At dinner, noting that his neighbor was looking about in search of something, he asked politely:
"Madame is in want of something?"
"The water, if you please," said she.
He handed her the carafe, which was out of her reach; she thanked him, and, not to let the conversation drop, added with a pleasant smile:
"Monsieur seems fond of donkeys?"
"Indeed!" He answered, surprised.
"I saw you this morning patting and stroking a splendid donkey."
He had not thought of it again.
"Yes, now I remember," he answered, "it was a charming beast, with wonderfully wise, thoughtful eyes."
"Do you think so too?" she cried, delighted. "You must know, I have a special weakness for donkeys, and consider that, next to dogs they are by far the most intelligent of our domestic animals. They have such a look of profound wisdom, such stoical philosophy and resignation, that I feel they are quite a lesson to me."
Wilhelm could not repress a smile at her lively tone.
"I should like to think," he said, "that our agreeing in a good opinion of the donkey is a sign that the ungrateful world has at last come to a proper appreciation of this ugly fellow-laborer."
"Ugly?" she exclaimed. "I don't think so at all! Look at his delicate hoofs, his elegantly-tufted tail, the soft, silvery gray of his coat with the velvety, black markings, and his ears are very becoming to him. It is such an injustice always to compare him with the horse. He is altogether a different type, but quite as handsome in his way."
"Then you would whitewash Titania in 'Midsummer Night's Dream?'"
She laughed "Well, Titania might have done worse. But how is it that the donkey has come to be the symbol of stupidity?"
"Perhaps because of his want of spirit, and his perversity."
"No, I believe it is something else. People found a great, strong animal that could, if it liked, be just as difficult to manage, and resist just as well as a horse, and yet was quite content with the worst of food, required neither stable nor grooming, worked till it dropped, and never bit or kicked. So they said, an animal that is strong enough to hurt us, and yet puts up with any kind of treatment, must necessarily be deadly stupid. That is how it was. People cannot believe that one may be good-tempered and uncomplaining and yet have any brains. With them to be wicked and violent and pretentious is to be clever. If the donkey would refuse to eat anything but oats and barley, and turned and rent anybody who annoyed him in the slightest degree, you would see how people would immediately have the highest respect for his intellect."
"You seem to have a low opinion of your fellow-creatures, madame?"
"It is their own fault then," she replied, gazing through the window into the courtyard.
After this conversation Wilhelm looked for the first time more attentively at his neighbor. He had a general impression of her being tall and stout, with a remarkably clear, bright complexion. Now he took in the details. In spite of the fullness of her figure she was slender about the waist, and her small slim hands, with their tapering fingers and pink nails, retained the purity of their outline, and had by no means degenerated into mere cushions of fat. The proudly-poised head was crowned by a wealth of heavy, pale brown hair with dull gold reflections in it, waving in soft, downy locks round her forehead. The cheeks were very full but firm, and the well shaped, boldly modeled nose stood in exactly the right proportion to the rather large face. The light brown eyes with their remarkably small pupils were conspicuously lively, and flashed and sparkled incessantly on all sides. Their expression was extremely intelligent and generally mocking, and if you looked long at them you gained the somewhat uncomfortable impression that that cold clear glance could, on occasion, stab a heart as cruelly as would a dagger. But her most striking feature was her mouth—a sudden dash of violent coral-red in the opalescent white of her face. This brutal effect of color exercised a peculiar fascination and riveted the attention. The eye lingered upon those lips—so voluptuously, so sinfully full, so burning, blood-red that in the chastest mind, even a woman's, they must suggest the image of vampire-like kisses. Take her for all in all, she was a magnificent creature, this woman of thirty, overflowing with health and life, in all her triumphant display of full-blown womanly beauty. Not a man in the hotel but had looked at her in undisguised admiration, and if they had not yet ventured to make advances to her, it was because she intimidated them by her cold hauteur, or by the mocking twinkle of her eye.
Only for Wilhelm, now that she had really taken notice of him, did those eyes begin to grow soft and gentle, and when they met his turned meek and harmless, and, in their apparent innocence, seemed to plead to him for notice, confidence, instruction. He did not remain impervious to their influence. It afforded him distinct pleasure to sit at table beside this beautiful woman and show her small attentions. On his long walks he caught himself thinking deeply about her, while the blood coursed with unwonted heat through his veins. He marked her entrance into the dining room or salon by his heart stopping suddenly and then racing on in wild, irregular beats, and if he looked at her the indecorous thought came to him that it would be a joy to stroke those firm, round cheeks, to pass one's fingers gently over those swelling lips, but more especially to bury one's hands in that flood of silken hair. These various discoveries rather took him aback, and resulted in increasing his reserve almost to the point of rudeness. He still only met her at the table d'hote, and never attempted to approach at any other time, although she had asked him repeatedly if he did not take walks or make excursions into the country.
One morning, soon after the conversation about the donkey, he went down to the beach, where, it being the bathing hour, the whole visiting population of Ault was assembled. The coast met the sea at this point as a perpendicular wall of rock a hundred and fifty feet high, stretching away to the west in an endless line, but on the east side, sloping gradually down, till about two miles further on, it lost itself in the flat line of the shore. Where the sweep of the bare, gray cliff made a slight backward curve, the sea had washed the shingle together to form a little beach covered with pebbles from the largest to the smallest size. Here two rows of modest wooden cabins were erected, which served as bathing houses, and beside these, a great wooden structure on wheels, not unlike the enormous house-caravans in which the owners of shows and menageries and such-like wandering folk travel about from fair to fair. The French flag fluttering from a pole on the top of the caravan drew attention to it, and on closer inspection one read above the entrance—which was approached by a movable wooden staircase—the proud legend "Casino d'Ault." Yes, Ault actually boasted a casino, with an entrance fee of ten centimes a head, and in the single room, which occupied the whole structure, you found a jeu de course, and other games of hazard, exactly as they had them in the most renowned and elegant dens of thieves of the fashionable watering places.
Here, however, nobody went to the dogs. Life on the shore was prim and patriarchal. Whole families sat or lay about on camp stools or on traveling rugs, the wives in morning wraps, the husbands smoking in linen suits; the former occupied with needlework, the latter reading the newspapers or novels. The young people ran about barefoot and in bathing costume, or lay at the edge of the water fishing for shrimps, which they rarely or never caught. There were merry, noisy groups of bathers in the shallow water near the shore, splashing one another, shrieking at the approach of the larger waves, bobbing up and down, and shouting encouragement to the newcomers, who only ventured timidly and by degrees into the chilly waters. As very few of the bathers could swim, this all took place in the close vicinity.
At first Wilhelm had been rather shocked to see the two sexes bathing together, and that the girls and married women—coming out of the sea with their legs and arms bare, and their clinging, wet bathing dresses revealing the outline of their forms with embarrassing distinctness—should calmly stroll back to the bathing houses under the open gaze of the men. For that reason he even refrained from going to the shore at the bathing hour, or bathing there himself. By degrees, however, he grew accustomed to it, seeing that nobody thought anything of it, and that the almost nude figures disported themselves among their equally unconcerned parents, relatives, and friends with the naive unconsciousness of South Sea Islanders.
As he made his way, not too easily, over the rolling shingle between the chattering, lazy groups, he saw his neighbor of the table d'hote sitting, a little apart, on a camp stool under a large dark sunshade, an open book on her lap, and her eyes fixed on the smooth, bright surface of the ocean. She noticed Wilhelm, and smiled and nodded pleasantly, almost before he could bow to her. There was something of invitation in her nod, which, however, he did not follow, he could not have said exactly why. Confused, and a prey to all sorts of undefined emotions, he continued his walk till he reached the point where the waves, breaking at the very foot of the cliff, prevented his going any further. As he turned, ho remembered that he would have to pass her again, and considered if he could not avoid it by keeping close to the cliff and so get behind her. But why go out of his way to avoid her? That was driving shyness to the verge of churlishness. She was friendly toward him, why repay her kindness by such foolish and uncalled-for reserve? And ashamed, almost indignant at himself, he came to a sudden determination, and directed his steps straight toward the lady. She had watched him all the time, and now smiled to him from afar, as she saw him making for her.
When he got up to her he stood still and raised his hat. She saved him the embarrassment of making a beginning by saying at once in the most natural tone in the world:
"How nice of you to come and keep me company for a little while! Won't you sit down on this plaid?"
He thanked her, and did as he was bid, seating himself on the thick, soft rug. His head was shaded by the great parasol, the sun warmed his knees.
"Are you a great admirer of the sea?" asked the lady.
"I hardly know myself yet. I must make its nearer acquaintance first," answered Wilhelin.
