And yet there was something in it that was a joy to her,—a joy which she could not define. Since her aunt had been so cruel to her, and since Peter had appeared before her as her suitor, she had told herself that she had no friend. Heretofore she had acknowledged Peter as her friend, in spite of his creaking shoes and objectionable hat. There was old custom in his favour, and he had not been unkind to her as an inmate of the same house with him. Her aunt she had loved dearly; but now her aunt's cruelty was so great that she shuddered as she thought of it. She had felt herself to be friendless. Then this young man had come to her; and though she had said to him all the hard things of which she could think because of his coming, yet—yet—yet she liked him because he had come. Was any other young man in Nuremberg so handsome? Would any other young man have taken that leap, or have gone through the river, that he might speak one word to her, even though he were to have nothing in return for the word so spoken? He had asked her to love him, and she had refused;—of course she had refused;—of course he had known that she would refuse. She would sooner have died than have told him that she loved him. But she thought she did love him—a little. She did not so love him but what she would give him up,—but what she would swear never to set eyes upon him again, if, as part of such an agreement, she might be set free from Peter Steinmarc's solicitations. That was a matter of course, because, without reference to Peter, she quite acknowledged that she was not free to have a lover of her own choice, without her aunt's consent. To give up Ludovic would be a duty,—a duty which she thought she could perform. But she would not perform it unless as part of a compact. No; let them look to it. If duty was expected from her, let duty be done to her. Then she sat thinking, and as she thought she kissed her own hand where Ludovic had kissed it.
The object of her thoughts was this;—what should she do now, when her aunt came home? Were she at once to tell her aunt all that had occurred, that comparison which she had made between herself and the Heisse girls, so much to her own disfavour, would not be a true comparison. In that case she would have received no clandestine young man. It could not be imputed to her as a fault,—at any rate not imputed by the justice of heaven,—that Ludovic Valcarm had jumped out of a boat and got in at the window. She could put herself right, at any rate, before any just tribunal, simply by telling the story truly and immediately. "Aunt Charlotte, Ludovic Valcarm has been here. He jumped out of a boat, and got in at the window, and followed me into the kitchen, and kissed my hand, and swore he loved me, and then he scrambled back through the river. I couldn't help it;—and now you know all about it." The telling of such a tale as that would, she thought, be the only way of making herself quite right before a just tribunal. But she felt, as she tried the telling of it to herself, that the task would be very difficult. And then her aunt would only half believe her, and would turn the facts, joined, as they would be, with her own unbelief, into additional grounds for urging on this marriage with Peter Steinmarc. How can one plead one's cause justly before a tribunal which is manifestly unjust,—which is determined to do injustice?
Moreover, was she not bound to secrecy? Had not secrecy been implied in that forgiveness which she had promised to Ludovic as the condition of his going? He had accepted the condition and gone. After that, would she not be treacherous to betray him? Why was it that at this moment it seemed to her that treachery to him,—to him who had treated her with such arrogant audacity,—would be of all guilt the most guilty? It was true that she could not put herself right without telling of him; and not to put herself right in this extremity would be to fall into so deep a depth of wrong! But any injury to herself would now be better than treachery to him. Had he not risked much in order that he might speak to her that one word of love? But, for all that, she did not make up her mind for a time. She must be governed by things as they went.
Tetchen came home first, and to Tetchen, Linda was determined that she would say not a word. That Tetchen was in communication with young Valcarm she did not doubt, but she would not tell the servant what had been the result of her wickedness. When Tetchen came in, Linda was in the kitchen, but she went at once into the parlour, and there awaited her aunt. Tetchen had bustled in, in high good-humour, and had at once gone to work to prepare for the Sunday dinner. "Mr. Peter is to dine with you to-day, Linda," she had said; "your aunt thinks there is nothing like making one family of it." Linda had left the kitchen without speaking a word, but she had fully understood the importance of the domestic arrangement which Tetchen had announced. No stranger ever dined at her aunt's table; and certainly her aunt would have asked no guest to do so on a Sunday but one whom she intended to regard as a part of her own household. Peter Steinmarc was to be one of them, and therefore might be allowed to eat his dinner with them even on the Sabbath.
Between two and three her aunt came in, and Peter was with her. As was usual on Sundays, Madame Staubach was very weary, and, till the dinner was served, was unable to do much in the way of talking. Peter went up into his own room to put away his hat and umbrella, and then, if ever, would have been the moment for Linda to have told her story. But she did not tell it then. Her aunt was leaning back in her accustomed chair, with her eyes closed, as was often her wont, and Linda knew that her thoughts were far away, wandering in another world, of which she was ever thinking, living in a dream of bliss with singing angels,—but not all happy, not all sure, because of the danger that must intervene. Linda could not break in, at such a time as this, with her story of the young man and his wild leap from the boat.
And certainly she would not tell her story before Peter Steinmarc. It should go untold to her dying day before she would whisper a word of it in his presence. When they sat round the table, the aunt was very kind in her manner to Linda. She had asked after her headache, as though nothing doubting the fact of the ailment; and when Linda had said that she had been able to rise almost as soon as her aunt had left the house, Madame Staubach expressed no displeasure. When the dinner was over, Peter was allowed to light his pipe, and Madame Staubach either slept or appeared to sleep. Linda seated herself in the furthest corner of the room, and kept her eyes fixed upon a book. Peter sat and smoked with his eyes closed, and his great big shoes stuck out before him. In this way they remained for an hour. Then Peter got up, and expressed his intention of going out for a stroll in the Nonnen Garten. Now the Nonnen Garten was close to the house,—to be reached by a bridge across the river, not fifty yards from Jacob Heisse's door. Would Linda go with him? But Linda declined.
"You had better, my dear," said Madame Staubach, seeming to awake from her sleep. "The air will do you good."
"Do, Linda," said Peter; and then he intended to be very gracious in what he added. "I will not say a word to tease you, but just take you out, and bring you back again."
"I am sure, it being the Sabbath, he would say nothing of his hopes to-day," said Madame Staubach.
"Not a word," said Peter, lifting up one hand in token of his positive assurance.
But, even so assured, Linda would not go with him, and the town-clerk went off alone. Now, again, had come the time in which Linda could tell the tale. It must certainly be told now or never. Were she to tell it now she could easily explain why she had been silent so long; but were she not to tell it now, such explanation would ever afterwards be impossible. "Linda, dear, will you read to me," said her aunt. Then Linda took up the great Bible. "Turn to the eighth and ninth chapters of Isaiah, my child." Linda did as she was bidden, and read the two chapters indicated. After that, there was silence for a few minutes, and then the aunt spoke. "Linda, my child."
"Yes, aunt Charlotte."
"I do not think you would willingly be false to me." Then Linda turned away her face, and was silent. "It is not that the offence to me would be great, who am, as we all are, a poor weak misguided creature; but that the sin against the Lord is so great, seeing that He has placed me here as your guide and protector." Linda made no promise in answer to this, but even then she did not tell the tale. How could she have told it at such a moment? But the tale must now go untold for ever!
A week passed by, and Linda Tressel heard nothing of Ludovic, and began at last to hope that that terrible episode of the young man's visit to her might be allowed to be as though it had never been. A week passed by, during every day of which Linda had feared and had half expected to hear some question from her aunt which would nearly crush her to the ground. But no such question had been asked, and, for aught that Linda knew, no one but she and Ludovic were aware of the wonderful jump that had been made out of the boat on to the island. And during this week little, almost nothing, was said to her in reference to the courtship of Peter Steinmarc. Peter himself spoke never a word; and Madame Staubach had merely said, in reference to certain pipes of tobacco which were smoked by the town-clerk in Madame Staubach's parlour, and which would heretofore have been smoked in the town-clerk's own room, that it was well that Peter should learn to make himself at home with them. Linda had said nothing in reply, but had sworn inwardly that she would never make herself at home with Peter Steinmarc.
In spite of the pipes of tobacco, Linda was beginning to hope that she might even yet escape from her double peril, and, perhaps, was beginning to have hope even beyond that, when she was suddenly shaken in her security by words which were spoken to her by Fanny Heisse. "Linda," said Fanny, running over to the gate of Madame Staubach's house, very early on one bright summer morning, "Linda, it is to be to-morrow! And will you not come?"
"No, dear; we never go out here: we are so sad and solemn that we know nothing of gaiety."
"You need not be solemn unless you like it."
"I don't know but what I do like it, Fanny; I have become so used to it that I am as grave as an owl."
"That comes of having an old lover, Linda."
"I have not got an old lover," said Linda, petulantly.
