Greif was going to die. The doctor had very little doubt of it. In all his experience he had never known such an obstinate case of meningitis in a man so young and so strong. The grey morning dawned and found him and Rex standing upon each side of the bed that looked unnaturally white in the gloom. Still, Greif was alive, though his moaning had grown very faint, and his strength was almost gone. Rex held his breath every now and then, as the sound ceased, fearing lest every moment should be the last. The doctor tried to make out the time without carrying his watch to the night-light, failed and returned it to his pocket with a half-suppressed sigh. He had done all that he could, and yet Rex's stony eyes were fixed on him in the early twilight, and his reputation was at stake. He knew that the thread might break at any moment, but he believed that if Greif lived until sunrise he would live until noon, and die about three o'clock in the day.
'Herr Rex,' he said quietly, 'I think you had better send for Frau von Sigmundskron, if she would wish to see him. You told me he had no other relation near.'
Rex's head fell forward upon his breast as though he had received a blow, though he had known all through the night that this morning might be the last, and the doctor had told him nothing unexpected. A moment later he left the room quietly. He was met by a servant before he had gone far.
'Tell Karl to put in the Trachener stallions and drive to Sigmundskron as fast as they can go. He must bring back the baroness before noon. Your master is dying.'
He would have turned away, but the man detained him with a question he did not hear at first.
'What did you say?' he asked.
'A messenger has just come from Sigmundskron to inquire,' the servant said.
'I will see him. Give the order to Karl quickly,' said Rex.
In the hall a queer-looking man was brought to him. He was one of those thin, wiry, dark and straight-haired men of the Forest who seem to belong to a race not German, whatever it may be. He wore patched leather breeches, from the side pocket of which protruded the horn handle of his long knife. His legs were bare, his shirt open at the neck, his waistcoat with silver buttons was flung carelessly over one shoulder, and a small fur cap was thrust back from his forehead, upon which a few drops of perspiration were visible. His small and piercing eyes met Rex's boldly.
'The baroness sent me to know how the young gentleman was,' he said, speaking in the Swabian dialect.
'Herr von Greifenstein is dying,' answered Rex gravely.
'Then I had better go and tell her so,' said the man, calmly, though his face fell at the bad news. He was already turning away when Rex stopped him.
'Have you come on foot?' he asked, looking curiously at a fellow who could run over from Sigmundskron and go back almost without taking breath.
'Of course,' was the answer.
'Then you can go home in the carriage. I have just ordered it. Give him something to eat quickly,' he added, turning to the servant, 'before Karl is ready.'
'I shall be there before your carriage,' observed the man carelessly. 'Especially if you will give me a drink of cherry spirits.'
'Before the carriage?'
'Not if I stay here,' said the other. 'But I can beat your horses by half an hour at least.'
'What is your name?' asked Rex while the servant was gone for the drink.
'Sebastian, I suppose?'
The man shrugged his shoulders, as though to say that he did not care for such a civilised appellation. Rex took out his purse and gave him a gold piece, a generosity elicited by his admiration for the fellow's powers.
'Take that, Wastei, and here is your liquor.'
Wastei nodded carelessly, slipped the money into his waistcoat pocket, drank a quarter of the bottle of cherry spirits at a draught, and touching his cap was out of the door before Rex could speak again.
'Did you ever see that fellow before?' Rex asked of the servant.
'No, sir,' the man answered rather stiffly. 'I am not from these parts.'
Rex returned to Greif's room with a heavy heart, and found the physician standing where he had left him, waiting for the sunrise. They both sat down in silence, watching the face of the dying man, and listening to his breathing. There was nothing to be done, save to try and make him swallow some nourishment once in a quarter of an hour.
The dawn brightened slowly, until a soft pink light was reflected from the snow outside upon the ceiling of the room. It was mid-winter still and the nights were long and the days short, the sun rising almost as late as possible and setting suddenly again when the day seemed only half over. When at last the level eastern rays shot into the chamber, Rex and the doctor rose and looked at their patient. He was breathing still, very faintly, and apparently without pain.
'There is a possibility still,' said Rex in a low voice.
The physician glanced at him, and suppressed a professional shrug of the shoulders.
'We shall see what happens at noon,' he answered, but the tone of his voice was sceptical.
To tell the truth he believed that there was no longer any hope whatever, and so far as any such chance was concerned he would almost have risked going home at once. Nevertheless he determined to stay to the very last, partly because his reputation was at stake, partly out of curiosity to watch Rex at the supreme moment. He suspected that the latter was in some way profoundly interested in the question of Greif's life, though he found it quite impossible to make sure whether his anxiety proceeded from affection or from some more selfish motive. For the present, however, he left Rex to himself and went to his own room to rest an hour or two.
The time passed very slowly. Rex's nerves were as firm as the rest of his singularly well-knit constitution, and he was never weary of fulfilling the mechanical duties of a nurse, which he had refused to relinquish, during twelve hours at least of each day, though he was obliged to give his place to an assistant during the remainder of the time.
In order not to be idle as he sat beside the bed, Rex drew figures and made calculations in his pocket-book. He seemed to derive considerable satisfaction from his occupation, for he looked more hopefully at Greif each time he raised his head, though the latter's condition showed no apparent change. His consolation was in reality only transitory, for when the clock at last struck twelve and he laid his work definitely aside, it seemed to him that he had been dreaming and that the case was more desperate than ever. The physician returned and stood beside him, but he looked at Rex more often than at Greif. At last he laid his hand upon the younger man's arm and led him away from the bedside, towards the open window.
'Herr Rex, I would say a word to you. I firmly believe that your cousin will die in a few minutes.' He spoke in a whisper, and Rex bent his head, for he thought his companion was right.
'I have a theory,' continued the doctor, 'that people who are dying are far more conscious of what passes around them than is commonly supposed. It may be true or it may not. Let us at all events be careful of what we say to each other.'
Rex nodded gravely, and they returned to the side of the dying man. It was just mid-day, and Greif was lying on his back, with his eyes open. The physician bent down and laid his ear to the heart. When he raised his head again, he looked about the room, somewhat nervously avoiding Rex's eyes. All at once his attention was arrested by the sound of running feet outside, and he glanced quickly at his companion, who had also heard the noise.
It was the supreme moment, for Greif's consciousness had returned. As often happens at the moment of death a violent physical struggle began. The light returned to his eyes, and the strength to his limbs. He raised himself upon his hands, and sat up, while the doctor supported him with one arm, and with a quick movement put brandy to his lips. It was the work of an instant, and it all happened while Rex was crossing the room. Suddenly, as the doctor watched him, his eyes fixed themselves. In the next instant, he thought, their light would break; and the body he supported would collapse and fall back for ever. It was the last gasp. Then a ringing voice broke the silence, just as Rex had his hand upon the latch. 'I will, I tell you—he is mine!'
The door was flung wide open, and a woman entered the room. Rex had a strange impression of golden hair and gleaming eyes passing him like a flash, like the leap of a lioness springing to defend her young.
The doctor looked up in astonishment. Before he could help himself he was thrust ruthlessly aside, and Greif was in other arms than his. Hilda bent down as she held him. The fixed stare changed, while the doctor was craning his neck to see what would happen, but the light did not go out, nor did the pupils turn white and dead.
'Hilda! Hilda! Hilda!' His voice was faint but clear. One moment longer he gazed into her face and then sank quietly back upon her arm, with a smile upon his parted lips, his fingers seeking her hand until they lay quite still in hers. He was so quiet that Hilda was terrified. With a low and piteous moan she sank upon her knees beside the bed. It was a cry like nothing those present had ever heard. The physician understood, and bent down to her.
'I think we had better be very quiet,' he said. 'You will frighten him.'
Hilda stared wildly into his face, and saw there an expression that transfixed her with astonishment. Slowly, as though not daring to face the sight, she turned her eyes towards Greif. There was a faint colour in his sunken cheeks, and he was breathing regularly. Hilda pressed her hands to her breast with all her might to smother the cry of joy that almost broke her heart.
The baroness was standing at the foot of the bed with Rex, unconscious of the tears that streamed from her eyes, her hands clasped before her as though in prayer. She looked like the figure of a sainted woman of old. As for Rex himself, he was trembling a little and was conscious that if he had attempted to speak he would not have heard his own voice. But otherwise his outward demeanour betrayed nothing of what was passing within him. He knew as well as the physician that Greif had survived the most dangerous moment and that he would in all probability recover, and he knew that if Hilda's sudden entrance had not given a new impulse to the ebbing life, all would have been over by that time. For a few seconds he was scarcely conscious, though he looked calmer and colder than the doctor himself. He saw nothing but Greif, and his impression of Hilda's appearance was no clearer than it had been when she had rushed past him at the door with a gleam like a meteor.
Half an hour later, Greif was asleep. If all went well he might remain in this state for any length of time from twelve to twenty-four hours. Hilda had been prevailed upon to leave the room with her mother. The assistant took his place by the bedside, and Rex was with the doctor in the adjoining apartment.
'Science is a very pretty plaything,' said the great authority, stroking his grey beard thoughtfully. 'You know so much, Herr Rex, that you and I can afford to look at each other like the augurs and laugh, for we certainly know nothing at all. I would have wagered my reputation against a hospital assistant's pay, that our friend had not sixty seconds of life in him, when that young lady appeared, like a fiery whirlwind, and caught him back to earth in the nick of time.'
