'It is true, Frau Berbel. Not that I ever lied much, either, though I have told some smart tales to the foresters in the old days, when I was a free-shot in the forest, and they were always trying to catch me with a hare in my pocket—and to you too, Frau Berbel, when I used to make you think the game was all right. What did it matter, so long as you had it to eat, you and—well, those were queer times. I suppose you have game whenever you like, now, do you not?'
'Ay, Wastei—I sometimes could not find any lead in your hares—'
'That made them lighter to carry and more wholesome to eat,' observed the other with a chuckle.
'And I had my doubts about them, of course—'
'But you did not ask many questions—not very many—did you?'
'Not always, Wastei,' answered Berbel with a twitch of the lips. 'You see I thought it best to believe you, and to treat you like an honest fellow. There were reasons—'
'Better than doubts, especially when the hare was dead and lying on your kitchen table. Well, well, those times are gone now, and if I ever shot a hare or a roebuck without lead, or pulled the trout out of the stream without making a hole in his nose, why I have forgotten it, and I will not do it again, I promise you. I am growing old, Frau Berbel, I am growing old.'
'And wise, I hope—'
'When a man is young he can do without a gun license,' observed Wastei. 'When the years begin to come, he wants that and other things too. May- wine in May, Frau Berbel, and brown beer in October.'
'And all the cherry spirits you can pick up, between times, I suppose. What are the other things?'
'A good house to live in, and a good wife to roll the potato dumplings. These are two things that are good when the grey years come.'
'You put the house before the wife, I see,' remarked Berbel.
'Because if I had a good house I could have the good wife fast enough. Wastei is not so dull as he looks. He has looked about him in the world. Ay, Frau Berbel, now if you were thinking of being married and had your choice of two men, would you choose the one with a house or the one without? It is a simple question.' 'Very simple, Master Wastei,' answered Berbel, stiffening her stiff neck a little. 'So simple that it is of no use to think about it, nor even to ask it. When do you want your coat back?'
'I want a coat, but not that one—whenever you please. But do not hurry yourself, for I shall not catch cold, and my sweetheart does not care whether I have one or not.'
'So you have a sweetheart, have you?'
'Ay, and a treasure, too—in my waistcoat pocket,' explained Wastei, showing the shining edge of the gold piece he had received on the previous day. 'She has yellow hair, like the lady Hilda's, and a golden heart like Frau Berbel's—I only wish she were as big.'
'Fie, Wastei—making compliments at this time of day, and to an old woman!'
'Old friends, old logs, old spirits,' observed Wastei. 'We have known each other a long time, Frau Berbel, in good and bad days, summer and winter, and you have always been the same to me.'
'Small credit for that!' exclaimed Berbel. 'You have done me many a good turn in twenty years, and my ladies too, and you have never got much by it, that I can see—more praise to you!'
'Nonsense!' ejaculated Wastei, who was visibly affected by the speech. 'God greet you, Frau Berbel!' he added, turning away abruptly and leaving her standing alone in the court.
Berbel looked after him for a few seconds, and there was an unusually tender expression in her sharp eyes, as she watched his retreating figure. He had been a wild fellow in his day, a daring poacher, an intrepid drinker of fiery cherry spirits, always the first in a fight and the last out of it, the terror of the head forester and his men, the object of old Greifenstein's inveterate hatred, the admiration of the village maidens for twenty miles around, the central figure in a hundred adventures and hairbreadth escapes of all kinds, and yet, as though he were miraculously preserved from harm, he had always managed to keep out of trouble, and though many a time suspected of making free with the game, yet never convicted, nor even brought to a trial. It had been impossible to catch him and impossible to prove anything against him. At last the head forester, who had a secret reverence for his extraordinary powers of endurance and unrivalled skill in woodcraft, had made terms with him and employed him as a sort of supernumerary upon the government establishment. From that day, Wastei, who would have waged war to the death with all regular foresters, had surrendered at discretion to the kindness shown him, and had given up poaching for ever. Berbel could not help liking him, and being grateful to him for many a good turn he had done the poor ladies at Sigmundskron. She had often distrusted him at first, but after twenty years' acquaintance and friendship she owned, as she watched him stride away, that he had a heart of gold, as he had said of her but a few moments earlier.
It seemed as though circumstances pointed clearly to the course she had intended to pursue, for since Wastei had brought her the coat it was no longer possible to put off the execution of her purpose. She determined to obtain an interview with Hilda as soon as possible and to place both the garment and the letter in her hands. The reasoning she followed in selecting Hilda for her confidence has been sufficiently explained already. The intimacy existing between the two made such a plan seem most natural to her, Hilda's strong and sensible nature made it safe, the difficulty of the mission, so far as Greif was concerned, made it appear wisest to leave the matter to his wife's wisdom and tact. Berbel went upstairs with her bundle under her arm.
Though Hilda had not risen quite so early as her old servant, she was by this time dressed and ready for the morning walk Greif liked so much in the summer time. Berbel met them both in one of the passages, walking quickly, arm in arm, talking and laughing happily as they went. Berbel would have let them pass, seeing that Hilda was not alone, had not the latter stopped and asked a question.
'What have you got there, Berbel?' she inquired, looking at the bundle.
'It is a very important matter,' answered Berbel. 'And if you could spare me a few minutes—'
'Is it really important?' asked Hilda, leaning on her husband's arm.
'Very. And if you could spare the time—' Berbel looked at Greif.
'Very well,' said the latter. 'I have plenty to do, dear. Finish your business with Berbel and meet me on the tower—there is a man waiting for me, I believe.'
Thereupon Greif went on his way down the broad corridor, leaving Hilda and Berbel to their own devices.
'What is it?' asked Hilda, who wanted to lose no time in rejoining her husband.
'It is a very serious affair, and concerns the baron,' answered Berbel. 'Perhaps it would be better if you would come to my room.'
Hilda followed her, wondering what could have happened, and not without some presentiment of evil. When they had reached their destination Berbel carefully bolted the door and turned to her mistress. It was a small bright room, vaulted and whitewashed, simply but comfortably furnished. Hilda sat down and looked up at Berbel's face, somewhat anxiously.
'It is nothing bad,' said Berbel. 'But it will give pain to the baron, and so I consulted you. I have found a letter written to him by Herr von Greifenstein on the night he died. No one but you can give it to him.'
Hilda started slightly. Anything which recalled the fearful tragedy was necessarily painful and disturbing to the peace of her unclouded happiness.
'A letter?' she repeated in a low voice. 'Where did you find it? They searched everywhere for months. Are you quite sure?'
'They might have searched for ever, but for the merest accident,' answered Berbel, beginning to undo her bundle. 'This,' she added, unfolding the velvet garment—'this is the coat Herr von Greifenstein wore when he shot himself.'
Hilda gazed silently at the thing during several seconds, and shuddered at the thoughts it recalled, though she was by no means persuaded that Berbel was not mistaken.
'How do you know it is?' she asked at last.
'It was stolen on that night by one of those city servants who were always at Greifenstein. Your mother did not notice it. The man took it to a Jew, who kept it a year and then hung it up for sale. A few days ago Wastei bought it to wear at the christening.' 'But how did he know?' 'He guessed it, and found these marks.'
Berbel showed the collar of the coat to Hilda, putting her finger on each spot in succession.
'It looks like rust,' said Hilda.
'It is the blood of Herr von Greifenstein,' answered Berbel solemnly. 'The ball went in just below the right ear, as I have heard your mother say more than once.'
'How horrible!' exclaimed Hilda, drawing back, though her eyes remained riveted on the rusty marks.
'It is not gay,' said Berbel grimly. 'Now look here. Do you see the pocket? Yes. Well, do you see that the lining is torn just above it? Good. Herr von Greifenstein wrote his letter and slipped it into his pocket, because he was thinking of other things at that moment, and paid no attention to what he did, which was natural enough, poor gentleman. But instead of putting it into the pocket, he happened to slip it through the slit, so that it fell down between the coat and the lining. Do you see?'
'And then he pulled the trigger of his pistol and died. The letter was hidden in the coat, the coat was stolen, taken to the Jew's and sold to Wastei eighteen months later, with the letter still in it. And Wastei brought me the letter yesterday, and the coat to-day. That is the whole history.'
'Where is it—the letter?' asked Hilda in an anxious tone.
Berbel unlocked her little deal chest and withdrew the precious document, which she put into Hilda's hand. Hilda turned it over and over, and looked from it to the coat, and back again to the sealed envelope, reading the address again and again.
