'Undoubtedly,' answered a familiar voice beside him. 'Undoubtedly— wherefore the best thing we can do is to make the earth ours without delay.'
Greif laughed, as he recognised Rex. The latter had made his way round, during the throwing of the torches, in order to accompany his friend to the drinking-hall. They moved away together in the great crowd. One ceremony was ended, the next would begin in little more than half an hour, as soon as all the Korps were collected in the hall. This time, however, the company would include the Korps only, with their friends, and such members of other Universities as had come over to Schwarzburg to join in the festivity.
'And now for my last speech,' observed Greif, as they walked. 'I wonder what is happening at home.'
Rex did not make any answer, but Greif saw that he bent his head, and seemed to start nervously. The reply came long afterwards, as they were ascending the steps of the drinking-hall.
'I would rather not know what is happening,' said Rex. 'But I would like to know where you and I shall be, to-morrow at this hour.'
'Probably together, with all good Swabians, at my farewell feast.'
Rex shook his head. There was not time for more, as they were already within the building and Greif was obliged to attend to other matters.
The hall was splendidly decorated. Each of the Korps had a portion of the walls allotted to it, before which its tables were arranged in order. From the rafters to the floor vast draperies of coloured stuffs were hung and festooned so as to show off the insignia of each association to the best advantage, panoplies of swords and helmets, escutcheons with broad bands of gold, silver and black, scores of richly mounted drinking-horns, taken from every kind of beast, from the Italian ox, from the Indian buffalo, from the almost extinct ibex, and from the American mountain sheep—gifts from old members of the Korps who had wandered over the world, but had not forgotten their old companions—silver tankards upon brackets, old standards of softened hue projecting out above, or crossed above coats-of-arms, in short, every object of beauty and value which had become the property of the Swabians during the last fifty years. Every other Korps had done the same, till not a foot of the walls was left bare. High above, in a gallery, sat the musicians, who were to accompany the songs with their instruments, during the night.
The students assembled quickly and took their seats. As the clock struck nine, Greif, as president of the presiding Korps, called for silence, and ordered the opening 'Salamander.' Hundreds of glasses rattled upon the oak boards in strict time, and the official Kneipe was declared opened. The music burst out gloriously, echoing among the great wooden beams of the high roof, and song upon song rose full and melodious from below. At last Greif rose again to his feet, and all eyes were turned upon him in the dead silence which succeeded the joyous strains. He was very pale, but it was easy to see that his pallor was caused by the emotion of thus taking leave of his old comrades, rather than by any nervousness about his speech.
He spoke long and well, interrupted occasionally by a short loud burst of applause. It was his especial good fortune to address the assembled Korps for the second time since his name had been inscribed upon the rolls of their beloved Alma Mater; his greatest sorrow was caused by the thought that he had thrown his last torch, and must soon drain his last toast as one of their number. Life was divided by a sharp line into two portions, of which the sadder began when rapier and colours were hung up at home to accumulate the dust that falls from philistinism. Then the head must weary itself with staid matters, and the hand must loosen its hold upon the schlager and forget its cunning fence. Happy were those who merely exchanged the whistling blade of the student for the heavy sabre of the soldier, the green forest glade of the mensur for larger battlefields and the hope of brighter fame, who, having shed an ounce of blood in defence of their student colours, could look forward to shedding all, to the last drop, for king and country. Happy were those few to whom the Korps was the beginning of an active life, and not the mere breathing space of liberty and good fellowship between the school bench and the desk. But whatever was to follow, whatever had gone before, none knew so well as they themselves, how sweet was the first taste of freedom, and how swiftly the bright time glided away amidst the music of the rapiers, the clash of beakers, and the song of free German voices.
Greif dwelt upon the importance of the Korps in the life of the University, upon the part played by the University in the life of the whole land, and did not scruple to trace Germany's victories directly to their origin in the daily life of German students, so different from that in other countries. Moreover, in his own opinion, and in that of most of his hearers, Schwarzburg had no rival—certainly none, he added, in the eyes of those who belonged to it. Where, in all Germany, were there such professors, such monuments of learning? What schools had given more famous names to the land, or even so many? As the good mother at home was to each student in that assembly, so was their dear Alma Mater to them all. He drank his beaker to all good Korps students, to all the brave colours there assembled, to all the professors, to the University itself,
'Hoch, Schwarzburg! Hoch!' he cried in ringing tones as he raised his glass high in air.
'Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!' shouted hundreds of voices.
'Ad exercitium Salamandri! Eins! Zwei! Drei!'
Greif brought his glass down upon the table as he spoke the last words, and the long roll began, like rattling musketry, again and again, to the due number of times.
Greif sat down amidst thunders of applause. As a matter of fact, he had made a speech rather better than the average of such performances, but a cool observer, or one accustomed to such scenes would have known that he could not fail to be loudly applauded. He was the favourite hero of them all. Young, handsome, brave, popular, not lacking the assurance that leads a crowd, it might have been foreseen that his last feast would crown his University triumphs, with a success passing even his own not very modest expectations.
The music rose and swelled and died away. Beneath the brilliant light there was clashing of beakers and joyous drinking of deep toasts in the intervals between the songs. At regular intervals Greif demanded silence and proposed the health of each of the other Korps, one by one, in the order of their precedence for the year. A couple of hours passed in this way, and then the signal was given for the singing of the 'Landesvater,' and the instruments struck up the stirring strain. Then at the head of each table rose the two eldest fellows, each with a pointed sword in his hand. In time with the music, they stood and struck their rapiers one against the other, exchanging caps at the last bars, and running the sharp blade through the embroidered velvet, so that the small head covering ran down upon the hilt. Next, while the others stood upon the floor, the two leaders mounted upon the bench behind each row, on opposite sides of the table, clashing their swords in time, high above the heads of the carousers; and as the verse ended, each snatched the cap from the crown of the man who sat below him and ran it down his blade as he had previously done with his partner's. Reaching in due time the end of the board, the two stood crossing and recrossing their weapons, until all the others in the great hall had done the same and not one head remained covered. With this the first half of the 'Landesvater' was ended, and a solemn toast was drunk to the health of the sovereign. The second part was gone through in a similar manner, the leaders returning along the rows with the same ceremony and restoring to each man his own head covering at the conclusion of each verse. It is a strange old custom of which it is not easy to discover the origin, though the meaning is clear enough. Every man of the assembly pledges his head to live and die for his sovereign prince or king, and in a country where loyalty is a fact, and patriotism a passion, the expression of both by an ancient ceremony is solemnly imposing. So great is the respect felt for the 'Landesvater' and the sincerity of those who take part in it, that even in such a multitude of recklessly gay youths, the strictest sobriety is required of all until it is over, and is exacted under penalties of considerable severity. Once over, the mirth and enjoyment proceed in an increasing ratio, though it is to the credit of the German student that his gaiety on these public occasions never degenerates into unbridled licence, and that while he sings, laughs and jests over his fiftieth glass, he maintains the outward forms of habitual courtesy towards his fellows, together with a sort of manly dignity not unworthy of his stern Gothic forefathers. The liquor is bland and almost harmless, and the heads are strong, and backed by iron constitutions. The object is not intoxication but jollity, and there is a deliberation in the manner of attaining the end by spending eight or nine hours over it, which effectually prevents such scenes as occur at festive meetings where the time is limited and men make themselves beastly drunk in the attempt to be merry before midnight. There is no closing hour for the German students' carousals. The official part of the affair is declared to be at an end at twelve or one o'clock, but all may stay as long as they please, and many are still in their places when the day dawns.
Greif and Rex sat side by side at the head of the long table. It was long past midnight, but neither felt the need of sleep. Greif dreaded to go home, for he felt that he was taking his last leave of a life he loved. Rex, who was unnaturally calm, even for a man of his solid nerve, sat motionless beside his friend, emptying his huge beaker twice in every hour with unfailing regularity. He talked quietly but constantly, interspersing queer bits of cynicism and odds and ends of uncommon wisdom in his placid conversation. Greif knew by his manner that he was in reality sad and preoccupied, but was grateful for his pleasant talk, which blunted the keen edge of this rupture with first youth's associations. From time to time Greif wondered rather vaguely whether his relations with Rex would continue in after life, and, if so, whether they would not be affected for the worse by the revelation of Rex's identity. The excitement of the evening had perhaps momentarily expanded his natural generosity too far, and while he was quite aware that he could not now draw back from the friendship with honour, he was by no means sure that he might not afterwards regret his readiness to receive so kindly, as a cousin, him whom he had so much liked before he had been aware of the relationship. As he sat there, conversing with Rex, he attached an amount of importance to the situation which would have amazed him, had he known that of which both were ignorant, namely, that Rex was his half-brother as certainly as Rieseneck was half-brother to old Greifenstein.
