Egon cast a reproving glance toward his friend, for he could not comprehend how any one could keep silence about such a happy accident as that of piloting so lovely a woman through the wood. He entered at once, and with animation, into a conversation with the baroness. He spoke of himself as a neighbor, and of his recent visit to Fuerstenstein, and his regret, great regret, at not meeting her on that occasion. But with all his chatter, the prince kept himself well within bounds, and was the polite and agreeable courtier. He knew full well that the wife of the Prussian ambassador, no matter how young and beautiful, was not to be approached with vapid, idle compliments. Hartmut had made that error in addressing the unknown girl in the wood, but Egon had the advantage of knowing to whom he spoke, and succeeded at last in thawing the beautiful baroness by his gracious, suave manner. Finally he showed her the landscape, and pointed out and explained the especial objects of interest.
Hartmut did not enter into the conversation at all, but after handing the field glass to his friend, excused himself on the plea of searching for a lost pocket-book. The watchman of the tower volunteered to go in search of it for him, but Rojanow declared he would go and look for it himself. He remembered the exact place, where, as he mounted the stairs, he had heard something drop, but had paid no attention to it at the time. He would go and find it, and then return to the platform. And with a bow he left them.
Egon, under other circumstances, would have expressed his surprise that Hartmut did not accept the old watchman's offer, instead of going himself. But now he saw his friend depart without protest; he was not unwilling to have the field to himself. The baroness had already raised the glass to her eyes, and was following attentively his explanations and comments on the surrounding country.
"And over yonder, behind that mountain of forest, lies Rodeck," he said at last. "The little hunting lodge where we two misanthropes live like hermits, cut off from all the world beside, save the apes and parrots which we brought from the East, and they, by the way, are growing very melancholy in their new home."
"One would never take your highness for a misanthrope," said Frau von Wallmoden with a fleeting smile.
"I confess I haven't much taste for it, myself, but once in a while Hartmut has a touch of the disease, and it is for his sake that I have buried myself in this solitude."
"Hartmut? That is a Hungarian name! It's very surprising that Herr Rojanow speaks such pure German without the slightest accent. And yet he told me he was a foreigner."
"Yes, he is from Roumania, but he was educated, partially at least, by kinsfolk in Germany, from whom he also got his Christian name." The young prince explained so unconcernedly that it was evident he knew as little about his friend's family as did his listener.
"You seem to be very partial to him." There was a slighting tone in her voice.
"Yes, I am indeed," exclaimed Egon, roused in an instant. "And not I, alone. Hartmut has one of those attractive, genial natures, which wins upon all who know him. But the stranger who does not see him unrestrained and at his best, can form no judgment of what he is. Then a flame of fire bursts from his soul, and touches all those with whom he comes in contact. He exercises a charm which none can resist, and where he leads all must follow."
This glowing eulogy was listened to with cool indifference by the young woman, whose whole attention seemed to be centered in the landscape, as she answered:
"You are right, doubtless. Herr Rojanow's eyes indicate an unusually fiery temperament, but their expression is uncanny and surely not sympathetic."
"Perhaps because they have that peculiar and demoniacal expression which is always the indication of genius. Hartmut has great talent; he sometimes frightens me with it, and yet it attracts me irresistibly. I really do not know how I could live without him, now. I shall do everything in my power to make him remain with me."
"In Germany? Your highness sets yourself a hard task. Herr Rojanow has a very contemptuous opinion of our country, I can assure you. He expressed himself most forcibly to that effect, the other day in the wood."
The prince listened attentively. These words explained to him what he had at first thought so singular; why Hartmut had not mentioned to him the meeting with the baroness. He smiled as he said: "Ah, that's why he never mentioned meeting you to me. You probably showed him you did not approve of his candid avowal concerning Germany; you served him just right, for there's no sense in his lying so persistently. He has often angered me with his harangues against my country, all of which I thought he meant, at the time, but now I know better."
"You do not believe, then?" Adelheid turned suddenly and faced the speaker.
"No, I have the proof of it in my hand. He fairly revels in our German scenery. Your ladyship looks at me incredulously; may I tell you a secret?"
"I went to Hartmut's room, this morning, to look for him," began the prince, "and he was not there; but I found on his desk what was better than finding him—a poem which he had evidently forgotten to lock up, for he never intended it for my eyes, that's certain. No pricks of conscience prevented my stealing it, and I have it with me this minute. If you would care to glance at it—"
"I do not understand the Roumanian tongue," responded Frau von Wallmoden, with a slight sneer; "and I imagine Herr Rojanow has not condescended to write in German."
For answer Egon drew a paper from his pocket, and unfolded it. "You are prejudiced against my friend, I see, but I do not want to leave him in the false light in which he has placed himself in your eyes. May I not read this to you, and let his own words be his justification?"
"If you desire."
The words were spoken indifferently, but Adelheid's eyes sought the paper with an expression of keen interest. A few verses, written in a careless, hasty hand, covered the white page. Egon began to read. They were indeed German verses, but in them was a pureness and euphony which told that they could only have been written by a master of that tongue, and the description which they gave was one well known to both listeners. Deep, sad, woodland loneliness, pervaded by the first breath of autumn; endless green depths which swayed and beckoned with their gloomy shadows; fragrant meadows flooded with the golden sunlight; silent stretches of water in the far distance, and the noisy murmur of the mountain brook, as it rushed down from some nearer height. This picture had life and speech in it, too, and had its echoes of an old-time woodland song; the rustle and whisper of the swaying branches sounded to the ear like a soft, low melody, and above all and through all, was the deep, pent-up longing for that peace which was the background of the whole scene.
The prince had begun with fervor, and entering into the spirit of the poem, read clearly and intelligently. As he finished, he turned to the baroness with a triumphant, "What do you say to that?"
Frau von Wallmoden had not lost a word; she had not looked at the reader, though, but had gazed across the distant hills. Now, at the prince's question, she turned slowly. "Is this the language of one who despises our country?" he continued, confident he had the best of the argument. And as he looked closely at her, while demanding justice for his friend, he realized for the first time, just how lovely this Frau von Wallmoden was. The rosy tints of the setting sun softened the look in the lovely eyes, and added beauty to the tender oval of her face; but there was no softness in the cold, deliberate answer: "It is really quite surprising that a foreigner should understand our language so well."
Egon stared at her. Was this all she had to say? He had expected something quite different. "And what do you think of the poem itself?" he asked.
"Very full of sentiment. Herr Rojanow seems to possess a great deal of poetical talent. Many thanks for your field glass, and now I must go down to my husband. I fear he is tired already, waiting for me."
Egon folded his paper without a word and returned it to his pocket. He had been very enthusiastic over his friend's production, and this young woman, colder and more frozen than ever now, chilled him to the bone.
"I have had the honor of meeting his excellency, and will accompany you down, with your permission," he said, courteously.
She gave a slight bow of acknowledgment and left the platform, followed by the Prince, who had grown suddenly very taciturn. He felt annoyed on his friend's account, and regretted now that he had read, what to him seemed such a wonderful poem, to a woman who evidently knew nothing whatever of poesy.
Hartmut had, in the meantime, after leaving the platform, descended the winding stairs slowly. The lost purse was a mere subterfuge, for it lay in its accustomed place in an inner pocket.
Adelheid von Wallmoden had mentioned to the prince, soon after she joined them on the platform, that her husband was awaiting her in the little inn, but that he had not cared to climb the steep, dark stairs. Hartmut knew he could not avoid a meeting, but he would at least brave it without witnesses.
If Wallmoden saw his old friend's son and recognized him, he might not be able, for the moment, to master his surprise.
Hartmut did not fear this meeting, though he knew it would be both painful and uncomfortable. There was but one in the whole world whom he feared; but one pair of eyes under whose gaze he would lack courage to lift his own, and in all probability he would never meet that one.
He could face all others with a proud defiance; he had but exercised his right in abandoning a hated career. He was decided that there should be no questioning or reproving; if he were recognized, he should request the ambassador in a most decided manner, to make no reference whatever to a past with which he was done forever.
Upon the little veranda of the summer inn, Herbert von Wallmoden sat with his sister. The impending arrival of the duke and his court for the autumn hunting had detained the head forester at home, where he was in great demand. The betrothed pair stayed at Fuerstenstein, also, and as nothing better offered itself for the day, the three guests decided to come to Hochberg.
