The guard that came on duty next morning in the parade-ground wore the green Jaeger uniform. One of the sentries, a smart young fellow with a carefully waxed black moustache and quick eyes, had on his breast the mark of distinction for shooting. He was doing this duty evidently for the first time, and he looked the prisoners up and down with a curious glance, as if they were some queer sort of wild beast. Then he took up his position, and marched stiffly beside the procession as they left the gate.
A thin mist covered the broad expanse of the big ground, but the sun soon dispelled the damp vapour, and shone down warm and unclouded.
Vogt looked anxiously at Wolf. But his comrade seemed to have given up his intention; he was bending diligently over his work, and had not even taken his place in the outside rank of workers, but was digging busily among the others. At a little distance from the prisoners the sentries strolled up and down their beat.
Presently an orderly from head-quarters came riding by on a dark-brown horse, which he was making step high in a stately manner as if on parade.
The Jaeger with the black moustache held his gun negligently on his shoulder and looked on with an interested expression. It was very boring to be always watching the prisoners messing about in the dirt.
Suddenly a lean figure detached itself from the little group of workmen—it was Wolf. With long strides he fled behind the sentry in the direction of the forest. The Jaeger had not even remarked his flight, and it was only the cry of the sergeant that drew his attention.
Then he hastily took the gun from his shoulder, made ready to fire, and cried the first "Halt!"
Wolf ran on without stopping. Then something happened which decidedly bettered the chances of the fugitive: the mounted orderly felt called upon to give chase. He set his horse to a gallop and dashed after the escaping prisoner.
Wolf heard the hoofs behind him and glanced round hastily. The rider was between himself and the sentry. Only a few more steps and he would be in the forest and under cover, if the horse did not reach him before that. At a stroke the despairing wish for a martyr's death had vanished. He no longer wished to die; he wanted to live and be free. Freedom was awaiting him, there in the forest towards which his hurrying feet were carrying him. How would they ever be able to find him in that thick labyrinth of young pine-trees? He would break through the undergrowth at the forest's edge and take a lateral direction; then he would lie crouching on the ground and let the bullets whistle over his head.
From behind him sounded the second "Halt!" The sentry's voice rang more sharply and insistently.
Yes, shout as you like! He was only a few paces from the forest's edge; a little ditch separated it from the parade-ground, but it was only about a yard wide and easy to leap.
Wolfs plan was made.
He knew that the forest extended to the outskirts of the town. The first houses of the suburb were built among the trees. Workmen dwelt there—iron-founders and metal-workers—members of his party. They or some compassionate woman would certainly give the fugitive some cast-off clothes, and then he thought he could make for the frontier.
From behind came the third warning "Halt!"
The mounted orderly had apparently perceived the hopelessness of his efforts, and had reined in his horse; the sound of hoofs was no more to be heard. Now for the ditch!
He sprang. He thought he could smell already the powerful odour of the fir-trees. There, a little to the left, was an opening in the thicket; he could slip in there and be safe.
Then, midway in his leap, a bullet struck him in the nape of the neck. He stumbled forward with his face buried in the haven of the undergrowth, his eyes gazing forwards towards the land of freedom.
Some weeks later the head physician of the military hospital in the capital gave a lecture, with illustrations, before the Medical Society, "Upon an interesting case of the effects of small bore ammunition."
Senior-Lieutenant Reimers sought an interview with his colonel, and frankly confided his trouble to him. In a sad, hopeless voice he told the whole story, concealing nothing.
There was, in fact, nothing to hide. The thoughtless behaviour which had had such serious consequences was in itself one of those offences which society looks upon as venial. But he reproached himself chiefly with the breach of faith towards Marie Falkenhein, to whom he considered himself to have been virtually betrothed, in allowing himself to be carried away by the impulse of a moment's folly.
When Reimers had finished the colonel sat for a long time silent. He leant his cheek on his hand and looked gloomily before him. During this confidential interview his daughter had not been alluded to in a single syllable, but in every word that the young officer spoke sounded an echo of painful regret for a much-desired happiness now lost to him. Of a sudden those fair prospects that the colonel had thought based on such a solid foundation had fallen to the ground. It was a bitter grief to him to see the pleasant vision destroyed, and he knew that a heavy sorrow was in store for his child.
At last he broke the silence.
"My poor boy," he said, "I wish I knew what I could say to comfort you, for I do not want to reproach you. You have enough to bear already in payment for a moment of thoughtlessness. You have gambled away one of your best chances of earthly happiness. Nevertheless, be brave; set your teeth and do not let your feelings overcome you. You have a proud and honourable calling, and have a real vocation for it. Let that be your consolation." His voice broke off short, trembling with inward emotion.
Reimers murmured in some confusion: "I am very much obliged to you, sir." And the two men sat for awhile opposite each other in silence.
"After this," the colonel continued with some hesitation and difficulty, "you will probably wish to get away for a change. I therefore advise you to go up for the winter examination at the Staff College. There is no doubt about your getting through. The work will prevent you from brooding over your thoughts, and afterwards there will be Berlin and entire change of surroundings. All that will be helpful to you."
Falkenhein's voice became softer, and shielding his eyes with his hand, he continued in a scarcely audible whisper: "It would be advisable that you should withdraw a little from society; and of course to any unavoidable questions it will be necessary to invent an answer of some sort. It seems to me it will be best to say that your old lung-trouble obliges you to take certain precautions. Is that agreed?"
With a sob the senior-lieutenant stammered out, "You have always been like a father to me, sir."
He had stood up and was about to depart without another word. Then suddenly the colonel took him in his arms. This seasoned, clear-headed man had great difficulty in restraining his emotion.
"I have long looked on you as a son, Reimers," he said. "And that all this has turned out so differently from my expectations is a grief to me, a very great grief. I cannot tell you how great."
Reimers took his departure. The colonel looked after him till the portiere fell.
Whose fault was it that the young man left the room with hanging head and miserable face, instead of with the beaming eyes of an accepted lover? Whose fault was it that the happiness of two young people had thus been shattered to pieces?
The colonel sat down before his writing-table and let his clenched fist fall in helpless anger upon the desk. He had not even the satisfaction of being able to direct his wrath against anybody or anything. The fault lay in something uncalled-for and apparently unavoidable, an evil, and at the same time necessary, outcome of the existing order of things.
Then he began to reflect. How should he break the bad news to Mariechen? By many little scarcely noticeable signs he had become convinced that she loved the unfortunate young officer. There was a delicate understanding, an unspoken engagement, between the two. How should he explain to her Reimers' sudden withdrawal?
This talk about the examination at the Staff College, and Reimers' necessary care of his health, was not sufficient to break off an honourable attachment. He must rather think of some means for effecting a permanent, even if painful, cure, and put an end once for all to his daughter's dream of love.
The colonel made out a regular plan of campaign. Among his relations there had been a cousin, Otto von Krewesmuehlen, the owner of a large property in Franconia. The poor wretch had passed more of his lifetime in Meran and Cannes than on his own estate; but he had married in spite of that for the sake of the entail, and unfortunately had married an acquaintance in the Riviera who also was not on the shores of the Mediterranean solely for pleasure. Two boys had been born to them, but Otto von Krewesmuehlen had not long survived their birth. The eldest child had followed the father not only in the entail but also in the manner of his death, and the widow and the second son were only like two feeble flames which the wind of life permits out of charity still to flicker for a while.
This cousin must serve to point the moral for his poor Mariechen, and help her to forget her young love in as painless a manner as possible. It happened fortunately that Marie kept up a correspondence with her Franconian relations.
"I had something to ask you, Mariechen," began Falkenhein at supper. "Oh yes, of course; have you had any more news from your Aunt Krewesmuehlen?"
"No, father," answered the girl, "not since the last letter, which you remember."
"I do not recollect quite well. Where was she then?"
"At Cannes, I think. Or it might have been San Remo."
"They have gone back again then?"
"Yes, unfortunately. And my aunt wrote in perfect despair."
The desired point had been reached; but his carefully-thought-out plan now seemed to the colonel inexpressibly clumsy and cruel. Nevertheless, he could not let the opportunity go by.
"I am really very much grieved," he said. His voice sounded to himself hollow and flat, like an ill-tuned instrument. But he went on speaking painfully and with difficulty, whilst his fingers kept clutching his collar. "As a matter of fact, Otto von Krewesmuehlen committed a crime in marrying at all. He is responsible for an enormous amount of trouble and sorrow. He would have done a better and a nobler thing if he had renounced the idea of happiness in marriage. We cannot but ask ourselves: Was not this marriage simply a source of misery?"
He stopped. Marie looked at him thoughtfully.
Everything was very still in the lofty dining room. The colonel felt as if his words must re-echo like a trumpet-call from the walls, and he lowered his voice almost to a whisper.
