Of course, if no one but Rex were ever to know the secret, there was no danger in store for the young couple. But if any untoward accident should reveal it, or if any other individual were already in possession of it, their case might be bad indeed. Rex could not think of it without experiencing a very unpleasant sensation. He remembered how old Greifenstein had lived during five and twenty years in ignorance of his own shame, and how it had found him out at last. It would be horrible indeed if such a catastrophe should fall upon Greif and Hilda. But it would be better, in the extreme case, that Greif should learn the truth first. If Frau von Sigmundskron should be the first to find it out, it was impossible to foretell what might happen. She would find it hard to believe that Greif had not known it when he married her daughter; she would remember how he had done his best to refuse Hilda, and she would ascribe that to his knowledge that he was illegitimate; his change of name would look like a piece of deliberate scheming to supply himself with what he most lacked, a name. She would misunderstand all his actions and misconstrue all his intentions; he would appear to her in the light of a clever actor who had made the emotions he really felt serve the greater ends he had so carefully concealed. Rex thought of her behaviour with regard to the name, and he understood the immense value she put upon it; he saw how she had persuaded herself that in Greif her husband's race was to be revived again, and he could guess what she would feel when she discovered that she had conferred what she held most holy on earth, not upon an unfortunate nobleman, but upon a murderer's bastard, who had cleverly robbed her of what she could no longer take back.
Rex thought of the strange fatality which pursued himself and his brother. He himself had been the chief cause of the present situation, both by his silence concerning the secret and by his constant efforts to promote the marriage. If he had possessed old Greifenstein's character, he would have acted very differently. He would have told Greif the truth brutally in order to prevent even the distant possibility of such mischief as might now arise. And yet Rex's conscience did not reproach him. He asked himself whether he could possibly have dealt such a blow upon any human being, especially upon one who had suffered, like Greif, almost all that a man can suffer and live. He wondered whether he were amenable to the law for his silence, though he really cared very little about the legality or illegality of his actions in the present case. He felt that both he and his brother were men beyond the pale of common laws, pursued by an evil destiny that did not quite leave them even in their happiness. He went back to his own father's story from its first beginning, and beyond that to the untimely death of the father of old Greifenstein, which had led to the second marriage of the latter's mother, and so to the birth of Rieseneck with all his woes and miserable deeds; then to the early quarrels of the two half-brothers, to their separation, to the singular state of things in which Greifenstein hardly knew of his brother's marriage and never saw the face of his brother's wife; then onward to Rieseneck's surrender of the arsenal guard, to his imprisonment, escape and exile, followed by his wife's unlawful marriage to the brother of her living husband, then to the evil fatality which had sent a child in this false union to inherit so much shame and horror, to be saved from it, so far at least, by his unknown brother, appearing as his cousin, Rex, the traitor's son. In such a train of destiny, what might not be yet in store for Horst von Rieseneck and for his brother Greif von Sigmundskron? Rex almost smiled as he gave to each, in his imagination, the only name that was lawfully his—he smiled at the ingenuity of fate in finding so much mischief to do.
Rex was mistaken in his opinion concerning the letter. Before he died old Greifenstein had actually written it, as he had intended to do, and had directed it to his son. It is not yet time to explain what became of it, but in order to make this history more clear, it is as well to state at once that it was not destroyed, but was actually in existence at the time of Greif's marriage to Hilda.
It is necessary, however, to consider the development of Rex's character during the year which followed the wedding, in order to understand the events which afterwards occurred. It had been his intention to undertake a journey to South America, when all was settled, in order to wind up his father's affairs, and ascertain the extent of the fortune he inherited. He was well aware that he was very rich, but as this was nothing new to him, and as he had always had whatever he wished, he was in no hurry to find out the exact amount of his income. The property was well administered, too, and there was no danger of loss, as Rieseneck had taken pains to provide against every contingency before making his last voyage to Europe. Rex was personally acquainted with the persons to whom his father had confided the management of his wealth, and so soon as they were informed of the latter's death, they took all the legal steps necessary to secure the inheritance, and remitted large sums of money to the heir at regular intervals and with scrupulous exactness.
At first his situation seemed rather a strange one, and he did not exactly know what to do. Immediately after the marriage he found himself at Greifenstein alone with Hilda's mother, who submitted to the arrangement readily enough. It was natural, she said, that the young people should wish to be left to themselves for some time. They had declared that when they were ready for society they would drive over from Sigmundskron, and bring back the baroness and Rex. These two, being both exceedingly methodical persons, agreed very well, and they found plenty to talk about in the possibilities of the future. Rex was utterly indifferent to solitude or company, but since the baroness was to be his companion, he took some trouble to make himself agreeable. She, on her part, knew well enough that the days when she could be constantly with Hilda were over, and she was glad that her son-in-law had such a man as Rex for his cousin. For Rex was far too tactful to parade his philosophic views in the presence of a lady whose practical religion he admired and respected, so that the only point upon which the two could have differed seriously was carefully avoided. An odd sort of intimacy sprang up between them, which neither had anticipated. Frau von Sigmundskron was surprised to find in Rex so much ready sympathy with her ideas, for her German soul would have been naturally inclined to find fault with a man who had been brought up in South America, and whose father could not have been supposed capable of teaching him much sound morality. Nor would it have seemed likely that her somewhat narrow, though elevated view of things in general would find a ready appreciation in one whose great breadth of understanding had made him familiar with all manner of heretically modern notions. She did not comprehend his nature, but she was satisfied in his society.
There are, perhaps, no persons more agreeable to live with than those few who have become conservative through excessive and constant change. They bring back with them to the land of stabilities an intimate practical knowledge of what instability really means, which distinguishes them from people who have lived within the shadow of their own steeple through a lifetime of dogged tradition-worship. Rex had tried everything that the world can give, except fame, which was beyond his reach, and, at forty years of age, he had a decided preference for old-fashioned people. His placid disposition liked their quiet ways and abhorred all sorts of trivial excitement; he was a man who was intimately conscious of the inanity of most forms of amusement, and of the emptiness of most kinds of sensations. The cold, still depths of his heart could not be warmed to a pleasurable heat by the small emotions which the world covets, and so eagerly pursues. He sometimes wondered what would happen if he were really roused. He had not often been angry in his life, but he had noticed, with his habit of self-observation, that his anger seldom failed to produce tangible results, even when it was half assumed. It was natural to suppose that if he should ever be goaded to madness, he might turn out to be a very dangerous animal, but such a case appeared to him extremely improbable, because he could scarcely conceive of anything which could affect his temper for more than a few minutes. It is certainly true that persons who do not indulge their passions are less exposed to be assailed by them at every turn, though the capacity for passion itself in extreme cases increases in an opposite ratio.
Rex and Frau von Sigmundskron became intimate, therefore, and grew more fond of each other's company than they had expected to be. But they were not left long to their solitary state in Greifenstein. At the end of a week, Greif and Hilda appeared, more radiant in their new happiness than before. They proposed that Rex and the baroness should come over to Sigmundskron for a month, after which they announced their intention of travelling for some time.
Hilda had given Rex her hand, which according to German custom she could not do before she was married. He had almost dreaded to touch it when he saw it before him, so strong was still the first impression he had taken so much pains to conquer. Strangely enough, this was the last time he ever felt a return of his old antipathy. It seemed as though the contact of Hilda's gloved fingers had wrought a change in him. He looked up and saw a smile upon her face.
'Do you hate me still?' she asked.
'No.' he answered, and there was no mistaking his tone.
He did not hate her any more, it was true, but he felt unaccountably embarrassed by her presence. He was silent, preoccupied, strangely dull and unresponsive. 'Why do you never talk before Hilda?' asked Greif, in his straightforward way, when they had all been a week at Sigmundskron together.
'Men are often silent before nature's greatest works,' said Rex quietly, and without looking at Hilda as he spoke.
'Do you hear that enormous compliment?' asked Greif, addressing her.
'I do not understand it,' answered Hilda, with a laugh. 'I believe he hates me still!'
'No,' he answered gravely, 'you are quite mistaken, and I was not thinking of making compliments.'
'But it is true, since Greif has spoken of it,' Hilda said. 'You do not talk when I am present, though both Greif and my mother say that no one talks better. What does it mean, when a man is silent, Greif?'
'It generally means that he is in love.' 'With me?' Hilda laughed gaily at the thought, which conveyed no more idea of possibility to her than it did to Greif, or even, at that moment, to Rex himself.
'I should be, if I were Greif,' Rex answered, pretending to laugh a little.
He thought of what had been said, when he was alone, and there seemed nothing laughable in it. On the contrary, he was angry with Greif for suggesting a thought which had certainly not occurred to him before. He knew well enough, now that he considered the matter, that there was no inherent reason in the nature of things why he might not fall in love with Hilda, and it struck him rather forcibly that he occasionally acted as though he were in that condition, or at least as he might have done, had he been in love at twenty. But he was twice that age, and there was an evident discrepancy between his behaviour and his reasoning, which rendered the supposition utterly absurd. He did not believe that a man could be in love in the smallest degree without being aware of it, and he felt that if he were aware that he loved his brother's wife, he should forthwith leave the country for ever. Moreover, until very lately he had believed that he positively disliked Hilda, and it would be strange indeed if a strong antipathy had thus suddenly developed into a sentiment capable of suggesting Greif's careless remark. Rex promised himself that when they met that evening at dinner his behaviour should be very different. It was true that he had not thought much about the matter, until Hilda had asked the cause of his silence. He was in the habit of holding his tongue when he had nothing to say, unlike many younger men. He was also aware that he admired Hilda's beauty, as he had always done, even when he had most disliked her personality. The flash of her eyes and hair as she had rushed to the bed where Greif was almost dying, had produced a permanent impression upon Rex, much at variance with what he had felt towards herself, as distinguished from her outward appearance. He had next attributed his antipathy to jealousy of her; he wondered, now, how he could have made such a blunder. He had nothing but gratitude for her now, for the share she had taken in saving his brother's life, nothing but gratitude and a certain brotherly affection, as undefined as his dislike had been before.