"I confess that it leaves me quite unmoved. No, not that exactly, for I am rather vexed at it for giving so many idiots an excuse for ranting and absurd sentimentality. Now just look at all these people on the beach. In reality they are bored to extinction, and enjoy the Boulevards infinitely more than this expanse of water, which is quite meaningless to them. And yet you have only to mention the word—the sea—and they will instantly turn up their eyes and start off repeating the lesson they have learned by rote about their rapture and enthusiasm, just like a musical box which grinds out a tune when you press a button at the top. The sea was invented by a few romantically inclined poets. But I deny that there is any truth in then rhapsodies; the sea is hopelessly monotonous, and monotony excludes the possibility of beauty or charm. One has at most the same feeling for it as for a mirror in which one sees oneself reflected. The sea is a blank page, which each one fills up with whatever he happens to have in his own mind, or, if you like it better, a frame into which one puts pictures of one's own imagining. I grant that you can dream by the side of the sea, for it does nothing to disturb your dreams or give them any particular bent or coloring. But can it give the impulse to thought and emotion like the eve-changing outlines of mountain and forest? Never! People with unsophisticated minds know that well enough. The population of the coast always builds its houses with their backs to the sea.
"As a defence against the storms," Wilhelm interposed.
"That may be. But that is not the only reason. It is because the sight of that eternal waste of waters, without a boundary line, without the variety or movement of life upon it, bores them, and they prefer to look out upon the country with all its expressive and varying outlines."
"But the expression which you see in a landscape—you put that into it yourself, by an effort of your own imagination. Forests and mountains are in themselves as inanimate as the sea."
"Quite so; but the landscape has features which remind us of something else, which play, as it were, upon the keyboard of our associations, and it thus calls up the pictures with which we proceed to enliven it. The sea does nothing of this, and the best proof of that is, that no painter has ever yet used the sea by itself for his model. Did you ever know of an artist who painted nothing but the sea?" "Yes, Aiwasowky."
"Who is he?"
"A Russian who paints extraordinary sea pieces."
"What! Only water—without shore, or people, or ships?"
"I remember a picture with absolutely nothing but water, only a spar, or a mast floating on it."
"There, you see!" she cried in triumph. "That broken mast is a trick of the artist. There lies the story. You instantly think of a wrecked ship; you see men, catastrophes, weeping widows and sweethearts; the spar becomes the central point of the picture, and you forget all about the sea. Moreover, the ancients, who surely had an eye for all that is grand and beautiful, they did not know either what to do with the sea. They were a magnificent race, healthy-minded realists—and kept strictly to the evidences of their senses without adding anything transcendental. The sea only appealed to their ear. Homer's adjectives for the sea are only expressive of sound—the resounding, the jubilant, the loud-rushing; hardly more than once does he allude to the gloomy or the wine-colored sea."
"You have your classics at your fingers' ends, like any philologist."
"That need not surprise you. With regard to the really beautiful, I have neither pride nor prejudice. Even the fact that the common herd of the reading public has made a point of praising him for a hundred years does not prevent me from enjoying a true poet."
"But if you dislike the sea so much why do you come here?"
"Oh," laughed the handsome lady, "that is the fault of my doctors. They sent me to the sea to thin me down, and by their orders I was to choose a very dull, very remote bathing place, where I should be sure not to meet any acquaintances. For directly I have friends about me, I enjoy myself, laugh, talk, and then I get stout again. Now to-day, for instance, I have acted contrary to my medical orders—I have had a very pleasant chat with you."
"You are too kind. You have given everything and received nothing in return."
"That is exactly what I like—always to give, never to receive."
"That is not woman's way usually. But you are very exceptional. Pardon a possibly indiscreet question—do you write?"
"Good gracious! Do I look like a blue-stocking?"
"I never made a distinct picture of that type."
"You need not be afraid, I am not an authoress. The most I have ever done in that way was to give a novelist, or a comedy-writer of my acquaintance, a little help now and then. When they want a lady's letter, they like me to write it. But you—I suppose you are an author?"
"No, madame; I study natural science."
"A professor then?"
"No, only an amateur."
"Ah! And you are French?"
"I am German."
"Impossible!" exclaimed the lady.
"Why impossible?" asked Wilhelm, smiling.
"You have no accent, and you look—"
"You probably think that every German has light blue eyes, flaxen hair, and a long pipe?"
"That is certainly pretty much how we picture Germans to ourselves in Spain."
It was his turn to be surprised. "You a Spaniard?"
"And how had you pictured a Spanish lady? Of course with jet black eyes and hair, and a mantilla?"
"There are fair Spaniards, however, as you see. In fact, it is very common in our best families—an inheritance perhaps from our Gothic ancestors."
"I suppose, like all Latins, you despise the Germans?"
"I beg, monsieur, that you will not class me with the mass. I wish to be regarded as an individual. Whatever the prejudices of the Latins may be, I have my own opinion. Your nationality in a matter of indifference to me. I only consider the man," and she gave him a look that sent the blood flaming to his cheek.
The hotel meals were always announced by a bell which could be heard quite well on the shore. In the heat of their conversation, however, they did not notice the signal. A lady's maid whom Wilhelm had often seen at the hotel—a middle-aged, female dragoon with a mustache and a very stiff and dignified deportment—now came up to the lady and said:
"Madame la Comtesse did not hear the dinner bell?"
She rose and took Wilhelm's arm without further ado. The maid followed with the rug and the camp stool. The beach was quite deserted, everybody having gone to dinner. The tide was rising, and had nearly covered the strip of beach. The thunder of the waves, mingled with the rattle of the pebbles which they sucked after them as they receded, followed the couple as they slowly made their way back to the hotel.
On the road home they passed the post office. The maid, whose gentle name of Anne hardly matched her martial appearance, had hurried on in front to fetch her mistress' letters and newspapers. She handed them to the lady, who smilingly tore off the wrapper from her Figaro and gave it to Wilhelm, saying: "You do not know my name yet?" Wilhelm read, on the slip of paper: "Madame la Comtesse Pilar de Pozaldez—nee de Henares." "My father," she added in explanation, "was Major-General Marquis de Henares."
"And here is my very plebeian name," returned Wilhelm, pulling out his card and handing it to her.
"There are no such things as plebeian names—only plebeian hearts," said the countess, as she glanced at the card, and then put it away in her own elegant tortoise-shell case, which bore her monogram and crest in gold and colored enamel.
The acquaintance was now fully established, and after dinner the countess invited Wilhelm, in the most natural manner possible, to accompany her on a walk into the country.
The surroundings of Ault were very pretty. Emerald-green meadows alternately with a few cornfields decked the gentle billowy uplands, which sloped away abruptly toward the sea. Trees stood separately or in groups reaching to the edge of the cliff, over which many of them bent their storm-disheveled heads and gazed into the waves below. Here and there were small inclosed woods, and it was at the edge of one of these, about a quarter of a mile walk from the town, that the countess seated herself on a mossy bank in the shade. Wilhelm sat down beside her on the gnarled root of a tree; Anne was sent home, to return in two hours' time, but Fido was allowed to remain. He was a silvery-white sheepdog with a sharp muzzle, stiff little pointed ears, and a bushy tail curling tightly over his back. He had attached himself to Wilhelm from the first moment, and gave vent to his delight when caressed by having a severe attack of asthmatic coughing, puffing and blowing.
"You live in Paris, do you not?" asked the countess after they had exchanged remarks on the scenery.
"No," returned Wilhelm, "up till now I have lived in Berlin, but I had to leave for political reasons, and now I am a sort of vagrant without any actual home."
"Ah—a political refugee!" cried the countess. "How charming! Of course you will take up your abode in Paris now—that is the sacred tradition with all political exiles. Yes, yes—you must; beside, how horrid it would have been to part after a few weeks and go our separate ways—you to the right, I to the left—and with only the consoling prospect of meeting again some day beyond the stars! So you will come to Paris, and if you have any intention of getting up a revolution in Germany, I beg that you will count me among your confederates. You need not laugh—Paris is swarming with Spanish refugees of all parties, and I have had plenty of opportunity of gaining experience in the planning of conspiracies."
"I have no such ambition," answered Wilhelm, smiling, "and am, in any case, no politician, although I enjoy the distinction of being an exile."
"Shall you take up any profession in Paris? I have connections—"
"You are very good, Madame la Comtesse. You will perhaps think less of me, but I have no actual profession."
"Think less of you. On the contrary, to have no profession is to be free—to be one's own master. Any one who is forced to earn his living must, of course, have a profession. But it is never anything but a necessary evil. It is only pedantic people who look upon it as an object of life. At most, it is a means to an end."
"And what do you consider to be the real object of life?"
"Can you ask? Why, happiness of course!"
"Happiness—certainly. But then each one of us has a different conception of happiness. To one it is knowledge, to another the fulfilling of duty, to lower natures wealth and worldly honors. Therefore, it is possible to imagine that some one may find happiness in pursuing a profession."
"Oh, no, my dear Herr Eynhardt, those are the mistaken views of gloomy and limited natures who are incapable of recognizing the true object of life. There are no two ideals of happiness—there is but one."
"And that is?"
"To wish for something very, very much—and get it."
"Even if it is something foolish?"
"And even if one should lose if afterward?"
She gazed for a while into the distance in silence and then said firmly—"Yes, even then." And after a pause she added—"You have, at least, had a moment of absolute happiness—when you found your wish fulfilled. And what more do you want? One only lives to experience such moments."
