Seeing the heavens so calm and serene, a sudden feeling of shyness and terror overtook me. I tried to withdraw my hand from that of my companion, and to remove myself a little from him. He held my hand fast.
"You are exhausted with standing?" said he. "Sit down upon this ledge."
"If you will too."
"Oh, of course. I think our voyage will be a long one, and—"
"Speak German," said I. "Let me hear you speaking it again."
"And I have no mind to stand all the time," he concluded in his own tongue.
"Is there no one else here but ourselves?"
I had seated myself and he placed himself beside me. I was in no laughing mood or I might have found something ludicrous in our situation.
"I wonder where we are now," I half whispered, as the bridge was still hurried ceaselessly down the dark and rushing river. I dared not allude to anything else. I felt my heart was too full—I felt too, too utterly uncertain of him. There was sadness in his voice. I, who knew its every cadence, could hear that.
"I think we are about passing Kaiserswerth," said he. "I wonder where we shall land at last."
"Do you think we shall go very far?"
"Perhaps we may. It is on record that the Elberthal boat bridge—part of it, I mean—once turned up at Rotterdam. It may happen again, warum nicht?"
"How long does that take?"
"Twelve or fourteen hours, I dare say."
I was silent.
"I am sorry for you," he said in the gentlest of voices, as he happed my shawl more closely around me. "And you are cold too—shivering. My coat must do duty again."
"No, no!" cried I. "Keep it! I won't have it."
"Yes you will, because you can't help it if I make you," he answered as he wrapped it round me.
"Well, please take part of it. At least wrap half of it round you," I implored, "or I shall be miserable."
"Pray don't. No, keep it! It is not like charity—it has not room for many sins at once."
"Do you mean you or me?" I could not help asking.
"Are we not all sinners?"
I knew it would be futile to resist, but I was not happy in the new arrangement, and I touched his coat-sleeve timidly.
"You have quite a thin coat," I remonstrated, "and I have a winter dress, a thick jacket, and a shawl."
"And my coat, und doch bist du—oh, pardon! and you are shivering in spite of it," said he, conclusively.
"It is an awful storm, is it not?" I suggested next.
"Was an awful storm, nicht wahr? Yes. And how very strange that you and I, of all people, should have met here, of all places. How did you get here?"
"I had been to church."
"So! I had not."
"How did you come here?" I ventured to ask.
"Yes—you may well ask; but first—you have been in England, have you not?"
"Yes, and am going back again."
"Well—I came here yesterday from Berlin. When the war was over—"
"Ah, you were in the war?" I gasped.
"Natuerlich, mein Fraeulein. Where else should I have been?"
"And you fought?"
"Where did you fight? At Sedan?"
"Oh, my God!" I whispered to myself. "And were you wounded?" I added aloud.
"A mere trifle. Friedhelm and I had luck to march side by side. I learned to know in spirit and in letter the meaning of Ich hatt' einen guten Cameraden."
"You were wounded!" I repeated, unheeding all that discursiveness. "Where? How? Were you in the hospital?"
"Yes. Oh, it is nothing. Since then I have been learning my true place in the world, for you see, unluckily, I was not killed."
"Thank God! Thank God! How I have wondered! How I have thought—well, how did you come here?"
"I coveted a place in one of those graves, and couldn't have it," he said, bitterly. "It was a little thing to be denied, but fallen men must do without much. I saw boys falling around me, whose mothers and sisters are mourning for them yet."
"Well—Friedel and I are working in Berlin. We shall not stay there long; we are wanderers now! There is no room for us. I have a short holiday, and I came to spend it at Elberthal. This evening I set out, intending to hear the opera—'Der Fliegende Hollaender'—very appropriate, wasn't it?"
"But the storm burst over the theater just as the performance was about to begin, and removed part of the roof, upon which one of the company came before the curtain and dismissed us with his blessing and the announcement that no play would be played to-night. Thus I was deprived of the ungodly pleasure of watching my old companions wrestle with Wagner's stormy music while I looked on like a gentleman."
"But when you came out of the theater?"
"When I came out of the theater the storm was so magnificent, and was telling me so much that I resolved to come down to its center-point and see Vater Rhein in one of his grandest furies. I strayed upon the bridge of boats; forgot where I was, listened only to the storm: ere I knew what was happening I was adrift and the tempest howling round me—and you, fresh from your devotions to lull it."
"Are you going to stay long in Elberthal?"
"It seems I may not. I am driven away by storms and tempests."
"And me with you," thought I. "Perhaps there is some meaning in this. Perhaps fate means us to breast other storms together. If so, I am ready—anything—so it be with you."
"There's the moon," said he; "how brilliant, is she not?"
I looked up into the sky wherein she had indeed appeared "like a dying lady, lean and pale," shining cold and drear, but very clearly upon the swollen waters, showing us dim outlines of half-submerged trees, cottages and hedges—showing us that we were in midstream, and that other pieces of wreck were floating down the river with us, hurrying rapidly with the current—showing me, too, in a ghostly whiteness, the face of my companion turned toward me, and his elbow rested on his knee and his chin in his hand, and his loose dark hair was blown back from his broad forehead, his strange, deep eyes were resting upon my face, calmly, openly.
Under that gaze my heart fell. In former days there had been in his face something not unakin to this stormy free night; but now it was changed—how changed!
A year had wrought a terrible alteration. I knew not his past; but I did know that he had long been struggling, and a dread fear seized me that the struggle was growing too hard for him—his spirit was breaking. It was not only that the shadows were broader, deeper, more permanently sealed—there was a down look—a hardness and bitterness which inspired me both with pity and fear.
"Your fate is a perverse one," he remarked, as I did not speak.
"It throws you so provokingly into society which must be so unpleasant to you."
"You are much mistaken," said I, composedly.
"It is kind of you to say so. For your sake, I wish it had been any one but myself who had been thus thrown together with you. I promise you faithfully that as soon as ever we can land I will only wait to see you safely into a train and then I will leave you and—"
He was suddenly silenced. I had composed my face to an expression of indifference as stony as I knew how to assume, and with my hands folded in my lap, had steeled myself to look into his face and listen to him.
I could find nothing but a kind of careless mockery in his face—a hard half smile upon his lips as he went on saying the hard things which cut home and left me quivering, and which he yet uttered as if they had been the most harmless pleasantries or the merest whipped-cream compliments.
It was at this moment that the wind, rising again in a brief spasm, blew a tress of my loosened hair across his face. How it changed! flushed crimson. His lips parted—a strange, sudden light came into his eyes.
"I beg your pardon!" said I, hastily, started from my assumed composure, as I raised my hand to push my hair back. But he had gathered the tress together—his hand lingered for one moment—a scarcely perceptible moment—upon it, then he laid it gently down upon my shoulder.
"Then I will leave you," he went on, resuming the old manner, but with evident effort, "and not interfere with you any more."
What was I to think? What to believe? I thought to myself that had he been my lover and I had intercepted such a glance of his to another woman my peace of mind had been gone for evermore. But, on the other hand, every cool word he said gave the lie to his looks—or did his looks give the lie to his words? Oh, that I could solve the problem once for all, and have done with it forever!
"And you, Miss Wedderburn—have you deserted Germany?"
"I have been obliged to live in England, if that is what you mean—I am living in Germany at present."
"And art—die Kunst—that is cruel!"
"You are amusing yourself at my expense, as you have always delighted in doing," said I, sharply, cut to the quick.
"Aber, Fraeulein May! What do you mean?"
"From the very first," I repeated, the pain I felt giving a keenness to my reproaches. "Did you not deceive me and draw me out for your amusement that day we met at Koeln? You found out then, I suppose, what a stupid, silly creature I was, and you have repeated the process now and then, since—much to your own edification and that of Herr Helfen, I do not doubt. Whether it was just, or honorable, or kind, is a secondary consideration. Stupid people are only invented for the amusement of those who are not stupid."
"How dare you, how dare you talk in that manner?" said he, emphatically, laying his hand upon my shoulder, and somehow compelling my gaze to meet his. "But I know why—I read the answer in those eyes which dare everything, and yet—"
"Not quite everything," thought I, uncomfortably, as the said eyes sunk beneath his look.
"Fraeulein May, will you have the patience to listen while I tell you a little story?"
"Oh, yes!" I responded, readily, as I hailed the prospect of learning something more about him.
"It is now nearly five years since I first came to Elberthal. I had never been in the town before. I came with my boy—may God bless him and keep him!—who was then two years old, and whose mother was dead—for my wife died early."
A pause, during which I did not speak. It was something so wonderful to me that he should speak to me of his wife.
"She was young—and very beautiful," said he. "You will forgive my introducing the subject?"
"Oh, Herr Courvoisier!"
"And I had wronged her. I came to Friedhelm Helfen, or rather was sent to him, and, as it happened, found such a friend as is not granted to one man in a thousand. When I came here, I was smarting under various griefs; about the worst was that I had recklessly destroyed my own prospects. I had a good career—a fair future open to me. I had cut short that career, annihilated that future, or any future worth speaking of, by—well, something had happened which divided me utterly and uncompromisingly and forever from the friends, and the sphere, and the respect and affection of those who had been parents and brother and sister to me. Then I knew that their good opinion, their love, was my law and my highest desire. And it was not their fault—it was mine—my very own.
"The more I look back upon it all, the more I see that I have myself to thank for it. But that reflection, as you may suppose, does not add to the delights of a man's position when he is humbled to the dust as I was then. Biting the dust—you have that phrase in English. Well, I have been biting the dust—yes, eating it, living upon it, and deservedly so, for five years; but nothing ever can, nothing ever will, make it taste anything but dry, bitter, nauseating to the last degree."
"Go on!" said I, breathlessly.
