reflected in her glass, and she believed that she had not altogether failed. She even smiled contentedly at her maid, before she left the chamber to go to the drawing-room. It was a satisfaction to show herself to some one, it was a relief from the thoughts that had tormented her so long, it was a respite from her husband's perpetual effort to amuse her by reading aloud. For a few hours at least she was to hear the sound of an unfamiliar voice, to enjoy the refreshing effect of a slight motion in the stagnant pool of worn-out ideas that surrounded her little island of life.
She drew herself up and walked delicately, as she went into the drawing-room. She had judged that her entrance would be effective, and had timed her coming so as to be sure that her husband and Herr Brandt should be there before her. The room looked just as it usually did; it was luxurious, large, warm and softly lighted. Clara almost forgot her age so far as to wish that there had been more lamps, though the shade was undeniably advantageous to her looks. She came forward, and saw that the two men were standing together before the fire. The door had moved noiselessly on its hinges, but the rustle of the silk gown made Greifenstein and Rieseneck turn their heads simultaneously. Clara's eyes rested on the stranger with some curiosity, and she noticed with satisfaction that his gaze fixed itself upon her own face. He was evidently impressed by her appearance, and her vain old heart fluttered pleasantly.
'Permit me to present Herr Brandt,' said Greifenstein, making a step forward.
Clara inclined her head with an expression that was intended to be affable, and Rieseneck bowed gravely. She sank into a chair and looking up, saw that he was watching her with evident interest. It struck her that he was a very pale man, and though she had at first been pleased by his stare, she began to feel uncomfortable, as it continued.
'You are old friends, I suppose,' she remarked, glancing at her husband with a smile.
Both men bent their heads in assent.
'I had the honour of knowing Herr von Greifenstein when we were both very young,' said Rieseneck after a pause that had threatened to be awkward.
'Indeed? And you have not met for a long time! How very strange! But life is full of such things, you know!' She laughed nervously.
While she was speaking, the intonations of Rieseneck's voice seemed to be still ringing in her ears, and the vibrations touched a chord of her memory very painfully, so that she forgot what she was saying and hid her confusion in a laugh. Greifenstein was staring at the ceiling and did not see his brother start and steady himself against the chimney- piece.
At that moment dinner was announced. Clara rose with an effort from her seat, and stood still. She supposed that Herr Brandt would offer her his arm, but he did not move from his place. Greifenstein said nothing. A violent conflict arose in his mind and made him hesitate. He could not bear the idea of seeing his wife touch even the sleeve of the man he so despised, and yet he dreaded lest any exhibition of his feelings should make Clara suspicious. The last consideration outweighed everything else.
'Will you give my wife your arm?' he said, addressing Rieseneck very coldly.
There was no choice, and the tall old man went to Clara's side, and led her out of the room, while Greifenstein followed alone. They sat down to the round table, which was laden with heavy plate and curious pieces of old German silver, and was illuminated by a hanging lamp. A hundred persons might have dined in the room, and the shadows made the panelled walls seem even further from the centre than they really were. Vast trophies of skulls and antlers and boars' heads loomed up in the distance, indistinctly visible through the dim shade, but lighted up occasionally by the sudden flare of the logs from the wide hearth. The flashes of flame made the stags' skulls seem to grin horribly and gleamed strangely upon the white tusks that protruded from the black boars' heads, and reflected a deep red glare from their artificial eyes of coloured glass. The servants stepped noiselessly upon the dark carpet, while the three persons who shared the solemn banquet sat silently in their places, pretending to partake of the food that was placed before them.
The meal was a horrible farce. There was something sombrely contemptible to each one in the idea of being forced into the pretence of eating, for the sake of the hired attendants who carried the dishes. For the first time in his life Greifenstein's hardy nature was disgusted by the sight of food. Rieseneck sat erect in his chair, from time to time swallowing a glass of strong wine, and looking from Clara's face to the fork he held in his hand. She herself exercised a woman's privilege and refused everything, staring consistently at the monumental silver ornament in the midst of the table. When she looked up, Rieseneck's white face scared her. She had no need to see it now, for she knew who he was better than any one, better than Greifenstein himself. That power whose presence she had once felt, when alone with her husband, was not with her now. A deadly fear overcame every other instinct save that of self-preservation. She struggled to maintain her place at the table, to control the shriek of horror that was on her lips, as she had struggled to produce that feigned laugh ten days ago, with all her might. But the protracted strain was almost more than she could bear, and she felt that her exhausted nerves might leave her helpless at any moment. She had read in books vivid descriptions of the agony of death, but she had never fancied that it could be so horrible as this, so long drawn out, so overwhelmingly bitter.
In truth, a more fearful ordeal could not be imagined, than was imposed by a relentless destiny upon this miserable, painted, curled and jewelled old woman as she sat at the head of her own table. It would have been easier for her, had she known that she was to meet him. It would have been far less hard, if she had lived her life in the whirl of the world, where we are daily forced to look our misdeeds in the face and to meet with smiling indifference those who know our past and have themselves been a part of it. Even a quarter of an hour for preparation would have been better than this gradual recognition, in which each minute made certainty more positive. There was but one ray of consolation or hope for her, and she tried to make the most of it. He had come because he had failed to obtain his pardon, and his brother was helping him to leave the country quietly. She was as sure of it, as though she had been acquainted with all the details. To-morrow he would be gone, and once gone he would never return, and her last years would be free from fear. The fact that he came under a false name showed that she was right. In an hour she could excuse herself and go to her room, never to see his face again. Her hands grasped and crushed the damask of the cloth beneath the table, as she tried to steady her nerves by contemplating her near deliverance from torture.
Greifenstein was the bravest of the three,—as he had also the least cause for anxiety. He saw that it was impossible to continue the meal in total silence, and he made a tremendous effort to produce a show of conversation.
'There has been much snow this year, Herr Brandt,' he said, raising his head and addressing his brother. Rieseneck did not understand, but he heard Greifenstein's voice, and slowly turned his ghastly face towards him.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I did not quite hear.'
