"Not at all," agreed Hartmut. "It has often been a surprise to me to hear the same fable repeated in different countries over and over again. The coloring is different, to be sure, but the passion, the woe, the happiness of our human race is alike in them all."
Adelheid shrugged her shoulders.
"I won't dispute over the matter with a poet, but doubt it, notwithstanding. I think our German legends wear a different countenance from the dreamy tales of India."
"Perhaps, but when you study them deeply, you will discover the same features in both. These common features are manifest in the legend of 'Arivana,' at least. The principal character is that of a young priest who has consecrated himself, body and soul, to the service of his divinity, to the holy fire, but in time he is mastered by an earthly love with all its glow and passion, till his priestly vows dissolve in its consuming flame."
He stood opposite her, quietly and respectfully, but his voice had an odd, covert sound, as if something of deeper significance were hidden beneath this story. Frau von Wallmoden looked up at him suddenly, and said, gazing earnestly into his face:
"The end is death, as in all these legends. The knowledge of the broken vows comes to light and the guilty ones are offered as a sacrifice to an enraged deity—the priest perishes in the flames with the woman whom he loves."
There was a second's pause after the last words were spoken, then Adelheid rose abruptly; she would end this conversation at once.
"You are right; no doubt the legends do resemble ours; it is only the old story of sin and atonement."
"Do you call that sin, my dear lady?" Hartmut dropped suddenly the more formal madame or baroness. "Men call it sin and punish it accordingly, without any premonition that such a punishment will lead to perfect happiness. To pass away in a flame of fire after one has enjoyed the highest earthly joys, and is yet surrounded by them in death. Ah! that is to die like a god—far better such a death than a long, stupid, humdrum existence. Eternal, undying love rises like a flaming brand to the heavens above, in defiance of mankind's sentence—do you not think such an ending is enviable?"
Adelheid's face was pale, but her voice was as steady and cool as ever, as she answered:
"No, nothing is enviable but death for a high and holy duty. One can forgive sin, but can never admire it."
Hartmut bit his lips and gave the slender, white robed figure who stood near him a threatening glance.
"Ah, what a hard sentence to meet my drama at the outset, for I have expended all my strength in transfiguring just such love and death. What if the world's judgment is like yours—I beg your pardon, madame."
He crossed to the divan upon which she had been sitting, where her fan and the camelia blossom yet lay.
"I thank you," said Adelheid, extending her hand for them, but he only handed her the fan.
"I beg your pardon—I wrote my 'Arivana' upon the veranda of a little Indian house where these lovely flowers were gleaming through the dark foliage on all sides, and to-day they greet me here again in the cold north. May I not keep this blossom?"
Adelheid made a little impatient motion.
"No; for what reason?"
"For what reason? As a reminder of the harsh sentence which my poem has received from the lips of a woman who bears the same name as my heroine. There were many white blossoms, baroness, but you broke off unconsciously the deep purple-red. Poets are superstitious above all things. Let me keep this as a token that my work may yet find favor in your eyes, when you learn to know it. You do not know how much it contains."
"Herr Rojanow, I—"
It was apparent to him, both from her voice and manner, that she meant to refuse his petition, so he interrupted her in a subdued, but passionate tone:
"What is a single blossom to you which you plucked heedlessly and cast aside so carelessly? To me—baroness, as a favor—I beg you, baroness."
He stood close by her side. The witchery of voice and eye which had so often overcome all obstacles in his boyhood's days, and which had then been exercised, unconsciously, had become a great power in these later years, and one which he knew how to use only too well.
His voice had again that soft, persuasive tone which fell on her ear like music, and his eyes, those dark, fathomless eyes, were fixed on the young wife with a half melancholy, half pleading expression. Adelheid's face had grown very white now, but she did not answer.
"Please," he repeated, in a lower, more pleading tone, as he pressed his lips to the purple-red blossom; but this last motion seemed to break the spell. Adelheid reached her hand out suddenly.
"I must insist upon your giving me my flower, Herr Rojanow. It is for my husband."
"Indeed, then, I beg your pardon, madame."
He held out the flower to her with a profound bow, and she took it with a scarcely perceptible motion of the head, then the heavy white train of her robe rustled past him—he was alone.
All in vain! Nothing affected this icy nature. Hartmut stamped his foot in a fury. Scarcely fifteen minutes ago he had asserted to Prince Egon that he could sing to please the ear of any woman. Now he had sung again that song which never before had failed him, and all to no purpose. But this proud, arrogant man could not believe that the game which he so often won had been lost this time, and in this knowledge lay his determination to win yet at all hazards.