'Science unfortunately does not dispose of such young ladies,' answered Rex with a smile. 'They are not in the pharmacopoeia.'
'She is the most extraordinary one I ever saw,' observed the doctor. 'There is a vitality in her presence that affected me like electricity in a water bath. She has eyes like Sigmund the Volsung—perhaps he was her ancestor, since her name is Sigmundskron.'
'He is said to have been,' laughed Rex.
'I can quite believe it. Now I assure you that I thought it was all over. His heart has been very badly strained, and recently, and such a case of meningitis I have rarely seen. Of course he had the advantage of careful treatment; but you may treat and treat as you like, if the heart is weak and nervous and strained, it may stop while the rest of the body has strength enough left to go on for weeks. I suppose they are engaged to be married?'
'Did you hear her cry out that she would come in? Her mother's excellent propriety would have kept her out. But the young lady knew better than any of us how to save his life.'
Rex did not answer at once, and when he did, he turned the subject. Soon afterwards he went away, for he felt that he must be alone in order to think over what had happened and to regain his natural equanimity.
He had not the slightest doubt but that Greif would now recover quickly, and it seemed very probable that in that case he would no longer hesitate to marry Hilda. At the thought of her, Rex experienced a disagreeable sensation which even he could not understand at first. Hitherto, his chief preoccupation had been the marriage, and scarcely an hour had passed, so long as he had hoped that Greif would live, in which he had not contrasted the happiness in store for his brother, if he took Hilda, with the misery he would have to encounter if he persisted in his quixotic determination.
And now that Rex had seen this girl, of whom he had heard and thought so much during the last ten days, he wished it were possible that Greif might remain Greif without her love. The thought was so selfish and seemed so unworthy in his own eyes that Rex concentrated his mind in an attempt to explain it.
In the first place, he felt a curious disappointment in the midst of his rejoicing over Greif's improvement. He himself had been untiring, faithful, by day and night, in watching over and taking care of the only human being he loved in the world. He wanted no man's gratitude, but he had longed earnestly for the satisfaction of saving Greif himself, of feeling that his first attempt at living for another, instead of for his own individual advantage, had been crowned with success. He had spared no fatigue, and he had suffered every varying torture of anxiety and doubtful hope to the end. And yet, when the end was reached, Greif was dying. Neither Rex's care nor Rex's devotion could have kept him from slipping over the boundary. Then the door had opened, a woman had entered, and Greif had revived at the very moment of extinction. A bright-haired girl, with gleaming eyes, had done in one second what neither the physician's science nor Rex's loving watchfulness could have hoped to do. To a man who has cared little for women and has thought much of himself, it is humiliating to see a girl accomplish by her mere presence what all his intelligence and energy and forethought have failed to bring about.
Then again, Rex saw that in the future there was nothing for Greif but Hilda. Rex might be swept out of existence, but so long as Hilda remained, Greif would merely feel a passing regret for the man he believed to be his cousin, a regret which Hilda's love would help him to outlive in a few weeks, or months, at the most. He hated himself for his selfishness, and realised that a new phase of his life had begun that day.
The impulses and impressions that beset him were only transitory and not likely to affect his conduct. His fondness for Greif was such that he would certainly rejoice honestly over his marriage and feel the most genuine hopes for his happiness. The only trace the passing hour would leave with him would be an unexpressed antipathy for Hilda. He knew, or he thought that he knew, how easily his systematic habits of thought could conquer such a tendency and reason it away into emptiness, and he went downstairs to make the acquaintance of his brother's future wife with the fullest determination to like her for Greif's sake, and never again to submit to a frame of mind which was contemptible if it was not utterly base. Could anything be more inconsistent than to let his joy at the prospect of his brother's recovery be clouded, because the result was not wholly due to himself? Could anything be more absurdly foolish than to conceive a dislike for a woman whom Greif must marry to be saved from ruin and shame?
Greif recovered quickly. In due time the celebrated physician departed in great peace, hoping that chance might soon send such another case into his way. Greif and Rex lived together in Greifenstein, and Hilda and her mother were at Sigmundskron. But the distance between the two places had grown very short of late, and scarcely a day passed on which Hilda and Greif did not meet.
He was not quite as strong yet as he had been before his illness, but the time was not far distant when he would be able again to get into the saddle and make short work of the twenty miles that separated him from Hilda. There had never been so many horses in the Greifenstein stables as now, for the work was hard and continuous and the roads bad. To make matters easier, Greif had sent a strong pair to Sigmundskron, so that the two ladies might drive over whenever they were inclined to do so.
On a sunny day in April the two men were walking together in the garden, backwards and forwards from the parapet that followed the edge of the precipice to the porch of the house. Greif rested his hand on Rex's arm, more out of habit now than because he needed support, and as they paced the smooth path the two talked in a desultory way upon whatever was uppermost in their thoughts.
'It seems as though my illness had lasted a year,' Greif said. 'I have even got so far that I do not care to leave this place, after all.'
'Why should you?' Rex asked.
'It would be natural,' answered Greif rather gravely. 'I should have expected to prefer any spot of the world to this.'
'Man is the world, and all that therein is, and the earth he stands on, is no more to him than the clothes he wears. If a thought is in your heart, can you get rid of it by changing your coat? And besides, in the long run a man prefers his own coat and his own patch of earth—both are sure to fit him better than those of other people.'
'I think you are right. Rex, did I act like a madman before I was taken ill?' He asked the question rather suddenly. Hitherto Rex had avoided mentioning what was past as well as he could.
'Yes—you were quite mad,' he answered. 'You fought windmills. That is always a bad sign.'
'It is fortunate that I broke down just then. Suppose that I had held out long enough to go away and that I had fallen ill in some distant place, and that Hilda had not come—I should not have had much chance.'
'No. I was very jealous of her, I remember.'
'Because she saved you, and I could not,' answered Rex. 'Because it is disagreeable for a selfish man to feel that a woman's eyes are better than his skill or strength.'
Greif looked at his companion as though he did not quite understand, but the smile upon the latter's face made matters somewhat clearer. He would not have liked to think that Rex was quite in earnest.
'But for you,' he answered, 'I should have died long before Hilda came.'
'Not at all. If you had shown signs of giving up the ghost earlier, I would have sent sooner. But it was a narrow escape. Another minute would have done it, as I have often told you.'
'Do you know that I have not yet spoken to them about the marriage?'
'Then there is no need of saying anything. They understand as well as you. You need only fix the wedding-day.'
'Not yet,' answered Greif. 'It is too soon.'
'Is it ever too soon to be happy?'
'Sometimes—but I will go to Sigmundskron to-morrow and talk about it.'
'In that case you will be married in three months,' observed Rex with a laugh.
'Not so soon—we must let the year pass first. It would not be decent.'
'Decency is that mode of demeanour in ourselves which satisfies the traditional likes or dislikes of others. There is nothing else in it.'
'If you are going to begin a discussion about comparative right, I will say nothing more. I have lost my taste for argument, and I never had much skill in it.'
'We will not discuss the matter,' replied Rex. 'You will be married in August.'
'I think not.'
'We shall see.'
'Will you go with me to-morrow?' asked Greif, relinquishing the contest.
'You had better go alone, and I shall be best here, with my books. You will not need me to help you to settle matters.'
'Why do you so rarely go with me?'
'Why should I?'
'To keep me company. It is a long drive.'
'The entertainment, so far as I am concerned, is not of a wildly exciting character, when you are talking to Fraulein von Sigmundskron, and her mother is doing needlework, and I am thrown upon my own resources. Whereas if I stay at home and read, I have the pleasure of hearing your very good description of all that I should have been entitled to see and hear had I been present myself. The description occupies five minutes; the expedition takes a whole day. I will stay at home, thank you.'
'But it gives them pleasure to see you,' objected Greif.
'Does your cousin regret my absence from the sitting-room when she is walking with you upon the sunny side of the ramparts?'
'How did you know that we walked there?' asked Greif with a laugh.
'On the same principle which teaches me that a dog will walk on the sunny side of the street—because you would not be likely to walk in the shade at this time of year. Did you say that Fraulein von Sigmundskron regretted my absence on such occasions?'
'She always asks after you when you do not come. Why do you call her by such long names? "Cousin Hilda" is quite enough.'
'It is not a cousinship she could be very proud of. I prefer not to force it upon her. She could not call me "Cousin Horst."'
'She will have as much cause to be proud of your cousinship as of having me for a husband,' said Greif, stopping in his walk and looking at Rex. 'Whatever you say of yourself applies equally well to me in this matter.'
Rex said nothing, but he thought of all the truth there was in the words which Greif did not know, and never must know. He had not told all his reasons for not going to Sigmundskron, either, and if he had told them, they might not have been altogether pleasing to Greif. He was ashamed of them, even before himself, and thought of them as little as possible. Hilda's presence affected him unpleasantly. What he felt, when he was with her, strongly resembled an unconquerable dislike, which was at the same time wholly inexplicable to himself. He could appreciate her beauty only when he was at a distance from her, and then the memory of it attracted rather than repelled him. When she spoke, he had an instinctive longing to give her a sharp answer, which was smothered in a phrase of meaningless politeness; but he afterwards took delight in fancying what her expression would have been if he had really said what had suggested itself to him. He could not explain the intense antagonism he sometimes felt against her by any theory or experience of psychology with which he was acquainted. Her look annoyed him, her slightest gesture irritated him, the sound of her voice distressed his ear. Even her grace of motion jarred upon him, and he wished she could be clumsy and slow instead of swift and sure. He had disliked women before, but never in the peculiar way he disliked Hilda. Everything she did looked wrong, though he knew it was right; every word she uttered sounded false to him, though he was well aware that she was one of the most truthful and true-hearted persons he had ever known.