"Of course it requires strength and self-control to give everything up when one is in love. But an honourable man should have both; he is equally to be pitied and respected. And imagine, Mariechen, dear Mariechen—one of our best friends—Senior-lieutenant Reimers—that's how it is with him—just as with poor Otto Krewesmuehlen; but he—will renounce his happiness. He is a brave man."
Falkenhein breathed more freely. Thank God! the mischief was out.
He looked anxiously across at Marie. Her face had become as white as the table-cloth. He was afraid she might faint. But no, the child pulled herself together; the trembling hand laid down the fork, which rattled gently against the plate and fell on the table.
The colonel went round the table softly to his daughter and stroked her fair golden hair with a gentle hand. Marie's shoulders began to heave, and suddenly she threw herself on his breast, weeping bitterly. The colonel was not quite sure what was the best way to meet this outburst. He did not like to touch too pointedly upon the cause of his child's grief. Then he fell back on a method with which he had quieted Marie in days of old, before she had ever gone to school.
When the motherless child was weeping her heart out over some trouble that had possessed her, even when she was quite a big school-girl, he would take her in his arms and carry her up and down the room, consoling and comforting her, till the wild sobbing ceased at last. She was now nearly twenty years of age; but the old method might still be effective. Unresisting she let him take her in his arms, and leaned her face against her father's cheek; bright tears ran down from his own eyes as he whispered to her over and over again: "Yes, cry, my little girl; cry, Mariechen!"
And the first great sorrow of the woman calmed itself, even as had the school-girl's trivial griefs. The colonel carried his daughter tenderly to her room and laid her down on the sofa. With a shy gesture she buried her face in the cushion. Once more the father's hand passed lightly over her brow, then he went out on tip-toe. Time must be the physician that would heal this wound.
Falkenhein listened for a second at the door: Mariechen was still weeping; but he could hope that the tempest would subside. That tearful outburst, uncontrolled as it was, showed still the unruly grief of a child. The blow that strikes deepest into the heart and embitters a whole life-time is otherwise met and parried, with a grim, silent, enduring pain. Traces of such pain he had seen in Reimers' hopeless eyes; for his child he might expect a cure.
The best thing would be to take Marie away into entirely new surroundings.
As usual, each year during the partridge-shooting, the colonel one day received an invitation to join the royal party. At breakfast the old king asked him: "Well, Falkenhein, what do you say? That longlegged Friesen in the War Office has obtained command of the Lusatian brigade. How would you like to be chief of the department?"
The colonel hesitated with his answer.
"I know quite well," the old gentleman went on, "that you have a disinclination for anything that smells of the office, even though fifteen hundred others would lick their lips over it."
"Your Majesty is very good," said Falkenhein. "I will do whatever your Majesty desires."
The king looked at him searchingly.
"Really?" he said.
"Certainly, your Majesty. Only, if you will allow me to say so, not for too long a period!"
"Very well, very well!—till you get the command of my household brigade."
His Majesty was holding in his hand a silver cup full of corn-brandy. "Your health, Falkenhein!" he said. "I look forward to having you by me at court."
The appointment was gazetted after the man[oe]uvres on October 1.
There was certainly no officer in the regiment, even excepting Captain Guentz and Senior-lieutenant Reimers, who did not hear of Falkenhein's prospective departure with real regret. But that did not last long; some one's departure must always be taking place in military life. How else would room be made for successors? And besides, without this appointment in the War Office, the colonel would in any case have obtained his brigade in another two years, and the regiment would have had to do without him. It was much more important now for the officers to know who was to be their new chief.
Major Mohbrinck was appointed to command the regiment; he had hitherto commanded the mounted division of the artillery guard. He was an unknown quantity in the Eastern Division, for he belonged to a different army-corps; but military gossip gave a not very favourable account of him.
Little Dr. von Froeben received from an old chum of his, who was in the mounted division, a telegram which ran thus: "Hymn No. 521." The hymn indicated is the translation of the Ambrosian hymn of praise, commencing: "Lord God, we praise thee; Lord God, we thank thee."
Well, this was a piece of subaltern wit.
It was more significant that Captain von Wegstetten had a letter from his brother-in-law, the head of the first mounted battery, also written in a remarkably Ambrosian vein. "I can tell you"—it ran—"we two heads of batteries thank God on our knees that we are rid of Mohbrinck. My joy thereat is no doubt damped somewhat by my brotherly sympathy for you in having now to put up with that scourge of God. However—you can keep calm, as I might have done. We sit too tight in our places for him; thanks to our favourable relations with the powers that be. Mohbrinck only seeks out absolutely defenceless victims whereon to prove his capacity. He considers it a commander's chief task in time of peace 'to purify the army from all incapable people.' In confidence, he should himself have been purified away first of all. As those who know assert, he has always from the first made it his business to shove aside any one who stood in front of him. We of the cavalry heartily wish never to set eyes on him again."
He was overflowing with graciousness, and expressed his sense of "his good fortune in having to devote his poor efforts (supported of course by such able assistants) to so excellently trained a regiment."
The speech with which he greeted the regiment held the happy mean between theatrical gush and a sermon. It was adorned with pompous imagery, and contained numerous eulogiums of the reigning family. "Christian humility" and "God's assistance" played a great part therein, and it dealt rude thrusts at those who waged war in secret upon the sup-porters of throne and altar. The acidulated vituperative voice of the major gave the whole performance an indescribably comical effect; the bold artillerymen, standing at attention, got stiff necks, aching knees, and dizzy heads from listening so long to these flowers of speech.
After this Major Mohbrinck had all the officers of the regiment brought up and introduced to him.
One thing was to be noted: he had a nice perception for everything that was useful and paying. He had taken care to be well instructed in all particulars before his arrival in the garrison.
He seemed at once to be hand in glove with the adjutant, Kauerhof. This was, of course, because the adjutant's wife, Marion Kauerhof, nee von Lueben, was the daughter of an important personage in the War Office. The adjutant presented the other men according to their seniority in rank. First came the two majors. Lischke received a studiously polite greeting; Schrader was far more graciously treated—was not the smart bachelor a notable waltzer at court balls? He was often commanded to dance with the princesses, and, people said, regaled the royal ladies with many little stories which they would never otherwise have had a chance of hearing.
Next approached Staff-Captain von Stuckhardt. He found himself very coolly received by the new chief. What was the use of troubling much with any one who was known to be a predestined dead man? Stuckhardt stepped back feeling considerably snubbed.
Traeger, Gropphusen, and Heuschkel got rather neutral pressures of the hand; Gropphusen, perhaps, being of noble family, was greeted rather more warmly than the others.
Kauerhof proceeded with his introductions: "And now, sir, here is the head of our sixth battery, Captain von Wegstetten."
Mohbrinck twisted his lips into a honied smile. For Wegstetten had a cousin, about seven times removed, who was something of a celebrity, not so much on account of his martial exploits as because he was ninety-eight years of age, the oldest soldier in the army, and a former adjutant-general of his late Majesty. Uncle Ehrenfried, dried up like a mummy, had some difficulty in even sitting upright in his wheel-chair; and for years it had been impossible to carry on an articulate conversation with him. But his immense age lent a certain cachet to his nephew, the chief of the sixth battery. If the mummy were really to attain his century, or were to die on some marked day—a royal birthday or funeral—the services of a Wegstetten to the reigning family would show in a dazzling light, the reflection of which could not be disregarded by an acute man like Mohbrinck.
Little Wegstetten smiled a contented smile under his big red moustache. Before a commanding officer like this he felt he had no cause to tremble.
"Captain Madelung, head of the fourth battery," proceeded Kauerhof.
Mohbrinck greeted him with something like effusion: "Ah!" he cried, "our celebrated warrior from China. I am delighted—delighted—to have the honour of meeting you." He put on a rallying expression: "But you must not go to the Far East now, my dear sir. I hear you have just made happy domestic arrangements that will keep you at home."
Madelung bowed; just before the man[oe]uvres he had married the eldest maid-of-honour.
The youngest captain of the regiment, Guentz, was now presented. Major Mohbrinck assumed his would-be-agreeable smile, and said jokingly: "Dear, dear! our youngest captain, and so stout already!"
Guentz looked at him. Well, of course he was not exactly one of the slim ones, but why should this rather uncomplimentary remark be fired in his face?
Major Schrader saved him the trouble of answering. He patted him good-humouredly on the back, and said: "Well, yes, he has got something of a corporation, like Dr. Luther; but that does not prevent him from shining brilliantly in the constellation of my commanders of batteries."
Mohbrinck turned to him, and remarked sweetly; "Oh, I should never have suggested such a thing, my dear sir. I am quite well aware of the merits of Captain Guentz." And he touched Guentz's little red eagle; his own breast was still undecorated.