Rex thought he was losing the use of his faculties, or falling into a premature dotage since he could waste so much thought over such an insignificant point, and he made up his mind, after all, not to attempt any determined change in his conduct, but to talk or hold his peace as the spirit moved him. The result was that he talked exceptionally well, very much to his own surprise. Before many days were passed he found that he had so completely altered his behaviour, that he was now generally silent when Hilda was not present, whereas her coming was the signal for him to exhibit an almost unnatural brilliancy.
'I amuse them,' he said to himself, with some satisfaction. 'They are pleased, and that is enough.'
Hilda and Greif carried out their intention of travelling during the autumn. To Greif it seemed impossible that Hilda should any longer remain in total ignorance of the outer world. They would go away, in the first place, for three months, and they would all be back together for an old-fashioned Christmas in Sigmundskron. Their absence would give time for a few of the more essential repairs to be made in the castle, before undertaking the extensive restorations that were necessary. Frau von Sigmundskron had said that she would stay behind and superintend as well as she could.
'And what will you do, Rex?' asked Greif.
'I will help Aunt Therese,' answered the other.
'Why do you not go somewhere and amuse yourself?'
'That is easier said than done. My amusement will consist in counting the days until you come back. We shall both do that.'
'Why not go and stay at Greifenstein as you both did before? It is more comfortable.'
'I prefer this. There is a better view. I think I will buy the top of the hill over there, and lay the foundation of an observatory. It will be an occupation, and they send me so much money that I do not know what to do with it.'
'I hope you are not going to build a house to live in,' said Greif, suddenly. 'Remember that your home is here.'
'Thank you,' answered Rex.
The words were pleasant to him, for in the last month he had begun to feel an attachment for Sigmundskron which he had never felt for any place before. The mere idea of leaving it was painful to him, and if he must be parted for a time from Greif and Hilda—he coupled their names in his thoughts, and rather obstinately, too—he knew that the time would pass more quickly in the old castle than anywhere else. At forty years of age, the idea of beginning again the wandering life he had led so long, rambling from one country and capital to another, now spending a year at a University and then six months in Paris, or a winter in St. Petersburg, never settled, never at home, though at home everywhere—the mere thought was painfully repugnant. To live with Greif and Hilda in their ancient home, to build at last the noble observatory of which he had often idly dreamed, and to spend the best years of life that remained to him in peaceful study among those he loved, was a prospect infinitely attracting, and apparently most easy of realisation.
When Hilda and Greif were gone, Rex discovered that they were really the central figures in his visions of future happiness. The emptiness they left behind was indescribably dreary. He wondered why he had not experienced the same sensation when he and the baroness had stayed at Greifenstein after the wedding. He had not missed the two so painfully then; indeed he had enjoyed the baroness's society very much, and would not then have been altogether sorry to have been left with her for a longer time. But the month they had spent at Sigmundskron had produced a great change, it seemed. Before that, he had assuredly not been in the habit of thinking so much about Greif and Hilda, nor, in Greifenstein, had he expected to meet them at every turn, in every dusky corner, when he walked through the house alone, as was the case now. It was quite certain that they had not formerly haunted his dreams; whereas now he could not close his eyes without seeing Hilda's face, and Greif's beside it.
Though their absence was more than disagreeable to Rex, he was, on the whole, rather pleased than otherwise when he discovered how much he regretted their presence. Until lately he had never missed anybody, nor cared whether he were alone or in company. He could not have looked forward with so much satisfaction to passing the rest of his life with Greif and Hilda if he had not cared for their society. The prospect would have been repugnant instead of attractive in that case, and he would have preferred to build a house of his own. He was delighted at the glimpse of the future afforded him during the past month, and he was satisfied with the position he was to occupy in the house. He was old enough to love Greif and Hilda in a somewhat fatherly way, though he looked so young. After all, a man of forty could be father to a girl of nineteen, and it was a pleasant privilege to call her cousin Hilda, and to treat her as a sort of niece. Rex supposed that before long his brown hair and beard would begin to turn grey. He looked forward to feeling himself older and wiser than Hilda and Greif, as indeed he might, and he intended to take great interest in the education of their children, who would look up to him as to something between a grandfather and an uncle in ten or fifteen years' time. It would be very delightful to teach Hilda's children—and Greif's, and there was nothing to hinder Rex from building his observatory if he pleased.
Of one thing he grew very certain, namely, that life without Greif or Hilda would be intolerable. Fortunately he found sympathy in this thought on the part of Frau von Sigmundskron, who missed the two as much as Rex, though perhaps in a very different way. They talked of nothing but what should be done when the pair came back at Christmas, unless the post had brought one of those short, businesslike efforts of affection which happy couples send to their parents during the first months of wedded bliss. On those occasions the two sat together discussing the letter as long as there remained in it a word to talk about. Rex would then launch out into vivid descriptions of the town or country whence the news came, supplying every deficiency in the correspondence out of the inexhaustible stores of his memory, telling his companion all that Hilda and Greif must have seen and done, even though they had forgotten to give a full account of their proceedings. The baroness enjoyed these conversations quite as much as though she had received longer letters, but Rex was conscious of an odd impulse to fill up by an effort of his imagination the numerous lacunae in the sequence of news. He was aware that his disappointment when no letter came was greater than he had expected, and that it increased until he felt a positive, painful anxiety at the hour when the mail came in.
But though the days sometimes dragged wearily along, they were over at last, and Hilda and Greif came back. They received a great ovation on their return, and the Christmas that followed was a merry one, but no one was so glad to welcome the two home again as Rex. His face was so much changed by his delight that Greif hardly recognised him for the man he had left behind three months ago. As had sometimes happened, though very rarely, his eyes had lost their stony impenetrability for a few moments; the pupils dilated and were full of light; and there was an extraordinary brilliancy about Rex's usually unruffled features, which surprised Hilda herself.
Rex looked at her, too, and he saw that a transformation had taken place. He could not tell whether he preferred the girlish simplicity of three months ago, or the fuller beauty of to-day. The dress made a difference, also, for though simple still, and severe, what Hilda wore was the work of more skilful hands than her own or old Berbel's. There was the difference between unintentional simplicity, and the simplicity of a refined taste, as in Hilda's self Rex would soon discover the change from the girl to the woman.
Rex did not conceal his gladness, and it was in itself a source of pleasure to the two who had come back. During the first few days there was endless festivity and endless talk about all they had seen and done. There was much to say on both sides, and small time to say it, for it was the Christmas season, and the Sigmundskrons were determined to make it a happy one for all their people. But when Twelfth Night was gone by, and quietness descended upon the four occupants of the castle, they found that they had succeeded in telling each other much more than they supposed, in the intervals between Christmas trees, and dinners for the peasantry, and all the pleasant noise and excitement of the Yuletide. Very soon their lives dropped into peaceful channels again, and upon the tidal wave of merriment succeeded the calm flow of an untroubled existence. There was no end to the work to be done upon the castle, and Greif entered upon it with boundless enthusiasm, while Rex helped him at every turn with his extraordinary knowledge of all matters in which exactness was required. Hilda marvelled at his amazing versatility and at the apparent depth of his information upon so many matters. No question came amiss to him connected with the restoration, from the customs and mode of life of the mediaeval Germans to the calculation of a Gothic arch or a winding staircase.
'You seem to know everything,' said Hilda one day, unable to conceal her admiration.
'It is a matter of habit,' Rex answered vaguely, whereat she laughed, scarcely knowing why.
'I mean,' said Rex, explaining himself, 'that you are in the habit of supposing that a man only understands his own profession, whereas if he really does understand it, he ought not to find any difficulty in acquiring the rudiments of any other which does not need special gifts. Everything which depends upon mathematics is more or less connected in a mathematical mind.'
'That sounds very reasonable. I wish I had a mathematical mind.'
'You have what is better,' answered Rex, looking at her.
'What is that?'
'Many things. Ask Greif.'
His tone had changed, and he spoke so seriously that she was surprised, for she did not in the least comprehend his mood. It was strange to himself, and he afterwards wondered whether his own words had any sense in them, unwilling to allow that he had spoken out of the fulness of an admiration he had no right to express. He did not say, even to himself, that she was the most beautiful woman, the best, the kindest he had ever known, but at the thought of what he would have said in his own heart, had all restraint been removed, he felt a shock, such as a man feels who strikes his hand against some unexpected sharp object in the dark, and draws back, groping his way carefully lest he should hurt himself again.
Certain it was that his admiration of Hilda threatened to pass the bounds by which admiration of any sort is separated from the stronger feelings that lie beyond it. But as he perceived this in the course of time, he explained it away by telling himself that it was natural and harmless. Loving his brother as he did, it would have been strange if he had not felt something like devotion for the woman who had saved his brother's life. It would have been astonishing if he had not felt a most sincere affection for her, if he had not been willing to sacrifice anything for her.