"You have got a young one, at any rate."
"What do you mean, Fanny?"
"What do I mean? Just what I say. You know very well what I mean. Who was it jumped over the river that Sunday morning, my dear? I know all about it." Then there came across Linda's face a look of extreme pain,—a look of anguish; and Fanny Heisse could see that her friend was greatly moved by what she had said. "You don't suppose that I shall tell any one," she added.
"I should not mind anything being told if all could be told," said Linda.
"But he did come,—did he not?" Linda merely nodded her head. "Yes; I knew that he came when your aunt was at church, and Tetchen was out, and Herr Steinmarc was out. Is it not a pity that he should be such a ne'er-do-well?"
"Do you think that I am a ne'er-do-well, Fanny?"
"No indeed; but, Linda, I will tell you what I have always thought about young men. They are very nice, and all that; and when old croaking hunkses have told me that I should have nothing to say to them, I have always answered that I meant to have as much to say to them as possible; but it is like eating good things;—everybody likes eating good things, but one feels ashamed of doing it in secret."
This was a terrible blow to poor Linda. "But I don't like doing it," she answered. "It wasn't my fault. I did not bid him come."
"One never does bid them to come; I mean not till one has taken up with a fellow as a lover outright. Then you bid them, and sometimes they won't come for your bidding."
"I would have given anything in the world to have prevented his doing what he did. I never mean to speak to him again,—if I can help it."
"I suppose you think I expected him, because I stayed at home alone?"
"Well,—I did think that possibly you expected something."
"I would have gone to church with my aunt though my head was splitting had I thought that Herr Valcarm would have come here while she was away."
"Mind I have not blamed you. It is a great shame to give a girl an old lover like Peter Steinmarc, and ask her to marry him. I wouldn't have married Peter Steinmarc for all the uncles and all the aunts in creation; nor yet for father,—though father would never have thought of such a thing. I think a girl should choose a lover for herself, though how she is to do so if she is to be kept moping at home always, I cannot tell. If I were treated as you are I think I should ask somebody to jump over the river to me."
"I have asked nobody. But, Fanny, how did you know it?"
"A little bird saw him."
"But, Fanny, do tell me."
"Max saw him get across the river with his own eyes." Max Bogen was the happy man who on the morrow was to make Fanny Heisse his wife.
"Heavens and earth!"
"But, Linda, you need not be afraid of Max. Of all men in the world he is the very last to tell tales."
"Fanny, if ever you whisper a word of this to any one, I will never speak to you again."
"Of course, I shall not whisper it."
"I cannot explain to you all about it,—how it would ruin me. I think I should kill myself outright if my aunt were to know it; and yet I did nothing wrong. I would not encourage a man to come to me in that way for all the world; but I could not help his coming. I got myself into the kitchen; but when I found that he was in the house I thought it would be better to open the door and speak to him."
"Very much better. I would have slapped his face. A lover should know when to come and when to stay away."
"I was ashamed to think that I did not dare to speak to him, and so I opened the door. I was very angry with him."
"But still, perhaps, you like him,—just a little; is not that true, Linda?"
"I do not know; but this I know, I do not want ever to see him again."
"Come, Linda; never is a long time."
"Let it be ever so long, what I say is true."
"The worst of Ludovic is that he is a ne'er-do-well. He spends more money than he earns, and he is one of those wild spirits who are always making up some plan of politics—who live with one foot inside the State prison, as it were. I like a lover to be gay, and all that; but it is not well to have one's young man carried off and locked up by the burgomasters. But, Linda, do not be unhappy. Be sure that I shall not tell; and as for Max Bogen, his tongue is not his own. I should like to hear him say a word about such a thing when I tell him to be silent."
Linda believed her friend, but still it was a great trouble to her that any one should know what Ludovic Valcarm had done on that Sunday morning. As she thought of it all, it seemed to her to be almost impossible that a secret should remain a secret that was known to three persons,—for she was sure that Tetchen knew it,—to three persons besides those immediately concerned. She thought of her aunt's words to her, when Madame Staubach had cautioned her against deceit, "I do not think that you would willingly be false to me, because the sin against the Lord would be so great." Linda had understood well how much had been meant by this caution. Her aunt had groaned over her in spirit once, when she found it to be a fact that Ludovic Valcarm had been allowed to speak to her,—had been allowed to speak though it were but a dozen words. The dozen words had been spoken and had not been revealed, and Madame Staubach having heard of this sin, had groaned in the spirit heavily. How much deeper would be her groans if she should come to know that Ludovic had been received in her absence, had been received on a Sabbath morning, when her niece was feigning to be ill! Linda still fancied that her aunt might believe her if she were to tell her own story, but she was certain that her aunt would never believe her if the story were to be told by another. In that case there would be nothing for her, Linda, but perpetual war; and, as she thought, perpetual disgrace. As her aunt would in such circumstances range her forces on the side of propriety, so must she range hers on the side of impropriety. It would become necessary that she should surrender herself, as it were, to Satan; that she should make up her mind for an evil life; that she should cut altogether the cord which bound her to the rigid practices of her present mode of living. Her aunt had once asked her if she meant to be the light-of-love of this young man. Linda had well known what her aunt had meant, and had felt deep offence; but yet she now thought that she could foresee a state of things in which, though that degradation might yet be impossible, the infamy of such degradation would belong to her. She did not know how to protect herself from all this, unless she did so by telling her aunt of the young man's visit.
But were she to do so she must accompany her tale by the strongest assurance that no possible consideration would induce her to marry Peter Steinmarc. There must then be a compact, as has before been said, that the name neither of one man nor the other should ever again be mentioned as that of Linda's future husband. But would her aunt agree to such a compact? Would she not rather so use the story that would be told to her, as to draw from it additional reasons for pressing Peter's suit? The odious man still smoked his pipes of tobacco in Madame Staubach's parlour, gradually learning to make himself at home there. Linda, as she thought of this, became grave, settled, and almost ferocious in the working of her mind. Anything would be better than this,—even the degradation to be feared from hard tongues, and from the evil report of virtuous women. As she pictured to herself Peter Steinmarc with his big feet, and his straggling hairs, and his old hat, and his constant pipe, almost any lot in life seemed to her to be better than that. Any lot in death would certainly be better than that. No! If she told her story there must be a compact. And if her aunt would consent to no compact, then,—then she must give herself over to the Evil One. In that case there would be no possible friend for her, no ally available to her in her difficulties, but that one. In that case, even though Ludovic should have both feet within the State prison, he must be all in all to her, and she,—if possible,—all in all to him.
Then she was driven to ask herself some questions as to her feelings towards Ludovic Valcarm. Hitherto she had endeavoured to comfort herself with the reflection that she had in no degree committed herself. She had not even confessed to herself that she loved the man. She had never spoken,—she thought that she had never spoken a word, that could be taken by him as encouragement. But yet, as things were going with her now, she passed no waking hour without thinking of him; and in her sleeping hours he came to her in her dreams. Ah, how often he leaped over that river, beautifully, like an angel, and, running to her in her difficulties, dispersed all her troubles by the beauty of his presence. But then the scene would change, and he would become a fiend instead of a god, or a fallen angel; and at these moments it would become her fate to be carried off with him into uttermost darkness. But even in her saddest dreams she was never inclined to stand before the table in the church and vow that she would be the loving wife of Peter Steinmarc. Whenever in her dreams such a vow was made, the promise was always given to that ne'er-do-well.
Of course she loved the man. She came to know it as a fact, to be quite sure that she loved him, without reaching any moment in which she first made the confession openly to herself. She knew that she loved him. Had she not loved him, would she have so easily forgiven him,—so easily have told him that he was forgiven? Had she not loved him, would not her aunt have heard the whole story from her on that Sunday evening, even though the two chapters of Isaiah had been left unread in order that she might tell it? Perhaps, after all, the compact of which she had been thinking might be more difficult to her than she had imagined. If the story of Ludovic's coming could be kept from her aunt's ears, it might even yet be possible to her to keep Steinmarc at a distance without any compact. One thing was certain to her. He should be kept at a distance, either with or without a compact.
Days went on, and Fanny Heisse was married, and all probability of telling the story was at an end. Madame Staubach had asked her niece why she did not go to her friend's wedding, but Linda had made no answer,—had shaken her head as though in anger. What business had her aunt to ask her why she did not make one of a gay assemblage, while everything was being done to banish all feeling of gaiety from her life? How could there be any pleasant thought in her mind while Peter Steinmarc still smoked his pipes in their front parlour? Her aunt understood this, and did not press the question of the wedding party. But, after so long an interval, she did find it necessary to press that other question of Peter's courtship. It was now nearly a month since the matter had first been opened to Linda, and Madame Staubach was resolved that the thing should be settled before the autumn was over. "Linda," she said one day, "has Peter Steinmarc spoken to you lately?"
