Among the names of those who had loved her father, which still rested in her memory, was that of Herr Molk, a man much spoken of in Nuremberg, one rich and of great repute, who was or had been burgomaster, and who occupied a house on the Egidien Platz, known to Linda well, because of its picturesque beauty. Even Peter Steinmarc, who would often speak of the town magistrates as though they were greatly inferior to himself in municipal lore and general wisdom, would mention the name of Herr Molk with almost involuntary respect. Linda had seen him from time to time either in the Platz or on the market-place, and her father's old friend had always smiled on her and expressed some hope that she was well and happy. Ah, how vain had been that hope! What if she should now go to Herr Molk and ask him for advice? She would not speak to Tetchen, because Tetchen would at once tell it all to Ludovic; and in this matter, as Linda felt, she must not act as Ludovic would bid her. Yes; she would go to this noted pundit of the city, and, if he would allow her so to do, would tell to him all her story.
And then she made another resolve. She would not do this without informing her aunt that it was about to be done. On this occasion, even though her aunt should tell her to remain in the house, she would go forth. But her aunt should not throw it in her teeth that she had acted on the sly. One day, one cold November morning, when the hour of their early dinner was approaching, she went up-stairs from the kitchen for her hat and cloak, and then, equipped for her walk, presented herself before her aunt.
"Linda, where are you going?" demanded Madame Staubach.
"I am going, aunt Charlotte, to Herr Molk, in the Egidien Platz."
"To Herr Molk? And why? Has he bidden you come to him?" Then Linda told her story, with much difficulty. She was unhappy, she said, and wanted advice. She remembered this man,—that he was the friend of her father. "I am sorry, Linda, that you should want other advice than that which I can give you."
"Dear aunt, it is just that. You want me to marry this man here, and I cannot do it. This has made you miserable, and me miserable. Is it not true that we are not happy as we used to be?"
"I certainly am not happy. How can I be happy when I see you wandering astray? How can I be happy when you tell me that you love the man in Nuremberg whom I believe of all to be most wicked and ungodly? How can I be happy when you threaten to expel from the house, because it is your own, the only man whom I love, honour, and respect?"
"I never said so, aunt Charlotte;—I never thought of saying such a thing."
"And what will you ask of this stranger should you find yourself in his presence?"
"I will tell him everything, and ask him what I should do."
"And will you tell him truly?"
"Certainly, aunt Charlotte; I will tell him the truth in everything."
"And if he bids you marry the man whom I have chosen as your husband?" Linda, when this suggestion was made to her, became silent. Truly it was impossible that any wise man in Nuremberg could tell her that such a sacrifice as that was necessary! Then Madame Staubach repeated the question. "If he bids you marry Peter Steinmarc, will you do as he bids you?"
Surely she would not be so bidden by her father's friend! "I will endeavour to do as he bids me," said Linda.
"Then go to him, my child, and may God so give him grace that he may soften the hardness of your heart, and prevail with you to put down beneath your feet the temptations of Satan; and that he may quell the spirit of evil within you. God forbid that I should think that there is no wisdom in Nuremberg fitter than mine to guide you. If the man be a man of God, he will give you good counsel."
Then Linda, wondering much at her aunt's ready acquiescence, went forth, and walked straightway to the house of Herr Molk in the Egidien Platz.
A walk of ten minutes took Linda from the Schuett island to the Egidien Platz, and placed her before the door of Herr Molk's house. The Egidien Platz is, perhaps, the most fashionable quarter of Nuremberg, if Nuremberg may be said to have a fashion in such matters. It is near to the Rathhaus, and to St. Sebald's Church, and is not far distant from the old Burg or Castle in which the Emperors used to dwell when they visited the imperial city of Nuremberg. This large open Place has a church in its centre, and around it are houses almost all large, built with gables turned towards the street, quaint, picturesque, and eloquent of much burghers' wealth. There could be no such square in a city which was not or had not been very rich. And among all the houses in the Egidien Platz, there was no house to exceed in beauty of ornament, in quaintness of architecture, or in general wealth and comfort, that which was inhabited by Herr Molk.
Linda stood for a moment at the door, and then putting up her hand, pulled down the heavy iron bell-handle, which itself was a gem of art, representing some ancient and discreet burgher of the town, wrapped in his cloak, and almost hidden by his broad-brimmed hat. She heard the bell clank close inside the door, and then the portal was open, as though the very pulling of the bell had opened it. The lock at least was open, so that Linda could push the door with her hand and enter over the threshold. This she did, and she found herself within a long narrow court or yard, round which, one above another, there ran galleries, open to the court, and guarded with heavy balustrades of carved wood. From the narrowness of the enclosure, the house on each side seemed to be very high, and Linda, looking round with astonished eyes, could see that at every point the wood was carved. And the waterspouts were ornamented with grotesque figures, and the huge broad stairs which led to the open galleries on the left hand were of polished oak, made so slippery with the polishers' daily care that it was difficult to tread upon them without falling. All around the bottom of the court there were open granaries or warehouses; for there seemed to be nothing that could be called a room on the ground floor, beyond the porter's lodge; and these open warehouses seemed to be filled full with masses of stacked firewood. Linda knew well the value of such stores in Nuremberg, and lost none of her veneration for Herr Molk because of such nature were the signs of his domestic wealth.
As she timidly looked around her she saw an old woman within the gate of the porter's lodge, and inquired whether Herr Molk was at home and disengaged. The woman simply motioned her to the wicket gate by which the broad polished stairs were guarded. Linda, hesitating to advance into so grand a mansion alone, and yet knowing that she should do as she was bidden, entered the wicket and ascended carefully to the first gallery. Here was another bell ready to her hand, the handle of which consisted of a little child in iron-work. This also she pulled, and waited till some one should come. Presently there was a scuffling heard of quick feet in the gallery, and three children ran up to her. In the middle was the elder, a girl dressed in dark silk, and at her sides were two boys habited in black velvet. They all had long fair hair, and large blue eyes, and soft peach-like cheeks,—such as those who love children always long to kiss. Linda thought that she had never seen children so gracious and so fair. She asked again whether Herr Molk was at home, and at liberty to see a stranger. "Quite a stranger," said poor Linda, with what emphasis she could put upon her words. The little girl said that her grandfather was at home, and would see any visitor,—as a matter of course. Would Linda follow her? Then the child, still leading her little brothers, tripped up the stairs to the second gallery, and opening a door which led into one of the large front rooms, communicated to an old gentleman who seemed to be taking exercise in the apartment with his hands behind his back, that he was wanted by a lady.
"Wanted, am I, my pretty one? Well, and here I am." Then the little girl, giving a long look up into Linda's face, retreated, taking her brothers with her, and closing the door. Thus Linda found herself in the room along with the old gentleman, who still kept his hands behind his back. It was a singular apartment, nearly square, but very large, panelled with carved wood, not only throughout the walls, but up to the ceiling also. And the floor was polished even brighter than were the stairs. Herr Molk must have been well accustomed to take his exercise there, or he would surely have slipped and fallen in his course. There was but one small table in the room, which stood unused near a wall, and there were perhaps not more than half-a-dozen chairs,—all high-backed, covered with old tapestry, and looking as though they could hardly have been placed there for ordinary use. On one of these, Linda sat at the old man's bidding; and he placed himself on another, with his hands still behind him, just seating himself on the edge of the chair.
"I am Linda Tressel," said poor Linda. She saw at a glance that she herself would not have known Herr Molk, whom she had never before met without his hat, and she perceived also that he had not recognised her.
"Linda Tressel! So you are. Dear, dear! I knew your father well,—very well. But, lord, how long that is ago! He is dead ever so many years; how many years?"
"Sixteen years," said Linda.
"Sixteen years dead! And he was a younger man than I,—much younger. Let me see,—not so much younger, but younger. Linda Tressel, your father's daughter is welcome to my house. A glass of wine will not hurt you this cold weather." She declined the wine, but the old man would have his way. He went out, and was absent perhaps five minutes. Then he returned bearing a small tray in his own hands, with a long-necked bottle and glasses curiously engraved, and he insisted that Linda should clink her glass with his. "And now, my dear, what is it that I can do for you?"
So far Linda's mission had prospered well; but now that the story was to be told, she found very much difficulty in telling it. She had to begin with the whole history of the red house, and of the terms upon which her aunt had come to reside in it. She had one point at least in her favour. Herr Molk was an excellent listener. He would nod his head, and pat one hand upon the other, and say, "Yes, yes," without the slightest sign of impatience. It seemed as though he had no other care before him than that of listening to Linda's story. When she experienced the encouragement which came from the nodding of his head and the patting of his hand, she went on boldly. She told how Peter Steinmarc had come to the house, and how her aunt was a woman peculiar from the strength of her religious convictions. "Yes, my dear, yes; we know that,—we know that," said Herr Molk. Linda did her best to say nothing evil of her aunt. Then she came to the story of Peter's courtship. "He is quite an old man, you know," said poor Linda, thoughtfully. Then she was interrupted by Herr Molk. "A worthy man; I know him well,—well,—well. Peter Steinmarc is our clerk at the Rathhaus. A very worthy man is Peter Steinmarc. Your father, my dear, was clerk at the Rathhaus, and Peter followed him. He is not young,—not just young; but a very worthy man. Go on, my dear." Linda had resolved to tell it all, and she did tell it all. It was difficult to tell, but it all came out. Perhaps there could be no listener more encouraging to such a girl as Linda than the patient, gentle-mannered old man with whom she was closeted. "She had a lover whom she loved dearly," she said,—"a young man."
