"Clara Steinmann," we repeated, in tones of respectful gravity, "I never heard of her."
"No, she keeps herself rather reserved and select," said Karl, impressively. "She lives with her aunt in the Alleestrasse, at number 39."
"Number 39!" we both ejaculated.
"Exactly so! What have you to say against it?" demanded Herr Linders, glaring round upon us with an awful majesty.
"Nothing—oh, less than nothing. But I know now where you mean. It is a boarding-house, nicht wahr?"
He nodded sedately.
"I have seen the young lady," said I, carefully observing all due respect. "Eugen, you must have seen her too. Miss Wedderburn used to come with her to the Instrumental Concerts before she began to sing."
"Right!" said Karl, graciously. "She did. Clara liked Miss Wedderburn very much."
"Indeed!" said we, respectfully, and fully recognizing that this was quite a different affair from any of the previous flirtations with chorus-singers and ballet-girls which had taken up so much of his attention.
"I don't know her," said I, "I have not that pleasure, but I am sure you are to be congratulated, old fellow—so I do congratulate you very heartily."
"Thank you," said he.
"I can't congratulate you, Karl, as I don't know the lady," said Eugen, "but I do congratulate her," laying his hand upon Karl's shoulder; "I hope she knows the kind of man she has won, and is worthy of him."
A smile of the Miss Squeers description—"Tilda, I pities your ignorance and despises you"—crossed Karl's lips as he said:
"Thank you. No one else knows. It only took place—decidedly, you know, to-night. I said I should tell two friends of mine—she said she had no objection. I should not have liked to keep it from you two. I wish," said Karl, whose eyes had been roving in a seeking manner round the room, and who now brought his words out with a run; "I wish Sigmund had been here too. I wish she could have seen him. She loves children; she has been very good to Gretchen."
Eugen's hand dropped from our friend's shoulder. He walked to the window without speaking, and looked out into the darkness—as he was then in more senses than one often wont to do—nor did he break the silence nor look at us again until some time after Karl and I had resumed the conversation.
So did the quaint fellow announce his engagement to us. It was quite a romantic little history, for it turned out that he had loved the girl for full two years, but for a long time had not been able even to make her acquaintance, and when that was accomplished, had hardly dared to speak of his love for her; for though she was sprung from much the same class as himself, she was in much better circumstances, and accustomed to a life of ease and plenty, even if she were little better in reality than a kind of working housekeeper. A second suitor for her hand had, however, roused Karl into boldness and activity; he declared himself, and was accepted. Despite the opposition of Frau Steinmann, who thought the match in every way beneath her niece (why, I never could tell), the lovers managed to carry their purpose so far as the betrothal or verlobung went; marriage was a question strictly of the future. It was during the last weeks of suspense and uncertainty that Karl had been unable to carry things off in quite his usual light-hearted manner; it was after finally conquering that he came to make us partners in his satisfaction.
In time we had the honor of an introduction to Fraeulein Steinmann, and our amazement and amusement were equally great. Karl was a tall, handsome, well-knit fellow, with an exceptionally graceful figure and what I call a typical German face (typical, I mean, in one line of development)—open, frank, handsome, with the broad traits, smiling lips, clear and direct guileless eyes, waving hair and aptitude for geniality which are the chief characteristics of that type—not the highest, perhaps, but a good one, nevertheless—honest, loyal, brave—a kind which makes good fathers and good soldiers—how many a hundred are mourned since 1870-71!
He had fallen in love with a little stout dumpy Maedchen, honest and open as himself, but stupid in all outside domestic matters. She was evidently desperately in love with him, and could understand a good waltz or a sentimental song, so that his musical talents were not altogether thrown away. I liked her better after a time. There was something touching in the way in which she said to me once:
"He might have done so much better. I am such an ugly, stupid thing, but when he said did I love him or could I love him, or something like that, um Gotteswillen, Herr Helfen, what could I say?"
"I am sure you did the best possible thing both for him and for you," I was able to say, with emphasis and conviction.
Karl had now become a completely reformed and domesticated member of society; now he wore the frock-coat several times a week, and confided to me that he thought he must have a new one soon. Now too did other strange results appear of his engagement to Fraeulein Clara (he got sentimental and called her Claerchen sometimes). He had now the entree of Frau Steinmann's house and there met feminine society several degrees above that to which he had been accustomed. He was obliged to wear a permanently polite and polished manner (which, let me hasten to say, was not the least trouble to him). No chaffing of these young ladies—no offering to take them to places of amusement of any but the very sternest and severest respectability.
He took Fraeulein Clara out for walks. They jogged along arm in arm, Karl radiant, Clara no less so, and sometimes they were accompanied by another inmate of Frau Steinmann's house—a contrast to them both. She lived en famille with her hostess, not having an income large enough to admit of indulging in quite separate quarters, and her name was Anna Sartorius.
It was very shortly after his engagement that Karl began to talk to me about Anna Sartorius. She was a clever young woman, it seemed—or as he called her, a gescheidtes Maedchen. She could talk most wonderfully. She had traveled—she had been in England and France, and seen the world, said Karl. They all passed very delightful evenings together sometimes, diversified with music and song and the racy jest—at which times Frau Steinmann became quite another person, and he, Karl, felt himself in heaven.
The substance of all this was told me by him one day at a probe, where Eugen had been conspicuous by his absence. Perhaps the circumstance reminded Karl of some previous conversation, for he said:
"She must have seen Courvoisier before somewhere. She asks a good many questions about him, and when I said I knew him she laughed."
"Look here, Karl, don't go talking to outsiders about Eugen—or any of us. His affairs are no business of Fraeulein Sartorius, or any other busybody."
"I talk about him! What do you mean? Upon my word I don't know how the conversation took that turn; but I am sure she knows something about him. She said 'Eugen Courvoisier indeed!' and laughed in a very peculiar way."
"She is a fool. So are you if you let her talk to you about him."
"She is no fool, and I want to talk to no one but my own Maedchen," said he, easily; "but when a woman is talking one can't stop one's ears."
Time passed. The concert with the Choral Symphony followed. Karl had had the happiness of presenting tickets to Fraeulein Clara and her aunt, and of seeing them, in company with Miss Sartorius, enjoying looking at the dresses, and saying how loud the music was. His visits to Frau Steinmann continued.
"Friedel," he remarked abruptly one day to me, as we paced down the Casernenstrasse, "I wonder who Courvoisier is!"
"You have managed to exist very comfortably for three or four years without knowing."
"There is something behind all his secrecy about himself."
"Fraeulein Sartorius says so, I suppose," I remarked, dryly.
"N—no; she never said so; but I think she knows it is so."
"And what if it be so?"
"Oh, nothing! But I wonder what can have driven him here."
"Driven him here? His own choice, of course."
"Nee, nee, Friedel, not quite."
"I should advise you to let him and his affairs alone, unless you want a row with him. I would no more think of asking him than of cutting off my right hand."
"Asking him—lieber Himmel! no; but one may wonder—It was a very queer thing his sending poor Sigmund off in that style. I wonder where he is."
"I don't know."
"Did he never tell you?"
"Queer!" said Karl, reflectively. "I think there is something odd behind it all."
"Now listen, Karl. Do you want to have a row with Eugen? Are you anxious for him never to speak to you again?"
"Then take my advice, and just keep your mouth shut. Don't listen to tales, and don't repeat them."
"But, my dear fellow, when there is a mystery about a man—"
"Mystery! Nonsense! What mystery is there in a man's choosing to have private affairs? We didn't behave in this idiotic manner when you were going on like a lunatic about Fraeulein Clara. We simply assumed that as you didn't speak you had affairs which you chose to keep to yourself. Just apply the rule, or it may be worse for you."
"For all that, there is something queer," he said, as we turned into the restauration for dinner.
Yet again, some days later, just before the last concert came off, Karl, talking to me, said, in a tone and with a look as if the idea troubled and haunted him:
"I say, Friedel, do you think Courvoisier's being here is all square?"
"All square?" I repeated, scornfully.
"Yes. Of course all has been right since he came here; but don't you think there may be something shady in the background?"
"What do you mean by 'shady'?" I asked, more annoyed than I cared to confess at his repeated returning to the subject.
"Well, you know, there must be a reason for his being here—"
I burst into a fit of laughter, which was not so mirthful as it might seem.
"I should rather think there must. Isn't there a reason for every one being somewhere? Why am I here? Why are you here?"
"Yes; but this is quite a different thing. We are all agreed that whatever he may be now, he has not always been one of us, and I like things to be clear about people."
"It is a most extraordinary thing that you should only have felt the anxiety lately," said I, witheringly, and then, after a moment's reflection, I said:
"Look here, Karl; no one could be more unwilling than I to pick a quarrel with you, but quarrel we must if this talking of Eugen behind his back goes on. It is nothing to either of us what his past has been. I want no references. If you want to gossip about him or any one else, go to the old women who are the natural exchangers of that commodity. Only if you mention it again to me it comes to a quarrel—verstehst du?"
"I meant no harm, and I can see no harm in it," said he.
"Very well; but I do. I hate it. So shake hands, and let there be an end of it. I wish now that I had spoken out at first. There's a dirtiness, to my mind, in the idea of speculating about a person with whom you are intimate, in a way that you wouldn't like him to hear."