"Has he spoken to me, aunt Charlotte?"
"You know what I mean, Linda."
"No, he has not—spoken to me. I do not mean that he should—speak to me." Linda, as she made this answer, put on a hard stubborn look, such as her aunt did not know that she had ever before seen upon her countenance. But if Linda was resolved, so also was Madame Staubach.
"My dear," said the aunt, "I do not know what to think of such an answer. Herr Steinmarc has a right to speak if he pleases, and certainly so when that which he says is said with my full concurrence."
"I can't allow you to think that I shall ever be his wife. That is all."
After this there was silence for some minutes, and then Madame Staubach spoke again. "My dear, have you thought at all about—marriage?"
"Not much, aunt Charlotte."
"I daresay not, Linda; and yet it is a subject on which a young woman should think much before she either accepts or rejects a proposed husband."
"It is enough to know that one doesn't like a man."
"No, that is not enough. You should examine the causes of your dislike. And as far as mere dislike goes, you should get over it, if it be unjust. You ought to do that, whoever may be the person in question."
"But it is not mere dislike."
"What do you mean, Linda?"
"It is disgust."
"Linda, that is very wicked. You should not allow yourself to feel what you call disgust at any of God's creatures. Have you ever thought who made Herr Steinmarc?"
"God made Judas Iscariot, aunt Charlotte."
"Linda, that is profane,—very profane." Then there was silence between them again; and Linda would have remained silent had her aunt permitted it. She had been called profane, but she disregarded that, having, as she thought, got the better of her aunt in the argument as to disgust felt for any of God's creatures. But Madame Staubach had still much to say. "I was asking you whether you had thought at all about marriage, and you told me that you had not."
"I have thought that I could not possibly—under any circumstances—marry Peter Steinmarc."
"Linda, will you let me speak? Marriage is a very solemn thing."
"Very solemn indeed, aunt Charlotte."
"In the first place, it is the manner in which the all-wise Creator has thought fit to make the weaker vessel subject to the stronger one." Linda said nothing, but thought that that old town-clerk was not a vessel strong enough to hold her in subjection. "It is this which a woman should bring home to herself, Linda, when she first thinks of marriage."
"Of course I should think of it, if I were going to be married."
"Young women too often allow themselves to imagine that wedlock should mean pleasure and diversion. Instead of that it is simply the entering into that state of life in which a woman can best do her duty here below. All life here must be painful, full of toil, and moistened with many tears." Linda was partly prepared to acknowledge the truth of this teaching; but she thought that there was a great difference in the bitterness of tears. Were she to marry Ludovic Valcarm, her tears with him would doubtless be very bitter, but no tears could be so bitter as those which she would be called upon to shed as the wife of Peter Steinmarc. "Of course," continued Madame Staubach, "a wife should love her husband."
"But I could not love Peter Steinmarc."
"Will you listen to me? How can you understand me if you will not listen to me? A wife should love her husband. But young women, such as I see them to be, because they have been so instructed, want to have something soft and delicate; a creature without a single serious thought, who is chosen because his cheek is red and his hair is soft; because he can dance, and speak vain, meaningless words; because he makes love, as the foolish parlance of the world goes. And we see what comes of such lovemaking. Oh, Linda! God forbid that you should fall into that snare! If you will think of it, what is it but harlotry?"
"Aunt Charlotte, do not say such horrible things."
"A woman when she becomes a man's wife should see, above all things, that she is not tempted by the devil after this fashion. Remember, Linda, how he goeth about,—ever after our souls,—like a roaring lion. And it is in this way specially that he goeth about after the souls of young women."
"But why do you say those things to me?"
"It is to you only that I can say them. I would so speak to all young women, if it were given me to speak to more than to one. You talk of love."
"No, aunt; never. I do not talk—of love."
"Young women do, and think of it, not knowing what love for their husband should mean. A woman should revere her husband and obey him, and be subject to him in everything." Was it supposed, Linda thought, that she should revere such a being as Peter Steinmarc? What could be her aunt's idea of reverence? "If she does that, she will love him also."
"Yes,—if she does," said Linda.
"And will not this be much more likely, if the husband be older than his wife?"
"A year or two," said Linda, timidly.
"Not a year or two only, but so much so as to make him graver and wiser, and fit to be in command over her. Will not the woman so ruled be safer than she who trusts herself with one who is perhaps as weak and inexperienced as herself?" Madame Staubach paused, but Linda would not answer the question. She did not wish for such security as was here proposed to her. "Is it not that of which you have to think,—your safety here, so that, if possible, you may be safe hereafter?" Linda answered this to herself, within her own bosom. Not for security here or hereafter, even were such to be found by such means, would she consent to become the wife of the man proposed to her. Madame Staubach, finding that no spoken reply was given to her questions, at last proceeded from generalities to the special case which she had under her consideration. "Linda," she said, "I trust you will consent to become the wife of this excellent man." Linda's face became very hard, but still she said nothing. "The danger of which I have spoken is close upon you. You must feel it to be so. A youth, perhaps the most notorious in all Nuremberg for wickedness—"
"No, aunt; no."
"I say yes; and this youth is spoken of openly as your lover."
"No one has a right to say so."
"It is said, and he has so addressed himself to your own ears. You have confessed it. Tell me that you will do as I would have you, and then I shall know that you are safe. Then I will trust you in everything, for I shall be sure that it will be well with you. Linda, shall it be so?"
"It shall not be so, aunt Charlotte."
"Is it thus you answer me?"
"Nothing shall make me marry a man whom I hate."
"Hate him! Oh, Linda."
"Nothing shall make me marry a man whom I cannot love."
"You fancy, then, that you love that reprobate?" Linda was silent. "Is it so? Tell me. I have a right to demand an answer to that question."
"I do love him," said Linda. Using the moment for reflection allowed to her as best she could, she thought that she saw the best means of escape in this avowal. Surely her aunt would not press her to marry one man when she had declared that she loved another.
"Then, indeed, you are a castaway."
"I am no castaway, aunt Charlotte," said Linda, rising to her feet. "Nor will I remain here, even with you, to be so called. I have done nothing to deserve it. If you will cease to press upon me this odious scheme, I will do nothing to disgrace either myself or you; but if I am perplexed by Herr Steinmarc and his suit, I will not answer for the consequences." Then she turned her back upon her aunt and walked slowly out of the room.
On that very evening Peter came to Linda while she was standing alone at the kitchen window. Tetchen was out of the house, and Linda had escaped from the parlour as soon as the hour arrived at which in those days Steinmarc was wont to seat himself in her aunt's presence and slowly light his huge meerschaum pipe. But on this occasion he followed her into the kitchen, and Linda was aware that this was done before her aunt had had any opportunity of explaining to him what had occurred on that morning. "Fraulein," he said, "as you are alone here, I have ventured to come in and join you."
"This is no proper place for you, Herr Steinmarc," she replied. Now, it was certainly the case that Peter rarely passed a day without standing for some twenty minutes before the kitchen stove talking to Tetchen. Here he would always take off his boots when they were wet, and here, on more than one occasion,—on more, probably, than fifty,—had he sat and smoked his pipe, when there was no other stove a-light in the house to comfort him with its warmth. Linda, therefore, had no strong point in her favour when she pointed out to her suitor that he was wrong to intrude upon the kitchen.
"Wherever you are, must be good for me," said Peter, trying to smirk and to look pleased.
Linda was determined to silence him, even if she could not silence her aunt. "Herr Steinmarc," she said, "I have explained to my aunt that this kind of thing from you must cease. It must be made to cease. If you are a man you will not persecute me by a proposal which I have told you already is altogether out of the question. If there were not another man in all Nuremberg, I would not have you. You may perhaps make me hate you worse than anybody in the world; but you cannot possibly do anything else. Go to my aunt and you will find that I have told her the same." Then she walked off to her own bedroom, leaving the town-clerk in sole possession of the kitchen.