"Oh, a lover," said Herr Molk. But there seemed to be no anger in his voice. He received the information as though it were important, but not astonishing. Then Linda even told him how the lover had come across the river on the Sunday morning, and how it had happened that she had not told her aunt, and how angry her aunt had been. "Yes, yes," said Herr Molk; "it is better that your elders should know such things,—always better. But go on, my dear." Then she told also how the lover had come down, or had gone up, through the rafters, and the old man smiled. Perhaps he had hidden himself among rafters fifty years ago, and had some sweet remembrance of the feat. And now Linda wanted to know what was she to do, and how she ought to act. The house was her own, but she would not for worlds drive her aunt out of it. She loved her lover very dearly, and she could not love Peter Steinmarc at all,—not in that way.
"Has the young man means to support a wife?" asked Herr Molk. Linda hesitated, knowing that there was still a thing to be told, which she had not as yet dared to mention. She knew too that it must be told. Herr Molk, as she hesitated, asked a second question on this very point. "And what is the young man's name, my dear? It all depends on his name and character, and whether he has means to support a wife."
"His name—is—Ludovic Valcarm," said Linda, whispering the words very low.
The old man jumped from his seat with an alacrity that Linda had certainly not expected. "Ludovic—Valcarm!" he said; "why, my dear, the man is in prison this moment. I signed the committal yesterday myself."
"In prison!" said Linda, rising also from her chair.
"He is a terrible young man," said Herr Molk—"a very terrible young man. He does all manner of things;—I can't explain what. My dear young woman, you must not think of taking Ludovic Valcarm for your husband; you must not, indeed. You had better make up your mind to take Peter Steinmarc. Peter Steinmarc can support a wife, and is very respectable. I have known Peter all my life. Ludovic Valcarm! Oh dear! That would be very bad,—very bad indeed!"
Linda's distress was excessive. It was not only that the tidings which she heard of Ludovic were hard to bear, but it seemed that Herr Molk was intent on ranging himself altogether with her enemies respecting Peter Steinmarc. In fact, the old man's advice to her respecting Peter was more important in her mind that his denunciation of Ludovic. She did not quite credit what he said of Ludovic. It was doubtless true that Ludovic was in prison; probably for some political offence. But such men, she thought, were not kept in prison long. It was bad, this fact of her lover's imprisonment; but not so bad as the advice which her counsellor gave her, and which she knew she would be bound to repeat to her aunt.
"But, Herr Molk, sir, if I do not love Peter Steinmarc—if I hate him—?"
"Oh, my dear, my dear! This is a terrible thing. There is not such another ne'er-do-well in all Nuremberg as Ludovic Valcarm. Support a wife! He cannot support himself. And it will be well if he does not die in a jail. Oh dear! oh dear! For your father's sake, fraulein—for your father's sake, I would go any distance to save you from this. Your father was a good man, and a credit to the city. And Peter Steinmarc is a good man."
"But I need not marry Peter Steinmarc, Herr Molk."
"You cannot do better, my dear,—indeed you cannot. See what your aunt says. And remember, my dear, that you should submit yourself to your elders and your betters. Peter is not so old. He is not old at all. I was one of the city magistrates when Peter was a little boy. I remember him well. And he began life in your father's office. Nothing can be more respectable than he has been. And then Ludovic Valcarm! oh dear! If you ask my advice, I should counsel you to accept Peter Steinmarc."
There was nothing more to be got from Herr Molk. And with this terrible recommendation still sounding in her ears, Linda sadly made her way back from the Egidien Platz to the Schuett island.
Linda Tressel, as she returned home to the house in the Schuett island, became aware that it was necessary for her to tell to her aunt all that had passed between herself and Herr Molk. She had been half stunned with grief as she left the magistrate's house, and for a while had tried to think that she could keep back from Madame Staubach at any rate the purport of the advice that had been given to her. And as she came to the conclusion that this would be impossible to her,—that it must all come out,—various wild plans flitted across her brain. Could she not run away without returning to the red house at all? But whither was she to run, and with whom? The only one who would have helped her in this wild enterprise had been sent to prison by that ill-conditioned old man who had made her so miserable! At this moment, there was no longer any hope in her bosom that she should save herself from being a castaway; nay, there was hardly a wish. There was no disreputable life so terrible to her thoughts, no infamy so infamous in idea to her, as would be respectability in the form of matrimony with Peter Steinmarc. And now, as she walked along painfully, going far out of her way that she might have some little time for reflection, turning all this in her mind, she began almost to fear that if she went back to her aunt, her aunt would prevail, and that in very truth Peter Steinmarc would become her lord and master. Then there was another plan, as impracticable as that scheme of running away. What if she were to become sullen, and decline to speak at all? She was well aware that in such a contest her aunt's tongue would be very terrible to her; and as the idea crossed her mind, she told herself that were she so to act people would treat her as a mad woman. But even that, she thought, would be better than being forced to marry Peter Steinmarc. Before she had reached the island, she knew that the one scheme was as impossible as the other. She entered the house very quietly, and turning to the left went at once into the kitchen.
"Linda, your aunt is waiting dinner for you this hour," said Tetchen.
"Why did you not take it to her by herself?" said Linda, crossly.
"How could I do that, when she would not have it? You had better go in now at once. But, Linda, does anything ail you?"
"Very much ails me," said Linda.
Then Tetchen came close to her, and whispered, "Have you heard anything about him?"
"What have you heard, Tetchen? Tell me at once."
"He is in trouble."
"He is in prison!" Linda said this with a little hysteric scream. Then she began to sob and cry, and turned her back to Tetchen and hid her face in her hands.
"I have heard that too," said Tetchen. "They say the burgomasters have caught him with letters on him from some terrible rebels up in Prussia, and that he has been plotting to have the city burned down. But I don't believe all that, fraulein."
"He is in prison. I know he is in prison," said Linda. "I wish I were there too;—so I do, or dead. I'd rather be dead." Then Madame Staubach, having perhaps heard the lock of the front door when it was closed, came into the kitchen. "Linda," she said, "I am waiting for you."
"I do not want any dinner," said Linda, still standing with her face turned to the wall. Then Madame Staubach took hold of her arm, and led her across the passage into the parlour. Linda said not a word as she was being thus conducted, but was thinking whether it might not even yet serve her purpose to be silent and sullen. She was still sobbing, and striving to repress her sobs; but she allowed herself to be led without resistance, and in an instant the door was closed, and she was seated on the old sofa with her aunt beside her.
"Have you seen Herr Molk?" demanded Madame Staubach.
"Yes; I have seen him."
"And what has he said to you?" Then Linda was silent. "You told me that you would seek his counsel; and that you would act as he might advise you."
"No; I did not say that."
"I did not promise. I made no promise."
"Linda, surely you did promise. When I asked you whether you would do as he might bid you, you said that you would be ruled by him. Then, knowing that he is wise, and of repute in the city, I let you go. Linda, was it not so?" Linda could not remember what words had in truth been spoken between them. She did remember that in her anxiety to go forth, thinking it to be impossible that the burgomaster should ask her to marry a man old enough to be her father, she had in some way assented to her aunt's proposition. But yet she thought that she had made no definite promise that she would marry the man she hated. She did not believe that she would absolutely have promised that under any possible circumstances she would do so. She could not, however, answer her aunt's question; so she continued to sob, and endeavoured again to hide her face. "Did you tell the man everything, my child?" demanded Madame Staubach.
"Yes, I did."
"And what has he said to you?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know! Linda, that cannot be true. It is not yet half an hour since, and you do not know what Herr Molk said to you? Did you tell him of my wish about our friend Peter?"
"Yes, I did."
"And did you tell him of your foolish fancy for that wicked young man?"
"Yes, I did."
"And what did he say?"
Linda was still silent. It was almost impossible for her to tell her aunt what the man had said to her. She could not bring herself to tell the story of what had passed in the panelled room. Had Madame Staubach been in any way different from what she was,—had she been at all less stubborn, less hard, less reliant on the efficacy of her religious convictions to carry her over all obstacles,—she would have understood something of the sufferings of the poor girl with whom she was dealing. But with her the only idea present to her mind was the absolute necessity of saving Linda from the wrath to come by breaking her spirit in regard to things of this world, and crushing her into atoms here, that those atoms might be remoulded in a form that would be capable of a future and a better life. Instead therefore of shrinking from cruelty, Madame Staubach was continually instigating herself to be cruel. She knew that the image of the town-clerk was one simply disgusting to Linda, and therefore she was determined to force that image upon her. She knew that the girl's heart was set upon Ludovic Valcarm with all the warmth of its young love, and therefore she conceived it to be her duty to prove to the girl that Ludovic Valcarm was one already given up to Satan and Satanic agencies. Linda must be taught not only to acknowledge, but in very fact to understand and perceive, that this world is a vale of tears, that its paths are sharp to the feet, and that they who walk through it should walk in mourning and tribulation. What though her young heart should be broken by the lesson,—be broken after the fashion in which human hearts are made to suffer? To Madame Staubach's mind a broken heart and a contrite spirit were pretty much the same thing. It was good that hearts should be broken, that all the inner humanities of the living being should be, as it were, crushed on a wheel and ground into fragments, so that nothing should be left capable of receiving pleasure from the delights of this world. Such, according to her theory of life, was the treatment to which young women should be subjected. The system needed for men might probably be different. It was necessary that they should go forth and work; and Madame Staubach conceived it to be possible that the work of the world could not be adequately done by men who had been subjected to the crushing process which was requisite for women. Therefore it was that she admitted Peter Steinmarc to her confidence as a worthy friend, though Peter was by no means a man enfranchised from the thralls of the earth. Of young women there was but one with whom she could herself deal; but in regard to that one Madame Staubach was resolved that no softness of heart should deter her from her duty. "Linda," she said, after pausing for a while, "I desire to know from you what Herr Molk has said to you!" Then there was a short period of silence. "Linda, did he sanction your love for Ludovic Valcarm?"