He supposed that what he felt had taken its origin in a ridiculous jealousy, on that day when her appearance had revived Greif at the last moment, and he recurred to the scene constantly and tried to magnify his first impression in order to make his present state of mind seem a little more reasonable. He only half succeeded, however, though he kept what he thought to be his own folly clearly before him at their next meeting and forced his manner and his voice to obey his common sense.
The result of all this was that Rex was once more growing dissatisfied with his life. Had he felt sure of Greif's future he would have gone away and would not have returned until a long lapse of time, and a constant change of scene, had obliterated what was so disagreeable to himself. His prudence warned him, however, that he should stay until all was settled, and Greif was married to Hilda. After that, it mattered little what became of him. He reflected with satisfaction that he was over forty years of age, and that, even if he chose to live out his life, he was not likely to survive his brother. Whether he should not one day find himself so weary of it all as to anticipate his end by a score of years, was a point about which he thought much. Such tragedies as had darkened Greifenstein rarely take place where there is not a fatal tendency to suicide in the blood. Death had never seemed horrible to Rex in any shape; on the contrary, he took pleasure in speculating upon its possibilities and in dreaming of the sensations which the supreme moment would evoke. To a mind altogether destitute of any transcendental belief whatsoever, death appears to be merely the end of life, to be made as little disagreeable as possible and encountered with such equanimity as a philosopher can command. To such men as Rex, the idea that there is any obligation to live if one prefers to die, does not present itself, and when they inherit from their fathers an indifference to life, the danger that they may part with it too readily is seldom far distant. The thought of Greif had prevented Rex from stepping over the limit, and his affection for him would probably have kept off such gloomy thoughts altogether for a long time, if Greif had depended upon his companionship. But as Greif recovered and this dependence grew less and less a matter of necessity Rex grew weary again. If he had not felt as he did in regard to Hilda, the two would have been more together than they actually were, and Greif would not so often have driven twice in a day alone over the twenty miles that separated his house from Sigmundskron. Rex saw this, and saw that Hilda was taking his place, and he became disgusted with himself and the existence he was leading. Nevertheless, his naturally firm character made his outward demeanour even and unchangeable. He was determined that if he must be ridiculous in his own eyes, he would not appear to be so in the eyes of others. For the present he could not leave Greifenstein, for he could be of use to Greif, who would sooner or later be obliged to put his affairs in order, and examine the papers left by his father. Rex feared indeed, lest among these should be discovered some letter from the dead man, explaining to his son what had been so clearly told to Rex himself. A superficial search had discovered nothing, but he reflected that at such a moment a man might well put what he had written in a place where he was in the habit of concealing precious documents, instead of laying it upon the table. Rex was determined to have the chief hand in the examination of what was found, and to abstract and destroy unopened anything which looked like a letter to Greif. He cared little for any justification in pursuing such a course; from what he had learned of old Greifenstein he believed that he would have been capable of telling the plain truth to his son and of enjoining upon him to give up his name, and to hand over his whole fortune to the Sigmundskrons. He had been a stern man with fearfully rigid traditions of honour, incapable, Rex thought, of allowing Greif to practise an unconscious deception, willing that he should come to a miserable end rather than seem, even for a moment, to be what he was not. It was almost inconceivable to Rex that he should have died without writing a few words to his son, and if he had done so, Rex had little doubt as to what the letter would contain. Should it be found, he intended to do his utmost to destroy it, unknown to Greif, and in the meanwhile, he did all in his power to hasten the marriage and to put off the evil day when the papers must be examined.
The lives of the two were made somewhat irregular by Greif's constant visits to Sigmundskron, and occasionally by the coming of the baroness and Hilda. The good lady thought that there was little dignity in bringing her daughter to Greifenstein, but she was quite unable to oppose Hilda's determination. So long as Greif had been only in the convalescent stage it had seemed proper enough that the baroness should occasionally come in person to make inquiries, the more so as Greif had placed a pair of horses at her disposal for this very purpose as soon as he could give an order of any sort. Now that he was perfectly well, however, she felt that in spite of the relationship it was strangely contrary to custom for two ladies to visit a young man who lived alone. She would not have been a German of her class if she had not felt this, but she would not have been herself if she had allowed a scruple of etiquette to stand in the way of Hilda's happiness.
There was still an element of uncertainty in the situation which caused her some anxious moments. Since his recovery Greif had never approached the question of marriage. It was indeed early yet, but the opportunities had already been numerous, and he had not taken advantage of any. The only point which favoured the impression that he had changed his mind, was his frank and easy manner together with his evident desire to see as much of Hilda as possible. But he had not spoken. The baroness was keen enough to fancy that he was prevented from referring to the subject by the painful reminiscence of his last interview at Sigmundskron, and by a natural feeling of shame at the thought of retracting what he had once taken such infinite pains to say. She was determined that the matter should be put upon a sound basis as soon as possible, and she promised herself to lead the conversation to the marriage whenever she had a chance.
Unfortunately for her intentions the chance did not present itself, for Greif spent the time of his visits with Hilda, and talked as little as possible to her mother. The latter could almost have found courage to come alone to Greifenstein, but Hilda would not have allowed her to do so, for she would not have been willing to miss an opportunity of a meeting. In this way matters had continued for some time after Greif had been well enough to decide finally upon his own future as well as upon Hilda's, until he himself felt that he must soon speak his mind, or be very much ashamed of himself for his hesitation.
Of all concerned, Hilda was the one whose character had changed the most since the events of the winter. It seemed as though she had never before realised what she was, nor what she was able to accomplish in the world. From the day of Greif's refusal to marry her at Sigmundskron she had developed suddenly, from a simple girl into a strong and dominant woman. After Greif had left her on that day she had still felt as certain of marrying him as though they were already going to the altar. When she had known that he was really ill she had felt an inward conviction that he would recover quickly. When she had found him dying she had known that she could save his life. She had acquired a sense of certainty which nothing could disturb, and which had developed simultaneously with a moral energy no one had before suspected that she possessed. If there had ever been any resistance on either side the baroness would not have felt as though her daughter had suddenly taken the mastery over her, but there had been none. Never, in their peaceful lives, had they experienced opposite desires or incompatible impulses. It had never seemed as though Hilda were submitting to her mother, even when she was a child, because their wishes appeared to be always exactly the same, so that Hilda would have done of her own freewill, and if left to herself, precisely what her mother desired her to do. The consequence was that since Hilda had found that she had a will of her own, she had imposed it upon her mother with the greatest ease; for the latter was so much taken by surprise at Hilda's initiative, as to take refuge in believing that the girl must really want what she herself wanted, and that it was only the appearance which made the result look different. It was only a half belief, after all, for she could not help seeing that circumstances had singularly developed the girl's character, and that they had been of a nature to do so, exceptional, startling and trying in every way. Frau von Sigmundskron liked to fancy that she could still control every impulse Hilda showed, as well as formerly, but she could not help being proud of her daughter's strength, for Hilda was like her father, a man who, with the sweetest temper imaginable, had dared anything that a man may dare.
Greif carried out his intention of going to Sigmundskron on the day after his conversation with Rex. During the drive he thought of what was before him, as he had thought three months earlier, when the prospect had been very different.
At present he felt that it would be impossible to delay his retractation any longer. So far as his happiness was concerned, the situation might last until the eve of the wedding-day, but there were other considerations to be thought of, which he could not disregard. Hilda and he understood each other without words, but Hilda's mother could not be expected to understand without a formal explanation. She had a right to it. Greif's last act before his illness had been to refuse the marriage; the baroness was entitled not only to know from his own lips that he had changed his mind, but also to be consulted in the matter, as a question of courtesy. Greif did not know exactly how to manage it. To his mind there would be something inexpressibly ridiculous in asking an interview with Frau von Sigmundskron, for the purpose of formally requesting, a second time, the honour of her daughter's hand. And yet he assuredly could not go to her and say bluntly that he had changed his mind and intended to take Hilda after all. Anything between the two must necessarily take the shape of an apology of some sort and of a retractation, though Greif felt that he had done nothing needing an apology. He could not ask the baroness's forgiveness for having been stubbornly determined to sacrifice his whole life rather than injure her daughter by giving her his name. It was true that he now saw the matter differently, perceiving that he had done all that a man of the most quixotic chivalry could do to prove the case against himself, and that his judges refused wholly to be convinced. He did not regret what he had done, though he was willing to believe that he had gone too far in the right direction. He had offended no one, for his whole conduct had been guided by the consideration of others. He had therefore nothing to be forgiven him, and no shadow of a reason for putting himself in the position of a penitent. To say that he had been mistaken, and to try and shift the responsibility of his action upon his illness, was not to his taste either. He had not refused to marry Hilda because he had been ill at the time, but because he had been convinced that he ought to do so. At present he was grateful both to her and to her mother for their readiness to oppose his self-sacrifice. That at least he could say; but after that it would be necessary in common courtesy to put to the baroness the question old Greifenstein had asked long ago, in other words, to renew the formal proposition of marriage. As a man of honour it was indispensable that he should clearly define his position without further delay, and he could see no other way of defining it, satisfactory to himself and to the exigencies of his courteous rule of life.