"Well, if you will have it so," said he; but there was not the usual look of open satisfaction upon his face. He did not mention the subject to me again, but I caught him looking now and then earnestly at Eugen, as if he wished to ask him something. Then I knew that in my anxiety to avoid gossiping about the friend whose secrets were sacred to me, I had made a mistake. I ought to have made Karl tell me whether he had heard anything specific about him or against him, and so judge the extent of the mischief done.
It needed but little thought on my part to refer Karl's suspicions and vague rumors to the agency of Anna Sartorius. Lately I had begun to observe this young lady more closely. She was a tall, dark, plain girl, with large, defiant-looking eyes, and a bitter mouth; when she smiled there was nothing genial in the smile. When she spoke, her voice had a certain harsh flavor; her laugh was hard and mocking—as if she laughed at, not with, people. There was something rather striking in her appearance, but little pleasing. She looked at odds with the world, or with her lot in it, or with her present circumstances, or something. I was satisfied that she knew something of Eugen, though, when I once pointed her out to him and asked if he knew her, he looked at her, and after a moment's look, as if he remembered, shook his head, saying:
"There is something a little familiar to me in her face, but I am sure that I have never seen her—most assuredly never spoken to her."
Yet I had often seen her look at him long and earnestly, usually with a certain peculiar smile, and with her head a little to one side as if she examined some curiosity or lusus naturae. I was too little curious myself to know Eugen's past to speculate much about it; but I was quite sure that there was some link between him and that dark, bitter, sarcastic-looking girl, Anna Sartorius.
"Didst thou, or didst thou not? Just tell me, friend! Not that my conscience may be satisfied, I never for a moment doubted thee— But that I may have wherewithal in hand To turn against them when they point at thee: A whip to flog them with—a rock to crush— Thy word—thy simple downright 'No, I did not.'
* * * * *
Why! How! What's this? He does not, will not speak. Oh, God! Nay, raise thy head and look me in the eyes! Canst not? What is this thing?"
It was the last concert of the season, and the end of April, when evenings were growing pleasantly long and the air balmy. Those last concerts, and the last nights of the opera, which closed at the end of April, until September, were always crowded. That night I remember we had Liszt's "Prometheus," and a great violinist had been announced as coming to enrapture the audience with the performance of a Concerto of Beethoven's.
The concert was for the benefit of von Francius, and was probably the last one at which he would conduct us. He was leaving to assume the post of Koeniglicher Musik-Direktor at ——. Now that the time came there was not a man among us who was not heartily sorry to think of the parting.
Miss Wedderburn was one of the soloists that evening and her sister and Mr. Arkwright were both there.
Karl Linders came on late. I saw that just before he appeared by the orchestra entrance, his beloved, her aunt, and Fraeulein Sartorius had taken their places in the parquet. Karl looked sullen and discontented, and utterly unlike himself. Anna Sartorius was half smiling. Lady Le Marchant, I noticed, passingly, looked the shadow of her former self.
Then von Francius came on; he too looked disturbed, for him very much so, and glanced round the orchestra and the room; and then coming up to Eugen, drew him a little aside, and seemed to put a question to him. The discussion, though carried on in low tones, was animated, and lasted some time. Von Francius appeared greatly to urge Courvoisier to something—the latter to resist. At last some understanding appeared to be come to. Von Francius returned to his estrade, Eugen to his seat, and the concert began.
The third piece on the list was the Violin Concerto, and when its turn came all eyes turned in all directions in search of ——, the celebrated, who was to perform it. Von Francius advanced and made a short enough announcement.
"Meine Herrschaften, I am sorry to say that I have received a telegram from Herr ——, saying that sudden illness prevents his playing to-night. I am sorry that you should be disappointed of hearing him, but I can not regret that you should have an opportunity of listening to one who will be a very effectual substitute—Herr Concertmeister Courvoisier, your first violin."
He stepped back. Courvoisier rose. There was a dead silence in the hall. Eugen stood in the well-known position of the prophet without honor, only that he had not yet begun to speak. The rest of the orchestra and von Francius were waiting to begin Beethoven's Concerto; but Eugen, lifting his voice, addressed them in his turn:
"I am sorry to say that I dare not venture upon the great Concerto; it is so long since I attempted it. I shall have pleasure in trying to play a Chaconne—one of the compositions of Herr von Francius."
Von Francius started up as if to forbid it. But Eugen had touched the right key. There was a round of applause, and then an expectant settling down to listen on the part of the audience, who were, perhaps, better pleased to hear von Francius the living and much discussed than Beethoven the dead and undisputed.
It was a minor measure, and one unknown to the public, for it had not yet been published. Von Francius had lent Eugen the score a few days ago, and he had once or twice said to me that it was full not merely of talent; it was replete with the fire of genius.
And so, indeed, he proved to us that night. Never, before or since, from professional or private virtuoso, have I heard such playing as that. The work was in itself a fine one; original, strong, terse and racy, like him who had composed it. It was sad, very sad, but there was a magnificent elevation running all through it which raised it far above a mere complaint, gave a depth to its tragedy while it pointed at hope. And this, interpreted by Eugen, whose mood and whose inner life it seemed exactly to suit, was a thing not to be forgotten in a life-time. To me the scene and the sounds come freshly as if heard yesterday. I see the great hall full of people, attentive—more than attentive—every moment more inthralled. I see the pleased smile which had broken upon every face of his fellow-musicians at this chance of distinction gradually subside into admiration and profound appreciation; I feel again the warm glow of joy which filled my own heart; I meet again May's eyes and see the light in them, and see von Francius shade his face with his hand to conceal the intensity of the artist's delight he felt at hearing his own creation so grandly, so passionately interpreted.
Then I see how it was all over, and Eugen, pale with the depth of emotion with which he had played the passionate music, retired, and there came a burst of enthusiastic applause—applause renewed again and again—it was a veritable succes fou.
But he would make no response to the plaudits. He remained obstinately seated, and there was no elation, but rather gloom upon his face. In vain von Francius besought him to come forward. He declined, and the calls at last ceased. It was the last piece on the first part of the programme. The people at last let him alone. But there could be no doubt that he had both roused a great interest in himself and stimulated the popularity of von Francius in no common degree. And at last he had to go down the orchestra steps to receive a great many congratulations, and go through several introductions, while I sat still and mentally rubbed my hands.
Meanwhile Karl Linders, with nearly all the other instrumentalists, had disappeared from the orchestra. I saw him appear again in the body of the hall, among all the people, who were standing up, laughing and discussing and roving about to talk to their friends. He had a long discussion with Fraeulein Clara and Anna Sartorius.
And then I turned my attention to Eugen again, who, looking grave and unelated, released himself as soon as possible from his group of new acquaintance and joined me.
Then von Francius brought Miss Wedderburn up the steps, and left her sitting near us. She turned to Eugen and said, "Ich gratuliere," to which he only bowed rather sadly. Her chair was quite close to ours, and von Francius stood talking to her. Others were quickly coming. One or two were around and behind us.
Eugen was tuning his violin, when a touch on the shoulder roused me. I looked up. Karl stood there, leaning across me toward Eugen. Something in his face told me that it—that which had been hanging so long over us—was coming. His expression, too, attracted the attention of several other people—of all who were immediately around.
Those who heard Karl were myself, von Francius, Miss Wedderburn, and some two or three others, who had looked up as he came, and had paused to watch what was coming.
"Eugen," said he, "a foul lie has been told about you."
"Of course I don't believe a word of it. I'm not such a fool. But I have been challenged to confront you with it. It only needs a syllable on your side to crush it instantly; for I will take your word against all the rest of the world put together."
"Well?" said Eugen, whose face was white, and whose voice was low.
"A lady has said to me that you had a brother who had acted the part of father to you, and that you rewarded his kindness by forging his name for a sum of money which you could have had for the asking, for he denied you nothing. It is almost too ridiculous to repeat, and I beg your pardon for doing it; but I was obliged. Will you give me a word of denial?"
I looked at Eugen. We were all looking at him. Three things I looked for as equally likely for him to do; but he did none. He did not start up in an indignant denial; he did not utter icily an icy word of contempt; he did not smile and ask Karl if he were out of his senses. He dropped his eyes, and maintained a deadly silence.
Karl was looking at him, and his candid face changed. Doubt, fear, dismay succeeded one another upon it. Then, in a lower and changed voice, as if first admitting the idea that caution might be necessary:
"Um Gotteswillen, Eugen! Speak!"
He looked up—so may look a dog that is being tortured—and my very heart sickened; but he did not speak.
A few moments—not half a minute—did we remain thus. It seemed a hundred years of slow agony. But during that time I tried to comprehend that my friend of the bright, clear eyes, and open, fearless glance; the very soul and flower of honor; my ideal of almost Quixotic chivalrousness, stood with eyes that could not meet ours that hung upon him; face white, expression downcast, accused of a crime which came, if ever crime did, under the category "dirty," and not denying it!
Karl, the wretched beginner of the wretched scene, came nearer, took the other's hand, and, in a hoarse whisper, said:
"For God's sake, Eugen, speak! Deny it! You can deny it—you must deny it!"
He looked up at last, with a tortured gaze; looked at Karl, at me, at the faces around. His lips quivered faintly. Silence yet. And yet it seemed to me that it was loathing that was most strongly depicted upon his face; the loathing of a man who is obliged to intimately examine some unclean thing; the loathing of one who has to drag a corpse about with him.