It was the common talk of the army that the 80th Regiment, Eastern Division, Field Artillery, had, under Falkenhein's command, become a perfect pattern to all the troops. It would therefore have seemed most expedient to carry on the methods of its former chief. But Mohbrinck considered that to do so would make him appear an officer without military distinction or views of his own. He posed as having studied to a nicety every little whim and peculiarity of the major-general commanding the brigade, and had made up his mind that at the review his regiment should have no fault found with it, not even if for months everything more important should be set aside in order to drill into the men every little fancy of the brigadier.
"I tell you, sir, I have heard the last word of the major-general on this subject or that," was his ever-recurring refrain.
Throughout the batteries this caused a certain sense of nervous insecurity. The captains were instructed to lay stress on all manner of insignificant details, and it was difficult to get on with the regular training. Only such remarkably active and circumspect officers as Wegstetten and Madelung could manage to satisfy both claims upon them: their ordinary military duties, and the merely personal likes and dislikes of the commander of the regiment and the brigadier. Gropphusen let his battery go as it pleased; he was in one of his wild fits. But Traeger and Heuschkel quite lost their heads. Was the new commander going to turn the world upside down? And yet they had thought they were fairly good at their work; Falkenhein himself had told them so from time to time.
Guentz got sick of the whole affair. Under Mohbrinck's system the battery might cut a very dashing figure before the commander of the brigade at the review, and yet be worth the devil only knew how little in sober reality. Guentz, for his part, would not bother about it; it was his business to train capable soldiers for his king and country, but not for Major Mohbrinck and Major-general Hausperg.
Captain Guentz had commanded the battery for a year; his time of probation was over. Already he had brought his plans to such a point that he could lay them in practical shape before the directors of the gun-foundry in the Rhine provinces.
After serious counsel with Frau Klaere, he concluded his letter to the manager with the following sentence: "Therefore I beg you, sir, to give my work your most serious consideration. In case you find my plans workable, please remember that I should be very glad personally to superintend the carrying of them out."
"Fatty," said Frau Klaere, "that last sentence is shockingly expressed!"
Guentz sat before his letter and looked down reflectively at his signature—"Guentz, captain commanding the sixth battery in the 80th Regiment, Eastern Division, Field Artillery."
"Do you know, my Klaere," he said, "I don't quite like the look of it myself."
The answer to this letter was very long in coming, unreasonably long, Klaere thought. Her husband comforted her: "Do you think people can come to a decision in a week about a matter over which I pondered for many years?"
At last came a letter bearing the stamp of the gun-foundry.
Guentz was just changing his coat for his smoking-jacket. He skimmed through the document, and read aloud to Klaere the most important phrase: "... plans extremely promising, ... their construction must certainly be undertaken at once."
Then followed a most dazzling proposal for Guentz to enter the factory and occupy a leading position there. Compared with the modest pay of a captain, the suggested salary of fifteen thousand marks seemed positively fabulous.
Frau Klaere's was an eminently practical nature, and she had often lamented over the miserable income on which the claims of an officer's position made such serious inroads; but now these words escaped her: "Good God, Fatty! Isn't that far too much?"
Guentz had not heard her exclamation. He had just taken off his coat; he held it for a moment in his hand and stroked the epaulettes caressingly. Then he hung it carefully over the back of a chair.
"Of course I shall accept," he said, in a voice which was meant to be calm, but in which strong emotion was evident. "I hope I shall be able to serve my country and my king better than I could in that dear old coat."
Klaere stretched out her hand to him in silence; then she went softly out of the room. It is better for a man to have that sort of thing out with himself alone.
What might have taken an enormous expenditure of time and writing proved, as a matter of fact, to be very simply and easily accomplished. Captain Guentz sent in his papers, and they were accepted before Easter.
At the farewell dinner, Major Mohbrinck spoke of the heartfelt concern with which the regiment must lose such a charming companion and promising officer, and of the good wishes with which all the officers would follow him to his new and important sphere of activity. All this came from the heart. Who could know whether, as retired lieutenant-colonel or colonel, a man holding such a post in a gun-foundry might not be a very useful acquaintance?
When Guentz took his departure from the little station he had got over all his regrets. He only left behind one man for whom he cared—Reimers.
He looked out of the window of the railway-carriage and saw his friend standing on the narrow platform, gazing after the departing train. That thin face, with its sad eyes, became by degrees undistinguishable, and at last he could hardly recognise the slender, slightly bent figure.
He waved his handkerchief for the last time; but his friend probably did not see, for he stood motionless.
Then the train ran round a corner of rock; the carriage swayed slightly, and the little station was out of sight. Guentz sat back sighing in his corner. He had been able to give his friend no consolation, and only one piece of good advice—to work.
Little Dr. von Froeben accompanied Senior-lieutenant Reimers to the examinations at the Staff College.
"One can only be plucked," he said in excuse when he was teased about his presumption. Of course if he compared his knowledge with that of his companion, Reimers, his candidature seemed to himself an unwarrantable piece of bravado. And Reimers went on studying with an indefatigable, almost feverish energy.
"My dear Reimers," said the little doctor, "there will be nothing more for you to learn at the Staff College, if you work like this. You had better slack off, dear boy!"
Reimers smiled a little half-heartedly. The good progress he was making gave him no joy. He no longer prosecuted his studies with the inspired devotion that had formerly possessed him; and only the strong feeling of duty, which had become habitual with him, spurred him on to further efforts. He often said to himself: "After all, what is the good of it?"
There was no sign of any obstacle in his path; despite all that had happened he was in a very fair way to achieve a distinguished military career. But he could not rid himself of an oppressive feeling that all his labour was in vain.
And then again after a moment of hopeless depression he would be possessed anew by the old fair vision, his enthusiasm for the wonderful German army, to belong to which had been his pride and his salvation. With eyes full of rapture he pored over the pages of the military history, and for the thousandth time followed the army on its path of conquest.
Then suddenly he checked himself. Was the army of to-day, of which he was a member, really that old victorious army?
Guentz had handed over to him the justification for his resignation which he had written out before the duel with Landsberg. It had been unnecessary to add or to erase anything.
Reimers had often in old days wished to have his friend's opinions in black and white before him, in order to overthrow them singly, point by point, brilliantly to overthrow them. He now held in his hand Guentz's views, succinctly and definitely expressed; but whither had flown his former keen spirit? He could no longer summon up the old impetuous dash with which he had meant to fall upon his opponent's arguments one after another, raze them to the ground and trample them underfoot like the entrenchments and fortifications in some mock combat.
He compared Guentz's statement with the notes he had taken of his conversations with Falkenhein, during the short period of his adjutancy. There was much in which they agreed, and this agreement staggered him. Here were two men of fundamentally different nature whose judgment concurred; both of them were distinguished by clarity of perception and exhaustive knowledge of the circumstances with which they were dealing, and both were entitled to their opinions by a past record that excluded all idea of bias.
Were they both right, then? The one with his vague uneasiness, the other with his heavy disquietude?
Reimers could not dismiss the doubts of these two men. At most he might reply to Guentz that this unsatisfactory state of affairs was not so widespread as his friend asserted.
This inclination to outward show was a universal sign of the times, and was not confined to Germany. In France a cavalry charge had been made upon the grand stand where the President was seated beside the Tsar. Was that not more theatrical than some of the impossible evolutions undertaken in the German man[oe]uvres?
But to this consolation was opposed the old teaching of experience, that a nation in extremity is capable of the most unheard-of exertions in reparation of its errors. The cheerful self-sacrifice of Prussia in 1813 was almost without parallel in the history of the world; and yet the sensitive, heavily-chastened French nation was effecting a similar arduous work, the more striking by reason of its long persistence.
France had, besides, this advantage; in actual fact a great number of the French people, through an artificially nourished feeling of embitterment, were keen for war with their eastern neighbour. Germans, on the contrary, thought no more of the "hereditary enemy" of 1870; in the progress of science and the development of art they felt themselves closely connected with France. Germany had linked herself to France that they might march together arm-in-arm in the forefront of civilisation.
Germany desired peace. It was not exactly that the German had become unwarlike; but, because of his Teutonic thoroughness and sobriety, he was deeply impressed with the necessity and utility of peace, as the most truly rational condition of things. Once the danger of vengeance from the west had blown over, any and every war would have been unpopular in Germany, except perhaps one with England, which, as a naval war, would less immediately affect the masses of the people, and everybody in Germany held the conviction that warlike developments would never arise from an irresistible outbreak of popular feeling, but only from political or dynastic mismanagement.
In this way—that is, as a failing in warlike ardour—did Reimers account for the want of patriotism which Guentz pointed to as the most significant inward danger of the present military system.
Reimers had never interested himself particularly in parliamentary or political controversies,—an officer should hold aloof from such matters,—he was therefore not inclined to lay so much stress as his friend did on the influence of revolutionary politicians.