"Unfortunately, your theory of happiness does not fit every case. Where is the happiness to come from for one who has no wishes at all, or who wishes for something unattainable—perfect understanding, for instance?"
"A human being without a wish—is there such a thing?"
"Yes, Madame la Comtesse, there is."
"You perhaps?" she asked quickly.
"Perhaps," Wilhelm returned.
"Then you are not in love?" she said, and let her brilliant eyes rest upon his melancholy face.
He shook his head gently without looking at her, as if ashamed of the want of gallantry in such a confession.
"But at least you were once?" she persisted eagerly.
"Have I ever really been in love? Perhaps—Or no, I do not know myself."
"Thankless creature! You hesitate—you are not sure! How shameful of you to deny the gods you have once worshiped! But that is the way with you men. If you cease to love, you will not admit that you ever had loved. Tell me, was there ever a moment in your life when you could have answered my question—'Are you in love?'—with an unqualified Yes?"
"Yes, I have known such a moment. But, looking back upon it now—"
"No, no, you were quite right then and you are wrong now. That is just your great mistake. You imagine that one can only love once, and that love, to be real, must last forever. My poor friend, nothing lasts forever, and the truest love is sometimes as perishable as the loveliest rose—the most exquisite dream. But it is not to say that because it is over we are to deny that it ever existed. You may not feel anything now, but that is no reason for declaring that you did not feel it then. You thought you were in love, and therefore you were. It is sophistry to try to persuade oneself of the contrary in after days."
"You are a brilliant advocate of your views, Madame la Comtesse, but nevertheless may one take a momentary delusion—"
"Delusion' And who shall say, my German philosopher, if our whole existence may not be a delusion?"
"Ah, there you drive my philosophy very hard," murmured Wilhelm.
"Never been in love?" exclaimed the countess, and her lustrous hazel eyes flashed, "why you would be a monster. I suppose you are nearly thirty!"
"I congratulate you, Herr Eynhardt, I should have taken you for at least five years less But whether thirty or thirty-four, it would be culpable to have reached that age without having been in love. For you surely are not—a disciple of Abelard."
At this point-blank question Wilhelm reddened and cast down his eyes like the boy he really was in some respects. She observed his embarrassment, not without secret amusement.
"But seriously," she went on, "your little bit of love is the best there is about you men. No, it is the only good thing, the only thing that makes your bluntness, your selfishness, your want of sentiment bearable."
"Yes, so the women say. They see nothing in the whole world or in life but love. They judge men solely according to their capacity for, or their zeal in, loving. And yet it takes more strength and manliness to resist love than to give way to it. They only care for men who are slaves to that passion. I admire those chaste and saintly men who have been able to cast off the bonds of the flesh. The highest point of the human mind is only reached by him who has never suffered himself to be dragged down by his senses. Christ taught the denial of the flesh both in precept and example. Newton never knew a woman."
"I know nothing about Newton," she retorted, "but Christ had a feeling heart for the Magdalen and the adulteress. Beside, Christ was a God, and I am speaking of ordinary mortals, and it is only through woman, through your love of woman, that you become heroes and demigods."
"No," Wilhelm answered bluntly, "it is woman who drags man down to the level of the beasts. We have a German fairy tale in which a bear becomes human as soon as he embraces a woman. In real life it is just the opposite. The knowledge of woman, the lust of the flesh, transforms man into a beast. You know the classics so well and are so fond of them—there is no apter allegory than the story of Semele, who desired once to see her lover, Jupiter, without the weaknesses and infirmities of the flesh—as the Lord of High Heaven—and perished at the sight."
"Very well," said she softly, "you may despise me and say I am like Semele. I prefer a warm-hearted, loving beast to an icy-cold and proud philosopher. Anyhow, I am very fond of animals," and, lost in dreamy thought, she stroked Fido, who began to gasp and choke with delight, and eagerly licked the caressing hand. After a pause she resumed slowly—"I should never have thought you were such a desperate woman-hater. You have heaped insult on my sex and consequently on me. I expect you to make reparation for that by—being very nice to me."
She looked him deep in the eyes and stretched out her hand, which he seized in confusion and pressed. Suddenly he let it drop. The countess looked up in surprise, and following Wilhelm's gaze, she caught sight of the hotel wit and his lady coming along the deep pathway that ran round the foot of the wooded hill, on the slope of which they were sitting.
"Oh,—what do these common people matter?" exclaimed the countess in a tone of vexation. "And what is the harm, if they do see us? They will only boast, when they get back to their shop in Paris, that they saw a great lady in Ault."
But for all that, the dangerously sweet spell of the moment was broken, and did not return before Anne arrived, whom Fido ran sneezing and wriggling to meet.
For the rest of the day Wilhelm was silent and thoughtful, seeming to awake from a dream each time the countess spoke to him at dinner. She was perfectly aware of what was going on in him, and sought by looks, words, and manner to increase the effects of the afternoon's conversation. When the meal was over she took Wilhelm's arm again and asked—totally unconcerned that the rest of the company exchanged glances—"What are you going to do this evening?"
"I thought of taking a little walk on the shore," he stammered shyly.
"Oh, selfish creature!—and leave me all alone, though I might be bored to death? No, come up to my room. You have never paid me a visit yet. Anne will get us some tea, and we can talk."
The countess had two rooms on the first floor, most plainly furnished, without a carpet or a single decoration on the walls. One of the rooms served as bedroom, the other as salon. At least it contained no bed, but a chaise longue instead, a rocking chair, and a table with a jute cover. The countess was inwardly much amused at Wilhelm's timorous hesitation in crossing her threshold. She relieved him of his hat and gave it to Anne, who hung it on a nail with the utmost gravity, but could not refrain from casting a curious glance at Wilhelm from time to time.
When the tea was on the table, and Anne had discreetly retired into the bedroom, closing the door behind her, the countess began: "As we are to become friends—no, we are friends already; tell me, you are my friend, are you not?"—she held out her hand, which he pressed warmly and retained in his—"you ought to know who I am and how I live. I will tell you the whole truth—I never lie, it is so vulgar and cowardly. The worst that can be said of me, you shall hear out of my own mouth. And still I hope that, after you have heard all, you will not feel less kindly disposed toward me than before."
She moistened her blood-red lips in the tea without leaving hold of his hand.
"I am married. My husband, Count Pozaldez, is Governor of the Philippine Islands. I have lived for years in Paris. The count had the post given to him in order to put a few thousand miles between him and me. We have no divorce in Spain, and that was the only way of insuring to me a little peace and freedom." She took another little sip. "From this you will understand," she went on, "that I am not happily married. You must know that I am an only child. My father, the Marquis de Henares, idolized me. He was a soldier through and through, very stern and reserved toward everybody, even my mother, who never really understood his rare nature. Only to me he showed his heart of gold, his high and noble character, his deep feeling—a prickly pear, outside rough and inside honey-sweet. He brought me up as if I was to be a cabinet minister, and treated me like a beloved comrade from the time I was twelve, so that my mother was often jealous of me. When I grew up, he would sometimes say, 'Whoever wants to marry my Pilar will have to fight with me first.' And he meant it. You probably know that we develop early in Spain. At sixteen I was not very different from what I am now. Count Pozaldez was a young lieutenant of cavalry, and my father's adjutant. Of course we saw a good deal of one another, and he soon began to behave as if he were madly in love with me. I was not averse to him, for he was young, handsome, and aristocratic. And what else does a girl of sixteen look for? I naturally had no difficulty in understanding his glances and his sighs, but it went on for months without his making me a formal proposal. One day he wrote me a letter eight pages long, in which he informed me that, as he possessed nothing in the world but his sword, he dared not venture to lift his eyes to the heiress of the richest landowner in Old Castile; beside that, he was not worthy of me, only a king could be that—the wretch! But I will come back to that later on. On the other hand, however, he could not live without me, and if I did not return his love he was resolved to put a bullet through his brain. Of course I instantly saw him with a bullet-hole in his forehead, and shed tears for the poor young man. I did not want anybody to die for my sake. I pictured to myself how beautiful it would be to make a young man, without fortune or position, with nothing but his love for me, happy, rich, and great by the gift of my hand. I showed the letter to my mother, and asked her what was to be done. She at once took up the young man's cause. My soul would most assuredly fall a prey to the devil if I let poor Pozaldez kill himself. He was of good family, and would soon make his way as the son-in-law of the Marquis de Henares. I must unquestionably do something to raise his spirits. My mother's advice coincided with my own feelings. I allowed the count a secret interview, and he had permission to ask my father for my hand. He did so in fear and trembling. He was dismissed with scorn and contumely. My mother and I then used all our influence to turn my father, and—I was married to Count Pozaldez before I was seventeen."