It was an odd sort of devotion at first, for it grew up like a tender plant surrounded on all sides by sharp pricks, straight in self- defence, and sensitive by avoiding all contact with things hurtful. Rex became conscious of its growth, and was surprised to find anything so delicate and beautiful in his own heart, where such beauties had never grown, or had budded only to wither prematurely, leaving the ground more dry and arid and unpromising than before. It was as though a soft light had dawned in his soul and was gradually brightening into day. From having distrusted himself a little at first, he put an unbounded faith in his own heart since he saw what it contained. He would even talk to Greif by the hour together of Hilda's perfections, vying with her husband in discovering new things to praise, and utterly happy in the freedom of speaking about her which he thus enjoyed.
He fancied that he looked upon her almost as though she had been his daughter, and he imagined that he understood stories he had read, and cases he had known in his own experience, where such pure affections were concerned. He, who was far from imaginative by nature, made romances in the air, in which he fancied that he had once been married to a woman he had loved to distraction—a woman not unlike Hilda, perhaps—and that Hilda herself was the daughter of that union, all there was left to remind him of her who was dead. There was something oddly fantastic in the thought, which satisfied him for a time, and made his life seem full of a love, tender, regretful, expressing itself in a boundless devotion to the one object which recalled it.
And the dead woman grew in his fancy, until she became very lifelike. He could remember how he had closed her darkened eyes, and smoothed her yellow hair, how he had buried her on a dark winter's day, among the fir trees, and how through long years he had mourned for her, while Hilda was a little child at his knee. It was all fancy, but it was very vivid. Then he could go back still farther, he could recall the sound of her voice, for Hilda's own reminded him of it, and out of the misty echoes of past time he could reconstruct conversations, phrases of love, words full of meaning. He remembered their first meeting, in an ancient castle in a distant land—he had been a guest in her father's house—so long ago. He remembered how they had ridden together so often through a dim forest, and how the echo of the horses' hoofs amongst the ringing trees had broken upon the silvery music of her voice. It all came back to him, the scene, the colour of the shadows; the snort of the horses, the curves of her figure as she sat so straight in the saddle, the silences that said more than words. Then the scene changed, and they were upon a moonlit lawn in summer. He was standing still, and she was coming towards him through the misty light. His heart beat fast. Slender and tall as a fair spirit she advanced. Her two hands were held out before her, and found his. Face to face they stood in silence, their gaze meeting; was it to be, or not? Then, in that wonderful moment, he felt his own hard eyes soften and saw the warm light in hers. Not a word was spoken, as his arms went round her—then they turned and walked together upon the dark, dewless grass, beneath the summer moon.
And again, he was with her upon a balcony at night. In the warm dusk he could see the whiteness of her face, and the outline of her figure. She had said something, and he had felt the hot blood surging to his forehead, and falling again, as by its own weight, upon his heart. All at once he had answered her with such words as he had not guessed a man could speak, for they had broken forth in a passionate eloquence, unrestrained and fresh with young life, as words first spoken can be. He could not always remember them now; the heartfelt ring of them waked him from his sleep, sometimes; and again, in the midst of the occupations of the day, the stirring echo of their music filled the room in a moment and was gone before he could seize it, or was blown into his ear by the clear breeze that swept the valley.
The dead woman was alive—the woman who had never lived save in his brain—and Hilda was growing to be like her. Rex watched them both, her whom he saw with open eyes, and her who was present with him the instant his eyes were closed. No daughter was ever so exact an image of the mother who had borne her; line for line, the features grew to be the same, shade for shade the colour of the one became the colour of the other, coil for coil the yellow hair of both was wound alike upon the noble head. And the love of this dead woman, who had never breathed, but whom he had buried with such bitter tears and such heartbroken grief, filled his whole being and twined itself through all the mazes of his complex nature, till no action of his life was independent of it, and no thought free from its all-dominating influence.
In the first beginnings of this creation of his fancy he had found such peace and such sweet melancholy satisfaction that he had encouraged its growth and had tried to persuade himself of its reality. And the reality had come, so far as it can come to anything wholly built up in the imagination. It had also brought with it its consequences, unless it could be said to be a consequence in itself. Rex's devotion to Hilda increased with every day, as she seemed to him to be more and more like the woman he had loved, the mother he had imagined for her in place of her own. For it was out of Hilda herself that his love for a shadow had grown to be what it was, and the shadow itself was but the reflection of Hilda's present brightness upon the misty emptiness of his own past life.
Rex was very happy. The dreams that filled the hours did not hinder his actions; on the contrary, the latter seemed to be supplied at last with the purpose they had lacked during forty years, the purpose to honour the love that was in him, and to please Hilda, the outcome of that love. All that he did seemed to acquire directness and perfection of detail, all that he said was dignified by a tender thought for this child of an adored vision, until those who lived with him were amazed at his wisdom and kindness, and wondered whether the world had ever held his like before.
The busy months went by and the summer was at hand. Much had been done to Sigmundskron, but there was work for years to come, before it should be what Greif dreamed of. But one day in June the work ceased suddenly, and all was hushed and still. The servants trod noiselessly and spoke in whispers, and Rex found himself left to his own devices with no companion but the dear idol of his fancy. The whole household life seemed suspended.
It was the silence of a great happiness. On that fair June morning Hilda had borne her husband an heir to Sigmundskron.
Berbel, transformed into the housekeeper of Sigmundskron, was busy with the preparations for the christening. A year of uninterrupted prosperity had made her a trifle more sleek than before, and though she still affected a Spartan simplicity of dress, her frock was made of better materials than formerly, and her cap was adorned with black ribbands of real silk.
The day was warm, and Berbel came out into the court to breathe the air. As she stood at the door trying to remember whether she had forgotten anything, a man entered the gate and strode across the pavement. It was Wastei, and he carried in his hand a magnificent string of trout, threaded by the gills upon a willow withe. He bore his burden very carefully, and it was clear that he had gone home to dress himself after catching the trout and before coming to the castle, for he was splendidly arrayed in a pair of new leather breeches and he wore a velvet coat, the like of which had not been seen in Sigmundsdorf within the memory of man, for, like Berbel's ribbands, it was of real silk. Berbel eyed him curiously. She had an odd liking for the fellow.
'God greet you, Frau Berbel,' said Wastei with far more politeness than he vouchsafed to most people, high or low. 'I have brought these fish for the christening feast, and I have seen worse.'
Berbel took the willow wand from his hand, tried the weight, counted the trout with a housewife's eye, tried the weight again, and then nodded approvingly.
'They are good fish,' she said, looking them over once more.
Wastei drew a bright red handkerchief from his pocket, and carefully wiped his sinewy brown hands. Then without further ceremony he sat down upon the stone curb at the corner of the steps, as though he had done his business and meant to rest himself without paying any more attention to Berbel. She liked him for his independence and taciturnity. Moreover, in the old days of starving poverty, Wastei had done her many a good service she had never been able to reward, and had brought many a plump hare and many a brace of quails to the empty larder, swearing that he had come by them honestly, and offering to exchange them for a little mending to his tattered clothes. Berbel used to suspect that Wastei knew more of the nakedness of the land than he admitted, and that he risked more than one dangerous bit of poaching out of secret pity for the poor ladies who were known to buy so little food in the village. They were better off now, both she and Wastei, but as she looked at the broad expanse of black velvet that covered his square, flat back, she remembered the days when he had come ragged to the back door to throw down a good meal of game upon the kitchen table, going off the next minute with nothing but a bit of black bread in prospect for his supper.
'I will take them to the baron myself,' said Berbel.
Wastei looked up as though he had supposed she was already gone in.
'Thank you, Frau Berbel,' he answered.
Five minutes later she returned, carrying a black bottle, a glass and something small shut in the palm of her hand.
'The baron thanks you and sends you this,' she said, holding out a gold piece. 'And I have brought you this,' she added, filling the glass, 'because I know you like it.'
'Luck!' ejaculated Wastei, slipping the twenty-mark piece into the pocket of his waistcoat, and watching the white liquor as it rose nearer to the brim.
He took the glass, twisted it in his fingers, held it to the sun, and then looked again at Berbel.
'God greet,' he said, and tossed off the liquor in a trice. 'Luck!' he exclaimed again, as he smacked his lips.
'Why do you say luck, in that way?' asked the good woman.
'I will tell you, Frau Berbel,' answered Wastei, lowering his tone. 'It is the new coat that brought me luck to-day.'
'It is a good coat,' observed Berbel, in her usual manner.
'Well, I came by it through a gold piece and a drink of that same good stuff.'
'Cheap. It is a good coat.'
'Do you remember, after the devil had flown away with the old wolf of Greifenstein—'
'Hush, for mercy's sake!' exclaimed Berbel. 'You must not talk like that—'
'He was a wolf. I believe he would have torn a poor free-shot like me to pieces if he could. I had him after me once, and I remember his eyes. If he had been ten years younger and if I had not dropped through a hole I knew of so that he thought I had fallen over the Falcon Stone beyond Zavelstein, he would have caught me. He looked for my body two days with his keepers. Well, the devil got him, as you know, for he killed himself. And after that the young lord was ill and you sent me off at night for news, because Fraulein Hilda could not sleep. Well, you remember how I brought back the bad news, and a gold piece Herr Rex had given me, and which I supposed must be for your ladies because they had not many at that time, though I thought it queer. Good, and the baroness said it must be for me—you remember all that?'
'Very well,' replied Berbel, suppressing a smile by force of habit.
'So I took the gold piece, but I would not use it nor change it, for I said it was the price of bad news, though I owed the host at the Ox three marks and a half at the time. I took my gold piece and I put it in a safe place, where nobody would have thought of looking for it.'