There was still another matter to be decided, and which did not tend to make the coming interview seem easier. The origin of the whole difficulty had not been removed, and although Greif had made up his mind to submit to the happiness which was thrust upon him, he still felt that to marry Hilda under his own name would be out of the question. He was even more sure of this than before, for he had learned during his convalescence that the tragedy of Greifenstein had been described in every paper of the empire, and he knew that it must be the common topic of conversation. His old comrades at Schwarzburg had read the story and had written, some offering condolences, some refusing to believe the tale at all. The professors of the University whose lectures Greif had chiefly attended, had written in various manners, and the Magnificus himself had deigned to offer his sympathy in a singularly human manner. Most of these communications had been answered by Rex, who explained that Greif had been seriously ill, and Greif himself replied to the more important ones. The horror of the story was known through the length and breadth of the land, and wherever Greif might go for years to come, his name would instantly recall the terrible details of the triple crime. All the arguments Greif had formerly used with so much force remained unshaken, and he felt that there could be but one way of placing himself and Hilda beyond their reach. Had Hilda never existed, he would have determined to live in retirement, and to allow his race to be extinguished in his own person, rather than perpetuate the memory of such deeds. As it was, he had given up the thought, for the love of her, and he knew that there was happiness in store for him. In order to accept it, however, he must be no longer Greifenstein.
It was strange that each of the three in turn, Rex, the baroness, and lastly, Hilda herself, should have suggested the advisability of his taking the name of Sigmundskron in place of his own. Clearly, it was the only course open to him, but it was a curious coincidence that they should all have had the same thought. On the whole he was ready to follow their advice, but as he drew near to his destination he realised that it must be the first point settled. He did not exactly know how to formulate his request, for he had never known anybody who had asked another for his name. He almost wished that Hilda could manage it for him, which was a proof that he had not yet altogether recovered his strength.
He was glad that Rex had not come, after all. It was one of those errands which he preferred to accomplish alone. Moreover, for some reason which he could not guess, Rex seemed to avoid the Sigmundskrons as much as he could. That he should never remain long in conversation with Hilda, Greif thought natural; his cousin's action might proceed from delicacy, of a curiously unusual kind, or it might be the result of Rex's constant wish to leave the two together as much as possible. In either case it was not altogether surprising. But Greif often wished that Rex would take the trouble to talk to the baroness, so that she might not be left so much alone. It would have completed the party and made every one feel more easy; after all, Rex was a man forty years of age, and might reasonably be expected to devote his attention with a good grace to a lady who was not much older than himself, though her white hair contrasted oddly with his uncommonly youthful appearance. But Rex hardly ever failed to find some excuse for staying at home when Greif went to Sigmundskron, and when the ladies came to Greifenstein he generally made his appearance as late as possible. Nevertheless Greif believed that his cousin did not dislike the Sigmundskrons, and it was certain that both mother and daughter thought extremely well of him. Greif could not explain Rex's coldness, and was obliged to ascribe it to some uncommon bias of a remarkable character which he had never wholly understood.
Being full of such thoughts, the time that had elapsed, between the present day and the memorable visit three months earlier, seemed to Greif to have dropped away with all it had contained. He felt as though he had refused the marriage but yesterday and were going to take back his refusal to-day. Only the weather had changed between then and now. On that morning the ground had been covered with snow, and a bitter wind that cut like a knife had been blowing across the road. It was even yet not spring, but the snow was all gone, and the frost was thawing out of the ground under the warm sun. In a few days the white thorn would begin to bud, and fresh green violet leaves would come out along the borders of the woods. A few birds were already circling in the air above the fir-tops as though expecting to find the flies there already. The warmth and the moisture of everything brought out the sweet smell of the forest and blew it into Greif's face at every turn of the drive.
For the twentieth time since he had been well enough to go out, he watched the sturdy horses' backs as they drew the light carriage up the last steep ascent. For the twentieth time he looked up as he reached the point whence the lower battlements of the half-ruined castle were visible. As often happened, he descried Hilda's tall figure against the sky, and then immediately the gleam of something white, waved high to welcome him. He wondered how she always knew when he was coming. But Hilda had found that when he came he naturally started always at the same hour, so that every morning she went up, and stood on the rampart for twenty minutes, scanning every bit of the winding road that was in sight. At the end of that time, if she had not seen the carriage, she knew that he was not coming, and descended again into the interior, her face less bright and her eyes less glad than when she had gone up the steps.
There she was to-day, in her accustomed place, and a moment later the sun caught the white handkerchief she waved. As he flourished his in return, Greif wondered how he could ever have come over that same road with the fixed purpose of bidding farewell for ever to her who awaited him, and he was amazed at his own courage in having executed his intention, for he felt that he could not do as much now. But there was little time left him for reflexion. Five minutes later the carriage rattled through the gate into the wide paved court, swung round upon its wheels and stopped before the hall door. Out of the dim shadow Hilda came quickly forward and took his hands, and they were together once more, as they had been so often during the last month and a half.
'I have not come to see you,' said Greif, with a laugh that only half concealed his embarrassment. 'I have to request the honour of an interview with your mother to-day.'
Hilda looked at him a moment and then laughed, too.
'Has it come to this, Greif!' she exclaimed.
'It has come to this,' he answered, his mirth subsiding at the prospect of what was before him.
'And what are you going to say?' she asked. 'That you have changed your mind? That you yield to pressure? That you are the lawful prey of one Hilda von Sigmundskron and cannot escape your fate? Or that you were very ill and never meant it, and are very sorry, and will never do so again? Why did you not bring Rex to talk to me while you are explaining everything to my mother?'
'Rex would not come to-day. He sends his homage—'
'He always does—I believe you invent it—the message I mean. Rex hates me, Greif. Do you know why? Because he is jealous. He thinks you do not care for his society any longer—'
'That is absurd—you must not say such foolish things!'
They reached the door of the sitting-room as he spoke. Greif entered and found himself with the baroness. Hilda closed the door when he had gone in and went away, leaving the two together.
Frau von Sigmundskron was somewhat surprised when she saw Greif enter the room without Hilda. Greif went up to her with the determination of a man who means to lose no time in getting through an unpleasant business.
'Aunt Therese,' he said—he called his father's cousin 'aunt,' after the German manner—'I told Hilda that I wanted to speak with you alone —do you mind?'
'On the contrary,' answered the baroness. 'Sit down. I will work while you talk. It will help me to understand you.'
'The matter is very simple,' said Greif, seating himself. 'I want to ask whether you are still of the same opinion in regard to my marriage with Hilda, as before I was taken ill.'
'Of course I am—' She looked up, in some surprise.
'Because I am not,' said Greif, delighted with himself at having found a way to make his aunt state her case first.
'Not of my opinion, or not of your own former opinion?' she inquired, rather puzzled.
'I mean to say that I now once more ask for Hilda's hand—'
Frau von Sigmundskron laughed, and laid down her work, to look at his face. She had not expected that he would express himself in such a way. Then all at once she saw that he had meant to act in the most loyal manner possible, and she grew grave, being pleased with him as she almost always was.
'Do you think you need my consent again, Greif? You have it, with all my heart. You need hardly have asked it, for you knew the answer too well.'
'It is this,' said Greif, coming to the point. 'In the first place, I knew very well what you would say, though I thank you all the same; but it was necessary to come to a clear understanding, because there is another point to be settled upon which much must depend. What I said three months ago holds good to-day. As Greifenstein I cannot marry Hilda. As Greif, I cannot any longer forego the happiness you and she have pressed upon me. But I must have another name—'
'Is it really necessary?' asked the baroness gravely.
'It seems so to me. The papers have been full of our story, and I have received many letters of condolence, and some full of curiosity. It is a tale which no one will forget for many years. Few people could help associating disgrace with so much crime. I wish to marry Hilda under a name by which we may become known if we choose to go into the world hereafter, and which may be free from all disagreeable associations. You yourself suggested that I should take yours, she has suggested it and so has Rex. If you consent, it seems best that it should be so.'
'Sigmundskron—' She pronounced the syllables slowly, almost lovingly, and her eyes were fixed on Greif with a look he did not understand.
He could not know all that the name meant to her. She had married the last man who had borne it by his own right, the gallant young soldier, who was to restore the fallen fortunes of his race, in the only way in which they had ever been restored before, by the faithful service of his country. She remembered how firmly she had believed that he was to be great and famous, how confidently she had hoped to bear him strong, bright-eyed sons worthy of him and like him, who should in their turn do great deeds, of which he should live to be proud. The dream had vanished. Brave Sigmundskron had been shot down like many another, a mere lieutenant, with all his hopes and grand visions of the future, and his wife had been left alone with a widow's pension and her little child. A girl, too—it had seemed as though nothing were to be spared her. If she had had a boy to bring up, another Sigmundskron to grow to better fortunes than his father, and perhaps to realise all his father had dreamed of for himself, it would have been easier then—but a girl! The name was ended, never to be spoken again, as it had been so many times, in the rollcalls of honour. She had brought him home and laid him beside his fathers, and she herself had broken the shield upon his tomb with her own hands, for he was the last of his race. In him ended the line of ancient Sigmund, as it had begun, in the strife and fury of battle. It had been a glorious line, take it all in all; though its last warrior had been but a poor lieutenant, he had been worthy of his fathers and had died the worthy death. If only Hilda could have been a man!