She was silent for a little while, and then went on: "I will make my story short. One year afterward, when I was in bed with my first child, he brought his mistresses to the house. I was determined to leave him on the spot. My mother brought about a reconciliation. Soon after that he began to ill-treat me. I suffered that in silence too, to avoid a public scandal, and more particularly for my father's sake. He would have killed him if he had known. Later—later—I must tell it you, so that you may grasp the whole situation—the villain did all he could to direct King Amadeo's attention to me—he had just come to Madrid. When I noticed his base schemes—as I could not fail to do—that put the finishing touches. I gave him the choice between a scandalous lawsuit, which would have deprived him of my fortune, and voluntary banishment by accepting some government post across the sea with half my income. He finally chose exile and the money, and I was free. I left Madrid and settled in Paris. You can imagine the circumstances—a young woman of twenty-three—alone, whose life could not possibly be filled by the care of two little children."
"Two children?" asked Wilhelm.
"Yes," she answered, and hung her head.
"There is cowardice of which even a courageous woman will be guilty when, out of consideration for public opinion, she continues to live under one roof with the father of her first child. And then—you must take me as I am, with all my imperfections, for which some good qualities may perhaps make up."
She looked at him humbly, with the eyes of an imploring child, and continued in a low voice:
"The Spanish colony in Paris received me with open arms. There was no end to the entertainments, soirees and theaters. But can that satisfy a young and embittered woman thirsting for happiness? Of course I received a great deal of attention. An attache of our embassy succeeded in attracting me. I swear to you that I struggled long with him and myself, but his passion was stronger than my powers of resistance."
Wilhelm would have drawn away his hand, but she held it fast, and went on hurriedly.
"I have finished. For four years I shared his life, and then discovered that I had deceived myself a second time, and put an end to a connection which had lost the excuse of sincerity For two years now I have been free—for two years my heart has been at rest. Tell me, can you condemn me now that you know all?"
"It is not for me to judge you," said Wilhelm sadly. "All I think is that you have had a great deal of misfortune in your life."
"Yes, have I not?" cried the countess eagerly.
"Do not misunderstand me. You had the misfortune to make a mistake in thinking you loved Count Pozaldez."
"How should a sixteen-year-old child know? The first passably good-looking, well-bred man who flatters her wins her heart."
"That is only too true. But if a young girl throws away her heart so lightly, she has no right to complain if she has to repent of it for the rest of her life."
"But that is a terrible theory!" exclaimed the countess, and dropped his hand "What? One wakes to a knowledge of the world and of life—one is wretched, one sees that there is such a thing as happiness, and how it may be obtained, and one is not to stretch out a hand to grasp it? You would really be so cruel as to say to a woman—young, and in need of love—in childish ignorance and folly you were guilty of a mistake, all is over for you, abandon all claims to love and hope, sunshine and life, pass your years in mourning, and bury yourself alive, you have no further right to share in the joys of life?"
Wilhelm left her string of passionate questions unanswered, and continued the thread of his former discourse:
"But most certainly an older and more sensible woman, who should have learned wisdom from a first error, has no right to be guilty of a second one."
"Oh, how hard you are!" murmured the countess.
"What would you have?" said Wilhelm. Then with a sudden inspiration: "A woman has every right to love; but then you have loved—twice."
"No, no, not even once. I thought so perhaps, but—"
"But, according to your own assertion this afternoon, one has been in love really if only one seriously believes one is. And it is thankless to deny one's love later on. Do not contradict yourself."
"And you, monsieur le philosophe," she returned, raising her head, and her burning gaze encompassed him as with a circle of fire, "do you not contradict yourself too? A little while ago you were demonstrating to me that you were a part of nature, and that unknown natural forces were at work within you, directing all you did, and to-day you extol the mortification of the flesh, which certainly has nothing to do with your unknown natural forces."
He was going to reply, but she laid her soft hand upon his mouth.
"Oh, please, monsieur le philosophe, do not prove to me that I am wrong. Be indulgent to my inconsistencies, as well as to everything else, I know I am full of contradictions. I am no German philosopher. But nature too is full of contradictions—first day, then night—now summer, now winter. But in spite of it all I can be very consistent and true to myself in a question of real importance."
Wilhelm drew away from the hand that caressed his lips and cheek, and said, averting his eyes:
"You are a beautiful woman, and have a most exceptional mind, and it must be happiness indeed to be loved by you, but in order that that happiness might be full, one would have to love you in return, and there are men—I do not know whether to call them too proud or too fastidious—who can only love with their whole heart or not at all, and who cannot endure that the woman they love should treasure another image or other memories in her life."
"Stop, my friend, stop!" cried the countess. "You do not realize what you are saying. That comes of your pride and vanity. You always want to be the first—to write your names at the head of a blank sheet. Why? Is the conquest of a silly, ignorant girl more flattering than that of a woman of sense, who can compare and judge? Is not your triumph a thousand times greater when a disappointed, deeply-skeptical woman lays her heart at your feet, and says—'You I will trust, you will bring me healing and happiness'—than when a young girl gives you her love because you happen to be the first man who asks for it? Other images!—other memories! Do you know so little of a woman's heart? Do you imagine that the past exists for us when real true love comes upon us? We see nothing in the whole world but the one man, we cannot believe that our heart has not always beat for him, and we are firmly persuaded that we have always known and always loved him and him alone."
The eyes that gazed at him glowed with maenad-like desire, and bending suddenly she covered his hand with lingering, burning kisses.
Wilhelm passed his hand soothingly over the masses of her silky hair, and it flashed across him how much he had once wished to be able to do so, and now his wish was fulfilled. Was fulfilled desire really happiness, as this beautiful woman asserted? His heart beat loud and fast; he was conscious of emotions long unfelt, and—yes, these emotions were pleasant ones.
He moved as if to rise, but she clung to his arm to hold him back. He pointed to the door of the room from which Anne might appear at any moment.
"Do have a little more pride of spirit," said the countess; "one does what one likes, without caring what the servants think."
"Let me go," he entreated, and stroked her beautiful hair.
"It is late, and the air in here is close. I should like to take a turn by the sea. Please—"
She looked at him, and a mysterious smile played about her full lips; she dropped his arm.
He hastened away toward the shore, where the waves were rolling in, rattling the pebbles and striking the cliff with dull, heavy thuds. The August night was mild and full of stars, and there was scarcely a breath of wind. The tide was rising, wave after wave rolled in, fell over, and swept up the beach in a thin white sheet of foam. Further out the sea was calm and deserted, only in the extreme distance the lights of some passing steamer crept over the smooth dark waters like tiny glowworms.
Wilhelm's mind was in a tumult. This woman—what a strange, terrifying creature. Why was she throwing herself at his head? And who knows if only at his? And then—what need to tell him her story? Perhaps it was a wild, insane flare of passion; but how could he have roused it? There was nothing in him to account for it. And she did not know him—knew nothing about his life or his character. She was beautiful certainly—beautiful and alluring, and clever and original—a most exceptional woman. She might well be able to disarm a man of his self-control, and paralyze his will. But after that—what then? How would it end? Better not begin—not begin. That would be the wisest ending.
He left the shore and returned to the hotel. The view before him was remarkable. At the further end of the street rose the church, its Gothic flourishes outlined sharply against the lighter background of the sky. Just behind it stood the full moon, tracing—as if for its amusement—the silhouette of the roof of the church tower upon the ground. Where the shadow of the church ended, the moon poured its silvery light in a broad flood over the street, and further off painted, with, a bold stroke of the brush, a glittering streak of white light across the sea, away to the semi-transparent mists on the horizon.
Passing first through the shimmering light, and then through the black shadow of the church, Wilhelm reached the hotel, where the lights were already extinguished. Without lighting the candle, which he found ready for him at the foot of the stairs, he mounted to his room. He was surprised, on reaching the door, to find Fido lying in front of it, his nose resting on his outstretched paws.
"I suppose they have shut you out, and you want a night's lodging with me," said Wilhelm; "very well, I won't refuse you my hospitality—come in."
He opened the door and let the dog pass in before him, then followed, pushed the bolt, and put the candlestick down on the table. Suddenly two cool, bare arms were laid about his neck, and his startled cry was smothered by the pressure of two burning lips upon his own.
IN THE HORSELBERG
The good landlady of the Hotel de France was not a little surprised next morning when Wilhelm came down to the kitchen and informed her that he must leave that forenoon. And when very soon afterward Anne appeared, and announced in her stiffest, most impenetrable manner that Madame la Comtesse desired two places, for herself and her maid, in the hotel omnibus which went to the station at Eu, the landlady remarked, "Indeed!" and there was a liberal interchange of meaning glances in the kitchen.
At no price would Wilhelm remain at Ault. The countess, who liked the place well enough, begged, entreated, and pouted in vain. He was not to be persuaded. He protested that he knew himself too well to think that he would be capable of keeping up the appearance of reserve toward her which decency demanded. And he need not, she declared; she considered herself free to do as she pleased, and so was he; their love did not interfere with their duty toward anybody, and so it was immaterial if people found it out and talked about it.
Her utter disregard for the trammels of convention, her cool contempt for the opinion of others, filled him with horror.
"No, no, I could not look one of them in the face again."
"But do you suppose that these people are any better? You surely don't imagine that the man with the calves and his ravening wolf are married?"
"How can you say such things!"