The evil was great enough without that. Was not an army that went into the field without enthusiasm beaten beforehand? And the thoughts suggested to him by the reflections of the colonel and of his friend all pointed to a similar conclusion. They seemed to stand like warning signposts beside the road on which the German army was marching; and all, all, bore upon their outstretched pointing arms the ominous word—Jena.
The sinister idea haunted Reimers like a ghost. If he sat down to his books it was there; and it fell across his vision like a dark shadow when the sun shone its bravest on the imposing array of the batteries at exercise.
His old friends had gone far away; and if Reimers looked into his own mind he was obliged to admit that he could not greatly regret this. It was indeed better so. The delightful intimate relations between himself and those dear people had already been destroyed by scarcely perceptible degrees.
The thought of Marie Falkenhein weighed on him the least heavily. When he had once got over the first bitter sorrow at his ill fortune he thought of her, strangely enough, with no desperate longing, but rather with a feeling of shame. The young girl did not represent the immediate necessity of his life which he now found lacking. That lay in a different sphere.
For this reason he was glad that Falkenhein and Guentz had left the garrison. No one should be there to see how the guiding star which he had followed so ardently all his days was now setting in diminished glory: no one should be by when his whole life suffered shipwreck.
The regiment was now under orders to march to the practice-camp. A few days before the departure Reimers ordered his man to bring him his portmanteau.
He wanted to see if the faithful old trunk, which had accompanied him on all his travels, was still in proper condition. It needed no attention.
"Shall I take off the labels?" asked his servant. "Then perhaps, I could freshen it up a little with varnish."
The trunk displayed a vast number of hotel and luggage labels. His journey to Egypt, in particular, had left brightly-coloured traces.
Reimers stood buried in thought. Suddenly he observed the waiting servant.
"Yes, of course," he said; "see to it."
He had been thinking of his return from that long furlough.
What renewed vigour he had then felt in every limb! With what exhilaration he had set foot on the quay at Hamburg, his first step on German soil after a whole long year in foreign lands! He would have liked to fall on the neck of the first gunner he met; and he could hardly wait for the moment when he might again don the unpretending coat that outshone in his eyes the most gorgeous robe of state in the world, attired in which he might again perform the dear old wearisome duty.
Were those high hopes to end in this sordid fashion?
He recollected how, amidst the jubilation of his home-coming, he had been disquieted by a presentiment of evil, a visionary dream that now confronted him in such cruel reality.
It was during his first visit to Frau von Gropphusen that the shadow had fallen upon him. He saw the room again before him in the dim light from its darkened window, and it seemed to him filled with gloom and hopelessness.
The suffering woman lay wearily on the big sofa under the picture of the "Blue Boy." She drew up the silken covering with her fair white hands, leant her chin on her knees, and gazed at him with her wonderful sad eyes.
Suddenly he became aware of the reason why he only thought of Marie Falkenhein with gentle resignation, with that fugitive feeling which seemed to himself scarcely compatible with grief for a real attachment: he had never ceased to love Hannah Gropphusen.
Had his eyes been struck with blindness?
His passion now revived in him as with the throes of an intermittent fever. His spirit was free from all other prepossession. Enthusiasm for his country, for his calling, had been driven out of him. His whole being was defenceless against the might of this love, and he was carried away by it as on the wings of a tempest.
He now only lived in the thought of Hannah Gropphusen. How long was it since he had seen her last?
He had to go far back in his memory to the beginning of the past winter. She had been the fairest at one of the first balls of the season. Her face had shone with seductive charm; a black dress, glittering with sequins, had enveloped her slender form, leaving bare the tender whiteness of her arms and shoulders. She bore the palm of beauty, and every one had acknowledged her sovereignty. And as he had sat idly in one of the most distant rooms, a morose observer of the gay throng, she had come gliding up to him like some dazzling messenger of joy. She had spoken to him, few words only and on indifferent topics, with a hasty, excited voice; but in her eyes had been once more that expression of utter self-abandonment which had made him so happy on their return from the tennis-ground during the previous spring.
He had stood before her, his shoulders bowed beneath his adverse fate, and had not dared to raise his eyes to hers.
Since the night of that ball, Frau von Gropphusen had been absent for the whole winter; she had gone on a visit to her parents, after (so the gossips whispered) a terrible scene with her husband. And on this occasion even the women had taken the side of their own sex. For Gropphusen had been getting wilder and wilder; it could hardly fail that legal proceedings would before very long be undertaken against him for his scandalous behaviour.
The injured wife had returned only a few days ago, probably for a last painful attempt to preserve appearances. Gropphusen himself would be leaving the garrison for the gun-practice, and she would at least remain there during that time; but she did not go out, and nobody had yet seen her face to face.
Reimers was possessed with a restless impatience to meet the woman he loved; he had wasted too much time already to brook delay.
Then again he was thrown into dull inaction by an agonising doubt. How could he think of approaching Hannah Gropphusen—he, a marked man, a condemned man? He set it before himself a thousand times, and dinned it into his own ears: he desired nothing, he wanted nothing but to be allowed to live in her soothing presence.
He racked his brains to discover a pretext for visiting her but could find none. He directed his goings from day to day so as to pass by the Gropphusen villa as often as possible. He sauntered near the house by the hour together, possessed by the foolish hope of catching sight of his beloved. Perhaps she would come to the window to breathe the fresh air of the night, to cool her burning forehead in the soft breeze, or to refresh her tear-stained eyes with a sight of the starry heaven.
He waited in vain.
On the morning of their march to the practice-camp, Captain von Gropphusen, the head of the second battery, was missing.
Major Lischke sent his adjutant to the Gropphusens' villa to ask for news. The lieutenant came back with the answer that Captain von Gropphusen had as usual gone to town the evening before, and had not yet returned.
Lischke grumbled. "The dissipated scoundrel has missed the early train, of course. He might at least have telegraphed."
Naturally Gropphusen could not be waited for. Senior-lieutenant Frommelt took charge of the battery, and the regiment set off on its march.
But even at their first halting-place the missing man failed to put in an appearance, and now came some enlightenment as to his proceedings.
The police had made a raid upon the club to which Gropphusen belonged. Rumours were spread abroad of unlawful and immoral practices carried on there. A certain number of the members, Gropphusen among them, had managed to escape; the rest were already in custody.
Thereanent the regiment received an official letter, in which it was pointed out to the authorities that Captain von Gropphusen was accused of desertion, and was to be reported at once in case of his reappearance. This was, of course, only a matter of form, for Gropphusen had no doubt left the kingdom long before.
Senior-lieutenant Frommelt was entrusted with the command of the battery, and as Lieutenant Weissenhagen, the other officer belonging to the detachment, had already been sent on to the practice-camp to look over the barracks and stables, Senior-lieutenant Reimers was attached to the second battery during the march, and until further orders.
Reimers rejoiced that a fortunate turn of events had released the woman he loved from her tormentor he was glad also that this alteration in the arrangements for the march would withdraw him from surroundings in which his thoughts had now become so completely and dizzily changed.
Finally, a faint hope sprang up in his mind: perhaps at the practice-camp, where the capacity of the army was put to its sharpest test in time of peace, he might regain some of his old belief in the unimpeachable superiority of the German forces.
He greeted the open expanse of heath with joyful eyes.
The battery had crossed a river, one of those quiet waters of the flat country that glide along lazily between their sandy banks, and conceal beneath their harmless-looking surface deep holes and dangerous under-currents.
From the rear came riding a troop of hussars, apparently engaged in scouting-practice. The bridge was supposed to have been destroyed, and they were trying to find a place for fording the river. The officer first drove his horse into the water, and the animal sank at once up to its neck, but then began to swim, and soon reached the opposite side. The hussars followed smartly and quickly, and the troop proceeded onward from the other bank, leaving wet traces on the light sandy soil. The officer galloped up closer to the marching battery.
Reimers recognised an old companion from the Military Academy.
"You, Ottensen?" he cried. "What a strange chance!"
"Isn't it?" said the hussar. "Pity I've no time to stop. I must teach my chaps to scout!"
They exchanged a pressure of the hand; then the cavalry officer spurred on his horse, and disappeared in a cloud of yellow dust.
Shortly after this the battery came upon the hussars for a second time. The riders had dismounted at the edge of a fir plantation. One hussar after another was being made to buckle on the climbing-irons and climb up a tree-trunk in order to survey the surrounding country with a telescope.
The lieutenant was examining them, and testing their reports by the map.
"Not seen you for a long time, Reimers!" he laughed, as the battery marched by. "Just look; these chaps climb like monkeys!"
Reimers nodded gaily to his lively friend. It was indeed a pleasure to watch the agile hussars.