'Where was that?' asked Berbel, as he paused.
'Well, if you want to know, I will tell you. There is a place in the forest, called Waldeck, where there is a ruined castle, and before the gate there are three trees and a stump of an old tree farther on—it is all thick and full of brushwood and pines and birches, so that my three trees look very much like the others, but when you have found them, you must take a straight line from the right hand one to the stump—you will find it if you look, and then go on past the stump about a hundred ells, always straight, and then you will come to a flat stone; and the stone is loose so that it turns round easily, if you are strong enough to move it, and underneath it there is a deep hole. I put my gold piece at the bottom of this hole and set a heavy stone upon it, and then I got out and drew the big stone into its place, and went away. I did not think that any one would be likely to look for a twenty mark-piece just in that spot.'
'Improbable,' assented Berbel, her massive mouth twitching with amusement.
'Very. And I said to myself, Wastei, you're a brave fellow, and you shall starve to death rather than use the gold which is the price of bad news; but if the son of the old wolf gets well, and marries Frau Berbel's young lady, and if the good God sends them a boy, then, Wastei, you shall go and get the gold piece and spend it at the christening. You see Herr Rex had given me a drink with the money, just as you did, so that there was a chance of its turning out well after all, and I knew that—because if there had been no chance, why then, money is money, after all.'
'And so now you have bought a coat with it?'
'And what a coat! The Jew had had it in his shop for six months, but nobody could buy it because it was so dear.'
'The Jew?' inquired Berbel, looking sharply at Wastei.
'Yes—and do you know what I think, Frau Berbel?' Wastei lowered his voice to a whisper.
'I believe it is the coat the old wolf died in, and that is the reason it brings me luck.'
'What makes you think that?' inquired his companion, knitting her rough brows.
'There is a spot on the collar—here.' Wastei moved closer to her and presented himself sideways to Berbel pointing out the place with his finger. 'The Jew said it was from a rusty nail, or that it might be an ink-spot—but he is only a Jew. That is not rust, nor ink, Frau Berbel. That is the old wolf's last blood—on the right side, just under the ear. He would have shot me for a poacher, if he could, Frau Berbel. Well, I have got his coat, with his own mark on it.'
Berbel shuddered slightly, strong though she was. She liked Wastei, but she had often guessed that there was a latent ferocity in him which would come out some day.
'And how could the coat have come to the Jew's shop?' she asked, after a pause.
'You know they had a houseful of servants, all thieves from the city, and they were always getting new ones, instead of keeping honest folk from the estate. The young lord sent them all away and took his own people, God bless him. But on the night when they all died, the servants were alone in the house, before your lady got over there, and when she did, she could not do everything. I have heard that they buried them all in fine clothes. Well, in the confusion, you may be sure that one of the servants stole the coat with the blood on it, and as he expected to stay in the house, and could not have worn it himself, he took it to the Jew and sold it for what he could get. You see it looks likely, because the Jew would have waited at least a year before trying to sell it, for fear of being caught.'
'That is true,' said Berbel thoughtfully.
'I would not have told the story to any one else,' observed Wastei. 'But as you know everything, you may as well know this too.'
'What? Is there anything more?'
'Nothing particular,' answered Wastei. 'Except that there was a hole in the pocket,' he added carelessly. 'You see it was not quite new, or I could not have got it for twenty marks.'
'So there was a hole in the pocket,' said Berbel. 'Do you want me to mend it for you?'
'No. I think I will leave it, for luck. Besides it is convenient, if I should want to let anything slip through, between the velvet and the lining.'
'That is true,' observed Berbel, watching him intently.
'A thing might lie a long time between the velvet and the lining of a coat in a Jew's shop,' remarked Wastei presently.
'Long enough for people not to want it, when it is found.'
'It depends on what it is.'
'A ticket for a lottery, for instance, would not be of much use after a year or two.'
'Not much, as you say,' assented Berbel, keeping her eye upon him.
'Or an old letter, either,' said Wastei with perfect indifference.
'That depends on the person to whom it is addressed.'
'A live son is better than a dead father. A message from the dead wolf would not make the christening of his grandson any merrier, would it, Frau Berbel?'
'Better leave dead people alone,' she answered, thoughtfully rubbing the mole on her chin.
'In God's peace,' said Wastei, lifting his small hat from his head. 'Or wherever else they may be,' he added, putting it on again.
There was a pause, during which Berbel reflected upon the situation, and Wastei leaned back against the grey wall, watching a hawk that was circling above the distant crags.
'What will you do with it?' asked Berbel, at last.
'Burn it, or give it to you—whichever you like.'
'You have not read it?'
'It is not the sign-board of an inn—if it were, I could. Besides, it is sealed. There is writing on the back, and I think there is a capital G among the letters. You see there was more than the spot on the collar to tell me whose the coat was.'
'It is true that the baron always expected to find a letter from his father,' said Berbel. 'It looks probable, this story of yours.'
'Do you want the paper?' 'Yes. I will keep it in a safe place. In ten years, when there is no more sorrow about the old people, the baron may like to know that his father thought of him.'
'Better burn it,' suggested Wastei, pulling out a match-box, and fumbling in his unfamiliar pockets for the letter.
'I am not sure of that,' said Berbel, who knew that if she insisted, he would destroy it in spite of her. 'After all, Wastei, it is neither yours nor mine.'
'I bought it with the coat. I can burn it if I like,' said Wastei, striking a match and watching the white flame in the sunshine.
'Of course you can, if you like,' replied Berbel unmoved.
'Well, if you want it, there it is,' he said, throwing away the match and handing her the letter. 'Do not spoil the christening with it, Frau Berbel.'
She took the envelope with a great show of indifference and looked attentively at the superscription.
'Is it what I thought?' inquired Wastei.
'To my son Greif. That is what is written on it.'
'It is like the old wolf's manner,' said the other. 'He might have said Greifenstein at least. But I suppose the devil was in a hurry and could not wait for him to write it out. I am sure I would not have waited so long. God greet you, Frau Berbel.'
Wastei nodded and strode across the sunny court, well satisfied with himself. He had planned the whole meeting, with the useless craftiness of a born woodman. Several days had elapsed since he had bought the coat and found the letter in the lining. In spite of his pretended ignorance he could read well enough to make out the address, and he had come to the conclusion that Berbel was the person to be trusted. He would not for the world have destroyed the precious missive, but he was equally determined neither to keep it himself nor to mar the joy of the Sigmundskrons' festivities by putting it into Greif's own hands. He had known Berbel for many years and he was sure of her discretion. She would keep it until the proper moment was come, and would give it to the right person in the end. But he had not been able to resist the temptation of making a profound mystery of the matter and he prided himself upon the effective way in which he had executed his scheme. Three words would have sufficed, but he had passed more than half an hour very agreeably in Berbel's company. And Berbel, little guessing the tremendous import of what she held in her hand, had been interested by the long story. It did not enter her mind that the letter could be anything but a word of affectionate farewell, at the time Wastei gave it into her keeping. Intelligent and keen as she was, for a woman of her class, it nevertheless did not occur to her that she was putting into her pocket the key to the mystery of eighteen months ago. The baroness had never spoken to her familiarly about the tragedy, and she took it for granted that the catastrophe was fully understood by the survivors, though they chose to keep its cause a secret among themselves. Hilda had indeed told her that poor Greif had received no message from his father, but as the baroness had never mentioned the letter to Rex, she supposed that both were in the same position.
Berbel carried the paper to her own room and put it into a strong wooden box with her own most sacred belongings, the few relics of her husband which she possessed, a dozen letters written to her during the war, an old button from his uniform, a faded bit of ribband which had carried the medal for the war of 1866, and which she had once replaced with a new one, a pair of his old soldier's gloves and a lock of his hair. It was all she had left of him, for he had fallen among hundreds and had been buried in the common trench. She envied her mistress nothing in the world except the two swords and the leathern helmet that had been Sigmundskron's—poor woman! Her husband had fought as bravely and had fallen on the same honourable field as his master, but she had nothing of his, but a little hair, a bit of ribband, a tarnished button and a pair of worn-out gloves. The rough-browed, hard-faced woman kissed each of her poor relics in turn before she closed the box, and the tears were in her eyes as she hid the key away.
She had not decided what to do with the letter, but on the whole it seemed wiser not to deliver it on that day. Indeed it would be almost impossible to do so, for any one not absolutely tactless and careless of others' feelings. Berbel was by no means sure, however, whether she should be justified in keeping it more than a few days. After all, it might possibly contain some message, or some especial injunction which Greif ought to receive at once. To keep such a document concealed for any length of time would have been wholly unjustifiable. On the other hand Berbel was not sure how such a disclosure might affect Greif. So far as she knew, his illness had been caused by the shock of his father's and mother's deaths, and it could not be foreseen whether a circumstance which must remind him so vividly of that catastrophe might not cause a return of the malady which had attacked his brain. Berbel wished she could consult some one and get good advice in the matter. The wisest person in the house was Rex, but for many reasons she would not go to him. It was not unnatural that, in her position, she should distrust Rex to a certain extent. In the first place he was the only member of the household with whom she had not been acquainted for years, and he was consequently the stranger in the establishment. Then, too, though he was so exceedingly clever, she could not grow accustomed to his eyes, and their expressionless stare haunted her when she was alone. Berbel did not believe that a man who looked almost blind and nevertheless saw so much better than other people could be really good and honest, since his appearance itself was a deception. How could a man have eyes with no pupils in them, and yet be able to tell a swift from a swallow as well as Wastei himself and at as great a distance? There was evidently something wrong about Rex, and Berbel preferred to trust any other member of the household.