"Why, you big baby, one can see that at a glance. He is far too nice to her for her to be his legitime."
"That may be. At all events he has had so much consideration for outward appearance as to pass the person off as his wife. But we made our acquaintance here, under their very eye."
"Wilhelm!"—from her lips the name sounded more like Gwillem—"I should not know you for the same person. Why, where is your boasted philosophy and stoicism to which you were going to convert me? Is that your indifference to the world and its hypocritical ways, its prejudices and its sneers?"
She was quite right. He was untrue to his principles, but he could not do otherwise. He had had the courage to decline the duel with Herr von Pechlar, but he had not the boldness to let the foolish gossips of the table d'hote be witnesses of his new love-making. Why? For the very simple reason that, in his heart of hearts, he disapproved of his liaison with Pilar.
As he would not give in, the countess resigned herself to what she called his "schoolgirl crotchet," and they traveled together to St. Valery-en-Caux, another little seaside place several hours' journey from Ault.
Here they took rooms together at a hotel, and wrote themselves down as man and wife. The countess' letters were forwarded by the postmistress at Ault under cover to Anne. The only thing that disturbed Wilhelm's peace of mind was the presence of Anne. Her manner was just as impassive, her face as solemn as before, and she never showed that she noticed any change in her mistress way of life. But it was just this cold-blooded acceptance of facts which must at the very least excite her remark that upset him so much, and every time Anne came into the room and found him with Pilar, he was as much ashamed as if she had surprised him in some cowardly and wicked deed. Did he happen to be sitting beside her on the sofa, he started as if to jump up; if he had hold of her hand, he dropped it on the spot. Pilar noticed it, of course, and thought it an excellent joke. She was herself perfectly unconcerned before Anne, and put no constraint on herself whatever in her presence. On the contrary, she thought it great fun to throw her arms round Wilhelm when the maid came and he attempted to move away, or she would tutoyer him and kiss him to her face, and was intensely amused at his embarrassed and miserable air as he suffered her caresses, though not without a stolen gesture of objection. His shyness was not unobserved by Anne's quick though furtive eyes, and she owed him a grudge for wishing to exclude her from his secret.
But with the exception of the discomfort caused him by this silent witness, his happiness was unalloyed. He lived in a constant rapture of the senses, and Pilar took good care that he should not awake from it. She never left him to himself, except during the two hours in the morning which she devoted to her toilette. It was her peculiar habit to steal away in the early morning while Wilhelm was still asleep, and repair noiselessly to the dressing-room, where Anne was already waiting, and where she gave herself up into the skilled hands of the maid, who kneaded her, washed and rubbed her, and treated her hands, feet, and hair with consummate art, and the aid of an army of curious instruments and an exhaustive collection of cosmetics. She would then appear to wake Wilhelm with a kiss. On opening his eyes it was to see her in the full glory of her beauty, with the flush of health upon her cheeks, with rosy fingers, her skin cool, soft and perfumed, her eyes bright, her lips smiling, and her magnificent hair in order. But from that moment onward she was always about him, nestling close to him when they were alone, her eyes on his when they walked arm in arm through the streets.
In the morning she bathed in the sea while Wilhelm sat on the shore and watched her. She swam like a fish; he could not swim at all. She pledged her word to make him equally proficient in a few days, but her superiority made him feel small, and he would not accept her offer. For twenty minutes she practiced her art in the water, lay on her back and on her side, turned somersaults, dived, trod the water and finally came out, like Venus newly risen from the waves, and joined Wilhelm, who was waiting for her with her bath-mantle. He enveloped her in its soft folds, she roguishly shook the drops of water off her rosy finger-tips into his face and hurried to her bathing house without a glance for the spectators who had been watching her graceful play in the water, and devoured her with their eyes when she came on dry land.
The rest of the day was filled up by long walks broken by delightful rests under the shade of cornricks on grassy hillslopes beside some purling brook. Then Pilar would sit on the rug or the camp stool, while Wilhelm lay at her feet with his head in her lap caressed by the little hands that played with his hair or wandered softly over his face, resting fondly on his lips for him to kiss. If there were flowers within reach, she would pluck a quantity and strew his head and face with the fresh petals, while he gazed alternately into the blue summer sky and the bright brown eyes above him, or even closed his own for quarters of an hour of delicious dreaming. Then everything outside his immediate surroundings would fade from his mind, and he would be conscious only of what was nearest to him, the faint scent of ylang-ylang that hovered round the beautiful woman, her smooth, caressing fingers, and the low sound of her deep, regular breathing.
"You are so handsome," she whispered in his ear on one such occasion, and bending over him to kiss him; "do you know, I shall draw your portrait."
"Can you draw?" he asked, raising himself on his elbow.
"I hardly know whether I ought to say yes," she returned, with an arch, self-conscious smile that belied the humility of her tone. "But you shall see."
"Very well," said he, "and while you are drawing my portrait I shall draw yours."
"Bravo!" she cried, and wanted to go home at once, so that they might begin.
As was his custom, Wilhelm had all that was needful in his big trunk, and could supply Pilar with materials. The next afternoon they set to work. They established themselves in the middle of a great meadow, committing thereby an extreme act of trespass, and making their way to it over a ditch, a low wall, and through a blackberry hedge. Here no prying eye would annoy them, their sole and most discreet spectator being Fido, and he was generally asleep.
Pilar had a drawing-block and used a pencil, Wilhelm sketched his picture on a page of a large album in colored chalks like a pastel. She kept trying to peep at his work, but he would not allow it, and insisted on their making a compact not to look at one another's work of art till it was finished. Two sittings sufficed, however, and the portraits could be exchanged. Pilar gave a cry of surprise when Wilhelm handed her his picture.
"How strange that we should have had almost the same idea."
She was represented as a Sphinx, after the Greek rather than the Egyptian conception. A voluptuous, soft, round, feline body, graceful, cruel paws, a wonderful bosom as if hewn out of marble, and above it all Pilar's regally poised head with its crown of shimmering gold hair, shrewd eyes, and blood-red vampire lips. Between her forepaws she held a little trembling mouse in which Wilhelm's features were cleverly indicated, and she looked down upon her victim with a smile in which there was something of a foretaste of the joy of tearing a quivering creature to pieces and sucking its warm blood.
Pilar's drawing was a very good likeness of Wilhelm as Apollo in Olympian nudity, handsome, slender and vapid, in its resemblance to school copies of the antique. A charming little cat with Pilar's features was rubbing herself against his leg. The pussy blinked up at the young Greek god with an expression of adoration, half-comic, half-touching, while he bent his head and gazed down at her thoughtfully. Pilar took the sheet from Wilhelm's hand and compared it with hers.
"They are exactly the same," she said at last, "only that they are entirely the opposite of one another. Do you really feel that I am as you have drawn me?"
"Yes," he answered in a low voice.
"How unjust you are to yourself and to me—I a Sphinx and you a frightened mouse! To begin with, the Sphinx-cat did not condescend to mice, but occupied herself with men, and humbled herself before the right one when he came."
"You are decidedly too learned for me," laughed Wilhelm.
"No, no, seriously, it hurts me that you should regard our relations in that light. Am I not at your feet? Am I not your slave, your chattel, your plaything, what you will? Have I not chosen you to be lord and master over me? Am I a riddle to you? My love for you is the solution of any mystery you may find in me. Or do you accuse me of cruelty? That could only be in fun, you bad man."
"You take a mere playful idea too tragically, dearest Pilar. The character of your head suggested it to me, that was all. And then—"
"Well, if you must know it, the fearless, what shall I say, Amazon-like manner in which you seized upon a man and took possession of him, body and soul."
"Did I do that?"
"And you are mine?"
He nodded again.
"Tell me so, dearest, only love—say it."
He did not say it, but he kissed her.
"It is quite true," she remarked after a short pause, "I did take possession of you. That was unwomanly, but I could not help it. You are a cold-blooded German, and different from any man I ever knew before. You did not know how to appreciate the good fortune that befell you when chance set you down at my side in that dreary little hole. You abominable creature, for a whole fortnight you took not the slightest notice of me; you sat there beside me like a block, and never so much as looked at me. For a long time I did not know what to make of you. At first I tried to think you as ridiculous as the other idiots round the table, but I could not, try as I would. Your ugly owlish face had made too great an impression on me. And then I was annoyed by your reserve, and when I used to see you stalk in, looking so haughty, and you bowed so coldly to me and remained so distant, I thought to myself—just wait, monsieur the iceberg, some day you will be at my feet begging for love, and then it will be my turn to be proud, and I shall be triumphant."
"There you see the Sphinx and the mouse."
"Oh, but it all happened quite differently. I spoke first, I made you every sort of advance; and what did you do? You held forth to me on the mortification of the flesh. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. And even when I saw that love was burning in your eyes, you remained stiff-necked and tried to run away from me. If I was set upon happiness, I found I must take it by force. I know you better now. You were capable of never confessing your love to me, of never asking anything of me. Am I right or not, tell me?"
"You are right," he murmured.