"Say it is a lie, Eugen!" Karl conjured him.
At last came speech; at last an answer; slow, low, tremulous, impossible to mistake or explain away.
"No; I can not say so."
His head—that proud, high head—dropped again, as if he would fain avoid our eyes.
Karl raised himself. His face too was white. As if stricken with some mortal blow, he walked away. Some people who had surrounded us turned aside and began to whisper to each other behind their music. Von Francius looked impenetrable; May Wedderburn white. The noise and bustle was still going on all around, louder than before. The drama had not taken three minutes to play out.
Eugen rested his brow for a moment on his hand, and his face was hidden. He looked up, rising as he did so, and his eyes met those of Miss Wedderburn. So sad, so deep a gaze I never saw. It was a sign to me, a significant one, that he could meet her eyes.
Then he turned to von Francius.
"Herr Direktor, Helfen will take my place, nicht wahr?"
Von Francius bowed. Eugen left his seat, made his way, without a word, from the orchestra, and von Francius rapped sharply, the preliminary tumult subsided; the concert began.
I glanced once or twice toward Karl; I received no answering look. I could not even see his face; he had made himself as small as possible behind his music.
The concert over—it seemed to me interminable—I was hastening away, anxious only to find Eugen, when Karl Linders stopped me in a retired corner, and holding me fast, said:
"Friedel, I am a damned fool."
"I am sorry not to be able to contradict you."
"Listen," said he. "You must listen, or I shall follow you and make you. I made up my mind not to hear another word against him, but when I went to die Clara after the solo, I found her and that confounded girl whispering together. She—Anna Sartorius—said it was very fine for such scamps to cover their sins with music. I asked her pretty stiffly what she meant, for she is always slanging Eugen, and I thought she might have let him alone for once. She said she meant that he was a blackguard—that's the word she used—ein lauter Spitzbube—a forger, and worse. I told her I believed it was a lie. I did not believe it.
"'Ask him,' said she. I said I would be—something—first. But Clara would have nothing to say to me, and they both badgered me until for mere quietness I agreed to do as they wished."
He went on in distress for some time.
"Oh, drop it!" said I, impatiently. "You have done the mischief. I don't want to listen to your whining over it. Go to the Fraeulein Steinmann and Sartorius. They will confer the reward of merit upon you."
I shook myself loose from him and took my way home. It was with a feeling not far removed from tremulousness that I entered the room. That poor room formed a temple which I had no intention of desecrating.
He was sitting at the table when I entered, and looked at me absently. Then, with a smile in which sweetness and bitterness were strangely mingled, said:
"So! you have returned? I will not trouble you much longer. Give me house-room for to-night. In the morning I shall be gone."
I went up to him, pushed the writing materials which lay before him away, and took his hands, but could not speak for ever so long.
"Well, Friedhelm," he asked, after a pause, during which the drawn and tense look upon his face relaxed somewhat, "what have you to say to the man who has let you think him honest for three years?"
"Whom I know, and ever have known, to be an honest man."
"There are degrees and grades even in honesty. One kind of honesty is lower than others. I am honest now because my sin has found me out, I can't keep up appearances any longer."
"Pooh! do you suppose that deceives me?" said I, contemptuously. "Me, who have known you for three years. That would be a joke, but one that no one will enjoy at my expense."
A momentary expression of pleasure unutterable flashed across his face and into his eyes; then was repressed, as he said:
"You must listen to reason. Have I not told you all along that my life had been spoiled by my own fault?—that I had disqualified myself to take any leading part among men?—that others might advance, but I should remain where I was? And have you not the answer to all here? You are a generous soul, I know, like few others. My keenest regret now is that I did not tell you long ago how things stood, but it would have cost me your friendship, and I have not too many things to make life sweet to me."
"Eugen, why did you not tell me before? I know the reason; for the very same reason which prevents you from looking me in the eyes now, and saying, 'I am guilty. I did that of which I am accused,' because it is not true. I challenge you; meet my eyes, and say, 'I am guilty!'"
He looked at me; his eyes were dim with anguish. He said:
"Friedel, I—can not tell you that I am innocent."
"I did not ask you to do so. I asked you to say you were guilty, and on your soul be it if you lie to me. That I could never forgive."
Again he looked at me, strove to speak, but no word came. I never removed my eyes from his; the pause grew long, till I dropped his hands and turned away with a smile.
"Let a hundred busybodies raise their clamoring tongues, they can never divide you and me. If it were not insulting I should ask you to believe that every feeling of mine for you is unchanged, and will remain so as long as I live."
"It is incredible. Such loyalty, such—Friedel, you are a fool!"
His voice broke.
"I wish you could have heard Miss Wedderburn sing her English song after you were gone. It was called, 'What would You do, Love?' and she made us all cry."
"Ah, Miss Wedderburn! How delightful she is."
"If it is any comfort to you to know, I can assure you that she thinks as I do. I am certain of it."
"Comfort—not much. It is only that if I ever allowed myself to fall in love again, which I shall not do, it would be with Miss Wedderburn."
The tone sufficiently told me that he was much in love with her already.
"She is bewitching," he added.
"If you do not mean to allow yourself to fall in love with her," I remarked, sententiously, "because it seems that 'allowing' is a matter for her to decide, not the men who happen to know her."
"I shall not see much more of her. I shall not remain here."
As this was what I had fully expected to hear, I said nothing, but I thought of Miss Wedderburn, and grieved for her.
"Yes, I must go forth from hence," he pursued. "I suppose I ought to be satisfied that I have had three years here. I wonder if there is any way in which a man could kill all trace of his old self; a man who has every desire to lead henceforth a new life, and be at peace and charity with all men. I suppose not—no. I suppose the brand has to be carried about till the last; and how long it may be before that 'last' comes!"
I was silent. I had put a good face upon the matter and spoken bravely about it. I had told him that I did not believe him guilty—that my regard and respect were as high as ever, and I spoke the truth. Both before and since then he had told me that I had a bump of veneration and one of belief ludicrously out of proportion to the exigencies of the age in which I lived.
Be it so. Despite my cheerful words, and despite the belief I did feel in him, I could not help seeing that he carried himself now as a marked man. The free, open look was gone; a blight had fallen upon him, and he withered under it. There was what the English call a "down" look upon his face, which had not been there formerly, even in those worst days when the parting from Sigmund was immediately before and behind us.
In the days which immediately followed the scene at the concert I noticed how he would set about things with a kind of hurried zeal, then suddenly stop and throw them aside, as if sick of them, and fall to brooding with head sunk upon his breast, and lowering brow; a state and a spectacle which caused me pain and misery not to be described. He would begin sudden conversations with me, starting with some question, as:
"Friedel, do you believe in a future state?"
"I do, and I don't. I mean to say that I don't know anything about it."
"Do you know what my idea of heaven would be?"
"Indeed, I don't," said I, feebly endeavoring a feeble joke. "A place where all the fiddles are by Stradivarius and Guanarius, and all the music comes up to Beethoven."
"No; but a place where there are no mistakes."
"Ja wohl! Where it would not be possible for a man with fair chances to spoil his whole career by a single mistake. Or, if there were mistakes, I would arrange that the punishment should be in some proportion to them—not a large punishment for a little sin, and vice versa."
"Well, I should think that if there is any heaven there would be some arrangement of that kind."
"As for hell," he went on, in a low, calm tone which I had learned to understand meant with him intense earnestness, "there are people who wonder that any one could invent a hell. My only wonder is why they should have resorted to fire and brimstone to enhance its terrors when they had the earth full of misery to choose from."
"You think this world a hell, Eugen?"
"Sometimes I think it the very nethermost hell of hells, and I think if you had my feelings you would think so too. A poet, an English poet (you do not know the English poets as you ought, Friedhelm), has said that the fiercest of all hells is the failure in a great purpose. I used to think that a fine sentiment; now I sometimes wonder whether to a man who was once inclined to think well of himself it may not be a much fiercer trial to look back and find that he has failed to be commonly honest and upright. It is a nice little distinction—a moral wire-drawing which I would recommend to the romancers if I knew any."
Once and only once was Sigmund mentioned between us, and Eugen said:
"Nine years, were you speaking of? No—not in nineteen, nor in ninety-nine shall I ever see him again."
"The other night, and what occurred then, decided me. Till then I had some consolation in thinking that the blot might perhaps be wiped out—the shame lived down. Now I see that that is a fallacy. With God's help I will never see him nor speak to him again. It is better that he should forget me."
His voice did not tremble as he said this, though I knew that the idea of being forgotten by Sigmund must be to him anguish of a refinement not to be measured by me.
I bided my time, saying nothing. I at least was too much engrossed with my own affairs to foresee the cloud then first dawning on the horizon, which they who looked toward France and Spain might perhaps perceive.
It had not come yet—the first crack of that thunder which rattled so long over our land, and when we saw the dingy old Jaeger Hof at one end of the Hofgarten, and heard by chance the words of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, no premonition touched us. My mind was made up, that let Eugen go when and where he would, I would go with him.
I had no ties of duty, none of love or of ambition to separate me from him; his God should be my God, and his people my people; if the God were a jealous God, dealing out wrath and terror, and the people should dwindle to outcasts and pariahs, it mattered not to me. I loved him.