"Wait a bit!" said Ottensen, "I'll ride a little way with you." He asked Senior-lieutenant Frommelt politely for permission, and sent his men back in charge of a sergeant. Then he joined the battery, chattering away gaily in his droll, staccato fashion, and making his horse leap the ditch from time to time. He sat his magnificent steed splendidly, and with his slender, neatly-made figure, looked the perfect model of a cavalry officer.
Reimers looked at him with honest admiration and pleasure.
"Your hussars are smart fellows!" he said.
Ottensen smiled, well pleased, and said: "Well, perhaps so!"
"They climb the trees well," continued the artilleryman.
"I should think so!" said Ottensen. "Trees, corn-stacks, church-towers, roofs of houses, telegraph-posts, and devil knows what besides—mountain-tops too, only there aren't any hereabouts."
"Perhaps there will be during the man[oe]uvres."
The hussar let his single eye-glass fall, and showed an astonished face.
"Man[oe]uvres, my dear fellow? Why, all's plain sailing in them!"
"How do you mean? Plain sailing?"
"The rendezvous all fixed up beforehand, with friends on the enemy's side; simultaneous luncheons arranged for when possible. Every detail settled in advance."
The little hussar suddenly burst out laughing: "Reimers! my dear fellow!" he cried, "don't pull a face like a funeral march! Do you mean to say you didn't know it? You didn't? Well!"
Reimers asked him: "But what do you take to be the object of the man[oe]uvres?"
"Object? Oh, there is plenty of object!"
"Surely the object of the man[oe]uvres is to get the nearest possible approach to the conditions of actual warfare?"
"All rot!" declared the hussar. "You're still just the same old bookworm as ever; an incorrigible old wool-gatherer! The object of the man[oe]uvres is the most deadly punctuality in the meeting of the two opposing parties, and not the training of young cavalry lieutenants in scouting. The object is attained by careful consultations beforehand. Oh, yes! I was once just such another innocent youth as you, dear boy. Shall I ever forget it, my first scouting expedition, with no rendezvous? On and on I rode till it was perfectly dark. Couldn't see a single wicked enemy. Didn't I just get a rowing! A whole winter practice thrown away! Two infantry regiments with a mile of transport, and behind them four batteries and four squadrons of horse. All had marched gaily past each other at about half an hour's interval! Not a shot fired! No, thanks—never again!"
At a cross-road Ottensen took leave of them. From afar he waved once more his immaculately-gloved right hand.
Reimers rode on in silence.
On the horizon appeared the white walls of the barracks and stables, and the water-tower of the practice-camp.
It was an unwelcome thought this that his old companion of the Military Academy had suggested to him. Here was another proof of how everything in the army was worked up simply to present a smooth outward appearance. How he would laugh now if any one spoke to him of a similarity between the conditions of real warfare and those of the man[oe]uvres! It was a thoroughly planned-out game, in which no ill-timed mischance was allowed to disturb the preordained harmony of the arrangements.
But what a crying shame that such splendid material should be spoilt by this dangerous system! Ottensen was not a highly-gifted soldier; he was no model military instructor; but he was a fine horseman, had a cool head, plenty of dash, and some keen mother-wit to boot: a born leader of scouts. And yet these brilliant qualities were sacrificed to outward show, and were let go to waste for want of use! One good cavalry officer the less; that was bad enough. But had not Ottensen spoken as though these were quite usual practices? It looked as though this purely external unwarlike training of the army were being erected into a principle.
The first day at the practice-camp was entirely taken up by settling into quarters. The tables were laid at six o'clock in the evening. Most of the officers were perfectly exhausted with standing about and running hither and thither; and directly the meal was over they retired to their rooms to get half an hour's nap before their evening duty.
Reimers left the camp by the back gate and went slowly along the edge of the forest towards the butts.
The sun was setting, and the rim of the red disk seemed to be just resting on the dark line of the tree-tops. The heath glowed with colour in the evening radiance.
Some men with pickaxes and spades over their shoulders met him; behind them a waggon laden with planks toiled heavily through the sand. Even the drill coats of the soldiers were tinted red by the sunset light. Reimers strolled on further. A sandy pathway cut across the pink blossoms of the heather; without thinking he turned into it. This was the road which had formerly led from the forest towards the ruined village; there was now no use for it, and it was being allowed to fall into disrepair.
The solitary wanderer approached the dilapidated dwellings. In the village itself the perilously inclined walls of the ruins threatened to fall into the roadway. Reimers stepped through a doorway into the courtyard of one of the largest houses. A rose-tree spread its branches over the wall. Everything was bathed in the red light of the setting sun. Through the empty casements Reimers seemed to be looking at the fierce glow of some incendiary fire. The white roses gleamed pink, and a pool of water that had run down from a gutter shone like newly-shed blood. The deserted garden, the empty casements, the smoke-blackened walls, the glowing colour in the sky, and the red pool on the ground: this was a picture of war, in which men were laid low beneath blossoming rose trees, whose roots were drenched in their hearts' blood.
Reimers stumbled down the dim mud-stained passage and over the broken threshold into the village street, and wandered back again to the camp, gazing with thoughtful eyes into the gathering dusk.
The picture of the ruined cottages had recalled his South African experiences to his memory.
He saw the cosy farm-houses burst into flames behind the fleeing riders. The men shook their clenched fists as they looked back, and sent up grim but child-like petitions to a patriarchal God on whose help they had too confidently relied. But they made no stand, possessed by the irresistible panic which had seized upon them after the unfortunate episode of Cronje's capture.
It was but now and then that a handful of brave men, together with a few from the foreign legion, had made a short resistance at some pass or ford; and these were the only experiences, during the time of that gradual break-up, to which he could look back with any satisfaction.
Like the others he had lain in the high grass or behind a jutting rock, and had picked out his man; while beside him a twig would occasionally be snapped by a bullet, or splinters of stone strewn over him. This had been sharp, honest skirmishing, and he had had no scruple about doing as much injury to the English as possible. He never knew whether he had killed his man or merely wounded him. Either was possible; and did not war necessarily involve this?
At last, however, he had an experience that weighed more heavily on his mind.
It was near the Portuguese frontier on an open grassy expanse, somewhat resembling the heath by the practice-camp. They were hurrying onwards, hoping to reach neutral territory and escape capture by the English. Between them and the pursuing lancers lay only the deep channel of a river, whose waters lapped idly and languidly on the shore in the peaceful summer stillness.
An English officer came riding carelessly up to it, a fresh young lad. He had slung his carbine on his saddle, and was gaily flourishing a switch in the air and flicking at his brown leather gaiters. He was within speaking distance, his men were trotting far behind him.
Then one of the foreigners, a lean Irishman, reined in his flying steed. With a wild expression of hatred he raised his loaded weapon, took aim, and fired. The Englishman fell heavily backwards on his horse and plump into the shallow water.
The Irishman galloped up to Reimers' side. His ragged coat and brown weather-beaten face proclaimed the seasoned fighter.
"A good shot, mate!" he said. Reimers looked sideways at him and answered nothing.
The other waxed indignant, and began fiercely:
"Damn it, sir! Thirty years ago my father rented a farm in county Waterford that one of yon fellow's breed coveted. My father died in Philadelphia, with nothing but a torn shirt to his back and his bones coming through his skin. It's an old debt that I have just paid off!"
Reimers nodded in assent; he could do nothing else. The man was one of the many Fenians who had entered the ranks of the Boer army, instigated by the age-long hereditary hatred of Irishman for Englishman; from his point of view he was justified. This was warfare, and why had the young officer ridden ahead in that boyish, foolhardy way?
Nevertheless, the deed had filled the German with inexpressible disgust.
And suddenly, in this evening hour among the blossoming heather, within view of the ruined village now fast becoming indistinguishable in the twilight, the recollection of that nearly dry river-bed on the frontier of the Transvaal Republic drove in upon his mind clearly and definitely all the terrors of war: men falling upon each other like ravening beasts, blood and fire, death and destruction.
Innumerable thoughts conflicted in his brain. Whose was the guilt that these immemorial horrors still existed, that they were even protected by law? Who was it that desired war? Was it the nations, incensed against each other by race-hatred? Was it their rulers seeking renown? Was it greedy self-interested diplomatists? Secret, but so much the more effectual, under-currents of Jesuitical intrigue? Fire-eating generals, pining to justify their existence? Who was it that dared assume responsibility for such a colossal crime against humanity?
Reimers was loth to press such considerations further, By so doing he might be led to conclusions before which he shrank, because from his youth up they had been pictured to him as detestable and criminal; he turned from them in alarm.
One thing he saw clearly and distinctly: war, which seemed to be a necessity in the life of a nation, demanded strong-minded men, hard as steel. Men like himself, broken in spirit, were useless and unfit for the profession of an officer. A soldier without fresh living enthusiasm for his calling was nothing but a figure of straw.