The view was especially fine this afternoon and the air was like summer. "This Hochberg is really worth seeing," said Frau von Eschenhagen, as her eyes went searchingly over the landscape. "But we have nearly as good a view here as up above. I certainly will never climb up those dark stairs, and lose my breath to see any more. No, I thank you."
"Adelheid was of a different opinion," responded her brother, as he gave a fleeting glance up the tower. "She suffers neither from fatigue nor heat."
"Or cold either. That was proven the day she was drenched to the skin. She hasn't even a sniffle from it."
"I have requested her to take a servant with her in future when she goes upon her rambles," said Herbert quietly. "To be lost in the forest and have to wade through a brook and then finally be forced to call to her aid a stray huntsman, are things that I do not care to have repeated. Adelheid saw that as clearly as I, and will not go unattended for the future."
"Ah, she's an excellent, sensible wife, a healthy nature through and through, with a proper aversion for adventure and romance," said Regine warmly. "Ah, there are other visitors on the tower. I thought we would be the only guests to-day."
Wallmoden glanced indifferently toward the tall, aristocratic young man who had just emerged from the tower door and was coming toward them; Frau von Eschenhagen's glance was careless, too, but her look changed to one both sharp and intense, and she cried out:
"At that stranger. What a strange resemblance."
"To whom?" asked Herbert, looking searchingly, too, into the face of the stranger, who was nearer them now.
"It's impossible! That is no passing resemblance. It is he, himself," cried his sister.
She sprang up pale with excitement, with her eyes fixed and staring at the young stranger, who was just putting his foot on the first step of the shaded veranda. Now his eyes met hers, his large, dark, flaming eyes which had so often looked into her own and pleaded for him in his childhood, and all doubts vanished.
"Hartmut, Hartmut Falkenried! You!"
She stopped suddenly, for Wallmoden laid his hand heavily, very heavily, on her arm, and said sharply: "You are in error, Regine, we do not know this gentleman."
Hartmut was startled, when, upon reaching the top step, he recognized Frau von Eschenhagen. The lattice-work had prevented his recognizing her, and for her presence he was not prepared. But at the very moment when he realized who it was, the ambassador's words sounded in his ears. He understood only too well what the tone and words implied and the blood rushed to his temples.
"Hartmut!" Frau Regine called again, looking uncertainly at her brother, who still held her arm fast.
"We do not know him," he repeated in the same tone. "Must I repeat it to you again, Regine?"
She understood his meaning now, and turned with a half-threatening, half-pained glance from the son of her old-time friend, as she said bitterly: "You are right. I was mistaken."
Hartmut drew himself to his full height, and an angry look flashed across his face as he drew a step nearer.
"Herr von Wallmoden!"
"What is it?" answered the other in a sharp, but contemptuous tone.
"Your excellency has but forestalled me," said Hartmut, forcing himself by mighty effort to speak quietly. "I came to request you not to know me. We are strangers to one another."
Then he turned with a haughty, defiant air, and disappeared within the little inn.
Wallmoden looked after him with knitted brow, and then turned to his sister. "Could you not have restrained yourself, Regine? Why make a scene? This Hartmut exists no more for us."
Regine's face showed clearly her intense excitement, and her lips trembled as she answered:
"I am no such staid diplomat as you, Herbert. I have not yet learned to be calm and indifferent when one whom I have for years imagined dead, or gone to ruin, suddenly springs up before me."
"Dead? He was too young to make that a probability. Gone to ruin? That is indeed possible, judging from his life lately."
"What do you mean?" asked his sister excitedly. "What do you know of his life?"
"I know something of it. Falkenried is too dear to me to make me lose sight altogether of his son. I have never mentioned what I knew to either of you. But as soon as I returned to my post, ten years ago, I used my diplomatic position to ascertain what I could concerning them."
"And what did you learn?"
"At first, only what we already knew, that Zalika had taken her son to Roumania. You knew that her step-father, our cousin Wallmoden, had died some time before, and after her divorce from Falkenried she always lived with her mother. From that time we heard nothing of her until she came to Germany to capture her son, but just before she came, as I learned, she inherited a large fortune by the death of her brother."
"Her brother? I never knew she had one."
"Yes, he was ten years her senior, and on attaining his majority had become master of a large estate. His mother's second marriage was childless and he never married. When he met with a sudden death while hunting, Zalika, being next of kin, fell heir to his large possessions. As soon as she entered into possession, she began at once to plan how she could get her son. You know that part of the story. Then they passed a few years in a wild, erratic life upon her Roumania estate, and they fairly flung money away in their extravagance. After that they became bankrupt, and mother and son went out into the world like gypsies."
Wallmoden told all this in the same cold, contemptuous tone as that in which he had spoken to Hartmut and in Regine's face, too, was a look of abhorrence for the wife and mother who had fulfilled so ill the duties of her station. But she could not restrain the anxiety she felt for the son, as she asked:
"And since then? Have you heard nothing further?"
"Yes, on several occasions. Once when I was with the embassy at Florence, I heard her name mentioned incidentally. She was at Rome; then a year after that she was back in Paris again; and sometime later I heard that Frau Zalika Rojanow was dead."
"So she is dead," said Regine, softly. "How did they live all these years?"
Wallmoden shrugged his shoulders. "How do all adventurers live? Perhaps they had saved something from the shipwreck, perhaps they hadn't. At any rate she was to be found in the saloons of Rome and Paris. A woman like Zalika could always find assistance and protection. As a Bojar's daughter she had her title of nobility, and even the forced sale of her Roumanian estate, about which many knew, may have aided her to play her role. Society opens its arms only too willingly to such as she, especially when they have talent, and that Zalika undoubtedly had. By what means she lived is another question."
"But Hartmut, upon whom she forced such a life, what of him?"
"He's an adventurer. What else could you expect?" said the ambassador in his curtest tone. "He inherited her temperament, and his life with her has developed the dormant tendency. Since his mother's death, three years ago, I have heard nothing of him."
"And why did you keep all this from me?" said Regine, reprovingly.
"I wanted to spare you all I could. You had always given the boy too warm a place in your heart, and I thought it better to let you imagine him dead. Have you ever told Falkenried any of your idle speculations concerning him?"
"Once I ventured to speak of the past to him. I hoped to break through the icy reserve which he always maintains towards me now. He looked at me, I will not soon forget his eyes, and said with fearful impressiveness: 'My son is dead. You know that, Regine. We will let the dead rest in peace.' I have never mentioned Hartmut's name since then."
"I suppose I hardly need counsel you to be silent when we return home," continued her brother. "On no account let Willibald hear of this meeting, for he's so good-natured that he'd be off at once if he heard his boyhood's friend was in the neighborhood. It's much better he should know nothing about it. If there should be a second meeting I will just ignore the fellow. Adelheid does not know him; in fact she doesn't even know that Falkenried had a son."
He broke off suddenly and arose, for his young wife and her escort emerged at that moment from the tower door. The prince greeted the ambassador and his sister, whom he had met a day or two before, and asked quite innocently whether they had seen his friend Rojanow, who had disappeared from the tower a few moments before.
Wallmoden threw a warning glance toward his sister, who stared at the prince in surprise, and answered promptly and politely that he had seen no gentleman, and added that he was just on the point of going in search of his wife, as it was quite time they should return home. The order to the groom was given at once, and a minute later the prince was bowing low to the fair woman and her husband, whom he had accompanied to the carriage. He stood a full minute looking after them when the carriage rolled away.
Hartmut stood at the window of the little public room looking at the trio in the carriage, also.
On his face lay the same deadly pallor as when the name of Wallmoden was mentioned two days before, but to-day it was the pallor of a wild, intense anger. He had steeled himself against question or reproof; these he would have met with supercilious arrogance, but the contemptuous manner in which he had been set aside struck him to his heart's core. Wallmoden's words to his sister, "We do not know him. Must I repeat that again?" incited his whole being to revolt. He felt keenly the sentence which lay in them. And Aunt Regine, too, the woman who had once shown an almost motherly affection for him, she turned her back on him as if ashamed of her first impulse to speak to him. That was too much!
"Oh, here you are at last," sounded Egon's voice from the door. "You disappeared most mysteriously. Well, did you find your pocket-book?"
Hartmut turned toward his friend; he felt he must be on his guard.
"Yes," he said absently. "I found it on the stair, as I expected."