The hours wore on till scarcely fifty students remained in the hall, and they of the sturdy kind who make very little noise over their amusements.
'Shall we go home, or stay till morning?' asked Greif at last, hesitating whether to light a fresh cigar or not.
'We might adjourn to your room,' suggested Rex. 'We can finish the night there.'
There was a stir near the door, and Greif looked round, idly at first, to see what was the matter, then with an expression of dismay. A man had entered the hall, a man with a ghastly face, who seemed to be making inquiries of the knot of Korps servants who waited for their tardy masters. Greif's eyes fixed themselves in the anticipation of evil, when he saw that the fellow wore the Greifenstein livery and was one of his father's grooms. What was most strange was that he wore boots and spurs, as if he had ridden hard, though he could only have reached Schwarzburg by the railway.
'Karl!' cried Greif in a tone that made the man start. 'What are you doing here?'
Karl crossed the hall, his face growing paler than ever, and his teeth chattering. He had not had time to recover from the thought of what he had left behind him. His hands trembled violently as they grasped the military cap he held.
'Herr Baron—' he stammered, staring at Greif with wide and frightened eyes. 'Herr Baron—' he began again, trying to frame the words.
'Speak, Karl!' exclaimed Greif making a desperate effort to seem calm, though he instinctively dreaded the words which must fall from the man's lips.
The groom turned appealingly to Rex, who sat motionless in his place, scrutinising the messenger with his stony glance.
'My God!' cried he. 'I cannot tell him! Sir, are you a friend of the Herr Baron?'
Rex nodded, and laying one hand upon Greif's shoulder as though to make him keep his seat, rose and made a sign to the groom to follow him. But Greif would not submit to be treated like a child, and sprang up, seizing the man's arm and drawing him nearer.
'I will hear it myself,' he said firmly. 'Is it my father?' he asked in uncertain tones. Karl nodded gravely.
'I caught the train as I jumped from the saddle,' he answered.
'My mother sent you?' asked Greif anxiously.
The groom shook his head, and his tremor increased, while he stared wildly about as though in search of some escape from his awful mission.
'Speak, man!' cried Greif, mad with anxiety. 'My father is ill—and you are here though my mother did not send you—speak, I say.'
'They are dead,' answered Karl in a low voice.
Greif sank into his seat and covered his face. Suddenly Rex's impenetrable eyes flashed, and he, last of the three, turned white to the lips.
'Is there another gentleman at Greifenstein?' he asked quickly.
'He is also with them, sir.'
'He shot himself.'
Rex closed his eyes and held the table with his two hands, for he knew who the stranger had been. Seeing that Greif did not move, and supposing that Rex was a mere acquaintance, the man took courage to tell the story, speaking in a low voice to Rex.
'The gentleman arrived before dinner,' he said. 'Their merciful lordships dined together, but the butler said they left the table before it was time. Then they heard firing in the house. We broke the doors and found the Lady Baroness dead, in the room beyond the Herr Baron's study, and in the study the Herr Baron dead with a pistol in his hand, and the other gentleman dead with another pistol in his hand. I saw them. They had shot themselves as they sat in their chairs before the fire, but the fire was nearly gone out, though the lamp was burning. And then we saddled and rode, we four, one for the police, one for the doctor, one for Sigmundskron, and I for the railway, and here I am. You are a good friend of the young Herr, sir?'
'Yes, that I am,' answered Rex, starting as though from sleep.
'Then it would be best, sir, that you should tell me whither I should go, for the young Herr will be worse if he sees me.'
'Ask your way to the Red Eagle Inn,' said Rex, 'and stay there till we send for you.'
He gave the man a handful of loose coin, thoughtful of all contingencies, as he ever was.
'You need not talk about this horrible catastrophe,' he said, as he dismissed the frightened groom.
The latter disappeared as fast as he could, glad to get away from the sight of Greif's misery, and glad to have found some one to help him in telling his fearful tale. When he was gone Rex laid his hand upon Greif's shoulder, and spoke in a tone of quiet authority.
'Come with me,' he said. Greif rose to his feet like a man in a dream, and allowed Rex to put on his topcoat for him, and to lead him out of the almost deserted hall, through the group of servants who loitered at the door and made way respectfully for the pair to pass.
'Whither?' asked Greif as they stood in the cold street.
'To your room,' answered Rex, quietly passing his arm through his friend's and gently urging him to move forward.
Greif did not remember afterwards how he had found his way from the hall to his lodging. Neither he nor Rex spoke during the quarter of an hour they employed in reaching the street door, but Rex's arm was aching with the effort of sustaining and directing his companion. He lit a taper and prepared to help him up the stairs. But the sight of the familiar entrance recalled Greif to himself and dissipated the first stupor of his grief. He ascended the steps firmly, though he went like a man overcome with fatigue, to whom every movement is difficult. Still silent, Rex lit the lamp in the small room, and began to help Greif to take off his mantle. But Greif pushed him aside gently and sat down as he was upon the well-worn chair. Rex went and sat himself down in a corner at some distance and waited. His instinct told him that his friend must have time to recover from the first shock before anything could be done. He shaded his eyes from the light with one hand, and thought of his own sorrow.
The silence was intense. It was as though the spirits of the dead, of the mother of both and of the father of each, were present in the commonplace chamber where sat their two sons, not knowing each other for brothers, though overwhelmed by the same calamity. It seemed as if the murdered woman and her dead murderers were standing silently in the midst of the small room, watching to see what should happen to those they had left behind.
At last Greif raised his white face and looked towards Rex.
'I must go,' he said simply.
'Yes,' answered Rex. 'We must bury our dead.'
Greif looked at him as though asking for an explanation of the words. He had not heard all the groom's story.
'My father is also with them,' said Rex, answering the unspoken question. Greif grasped the table and stared at his companion stupidly for a moment. Then all at once his pale face grew luminous and his eyes glittered.
'Rieseneck?' he cried, in a suffocated tone. 'Your father has slain mine and yet you are here—' He rose from his seat, half mad with horror, as though he would spring upon his friend. But the latter interrupted him, in a tone which enforced attention.
'Your mother is dead—God knows how. Your father and my father shot themselves, sitting in their chairs.'
Again Greif's head sank upon his clasped hands, and again the deadly silence descended upon the chamber.
The long December night was over and it was broad dawn when the two men got out of the express train at the station nearest to Greifenstein. Without a word they entered the carriage that had been waiting for them, and the sturdy horses plunged into the forest, breasting the ascent as only strong animals can on a cold winter's morning. The early light made the great trees look unspeakably gloomy and mournful. There was not a tinge of colour to relieve the dead black shadows, or the icy grey of the driven snow. The tall firs stood solemn and motionless like overgrown cypresses, planted in an endless graveyard, filled with myriads of snow-covered graves, and in the midst Greif and Rex were whirled along over the winding road, pale as dead men themselves as they sat side by side in their dark garments, with set lips and eyes half closed against the freezing wind.
But when the towering wall of Greifenstein came into sight far off above the black tree-tops, Greif started and leaned forward, fixing his eyes upon his home; nor did he change his attitude until the carriage drew up before the deep gateway, and he was aware of a crowd of men and women who stood there awaiting his arrival. Before all the rest, he saw the tall thin figure of Frau von Sigmundskron. Her white hands were clasped together and she was bareheaded. Standing out before the others, in her gown of sober grey, she looked like a mediaeval saint suddenly come down to earth in modern times. As Greif descended she held out her arms to greet him. He realised that she must have journeyed from Sigmundskron in the night in order to be before him.
'I thank you,' he said, kissing her hands.
With an effort of will that would have done credit to his dead father, he entered the castle, bending his head gravely in acknowledgment of the servants' tearful salutations. Though most of them were the merest hirelings in the house, who had lately succeeded others like themselves, yet almost all were in tears. Frau von Sigmundskron looked at Rex in some surprise.
'A friend?' she asked with some hesitation.
'More,' answered Greif. 'Let us go to some place where we can be alone.'
He shivered as he felt that he was under the very roof where those he loved best were lying cold and stark in death, but he set his lips and clenched his fingers, determined to bear all that was in store for him. Frau von Sigmundskron hesitated as they approached the door of the drawing-room, and she looked sideways at Greif.