And should it only remain a game? He had not called himself to account as yet, but in the intense interest which this beautiful woman excited within him, there was a strong mixture of hate. There had been an antagonistic feeling on that first day in the wood, and since then he had been repelled and attracted by turns; it was just that which spurred him on.
Love, the holy, pure significance of that word, was a stranger to the heart of Zalika's son. He had learned much that was harmful at the side of his mother, who had made such a shameless spectacle of her own husband's love; and the many women who were her companions and associates in her Roumanian home, but echoed her sentiments concerning love and fidelity. Their later life, unstable and adventurous, with no ground under their feet, had ruined altogether all ideals of happiness and love in the young man's breast; he learned contempt before he learned love, and now he received his well-deserved humiliation as an insult.
"You keep me at bay now," he murmured. "You are battling against yourself. I have felt it and seen it, but in such a battle the man is always victor."
A slight rustle of a curtain made him turn round. It was the ambassador in search of his wife, whom he thought still here; he stood on the threshold and threw a hasty glance around the room, when he caught sight of Hartmut. He stopped and hesitated for a moment, then he said half aloud:
"I would like to speak to you alone for a few minutes."
"I am at your service."
Wallmoden stepped forward into the room now, but he took up his position so that he could keep his eye on the entrance.
It was scarcely necessary, for the doors into the dining-hall were just opened, and the room adjoining the tower-chamber was deserted.
"I am surprised to see you here," began the ambassador, in the subdued, but severely cold tone which he had used the day of their first meeting at Hochberg, and it brought the blood to the younger man's brow to-day, as it had done then. He straightened himself proudly as he answered:
"And why, your Excellency?"
"That question is superfluous; in any case I did not imagine that I should be forced into the position of being presented to you by Prince Adelsberg."
"It was I who was forced," answered Hartmut, sharply and promptly. "I do not suppose you consider me an intruder? You know full well that I have a right to be here."
"Hartmut von Falkenried certainly had a right—but all that is changed."
"Herr von Wallmoden!"
"Pardon me, but not so loud," interrupted the ambassador. "We can be heard here easily, and you would certainly not like strange ears to hear the name which I have just spoken."
"I am bearing my mother's name at present, to which I have certainly a right. When I laid aside the other, it was out of respect—"
"To your father," interrupted Wallmoden, impressively.
That was an admonition which Hartmut found hard to bear. "Yes," he answered curtly, "and I confess it would be painful to me if I should be forced to mention—"
"And with reason; your role here would, in that event, be played to the end."
Rojanow stepped close to the ambassador with an angry movement, as he retorted:
"You are the friend of my father's youth, Herr von Wallmoden, and I, in my boyhood days, called you uncle. But you forget that I am no longer the boy whom you could order about and censure at pleasure. The man looks on all that as an insult."
"I purpose neither to insult you, nor to make mention of former associations which have no longer any existence for either of us," said the ambassador. "I sought this interview in order that I might explain to you that it is not possible for me, in my official position, to see you in constant intercourse with the Court and keep silence. It will be my duty to explain all to the duke."
"Explain all? All what?"
"Many things about which none of the people here, not even your friend Prince Adelsberg, know. Listen to me, Herr Rojanow. I will not do this except it is forced upon me, for I have an old and dear friend to spare. I know how a certain occurrence struck him down ten years ago, an occurrence which is buried and forgotten these many years in our country now; but if all this was brought up and gossiped over again—Colonel Falkenried would die."
Hartmut paled perceptibly, and the scornful expression faded from his lips.
"He would die!" the words rang in his ears. He knew only too well how true they were, and for the moment all defiance died within him.
"It is to my father that I am answerable, at any rate," he responded, controlling his voice with an effort. "To him alone and to no other."
"He will scarcely call you to account—his son is dead to him. But we can let that rest. I speak especially of those later years which your mother and you spent in Rome and Paris, where you lived at a glittering pace, in spite of the fact that the Roumanian estate had been sold under the hammer."
"You seem to know all the particulars," retorted Rojanow, highly indignant now. "We were not aware that we were under such vigilant inspection. As to our manner of life, we lived as best pleased ourselves, upon the remnant of the fortune which was saved from the wreck."
"There was nothing saved, the whole fortune was squandered, even to the last heller."
"That is not true," interrupted Hartmut stormily.
"It is true. Don't you think I know more about it than you?" The ambassador's voice was sharp and sneering now. "It is very possible that Frau Rojanow did not consider it necessary to explain to her son the means by which she obtained her gold; better to leave him in ignorance. I know from whence the money came—if she did not tell you, so much the better for you."