For the rest, there was the baroness and there was Hilda. Either of them would give her good advice without doubt, but it was necessary to choose between them. Berbel was inclined to select Hilda, for she felt more at her ease with her than with Frau von Sigmundskron herself. Moreover it was natural to imagine that Hilda would understand Greif better than any one else, now that they had been married during nearly a year. On the other hand the baroness was older and wiser, though not so wise as Rex. The balance lay between the sympathy Berbel felt for the one, and the unbounded respect she felt for the other. She had taken care of Hilda from a child, and the girl had grown up feeling that Berbel was more a friend than a servant, as indeed she was; whereas the baroness, though sincerely attached to the good creature to whom she owed so much, and although overflowing with kindness towards her, could not get rid of the idea of all distinctions so far as to talk intimately with her upon family matters. This consideration, of which Berbel was well aware, ultimately turned the scale, and she determined to go to Hilda with the letter, while regretting that a lingering distrust of Rex's character prevented her from appealing to his fabulous wisdom.
The christening was a very grand ceremony, in the eyes of the village folk, and everything was done in the most approved fashion. It not being the custom in Germany to baptize children as soon as they are born, and as the anniversary of the wedding was not far distant, it was agreed to choose that day for giving a name to the heir of Sigmundskron.
'Call him Greif,' said the baroness, 'after his father.'
'Call him Kraft, for his grandfather,' said Berbel to Hilda, when they were alone.
'He has bright eyes,' said Greif. 'He shall be Sigmund.' And Sigmund he was called. Rex said nothing at first and could not be induced to give any opinion in the matter, though he strongly supported Greif's suggestion after it was once made.
Rex was thinking and his thoughts were very much confused. He would have greatly preferred to spend the festal day in solitude, but this was not possible, and he did his best to join in the rejoicings with a glad face. His efforts were successful, and he made a speech at the family dinner, half jesting, half in earnest, as he proposed Hilda's health, and the child's.
'I am much more accustomed to speaking in public than you would imagine,' he said, 'for I have often made long speeches among students, of which the beginning was beer, the middle beer and the end more beer. For that matter, Greif has done the same, and I have been among those who applauded his eloquence. This, however, is a very different affair —as you will no doubt perceive. For, instead of students, I have two noble dames and a philistine for my audience, and instead of beer and Alma Mater, I have for a subject the beauty, the virtues and the deeds of Sigmund von Sigmundskron and of his own especial alma mater, his dear mother. I must trust to her, in the unavoidable absence of Baron Sigmund, due to a tendency to sleep, superinduced by baptism and other things, to convey to him the substance of my words. Nearly a thousand years ago, if there be any truth in history, Sigmund the Bright-eyed came hither with his men and built this hall, in which we are now to drink the health of another bright-eyed Sigmund. In this very place, perhaps upon this very spot, he feasted and wassailed with his warriors, and drained his horn to the future glories of his name. His grand old spirit is with us to-night, rejoicing as we rejoice, quaffing the brown Walhalla-brew while we sip the nectar of the Rhine Nixies. For many a long year he has sat gloomy and mournful and full of sadness before his untasted horn, watching with his wonderful eyes the single silken thread that bore all the fate of his race, hoping and not daring to hope, fearing and refusing to fear—he who dared all things and feared nothing.'
Rex paused a moment and his colour changed a little. There was a ring of deepest emotion in his voice when he continued.
'The thread has not been broken,' he said. 'The strain was fearful and the danger greater than can be told. One of the silken strands parted, the other has borne the weight that was meant for both. One of the two beings, in whom ran that good and true blood, was taken—in glory; the other is left—to be, in peace, the mother of many a brave Sigmund yet unborn, the mother, first, of him to whom we have given to-day the spotless name his fathers bore.'
He paused again and lifted high the great beaker of old Rhine wine.
'She—our dear Hilda, can neither guess nor know the love we bear her,' he said, and suddenly the fire that was so rarely seen flashed in his eyes. 'But she shall know it and feel it, one day, in the love we shall bear her son. Drink, all of you the best health the world holds! Drink to Hilda and to Sigmund the younger, drink to the great spirit of the first Sigmund, and to all his glorious line for ever! Drink to the hope that, as a thousand years ago he drank to Hilda, so we may be draining this health to a son of Hilda's who may sit here a thousand years from to-day! To Hilda! To Sigmund! Hoch, Sigmundskron, Hoch!'
The four voices rang together, even the baroness joining in the cheer. Rex and Greif drained their glasses to the last drop, and each tapped the rim upon his nail; then, with one accord, as though to carry out the ancient custom to its barbaric completeness, both dashed their beakers against the opposite wall, so that they were shivered into a thousand splinters. It is a strange old manner, and the purpose of it is that a glass honoured by a noble and solemn health, may never be defiled by ordinary use again.
Rex sat down in his place and did not speak for some time. He was overcome by an emotion altogether beyond his own comprehension. Unconsciously, in proposing the health, he had identified himself altogether with the race of which he spoke, and for the first time in his life had lost himself in the excitement of the moment. He tried to recall what he had said, but his heart was beating so fast that he could hardly think. He had not meant to say much, he had assuredly not prepared the little speech, and he had most certainly not expected to be carried away by his own words. Hitherto, when he had been obliged to speak of anything with a certain degree of feeling, out of regard for others, he had been conscious of coldly picking and choosing his expressions to suit the sentiment he was supposed to entertain. He had thought he could do the same now; he had begun with a trivial jest about student life; he had been enticed into a bit of rhetoric about old Sigmund; he had forgotten himself altogether when he spoke of Hilda; and he had ended in a sort of burst of enthusiasm that would have done credit to a hot-headed boy of twenty. He was altogether unconscious as to whether his hearers had been pleased or not.
The baroness, whose feeling about Sigmundskron almost amounted to a religious fervour, sat quite still for a few seconds, and then dried her eyes cautiously as though she were afraid of being noticed. Hilda looked at Rex, wondering what the real nature of the strange man might be, pleased by what he had said and yet surprised that he should have said so much. Rex met her fixed gaze and turned his head away instantly. Greif took a fresh glass. 'Your health, my dear Rex,' he said. He always called him Rex from old habit.
'Your health, dear cousin Horst!' exclaimed Hilda.
Rex started, and took the beaker nearest to him.
'I drink to Hilda's mother,' he said in an odd voice. He looked towards Frau von Sigmundskron, but in her place there seemed to sit another woman, one so like Hilda's self that no human eye could have detected a point in which the one did not resemble the other. He raised the glass to his lips. It was empty, and his lips met only the air.
'Fill before drinking!' laughed Greif.
Rex's hand trembled, as he set down the goblet. The mistake was rectified in an instant and Rex drank the baroness's health. This time as he looked at her, he saw her white hair and delicate thin face in all their reality. The shadow was gone. He had pledged its emptiness in an empty glass.
That night his light burned late, and the owls, if they had looked, might have seen his shadow pass and repass many hundreds of times behind the curtain of the open window. Hour after hour he paced his lonely room, asking himself the meaning of what was happening in his brain. It seemed to him that he was suffering from an extraordinary hallucination, which he had indulged until it had taken possession of his whole being. Again and again he went back to the first beginnings of his fancy, recalling the time when he had begun to construct out of nothing a love for himself in the past, imagining for Hilda an imaginary mother, who should have been his own imaginary wife. He cursed the puerility of the thought, and yet returned to it again and again in search of the sweet, sad peace he had so often found in his fancied memories. But that was gone. The scenes he had created grew dull and lost their colour, he forgot the very points which had most pleased him once. And yet he was conscious of acute suffering. It was but a few hours since he had lifted that empty goblet to his lips, and had seen distinctly before him the shadow he loved so well. How was it possible? There was a chair—he had lifted his hand thus—and she had been there. Suddenly his arm was arrested in the very act of the gesture, he grew icy cold, and his stony eyes set themselves in a horrified stare. A cry of despair burst from his lips.
'Great God in Heaven—I love Hilda!'
That was all, and there was silence in the lonely chamber for many hours.
Day had dawned when Rex staggered to his feet, scarcely conscious of where he was, nor of what had happened, knowing only that he had spent many hours in utmost agony. The sight of the familiar objects in the room recalled the whole train of thought which had preceded the shock he had received. Slowly and painfully he began to walk up and down as he had done during the night. It was not possible for his strong nature to remain for any great length of time in a state of stupor, nor was there any danger of his being again affected as he had been at first. After a little while he grew calm and collected, and he realised that something must be done immediately.
He had found the key to all his vain imaginings, to all his varied moods, to the strange disturbance of his faculties in Hilda's presence. He loved his brother's wife, and he knew it. He sought for a remedy, as though he had been assailed by the plague.
There was a medicine close by, in the drawer of his desk, which would cure love or anything else. He knew that. It would be the affair of a moment, the pulling of a trigger, an explosion he should scarcely hear, and there would be no more Rex. The temptation was strong, and moreover there was a tendency in his nature towards suicide which he knew was inherited. It would be a fitting end to the useless life he had led, the son of such a father and of such a mother. No one would guess why he was dead, and it would be soon done. Then indeed there would be no trace left of the old times before the tragedy of Greifenstein. It would be the last page in the history, as he himself was the last survivor, except Greif, and Greif had a right to be happy.