'Better to my rooms,' he said. And so the three went on through corridors and staircases till they reached the young man's apartments. He closed the door, and glanced at Rex.
'Madam,' said the latter at once, 'I am called Rex, but that is not my name. I am the son of Kuno von Rieseneck. I have Herr von Greifenstein's permission to pay my last duty to my dead father.'
Frau von Sigmundskron raised her gentle eyes in astonishment and looked from one to the other of the two men.
'Rex is my best friend,' said Greif. 'He needed no permission of mine to come here. I will explain all at another time. And now—' his voice broke, and he turned away, but recovered himself almost immediately. 'And now, I beg that you will tell us what you know.'
The good baroness detested weakness in herself and could not bear to see it in others, so that she told her story clearly and concisely, though with much caution and thoughtful tact. While she spoke she watched the two friends, who sat motionless beside her, their hands clasped upon their knees, their heads bent down, their faces white with emotion. The sun was already above the hills, and while she spoke the first rays fell through the ancient casement upon the carpet of the room, casting soft reflexions upon the pallid features of the three persons.
'I will go to them,' said Greif when she had finished, and he rose to his feet. The baroness prepared to show him the way, and Rex would have followed, but she stopped him by a gesture.
'I will come back for you,' she said. 'They are not together.'
She let Greif enter the chamber alone and softly closed the door after him. Then she returned to Rex. He was standing where she had left him.
'I have something to say,' she began, 'and something to give you. This letter is yours. It was found in the room, sealed, directed and stamped, as though it were to be posted, as it would have been had you not come. Nothing has been discovered for Greif, and this must have been written by Herr von Rieseneck. You are older than Greif, though he is brave enough, poor fellow. Here it is. Will you be alone to read it? I will go into the next room until you call me.
'Madam,' answered Rex, taking the letter, 'I will not trouble you by any exhibition of my feelings, if you will stay here.'
He looked at the superscription, and cut the envelope open neatly with his pocket-knife so as not to break the seal. Frau von Sigmundskron was too well-bred to watch his face while he read the contents. Had she looked, she would have been terrified.
The note was very short, but it contained enough to shake even Rex's calm nature.
'My son, when you receive this, I shall be dead. I arrived here this evening and I have discovered that Frau von Greifenstein is your mother, my wife. She made me believe that she was dead and married my brother under a false name. She has atoned for her crimes to her two husbands, who have done justice upon her, and now we also are about to pay the penalty of having executed that justice which is above all laws. At the point of death, I give this secret into your keeping. Your brother is a nameless bastard. Do not ruin him by betraying the shame of your father and of his. You are rich, but were you poor you would have no title to my brother's inheritance. Do not come to this place. They will bury me as decently as I deserve. Farewell. God keep you, and make you happier than I have been.—Your father,
'SCHLOSS GREIFENSTEIN, December 20.'
As Rex read the words he instinctively turned away. His face was hideously distorted and his stony eyes seemed changed into coals of fire. Every fibre of his strong nature was strained and tortured by the iron grip of his suffering. Every pulse of his body beat with a frantic rage for which no outlet was possible. His eyeballs burned with excruciating pain as he attempted to read again the letter he still held in his hands. He was one of those habitually calm men who become almost insane when they are angry, and in whose placid strength passion of any sort, when roused, finds its most dangerous material. For a full minute he stood speechless, feeling as though his emotion must find some physical expression, lest it should kill him there and then.
He heard a footstep, and then the door opened and closed softly. Looking round, he saw that he was alone; Frau von Sigmundskron had understood from what she could see of his attitude that the letter had brought him news even worse than that of his father's death, and she had felt that to stay any longer would have been to intrude upon a sorrow in which she could have no share. Seeing that she was gone, Rex abandoned all restraint over himself, and submitted for a time to the overwhelming influences that surrounded him on all sides. His face became livid as he threw himself upon the couch, and his fingers were twisted unnaturally, as though their nerves were irritated by a strong electric current. Lying on his back, he rolled his head from side to side, like a man tortured on the rack, while his reddening eyes kept their sight fixed upon a blank point of the ceiling. The pain in his temples was as that of a red-hot screw boring its way through his brain, and while his white teeth ground audibly upon each other his quick-coming breath blew a scarcely perceptible foam from his strained and parted lips.
Father, mother, honour, were gone at one blow. Not the mother he had learned to dream of as a boy, when some faint memory of her fair face was still with him; not the tender and gentle mother who, if she had lived, would have been dearest on earth to him, and whose untimely death had lent her something heavenly and brightly mysterious; not the mother of whom his father had often told him, who from her place of peace looked down, perhaps, and smiled when he did well, or was pained when he did wrong; not the mother who, in his sleep, seemed to walk beside him when he was a child, robed in white, holding him by the hand and pointing heavenwards, like the picture of the Guardian Angel so common in his native country; not that mother who was to him the embodiment of all that was pure and lovely, and saintly and kind; not that sweet mother who for nearly forty years had held her secret place in the strange labyrinths of the lonely student's heart, to whose angelic figure he had often turned for consolation when weary with the aimlessness of deep study that led to nothing, or when satiated with all the useless, pleasureless pleasure which money could give and which there was no one to forbid. That dear image was gone, but she was not the mother he had lost. She who had borne him was lying near him now, under that very roof. She had cast him off, him and his father, to spend all those years when he had thought her dead, with another man, worst shame of all, with the brother of her husband. And she had borne another son, she had given a brother to her first-born, whom the world called noble and rich, who in truth was penniless and nameless as any beggar in the street. She had heaped dishonour upon father and son, and she had borne in dishonour a second son and shamed the spotless life of a second father. And this woman, this wretch, this creature for whom no speakable name could be found, was his own mother, and was henceforth to stand in the place of her whose mere memory had been half divine. Her vile life, forfeited for her crimes as shamefully as though she had died by the defaming hands of the common hangman, her hideous existence was thrust before him in all its abomination, as the source of his own, in the stead of all that had seemed most holy and chaste and worthy of his reverence. Was not her blood in his veins? Must not her evil nature of necessity show itself sooner or later in his own? Better the ounce weight of a finger upon that little bar of steel, to press which was to go beyond the risk of human infamy, beyond the possibility of reproducing in his own life the merest shadow of the sins that had darkened hers to the end. Better to cross at once that bridge whose passage is never choked because all who go over move ever in the same way, and none pause whose path has led them to its hither side. Better to leap at once and take his secret out of human keeping.
He would not have believed the horror if he had learned it from living man. But the message came from those who had sealed its truth with the dark red seal; it came from two men who had not been mistaken, of whom either, suspecting a mistake, would have slain the other for the mere accusation; old men not carried away by a fleeting resemblance, by the breath of a word half understood, by suspicion of a glance only half seen; stern, bold men—too stern to relent, but far too brave to be moved suddenly to senseless wrath against an innocent woman; proud men, both, who would have denied to each other the possibility of their common shame, so long as denial was humanly possible.
There could be no doubt, no shadow of a hope. Greif von Greifenstein was brother to Rex, and both were fatherless and motherless on the same day. Why live on, beneath the weight of memories which no time could efface and no future happiness soften? Had he any obligations to mankind, had he any pride of half-fulfilled hopes, of half-satisfied ambition? What had his life been? A nameless one, though of the two he alone could claim a name, if all were known. What had he done with it? He had attempted to explore the sources of life and the first origin of all those strange states which life brings with it. He had spent years in patient study, and again for months he had experimented upon his own incomprehensible sensations, by alternately procuring himself every pleasure and amusement which money could command, and then seeking the contrast of solitary asceticism. His iron constitution of body had survived all, but his bright intelligence had wearied of the struggle, bruising its keen edge against the rocky barriers of the eternal and the unknown. Wiser than his fellows, he knew that he was no wiser than before; stronger than they, he knew the weakness of all strength; brave as the bravest, bravery seemed to him but a clumsy exhibition of vanity at best, and altogether contemptible from the moment it began to seek occasions for showing itself. He could have understood playing the coward for sake of examining the sensation, and would have laughed at his own vanity, when it led him to redeem his character the next moment by some act of reckless daring. What was it all, but an amazing show of puppets, an astounding dance of lay-figures, animated by strings of which the ends opposite from men were lost in infinite distance? To dance, or not to dance, was all the choice men had, and rather than play a part in such a show as fell to his lot, it seemed better to break the strings and let the miserable marionette fall into the black hole behind the stage.