"Have a care, sir, about insulting my mother," the young man was beside himself now, "or I may forget your gray hairs, and demand satisfaction."
"For what? For an assertion which I can back with indisputable proof at any moment? Let us put aside all such mad folly and say no more on that subject. She was your mother and she is dead, so her past shall be a dead letter to us. I have only this one question to put to you, whether you will, after this conversation, remain here and become one of the circle which Prince Adelsberg has opened for you?"
Hartmut had become deadly pale at the allusion made to his mother, and the source from which she had obtained money, and the first stare with which he gazed at the speaker showed only too clearly that he had no knowledge of anything disreputable, but at the last question he began to recover himself. He cast an almost insane glance at his enemy, and a wild determination sounded in his voice as he answered:
"Yes, Herr Wallmoden, I shall remain."
The ambassador had not expected this answer; he had thought after his conversation the matter would be ended.
He evinced no surprise, however, and said:
"Really? So you decide to remain? You are accustomed to play high, and expect to do it here? We will have to interfere with that, I fear. Better think it well over before you decide finally."
With that he turned quickly on his heel and left the room, just in time to meet the head forester at its entrance.
"Where have you been hiding yourself, Herbert?" Schoenau asked impatiently. "I have been searching the whole place for you."
"I went to the tower-chamber in search of my wife."
"She's in the dining-room with all the rest of the world, but you have been missed already. Come, it is time that we got something to eat."
With which the head forester took hold of his brother-in-law's arm and led him away, after his usual jolly manner.
Hartmut stood where von Wallmoden had left him. His breath came fast and thick, and he was almost stifled with the feelings of shame, and hate, and revolt, which surged within him. The ambassador's significant speeches had crushed him utterly, although he had hardly grasped their full meaning. They tore aside the veil with which he, half unconsciously, half purposely, had enveloped himself. He had believed implicitly what his mother told him concerning the portion of their fortune which was saved to them, and which enabled them to live and travel. But there were times when he had chosen to close his eyes rather than enter into investigations.
When his mother's hand had torn him so suddenly from his father's side, when after the hard discipline of obedience and duty, he had been plunged into a life of boundless freedom, he had allowed himself an unchecked rein, having no one to whom to account for his actions. He was too young for reflection or judgment, and later—but it was too late for him then, and habit had woven a net about him which could not be destroyed. Now for the first time it was shown him clearly and definitely what that life was which he had led so long; the life of an adventurer, and as an adventurer he was to be expelled from society.
But above all the shame was the sense of ignominy and defeat, the feeling of intense hatred toward the man who had told him the truth. That unholy heritage from his mother, the hot, wild, passionate blood, which had proven so fatal to the boy, welled up like a stream of fire in the man's breast and extinguished all feeling but that of revenge. Hartmut's handsome features were still disfigured with passion and anger, when, with compressed lips, he finally left the tower room.
He knew and felt but one thing, that he must have revenge, revenge at any price.
It was late when the guests arose from the table. The duke and duchess retired soon after, and carriage after carriage ascended the castle hill, and descended soon after with its full complement of departing guests; lights were extinguished, and bolts and bars were drawn, and Fuerstenstein was soon enveloped in silence and darkness.
From the rooms occupied by Baron von Wallmoden and his wife lights were still shining. Adelheid stood at the window peering into the darkness. She yet wore her rich court gown, and as she leaned her head against the pane, lost in thought, her attitude was one of weariness and languor.
Wallmoden sat at his writing table, reading hastily the dispatches and letters which had arrived during the day. One or two seemed to contain matter of importance, for he did not place them with the pile which were to be answered or destroyed early in the morning, but took up his pen and made a check across them in red ink; then he arose and crossed the room to his wife.
"This comes unexpectedly," he said. "I'll have to go to Berlin at once."
Adelheid turned round surprised.
"This is very sudden."
"Yes, I had hoped to settle the matter by letter, but the minister desires a personal conference. I must take my leave of the duke early in the morning, and set off at once. I'll be away about eight days, I presume."
In the shadow of the curtain Adelheid's face could not be seen clearly, but one could fancy a sigh of relief escaped her, as if her heart was to be lightened of a burden.
"At what hour do we start?" she asked quickly. "I must give my maid her orders at once."
"We? It's a purely business affair, and I am going alone."
"But that won't prevent my accompanying you!"
"There would be no object in that. I'll only be away a week or two."
"But I—I'd like to see Berlin again."