'It is a strange story,' she said at last. 'But I do not see that there can be any doubt. O Berbel, Berbel! What do you think there is written inside this little bit of paper?'
'A few words to say good-bye to his son, I suppose,' the woman answered.
'If it were only that—' Hilda did not finish the sentence, but her face grew slowly pale and she stared vacantly out of the window, while the hand that held the letter rested on her knee.
'I do not see that it can be anything else,' said Berbel quietly. 'It cannot be a will, for they found everything about the property. What could the poor gentleman say except "Good-bye," and "God bless you"? It seems very simple to me. Of course I knew that it would make the baron very sad to read it, and so I came to you, because I knew you could find just the right moment to give it to him, and just the right words to say, and it seemed wrong in me to keep it even a day. At first, I thought I ought to put it away and wait a year or two, until he had quite forgotten the first shock—but then—'
'Thank heaven you did not!' exclaimed Hilda.
'Well, I am glad I have pleased you,' observed Berbel in her sharp, good-natured way.
'Pleased? Oh, anything would have pleased me better than this thing! It is dreadful, after all this time has passed—'
'But, after all,' suggested Berbel, 'it is only the affair of a day or two, and the baron will be very glad, afterwards, to feel that his father had not forgotten him.'
'You do not understand,' answered Hilda with increasing anxiety. 'We never knew why they killed themselves—it is an awful secret, and the explanation is in this letter.'
'You never knew!' cried Berbel in great astonishment. It had not entered her comprehension that the real facts could be unknown, though they had never been communicated to herself.
'No—neither I nor my husband, and I had hoped that as all has turned out happily we might never know. It would have been far better, far better!'
'Yes, far better,' echoed Berbel, whose simple calculations had been upset by the news, and who began to wish that the coat had fallen into other hands.
Hilda sat quite still, thinking what she should do. The situation was painful from its very simplicity, for it was assuredly her duty to go to her husband and give him the letter, telling him the whole truth at once. He had a right to receive the message from his dead father without a moment's delay, and she knew it, though she hesitated at the thought of what might follow. Her beautiful young face was pale with anxiety, and her bright eyes were veiled by sad thoughts. Poor Berbel was terribly distressed at the result of her discovery and tried to imagine some means of improving the situation.
'If you would let me,' she said, at last, 'I would take the letter to the baron and explain—if it would hurt you—'
'You? I?' cried Hilda almost fiercely. 'It is of him I am thinking, and of what he will suffer. What does it matter for me? It is my duty, and I must do it—am I his wife only when the sun shines and we are happy? Ah, Berbel, you should know better than that!'
'I only wanted to spare you,' said Berbel humbly.
Hilda looked up quickly and then took the old servant's hand kindly in hers.
'I know,' she said softly. 'But you must think first of him, always—if you love me. Berbel—are you perfectly sure that all this is true and real, that no wicked person is trying to do us some harm?'
'I am as sure as I can be—Wastei said I might ask the Jew, if I pleased.'
'It is true—it is Wastei. Unless he is mistaken himself there can be no doubt, then. But it is all so strange!'
It was stranger still, perhaps, that Wastei's name should be enough to dispel in Hilda's mind all doubts as to the truth of the story, and yet she would have believed the wild, kind-hearted free-shot sooner than many a respectable member of society.
'Put away the coat, Berbel,' she said after a pause. 'He will not need to see it when he has read the letter, and it would hurt him, as it hurts me.'
'Shall I give it back to Wastei?' inquired Berbel, folding it up.
'No, oh no! Put it away carefully where it will be safe, but where no one will ever see it again.'
'Wastei gave twenty marks for it,' observed Berbel. 'It is not fair that he should lose his money.' She could not help speaking a good word for her old friend.
'Give him forty to buy a new one. He has been honest, very honest.' Hilda sighed, thinking, perhaps, of all the pain that might have been spared, if Wastei had put the letter into the fire, instead of giving it to Berbel.
The good woman carefully folded the coat and hid it away in the recesses of a huge press that filled the end of the room. Then she rolled up the coloured handkerchief and put it into her pocket.
'It is Wastei's,' she said, as her mistress watched her.
The disappearance of the coat recalled to Hilda the duty of acting immediately, and she rose from her seat with a heavy heart. As she was about to leave the room a thought crossed her mind, and she stopped.
'Berbel,' she said, 'my mother must never know that this has been found, or at least, you must never speak of it to her or to any one, and you must tell Wastei to hold his tongue. She has had sorrow enough in her life, and we need not add any more, now that she is so happy.'
'Good,' answered Berbel. 'I will not talk about it, and as for Wastei, I would trust him with anything.'
Hilda slipped the fatal letter into the bosom of her frock and went in search of her husband.
Greif had not found the man who was supposed to be waiting for him, and he himself had sat down to wait for Hilda on the shady side of the great tower. The air was warm and fragrant, even at that height, with the odour of the pines, and the sun was not yet high enough to make it unpleasantly hot. Through the bright, sunlit distance Greif could see many a familiar landmark of the forest, and as he sat there doing nothing, he amused himself half unconsciously with counting the points in the surrounding landscape which he had visited, and those he had never reached, and the number of the former greatly exceeded that of the rest. It was a very peaceful scene, and Greif breathed in the smooth refreshing air with delight, while his eyes wandered lazily up and down the heights and along the feathery green crests of the forest's waves. For all the firs and pines were still tipped with the green of their new-grown shoots, though the autumn winds and the winter snows would soon stain the newcomers as black as the old boughs on which they grew. The time is short indeed, during which the Black Forest is not black, but takes a softer hue, and a warmer light. The autumn comes early, the spring comes late, there is but little summer, and the winter has it all to himself during the rest of the time. But though the summer days be few, they are of exquisite beauty, such as are rarely seen elsewhere in Europe. Greif knew, as he sat by his tower, that they were nearly over, and he was the more grateful for the delight of the soft sunshine, of the green treetops, of the fragrance of the forest coming up to his nostrils over the grey ramparts, of the short whistle of the shooting swallows, that seemed to spring up like the spray of a fountain out of the abyss beneath, and after circling the highest pinnacle of the castle fell again with lightning speed into the cool depths below. Greif listened to the rushing noise of their wings, and to their short, clear cry, and he wished that Hilda were beside him, to help him to enjoy the more what already gave him such keen pleasure. To him, indeed, Sigmundskron still had the charm of novelty. Its situation on a high and projecting crag was very different from that of Greifenstein, which latter was but the three-cornered end of a precipitous promontory, cut off from the forest by its single enormous bulwark. Sigmundskron commanded a view of many miles over the landscape below, while Greifenstein lay much lower, and a man standing on the topmost rampart could but just look over the level sea of the treetops to the higher hills in the distance beyond.
Greif was very happy. It seemed to him as though all the possible unhappiness of his life had concentrated itself into a very short time, not extending over more than a few days, from the moment when he had received news of the catastrophe in the hall at the banquet at Schwarzburg, to that in which the delirium of his fever had overtaken him. The rest had been but little troubled by the tragedy which had left him alone in the world. Nothing cuts us off from the past more effectually than a dangerous illness in which we are for the most part unconscious. Greif had felt, when he recovered, that he was completely separated from the former time, and the sensation had itself contributed to his recovery, by deadening the sense of pain that had been with him so constantly before he broke down altogether. Rex had not been ill, and to him the past did not seem so distant; moreover he knew what Greif did not know, and had greater cause for sadness. Greif was happy, and he knew it. It appeared impossible, so far as he could see, that anything should arise out of the gloom of Greifenstein to trouble his serenity in Sigmundskron. Every effort had been made by him and Rex together to discover some clue to the mystery, which for Rex was no mystery any longer, and nothing had been found which could cast the smallest light upon what had happened. Rex suggested the possibility of a sudden madness having overtaken one or more of the party, and Greif was so easily satisfied, and so glad to bury the past, that he accepted the idea without defining it. He reflected, indeed, that under no imaginable circumstances could his present be touched or disturbed by the true explanation of the tragedy, should it ever be found, and he was content to let the tide of years flow silently over the place those terrible deeds held in his own life.