"You might as well have let the watchman get it for you. But why didn't you come back? 'Twas very shabby of you to desert Frau von Wallmoden and me. You have not, I fear, won the lovely lady's favor. You were most ungracious."
"I shall have to endure my misfortune as best I can," said Hartmut with a shrug.
The young prince came nearer, and laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder.
"Or perhaps you incurred her displeasure day before yesterday? It is not your wont to go off on a tangent when you are conversing with a charming woman. O, I know all about it; the baroness thought fit to reprove you for your attack on Germany, and you resented it. Now, a man should agree to everything which comes from such lips."
"You seem to be quite excited," sneered Hartmut. "Better look to it that the gray-haired husband does not grow jealous, in spite of his years."
"Yes, they're a singular couple," said Egon, half aloud, as if lost in thought. "This old diplomat, with his gray hair and his keen, immobile face, and the young wife with her dazzling beauty like a—like a—"
"Northern light, above a sea of ice. It is a question which of the two is farthest below freezing point."
Prince Egon laughed out at the comparison. "Very poetical and very malicious. But you are right enough. I felt the icy breath of this polar star several times myself. It's just as well I did, for it is all that saved me from falling head over heels in love with her. But I think we'd better be starting now, don't you?" He turned to the door to order the groom to bring around the horses.
Hartmut, on the point of following him, turned once more to glance from the window at the carriage, which could be seen through an opening in the trees. He clenched his fist as he muttered:
"We will speak yet, Herr von Wallmoden. I will remain now. He shall not imagine that I am a coward and flee from him. Egon shall bring my work to the notice of the court. We shall see then whether he will dare to treat me like an adventurer. He shall pay yet for that glance and tone."
At Fuerstenstein everything was in readiness for the reception of the Court. The ducal party was coming this autumn for the entire hunting season, which lasted for several weeks, and the duchess was expected as well. The second floor of the castle, with its countless rooms, was prepared for the illustrious guests, and some of the officials and servants had already arrived. The little town of Waldhofen, through which the duke would pass, was in a state of excitement, too, as the townspeople made their modest preparations to do the great man honor. The Wallmodens had come for a short visit, but under existing circumstances, decided to prolong it; in fact the duke himself, learning of their whereabouts, and desirous of showing the ambassador and his wife some especial mark of his favor, had expressed a desire to meet them at Fuerstenstein. This amounted to an invitation which it would have been unwise to refuse.
Frau von Eschenhagen and her son were to remain also, to have an opportunity of "viewing these Court people close at hand." The head forester, in view of the prospective hunting which was his especial care, had daily interviews with the under foresters and their subordinates, and kept them all pretty well on their legs, that nothing might be neglected. Life at the castle just at present was anything but monotonous. In Fraeulein von Schoenau's room, this bright morning, there were sounds of gay chatter, and many a clear, good-natured laugh. Marietta Volkmar had come for a little gossip with her old friend, and as usual during such visits, the laughter and the babble knew no end. Toni sat in the window-seat, and near her stood Willibald, who, by his mother's special orders, was to play the role of sentinel.
Frau von Eschenhagen had not yet been able to accomplish her purpose concerning the opera singer. Her brother-in-law had remained obdurate, and even from her future daughter, whom she imagined so pliant, she had met with decided resistance when she demanded that all intercourse should be broken off between the two. "I cannot do that, dear auntie. You ask too much," Toni had answered. "Marietta is so noble and good. I could not wound her so deeply."
"Noble and good!" Frau Regine shrugged her shoulders over the inexperience of this girl whose eyes she might not open; but she was diplomatic enough to let the subject drop for the present and bide her time. Willibald, accustomed to confide in his mother, had told her of his meeting with Fraeulein Volkmar, and how he had enacted the part of porter at her suggestion. Frau von Eschenhagen was, naturally enough, incensed at the thought that her son, the heir of Burgsdorf, should act as lackey for a "theatrical hussy." She drew, for his benefit, a picture of this child of the devil, and explained how it would be an impossibility for her to follow such a shameless life without being thoroughly bad. Willibald, of course, was horror stricken at what he heard, and agreed fully with his mother that his future wife must be protected from so contaminating an influence.
He received orders never to let the young girls be alone, and to watch carefully how this Marietta behaved. At the very first intimation of a disgraceful word or action, Regine would go to her brother-in-law and demand that he should no longer permit his daughter to associate with such an one; then she would call her son as witness, and the incubus would be expelled at once and forever from their presence. Willibald had been on guard when Marietta paid her first visit to Fuerstenstein, had accompanied Toni to Waldhofen when she went to the old doctor's to see her friend, and he was now at his post again, to-day, in Antonie's boudoir.
Antonie and Marietta were chatting over the approaching arrival of the Court at Fuerstenstein, and the former, who possessed little taste in the matter of dress, was asking her friend's advice about some details of the toilette, and Marietta was giving it eagerly.
"What are you going to wear with this gown?" asked Marietta. "Roses of course, white or very delicate ones. They will suit admirably with this faint blue."
"No, I can't get roses," Toni declared. "I shall wear china asters."
"Better wear sunflowers. Why should you, a young girl, just affianced, too, wear such autumnal flowers? I do love roses so, and wear them whenever opportunity offers. I was so disappointed that I couldn't have one for my hair for the burgermeister's party to-night, but there isn't one to be had in Waldhofen. It is getting late in the year for them."
"The castle gardener has a rose tree in bloom in one of the hot-houses," said Antonie in her sleepy manner, which formed so decided a contrast to her friend's sharp, decisive tones.
Marietta shook her head with a laugh. "They're for the duchess without doubt, so we cannot beg for them, and must think of something in their stead. And now that we are entering upon the toilet question, your presence, Herr von Eschenhagen, is quite unnecessary. You don't know anything about such matters, and our chatter must weary you greatly. But in spite of all, you don't desert us, and what have I done so very remarkable, pray, that you stare at me all the time?"
The words sounded very ungracious. Will was startled, for the last question was only too true. He had just been thinking how well a fresh, half-blown rose would look peeping from those dark, curly locks. Toni, who had not observed how attentively he was gazing at her friend, now said good-naturedly:
"Yes, Will, do go. You'll be wearied to death with our gossip, and I'm not half through yet—I have a great deal to tell Marietta."
"As you will, dear Toni," answered her lover, hesitatingly. "But I may come back again?"
"Of course, whenever you wish."
Willibald went. It did not annoy him in the least, this having to desert his post of observation. He was thinking of something quite different as he stood for a moment alone in a little ante-room. The result of his thoughts was that he left the castle a few minutes later, and directed his steps toward the head gardener's quarters.
Scarcely had he left the room when Marietta sprang up exclaiming:
"Heavens, but you're a pokey pair of lovers!"
"But, Marietta," said Toni, vexed.
"Yes, whether you are vexed with me or not, I must say it. I had expected such a jolly time when I heard you were engaged. You never were particularly lively, but as for this fiance of yours he don't seem to know how to talk at all. What in the world did he say when he proposed to you? Or did his mother do it for him?"
"Don't jest all the time," said Toni, really angry now. "It's only in your presence he's so silent; when we're alone he can talk glibly enough."
"Yes, over the new threshing-machine which he has invented himself. I heard him talking about it just as I came in, and you were listening all ears. Oh, you'll be a pattern man and wife, and rule Burgsdorf in a most exemplary manner, but heaven protect me from such a happy marriage."
"Marietta, you are very rude," said the young girl, highly incensed now. In the same moment her friend had thrown her arms around her neck, and said coaxingly: "Do not be angry, Toni. I did not mean to be disagreeable, and do indeed rejoice in my heart if you are happy; only you see—every one to his taste; my husband must be different from yours."
"Well, what must he be, pray?" asked Toni, resentful yet, but mollified by her friend's coaxing tone.
"In the first place he must be under my rule and not under his mother's; second, he must be an honest, upright man, of whose protection I can feel assured—that's not inconsistent with petticoat government, so long as I do the governing. He need not be much of a talker. I'll attend to that part myself. But he must love me, love me better than father and mother or houses or lands, better than his threshing-machine, even—I must be first in his thoughts, ever and always."
Toni shrugged her shoulders contemptuously. "You have very childish ideas at times, Marietta; but let us decide about the gowns."