'There has been much snow this year,' Greifenstein repeated with forcible distinctness.
'Yes,' replied his brother, 'it seems so.'
'After all, it is nearly Christmas,' said Clara, trembling in every limb at the sound of her own voice.
Only an hour more to bear, and she would be safe for ever. Only another effort and Greifenstein would suspect nothing. Rieseneck looked mechanically at his brother, as though he were trying to find something to say. In reality he was almost insensible, and he hardly knew why he did not fall from his chair.
A servant brought another dish and Clara helped herself unconsciously. The man went on to Rieseneck, and waited patiently until the latter should turn his head and see what was offered to him.
Clara saw an opportunity of speaking again. She could call his attention by addressing him. One, two, three seconds passed, and then she spoke. It would be enough to utter his name, so that he should look round and see the attendant at his elbow. 'Herr Brandt'—the two syllables were short and simple enough.
'Herr von Rieseneck,' she said quietly.
In the extremity of her nervousness, her brain had become suddenly confused and she was lost.
As the words escaped Clara's lips, Greifenstein started violently and made as though he would rise, laying his hands on the edge of the table and leaning forward towards his wife. The echo of Rieseneck's name had not died away when the unhappy woman realised what she had done. Rieseneck himself turned suddenly towards her and the blood rushed to his pale face. Clara's head fell forward and she covered her eyes with her hands, uttering a short, sharp cry like that of an animal mortally wounded. The servant stood still at Rieseneck's side, staring stupidly from one to the other. Fully ten seconds elapsed before Greifenstein recovered his presence of mind.
'You are ill, Clara,' he said in a choking voice. 'I will take you to your room.'
He did not understand the situation, and he could not guess how his wife had learned that the visitor was not Herr Brandt but Kuno von Rieseneck. But he was horrified by the thought that she should have made the discovery, and his first idea was to get her away as soon as possible. He came to her side, and saw that she was helpless, if not insensible. Then he lifted her from her chair and carried her through the wide door and the small apartment beyond into the drawing-room. Rieseneck followed at a distance.
'You can go,' said Greifenstein to the servant. 'We shall not want any more dinner to-night.'
The man went out and left the three together. Clara lay upon a great divan, her husband standing at her side, and Rieseneck at her feet. Her eyes were open, but they were glassy with terror, though she was quite conscious.
'Clara—are you better?' asked Greifenstein anxiously.
She gasped for breath and seemed unable to speak. Greifenstein looked at his brother. 'I cannot imagine how she knew your name,' he said. 'Did you know her before?'
Rieseneck had turned white again and stood twisting his fingers as though in some terrible distress. Greifenstein had not noticed his manner before, and gazed at him now in considerable surprise. He fancied that Rieseneck feared discovery and danger to himself.
'What is the matter!' he asked impatiently. 'You are safe enough yet—'
While he spoke Clara endeavoured to rise, supporting herself upon one hand, and staring wildly at Rieseneck. The presentiment of a great unknown evil came upon Greifenstein, and he laid his hand heavily upon his brother's arm.
'What is the meaning of this?' he asked sternly. 'Do you know each other?'
The words roused Rieseneck. He drew back from his brother's touch and answered in a broken voice:
'Let me go. Let me leave this house—'
'No!' exclaimed the other firmly. 'You shall not go yet.'
Again he grasped Rieseneck's arm, this time with no intention of relinquishing his hold.
'Let him go, Hugo!' gasped Clara. She struggled to her feet and tried to unloose the iron grip of her husband's fingers, straining her weak hands in the useless attempt. 'Let him go!' she repeated frantically. 'For God's sake let him go!'
'What is he to you?' asked Greifenstein. Then, as though he guessed some fearful answer to his question he repeated it in a fiercer tone. 'What is he to you? And what are you to her?' he cried, facing his brother as he shook him by the arm.
'You have cause to be angry,' said Rieseneck. 'And so have I.' He fixed his eyes on Clara's, and something like a smile flitted over his features.
'Speak!' commanded Greifenstein, to whom the suspense was becoming unbearable.
Clara saw that Rieseneck was about to utter the fatal words, and with a last remnant of energy she made a desperate attempt to cover his mouth with her hand. But she was too late.
'This woman is my wife, not yours!' he cried in ringing tones.
In an instant Greifenstein thrust his brother from him, so that he reeled back against the wall.
'Liar!' he almost yelled.
Clara fell upon the floor between the two men, a shapeless heap of finery. Rieseneck looked his brother in the face and answered the insult calmly. From the moment when he had recognised Clara, he had felt that he must see the whole horror of her fall with his own eyes in order to be avenged for his wrongs.
'I told you my wife was dead,' he said slowly. 'I believed it. She is alive. She has lived to ruin you as she ruined me. Clara von Rieseneck —that is your name—stand upon your feet—lift up your infamous face, and own your lawful husband!'
Even then Clara might have saved herself. One vigorous protest, and Greifenstein would without doubt have slain his brother with his hands. But she had not the strength left to speak the strong lie. She dragged herself to her accuser's feet and threw her arms about his knees.
'Mercy!' she could not utter any other word.
'You see,' said Rieseneck. 'She is alive, she knows me!'
'Mercy!' groaned the wretched creature, fawning upon him with her wasted hands.
'Down, beast!' answered the tall old man with savage contempt. 'There is no mercy for such as you.'
Greifenstein had stood still for some seconds, overcome by the horror of his shame. One glance told him that his brother had spoken the truth. He turned away and stood facing the empty room. His face was convulsed, his teeth ground upon each other, his hands were clenched as in the agony of death. From his straining eyes great tears rolled down his grey cheeks, the first and the last that he ever shed. And yet by that strange instinct of his character which abhorred all manifestation of emotion, he stood erect and motionless, as a soldier on parade. The deathblow had struck him, but he must die on his feet.