"No," said Linda, sullenly.
"I should think not, indeed! And, Linda, did he bid you be rebellious in that other matter?"
Linda paused again before she answered; but it was but for a moment, and then she replied, in the same voice, "No."
"Did he tell you that you had better take Peter Steinmarc for your husband?" Linda could not bring herself to answer this, but sat beating the floor with her foot, and with her face turned away and her eyes fixed upon the wall. She was no longer sobbing now, but was hardening herself against her aunt. She was resolving that she would be a castaway,—that she would have nothing more to do with godliness, or even with decency. She had found godliness and decency too heavy to be borne. In all her life, had not that moment in which Ludovic had held her tight bound by his arm round her waist been the happiest? Had it not been to her, her one single morsel of real bliss? She was thinking now whether she would fly round upon her aunt and astonish her tyrant by a declaration of principles that should be altogether new. Then came the question again in the same hard voice, "Did he not tell you that you had better take Peter Steinmarc for your husband?"
"I won't take Peter Steinmarc for my husband," said Linda; and she did in part effect that flying round of which she had been thinking. "I won't take Peter Steinmarc for my husband, let the man say what he may. How can I marry him if I hate him? He is a—beast."
Then Madame Staubach groaned. Linda had often heard her groan, but had never known her to groan as she groaned now. It was very deep and very low, and prolonged with a cadence that caused Linda to tremble in every limb. And Linda understood it thoroughly. It was as though her aunt had been told by an angel that Satan was coming to her house in person that day. And Linda did that which the reader also should do. She gave to her aunt full credit for pure sincerity in her feelings. Madame Staubach did believe that Satan was coming for her niece, if not actually come; he was close at hand, if not arrived. The crushing, if done at all, must be done instantly, so that Satan should find the spirit so broken and torn to paltry fragments as not to be worth his acceptance. She stretched forth her hand and took hold of her niece. "Linda," she said, "do you ever think of the bourne to which the wicked ones go;—they who are wicked as you now are wicked?"
"I cannot help it," said Linda.
"And did he not bid you take this man for your husband?"
"I will not do his bidding, then! It would kill me. Do you not know that I love Ludovic better than all the world? He is in prison, but shall I cease to love him for that reason? He came to me once up-stairs at night when you were sitting here with that—beast, and I swore to him then that I would never love another man,—that I should never marry anybody else!"
"Came to you once up-stairs at night! To your own chamber?"
"Yes, he did. You may know all about it, if you please. You may know everything. I don't want anything to be secret. He came to me, and when he had his arms round me I told him that I was his own,—his own,—his own. How can I be the wife of another man after that?"
Madame Staubach was so truly horrified by what she had first heard, was so astonished, that she omitted even to groan. Valcarm had been with this wretched girl up in her own chamber! She hardly even now believed that which it seemed to her that she was called upon to believe, having never as yet for a moment doubted the real purity of her niece even when she was most vehemently denouncing her as a reprobate, a castaway, and a child of Satan. The reader will know to what extent Linda had been imprudent, to what extent she had sinned. But Madame Staubach did not know. She had nothing to guide her but the words of this poor girl who had been so driven to desperation by the misery which enveloped her, that she almost wished to be taken for worse than she was in order that she might escape the terrible doom from which she saw no other means of escape. Nobody, it is true, could have forced her to marry Peter Steinmarc. There was no law, no custom in Nuremberg, which would have assisted her aunt, or Peter, or even the much-esteemed and venerable Herr Molk himself, in compelling her to submit to such nuptials. She was free to exercise her own choice, if only she had had strength to assert her freedom. But youth, which rebels so often against the authority and wisdom of age, is also subject to much tyranny from age. Linda did not know the strength of her own position, had not learned to recognise the fact of her own individuality. She feared the power of her aunt over her, and through her aunt the power of the man whom she hated; and she feared the now provoked authority of Herr Molk, who had been with her weak as a child is weak, counselling her to submit herself to a suitor unfitted for her, because another man who loved her was also unfit. And, moreover, Linda, though she was now willing in her desperation to cast aside all religious scruples of her own, still feared those with which her aunt was armed. Unless she did something, or at least said something, to separate herself entirely from her aunt, this terrible domestic tyrant would overcome her by the fear of denunciation, which would terrify her soul even though she had dared to declare to herself that in her stress of misery she would throw overboard all consideration of her soul's welfare. Though she intended no longer to live in accordance with her religious belief, she feared what religion could say to her,—dreaded to the very marrow of her bones the threats of God's anger and of Satan's power with which her aunt would harass her. If only she could rid herself of it all! Therefore, though she perceived that the story which she had told of herself had filled her aunt's mind with a horrible and a false suspicion, she said nothing to correct the error. Therefore she said nothing further, though her aunt sat looking at her with open mouth, and eyes full of terror, and hands clasped, and pale cheeks.
"In this house,—in this very house!" said Madame Staubach, not knowing what it might best become her to say in such a strait as this.
"The house is as much mine as yours," said Linda, sullenly. And she too, in saying this, had not known what she meant to say, or what she ought to have said. Her aunt had alluded to the house, and there seemed to her, in her distress, to be something in that on which she could hang a word.
For a while her aunt sat in silence looking at Linda, and then she fell upon her knees, with her hands clasped to heaven. What was the matter of her prayers we may not here venture to surmise; but, such as they were, they were sincere. Then she arose and went slowly as far as the door, but she returned before she had reached the threshold. "Wretched child!" she said.
"Yes, you have made me wretched," said Linda.
"Listen to me, Linda, if so much grace is left to you. After what you have told me, I cannot but suppose that all hope of happiness or comfort in this world is over both for you and me."
"For myself, I wish I were dead," said Linda.
"Have you no thought of what will come after death? Oh, my child, repentance is still possible to you, and with repentance there will come at length grace and salvation. Mary Magdalene was blessed,—was specially blessed among women."
"Pshaw!" said Linda, indignantly. What had she to do with Mary Magdalene? The reality of her position then came upon her, and not the facts of that position which she had for a moment almost endeavoured to simulate.
"Do you not hate yourself for what you have done?"
"No, no, no. But I hate Peter Steinmarc, and I hate Herr Molk, and if you are so cruel to me I shall hate you. I have done nothing wrong. I could not help it if he came up-stairs. He came because he loved me, and because you would not let him come in a proper way. Nobody else loves me, but he would do anything for me. And now they have thrown him into prison!"
The case was so singular in all its bearings, that Madame Staubach could make nothing of it. Linda seemed to have confessed her iniquity, and yet, after her confession, spoke of herself as though she were the injured person,—of herself and her lover as though they were both ill used. According to Madame Staubach's own ideas, Linda ought now to have been in the dust, dissolved in tears, wiping the floor with her hair, utterly subdued in spirit, hating herself as the vilest of God's creatures. But there was not even an outward sign of contrition. And then, in the midst of all this real tragedy, Tetchen brought in the dinner. The two women sat down together, but neither of them spoke a word. Linda did eat something,—a morsel or two; but Madame Staubach would not touch the food on the table. Then Tetchen was summoned to take away the all but unused plates. Tetchen, when she saw how it had been, said nothing, but looked from the face of one to the face of the other. "She has heard all about that scamp Ludovic," said Tetchen to herself, as she carried the dishes back into the kitchen.
It had been late when the dinner had been brought to them, and the dusk of the evening came upon them as soon as Tetchen's clatter with the crockery was done. Madame Staubach sat in her accustomed chair, with her eyes closed, and her hands clasped on her lap before her. A stranger might have thought that she was asleep, but Linda knew that her aunt was not sleeping. She also sat silent till she thought that the time was drawing near at which Steinmarc might probably enter the parlour. Then she arose to go, but could not leave her aunt without a word. "Aunt Charlotte," she said, "I am ill,—very ill; my head is throbbing, and I will go to bed." Madame Staubach merely shook her head, and shook her hands, and remained silent, with her eyes still closed. She had not even yet resolved upon the words with which it would be expedient that she should address her niece. Then Linda left the room, and went to her own apartment.