"What a whim!" her husband answered, shrugging his shoulders. "I'll have so many claims upon my time that I could not have you with me."
The young wife had stepped to the table, and stood in the glare of the lamp. She was very pale now, and her voice had a pleading sound as she said:
"Very well, then, I will go home. But it is not possible for me to remain at Fuerstenstein alone, without you."
"Alone!" The ambassador gave her a puzzled look. "You remain with our kinsfolk whose guests we are. Since when have you become so anxious for protection? That is a peculiarity which I had never observed in you until now. I don't understand you, Adelheid; it's a most singular caprice which you have taken into your head, this desire to accompany me."
"Well, call it a caprice. But let me go with you, Herbert—please let me go."
She laid her hand beseechingly on his arm, and her eyes had an intense and anxious expression, as she looked at her husband. There was a superior, almost sneering smile on his lips, as he answered her:
"Now I understand it. The scene with the princess was so unpleasant to you that you dread other skirmishes of a like nature. You must steel yourself against such sensitiveness, my child; you should see that for this very reason, it is imperative for you to remain. At court every word, every glance signifies, and your sudden departure might give rise to any kind of a report. You must hold your ground from the very start at court, or you will find your difficulties increase rather than diminish."
The wife's hand dropped slowly from her husband's arm, and her eyes sank to the ground, as he refused the first request she had preferred since their married life of only a few short months.
"Stand my ground?" she repeated, in a low voice. "That I shall ever do, but I hoped you would be at my side."
"That is, for the moment, not possible, as you see. As for the rest, you have shown to-day that you know how to defend yourself. And I have no doubt that the hint which I found it necessary to give you, will bear fruit, and that you will, in future, be guarded in your answers. At any rate, you must stay here until I return."
Adelheid was silent. She saw that nothing was to be gained by further speech. Wallmoden stepped back to the writing-table and put aside his papers, and locked his drawers with his usual precision; then he took up the two letters, with their red checks, and folded them together.
"One thing more, Adelheid," he said, casually, "Prince Adelsberg was most noticeable in his attentions to you to-day; he was always near you."
"Do you wish me to keep him at a distance?" she asked, indifferently.
"No, indeed, only keep him within bounds, so that there will be no unnecessary talk. No harm will come to you from being in his company. We do not stand on the same plane as the burgers, and it would be ludicrous for me, in my position, to enact the jealous husband toward every man who pays my wife attention. I leave all that to your discretion; I have unbounded faith in your tact."
This sounded very reasonable, very temperate, and above all, very indifferent. No one could accuse Herr von Wallmoden of jealousy towards the young prince, whose undisguised admiration caused him no second thought; and, as he had just said, he had unbounded faith in his wife's tact.
"I will send these telegrams myself," he said. "Since the duke's arrival there's a telegraph office in the castle. You should ring for your maid, my child; you look tired and worn—good-night."
With that he left her, but Adelheid did not follow his advice. She returned once more to the window, and a bitter, pained expression lay on her face. She had never before felt so keenly that she was to her husband nothing more than a glittering bauble, to be exhibited by him to prove how wisely he had chosen a wife; she was to be treated with the greatest courtesy and politeness, because a princely fortune had been received from her hand; but as a woman she was to be refused the most trifling request with equal courtesy, because it did not suit his pleasure.
The night was dark, and the low clouds which surrounded the forest heights were black and heavy; only here and there, where a break occurred, was a star to be seen glimmering far and faint in the distant heavens. The face which peered out into the darkness had not the proud, cold look which the world knew, but a disturbed, anxious expression, lacking altogether that repose which was its chief characteristic at most times.
The wife had both hands pressed against her breast, as if in pain. She would have flown from that dark power which she felt was upon her. She had sought her husband's protection, had plead for it—in vain. He went and left her alone, and the other remained, with his dark, demoniacal eyes, with his voice and tones, which exercised such a singular, irresistible influence over her.
October had come. It was autumn's reign. The leaves of the trees were richly colored with deep and varied hues. The landscape lay enveloped morning and evening in fog and mist, and the nights brought with them the hoar-frost, but the days, for the most part, were sunny and delightful.
Since the gay evening on which the whole country round had assembled, there had been no special festivities at Fuerstenstein; all interest had centered in the hunt, which was, of course, of paramount importance to the men.
The duke, at his wife's instance, decided to have no other great or noisy entertainment at the castle. The duchess liked a change of faces in their little circle, but she courted the quiet and freedom from restraint which her mountain home brought her. There were frequent arrivals and various excursions, both by horse and on foot, through the mountain forest, and a goodly number always met around the princely board at night to discuss the pleasures and excitements of the day.