Then after a long pause, broken only by Clara's incoherent groans and sobs, he heard Rieseneck's footstep behind him, and then his brother's voice, calling him by his name.
'Hugo—what has this woman deserved?'
'Death,' answered Greifenstein solemnly.
'She helped to ruin me through my faults, she has ruined you through no fault of yours. She must die.'
'She must die,' repeated Greifenstein.
'She has given you a son who is nameless. She cast off the son she bore to me because through me his name was infamous. She must pay the penalty.'
'She must die.'
Greifenstein did not turn round even then. He crossed the room to the chimney-piece and laid his two hands upon it. Still he heard his brother's voice, though the words were no longer addressed to him. 'Clara von Rieseneck, your hour is come.'
'Mercy, Kuno! For God's sake—'
'There is no mercy. Confess your crime. The time is short.' The wretched old woman tried to rise, but Rieseneck's hand kept her upon her knees.
'You shall do me this justice before you go,' he said. 'Repeat your misdeeds after me. You, Clara Kurtz, were married to me in the year eighteen hundred and forty-seven.'
'Yes—it is true,' answered the poor creature in broken tones.
'Say it! You shall say the words!'
Her teeth chattered. Transfixed by fear, her lips moved mechanically.
'I, Clara Kurtz, was married to you in the year eighteen hundred and forty-seven.'
The woman's incredible vanity survived everything. Her voice sank to a whisper at the two last words of the date, for Greifenstein had never known her real age.
'You caused me to betray the arsenal,' continued Rieseneck inexorably.
'You abandoned me when I was in prison. When I escaped you refused to follow me. You sent me false news of your death, with a lock of your hair and the child.'
Clara repeated each word, like a person hypnotised and subject to the will of another.
'Then you must have changed your name.'
'I changed my name.'
'And you induced Hugo von Greifenstein to marry you, knowing that he was my brother and that I was alive. I had often told you of him.'
Clara made the statement in the words dictated.
'And now you are to die, and may the Lord have mercy upon your sinful soul.'
'And now I am to die. May the Lord have mercy upon my sinful soul.'
Released from the stern command of her judge, Clara uttered a low cry and fell upon her face at his feet.
'You have heard,' said Rieseneck to his brother. 'It is time.'
Greifenstein turned. He saw the tall old man's great figure standing flat against the opposite wall, and he saw the ghastly face, half hidden by the snowy beard. He glanced down, and beheld a mass of straw-coloured silk, crumpled and disordered, and just beyond it a coil of faded hair adorned with jewelled pins that reflected the soft light. He crossed the room, and his features were ashy pale, firmly set and utterly relentless. He had heard her condemnation from her own lips, he thought of his son, nameless through this woman's crime, and his heart was hardened.
'It is time,' he said. 'Have you anything more to say?'
He waited for an answer, but none came. Clara's hour had struck and she knew it. There was deep silence in the room. Then the stillness was broken by a gasp for breath and by a little rustling of the delicate silk. That was all.
When it was done, the two brothers stooped down again and lifted their burden and bore it silently away, till they reached the room in which they had first met. Then Greifenstein made sign that they should go further and they entered the chamber beyond, and upon the bed that was there, they laid down the dead woman, and covered her poor painted face decently with a sheet and went away, closing the door softly behind them.
For a moment they stood looking at each other earnestly. Then Rieseneck took from his pocket his brother's gift and laid it upon the table.
'It is time for us also,' he said.
'Yes. I must write to Greif first.'
Half an hour later the short and terrible tragedy was completed, and of the three persons who had sat together at the table, suffering each in his or her own way as much as each could bear, not one was left alive to tell the tale.
Outside the house of death, the silent, spotless snow gleamed in the light of the waning moon. Not a breath of wind sighed amongst the stately black trees. Only, far below, the tumbling torrent roared through its half-frozen bed, and high above, from the summit of the battlement that had sheltered so many generations of Greifensteins from danger in war, and in peace from the bitter north wind, the great horned owls sent forth their melancholy note, from time to time, and opened wide their cruel hungry eyes, as the dismal sound echoed away among the dark firs.
Then all was confusion in an instant, within and without. Lights flashed out over the snow from the deep, low gateway, voices rang in accents of alarm through the halls and spacious corridors, huge watch- dogs sprang to the length of their rattling chains and bellowed out their deep-mouthed cries, the shrieks of frightened women rose high above the noise and were drowned again by the loud bass voices of excited serving-men. Then there was the clatter of iron shoes upon the stone pavements as the startled horses were led out into the moonlight from their warm dark stalls, the tinkle of curb chains, the wheeze of tightening leather girths, the clicking of curb and snaffle between champing teeth, the purselike chink of spurs on booted heels, the soft dull thud of riders springing into saddles. The iron-studded gates creaked back upon their huge hinges, as the burly porter, pale with fear, dragged open the heavy oak panels. Lanterns flashed, stable-boys and house servants elbowed each other in the narrow way and flattened themselves against the damp stone walls, as they heard the tramp of the approaching feet. Then four strong horses trotted out, two and two, into the moonlight beyond, each bearing on his back a messenger of the terrible tidings, and all breaking into a brisk gallop as the party disappeared in the mottled black and white distance under the mighty trees. One rode for Sigmundskron, and one for the nearest surgeon, one for the distant town, and one to bear the ghastly tale to Greif himself, the nameless orphan, who at that moment was marching sword in hand beside the tall standard of his Korps, at the head of a thousand students, in all the magnificence of his fantastic dress, leading the great torchlight procession which closed the academic year, and which crowned with a splendid revelry the last act of his student life. As he strode along, proud, successful, popular, the envy of all his fellows, the idol of his Korps companions, pale-faced servants were laying the body of his father beside his dead mother in the state chamber of Greifenstein, and frightened menials were trembling under the weight of the tall dead man whose snowy beard blew about in such fantastic waves before the draught of every opened door. As he went up the steps of the festal drinking-hall wherein the last students' feast of the year was to be celebrated, and over which he himself was to preside, three women were met together in distant Sigmundskron, repeating the service for the dead, before the smouldering embers of their poor fire, by the dim light of their one smoking candle. An hour later, as the orchestra thundered out the strains of the soul-stirring Landesvater, sustaining but not covering the glorious chorus of a thousand fresh young voices, a grey-haired woman in a dark cloak was riding slowly through the snowy ways of the dismal forest, her horse led carefully by the booted groom who had brought the news. Her face was paler than ever it was wont to be, but not less brave. Her well-worn mantle was no fit covering against the bitter Christmas air, but her heart was not cold within. She knew that Greif would come in the morning, or at noontime, and cost what it might, she would not let him face his awful sorrow alone, or feel that none but a hired hand had smoothed his dead mother's faded hair, or closed his dead father's staring eyes. She did what she could. She sat as she might upon the man's saddle, and she faced the cruel cold unflinchingly, encouraging the fellow who led her horse with such words and promises as she was able to devise.