A right—and why? What had Greif done to deserve Hilda more than Rex? He was younger, handsomer, and more fortunate. That was the point. Greif's luck had saved him, and what was life to him was death to Rex. It was pure good fortune. There had not been a struggle or the least desire for one. Rex himself had done everything in his power to push on the marriage, and could blame no one for the result. Greif was happy and Rex was broken-hearted. If Greif had refused to marry Hilda, Rex might perhaps have won her, supplying by his own wealth the fortune which should have been hers through Greif's ruin.
Luck indeed! There was Greif, nameless and penniless in reality, but unconscious of the awful misfortunes he had escaped, delivered from the borrowed name that was stained, and invested with one more noble and spotless than the other had ever been, lord of Sigmundskron, husband of Hilda, father of a new race. What more could the heart of man desire? That was what Greif appeared to be, and was, so far as he himself was aware. And this—Rex drew from a secret place his father's last letter—this was the real Greif whom none knew but Rex.
He read the words carefully many times. Then he leaned back in his chair and gazed long through the open window at the distant forest. At last he rose and lit a candle. It might be best that he should die now, but if so, this secret must die with him. He had only preserved the writing in case Greif refused to marry Hilda, and now they were not only married, but there was an heir born to them. He held the letter in the midst of the flame, and then the envelope till both were consumed to ashes, and the summer breeze that blew into the room wafted the black remains, light as threads of gossamer, from the table to the floor, and away into dark corners to crumble into dust.
No one could ever guess the secret now, thought Rex, not dreaming that by a strange train of circumstances another letter had been stored away beneath the same roof but yesterday in the safe keeping of honest Berbel. Greif was safe, thought Rex, as he laid his hand upon the drawer again, to take the other thing from its place. He, Rex, would leave no tell-tale letters behind. It should be sharp, short, complete and decisive. There would be some regrets for the lonely man who was gone, and they would never dream how he had purchased their security with his life. He laid the weapon upon the table before him.
Their security? Surely, that was but a theatrical phrase, with no meaning, spoken to make his miserable death seem grand, or at least worthy. Security implied danger, and what danger could his wretched life bring to Hilda or her husband? The thought that Hilda could ever love him was monstrous, the suggestion that he could ever speak loving words to her he loved, since he knew who she was, stung him like a blow on the mouth. That splendid angel could no more stoop from her superb purity, than he, Rex, could have flung a handful of mud in her divine face—no more than he could have entertained for one horrible instant the thought of sullying what God had made so white. He had a bitter scorn of that word security, so soon as it had flashed unspoken through his mind; he cursed his own soul for the contemptible thought. And in his self-abasement, he was heroic, unconsciously, as heroes are. He was to die, but it was for honour's sake, and not for any foul wrong done to man or woman.
He could say that, with a clear conscience. From the moment when he had felt the truth, and had known that he loved his brother's wife, he had been tortured almost past endurance. Not one sweet thought of Hilda had entered his heart, there was nothing there but the stabbing pain of his own folly, and the scaring consciousness that his folly had ended in the most appalling of all truths. There was nothing in his mind but a relentless hatred of himself, a stunning and sudden comprehension of what he had allowed himself to dream. Even, if there had been no other reason, he deserved to die, he judged himself worthy of death. It was for honour's sake—how could he live and face them all, knowing what he was, even if they did not know? There must be an end, and there could be but one end to his sufferings. He put out his hand and drew the weapon into his grasp.
What was honour, that he should die for it? He had believed in very little beyond himself during forty years, but he believed in honour and had been reckoned a most honourable man among those who had known him. He had risked his life for it many a time, but now, for its sake, he was to take his own life without risk, deliberately, as he would have shot a wild beast, as he would have crushed a poisonous reptile under his heel. What was this thing? Was it a fact, a shadow, an idea, a breath, a god or a devil? What was it, for which such deeds had been done, for which old Greifenstein and Rieseneck had slain his mother and laid down their lives in such stern haste? A man might well ask what he was to die for, thought Rex. Why did it seem base in him to live, even though every moment of his existence were to be spent in rooting out what he so hated, in burning out what had defiled his soul; and why did it seem noble and brave to die? To die was easy as drawing a breath, to live was a hard and fearful thing. Yet honour said, Die and be satisfied that you are doing right. Did honour always command what was easiest for a man to do? Again, what was it? He had but a few moments left to live, and in a lifetime he had served honour scrupulously. What if it were but a myth, but a legend of fools, a destroying idol worshipped by brave and brainless visionaries, who had more courage than intelligence, more desire to do right than discernment to sift right from wrong? Pity that so many daring, honest men should have been spitted on rapiers, cloven with sabres, riddled with bullet-holes, for the sake of a vain breath, emptier than the glass he had raised to his lips last night! And yet—he might search, and deny, and argue, and scoff—honour remained a fact. No, not a fact, a law. A law having rules, and conditions and penalties and rewards all defined in the human heart, all equally beyond the range of the human intelligence. His brain could not imagine a question in which honour was concerned, to which his heart did not give the right answer instantaneously, quicker than the brain itself could have solved the problem. And what the heart told him was right, indubitably and indisputably right. Then he was to die for something he felt but could not understand, for the decision of some power within him, wiser and swifter and surer than the cool head to which he had trusted so long. To call that power the heart was nonsense, as absurd as to call it a function of the brain. It was distinct from both, it had a being of its own, independent, dominating, tremendous in its effects. In danger the head said, stop; the heart said, go on. And honour, then, was the spontaneous reasoning of this superior power, whatever it might be. But, if it reasoned, so unfailingly and so surely about some things, why had it nothing to say about others? Why could this faultless judge decide of nothing save right and wrong? From habit, doubtless, because we refer no other questions to him. No, for when we ask a question of ourselves, or when one is asked of us by another, we do not always know beforehand which part of ourselves will answer. Mystery of mysteries, to be solved only by assuming that man has an immortal soul. Idle waste of time, thought Rex, looking at the cartridge in his revolver and then slowly setting back the hammer. An idle waste of time, to think of such matters. Honour or no honour, heart or no heart, the mysterious power within him bade him die. Die, then, and be done with it. He held the weapon in his hand, ready to do the deed. One second, and all would be over. At one end of that polished dark blue barrel was life, with all its dishonour, with all its sufferings, with all the monstrous blackness of evil it held, the life of an honest man who loved his brother's wife in spite of himself, and loathed the thought. At the other end was death, swift, sharp, sure, the answer to all questions, the solution of all ills, the medicine for all earthly woe. Rex laid the revolver down, and drew back a little from the table. Was it possible that he was killing himself merely to escape suffering, to rid himself of pain, to desist from a contest too bitter for his endurance? If that were it, Rex was a miserable coward, and not the honourable man he had thought himself. With the instinct that prompts many men to do the same at such moments, he rose from his chair and went to the mirror. He started when he saw himself in it. It was as though the marvellous look of youth that had clung to him so long, had fallen from his face, and left an old man's features behind. His skin was livid, his eyes were sunken, the flesh was drawn and white about his nostrils and brows and temples. His hair and beard, matted with cold sweat, hung in wild disorder about his head and face. It was strange that the bright summer's morning should even seem to change their colour—or was it a defect in the glass? He looked nearer, and he scarcely dared to believe his eyes. There were grey hairs, whole locks of grey, in the soft brown masses. He had heard of such quick changes but had never believed them real. He gazed in silence at the reflexion of himself for some minutes.
'I am an old man,' he said softly, and turned away, forgetting what he had come to see—whether he were a coward or not.
He went back to the table and sat down, supporting his head in his two hands. He realised what he had suffered, and the question returned to his agonised brain. Was he killing himself to escape torture, or out of his love of honour? He wondered bitterly whether any pain could be worse in the future than what he had borne during this night, and during the hours since the dawn had broken in upon him. It seemed impossible. Then on a sudden, the bright image of Hilda burst upon his sight as he pressed his closed lids with the palms of his hands. Hilda was there before him in all her splendour, he could see every line of her face, every shade of its glorious colouring, every twist of her yellow hair. The light streamed upon him from the whole vision, and he was looking into the bright depths of her eyes. It was exquisite delight, and yet he felt overwhelmed with shame that he should dare to look and love. It was like him to fight to the utmost. With a supreme effort he opened his eyes, and suffered himself to be dazzled by the violent daylight. The vision was gone, but he understood what he must bear, without a sign of pain, if he were to look upon the reality. And yet he knew his own strength. Face to face with Hilda he could have forced his stony eyes to dulness and his features to an indifferent calm. He could do that and not fail. The clear memory of her he had received in that moment told him how much he was able to resist, but showed him also what that resistance would cost; above all it had exhibited to him in all beauty and clearness of detail that upon which he was never to look again. The pain had been sharp and quick, and was scarcely distinguished from the momentary, involuntary happiness. But he could bear it, and worse. It was not to escape it that he had determined to end his life. Nor would he do the fatal deed if he were sure that he were impelled to it merely in the hope of escaping a little suffering, or much. Whatever his faults might be, he was brave still; braver now, perhaps, than he had ever been. There had been a time when all human action, or inaction, had seemed to him so indifferent in itself and in its consequences, that he had almost scoffed at the idea of contrasting courage with cowardice. But he had not then been put to the test as he was now.