Adelheid von Wallmoden belonged, naturally, to this exclusive circle. The duchess, who had learned through some source, of her sister-in-law's insulting attitude toward the young wife, had been more amiable than ever, and had managed to keep Baroness von Wallmoden near herself whenever it was possible; the duke also, anxious to show all attention to the Prussian ambassador, seconded his wife's endeavors with zest.
Wallmoden was still in Berlin, though over two weeks had elapsed since he left the castle, and he had not yet been able to write definitely as to the date of his return.
One of the most frequent guests at Fuerstenstein was Prince Egon Adelsberg, who was an acknowledged favorite among his princely kinsfolk, and his friend Rojanow was always included in the invitations sent to Rodeck. The prince's prophesies had proven true; Hartmut had descended upon them like a brilliant meteor. All eyes were turned upon him with admiration and wonder, and it pleased his new associates to have him soar above the old fashioned usages and customs of their monotonous Court life. He had read his 'Arivana' to the duchess at her request, and had scored a decided success. The duke had promised him that his drama should be brought out at the Court theatre, and the princess Sophie had made a special point of taking the young man under her wing.
The princely household followed, as usual, in the wake of their master, but willingly enough in this instance, for Hartmut won friends on all sides by his cordiality, good temper, and grace of manner and person.
The prince's hunting wagon stood before the castle of Rodeck. It was early in the day and the faint mist which yet hung over the hills concealed a bright, warm sun. Egon stepped out on the terrace dressed for the hunt, closely followed by the old steward, to whom he was speaking.
"So you want to see the hunt, too, do you?" he asked. "Of course, if there's anything to see, Peter Stadinger must see it. My valet has asked permission also. For that matter I believe all the inhabitants of the forest have turned out to-day with their whole families to go to the hunting grounds."
"Yes, your highness, they don't often have an opportunity to see such a sight," replied Stadinger. "The great Court hunts seldom take place in our woods. There's hunting enough around here to be sure, but then you never ask any ladies to Rodeck, and the ladies—"
"Are a great bore," interrupted the prince. "That's my opinion; but what are you prating about? You are generally down on the women, and unless they are over eighty don't want to see one of them around the place. Are you going back to your young and giddy days?"
"I meant the court ladies, your highness," said Stadinger impressively.
"'The court ladies,' can honor me with their company for a walk, but I'll never invite any of them to any hunt of mine, for I'm still a young bachelor."
"And why is it that your highness is still a bachelor?" responded the old servant reprovingly.
"Man alive, I do believe you are trying to get me married, like my old—like all the rest of the world. Don't waste any thought or time on me, for I won't marry."
"Your highness is wrong," remonstrated old Stadinger, who always gave his master the title once at least in each sentence, for he thought if he did have to read the prince a lecture every now and then, he must show him some respect while doing it, "and it is unchristian, too, for the marriage relation is a holy state in which it is well to live; your father, blessed be his memory, married—and so did I."
"Of course, and so did you. Yes, you are the grandfather of that lovely girl, Zena, whom you sent away in such shameless haste. By the way, when is Zena coming back?"
The steward appeared not to hear the question, but returned obstinately to his theme.
"Her highness, the duchess, and princess Sophie, are very anxious to see you married. Your highness should think it well over."
"Well, that's enough of your fatherly advice for one day. And it's no business of princess Sophie. By the way, as you are going to Bucheneck, where the hunt meets to-day, it's very possible that you will be seen and spoken to by some of the court."
"Very possible, your highness," agreed the steward, complacently. "Her grace often honors me with a little conversation, for she recognizes me as the oldest servant of a princely house."
"Well, if the princess should inquire by chance about the snakes and beasts of prey which I brought with me from my travels, you can tell her that I'm going to have them sent to one of my other castles."
"That is not at all necessary, your highness," replied the steward. "Your gracious aunt has obtained information about everything."
"Information? About what? Perhaps you have given it."
"I was questioned the other day at Fuerstenstein. Princess Sophie was just returning from a walk and beckoned me to her to ask me a few questions."
"The deuce she did!" muttered the prince, who saw mischief. "And what answers did you give her?"
"'Your grace need feel no uneasiness,' I said, 'of living animals we have only monkeys and parrots at Rodeck, and there's never been a snake about the place; a sea serpent was coming, but it died on the way, and the elephants broke loose before they were shipped at all, and went back to their palm groves—so his highness told me. As to tigers, we have two, but they are stuffed, and we've only the skin of a lion in the large hall, so your grace can see that no harm will come from them.'"