"Yes, we'd better do that at once, for your dearly beloved will come back soon and plant himself down like a sentinel between us. He certainly has a talent for standing sentry. Now as to this blue silk—"
Even now the pros and cons of dress could not go on smoothly, for Frau von Eschenhagen opened the door at this moment, and called Toni to give her advice concerning some household matter. Toni rose at once and left the room, but, instead of following her, her aunt remained and sank down in a chair by the window. Frau von Eschenhagen wished to see for herself. Will had not satisfied her; he had grown red and embarrassed when called upon to repeat the girlish gossip which had taken place between the two maidens, and his mother, who believed all this light chatter but a cloak for something worse, determined to take the matter into her own hands.
Marietta had risen respectfully at the entrance of the elder woman, whom she had met but once before, and whose inimical bearing toward herself she had not perceived in the joy of her first meeting again with her friends. She only noticed that Toni's future mother-in-law was not a cordial woman. This morning Frau Regine looked her over from head to foot with a critical eye. Marietta seemed to her like all other girls, but she was pretty, very pretty—and that was bad. She had short curly hair all over her head—and that was worse.
There was no mistaking Frau Regine's attitude toward the young singer, whom she now begun to question. "You are a friend of my son's betrothed, I believe?"
"Yes, my lady," was the unconcerned reply.
"A friend since childhood, I understand. You were brought up and educated by Dr Volkmar?"
"Yes, I lost my parents when I was very young."
"So my brother-in-law was telling me. And what was your father's calling?"
"He was a physician, the same as grandfather," answered Marietta, more amused than annoyed by this examination, the object of which she did not suspect. "And my mother was a physician's daughter, so we might well be called a medical family, might we not? I'm the only one who has branched off into another profession."
"Ah—what a pity," said Frau von Eschenhagen, impressively. The young girl looked at her puzzled. Was she joking? No, there was no expression of pleasantry on the lady's face as she continued: "You will agree with me, my child, that the descendant of an honorable and respected race should show herself worthy of her family. And you should have thought of that in choosing your vocation."
"Good heavens, but I couldn't study medicine like my father and grandfather," cried Marietta, laughing outright. The matter seemed a joke to her, but her merriment displeased her severe questioner, who said, sharply:
"There are, thank God, plenty of honorable positions for young girls. You are a singer?"
"Yes, madame, at the Court theatre."
"I know it, I know it! Do you feel inclined to resign your position there?"
The question was put so suddenly and in such a domineering tone, that Marietta involuntarily drew back. Since her first meeting with the son, when he had seemed so stupid and silent, and had run off so precipitately, she had decided within herself that he was not of sound mind. Now the thought came to her that his weakness was an inherited disease from his mother; for certainly this woman could not be in her right mind.
"To resign my position?" she repeated. "And why?"
"Upon moral grounds, altogether. I am ready to offer you a helping hand. If you will turn your back upon those paths of frivolity and vice, I pledge myself to obtain for you a respectable position as governess or companion."
The young singer understood at last why the matron had been so concerned; she threw her head back with an angry, half spiteful movement. "I thank you very much. I love my profession dearly, and have no thought of exchanging it for any dependent position. Besides, I fear my education has not fitted me to make an efficient upper housemaid."
"I expected some such answer," Frau von Eschenhagen replied, nodding her head darkly, "but I felt it my duty to make at least one appeal to your conscience. You are very young, and, consequently, are not altogether responsible; the heavier blame falls upon Dr. Volkmar for allowing his son's child to enter such a vicious career."
"My dear madame, I must request you to leave my grandfather out of the play altogether," Marietta spoke excitedly now. "You are Toni's future mother-in-law, otherwise I would not have allowed this questioning. But an insult to my grandfather I will not permit from any human being."
The two excited women had not heard a distant door open, and did not know that Willibald had entered. He seemed frightened when he saw his mother, and slipped something which he carried carefully wrapped in paper, into his coat-pocket, but he kept his place by the door.
"I have no intention of quarreling with you, my child," said Frau Regine in an arrogant tone. "But I am, as you say, Toni's future mother-in-law, and as such deem it my duty to protect her from all improper intercourse. I beg you will not misunderstand me. I am not proud, and the grandchild of Dr. Volkmar is, in my eyes, a fit companion for my niece; but a lady of the theatre will, rightly enough, seek her companions among the theatrical circle, but here at Fuerstenstein—you understand me, I hope?"
"Oh, yes, I understand you, my dear madame," cried Marietta, her whole face aflame now. "You need say nothing further; I have but one word to ask. Do Herr von Schoenau and Antonie agree with you in what you have just said?"
"As regards the root of the matter, certainly. But I would not have you think for a moment that they would refuse to—" a very expressive shrug of the shoulders concluded this sentence. The upright and truth-loving woman did not for a moment imagine she was guilty of an untruth; her prejudices were deeply rooted, and she could not imagine the head forester not agreeing with her at bottom, notwithstanding his contradictory nature prevented him admitting it frankly; as for Antonie, she was a good-natured little thing, but she lacked the stamina required to end such an intimacy, and her aunt, in consequence, was resolved to end it for her. But at this critical moment something unexpected happened. Willibald stepped forward and said, half reproachfully:
"Is it you, Will? What are you doing here?" asked his mother, to whom this interruption was anything but pleasant.
Willibald understood full well that his mother had been ungracious, and he usually retreated as quickly as possible when he found her in a bad humor. To-day he took his stand with unwonted bravery. He came a step nearer and repeated: "But, mother, you must have misunderstood them. Toni never thought of such a thing, Fraeulein Volkmar."
"What do you know about it? Do you mean to accuse me of falsehood?" his enraged mother turned on him. "What business is it of yours what I discuss with Fraeulein Volkmar? Your bride's not here, you can see that for yourself, so you may go, also, and at once!"
The young heir had flushed deeply at this tone, to which he was well accustomed; but before this girl it seemed to shame him, and he looked as though he would resist his mother's authority for once. His face assumed a defiant expression, but a threatening, "Well, don't you hear me?" conquered him as usual. He turned hesitatingly, and left the room, but the door behind him remained half open.
Marietta glanced after him with a contemptuous curl of the lip and then turned back to her adversary. "You need give yourself no further uneasiness, my dear madame. I have come to Fuerstenstein for the last time. As the head forester had received me with his old-time cordiality, and as Antonie was as affectionate toward me as ever, I could not know that they felt that there was a stain upon me on account of the profession which I follow. Had I suspected such a thing I surely would not have inflicted myself upon them. It will not happen in the future, never again."
Her voice failed her, and her face bore a new, pained expression, while it was with difficulty she restrained the tears. Frau von Eschenhagen felt she had gone too far in her candid statement.
"I do not want to annoy you, my child," she said, unbending a little. "I only wanted to make it clear to you that—"
"Not want to annoy me when you say such things to me?" interrupted the girl with flashing eyes. "You treat me like an outcast, not fit any longer for association with decent people, and why? Because I earn my bread with the talent which God has given me, and give pleasure to mankind at the same time. You traduce my old grandfather who made great sacrifices to have me well educated, and who saw me go out into the world with a heavy heart. The bitter tears stood in his eyes as he clasped me in his arms, and said, as he bade me good-bye: 'Be honest and true, my Marietta. One can be that always, no matter what their road in life. When I close my eyes on this world I shall have nothing to leave you. You will have to fight your own battle. Well, I have remained honest and true, and shall remain so, even though everything is not as easy for me as for Toni, the daughter of a rich father, who only leaves her parent's home to go into her husband's. But I don't envy her the happiness of calling you mother."
"Fraeulein Volkmar, you forget yourself," said the insulted mother drawing herself to her full height. But Marietta wasn't going to be silenced now, she was too excited.
"O, no, it is not I who forget myself. It was you who insulted me without cause, and the head forester and Antonie must be well under your influence to turn away from me. But no matter. I do not desire the friendship of any girl who will allow herself to be bullied and brow-beaten by a mother-in-law. I am done, once for all. Tell Toni I say that, Frau von Eschenhagen."
She turned away with a passionate motion and left the room. In the front one, however, she could retain her composure no longer, and the hot tears, kept back so bravely until now, forced themselves from her eyes. With a passionate sob the young girl leaned her head against the wall and wept bitterly. She heard her name called in a low, trembling tone, and turning, she saw Willibald von Eschenhagen, in his hand the very paper which he had so hastily concealed in his pocket. It was crumpled now, but within, as he unfolded the paper, lay a delicate spray of leaves with two fragrant half-blown roses.