"How kind you are to listen to the dull tale! Well, I had my boy Sigmund, and there were times when the mere fact that he was mine made me forget everything else, and thank my fate for the simple fact that I lived and was his father. His father—he was a part of myself, he could divine my every thought. But at other times, generally indeed, I was sick of life—that life. Don't suppose that I am one of those high-flown idiots who would make it out that no life is worth living: I knew and felt to my soul that the life from which I had locked myself out and then dropped the key as it were here in midstream, was a glorious life, worth living ten times over.
"There was the sting of it. For three years I lived thus, and learned a great deal, learned what men in that position are—learned to respect, admire, and love some of them—learned to understand that man—der Mensch—is the same, and equally to be honored everywhere. I also tried to grow accustomed to the thought, which grew every day more certain to me, that I must live on so for the future—to plan my life, and shape out a certain kind of repentance for sins past. I decided that the only form my atonement could take was that of self-effacement—"
"That is why you never would take the lead in anything."
"Exactly. I am naturally fond of leading. I love beyond everything to lead those who I know like me, and like following me. When I was haupt—I mean, I knew that all that by-gone mischief had arisen from doing what I liked, so I dropped doing what I liked, and began to do what I disliked. By the time I had begun to get a little into training three years had passed—these things are not accomplished in a day, and the effects of twenty-seven years of selfishness are not killed soon. I was killing them, and becoming a machine in the process.
"One year the Lower Rhenish Musikfest was to be held at Koeln. Long before it came off the Cologne Orchestra had sent to us for contingents, and we had begun to attend some of the proben regularly once or twice a week.
"One day Friedhelm and I had been at a probe. The 'Tower of Babel' and the 'Lenore' Symphony were among the things we had practiced. Both of them, the 'Lenore' particularly, had got into my head. I broke lose for one day from routine, from drudgery and harness. It was a mistake. Friedhelm went off, shrugging his dear old shoulders, and I at last turned up, mooning at the Koelner Bahnof. Well—you know the rest. Nay, do not turn so angrily away. Try to forgive a fallen man one little indiscretion. When I saw you I can not tell what feeling stole warm and invigorating into my heart; it was something quite new—something I had never felt before: it was so sweet that I could not part with it. Fraeulein May, I have lived that afternoon over again many and many a time. Have you ever given a thought to it?"
"Yes, I have," said I, dryly.
"My conduct after that rose half from pride—wounded pride, I mean, for when you cut me, it did cut me—I own it. Partly it arose from a worthier feeling—the feeling that I could not see very much of you or learn to know you at all well without falling very deeply in love with you. You hide your face—you are angry at that—"
"Stop. Did you never throughout all this give a thought to the possibility that I might fall in love with you?"
I did not look at him, but he said, after a pause:
"I had the feeling that if I tried I could win your love. I never was such a presumptuous fool as to suppose that you would love me unasked—or even with much asking on my part—bewahre!"
I was silent, still concealing my face. He went on:
"Besides, I knew that you were an English lady. I asked myself what was the right thing to do, and I decided that though you would consider me an ill-mannered, churlish clown, I would refuse those gracious, charming advances which you in your charity made. Our paths in life were destined to be utterly apart and divided, and what could it matter to you—the behavior of an insignificant fiddler? You would forget him just when he deserved to be forgotten, that is—instantly.
"Time went on. You lived near us. Changes took place. Those who had a right to arbitrate for me, since I had by my own deed deprived myself of that right, wrote and demanded my son. I had shown myself incapable of managing my own affairs—was it likely that I could arrange his? And then he was better away from such a black sheep. It is true. The black sheep gave up the white lambling into the care of a legitimate shepherd, who carried it off to a correct and appropriate fold. Then life was empty indeed, for, strange though it may seem, even black sheep have feelings—ridiculously out of place they are too."
"Oh, don't speak so harshly!" said I, tremulously, laying my hand for an instant upon his.
His face was turned toward me; his mien was severe, but serene; he spoke as of some far-past, distant dream.
"Then it was in looking round my darkened horizon for Sigmund, I found that it was not empty. You rose trembling upon it like a star of light, and how beautiful a star! But there! do not turn away. I will not shock you by expatiating upon it. Enough that I found what I had more than once suspected—that I loved you. Once or twice I nearly made a fool of myself; that Carnival Monday—do you remember? Luckily Friedel and Karl came in, but in my saner moments I worshiped you as a noble, distant good—part of the beautiful life which I had gambled with—and lost. Be easy! I never for one instant aspired to you—never thought of possessing you: I was not quite mad. I am only telling you this to explain, and—"
"And you renounced me?" said I in a low voice.
"I renounced you."
I removed my hand from my eyes, and looked at him. His eyes, dry and calm, rested upon my face. His countenance was pale; his mouth set with a grave, steady sweetness.
Light rushed in upon my mind in a radiant flood—light and knowledge. I knew what was right; an unerring finger pointed it to me. I looked deep, deep into his sad eyes, read his innermost soul, and found it pure.
"They say you have committed a crime," said I.
"And I have not denied, can not deny it," he answered, as if waiting for something further.
"You need not," said I. "It is all one to me. I want to hear no more about that. I want to know if your heart is mine."
The wind wuthered wearily; the water rushed. Strange, inarticulate sounds of the night came fitfully across ear and sense, as he answered me:
"Yours and my honor's. What then?"
"This," I answered, stooping, sweeping the loose hair from that broad, sad forehead, and pressing my lips upon it. "This: accept the gift or reject it. As your heart is mine, so mine is yours—for ever and ever."
A momentary silence as I raised myself, trembling, and stood aside; and the water rushed, and the storm-birds on untiring wing beat the sky and croaked of the gale.
Then he drew me to him, folded me to his breast without speaking, and gave me a long, tender, yearning kiss, with unspeakable love, little passion in it, fit seal of a love that was deeper and sadder than it was triumphant.
"Let me have a few moments of this," said he, "just a few moments, May. Let me believe that I may hold you to your noble, pitying words. Then I shall be my own master again."
Ignoring this hint, I laid my hands upon his arm, and eying him steadily, went on:
"But understand, the man I love must not be my servant. If you want to keep me you must be the master; I brook no feeble curb; no weak hand can hold me. You must rule, or I shall rebel; you must show the way, for I don't know it. I don't know whether you understand what you have undertaken."
"My dear, you are excited. Your generosity carries you away, and your divine, womanly pity and kindness. You speak without thinking. You will repent to-morrow."
"That is not kind nor worthy of you," said I. "I have thought about it for sixteen months, and the end of my thought has always been the same: I love Eugen Courvoisier, and if he had loved me I should have been a happy woman, and if—though I thought it too good to be true, you know—if he ever should tell me so, nothing in this world shall make me spoil our two lives by cowardice; I will hold to him against the whole world."
"It is impossible, May," he said, quietly, after a pause. "I wish you had never seen me."
"It is only impossible if you make it so."
"My sin found me out even here, in this quiet place, where I knew no one. It will find me out again. You—if ever you were married to me—would be pointed out as the wife of a man who had disgraced his honor in the blackest, foulest way. I must and will live it out alone."
"You shall not live it out alone," I said.
The idea that I could not stand by him—the fact that he was not prosperous, not stainless before the world—that mine would be no ordinary flourishing, meaningless marriage, in which "for better, for worse" signifies nothing but better, no worse—all this poured strength on strength into my heart, and seemed to warm it and do it good.
"I will tell you your duty," said he. "Your duty is to go home and forget me. In due time some one else will find the loveliest and dearest being in the world—"
"Eugen! Eugen!" I cried, stabbed to the quick. "How can you? You can not love me, or you could not coldly turn me over to some other man, some abstraction—"
"Perhaps if he were not an abstraction I might not be able to do it," he said, suddenly clasping me to him with a jealous movement. "No; I am sure I should not be able to do it. Nevertheless, while he yet is an abstraction, and because of that, I say, leave me!"
"Eugen, I do not love lightly!" I began, with forced calm. "I do not love twice. My love for you is not a mere fancy—I fought against it with all my strength; it mastered me in spite of myself—now I can not tear it away. If you send me away it will be barbarous; away to be alone, to England again, when I love you with my whole soul. No one but a man—no one but you could have said such a thing. If you do," I added, terror at the prospect overcoming me, "if you do I shall die—I shall die."
I could command myself no longer, but sobbed aloud.
"You will have to answer for it," I repeated; "but you will not send me away."
"What, in Heaven's name, makes you love me so?" he asked, as if lost in wonder.
"I don't know. I can not imagine," said I, with happy politeness. "It is no fault of mine." I took his hand in mine. "Eugen, look at me." His eyes met mine. They brightened as he looked at me. "That crime of which you were accused—you did not do it."
"Look at me and say that you did," I continued.
"Friedhelm Helfen always said you had not done it. He was more loyal than I," said I, contritely; "but," I added, jealously, "he did not love you better than I, for I loved you all the same even though I almost believed you had done it. Well, that is an easy secret to keep, because it is to your credit."
"That is just what makes it hard. If it were true, one would be anxious rather than not to conceal it; but as it is not true, don't you see? Whenever you see me suspected, it will be the impulse of your loyal, impetuous heart to silence the offender, and tell him he lies."
In my haste I had not seen this aspect of the question. It was quite a new idea to me. Yes, I began to see in truer proportions the kind of suffering he had suffered, the kind of trials he had gone through, and my breath failed at the idea. When they pointed at him I must not say, "It is a lie; he is as honest as you." It was a solemn prospect. It overpowered me.
"You quail before that?" said he, gently, after a pause.
"No; I realize it. I do not quail before it," said I, firmly. "But," I added, looking at him with a new element in my glance—that of awe—"do you mean that for five years you have effaced yourself thus, knowing all the while that you were not guilty?"
"It was a matter of the clearest duty—and honor," he replied, flushing and looking somewhat embarrassed.
"Of duty!" I cried, strangely moved. "If you did not do it, who did? Why are you silent?"
Our eyes met. I shall never forget that glance. It had the concentrated patience, love, and pride, and loyalty, of all the years of suffering past and—to come.