"No, but enough will come from your tattle," said the prince, angrily. "And the princess, what did she say to it all?"
"Her grace only smiled and then asked me about the women employed here at Rodeck, and if all the girls in the region were not here. But I said," and Stadinger threw his head back proudly, "'all the women at the castle, your grace, were engaged by me. They are all industrious and honest; I have seen to that; but his highness ran away when he caught sight of them, and Herr Rojanow was more put out than the prince even, so the gentlemen never paid but one visit to the kitchen.' Her grace was very kind and gracious to me, and took leave of me very well contented, I could see that."
"And I'd be very well contented to send you to the devil, you old fool. To spoil it all with your long tongue," exclaimed the prince, furious now.
The old man, who thought he had done everything for the best, looked at his young master in perplexity.
"But I only told the truth, your highness."
"But the truth's not to be spoken at all times."
"Oh, I did not know that."
"Stadinger, you have a bad habit of answering back—perhaps you also told the princess that Zena had been in the city for several weeks?"
"Yes, your highness, she asked me about my granddaughter, particularly."
"What's the trouble with Stadinger now?" asked Hartmut, who came out at this moment, also attired for the day's sport, and who had caught the last few words.
"Oh, he's been making a first class fool of himself, that's all," explained the exasperated prince. The oldest servant of a princely house could not allow such an insult to pass.
"I beg your highness's pardon. I have not been making a fool of myself at all."
"Perhaps you believe it is I who have been doing it?"
Stadinger looked his young master well over and then replied, discreetly:
"I do not know, your highness—but it might be so."
"You're an old bear," cried the prince sharply.
"The whole forest knows that, your highness."
"Come on, Hartmut, there's nothing to be gained from this old ghost of the woods," said Egon half angry, half laughing. "First you place me in all sorts of embarrassments, and then you defend yourself by giving me a lecture."
With that he went off with Rojanow to the carriage. Stadinger remained standing in a respectful attitude, for he never meant to be rebuked for lack of respect to "his highness." It never occurred to him to yield an inch of ground; that was for Prince Egon to do, but not for Peter Stadinger.
Egon was almost of this opinion himself. He related what had occurred to Hartmut as they drove along, and with a comical despair he concluded:
"Now can you imagine what kind of a reception that most worshipful aunt of mine will give me? She evidently suspected that I wanted to keep her away from Rodeck. Now my morals are saved in her eyes, but at the expense of my love of truth. Hartmut, you must do me a favor; you must be my lightning rod. Expend all your power of fascination upon that imperious kinswoman of mine. Dedicate a poem to her if necessary, but at least shield me from the first fierce flashes of her anger."
"Well, I should have thought you weather-proof in that particular by now," said Rojanow smiling. "You must have had cause for forgiveness before this for such enormities. The duchess and the other ladies will be on horseback to-day, will they not?"
"Certainly; they could see nothing from the carriages. By the way, did you know that Frau von Wallmoden was an accomplished horse woman? I met her day before yesterday returning from a ride with her brother-in-law, the head forester."
"Ah, then we'll know where to find Prince Adelsberg to-day."
Egon, who had been leaning back comfortably, sat erect now, and said, as he gave his friend a searching look:
"Not so spitefully, I beg of you. You are not often in the company of the lady in question, I grant that, and you bear yourself as if you were only a looker-on at others, but I know you well enough to understand that you and I are very much of the same opinion concerning her, nevertheless."
"Well, and if we are—would you consider it a breach of friendship on my part?"
"Not in this instance. For the object is unattainable by either of us."
"Unattainable?" an ironical smile played around Rojanow's lips.
"Yes, Hartmut," said the young prince, half in earnest, half in jest, "the lovely, cold northern light, as you have named her, remains true to its nature. It gleams on the horizon distant and unapproachable, and the icy sea above which it shines is not to be broken through. The lady has no heart. She is free from every feeling of passion, and that is what gives her her enviable security. Here you must acknowledge all your influence, all your boasted powers are frustrated by that icy breath; you are chilled through, and so you keep your distance."
Hartmut was silent. He was thinking of the moment in the tower room when he had begged for the bright blossom. She had refused him, but no icy breath had enveloped the young wife while she stood trembling beneath his pleading glance and words. He had seen her daily since then, but had seldom gone near her, but he knew that now, as before, she was under his influence.