Nein, laenger kann ich diesen Kampf nicht kaempfen, Den Riesenkampf der Pflicht. Kannst du des Herzens Flammentrieb nicht daempfen, So fordre, Tugend, dieses Opfer nicht.
Geschworen hab' ich 's, ja, ich hab's geschworen, Mich selbst zu baendigen. Hier ist dein Kranz, er sei auf ewig mir verloren; Nimm ihn zurueck und lass mich suendigen. SCHILLER.
If I had never had a trouble before I had one now—large, stalwart, robust. For what seemed to me a long time there was present to my mind's eye little but the vision of a large, lighted room—a great undefined crowd surging around and below, a small knot of persons and faces in sharp distinctness immediately around me; low-spoken words with a question; no answer—vehement imploring for an answer—still no reply; yet another sentence conjuring denial, and then the answer itself—the silence that succeeded it; the face which had become part of my thoughts all changed and downcast—the man whom I had looked up to, feared, honored, as chivalrous far beyond his station and circumstances slowly walking away from the company of his fellows, disgraced, fallen, having himself owned to the disgrace being merited, pointed at as a cheat—bowing to the accusation.
It drove me almost mad to think of it. I suffered the more keenly because I could speak to no one of what had happened. What sympathy should I get from any living soul by explaining my sick looks and absent demeanor with the words, "I love that man who is disgraced?" I smiled dryly in the midst of my anguish, and locked it the deeper in my own breast.
I had believed in him so devotedly, so intensely, had loved him so entirely, and with such a humility, such a consciousness of my own shortcomings and of his superiority. The recoil at first was such as one might experience who embraces a veiled figure, presses his lips to where its lips should be, and finds that he kisses a corpse.
Such, I say, was the recoil at first. But a recoil, from its very nature, is short and vehement. There are some natures, I believe, which after a shock turn and flee from the shocking agent. Not so I. After figuratively springing back and pressing my hands over my eyes, I removed them again, and still saw his face—and it tortured me to have to own it, but I had to do so—still loved that face beyond all earthly things.
It grew by degrees familiar to me again. I caught myself thinking of the past and smiling at the remembrance of the jokes between Eugen and Helfen on Carnival Monday, then pulled myself up with a feeling of horror, and the conviction that I had no business to be thinking of him at all. But I did think of him day by day and hour by hour, and tortured myself with thinking of him, and wished, yet dreaded, to see him, and wondered how I possibly could see him, and could only live on in a hope which was not fulfilled. For I had no right to seek him out. His condition might be much—very much to me. My sympathy or pity or thought—as I felt all too keenly—could be nothing to him.
Meanwhile, as is usual in such cases, circumstance composedly took my affairs into her hands and settled them for me without my being able to move a finger in the matter.
The time was approaching for the departure of von Francius. Adelaide and I did not exchange a syllable upon the subject. Of what use? I knew to a certain extent what was passing within her. I knew that this child of the world—were we not all children of the world, and not of light?—had braced her moral forces to meet the worst, and was awaiting it calmly.
Adelaide, like me, based her actions not upon religion. Religion was for both of us an utter abstraction; it touched us not. That which gave Adelaide force to withstand temptation, and to remain stoically in the drear sphere in which she already found herself, was not religion; it was pride on the one hand, and on the other love for Max von Francius.
Pride forbade her to forfeit her reputation, which was dear to her, though her position had lost the charms with which distance had once gilded it for her. Love for von Francius made her struggle with all the force of her nature to remain where she was, renounce him blamelessly rather than yield at the price which women must pay who do such things as leave their husbands.
It was wonderful to me to see how love had developed in her every higher emotion. I remembered how cynical she had always been as to the merits of her own sex. Women, according to her, were an inferior race, who gained their poor ends by poor means. She had never been hard upon female trickery and subterfuge. Bah! she said, how else are they to get what they want? But now with the exalted opinion of a man, had come exalted ideas as to the woman fit for his wife.
Since to go to him she must be stained and marked forever, she would remain away from him. Never should any circumstance connected with him be made small or contemptible by any act of hers. I read the motive, and, reading it, read her.
Von Francius was, equally with herself, distinctly and emphatically a child of the world—as she honored him he honored her. He proved his strength and the innate nobility of his nature by his stoic abstinence from evasion of or rebellion against the decree which had gone out against their love. He was a better man, a greater artist, a more sympathetic nature now than before. His passage through the furnace had cleansed him. He was a standing example to me that despite what our preachers and our poets, our philosophers and our novelists are incessantly dinning into our ears, there are yet men who can renounce—men to whom honor and purity are still the highest goddesses.
I saw him, naturally, and often during these days—so dark for all of us. He spoke to me of his prospects in his new post. He asked me if I would write to him occasionally, even if it should be only three or four times in the year.
"Indeed I will, if you care to hear from me," said I, much moved.
This was at our last music lesson, in my dark little room at the Wehrhahn. Von Francius had made it indeed a lesson, more than a lesson, a remembrance to carry with me forever, for he had been playing Beethoven and Schubert to me.
"Fraeulein May, everything concerning you and yours will ever be of the very deepest interest to me," he said, looking earnestly at me. "Take a few words of advice and information from one who has never felt anything for you since he first met you but the truest friendship. You have in you the materials of a great artist; whether you have the Spartan courage and perseverance requisite to attain the position, I can hardly tell. If you choose to become an artist, eine vollkommene Kuenstlerin, you must give everything else up—love and marriage and all that interferes with your art, for, liebes Fraeulein, you can not pursue two things at once."
"Then I have every chance of becoming as great an artist as possible," said I; "for none of those things will ever interfere with my pursuit of art."
"Wait till the time of probation comes; you are but eighteen yet," said he, kindly, but skeptically.
"Herr von Francius"—the words started to my lips as the truth into my mind, and fell from them in the strong desire to speak to some one of the matter that then filled my whole soul—"I can tell you the truth—you will understand—the time of probation has been—it is over—past. I am free for the future."
"So!" said he, in a very low voice, and his eyes were filled, less with pity than with a fellow-feeling which made them "wondrous kind." "You too have suffered, and given up. There are then four people—you and I, and one whose name I will not speak, and—may I guess once, Fraeulein May?"
"My first violinist, nicht wahr?"
Again I assented silently. He went on:
"Fate is perverse about these things. And now, my fair pupil, you understand somewhat more that no true artist is possible without sorrow and suffering and renunciation. And you will think sometimes of your old, fault-finding, grumbling master—ja?"
"Oh, Herr von Francius!" cried I, laying my hand upon the key-board of the piano, and sobbing aloud. "The kindest, best, most patient, gentle—"
I could say no more.
"That is mere nonsense, my dear May," he said, passing his hand over my prostrate head; and I felt that it—the strong hand—trembled. "I want a promise from you. Will you sing for me next season?"
"If I am alive, and you send for me, I will."
"Thanks. And—one other word. Some one very dear to us both is very sad; she will become sadder. You, my child, have the power of allaying sadness, and soothing grief and bitterness in a remarkable degree. Will you expend some of that power upon her when her burden grows very hard, and think that with each word of kindness to her you bind my heart more fast to yourself?"
"I will—indeed I will!"
"We will not say good-bye, but only auf wiedersehen!" said he. "You and I shall meet again. I am sure of that. Meine liebe, gute Schuelerin, adieu!"
Choked with tears, I passively let him raise my hand to his lips. I hid my face in my handkerchief to repress my fast-flowing tears. I would not, because I dared not, look at him. The sight of his kind and trusted face would give me too much pain.
He loosed my hand. I heard steps; a door opened and closed. He was gone! My last lesson was over. My trusty friend had departed. He was to leave Elberthal on the following day.
* * * * *
The next night there was an entertainment—half concert, half theatricals, wholly dilettante—at the Malkasten, the Artists' Club. We, as is the duty of a decorous English family, buried all our private griefs, and appeared at the entertainment, to which, indeed, Adelaide had received a special invitation. I was going to remain with Adelaide until Sir Peter's return, which, we understood, was to be in the course of a few weeks, and then I was going to ——, by the advice of von Francius, there to finish my studies.
Dearly though I loved music, divine as she ever has been, and will be, to me, yet the idea of leaving von Francius for other masters had at first almost shaken my resolution to persevere. But, as I said, all this was taken out of my hands by an irresistible concourse of circumstances, over which I had simply no control whatever.
Adelaide, Harry, and I went to the Malkasten. The gardens were gayly illuminated; there was a torch-light procession round the little artificial lake, and chorus singing—merry choruses, such as "Wenn Zwei sich gut sind, sie finden den Weg"—which were cheered and laughed at. The fantastically dressed artists and their friends were flitting, torch in hand, about the dark alleys under the twisted acacias and elms, the former of which made the air voluptuous with their scent. Then we adjourned to the saal for the concert, and heard on all sides regrets about the absence of von Francius.
We sat out the first part of the festivities, which were to conclude with theatricals. During the pause we went into the garden. The May evening was balmy and beautiful; no moonlight, but many stars and the twinkling lights in the garden.
Adelaide and I had seated ourselves on a circular bench surrounding a big tree, which had the mighty word GOETHE cut deeply into its rugged bark. When the others began to return to the Malkasten, Adelaide, turning to Arkwright, said:
"Harry, will you go in and leave my sister and me here, that's a good boy? You can call for us when the play is over."