Madame Staubach, when she was alone, sobbed and cried, and kneeled and prayed, and walked the length and breadth of the room in an agony of despair and doubt. She also was in want of a counsellor to whom she could go in her present misery. And there was no such counsellor. It seemed to her to be impossible that she should confide everything to Peter Steinmarc. And yet it was no more than honest that Peter should be told before he was allowed to continue his courtship. Even now, though she had seen Linda's misery, Madame Staubach thought that the marriage which she had been so anxious to arrange would be the safest way out of all their troubles,—if only Peter might be brought to consent to it after hearing all the truth. And she fancied that those traits in Peter's character, appearance, and demeanour which were so revolting to Linda would be additional means of bringing Linda back from the slough of despond,—if only such a marriage might still be possible. But the crushing must be more severe than had hitherto been intended, the weights imposed must be heavier, and the human atoms smaller and more like the dust.
While she was meditating on this there came the usual knock at the door, and Steinmarc entered the room. She greeted him, as was her wont, with but a word or two, and he sat down and lighted his pipe. An observant man might have known, even from the sound of her breathing, that something had stirred Madame Staubach more than usual. But Peter was not an observant man, and, having something on his own mind, paid but little attention to the widow. At last, having finished his first pipe and filled it again, he spoke. "Madame Staubach," he said, "I have been thinking about Linda Tressel."
"And so have I, Peter," said Madame Staubach.
"Yes,—of course; that is natural. She is your niece, and you and she have interests in common."
"What interests, Peter? Ah me! I wish we had."
"Of course it is all right that you should, and I say nothing about that. But, Madame Staubach, I do not like to be made a fool of;—I particularly object to be made a fool of. If Linda is to become my wife, there is not any time to be lost." Then Peter recommenced the smoking of his new-lighted pipe with great vigour.
Madame Staubach at this moment became a martyr to great scruples. Was it her duty, or was it not her duty, to tell Peter at this moment all that she had heard to-day? She rather thought that it was her duty to do so, and yet she was restrained by some feeling of feminine honour from disgracing her niece,—by some feeling of feminine honour for which she afterwards did penance with many inward flagellations of the spirit.
"You must not be too hard upon her, Peter," said Madame Staubach with a trembling voice.
"It is all very well saying that, and I do not think that I am the man to be hard upon any one. But the fact is that this young woman has got a lover, which is a thing of which I do not approve. I do not approve of it at all, Madame Staubach. Some persons who stand very high indeed in the city,—indeed I may say that none in Nuremberg stand higher,—have asked me to-day whether I am engaged to marry Linda Tressel. What answer am I to make when I am so asked, Madame Staubach? One of our leading burgomasters was good enough to say that he hoped it was so for the young woman's sake." Madame Staubach, little as she knew of the world of Nuremberg, was well aware who was the burgomaster. "That is all very well, my friend; but if it be so that Linda will not renounce her lover,—who, by the by, is at this moment locked up in prison, so that he cannot do any harm just now,—why then, in that case, Madame Staubach, I must renounce her." Having uttered these terrible words, Peter Steinmarc smoked away again with all his fury.
A fortnight ago, had Peter Steinmarc ventured to speak to her in this strain, Madame Staubach would have answered him with some feminine pride, and would have told him that her niece was not a suppliant for his hand. This she did not dare to do now. She was all at fault as to facts, and did not know what the personages of Nuremberg might be saying in respect to Linda. Were she to quarrel altogether with Steinmarc, she thought that there would be left to her no means of bringing upon Linda that salutary crushing which alone might be efficacious for her salvation. She was therefore compelled to temporise. Let Peter be silent for a week, and at the end of that week let him speak again. If things could not then be arranged to his satisfaction, Linda should be regarded as altogether a castaway.
"Very well, Madame Staubach. Then I will ask her for the last time this day week." In coarsest sackcloth, and with bitterest ashes, did Madame Staubach on that night do spiritual penance for her own sins and for those of Linda Tressel.
This week had nearly passed to the duration of which Peter Steinmarc had assented, and at the end of which it was to be settled whether Linda would renounce Ludovic Valcarm, or Peter himself would renounce Linda. With a manly propriety he omitted any spoken allusion to the subject during those smoking visits which he still paid on alternate days to the parlour of Madame Staubach. But, though he said nothing, his looks and features and the motions of his limbs were eloquent of his importance and his dignity during this period of waiting. He would salute Madame Staubach when he entered the chamber with a majesty of demeanour which he had not before affected, and would say a few words on subjects of public interest—such as the weather, the price of butter, and the adulteration of the city beer—in false notes, in tones which did not belong to him, and which in truth disgusted Madame Staubach, who was sincere in all things. But Madame Staubach, though she was disgusted, did not change her mind or abandon her purpose. Linda was to be made to marry Peter Steinmarc, not because he was a pleasant man, but because such a discipline would be for the good of her soul. Madame Staubach therefore listened, and said little or nothing; and when Peter on a certain Thursday evening remarked as he was leaving the parlour that the week would be over on the following morning, and that he would do himself the honour of asking for the fraulein's decision on his return from the town-hall at five P.M. on the morrow, apologising at the same time for the fact that he would then be driven to intrude on an irregular day, Madame Staubach merely answered by an assenting motion of her head, and by the utterance of her usual benison, "God in His mercy be with you, Peter Steinmarc." "And with you too, Madame Staubach." Then Peter marched forth with great dignity, holding his pipe as high as his shoulder.
Linda Tressel had kept her bed during nearly the whole week, and had in truth been very ill. Hitherto it had been her aunt's scheme of life to intermit in some slight degree the acerbity of her usual demeanour in periods of illness. At such times she would be very constant with the reading of good books by the bedside and with much ghostly advice to the sufferer, but she would not take it amiss if the patient succumbed to sleep while she was thus employed, believing sleep to be pardonable at such times of bodily weakness, and perhaps salutary; and she would be softer in her general manner, and would sometimes descend to the saying of tender little words, and would administer things agreeable to the palate which might at the same time be profitable to the health. So thus there had been moments in which Linda had felt that it would be comfortable to be always ill. But now, during the whole of this week, Madame Staubach had been very doubtful as to her conduct. At first it had seemed to her that all tenderness must be misplaced in circumstances so terrible, till there had been an actual resolution of repentance, till the spirit had been made to pass seven times through the fire, till the heart had lost all its human cords and fibres. But gradually, and that before the second day had elapsed, there came upon her a conviction that she had in some way mistaken the meaning of Linda's words, and that matters were not as she had supposed. She did not now in the least doubt Linda's truth. She was convinced that Linda had intentionally told no falsehood, and that she would tell none. But there were questions which she would not ask, which she could not ask at any rate except by slow degrees. Something, however, she learned from Tetchen, something from Linda herself, and thus there came upon her a conviction that there might be no frightful story to tell to Peter,—that in all probability there was no such story to be told. What she believed at this time was in fact about the truth.
But if it were as she believed, then was it the more incumbent on her to see that this marriage did not slip through her fingers. She became very busy, and in her eagerness she went to Herr Molk. Herr Molk had learned something further about Ludovic, and promised that he would himself come down and see "the child." He would see "the child," ill as she was, in bed, and perhaps say a word or two that might assist. Madame Staubach found that the burgomaster was quite prepared to advocate the Steinmarc marriage, being instigated thereto apparently by his civic horror at Valcarm's crimes. He would shake his head, and swing his whole body, and blow out the breath from behind his cheeks, knitting his eyebrows and assuming a look of terror when it was suggested to him that the daughter of his old friend, the undoubted owner of a house in Nuremberg, was anxious to give herself and her property to Ludovic Valcarm. "No, no, Madame Staubach, that mustn't be;—that must not be, my dear Madame. A rebel! a traitor! I don't know what the young man hasn't done. It would be confiscated;—confiscated! Dear, dear, only to think of Josef Tressel's daughter! Let her marry Peter Steinmarc, a good man,—a very good man! Followed her father, you know, and does his work very well. The city is not what it used to be, Madame Staubach, but still Peter does his work very well." Then Herr Molk promised to come down to the red house, and he did come down.
But Madame Staubach could not trust everything to Herr Molk. It was necessary that she should do much before he came, and much probably after he went. As her conception of the true state of things became strong, and as she was convinced also that Linda was really far from well, her manner became kinder, and she assumed that sickbed tenderness which admitted of sleep during the reading of a sermon. But it was essential that she should not forget her work for an hour. Gradually Linda was taught to understand that on such a day Steinmarc was to demand an answer. When Linda attempted to explain that the answer had been already given, and could not be altered, her aunt interrupted her, declaring that nothing need be said at the present moment. So that the question remained an open question, and Linda understood that it was so regarded. Then Madame Staubach spoke of Ludovic Valcarm, putting up her hands with dismay, and declaring what horrid things Herr Molk had told of him. It was at that moment that Linda was told that she was to be visited in a day or two by the burgomaster. Linda endeavoured to explain that though it might be necessary to give up Ludovic,—not saying that she would give him up,—still it was not on that account necessary also that she should marry Peter Steinmarc. Madame Staubach shook her head, and implied that the necessity did exist. Things had been said, and things had been done, and Herr Molk was decidedly of opinion that the marriage should be solemnised without delay. Linda, of course, did not submit to this in silence; but gradually she became more and more silent as her aunt continued in a low tone to drone forth her wishes and her convictions, and at last Linda would almost sleep while the salutary position of Peter Steinmarc's wife was being explained to her.