It was borne in upon him that he was a mere caricature of an officer, such as he had hitherto despised; perhaps but a more thoughtful, melancholy variation from the whole brainless type.
But what had he to look for in the world beside?
Next morning Senior-lieutenant Frommelt, the temporary commander of the second battery, came to Reimers in a hurry.
"My dear Reimers," he said, "I must ask you to do me a kindness. After the exercises to-day will you drive back at once to the garrison? Somewhere in Gropphusen's house the punishment-book of the battery must be lying about, and a few important orders with it. The sergeant-major sent it over to him the evening before our departure, and now we want it. Will you go?"
And Reimers answered, "Of course I will, Frommelt."
The commander of the battery continued, quivering with the anxiety appertaining to his new dignity: "You know, I would have sent Weissenhagen, as he is the youngest officer; but he is a little flighty, and I don't quite like to trust him with such a delicate matter as conversing with a lady about the failings of her absent husband."
"But is that necessary?" asked Reimers.
"I think so. You see we have not been able to find the things anywhere. You must describe the books—you know the usual binding—and then they must be sought for very thoroughly."
"Very good. I will go."
Reimers went through the shooting-practice (in which, by-the-by, the "flighty" Lieutenant Weissenhagen seemed to give a very good account of himself), buried in a deep reverie. At every shot he started in his saddle, and when the battery took up a change of position he entirely forgot to ride into his place. But the good brown mare moved correctly of herself. Her rider patted her neck in praise, and drew himself up erect. The joy which had at first stupefied him made him now feel glad and proud. Happiness smiled upon him once more, before the consummation of his evil fortune—he would see Hannah Gropphusen again.
It was noon when he arrived in the garrison town. All the good citizens were at their midday meal. The streets were deserted, and the little colony of villas that formed the officers' quarters showed no sign of living inhabitants.
The Gropphusens' house, with its closed shutters and lowered blinds, looked half asleep; but Hannah's windows were as usual draped in their pale pink curtains. Reimers went through the garden and into the porch. He hesitated a moment and listened; not a sound was to be heard.
Then he rang. The electric bell echoed sharply in the deep stillness; but everything remained quiet. He could only hear the beating of his pulses.
He rang for the second time, but silence still reigned. Had the unhappy wife returned to her parents? Was the household broken up?
Then a door banged within the house, and light steps approached. The chain was taken down and the key turned in the lock.
Hannah Gropphusen stood on the threshold, a weary expression on her pale face; she was clad in a loose flowing gown of thin white silk. Her shoulders scarcely seemed fit to bear the weight of anything heavier than this light airy texture. Her small head was bowed as though unable to support the burden of her hair.
Her eyes expressed the astonished query: "How come you here?" And she stepped back hesitatingly.
"I have come on business," stammered Reimers.
Hannah opened the door and signed to him to enter. Her noiseless steps preceded him as she led him into her own little sitting-room.
She seated herself on the edge of the sofa and pointed to a chair.
"Won't you sit down?" she said gently. But Reimers remained standing, gazing down upon the woman he loved. At last he was near her; he could see her and hear her voice.
She raised her eyes to his, as if asking why he would not be seated. Their glances met, greeting and caressing each other in the first shy emotion of love.
The man threw himself down before the woman, covering her feet, her dress, her hands, her knees with kisses, and sobbing out the irrepressible confession of his love, over and over again, in unceasing repetition: "I love you! how I love you! I love you! how I love you!"
Hannah suffered his protestations silently. An unspeakable bliss weighed upon her and paralysed her. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and as though in the far distance she heard the soothing call of love: "I love you! how I love you!"
She bent over him with a glad, loving look. Her deep blue eyes shone darkly and protectingly, like the night sky.
"Hannah, I love you. I have always, always loved you. Only you, Hannah, only you!"
Her beautiful hand cooled his burning forehead. "I know," she whispered.
And he asseverated: "Even when I was hovering round Marie Falkenhein, it was you, you that I loved. You, only you! Hannah, do you believe me?"
She nodded: "I know."
Suddenly her aspect changed, and instead of the overpowering happiness came a hard, bitter expression.
"I know, too," she continued, in a low voice, "why you have broken off with Marie Falkenhein."
The words struck Reimers like a blow. He started back and tried to disengage himself from her. But the slender fingers held his hand with a spasmodic grasp which almost hurt him.
"You!" he cried. "How can that be?" Hannah had become calm. She stroked his hair tenderly. "How can that be?" she repeated. "Dearest! a woman can always find out anything she really wants to know. I wished to know this, and I know it."
In bitter shame the man broke down completely. He kissed the hem of her robe, and would have turned to the door.
"Forgive! forgive me!" he murmured.
But the fair hands would not let him go, and close in his ear a trembling voice whispered: "Stay, my beloved! For we belong to each other. I am—what you are. We are damned together, both of us. Stay!"
Reimers gazed up at her speechless, his eyes full of a terrible question.
Hannah rose. All signs of weariness had fallen from her; she stood erect, a sombre dignity in the expression of her countenance. She pointed back to that part of the house formerly inhabited by her husband.
"Through him," she said, in accents of denunciation, "I have been ruined. He has destroyed my life, so that I am—what I am."
She looked down upon the kneeling man before her, and suddenly the wild look of hatred and unrelenting sternness died out of her face.
"And now," she went on softly, "as things are, I could almost bless him for what he has done." Bitter irony invaded her tone. "Besides, he has bidden me adieu now like a man of honour. He is in Paris, and is going henceforth to devote himself entirely to art."
But then again lamentations burst from her lips, and long pent-up confessions, which she poured forth with a self-accusing candour.
"Listen, beloved," she said. "When he took me for his wife, a sort of dizzy enchantment overwhelmed me. We lived as in a mad whirl of intoxication. The hours that were not passed together we counted lost; and there was nothing he could have asked of me in vain. He set my foot on his neck and called me queen, goddess. And I—I gave him my beauty."
She lifted her head with an imperial gesture, and a proud smile curved her lips.
"I was a spendthrift," she went on. "Undraped I have danced before him; and down in the garden he had a tent erected—people never could guess the purpose of those canvas walls, but there I sat to him, naked, on his dun-coloured Irish mare, Lady Godiva. And he fell weeping on his knees and worshipped me. He longed for a thousand eyes, that he might drink in the twofold beauty—mine, and the noble animal's. He boasted that he would not repine if his eyes were stricken with blindness after having looked upon us."
She paused for a moment. The eternal might of beauty illumined her brow as though with an invisible crown. Then she bowed her head, and her voice lost its resonance.
"All that I gave him. I was no miser. The day came in which I repented my generosity. I suffered when he turned from me; but jealousy I felt none. Perhaps I was to blame for not recovering my pride at once. But through my love he had taught me that it is bitter indeed to love in vain."
She was silent. Her features hardened, and a deep furrow was graven in her smooth forehead.
"And then," her voice continued; "then came the moment of that terrible revelation. I do not know how I bore it. I was struck as by a lightning-flash; I was shattered. I wanted to leave him; but my people at home would not consent, and I—I could not tell him. Unresisting I let them do with me what they would. I would lie like a corpse, without movement or sensation; then I would rave, needing the most careful watching. And he—he came to me again, as the culmination of his misdeeds. I had become changed for him, more desirable. But I spat in his face. He came crawling and begging to me on his knees, and I struck him in the face and spurned him."
She raised her clenched hand to her brow, and shook it as against an invisible enemy. Her eyes glowed with resentment, and her breath came pantingly.
Then again the unnaturally excited bearing relaxed; she sank gently down on the couch, and bent over her lover, who hid his face in the silk of her gown.
"Beloved," she whispered, in an infinitely softened tone; "it was then, just when I had recovered from my delirium, that you returned. When I saw you again, here in this room, it was borne in on me that we belonged to each other, and I thought you must feel as I did."
Reimers looked up at her, and made a movement to seize her hand.
"I know now that I already loved you," he said, "but I fought against it, because I feared unhappiness for you."
Hannah gently shook her head.
"Do not speak of unhappiness, beloved," she exhorted him. "Do I not love you, and do you not love me? Are we not happy?"
She stooped to him, and pressed her lips to his in a long kiss.
"I could not see clearly through my dreadful doubts," she went on. "What could I be to you—impure, defiled, ruined? There was only in me the longing that you should love me. What was the mad intoxication of my girlish folly to the happiness that possessed me when I became certain that you did love me? I could have denied you nothing, dearest. How happy I was!"
She smiled softly to herself, sunk in tender recollection, and Reimers felt her light hand touch his hair gently with a caressing motion. He grasped that fair hand and kissed it reverently.