Peter Steinmarc, when he was left standing alone in the kitchen, did not like his position. He was a man not endowed with much persuasive gift of words, but he had a certain strength of his own. He had a will, and some firmness in pursuing the thing which he desired. He was industrious, patient, and honest with a sort of second-class honesty. He liked to earn what he took, though he had a strong bias towards believing that he had earned whatever in any way he might have taken, and after the same fashion he was true with a second-class truth. He was unwilling to deceive; but he was usually able to make himself believe that that which would have been deceit from another to him, was not deceit from him to another. He was friendly in his nature to a certain degree, understanding that good offices to him-wards could not be expected unless he also was prepared to do good offices to others; but on this matter he kept an accurate mental account-sheet, on which he strove hard to be able to write the balance always on the right side. He was not cruel by nature, but he had no tenderness of heart and no delicacy of perception. He could forgive an offence against his comfort, as when Tetchen would burn his soup; or even against his pocket, as when, after many struggles, he would be unable to enforce the payment of some municipal fee. But he was vain, and could not forgive an offence against his person. Linda had previously told him to his face that he was old, and had with premeditated malice and falsehood exaggerated his age. Now she threatened him with her hatred. If he persevered in asking her to be his wife, she would hate him! He, too, began to hate her; but his hatred was unconscious, a thing of which he was himself unaware, and he still purposed that she should be his wife. He would break her spirit, and bring her to his feet, and punish her with a life-long punishment for saying that he was sixty, when, as she well knew, he was only fifty-two. She should beg for his love,—she who had threatened him with her hatred! And if she held out against him, he would lead her such a life, by means of tales told to Madame Staubach, that she should gladly accept any change as a release. He never thought of the misery that might be forthcoming to himself in the possession of a young wife procured after such a fashion. A man requires some power of imagination to enable him to look forward to the circumstances of an untried existence, and Peter Steinmarc was not an imaginative man.
But he was a thoughtful man, cunning withal, and conscious that various resources might be necessary to him. There was a certain packer of casks, named Stobe, in the employment of the brewers who owned the warehouse opposite, and Stobe was often to be seen on the other side of the river in the Ruden Platz. With this man Steinmarc had made an acquaintance, not at first with any reference to Linda Tressel, but because he was desirous of having some private information as to the doings of his relative Ludovic Valcarm. From Stobe, however, he had received the first intimation of Ludovic's passion for Linda; and now on this very evening of which we are speaking, he obtained further information,—which shocked him, frightened him, pained him exceedingly, and yet gave him keen gratification. Stobe also had seen the leap out of the boat, and the rush through the river; and when, late on that evening, Peter Steinmarc, sore with the rebuff which he had received from Linda, pottered over to the Ruden Platz, thinking that it would be well that he should be very cunning, that he should have a spy with his eye always open, that he should learn everything that could be learned by one who might watch the red house, and watch Ludovic also, he learned, all of a sudden, by the speech of a moment, that Ludovic Valcarm had, on that Sunday morning, paid his wonderful visit to the island.
"So you mean that you saw him?" said Peter.
"With my own eyes," said Stobe, who had his reasons, beyond Peter's moderate bribes, for wishing to do an evil turn to Ludovic. "And I saw her at the parlour window, watching him, when he came back through the water."
"How long was he with her?" asked Peter, groaning, but yet exultant.
"A matter of half an hour; not less anyways."
"It was two Sundays since," said Peter, remembering well the morning on which Linda had declined to go to church because of her headache.
"I remember it well. It was the feast of St. Lawrence," said Stobe, who was a Roman Catholic, and mindful of the festivals of his Church.
Peter tarried for no further discourse with the brewer's man, but hurried back again, round by the bridge, to the red house. As he went he applied his mind firmly to the task of resolving what he would do. He might probably take the most severe revenge on Linda, the revenge which should for the moment be the most severe, by summoning her to the presence of her aunt, by there exposing her vile iniquity, and by there declaring that it was out of the question that a man so respectable as he should contaminate himself by marrying so vile a creature. But were he to do this Linda would never be in his power, and the red house would never be in his possession. Moreover, though he continued to tell himself that Linda was vile, though he was prepared to swear to her villany, he did not in truth believe that she had done anything disgraceful. That she had seen her lover he did not doubt; but that, in Peter's own estimation, was a thing to be expected. He must, no doubt, on this occasion pretend to view the matter with the eyes of Madame Staubach. In punishing Linda, he would so view it. But he thought that, upon the whole bearing of the case, it would not be incumbent upon his dignity to abandon for ever his bride and his bride's property, because she had been indiscreet. He would marry her still. But before he did so he would let her know how thoroughly she was in his power, and how much she would owe to him if he now took her to his bosom. The point on which he could not at once quite make up his mind was this: Should he tell Madame Staubach first, or should he endeavour to use the power over Linda, which his knowledge gave him, by threats to her? Might he not say to her with much strength, "Give way to me at once, or I will reveal to your aunt this story of your vileness"? This no doubt would be the best course, could he trust in its success. But, should it not succeed, he would then have injured his position. He was afraid that Linda would be too high-spirited, too obstinate, and he resolved that his safest course would be to tell everything at once to Madame Staubach.
As he passed between the back of Jacob Heisse's house and the river he saw the upholsterer's ruddy face looking out from an open window belonging to his workshop. "Good evening, Peter," said Jacob Heisse. "I hope the ladies are well."
"Pretty well, I thank you," said Peter, as he was hurrying by.
"Tell Linda that we take it amiss that she did not come to our girl's wedding. The truth is, Peter, you keep her too much moped up there among you. You should remember, Peter, that too much work makes Jack a dull boy. Linda will give you all the slip some day, if she be kept so tight in hand."
Peter muttered something as he passed on to the red house. Linda would give them the slip, would she? It was not improbable, he thought, that she should try to do so, but he would keep such a watch on her that it should be very difficult, and the widow should watch as closely as he would do. Give them the slip! Yes; that might be possible, and therefore he would lose no time.
When he entered the house he walked at once up to Madame Staubach's parlour, and entered it without any of that ceremony of knocking that was usual to him. It was not that he intended to put all ceremony aside, but that in his eager haste he forgot his usual precaution. When he entered the room Linda was there with her aunt, and he had again to turn the whole subject over in his thoughts. Should he tell his tale in Linda's presence or behind her back? It gradually became apparent to him that he could not possibly tell it before her face; but he did not arrive at this conclusion without delay, and the minutes which were so occupied were full of agony. He seated himself in his accustomed chair, and looked from the aunt to the niece and then from the niece to the aunt. Give him the slip, would she? Well, perhaps she would. But she should be very clever if she did.
"I thought you would have been in earlier, Peter," said Madame Staubach.
"I was coming, but I saw the fraulein in the kitchen, and I ventured to speak a word or two there. The reception which I received drove me away."
"Linda, what is this?"
"I did not think, aunt, that the kitchen was the proper place for him."
"Any room in this house is the proper place for him," said Madame Staubach, in her enthusiasm. Linda was silent, and Peter replied to this expression of hospitality simply by a grateful nod. "I will not have you give yourself airs, Linda," continued Madame Staubach. "The kitchen not a proper place! What harm could Peter do in the kitchen?"
"He tormented me, so I left him. When he torments me I shall always leave him." Then Linda got up and stalked out of the room. Her aunt called her more than once, but she would not return. Her life was becoming so heavy to her, that it was impossible that she should continue to endure it. She went up now to her room, and looking out of the window fixed her eyes upon the low stone archway in which she had more than once seen Ludovic Valcarm. But he was not there now. She knew, indeed, that he was not in Nuremberg. Tetchen had told her that he had gone to Augsburg,—on pretence of business connected with the brewery, Tetchen had said, but in truth with reference to some diabolical political scheme as to which Tetchen expressed a strong opinion that all who dabbled in it were children of the very devil. But though Ludovic was not in Nuremberg, Linda stood looking at the archway for more than half an hour, considering the circumstances of her life, and planning, if it might be possible to plan, some future scheme of existence. To live under the upas-tree of Peter Steinmarc's courtship would be impossible to her. But how should she avoid it? As she thought of this, her eyes were continually fixed on the low archway. Why did not he come out from it and give her some counsel as to the future? There she stood looking out of the window till she was called by her aunt's voice—"Linda, Linda, come down to me." Her aunt's voice was very solemn, almost as though it came from the grave; but then solemnity was common to her aunt, and Linda, as she descended, had not on her mind any special fear.
When she reached the parlour Madame Staubach was alone there, standing in the middle of the room. For a moment or two after she entered, the widow stood there without speaking, and then Linda knew that there was cause for fear. "Did you want me, aunt Charlotte?" she said.
"Linda, what were you doing on the morning of the Sabbath before the last, when I went to church alone, leaving you in bed?"