The reader must understand that she was in truth ill, prostrated by misery, doubt, and agitation, and weak from the effects of her illness. In this condition Herr Molk paid his visit to her. He spoke, in the first place, of the civil honour which she had inherited from her respected father, and of all that she owed to Nuremberg on this account. Then he spoke also of that other inheritance, the red house, explaining to her that it was her duty as a citizen to see that this should not be placed by her in evil hands. After that he took up the subject of Peter Steinmarc's merits; and according to Herr Molk, as he now drew the picture, Peter was little short of a municipal demigod. Prudent he was, and confidential. A man deep in the city's trust, and with money laid out at interest. Strong and healthy he was,—indeed lusty for his age, if Herr Molk spoke the truth. Poor Linda gave a little kick beneath the clothes when this was said, but she spoke no word of reply. And then Peter was a man not given to scolding, of equal temper, who knew his place, and would not interfere with things that did not belong to him. Herr Molk produced a catalogue of nuptial virtues, and endowed Peter with them all. When this was completed, he came to the last head of his discourse,—the last head and the most important. Ludovic Valcarm was still in prison, and there was no knowing what might be done to him. To be imprisoned for life in some horrible place among the rats seemed to be the least of it. Linda, when she heard this, gave one slight scream, but she said nothing. Because Herr Molk was a burgomaster, she need not on that account believe every word that fell from his mouth. But the cruellest blow of all was at the end. When Ludovic was taken, there had been—a young woman with him.
"What young woman?" said Linda, turning sharply upon the burgomaster.
"Not such a young woman as any young man ought to be seen with," said Herr Molk.
"What matters her name?" said Madame Staubach, who, during the whole discourse, had been sitting silent by the bedside.
"I don't believe a word of it," said Linda.
"I saw the young woman in his company, my dear. She had a felt hat and a blue frock. But, my child, you know nothing of the lives of such young men as this. It would not astonish me if he knew a dozen young women! You don't suppose that such a one as he ever means to be true?"
"I am sure he meant to be true to me," said Linda.
"T-sh, t-sh, t-sh! my dear child; you don't know the world, and how should you? If you want to marry a husband who will remain at home and live discreetly, and be true to you, you must take such a man as Peter Steinmarc."
"Of course she must," said Madame Staubach.
"Such a one as Ludovic Valcarm would only waste your property and drag you into the gutters."
"No more—no more," said Madame Staubach.
"She will think better of it, Madame Staubach. She will not be so foolish nor so wicked as that," said the burgomaster.
"May the Lord in His mercy give her light to see the right way," said Madame Staubach.
Then Herr Molk took his departure with Madame Staubach at his heels, and Linda was left to her own considerations. Her first assertion to herself was that she did not believe a word of it. She knew what sort of a man she could love as her husband without having Herr Molk to come and teach her. She could not love Peter Steinmarc, let him be ever so much respected in Nuremberg. As to what Herr Molk said that she owed to the city, that was nothing to her. The city did not care for her, nor she for the city. If they wished to take the house from her, let them do it. She was quite sure that Ludovic Valcarm had not loved her because she was the owner of a paltry old house. As to Ludovic being in prison, the deeper was his dungeon, the more true it behoved her to be to him. If he were among the rats, she would willingly be there also. But when she tried to settle in her thoughts the matter of the young woman with the felt hat and the blue frock, then her mind became more doubtful.
She knew well enough that Herr Molk was wrong in the picture which he drew of Peter; but she was not so sure that he was wrong in that other picture about Ludovic. There was something very grand, that had gratified her spirit amazingly, in the manner in which her lover had disappeared among the rafters; but at the same time she acknowledged to herself that there was much in it that was dangerous. A young man who can disappear among the rafters so quickly must have had much experience. She knew that Ludovic was wild,—very wild, and that wild young men do not make good husbands. To have had his arm once round her waist was to her almost a joy for ever. But she had nearly come to believe that if she were to have his arm often round her waist, she must become a castaway. And then, to be a castaway, sharing her treasure with another! Who was this blue-frocked woman, with a felt hat, who seemed to have been willing to do so much more for Ludovic than she had done,—who had gone with him into danger, and was sharing with him his perils?
But though she made a great fight against the wisdom of Herr Molk when she was first left to herself, the words of the burgomaster had their effect. Her enemies were becoming too strong for her. Her heart was weak within her. She had eaten little or nothing for the last few days, and the blood was running thinly through her veins. It was more difficult to reply to tenderness from her aunt than to harshness. And there came upon her a feeling that after all it signified but little. There was but a choice between one misery and another. The only really good thing would be to die and to have done with it all,—to die before she had utterly thrown away all hope, all chance of happiness in that future world in which she thoroughly believed. She was ill now, and if it might be that her illness would bring her to death;—but would bring her slowly, so that she might yet repent, and all would be right.
Madame Staubach said nothing more to her about Peter till the morning of that day on which Peter was to come for his answer. A little before noon Madame Staubach brought to her niece some weak broth, as she had done once before, on that morning. But Linda, who was sick and faint at heart, would not take it.
"Try, my dear," said Madame Staubach.
"I cannot try," said Linda.
"I wish particularly to speak to you,—now,—at once; and this will give you strength to listen to me." But Linda declined to be made strong for such a purpose, and declared that she could listen very well as she was. Then Madame Staubach began her great argument. Linda had heard what the burgomaster had said. Linda knew well what she, her aunt and guardian, thought about it. Linda could not but know that visits from a young man at her chamber door, such as that to which she herself had confessed, were things so horrible that they hardly admitted of being spoken of even between an aunt and her niece; and Madame Staubach's cheeks were hot and red as she spoke of this.
"If he had come to your door, aunt Charlotte, you could not have helped it."
"But he embraced you?"
"Yes, he did."
"Oh, my child, will you not let me save you from the evil days? Linda, you are all in all to me;—the only one that I love. Linda, Linda, your soul is precious to me, almost as my own. Oh, Linda, shall I pray for you in vain?" She sank upon her knees as she spoke, and prayed with all her might that God would turn the heart of this child, so that even yet she might be rescued from the burning. With arms extended, and loud voice, and dishevelled hair, and streaming tears, shrieking to Heaven in her agony, every now and again kissing the hand of the poor sinner, she besought the Lord her God that He would give to her the thing for which she asked;—and that thing prayed for with such agony of earnestness, was a consent from Linda to marry Peter Steinmarc! It was very strange, but the woman was as sincere in her prayer as is faith itself. She would have cut herself with knives, and have swallowed ashes whole, could she have believed that by doing so she could have been nearer her object. And she had no end of her own in view. That Peter, as master of the house, would be a thorn in her own side, she had learned to believe; but thorns in the sides of women were, she thought, good for them; and it was necessary to Linda that she should be stuck full of thorns, so that her base human desires might, as it were, fall from her bones and perish out of the way. Once, twice, thrice, Linda besought her aunt to arise; but the half frantic woman had said to herself that she would remain on her knees, on the hard boards, till this thing was granted to her. Had it not been said by lips that could not lie, that faith would move a mountain? and would not faith, real faith, do for her this smaller thing? Then there came questions to her mind, whether the faith was there. Did she really believe that this thing would be done for her? If she believed it, then it would be done. Thinking of all this, with the girl's hands between her own, she renewed her prayers. Once and again she threw herself upon the floor, striking it with her forehead. "Oh, my child! my child, my child! If God would do this for me! my child, my child! Only for my sin and weakness this thing would be done for me."
For three hours Linda lay there, hearing this, mingling her screams with those of her aunt, half fainting, half dead, now and again dozing for a moment even amidst the screams, and then struggling up in bed, that she might embrace her aunt, and implore her to abandon her purpose. But the woman would only give herself with the greater vehemence to the work. "Now, if the Lord would see fit, now,—now; if the Lord would see fit!"
Linda had swooned, her aunt being all unconscious of it, had dozed afterwards, and had then risen and struggled up, and was seated in her bed. "Aunt Charlotte," she said, "what is it—that—you want of me?"
"That you should obey the Lord, and take this man for your husband."
Linda stayed a while to think, not pausing that she might answer her aunt's sophistry, which she hardly noticed, but that she might consider, if it were possible, what it was that she was about to do;—that there might be left a moment to her before she had surrendered herself for ever to her doom. And then she spoke. "Aunt Charlotte," she said, "if you will get up I will do as you would have me."
Madame Staubach could not arise at once, as it was incumbent on her to return thanks for the mercy that had been vouchsafed to her; but her thanks were quickly rendered, and then she was on the bed, with Linda in her arms. She had succeeded, and her child was saved. Perhaps there was something of triumph that the earnestness of her prayer should have been efficacious. It was a great thing that she had done, and the Scriptures had proved themselves to be true to her. She lay for a while fondling her niece and kissing her, as she had not done for years. "Linda, dear Linda!" She almost promised to the girl earthly happiness, in spite of her creed as to the necessity for crushing. For the moment she petted her niece as one weak woman may pet another. She went down to the kitchen and made coffee for her,—though she herself was weak from want of food,—and toasted bread, and brought the food up with a china cup and a china plate, to show her gratitude to the niece who had been her convert. And yet, as she did so, she told herself that such gratitude was mean, vile, and mistaken. It had been the Lord's doing, and not Linda's.