"Fraeulein Volkmar," he stammered again. "You wished for a rose, please accept—" In his eyes and in his whole bearing one could read plainly that he deplored his mother's ruthless candor. Marietta repressed her sobs, the tears were still glistening in her eyes, as she looked up at him with an expression of disdain and contempt.
"I thank you, Herr von Eschenhagen," she said with acerbity. "You heard distinctly the words which your mother spoke to me, and whatever else they may have meant, they most certainly meant that I was to be shunned. Why do you not obey them?"
"My mother has done you an injustice," said Willibald, half-aloud. "And she did not speak in the name of the others. Toni knew nothing about it, believe me. She—"
"Then why didn't you speak out and say so?" interrupted the girl with growing anger. "There you stood, listening to a shameful, insulting attack upon a young, defenseless girl, and hadn't enough manhood to come forward and take her part. True enough, you did attempt something of the kind, but you were well scolded, and sent off like a school-boy, and you went without a word, too."
Willibald stood like one in whose ears heavy thunder is echoing. He had felt most keenly the injustice of his mother's scathing remarks, and was trying in his timid way, to do what he could to make amends and show his good will, and here he was being soundly rated for his pains. He stood and stared at her without speaking, and his silence incensed the girl still more.
"And now you come and bring me flowers," she continued with growing excitement. "Secretly, behind your mother's back, and do you think I would accept such an insult? First learn how a man should behave when he witnesses such an iniquity, then pay attention to trifling courtesies afterwards. Now—now, I will show you what I think of you and your present." She tore the paper from his hand, rolled it like a ball and threw it upon the floor, where she stamped on it passionately with her little foot.
"But Fraeulein—" Willibald, vacillating between shame and anger, would have interfered to save his roses, but the dangerous look in the dark eyes warned him to keep back.
"Now we are quits. If Toni knows nothing about all this I am sorry, but I shall stay away for the future rather than expose myself to fresh insults. I pray she may be happy, though I should certainly not be so in her place. I am only a poor girl, but I would never marry a man who was afraid to speak without his mother's permission. No, not if he were heir to Burgsdorf ten times over."
With this she turned her back upon the heir, and a second later left the room.
"Will, what does this mean?" sounded the voice of Frau von Eschenhagen, who stood in the half-open door. As she received no answer, she crossed the room to her son's side with a step and manner which prophesied no good for that young man.
"That was a most remarkable scene which I have just witnessed. Will you be good enough to explain to me what it signifies? That little insignificant thing, bubbling over with passion and anger, telling you the most disgraceful things to your very face, and you standing there like a sheep, taking them all."
"Because she had the right to say them," said Will, still looking down at the scattered rose leaves.
"She had what?" asked the mother, who could not believe she heard aright.
The young heir raised his head and looked at her; his face wore a new and singular expression.
"She had the right of it, mother. It is true you have always treated me like a school-boy, so how could I defend myself against such an accusation?"
"Boy, I believe you have lost your senses," said Frau Regine.
Willibald was roused now. He continued: "I am no boy, I am the heir of Burgsdorf, and twenty-seven years old. You have always forgotten that, mother, and so have I, for that matter, but I remember it to-day."
Frau von Eschenhagen gazed astonished at her son, so tractable all his life until this moment. "I verily believe you are becoming refractory. Let us have no more of it, for you know I would never permit such a thing. What has come over you that you make such reckless assertions? Because I have seen fit to bring this very unsuitable intercourse to an end, and dismiss this Marietta, do you take it upon yourself, as soon as my back is turned, to make formal apologies and present her with roses which you have just plucked for your bride? I don't know what's come over you. It's the first time in your life you ever acted so. Toni will be very much displeased when she learns what has become of her roses. It served you just right to have the little vixen trample them under foot. You won't be guilty of such idiotic folly soon again, I fancy."
"I did not pluck the roses for Toni, but for Fraeulein Volkmar," Will explained, defiantly.
"For—?" the name stuck in the excited woman's throat.
"For Fraeulein Volkmar! She was wishing she had a rose to wear in her hair this evening, and said she could not get any in Waldhofen. So I went to the gardener and got them for her—now you know all about it, mother."
Frau von Eschenhagen stood like the pillar of salt; she had become deadly pale and for a moment the light seemed to go out; she saw such fearful possibilities that she lost all power of speech and motion. Then suddenly she regained all her old strength. She grasped her son's arm impressively, as if to make sure of him under all circumstances, and said curtly:
"Will—we will start to-morrow."
"For home. We will start early, at eight o'clock, in order to catch the afternoon express, and reach Burgsdorf the day following. So go at once to your room and do your packing."
The commanding tone did not this time make the slightest impression on her son. "I do not intend to pack," he declared, doggedly.
"You will pack at once, I tell you!"
"No," said the son. "If you wish to go, mother, then go—I remain here."
This was rebellion, and it removed the last doubt in the mother's mind that there was something at the bottom of all her son's assertiveness. She said now in her hardest tone: "Boy, wake up, be yourself again! I really don't believe you know what has come over you. But I will tell you. You are in love—in love with Marietta Volkmar."
She brought out the last words in a towering rage, but Will was not overwhelmed by them. He stood for a moment staring in surprise, as if wondering if it was really that which had overtaken him, then a light seemed to dawn upon him.
"O!" he said, drawing a deep breath, and a slight smile flitted across his face.
"O! is that your only answer?" broke forth the furious mother, who, in spite of everything, still hoped for a contradiction. "You do not even deny it. And this is what I must live to see in my own son, whom I educated so carefully and never allowed to leave my side. While I was having you watch and protect your betrothed from this infamous woman, you were acting a hypocrite. And she playing the virtuous, deeply injured part before me, that creature—"
"Mother, be silent! I will not allow that," interrupted Willibald, angry too, now.
"You will not allow it—what does that mean?"
Frau von Eschenhagen stopped suddenly and listened.
"There comes Toni, your betrothed bride, to whom you have pledged your word, who wears your ring. How do you purpose treating her?" She had at last found the right means to conquer her son, who now hung his head despondently as Antonie entered the room.
"You're here already, are you, Will?" she asked. "I thought—but what is the matter? Has anything happened?"
"Yes," said Regine, who, as usual seized the reins without fear. "We have just received a telegram from Burgsdorf which will compel us to start for home to-morrow morning. You need not be alarmed, my dear child, it is nothing serious, only a piece of stupidity,"—she laid a sharp accent upon the last words,—"a piece of stupidity which will soon right itself, and the sooner its checked, the sooner the matter'll be ended. I'll explain it all to you later, but we must go now; it can't be helped."
Antonie listened attentively, but it required more than such an announcement to stir her from her wonted repose, and the declaration that it was nothing of moment, satisfied her. "But will Willibald have to go, too?" she asked, without any special eagerness. "Can not he remain?"
"Well, Will, can't you answer your sweetheart?" said his mother, fastening her sharp gray eyes on her son. "You know best all the circumstances. Do you think you can afford to remain here?"
There followed a short pause. Willibald's glance met his mother's; then he turned toward Toni and said, in a half-depressed tone:
"No, Toni, I must go home—there is nothing else for it."
Toni took this news, which another girl would have seriously deplored, very calmly, and began to plan where they had better dine on the morrow, for they had a long distance to go by carriage before they would meet the express train. This troubled her much more than the parting, and she finally decided that she would prepare a luncheon for them, so that they need have no care concerning their midday meal.
Frau von Eschenhagen triumphed in her heart as she went to announce their departure to her brother-in-law. She had already decided upon the reason which she would give him for their abrupt departure. Of course a great many things could happen on a large estate like Burgsdorf, which would demand the master's presence at a moment's notice. So the head forester knew no more than his daughter, although he, in his blindness, had been the cause of it all.
As for the rest, Frau Regine did not doubt her powers as soon as she should get her son away from the influence of this witch. He had shown himself amenable to reason at the last moment. She would say nothing more to him now, save to point out what his betrothal to Toni demanded from him as a man of honor, and what a fatal error it had been to allow another to influence him even for an hour.
"Wait, my son," she said grimly, to herself, after conning over the whole thing for the twentieth time, "wait. I will teach you to harbor such sentiments, and revolt against your mother. Only wait until I get you to Burgsdorf, then God have mercy on you, if you evince any signs of obstinacy!"