Linda was well aware now that her aunt knew it all, and was aware also that Steinmarc had been the informer. No idea of denying the truth of the story or of concealing anything, crossed her mind for a moment. She was quite prepared to tell everything now, feeling no doubt but that everything had been told. There was no longer a hope that she should recover her aunt's affectionate good-will. But in what words was she to tell her tale? That was now her immediate difficulty. Her aunt was standing before her, hard, stern, and cruel, expecting an answer to her question. How was that answer to be made on the spur of the moment?
"I did nothing, aunt Charlotte. A man came here while you were absent."
"Ludovic Valcarm." They were both standing, each looking the other full in the face. On Madame Staubach's countenance there was written a degree of indignation and angry shame which seemed to threaten utter repudiation of her niece. On Linda's was written a resolution to bear it all without flinching. She had no hope now with her aunt,—no other hope than that of being able to endure. For some moments neither of them spoke, and then Linda, finding it difficult to support her aunt's continued gaze, commenced her defence. "The young man came when I was alone, and made his way into the house when the door was bolted. I had locked myself into the kitchen; but when I heard his voice I opened the door, thinking that it did not become me to be afraid of his presence."
"Why did you not tell me,—at once?" Linda made no immediate reply to this question; but when Madame Staubach repeated it, she was obliged to answer.
"I told him that if he would go, I would forgive him. Then he went, and I thought that I was bound by my promise to be silent."
Madame Staubach having heard this, turned round slowly, and walked to the window, leaving Linda in the middle of the room. There she stood for perhaps half a minute, and then came slowly back again. Linda had remained where she was, without stirring a limb; but her mind had been active, and she had determined that she would submit in silence to no rebukes. Any commands from her aunt, save one, she would endeavour to obey; but from all accusations as to impropriety of conduct she would defend herself with unabashed spirit. Her aunt came up close to her; and, putting out one hand, with the palm turned towards her, raising it as high as her shoulder, seemed to wave her away. "Linda," said Madame Staubach, "you are a castaway."
"I am no castaway, aunt Charlotte," said Linda, almost jumping from her feet, and screaming in her self-defence.
"You will not frighten me by your wicked violence. You have—lied to me;—have lied to me. Yes; and that after all that I said to you as to the heinousness of such wickedness. Linda, it is my belief that you knew that he was coming when you kept your bed on that Sabbath morning."
"If you choose to have such thoughts of me in your heart, aunt Charlotte, I cannot help it. I knew nothing of his coming. I would have given all I had to prevent it. Yes,—though his coming could do me no real harm. My good name is more precious to me than anything short of my self-esteem. Nothing even that you can say shall rob me of that."
Madame Staubach was almost shaken by the girl's firmness,—by that, and by her own true affection for the sinner. In her bosom, what remained of the softness of womanhood was struggling with the hardness of the religious martinet, and with the wilfulness of the domestic tyrant. She had promised to Steinmarc that she would be very stern. Steinmarc had pointed out to her that nothing but the hardest severity could be of avail. He, in telling his story, had taken it for granted that Linda had expected her lover, had remained at home on purpose that she might receive her lover, and had lived a life of deceit with her aunt for months past. When Madame Staubach had suggested that the young man's coming might have been accidental, he had treated the idea with ridicule. He, as the girl's injured suitor, was, he declared, obliged to treat such a suggestion as altogether incredible, although he was willing to pardon the injury done to him, if a course of intense severity and discipline were at once adopted, and if this were followed by repentance which to him should appear to be sincere. When he took this high ground, as a man having authority, and as one who knew the world, he had carried Madame Staubach with him, and she had not ventured to say a word in excuse for her niece. She had promised that the severity should be at any rate forthcoming, and, if possible, the discipline. As for the repentance, that, she said meekly, must be left in the hands of God. "Ah!" said Peter, in his bitterness, "I would make her repent in sackcloth and ashes!" Then Madame Staubach had again promised that the sackcloth and ashes should be there. She remembered all this as she thought of relenting,—as she perceived that to relent would be sweet to her, and she made herself rigid with fresh resolves. If the man's coming had been accidental, why had not the story been told to her? She could understand nothing of that forgiveness of which Linda had spoken; and had not Linda confessed that she loved this man? Would she not rather have hated him who had so intruded upon her, had there been real intrusion in the visit?
"You have done that," she said, "which would destroy the character of any girl in Nuremberg."
"If you mean, aunt Charlotte, that the thing which has happened would destroy the character of any girl in Nuremberg, it may perhaps be true. If so, I am very unfortunate."
"Have you not told me that you love him?"
"I do;—I do;—I do! One cannot help one's love. To love as I do is another misfortune. There is nothing but misery around me. You have heard the whole truth now, and you may as well spare me further rebuke."
"Do you not know how such misery should be met?" Linda shook her head. "Have you prayed to be forgiven this terrible sin?"
"What sin?" said Linda, again almost screaming in her energy.
"The terrible sin of receiving this man in the absence of your friends."
"It was no sin. I am sinful, I know,—very; no one perhaps more so. But there was no sin there. Could I help his coming? Aunt Charlotte, if you do not believe me about this, it is better that we should never speak to each again. If so, we must live apart."
"How can that be? We cannot rid ourselves of each other."
"I will go anywhere,—into service, away from Nuremberg,—where you will. But I will not be told that I am a liar."
And yet Madame Staubach was sure that Linda had lied. She thought that she was sure. And if so,—if it were the case that this young woman had planned an infamous scheme for receiving her lover on a Sunday morning;—the fact that it was on a Sunday morning, and that the hour of the Church service had been used, greatly enhanced the atrocity of the sin in the estimation of Madame Staubach;—if the young woman had intrigued in order that her lover might come to her, of course she would intrigue again. In spite of Linda's solemn protestation as to her self-esteem, the thing would be going on. This infamous young man, who, in Madame Staubach's eyes, was beginning to take the proportions of the Evil One himself, would be coming there beneath her very nose. It seemed to her that life would be impossible to her, unless Linda would consent to be married to the respectable suitor who was still willing to receive her; and that the only way in which to exact that consent would be to insist on the degradation to which Linda had subjected herself. Linda had talked of going into service. Let her go into that service which was now offered to her by those whom she was bound to obey. "Of course Herr Steinmarc knows it all," said Madame Staubach.
"I do not regard in the least what Herr Steinmarc knows," replied Linda.
"But he is still willing to overlook the impropriety of your conduct, upon condition—"
"He overlook it! Let him dare to say such a word to me, and I would tell him that his opinion in this matter was of less moment to me than that of any other creature in all Nuremberg. What is it to him who comes to me? Were it but for him, I would bid the young man come every day."
"Do not talk to me about Peter Steinmarc, aunt Charlotte, or I shall go mad."
"I must talk about him, and you must hear about him. It is now more than ever necessary that you should be his wife. All Nuremberg will hear of this."
"Of course it will,—as Peter Steinmarc knows it."
"And how will you cover yourself from your shame?"
"I will not cover myself at all. If you are ashamed of me, I will go away. If you will not say that you are not ashamed of me, I will go away. I have done nothing to disgrace me, and I will hear nothing about shame." Having made this brave assertion, she burst into tears, and then escaped to her own bed.
When Madame Staubach was left alone, she sat down, closed her eyes, clasped her hands, and began to pray. As to what she should do in these terrible circumstances she had no light, unless such light might be given to her from above. A certain trust she had in Peter Steinmarc, because Peter was a man, and not a young man; but it was not a trust which made her confident. She thought that Peter was very good in being willing to take Linda at all after all that had happened, but she had begun to be aware that he himself was not able to make his own goodness apparent to Linda. She did not in her heart blame Peter for his want of eloquence, but rather imputed an increased degree of culpability to Linda, in that any eloquence was necessary for her conviction on such a matter. Eloquence in an affair of marriage, in reference to any preparation for marriage arrangements, was one of those devil's baits of which Madame Staubach was especially afraid. Ludovic Valcarm no doubt could be eloquent, could talk of love, and throw glances from his eyes, and sigh, and do worse things, perhaps, even than those. All tricks of Satan, these to ensnare the souls of young women! Peter could perform no such tricks, and therefore it was that his task was so difficult to him. She could not regard it as a deficiency that he was unable to do those very things which, when done in her presence, were abominable to her sight, and when spoken of were abominable to her ears, and when thought of were abominable to her imagination. But yet how was she to arrange this marriage, if Peter were able to say nothing for himself? So she sat herself down and clasped her hands and prayed earnestly that assistance might be given to her. If you pray that a mountain shall be moved, and will have faith, the mountain shall certainly be stirred. So she told herself; but she told herself this in an agony of spirit, because she still doubted,—she feared that she doubted,—that this thing would not be done for her by heaven's aid. Oh, if she could only make herself certain that heaven would aid her, then the thing would be done for her. She could not be certain, and therefore she felt herself to be a wretched sinner.