"All right, my lady," assented he, amiably, and left us.
Presently Adelaide and I moved to another seat, near to a small table under a thick shade of trees. The pleasant, cool evening air fanned our faces; all was still and peaceful. Not a soul but ourselves had remained out-of-doors. The still drama of the marching stars was less attractive than the amateur murdering of "Die Piccolomin" within. The tree-tops rustled softly over our heads. The lighted pond gleamed through the low-hanging boughs at the other end of the garden. A peal of laughter and a round of applause came wafted now and then from within. Ere long Adelaide's hand stole into mine, which closed over it, and we sat silent.
Then there came a voice. Some one—a complaisant dilettantin—was singing Thekla's song. We heard the refrain—distance lent enchantment; it sounded what it really was, deep as eternity:
"Ich habe gelebt und geliebet."
Adelaide moved uneasily; her hand started nervously, and a sigh broke from her lips.
"Schiller wrote from his heart," said she, in a low voice.
"Indeed, yes, Adelaide."
"Did you say good-bye to von Francius, May, yesterday?"
"Yes—at least, we said au revoir. He wants me to sing for him next winter."
"Was he very down?"
A footstep close at hand. A figure passed in the uncertain light, dimly discerned us, paused, and glanced at us.
"Max!" exclaimed Adelaide, in a low voice, full of surprise and emotion, and she half started up.
"It is you! That is too wonderful!" said he, pausing.
"You are not yet gone?"
"I have been detained to-day. I leave early to-morrow. I thought I would take at least one turn in the Malkasten garden, which I may perhaps never see or enter again. I did not know you were here."
"We—May and I—thought it so pleasant that we would not go in again to listen to the play."
Von Francius had come under the trees and was now leaning against a massive trunk; his slight, tall figure almost lost against it; his arms folded, and an imposing calm upon his pale face, which was just caught by the gleam of a lamp outside the trees.
"Since this accidental meeting has taken place, I may have the privilege of saying adieu to your ladyship."
"Yes—" said Adelaide, in a strange, low, much-moved tone.
I felt uneasy, I was sorry this meeting had taken place. The shock and revulsion of feeling for Adelaide, after she had been securely calculating that von Francius was a hundred miles on his way to ——, was too severe. I could tell from the very timbre of her voice and its faint vibration how agitated she was, and as she seated herself again beside me, I felt that she trembled like a reed.
"It is more happiness than I expected," went on von Francius, and his voice too was agitated. Oh, if he would only say "Farewell," and go!
"Happiness!" echoed Adelaide, in a tone whose wretchedness was too deep for tears.
"Ah! You correct me. Still it is a happiness; there are some kinds of joy which one can not distinguish from griefs, my lady, until one comes to think that one might have been without them, and then one knows their real nature."
She clasped her hands. I saw her bosom rise and fall with long, stormy breaths.
I trembled for both; for Adelaide, whose emotion and anguish were, I saw, mastering her; for von Francius, because if Adelaide failed he must find it almost impossible to repulse her.
"Herr von Francius," said I, in a quick, low voice, making one step toward him, and laying my hand upon his arm, "leave us! If you do love us," I added, in a whisper, "leave us! Adelaide, say good-bye to him—let him go!"
"You are right," said von Francius to me, before Adelaide had time to speak; "you are quite right."
A pause. He stepped up to Adelaide. I dared not interfere. Their eyes met, and his will not to yield produced the same in her, in the shape of a passive, voiceless acquiescence in his proceedings. He took her hands, saying:
"My lady, adieu! Heaven send you peace, or death, which brings it, or—whatever is best."
Loosing her hands he turned to me, saying distinctly:
"As you are a woman, and her sister, do not forsake her now."
Then he was gone. She raised her arms and half fell against the trunk of the giant acacia beneath which we had been sitting, face forward, as if drunk with misery.
Von Francius, strong and generous, whose very submission seemed to brace one to meet trouble with a calmer, firmer front, was gone. I raised my eyes, and did not even feel startled, only darkly certain that Adelaide's evil star was high in the heaven of her fate, when I saw, calmly regarding us, Sir Peter Le Marchant.
In another moment he stood beside his wife, smiling, and touched her shoulder; with a low cry she raised her face, shrinking away from him. She did not seem surprised either, and I do not think people often are surprised at the presence, however sudden and unexpected, of their evil genius. It is good luck which surprises the average human being.
"You give me a cold welcome, my lady," he remarked. "You are so overjoyed to see me, I suppose. Your carriage is waiting outside. I came in it, and Arkwright told me I should find you here. Suppose you come home. We shall be less disturbed there than in these public gardens."
Tone and words all convinced me that he had heard most of what had passed, and would oppress her with it hereafter.
The late scene had apparently stunned her. After the first recoil she said, scarcely audibly, "I am ready," and moved. He offered her his arm; she took it, turning to me and saying, "Come, May!"
"Excuse me," observed Sir Peter, "you are better alone. I am sorry I can not second your invitation to my charming sister-in-law. I do not think you fit for any society—even hers."
"I can not leave my sister, Sir Peter; she is not fit to be left," I found voice to say.
"She is not 'left,' as you say, my dear. She has her husband. She has me," said he.
Some few further words passed. I do not chronicle them. Sir Peter was as firm as a rock—that I was helpless before him is a matter of course. I saw my sister handed into her carriage; I saw Sir Peter follow her—the carriage drive away. I was left alone, half mad with terror at the idea of her state, to go home to my lodgings.
Sir Peter had heard the words of von Francius to me; "do not forsake her now," and had given himself the satisfaction of setting them aside as if they had been so much waste paper. Von Francius was, as I well knew, trying to derive comfort in this very moment from the fact that I at least was with her; I who loved them both, and would have laid down my life for them. Well, let him have the comfort! In the midst of my sorrow I rejoiced that he did not know the worst, and would not be likely to imagine for himself a terror grimmer than any feeling I had yet known.
"Some say, 'A queen discrowned,' and some call it 'Woman's shame.' Others name it 'A false step,' or 'Social suicide,' just as it happens to strike their minds, or such understanding as they may be blessed with. In these days one rarely hears seriously mentioned such unruly words as 'Love,' or 'Wretchedness,' or 'Despair,' which may nevertheless be important factors in bringing about that result which stands out to the light of day for public inspection."
The three days which I passed alone and in suspense were very terrible ones to me. I felt myself physically as well as mentally ill, and it was in vain that I tried to learn anything of or from Adelaide, and I waited in a kind of breathless eagerness for the end of it all, for I knew as well as if some one had shouted it aloud from the house-tops that that farewell in the Malkasten garden was not the end.
Early one morning, when the birds were singing and the sunshine streaming into the room, Frau Lutzler came into the room and put a letter into my hand, which she said a messenger had left. I took it, and paused a moment before I opened it. I was unwilling to face what I knew was coming—and yet, how otherwise could the whole story have ended?
"DEAR MAY,—You, like me, have been suffering during these three days. I have been trying—yes, I have tried to believe I could bear this life, but it is too horrible. Isn't it possible that sometimes it may be right to do wrong? It is of no use telling you what has passed, but it is enough. I believe I am only putting the crowning point to my husband's revenge when I leave him. He will be glad—he does not mind the disgrace for himself; and he can get another wife, as good as I, when he wants one. When you read this, or not long afterward, I shall be with Max von Francius. I wrote to him—I asked him to save me, and he said, 'Come!' It is not because I want to go, but I must go somewhere. I have made a great mess of my life. I believe everybody does make a mess of it who tries to arrange things for himself. Remember that, May.
"I wonder if we shall ever meet again. Not likely, when you are married to some respectable, conventional man, who will shield you from contamination with such as I. I must not write more or I shall write nonsense. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye! What will be the end of me? Think of me sometimes, and try not to think too hardly. Listen to your heart—not to what people say. Good-bye again!
I received this stroke without groan or cry, tear or shiver. It struck home to me. The heavens were riven asunder—a flash came from them, descended upon my head, and left me desolate. I stood, I know not how long, stock-still in the place where I had read that letter. In novels I had read of such things; they had had little meaning for me. In real life I had only heard them mentioned dimly and distantly, and here I was face to face with the awful thing, and so far from being able to deal out hearty, untempered condemnation, I found that the words of Adelaide's letter came to me like throes of a real heart. Bald, dry, disjointed sentences on the outside; without feeling they might seem, but to me they were the breathless exclamations of a soul in supreme torture and peril. My sister! with what a passion of love my heart went out to her. Think of you, Adelaide, and think of you not too hardly? Oh, why did not you trust me more?
I saw her as she wrote these words: "I have made a great mess of it." To make a mess of one's life—one mistake after another, till what might have been at least honest, pure, and of good report, becomes a stained, limp, unsightly thing, at which men feel that they may gaze openly, and from which women turn away in scorn unutterable; and that Adelaide, my proudest of proud sisters, had come to this!
I was not thinking of what people would say. I was not wondering how it had come about; I was feeling Adelaide's words ever more and more acutely, till they seemed to stand out from the paper and turn into cries of anguish in my very ears. I put my hands to my ears; I could not bear those notes of despair.