"But, in spite of it all, I cannot tear myself loose from this foolish fascination," Egon went on in a dreamy tone. "It always seems to me that the ice and snow will disappear as if by magic, and warmth and light burst out in full bloom in their stead. If Adelheid von Wallmoden were still free—I believe I'd try the experiment."
Rojanow, who had been lost in thought as he gazed steadily into the mist which yet shrouded the hills, turned around suddenly and violently now.
"What experiment? Do you mean by that, you'd offer her your hand?"
"That thought seems to excite you greatly," said the prince, laughing out loud. "Yes, that's precisely what I mean. I have no such prejudice against trade as my respected aunt, who would go into convulsions over the very thought, and even you don't seem to take to the idea any too kindly. Well, you can both calm yourselves, his excellency her husband, has already secured the prize, and he'll never change her into a creature of warmth and light with those tiresome diplomatic speeches of his—but the man is happy; he has had no end of good luck."
"Call no man happy until his death," said Hartmut, half-aloud.
"A very wise remark, only not quite original," answered Egon. "Do you know that at times you have a look in your eyes which is positively alarming, like a demon. Forgive my saying so, but you looked this moment as if you were one."
Hartmut did not answer.
They were just turning from the forest into the broad road, and Fuerstenstein, with its ducal flag flapping gaily in the morning wind, was plainly visible on its wooded height.
Half an hour later, their carriage rolled along the broad graveled carriage-way, where all was life and bustle. Every servant of the household was stirring; carriages and saddle horses were standing ready for the start, and nearly all those invited to join the hunt had arrived.
As the gay throng started on their way, the sun suddenly burst forth through the mist, and as it shone down on the glittering cavalcade just leaving the castle, it made a brilliant and impressive picture.
The duke and duchess rode at the head, closely followed by their numerous suite, and then came the many guests. All the younger women were on horseback, and the whole party were in full hunting costume.
Away they rode in the clear sunlight of a bright autumn morning. Over the hills and meadows and through the woods. Shots were fired on every side, and the flying deer broke through the thicket and across the clearing, while the whole hunting park resounded with the din of the sport.
The whole corps of foresters had been summoned by the head forester, who saw to it that no arrangements were lacking to make the day a success. He felt that this was peculiarly his affair, and that no mishaps of any sort should occur.
They arrived about midday at Bucheneck, a small hunting lodge belonging to the duke, which lay in the center of the forest, and which could offer shelter in case of any unfavorable change in the weather. To-day no such precaution seemed necessary, as the weather was glorious, only somewhat too warm for the season. The sun beat down almost too fiercely, as they took their breakfast in the open air.
With that exception, everything was a success, and the crowd which moved hither and thither over the broad, green meadow, near which Bucheneck lay, were in high spirits. The duke, who had handled his fowling piece with more than usual skill, was in the best of humors; the duchess chatted gaily with the ladies, and the head forester fairly beamed with pleasure, for the prince had congratulated him warmly upon his faculty for doing perfectly all he undertook. Frau von Wallmoden, who kept near the duchess, was the object of much attention; she was unquestionably the most beautiful woman there; the others needed for the most part rich toilettes and glittering gems to set off their beauty. Here in the clear light of the midday sun, clad in dark riding habits, which permitted neither color nor adornment, many paled who were at other times very attractive in appearance, but Frau von Wallmoden, with her slender figure and erect bearing, which seemed especially suited to the saddle, her clear skin, large, earnest eyes and wealth of blonde hair so simply coiled, was a picture at which to gaze with unmitigated pleasure. In short, the "northern light," as she was now commonly called at court, the prince having whispered the name, was the admired of all beholders, all the more so when it became known that the cold, statuesque beauty was soon to desert them.
Frau von Wallmoden had received a letter from her husband yesterday, stating that his diplomatic business was ended, but that affairs in North Germany connected with the Stahlberg manufactories would detain him for some time longer. It was whispered that there were to be many important changes, great improvements were to be introduced, and in all this Baron von Wallmoden as executor and guardian of the only son, would have a decisive voice. The length of his absence from the South Germany court would necessarily be uncertain, so he had asked his government for an extended leave, which had been granted, and had announced all this to the duke. He had written his wife at the same time, leaving her free to remain at Fuerstenstein, or to join him at once and go with him to her old home to see her brother again; now, after two weeks, if she chose to leave, no "misconstruction" could be placed upon her departure. Adelheid had chosen without hesitation; she had announced to the duchess that she would leave on the following day.