"May, that is the test for you! That is what I shrink from exposing you to, what I know it is wrong to expose you to. I can not tell you. No one knows but I, and I shall never tell any one, not even you, if you become my other self and soul and thought. Now you know all."
He was silent.
"So that is the truth?" said I. "Thank you for telling it to me. I always thought you were a hero; now I am sure of it. Oh, Eugen! how I do love you for this! And you need not be afraid. I have been learning to keep secrets lately. I shall help, not hinder you. Eugen, we will live it down together."
At last we understood each other. At last our hands clasped and our lips met upon the perfect union of feeling and purpose for all our future lives. All was clear between us, bright, calm; and I, at least, was supremely happy. How little my past looked now; how petty and insignificant all my former hopes and fears!
* * * * *
Dawn was breaking over the river. Wild and storm-beaten was the scene on which we looked. A huge waste of swollen waters around us, devastated villages, great piles of wreck on all sides; a watery sun casting pallid beams upon the swollen river. We were sailing Hollandward upon a fragment of the bridge, and in the distance were the spires and towers of a town gleaming in the sickly sun-rays. I stood up and gazed toward that town, and he stood by my side, his arm round my waist. My chief wish was that our sail could go on forever.
"Do you know what is ringing in my ears and will not leave my mind?" I asked.
"Indeed, no! You are a riddle and a mystery to me."
I hummed the splendid air from the Choral Symphony, the motif of the music to the choruses to "Joy" which follow.
"Ah!" said he, taking up its deep, solemn gladness, "you are right, May—quite right. There is a joy, if it be 'beyond the starry belt.'"
"I wonder what that town is?" I said, after a pause.
"I am not sure, but I fancy it is Emmerich. I am sure I hope so."
Whatever the town, we were floating straight toward it. I suddenly thought of my dream long ago, and told it to him, adding:
"I think this must have been the floating wreck to which you and I seemed clinging; though I thought that all of the dream that was going to be fulfilled had already come to pass on that Carnival Monday afternoon."
The boat had got into one of the twisting currents, and was being propelled directly toward the town.
Eugen looked at me and laughed. I asked why.
"What for a lark! as they say in your country."
"You are quite mistaken. I never heard such an expression. But what is such a lark?"
"We have no hats; we want something to eat; we must have tickets to get back to Elberthal, and I have just two thalers in my pocket—oh! and a two-pfennige piece. I left my little all behind me."
"Hurrah! At last you will be compelled to take back that three thalers ten."
We both laughed at this jeu d'esprit as if it had been something exquisitely witty; and I forgot my disheveled condition in watching the sun rise over the broad river, in feeling our noiseless progression over it, and, above all, in the divine sense of oneness and harmony with him at my side—a feeling which I can hardly describe, utterly without the passionate fitfulness of the orthodox lover's rapture, but as if for a long time I had been waiting for some quality to make me complete, and had quietly waked to find it there, and the world understandable—life's riddle read.
Eugen's caresses were few, his words of endearment quiet; but I knew what they stood for; a love rooted in feelings deeper than those of sense, holier than mere earthly love—feelings which had taken root in adversity, had grown in darkness and "made a sunshine in a shady place"—feelings which in him had their full and noble growth and beauty of development, but which it seems to be the aim of the fashionable education of this period as much as possible to do away with—the feeling of chivalry, delicacy, reticence, manliness, modesty.
As we drew nearer the town, he said to me:
"In a few hours we shall have to part, May, for a time. While we are here alone, and you are uninfluenced, let me ask you something. This love of yours for me—what will it carry you through?"
"Anything, now that I am sure of yours for me."
"In short, you are firmly decided to be my wife some time?"
"When you tell me you are ready for me," said I, putting my hand in his.
"And if I find it best to leave my Fatherland, and begin life quite anew?"
"Thy God is my God, and thy people are my people, Eugen."
"One other thing. How do you know that you can marry? Your friends—"
"I am twenty years old. In a year I can do as I like," said I, composedly. "Surely we can stand firm and faithful for a year?"
He smiled, and it was a new smile—sweet, hopeful, if not merry.
With this silent expression of determination and trust we settled the matter.
"What's failure or success to me? I have subdued my life to the one purpose."
Eugen sent a telegram from Emmerich to Frau Mittendorf to reassure her as to my safety. At four in the afternoon we left that town, refreshed and rehatted, to reach Elberthal at six.
I told Eugen that we were going away the next day to stay a short time at a place called Lahnburg.
He started and looked at me.
"Lahnburg!—I—when you are there—nein, das ist—You are going to Lahnburg?"
"Yes. Why not?"
"You will know why I ask if you go to Schloss Rothenfels."
"I say no more, dear May. I will leave you to form your own conclusions. I have seen that this fair head could think wisely and well under trying circumstances enough. I am rather glad that you are going to Lahnburg."
"The question is—will you still be at Elberthal when I return?"
"I can not say. We had better exchange addresses. I am at Frau Schmidt's again—my old quarters. I do not know when or how we shall meet again. I must see Friedhelm, and you—when you tell your friends, you will probably be separated at once and completely from me."
"Well, a year is not much out of our lives. How old are you, Eugen?"
"Thirty-two. And you?"
"Twenty and two months; then you are twelve years older than I. You were a school-boy when I was born. What were you like?"
"A regular little brute, I should suppose, as they all are."
"When we are married," said I, "perhaps I may go on with my singing, and earn some more money by it. My voice will be worth something to me then."
"I thought you had given up art."
"Perhaps I shall see Adelaide," I added; "or, rather, I will see her." I looked at him rather inquiringly. To my relief he said:
"Have you not seen her since her marriage?"
"No; have you?"
"She was my angel nurse when I was lying in hospital at ——. Did you not know that she has the Iron Cross? And no one ever won it more nobly."
"Adelaide—your nurse—the Iron Cross?" I ejaculated. "Then you have seen her?"
"Seen her shadow to bless it."
"Do you know where she is now?"
"With her husband at ——. She told me that you were in England, and she gave me this."
He handed me a yellow, much-worn folded paper, which, on opening, I discovered to be my own letter to Adelaide, written during the war, and which had received so curt an answer.
"I begged very hard for it," said he, "and only got it with difficulty, but I represented that she might get more of them, whereas I—"
He stopped, for two reasons. I was weeping as I returned it to him, and the train rolled into the Elberthal station.
On my way to Dr. Mittendorf's, I made up my mind what to do. I should not speak to Stella, nor to any one else of what had happened, but I should write very soon to my parents and tell them the truth. I hoped they would not refuse their consent, but I feared they would. I should certainly not attempt to disobey them while their authority legally bound me, but as soon as I was my own mistress, I should act upon my own judgment. I felt no fear of anything; the one fear of my life—the loss of Eugen—had been removed, and all others dwindled to nothing. My happiness, I am and was well aware, was quite set upon things below; if I lost Eugen I lost everything, for I, like him, and like all those who have been and are dearest to both of us, was a Child of the World.
"Oftmals hab' ich geirrt, und habe mich wiedergefunden, Aber gluecklicher nie."
It was beginning to be dusk when we alighted the next day at Lahnburg, a small way-side station, where the doctor's brand-new carriage met us, and after we had been bidden welcome, whirled us off to the doctor's brand-new schloss, full of brand-new furniture. I skip it all, the renewed greetings, the hospitality, the noise. They were very kind. It was all right to me, and I enjoyed it immensely. I was in a state of mind in which I verily believe I should have enjoyed eating a plate of porridge for supper, or a dish of sauerkraut for dinner.
The subject for complacency and contemplation in Frau Mittendorf's life was her intimacy with the von Rothenfels family, whose great, dark old schloss, or rather, a portion of it, looking grimly over its woods, she pointed out to me from the windows of her salon. I looked somewhat curiously at it, chiefly because Eugen had mentioned it, and also because it was such a stern, imposing old pile. It was built of red stone, and stood upon red-stone foundations. Red were the rocks of this country, and hence its name, "Rothen-fels," the red rocks. Woods, also dark, but now ablaze with the last fiery autumn tints, billowed beneath it; on the other side, said Frau Mittendorf, was a great plateau covered with large trees, intersected by long, straight avenues. She would take us to look at it; the Graefin von Rothenfels was a great friend of hers.
She was entertaining us with stories to prove the great regard and respect of the countess for her (Frau Mittendorf) on the morning after our arrival, while I was longing to go out and stroll along some of those pleasant breezy upland roads, or explore the sleepy, quaint old town below.
Upon her narrative came an interruption. A servant threw open the door very wide, announcing the Graefin von Rothenfels. Frau Mittendorf rose in a tremulous hurry and flutter to greet her noble guest, and then introduced us to her.
A tall, melancholy, meager-looking woman,—far past youth—on the very confines of middle age, with iron-gray hair banded across a stern, much-lined brow. Colorless features of a strong, large, not unhandsome type from which all liveliness and vivacity had long since fled. A stern mouth—steady, lusterless, severe eyes, a dignity—yes, even a majesty of mien which she did not attempt to soften into graciousness; black, trailing draperies; a haughty pride of movement.
Such was the first impression made upon me by Hildegarde, Countess of Rothenfels—a forbidding, if grand figure—aristocrat in every line; utterly alien and apart, I thought, from me and every feeling of mine.
But on looking again the human element was found in the deeply planted sadness which no reserve pride could conceal. Sad the eyes, sad the mouth; she was all sad together—and not without reason, as I afterward learned.
She was a rigid Roman Catholic, and at sixteen had been married for les convenances to her cousin, Count Bruno von Rothenfels, a man a good deal older than herself, though not preposterously so, and whose ample possessions and old name gave social position of the highest kind. But he was a Protestant by education, a thinker by nature, a rationalist by conviction.
That was one bitter grief. Another was her childlessness. She had been married twenty-four years; no child had sprung from the union. This was a continual grief which imbittered her whole existence.