And now, after so many years, one stood before her, who craved the right to bear that spotless name, though he had not one drop of old Sigmund's blood in his veins. She had even offered it to him herself— she wondered how she could have had the courage. What sort of a man was this, who would call himself Sigmundskron, like her dead soldier, and be Sigmundskron in all men's eyes, and marry Hilda and be the father of many Sigmundskrons to come? She looked at Greif long and wondered what he would turn out to be.
That he was honourable and true hearted, she knew; that he was brave she had reason to believe; that he loved her daughter well, she knew also. But it was hard. Why did he want the name of her beloved dead? Because his own was stained—not by his fault—but it was darkened and made a reproach. Ay, it is easy for a man with a bad name to desire a good one; it is natural; if he be innocent, it is very pardonable. Greif had a right to ask for it, but would she give it? Would she suffer that which had been so long glorious in itself, that which was made sacred by the shedding of good blood in good cause, that which recalled all she had once worshipped—would she suffer that to be made a mere cloak for the evil deeds of Rieseneck and Greifenstein, murderers and suicides? It was hard to do it.
And yet she was willing, nay, even glad, that this man should marry her only child, the only daughter of her husband. She loved him in a way, for he was to be her son, the only son she could ever have. Ah, that was it. Greif was to be her son. She gazed into his face and wondered whether, if she had searched the world, she could have found one goodlier and stronger and truer to be a match for her own child, whether if she ever dreamed of what might have been, she saw in her fancy a son more worthy than this. And, after all, he did not ask the boon for his own advantage. He had bravely struggled to give up Hilda rather than let her risk the smallest worldly disadvantage or reproach through him. He asked for this for Hilda's sake, not for his own, and would it not be a thousand times better that Hilda, and Hilda's children, should still be Sigmundskron than wear a name black with ill- shed blood? Since she was to have a son given her would she not rather have him Sigmundskron than Greifenstein? Could he ever be a true son to her so long as he was called after those who had treated herself coldly and heartlessly during so many years, and who themselves had come to such an evil end?
She looked at him once more. Then she put out her hands and took his and drew him close to her so that she could see into his eyes. When she saw what was in them she was glad.
'Will you be a son to me, Greif von Greifenstein?' she asked solemnly.
'I will indeed, so help me God, and you shall be my mother,' he answered.
'Then you shall be Sigmundskron,' she said. 'You are brave—be as brave as old Sigmund. You are true—be as true as he. You are faithful —be faithful to death, as he was, who was the last of Sigmund's sons.'
The white-haired lady rose as she spoke, and drawing him still nearer to her, kissed his smooth young forehead, with the pale lips that had touched no man's face since her dead husband had gone from her to his death.
'Go and tell Hilda that you will be Sigmundskron to her in deed, and in heart, as well as in name,' she said.
As she left the room, erect and with firm step, he saw the bright tears burst from her eyes, and roll down her pallid cheeks, though she would not bend her head nor heed them.
For many minutes he stood where she had left him, his hand resting upon the edge of the table, his look fixed upon the door, absently and seeing nothing.
'That is what it is to have a spotless name,' he said, almost aloud.
He went out softly as though from a hallowed place, and closed the door noiselessly behind him. His small anticipations of what that scene would be like, full of many words and attempts at tactful speech, seemed infinitely pitiful and contemptible now, beside the dignity, the kindness, the noble pride and the grand simplicity of the woman who had given him her name. He walked slowly, and his head was bent in thought as he threaded the well-known passages and stairways to the old rampart where he knew that Hilda was waiting for him.
She was sitting upon one of the stone projections, hatless in the April sun, her beautiful figure thrown into bold lines and curves as she looked down upon the road, sitting, but half turned upon her seat. She heard the crazy door of the turret creak and rattle, and she moved so that she could see Greif.
'It has not lasted long,' she said, with a smile. 'Why do you look so grave?' she asked quickly as she noticed his face, 'Has anything happened?'
He sat down beside her and took her hand.
'Do you know what your mother told me to say to you?' he asked.
She shook her head expectantly, and her expression grew bright again.
'She told me to tell you that I would be Sigmundskron to you in deed, and in heart, as well as in name—can I say more?'
'But one thing more,' she answered, as her arms went round him. 'But one thing more—that you will be Greif, my Greif, the Greif I love, always and always, whether in my name or yours, until the end!'
As his own thoughts had dwindled before Frau von Sigmundskron's earnest dignity, so that in turn grew dim and far away in the presence of Hilda's love. All had been right in their own way, but Hilda's speech was the best, and there was the most humanity in it, after all.
A long time they sat side by side in the sunlight, talking of each other and of themselves as lovers will, and must, if they would talk at all. As they were about to go down, Hilda stopped, just at the entrance of the turret, and swung the broken door gently on its creaking hinges.
'You must not let your cousin hate me, Greif,' she said, as though the thought troubled the cloudless joy of the future. 'It would not be right. We must all be one, now and when we two are married. He saved your life by his care—why should he dislike me?'
'He does not, dearest—you are mistaken,' protested Greif, who was much embarrassed by the question. Hilda faced him at once, laying her hand upon his arm.
'He does, and you must see it. Why does he never come here? Why is he so cold when we go to Greifenstein? I do not care a straw for his like or dislike, except because he is your cousin, and because I think we should all live harmoniously together. The strange thing is that he would give his life for you, and I am sure he is honest, though I cannot see into his eyes as I can into yours. What is the reason? You must know.'
'I do not. I can see that he is very reserved with you and does not like to come here. I asked him only yesterday why he always stayed behind.'
'And what did he say?' asked Hilda eagerly.
'Nothing to the point. He said he could not be of any use if he did come—which, after all, is absolutely true.'
'You must find out. He dislikes me now, when we are married it will be worse, a year hence he will detest me altogether and tell you so, perhaps.'
'Do you think he would tell me?' asked Greif with a quiet smile, that did not agree with the sudden glittering of his eyes.
'No,' laughed Hilda. 'That is an exaggeration. But he will make us both feel it.'
'In that case we will not ask him to stay with us,' answered Greif, half carelessly, half in anger at Rex's imaginary future rudeness.
He saw that Hilda was annoyed by his cousin's conduct, for it was the second time she had spoken of it during the visit, and he determined that he would put the matter very plainly to Rex as soon as he reached Greifenstein, the more so as he himself had noticed it and had already asked Rex for an explanation.
Hilda's face grew grave. She knew how devoted Rex was to Greif, and she felt as though her future husband were to lose his best friend for a meaningless whim of the latter, in which she was involved against her will.
'That must never be,' she answered. 'Next to me, no one loves you as Rex does. I would not have you quarrel for all the world—and it is mere jealousy, Greif, I know—'
'Then he must be a very contemptible character,' said Greif indignantly.
'Because he is so much attached to you that it pains him to see his place taken by another, even by woman? No, sweetheart. That is not contemptible. But you must change it. Tell him to be reasonable—'
'Could I say that you are offended with him?' asked Greif. 'Can I go to Rex and tell him that he must not only be civil but must be a friend to you?'
'You are jesting,' she answered. 'But it is just what I would do in earnest—what I will do, if you will let me. He would understand that. I would say to him, Herr Rex, you are Greif's only relation besides ourselves. It is absolutely necessary for his happiness that we should be on good terms, you and I. Is it my fault? He would answer that it was not, for he is honest. Then it is yours, I would say, and the sooner you turn yourself into a friend of mine, the better it will be for Greif, who is the only person you care for in the world. Is not that common sense?'
'Do you mean to say that?' asked Greif rather anxiously.
'If you will let me, I will,' answered Hilda, returning to her occupation and swinging the old door slowly between her two hands.
'If I will let you!' repeated Greif. 'Do you think I would try to prevent you from saying what you please, darling—'
'You ought to, if you think it would be a mistake—at least, after we are married.'
'I am not sure that I could,' he answered with a laugh.
'No one else could,' said Hilda, looking up at him with flashing eyes. 'If I meant to do a thing, I would do it, of course. Did I not say that I would not let you go?'
'Indeed you did. And you kept your word.'
'And I love you—you know it?'
'It is all I know, or care to know.'
'Well, I will tell you something more. Because I love you, I want to do what you like, and not what I like, and I always will, so long as you love me.'
Greif drew her to him and held her close, and whispered a tender word into her ear.
'But you must understand,' she said. 'It is not because you are to be my husband, that I mean to submit to you. I do not submit at all, and never shall. I am just as strong as you are, and you could not make me yield a hair's-breadth. But I will always do everything you wish me to do, because I love you, and because you love me, not for any other reason. Do you understand?'
'I would not have it otherwise, my darling—and I will do the same—'
'You cannot quite—you cannot feel as I do, Greif. Perhaps, some day— when you and I are old, Greif—then you will love me as I love you now, but then, you see, I shall have learnt how to love you more, and you will still be hindmost in love's race—for women are made to love and men to fight, in this world, and though I could fight not badly, if need were, for you, yet I know better how to do the sweeter thing, than you can ever know. Do you not believe me?'