Linda took the coffee and the toast, and tried to make herself passive in her aunt's hands. She returned Madame Staubach's kisses and the pressure of her hand, and made some semblance of joy, that peace should have been re-established between them two. But her heart was dead within her, and the reflection that this illness might even yet be an illness unto death was the only one in which she could find the slightest comfort. She had promised Ludovic that she would never become the wife of any one but him; and now, at the first trial of her faith, she had promised to marry Peter Steinmarc. She was forsworn, and it would hardly be that the Lord would be satisfied with her, because she had perjured herself! When her aunt left her, which Madame Staubach did as the dusk came on, she endeavoured to promise herself that she would never get well. Was not the very thought that she would have to take Peter for her husband enough to keep her on her sickbed till she should be beyond all such perils as that?
Madame Staubach, before she left the room, asked Linda whether she would not be able to dress herself and come down, so that she might say one word to her affianced husband. It should be but one word, and then she should be allowed to return. Linda would have declined to do this,—was refusing utterly to do it,—when she found that if she did not go down Peter would be brought up to her bedroom, to receive her troth there, by her bedside. The former evil, she thought, would be less than the latter. Steinmarc as a lover at her bedside would be intolerable to her; and then if she descended, she might ascend again instantly. That was part of the bargain. But if Peter were to come up to her room, there was no knowing how long he might stay there. She promised therefore that she would dress and come down as soon as she knew that the man was in the parlour. We may say for her, that when left alone she was as firmly resolved as ever that she would never become the man's wife. If this illness did not kill her, she would escape from the wedding in some other way. She would never put her hand into that of Peter Steinmarc, and let the priest call him and her man and wife. She had lied to her aunt—so she told herself,—but her aunt had forced the lie from her.
When Peter entered Madame Staubach's parlour he was again dressed in his Sunday best, as he had been when he made his first overture to Linda. "Good evening, Madame Staubach," he said.
"Good evening, Peter Steinmarc."
"I hope you have good news for me, Madame Staubach, from the maiden up-stairs."
Madame Staubach took a moment or two for thought before she replied. "Peter Steinmarc, the Lord has been good to us, and has softened her heart, and has brought the child round to our way of thinking. She has consented, Peter, that you should be her husband."
Peter was not so grateful perhaps as he should have been at this good news,—or rather perhaps at the manner in which the result seemed to have been achieved. Of course he knew nothing of those terribly earnest petitions which Madame Staubach had preferred to the throne of heaven on behalf of his marriage, but he did not like being told at all of any interposition from above in such a matter. He would have preferred to be assured, even though he himself might not quite have believed the assurance, that Linda had yielded to a sense of his own merits. "I am glad she has thought better of it, Madame Staubach," he said; "she is only just in time."
Madame Staubach was very nearly angry, but she reminded herself that people cannot be crushed by rose-leaves. Peter Steinmarc was to be taken, because he was Peter Steinmarc, not because he was somebody very different, better mannered, and more agreeable.
"I don't know how that may be, Peter."
"Ah, but it is so;—only just in time, I can assure you. But 'a miss is as good as a mile;' so we will let that pass."
"She is now ready to come down and accept your troth, and give you hers. You will remember that she is ill and weak; and, indeed, I am unwell myself. She can stay but a moment, and then, I am sure, you will leave us for to-night. The day has not been without its trouble and its toil to both of us."
"Surely," said Peter; "a word or two shall satisfy me to-night. But, Madame Staubach, I shall look to you to see that the period before our wedding is not protracted,—you will remember that." To this Madame Staubach made no answer, but slowly mounted to Linda's chamber.
Linda was already nearly dressed. She was not minded to keep her suitor waiting. Tetchen was with her, aiding her; but to Tetchen she had refused to say a single word respecting either Peter or Ludovic. Something Tetchen had heard from Madame Staubach, but from Linda she heard nothing. Linda intended to go down to the parlour, and therefore she must dress herself. As she was weak almost to fainting, she had allowed Tetchen to help her. Her aunt led her down, and there was nothing said between them as they went. At the door her aunt kissed her, and muttered some word of love. Then they entered the room together.
Peter was found standing in the middle of the chamber, with his left hand beneath his waistcoat, and his right hand free for the performance of some graceful salutation. "Linda," said he, as soon as he saw the two ladies standing a few feet away from him, "I am glad to see you down-stairs again,—very glad. I hope you find yourself better." Linda muttered, or tried to mutter, some words of thanks; but nothing was audible. She stood hanging upon her aunt, with eyes turned down, and her limbs trembling beneath her. "Linda," continued Peter, "your aunt tells me that you have accepted my offer. I am very glad of it. I will be a good husband to you, and I hope you will be an obedient wife."
"Linda," said Madame Staubach, "put your hand in his." Linda put forth her little hand a few inches, and Peter took it within his own, looking the while into Madame Staubach's face, as though he were to repeat some form of words after her. "You are now betrothed in the sight of God, as man and wife," said Madame Staubach; "and may the married life of both of you be passed to His glory.—Amen."
"Amen," said Steinmarc, like the parish clerk. Linda pressed her lips close together, so that there should be no possibility of a chance sound passing from them.
"Now, I think we will go back again, Peter, as the poor child can hardly stand." Peter raised no objection, and then Linda was conducted back again to her bed. There was one comfort to her in the remembrance of the scene. She had escaped the dreaded contamination of a kiss.
Peter Steinmarc, now that he was an engaged man, affianced to a young bride, was urgent from day to day with Madame Staubach that the date of his wedding should be fixed. He soon found that all Nuremberg knew that he was to be married. Perhaps Herr Molk had not been so silent and discreet as would have been becoming in a man so highly placed, and perhaps Peter himself had let slip a word to some confidential friend who had betrayed him. Be this as it might, all Nuremberg knew of Peter's good fortune, and he soon found that he should have no peace till the thing was completed. "She is quite well enough, I am sure," said Peter to Madame Staubach, "and if there is anything amiss she can finish getting well afterwards." Madame Staubach was sufficiently eager herself that Linda should be married without delay; but, nevertheless, she was angry at being so pressed, and used rather sharp language in explaining to Peter that he would not be allowed to dictate on such a subject. "Ah! well; if it isn't this year it won't be next," said Peter, on one occasion when he had determined to show his power. Madame Staubach did not believe the threat, but she did begin to fear that, perhaps, after all, there might be fresh obstacles. It was now near the end of November, and though Linda still kept her room, her aunt could not see that she was suffering from any real illness. When, however, a word was said to press the poor girl, Linda would declare that she was weak and sick—unable to walk; in short, that at present she would not leave her room. Madame Staubach was beginning to be angered at this; but, for all that, Linda had not left her room.
It was now two weeks since she had suffered herself to be betrothed, and Peter had twice been up to her chamber, creaking with his shoes along the passages. Twice she had passed a terrible half-hour, while he had sat, for the most part silent, in an old wicker chair by her bedside. Her aunt had, of course, been present, and had spoken most of the words that had been uttered during these visits; and these words had nearly altogether referred to Linda's ailments. Linda was still not quite well, she had said, but would soon be better, and then all would be properly settled. Such was the purport of the words which Madame Staubach would speak on those occasions.
"Before Christmas?" Peter had once asked.
"No," Linda had replied, very sharply.
"It must be as the Lord shall will it," said Madame Staubach. That had been so true that neither Linda nor Peter had found it necessary to express dissent. On both these occasions Linda's energy had been chiefly used to guard herself from any sign of a caress. Peter had thought of it, but Linda lay far away upon the bed, and the lover did not see how it was to be managed. He was not sure, moreover, whether Madame Staubach would not have been shocked at any proposal in reference to an antenuptial embrace. On these considerations he abstained.
It was now near the end of November, and Linda knew that she was well. Her aunt had proposed some day in January for the marriage, and Linda, though she had never assented, could not on the moment find any plea for refusing altogether to have a day fixed. All she could do was to endeavour to stave off the evil. Madame Staubach seemed to think that it was indispensable that a day in January should be named; therefore, at last, the thirtieth of that month was after some fashion fixed for the wedding. Linda never actually assented, but after many discourses it seemed to be decided that it should be so. Peter was so told, and with some grumbling expressed himself as satisfied; but when would Linda come down to him? He was sure that Linda was well enough to come down if she would. At last a day was fixed for that also. It was arranged that the three should go to church together on the first Sunday in December. It would be safer so than in any other way. He could not make love to her in church.
On the Saturday evening Linda was down-stairs with her aunt. Peter, as she knew well, was at the Rothe Ross on that evening, and would not be home till past ten. Tetchen was out, and Linda had gone down to take her supper with her aunt. The meal had been eaten almost in silence, for Linda was very sad, and Madame Staubach herself was beginning to feel that the task before her was almost too much for her strength. Had it not been that she was carried on by the conviction that things stern and hard and cruel would in the long-run be comforting to the soul, she would have given way. But she was a woman not prone to give way when she thought that the soul's welfare was concerned. She had seen the shrinking, retreating horror with which Linda had almost involuntarily contrived to keep her distance from her future husband. She had listened to the girl's voice, and knew that there had been not one light-hearted tone from it since that consent had been wrung from the sufferer by the vehemence of her own bedside prayers. She was aware that Linda from day to day was becoming thinner and thinner, paler and still paler. But she knew, or thought that she knew, that it was God's will; and so she went on. It was not a happy time even for Madame Staubach, but it was a time in which to Linda it seemed that hell had come to her beforehand with all its terrors.