The possibility of adding a fourth link to the chain of death arrested Rex's frenzy. Since it was so easy to die, the escape from an earthly hell was always at hand. If, then, he lived, it must be of his own free will, and it did not beseem a man to do with such an ill grace what he did from his choice. Either he must end the matter decently and quietly at once, or, choosing not to end it, he must gather his strength and resume the direction of his existence. No other conclusion was possible. His secret was his own, and none need know it. All was over, and the disclosure of the truth could not help justice, any more than its concealment could injure any one. On the contrary, to tell what he knew would be to ruin Greif.
At the thought of Greif, Rex grew calm, and sat upright on the couch, supporting himself with his hands and gazing absently at the opposite wall. He had something left to live for, since Greif was his brother— Greif, who was at this very moment weeping over the body of her who was mother to both, looking for the last time upon that face which doubtless recalled to him the same tender memories Rex himself had cherished so long and so faithfully. A strong desire to see her took hold of him. The mistaken veneration of a lifetime was gone in a moment and Rex experienced the necessity of putting in its place the truth, however horrible it might be. But, unknown to him, a touch of tenderness remained in the bottom of his heart. Sinful, ruined, dead by the hands of the men she had foully wronged, she had nevertheless been his mother. He said to himself that he would see her, in order that the last impression might finally wipe out all those that had been sweet before it; but in spite of every circumstance of shame that had attended her death, and in spite of his own reasoning, what drew him to her was in reality the strength of what he believed to be wholly eradicated and torn from him, the unconscious longing to see once more the face of her who had borne him, and whose image had been with him since he was a little child.
To see her, and then—what then? The future was a blank, of which the monotony was broken only by the figure of Greif. The idea of devoting himself to his brother, and of expending all his strength and intelligence in the attempt to make him outlive the dreadful memory of this day, presented itself to Rex's mind. He smiled faintly, for the thought was unlike most of his thoughts. He did not remember to have ever before entertained a similar project. He had sacrificed his inclinations many times in the pursuit of knowledge, and even occasionally out of good nature, but he had never set himself the task of systematically benefiting another man. And yet, he knew well enough that Greif would need support and help and comfort, and that there would be none at hand to offer all these, save Rex himself.
He rose from his seat and paced the room, his hands behind him, his eyes bent down. His face still bore the marks of his sudden and terrible suffering, but the perfectly balanced powers of his mind were already beginning to assert themselves. The habit of scepticism, that is, of systematic inquiry into all that befell him, was too strong to remain long in abeyance, and the equilibrium of the mental forces, cultivated to excess by his method of study, was too stable in nature to be long disturbed, even by the greatest calamity. To-day he saw the necessity of applying his intelligence to the alleviation of Greif's sorrow and to the preservation of Greif's existence, endangered by such a blow. In a few weeks at the latest, his own sufferings would acquire an objective interest, and would become so many data for study in the great case of all humanity. Rex could never have been a hero. He could never have detached his own individuality from its place in his map of mankind, so as to believe himself different from all other men, as heroes must believe themselves. He felt that the balance lay between his own life and death, and that he could turn the scale at his own choice; he could never have made himself forget life in the hope of victory, nor death in the fear of failure. Incapable of any transcendental belief whatsoever, his intelligence had deified free- agency, while his unacknowledged suspicion of a directing power asserted itself in his theories concerning nature's fatalism. He supposed that the machinery of the universe produced inevitable phases in the lives of individuals and of nations; he knew that in all that had happened to him he had been free to exercise his choice between two alternatives. Such a choice was now before him, and for the first time in his life he determined to devote himself to the welfare of another.
An hour later Rex was supporting Greif as he returned from the state bedchamber to his own room. Strong and determined to be calm as the young man was, the sight had been too much for him, and it was clear that unless he could obtain sleep his nerves must break down under the strain they suffered. He reeled in his walk like a man half asleep, his bright eyes were glassy and fixed, his relaxed fingers were incapable of grasping Rex's arm, and the latter held him upright upon his feet and almost carried him along the dim corridors.
Rex also had seen, but when he had once been face to face with that which had irresistibly drawn him to the room, he had felt no desire to look again. The drawn, white features of the dead lady recalled nothing to his mind out of the sweetness of the past, while their fixed expression of pain intensified the horror of the present until it grew unbearable. He had stayed long in the other chamber, where his father lay, and as he gazed upon the stern dark face his wrath rose, swelling tumultuously in his breast, as the tide of the sea, ebbing away as he thought of what was beyond and as he realised that all vengeance had been accomplished, and all justice done, so that no one remained alive against whom he could feel anger, no one upon whom his hand could fall. They had taken the law into their own hands and had executed its extreme sentence upon her who had wronged them, and they had expiated their deed in their own bodies. Never was tragedy so swift, so desperate and so complete.
And now the morning sun was high in the heavens, mocking the solemn darkness of men's hearts with his fierce brightness, shining upon the ancient walls of Greifenstein as coldly and clearly through the keen winter air as he had shone yesterday and as he would shine to-morrow. From eave and stringcourse and dripstone of the old castle the melting patches of dazzling snow sent down mimic showers of diamond drops, and the moisture thawed from them made dark stains upon the grey masonry. A redbreast skipped about the furrows made in the white carpet by the carriage wheels, paused, turned his tiny impertinent head, and glanced up at the ramparts with a squint, as though to tell the time of day by the sun and the shadows of the projecting eaves. From the paved court of the stables, where all had been hurry and confusion on the previous night, came the occasional noise of an impatient hoof stamping upon the stones, the even sound of brushes on smooth coats as the men leisurely groomed the horses, the tinkling of curb-chains polished and rubbed together by idle lads who were in no hurry, and occasionally the echo of a voice, instantly subdued to an undertone as the speaker remembered that this day was not to be like other days. At the door of the servants' hall the two comfortable policemen in their dark uniforms and shining buttons sunned their fair beards as they smoked their morning pipes, exchanging a remark in a low voice about once in five minutes, and never without previously looking round to see whether any one was listening to them, but chiefly occupied in watching an underkeeper who was feeding the big hounds in a sunny corner of the inner court.
Nature, in her pitiless irony, seemed more than usually mirthful on that clear morning. It was such a day as old Greifenstein who lay upstairs, dead beside his dead wife, would have chosen to tramp far into the forest, with his gun on his shoulder and his dogs at his heels. It was such a day as would have made poor Clara's lot seem easier, softening her tortured conscience in a thaw of passing satisfaction, pleasant while it lasted, transitory as the gleam of light and warmth in the dismal winter of the Black Forest. The forest itself alone was unchanged. The trees looked blacker than ever against the blue sky and under the violent light. Around the vast amphitheatre of the hills they stood motionless in their even rows, like a great assembly of dark-robed judges, judging the dead who lay in their midst, inquisitors whom no brightness could brighten, and in whose sombre countenances no smile was reflected from the glorious sky and dazzling light. Silent, grand, funereal, they stood in their places as they had stood a hundred years ago, before those lives began which had now suddenly gone out, as they would stand when those other lives were extinguished which now were young.
Neither Greif nor Rex were seen again that day. In the course of time the representatives of the law arrived, did their office, and were regaled with a collation by the butler, during which they sat upon the chairs which last night had been occupied by those whose end they had come to ascertain. The case was very plain and their duties were simple. They went away and took the two policemen with them. Frau von Sigmundskron moved noiselessly about the house, giving the necessary directions when there were any to be given, occasionally sitting down in a quiet corner to read a few pages of a devotional book she had found. More than once she went to the different rooms where Greif and Rex had withdrawn, to see whether she could be of any use. Greif was always in the same place, leaning back in a great easy-chair, pale and exhausted with grief, but evidently master of himself. At last she found him asleep, and she drew a long breath of relief, for she knew that the chief danger was past. When she went to Rex she found him reading, and he did not relinquish his occupation during the whole day, so far as she could ascertain. Whether he understood what he read, or not, was more than she could determine. The volume contained a part of Goethe's works, and when she glanced at the page she saw that the student had selected the second part of Wilhelm Meister for his reading. He always looked up quietly when she entered, thanked her, and said that he needed nothing.