"But that would have been a sin—a deadly sin, a capital crime against the High Majesty of Nature. What! Fate takes the trouble to think out the most improbable combinations, sets the most complicated machinery in motion to bring us together; it drags you out of the depths of Germany, and me from Castile, and brings us to a little hotel in a little village in Picardy, the very name of which was unknown to either of us a short time before; we instantly feel that we are made for one another and are certain to be happy together, and yet all these exertions on the part of Fate are to have been in vain? Never! Our paths crossed each other at a single point, for a moment they were united, it depended on us whether they should always remain so. And I was to let you go, never to meet again on this side of eternity? It was not possible, and as you were so clumsy, or so timid, or so self-torturing—"
She finished the sentence with a long kiss, at which he closed his eyes once more, and shut out everything but its flame.
Was it calculation, was it her natural instinct?—suffice it to say that Pilar never by any chance alluded in their conversations to her past. She was fond of talking, and talked a great deal, and her conversation was always startling, original and vivacious; her power of imagination as lively as her sparkling eyes, springing from the nearest object to the furthest, from the ordinary to the sublime, but never one word escaped her which might remind Wilhelm that she had gone through confessed and unconfessed experiences of every kind, and reached the turning-point of her existence without him. Her life, it would appear, had only begun with the moment at which he had risen upon her horizon. What went before that was torn out of the book of memory—one scarcely noticed the gaps where the pages were missing. She did all she could to make him forget that she was a stranger to him, and to strengthen in him the delusion that she belonged to him, that she was one with him, that it had always been so. She took possession of his past, she crept into his ideas and sentiments; she wanted to know everything about him, down to the smallest details. He must tell her about every day, every hour of his existence; she made the acquaintance of his entire circle of friends; she loathed Loulou, she adored Schrotter, she went into raptures over gentle, refined Bhani, she smiled at Paul Haber and his well-dressed Malvine, and her inventive grandmamma; she determined to send good Frau Muller (who had looked after Wilhelm for ten years like a mother) a beautiful Christmas present. She could make personal remarks on all his friends and acquaintances, and her only trouble was that she knew no German. What would she not have given to be able to read the letters he wrote or received, to converse with him in his mother-tongue! She loved and admired the French language, which, although she retained the ineradicable accent of her country, she spoke as fluently as Spanish; but now, for the first time, she felt something akin to hatred against it for being the one remaining barrier—certainly a very slight and scarcely perceptible one—between herself and Wilhelm, which forever drew his attention to the fact that she was not naturally a part of his life, and prevented their absolute union, the growing together of their souls. She therefore determined to learn German as soon as she returned to Paris, and, if need be, to stay for some length of time in Germany in order to master the language quickly and thoroughly.
She thought and spoke much of the future, and in all her dreams, plans, and resolves Wilhelm was always, and as a matter of course, the central figure and sharer of her life. In him her life found its consummation she had him fast, and would never let him go.
Her love was a curious mixture of ardent passion and melting, sentimental tenderness. At one moment the Bacchante, drinking long draughts of love and life from his lips, at another, the innocent girl who sought and found a chaste felicity in the mere rapturous contemplation of the man she adored. The longer she knew him, the deeper she penetrated into his character, the more did the Bacchante recede and yield her place to the Psyche. The allegory of Wilhelm's pastel seemed wrong, her own drawing right. She was no bloodthirsty Sphinx revelling in human victims, but a harmless little cat purring against the side of the young god. She was diffident, eager to learn, slow to contradict. She broke herself of her paradoxes, and concealed her originality. She liked best to listen while he talked. He must explain everything to her, enlarge her experience, correct and improve her judgment. Her favorite words were, give me, show me, tell me! From morning till night he must give, tell, show. The sea washed up a medusa to the shore—give it me! They surprised a crab in the act of shedding his armor—show me! A ride on donkeys to a neighboring village reminded him of a students' picnic at Heidelberg—tell me about it! Such of his peculiarities of temper as she did not understand, she guessed at and felt with her fine womanly instinct. If at Ault she had been extremely simple in her dress, here she was almost exaggeratedly so. She banished the "kohl" with which she had underlined her brilliant eyes, and strewed the violet powder to the four winds, as soon as she discovered that he preferred to stroke her full, firm cheeks when they were guiltless of powder. She dropped her former freedom of speech, gave up the telling of highly-spiced anecdotes, and checked her roving glances and the frolicsome imps—somewhat too deeply versed in Boccaccio—that haunted her lively brain, when she saw that he took umbrage at anything the least risky. Her cigarettes horrified him, so she threw them out of the window, and never smoked again. She even quelled the sensuality of her self-surrender, and veiled it with a show of shame-faced backwardness and the adorable ingenuousness of a schoolgirl on her honeymoon. She strove to obliterate the remembrances of the heathenish abandonment of the first days, with their unrestrained impulses, testifying all too plainly to the fact that she was a woman well versed in all the arts of seduction. At first this was dissimulation, the maneuvers of a shrewd, reader of character, but it soon came to be instinct and second nature; she deceived herself honestly, and returned, in her own mind, to the pristine virginity of her soul and body, finally coming to look upon herself as a simple-minded girl, ignorant of the world and of life, and conscious only of her boundless love for this one glorious man, and to whom the memories of a less harmless past seemed like wicked dreams sent by the Tempter to molest her chastity. This self-deception, or rather retrogression of her instincts, led her into touches of mysticism. The story of little Sonia who had fallen in love with the ten-year-old Wilhelm at first sight, to die shortly afterward with his name upon her lips, made a deep impression on her, and set her dreaming. "When sweet little Sonia died I was born." Now this was not quite accurate, as Pilar must have been at least two or three years old at the time, but mystic raptures take no count of time. "My life is a continuation of hers. Your Spanish love inherited the soul of your little Russian. Thus I have been yours since my birth—and before. I loved you before ever I knew you. I have had a presentiment of you, have felt and expected you from the beginning. Hence my troubled seeking all the time, hence my horror and shuddering when I discovered that I was mistaken, that it was not the one I yearned for whose image I bore secretly in my heart. Now I see why I was so irresistibly drawn to you from the first moment I set eyes on you. The man of my dreams stood in bodily shape before me. Here at last was my heart's dear image in flesh and blood. I had no need to get to know you; I knew you already. My own, my Wilhelm."
Real tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke, and Wilhelm was not sufficiently blase to scoff at the doting nonsense of a love-sick woman. Love has enormous power, and at its heat all firmness, all resistance, melts away. Pilar's affection filled Wilhelm with heartfelt emotion and gratitude. He denied himself the right of judging her, suspecting or doubting her, or of discovering dark spots upon her shining orb. As she was forever at his side, and made it her sole care to occupy him entirely, body and soul, his whole world was soon filled by her and her alone. Wherever he looked his eyes fell upon her; she intercepted his view on all sides. Her shadow fell even upon his past, as far back as his childhood. He failed to notice that whole days passed now without his giving a thought to Schrotter or Paul, and he was quite surprised when he discovered that he had left a letter from the former unanswered for a week. His former life began to fade and grow dim, and, compared to the sun-flooded, glowing present, looked like the dark background of a courtyard beside an open space in the full blaze of a summer day.
The whole society of the place was deeply interested in the handsome couple, who took so little trouble to conceal their love. The young people thought it most affecting, the older ones, especially the ladies, turned up their noses, with the remark that even people on their honeymoon might put some restraint upon themselves on the beach, or in the street. Wilhelm and Pilar were quite unconscious of the talk for which they furnished the material. They had no eyes for anybody but each other. They were unconscious of the flight of time. Their lives passed as in a morning dream, or a wondrous fairy-tale, where two lovers wander in a sunny garden among great flowers and singing birds, or rest, surrounded by attendant sprites, who fulfill each wish before it is uttered.
They were disagreeably brought back to the realities of life when one day Anne asked, with her most impassive air, when Madame la Comtesse thought of leaving, for if she were going to stay any longer, they must provide themselves with winter clothing. They had reached the end of September; it rained nearly every day, the streets of the village were impassable, sitting on the shore out of the question, the equinoctial gales howled across the country from the tempestuous sea; all the world had gone home, and Wilhelm and Pilar were the last guests in the desolate hotel, spending most of the day in their room, where an inadequate fire spluttered on the hearth. For a fortnight past Anne had boiled with silent rage, which she sometimes let out on poor, snorting, asthmatic Fido. She had been absent from Paris since the middle of July, and had counted on being back by the beginning of September at the latest, and here was October coming upon them in this God-forsaken little hole, and her mistress showed no signs of returning home.
Anne's question came like a rough hand to shake Pilar out of sleep. Like a drowsy child who does not want to get up, she kept her eyes closed for awhile. Another week! Four days more! Two days more! But then she had to pack, for Anne exaggerated a slight cold, and at short intervals let off a dry cough with the suddenness and force of a pistol-shot, tied her head up in a white shawl, and begged to be allowed to send to Paris for warm underclothing and her fur cloak. In the hotel, too, from which all the servants had been dismissed, and only the landlord, his wife, and a half-grown daughter remained, the neglect became conspicuous. The rooms were not put in order till late in the evening, and even then the landlady would come and grumble that she could not manage so much work, and that was the reason everything was late. A leg of mutton appeared upon the table three days running, till nothing was left but the bone. In short, it was not to be misunderstood that the hotel family wished to be alone.