Since then I have seen a portrait of her at twenty—a splendid brunette, with high spirit and resolute will and noble beauty in every line. Ah, me! What wretches we become! Sadness and bitterness, proud aloofness and a yearning wistfulness were subtly mingled in the demeanor of Graefin von Rothenfels.
She bowed to us, as Frau Mittendorf introduced us. She did not bestow a second glance upon Stella; but bent a long look, a second, a third scrutinizing gaze upon me. I—I am not ashamed to own it—quivered somewhat under her searching glance. She impressed and fascinated me.
She seated herself, and slightly apologizing to us for intruding domestic affairs, began to speak with Frau Mittendorf of some case of village distress in which they were both interested. Then she turned again to us, speaking in excellent English, and asked us whether we were staying there, after which she invited us to dine at her house the following day with Frau Mittendorf. After the invitation had been accepted with sufficient reverence by that lady, the countess rose as if to go, and turning again to me with still that pensive, half-wistful, half-mistrustful gaze, she said:
"I have my carriage here. Would you like to come with me to see our woods and house? They are sometimes interesting to strangers."
"Oh, very much!" I said, eagerly.
"Then come," said she. "I will see that you are escorted back when you are tired. It is arranged that you remain until you feel gene, nicht wahr?"
"Oh, thank you!" said I, again, hastening to make myself ready, and parenthetically hoping, as I ran upstairs, that Frau Mittendorf's eyes might not start quite out of her head with pride at the honor conferred upon her house and visitors.
Very soon I was seated beside the Graefin in the dark-green clarence, with the grand coachman and the lady's own jaeger beside him, and we were driving along a white road with a wild kind of country spreading round—moorland stretches, and rich deep woods. Up and down, for the way was uneven, till we entered a kind of park, and to the right, high above, I saw the great red pile with its little pointed towers crowned with things like extinguishers ending in a lightning-rod, and which seemed to spring from all parts of the heavy mass of the main building.
That, then, was Schloss Rothenfels. It looked the very image of an aristocratic, ancient feste burg, grim and grand; it brooded over us like a frown, and dominated the landscape for miles around. I was deeply impressed; such a place had always been like a dream to me.
There was something so imposingly conservative about it; it looked as if it had weathered so many storms; defying such paltry forces as wind and weather, and would through so many more, quite untouched by the roar of life and progress outside—a fit and firm keeping-place for old shields, for weapons honorably hacked and dinted, for tattered loyal flags—for art treasures and for proud beauties.
As we gained the height, I perceived the huge scale on which the schloss was constructed. It was a little town in itself. I saw, too, that plateau on the other side, of which I had heard; later I explored it. It was a natural plain—a kind of table-land, and was laid out in what have always, since I was a child, impressed me more than any other kind of surroundings to a house—mile-long avenues of great trees, stretching perfectly straight, like lines of marching troops in every direction.
Long, melancholy alleys and avenues, with huge, moss-grown stone figures and groups guarding the terraces or keeping fantastic watch over the stone tanks, on whose surfaces floated the lazy water-lilies. Great moss-grown gods and goddesses, and strange hybrid beasts, and fauns and satyrs, and all so silent and forlorn, with the lush grass and heavy fern growing rank and thick under the stately trees. To right they stretched and to left; and straightaway westward was one long, wide, vast, deserted avenue, at the end of which was an opening, and in the opening a huge stone myth or figure of a runner, who in the act of racing receives an arrow in his heart, and, with arms madly tossed in the air, staggers.
Behind this terrible figure the sun used to set, flaming, or mild, or sullen, and the vast arms of it were outlined against the gorgeous sky, or in the half-dark it glimmered like a ghost and seemed to move. It had been there so long that none could remember the legend of it. It was a grim shape.
Scattered here and there were quaint wildernesses and pleasaunces—clipped yews and oddly trained shrubs and flowers trying to make a diversion, but ever dominated by the huge woods, the straight avenues, the mathematical melancholy on an immense scale.
The Frau Graefin glanced at me once or twice as my head turned this way and that, and my eyes could not take in the strange scene quickly enough; but she said nothing, nor did her severe face relax into any smile.
We stopped under a huge porte-cochere in which more servants were standing about.
"Come with me," said the lady to me. "First I will take you to my rooms, and then when you have rested a little you can do what you like."
Pleased at the prospect, I followed her; through a hall which without any joking was baronial; through a corridor into a room, through which she passed, observing to me:
"This is the rittersaal, one of the oldest rooms in the house."
The rittersaal—a real, hereditary Hall of Knights where a sangerkrieg might have taken place—where Tannhauser and the others might have contended before Elizabeth. A polished parquet—a huge hearth on which burned a large bright wood fire, whose flames sparkled upon suits of mail in dozens—crossed swords and lances, over which hung tattered banners and bannerets. Shields and lances, portraits with each a pair of spurs beneath it—the men were all knights, of that line! dark and grave chiefly were these lords of the line of Sturm. In the center of the hall a great trophy of arms and armor, all of which had been used, and used to purpose; the only drapery, the banners over these lances and portraits. The room delighted me while it made me feel small—very small. The countess turned at a door at the other end and looked back upon me where I stood gasping in the door-way by which we had entered. She was one of the house; this had nothing overpowering for her, if it did give some of the pride to her mien.
I hurried after her, apologizing for my tardiness; she waved the words back, and led me to a smaller room, which appeared to be her private sitting-room. Here she asked me to lay aside my things, adding that she hoped I should spend the day at the schloss.
"If you find it not too intolerably stupid," she added. "It is a dull place."
I said that it seemed to me like something out of a fairy tale, and that I longed to see more of it if I might.
"Assuredly you shall. There may be some few things which you may like to see. I forget that every one is not like myself—tired. Are you musical?"
"Very!" said I, emphatically.
"Then you will be interested in the music-rooms here. How old are you?"
I told her. She bowed gravely. "You are young, and, I suppose, happy?" she remarked.
"Yes, I am—very happy—perfectly," said I, smiling, because I could not help it.
"When I saw you I was so struck with that look," said she. "I thought I had never seen any one look so radiantly, transcendently happy. I so seldom see it—and never feel it, and I wished to see more of you. I am very glad you are so happy—very glad. Now I will not keep you talking to me. I will send for Herr Nahrath, who shall be your guide."
She rang the bell. I was silent, although I longed to say that I could talk to her for a day without thinking of weariness, which indeed was true. She impressed and fascinated me.
"Send Herr Nahrath here," she said, and presently there came into the room a young man in the garb of what is called in Germany a Kandidat—that is to say an embryo pastor, or parish priest. He bowed very deeply to the countess and did not speak or advance much beyond the door.
Having introduced us, she desired him to act as cicerone to me until I was tired. He bowed, and I did not dispute the mandate, although I would rather have remained with her, and got to know something of the nature that lay behind those gray passionless features, than turn to the society of that smug-looking young gentleman who waited so respectfully, like a machine whose mainspring was awe.
I accompanied him, nevertheless, and he showed me part of the schloss, and endeavored in the intervals of his tolerably arduous task of cicerone to make himself agreeable to me. It was a wonderful place indeed—this schloss. The deeper we penetrated into it, the more absorbed and interested did I become. Such piled-up, profusely scattered treasures of art it had never before fallen to my lot to behold. The abundance was prodigal; the judgment, cultivation, high perception of truth, rarity and beauty, seemed almost faultless. Gems of pictures—treasures of sculpture, bronze, china, carvings, glass, coins, curiosities which it would have taken a life-time properly to learn. Here I saw for the first time a private library on a large scale, collected by generation after generation of highly cultured men and women—a perfect thing of its kind, and one which impressed me mightily; but it was not there that I was destined to find the treasure which lay hidden for me in this enchanted palace. We strayed over an acre or so of passage and corridor till he paused before an arched door across which was hung a curtain, and over which was inscribed Musik-kammern (the music-rooms).
"If you wish to see the music, mein Fraeulein, I must leave you in the hands of Herr Brunken, who will tolerate no cicerone but himself."
"Oh, I wish to see it certainly," said I, on fire with curiosity.
He knocked and was bidden herein! but not going in, told some one inside that he recommended to his charge a young lady staying with the countess, and who was desirous of seeing the collection.
"Pray, mein Fraeulein, come in!" said a voice. Herr Nahrath left me, and I, lifting the curtain and pushing open the half-closed door, found myself in an octagonal room, confronted by the quaintest figure I had ever seen. An old man whose long gray hair, long white beard, and long black robe made him look like a wizard or astrologer of some mediaeval romance, was smiling at me and bidding me welcome to his domain. He was the librarian and general custodian of the musical treasures of Schloss Rothenfels, and his name was Brunken. He loved his place and his treasures with a jealous love, and would talk of favorite instruments as if they had been dear children, and of great composers as if they were gods.
All around the room were large shelves filled with music—and over each division stood a name—such mighty names as Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, Haydn—all the giants, and apparently all the pygmies too, were there. It was a complete library of music, and though I have seen many since, I have never beheld any which in the least approached this in richness or completeness. Rare old manuscript scores; priceless editions of half-forgotten music; the literature of the productions of half-forgotten composers; Eastern music, Western music, and music of all ages; it was an idealized collection—a musician's paradise, only less so than that to which he now led me, from amid the piled-up scores and the gleaming busts of those mighty men, who here at least were honored with never-failing reverence.
He took me into a second room, or rather hall, of great size, height, and dimensions, a museum of musical instruments. It would take far too long to do it justice in description; indeed, on that first brief investigation I could only form a dim general idea of the richness of its treasures. What histories—what centuries of story were there piled up! Musical instruments of every imaginable form and shape, and in every stage of development. Odd-looking pre-historic bone embryo instruments from different parts of France. Strange old things from Nineveh, and India, and Peru, instruments from tombs and pyramids, and ancient ruined temples in tropic groves—things whose very nature and handling is a mystery and a dispute—tuned to strange scales which produce strange melodies, and carry us back into other worlds. On them, perhaps, has the swarthy Ninevan, or slight Hindoo, or some
"Dusky youth with painted plumage gay"
performed as he apostrophized his mistress's eyebrow. On that queer-looking thing which may be a fiddle or not—which may have had a bow or not—a slightly clad slave made music while his master the rayah played chess with his favorite wife. They are all dead and gone now, and their jewels are worn by others, and the memory of them has vanished from off the earth; and these, their musical instruments, repose in a quiet corner amid the rough hills and oak woods and under the cloudy skies of the land of music—Deutschland.