Frau von Sigmundskron could not rest. The sense of responsibility which she felt might alone have sufficed to sustain her energy, but her mind was disturbed by a matter even weightier in her eyes. The tremendous difficulties of the future presented themselves very clearly to her mental view, and she knew that before long they would not be mere shadows of things to come, but actual problems with which she must grapple, and upon the solution of which she must concentrate all her strength. Tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, the earth would close for ever over what remained of those poor beings whose departure from life had saddened her own and made it seem so hard to understand. But when the three were buried, she could no longer remain at Greifenstein. There would be no reason for prolonging her stay, even had she wished to do so, and indeed her wishes would lead her homewards as soon as her duties were all fulfilled. She had never before been separated even for a day from her child, and though she was strong and sensible in mind and knew that Hilda was safe with old Berbel, she was conscious that it was painful to be away from her. She would therefore return to Sigmundskron. From that moment her trouble would begin. It was not conceivable that Greif should go away without seeing Hilda, and yet there were many reasons why it would be better that the two should not meet.
She had foreseen the struggle during the hours of the night, but it had not then appeared so formidable as now. She had then thought more of Greif, and it had not seemed impossible to tell him frankly what she felt. As she reflected upon what must be done, she saw that Hilda was the principal figure in the situation, and she realised that Hilda's happiness was infinitely more dear to her than anything else in the world. She hesitated, and for some time she told herself that the marriage must take place, come what might.
To her, all that had happened since the previous evening was shrouded in an impenetrable mystery. Her imagination failed utterly to account for the desperate doings of which the horrible result was before her. She could have understood that the two brothers might have quarrelled on meeting after so many years, and that in a moment of reckless anger they should have shot each other. Clara might have perished in the struggle, while endeavouring to part them. But there was a dreadful appearance of deliberate intention in the whole tragedy which made such a hypothesis untenable. That Clara had been intentionally murdered, she could not doubt. Greifenstein might have slain her in a fit of passion and might have taken his own life afterwards, but this could not account for Rieseneck's suicide. She could have believed that for some unknown reason Rieseneck had killed his brother and Clara, and after disposing their bodies as they were found, had shot himself. But the examination proved the contrary. It was plainly evident that both men had died in their chairs by the weapons found in their own hands. Rieseneck had written to his son, but Greifenstein had not, or, at least, if he had written anything it had not been discovered. Rex alone could know the secret, therefore, if it had been revealed at all. She was ignorant that in Germany, when a suicide has been committed, the law has a right to see whatever letters were last written by the deceased. The stamped letter, addressed to Rex, had attracted her attention, and she had taken it from the table with the intention of posting it the next day, not meaning to conceal it, but, on the contrary, to send it without delay to its destination. The legal gentlemen, courteous to the good lady, had not pressed her with any questions, taking it for granted that if she had found any letter or any clue to an explanation she would naturally offer it at once. And so it chanced that Rex alone could know the truth if any one knew it. That he had been terribly moved by what he had read, she had seen for herself, but whether the letter had contained a full explanation of the circumstances, it was not possible to judge. If so, it was more than probable, she thought, that Rex would show it to Greif in due time, and that when the first shock was over the contents would be communicated to herself. The question was whether this would happen before Greif saw Hilda. In spite of her natural repugnance to such a plan, she almost resolved to ask Rex directly whether what he had received threw any light upon the situation. If she could know why those three persons were dead she could better guide her course in the future.
If Greifenstein had been a murderer, as well as a suicide, his son could not have Hilda for his wife. It was Greif's misfortune, and the baroness gave him all the pity she could spare from her own child, but the point could not be yielded. She closed her eyes and tried to think it over. She thought of Hilda, married and leaving Sigmundskron to live under the very roof where such deeds had been done, and the mere idea was painful and repugnant. Greif was wholly innocent of all that had happened, but the stain was upon his name, and the blood of his father was in his veins. Hilda's children would be the grandchildren of a murderer. Old Greifenstein had not ended his days in a shameful prison, merely because he had found courage to take his own life quickly. But if he had done the deed he was a common murderer, and the moral result was the same, whether he were alive or dead; the indelible disgrace rested upon his son, and would brand the lives of his son's sons after him. Hilda loved Greif, and Greif loved Hilda, but that was no argument. Better that Hilda should drag out a solitary and childless existence than be happy under such a name; far better that Greif should submit to half a century of lonely and loveless years, than get children whose names should perpetuate the remembrance of a monstrous crime. Hilda would suffer, but suffering was the lot of mankind. The baroness wondered sadly whether her daughter's disappointment could possibly equal what she herself had borne on that day when her gallant soldier-husband had been shot down in battle. Could Hilda's sorrow be like her own? Even if it were, Hilda must bear it rather than take such a name—unless, indeed, old Greifenstein had been innocent of his wife's death. No one could know that except Rex, and would he answer her question? In her horror of the whole situation she wished that she might go back to Sigmundskron and end her life in barely decent poverty with Hilda, and never again think of the marriage. But her rigid sense of duty reproached her for such a thought, which made her feel as though she were trying to lay down the responsibility that had fallen to her lot. Her untiring conscience took up the burden again, to bear it as it might.
Rex must answer her, and upon his answer would depend everything. It was not an easy matter to question him, however, and for the present it was wholly impossible. She must meet Hilda while she herself was yet undecided, so that it seemed simplest to be roughly frank with the girl, to tell her plainly what had happened, what was known and the extent of what no one knew, showing her clearly that if old Greifenstein should turn out to have been guilty, she must give up all thought of Greif and submit to her poor lot with the best grace she could. Greif would go away and travel, perhaps for several years. He would find interests at last, which might help him to forget his darkened youth. Hilda and her mother would live as they could, and when the mother died Sigmundskron must go to the hammer. At all events it was not encumbered with debts, and its sale would leave the child a pittance to save her from starvation; possibly she would have more than before, but Frau von Sigmundskron could not judge of that. Possibly, too, Hilda's sixty-four quarterings would help her to gain admittance as a lady-canoness in one of those semi-religious foundations, reserved exclusively for the old nobility, of which several exist in Germany.
The short winter's day was over when Frau von Sigmundskron reached this stage in her meditations. Lights were brought to the room where she was, and a servant came to ask her what she would eat. She scarcely knew what she answered, but she remembered that some hours had passed since she had been to see Greif or Rex and she roused herself to go upon the errand of inquiry. In the corridor she was met by another person who came to ask about the dispositions for the morrow, an ominous creature in black, the sight of whom recalled at once the hideous realities of the day, from which her mind had wandered in her anxiety for Hilda's welfare. She gave the necessary directions and continued upon her way.
'Come in,' said Greif's voice as she knocked cautiously at the door.
As soon as she entered she saw that his state had been improved by the rest he had taken. His eyes were quiet, his colour pale but natural, his manner mournfully calm. In the morning she had feared he might fall into a delirious fever.
Frau von Sigmundskron came and stood beside him. He was comforted by her presence, though he had not always been sure that he liked her. At present, he knew what good cause he had to be grateful to her for what she had done, and he felt that she was his only relation in the world, the only woman alive who could in any way take the place of what he had lost. If he had not been very fond of her before, it was because he had not understood her, and because in his eyes her personality was entirely eclipsed by Hilda's. He put out his hand and took hers, and pressed it gently.
'You are very good,' he said. 'I am glad you have come.'
She sat down beside his easy-chair and gazed into the fire. There was no light in the room save that of the pine logs, blazing in the great chimney. Her reflexions of ten minutes earlier seemed very far away, for the sight of him and the sound of his voice had suddenly recalled those hopes for Hilda from which she had got so much happiness.
'You have slept,' she said. 'I am glad, for you needed rest.'
She did not know what to say, and there was a pause before she spoke again, during which Greif did not move. Unconsciously he had taken the manner of one ill, and lay back in his seat, his eyes half closed, his hands resting upon the arms of the chair, making no effort and only hoping that none would be required of him.
'Dear Greif,' said the baroness at last, 'you will go away, will you not?'
He started a little and his expression changed, as though the question pained him.
'Yes,' he answered. 'I will go away—when it is over.'
'Shall it be to-morrow, then?' asked Frau von Sigmundskron very softly.
'Yes. To-morrow morning. I would it were to-night. And then—' he stopped and passed his hand wearily across his forehead, letting it drop nerveless by his side almost immediately.
'Then I must see Hilda before I go.' His eyelids quivered, and his lips shut themselves closely.
'Yes,' answered the baroness in a tone of hesitation.
'Yes, I must see Hilda,' Greif repeated. 'And when I am gone—then— then—'
This time Frau von Sigmundskron said nothing, for she saw that he was suffering, though she dared not guess what was passing in his mind. He seemed to be trying to speak.
'When I am gone—' he began, but the words died on his lips. 'Do not talk of this now, dear Greif.'