There was life and animation and excitement upon that momentous day when the duke and duchess, with their numerous retinue, were expected at Fuerstenstein; even the old forest, which had been witness to so many magnificent hunts in its time, put on its warmest colors, and showed in the clear sunlight its deepest reds and most vivid greens.
The reigning duke was, above all things, an ardent and keen sportsman, and he rarely missed a few days of sport at this season. Now when he was coming for several weeks, and was bringing with him such a large suite, it was found that Fuerstenstein, notwithstanding its size, could not accommodate them all. Suitable quarters had to be found in Waldhofen, and that little town was in a state of pleasurable excitement in consequence.
Prince Adelsberg, besides being the owner of the adjoining estate and castle, was also connected in some way with nearly all the families forming the ducal suite, and could not of course neglect them. Some of the men had been invited to take up their quarters at his little hunting lodge, so that the life and bustle which centered at Fuerstenstein, extended to the woodland loneliness of Rodeck.
To-night the castle was brilliantly illuminated, and the colored lights which gleamed from its many windows, threw a rosy glow over wall and tower. It was the first large gathering since the arrival of the Court, and every one in the whole neighborhood who laid any claims whatever to social rank, had been invited. The interior of the castle had been gorgeously decorated, and the spacious rooms with their lights and music, and throngs of elegantly attired woman, together with the glittering appearance of the men in their court costumes, formed a scene not soon forgotten.
Prominent among the many grand ladies of the little court was the wife of the Prussian ambassador. It was her first appearance among them, her father's death, following immediately upon her marriage, having secluded her, and now, in the little circle where her husband's position gave her much prominence, she was the cynosure of all eyes. The duke, too, and his duchess, to whom she had been presented a few weeks previous, treated the ambassador's wife with special deference.
The court ladies, however, looked upon the appearance of this new star with anything but satisfaction. They all discovered soon enough, that Frau von Wallmoden, with her cold and haughty manner, was a very proud woman, and certainly she had no reason to be so; they knew only too well who she was: only a burger's daughter, who had no right to be in their charmed circle at all; her father's great wealth, and a certain prominence to which he had attained by success in his manufacturing interests, were all she could lay claim to at best. But she certainly carried herself with remarkable security; they all admitted that it was evident her husband had schooled her carefully for her first appearance, for she made no mistakes.
The men were of another opinion. They found that the ambassador had proven himself a profound diplomatist in this, as in other things. He, standing on the threshold of old age, had married a beautiful young girl with a fortune, which fortune, if report did not err, had been greatly augmented since their marriage, and was still on the increase. Such a condition of affairs was to be envied. Wallmoden was not the least surprised at the impression which his wife's beauty and manners made upon them all, and he took it, as the true diplomatist takes all things, as a matter of course. He had expected nothing else, and would on the contrary have been surprised if she had not created a sensation.
He stood for one moment now, in a window recess with his brother-in-law, the head forester, and asked casually, while he glanced indifferently over the heads of the guests:
"Who is it Prince Adelsberg has with him? Do you know?"
"You mean the young Roumanian? No. I see him to-day for the first time; but I have heard about him before. He is Prince Egon's bosom friend, and accompanied him on his oriental tour. He's as handsome as a picture, and how the fire does flash in his eyes."
"He looks to me like an adventurer," said Wallmoden, coldly. "How did he come to be invited here? Has he been presented to the duke?"
"Yes, at Rodeck, so I heard. The duke went over there the first thing. Once in a while Prince Adelsberg succumbs to the, rules of etiquette. But as to this invitation, it signifies nothing; every one is invited here to-day."
The ambassador shrugged his shoulders.
"It is hardly wise to invite persons about whom you know absolutely nothing into your midst."
"You diplomatists want all the credentials sealed and delivered," laughed his brother-in-law. "There's something aristocratic looking about this Rojanow, too, which one does not expect to see in a foreigner. But I'm glad enough to invite any one out of the common for his grace. He must be wearied with this endless court etiquette and court gossip, year in and year out. The duke, by the way, seems to have taken a great fancy to this young Roumanian already."
"Yes, so it seems," said Wallmoden, a cloud gathering on his brow.
"As for the man's history, if he has any, what does it matter to us? Well, I must look after Toni, and see how she's getting along without that lover of hers. That was a queer freak of Regine's. As soon as anything concerning her beloved Burgsdorf comes on the tapis, nothing will keep her. And she raises such a racket with her son, too. She might as well have left Will here. No one knows why she dragged him away; just before the duke came, too.—I'm sure I'll never understand your sister."
"It's a good thing she did," muttered Wallmoden, as he separated from von Schoenau. "If Willibald had seen his boyhood's friend here, there would have been another scene, doubtless. Who would have thought that Hartmut would carry his defiance so far as to go to a house where he must have known he would meet the ambassador."
Prince Adelsberg, who, through his name and wealth, and his near kinship to the reigning house, took a first position in the brilliant little circle, had made a point of introducing his dearest friend to the duke, at Rodeck, and the stranger had impressed the duke so favorably that he had made special comment of him to the duchess.
This Rojanow, with his charming personality and the air of mystery which surrounded him, had only to exert himself to receive due attention on all sides.
And to-day he exercised all those fascinating qualities which he possessed in fullest measure. His conversation sparkled with wit and animation, and his ardent temperament imparted to everything he said the stamp of originality, while united with this he showed himself a master of social courtesies.
It was no difficult matter for the ambassador to avoid the Roumanian; in a large house filled with guests, such avoidance is an easy matter, and neither of these two were anxious for a meeting. Wallmoden turned now into an adjoining room, where the duke's sister, the Princess Sophie, was holding a little court. The princess had married the younger son of a princely house, but had been a widow now for years, and had lived since her widowhood at her brother's court, where she was by no means a favorite. The duchess was beloved for her gentleness and kind heartedness, by all who came in her way, but her elderly sister-in-law was disliked heartily for her arrogance and acerbity. They all feared her sharp tongue, which never failed to bring to light disagreeable features or fancies, as the case might be, concerning those with whom she had to do.
Herr von Wallmoden did not escape this fate; he was received most graciously and congratulated at once upon the great beauty of his wife, about which there could be no dispute.
"Your excellency has indeed my warmest congratulations. I was quite surprised when your young wife was presented to me. I had, as a matter of course, expected to meet a much older woman."
The "matter of course" had a malicious sound, for the princess had known for the past six months that the elderly ambassador was married to a girl of nineteen; he smiled in a perfectly placid manner, as he answered:
"Your highness is very good. I cannot be too thankful if my wife has made a favorable impression upon yourself and your family."
"O, you need not doubt that the duke and duchess are quite of my opinion. Frau von Wallmoden is really a beauty—Prince Adelsberg seems to think so also. Perhaps you have not noticed how greatly he admires her?"
"Yes, your highness, I have noticed it."
"Really? And what do you say to it?"
"I?" asked Wallmoden, composedly. "Whether or no she cares to accept the prince's homage is wholly and solely my wife's affair. If she finds any pleasure in it—I certainly will lay no commands upon her."
"Your enviable confidence in your wife should be an example to younger husbands," replied the princess, angry that her arrow had missed its aim. "It is very pleasant, at least for a young wife, to feel that her husband is not jealous. Ah, here comes Frau von Wallmoden herself, with her knight by her side. My dear baroness, we were just speaking of you."
Adelheid von Wallmoden, who with Prince Adelsberg, had just entered the room, made a courtesy to the princess. She was indeed dazzling in her beauty to-day, for her rich Court toilette so well chosen, suited her most admirably. The costly white brocade, with its long, heavy folds, set off her slender figure to advantage, the pearls which encircled her neck, and the diamonds which glistened in her light blonde hair, were jewels well worth the notice of connoisseurs; but that which was most worthy of attention was the singular coldness and earnestness of this young wife's face and bearing. She bore no resemblance whatever to others of her own age in this brilliant assemblage, who were for the most part married also, and who were decked out in all the witcheries of lace and flowers. They possessed nothing of her stateliness, but she in turn had none of their sweetness or assumed gentleness; none of that premeditated amiability which society women assume under the public gaze. The severe rigidity of that lovely face was a heritage from her father, whose stern, austere nature had left its impress upon her soul as well.