It is no wonder that he was happy now, since all his hopes were attained and all his desires satisfied. Being also of a faithful and persistent nature, his satisfaction was solid and permanent. Apart from the one dark spot which was so rapidly fading into the dim distance, he had no regrets; no dreams of what might have been sent rays of false light through his present, no images of disappointed desires haunted him in the silent night, no shadows of a lost joy, still madly anticipated in the distorted anachronisms of a wounded heart, came between him and Hilda's glorious beauty. That misery of humanity was unknown to him, in which the soul still looks forward with a beating, throbbing hope to what the memory knows is buried in the depth and dust of twenty years. All was real, present, glorious, happy and complete. If any one had asked him what he most dreaded, he would have said that he dreaded death alone, death for Hilda, death for the sturdy little child that was to bear the name now his, death for himself, though for himself the fear was less than for the other two. That anything but death could bring back those days and nights of agony through which he had once passed, he did not and he could not believe. Even as he sat beneath the shadow of the tower on that summer's morning he asked himself the question, and the answer was the same as ever. Why, indeed, should he not be left in peace? Why should he even expect the possibility of evil? Evil might come, assuredly, but it must come in some sudden, violent and unexpected shape out of the present, by accident, by illness, by death. The terrors of the past were with the past, and Greif was too strong, and young, and happy to expect misfortune in the present. He sat there, peacefully gazing at the green feathers of the firs and at the circling swallows, and almost laughing to scorn the possibility of a pain that was already near him, that was with him now, as Hilda's graceful figure emerged from the door of the tower and stood beside him.
Her face was still a little pale, but she looked almost supernaturally beautiful in her gravity. It is possible that if she had been transported into the midst of the world, of that company of half- morbid, half-enthusiastic beings which we define commonly as society, she might not have pleased those tired critics altogether as well as one of themselves, though she would assuredly have surprised them exceedingly, and perhaps when she began to grow old they would remember that they had never seen anything like her. But here, in her natural surroundings, she was magnificent. She was dressed all in white, and the delicate shades of her colouring did not suffer by the contrast, but seemed more perfect and harmonious, blended as all the tints were by the all-pervading light of the clear mountain air in the thin, vapoury blue shadows of the old tower. And the rough grey stone was a harmonious background for her beauty and its rugged surface showed more completely the exquisite outlines of her face and figure. Greif saw her beside him, and could not repress his admiration.
'Hilda—how beautiful you are!' he exclaimed, springing to his feet and putting his arms about her.
It seemed as though her perfection had suddenly become visible out of the dream of his cloudless happiness. She smiled faintly as she kissed him, so faintly that he was surprised and drew back, looking into her face.
'Has anything happened, sweetheart?' he asked anxiously. 'Is anything the matter? You are pale, darling, tell me—'
'Something has happened, Greif, and I will tell you,' she said, sitting down upon the long stone seat that ran round the base of the tower, and touching the spot beside her with the palm of her hand, as though bidding him do likewise.
His face grew grave as he took his place at her side, still looking into her eyes.
'It is something that pains you, dear—is it not?' he asked tenderly.
'Because it will pain you,' she answered. 'You must listen to my story patiently, Greif, for it is not easy to tell, and it is not easy to hear. But I will do my best, for it is best to tell it all quite plainly from beginning to end, is it not?'
'Yes,' answered Greif nervously. 'Please tell me all quite frankly.'
'It is about your father, Greif—about all that happened on that dreadful night at Greifenstein. Yes, darling, I will try and be quick. You know when—after they were dead, my mother went over, and did what she could until you came. You know, too, that the house was full of servants, whom your father was always changing—you sent them all away last year. Well, one of those wretches stole—had the heart to steal at that fearful time—a coat—one that belonged to your father—indeed—' she hesitated.
'And you have found it,' asked Greif, whose face relaxed suddenly. He thought it was but a common theft, and was immensely relieved.
'Yes, we have found it,' continued Hilda. 'But it was not a common coat, dear—it was the very one in which—the one he had on, I mean, when—'
'I understand,' Greif said in a low voice.
Hilda looked away, and clasped her hands upon her knee, making an effort to tell her story connectedly. She knew that it would be far better that Greif should be prepared by the knowledge of the details which it would be hard to communicate to him afterwards.
'Yes,' she continued, 'and the wretched servant took it to a Jew and sold it, and the Jew hid it—I suppose because he knew it was stolen— and long afterwards, only a very few days ago, he sold it to Wastei— and Wastei gave it to Berbel, and Berbel showed it to me.'
'Is it safe?' asked Greif, almost under his breath.
'Then I do not want to see it—'
'I have not told you all, dear. There is more. If it had been only that—but there is something else. The coat was torn inside, above the pocket, so that something that had been meant for the pocket had slipped down inside. It was very strange!'
'Something of his?'
'Of his—for you. Oh, Greif—it is the letter you searched for so long and could never find!'
Greif's face turned white and his voice was thick and indistinct.
'Give it to me,' he tried to say, and he held out his hand to receive it.
Without another word Hilda drew the sealed envelope from the bosom of her frock and gave it to him, not daring to look at him. Then she rose and would have left him alone, but with one hand he caught hers and held her back.
'Together, dear,' he almost whispered.
Greif was stunned and shocked. It seemed as though the dead man had risen from his grave to deliver his message himself, to tell his own story and reveal his own secret. With trembling fingers Greif turned the envelope over and over, scarcely able to read the superscription at first, then glancing curiously at the impress on the seal, doubting, as Hilda had doubted, that it was perhaps not genuine. But his memory told him the truth. He knew the paper well, and as trivial details come before the mind in the most appalling moments of life, so he remembered instantly the whole appearance of the library at Greifenstein, the table with the huge old silver inkstand, the rack that had held that very writing paper, the heavy, clumsy seal that had sealed that envelope, and which always lay beside the blotter and next to the sealing wax. It all came back to him so vividly that, even if the letter had been a forgery, he would have believed it genuine, from the mere force of the associations it evoked. He held it in his hands and hesitated.
Within that narrow bit of folded paper was contained the secret of his father's death, of his mother's sudden end, of Rieseneck's suicide. He had not a doubt of it, though he had not realised it at first. A sort of mist veiled his eyes and darkened the glorious day. It seemed so strange that such a poor scrap of perishable rag should hold the key to so great a mystery, the solution to such a fearful question. Within that cover was a sheet of paper and on it he should see characters traced in a familiar hand. He closed his eyes and fancied that he already saw the writing, for he had often imagined how it would look, during his long search. Again and again in his dreams, he had laid his hand upon that envelope, and had broken the seal and had read those short words of tender farewell which he felt must have been in his father's heart at the supreme moment. And now he held the reality and yet he shut out the light of day in order to call up the fancy that had so often consoled his imagination. But the reality was not one with the dreamland shadow. In the one there had been only words of love and sad regret, in this real letter was written the secret whose effects had so nearly ruined his life, a secret so terrible, that had Hilda guessed it she would have thrust the cruel message from the dead into the flames, rather than allow it to live and stab Greif to the heart.
Hilda did not understand his hesitation, though she knew as well as he himself that the yet unread words contained the solution of the great problem. But she sat patiently by his side, her white hand resting on his shoulder, her anxious face turned towards his, her lips already parted, as though but awaiting her breath to speak words of consolation for the suffering that had not yet begun.
Greif roused himself, as though ashamed of the emotion he had shown, though indeed he had seemed outwardly calm enough. He pressed his lips together and ran his finger through the upper side of the envelope, so as not to break the seal. His hands did not tremble any longer, and with the action all his dreams vanished in the broad light of the summer morning. Carefully he withdrew the sheet and spread it out.
'Shall I go, sweetheart? Would you rather be alone?' Hilda asked once more.
'No, darling. Read it with me—let us read it together,' he answered quietly, as though he were speaking in some sacred presence.
Hilda bent her golden head forward until it was close to his, and their cheeks touched as they read together the contents.
'My dear Greif, my beloved son—first of all, I remind you that you are a man and a brave one, and I solemnly enjoin upon you to act like one, and to put your trust in God. A great misfortune has befallen you, and at the moment of death I look to you to bear its burden in a manner worthy of a German gentleman. Heaven will certainly atone to you for the injustice of a cruel destiny. Your mother was the lawful wife of my brother Rieseneck. She has deceived me for five and twenty years, until his sudden coming revealed to me all her crimes within an hour. You are therefore illegitimate and nameless, and not one penny of my fortune is yours. I am utterly dishonoured by this enormous wickedness. My brother and I have done justice upon the woman Clara Kurtz, Freiherrin von Rieseneck, after receiving her full confession, and nothing remains for us but to die decently. As for you, I need not point out your course. You will declare the truth to my cousin Therese von Sigmundskron, who is the sole heir to all my fortune and estates, being next of kin in the line of the Greifensteins. You will renounce your engagement to marry Hilda von Sigmundskron. You will enter the ranks and serve your king as a private soldier, which is the only course open to a penniless gentleman. I know you too well to think you will hesitate a moment. My brother leaves a son by his wife, who goes by the name of Rex, and to whom he is now writing. Perhaps it is the student of whom you have spoken often to me lately. He is your brother as Rieseneck is mine, and he is rich by his father's death. But you will accept nothing from him, nor from any one else except your sovereign, who, if he learns your story, may help you if he be graciously pleased to do so.