It was not the fear of what he must bear that drove him from existence. He was sure of that. He resolutely set himself to think of what life would be in the future, if he chose it, and if he stayed where he was. It was clear that he could live, if he pleased, and meet Hilda, and Greif, and Hilda's mother, and keep a calm face and a steady voice when he was with them. If it were a question of courage, that would be the least courageous course. It would be easier to suffer anything than to put himself beyond the possibility of ever seeing Hilda again. He owned, in bitter self-contempt, that this was absolutely true. The sting of death was there, in the choice of total extinction, in the act of leaving all that he loved, as well as in the extermination of that self which held the power to love. But for one thought, life would still be sweet. All the torment of an existence made dreadful by the hopelessness of an unquenchable passion would be nothing, as compared with the hourly joy of seeing Hilda and of hearing her voice. That would compensate for all things, no matter how horrible, except one; but that one outweighed the rest. The certainty that his whole life hereafter must be one long act of treachery to Greif must overbalance everything else.
That was the point of honour he had sought to explain. He thought he had been mistaken, and that his self-hatred and self-contempt had really but little to do with his decision. It was neither for his own sake, nor for Hilda's that he must leave the world so suddenly, but for Greif's. Greif was his trusted friend, Greif was his cousin, Greif was his brother. To feel what he felt for that brother's wife was treachery, no matter how he should hide his feelings or fight against them. The time would assuredly come when he must hate this man, as he now loved him, and his jealousy would take some active shape, and do Greif some real injury. At any cost, such a catastrophe must be warded off. To leave the two in their happiness and to go away, plunging again into the old existence he hated, would be of no avail. Rex knew human nature well, and was wise enough to include himself in what he knew. He was sure that, sooner or later, his resolution to keep away from Sigmundskron would break down, as much through the insistance of Greif and Hilda, as on account of his own inclinations. Here, too, the humanity of the man showed itself, as well as the weakest points in his self-knowledge and reasoning. Rex might and could have left Sigmundskron then, and his courage would assuredly have kept him away longer than he suspected, even long enough, perhaps, to cool the heat of his passion and make his return both possible and safe. Had he been called upon to decide the case for another he would in all probability have advised such a course, for he would then have taken into consideration the value of life as a factor in the question. But, for his own part, he held his existence as of little worth, and it would not have needed half of what he now suffered to prompt him to part with it. At any time during the last ten years, a severe shock to his feelings, or a fit of unconquerable melancholy, would have been enough to suggest to him the advisability of making a precipitate exit from the stage on which he found himself. Death had long possessed attractions for him, and it was long since life had offered him anything for the enjoyment of which he would have taken the trouble to undergo any annoyance whatsoever. Life seemed to him such a very trivial matter that he felt no hesitation in abandoning it, and he only put off the doing so for a few minutes now, out of curiosity to understand more fully the motives of his action.
It was so very simple to pull the trigger of a pistol, and so very complicated to begin a new existence, just when he had believed that his wanderings were over. The future was inexpressibly dismal, lonely and painful, and death was such a natural and easy escape from it. These reflexions were assuredly present, unknown to himself, in the midst of the many thoughts that crowded his brain in that supreme hour, and they must have influenced him in forming his ultimate decision, though he did not guess that they were at work. He saw only the alternative possibilities of an ignoble life or of an honourable death, and he chose the more pleasant, the easier, the quicker. In the twinkling of an eye it would be done, and here would be no more Rex. Those left behind would think kindly of him; they would suppose he had been mad, and in due time they would congratulate themselves that he had not lived to be a burthen to them. Rex had not any great belief in human sympathy, nor in the regret people felt for the dead. The fact that he could not place credence in the existence of a future life could be traced to his indifference about the present, and in its turn made him sceptical concerning the beliefs of others. Protestations of friendship or affection could mean but little to a man who had scarcely ever expressed either, except from a desire not to seem brutal or unfeeling. It was true that he was profoundly attached to Greif, but his instinct told him that his attachment was only half reciprocated. He loved Hilda in a way of his own, as men have seldom loved, but he knew that Hilda's thoughts of him did not go farther than a vague half- friendly, half-cousinly regard. It was not likely that he should expect of either a passionate grief over his end, or any exaggerated mourning for his death. The idea that the fact of the suicide, independently of his own personality, would add a deeper shadow to the memories of Greifenstein troubled him very little. He had seen how Greif had forgotten the horror of the tragedy in his love of Hilda, and since Hilda would still be at hand, she would help him to forget this also. With the coolness of a man of his age, he calculated the extent of Greif's possible distress and reckoned it insignificant. With the generosity of his exceptional nature, he admitted that his fondness for his brother did not depend upon any principle of reciprocity. If he had chosen, eighteen months earlier, to remain alive instead of following the example of his unhappy father, it had been for Greif's sake that he had lived, though Greif had never known it; if now, knowing the thing that was in his heart, he chose to die, it was for Greif's sake still.
He was glad that he was not doing such a deed merely to escape suffering himself. The thought would have stayed his hand, preserving him to undergo the most terrible ordeal he could imagine; whereas, in its absence he could spare himself that, at least, without a pang, while ridding Greif of the presence of a traitor.
The word was too strong, but Rex could not see that it was so. It seemed to him that by all the wild indulgence of his imagination he had fostered that growth of which he had so suddenly been made aware. He could no longer separate the intention from the fact, and he believed himself guilty of both alike, though he was in reality but the victim of circumstances and the sport of a cruel destiny. Everything combined to bring about the unavoidable result, the fatal tendency to suicide that existed in his blood, the excessive emotion of a heart unused to feel, the despair of an absolutely hopeless love, the horror of a self that seemed all at once blackened by the most hideous treachery, even the constitutional fearlessness of a man to whom the moment of death offered no terrors; everything was present which could drive Rex over the brink, and everything was absent which might have held him back.
He rose once more from his chair and made a few steps in the room, with downcast eyes and folded arms. Methodical and rational to the end, he collected his thoughts for the last time and reviewed the result of his melancholy reflexions, forcing himself to state the facts with the utmost plainness and conciseness, as though he were summing up the case before the jury of his faculties, upon whom depended the final verdict. Too wise to die in vain, too brave to die for a selfish motive, too noble to be influenced by any fear of death itself, he was determined that the deed should be done calmly, in the fullest consciousness of its importance to himself and others, to the fullest satisfaction of his own enlightened reasoning.
That his present condition was wholly intolerable, he refused to believe, for he would not admit that there could be anything too hard for him to endure if his own inclinations were alone considered. It was possible that his strength might break down if he were exposed to such an ordeal as life with Hilda and his brother during many years; but he should certainly be aware, in such a case, of the failing of his powers, and he would be able to keep his own secret until the end, or, if not, to do a year hence what he meant to do now. He was far too old, and far too wise, to take his life from romantic and scarcely defined motives, seeking nothing but relief from a half hysteric pain, asking of death nothing but the forgetfulness of life and love.
One watching him might have seen as much, from his face and manner. Being about to die, he looked more like a strong man humiliated by the shame of his own deeds than like a boy in a fit of despair. The look of compact strength that belonged to him was not gone, and his step was firm and even. His face was haggard, pale and drawn, but its expression was calm and determined, full of the dignity of a man superior to all hasty impulses, and very far removed from the influence of all base motives. And his outward appearance represented very truly the moral position he had taken and held with such tenacity. A wise man might have differed from him, but could not have despised him; a religious person would have been sorry for him, but could not have condemned his profound determination to do what was just according to his light, in perfect sacrifice of himself, to the atonement for an involuntary wrong; a weak man would have envied his strength, a strong man might well have admired his calm power of reasoning in the face of death, and a man of heart would have felt for him.
He stood still before the table and looked out through the open window into the bright summer air. Presently he spoke to himself in a low, distinct voice.
'It is best,' he said decisively. 'I, Horst von Rieseneck, stand here to die, because I love my brother's wife. I die of my own free will. I die because I will not live and feel such a thing in my heart, because I will not be dishonoured in my own estimation. I obey no man, I fear no man, I am influenced by no man. It is my own decision, and I have a right to it. It is my own life and I have a right to take it. It is my own love and I have a right to kill it. I do not die to escape suffering, but the inward conviction of dishonour, which no honest man is called upon to bear. I die in the full possession of all my senses and faculties, and if any of them were disturbed I would wait, in order to judge more calmly. That is all I have to say, I believe.'
It was the last satisfaction Rex could give himself in the world he was about to leave. His intelligence demanded of him that his end should be calm, determined and yet unprejudiced, and that to the very last he should remain open to the conviction of error should any sufficient reason or reasons occur to him within a reasonable time. But no reason why he should hold his hand presented itself, and he was aware that he had reached the supreme moment. He was glad that he had not done in haste what he was now going to do upon mature consideration, for he had always loved to be justified in his actions. But since the result of so much thought had only strengthened his first intention, there was no object in delaying the end any longer.
Having made up his mind definitely, he crossed the room and unlocked the door, reflecting that, since he was to be found dead in a few minutes, there was no use in making a mystery of the fact nor in obliging people to break the door. Keen, cool and practical to the end, the action was characteristic of him. He came back to the table a last time and took the revolver in his hand. He examined the lock, raised the weapon steadily and planted the cold muzzle firmly against his temple. Then he turned his eyes towards the open window and pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell with an inoffensive snap, and Rex frowned. But he had not the slightest intention of relinquishing his purpose. With incredible coolness, he went to a corner of the room and took a box of perfectly fresh cartridges from the drawer where he kept his ammunition; after carefully removing the charges from the revolver, he reloaded the chambers, one by one, raised the hammer and resumed his position. Some moments elapsed before he again lifted the weapon to his head. The incident had shaken his nerves, and he was determined to die in full consciousness and appreciation of his act.