He roused himself and sat straight in his chair. There was something of his father's look in his face, and his companion noticed that his fingers were strained as he grasped the carved wood in the effort to steady himself.
'I must say it now,' he answered firmly. 'To-morrow I shall not be able to talk much, and it may happen that we shall never have another opportunity.'
'Perhaps never. It is to be good-bye. You must find another husband for Hilda, for I may not come back. That is what I wanted to say.'
The baroness turned a startled look upon him and leant forwards toward him from her seat. She had not expected such a turn in the drama.
'You do not suppose that I, an honourable man, would expect you to give your daughter to the son of a murderer?'
The question was put so sharply and concisely that Frau von Sigmundskron was taken unawares. The thought had been painful enough when it had passed unspoken through the confusion of her reflexions, but Greif's statement gave it a new and horrible vividness. With a single sharp sob, she hid her face in her hands, and Greif saw that they trembled. His own heart was beating violently, for he had nerved himself to make the effort, but he had not anticipated the reaction that followed closely upon it. He felt as though, in pronouncing the detested word, he had struck his father's dead face with his hand.
'God knows how I loved him,' he said, under his breath. 'But he did the deed.'
Frau von Sigmundskron did not distinguish the words he spoke, but she felt that she must say something. Her hands dropped from her strained and tearless eyes and fell upon her knees.
'Oh, Greif! Greif!' she almost moaned, as she stared at the blazing logs.
'That is what it comes to in the end,' he answered, summoning all his courage. 'I cannot marry Hilda. It was bad enough to be half disgraced by my father's brother—you were kind enough to set that aside. It is worse now, for the stain is on the name itself. I cannot give it to Hilda. Would you have her called Greifenstein?'
The baroness could not speak. Half an hour earlier she would not have dared to hope that Greif would himself renounce her daughter, but it was different now. She could not look upon his agonised face, and listen to the tones that came from his tortured heart, as he gave up all he held dear for the sake of acting honourably, she could not see his suffering and hear his words, and yet brutally admit that he was right, and that his sacrifice was a necessity. And yet her own conscience told her that her first thought must be for her own child, and not for him. She stared at the fire and answered nothing.
'Would you have her write her name "Hilda von Greifenstein"?' he asked, forcing the words sternly from his lips. 'Would you have her angel purity darkened with the blood that is on my house?'
'But you, Greif—what will become of you?'
'It matters little enough, so that I do no harm to those I love,' he answered.
'It does matter,' said the baroness gently. 'It is not right or just that an innocent man should suffer for the deeds of others.'
'It is right that he should suffer anything, rather than injure those who are not only innocent but free from inherited reproach.'
There was a sudden energy in his manner which surprised his companion. His white face was illuminated by a sort of radiance from within, his voice was full and firm, the glance of his eyes piercing and determined.
'It is right,' he continued, 'and I will do it, come what may. Indeed I must, for in spite of your kind heart and words you would not give her to me. But even if you would, I would not take her, I would not make her the mother of more Greifensteins. Ay—you look at me—I love her too much. That is the reason. If I loved her less—oh, then, I would take her. I would take my beautiful Hilda for my own sake, and in her love I would try and forget the horrors of my younger years. I would forget, for my own sake, that my father was a murderer and a suicide, my father's brother a shameful traitor, myself a man clothed in the infamy of others, until the world can hardly distinguish between my innocence and their guilt. I could live with Hilda, somewhere in this lonely forest, and with her I might bury memory and talk lightly of love beside its very grave. And Hilda would be willing, too, and if I did not love her as I do, I would take her—whether you would let her go or not—no, forgive me—I should not speak so to you, who are the best of women—but you would consent, for you are so kind. But the thing is impossible. She would remember, and I should remember also, when our sons grew up and had to meet the world with the brand of our name upon their faces. Look at Rex. He is my best friend. Yesterday I learnt that he is my cousin. Even he has hidden his father's deeds under a common, meaningless name. How much more should I hide my head! How much less right have I, than he had yesterday, to make an innocent girl, or any woman, the wife of a Greifenstein! No—go to Hilda, tell her the truth, let me see her once, and I will rid you of myself when I have said good-bye. You are her mother, and you alone can tell her all— all except the last word, and when I have spoken that word, I will go away, Rex and I together, and you will not hear of me any more.'
Greif ceased speaking. He had risen from his chair to pace the room while he spoke and he now stood with folded arms before the baroness, his eyes fixed on hers as though waiting for her answer. He was very young, and it was perhaps the first time in his life that he had spoken out before any one. He was too much excited to think whether his speech would sound theatrical and exaggerated or not. He meant every word of what he had said, and that was enough for him. He meant to do what was right and honourable, and that is enough for any man.
Frau von Sigmundskron's gentle eyes fell before his fixed gaze. Feeling as she did, and remembering what she had felt when she had come to him, she was ashamed to meet his earnest glance. There were few better women in the world, few whose goodness showed itself so clearly both in deeds and intentions, and yet she was conscious, rightly or wrongly, that Greif was outdoing her in generosity. To her the words he had spoken had a ring of heroism in them, and he himself seemed to grow in dignity and strength as he stood before her. She hesitated, the speech came to her lips, failed, took courage and came again. Once more she raised her head and looked into his eyes.
'Greif—you are a brave man, and you will understand me,' she said. 'When I came here, I felt all that you have said. I felt it in the long night, before you were in the house. I meant to tell you what you have told me, as kindly as I could, not now, but later. It would have been hard, for I am more than fond of you.'
'It would have been your duty, and it would have been right,' answered Greif calmly.
The baroness laid her hand upon his folded arms.
'It would not have been right, Greif,' she said in a low voice that trembled a little. 'It might have seemed so, for I did not know you as I know you now. You have done all that a man can do, more, perhaps, than almost any man would have done. I did not wrong you in what I felt, nor in what I meant to say, but I could never say it now. Take Hilda, and call yourself as you will, for you are worthy of her and neither you nor she will ever regret it.'
Greif looked at her for a moment, and then knelt beside her and kissed her hands.
'You will,' she said, and there were tears in her eyes.
'I cannot,' he answered, in heartbroken accents. Then, rising, he stood and leaned against the chimney-piece and bowed his head against the carved wood.
He could not feel as she did, and his nature was incapable of such a sudden revulsion as had taken place in her heart. He knew how bravely generous she had been, but her kindness changed nothing in the situation, beyond awakening in him a sense of heartfelt gratitude for which he had expected no such cause as she had given. The fear of doing an injury to Hilda was still foremost in his mind. He had said that even if her mother would consent, he would not take her, and what he felt when that consent was so unexpectedly thrust upon him was a measure of his earnestness.
'Nothing is spared me,' he said, almost under his breath. 'Not even your generosity!'
His action was to depend wholly upon his own free will, and he knew that it would have been far easier to renounce his love if Hilda's mother had helped him with her opposition. There she sat, offering him what he must not take, thrusting upon him that which his whole nature craved, and which his honour alone bid him refuse. Her sweet voice sounded like the soft music of temptation.
'Do not say so, Greif,' she said. 'Remember that you are wholly innocent, and that Hilda loves you with all her heart and soul. Why must you force yourself to do what will make her and me so unspeakably wretched? After all—I take the most worldly argument—it is for her and for me to decide. You have concealed nothing, and I know all, and if I say that your goodness and your heroism outweigh the rest, should you not be satisfied? And besides, you are young. You do not know how very quickly the world forgets. A score of years hence, who will remember the evil deeds of last night? They were not even done in a city, those who did them had hardly any acquaintances, and perhaps no friends. You yourself are not old enough to be known to many, and you can live here until your children are grown up. It seems to me that I was wrong even to have thought of separating you two, wholly wrong and mistaken and that I ought to ask your forgiveness for my intention.' Thus she pleaded the cause of his own heart, giving many and good reasons why he should yield, while he stood struggling with himself and wishing that he could stop his ears against her persuasion. To him the horror was more vivid than to her, and she could not understand his dread of associating Hilda with the curse that had fallen upon his house.
'I cannot,' he said firmly, when she had ceased speaking.
She rose and stood beside him.
'Think of it, Greif,' she answered. 'You must not break her heart for a scruple of honour.'
Then she went out softly, wondering at herself, but sure that she had done the best.