Down through the changing scale, through the whole range of cymbal and spinet, "flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music," stand literally before me, and a strange revelation it is. Is it the same faculty which produces that grand piano of Bechstein's, and that clarion organ of Silbermann's, and that African drum dressed out with skulls, that war-trumpet hung with tiger's teeth? After this nothing is wonderful! Strange, unearthly looking Chinese frames of sonorous stones or modulated bells; huge drums, painted and carved, and set up on stands six feet from the ground; quaint instruments from the palaces of Aztec Incas, down to pianos by Broadwood, Collard & Collard, and Bechstein.
There were trophies of Streichinstrumente and Blaseinstrumente. I was allowed to gaze upon two real Stradivarius fiddles. I might see the development by evolution, and the survival of the fittest in violin, 'cello, contrabass, alto, beside countless others whose very names have perished with the time that produced them, and the fingers which played them—ingenious guesses, clever misses—the tragedy of harmony as well as its "Io Paean!"
There were wind instruments, quaint old double flutes from Italy; pipes, single, double, treble, from ages much further back; harps—Assyrian, Greek, and Roman; instruments of percussion, guitars, and zithers in every form and kind; a dulcimer—I took it up and thought of Coleridge's "damsel with a dulcimer;" and a grand organ, as well as many incipient organs, and the quaint little things of that nature from China, Japan, and Siam.
I stood and gazed in wonder and amazement.
"Surely the present Graf has not collected all these instruments!" said I.
"Oh, no, mein Fraeulein; they have been accumulating for centuries. They tell strange tales of what the Sturms will do for music."
With which he proceeded to tell me certain narratives of certain instruments in the collection, in which he evidently firmly believed, including one relating to a quaint old violin for which he said a certain Graf von Rothenfels called "Max der Tolle," or the Mad Count Max, had sold his soul.
As he finished this last he was called away, and excusing himself, left me. I was alone in this voiceless temple of so many wonderful sounds. I looked round, and a feeling of awe and weirdness crept over me. My eyes would not leave that shabby old fiddle, concerning whose demoniac origin I had just heard such a cheerful little anecdote. Every one of those countless instruments was capable of harmony and discord—had some time been used; pressed, touched, scraped, beaten or blown into by hands or mouths long since crumbled to dust. What tales had been told! what songs sung, and in what languages; what laughs laughed, tears shed, vows spoken, kisses exchanged, over some of those silent pieces of wood, brass, ivory, and catgut! The feelings of all the histories that surrounded me had something eerie in it.
I stayed until I began to feel nervous, and was thinking of going away when sounds from a third room drew my attention. Some one in there began to play the violin, and to play it with no ordinary delicacy of manipulation. There was something exquisitely finished, refined, and delicate about the performance; it lacked the bold splendor and originality of Eugen's playing, but it was so lovely as to bring tears to my eyes, and, moreover, the air was my favorite "Traumerei." Something in those sounds, too, was familiar to me. With a sudden beating of the heart, a sudden eagerness, I stepped hastily forward, pushed back the dividing curtain, and entered the room whence proceeded those sounds.
In the middle of the room, which was bare and empty, but which had large windows looking across the melancholy plateau, and to the terrible figure of the runner at the end of the avenue—stood a boy—a child with a violin. He was dressed richly, in velvet and silk; he was grown—the slender delicacy of his form was set off by the fine clothing that rich men's children wear; his beautiful waving black hair was somewhat more closely cut, but the melancholy yet richly colored young face that turned toward me—the deep and yearning eyes, the large, solemn gaze, the premature gravity, were all his—it was Sigmund, Courvoisier's boy.
For a moment we both stood motionless—hardly breathing; then he flung his violin down, sprung forward with a low sound of intense joy, exclaiming:
"Das Fraeulein, das Fraeulein, from home!" and stood before me trembling from head to foot.
I snatched the child to my heart (he looked so much older and sadder), and covered him with kisses.
He submitted—nay, more, he put his arms about my neck and laid his face upon my shoulder, and presently, as if he had choked down some silent emotion, looked up at me with large, imploring, sad eyes, and asked:
"Have you seen my father?"
"Sigmund, I saw him the day before yesterday."
"You saw him—you spoke to him, perhaps?"
"Yes. I spoke long with him."
"What did he look like?"
"As he always does—brave, and true, and noble."
"Nicht wahr?" said the boy, with flashing eyes. "I know how he looks, just. I am waiting till I am grown up, that I may go to him again."
"Do you like me, Sigmund?"
"Yes; very much."
"Do you think you could love me? Would you trust me to love those you love?"
"Do you mean him?" he asked point-blank, and looked at me somewhat startled.
"I mean, to take care of him, and try to make him happy till you come to him again, and then we will all be together."
He looked doubtful still.
"What I mean, Sigmund, is that your father and I are going to be married; but we shall never be quite happy until you are with us."
He stood still, taking it in, and I waited in much anxiety. I was certain that if I had time and opportunity I could win him; but I feared the result of this sudden announcement and separation. He might only see that his father—his supreme idol—could turn for comfort to another, while he would not know how I loved him and longed to make his grave young life happy for him. I put my arm round his shoulder, and kneeling down beside him, said:
"You must say you are glad, Sigmund, or you will make me very unhappy. I want you to love me as well as him. Look at me and tell me you will trust me till we are all together, for I am sure we shall be together some day."
He still hesitated some little time, but at last said, with the sedateness peculiar to him, as of one who overcame a struggle and made a sacrifice:
"If he has decided it so it must be right, you know; but—but—you won't let him forget me, will you?"
The child's nature overcame that which had been, as it were, supplanted and grafted upon it. The lip quivered, the dark eyes filled with tears. Poor little lonely child! desolate and sad in the midst of all the grandeur! My heart yearned to him.
"Forget you, Sigmund? Your father never forgets, he can not!"
"I wish I was grown up," was all he said.
Then it occurred to me to wonder how he got there, and in what relation he stood to these people.
"Do you live here, Sigmund?"
"What relation are you to the Herr Graf?"
"Graf von Rothenfels is my uncle."
"And are they kind to you?" I asked, in a hasty whisper, for his intense gravity and sadness oppressed me. I trembled to think of having to tell his father in what state I had found him.
"Oh, yes!" said he. "Yes, very."
"What do you do all day?"
"I learn lessons from Herr Nahrath, and I ride with Uncle Bruno, and—and—oh! I do whatever I like. Uncle Bruno says that some time I shall go to Bonn, or Heidelberg, or Jena, or England, whichever I like."
"And have you no friends?"
"I like being with Brunken the best. He talks to me about my father sometimes. He knew him when he was only as old as I am."
"Did he? Oh, I did not know that."
"But they won't tell me why my father never comes here, and why they never speak of him," he added, wearily, looking with melancholy eyes across the lines of wood, through the wide window.
"Be sure it is for nothing wrong. He does nothing wrong. He does nothing but what is good and right," said I.
"Oh, of course! But I can't tell the reason. I think and think about it." He put his hand wearily to his head. "They never speak of him. Once I said something about him. It was at a great dinner they had. Aunt Hildegarde turned quite pale, and Uncle Bruno called me to him and said—no one heard it but me, you know—'Never let me hear that name again!' and his eyes looked so fierce. I'm tired of this place," he added, mournfully.
"I want to be at Elberthal again—at the Wehrhahn, with my father and Friedhelm and Karl Linders. I think of them every hour. I liked Karl and Friedhelm, and Gretchen, and Frau Schmidt."
"They do not live there now, dear, Friedhelm and your father," said I, gently.
"Not? Then where are they?"
"I do not know," I was forced to say. "They were fighting in the war. I think they live at Berlin now, but I am not at all sure."
This uncertainty seemed to cause him much distress, and he would have added more, but our conversation was brought to an end by the entrance of Brunken, who looked rather surprised to see us in such close and earnest consultation.
"Will you show me the way back to the countess's room?" said I to Sigmund.
He put his hand in mine, and led me through many of those interminable halls and passages until we came to the rittersaal again.
"Sigmund," said I, "are you not proud to belong to these?" and I pointed to the dim portraits hanging around.
"Yes," said he, doubtfully. "Uncle Bruno is always telling me that I must do nothing to disgrace their name, because I shall one day rule their lands; but," he added, with more animation, "do you not see all these likenesses? These are all counts of Rothenfels, who have been heads of the family. You see the last one is here—Graf Bruno—my uncle. But in another room there are a great many more portraits, ladies and children and young men, and a man is painting a likeness of me, which is going to be hung up there; but my father is not there. What does it mean?"
I was silent. I knew his portrait must have been removed because he was considered to be living in dishonor—a stain to the house, who was perhaps the most chivalrous of the whole race; but this I could not tell Sigmund. It was beginning already, the trial, the "test" of which he had spoken to me, and it was harder in reality than in anticipation.
"I don't want to be stuck up there where he has no place," Sigmund went on, sullenly. "And I should like to cut the hateful picture to pieces when it comes."
With this he ushered me into Graefin Hildegarde's boudoir again. She was still there, and a tall, stately, stern-looking man of some fifty years was with her.
His appearance gave me a strange shock. He was Eugen, older and without any of his artist brightness; Eugen's grace turned into pride and stony hauteur. He looked as if he could be savage upon occasion; a nature born to power and nurtured in it. Ruggedly upright, but narrow. I learned him by heart afterward, and found that every act of his was the direct, unsoftened outcome of his nature.