There was, however, one thing certain to her yet. She would never put her hand into that of Peter Steinmarc in God's house after such a fashion that any priest should be able to say that they two were man and wife in the sight of God.
On this Saturday evening Tetchen was out, as was the habit with her on alternate Saturday evenings. On such occasions Linda would usually do what household work was necessary in the kitchen, preparatory to the coming Sabbath. But on this evening Madame Staubach herself was employed in the kitchen, as Linda was not considered to be well enough to perform the task. Linda was sitting alone, between the fire and the window, with no work in her hand, with no book before her, thinking of her fate, when there came upon the panes of the window sundry small, sharp, quickly-repeated rappings, as though gravel had been thrown upon them. She knew at once that the noise was not accidental, and jumped up on her feet. If it was some mode of escape, let it be what it might, she would accept it. She jumped up, and with short hurried steps placed herself close to the window. The quick, sharp, little blows upon the glass were heard again, and then there was a voice. "Linda, Linda." Heavens and earth! it was his voice. There was no mistaking it. Had she heard but a single syllable in the faintest whisper, she would have known it. It was Ludovic Valcarm, and he had come for her, even out of his prison. He should find that he had not come in vain. Then the word was repeated—"Linda, are you there?" "I am here," she said, speaking very faintly, and trembling at the sound of her own voice. Then the iron pin was withdrawn from the wooden shutter on the outside, as it could not have been withdrawn had not some traitor within the house prepared the way for it, and the heavy Venetian blinds were folded back, and Linda could see the outlines of the man's head and shoulders, in the dark, close to the panes of the window. It was raining at the time, and the night was very dark, but still she could see the outline. She stood and watched him; for, though she was willing to be with him, she felt that she could do nothing. In a moment the frame of the window was raised, and his head was within the room, within her aunt's parlour, where her aunt might now have been for all that he could have known;—were it not that Tetchen was watching at the corner, and knew to the scraping of a carrot how long it would be before Madame Staubach had made the soup for to-morrow's dinner.
"Linda," he said, "how is it with you?"
"Linda, will you go with me now?"
"What! now, this instant?"
"To-night. Listen, dearest, for she will be back. Go to her in ten minutes from now, and tell her that you are weary and would be in bed. She will see you to your room perhaps, and there may be delay. But when you can, come down silently, with your thickest cloak and your strongest hat, and any little thing you can carry easily. Come without a candle, and creep to the passage window. I will be there. If she will let you go up-stairs alone, you may be there in half-an-hour. It is our only chance." Then the window was closed, and after that the shutter, and then the pin was pushed back, and Linda was again alone in her aunt's chamber.
To be there in half-an-hour! To commence such a job as this at once! To go to her aunt with a premeditated lie that would require perfect acting, and to have to do this in ten minutes, in five minutes, while the minutes were flying from her like sparks of fire! It was impossible. If it had been enjoined upon her for the morrow, so that there should have been time for thought, she might have done it. But this call upon her for instant action almost paralysed her. And yet what other hope was there? She had told herself that she would do anything, however wicked, however dreadful, that would save her from the proposed marriage. She had sworn to herself that she would do something; for that Steinmarc's wife she would never be. And here had come to her a possibility of escape,—of escape too which had in it so much of sweetness! She must lie to her aunt. Was not every hour of life a separate lie? And as for acting a lie, what was the difference between that and telling it, except in the capability of the liar. Her aunt had forced her to lie. No truth was any longer possible to her. Would it not be better to lie for Ludovic Valcarm than to lie for Peter Steinmarc? She looked at the upright clock which stood in the corner of the room, and, seeing that the ten minutes was already passed, she crossed at once over into the kitchen. Her aunt was standing there, and Tetchen with her bonnet on, was standing by. Tetchen, as soon as she saw Linda, explained that she must be off again at once. She had only returned to fetch some article for a little niece of hers which Madame Staubach had given her.
"Aunt Charlotte," said Linda, "I am very weary. You will not be angry, will you, if I go to bed?"
"It is not yet nine o'clock, my dear."
"But I am tired, and I fear that I shall lack strength for to-morrow." Oh, Linda, Linda! But, indeed, had you foreseen the future, you might have truly said that you would want strength on the morrow.
"Then go, my dear;" and Madame Staubach kissed her niece and blessed her, and after that, with careful hand, threw some salt into the pot that was simmering on the stove. Peter Steinmarc was to dine with them on the morrow, and he was a man who cared that his soup should be well seasoned. Linda, terribly smitten by the consciousness of her own duplicity, went forth, and crept up-stairs to her room. She had now, as she calculated, a quarter of an hour, and she would wish, if possible, to be punctual. She looked out for a moment from the window, and could only see that it was very dark, and could hear that it was raining hard. She took her thickest cloak and her strongest hat. She would do in all things as he bade her; and then she tried to think what else she would take. She was going forth,—whither she knew not. Then came upon her a thought that on the morrow,—for many morrows afterwards, perhaps for all morrows to come,—there would be no comfortable wardrobe to which she could go for such decent changes of raiment as she required. She looked at her frock, and having one darker and thicker than that she wore, she changed it instantly. And then it was not only her garments that she was leaving behind her. For ever afterwards,—for ever and ever and ever,—she must be a castaway. The die had been thrown now, and everything was over. She was leaving behind her all decency, all feminine respect, all the clean ways of her pure young life, all modest thoughts, all honest, serviceable daily tasks, all godliness, all hope of heaven! The silent, quick-running tears streamed down her face as she moved rapidly about the room. The thing must be done, must be done,—must be done, even though earth and heaven were to fail her for ever afterwards. Earth and heaven would fail her for ever afterwards, but still the thing must be done. All should be endured, if by that all she could escape from the man she loathed.
She collected a few things, what little store of money she had,—four or five gulden, perhaps,—and a pair of light shoes and clean stockings, and a fresh handkerchief or two, and a little collar, and then she started. He had told her to bring what she could carry easily. She must not disobey him, but she would fain have brought more had she dared. At the last moment she returned, and took a small hair-brush and a comb. Then she looked round the room with a hurried glance, put out her candle, and crept silently down the stairs. On the first landing she paused, for it was possible that Peter might be returning. She listened, and then remembered that she would have heard Peter's feet even on the walk outside. Very quickly, but still more gently than ever, she went down the last stairs. From the foot of the stairs into the passage there was a moment in which she must be within sight of the kitchen door. She flew by, and felt that she must have been seen. But she was not seen. In an instant she was at the open window, and in another instant she was standing beside her lover on the gravel path. What he said to her she did not hear; what he did she did not know. She had completed her task now; she had done her part, and had committed herself entirely into his hands. She would ask no question. She would trust him entirely. She only knew that at the moment his arm was round her, and that she was being lifted off the bank into the river.
"Dearest girl! can you see? No; nothing, of course, as yet. Step down. There is a boat here. There are two boats. Lean upon me, and we can walk over. There. Do not mind treading softly. They cannot hear because of the rain. We shall be out of it in a minute. I am sorry you should be wet, but yet it is better for us."
She hardly understood him, but yet she did as he told her, and in a few minutes she was standing on the other bank of the river, in the Ruden Platz. Here Linda perceived that there was a man awaiting them, to whom Ludovic gave certain orders about the boats. Then Ludovic took her by the hand and ran with her across the Platz, till they stood beneath the archway of the brewery warehouse where she had so often watched him as he went in and out. "Here we are safe," he said, stooping down and kissing her, and brushing away the drops of rain from the edges of her hair. Oh, what safety! To be there, in the middle of the night, with him, and not know whither she was to go, where she was to lie, whether she would ever again know that feeling of security which had been given to her throughout her whole life by her aunt's presence and the walls of her own house. Safe! Was ever peril equal to hers? "Linda, say that you love me. Say that you are my own."
"I do love you," she said; "otherwise how should I be here?"
"And you had promised to marry that man!"
"I should never have married him. I should have died."
"Dearest Linda! But come; you must not stand here." Then he took her up, up the warehouse stairs into a gloomy chamber, from which there was a window looking on to the Ruden Platz, and there, with many caresses, he explained to her his plans. The caresses she endeavoured to avoid, and, when she could not avoid them, to moderate. "Would he remember," she asked, "just for the present, all that she had gone through, and spare her for a while, because she was so weak?" She made her little appeal with swimming eyes and low voice, looking into his face, holding his great hand the while between her own. He swore that she was his queen, and should have her way in everything. But would she not give him one kiss? He reminded her that she had never kissed him. She did as he asked her, just touching his lips with hers, and then she stood by him, leaning on him, while he explained to her something of his plans. He kept close to the window, as it was necessary that he should keep his eyes upon the red house.