"Ah, how happy I was!" repeated Hannah, with a sigh. "But the serpent lurked in my Paradise. I came to know the pangs of jealousy, and I hated Marie Falkenhein—hated her from the bottom of my soul. Ah, beloved! it hurts, hurts deeply, to see the glance of the man one loves passing one over for another woman. Do you remember the night of Klaere's birthday, when you sat in the Falkenheins' garden? I did not exist for you. I could have knelt before you, begging and imploring, 'Can you not even see me here?' But you had eyes only for Mariechen, and when I went away into the night, you and she were standing together by the railing like a betrothed pair. Happiness shone in your eyes. Yes! in yours too, dearest."
Reimers kissed the hand of his adored lady. "Forgive me!" he sobbed. "Forgive me! darling, my poor darling! My eyes were drawn to follow you; but I turned them by force to Mariechen. I know now that I loved you alone even then. In dreams, and when half awake, when I let myself go, it was you only for whom I longed. Dearest, forgive me!"
Hannah shook her head gently, and looked fondly into his petitioning eyes.
"Be content," she whispered; "it was wrong of me, and I conquered it. In the night, after I had seen you both like that, I fought it out with myself. I recognised that it was hateful egoism that made me grudge you your happiness, and that my love for you should be quite otherwise—more unselfish. From thenceforth Marie Falkenhein became dear to me; it was as though I were you,—I felt an involuntary yearning towards her, warmer, apparently, than your own. I would have liked to endow her with all that you found clever and charming in my speech or actions; I would have given her all that remained to me of beauty; above all, I longed to pour into her veins the fire of my own great love, that you might be entirely happy and blest. I would have decked your bride with my own hands, and have brought her to you; I would have kept watch, that nothing profane should disturb your bliss."
Tenderly her arms encircled her lover's neck, and her words flowed faster.
"Suddenly all this was changed, and I was not less so. I could not be sad when I saw Mariechen's tear-stained eyes. I guessed that something terrible had occurred; but I was groping in the dark till I got the truth out of that good Andreae. Then I wept for grief that your happiness was blighted; and I wept for joy that you were now wholly mine. For you are mine?"
Reimers clasped her to him passionately; she nestled quivering in his arms. Their lips met, and she whispered: "If chance had not led you to me to-day—then I should have gone to you. I love you so."
Late in the afternoon Frau von Gropphusen rang for the maid; but the girl had been allowed to go out, and had not yet returned. The groom from the stable came hastening to answer the second ring. He stood still in the doorway, astonished. His mistress had let down her hair and was standing in the sunshine as though wrapped in a golden mantle.
"Is Betty not here yet?" she asked.
"Well, it does not matter. Saddle Lady Godiva for me."
"Very good, madam. But excuse me, madam; you will remember that Lady Godiva has not been ridden for three days; she will be very fresh."
Frau von Gropphusen smiled: "Do not be afraid. I shall be able to manage her."
"Shall I go with you, madam?"
"No, I am going alone."
Languidly she put up her hair before the mirror. Her pale cheeks were faintly coloured, and her lips shone moist and red. She slipped on her riding habit and settled her hat firmly. When the hoofs of the mare clattered on the pavement outside she was quite ready.
The maid met her at the garden gate, and was profuse in her apologies.
Frau von Gropphusen replied lightly: "All right, all right."
Lady Godiva was fidgeting about impatiently. She whinnied joyfully as her mistress's hand stroked her delicate nostrils.
The groom helped Frau von Gropphusen to mount, and inquired if he should tighten the curb a little.
His mistress nodded.
The mare resented not being given her head at once; but finally trotted off with a coquettish gait that showed her fine breeding and her graceful proportions. And the beautiful woman on her back was like a bride going forth to meet her beloved.
Hannah Gropphusen chose the road that led to the big exercise-ground of the regiment. Lady Godiva neighed with pleasure as she cantered along the well-known path; the gentle ascent which she had to traverse in no way exhausted her long-restrained impatience.
The great level quadrangle of the exercise-ground lay at a high elevation; in the valley below the air had felt hot and stifling, but up here a soft breeze was blowing, and with gentle caressing touch it brushed back the golden tendrils of hair from the rider's white forehead.
Upon the scantily growing grass of the plain Hannah Gropphusen gave the mare her head, and the animal bore her at a light even gallop to the far end of the ground. From thence ran a narrow cart-track, by which their sluggish teams drew the loaded harvest-waggons down to the high road. The track led straight on to the edge of the plain, the chalky surface being there broken up by deep quarries. Here a strong rough paling had been erected as a barrier, in case any stubborn horse should prove unmanageable. This was no impediment to an unerring fencer like Lady Godiva. She went over it easily at full stretch.
After her landing Hannah Gropphusen gave the mare a touch of the whip. The animal laid her ears back and increased the pace. At a little distance a second obstacle showed itself, a whitethorn hedge that looked like a hurdle.
Lady Godiva scarcely seemed to touch the ground with her hoofs. Her mane and tail gleamed golden as they streamed on the mild evening breeze. A pair of quails started up from amid the ripe corn.
The mare rose on her hind legs for the jump, then made a sudden violent movement as though to avoid it. Behind the whitethorn yawned an abyss.
But the impetus of her motion carried her on, and a firm grip kept her head forwards.
Early next morning when the stone-breakers came to their work they found at the bottom of the precipice a dead woman and a dead horse.
There were no external injuries either to the animal or her rider. The force of the fall must have killed them both. The terrified eyes of the mare were staring into vacancy, but those of the woman—indeed she was but a girl—were closed, and her small delicate hands still gripped the bridle firmly.
The foreman sent a boy to inform the village-elder; the other workmen stood in a silent circle round the unfortunate pair.
"Mates," said the foreman at last, "it's quite clear there is nothing to be done. We'd better be getting back to work."
A lean, bearded man protested: "We might as well say a prayer first for the poor creature." For the stone-breakers are a pious people; they stand always with one foot in the grave. A loosened mass of chalk, a collapsing wall, a mine exploding prematurely, may threaten their lives; and the chalk-dust chokes their lungs so that they die early.
The bearded man took off his hat and began to pray. All the others bared their heads.
After the "deliver us from evil" he inserted another petition: "And grant to this poor lady, who has met with such a terrible and sudden death, Thy eternal rest, we beseech Thee, O Lord! For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen."
One only had gone back to his work, an aged man who, with trembling knees, was pushing a loaded wheelbarrow before him. He was himself too near death for the sight of a corpse to strike him as anything out of the common.
When he saw the others praying he set down his burden. His toothless mouth stammered out his words with difficulty.
"What are you praying for?" he said. "That the Lord will grant her eternal rest? Look at her, then! Isn't eternal rest written on her face?"
Reimers reached the practice-camp again when his brother-officers were at mess.
It was only on alighting from the carriage that he remembered Frommelt's commission. He was staggered a little at this neglect; but after all what did such trifles matter? He smiled to himself that he should trouble about it now.
In his own room he threw himself upon the hard camp-bed. The bare place felt stifling, although the window was wide open. The white-washed walls seemed narrowing about him, and he felt as if he would be suffocated.
He shut his eyes wearily. Then the troubled vision disappeared, and he had a feeling of freedom and deliverance, a grateful sensation of release from the limitations of matter, as though borne aloft into the unconfined regions of cosmic space.
The mounted sentry patrolling the forest passed by the window. The man had settled himself comfortably on horse-back, and his hanging bugle and accoutrements jingled. As he came near the creaking of the saddle could be heard. By degrees the sounds subsided, though the metallic tinkling was perceptible for a long time.
Perhaps, however, that gentle sound was but the prelude to some illusion of the senses.
Then voices sounded from the mess-room: the high crowing tones of Wegstetten and the mellow bass of Major Lischke, The little captain was grumbling about the food.
"No, no, major," he piped. "The mess-steward sets disgusting stuff before us, and that's the truth. Now, to-day beef and potato-soup? Pah! It was lean old cow, as tough as shoe-leather! And soup? hot water and Liebig!"
"But, my dear Wegstetten," Lischke tried to appease him, "think of the difficulties of transport! A two-hours' drive, and we're not to run up the expenses!"
Wegstetten's reply was lost in the passage.
Reimers rose quickly from the bed. He was afraid that Frommelt might seek him out, and that he would have to invent some kind of excuse.
He took his little revolver out of the drawer and examined the chamber; it was loaded with five cartridges. He had often thought of unloading the weapon, but had then said to himself: "Why? Who knows if it might not be wanted?"
He hastened down the steps of the officers' quarters and ran quickly along the camp-road to the gate. The sentry stared after him in surprise; he had not expected to have to present arms at such an hour. Then he stepped into his place beside the sentry-box, and performed the neglected salute; for so the regulations prescribed.
At a little distance from the camp Reimers moderated his pace; at last he walked quite slowly. His footsteps were hesitating, as if groping in the dark. He could not hear his tread upon the ground, and his eyes gazed into space like those of a sleep-walker. Everything seemed to him far remote: the sandy path beneath his feet, the dark forest, and the blossoming heather beside the way. And he felt strangely light, as if he were floating or flying.