In the mean time, Linda was in bed up-stairs, thinking over her position, and making up her mind as to what should be her future conduct. As far as it might be possible, she would enter no room in which Peter Steinmarc was present. She would not go into the parlour when he was there, even though her aunt should call her. Should he follow her into the kitchen, she would instantly leave it. On no pretence would she speak to him. She had always the refuge of her own bedroom, and should he venture to follow her there, she thought that she would know how to defend herself. As to the rest, she must bear her aunt's thoughts, and if necessary her aunt's hard words also. It was very well to talk of going into service, but where was the house that would receive her? And then, as to Ludovic Valcarm! In regard to him, it was not easy for her to come to any resolution; but she still thought that she would be willing to make that compact, if her aunt, on the other side, would be willing to make it also.
All September went by, and all October, and life in the red house in the island in Nuremberg was a very sad life indeed. During this time Linda Tressel never spoke to Ludovic Valcarm, nor of him; but she saw him once, standing among the beer-casks opposite to the warehouse. Had she not so seen him, she would have thought that he had vanished altogether out of the city, and that he was to be no more heard of or seen among them. He was such a man, and belonged to such a set, that his vanishing in this fashion would have been a thing to create no surprise. He might have joined his father, and they two might be together in any quarter of the globe,—on any spot,—the more distant, the more probable. It was one of Linda's troubles that she knew really nothing of the life of the man she loved. She had always heard things evil spoken of him, but such evil-speaking had come from those who were his enemies,—from his cousin, who had been angry because Ludovic had not remained with him on the stool in the town-hall; and from Madame Staubach, who thought ill of almost all young men, and who had been specially prejudiced against this young man by Peter Steinmarc. Linda did not know what she should believe. She had heard that the Brothers Sach were respectable tradesmen, and it was in Valcarm's favour that he was employed by them. She had thought that he had left them; but now, seeing him again among the barrels, she had reason to presume that his life could not be altogether unworthy of him. He was working for his bread, and what more could be required from a young man than that? Nevertheless, when she saw him, she sedulously kept herself from his sight, and went, almost at once, back to the kitchen, from whence there was no view on to the Ruden Platz.
During these weeks life was very sad in this house. Madame Staubach said but little to her niece of her past iniquity in the matter of Ludovic's visit, and not much of Peter's suit; but she so bore herself that every glance of her eye, every tone of her voice, every nod of her head, was a separate rebuke. She hardly ever left Linda alone, requiring her company when she went out to make her little purchases in the market, and always on those more momentous and prolonged occasions when she attended some public prayer-meeting. Linda resolved to obey in such matters, and she did obey. She went hither and thither by her aunt's side, and at home sat with her aunt, always with a needle in her hand,—never leaving the room, except when Peter Steinmarc entered it. This he did, perhaps, on every other evening; and when he did so, Linda always arose and went up to her own chamber, speaking no word to the man as she passed him. When her aunt had rebuked her for this, laying upon her a command that she should remain when Steinmarc appeared, she protested that in that matter obedience was impossible to her. In all other things she would do as she was bidden; nothing, she said, but force, should induce her to stay for five minutes in the same room with Peter Steinmarc. Peter, who was of course aware of all this, would look at her when he passed her, or met her on the stairs, or in the passages, as though she were something too vile for him to touch. Madame Staubach, as she saw this, would groan aloud, and then Peter would groan. Latterly, too, Tetchen had taken to groaning; so that life in that house had become very sad. But Linda paid back Peter's scorn with interest. Her lips would curl, and her nostrils would be dilated, and her eyes would flash fire on him as she passed him. He also prayed a little in these days that Linda might be given into his hands. If ever she should be so given, he should teach her what it was to scorn the offer of an honest man.
For a month or six weeks Linda Tressel bore all this with patience; but when October was half gone, her patience was almost at an end. Such a life, if prolonged much further, would make her mad. The absence of all smiles from the faces of those with whom she lived, was terrible to her. She was surrounded by a solemnity as of the grave, and came to doubt almost whether she were a living creature. If she were to be scorned always, to be treated ever as one unfit for the pleasant intercourse of life, it might be as well that she should deserve such treatment. It was possible that by deserving it she might avoid it! At first, during these solemn wearisome weeks, she would tell herself that because her aunt had condemned her, not therefore need she feel assured that she was condemned of her heavenly Father. She was not a castaway because her aunt had so called her. But gradually there came upon her a feeling, springing from her imagination rather than from her judgment, that she was a thing set apart as vile and bad. There grew upon her a conviction that she was one of the non-elect, or rather, one of those who are elected to an eternity of misery. Her religious observances, as they came to her now, were odious to her; and that she supposed to be a certain sign that the devil had fought for her soul and had conquered. It could not be that she should be so terribly wretched if she were not also very wicked. She would tremble now at every sound; and though she still curled her lips, and poured scorn upon Peter from her eyes, as she moved away at his approach, she was almost so far beaten as to be desirous to succumb. She must either succumb to her aunt and to him, or else she must fly. How was she to live without a word of sympathy from any human being?
She had been careful to say little or nothing to Tetchen, having some indistinct idea that Tetchen was a double traitor. That Tetchen had on one occasion been in league with Ludovic, she was sure; but she thought that since that the woman had been in league with Peter also. The league with Ludovic had been very wicked, but that might be forgiven. A league with Peter was a sin to be forgiven never; and therefore Linda had resolutely declined of late to hold any converse with Tetchen other than that which the affairs of the house demanded. When Tetchen, who in this matter was most unjustly treated, would make little attempts to regain the confidence of her young mistress, her efforts were met with a repellant silence. And thus there was no one in the house to whom Linda could speak. This at last became so dreadful to her, the desolation of her position was so complete, that she had learned to regret her sternness to Tetchen. As far as she could now see, there was no alliance between Tetchen and Peter; and it might be the case, she thought, that her suspicions had been unjust to the old woman.
One evening, about the beginning of November, when it had already become dark at that hour in which Peter would present himself in Madame Staubach's parlour, he had entered the room, as was usual with him; and, as usual, Linda had at once left it. Peter, as he passed her, had looked at her with more than his usual anger, with an aggravated bitterness of condemnation in his eyes. She had been weeping in silence before he had appeared, and she had no power left to throw back her scorn at him. Still weeping, she went up into her room, and throwing herself on her bed, began, in her misery, to cry aloud for mercy. Some end must be brought to this, or the burden on her shoulders would be heavier than she could bear. She had gone to the window for a moment as she entered the chamber, and had thrown one glance in despair over towards the Ruden Platz. But the night was dark, and full of rain, and had he been there she could not have seen him. There was no one to befriend her. Then she threw herself on the bed and wept aloud.
She was still lying there when there came a very low tap at the door. She started up and listened. She had heard no footfall on the stairs, and it was, she thought, impossible that any one should have come up without her hearing the steps. Peter Steinmarc creaked whenever he went along the passages, and neither did her aunt or Tetchen tread with feet as light as that. She sat up, and then the knock was repeated,—very low and very clear. She still paused a moment, resolving that nothing should frighten her,—nothing should startle her. No change that could come to her would, she thought, be a change for the worse. She hastened up from off the bed, and stood upon the floor. Then she gave the answer that is usual to such a summons. "Come in," she said. She spoke low, but with clear voice, so that her word might certainly be heard, but not be heard afar. She stood about ten feet from the door, and when she heard the lock turned, her heart was beating violently.
The lock was turned, and the door was ajar, but it was not opened. "Linda," said a soft voice—"Linda, will you speak to me?" Heavens and earth! It was Ludovic,—Ludovic in her aunt's house,—Ludovic at her chamber door,—Ludovic there, within the very penetralia of their abode, while her aunt and Peter Steinmarc were sitting in the chamber below! But she had resolved that in no event would she be startled. In making that resolve, had she not almost hoped that this would be the voice that should greet her?
She could not now again say, "Come in," and the man who had had the audacity to advance so far, was not bold enough to advance farther, though invited. She stepped quickly to the door, and, placing her hand upon the lock, knew not whether to close it against the intruder or to confront the man. "There can be but a moment, Linda; will you not speak to me?" said her lover.
What could her aunt do to her?—what Peter Steinmarc?—what could the world do, worse than had been done already? They had told her that she was a castaway, and she had half believed it. In the moments of her deepest misery she had believed it. If that were so, how could she fall lower? Would it not be sweet to her to hear one word of kindness in her troubles, to catch one note that should not be laden with rebuke? She opened the door, and stood before him in the gloom of the passage.