But the distance was great, the snow was deep, and the stout Mecklenburger roan had breasted the steep road at a gallop only an hour before. The castle clock was striking half-past four when the strong- hearted Lady of Sigmundskron was lifted from her seat to the pavement within the walls of Greifenstein, half dead with cold, and horrified at the thought of what she had come to see, but calm, determined and full of dignity as only women, and such women, can be, in the presence of a horrible catastrophe. She took what they offered her, a glass of strong wine and a slice of venison, scarcely cold from the ghastly meal that had preceded the tragedy. She did not suffer herself to think whence it came, for she needed strength, not only to do her duty, but to impose order and quiet in the terrified household. Then she listened to the story and visited the rooms. There were policemen in the house, quiet men in dark uniforms with great yellow beards and grave faces, and there was the surgeon, an insignificant country leech in spectacles, who would have been pompous anywhere else and at any other time, but who looked singularly helpless and subdued. Other officials would doubtless come in the course of the early morning, to report upon what had happened, but now that there was a responsible person present, a relation of the dead and one in authority, no great difficulty could arise. One thing only Frau von Sigmundskron had not understood, and that involved the understanding of all the rest. She did not know who the stranger was, whose coming seemed to have led to the final catastrophe. She guessed indeed that he must be Rieseneck, but there was no evidence of his identity. It was not until she had been three hours in the house that she extracted from one of the servants an account of what had occurred before the three had so suddenly left the dinner-table. The man remembered having been told that the visitor was Herr Brandt, but his mistress, when he was waiting at the guest's side had certainly called him by another name. It was 'von Riesen'—and something more. The servant was sure of that, and the baroness was satisfied. She did not care to tell him what the name really was, for she began to see dimly that the triple murder and suicide were in some way the result of the exile's coming. Nothing had been found, not a scrap of writing to give an explanation, not a sign to indicate a clue. The surgeon's evidence was simple. The lady had been strangled, the two gentlemen had shot themselves. Nothing showed that there had been any struggle. Greifenstein and his guest had been found in two chairs, each having in his hand a revolver of which one chamber was empty. The position of the wounds showed that they had not fired upon each other. While the cause of their action was a total mystery to every one except Frau von Sigmundskron, the steps of it were singularly clear. It was evident that they had killed Clara deliberately and had then killed themselves. Even the baroness was obliged to admit to herself that the mere fact of the exile returning suddenly was wholly inadequate to account for the three deaths.
She was a brave woman, and though she was profoundly horrified and grieved by what had happened she was conscious that she had not suffered any great personal loss. She had never known Rieseneck, she had never liked Clara, and her friendship for Greifenstein had not been great. Greif himself was safe, the only one of the family for whom she felt any affection, and in whom all her hopes for her daughter's happiness were centred. But for him, she would have refused the occasional hospitality of the castle as she had once refused the tardy assistance of its possessors. It is due to the memory of Greifenstein to repeat here that he never at any time realised the extremity of her need, and that it had been long before he had learned that she was really poor. But the Lady of Sigmundskron did not know this, and she could not comprehend how completely her penury had been hidden from her relations by her own wonderful management and indomitable pride. At present, her thoughts were absorbed by the necessity of meeting Greif when he arrived, which must be within a few hours, and she sat calmly in her chair under the light of the candles that illuminated the chamber of death, trying vainly to frame some consoling speech which might break the violence of his sorrow. She knew how he had loved his father, and during his last visit she had noticed his increasing affection for his mother. She knew that he was aware of Rieseneck's existence, and she tortured her weary brain in the attempt to find some explanation that would not pain him needlessly, and which might nevertheless seem to account in some measure for the calamity that had overtaken him. But her trouble was thrown away, and many a cunning lawyer might have laboured in vain to frame out of the facts a consistent narrative. As the morning approached, the intensity of her thoughts was diminished by her bodily fatigue, and she dreamed of other things, wondering somewhat vaguely whether it were right to marry her child to the son of the murderer and suicide whose dead body lay beside that of his victim under the yellow light of the tall candles, to the nephew of the traitor, whose tall figure was stretched upon a couch in the room beyond.
To most women the situation would have been infinitely more painful than it was to Therese von Sigmundskron. She was more like a sister of a religious order than a woman of the world. Years of ascetic practices, of constant self-sacrifice, of unswerving devotion had refined her nature from the fear of death, or the dread of its presence. We ask in vain why an existence of painful labour elevates some characters and debases others, inspires courage in some and in some destroys the power to face the inevitable. We search our experience and we know that the fact exists, we apply our intelligence to the study of it and we admit that the cause of the fact escapes us. The seekers after explanations are bold with big words which tell us nothing, and call themselves physiological psychologists, or if that definition fails they say that they are psychological physiologists, and establish a difference in meaning between the one title and the other. But all the Greek words they can spell with Latin letters cannot show us what the human heart is, nor make us believe that it is seated in the right or in the left side of the brain, nor yet that it is established in the middle, in the island of Reil; any more than we admit that the human heart has anything to do with the little muscle- pump we carry in our breasts and which sometimes stops pumping just at the wrong moment for our convenience.