This was Graf Bruno; this was the proud, intensely feeling man who had never forgiven the stain which he supposed his brother had brought upon their house; this was he who had proposed such hard, bald, pitiless terms concerning the parting of father and son—who forbade the child to speak of the loved one.
"Ha!" said he, "you have found Sigmund, mein Fraeulein? Where did you meet, then?"
His keen eyes swept me from head to foot. In that, at least, Eugen resembled him; my lover's glance was as hawk-like as this, and as impenetrable.
"In the music-room," said Sigmund; and the uncle's glance left me and fell upon the boy.
I soon read that story. The child was at once the light of his eyes and the bitterness of his life. As for Countess Hildegarde, she gazed at her nephew with all a mother's soul in her pathetic eyes, and was silent.
"Come here," said the Graf, seating himself and drawing the boy to him. "What hast thou been doing?"
There was no fear in the child's demeanor—he was too thoroughly a child of their own race to know fear—but there was no love, no lighting up of the features, no glad meeting of the eyes.
"I was with Nahrath till Aunt Hildegarde sent for him, and then I went to practice."
"Practice what? Thy riding or fencing?"
"No; my violin."
"Bah! What an extraordinary thing it is that this lad has no taste for anything but fiddling," observed the uncle, half aside.
Graefin Hildegarde looked sharply and apprehensively up.
Sigmund shrunk a little away from his uncle, not timidly, but with some distaste. Words were upon his lips; his eyes flashed, his lips parted; then he checked himself, and was silent.
"Nun denn!" said the count. "What hast thou? Out with it!"
"Nothing that it would please you to hear, uncle; therefore I will not say it," was the composed retort.
The grim-looking man laughed a grim little laugh, as if satisfied with the audacity of the boy, and his grizzled mustache swept the soft cheek.
"I ride no further this morning; but this afternoon I shall go to Mulhausen. Wilt thou come with me?"
Neither willing nor unwilling was the tone, and the answer appeared to dissatisfy the other, who said:
"'Yes, uncle'—what does that mean? Dost thou not wish to go?"
"Oh, yes! I would as soon go as stay at home."
"But the distance, Bruno," here interposed the countess, in a low tone. "I am sure it is too far. He is not too strong."
"Distance? Pooh! Hildegarde, I wonder at you; considering what stock you come of, you should be superior to such nonsense! Wert thou thinking of the distance, Sigmund?"
"Distance—no," said he, indifferently.
"Come with me," said the elder. "I want to show thee something."
They went out of the room together. Yes, it was self-evident; the man idolized the child. Strange mixture of sternness and softness! The supposed sin of the father was never to be pardoned; but natural affection was to have its way, and be lavished upon the son; and the son could not return it, because the influence of the banished scapegrace was too strong—he had won it all for himself, as scapegraces have the habit of doing.
Again I was left alone with the countess, sitting upright over her embroidery. A dull life this great lady led. She cared nothing for the world's gayeties, and she had neither chick nor child to be ambitious for. Her husband was polite enough to her; but she knew perfectly well, and accepted it as a matter of course, that the death of her who had lived with him and been his companion for twenty-five years would have weighed less by half with him than any catastrophe to that mournful, unenthusiastic child, who had not been two years under their roof, and who displayed no delight in the wealth of love lavished upon him.
She knew that she also adored the child, but that his affection was hard to get. She dared not show her love openly, or in the presence of her husband, who seemed to look upon the boy as his exclusive property, and was as jealous as a tiger of the few faint testimonies of affection manifested by his darling. A dull journey to Berlin once a year, an occasional visitor, the society of her director and that of her husband—who showed how much at home with her he felt by going to sleep whenever he was more than a quarter of an hour in her presence—a little interest of a lofty, distant kind in her townspeople of the poorer sort, an occasional call upon or from some distant neighbor of a rank approaching her own; for the rest, embroidery in the newest patterns and most elegant style, some few books, chiefly religious and polemical works—and what can be drearier than Roman Catholic polemics, unless, indeed, Protestant ones eclipse them?—a large house, vast estates, servants who never raised their voices beyond a certain tone; the envy of all the middle-class women, the fear and reverential courtesies of the poorer ones—a cheerful existence, and one which accounted for some of the wrinkles which so plentifully decked her brow.
"That is our nephew," said she; "my husband's heir."
"I have often seen him before," said I; "but I should have thought that his father would be your husband's next heir."
Never shall I forget the look she darted upon me—the awful glance which swept over me scathingly, ere she said, in icy tones:
"What do you mean? Have you seen—or do you know—Graf Eugen?"
There was a pause, as if the name had not passed her lips for so long that now she had difficulty in uttering it.
"I knew him as Eugen Courvoisier," said I; but the other name was a revelation to me, and told me that he was also "to the manner born." "I saw him two days ago, and I conversed with him," I added.
She was silent for a moment, and surveyed me with a haggard look. I met her glance fully, openly.
"Do you wish to know anything about him?" I asked.
"Certainly not," said she, striving to speak frigidly; but there was a piteous tremble in her low tones. "The man has dis—What am I saying? It is sufficient to say that he is not on terms with his family."
"So he told me," said I, struggling on my own part to keep back the burning words within me.
The countess looked at me—looked again. I saw now that this was one of the great sorrows of her sorrowful life. She felt that to be consistent she ought to wave aside the subject with calm contempt; but it made her heart bleed. I pitied her; I felt an odd kind of affection for her already. The promise I had given to Eugen lay hard and heavy upon me.
"What did he tell you?" she asked, at last; and I paused ere I answered, trying to think what I could make of this opportunity. "Do you know the facts of the case?" she added.
"No; he said he would write."
"Would write!" she echoed, suspending her work, and fixing me with her eyes. "Would write—to whom?"
"You correspond with him?" There was a tremulous eagerness in her manner.
"I have never corresponded with him yet," said I, "but I have known him long, and loved him almost from the first. The other day I promised—to—marry him."
"You?" said she; "you are going to marry Eugen! Are you"—her eyes said—"are you good enough for him?" but she came to an abrupt conclusion. "Tell me," said she; "where did you meet him, and how?"
I told her in what capacity I had become acquainted with him, and she listened breathlessly. Every moment I felt the prohibition to speak heavier, for I saw that the Countess von Rothenfels would have been only too delighted to hail any idea, any suggestion, which should allow her to indulge the love that, though so strong, she rigidly repressed. I dare say I told my story in a halting kind of way; it was difficult for me on the spur of the moment to know clearly what to say and what to leave unsaid. As I told the countess about Eugen's and my voyage down the river, a sort of smile tried to struggle out upon her lips; it was evidently as good as a romance to her. I finished, saying:
"That is the truth, gnaedige Frau. All I fear is that I am not good enough for him—shall not satisfy him."
"My child," said she, and paused. "My dear child," she took both my hands, and her lips quivered, "you do not know how I feel for you. I can feel for you because I fear that with you it will be as it was with me. Do you know any of the circumstances under which Eugen von Rothenfels left his friends?"
"I do not know them circumstantially. I know he was accused of something, and—and—did not—I mean—"
"Could not deny it," she said. "I dare not take the responsibility of leaving you in ignorance. I must tell you all, and may Our Lady give me eloquence!"
"I should like to hear the story, madame, but I do not think any eloquence will change my mind."
"He always had a manner calculated to deceive and charm," said she; "always. Well, my husband is his half-brother. I was their cousin. They are the sons of different mothers, and my husband is many years older than Eugen—eighteen years older. He, my husband, was thirty years old when he succeeded to the name and estates of his father—Eugen, you see, was just twelve years old, a school-boy. We were just married. It is a very long time ago—ach ja! a very long time ago! We played the part of parents to that boy. We were childless, and as time went on, we lavished upon him all the love which we should have bestowed upon our own children had we been happy enough to have any. I do not think any one was ever better loved than he. It so happened that his own inheritance was not a large one; that made no difference. My husband, with my fullest consent and approbation, had every intention of providing for him: we had enough and to spare: money and land and house room for half a dozen families, and our two selves alone to enjoy it all. He always seemed fond of us. I suppose it was his facile manner, which could take the appearance of an interest and affection which he did not feel—"
"No, Frau Graefin! no, indeed!"
"Wait till you have heard all, my poor child. Everyone loved him. How proud I was of him. Sometimes I think it is a chastisement, but had you been in my place you would have been proud too; so gallant, so handsome, such grace, and such a charm. He was the joy of my life," she said in a passionate under-tone. "He went by the name of a worthy descendant of all essential things: honor and loyalty and bravery, and so on. They used to call him Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter, after the old song. He was wild and impatient of control, but who is not? I hate your young men whose veins run milk, not blood. He was one of a fiery passionate line. At the universities he was extravagant; we heard all sorts of follies."
"Did you ever hear of anything base—anything underhand or dishonorable?"
"Never—oh, never. High play. He was very intimate with a set of young Englishmen, and the play was dreadful, it is true; he betted too. That is a curse. Play and horses, and general recklessness and extravagance, but no wine and no women. I never heard that he had the least affinity for either of these dissipations. There were debts—I suppose all young men in his position make debts," said the countess, placidly. "My husband made debts at college, and I am sure my brothers did. Then he left college and lived at home awhile, and that was the happiest time of my life. But it is over.
"Then he entered the army—of course. His family interest procured him promotion. He was captain in a fine Uhlan regiment. He was with his regiment at Berlin and Munich, and ——. And always we heard the same tales—play, and wild, fast living. Music always had a hold upon him.
"In the midst of his extravagance he was sometimes so simple. I remember we were dreadfully frightened at a rumor that he had got entangled with Fraeulein ——, a singer of great beauty at the Hofoper at ——. I got my husband to let me write about it. I soon had an answer from Eugen. How he laughed at me! He had paid a lot of debts for the girl, which had been pressing heavily upon her since her career began; now he said he trusted she would get along swimmingly; he was going to her benefit that night.