"Linda,—dear, dearest Linda;"—and before she knew that he was so near her, he had caught her hand.
"Hush! they are below;—they will hear you."
"No; I could be up among the rafters before any one could be on the first landing; and no one should hear a motion." Linda, in her surprise, looked up through the darkness, as though she could see the passage of which he spoke in the narrowing stair amidst the roof. What a terrible man was this, who had come to her bedroom door, and could thus talk of escaping amidst the rafters!
"Why are you here?" she whispered.
"Because I love you better than the light of heaven. Because I would go through fire and water to be near you. Linda,—dearest Linda, is it not true that you are in sorrow?"
"Indeed yes," she said, shaking her head, while she still left her hand in his.
"And shall I not find an escape for you?"
"No, no; that is impossible."
"I will try at least," said he.
"You can do nothing for me,—nothing."
"You love me, Linda? Say that you love me." She remained silent, but her hand was still within his grasp. She could not lie to him, and say that she loved him not. "Linda, you are all the world to me. The sweetest music that I could hear would be one word to say that I am dear to you." She said not a word, but he knew now that she loved him. He knew it well. It is the instinct of the lover to know that his mistress has given him her heart heartily, when she does not deny the gift with more than sternness,—with cold cruelty. Yes; he knew her secret now; and pulling her close to him by her hand, by her arm, he wound his own arm round her waist tightly, and pressed his face close to hers. "Linda, Linda,—my own, my own!—O God! how happy I am!" She suffered it all, but spoke not a word. His hot kisses were rained upon her lips, but she gave him never a kiss in return. He pressed her with all the muscles of his body, and she simply bore the pressure, uncomplaining, uncomplying, hardly thinking, half conscious, almost swooning, hysterical, with blood rushing wildly to her heart, lost in an agony of mingled fear and love. "Oh, Linda!—oh, my own one!" But the kisses were still raining on her lips, and cheek, and brow. Had she heard her aunt's footsteps on the stairs, had she heard the creaking shoes of Peter Steinmarc himself, she could hardly have moved to save herself from their wrath. The pressure of her lover's arms was very sweet to her, but still, through it all, there was a consciousness that, in her very knowledge of that sweetness, the devil was claiming his own. Now, in very truth, was she a castaway. "My love, my life!" said Ludovic, "there are but a few moments for us. What can I do to comfort you?" She was still in his arms, pressed closely to his bosom, not trusting at all to the support of her own legs. She made one little struggle to free herself, but it was in vain. She opened her lips to speak, but there came no sound from them. Then there came again upon her that storm of kisses, and she was bound round by his arm, as though she were never again to be loosened. The waters that fell upon her were sweeter than the rains of heaven; but she knew,—there was still enough of life in her to remember,—that they were foul with the sulphur and the brimstone of the pit of hell.
"Linda," he said, "I am leaving Nuremberg; will you go with me?" Go with him! whither was she to go? How was she to go? And this going that he spoke of? Was it not thus usually with castaways? If it were true that she was in very fact already a castaway, why should she not go with him? And yet she was half sure that any such going on her part was a thing quite out of the question. As an actor will say of himself when he declines some proffered character, she could not see herself in that part. Though she could tell herself that she was a castaway, a very child of the devil, because she could thus stand and listen to her lover at her chamber door, yet could she not think of the sin that would really make her so without an abhorrence which made that sin frightful to her. She was not allured, hardly tempted, by the young man's offer as he made it. And yet, what else was there for her to do? And if it were true that she was a castaway, why should she struggle to be better than others who were of the same colour with herself? "Linda, say, will you be my wife?"
His wife! Oh, yes, she would be his wife,—if it were possible. Even now, in the moment of her agony, there came to her a vague idea that she might do him some service if she were his wife, because she had property of her own. She was ready to acknowledge to herself that her duty to him was stronger than her duty to that woman below who had been so cruel to her. She would be his wife, if it were possible, even though he should drag her through the mud of poverty and through the gutters of tribulation. Could she walk down to her aunt's presence this moment his real wife, she would do so, and bear all that could be said to her. Could this be so, that storm which had been bitter with brimstone from the lowest pit, would at once become sweet with the air of heaven. But how could this be? She knew that it could not be. Marriage was a thing difficult to be done, hedged in with all manner of impediments, hardly to be reached at all by such a one as her, unless it might be such a marriage as that proposed to her with Peter Steinmarc. For girls with sweet, loving parents, for the Fanny Heisses of the world, marriage might be made easy. It was all very well for Ludovic Valcarm to ask her to be his wife; but in asking he must have known that she could not if she would; and yet the sound of the word was sweet to her. If it might be so, even yet she would not be a castaway.
But she did not answer his question. Struggling hard to speak, she muttered some prayer to him that he would leave her. "Say that you love me," demanded Ludovic. The demand was only whispered, but the words came hot into her ears.
"I do love you," she replied.
"Then you will go with me."
"No, no! It is impossible."
"They will make you take that man for your husband."
"They shall never do that;—never,—never." In making this assertion, Linda found strength to extricate herself from her lover's arms and to stand alone.
"And how shall I come to you again?" said Ludovic.
"You must not come again. You should not have come now. I would not have been here had I thought it possible you would have come."
"But, Linda—" and then he went on to show to her how very unsatisfactory a courtship theirs would be, if, now that they were together, nothing could be arranged as to their future meeting. It soon became clear to Linda that Ludovic knew everything that was going on in the house, and had learned it all from Tetchen. Tetchen at this moment was quite aware of his presence up-stairs, and was prepared to cough aloud, standing at the kitchen door, if any sign were made that either Steinmarc or Madame Staubach were about to leave the parlour. Though it had seemed to Linda that her lover had come to her through the darkness, aided by the powers thereof, the assistance which had really brought him there was simply that of the old cook down-stairs. It certainly was on the cards that Tetchen might help him again after the same fashion, but Ludovic felt that such help would be but of little avail unless Linda, now that she had acknowledged her love, would do something to help also. With Ludovic Valcarm it was quite a proper course of things that he should jump out of a boat, or disappear into the roof among the rafters, or escape across the tiles and down the spouts in the darkness, as preliminary steps in a love affair. But in this special love affair such movements could only be preliminary; and therefore, as he was now standing face to face with Linda, and as there certainly had been difficulties in achieving this position, he was anxious to make some positive use of it. And then, as he explained to Linda in very few words, he was about to leave Nuremberg, and go to Munich. She did not quite understand whether he was always to remain in Munich; nor did she think of inquiring how he was to earn his bread there. But it was his scheme, that she should go with him and that there they should be married. If she would meet him at the railway station in time for the early train, they certainly could reach Munich without impediment. Linda would find no difficulty in leaving the house. Tetchen would take care that even the door should be open for her.
Linda listened to it all, and by degrees the impossibility of her assenting to such iniquity became less palpable. And though the wickedness of the scheme was still manifest to her, though she felt that, were she to assent to it, she would, in doing so, give herself up finally, body and soul, to the Evil One, yet was she not angry with Ludovic for proposing it. Nay, loving him well enough before, she loved him the better as he pressed her to go with him. But she would not go. She had nothing to say but, No, no, no. It was impossible. She was conscious after a certain fashion that her legs would refuse to carry her to the railway station on such an errand, that her physical strength would have failed her, and that were she to make ever so binding a promise, when the morning came she would not be there. He had again taken her hand, and was using all his eloquence, still speaking in low whispers, when there was heard a cough,—not loud, but very distinct,—Tetchen's cough as she stood at the kitchen door. Ludovic Valcarm, though the necessity for movement was so close upon him, would not leave Linda's hand till he had again pressed a kiss upon her mouth. Now, at last, in this perilous moment, there was some slightest movement on Linda's lips, which he flattered himself he might take as a response. Then, in a moment, he was gone and her door was shut, and he was escaping, after his own fashion, into the darkness,—she knew not whither and she knew not how, except that there was a bitter flavour of brimstone about it all.