Frau von Sigmundskron was too conscientious a person to omit a mental review of what had passed. She knew, indeed, that she had acted kindly and generously, if not wisely, and she believed that in some cases kindness might be better than wisdom. She was struck by one point in Greif's language. He assumed as a certainty that old Greifenstein had killed Clara, whereas the baroness had been inclined to attribute the crime to Rieseneck alone. At first she did not understand Greif's readiness to believe that this evil deed had been his father's, but presently, as she thought over the whole matter, it struck her that she had no reason for acquitting the one rather than the other, so far as evidence was concerned, but that she had wished Greif's father innocent for Greif's own sake. The good lady was much disturbed on finding that her wishes had been strong enough to bias her mental view without her knowledge, and she grew more and more satisfied with the course she had pursued after Greif had spoken. She saw clearly, now, that Greif was indispensable to her for Hilda's happiness, and she comprehended that he was worthy of the girl.
In the wicked world which surrounded the Black Forest on all sides, persons would have been found malicious enough to suspect that Greif really wished to be free from his engagement with Hilda. He himself, had he been less excited, would have hesitated before speaking as he had done, lest such a motive should be attributed to him. He would have acted and talked with more diplomacy and less outward energy, though with the same inward conviction, and it is by no means impossible that Frau von Sigmundskron's first intention might in such a case have remained unchanged, and that she would have gently acquiesced in Greif's proposal to give up the marriage. But there was no guile in the baroness, and but little in Greif himself. He had been carried away in his speech by the sincerity of what he felt, the more easily because his whole nature was unstrung by grief; and Hilda's mother had seen in him only the hero, ready to sacrifice everything for her he loved, and womanlike, she had felt irresistibly impelled to reward him on the spot by a generous sacrifice of those convictions which his real or fancied eloquence had already destroyed. So simple was she, that it did not strike her that Greif's own position was changed, that he was all at once his own master, possessed of a large fortune and perhaps of tastes which he had concealed during his father's life. If the aforesaid wicked world had been acquainted with the circumstances, it would assuredly have taken this view into consideration. But that portion of mankind in which are included so many of our acquaintance, but in whose numbers we ourselves are never found, were very far from Greifenstein, and the Lady of Sigmundskron knew little of their modes of thought. She saw that Greif was honest and she sought no malicious explanation of his intentions. On the contrary, the longer she reflected upon the interview, the more she admired him, and strange to say, the nearer she came to accepting his opinion of his father's guilt.
She had meant to see Rex, and she had not been altogether decided to wait and allow the natural course of events to bring her the information she desired about his letter. She remembered with some surprise that her decision in the matter of the marriage was to have depended upon the knowledge of old Greifenstein's culpability or innocence which she had hoped to gain from Rex. It was evident that her mind was tired, and she resolved at last to rest. It was her duty, however, to see Rex before sleeping, if only to inquire about his state. She would certainly not ask him any questions.
She found him reading still, or pretending to read, by the light of a shaded student's lamp. Upon another table there was a tray with a couple of covered dishes upon it. His older and tougher nature showed itself there, she thought, for he must have given the order himself. He rose politely as she entered, and offered her a chair. His manner contrasted so strongly with Greif's, as to make her wonder whether he were in reality much affected or not.
'I will not stay,' she said. 'I only came to see how you were, and whether I could do anything for you.'
'You are very kind. I have all I need, and more. Have you seen Greif?'
'Yes. He has slept and I think he is safe. At first I feared lest his mind should be affected. He is younger than you, Herr von—Herr Rex— and perhaps he is more sensitive.'
'Perhaps,' replied Rex thoughtfully. 'Would he care to see me?'
'I have no doubt—that is—he may possibly be tired—' she hesitated.
Rex's stony eyes examined her face attentively.
'You have had an interview with him,' he said in a tone of conviction, 'and you have talked about this dreadful matter. I have a communication to make to you, Frau von Sigmundskron. It will not take long.'
The baroness started and looked at him earnestly.
'What is it? she asked.
'You gave me a letter this morning. I will tell you frankly that you ought to have given it to the representatives of the law, for in such cases the law has a right to all letters of the deceased and can even cause them to be intercepted in the post-office.'
'I did not know,' she replied, in some perturbation.
'I did, but as no one asked me for the letter, I did not offer it. I cannot tell you all it contained, nor shall I tell Greif. But this I will tell you. My father arrived here last night, and almost immediately afterwards he and Herr von Greifenstein, jointly, killed Frau von Greifenstein, and then committed suicide.'
'Is there no doubt!' asked the baroness nervously. She turned white at the thought of the scene his words recalled.
'The last confessions of men about to die are generally trustworthy,' remarked Rex rather drily.
'Of course—of course.' She wondered what other communication the letter had contained. 'Exactly, and you may rely upon the exactness of what I tell you. My poor father had no reason for deceiving me, nor was he a man to deceive any one. He had been a fanatic and an enthusiast in his youth, and if his fanaticism led him too far, he paid the penalty in forty years of exile.'
'But what could have induced him—or Greifenstein—'
'Madam,' said Rex courteously, but firmly, 'I regret my inability to answer your question. It must be supposed that two such men had some cause for acting as they did, which seemed to them sufficient.'
'Forgive me!' exclaimed the baroness. 'I did not mean to ask you. I thank you for having told me what you have. Am I to tell Greif? I think—indeed I know that what he believes coincides with your account.'
'Then you had better say nothing. I could not show him the letter, and if he knew that there was one, he might naturally enough reproach me with a want of confidence in him. I should be sorry to be placed in such a position, at such a time.'
For a few moments neither spoke. The baroness was formulating another question, which must be put to her companion.
'Herr Rex,' she said at last, 'it is necessary that the last act of this tragedy should be completed to-morrow. You have a voice in the matter—' she hesitated.
'Whatever you do will be well done,' answered Rex. He seemed to think the question over quickly. 'If you have any objections to his resting here,' he said presently, 'I will take him away. Do not let any feeling of delicacy prevent you from being frank.'
'Let them lie together,' replied Frau von Sigmundskron. 'It would be Greif's wish. You are very thoughtful, Herr Rex, but you must not think that any such unkind feeling can exist any longer now. Though there is no real tie of blood, you are one of us. You and Greif should be as brothers.'
A momentary light flashed in Rex's impenetrable eyes.
'I will be a brother to him, if he will let me,' he answered steadily. 'I thank you very much for what you have done and for what you say.'
Frau von Sigmundskron bade him good-night and went away. She was a woman, and her curiosity was strong, though her conscience was stronger. She felt that she was in the presence of some extraordinary mystery, and that Rex himself was a somewhat mysterious personage. His eyes haunted her and disturbed her peace, and yet she could not deny that she was attracted by him. His quiet dignity pleased her, as well as the tone of his voice. She liked his face and its expression, and her deep-rooted prejudices of caste were satisfied, for she recognised in him a man essentially of her own class. There was something very manly, too, about his bearing, which could not fail to impress a womanly woman, no matter of what age. But his eyes followed her and seemed to stare stonily at her out of the dark corners of the room. She was too much exhausted, however, to resist very long the oppression of sleep that came over her, and she was far too tired to dream, or at least to be conscious of dreaming.
With the following morning came the last trial of her strength, and those who saw her wondered how a thin, pale woman, whose hair was already white could show such constant energy, forethought and endurance. She had led a hard life, however, harder than any one there suspected, and she could have borne even more than was thrust upon her, without flinching or bending under the burden. On foot she walked in the mournful procession through the snow and the bitter wind, leaning but lightly on Greif's arm, and sometimes feeling that she was helping him rather than accepting his assistance. It was nearly a quarter of a mile from the castle to the spot where the burial-place of the Greifensteins was built in the depth of the forest, and the road was bad in many parts, though an attempt had been made to clear it, and the footsteps of those who bore the dead smoothed the path for the living who came after.
At last it was over. The last short prayer was said. The great stone slab, green with the mould of centuries, was raised by twenty strong arms and was made to slide back into its place above the yawning steps that led down into the earth, the heavy doors of the mausoleum swung slowly upon their hinges, the huge, rusty lock was secured and the unwieldy key was solemnly placed in the hands of the new master of Greifenstein. With slow steps, two and two together, all went back through the dim shadows of the trees, while the icy wind whistled and roared upon them from every giant stem, and the trodden snow creaked beneath their feet. Two and two they re-entered the low gateway of the castle, till the iron-studded oak clanged behind the last pair, sending rolling echoes along the dark, vaulted way.
An hour later Greif and Rex sat together in sad silence before the big blazing logs in Greif's room, faintly conscious of the comforting warmth, looking at each other from time to time without speaking, each absorbed by the pain of his own thoughts. It seemed as though several hours had passed in this way when Greif at last broke the silence.