'My son, I am about to die. I have taken the law into my own hands and I must pay the penalty by the only hand to which I can submit. If I have been at fault towards you, if I have been deceived by this woman through any carelessness of mine, I, your father, implore your forgiveness at this final moment. And so I leave you. May the God of our fathers protect and bless you, and bring you to a nobler end than mine. Though you are nameless and penniless, you can yet be a Christian man; you can be true, you can be brave, and you can give your life, which is all you have to give, to your king and your country. Farewell. Your father,
'HUGO VON GREIFENSTEIN.'
Strange as it may seem, both Hilda and Greif read this long letter to the end before they paused, almost before they understood what it meant. Their two faces were livid, as they sat in the shadow of the tower, and gazed at each other with wild and staring eyes. The cold sweat of horror stood upon Greif's forehead, like the drops of moisture on a marble statue when the south wind blows.
But there was a vast difference between Greif's condition now and his state when he had broken down under the burden of his emotions eighteen months earlier. The calm and peaceful life had strengthened his character and fortified his nerves, and though Hilda expected every moment that he would sink down as he had done on that memorable day, almost unconscious with pain, he nevertheless sat upright in his seat, bracing himself, as it were, against the huge wave of his misfortunes, which had risen from the depths of the tomb to overtake him and annihilate his happiness in a single moment. His comprehension seemed to grow clearer, and he grasped the whole frightful hopelessness of his enormous calamity.
Hilda understood it too, in a measure, but she thought only of his suffering, and not of any possible consequences to herself. With womanly tenderness, she took her handkerchief, and pressed the cool linen to his wet brow, while she could see his broad chest heaving and hear the dull, short sound of his breath between his grinding teeth. Her arms went round him, and tried to draw him to her, but he sat upright like a figure of stone, unbending as a block of granite.
'Greif!' she cried at last. 'Speak to me, dear one—'
'How can I speak to you, whom I have dishonoured?' he asked, slowly turning his head towards her and yet trying to draw back from her embrace.
'Dishonoured me! Ah, Greif—'
'Yes—Hilda, I am no more your husband, than my wretched father was husband to the creature who bore me—who ruined him and me—'
'Greif—sweetheart, beloved, are you mad?'
'Mad? No! The merciful unhinging of that rack of torture which should be my mind, God has denied me. Mad? It were better, for your sake. Mad? I know not what I say. You are not my wife, nor Sigmund, Sigmund, nor I Sigmundskron, nor Greifenstein, nor Hilda's husband, nor anything that I wot of—save a nameless vagabond who has dishonoured Hilda—'
'Greif—for the love of Heaven—'
'Ay, I must speak, and quickly. It is better that you should know all the truth from these lips, foul from their birth—that have kissed yours, though they be not worthy to eat the dust in your path—these lips that kissed that vile thing they called my mother, and that spoke words of sorrow, and uttered cries of grief, at a death too decent for such a being—no, let me speak, take your pure hands from me—I am not your husband! By a name that was never mine, I took your name—thank God you have it still! Your marriage is no marriage, your child is nameless as I am—do you know how the law would call me? One Greif, the bastard son of a certain Herr von Greifenstein and of a woman known as Clara Kurtz—that is the designation of all my honours, that is the description of your child's father, of the man you have called husband for twelve months and one day! The curse of God in Heaven on that wretch—she was not woman—may the furies of hell not tire of tormenting her accursed soul throughout all ages—yes—I mean my mother, I mean every word I say—I would say more if I knew how! She has done all this—she brought my father to his death, my brave old father, whom I loved, and she has brought me to shame worse than death; and worse than shame or death to me, she has brought dishonour upon the only creature left me to love—oh, death was made too easy for her by those merciful men, they were a thousand times too pitiful, too kind!'
He paused, trembling in every limb with the wrathful passion for which words alone were no satisfaction. Hilda was startled at the violence of his language, and alarmed by the furious look in his eyes, but actual fear was too foreign to her nature to influence her. She understood, now, however, what had escaped her before, namely that he believed their marriage to have been no marriage at all in law. Then her love spoke out, softly at first and with a gentle accent.
'Greif, my beloved—let them rest in their graves! They cannot harm us.'
'Not harm us?' he cried. 'Do you know that every word I have told you is true—that the curse of that dead woman will pursue us to the end? Do you understand that we are not married man and wife?'
'That is not true,' answered Hilda. 'God made us man and wife—'
'Ay—but the law—'
'What is the law to us? Do we not love? Is not that law?'
'It may be in heaven—'
'And it is on earth. It is love that has made us what we are, by Heaven's help. It is neither man nor law, for my love is beyond all laws or men, save you! And this thing, what is it? A voice from the dead cries in our ears that we are not what we are, what I know we are, because a deed of shame was done long years ago of which we knew nothing, nor guessed anything until this moment. Is that justice; is that the law you fear and respect, the law you will allow to come between you and me? There is a better law than that, my beloved, the law that binds me to you with bands of steel, for good or ill, for shame or fame, for honour or dishonour—'
'Ah—the dishonour of it, Hilda, the dishonour!'
'The dishonour of what? Of a bit of paper, of a dead woman's sin and miserable death? Is that all? Or is it for name, or no name? And if it be that, what then? Do you think that if you were but a trooper in the ranks, calling yourself by any meaningless syllables that it crossed your mind to choose, if you were the poorest soldier that ever drew sword, do you think that I would not follow you, and work for you and slave for you, and live as I could, or starve, rather than leave you for one day, a thousand times rather than be Hilda von Sigmundskron and heir to all the wealth of the Greifensteins, as that thing says I am? Could all the laws you talk of prevent me from doing that? And you talk of my dishonour through you! I would beg for you, I would toil for you, I would wear out my body and my soul to get you bread—oh, I would almost sell the hope of heaven for your dear sake! And you say that because you have found this paper I am not your wife! A bit of paper, Greif, between you and me—a bit of paper on the one hand and my love on the other, with all it means, with all that harm or pain to you could make it mean, does make it mean, now and for ever! Oh, my beloved, my beloved, have you loved me so long without knowing what love means?'
She would have twined her arm about his neck, but he hid his face in his hands and would not move. To himself, he seemed the basest of mankind, absolutely innocent as he was of every thought or intention of evil. He cursed his weakness in having yielded long ago, in having broken down into unconsciousness, to wake again, weak and enfeebled by his illness, no longer able to break through the spell that drew him towards her. He called himself, in his heart, a traitor, a coward, a weakling, a miserable wretch without strength, or faith, or honour. There were no bounds to his self-abasement, no depths to which he did not sink in his self-judgment. He recalled that morning eighteen months ago when he had come over to Sigmundskron to fight the battle of honour, he remembered the agony of that bitter struggle, the triumph of his heart when he had made the last desperate effort and had gone forth victorious, though the fever was already on him, and he could scarcely see the road under his feet. He reproached himself bitterly with having yielded after winning such a fight, with having stooped to do the bidding of love, after having trampled down every loving instinct and every tender thought within him, in the proud consciousness of doing right for right's sake only. If he had but been brave still when his body was so weak, all that now was could not have been. He would have cared for neither name nor fame, still less for fortune, without Hilda. But he had yielded, he had grafted the infamy of his birth upon the spotless line of her he loved, and fate had done the rest. The relentless destiny which had overtaken his father, his mother and his brother, had tracked him down and struck him within the boundaries of the false paradise his weakness had built up. He said to himself that he, too, must die, for he was the last and the lowest of living men.
'Will you not be persuaded, Greif?' asked Hilda, after a long pause. 'Do you not see that I am right, and that you are wrong—wrong only in this?'
'I see nothing,' he answered, 'unless it be that I have brought the most irretrievable dishonour upon all I love, as dishonour was brought upon me by him who loved me best.'
'And if I refuse to be dishonoured, what then?'
'What then? I do not know what then,' he answered half absently, not understanding her thoughts.