'Life is a continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations,' says the Apostle of the Misunderstanding. 'Adjustment' is good, for it means nothing. It would have shown better taste, however, to substitute for it a beautiful term of some sort, with a Greek root, a Latin suffix and an English termination, because in that case a large majority of people would never have found out that the whole phrase was blatant nonsense. What are internal relations? Did the chief destroyer of common sense, the chief executioner of good English, mean, perhaps, the relations between that which is within and that which is without? He might have said so. It would not have meant much, but it would undoubtedly have meant something. And if life is this, then death must be the opposite, and death becomes 'a cessation of the adjustment of internal relations to external relations,' and if that is what it means we ought to say so when a man is dead, although nature continues to adjust the internal and the external relations afterwards in a way we do not care to see.
Fortunately for Frau von Sigmundskron, she had not read the works of the Apostle of the Misunderstanding, and was consequently able to bear her situation with some degree of equanimity. But it was a hard one for all that, and she could not help making some very ignorant but sincere reflexions upon that state we call life, and upon that other state which is so near to it. What her thoughts would have been like had she known all that had happened, it is not easy to say. If she had known that she was entitled by the laws of her country to Greifenstein and to all that belonged to the name, as the only living and legitimate heir, she would certainly have looked at the future in another way. But she had no reason for thinking that all was not Greif's. So far as she knew, she was still the poor widowed gentlewoman she had been twelve hours earlier, struggling against poverty, starving herself for her daughter, looking to herself for courage and support, and to her child's wellbeing as the only source of her own happiness. The same in all respects save one, and that one change brought with it many bitter doubts. So long as Greifenstein and Clara had been alive, Hilda's marriage with Greif had seemed right in her eyes. She regretted Rieseneck's disgrace, as a family disaster, but her conscience was not so sensitive as to look at it in the light of an obstacle to the union.
Now, however, there was that before her—there upon the bed of state in the glare of the lights—which changed everything very much. Between Greif and Hilda lay Greif's murdered mother, and Greif's father dead by his own hand. Therese von Sigmundskron was a Greifenstein at heart, and she would rather face misery and starvation than give her child to one whose name must for ever be branded with such a story. Very soon she felt that it would be impossible, and the prospect of so much suffering for Hilda appalled her. She thought of Greif, too, and she was profoundly grieved for him, for she had already looked upon him as her son. Of course, for the present, there could be no talking of the matter. If the poor fellow did not go mad with sorrow, he would nevertheless wish to put off his marriage for a year or more. She thought of Hilda's disappointment at the prospect of even retarding the happy day, she thought of the girl's despair when she should know that the day could never come.
Then her resolution almost broke down, and she even argued with herself against it. Greif was innocent. It was no fault of his, he had no share in the fearful doings of last night, he was far away, thinking of Hilda, dreaming that he led her up the aisle of the church, counting the moments until he could come back to her. Why should he suffer the consequences of what others had done? Why should Hilda's young life be wrecked, condemned, perhaps, to perpetual poverty, ruined, most assuredly, by the overthrow of its only happiness? Could they not marry and live here, as Greif's father and mother had lived for years? Could they not be everything to each other, and nothing to the world?
Why had Greifenstein and Rieseneck killed Clara? The question cut short the good baroness's attempt to justify the marriage. It rose suddenly in her mind and covered every other thought with a veil. Since that day when poor Clara had behaved so strangely on hearing of the amnesty, Frau von Sigmundskron had always believed that she knew more of Rieseneck than any one else supposed. Rieseneck had come, and he had not been in the house three hours when everything was over. What had happened? No one knew. Those who had known had acted out their own tragedy to the end and were gone with their secret. The authorities had already taken cognisance of their deaths and had drawn up their preliminary report. The three would be buried, perhaps side by side, in the vault of the Greifensteins, and no living person could ever know what had passed during their last moments. The most careful search had brought no trace of writing to the light, excepting a letter addressed to an unknown person, evidently written before the catastrophe, which had been found, directed and stamped for the post, upon the library table. Everything in the house had been found in order, every object in its place. The servants had heard the two shots and had tried to enter the room, but it had been locked within. A lad had climbed along the cornice until he could see through the window, and had come back pale with terror. In the presence of the whole household the door had been forced, and all had seen together the hideous sight. That was all there was to be known.
As the castle clock struck one hour after another, the baroness felt that every minute was carrying the secret further beyond her reach, and yet, as the time passed, the effect of that secret's existence upon her own mind grew more and more clear to herself. She could never give Hilda to Greif. She could never suffer her child to mate with a man whose existence was overshadowed by such a history, innocent though he assuredly was himself.
And yet Greif was coming, and she had ridden all those weary miles through the freezing night in order to meet him at his own gate, in order to comfort him, to give him the help of her presence, the consolation of a friend in his utmost need. Would it console him to know that he must lose the only surviving thing that was dear to him, the hope of Hilda? Her heart beat at the thought of the pain he would suffer, though it had been calm enough in the sight of the great horror.
But she could not yield the point. In spite of her gentle face she had all the unbending qualities of her masterful countrymen, as well as all the pride of the Greifensteins. She could not yield, let the resistance cost what it might.
The late winter's dawn stole through the crevices of the windows, which had been opened more than once during the night. The contrast of the still grey rays, seen through the flickering light of the candles that filled the place of death, was terribly unpleasant. The baroness rose and fastened the shutters carefully. As she turned back she shuddered for the first time since she had come. The slight exertion had stirred her tired blood and had made her momentarily nervous. The room looked very naturally. The huge carved bed of state with its enormous canopy was where she had always seen it when she had visited the house. The massive furniture was arranged as usual, saving that there were high pedestals placed about the bed to support the heavy candlesticks. Nothing else was changed. But upon that bed lay two straight things, side by side, covered all over with fine linen. The great secret of death was there, and death had taken with him the key-word of a strange mystery.