Night was beginning to sink over the ruins of the deserted village. Reimers found his way among the dilapidated dwellings and into the courtyard of the big house where he had lingered the previous day.
The white roses of the creeper on the wall still glimmered faintly through the gloom. He bent aside a straggling piece of a box-tree and sat down on the broken masonry of the smoke-blackened wall. Somewhere in the corner of the ruins a screech-owl shrieked. The cry sounded quite close.
Reimers smiled. There is an old wives' superstition that where a screech-owl cries there will soon be a corpse. This time the old women would be right.
He rested his head in his hands and reflected.
Before him passed with bewildering rapidity many recollections and impressions from his life's history: vague boyish impulses; enthusiasms of youth; exalted strivings and ambitions of manhood; the disenchantments and doubts of these latter days. It was as though he had been already lifted into a clearer light, above all the errors of earthly experience.
The restless ineffectual arguing to and fro with which he had tormented himself the day before was absent from this calmer mood. What was the use of struggling against inexorable necessity? Certainly war was one of the most terrible evils to which the world had ever been subjected, and he who should deliver mankind from this curse would be a new Saviour. But when would the Messiah come? Till then one must have patience.
The nations groaned under the weight of their armaments; but none would set the example of throwing off the oppressive burden. And the German people, who seemed to furnish an object-lesson in the world's history, whose destiny had been fuller than any other of changes and contradictions—the German people, at once so large-minded and so petty, so admirable and so despicable, so strong and so weak; who had done so much for the advancement of culture, and yet were so unconscious of their great work; hated by the rest of the world, yet divided amongst themselves—the German people had least call of all to make a beginning. They must, like every other nation, look to a strong army as their safeguard.
But then came the crushing thought: that army was no longer the same that had in one famous struggle forced the whole world to unwilling admiration.
Reimers took a mournful farewell of the beloved heroes of that mighty epoch. Every name connected with it thrilled his memory: Saarbruecken, a skirmish still scarcely imbued with the gravity of war, and assuming rather the character of playful bantering provocation; Weissenburgh and Woerth, where Bavarians and North Germans met as comrades in arms; Spicheren, where a slight encounter with the rear-guard grew into a serious conflict; Metz, which cost the enemy one of his two armies in the field, and was the cause of weeping to countless German mothers; Beaumont, the prelude to the huge tragedy of Sedan; and lastly, Paris, and the grim tussle of the seasoned fighters with the young enthusiasm of the republican army of relief at Orleans, Beaune la Rolande, Le Mans, St. Quentin, and on the Lisaine. He saw the army returning from the campaign crowned with victory; and then began that steady persevering activity which, not content to rest on its laurels, proceeded with the work of strengthening and protecting what had been won.
Then he thought of the present, and, still more gravely, of the future.
A good part of that modest, quiet devotion to duty was still alive in the army; but was not the new-fangled, shallow, noisy bustle of show and glitter every day displacing the good old feeling that recognised its power without any big words? A proud self-denying asceticism had given way to trivialities and superficialities. And that in a time when such follies were more than ever dangerous!
And in proportion as the army pursued this course did disintegration go forward within its ranks. The ever-increasing spread of socialistic opinions among the men, and the growing disaffection for military service, perfected the work which was already loosening the structure from without. This army, lacking in martial ardour, and educated more for parade than for war, was rushing with blinded eyes towards its doom. The flames of annihilation already shone ahead; the heirs of Sedan's conquerors marched straight onward, firm and erect in grand ceremonial array—and the sign-posts by the way pointed to Jena.
Reimers groaned in bitter distress of mind.
Was there no salvation?
He looked around him and gazed into the blackness of night. All about him was gloom. A light breeze was blowing; it bore on its wings the scent of the blossoming heather and the resinous odour of pine-trees. And from the beds of the wasted garden arose another smell that mingled with the per fume of the breeze: the invigorating smell of the soil, of the mother-earth. It infused courage into the despairing heart of the lonely man, and elevated his drooping spirit.
The soil of their native land was the inexhaustible source from which the strength of the German people constantly renewed itself. Thanks to their love for the soil they could never utterly perish.
To this was owing the continual unconscious longing that drove the workmen out of the great cities on holidays, so that the green of woods and meadows was dotted with colour by the gay summer attire of women and children; a longing that made the lower classes crave to possess a few roods of land, if only to stand on their own soil and cultivate fruit whose flavour would be sweeter to them than any food that money could buy: the mighty living love for the soil of their native land.
And suddenly Reimers had a waking vision. He looked down upon the earth from some point of vantage. Germany lay beneath him as though viewed from the car of a balloon, with the familiar outlines pictured in the maps; yet he seemed to distinguish every roof in the cities and every tree in the woods. All parts of the country bore harvest; moors, marshes, heath-lands, had been converted into orchards, fruitful fields, or stately forests. But the extended boundaries of the large estates had vanished.
From the Baltic to the Vosges, from the marches of Schleswig to the Bavarian highlands, one peasant-farm neighboured another. The towns had grown no larger, for a new and happy race of men cultivated the soil: a lusty race, who flooded the cities with fresh vigour; a free race, loving its fatherland with a jubilant, willing, conscious love. And the sun shone down joyfully on this land of peace and plenty.
The pleasant picture vanished, and once more his eyes stared into the gloom.
From the distant camp came borne on the night wind the sound of the tattoo. He listened vaguely. Distance muffled the clear trumpet-call, and the final majestic roll of the drum was alike lost in the deep melancholy of the darkness. The tattoo. All must now go to rest. He thought of the beautiful pale woman whom he loved, who had given him one last moment of ecstatic joy in life before death claimed him.
Had she too gone to her rest?
The little weapon gave a faint report.
The screech-owl fluttered out of its cranny in the wall. With an apprehensive beat of its wings it sailed off over the deserted village and sent forth its piteous cry.
"Love of the fatherland, Love of the freeborn man,—" (German National Anthem.)
Franz Vogt had calculated that his release from prison would take place at the beginning of February. He had hoped for a clear sunshiny day, a blue winter sky, a hard frost, and crackling snow beneath his feet.
Everything turned out according to his wish; yet when the heavy prison-gates opened, Vogt never noticed the beauty of the winter day. He thought of Wolf, whom they had shot down in his attempt to escape. He himself had helped to lift the dead man, whose skull had been shattered by the shot.
Vogt was escorted back to the garrison by a sergeant. He would have had about two months more to serve, as the five months of his imprisonment were not counted; but on account of his father's death he had in any case to be given his discharge, in order that his little property might not suffer by neglect.
He had to wait a few days till all the formalities were gone through. Gunner Vogt did everything he was told punctually and obediently, though hardly with that cheerful frank readiness which had of old proved him such a good soldier. During his punishment the fresh open-hearted lad had become a gloomy, self-contained man.
One evening Kaeppchen, the clerk, who among all the changes in the battery seemed to be the only person who remained in his place, announced to him: "Vogt, your papers are made out. To-morrow you can go."
And Vogt answered him respectfully: "Very good, sir."
He was alone in Room IX. on the morning of his release, putting on his civilian clothes. The battery had gone down to the big exercise-ground for general foot-drill. He took his time over his dressing. What need was there to hurry? Nobody was waiting for him outside; and nobody would miss him here. He was quite alone in the wide world.
At the door he gave a last look round the bare barrack-room. Once these grey walls had seemed almost home-like to him; once, when the faithful Klitzing had the locker next his own. But that was long ago.
He went down the steps and out towards the back-gate, In the drill-ground the battery, just returned from exercise, was drawn up.
Vogt pulled off his hat and the captain slightly touched his cap. The greeting looked almost embarrassed.
This was a topsy-turvy world. Wegstetten's eyes chanced to rest on Gustav Weise, who was in his place in the right wing as corporal in charge of the first column. It would be unjust to complain of him; Weise did his work very well. But the captain would have preferred to see a Corporal Vogt in his stead.
In front of Weise stood Senior-lieutenant Brettschneider as leader of the first column. With his stiffened neck and proudly erect carriage he gave the impression of wishing to point out what an immense gulf separated him from the men. Between this officer and his subordinates there was no kind of sympathy.
And at that sight the commander of the battery looked still more glum. Brettschneider might have been quite brilliant at the Staff College in tactics and military history, but he was of no real use as an officer; still less could he instil into the men either military efficiency or convinced patriotism.
When Vogt arrived at the station the train he had meant to take had already gone.
Well, that couldn't be helped. He must wait for the next.
The dull February day was drawing towards its close when he stepped out upon the road that led to his native village. Joylessly he saw the familiar details of the neighbourhood appearing out of the fog, and he gave a casual, uninterested glance over the fields that bordered the highway.