'I wish I could flatter myself that it is for Hilda's sake,' he thought. 'But as I cannot, let this be the end.'
The castle clock began to toll the hour of noon, as he raised the revolver a second time.
When Berbel had hidden the precious letter among her possessions, she had firmly intended to keep it for some time, before giving it to its owner, but she had not excluded from her calculations the possibility of consulting Hilda upon the matter. In the hurry and confusion of the christening day it had seemed to the good woman that she might wait an indefinite time, leaving Greif in ignorance of the writing, while he grew daily better able to bear such a sudden and vivid quickening of past horrors, as must be brought about in his mind when he should read his father's message. It appeared to Berbel both wiser and kinder to hide the letter for a long time.
The day had passed off to the satisfaction of every one, and Berbel certainly deserved a share in the success of the christening. She had been indefatigable, wise and provident in all things, just as she had been in the old times when a penny meant more than a gold piece now. She had superintended everything and everybody, from the baby Sigmund to Greif himself, from the christening cake to the potato dumplings of the labourers' feast. Nothing had escaped her quick eyes, or her ready memory, and all had gone well to the end.
But when all was over Berbel was tired, and she was fain to acknowledge that she was not the woman she had been twenty years before. She was tired with the long day's work and slept, instead of meditating upon the letter, as she had meant to do. Moreover sleep brought a wiser judgment to her refreshed brain, and when she awoke in the morning she resolved to consult Hilda without delay. Once more she opened her treasure safe and took out the sealed envelope, and looked at it attentively; not that she meant to run the risk of carrying it about with her, but because she wished to fix its appearance in her mind, in order to describe it to Hilda. There was nothing remarkable about the outward look of the letter except, perhaps, the superscription, in which Wastei had detected something of old Greifenstein's roughness. But Berbel thought it quite natural that he should have addressed it simply, 'To my son Greif,' as he had done. To her mind it was more affectionate, and looked better than if he had written 'Seiner Hochwohlgeboren Herrn Greif von Greifenstein.' She looked closely at the thing, turning it over and examining it with the utmost attention. But there was nothing worth noticing beyond what she saw at first. The writing was large, heavy and clear, and the envelope was sealed with wax bearing the impress of the Greifenstein arms. There could not be more than one sheet of paper inside, for the letter was very thin. Berbel was somewhat surprised to find it in such good condition, considering that it had lain between the linings of a coat for more than a year and a half, but she reflected that during that time it had been carefully preserved, most probably in a chest or drawer in the recesses of the Jew's shop, and that, after all, there was no particular reason why it should be torn, or stained, or otherwise injured, as though it had been handed about from one person to another ever since it had been written. The pristine freshness of the paper was certainly a little tarnished, and there were a few insignificant creases on its smooth surface; but, on the whole, the letter looked as though it might have been written but a few weeks before it had fallen into Berbel's hands. It struck the good woman that Hilda would certainly wish to hear the whole story of Wastei's discovery, which was strange enough, indeed; and that when she had heard it, that would not be all, for if they decided to give Greif the letter at once, he also must know whence it came.
For a moment Berbel conceived it possible that it might not, after all, contain a farewell communication, since there was nothing to show that it had really been written on the fatal night, but the idea would not bear examination, and when she laid the envelope once more in its place in her box she was firmly persuaded that it contained old Greifenstein's last words to his son. The longer she thought of this, the more she wondered how on the previous day she could have meditated keeping it from Greif for any length of time. Her motive had assuredly been to save him pain if possible, but at present she saw the whole matter in a different light. At the most, she thought, he might be saddened for a day or two by this message from another world, but it was better that he should suffer a little at present than that he should continue to fancy that his father had forgotten him in his last moments. Berbel was by no means without her share of the national military instinct, which will face annoyance in any shape, or impose it upon others rather than allow a duty of any kind to be eluded, or the execution of its mandates postponed. Better for Greif, she thought, that the matter should be settled at once, better for herself, better for everybody. Delay might be fatal. She herself might die suddenly, and the letter would be found among her belongings. What would be thought of her by her beloved mistress if it were discovered that she had concealed so precious a document? Or Greif might die, without ever knowing that his father had written—a hundred misfortunes might occur to prevent the letter reaching the hands for which it was destined. There was no time like the present, thought the sturdy Berbel, and no day like to-day for doing unpleasant things which could not be avoided.
It was necessary to find an opportunity of speaking with Hilda alone, without danger of interruption, and as soon as possible. It was yet early morning, and Hilda was in all probability still asleep, dreaming of the festivities of the previous day, but it would be important to know whether Greif was up or not, and whether he intended to leave the castle during the morning. Berbel left her room and went down to the court. The men were sure to know if Greif had meant to go into the forest or to stay at home, as he would certainly have given orders for some one to accompany him. He was not like his father, who had loved to tramp all day alone, wearying himself out, and coming home late in the evening, in the perpetual attempt to make the days seem short. Greif was by nature gregarious, and was not satisfied with the society of his dogs, but usually took a couple of men with him, when he could not prevail upon Rex to join in his expeditions.
Berbel went into the court and asked a few questions, carelessly enough. It was a warm morning and the men seemed sleepy after the carousal of the previous night. None of them had received any orders for the day, and those who had anything to do went about their occupations in a leisurely fashion, slowly and deliberately, while those who had no work sat together in a shady corner smoking their porcelain pipes, and discussing the festive reminiscences of the christening, enjoying their idleness as very strong men can, who habitually work hard and say little. It was evident that nothing would be done on that day, and it was probable that Greif would stay at home. Berbel turned away and went towards the entrance of the hall. She was about to go in when she heard footsteps behind her, and on looking round saw Wastei striding up with his long, greyhound step.
'God greet you, Frau Berbel,' he said, coming nearer.
He was no longer arrayed in his magnificent velvet coat as on the previous day. Such finery was only for the greatest festivities, and at present he wore no jacket at all, but a rough waistcoat with metal buttons, which hung loose and open over his shirt, and he had a bundle under his arm.
'Good morning, Wastei,' answered Berbel, fixing her sharp eyes upon him with a look of inquiry. She wondered why he had come.
'I have brought you something,' he remarked, standing still before her, and tapping the bundle he carried with one hand.
'More trout?' inquired Berbel with a twitching smile. 'There is no gold to be picked up to-day, Master Wastei.'
'Unfortunately,' he answered. 'But then one can never know,' he added reflectively.
'Out with it!' exclaimed Berbel who was not in a humour for long conversations.
'Out with it is soon said,' returned the other. 'It is a serious matter. Do you think I can chatter like a magpie without thinking of what I am to say?'
'Then think, and be quick about it, or I shall go in.'
'Oh, if you are in a hurry, you may take the bundle without any explanation,' replied Wastei, holding it out towards her. Berbel took it, and felt it, as though trying to guess what it contained.
'What is it?' she asked at length, as her imagination failed to suggest the nature of the contents.
'It is my coat,' said Wastei. 'The old wolf's coat, if you like it better.'
'And what am I to do with your coat?' inquired Berbel. In spite of the question she had thrust the bundle under one arm and held it firmly, with the evident intention of keeping it.
'When you have given the letter to the baron, you might be so kind as to mend the pocket for me,' said Wastei calmly.
'But I told you I should perhaps wait some time before giving the letter.'
'Yes—but you have thought about that in the night,' answered Wastei keenly. 'You will not wait much longer than to-day.'
'What makes you think that?'
'It would not be like you, Frau Berbel,' said the man, with affected indifference.
'Perhaps not,' replied Berbel, smiling unconsciously at the subtle flattery bestowed upon her scrupulously honest character. 'Perhaps not. I had thought of it, as you say.'
'And I had thought that unless the old wolf's coat were there with the hole in the pocket, Frau Berbel might not be able to make it quite clear that Master Wastei had spoken the truth. But if the truth is quite clear, why then—' he paused, as though he did not care what might happen in such a case.
Berbel looked at him for a moment, and then laughed a little, a phenomenon which with her was exceedingly unusual.
'You are really not stupid at all,' she remarked. The ghost of a smile played about Wastei's thin lips as he turned his eyes upon her. Their expression was at once keen, cunning and good-natured.
'Nobody ever said I was particularly dull,' he answered.
'Then you want me to show the coat, together with the letter?'
'But when they know that it belonged to Herr von Greifenstein, they will wish to keep it, will they not?'
'Of course,' repeated Wastei.
'And then, when they find that you have bought it honestly, they will want to buy it of you.'
'And you gave twenty marks for it?'
'And you think they will give you more for it, though I shall tell them just what it cost you at the Jew's?'
'You are not stupid, Wastei. You are not stupid at all. But I thought you imagined the coat would bring you luck. I wonder that you want to part with it!'
'Do you? Is it not luck if I get more for it than it cost at the Jew's?' The man's eyes twinkled as he spoke.
'There is certainly something in what you say,' answered Berbel. 'I am not surprised that you got it so cheap. You understand a bargain, I see.'
'And you will be glad, too, Frau Berbel, when you have to explain how the letter was found,' said Wastei thoughtfully. 'You will be glad to have the coat in your hands to show, and if they like, they can go to the Jew and he will tell them that I bought it only the other day.'
'You are quite sure you are telling the truth, Wastei?'
'I always do, now that I have a gun license,' he answered. 'You see, the truth is best for people who have anything to lose.' 'Fie, Wastei!' exclaimed Berbel, half inclined to smile at his odd philosophy, but unwilling to let him see that she could appreciate a jest upon so moral a subject.