Rex sat in a careless attitude in a corner of Greif's small room, watching his friend as he arrayed himself in the official dress of a Korps student for the coming festivity. It was to be Greif's last appearance in public as a fellow. To-morrow there would be a meeting of the Korps and he would resign his functions, and some one else would be elected in his stead. Rex watched him curiously and hummed the first stanza of the 'Gaudeamus'—
'Give our hearts to gladness, then, While the young life flashes! When our joyous youth is gone, When old age's aches are done, Earth shall have our ashes!'
'I wish you would not sing that song!' exclaimed Greif, a little impatiently. 'There will be time enough to exercise your voice upon it when we begin to throw away the torches.'
'It is the only song I ever heard that has any truth in it,' answered Rex.
'You ought to write one about the vortex, and call it the physicist's Lament,' laughed the other.
'The idea is not new. Scheffel made geological jokes in verse and sang them.'
'Go thou and do likewise! But do not make the idea of turning into a philistine more unpleasant than it naturally is.'
'We have all been through it,' said Rex, 'and most of us have survived the change. With insects, the caterpillar turns into the pretty moth. With Korps students, the butterfly becomes sooner or later a crawling, philistine grub. The moral superiority of the worm over the moth is manifest in his works. Have you read your speech over?'
'I know it by heart. Help me with the scarf, will you?' 'Vanity of vanities!' laughed Rex as he began to knot the coloured silk.
Greif's costume is worth a word of description. He wore a close-fitting yellow jacket, heavily trimmed with black, white and yellow frogs and crossed cords, in the hussar fashion, and finished at the neck in the military manner with a stiff high collar. His legs were encased in tight breeches of white leather, and long polished boots with riding flaps were drawn above the knee. The long straight rapier hung in its gleaming sheath by his side, the colours of the Korps being done in velvet upon the basket-hilt. Over his right shoulder he wore a heavy silk scarf of the three colours, which was tied in a big knot near the sword-hilt. Upon his bright hair a very small round cap, no bigger than a saucer, and richly embroidered with gold, was held in its place by mysterious means, involving the concealment of a piece of elastic beneath his short curls. Upon the table lay a pair of white leather gauntlets. The whole effect was theatrical, but in the surroundings for which the dress was intended, it could not fail to be both striking and harmonious. It displayed to the best advantage the young man's fine proportions and athletic figure, and where there were to be hundreds similarly arrayed, with only a difference of colour to distinguish their even ranks, the result could not differ greatly from a military parade. Indeed the costume is not more gaudy than many modern uniforms and is certainly as tasteful.
'I am sorry it is the last time,' said Greif sadly, as his friend finished the knot. Then he went to the window and looked once more at the dim outline of the cathedral spire and listened to the water rushing through its cold bed in the dusk far below. He knew that he should look out but a few times more. He did not know that this time was the last. Rex was looking for his overcoat, and as he moved about the room he sang softly another stanza of the old song—
'Short and sweet this life of ours, Soon its cord must sever! Death comes quick, nor brooks delay, Ruthless, he tears us away, No man spares he ever.'
'For heaven's sake, do not sing that song any more!' cried Greif. 'I am sad enough, as it is, without your cat's music.'
Rex laughed oddly.
'I am as sad as you,' he said, a moment later, with an abrupt change of manner. 'You do not act as though you were,' observed Greif. 'What are you sad about?'
'Has the vortex fallen ill?' inquired Greif ironically.
'It is likely to, I fear. Come along! It is time to be off. You must not keep everybody waiting.'
Something in the tone of his voice struck Greif and affected him disagreeably. He held up the light to Rex's face, and saw that he was pale, and that his strange eyes looked weary and lifeless.
'What is the matter, Rex?' he asked earnestly. 'Are you in any trouble? Can I do anything for you?'
'Nothing, thank you,' answered the other quietly.
Greif set down the lamp upon the table and seemed to hesitate a moment. Then he turned again and laid his hand upon his friend's arm.
'Rex, do you want money?' asked Greif. 'You know I have plenty.'
In the eyes of a Korps student the want of cash appears to be the only ill to which flesh is heir. Rex smiled rather sadly.
'No, I do not want money. I thank you, all the same.'
'What is it then? In love?'
'In love!' Rex laughed. 'I would tell you that soon enough,' he added carelessly. 'No—it is a more serious matter.'
'If I can be of no use to you—'
'Look here, Greif,' interrupted the other, 'we have grown to be good friends, you and I, during this term. You are going away, and I may never see you again. You may as well know why I fraternised with you so readily. I have had your friendship so far, and if I must lose it, I may as well lose it at once.'
Greif opened his bright eyes and stared at his friend in considerable astonishment. He thought that he knew him well, and he could not imagine what was coming.
'I do not see what could happen to cause that,' he answered.
'Do you remember that evening when you first came to my rooms?'
'Have I gained any advantage from our acquaintance, excepting your society and that of your Korps? Think well before you answer.'
'Certainly not,' replied Greif. 'I am quite sure that you have not. What a foolish question!'
'It seems so to you, no doubt. But it is far from foolish. You say that you remember that evening well. Then you recollect that I told you I knew nothing of you or your family. I made certain predictions. Well, I made them according to the figure, as you saw by the unexpected arrival of that telegram. But I lied to you about the rest. I knew perfectly well who you were, whence you came, and what your father's half-brother had done.'
Greif had drawn back a little during the first part of this declaration. At the statement that Rex had deceived him he started and drew himself up, his face showing plainly enough that his wrath was not far off.
'And may I ask your reasons for practising this deception upon me?' he inquired coldly.
'There is but one reason, and that is of a somewhat startling nature,' returned Rex, leaning back against the table and resting his two hands upon it. 'You allow that I have got no personal advantage out of your friendship. I desired none. I only wanted to know you.'