'Since you would have me—'
'You do not—but you will, some day,' she answered, shaking her beautiful head a little, and tapping the door with her fingers. 'And now, dear,' she added, laying her hand in his and beginning to walk up and down the old battlement, 'and now, shall I tell Rex, or will you?'
'I will tell him,' said Greif firmly.
'Then promise me not to be angry, Greif. I could do it so well—but it is better so. Promise me that you will say it in such a way as shall make you feel afterwards that you have done the best—even long afterwards; in such a way as to show him how you value his friendship. He saved your life, by his care—'
'And you called me back from death with your eyes—'
'Do not think of my eyes, when you are talking to him,' interrupted Hilda gravely. 'Think of all he has done for you, and of what such a noble friendship deserves in return. Think that he is a lonely man, and not so young as you, and that he needs a little affection very much. Think that all I want is that we may be able to live happily together, you and I, and he, when he cares to be with us. But do not think of me —or if you do, think that if you and Rex were parted I should not forgive myself. Do I not owe him your life, as you do? If you had died, because he was not there to tend you—I cannot speak of it—but you owe him much, for it is your life, and I more, for I owe him our two lives together. Will you tell him that?'
'I will try—he will not understand it all.'
'Then, if he has not understood, if you cannot make him see it, then it will be my turn. But you can, Greif dear, I know you can. And it is not a small matter either, though it may seem so now. It is not a small matter to part with such a man as that, nor is it an insignificant evil, that I should have his dislike at the very beginning, before we are married. You must do your best, you must do all you can, and you will succeed—and by and by we will work together. Greif—' she stopped suddenly and looked at him.
'What is it, dear?' he asked.
'Greif, do you think I have any other reason for wanting Rex to like me? Do you think I am a vain woman?'
Greif stared at her a moment and then laughed aloud.
'Why do you laugh?' she asked, quietly. 'Perhaps I am right. I have read of girls who were so vain that they wanted every man they saw to like them—and I have never seen any man—young, I mean, but you, until I saw Rex—and so I thought—perhaps—'
She did not finish the sentence, but stood looking at him with an expression of serious doubt upon her lovely face that made Greif laugh again.
'Because if that were it,' she said gravely, 'Rex might go, and I should be glad of it—'
'Hilda! How can you have such ideas!' cried Greif at last. Her innocence was so astounding that he could not find words to answer her at once.
'There might be just a possibility—'
'That you, in your heart of hearts, are not satisfied with me alone, but want to make a conquest of Rex besides! Poor Rex! How he would laugh at the idea—Hilda, you must not think such things!'
'Is it wrong?' she asked, turning her clear eyes upon him.
'Wrong? No. It is not wrong to any one but yourself, and it is really very wrong to believe that you could be capable of a contemptible, silly vanity like that.'
'You do not think I should be—what do they call it—a coquette—if you took me into the world?'
'You? Never!' And Greif laughed again, as he well might.
In a woman differently brought up it would have been impossible not to suppose that such words were spoken out of sheer affectation, but Greif knew too well how Hilda had lived, to suspect such a thing. Her innocence was such that she did not understand the commonest feelings of women in the world, not even the most harmless.
'I hope not,' she said. 'I do not mean to be bad, though I believe it is very easy, and one does not always know it, when one is.'
'I should think one would know it oneself sooner than any one else,' answered Greif. 'But if I find out that you are bad, Hilda, I promise to tell you so.'
'I do not run any risk. What children we are, Hilda! And how pleasant it is to be children together, on a day like this, in a year like this, with such a creature as you, sweetheart!'
'We cannot always be children,' she answered. 'Will it be very different then, I wonder? Will there be any change, except the good change of loving more than now?'
'I do not see why there should be. Even if that never came, would it not be enough, as it is?'
'Love must grow, Greif. I feel that. A love that does not grow is already beginning to die.'
'Who told you so many things of love, Hilda?'
'Who told me?' she repeated, as the quick fire flashed in her eyes. 'Do I need to be told, to know? Ah, Greif, if you felt what I feel—here—' she pressed her hand to her side, 'you would understand that I need no telling, nor ever shall. You are there, dear, there in the midst of my heart, more really even than you are before my eyes.'
'You are more eloquent than I, sweetheart,' said Greif. 'You leave me nothing to say, except always to repeat what you have said.'
'If I said little—' She stopped and laughed.
'It is not words only, nor the tones of them that make things true. If I had the skill I could say better what would please you to hear, but having none, I make your speeches my own, to be enough for both of us.'
'Do you never feel as though you must speak, or your heart would burst?'
'No—I wish I could, for then the words would come. I think that the more I feel the less I am able to say.'
'You talked very badly when you were trying to persuade me that we ought not to marry,' said Hilda, with a side glance at his happy face.
'And you talked well—too well—'
'Which of us two felt the more, I wonder?'
'What I felt was almost too much. I came near never speaking again. I do not know how I got home that day.'
'And I—do you know? When you were gone, I did not shed a tear, I did not try to run after you, though I thought of it. I went quietly into the house and sat down and told my mother what I had said. Was it heartless, do you think? Was it because I felt nothing? It is true, I did not believe you were really ill, since you had the strength to go away on foot.'
'What was it then?' Greif looked wonderingly into her face.
'It was victory, and I knew it. For one moment I was frightened, and then I saw it all. I saw you come back, as you have come to-day, to say what you have said. I felt as though my hand were still on your shoulder, as though you could not escape me, do what you might. I never doubted, until that dreadful day when Wastei came over and told my mother that you were very ill. He did not say you were dying, but he told us that your carriage was on the way to fetch us, and that they were sending relays of horses along the road so that we should lose no time—and she would have left me behind. But I knew the truth. I knew that if I could see you, you were saved; and then, when I pushed my mother aside and went in, it seemed too late. If I could die at all, being so strong, I should have died in that moment, when your head fell back upon my arm and your eyes closed—and then, a minute later, they told me you were saved, for when I knew you were still alive I knew you would be well again—and then—and then—oh, Greif!'
The tears that pain or sorrow could not have wrung from her, broke forth abundantly in the memory of that overwhelming joy. If Hilda had not been Hilda, the only woman of her kind, Greif would have kissed the tears away as they started from her eyes. But being Hilda, he could not. It was over in a minute, but he had become a little pale and his arm trembled under the light pressure of hers. She brushed the drops away, and saw his altered face.
'What is the matter, dear?' she asked. 'It is only happiness—they do not hurt.'
'Sometimes you are so beautiful that I do not dare to touch you,' he said softly.
She turned her golden head quickly with a bright smile, and a crystal drop that lingered on her lashes fell upon her soft cheek. It was as though his words had been the breath of the south wind gently shaking the last drop of a summer shower from the petals of a perfect rose.
'How shall I not be vain, if you say such things!' she exclaimed.
'How can I see you so, and not say them?' he asked.
'It is time to go down,' she said. 'We meant to go, when I began to speak of Rex, ever so long ago.'
'I had forgotten Rex.'
'Do not forget him. He is a good friend.'
So at last they descended the broken stair and disappeared into the house. When Greif was ready to go, and the carriage was before the door, Frau von Sigmundskron led him away from Hilda.
'Let it be done soon,' she said, earnestly.
'The marriage?' asked Greif in surprise.
'No—the name. Let it be changed as soon as the lawyers can do it.'
'I will see to it at once,' he answered, wondering at her haste.
She saw the look of inquiry in his eyes and paused a moment, holding his hand in hers.
'I have lived long without a son—give me one—and Sigmundskron has had no lord these eighteen years.'
'I will not lose a day,' he said. 'And once more—I thank you with all my heart.'
He kissed her thin hand, and turned away to bid farewell to Hilda. A moment later the light carriage was whirling out through the castle gate. The two ladies watched until it was out of sight.
'God bless you,' said the mother solemnly, as though she were speaking to Greif. 'God bless you and bring you back to be a son to me—no more Greifenstein, but Sigmundskron, you, and yours for ever, and ever! God bless you!'
Hilda looked at her mother intently. She did not know all that the words meant to the quiet, white-haired woman beside her. She could not know how often in those long years Therese von Sigmundskron had wished that, instead of a daughter, a son had been given to her, to bear the name and wear the sword of her dead husband; she could not know of all the tears her mother had shed in bitter self-reproach at her own ingratitude in thinking such a thought.
'You do not understand, child,' she said, taking her daughter by the hand. 'Come with me.'
She led her to her own room. Upon a piece of black stuff on the wall, were hung two swords, one a sabre, and one a rapier in a three-cornered case, and above them a leathern helmet with a gilded spike. Beneath these weapons was a heavy old carved chest. With Hilda's help she lifted the lid. Within were uniforms and military trappings of all sorts, and in one corner, folded together, a roll of faded bunting. This she took out and unwrapped, and spread it wide upon the floor.
It was torn and patched and faded, for it was the old flag that used to wave upon the dilapidated keep of the castle. On an azure field three golden crowns were set corner wise, two above and one below. Hilda looked at the banner curiously, and then at her mother.
'We must make a new one, Hilda,' she said. 'And Wastei must pick out a tall, straight sapling from the forest—for Sigmundskron has a lord again, and the old flag must float on the wind when he comes to his home.'