Egon kissed the hand of his illustrious aunt, and murmured a few polite words of greeting, but the amiable attention of her highness was directed toward the beautiful woman who had just joined them.
"I was just saying to his excellency, that you found yourself at home very readily in our little Court circle, my dear baroness. You are entering our little society for the first time to-day, and have lived, no doubt, in a very different atmosphere until now. Your name was—?"
"Stahlberg, your highness," was the quiet reply.
"Oh, yes, I remember it now. I have heard the name often enough. It was well known, I believe—in mercantile circles."
"My dearest aunt, you must permit me to set you right in this matter," interrupted Prince Egon, not wishing to lose an opportunity to anger his aunt. "The Stahlberg manufacturies have a worldwide reputation, and are as celebrated across the ocean as here. I had an opportunity, when I was in North Germany, to learn something about them, and can assure you that these works, with their iron foundries and enormous factories, their colony of officers and army of workmen, could absorb many a little principality, whose rulers have no such unlimited power as had the baroness' father."
The lady threw her princely nephew anything but a friendly glance; his interference was to her mind most uncalled for.
"Indeed! I had no conception of such greatness," said she innocently. "I shall have to greet your excellency from this time forth as a great ruler."
"Only as a regent of the empire, your highness," answered the ambassador, seconding, a little apparently harmless joke. "I am only my father-in-law's executor, and guardian of my wife's younger brother, who will assume the entire management of the works as soon as he reaches his majority."
"Ah, indeed. The son will have to learn to keep a watchful eye over his inheritance. It is really astonishing to me to see what in these days can be accomplished by the energy of a single man. It is all the more creditable, too, when he, like the father of our dear baroness here, springs from the people. I think I heard that, but I may be mistaken!"
Princess Sophie knew well that the ambassador, with his old Prussian noble ancestry would find this rehearsal of his father-in-law's station in life anything but pleasant, and it gave her great satisfaction to note that none of the little group who surrounded her, lost a word of the conversation, which was meant to humiliate the lovely new comer. Baroness von Wallmoden drew herself up proudly as she replied:
"Your highness has been correctly informed. My father was of the people, and entered the capital a poor boy with no means whatever at his command. He had many and great struggles, and worked for years as a simple artisan, before he could lay even the foundations for his great undertaking."
"How proudly Frau von Wallmoden says that," cried the princess laughing. "O I love such childlike attachment, above everything. And Herr Stahlberg—or was it von Stahlberg? The great industrial heads often get titles of nobility."
"My father took no such title, your highness," said Adelheid, meeting the other's glance quietly but directly. "It was offered to him but he refused it."
The ambassador pressed his lips tightly together; he could not forbear thinking this last utterance of his wife very undiplomatic. The countenance of the princess assumed at once an irritated expression, and she answered, with an unconcealed sneer:
"Well, it is at least fortunate that this aversion was not inherited by the daughter. Your excellency will know how to appreciate it. Please give me your arm, Egon. I want to find my brother."
She bowed coldly to those around her as she took the arm of her nephew, in whose face was plainly written:
"Now it is my turn."
He did not deceive himself, his aunt had no intention of seeking the duke; she turned into an adjoining room with her young kinsman that she might have him under her eyes without interruption for a little time. At first she expended her anger against this unbearable, arrogant Frau von Wallmoden, who boasted of the vulgar pride of her father, while she herself married a baron for his title, for, of course, she could feel no love for a man who was old enough to be her father. Egon was silent for he had speculated on that matter himself. How had so unequal a marriage ever come about? But his silence just now was resented by his incensed aunt.
"Well, Egon, why don't you say something? Really it does seem as if you were this woman's sworn knight, you are by her side continually."
"I always do homage to beauty, when it comes in my way, you certainly know that, my dear aunt," explained the prince, striving to shield himself, but he only brought down a fresh storm on his head.
"Yes, I know that—I'm sorry to say. You have in this particular always exhibited great folly. You do not seem to remember all my warnings and admonitions before you started for the Orient."
"O, yes, I do," sighed Egon, to whom the very memory of those endless lectures was an oppression.
"Really! But you have not returned more sensible or settled. I have heard things—Egon, there's only one salvation for you—you must marry!"
"For heaven's sake! Anything but that!" exclaimed Egon, in such a voice of affright that the princess shut her fan with an angry snap, as she said in a sharp tone:
"What do you mean by that?"
"O, nothing but my own unworthiness to enter into such a holy state. You yourself, your highness, have often assured me that I was specially created to make a wife unhappy."
"If the wife does not succeed in making you better. But you are a hopeless case. At any rate this is neither the time nor the place to discuss so serious a matter. The duchess is planning a visit to Rodeck, and I am thinking of accompanying her."
"What a charming idea," said Egon, to whom the thought of an invasion by his noble kinsfolk was even more terrifying than the marriage plan. "I am rejoiced that Rodeck, notwithstanding its isolated situation, contains something worthy of notice just at present. I brought a good many curiosities home with me from my journey, among other things a lion, two young tigers, and some very rare snakes."
"But not alive?" interrupted his aunt.
"Of course, your highness."
"The Lord preserve us! Your life is not safe."
"Oh, they're not so dangerous after all. Only a few of the beasts have broken away; the people are so afraid of feeding them—but they were caught again and have not done any harm up to this time."
"Up to this time! A nice condition of affairs, I must say," exclaimed the princess angrily, "to keep every one in the region in constant danger of their lives. The duke ought to forbid you such diabolical amusement."
"Oh, I trust not, for I'm just trying to tame them. But I have some domesticated creatures to show, as well. Among my servants are several lovely girls who are well worth looking at in their picturesque national costumes."
Egon thought with a shudder, as he made this assertion, of the wretched old woman for whose appearance he had to thank the ever-watchful Stadinger, but he had not miscalculated the effect of his announcement. His amiable aunt drew herself up with an angry snort, and measured him with no conciliatory glance.
"Oh, you have them at Rodeck also?"
"Yes, indeed; and little Zena, the granddaughter of my old steward, is a lovely little thing, and if you do me the honor of visiting me, dear aunt, I'll—"
"I will not go near the place," his aunt interrupted sharply. "There must be nice goings on at Rodeck anyway, which keep you there with that young foreigner who is another of the curiosities you brought from the Orient. He looks like an out and out brigand."
"My friend Rojanow? He longs for the honor of being presented to you above all things. I may introduce him now, may I not?" and without waiting an answer, he hurried away to fetch Hartmut.
"Now its your turn, my boy," he said, seizing his friend by the arm. "I have been the sacrificial lamb long enough, and now my angelic aunt must have some one else to turn on the spit. She wants to marry me off at once, and she thinks you're a veritable brigand, but, God be praised, she won't come to Rodeck. I've made that my special care."
The next moment the two friends were standing before the princess, and Egon presented the latest victim with an amiable smile.
After the princess's abrupt departure, Herr von Wallmoden remained for a few minutes chatting with the little group which the irate lady had deserted. Then, offering his wife his arm, he walked slowly through the long salons, greeting an acquaintance here, or saying a word to a friend there, until they had reached the last of the gaily decked suite which happened to be empty. The tower-room was used generally only as a resting place and a point of observation, from which a very good view of the forest heights could be obtained, but to-day it was richly carpeted and the walls were hung with heavy tapestries, while choice plants were scattered about in artistic groupings and designs, so that the little room was as shaded and picturesque as could be desired, and a rest to both eye and brain, after the glitter and noise and light of the larger ones. The ambassador had judged aright in thinking he would have an uninterrupted moment with his wife, for whom he now drew forward a low chair.
"I must call your attention to the fact, Adelheid," he began in a low, condemnatory tone, "that you were guilty of great imprudence, just now. Your speech to the princess—"
"Was in self-defence," the young wife broke in. "You understood, as well as I, the object of the whole conversation."
"That's as it may be. You have, on your first entrance into society, made an enemy who will make both you and me feel her animosity very keenly as time goes on."
"You!" Adelheid looked at him in surprise. "Will you, the ambassador of a great nation, have anything to fear from a malicious woman, who happens to be related to the ducal house?"
"My child, you do not comprehend," responded her husband, coolly. "An evil-tongued woman can be more dangerous than any political opponent, and Princess Sophie is famed in this respect; even the duchess herself fears her slanderous tongue."
"In that the duchess and I differ—I do not fear her."