"What will be the end of me?" she said, and I shook from head to foot as I repeated the question. If her will and that of von Francius ever came in contact. She had put herself at his mercy utterly; her whole future now depended upon the good pleasure of a man—and men were selfish.
With a faint cry of terror and foreboding, I felt everything whirl unsteadily around me; the letter fell from my hand; the icy band that had held me fast gave way. All things faded before me, and I scarcely knew that I was sinking upon the floor. I thought I was dying; then thought faded with the consciousness that brings it.
"Allein, allein! und so soll ich genesen? Allein, allein! und das des Schicksals Segen! Allein, allein! O Gott, ein einzig Wesen, Um dieses Haupt an seine Brust zu legen!"
I had a sharp, if not a long attack of illness, which left me weak, shaken, passive, so that I felt neither ability nor wish to resist those who took me into their hands. I remember being surprised at the goodness of every one toward me; astonished at Frau Lutzler's gentle kindness, amazed at the unfailing goodness of Dr. Mittendorf and his wife, at that of the medical man who attended me in my illness. Yes, the world seemed full of kindness, full of kind people who were anxious to keep me in it, and who managed, in spite of my effort to leave it, to retain me.
Dr. Mittendorf, the oculist, had been my guardian angel. It was he who wrote to my friends and told them of my illness; it was he who went to meet Stella and Miss Hallam's Merrick, who came over to nurse me—and take me home. The fiat had gone forth. I was to go home. I made no resistance, but my very heart shrunk away in fear and terror from the parting, till one day something happened which reconciled me to going home, or rather made me evenly and equally indifferent whether I went home, or stayed abroad, or lived, or died, or, in short, what became of me.
I sat one afternoon for the first time in an arm-chair opposite the window. It was June, and the sun streamed warmly and richly in. The room was scented with a bunch of wall-flowers and another of mignonette, which Stella had brought in that morning from the market. Stella was very kind to me, but in a superior, patronizing way. I had always felt deferentially backward before the superior abilities of both my sisters, but Stella quite over-awed me by her decided opinions and calm way of setting me right upon all possible matters.
This afternoon she had gone out with Merrick to enjoy a little fresh air. I was left quite alone, with my hands in my lap, feeling very weak, and looking wistfully toward the well-remembered windows on the other side of the street.
They were wide open; I could see inside the room. No one was there—Friedhelm and Eugen had gone out, no doubt.
The door of my room opened, and Frau Lutzler came in. She looked cautiously around, and then, having ascertained that I was not asleep, asked in a nerve-disturbing whisper if I had everything that I wanted.
"Everything, thank you, Frau Lutzler," said I. "But come in! I want to speak to you. I am afraid I have given you no end of trouble."
"Ach, ich bitte sie, Fraeulein! Don't mention the trouble. We have managed to keep you alive."
How they all did rejoice in having won a victory over that gray-winged angel, Death! I thought to myself, with a curious sensation of wonder.
"You are very kind," I said, "and I want you to tell me something, Frau Lutzler: how long have I been ill?"
"Fourteen days, Fraeulein; little as you may think it."
"Indeed! I have heard nothing about any one in that time. Who has been made musik-direktor in place of Herr von Francius?"
Frau Lutzler folded her arms and composed herself to tell me a history.
"Ja, Fraeulein, the post would have been offered to Herr Courvoisier, only, you see, he has turned out a good-for-nothing. But perhaps you heard about that?"
"Oh, yes! I know all about it," said I, hastily, as I passed my handkerchief over my mouth to hide the spasm of pain which contracted it.
"Of course, considering all that, the Direktion could not offer it to him, so they proposed it to Herr Helfen—you know Herr Helfen, Fraeulein, nicht?"
"A good young man! a worthy young man, and so popular with his companions! Aber denken sie nur! The authorities might have been offering him an insult instead of a good post. He refused it then and there; would not stop to consider about it—in fact, he was quite angry about it. The gentleman who was chosen at last was a stranger, from Hanover."
"Herr Helfen refused it—why, do you know?"
"They say, because he was so fond of Herr Courvoisier, and would not be set above him. It may be so. I know for a certainty that, so far from taking part against Herr Courvoisier, he would not even believe the story against him, though he could not deny it, and did not try to deny it. Aber, Fraeulein—what hearts men must have! To have lived three years, and let the world think him an honest man, when all the time he had that on his conscience! Schrecklich!"
Adelaide and Courvoisier, it seemed, might almost be pelted with the same stones.
"His wife, they say, died of grief at the disgrace—"
"Yes," said I, wincing. I could not bear this any longer, nor to discuss Courvoisier with Frau Lutzler, and the words "his wife," uttered in that speculatively gossiping tone, repelled me. She turned the subject to Helfen again.
"Herr Helfen must indeed have loved his friend, for when Herr Courvoisier went away he went with him."
"Herr Courvoisier is gone?" I inquired, in a voice so like my usual one that I was surprised.
"Yes, certainly he is gone. I don't know where, I am sure."
"Perhaps they will return?"
Frau Lutzler shook her head, and smiled slightly.
"Nee, Fraeulein! Their places were filled immediately. They are gone—ganz und gar."
I tried to listen to her, tried to answer her as she went on giving her opinions upon men and things, but the effort collapsed suddenly. I had at last to turn my head away and close my eyes, and in that weary, weary moment I prayed to God that He would let me die, and wondered again, and was almost angry with those who had nursed me, for having done their work so well. "We have managed to save you," Frau Lutzler had said. Save me from what, and for what?
I knew the truth, as I sat there; it was quite too strong and too clear to be laid aside, or looked upon with doubtful eyes. I was fronted by a fact, humiliating or not—a fact which I could not deny.
It was bad enough to have fallen in love with a man who had never showed me by word or sign that he cared for me, but exactly and pointedly the reverse; but now it seemed the man himself was bad too. Surely a well-regulated mind would have turned away from him—uninfluenced.
If so, then mine was an ill-regulated mind. I had loved him from the bottom of my heart; the world without him felt cold, empty and bare—desolate to live in, and shorn of its sweetest pleasures. He had influenced me, he influenced me yet—I still felt the words true:
"The greater soul that draweth thee Hath left his shadow plain to see On thy fair face, Persephone!"
He had bewitched me; I did feel capable of "making a fool of myself" for his sake. I did feel that life by the side of any other man would be miserable, though never so richly set; and that life by his side would be full and complete though never so poor and sparing in its circumstances. I make no excuses, no apologies for this state of things. It simply was so.
Gone! And Friedhelm with him! I should probably never see either of them again. "I have made a mess of my life," Adelaide had said, and I felt that I might chant the same dirge. A fine ending to my boasted artistic career! I thought of how I had sat and chattered so aimlessly to Courvoisier in the cathedral at Koeln, and had little known how large and how deep a shadow his influence was to cast over my life.
I still retained a habit of occasionally kneeling by my bedside and saying my prayers, and this night I felt the impulse to do so. I tried to thank God for my recovery. I said the Lord's Prayer; it is a universal petition and thanksgiving; it did not too nearly touch my woes; it allowed itself to be said, but when I came to something nearer, tried to say a thanksgiving for blessings and friends who yet remained, my heart refused, my tongue cleaved to my mouth. Alas! I was not regenerate. I could not thank God for what had happened. I found myself thinking of "the pity on't," and crying most bitterly till tears streamed through my folded fingers, and whispering, "Oh, if I could only have died while I was so ill! no one would have missed me, and it would have been so much better for me!"
* * * * *
In the beginning of July, Stella, Merrick, and I returned to England, to Skernford, home. I parted in silent tears from my trusted friends, the Mittendorfs, who begged me to come and stay with them at some future day. The anguish of leaving Elberthal did not make itself fully felt at first—that remained to torment me at a future day. And soon after our return came printed in large type in all the newspapers, "Declaration of War between France and Germany." Mine was among the hearts which panted and beat with sickening terror in England while the dogs of war were fastened in deadly grip abroad.
My time at home was spent more with Miss Hallam than in my own home. I found her looking much older, much feebler, and much more subdued than when she had been in Germany. She seemed to find some comfort from my society, and I was glad to devote myself to her. But for her I should never have known all those pains and pleasures which, bitter though their remembrance might be, were, and ever would be to me, the dearest thing of my life.
Miss Hallam seemed to know this; she once asked me: "Would I return to Germany if I could?"
"Yes," said I, "I would."
To say that I found life dull, even in Skernford, at that time would be untrue. Miss Hallam was a furious partisan of the French, and I dared not mention the war to her, but I took in the "Daily News" from my private funds, and read it in my bedroom every night with dimmed eyes, fast-coming breath, and beating heart. I knew—knew well, that Eugen must be fighting—unless he were dead. And I knew, too, by some intuition founded, I suppose, on many small negative evidences unheeded at the time, that he would fight, not like the other men who were battling for the sake of hearth and home, and sheer love and pride for the Fatherland, but as one who has no home and no Fatherland, as one who seeks a grave, not as one who combats a wrong.