Rex had not been wrong when he predicted that Hilda and Greif would be married in the summer. It had certainly been the intention of the latter to allow the whole year to pass after the winter's tragedy, before tasting the happiness that was before him, but even if his own courage had been equal to the trial of waiting, other circumstances would have determined him to hasten the day. Perhaps the most impatient of all was Frau von Sigmundskron herself, and indeed the oldest are often those most anxious to precipitate events, as though they feared lest death should overtake them before everything is accomplished. The good baroness was by no means old, but she was in haste to see the fulfilment of her hopes. Hilda, who was already supremely happy, would have waited, if Greif had desired it, and she at first approved of his intention to let the proper time of mourning elapse. But Greif yielded without much opposition to the wishes of Frau von Sigmundskron, who, strange to say, was seconded by Rex.
'It seems very wrong to do it,' said Greif to the latter, as they sat one evening together in the arbour of the garden, listening with pleasure to the sound of the cool torrent tumbling along far below. It was late in July.
'There is nothing wrong in that which makes all happy,' answered Rex, taking his cigar from his mouth.
'But there is a decency which is apart from right and wrong,' objected Greif, for the hundredth time.
'Then keep it apart. Besides, decency can be divided under two kinds. The one does not concern us, for it is purely esthetic. As for the other sort, it means that tactful respect for tolerably sensible traditions, by which society expresses its wish to continue to exist in social bonds. It is founded on the necessity which exists, where many live together, of not hurting the feelings of our neighbours. If you can show me that you are offending any one's sensibilities by getting married now instead of five or six months hence, I will give up the contest and go to bed, for it is late. If you cannot, and if you persist, I am ready to argue with you all night.'
And so Greif suffered himself to be persuaded, and the wedding day was fixed in the end of August, and everything was got ready.
Long before this, Rex and Greif had done all that there was to be done in regard to the succession, and had sorted and arranged such papers as had to be examined. But though Greif had willingly left the bulk of the work to his cousin, and though the latter had searched everything far more thoroughly than Greif guessed, not a scrap of writing had been discovered which could be taken for a message from the dead man to his son. Rex wondered what had become of the letter, until at last he began to suspect that it had never been written. At first this appeared to be a wild and inexplicable supposition, but the more he thought of it, the more certain it grew, in his opinion, that Greifenstein had died without leaving a word of farewell to Greif. The letter Rex himself had received afforded a key to the situation. Old Greifenstein's character had been stern, resolute, moral, unbending. Rex felt certain that if he had written to Greif at all, the letter would have contained a solemn injunction, commanding him to take the consequences of his mother's crimes, to give over the whole fortune and estate to the Sigmundskrons, as lawful heirs thereto, and, after confessing frankly that he was nameless and penniless, to bear his poverty and shame like a brave man, because they were inevitable in the course of divine justice. He would probably have recommended him to enlist as a private soldier, and trust to his education and to his own strength of determination for advancement.
The stiff-necked old gentleman would in all human probability have expressed himself in this manner, and Rex knew Greif well enough to know the son would have fulfilled the father's injunctions and carried out his orders to the letter, no matter at what cost.
On the other hand it was possible that the grim nobleman might have relented at the last minute. He might even have torn up the letter after writing it, and burned the shreds in the library fire. If he did not write at all, it was clear that matters were likely to remain in their existing condition so far as Greif was concerned. He could not foresee that the circumstances of his death would make Greif go to such lengths as to break off the marriage. He would have guessed with a show of probability that Frau von Sigmundskron would not refuse Greif and his fortune for her daughter, on account of the evil associations created in the name of Greifenstein by the triple tragedy. He would have said to himself that he was not obliged to speak, since the money, the only thing which could be contested would, after all, go to the Sigmundskrons; and in that case he would have considered it justifiable to take his secret with him to the grave.
There was only one objection to this attractive theory, and that lay in the letter Rex himself had received. If Greifenstein had determined that his own son was never to have any key to the mystery, he would never have allowed his brother to write down the details for Rex, even with an injunction to secrecy. And he had been a man capable, especially at such a time, of enforcing his will upon Rieseneck. Unfortunately it was impossible to know which of the two men had died first, and here a third possibility presented itself which Rex could not afford to ignore, though it contained a considerable element of improbability. It was conceivable that Greifenstein should have been the first to die. In that case Rieseneck, who must have felt that he had ruined Greif by his revelations, might have burned his brother's letter, before pulling the trigger. It would have seemed more natural in that case that he should have also destroyed his own, but it might be that he had warned Rex for a good reason. Without such a warning, and if he had been a less devoted friend of Greif's, Rex might perhaps have instituted inquiries into his father's death which would have caused trouble, and which might even, by some wholly unforeseen accident, have revealed the whole truth to Greif himself. No one could tell what witnesses were still alive to swear to the identity of her who had been the wife of both. There must necessarily have been foul play in procuring the false papers upon which she had contracted her second marriage, and she assuredly could not have forged them alone. It was highly probable that some former associate of hers in the revolutionary times had remained unnoticed in a government office after the troubles were over, and had helped her to free herself from Rieseneck, who had been the instrument of the revolutionary powers, by procuring for her a set of false papers accurate enough to defy detection. Such things might well have happened at such an unquiet season. It would have sufficed that such a person should communicate what he knew, cleverly shielding himself at the same time, in order to reveal the whole story; and if no one had been warned of the danger, while Rex himself was using all the power of the law to account for his father's death, the result might have been fatal to Greif.
Nevertheless, Rex clung to the theory that Greifenstein had never written at all, and he met such difficulties as the theory presented, by supposing that he had not been aware that Rieseneck was writing to Rex. In any case, nothing had been found after the most exhaustive search, and Rex was beginning to believe, willingly enough, that nothing would ever be discovered. To avoid all risks, however, he did his utmost to hasten the marriage, feeling that after that event there would be less to fear from a disclosure of the truth.
Meanwhile Greif had obeyed the wishes of Frau von Sigmundskron and had taken immediate steps to change his name. In Germany the matter is an easy one, as it is managed chiefly through the Heralds' Office. Nothing is required beyond the formal and legal consent of all persons bearing the name which the petitioner desires to assume. When this is given, the necessary formalities are easily fulfilled, and a patent is placed in the hands of the person who has applied. After that, it is no longer in the power of the family who have given their consent to withdraw the name, under any circumstances whatsoever. In Greif's case, everything was done very easily. The Heralds' Office was well aware that the male line of the Sigmundskrons was extinct, and that the family was only represented by Hilda and her mother, the necessary documents were forwarded, signed and attested by the two ladies in the presence of the proper persons, and returned. A month later Greif received his patent, sealed and signed by the sovereign, setting forth that he, Greif von Greifenstein, only son of Hugo, deceased, was authorised and entitled to be called henceforth Greif von Greifenstein and Sigmundskron, that he was at liberty to use either or both names and to bear arms, three crowns proper, or, in field azure, either quartered with those of Greifenstein or separately, as good should seem in his own eyes.
And at mid-day on a certain day in June, the wood-cutters in the forest had looked towards the towers of Sigmundskron as they sat in the shade to eat their noon-tide meal, and they had seen a great standard rising slowly to the peak of a lofty staff, and catching the breeze and floating out bravely, displaying three golden crowns upon its azure breadth.
'What is it?' asked one, a young fellow of twenty years.
'It is the flag of the Sigmundskrons,' answered a grey-haired, beetle- browed man, pausing with a mouthful of cheese stuck on the end of his murderous knife. 'I have not seen that these twenty years, since the poor baron was killed in the war. There must be a new lord in Sigmundskron. We will ask to-night in the village.'
And as they talked, the banner, hoisted by Wastei's wiry arms, reached the very top of the staff, and remained there, waving majestically, where many a one like it had waved during eight hundred years and more. At that moment Greif, in his carriage, was coming up the last ascent. He saw the lordly standard, changed colour a little and then rose in the light vehicle and uncovered his head. He felt as though all the dead Sigmundskrons who lay side by side in the castle chapel had risen from their tombs to greet the new possessor of their name. He could not do less than rise himself, and salute their flag, though it was now to be his own. His young heart, full of knightly traditions and aspirations, felt something which a man of a younger race could not feel. It represented much to him, which is lost in the glare of modern life. It was easy for him to fancy the old Sigmundskrons in their gleaming mail, high on their armoured horses, riding out in a close squadron from their castle gate with their standard in their midst, some to die in defending it, and some of them to bear home its tattered glories in victory. It was an easy matter for him to identify himself with them and to feel that henceforth he also had a part in their history. And there was more, too, in the sight of the gleaming colours and dancing waves of the tall banner. It was to him the signal of a new life's starting-point, the emblem of a new name. Yesterday he had been burdened with the remembrance of blood shed in evil wise, to-day he began his existence with a fair scroll before him on which no shameful thing was written. As he stood bareheaded in his carriage, he was as it were saluting this new life before him, as well as doing homage to the memory of the dead Sigmundskrons.
So Greif was no longer Greifenstein now, and he informed the few persons whom he wished should know the fact. And the time passed quickly on to the wedding-day. In the meanwhile, between April and August, Rex and Hilda met more often than before, and to all appearances they met on the best of terms, to the no small satisfaction of Greif himself.
'Rex,' he had said one day, 'Hilda is to be my wife, and it is necessary that you should like her. You cannot have any good reason to the contrary, and yet you act as though she were positively repulsive to you.'
Thereupon Rex's stony eyes had expressed something as nearly like astonishment as they were capable of showing, for he was surprised at being found out, almost for the first time in his life, and he perceived that Greif had not found him out alone.