'I will ride to Sigmundskron to-morrow,' he said, 'and then we will go away.'
Rex looked at him, nodded gravely and answered nothing.
'We must go together, Rex,' said Greif after another long pause. 'Will you come?'
'I will go with you wherever you will. If we part it shall not be my fault.'
The great logs crackled and blazed, sending up leaping flames and showers of sparks into the wide chimney and reflecting a warm red glare which contrasted oddly with the cold and sunless light of the winter's afternoon. The sound and the sight of the fire supplied the place of conversation and animated the stillness.
'Rex, did you know that I was to have been married next month?' Greif asked the question suddenly, as though he had come to an unexpected decision.
'I thought it possible that you would marry soon,' answered his companion.
'I was to have been married to my cousin Hilda in January. How far away that seems!'
'The daughter of Frau von Sigmundskron?'
'Yes. We have been engaged for years.'
'And you are going to Sigmundskron to see her—to tell her—'
'That it is all over.' Greif completed the sentence.
Rex rested his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, staring at the fire. He knew what Greif meant without any further explanation, and he realised how much more his cousin would stand in need of comfort than before. But his active and far-sighted intelligence did not accept the necessity of breaking off the marriage. He approved of Greif's wish to do so, and admired his courage, but at the same time he saw the utter desolation and gloominess of the life in store for him if he persisted in his intention. He held his peace, however.
'You see that I could not do otherwise,' Greif said at last. Still Rex answered nothing, and stared persistently into the flames, though his cousin was looking at him.
'Would you,' continued Greif, 'if you were in my place, have the courage to offer such a name as mine to an innocent girl?'
'You are as innocent as she,' observed Rex.
'Personally, but that is not the question. Would you bring her here to live in this house, to be a part of all the evil that has befallen me and mine?'
'You can live where you please,' said Rex philosophically.
'And besides, by a very simple process of law you can call yourself by another name. Do away with the name and live in another place, and you are simply Greif and she is simply Hilda. There could be no question of doing her an injury. Names are foolish distinctions at best, and when there is anything wrong with them it is foolish not to get rid of them at once. Do you think that I would not marry as plain Herr Rex, though I am in reality the high and well-born Horst von Rieseneck? I have but to make application for a legal change, pay the costs and the thing is done.'
'Outwardly, it is true. But the fact would remain. You are Rieseneck and I am Greifenstein, for all our lives, and our children will be Riesenecks and Greifensteins after us, if we marry. I would not lay such a curse upon any woman, much less upon one I love.'
'A curse is a purely conventional term, having no real meaning in life,' replied Rex. 'The reality is you yourself, your love and her love, whether you be the Emperor or Herr Schmidt. At least that is all the reality which can ever affect either of you, so far as marriage is concerned. I do not say that your name, or mine, would not be a disadvantage if we were ambitious men and if we wanted to be statesmen or officers. But I do assert that no sensible person will blame you or me for marrying happily if we have the opportunity, merely because our fathers did evil in their day.'
Greif listened attentively, but shook his head.
'It is strange that you should not think as I do about this,' he answered. 'We think alike about most things. But you need not try to persuade me against my will. I will not yield.'
'Will you take my advice about a smaller matter?'
'If I can.'
'Then listen to me. Do not be hasty. If you must see Fraulein von Sigmundskron to-morrow, do not let your parting be final. You may regret it all your life.'
'What would my regret be, compared with hers, if in the course of time she realised that she had done wrong in taking my name?'
'Are there any men of her family alive?' asked Rex. 'Is there any other branch?'
'No—if there were, they would never allow the marriage, even if I wished it.'
'I did not ask for that reason. If she is alone in the world, take her name. Call yourself Greif von Sigmundskron, and revive an ancient race without letting your own die out.'
Greif was silent. It had not struck him that such an arrangement might be possible, but he saw at a glance that Rex had dealt a telling blow against his resolution. To have married Hilda as Greifenstein would have always remained out of the question, to have chosen a common and meaningless appellation would have seemed an insult to her, but the idea suggested by Rex was alluring in the extreme. He knew how bitterly both Hilda and her mother regretted the extinction of their family and how gladly they would welcome such a proposal. By one stroke of the pen Greifenstein and its memories would be detached from his future life, and there would be something in their place, a name to make honourable, a home in which to plant new associations—above all there would be the love, the pride, the happiness of Hilda herself. He felt that his determination was weakened, and he made a final effort not to yield, scarcely knowing why he resisted any longer, since the possibilities of the future had grown so suddenly bright. Rex saw at a glance that he had made a deep impression upon his cousin, and wisely left the remedy he had administered to take its effect gradually. He knew human nature too well to fear that Greif could ever shut his eyes to the prospect unveiled to him. Time must pass, and in passing must heal the gaping wound that was yet fresh. Every month would take the ghastly tragedy further away and bring more clearly to Greif's mind the hope of happiness. As for the rest, it was buried in Rex's heart and no power would ever draw from him the secret of his brother's birth. Rightly or wrongly, he swore to hold his tongue. He did not know to whom the great Greifenstein property would go if he told the world that Greif was a nameless orphan with no more claim to his father's wealth than Rex himself. It seemed strange to be suggesting to Greif the means of discarding a name that never was his, but which must in all probability belong to some one who coveted it in spite of the associations it would soon have for all who heard the tale.
Rex sat in silence thinking over the almost endless intricacies of the situation, and wondering what would have happened if that letter had fallen into the hands of the law, and what would have become of Greif. He would have been absolutely penniless. Not even his mother's heritage, if there were any, would have belonged to him, for Rex could have claimed it as his own. He looked at the handsome face of his cousin, and tried to imagine what its expression would have been, if all things had taken place legally, and if Greif had received only what was his due. The sensation of preserving so much to any one by merely keeping silence was strange to Rex. He did not know whether he himself might not be considered a party in a fraud if the matter were tried before a tribunal, though he had not spoken one untrue word in the whole affair. Verily, silence was gold. To Greif, Rex's silence was almost equivalent to life itself. One word could deprive him of everything, of Greifenstein, of his name, of every item and miserable object he possessed, as well as of the broad lands and the accumulated money. He would lose all, but in whose favour? Rex did not know. Perhaps the lawful heir of Greifenstein was a poor officer of foot in a third-rate garrison town, eking out his pay with the remains of a meagre inheritance, desperately poor, and as desperately honourable. Possibly there was a connexion with some great and powerful family, into his full hands everything would go, if the truth were known. Possibly—Rex stopped short in his train of thought, astonished that he should not have sooner hit upon the fact—possibly Frau von Sigmundskron and her daughter were the only living relations. It seemed almost certain that this must be the case, when he thought about it. And if so—if he held his peace, and if Greif persisted in not marrying Hilda—why then he, Rex, was keeping that gentle, half-saintly old lady out of her rights. The new confusion caused by the idea was so great that even Rex's tough brain was disturbed. His instinct told him that the Sigmundskrons were poor—perhaps they were in real want. If he said nothing, if Greif persisted, if in later years Greif married another wife, as was most likely and possible, what sufferings might the man who had brought this about be responsible for! And yet, what a prospect, if he should take his letter from his pocket-book and hand it to Greif, as they sat side by side in the quiet room before the open fire! He had meant to burn the scrap of paper. It would be easy to toss it into the flames before Greif's eyes. But if ever all those things should happen of which he had been thinking, what proof would remain that the baroness or her daughter had a right to what was theirs even now? If ever that time came, Greif would not believe a spoken word. Would it not have been best, after all, to give the writing to the men of the law, requesting their discretion? No, for all this might be spared, if only Greif married Hilda. Until he had realised what issues were at stake, Rex had been satisfied with the suggestion he had made to Greif, believing that it would ultimately bear fruit in the desired result. Now, however, it seemed insufficient and wholly inadequate to the importance of the case. Greif must marry Hilda, and the letter must not be destroyed, for it might prove a valuable instrument with which to hasten or direct the march of events. After all—were the Sigmundskrons the only relations?
The idea that they were the only heirs-at-law had presented itself so forcibly that the sudden doubt concerning the fact made Rex desperate. There was no difficulty, however, in ascertaining the truth from Greif himself and without rousing his suspicions. It was even natural that Rex should ask the question, considering what had gone before.
'Have you no other relations, besides the Sigmundskrons, Greif?' he asked.
'None but you yourself.'
'I am not counted, as the connexion is in the female line,' said Rex calmly. 'I mean, if you were to die, the Sigmundskrons would be the heirs, unless you married and had children, would they not?'