At last, at the beginning of the second week of October, the return to Paris took place. During the five hours' railway journey Pilar was silent and moody. She felt that an enchanting chapter of her love-story had come to an end, and a fresh one beginning, the unforeseen possibilities of which filled her with alarm. She held fast to Wilhelm, and would not let him go free; but what form was their life together going to take in Paris? Not that she cared for the opinion of the world—far from it; but other difficulties remained which menaced her happiness. At the seaside all the circumstances had combined to aid and befriend them. Surrounded by people to whom she and Wilhelm were alike strangers, they were thrown entirely upon one another, and even his scruples could find nothing to prevent him treating her openly as his wife. In Paris, on the other hand, all the circumstances became disturbing and inimical. Pilar had her circle of friends, and her accustomed way of life, to which Wilhelm would have to adapt himself. Would that occur without opposition on his part? Would not many a tender sentiment be wounded beyond the power of healing in that struggle? But of what avail were all these tormenting questions? She had to look the future in the face, and prepare to engage in a struggle in which he was determined to come off victorious.
From time to time she glanced at Wilhelm, and always found him deep in thought. He was reviewing, with a touch of self-mockery, the latest development of his affairs. Here he was on his way to Paris. He had not chosen this destination. Once again another will than his own had determined his path for him. He resigned himself without a struggle; he allowed himself to be taken along like an obedient child. Was it weakness? Perhaps. Possibly, however, it was not. Possibly he did not think it worth the trouble to call his will into play. Why should he, after all? As long as he might not live in Berlin, what did it matter where he lived? and Paris was as good a place as any other. To have resisted Pilar's persuasions would not have been an evidence of strength, but simply the obstinacy of a conceited fool, who wants to prove to himself that he is capable of setting somebody else at defiance. So that after all he was going to Paris because he wished it, or rather, because he saw no reason for not doing so. But as he spun the web of these thoughts in his mind, he heard all the time a still small voice, which contradicted him, and whispered: "It is not true. You are not your own master; you are going you know not whither; you are doing you know not what. Two beautiful eyes are your guiding star, and in following their magic beckoning your feet may slip at any moment, and you may be hurled into unknown depths."
Pilar must have divined that Wilhelm's thoughts were enemies to her peace, and must be dispersed. They were alone in the carriage, and she could give free rein to her feelings. She took his hand and kissed it, and laying her arm round his neck, she said fondly:
"Don't be so depressed, Wilhelm. Of course it is only natural that one should be afraid of any change after one has been so happy, but you shall have no cause to regret St. Valery. You will see, it will be still nicer in Paris. We remain the same as we were before, and surely my little home is a more fitting frame for our love than the bare room at the hotel!"
Wilhelm started back.
"You surely do not imagine that I am going to live in your house?" he cried.
"But there can be no question about it!" she answered in surprise.
"Never!" Wilhelm declared, with a determination that frightened Pilar, it was so new to her. "How could you think of such a thing?"
"But, Wilhelm," she returned, "what else could we do? I should not like to think that it was your plan we should part at the station and each go our different ways. If I believed that, I would throw myself under the wheels of the train this very instant. We have not been indulging in a little summer romance, entertaining enough at the seaside, but which must die a natural death as soon as we return to Paris. My love is a serious matter to me, and to you too, I hope. You are mine forever, and as long as there is life in this hand, it will hold you fast," and she cast herself passionately upon his breast, and clung to him as if he were going to be torn from her.
"I never said I would leave you," he returned gently, and trying to disengage himself; "but it is quite inconceivable that you should have thought you would simply bring me back with you from the journey and present me to your people."
"My people! You are my all, and nobody else exists for me."
"One says that in the heat of the moment, but you have relations—you told me so yourself. What will they think of us if I calmly settle down in your house?"
"Think?—always what people will think. That is the only fault you have, Wilhelm. How can you do people the honor to take them into consideration when it is a question of my life's happiness? Let them think what they like. They will think you are the master and I am your slave, who only lives in and for you."
Wilhelm only shook his head, for he was unwilling to wound her by saying what he thought of such an unworthy connection. She hung trembling on his looks, and asked, as he still did not answer:
"Well, darling, is it to be my way? We will drive quietly home and pretend we are at St. Valery?"
"No," he answered firmly, "that is impossible. I shall go to an hotel. No, do not try to dissuade me, for it would be useless."
"And you can let me go from you?"
"Only for a few hours. We shall be in the same town, and can see one another as often as we like."
"And you would be satisfied with that?"
"It will have to be so, as the circumstances will not permit of anything else."
She broke into a storm of tears, and sobbed, "You do not love me."
He soothed and comforted her; he kissed her eyes, he pressed her head to his heart, and tried to calm her as he would a child, but it was long before he brought her round. At last she raised her head and asked:
"You are determined to go to an hotel?"
"I must, dear heart."
"Very well; then I shall go too."
He had nothing to say against this and so it was settled.
It was close upon midnight when the train ran into the St. Lazare station. Anne came hurrying from the next carriage.
"You can drive home," said Pilar to her. "Take the large boxes with you. You can leave the small one and the portmanteau with me. I am going with monsieur. I shall come round to-morrow and see if things are in order."
Anne opened her eyes in astonishment, but her face did not betray any further emotion, and she answered calmly:
"Very good, Madame la Comtesse. Auguste is here with a cab. Does madame desire to use it?"
"No, Auguste can get us another. You take his."
Auguste, the man-servant, had come up meanwhile and greeted his mistress. He shot a quick glance at the strange gentleman on whose aim she leaned, but it was more expressive of curiosity than surprise; he then hurried away to carry out the remarkable orders Anne had dryly transmitted to him. Soon after he reappeared, and announced that the other fiacre was there. Fido, released from the captivity of the dog-box, sprang upon the countess with short-breathed barks that soon degenerated into a cough, and wagged his tail and frolicked madly about. When Pilar and Wilhelm entered their cab, Anne and Auguste remaining outside, the dog seemed undecided as to which party he was to follow. Chancing to catch Wilhelm's eye, he made up his mind, jumped into the cab, regardless of Anne's angry call, and licked Wilhelm's hand delightedly, accepting his friendly pat as an invitation to stay.
By Pilar's direction the cab took them to an hotel in the Rue de Rivoli. As they drove along Pilar leaned silently in her corner, only heaving a deep sigh from time to time; and Wilhelm, too, found nothing to say, oppressed as he was by the consciousness of being in an untenable situation, the eventual end of which he could not foresee. Arrived at the hotel, they retired at once to their rooms and to rest, scarcely touching the supper which Pilar had ordered rather for Wilhelm than herself. She lay awake for hours, and it was daybreak before she got any sleep.
It was nearly midday when she opened her eyes. Wilhelm was sitting fully dressed at the window that faced the Tuileries, gazing down upon the dreary autumnal park with its trees half-bare, the paths covered with dead leaves—its marble statues and silent fountains. She stretched out her arms to him, and he hastened over to kiss her fondly. As her eye fell upon her tiny jeweled watch, she gave a cry of dismay.
"Twelve o'clock! Oh, go away—quick—and send the chambermaid to me. I will do my best to be ready soon. Wait for me in the salon. You can read the papers or write letters. But whatever you do, you must not leave the hotel—do you hear?"
An hour later she appeared in the salon to fetch him to lunch, which was served in their room. Pilar was nervous and put out. The chambermaid's assistance had not been all that she could have wished. The slow waiting at lunch vexed her. Whatever trifle she might require she was obliged to go into the untidy bedroom herself and search in her boxes. Her head was full of schemes and plans, to none of which, however, she gave expression. Never had she had such an uncomfortable meal with Wilhelm.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Wilhelm, when the waiter had cleared the table.
"I think we had better go and have a look at our house," answered Pilar, trying hard to assume a perfectly unconcerned tone.
"Of course," said Wilhelm; "and while you go home, I will take a look at the streets of Paris."
"What—you are not coming with me?"
"I think it better you should go by yourself the first time. You have no doubt got a good deal to set in order, and I should only be in the way."
"Wilhelm," she said very gravely, "you are determined to hurt me. Have I deserved that of you?"
"But, dearest Pilar—"
"I want proofs that I am your dearest Pilar. I have given myself to you—body, soul and spirit. If you want my life as well, then say so. I should be overjoyed to give it you. And you? Since yesterday your every word and look tells me plainly that you regard me as a stranger, and want to have nothing more to do with me. Oh, yes, you do it all in a very delicate and considerate manner, that is your way, but there is no need to speak more plainly to me."
"Do not excite yourself Pilar, I assure you that you are entirely wrong."
She shook her head.