'I am sorry that she should think me capable of disliking her,' Rex answered. 'My position, indeed, is so different from what you both suppose it to be, that I would make any sacrifice rather than see this marriage broken off.'
Greif looked at him a moment, not quite understanding, for it was impossible that he should appreciate all that Rex meant by the words. He was pleased, nevertheless.
'I wish you would go and tell that to Hilda,' he said in answer.
'I will,' said Rex, and he did so on the first occasion that offered.
He and Greif went over to Sigmundskron together. Indeed, Rex went for the express purpose of making his speech to Hilda, and Greif occupied the attention of the baroness for a while in order that the two might talk undisturbed.
'So you have come at last,' said Hilda. 'It is long since we have seen you.'
'Yes, and I have come for an especial purpose,' answered Rex. 'It appears that, in the inscrutable ways of fate, I have passed for an ill-mannered barbarian in your eyes, and so I have come to show myself and to tell you what I think on certain points.'
'You talk very mysteriously,' said Hilda.
'The prologue of a tale should always be mysterious. It is only the epilogue that must needs be clear. The story may be between the two. The matter of all three is very simple, because it concerns you and me. To be plain, Fraulein, I have come to justify myself in your eyes, to make an apology, a declaration and a treaty, all at once.'
'A treaty, at least, must have two sides,' observed Hilda, for she knew now what he was going to say.
'So does an apology,' answered Rex with a laugh. 'To be brief, I apologise to you for having ever so acted as to make you imagine that I was ill disposed towards you; I hereby declare that, far from being an enemy of yours, I would make any personal sacrifice rather than see your marriage hindered; and I propose that we agree henceforth not to imagine any more such things.'
Hilda was satisfied, for she saw that Greif had put the matter plainly. She hesitated a moment.
'What is your first name, Herr Rex?' she asked.
'Horst,' he answered, in some surprise.
'Very well. I agree to all you say. We will be good friends, and you shall be Cousin Horst to me, and I will be Cousin Hilda to you.'
'Thank you,' said Rex.
He wondered why he had ever disliked her, and he even asked himself whether the antipathy he had felt had been real or imaginary. From that time, however, his manner changed and Greif had no further cause of complaint.
The weeks sped on quickly, and the wedding-day came at last. Everything was done very quietly indeed, as was natural and right, considering that the year of mourning had not yet expired. Only when all was over, Greif made a great feast for all the men of the Greifenstein estates, and another in the court of Sigmundskron for the people of the tiny village. And it was to Sigmundskron that Hilda and Greif went first, while Rex and the baroness remained together at Greifenstein. There was as yet no outward change in Hilda's home, though a few rooms had been furnished for the newly-married pair. But the old sitting-room was left as it was for the present, and there Greif and Hilda dined together on the first evening, while the peasants were feasting beneath the window, in the August moonlight.
Many a long year had passed in melancholy silence since such merriment had been heard within those grey walls, and the people felt instinctively that a new era had begun for them, that there would be life in the old place again, and that the young lord would build up Sigmundskron to be what it had been before. Though not a foot of land remained to the name outside the ramparts, the feudal tradition had not disappeared. Old men were alive whose fathers had told them of the good old Sigmundskrons, how they had been brave in war and kind in peace, and generous till all was gone, and the voices of these drowned the ill-natured remarks of the few who said that the baroness was a miser and had hoarded her gold these twenty years in the deep vault under the haunted north-west tower, upon the brink of the precipice. Moreover, as is the nature of peasants, the sight of the feast warmed their hearts towards those who gave it, even before the great joints of meat were cut, or the first cask of beer broached. They had never seen such a banquet before. The long tables went all the way round the great courtyard, and not only had each table a fair white cloth, but there was also a fork at every place, and a stone drinking-jug. And in the midst of the open space stood a row of jolly-looking barrels and casks, there was beer and wine, white Schlossberger and red Affenthaler, but the national cherry spirits were conspicuous by their absence, for Greif knew the fierce Black Foresters well. Their iron heads could stand unlimited draughts of any drink except alcohol, as the event proved, for though they drank deep, and were merry to their heart's content they filed through the gate soberly enough before the clock struck midnight. But before that there was speech-making, and singing, and dancing of reels under the moonlight that mingled softly with the rays of countless paper lanterns. The latter were marvellous in the eyes of the foresters, though some of those who had served in the army said they had seen the like in Stuttgardt, on the King's birthday, when the Thiergarten was illuminated.
Meanwhile Greif and Hilda sat together by the open window high above the court and looked down upon the merry-making peasants, or talked together. All at once a tremendous voice thundered up from below, imposing silence on the assembly. It was so loud and deep and sonorous that Greif turned his head quickly to see if possible, by the uncertain light, the individual who was capable of making such an enormous noise.
'It is the mayor of Sigmundsdorf,' said Hilda, laughing. 'He has the loudest voice in the world. The people say that when he shouts at Berneck, the fishermen can hear him at Haigerloch in Hohenzollern.'
'I should think they might,' answered Greif.
'And now, gentlemen,' roared the mayor from below, as he addressed the rustics, 'it is our duty to thank the good givers, and to drink to their never-to-be-clouded conjugal happiness. From where I stand, gentlemen, I can see the golden moonlight shining upon the silvery hair—'
The mayor interrupted himself with a ponderous cough.
'The silvery moonlight shines upon the golden hair of the high and well-born Fraulein Hilda—I would say, of the high and well-born Frau von Sigmundskron, junior—'
Greif, listening above, drew in his head to suppress a convulsion of laughter, but the crowd applauded the figure of speech, and the mayor bellowed on.
'—and also upon that of her high and well-born consort and husband, the lord of Sigmundskron.'
The name burst from his lips like a clap of thunder, and Greif grew grave, for it meant something to him.
'And though I could say much more,' continued the mayor, 'I will not, for silence is gold, as the burgomaster of Kalw says. And so, gentlemen, we wish them happiness, a hundred years of life, and a son as handsome as themselves for every tower there is on Sigmundskron. Sigmundskron hoch!'
The mayor had seemed to be exerting his full powers during the whole speech, but an unparalleled experience in making noise had taught him the art of reserving a final explosion in the depths of his huge chest, which he knew could never fail to thrill his audience with wonder and delight. His last cheer broke out like the salute of a broadside of cannon, striking the old walls like a battering-ram, till the panes rattled, echoing up to tower and turret, and then reverberating and rolling away among the distant trees, as though it were in haste to fulfil its mission and tell the whole wide forest that Sigmundskron had a lord again, and that Hilda was married to her true love at last.
'Sigmundskron hoch!' yelled the peasants in a wild attempt to rival their leader, which not even their numbers could help them to do.
Then Greif took a tall glass from the table and gave it to Hilda, and took another for himself, and the two stood up in the opening of the Gothic window, the moonlight falling upon their happy faces and upon the slender goblets in their hands. Another shout went up from below, and then all was still.
'It is we who have to thank you,' said Greif, in clear, ringing tones. 'It is we who come to ask your help to make Sigmundskron what it was in the old days. May you all live to sup with us each year as to-night, for another fifty years! We thank you for your good wishes, and we drink to you all—to our good friend the mayor of Sigmundsdorf and to all the rest. Hoch, Sigmundsdorf! Hoch, the brave foresters! Hoch, the Black Forest we all love! Hoch, the dear Swabian land!'
Hilda's silver voice rang high in the last cheer, and then the two touched their glasses with their lips, while all the people shouted with joy below and the mayor's earth-shaking roars of delight made the great owls in the tower shrink into their holes and blink with wonder.
It was a glorious night, and for many a year the people of Sigmundsdorf will remember the look that was on those two beautiful young faces that looked down upon them from the high, arched window, and all agreed that the mayor of Sigmundsdorf had never made such a noble speech as on that occasion, or shown the superiority of his voice over all other voices with such brilliant success.
So Hilda and Greif were married, and none but Rex knew what a mortal danger had hung over their happiness until that day. When all was done and ended, Rex drew a long breath and sat down alone to think over the peril from which Greif had escaped. By this time he was fully persuaded that the latter would never be disturbed by the discovery of a letter left by his father, and he had entirely adopted the theory that no such letter had ever existed. It was a comforting belief, and seemed reasonable enough, so that he classified it amongst his convictions and tormented himself no more.
He could not help reflecting, however, upon the complications that might arise if such a document should after all find its way into Greif's hands, and as he thought over the various turns affairs might take he trembled at the responsibility he had assumed. There were delicate points of law involved, concerning which he himself was uncertain.
In the first place, as Greifenstein, Greif was not married at all. His birth was illegitimate, and if he had been married under the name he supposed to be his, the union was not valid. For the law only acknowledges such marriages as take place under the true and lawful names of both parties. If one or the other, though wholly innocent and ignorant of any mistake, turns out to have been married under a wrong appellation, the office is void and of no effect. The question was, whether Greif, as Sigmundskron, was legally Hilda's husband. Rex was inclined to believe that he was. The Heralds' Office might withdraw from him the name and arms of Greifenstein, but Rex did not believe that they could interdict Greif from using those of Sigmundskron, since the Sigmundskrons had themselves conferred them upon him, in his own person, whatever he was before. In that case Greif was really and truly Sigmundskron, and he was not really anything else, except a nameless orphan. And, if so, the marriage was valid after all. It was a fortunate coincidence which had given a name to a man who really had none at all.