'Will you dishonour me in spite of yourself, in spite of my love?'
He did not answer this time, but buried his face in his hands once more, as though trying to shut out the sight of her from his aching eyes. The tones of Hilda's voice rose and fell faintly, as if they reached him through some thick substance that dulled their distinctness. At first he scarcely knew what she was saying, and he hardly cared.
'And if my love will not move you, then, I will tell you more,' she said, with a strong and rising intonation. 'I tell you that you have not dishonoured me, because I will not be dishonoured. You and I have done right before God, and before man until this day, and if there be wrong now it shall be right and I will make it right. I, Hilda von Sigmundskron, am your wife. I, Hilda von Sigmundskron, will not have it told to the world that I am a disgraced woman, that I am married to a nameless being, the mother of a nameless child. Your wife I am, and you are Sigmundskron and Greifenstein, and so you shall live and die, for I will make it law! There goes the law! Prove that you are a bastard if you can, and that I am a dishonoured woman!' With a movement like a falcon swooping to the earth and soaring again to heaven, she had snatched the fallen letter from the ground. Before she had finished speaking, her desperate fingers had torn the paper to tiniest scraps and the light shreds were floating fast before the summer breeze, like snow-flakes in the sun, to the deep abyss below the castle wall.
Greif sprang to his feet and seized Hilda by the wrist, his eyes and his whole expression full of horror and dismay.
'What have you done?' he cried. 'What you could not do,' answered Hilda boldly.
The colour had come back to her face, and the light to her eyes, and she met his gaze calmly and courageously. For some seconds neither moved, but stood looking at each other, he holding her tightly, she making no effort at resistance. Greif's first impression was that his wife had committed an act of sacrilege as well as a serious offence against the law. She had explained her meaning clearly enough when she tore up the letter, and he had understood all the consequences of the act at once. It would be useless to attempt a search for the fragments of paper, which were already scattered on the breeze and floating down to the deep gorge. So far as the law was concerned, Hilda had spoken the truth. Not a shred of evidence remained to prove that he was not all to-day that he had been yesterday, in law as well as in fact. But there was gone with that evidence something precious to Greif, something which it had hurt him desperately to see torn to scraps and flung away. He had loved his father with all his heart, and the letter had contained his father's last solemn blessing, of which not a single word remained whole; not even if one of those bits of floating paper that whirled and floated down the precipice had preserved a syllable of the message, was it in the power of human skill or strength to save it from reaching the bottom of the abyss and being swept away to the distant river by the tumbling stream.
Nevertheless Hilda's quick and decisive action had produced the effect of a salutary shock upon her husband's mind and nerves. She, as usual, felt that absolute certainty of having done right which was a part of her strong character. 'You have destroyed it all,' said Greif at last in a reproachful tone. 'You have left no two words together—'
'And I am glad. I would do it again, if need were.'
'It cannot be undone,' Greif answered gloomily. He dropped her wrist and began to walk slowly backwards and forwards in the shadow of the tower.
'How could you do it! How could you do it!' he repeated in a low voice, as though speaking to himself and without looking at her.
'It was the only thing to be done,' she answered firmly.
'But the injustice of it—the illegality—what shall I call it?' he stopped in his walk.
'Call it what you please,' replied Hilda scornfully. 'It does not exist any more. It may not have been a legal act, but it was an act of justice, whatever you may say; of the truest justice, and I would do it again.'
'Justice!' exclaimed Greif bitterly. 'If justice were done, I should be—'
'Stop,' said Hilda in a determined tone. 'Justice is done and you are here, and you are what you were yesterday and shall be to-morrow, not for me only, but for the whole world. That is the only justice I can understand.'
'Hilda, it is wrong,' cried Greif. 'I know it is. I have no right to throw off what has been brought upon me, what is proved so clearly—it is a wrong and a great wrong, and it must be repaired.'
'A wrong to whom?' Hilda asked, with flashing eyes. 'Whose would your fortune be if you renounced it for the sake of that thing I have destroyed? It would be my mother's—mine, would it not? The letter said so. And the name of Greifenstein, to whom would it go, if you proclaimed through the whole land that you had no right to it? To no one. It would end. No one would ever bear it, for no one has a right to dispose of it except, perhaps, my mother—'
'My mother! Would you break her heart by telling her that she has given my father's name to—'
Hilda stopped short in her speech.
'To me!' exclaimed Greif in the bitterest self-reproach. 'Oh, the shame of it, Hilda, the shame of it all! You are right in that—to think that she has given the name she loves to one who has no right to any name—it would break her heart—'
'Then let her never know it, nor guess it, nor dream that it is possible, never, never, so long as she lives!'
'It is not for her only—it is for you, Hilda! That is the worst to bear—the shame, the shame!'
'For me?' The two words came slowly and distinctly from her lips, as though she were trying to make clear to him the enormity of his speech. Then she drew herself up proudly to her full height, and a wonderful smile illuminated her face.
'Not for me, Greif,' she said. 'There is no shame for me. In your love, I am above all earthly shame.'
There was something in her manner and in the accent of her speech that affected Greif very suddenly. He was gradually growing more calm and better able to reason, as well as to realise the splendid depth of his wife's love. There was a ring in her voice that told him more than her words could tell. He came to her, and took her hand, and kissed it, almost devotionally.
'You are above all earthly women,' he said simply.
'I? No. Any woman would do as much, and it is so little. If you would only think, dear, it is so very little—and it is for myself, too. Could I do anything else? Could any woman do less, even the most selfish?'
'I know none who would do as much,' Greif answered.
'Did I not tell you, that it was for my own sake that I destroyed the letter, that I would not be dishonoured, that I would not have the world say—what it might say?'
'That is not all, Hilda.'
'It is all—except my love, and that is all indeed, all there is for me.'
'Ay, that is it, that is it! And if these hideous crimes are never known to any one but you and me, can you live beside me, day by day, year by year, and never feel one pang, one regret, one little thrust of shame? I know you love me, but that is too much to ask of any love. I know that you mean what you say, but it is too much for man or woman to say and mean. Think of it, Hilda, think of it all—there are such things here as angels could not forget!'
'I love you very, very much—my memory has no place for any other things.'
She twined her arm about his neck as they stood together, and she laid her golden head upon his shoulder, while her bright eyes looked upwards with a sidelong glance into his face. But his cheek was pale and cold, and he gazed sternly out at the distant crags, as though he would not see her. The unbearable conviction of disgrace was upon him, hopeless, endless, embracing all his existence and already extending back in his imagination to all his earlier youth. Her hands burned him, her touch was like the shock of death, as the old mystics used to say the draught of life would be to the lips of the unprepared and the impure.
'Let me go,' he said gently. 'I cannot bear it.'
But she would not. Instead of one arm, both went round him. He felt as if her strong embrace would lift him from his feet, out of himself, to bear him away from all trouble and woe to endless peace.
'I will not let you go—neither now nor ever, neither in this world nor the next.'
He knew that tone of hers, deep, ringing and clear, and he knew that she was desperate. Then the conflict began in his own soul, the struggle between that deep conviction of law and right, which was the foundation of his character, and that honest and all-sacrificing love that filled his heart.
'Give me time to think what I am doing,' he said.
He sat down upon the seat in his old place and bent down, pressing his temples with his hands. He had spoken very simply out of his great distress, for he needed time to think of what he was doing, and of what he must yet do. All was vague and moving in the vision of his mind, like a distant landscape seen through the trembling, heated air at noontide on a summer's day. Nothing was distinct, save his love for Hilda on the one side, and upon the other, the black shadow of his awful disgrace.
'Think, my beloved, if you will,' said Hilda softly. 'You will but think what I have thought already.'