His plan was this. There was a train which passed by the Nuremberg station on its way to Augsburg at three o'clock in the morning. By this train he proposed that they should travel to that city. He had, he said, the means of providing accommodation for her there, and no one would know whither they had gone. He did not anticipate that any one in the house opposite would learn that Linda had escaped till the next morning; but should any suspicion have been aroused, and should the fact be ascertained, there would certainly be lights moving in the house, and light would be seen from the window of Linda's own chamber. Therefore he proposed, during the long hours that they must yet wait, to stand in his present spot and watch, so that he might know at the first moment whether there was any commotion among the inmates of the red house. "There goes old Peter to bed," said he; "he won't be the first to find out, I'll bet a florin." And afterwards he signified the fact that Madame Staubach had gone to her chamber. This was the moment of danger, as it might be very possible that Madame Staubach would go into Linda's room. In that case, as he said, he had a little carriage outside the walls which would take them to the first town on the route to Augsburg. Had a light been seen but for a moment in Linda's room they were to start; and would certainly reach the spot where the carriage stood before any followers could be on their heels. But Madame Staubach went to her own room without noticing that of her niece, and then the red house was all dark and all still. They would have made the best of their way to Augsburg before their flight would be discovered.
During the minutes in which they were watching the lights Linda stood close to her lover, leaning on his shoulder, and supported by his arm. But this was over by ten, and then there remained nearly five hours, during which they must stay in their present hiding-place. Up to this time Linda's strength had supported her under the excitement of her escape, but now she was like to faint, and it was necessary at any rate that she should be allowed to lie down. He got sacks for her from some part of the building, and with these constructed for her a bed on the floor, near to the spot which he must occupy himself in still keeping his eye upon the red house. He laid her down and covered her feet with sacking, and put sacks under her head for a pillow. He was very gentle with her, and she thanked him over and over again, and endeavoured to think that her escape had been fortunate, and that her position was happy. Had she not succeeded in flying from Peter Steinmarc? And after such a flight would not all idea of a marriage with him be out of the question? For some little time she was cheered by talking to him. She asked him about his imprisonment. "Ah!" said he; "if I cannot be one too many for such an old fogey as Herr Molk, I'll let out my brains to an ass, and take to grazing on thistles." His offence had been political, and had been committed in conjunction with others. And he and they were sure of success ultimately,—were sure of success very speedily. Linda could understand nothing of the subject. But she could hope that her lover might prosper in his undertaking, and she could admire and love him for encountering the dangers of such an enterprise. And then, half sportively, half in earnest, she taxed him with that matter which was next her heart. Who had been the young woman with the blue frock and the felt hat who had been with him when he was brought before the magistrates?
"Young woman;—with blue frock! who told you of the young woman, Linda?" He came and knelt beside her as he asked the question, leaving his watch for the moment; and she could see by the dim light of the lamp outside that there was a smile upon his face,—almost joyous, full of mirth.
"Who told me? The magistrate you were taken to; Herr Molk told me himself," said Linda, almost happily. That smile upon his face had in some way vanquished her feeling of jealousy.
"Then he is a greater scoundrel than I took him to be, or else a more utter fool. The girl in the blue frock, Linda, was one of our young men, who was to get out of the city in that disguise. And I believe Herr Molk knew it when he tried to set you against me, by telling you the story."
Whether Herr Molk had known this, or whether he had simply been fool enough to be taken in by the blue frock and the felt hat, it is not for us to inquire here. But Ludovic was greatly amused at the story, and Linda was charmed at the explanation she had received. It was only an extra feather in her lover's cap that he should have been connected with a blue frock and felt hat under such circumstances as those now explained to her. Then he went back to the window, and she turned on her side and attempted to sleep.
To be in all respects a castaway,—a woman to whom other women would not speak! She knew that such was her position now. She had done a deed which would separate her for ever from those who were respectable, and decent, and good. Peter Steinmarc would utterly despise her. It was very well that something should have occurred which would make it impossible that he should any longer wish to marry her; but it would be very bitter to her to be rejected even by him because she was unfit to be an honest man's wife. And then she asked herself questions about her young lover, who was so handsome, so bold, so tender to her; who was in all outward respects just what a lover should be. Would he wish to marry her after she had thus consented to fly with him, alone, at night: or would he wish that she should be his light-of-love, as her aunt had been once cruel enough to call her? There would be no cruelty, at any rate no injustice, in so calling her now. And should there be any hesitation on his part, would she ask him to make her his wife? It was very terrible to her to think that it might come to pass that she should have on her knees to implore this man to marry her. He had called her his queen, but he had never said that she should be his wife. And would any pastor marry them, coming to him, as they must come, as two runaways? She knew that certain preliminaries were necessary,—certain bidding of banns, and processes before the magistrates. Her own banns and those of her betrothed, Peter Steinmarc, had been asked once in the church of St. Lawrence, as she had heard with infinite disgust. She did not see that it was possible that Ludovic should marry her, even if he were willing to do so. But it was too late to think of all this now; and she could only moisten the rough sacking with her tears.
"You had better get up now, dearest," said Ludovic, again bending over her.
"Has the time come?"
"Yes; the time has come, and we must be moving. The rain is over, which is a comfort. It is as dark as pitch, too. Cling close to me. I should know my way if I were blindfold."
She did cling close to him, and he conducted her through narrow streets and passages out to the city gate, which led to the railway station. Nuremberg has still gates like a fortified town, and there are, I believe, porters at the gates with huge keys. Nuremberg delights to perpetuate the memories of things that are gone. But ingress and egress are free to everybody, by night as well as by day, as it must be when railway trains arrive and start at three in the morning; and the burgomaster and warders, and sentinels and porters, though they still carry the keys, know that the glory of their house has gone.
Railway tickets for two were given to Linda without a question,—for to her was intrusted the duty of procuring them,—and they were soon hurrying away towards Augsburg through the dark night. At any rate they had been successful in escaping. "After to-morrow we will be as happy as the day is long," said Ludovic, as he pressed his companion close to his side. Linda told herself, but did not tell him, that she never could be happy again.
They were whirled away through the dark cold night with the noise of the rattling train ever in their ears. Though there had been a railway running close by Nuremberg now for many years, Linda was not herself so well accustomed to travelling as will probably be most of those who will read this tale of her sufferings. Now and again in the day-time, and generally in fair weather, she had gone as far as Fuerth, and on one occasion even as far as Wuerzburg with her aunt when there had been a great gathering of German Anabaptists at that town; but she had never before travelled at night, and she had certainly never before travelled in such circumstances as those which now enveloped her. When she entered the carriage, she was glad to see that there were other persons present. There was a woman, though the woman was so closely muffled and so fast asleep that Linda, throughout the whole morning, did not know whether her fellow-traveller was young or old. Nevertheless, the presence of the woman was in some sort a comfort to her, and there were two men in the carriage, and a little boy. She hardly understood why, but she felt that it was better for her to have fellow-travellers. Neither of them, however, spoke above a word or two either to her or to her lover. At first she sat at a little distance from Ludovic,—or rather induced him to allow that there should be some space between them; but gradually she suffered him to come closer to her, and she dozed with her head upon his shoulder. Very little was said between them. He whispered to her from time to time sundry little words of love, calling her his queen, his own one, his life, and the joy of his eyes. But he told her little or nothing of his future plans, as she would have wished that he should do. She asked him, however, no questions;—none at least till their journey was nearly over. The more that his conduct warranted her want of trust, the more unwilling did she become to express any diffidence or suspicion.
After a while she became very cold;—so cold that that now became for the moment her greatest cause of suffering. It was mid-winter, and though the cloak she had brought was the warmest garment that she possessed, it was very insufficient for such work as the present night had brought upon her. Besides her cloak, she had nothing wherewith to wrap herself. Her feet became like ice, and then the chill crept up her body; and though she clung very close to her lover, she could not keep herself from shivering as though in an ague fit. She had no hesitation now in striving to obtain some warmth by his close proximity. It seemed to her as though the cold would kill her before she could reach Augsburg. The train would not be due there till nine in the morning, and it was still dark night as she thought that it would be impossible for her to sustain such an agony of pain much longer. It was still dark night, and the violent rain was pattering against the glass, and the damp came in through the crevices, and the wind blew bitterly upon her; and then as she turned a little to ask her lover to find some comfort for her, some mitigation of her pain, she perceived that he was asleep. Then the tears began to run down her cheeks, and she told herself that it would be well if she could die.
After all, what did she know of this man who was now sleeping by her side,—this man to whom she had intrusted everything, more than her happiness, her very soul? How many words had she ever spoken to him? What assurance had she even of his heart? Why was he asleep, while her sufferings were so very cruel to her? She had encountered the evils of this elopement to escape what had appeared to her the greater evils of a detested marriage. Steinmarc was very much to be hated. But might it not be that even that would have been better than this? Poor girl! the illusion even of her love was being frozen cold within her during the agony of that morning. All the while the train went thundering on through the night, now rushing into a tunnel, now crossing a river, and at every change in the sounds of the carriages she almost hoped that something might be amiss. Oh, the cold! She had gathered her feet up and was trying to sit on them. For a moment or two she had hoped that her movement would waken Ludovic, so that she might have had the comfort of a word; but he had only tumbled with his head hither and thither, and had finally settled himself in a position in which he leaned heavily upon her. She thought that he was heartless to sleep while she was suffering; but she forgot that he had watched at the window while she had slumbered upon the sacks in the warehouse. At length, however, she could bear his weight no longer, and she was forced to rouse him. "You are so heavy," she said; "I cannot bear it;" when at last she succeeded in inducing him to sit upright.