"But when he was at ——, and when he was about six-and-twenty, he really did get engaged to be married. He wrote and told us about it. That was the first bitter blow: she was an Italian girl of respectable but by no means noble family—he was always a dreadful radical in such matters. She was a governess in the house of one of his friends in ——.
"We did everything we could think of to divert him from it. It was useless. He married her, but he did not become less extravagant. She did not help him to become steady, I must say. She liked gayety and admiration, and he liked her to be worshiped. He indulged her frightfully. He played—he would play so dreadfully.
"We had his wife over to see us, and he came with her. We were agreeably surprised. She quite won our hearts. She was very beautiful and very charming—had rather a pretty voice, though nothing much. We forgave all his misconduct, and my husband talked to him and implored him to amend. He said he would. Mere promises! It was so easy to him to make promises.
"That poor young wife! Instead of pitying him for having made a mesalliance, we know now that it was she who was to be pitied for having fallen into the hands of such a black-hearted, false man."
The lady paused. The recital evidently cost her some pain and some emotion. She went on:
"She was expecting her confinement. They returned to ——, where we also had a house, and we went with them. Vittoria shortly afterward gave birth to a son. That was in our house. My husband would have it so. That son was to reconcile all and make everything straight. At that time Eugen must have been in some anxiety: he had been betting heavily on the English Derby. We did not know that, nor why he had gone to England. At last it came out that he was simply ruined. My husband was dreadfully cut up. I was very unhappy—so unhappy that I was ill and confined to my room.
"My husband left town for a few days to come over to Rothenfels on business. Eugen was scarcely ever in the house. I thought it was our reproachful faces that he did not wish to see. Then my husband came back. He was more cheerful. He had been thinking things over, he said. He kissed me, and told me to cheer up: he had a plan for Eugen, which, he believed, would set all right again.
"In that very moment some one had asked to see him. It was a clerk from the bank with a check which they had cashed the day before. Had my husband signed it? I saw him look at it for a moment. Then he sent the man away, saying that he was then busy and would communicate with him. Then he showed me the check. It was payable to the bearer, and across the back was written 'Vittoria von Rothenfels.'
"You must bear in mind that Eugen was living in his own house, in another quarter of the town. My husband sent the check to him, with a brief inquiry as to whether he knew anything about it. Then he went out: he had an appointment, and when he returned he found a letter from Eugen. It was not long: it was burned into my heart, and I have never forgotten a syllable of it. It was:
"'I return the check. I am guilty. I relieve you of all further responsibility about me. It is evident that I am not fit for my position. I leave this place forever, taking the boy with me. Vittoria does not seem to care about having him. Will you look after her? Do not let her starve in punishment for my sin. For me—I leave you forever.
"That was the letter. Ei! mein Gott! Oh, it is hideous, child, to find that those in whom you believed so intensely are bad—rotten to the core. I had loved Eugen, he had made a sunshine in my not very cheerful life. His coming was a joy to me, his going away a sorrow. It made everything so much blacker when the truth came out. Of course the matter was hushed up.
"My husband took immediate steps about it. Soon afterward we came here; Vittoria with us. Poor girl! Poor girl! She did nothing but weep and wring her hands, moan and lament and wonder why she had ever been born, and at last she died of decline—that is to say, they called it decline, but it was really a broken heart. That is the story—a black chronicle, is it not? You know about Sigmund's coming here. My husband remembered that he was heir to our name, and we were in a measure responsible for him. Eugen had taken the name of a distant family connection on his mother's side—she had French blood in her veins—Courvoisier. Now you know all, my child—he is not good. Do not trust him."
I was silent. My heart burned; my tongue longed to utter ardent words, but I remembered his sad smile as he said, "You shrink from that," and I braced myself to silence. The thing seemed to me altogether so pitiable—and yet—and yet, I had sworn. But how had he lived out these five terrible years?
By and by the luncheon bell rang. We all met once more. I felt every hour more like one in a dream or in some impossible old romance. That piece of outward death-like reserve, the countess, with the fire within which she was forever spending her energy in attempts to quench; that conglomeration of ice, pride, roughness and chivalry, the Herr Graf himself; the thin, wooden-looking priest, the director of the Graefin; that lovely picture of grace and bloom, with the dash of melancholy, Sigmund; certainly it was the strangest company in which I had ever been present. The countess sent me home in the afternoon, reminding me that I was engaged to dine there with the others to-morrow. I managed to get a word aside with Sigmund—to kiss him and tell him I should come to see him again. Then I left them; interested, inthralled, fascinated with them and their life, and—more in love with Eugen than ever.
"WHERE IS MY FATHER?"
We had been bidden to dine at the schloss—Frau Mittendorf, Stella, and I. In due time the doctor's new carriage was called out, and seated in it we were driven to the great castle. With a renewed joy and awe I looked at it by twilight, with the dusk of sunset veiling its woods and turning the whole mass to the color of a deep earth-stain. Eugen's home: there he had been born; as the child of such a race and in its traditions he had been nurtured by that sad lady whom we were going to see. I at least knew that he had acted, and was now acting, up to the very standard of his high calling. The place has lost much of its awfulness for me; it had become even friendly and lovely.
The dinner was necessarily a solemn one. I was looking out for Sigmund, who, however, did not put in an appearance.
After dinner, when we were all assembled in a vast salon which the numberless wax-lights did but partially and in the center illuminate, I determined to make an effort at release from this seclusion, and asked the countess (who had motioned me to a seat beside her) where Sigmund was.
"He seemed a little languid and not inclined to come down-stairs," said she. "I expect he is in the music-room—he generally finds his way there."
"Oh, I wish you would allow me to go and see him."
"Certainly, my child," said she, ringing; and presently a servant guided me to the door of the music-rooms, and in answer to my knock I was bidden herein!
I entered. The room was in shadow; but a deep glowing fire burned in a great cavernous, stone fire-place, and shone upon huge brass andirons on either side of the hearth. In an easy-chair sat Brunken, the old librarian, and his white hair and beard were also warmed into rosiness by the fire-glow. At his feet lay Sigmund, who had apparently been listening to some story of his old friend. His hands were clasped about the old man's knee, his face upturned, his hair pushed back.
Both turned as I came in, and Sigmund sprung up, but ere he had advanced two paces, paused and stood still, as if overcome with languor or weariness.
"Sigmund, I have come to see you," said I, coming to the fire and greeting the old man, who welcomed me hospitably.
I took Sigmund's hand; it was hot and dry. I kissed him; lips and cheeks were burning and glowing crimson. I swept the hair from his brow, that too was burning, and his temples throbbed. His eyes met mine with a strange, misty look. Saying nothing, I seated myself in a low chair near the fire, and drew him to me. He nestled up to me, and I felt that if Eugen could see us he would be almost satisfied. Sigmund did not say anything. He merely settled his head upon my breast, gave a deep sigh as if of relief, and closing his eyes, said:
"Now, Brunken, go on!"
"As I was saying, mein Liebling, I hope to prove all former theorists and writers upon the subject to have been wrong—"
"He's talking about a Magrepha," said Sigmund, still not opening his eyes.
"A Magrepha—what may that be?" I inquired.
"Yes. Some people say it was a real full-blown organ," explained Sigmund, in a thick, hesitating voice, "and some say it was nothing better than a bag-pipe—oh, dear! how my head does ache—and there are people who say it was a kettle-drum—nothing more nor less; and Brunken is going to show that not one of them knew anything about it."
"I hope so, at least," said Brunken, with a modest placidity.
"Oh, indeed!" said I, glancing a little timidly into the far recesses of the deep, ghostly room, where the fire-light kept catching the sheen of metal, the yellow whiteness of ivory keys or pipes, or the polished case of some stringed instrument.
Strange, grotesque shapes loomed out in the uncertain, flickering light; but was it not a strange and haunted chamber? Ever it seemed to me as if breaths of air blew through it, which came from all imaginable kinds of graves, and were the breaths of those departed ones who had handled the strange collection, and who wished to finger, or blow into, or beat the dumb, unvibrating things once more.
Did I say unvibrating? I was wrong then. The strings sometimes quivered to sounds that set them trembling; something like a whispered tone I have heard from the deep, upturned throats of great brazen trumpets—something like a distant moan floating around the gilded organ-pipes. In after-days, when Friedhelm Helfen knew this room, he made a wonderful fantasia about it, in which all the dumb instruments woke up, or tried to wake up to life again, for the whole place impressed him, he told me, as nothing that he had ever known before.
Brunken went on in a droning tone, giving theories of his own as to the nature of the Magrepha, and I, with my arms around Sigmund, half listened to the sleepy monotone of the good old visionary. But what spoke to me with a more potent voice was the soughing and wuthering of the sorrowful wind without, which verily moaned around the old walls, and sought out the old corners, and wailed, and plained, and sobbed in a way that was enough to break one's heart.
By degrees a silence settled upon us. Brunken, having satisfactorily annihilated his enemies, ceased to speak; the fire burned lower; Sigmund's eyes were closed; his cheeks were not less flushed than before, nor his brow less hot, and a frown contracted it. I know not how long a time had passed, but I had no wish to rise.
The door was opened, and some one came into the room. I looked up. It was the Graefin. Brunken rose and stood to one side, bowing.
I could not get up, but some movement of mine, perhaps, disturbed the heavy and feverish slumber of the child. He started wide awake, with a look of wild terror, and gazed down into the darkness, crying out:
"Mein Vater, where art thou?"
A strange, startled, frightened look crossed the face of the countess when she heard the words. She did not speak, and I said some soothing words to Sigmund.
But there could be no doubt that he was very ill. It was quite unlike his usual silent courage and reticence to wring his small hands and with ever-increasing terror turn a deaf ear to my soothings, sobbing out in tones of pain and insistence:
"Father! father! where art thou? I want thee!"