Stella saw the pile of newspapers in my room, and asked me how I could read those dreary accounts of battles and bombardments. Beyond these poor newspapers I had, during the sixteen months that I was at home, but scant tidings from without. I had implored Clara Steinmann to write me now and then, and tell me the news of Elberthal, but her penmanship was of the most modest and retiring description, and she was, too, so desperately excited about Karl as to be able to think scarce of anything else. Karl belonged to a Landwehr regiment which had not yet been called out, but to which that frightful contingency might happen any day; and what should she, Clara, do in that case? She told me no news; she lamented over the possibility of Karl's being summoned upon active service. It was, she said, grausam, schrecklich! It made her almost faint to write about it, and yet she did compose four whole pages in that condition. The barrack, she informed me, was turned into a hospital, and she and "Tante" both worked hard. There was much work—dreadful work to do—such poor groaning fellows to nurse! "Herrgott!" cried poor little Clara, "I did not know that the world was such a dreadful place!" Everything was so dear, so frightfully dear, and Karl—that was the burden of her song—might have to go into battle any day.
Also through the public papers I learned that Adelaide and Sir Peter Le Marchant were divided forever. As to what happened afterward I was for some time in uncertainty, longing most intensely to know, not daring to speak of it. Adelaide's name was the signal for a cold stare from Stella, and angry, indignant expostulation from Miss Hallam. To me it was a sorrowful spell which I carried in my heart of hearts.
One day I saw in a German musical periodical which I took in, this announcement: "Herr Musik-direktor Max von Francius in —— has lately published a new symphony in B minor. The productions of this gifted composer are slowly but most surely making the mark which they deserve to leave in the musical history of our nation; he has, we believe, left —— for —— for a few weeks to join his lady (seine Gemahlin), who is one of the most active and valuable hospitable nurses of that town, now, alas! little else than a hospital."
This paragraph set my heart beating wildly. Adelaide was then the wife of von Francius. My heart yearned from my solitude toward them both. Why did not they write? They knew how I loved them. Adelaide could not suppose that I looked upon her deed with the eyes of the world at large—with the eyes of Stella or Miss Hallam. Had I not grieved with her? Had I not seen the dreadful struggle? Had I not proved the nobility of von Francius? On an impulse I seized pen and paper, and wrote to Adelaide, addressing my letter under cover to her husband at the town in which he was musik-direktor; to him I also wrote—only a few words—"Is your pupil forgotten by her master? he has never been forgotten by her."
At last the answer came. On the part of Adelaide it was short:
"DEAR MAY,—I have had no time till now to answer your letter. I can not reply to all your questions. You ask whether I repent what I have done. I repent my whole life. If I am happy—how can I be happy? I am busy now, and have many calls upon my time. My husband is very good: he never interposes between me and my work. Shall I ever come to England again?—never."
"Yours, "A. von F."
No request to write again! No inquiry after friends or relations! This letter showed me that whatever I might feel to her—however my heart might beat and long, how warm soever the love I bore her, yet that Adelaide was now apart from me—divided in every thought. It was a cruel letter, but in my pain I could not see that it had not been cruelly intended. Her nature had changed. But behind this pain lay comfort. On the back of the same sheet as that on which Adelaide's curt epistle was written, were some lines in the hand I knew well.
"LIEBE MAI"—they said—"Forgive your master, who can never forget you, nor ever cease to love you. You suffer. I know it; I read it in those short, constrained lines, so unlike your spontaneous words and frank smile. My dear child, remember the storms that are beating on every side—over our country, in on our hearts. Once I asked you to sing for me some time: you promised. When the war is over I shall remind you of your promise. At present, believe me, silence is best.
"Your old music-master, "M. v. F."
Gall and honey, roses and thistles, a dagger at the heart and a caress upon the lips; such seemed to me the characters of the two letters on the same sheet which I held in my hand. Adelaide made my heart ache; von Francius made tears stream from my eyes. I reproached myself for having doubted him, but oh, I treasured the proof that he was true! It was the one tangible link between me, reality, and hard facts, and the misty yet beloved life I had quitted. My heart was full to overflowing; I must tell some one—I must speak to some one.
Once again I tried to talk to Stella about Adelaide, but she gazed at me in that straight, strange way, and said coldly that she preferred not to speak of "that." I could not speak to Miss Hallam about it. Alone in the broad meadows, beside the noiseless river, I sometimes whispered to myself that I was not forgotten, and tried to console myself with the feeling that what von Francius promised he did—I should touch his hand, hear his voice again—and Adelaide's. For the rest, I had to lock the whole affair—my grief and my love, my longing and my anxiety, fast within my own breast, and did so.
It was a long lesson—a hard one; it was conned with bitter tears, wept long and alone in the darkness; it was a sorrow which lay down and rose up with me. It taught (or rather practiced me until I became expert in them) certain things in which I had been deficient; reticence, self-reliance, a quicker ability to decide in emergencies. It certainly made me feel old and sad, and Miss Hallam often said that Stella and I were "as quiet as nuns."
Stella had the power which I so ardently coveted: she was a first-rate instrumentalist. The only topic she and I had in common was the music I had heard and taken part in. To anything concerning that she would listen for hours.
Meanwhile the war rolled on, and Paris capitulated, and peace was declared. The spring passed and Germany laughed in glee, and bleeding France roused herself to look with a haggard eye around her; what she saw, we all know—desolation, and mourning, and woe. And summer glided by, and autumn came, and I did not write either to Adelaide or von Francius. I had a firm faith in him—and absolute trust. I felt I was not forgotten.
In less than a year after my return to England, Miss Hallam died. The day before her death she called me to her, and said words which moved me very much.
"May, I am an eccentric old woman, and lest you should be in any doubt upon the subject of my feelings toward you, I wish to tell you that my life has been more satisfactory to me ever since I knew you."
"That is much more praise than I deserve, Miss Hallam."
"No, it isn't. I like both you and Stella. Three months ago I made a codicil to my will by which I endeavored to express that liking. It is nothing very brilliant, but I fancy it will suit the views of both of you."
Utterly astounded, I stammered out some incoherent words.
"There, don't thank me," said she. "If I were not sure that I shall die to-morrow—or thereabouts, I should put my plan into execution at once, but I shall not be alive at the end of the week."
Her words proved true. Grim, sardonic, and cynical to the last, she died quietly, gladly closing her eyes which had so long been sightless. She was sixty-five years old, and had lived alone since she was five-and-twenty.
The codicil to her will, which she had spoken of with so much composure, left three hundred pounds to Stella and me. She wished a portion of it to be devoted to our instruction in music, vocal and instrumental, at any German conservatorium we might select. She preferred that of L——. Until we were of age, our parents or guardians saw to the dispensing of the money, after that it was our own—half belonging to each of us; we might either unite our funds or use them separately as we choose.
It need scarcely be said that we both chose that course which she indicated. Stella's joy was deep and intense—mine had an unavoidable sorrow mingled with it. At the end of September, 18—, we departed for Germany, and before going to L—— it was agreed that we should pay a visit at Elberthal, to my friend Dr. Mittendorf.
It was a gusty September night, with wind dashing angrily about and showers of rain flying before the gale, on which I once again set foot in Elberthal—the place I had thought never more to see.
"Freude trinken alle Wesen An den Bruesten der Natur; Alle Guten, alle Boesen Folgen ihrer Rosenspur."
I felt a deep rapture in being once more in that land where my love, if he did not live, slept. But I forbear to dwell on that rapture, much as it influenced me. It waxes tedious when put into words—loses color and flavor, like a pressed flower.
I was at first bitterly disappointed to find that Stella and I were only to have a few days at Elberthal. Dr. Mittendorf no longer lived there; but only had his official residence in the town, going every week-end to his country house, or "Schloss," as he ambitiously called it, at Lahnburg, a four-hours' railway journey from Elberthal.
Frau Mittendorf, who had been at Elberthal on a visit, was to take Stella and me with her to Lahnburg on the Tuesday morning after our arrival, which was on Friday evening.
The good doctor's schloss, an erection built like the contrivances of the White Knight in "Through the Looking-glass," on "a plan of his own invention," had been his pet hobby for years, and now that it was finished, he invited every invitable person to come and stay at it.
It was not likely that he would excuse a person for whom he had so much regard as he professed for me from the honor, and I was fain to conceal the fact that I would much rather have remained in Elberthal, and make up my mind to endure as well as I could the prospect of being buried in the country with Frau Mittendorf and her children.
* * * * *
It was Sunday afternoon. An equinoctial gale was raging, or rather had been raging all day. It had rained incessantly, and the wind had howled. The skies were cloud-laden, the wind was furious. The Rhine was so swollen that the streets in the lower part of the town sloping to the river were under water, and the people going about in boats.
But I was tired of the house; the heated rooms stifled me. I was weary of Frau Mittendorf's society, and thoroughly dissatisfied with my own.
About five in the afternoon I went to the window and looked out. I perceived a strip of pale, watery blue through a rift in the storm-laden clouds, and I chose to see that, and that only, ignoring the wind-lashed trees of the allee; the leaves, wet, and sodden and sere, hurrying panic-stricken before the gale, ignoring, too, the low wail promising a coming hurricane, which sighed and soughed beneath the wind's shrill scream.
There was a temporary calm, and I bethought myself that I would go to church—not to the Protestant church attended by the English clique—heaven forbid! but to my favorite haunt, the Jesuiten Kirche.
It was just the hour at which the service would be going on. I asked Stella in a low voice if she would not like to come; she declined with a look of pity at me, so, notifying my intention to Frau Mittendorf, and mildly but firmly leaving the room before she could utter any remonstrance, I rushed upstairs, clothed myself in my winter mantle, threw a shawl over my arm, and set out.