'Because I am your cousin. My name is Rieseneck. I am the only son of your father's half-brother.'
Greif's eyes flashed, and the hot blood mounted to his face. The information was surprising enough, and his hatred of his uncle was likely to produce trouble.
'How did you dare to impose upon me in such a way?' he cried angrily.
'No one ever speaks to me of daring,' answered Rex, who seemed quite unmoved. 'I dare do most things, because I have nothing to lose but a little money, my good name of Rex, and my life. As for my not calling myself Rieseneck, I have not imposed upon you any more than upon any one else, by doing so. My father calls himself Rex, and I have never been known by any other appellation.'
'But you should have told me—'
'Doubtless, and so I have. It is true that I have chosen my own time, and that I have allowed myself the pleasure of knowing you before disclosing my identity. You would have refused to have anything to do with me had you known who I was. After all, you are the only relation I have in the world, and I have asked you for nothing, nor ever shall. I learned that you were a student here, and I came to Schwarzburg expressly to meet you. I noted your usual seat at the lecture where we met, and I put myself next to you with the intention of making your acquaintance. Now I have told you everything. You are at liberty to know me or not, henceforth. You prefer not to know me. Is it so? Well, I have done you no injury. Good-bye. I wish you good luck.'
Thereupon Rex took up his hat and with a slight inclination of the head went towards the door. His stony eyes did not turn to Greif, who might have seen in them a strangely pained expression, which would have surprised him. Greif hesitated between his sincere friendship for Rex and his horror of any one so closely connected with Rieseneck. It was very hard to choose the right course with so little preparation, and he was thrown off his balance by the sudden disclosure. But his natural generosity, combined with an undefinable attraction he felt towards the man, overcame all other considerations.
'Rex!' he called out, as his friend was already passing through the doorway.
Rex stopped and stood still where he was, turning his head so that he could see Greif.
'Stay,' said Greif almost involuntarily. 'We cannot part company in this way.'
'If it must be at all, it were best that it were done quickly,' answered Rex, holding the handle of the door.
'It must not be done,' returned Greif in a decided tone. 'If I am attached to you, it is for what you are, not for what your father was, or is.'
'Think the matter over,' replied the other. 'I will wait, if you please. I deceived you once. It is fair that I should submit to your decision now.'
He closed the door and went to the window, where he stood still, looking out into the dusk, and turning his back upon Greif. The latter paused an instant, and then came forward and laid one hand upon his friend's shoulder. He acted still under the same impulse of generosity which had first prompted him to keep Rex back.
'Rex—it depends upon you. If you will, we shall be friends as ever.'
'I?' exclaimed Rex, turning suddenly. 'With all my heart. Is there anything I desire more?'
'Good—so be it, then!' answered Greif taking his hand boldly.
'So be it!' repeated Rex.
'And now,' said Greif, 'why did you choose this moment to tell me your secret?'
'Do you want to know? There is a reason for that, too, and not a pleasant one.'
'I can hear it.' 'To-night my father will sleep under your father's house. You will hear the news before morning. To-morrow I shall leave here to meet him in Switzerland—or not, as the case may be. He has been refused the benefit of the amnesty, but he will be allowed to leave the country quietly. I cannot leave him alone any longer.'
Greif turned a little pale at the intelligence.
'Then this is the danger you foretold,' he said.
'What will happen at Greifenstein to-night?'
'How can I tell!' exclaimed Rex. 'There may be an angry meeting. There may be worse. Or your father's heart may be softened—'
'You do not know him. Then my uncle has written to you?'
'I received the letter to-day, before coming here. Do you see that it was better to have this explanation now, rather than to wait for to- morrow?'
'Yes—it was better. Let us go, for the time presses—truly I have no heart for this sport to-night. I wish I were at home.'
'Do not wish,' said Rex gravely. 'You could not help matters.'
Greif extinguished the light and the two men groped their way down the dusky staircase in silence, both feeling that an exceptionally difficult situation had been passed through with singular ease, both recognising that the explanation had been hurried over in a way hardly to be accounted for, except by the theory that neither wished to lose the other's friendship. And yet, both Greif and Rex knew that their decision had been final. The one had nothing more to conceal. The other had nothing left to forgive. Rex, like Rieseneck himself, believed that his mother had died long ago. Greif, like all the rest, was ignorant of his own mother's identity. Sons of one mother they went out of the house side by side, not dreaming that they were anything more than cousins, whose fathers were half-brothers, little guessing that within a few short hours the father of each and the mother of both would be lying stiff and stark in the chambers of lofty Greifenstein.
They reached the great dark buildings of the University, and found themselves in a dense crowd of students of all colours, on the outskirts of a multitude of others who belonged to no associations. Here they parted, for Rex could not walk in the Swabian Korps and must go with the black hats.
'We shall meet in the hall,' said Greif hurriedly. 'Your place is at our table as usual.'
And so they parted. In a few moments, Greif had found his companions by the tall standard whose colours caught a few struggling rays of light from the street-lamps. Every one was talking, smoking, stamping cold feet upon the stones in the effort to keep warm, cracking jokes, both good and bad, craning necks to see the position of the standards, making agreements for pairing at the 'Landesvater,' and generally complaining that the town clocks were all slow that night in Schwarzburg. Occasionally, a roar of laughter arose in the distance, where some unlucky burgher had found his way into a group of students and was being made the butt of a good-humoured jest. And beneath the high, laughing tones, the perpetual hum of a thousand talking voices neither rose nor fell, but droned unceasingly like the long pedal in a fugue, whose full deep note stands still amidst the strife of moving sounds, as the sun stood while the battle was fought out in Ajalon. The very life of the multitude seemed to produce a sound of its own, in the breathing of a thousand pairs of strong young lungs, in the beating of a thousand young, untired hearts, in the pulsation of so much youth brought together to one place. A blind man might have thought himself in the presence of some one monstrous human giant, overflowing with enormous vitality, warming the whole night with his breath, stirring the whole air with each careless movement of his vast body. There is something mysterious in a crowd, most of all in a crowd at night. The throng has simultaneous perceptions and movements, a joint sense of power or of fear, a circulation of consciousness as complete as that which exists in the nerves of every individual. Thousands of men, of whom each alone would act differently from his fellows, are all irresistibly impelled to think the same thoughts, to feel the same emotions, to yield to the same influences, or to join in the same work of destruction. But no one of them all can tell why he so feels, thinks and acts; the mystery of the crowd is upon him, and sways him whither it will, powerless, half unconscious, and wholly irresponsible.