Then he began to cry pitifully, and the only word that was heard was "Father!" It was like some recurrent wail in a piece of music, which warns one all through of a coming tragedy.
"Oh, dear! What is to be done? Sigmund! Was ist denn mit dir, mein Engel?" said the poor countess, greatly distressed.
"He is ill," said I. "I think he has taken an illness. Does thy head ache, Sigmund?"
"Yes," said he, "it does. Where is my own father? My head never ached when I was with my father."
"Mein Gott! mein Gott!" said the countess in a low tone. "I thought he had forgotten his father."
"Forgotten!" echoed I. "Frau Graefin, he is one of yourselves. You do not seem to forget."
"Herrgott!" she exclaimed, wringing her hands. "What can be the matter with him? What must I say to Bruno? Sigmund darling, what hast thou then! What ails thee?"
"I want my father!" he repeated. Nor would he utter any other word. The one idea, long dormant, had now taken full possession of him; in fever, half delirious, out of the fullness of his heart his mouth spake.
"Sigmund, Liebchen," said the countess, "control thyself. Thy uncle must not hear thee say that word."
"I don't want my uncle. I want my father!" said Sigmund, looking restlessly round. "Oh, where is he? I have not seen him—it is so long, and I want him. I love him; I do love my father, and I want him."
It was pitiful, pathetic, somewhat tragic too. The poor countess had not the faintest idea what to do with the boy, whose illness frightened her. I suggested that he should be put to bed and the doctor sent for, as he had probably taken some complaint which would declare itself in a few days, and might be merely some childish disorder.
The countess seized my suggestion eagerly. Sigmund was taken away. I saw him no more that night. Presently we left the schloss and drove home.
I found a letter waiting for me from Eugen. He was still at Elberthal, and appeared to have been reproaching himself for having accepted my "sacrifice," as he called it. He spoke of Sigmund. There was more, too, in the letter, which made me both glad and sad. I felt life spreading before me, endowed with a gravity, a largeness of aim, and a dignity of purpose such as I had never dreamed of before.
It seemed that for me, too, there was work to do. I also had a love for whose sake to endure. This made me feel grave. Eugen's low spirits, and the increased bitterness with which he spoke of things, made me sad; but something else made me glad. Throughout his whole letter there breathed a passion, a warmth—restrained, but glowing through its bond of reticent words—an eagerness which he told me that at last
"As I loved, loved am I."
Even after that sail down the river I had felt a half mistrust, now all doubts were removed. He loved me. He had learned it in all its truth and breadth since we last parted. He talked of renunciation, but it was with an anguish so keen as to make me wince for him who felt it. If he tried to renounce me now, it would not be the cold laying aside of a thing for which he did not care, it would be the wrenching himself away from his heart's desire. I triumphed in the knowledge, and this was what made me glad.
Almost before we had finished breakfast in the morning, there came a thundering of wheels up to the door, and a shriek of excitement from Frau Mittendorf, who, morgenhaube on her head, a shapeless old morning-gown clinging hideously about her ample figure, rushed to the window, looked out, and announced the carriage of the Frau Graefin. "Aber! What can she want at this early hour?" she speculated, coming into the room again and staring at us both with wide open eyes round with agitation and importance. "But I dare say she wishes to consult me upon some matter. I wish I were dressed more becomingly. I have heard—that is, I know, for I am so intimate with her—that she never wears neglige. I wonder if I should have time to—"
She stopped to hold out her hand for the note which a servant was bringing in; but her face fell when the missive was presented to me.
"LIEBE MAI"—it began—"Will you come and help me in my trouble? Sigmund is very ill. Sometimes he is delirious. He calls for you often. It breaks my heart to find that after all not a word is uttered of us, but only of Eugen (burn this when you have read it), of you, and of 'Karl,' and 'Friedhelm,' and one or two other names which I do not know. I fear this petition will sound troublesome to you, who were certainly not made for trouble, but you are kind. I saw it in your face. I grieve too much. Truly the flesh is fearfully weak. I would live as if earth had no joys for me—as indeed it has none—and yet that does not prevent my suffering. May God help me! Trusting to you, Your,
"HILDEGARDE v. ROTHENFELS."
I lost no time in complying with this summons. In a few moments I was in the carriage; ere long I was at the schloss, was met by Countess Hildegarde, looking like a ghost that had been keeping a strict Lent, and was at last by Sigmund's bedside.
He was tossing feverishly from side to side, murmuring and muttering. But when he saw me he was still, a sweet, frank smile flitted over his face—a smile wonderfully like that which his father had lately bent upon me. He gave a little laugh, saying:
"Fraeulein May! Willkommen! Have you brought my father? And I should like to see Friedhelm, too. You and der Vater and Friedel used to sit near together at the concert, don't you remember? I went once, and you sung. That tall black man beat time, and my father never stopped looking at you and listening—Friedel too. I will ask them if they remember."
He laughed again at the reminiscence, and took my hand, and asked me if I remembered, so that it was with difficulty that I steadied my voice and kept my eyes from running over as I answered him. Graefin Hildegarde behind wrung her hands and turned to the window. He did not advance any reminiscence of what had happened since he came to the schloss.
There was no doubt that our Sigmund was very ill. A visitation of scarlet fever, of the worst kind, was raging in Lahnburg and in the hamlet of Rothenfels, which lay about the gates of the schloss.
Sigmund, some ten days before, had ridden with his uncle, and waited on his pony for some time outside a row of cottages, while the count visited one of his old servants, a man who had become an octogenarian in the service of his family, and upon whom Graf Bruno periodically shed the light of his countenance.
It was scarcely to be doubted that the boy had taken the infection then and there, and the doctor did not conceal that he had the complaint in its worst form, and that his recovery admitted of the gravest doubts.
A short time convinced me that I must not again leave the child till the illness was decided in one way or another. He was mine now, and I felt myself in the place of Eugen, as I stood beside his bed and told him the hard truth—that his father was not here, nor Friedhelm, nor Karl, for whom he also asked, but only I.
The day passed on. A certain conviction was growing every hour stronger with me. An incident at last decided it. I had scarcely left Sigmund's side for eight or nine hours, but I had seen nothing of the count, nor heard his voice, nor had any mention been made of him, and remembering how he adored the boy, I was surprised.
At last Graefin Hildegarde, after a brief absence, came into the room, and with a white face and parted lips, said to me in a half-whisper.
"Liebe Miss Wedderburn, will you do something for me? Will you speak to my husband?"
"To your husband!" I ejaculated.
"He longs to see Sigmund, but dare not come. For me, I have hardly dared to go near him since the little one began to be ill. He believes that Sigmund will die, and that he will be his murderer, having taken him out that day. I have often spoken to him about making der Arme ride too far, and now the sight of me reminds him of it; he can not endure to look at me. Heaven help me! Why was I ever born?"
She turned away without tears—tears were not in her line—and I went, much against my will, to find the Graf.
He was in his study. Was that the same man, I wondered, whom I had seen the very day before, so strong, and full of pride and life? He raised a haggard, white, and ghastly face to me, which had aged and fallen in unspeakably. He made an effort, and rose with politeness as I came in.
"Mein Fraeulein, you are loading us with obligations. It is quite unheard of."
But no thanks were implied in the tone—only bitterness. He was angry that I should be in the place he dared not come to.
If I had not been raised by one supreme fear above all smaller ones, I should have been afraid of this haggard, eager-looking old man—for he did look very old in his anguish. I could see the rage of jealousy with which he regarded me, and I am not naturally fond of encountering an old wolf who has starved.
But I used my utmost effort to prevail upon him to visit his nephew, and at last succeeded. I piloted him to Sigmund's room; led him to the boy's bedside. The sick child's eyes were closed, but he presently opened them. The uncle was stooping over him, his rugged face all working with emotion, and his voice broken as he murmured:
"Ach, mein Liebling! art thou then so ill?"
With a kind of shuddering cry, the boy pushed him away with both hands, crying:
"Go away! I want my father—my father, my father, I say! Where is he? Why do you not fetch him? You are a bad man, and you hate him."
Then I was frightened. The count recoiled; his face turned deathly white—livid; his fist clinched. He glared down upon the now unrecognizing young face and stuttered forth something, paused, then said in a low, distinct voice, which shook me from head to foot:
"So! Better he should die. The brood is worthy the nest it sprung from. Where is our blood, that he whines after that hound—that hound?"
With which, and with a fell look around, he departed, leaving Sigmund oblivious of all that had passed, utterly indifferent and unconscious, and me shivering with fear at the outburst I had seen.
But it seemed to me that my charge was worse. I left him for a few moments, and seeking out the countess, spoke my mind.
"Frau Graefin, Eugen must be sent for. I fear that Sigmund is going to die, and I dare not let him die without sending for his father."
"I dare not!" said the countess.
She had met her husband, and was flung, unnerved, upon a couch, her hand over her heart.
"But I dare, and I must do it!" said I, secretly wondering at myself. "I shall telegraph for him."
"If my husband knew!" she breathed.
"I can not help it," said I. "Is the poor child to die among people who profess to love him, with the one wish ungratified which he has been repeating ever since he began to be ill? I do not understand such love; I call it horrible inhumanity."
"For Eugen to enter this house again!" she said in a whisper.
"I would to God that there were any other head as noble under its roof!" was my magniloquent and thoroughly earnest inspiration. "Well, gnaedige Frau, will you arrange this matter, or shall I?"
"I dare not," she moaned, half distracted; "I dare not—but I will do nothing to prevent you. Use the whole household; they are at your command."
I lost not an instant in writing out a telegram and dispatching it by a man on horseback to Lahnburg. I summoned Eugen briefly:
"Sigmund is ill. I am here. Come to us."
I saw the man depart, and then I went and told the countess what I had done. She turned, if possible, a shade paler, then said:
"I am not responsible for it."
Then I left the poor pale lady to still her beating heart and kill her deadly apprehensions in the embroidery of the lily of the field and the modest violet.