The air was raw, but fresh, life-giving and invigorating. The smell of the stove, which clung to me still, was quickly dissipated by it. I wrapped my shawl around me, turned down a side street, and was soon in the heart of the old part of the town, where all Roman Catholic churches were, the quarter lying near the river and wharves and bridge of boats.
I liked to go to the Jesuiten Kirche, and placing myself in the background, kneel as others knelt, and, without taking part in the service, think my own thoughts and pray my own prayers.
Here none of the sheep looked wolfish at you unless you kept to a particular pen, for the privilege of sitting in which you paid so many marks per quartal to a respectable functionary who came to collect them. Here the men came and knelt down, cap in hand, and the women seemed really to be praying, and aware of what they were praying for, not looking over their prayer-books at each other's clothes.
I entered the church. Within the building it was already almost dark. A reddish light burned in a great glittering censer, which swung gently to and fro in the chancel.
There were many people in the church, kneeling in groups and rows, and all occupied with their prayers. I, too, knelt down, and presently as the rest sat up I sat up too. A sad-looking monk had ascended the pulpit, and was beginning to preach. His face was thin, hollow, and ascetic-looking; his eyes blazed bright from deep, sunken sockets. His cowl came almost up to his ears. I could dimly see the white cord round his waist as he began to preach, at first in a low and feeble voice, which gradually waxed into power.
He was in earnest—whether right or wrong, he was in earnest. I listened with the others to what he said. He preached the beauties of renunciation, and during his discourse quoted the very words which had so often haunted me—Entbehren sollst du! sollst entbehren!
His earnestness moved me deeply. His voice was musical, sweet. His accent made the German burr soft; he was half Italian. I had been at the instrumental concert the previous night, for old association's sake, and they had played the two movements of Schubert's unfinished symphony—the B minor. The refrain in the last movement haunted me—a refrain of seven cadences, which rises softly and falls, dies away, is carried softly from one instrument to another, wanders afar, returns again, sinks lower and lower, deeper and deeper, till at last the 'celli (if I mistake not) takes it up for the last time, and the melody dies a beautiful death, leaving you undecided whether to weep or smile, but penetrated through and through with its dreamy loveliness.
This exquisite refrain lingered in my memory and echoed in my mind, like a voice from some heavenly height, telling me to rest and be at peace, in time to the swinging of the censer, in harmony with the musical southern voice of that unknown Brother Somebody.
By degrees I began to think that the censer did not sway so regularly, so like a measured pendulum as it had done, but was moving somewhat erratically, and borne upon the gale came a low, ominous murmur, which first mingled itself with the voice of the preacher, and then threatened to dominate it. Still the refrain of the symphony rang in my ears, and I was soothed to rest by the inimitable nepenthe of music.
But the murmur of which I had so long been, as it were, half-conscious, swelled and drove other sounds and the thoughts of them from my mind. It grew to a deep, hollow roar—a very hurricane of a roar. The preacher's voice ceased, drowned.
I think none of us were at first certain about what was happening; we only felt that something tremendous was going on. Then, with one mighty bang and blow of the tempest, the door by which I had entered the church was blown bodily in, and fell crashing upon the floor; and after the hurricane came rushing through the church with the howl of a triumphant demon, and hurried round the building, extinguishing every light, and turning a temple of God into Hades.
Sounds there were as of things flapping from the walls, as of wood falling; but all was in the pitchiest darkness—a very "darkness which might be felt." Amid the roar of the wind came disjointed, broken exclamations of terrified women and angry, impatient men. "Ach Gott!" "Du meine Zeit!" "Herr du meine Guete!" "Oh je!" etc., rang all round, and hurrying people rushed past me, making confusion worse confounded as they scrambled past to try to get out.
I stood still, not from any bravery or presence of mind, but from utter annihilation of both qualities in the shock and surprise of it all. At last I began trying to grope my way toward the door. I found it. Some people—I heard and felt rather than saw—were standing about the battered-in door, and there was the sound of water hurrying past the door-way. The Rhine was rushing down the street.
"We must go to the other door—the west door," said some one among the people; and as the group moved I moved too, beginning to wish myself well out of it.
We reached the west door; it led into a small lane or gasse, regarding the geography of which I was quite at sea, for I had only been in it once before. I stepped from the street into the lane, which was in the very blackness of darkness, and seemed to be filled with wind and a hurricane which one could almost distinguish and grasp.
The roar of the wind and the surging of water were all around, and were deafening. I followed, as I thought, some voices which I heard, but scarcely knew where I was going, as the wind seemed to be blowing all ways at once, and there came to me an echo here and an echo there, misleading rather than guiding. In a few moments I felt my foot upon wood, and there was a loud creaking and rattling, as of chains, a groaning, splitting, and great uproar going on, as well as a motion as if I were on board a ship.
After making a few steps I paused. It was utterly impossible that I could have got upon a boat—wildly impossible. I stood still, then went on a few steps. Still the same extraordinary sounds—still such a creaking and groaning—still the rush, rush, and swish, swish of water; but not a human voice any more, not a light to be seen, not a sign!
With my hat long since stripped from my head and launched into darkness and space, my hair lashed about me in all directions, my petticoats twisted round me like ropes, I was utterly and completely bewildered by the thunder and roar of all around. I no longer knew which way I had come nor where to turn. I could not imagine where I was, and my only chance seemed to be to hold fast and firm to the railing against which the wind had unceremoniously banged me.
The creaking grew louder—grew into a crash; there was a splitting of wood, a snapping of chains, a kind of whirl, and then I felt the wind blow upon me, first upon this side, then from that, and became conscious that the structure upon which I stood was moving—floating smoothly and rapidly upon water. In an instant (when it was too late) it all flashed upon my mind. I had wandered upon the Schiffbrucke, or bridge of boats which crossed the Rhine from the foot of the market-place, and this same bridge had been broken by the strength of the water and wind, and upon a portion of it I was now floating down the river.
With my usual wisdom, and "the shrewd application of a wide experience so peculiar to yourself," as some one has since insulted me by saying, I instantly gave myself up as lost. The bridge would run into some other bridge, or dash into a steamer, or do something horrible, and I should be killed, and none would know of my fate; or it would all break into little pieces, and I should have to cling to one of them, and should inevitably be drowned.
In any case, my destruction was only a matter of time. How I loved my life then! How sweet, and warm, and full, and fresh it seemed! How cold the river, and how undesirable a speedy release from the pomps and vanities of this wicked world!
The wind was still howling horribly—chanting my funeral dirge. Like grim death, I held on to my railing, and longed, with a desperate longing, for one glimpse of light.
I had believed myself alone upon my impromptu raft—or rather, it had not occurred to me that there might be another than myself upon it; but at this instant, in a momentary lull of the wind, almost by my side I heard a sound that I knew well, and had cause to remember—the tune of the wild march from "Lenore," set to the same words, sung by the same voice as of yore.
My heart stood still for a moment, then leaped on again. Then a faint, sickly kind of dread overcame me. I thought I was going out of my mind—was wandering in some delusion, which took the form of the dearest voice, and sounded with its sound in my ears.
But no. The melody did not cease. As the beating of my heart settled somewhat down, I still heard it—not loud, but distinct. Then the tune ceased. The voice—ah! there was no mistaking that, and I trembled with the joy that thrilled me as I heard it—conned over the words as if struck with their weird appropriateness to the scene, which was certainly marked:
"Und das Gesindel, husch, husch, husch Kam hinten nachgeprasselt— Wie Wirbelwind am Haselbusch Durch duerre Blatter rasselt."
And wirbelwind—the whirlwind—played a wild accompaniment to the words.
It seemed to me that a long time passed, during which I could not speak, but could only stand with my hands clasped over my heart, trying to steady its tumultuous beating. I had not been wrong, thank the good God above! I had not been wrong when my heart sung for joy at being once more in this land. He was here—he was living—he was safe!
Here were all my worst fears soothed—my intensest longings answered without my having spoken. It was now first that I really knew how much I loved him—so much that I felt almost afraid of the strength of the passion. I knew not till now how it had grown—how fast and all-denominating it had become.
A sob broke from my lips, and his voice was silenced.
"Herr Courvoisier!" I stammered.
"Who spoke?" he asked in a clear voice.
"It is you!" I murmured.
"May!" he uttered, and paused abruptly.
A hand touched mine—warm, firm, strong—his very hand. In its lightest touch there seemed safety, shelter, comfort.
"Oh, how glad I am! how glad I am!" I sobbed.
He murmured "Sonderbar!" as if arguing with himself, and I held his hand fast.
"Don't leave me! Stay here!" I implored.
"I suppose there is not much choice about that for either of us," said he, and he laughed.
I did not remember to wonder how he came there; I only knew that he was there. That tempest, which will not soon be forgotten in Elberthal, subsided almost as rapidly as it had arisen. The winds lulled as if a wizard had bidden them be still. The gale hurried on to devastate fresh fields and pastures new. There was a sudden reaction of stillness, and I began to see in the darkness the outlines of a figure beside me. I looked up. There was no longer that hideous, driving black mist, like chaos embodied, between me and heaven. The sky, though dark, was clear; some stars were gleaming coldly down upon the havoc which had taken place since they last viewed the scene.