"I am not a child. Let us talk it over seriously. I told you yesterday I would not let you go. Of course you understand what I mean by that. I will not keep you if you want to be free. But then be honest, and tell me frankly that you are tired of me, and want to be rid of me. I shall at least know what I have to do. Do not be afraid, I shall not make a scene, I shall not cause you any annoyance, not even reproach you. I shall receive my sentence of death in silence, and kiss the hand that inflicts it on me."
She buried her face in her hands, and tears trickled down between her fingers.
"And all this," said Wilhelm, "because I thought it better not to accompany you to-day. The whole affair is not worth one of your tears."
"Then you will come with me?" she cried excitedly, lifting her face to his.
"I suppose I shall have to, since you talk about death sentences and terrible things of the kind."
She embraced him frantically, rang the bell, threw the things that lay about anyhow into the box, and when the waiter came, ordered a carriage. As they went downstairs she gave a hurried order in the office, and with a beaming and triumphant face, passed through the hall on Wilhelm's arm to the carriage.
Their destination was a small house on the Boulevard Pereire, of two stories, three windows wide, and a balcony in front of the first-floor windows. At Wilhelm's ring the door was opened by Anne, who made him a careless courtesy, but greeted her mistress respectfully. Wilhelm was going to let Pilar precede him, but she said: "No, no; you go first. It is a better omen."
Assembled in the hall they found Auguste, an old woman with a red nose, and a man not in livery, who expressed their satisfaction at their mistress' return, and complimented her on her improved appearance, but were in reality chiefly engaged in taking stock of Wilhelm while they did so. Pilar gave the man some direction in Spanish, and then drew Wilhelm into the salon, which opened into the hall.
"Welcome, a thousand times, to this house," she said, clasping him in her arms; "and may your coming bring happiness to us both. I will take off my things now, and say a word, to my servants, and be with you again directly."
With that she hurried away, and Wilhelm found himself alone. He looked about him. The salon was luxuriously, if, according to Wilhelm's taste, somewhat gaudily furnished. The walls were draped in yellow silk, the portieres, window-curtains, and gilt-backed chairs being of the same brilliant hue, though its monotony was fortunately broken by numerous oil paintings, forming, as it were, dark islands in a sea of sulphur. Opposite to the window hung two life-sized portraits of a lady and an officer. The lady wore a Spanish costume with a mantilla, the gentleman a gorgeously embroidered general's uniform, with a quantity of stars and orders, and the ribbon of the Grand Cross. In another life-sized picture this personage figured in the robes of some unknown military order, and appeared a third time as a bronze bust in a corner, on a black marble pedestal. The chimney-piece was adorned by a strange and wonderful clock, a painfully accurate copy in gilt and colored enamel of the Mihrab of the Mosque in Cordova. Between the windows, on a high buhl cabinet, stood a marble bust of Queen Isabella, a gift, according to an inscription on the base, to her valued Adjutant-General Marquis de Henares. A charming pastel under glass showed Pilar as a very young girl. As Wilhelm gazed at the dewy freshness of this sixteen-year-old budding beauty, the dazzling complexion of milk and roses, the sparkle of the merry, childish eyes, an immense tenderness came over him, and he thought to himself that surely nature had not sufficiently protected all these charms against the desire they must necessarily awaken in the beholder. Such a ravishing creature might well be excused if her heart led her astray. How could she choose aright when her beauty roused men's passion before she had had time to gain experience or judgment enough to defend herself?
There were a thousand other attractions in this room. A picture, or rather a sketch, by Goya, with all the fantastic want of finish, the gorgeous dabs of color that make so many of that master's works like the visions of delirium; on an inlaid table, a little Moorish casket, through the crystal lid of which one saw a collection of old Spanish coins of astounding dimensions; a small cabinet on the wall, containing stars and orders, with their chains, on a white satin ground; a trophy formed of a sword, gold spurs, epaulettes, and a gold-fringed scarf; here and there great Catalonian knives with open blades, daggers in rich sheaths and with engraved handles, and even an open velvet-lined case with a pair of chased ivory pistols. Some photographs on the chimney-piece and on the gold brocade-covered piano arrested Wilhelm's attention. First of all, Pilar in two different positions, then the pictures of three children, a girl and two boys, and finally the full-length portrait of a gentleman in the embroidered dress coat and sword of the diplomatic service, and the handsome, vacuous, carefully groomed head of a fashion plate.
Wilhelm was engaged in studying this face, with its fashionably twirled mustache, when Pilar entered the room.
"You have changed your dress?" cried Wilhelm, surprised; for she had donned an emerald-green velvet tea-gown, with a long train, and her hair was hanging down.
"Yes," said she, as she kissed him fondly, "for we are not going away again just yet. You will stay and dine with me—I have given the necessary orders. You must be quite sick of the monotonous hotel meals. For my part, I simply yearn to eat at my own table with you."
So saying, she took his hat out of his hand, coaxingly relieved him of his greatcoat, then rang and ordered Auguste to take them away. Taking advantage of this distraction of Wilhelm's attention, she rapidly snatched up the photograph he had been examining when she came in, and hid it under the piano-cover. She then opened the piano, seated herself, and gazing passionately over her shoulder at Wilhelm standing behind her, she began playing the Wedding March out of "Midsummer Night's Dream." The melodious sounds rushed from under her fingers like a flight of startled doves, and fluttered about her, joyous and exultant. She went on with immense power and brilliancy till she came to the first repetition of the triumphant opening motif, with its jubilant blare of trumpets, then stopped abruptly, and jumping up and throwing her arms round Wilhelm:
"Isn't it that, my one and only Wilhelm?" she said, with a beaming look.
"My sweetest Pilar," he answered, and clasped her to his breast. His heart was really full to overflowing at that moment She took his arm and proceeded to lead him about the room, showing and explaining the various objects to him. "This is my mamma as she looked twenty-five years ago, when she went to the Feria at Seville. That is a sort of fair at Easter, and one of the most famous popular festivals of Spain. We must go to it some day together. And that is my late father as major-general. Here he is in the robes of a Knight of San Iago, one of our highest military orders. It has existed since the twelfth century, and, strangely enough, one of my ancestors was among its first members. These are my father's decorations and badges of office. Come and look at this clock, it is quite unique. The province of Cordova had it made, and presented it to my father when he gave up his command there. I suppose you recognized this pastel. It is a very good likeness. Do you think it pretty?"
"Pretty! The word is a gross injustice. Say rather exquisitely, ravishingly beautiful."
"Thanks, my Wilhelm. And if you had known me then, you would have loved me and wanted to marry me, would you not?"
"But you would hardly have wanted to marry me, a poor devil of a plebeian, who was badly dressed and did not even know how to dance."
"Do not make fun of me, you sweet, bad creature; if I had had as much sense then as I have now, I should have loved you then as I love you now, and I would have belonged to you, even if it had cost me my father's love." She gazed thoughtfully at the picture in which her innocent past confronted her in so angelic a form, and continued in tones of indescribable tenderness: "Why did I not know you sooner? Is it my fault that you who were made for me should live so far away and wait so long before you came to me? How I should have rejoiced to be able to offer you the pure young creature of this picture! But I can but give you all I have—my first real love, the virginity of my heart—surely that is something?"
Her hazel eyes pleaded for a great deal of compassion, and her full scarlet lips for a great deal of love, and only a heart of cast iron could have refused her either.
Beyond the salon was a roomy dining-room, hung with magnificent Cordova leather, and from this a glass door led into a pretty little garden with an arbor in the corner, and some old trees. High, ivy-clad walls inclosed the square green spot of nature. Up the stairs, on the walls of which hung many valuable pictures, for which there was no place in the rooms, Pilar and Wilhelm mounted to the second floor. They entered first a red salon with windows opening on to the balcony and in which the all-pervading scent of ylang-ylang betrayed that it was the favorite apartment of the lady of the house. She did not keep Wilhelm long in this dainty bower, but drew him into the large bedroom adjoining. The walls were draped with Japanese silk, patterned with strange landscapes, fabulous flowers, gay-colored birds on the wing, and a network of twining creatures, and drawn together at the ceiling like the roof of a tent. Out of the soft folds of the center rosette hung a lamp with golden dragons on its pink globe. There was a wardrobe with looking-glass doors, a toilette table, an immense bed of carved ebony inlaid with scenes from the antique in ivory, and chairs covered with Persian stuffs. Beside all this there was an old oak Gothic priedieu, a small altar draped in rose color and white lace, a mass of flowers, and numerous crucifixes and Madonnas of various sizes in silver, ivory and alabaster.
"Are you so devout? That is news to me," exclaimed Wilhelm, surprised. He little knew that the first thing Pilar had done on entering the house was to hasten to her bedroom, kiss the holy silver Madonna del Pilar with deepest devotion, and kneel for a few moments on her priedieu.
"Oh, no, I am not at all devout. I am just the pagan you have always known. But—que voulez-vouz?—one has old habits. I regard the Blessed Virgin chiefly in the light of Our Lady of Sorrows, whose heart is pierced with seven swords, and Christ as the eternal type of sublimest love. You are a heretic, but I know that pictures and symbols are not as offensive to you as to certain vulgar free-thinkers."