Perhaps he felt, even then, that she was right, but he could not so soon be comforted, nor put aside in a moment what had presented itself so strongly as an inexorable duty. At that juncture a cunning man of law could have persuaded him more easily than the woman he loved more than all the world besides. As had happened before, in the old days, that love appeared to him in the light of a temptation, beautiful as the broad sun, eloquent as sweetest music. But there was this difference, now, that the opposite course was not as plain as it had been then. Instead of a straight path, he saw but a confused medley of conflicting ideas, of which the whole sum represented to his mind a mysterious notion of a necessary sacrifice, but in which it was impossible to distinguish the discriminating point, the centre of action, the goal of duty. In the first place, he recognised out of this chaos, his father's injunction to act like a Christian man, to give up all that was not his, to lay aside the name he had borne and to go forth into the world with nothing but his own courage and perseverance as his weapons. That was clear enough. If the letter had come into his hands immediately, as it had been intended that it should, he would have fulfilled his father's last commands bravely in every detail of their spirit. Even if he had received the message on the eve of his marriage, after he had begun to call himself Sigmundskron, even then he would have done the same; and though it would have been mortal agony, it would have been easy to do, so far as the mere execution of it was concerned. He would have gone to Frau von Sigmundskron, and would have told her the truth, showing her the letter, and taking the consequences. No woman alive, in such a case, would have hesitated a moment, he thought. Hilda's mother would certainly not have had the least doubt how to act, for she would have died rather than give her daughter to a man of illegitimate birth. She would have offered him his fortune, no doubt, for she was a noble and generous woman, but he would have refused to take anything. That at least would not have cost him a pang. As for the rest, his course would have been clear enough.
But now, it was a very different matter. His conscience still told him to go to Frau von Sigmundskron and tell all, but the consideration of the consequences appalled him. He knew better even than Hilda herself, what a sacrifice the good lady had made in regard to the name, and what importance she attached to it. She was perfectly happy in the existing condition of things; to tell her would be to destroy her happiness for ever, to the last day of her life. Greif felt that if he were in her place he should not want to know the truth, since all reparation was now utterly impossible. And yet, to conceal it looked like a crime, or at least like an action of bad faith. Could he meet the white-haired lady who loved him so well and who had built such hopes upon him, could he meet her daily, and call her mother, as she loved to be called, and yet feel that he was deceiving her, that he had defiled the name she had given him, and that he was living in possession of all that the law made hers? It might be true that all would be Hilda's some day, and that in the end no harm would be effected because it would go to Hilda's son. But the fortune was not Hilda's yet, and she to whom it really belonged, who had really the power to control all, and to turn Greif and her own daughter from home and hearth if she pleased, was to all intents dependent upon the generosity of both. Though she might be made to accept much, yet it seemed a positive wrong that she should be allowed to feel that she was receiving favours when she was in reality conferring them.
Greif therefore should go to her, and tell his story, and acknowledge that everything was hers and that he was beholden to her charity for the bread he ate at her table. He had the courage to do so, and he would do it, if it seemed wholly right. But if he thus satisfied his love of justice, he must also do her an injury of a very different kind. It would be cruel to disclose the truth. Even Hilda had said that it would break her mother's heart if she were told that she had given what she most prized to a nameless bastard. Hilda had not said the word, but it had been in her mind, nevertheless. And Frau von Sigmundskron had given more than that, for she had bestowed upon him her only daughter. Should he make her declining years miserable with the shame that was upon him, in order to give her money, or should he keep what was hers in order that she might end her life in happiness and peace? It was a case of doing evil that good might come.
When such a question arises there can be but one answer. The good to be obtained must be immense and the evil must be relatively very small. If such a position could be imagined, a man would be justified in lying, stealing, or doing almost anything which could only hurt himself, for the sake of saving a nation, of preserving his country from destruction. Perhaps he would not be wrong, if it were to save a thousand innocent lives, a hundred, ten, even one, if he wronged only himself in the evil he did to attain his end. But as the ratio diminishes, the case becomes manifestly more difficult to judge, and the absolute nature of right asserts itself more strongly when it is not confronted by overwhelming odds in most exceptional circumstances. Stealing is bad, but there is a difference between the case of the starving mother who steals a crust for her dying child, and the professional thief who lives riotously upon the proceeds of his crimes; there is a difference of degree in evil between stealing money in order to render possible the escape of a beloved sovereign from the hands of a bloodthirsty and revolutionary mob, and stealing it, under the apparent protection of the law, by deceiving thousands in the game of finance.
Nothing can be more repugnant to a man of honour than to do evil of any sort in order that good may come. To such a man as Greif, lying is but a shade less bad than murder, and stealing is many shades worse. In his judgment of the situation he was called upon both to steal and to lie, in order to secure Frau von Sigmundskron's happiness. It was true that the deception was to be practised by merely holding his tongue, and the theft by keeping what did not belong to him, but Greif made no such subtle distinctions of degree. It was lying and stealing. It was adding a disgrace by his own conduct to the shame he had inherited. It was to give up all that remained to him, which was his spotless honesty in thought and deed. The case seemed terribly strong.
There was Hilda, by his side, and she had said that she would not let him go. Suppose then that he went and told her mother the story. There would be one more person in the secret, for though she might die of grief, she would never tell a human being; she could not ever be called upon to do so, by the maddest exaggeration of the principles of honour. She would suffer horribly, but she would not take what was hers. She could have no use for the fortune, except to give it to her daughter, who had the use of it already. Her peace would be destroyed for ever, and there would be no change in the conditions under which the three were living, except that Greif would have satisfied his desire to be strictly honest. A moral satisfaction on the one hand, and the destruction of all happiness to one he loved on the other. His brain reeled, for his desire to be truthful suddenly appeared to him in the light of a selfish passion which would cause endless pain to those whom he most desired to shield from all suffering. This was another view, and a strangely unexpected one.
The chaos of his thoughts became wilder and more unsettled than ever, he dropped his hands upon his knees and leaned back against the rough stones of the tower, pale and exhausted with the struggle, but uncertain yet how he should act. Hilda sat motionless beside him, watching his movements, and to some extent understanding his thoughts, ready to give him her sympathy or her counsel, if he needed it, ready, too, to throw all the force of her undaunted nature into the contest if he should endeavour to maintain his first position. She was, indeed, terribly anxious, lest in a moment of excitement he should break away from her and go to her mother in his present frame of mind. A long time had passed in silence, far longer than it has taken to describe the thoughts that succeeded each other in Greif's brain, but Hilda would not speak, nor interrupt the course of his reflexions. She knew that this was the decisive moment of their lives, and she understood her husband's stubbornly honourable nature well enough to give him leisure to consider all the points of his position.
At last he spoke, not looking at her and still leaning his head against the stones.
'It is hard to talk of it,' he said. 'And yet I must, for I cannot think without words. I must decide, and quickly. In another hour I may meet your mother. I must either tell her, or not tell her, and this must be final. If I do—'
'She will die,' interrupted Hilda. 'Not to-day, not to-morrow, perhaps not this year. But it will eat up her heart. I know her. She will spend hours in her room, alone, looking at my father's picture, and crying over his sword. All her dreams will go out, like a light extinguished in the dark, All her hopes will be broken to pieces. She will never feel again that you are a son to her, and that through you the Sigmundskrons have begun again. She will grow more silent, more thin and wan until the end; and then she will die. That is what will happen if you tell her.'
'And why should not all that happen to you, who know?' asked Greif.
'Because I love you yourself, and not an idea,' answered Hilda. 'If you were taken from me, I should die, as my mother will if you kill the idea she loves.'
'And is it better that my whole life should be a lie from this day forth, than that she should know the truth, and do what she can to meet it?'
'To whom do you owe the truth, Greif? To the woman you have married, to the mother of your child, or to some one else? What good would she get by it? Your money? She does not want money. What is money to her, compared with the memory of him she loved, as I love you, or in comparison with the honour of his name, for which she would give her blood?'
'And if you had left me alone to read that letter—would you have had me keep the truth from you too?'
'Would I have you bear alone anything that we can bear together? If you understand my love so little as to think that such a thing could change it, or weaken it, or make me what I am not—why then, I would not care what you did, nor what became of me!'
'And my shame is nothing to you?'
'Nothing, being what it is, not yours, but of others, thrust upon your innocence.'
'You would not, for your own sake, wish that we had never known of it?'
'For my sake? No. For yours—I would die to wash it out. For my sake, do you say? Oh, Greif, is one hair of your head, one look of your dear eyes less wholly mine, because your mother sinned? Are you not Greif to me, always, and nothing else?'
'And so you love me still—just as you did before?'
'Can I say more than I have said? Can I do more than I have done? Ah— then love must be too cold a word for what I mean!'
'You would not love me if I lied, and were a coward.'
'You would not be Greif.'
'Nor should I be my miserable self, if I acted this lie before your mother!'
'You would not be Greif, if you could kill her with the vanity of selfish truth-telling.'
'The vanity! Ay, I have thought of that. Perhaps I am vain, after all —I, who have but little left to be proud of.'
His head sank on his breast, and he sighed bitterly, wringing his fingers together. He wished he could shed tears, and cry aloud, and faint, as some women do.