She seated herself at the foot of the bed lost in amazement. She must first think,—she was bound first to think, of his safety; and yet what in the way of punishment could they do to him comparable to the torments which they could inflict upon her? She listened, and she soon heard Peter Steinmarc creaking in the room below. Tetchen had coughed because Peter was as usual going to his room, but had Ludovic remained at her door no one would have been a bit the wiser. No doubt Ludovic, up among the rafters, was thinking the same thing; but there must be no renewal of their intercourse that night, and therefore Linda bolted her door. As she did so, she swore to herself that she would not unbolt it again that evening at Ludovic's request. No such encroaching request was made to her. She sat for nearly an hour at the foot of her bed, waiting, listening, fearing, thinking, hoping,—hardly hoping, when another step was heard on the stair and in the passage,—a step which she well knew to be that of her aunt Charlotte. Then she arose, and as her aunt drew near she pulled back the bolt and opened the door. The little oil lamp which she held threw a timid fitful light into the gloom, and Linda looked up unconsciously into the darkness of the roof over her head.
It had been her custom to return to her aunt's parlour as soon as she heard Peter creaking in the room below, and she had still meant to do so on this evening; but hitherto she had been unable to move, or at any rate so to compose herself as to have made it possible for her to go into her aunt's presence. Had she not had the whole world of her own love story to fill her mind and her heart?
"Linda, I have been expecting you to come down to me," said her aunt, gravely.
"Yes, aunt Charlotte, and I was coming."
"It is late now, Linda."
"Then, if you please, I will go to bed," said Linda, who was by no means sorry to escape the necessity of returning to the parlour.
"I could not go to my rest," said Madame Staubach, "without doing my duty by seeing you and telling you again, that it is very wicked of you to leave the room whenever our friend enters it. Linda, do you ever think of the punishment which pride will bring down upon you?"
"It is not pride."
"Yes, Linda. It is the worst pride in the world."
"I will sit with him all the evening if he will promise me never again to ask me to be his wife."
"The time will perhaps come, Linda, when you will be only too glad to take him, and he will tell you that you are not fit to be the wife of an honest man." Then, having uttered this bitter curse,—for such it was,—Madame Staubach went across to her own room.
Linda, as she knelt at her bedside, tried to pray that she might be delivered from temptation, but she felt that her prayers were not prayers indeed. Even when she was on her knees, with her hands clasped together as though towards her God, her very soul was full of the presence of that arm which had been so fast wound round her waist. And when she was in bed she gave herself up to the sweetness of her love. With what delicious violence had that storm of kisses fallen on her! Then she prayed for him, and strove very hard that her prayer might be sincere.
Another month had passed by, and it was now nearly mid-winter. Another month had passed by, and neither had Madame Staubach nor Peter Steinmarc heard ought of Ludovic's presence among the rafters; but things were much altered in the red house, and Linda's life was hot, fevered, suspicious, and full of a dangerous excitement. Twice again she had seen Ludovic, once meeting him in the kitchen, and once she had met him at a certain dark gate in the Nonnen Garten, to which she had contrived to make her escape for half an hour on a false plea. Things were much changed with Linda Tressel when she could condescend to do this. And she had received from her lover a dozen notes, always by the hand of Tetchen, and had written to him more than once a few short, incoherent, startling words, in which she would protest that she loved him, and protest also at the same time that her love must be all in vain. "It is of no use. Do not write, and pray do not come. If this goes on it will kill me. You know that I shall never give myself to anybody else." This was in answer to a proposition made through Tetchen that he should come again to her,—should come, and take her away with him. He had come, and there had been that interview in the kitchen, but he had not succeeded in inducing her to leave her home.
There had been many projects discussed between them, as to which Tetchen had given much advice. It was Tetchen's opinion, that if Linda would declare to her aunt that she meant at once to marry Ludovic Valcarm, and make him master of the house in which they lived, Madame Staubach would have no alternative but to submit quietly; that she would herself go forth and instruct the clergyman to publish the banns, and that Linda might thus become Valcarm's acknowledged wife before the snow was off the ground. Ludovic seemed to have his doubts about this, still signifying his preference for a marriage at Munich. When Tetchen explained to him that Linda would lose her character by travelling with him to Munich before she was his wife, he merely laughed at such an old wife's tale. Had not he himself seen Fanny Heisse and Max Bogen in the train together between Augsburg and Nuremberg long before they were married, and who had thought of saying a word against Fanny's character? "But everybody knew about that," said Linda. "Let everybody know about this," said Ludovic.
But Linda would not go. She would not go, even though Ludovic told her that it was imperative that he himself should quit Nuremberg. Such matters were in training,—he did not tell her what matters,—as would make his going quite imperative. Still she would take no step towards going with him. That advice of Tetchen's was much more in accordance with her desires. If she could act upon that, then she might have some happiness before her. She thought that she could make up her mind, and bring herself to declare her purpose to her aunt, if Ludovic would allow her to do so. But Ludovic declared that this could not be done, as preparatory to their being married at Nuremberg; and at last he was almost angry with her. Did she not trust him? Oh, yes, she would trust him with everything; with her happiness, her heart, her house,—with all that the world had left for her. But there was still that feeling left within her bosom, that if she did this thing which he proposed, she would be trusting him with her very soul.
Ludovic said a word to her about the house, and Tetchen said many words. When Linda expressed an opinion, that though the house might not belong to her aunt legally, it was or ought to be her aunt's property in point of honour, Tetchen only laughed at her. "Don't let her bother you about Peter then, if she chooses to live here on favour," said Tetchen. As Linda came to think of it, it did appear hard to her that she should be tormented about Peter Steinmarc in her own house. She was not Madame Staubach's child, nor her slave; nor, indeed, was she of childish age. Gradually the idea grew upon her that she might assert her right to free herself from the tyranny to which she was made subject. But there was always joined to this a consciousness, that though, according to the laws of the world, she might assert her right, and claim her property, and acknowledge to everybody her love to Ludovic Valcarm, she could do none of these things in accordance with the laws of God. She had become subject to her aunt by the circumstances of her life, as though her aunt were in fact her parent, and the fifth commandment was as binding on her as though she were in truth the daughter of the guardian who had had her in charge since her infancy. Once she said a word to her aunt about the house, and was struck with horror by the manner in which Madame Staubach had answered her. She had simply said that, as the house was partly hers, she had thought that she might suggest the expediency of getting another lodger in place of Peter Steinmarc. But Madame Staubach had arisen from her chair and had threatened to go at once out into the street,—"bare, naked, and destitute," as she expressed herself. "If you ever tell me again," said Madame Staubach, "that the house is yours, I will never eat another meal beneath your father's roof." Linda, shocked at her own wickedness, had fallen at her aunt's knees, and promised that she would never again be guilty of such wickedness. And as she reflected on what she had done, she did believe herself to have been very mean and very wicked. She had known all her life that, though the house was hers to live in, it was subject to the guidance of her aunt; and so had she been subject till she had grown to be a woman. She could not quite understand that such subjection for the whole term of her life need be a duty to her; but when was the term of duty to be completed?
Between her own feelings on one side, and Tetchen's continued instigation on the other, she became aware that that which she truly needed was advice. These secret interviews and this clandestine correspondence were terrible to her very soul. She would not even yet be a castaway if it might be possible to save herself! There were two things fixed for her,—fixed, even though by their certainty she must become a castaway. She would never marry Peter Steinmarc, and she would never cease to love Ludovic Valcarm. But might it be possible that these assured facts should be reconciled to duty? If only there were somebody whom she might trust to tell her that!
Linda's father had had many friends in Nuremberg, and she could still remember those whom, as a child, she had seen from time to time in her father's house. The names of some were still familiar to her, and the memories of the faces even of one or two who had suffered her to play at their knees when she was little more than a baby, were present to her. Manners had so changed at the red house since those days, that few, if any, of these alliances had been preserved. The peculiar creed of Madame Staubach was not popular with the burghers of Nuremberg, and we all know how family friendships will die out when they are not kept alive by the warmth of familiar intercourse. There were still a few, and they among those most respected in the city, who would bow to Madame Staubach when they met her in the streets, and would smile and nod at Linda as they remembered the old days when they would be merry with a decorous mirth in the presence of her father. But there were none in the town,—no, not one,—who could interfere as a friend in the affairs of the widow Staubach's household, or who ever thought of asking Linda to sit at a friendly hearth. Close neighbourhood and school acquaintance had made Fanny Heisse her friend, but it was very rarely indeed that she had set her foot over the threshold of Jacob's door. Peter Steinmarc was their only friend, and his friendship had arisen from the mere fact of his residence beneath the same roof. It was necessary that their house should be divided with another, and in this way Peter had become their lodger. Linda certainly could not go to Peter for advice. She would have gone to Jacob Heisse, but that Jacob was a man slow of speech, somewhat timid in all matters beyond the making of furniture, and but little inclined to meddle with things out of his own reach. She fancied that the counsel which she required should be sought for from some one wiser and more learned than Jacob Heisse.