The deep cathedral bell tolled the hour of seven. Before the strokes were all counted, the hum of the multitude had swelled to twice its former strength, and every one felt himself jostled a little by his neighbour. Then came the sharp, clear voices of those who directed the forming of the procession, the shuffling of many feet, and the muffled but irritated movements of those who had to make way. Then rose a sudden flare of light in a corner of the dark mass, followed quickly by another and another, till many hundreds of torches were aflame, sputtering, smoking and sending up tongues of flame into the black air. Again a word of command, and the even tramp of footsteps began to be heard, a mere patter as of big raindrops upon stones at first, but swelling gradually, and increasing, till the sound roused great echoes from the glowing buildings, while the blazing pitch flared up, brighter and brighter, into a broad sea of flame that flowed away in a narrow stream of fire as the great company filed out of the square into the street beyond. Then, as the place of meeting was emptied, a breeze of cold air rushed into the vacant space; there was hurrying and scurrying of those who remained last, as they ran to take their places, and while a burst of march music was heard in the distance at the head of the column, the last stragglers fell into the file behind, the last torch disappeared into the narrow street, and the broad space that had been so full was left utterly deserted, illuminated only by a dozen dim gaslights in exchange for the lurid glow which a moment earlier had lit up every wall and house from corner stone to pointed gable.
In front of all, marched the Swabians, the high standard waving in front, the burly second of the Korps striding along upon its left with drawn rapier and clattering scabbard, while upon the right Greif walked, an erect and commanding figure, thrown into strong relief by the bright lights behind him. His face was pale, and his teeth were set, for as he led the head of the column he found time to reflect upon what had occurred during the last hour, and time to fear what was yet to happen. Willingly he would have left the rank and hastened to his lodging in time to be ready for the night train. A few short hours would have brought him to his home to learn the truth, were it good or evil. But the thing was impossible. He was of all others that night the man most watched, most admired, most envied. It was his last torchlight procession, his last turn of presiding at the great festival that was at hand, the last draught of that brilliant student's life he loved was at his lips. He could never again do what he was doing to-night. To- morrow another would be chosen in his place, and to-morrow he was to join the dull ranks of the outer philistines. The thought brought suddenly a flash of wild recklessness into the gloomy atmosphere of his reflexions, and as he halted the column before the Rector's house and started the ringing cheer for the 'Magnificus,' his voice rang out with a metallic clearness that surprised himself.
'Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!' The vast chorus that followed his lead cheered his heart.
What could Rieseneck do at Greifenstein, after all? There might be a disagreeable scene. Two of them, perhaps. That would be all, and Rieseneck would go away, never to return again. Rex and his predictions? Bah! The man believed in the power of the stars, and Greif, who trod so firmly at the head of a thousand torches, believed in youth, and would not forfeit his last draught of glorious youthfulness for any such nonsense.
On and on the procession marched, halting in the street where some favourite professor lived, in order to give him three thundering cheers, then tramping on to another and another, down the high street, round the cathedral, back at last to the square whence they had started.
Shoulder to shoulder the students ranged themselves against the walls of the houses in serried ranks, drawing back as much as possible, so as to leave a broad space in the middle. There was a pause, and a deep silence for several minutes. Then the trumpets and horns flared out the grand old hymn of student life, the 'Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus,' and all those fresh young voices took up the strain with that perfect unison which only Germans know how to give to an improvised chorus—
Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus, post jucundam juventutem, post molestam senectutem, nos habebit humus, nos habebit humus.
Ubi sunt, qui ante nos in mundo fuere? Vadite ad superos, transits ad inferos, ubi jam fuere.
Vita nostra brevis est, brevi finietur, venit mors velociter, rapit nos atrociter, nemini parcetur.
Vivant omnes virgines faciles, formosae, vivant et mulieres, vivant et mulieres bonae, laboriosae.
Vivat academia, vivant professores, vivat membrum quodlibet, vivant membra quaelibet, semper sint in flore.
As the last stanza was sung, in slow and solemn measure, the students began to throw away their torches. First one alone shot out from the belt of fire that surrounded the square, meteorlike in a wide arch, and fell in the centre of the open space amidst a shower of sparks. A dozen followed almost immediately, then a hundred, and hundreds more, till all the thousand lay together, a burning heap, throwing up clouds of lurid smoke into the night, and illuminating the great buildings with a broad red glare. Greif stood still a moment, watching the bonfire, and then sheathed his rapier and turned away. To him it was a sorrowful sight, this ending of his last torchlight procession. He remembered how, as a young novice, he had stood in the same place, his heart full of a strange enjoyment, and he wished that he could go back to those days and live his life again. During nearly three years since that time he had been a student; during more than one he had been a soldier, serving his time with the cuirassiers, and coming into the town as often as he could to spend an hour with his Korps. It was all over now, never to begin again. Only among those soldiers whom he had learned so easily to love, could he hope to find again something of that good fellowship he had enjoyed with the brethren of the Swabian Korps. Only in larger strife could he henceforth feel that glorious excitement of combat which had grown to be one of his nature's chief cravings. The Korps life had done its work in the direction of his character, developing his latent love of organisation and law, accustoming him to look upon cold steel as the arbiter of right, and upon his country as the strongest among those that draw the sword.
'Earth shall have our ashes!' he exclaimed sorrowfully as he turned away, quoting the last words of the song.