'And yet—you have me—not to be proud of, but to love,' said Hilda gently.
'In spite of all! Is it really true, quite true?' He shook his head doubtfully.
'It is true.'
Hilda had no words left with which to persuade him of her unfaltering love, but perhaps at that moment the simple little phrase, with the accent she gave it, told Greif more than many protestations. It seemed to him that the course of his distress was checked suddenly, and that he felt the strain of the cable upon the firm anchor at last. It was the hour of destiny, when one word decides the future of many lives, for good or evil.
'Thank God!' Greif exclaimed in a low voice. He put out his hand and took hers. 'I will never ask you again, dear,' he said presently. 'It was hard to believe, it seemed as though I ought not to believe it.'
In spite of all, there was a happy light in his eyes, as he turned them to her and gazed into her face. After all, the terrible things told in the letter had happened long ago, and he was young, in the midst of a glorious present, in the very midst of all that love and happiness could give. It would be many a long year before he could think calmly of the hideous secret, and perhaps his whole life from that day would be more thoughtful and serious than it had been. But it was not in the power of an evil fate to follow him further than that. The curse of the Greifensteins, as people a hundred years ago would have called that strange chain of circumstances in which his race had been involved, had run its course, and had spent itself in the conflict with a woman's love. Beyond that there was nothing but the smooth haven of rest, which no blast of evil could ruffle, and into which no overwhelming wave of calamity could break.
Greif scarcely knew how it was that the struggle ended, nor why, when it was over, he felt that he had not lost the day. But nevertheless, it was so, and peace descended upon his soul. For a long time neither he nor Hilda spoke. Very gradually, the colour returned to Greif's face, and the light to his eyes; very gradually the luminous veil of his happiness descended between him and the shades of the evil dead, not cutting off the memory of their deeds, but hiding the horror of their presence.
'And so Rex is my brother,' he said at last.
'And mine,' said Hilda.
'He does not know—or does he?'
'How could he?'
'His father wrote to him—was that letter lost too? Is that yet to come?' Greif's heart sank at the thought that all was not over yet.
'But if he had known,' said Hilda, 'could he have hidden it so long? And besides, he came with you. If there had been a letter to him, you would have known of it. Who could have given it to him, without your knowledge?'
'She never told me of it, though she often wondered that you had nothing.'
'Rex knows!' exclaimed Greif in a tone of conviction. 'And he received the letter. I have told you how it was that he confessed to me his real name. He was telling the truth then, for I know him well. He would as soon have told me that he was my brother as my cousin—'
'He would have hesitated to do that—'
'No. You do not know him. He does not value his life a straw, and would as soon have taken that opportunity of parting with it as any other.'
'But how could he have concealed it since? Why should my mother have never told us that his father wrote?'
'Because she felt that I should have been pained to think that Rex had received something and I nothing. It is as clear as day. It explains many things. No one but a brother could have acted as he did all through my illness. I have often seen him looking at me strangely, and I never understood what it meant until now. He knew, and I did not. Besides—'
'What?' asked Hilda, as he stopped short.
'Well, it would explain, too, why he was so anxious that you and I should be married. If he knew—and he did, I am sure—he saw that if I persisted he would have to tell me the truth, in order that you should have the fortune. I used to wonder why he pressed me so.' 'Do you think that was it?'
'What else could he do? He must have ruined me, his brother, if the marriage had not taken place.'
'Would he have done that?' asked Hilda.
'Rex believes in nothing but honour,' Greif answered thoughtfully. 'There is nothing in heaven or earth which could keep him from doing what he thinks honourable. He would ruin me or himself with perfect indifference rather than see an injustice done by the fault of either.'
'He is a strange man.'
'He is a grand man, noble in every part of him, splendidly unselfish, magnificently brave—I wish I were like him.'
'I should not love you. He is cold as stone, though he may be all that you say, and though I am very fond of him.'
'Yes—he is cold. He never loved a woman in his life. But I admire him and respect him, though I never quite understand him. There is always something that escapes me, something beyond my reach. Perhaps that is what they call genius.'
'And yet no one has heard of him. He has never done anything with his talent. It is strange, too, for he is immensely wise. I wonder what the reason can be.'
'He does not believe in anything—not even in greatness.' answered Greif. 'I believe his mind is so large that the greatest things seem little to him. I have heard him talk about almost everything at one time or another. The end of all his arguments is that nothing is worth while. And there is a reason, too. His father's disgrace has pursued him since he was a child.'
Greif's voice fell suddenly, and his face grew dark.
'And what should I be, then!' he exclaimed a moment later.
'What he is, were you in his place.' Hilda answered. 'But you are not, you see.'
'But for you, Hilda, but for you.'
'You for me, and I for you, my beloved. That is what love means.'
Their hearts were too full for either of them to speak much so soon as they approached the question which had so nearly destroyed all their happiness. For a long time they were silent, unconscious of the swift flight of the hours, little guessing what a strange drama was being enacted almost beneath their feet, in the solitary room where Rex had determined to lay down the burden of life in the cause of honour.
'I must go to him.' said Greif at last.
'Yes. I must know how much he knows—though I am sure he knows all.'
'Will you tell him if he does not know?'
'He is your brother. He will see it as I do. It is best that he should know.'
'Come then, dear,' said Greif rising from his seat.
'Shall I go with you?'
'I will bring him out of his room, if he is there, and you can wait a moment in the passage. If not, we will go on together and find him.'
'It is twelve o'clock!' exclaimed Hilda, glancing up at the great dial in the tower as she rose.
'It has not struck yet,' answered Greif carelessly.
They entered the winding staircase together and went down.
Rex's room was situated in the upper story of the castle, at no great distance from the staircase through which Greif and Hilda descended. Greif knocked and opened the door almost simultaneously, not waiting for permission to enter. Hilda stood in the corridor outside.
With a sharp exclamation Greif sprang forward. Fortunately, his presence of mind did not forsake him, and he did not hesitate an instant. Before Rex could pull the trigger of his revolver, Greif had grappled with him and was trying to wrest the weapon from his grasp. It was an even match, or very nearly so. Neither spoke a word while they both twisted and wrenched and strained for the mastery. Greif's superior height gave him some advantage, but Rex was compactly built and very strong.
Very probably, if Greif had made a less sudden entry, Rex would have laid the pistol down with all his usual calm, and would have postponed his intention until he had got his brother out of the room. But Greif had sprung upon him very unexpectedly, and Rex knew instantly that he was detected in his purpose, and must either execute it now or give it up, and resign himself to being treated like a madman, and watched by lynx-eyed keepers day and night.
Hilda, who heard the noise of the scuffle, but had no idea that such a contest was taking place, approached the open door, supposing from the sound of shuffling feet that the two men were hunting some animal that had got into the room. Just as she stood before the threshold, and caught sight of Greif and Rex wrestling for life, Greif to take the pistol, Rex to put it to his own head, she heard a low, angry voice which she did not recognise. It was more like the growl of an angry wild beast than anything else. Rex was not getting the better in the fight, though he had not lost much. His object was to bring the muzzle of his revolver against his own head, while Greif was doing his utmost to prevent the movement.
'Let me go!' exclaimed Rex in deep, vibrating tones. 'Let me go, man—I love your wife, and I mean to die!'
With a violent effort he twisted his hand upwards, lowering his head as much as he could at the same moment. As the charge exploded, the bullet went crashing through the mirror, and the weapon was wrenched away by other hands than Greif's, whiter and smaller, but scarcely less strong. Hilda had seen the danger and had joined in the struggle at the critical moment, just in time to save Rex from a dangerous wound, if not from actual death. She had got possession of the chief object of contention, not without risk of being injured herself.
Rex's efforts ceased almost immediately. Between his anger at having been forced to relinquish his intention and his profound horror at seeing Hilda at his side almost at the moment when he had said that he loved her, Rex had no strength left. Only a supreme struggle, at once moral and physical, could have forced from his lips the words he had spoken. For a few seconds only his presence of mind failed him. Then the superiority of his nature over ordinary mankind asserted itself. He gently pushed Greif's hands away, and drew back a step in the direction of the door.
'You know my secret now,' he said, with a quiet dignity that was almost beautiful to see. 'I ask but the favour of being left alone.'
'I will not leave you for an instant—' Greif began, but Hilda interrupted him and passed him quickly.
She came to Rex and laid one hand upon his shoulder, and looked into his eyes.
'Do you love me? Is it true?' she asked earnestly, while Greif looked on amazed.