"My dear Adelheid," said the ambassador with a superior smile, "that proud movement of the head does you great credit. But at Court, you must learn to do as others do. One cannot give royalty a lesson before too many witnesses, and that is what you did when you spoke of your father's declination of a title of nobility. It was not necessary for you to be so explicit concerning your father's origin."
"Should I have falsified?"
"No, but it was a well known fact—"
"Of which I am proud, as was my father before me."
"You are no longer Adelheid Stahlberg, but the Baroness Wallmoden"—the baron's voice had assumed a sudden sharpness. "And you, yourself, will be forced to admit that when a woman has married into a family of the old nobility, it is hardly fitting for her to sneer at the nobles."
The young wife's lips were drawn in with a bitter expression. Although she had been speaking in a subdued tone, she dropped her voice still lower, as she said now: "Have you forgotten, Herbert, why I gave you my hand?"
"Perhaps you have had cause to regret it?" he said, questioning instead of answering.
"No," said Adelheid with a deep breath.
"I thought you were perfectly contented with the position to which you had attained by marrying me. As for the rest you know I exercised no control over you. I left it to your own free will."
His wife was silent, but the bitter expression was yet on her lips. Wallmoden rose and offered her his arm.
"You must permit me, my child, to help you at times, for you are inexperienced," he said in his wonted polite tone. "I have had every reason to be contented with your tact and discretion, but to-day I thought it necessary to give you a hint. Will you take my arm?"
"I will remain here a few minutes if you please," said Adelheid. "It is so stifling in the saloon."
"As you please. But I must beg you to come back soon, otherwise your absence will be noticed."
He saw that she was vexed and disturbed, but he thought best to take no notice of it. He knew well what was expected from them both in their little world, and felt for both their sakes it was better to educate his wife from the start in those matters which she did not seem to grasp fully.
He left her now, and Adelheid leaned back in her chair and gazed fixedly at the flowering plants which were grouped by her side, but under her breath she whispered with a gasp:
"My own free will. O my God!"
Prince Adelsberg and his friend had, in the meantime, been dismissed, and had made profound bows before the princess as she rose to leave the room. The sharp features of her highness wore an unusually mild expression, and Rojanow was favored with a very gracious smile as she departed.
"Hartmut, I believe you are a witch," said Egon, half aloud. "I have had proof many times that you are irresistible, but this last effort of yours throws all others in shadow. For my gracious aunt to have so prolonged an attack of amiability is unknown in the annals of the family."
"Well, my reception was ungracious enough. Your aunt seemed to think at first that I was a full-fledged brigand."
"But it only took ten minutes to win her smiles and make you a declared favorite. What is it you have about you, old fellow, which wins on every one? It makes one believe in the old fable of the rat-catcher."
The old scornful expression, which effaced all his beauty, swept across Hartmut's face now, as he said contemptuously:
"I understand how to sing to tickle the ears of my hearers. You have to strike the chords according to the taste of your listener, but after you have learned that secret no one can withstand you."
"No one?" repeated Egon, as his eye glanced over the room.
"No, not a single soul, I assure you."
"Oh, you're a pessimist with all your inferences. I only wish I knew where Frau von Wallmoden was, but I don't see her in any place."
"His excellency was reading her a little sermon on her undiplomatic utterances in the other room a short time ago."
"Why, did you hear what she said?" asked Egon, surprised.
"Certainly, I was standing by the door."
"Well, I'm glad enough my worshipful aunt was given a snub, and wasn't she furious over it, though; but do you believe that the ambassador would take his wife to task for—hush, here he is himself."
Yes, there was Baron von Wallmoden himself, true enough, and just in front of them as they came from an adjoining room.
It was impossible to avoid a meeting now, and the young prince, who had no premonition that any secret relations existed between the two, hastened to present them.
"Permit me, your excellency, to atone for the neglect of which I was guilty on the mountain the other day, but my friend had disappeared for the moment when we came down from the Tower. Herr Hartmut Rojanow—Baron von Wallmoden."
The eyes of the two men met, the one with a sharp, contemptuous gaze, the other, equally sharp, but haughty and defiant. The ambassador was too much of a diplomat, however, to be other than the courteous gentleman.
His greeting, though cold, was polite, but he turned at once to the prince to speak, and chatted to that gentleman alone for the minute or two that they stood together.
"His excellency is more of a ramrod than ever to-day," said Egon to his friend as they went on. "Whenever that cold, calculating countenance comes near me I feel frost-bitten and long to fly to the torrid zones."
"I suppose that's why you seek to bask in the rays of that glittering northern light, his wife," said Hartmut with a sneer. "Can you tell me for whom we are searching, in this weary pushing and crowding through these heated rooms?"
"I want to find the head forester," said the prince, irritated at his friend. "I want you to meet him, but you are in one of your bad humors to-day. Perhaps I'll find Schoenau in the arrow-room. I'll go and look at any rate."
He left his friend abruptly, and did indeed set out for the arrow-saloon, where the duke and duchess were, and where he hoped to find Adelheid von Wallmoden. Unhappily for him, just at the entrance of the room, he was once more entrapped by his aunt, who pointed imperiously to a chair by her side. She wanted to hear all there was to be told about the handsome and interesting young Roumanian, who had quite won her heart, she said, and her uneasy nephew was obliged to possess his soul in patience as he answered her many questions.
The noise and the merriment were at their height, as Hartmut now threaded his way alone among the throng. He also sought someone, but he was more fortunate than Prince Egon; casting a fleeting glance into the tower-room, the entrance to which was almost hidden by portieres and exotics, he saw the edge of a white satin train which swept the floor, and in the next second he stood upon the threshold.
Adelheid von Wallmoden still sat on the same spot where her husband had left her. She turned her head slowly now as some one entered.
Suddenly she sat erect, and then returned the young man's deep obeisance with her accustomed icy bow.
"Have I disturbed you, baroness?" he asked. "I fear you sought this room for quiet, and my intrusion was unintentional, I assure you."
"I only sought a cool place; the heat of the larger rooms seems almost suffocating."
"I came for a like reason, but as I have not had an opportunity to greet you before to-day, my dear madame, permit me to do so now." The words sounded very formal. Rojanow had come a step nearer as he spoke, but he still remained at a respectful distance. No movement of hers since he entered had escaped him, and a singular smile lay in his eyes as he looked steadily at the young wife.
She had made a motion as if to rise and depart, but the thought that such a sudden course could only be constructed into flight, restrained her in time. So she leaned back in her chair again and bent over a branch of great purple-red camelias.
As she plucked a blossom, she answered his question carelessly enough, but her face had assumed the same look of determination and force which it wore the morning on which she stood for a second in the middle of the forest brook. Then she had stepped knee deep into the water rather than accept his services. Here in the castle, with noise and motion on all sides, there were no such obstacles to be overcome, and now the same man, with his dark glance, stood opposite her, and never took his eyes off her face.
"Will you remain much longer at Rodeck?" she asked, with the conventional tone and manner usually accorded a chance acquaintance.
"Probably for a few weeks yet. As long as the duke is at Fuerstenstein, Prince Adelsberg will not be apt to desert his hunting lodge. Later I intend accompanying him to the capital."
"And there we shall hear of you as a poet, I presume?"
"Of me, my dear baroness?"
"I heard so at least, from the prince."
"O, that is only one of Egon's ideas," said Hartmut, lightly. "He has taken it into his head to have my 'Arivana' brought out on the stage."
"'Arivana?' A singular title."
"It is an oriental name taken from an Indian legend, but its poetical witchery made such an impression upon me that I could not resist the temptation to create a drama from it."
"And the heroine of this drama, is she called 'Arivana?'" asked the baroness.
"No, that is only the name of a sacred place of refuge during the middle ages, upon which the scene of the drama was laid. The heroine's name is—Ada."
Rojanow spoke the name half-aloud, with a certain hesitation, and gave her a triumphant glance as he saw the same lowering of the head over the flowers as when he first spoke; he came a few steps nearer now while he continued:
"I heard the name for the first time on Indian ground, and it had for me a strangely sweet sound, so I adopted it for my character, and now I learn here that it is, in this country, but the abbreviation of a German name."
"Of Adelheid—yes. I was always called Ada in my father's house. But it is not at all remarkable that the same sounds are repeated in different languages."
The words were spoken coldly, but the speaker did not raise her eyes from the flowers with which her hand played.