'But for your hand, I should have died with the confession on my lips,' Rex answered. 'I love you, yes.'
'Then live, for my sake!' said Hilda, holding out the hand that had saved him.
'For your sake?' Rex repeated the words as though scarcely understanding them.
'For my sake and for his,' Hilda answered, pointing to Greif.
'With that sin against him in my heart? No. I will not. It would be but a traitor's life, a dog's life. I will not.'
'You shall, and you will!' said Hilda, with that grand conviction of power she had shown more than once during her life.
'Only a man who has tried to die is worthy to live in such a case. Do you know what my husband is to you?'
'I know it better than he. I have known it long.'
'Not better than he, or than I. We have learnt the secret today.'
'You know!' exclaimed Rex in great surprise. 'Look at those ashes, there upon the floor—they are all I have left of it—and you know! No—you cannot, it is impossible—'
'We know that you are brothers,' said Hilda, taking his hand in spite of him. 'There is no secret any more, between us three—'
'And you know that I love you, that I love my brother's wife, and you would have me live?'
'Yes,' said Greif, who had not spoken yet. 'I would have you live, through all our lives, and I would have you two love each other with all your hearts, as I love you both.'
Rex stared at him, and then at Hilda. He raised one hand, and passed it over his eyes.
'I do not understand,' he said, in a low voice.
'It is because I understand, that I speak as I do,' Greif answered earnestly. 'It is because I know that not a nobler man than you breathes in the world. It is because there is but one Hilda in the earth, and she is mine, as I am hers.'
'You are not human, my brother,' said Rex. 'You should wish me dead.'
'If you were any other man but Rex, I might. Being what you are, I wish that we three may never part.'
'Never!' exclaimed Hilda. 'Ah, Horst, do you not see that you are my brother, too? Do you not feel that I am your sister—and should brothers and sisters such as we are be made to part?'
'I cannot tell,' Rex answered. 'If you would have me live, I can but give you what life is left in me. You know me now. You know what I only learned of myself last night, and what I would have taken to the grave, unknown to any one, to-day. If in your eyes I am so far less base than in my own, if you can look upon me and not loathe me, if you can think of me and not call me traitor, why then this life is yours. And yet, I wonder that you can, seeing that I am what I am. Would you know how it came? You may know if you will, there is less shame to me in that than in the rest. I loved in a dream. I made myself the father of this Hilda in my shadowy visions; I made in my thoughts a mother for her, like her, dead long ago, whom I had loved. I talked with a shadow, I loved a shadow, and the unreal phantasm I loved grew to be like Hilda herself— so like that when I saw they were the same, last night, here upon this very spot, I knew that I must die and quickly. The shadow was the living wife of him for whom I would give all, of my only friend, of my only kinsman, of my only brother. And so, if you had not hindered me, I should have been but a shadow now, myself. It had been best, perhaps. But my life is yours, do with it what you will. It is yours in all honour, such as it is. It was not to escape from torment that I would have died; it was not because I feared by word or deed to break the seal and to show you what was in me. It was to rid my brother and the world of a wretch who had no claim to live.'
'More right than I, or many a better man than I am,' said Greif, laying his hand upon his brother's shoulder.
'Be wise, Greif,' answered Rex. 'Think well of what is to come. Think well whether you can trust me and trust yourself. For me—I care little. A touch of the finger, a little noise, and you would be rid of me for ever. There is a safety in death, which life cannot give.'
'Do not talk any more of death, dear Horst,' said Hilda. 'It is but a year and a few months, since two brothers and one woman, three as we are, in the same bonds save one, all stood together as we stand, perhaps, and by their deeds and deaths wiped away death from our lives. Talk no more of death now—in this other home, where there are other names than those that were dishonoured. Let this be the house of life, as that was the house of death, the home of honest love, as that was the home of treachery, the dwelling of peace, as that was made at last the place of violent and desperate deeds. The hour of destiny is passed. The days without fear begin to-day.'
It was indeed the decisive moment in the lives of all three, and there was silence for a space after Hilda had spoken. The thoughts her words called up passed rapidly through the minds of her hearers and produced their effect on each. As she had truly said, there was a mysterious resemblance between the climax and the anti-climax of their history. As Rieseneck and Greifenstein had been half-brothers, so were Greif and Rex; as their fathers had loved one woman, so they also both loved Hilda; as the elder pair might have been, but for the woman who wrought their destruction, honourable, brave and earnest men, so were their sons in reality—the difference lay not so much between the fathers and the sons, as between one woman and the other, between Clara Kurtz and Hilda von Sigmundskron. Instead of ruining both brothers, as Clara had done, Hilda had saved both from destruction, in the place of shame, she had brought honour, in the stead of death she had given life to both. And both looked at her during the silence and wondered inwardly at the beauty of her strength, asking themselves how it was possible that in a few short months this child of the forest, innocent and ignorant of the world, should have attained to proportions that were almost divine in their eyes, should have developed from the simple maiden to the noble woman, from the quiet, gentle girl, to the splendidly dominating incarnation of good, that had more than once overcome their mistaken impulses, and made plain their way before them by the illumination of the right, just as her golden head and gleaming eyes seemed to light up the room in which she stood. They looked at her and wondered, both loving her beyond all earthly things, each in his own way; the one with the earnest, deep-rooted purpose to live and die in all honour for her sake, silent for ever, having spoken once, doing daily homage to her innocence and loveliness, and reverently sacrificing every day for her the very love whereby he lived; the other, loving in her the wife, the mother of his sons, the source of all the glorious happiness that had come upon his early manhood in such an abundant measure, the woman who had saved him, the woman he adored, the woman who was his, as he was hers. Neither had known before how great and good she was, and from this day neither would ever forget one shade of the goodness and the greatness she had revealed to both.
A baser man than Rex would have suffered and would have foreseen suffering throughout his coming days, in dwelling beside the woman who could not be his. But he was made of better stuff than most men, and his passion had received a stern and sudden check from the force of his commanding will. It was as though Hilda had been deified before him, and had been lifted to a sphere in which he could worship her as a higher being and forget that she was a woman. He bowed his head in thought, while Hilda and Greif stood before him. They saw the white streaks in the soft hair that had been so brown and bright but yesterday, and they glanced at each other, awestruck at the thought of what he must have suffered.
'His hair is white—and it is for me!' Hilda whispered as she leaned upon her husband's shoulder.
Rex's quick ear caught the words, though they were scarcely audible. He looked up, and his stony eyes grew strangely soft and expressive.
'Yes,' he said. 'I know it—but it is not strange. I am glad it is so, for it was in a good cause. You are right, Hilda, my sister—the hour of destiny is passed. It has left its marks, but they are pledges that it will not return. The new life begins to-day—give me your hands, both of you—do mine tremble so? It is with happiness, not with pain—oh, not with pain, do not think it! Give me a share in your lives, since you will. I take it gladly, and you shall not regret it. You have my word that you shall never feel one sting when you look at me, you, my brother, you, my sister. I will be a brother to you both, a son to her you both call mother, though, in truth, I am too old for that—but she must be a mother to us all, in place of what none of us have ever had, save Hilda. And I kiss your hand, dear sister—so—it is the pledge—I take yours in mine, brother, and I know you, and you know me, and we can look each into the other's eyes and say I trust, and know that we trust well. There—it is done, and we are joined, we three, for good or evil, to stand together if there be strife still in store for us who have striven so much, to live in brotherly love and peace, if peace is to be ours, until the grey years come and we are laid side by side together.'
'So be it, and may God bless us all,' said Greif.
'God will bless us,' answered Hilda softly.
One more pressure of the hands and then Greif and Hilda turned and went away. The door closed softly behind them, and Rex was alone.
He went and took up the revolver that Hilda had laid upon the table, looked at it long, and then placed it in the drawer, and turned the key upon it. Once more he sat down where he had sat so long, and buried his face in his hands, and pressed them to his aching eyes.
The greater sacrifice was accomplished now, and he knew that it was over, and that his years would be in peace, for all was clear and honest and true as the day. He looked up at last, upwards as though searching for something above him, straining his weary sight for a vision that was not granted him.
'I have lived,' he said aloud, in a strange voice. 'I had never lived before, never in all this time. And if they are right, if You are there, You, their God—then bless me too, with them, and make me like them! Is that a prayer? Why then, I will say Amen, and be it so! It is the only prayer I could ever pray now, to be like them, to be like them—yes, only that, to be like them!'