Princess Sophie and her sister, together with some of the older ladies, had driven to Bucheneck in carriages, and the Princess Sophie's first anxiety had been to get hold of her nephew. But so far Prince Egon had managed to avoid her. He had been everywhere but in the neighborhood of his deceived aunt, until at last, losing all patience, she ordered a gentleman of the Court to bring Prince Adelsberg to her at once. This order was imperative, and Egon did not dare disobey it, but he took the precaution of having his "lightning rod" with him to get the first shock. Hartmut was by his side when he presented himself before the princess.
"Well, Egon, it's a great privilege to see your face at all to-day," were the first words. "You are in demand on all sides, it seems."
"But I am always at the service of my beloved aunt," Egon declared. His amiability was of no use to him on this occasion, however; the princess measured him with anything but a conciliatory glance.
"Whenever your knightly services are not needed in the interest of Frau von Wallmoden. You will have the opportunity of exhibiting a glittering example of chivalry and courage, when her husband comes back. You will learn to know and appreciate him better then."
"I appreciate him very highly now, as a man, as a diplomat and as 'his excellency.' Your grace must surely believe that."
"I believe you absolutely, Egon. Your love of truth is one of the verities upon which I pin my faith," said the lady, with biting irony. "For that very reason I was pleased to have the opportunity of a little talk with old Stadinger the other day. He's not so rusty after all, for his years."
"Poor fellow, he suffers greatly from weakness of memory," the prince hastened to assure her. "Stadinger forgets nearly everything—don't you know, Hartmut? What he declares most earnestly one day, is entirely forgotten on the next."
"I found, on the contrary, that his memory was very fresh; above all, this faithful old servant of your house is trustworthy, circumspect—"
"And rude," interrupted Egon, sighing. "You can have no idea of the incivility in which old Peter Stadinger's whole nature is steeped. He tyrannizes most terribly over Herr Rojanow and myself. I have thought seriously of putting him out of the way."
It is hardly necessary to say he had not thought of anything of the kind.
Princess Sophie, who was an autocrat, and who dealt most severely with her own servants, was inclined to be very lenient in this instance.
"You should not think of harming so faithful a creature," she answered. "A man who has served three generations of your race can be forgiven for slight eccentricities, especially when one thinks of the pleasant life which the two young masters of Rodeck lead him, for we all know they do not court company, but prefer loneliness."
"Ah, yes, loneliness," said Egon with feeling. "It is a great change after our eventful life in the East, and we enjoy it in full measure. I occupy myself principally—"
"With the taming of wild beasts," interrupted the princess, maliciously.
"No, with—with—reminiscences of my travels, which I recount to Hartmut, while he poetises a little, and composes melancholy odes from them. He's writing a little poem now on some reflection he heard your grace make."
The princess turned with a radiant smile to the young poet as she exclaimed:
"And have you really been able to use any nonsense which I may have uttered in a poem, Herr Rojanow?"
"Indeed, I have, your grace, and I am very grateful to you for your idea," replied Hartmut promptly. He had no idea in the world what the talk was all about, but was ready to second whatever his friend might suggest.
"I am delighted to hear it; I adore poetry, and think it the greatest of literary productions."
"You two will agree perfectly as to that," said Egon with admiration. Having accomplished his object, he escaped, leaving his friend to enter into a discussion with the princess, on the relative merits of poets and their inspirations.
The prince once more approached the duchess's little circle, where he was sure to find Frau von Wallmoden, and where he was far from the sound of his malicious aunt's voice.
The breakfast was ended, and the day's sport was about to begin in earnest. But since noon the bright, sunny weather had changed; the heavens were overcast, and there was a fear that one of the sudden, heavy storms which were frequent at this season, might come before the day was over.
The duchess, with some of her friends, had taken their stand upon a height, from which they thought they could obtain the best view, but the hunters took a sudden turn, and the lookers on were forced to follow.
It was at this juncture that a slight accident occurred to Frau von Wallmoden; her saddle girth broke, and she would have had a disagreeable fall had she not had the presence of mind to slip at once from her saddle to the ground. To follow the riders was now an impossibility, for her groom could not have obtained another saddle for her, so she decided to send the servant over to Bucheneck with the horse, and follow on foot, at her leisure.
It was a relief to her that this accident had occurred, it saved her the weary necessity of following the hunt to its close, and permitted her to drop for a time, in this solitude, the mask which she wore before the world, and which was at times becoming almost too heavy for her to carry.
Now that she was alone and unobserved, the cold, proud repose which had been so noticeable since her wedding-day, departed as a shadow, and she was a creature of another world.
Her features, which were an heritage from her father, and betokened a strong and determined nature, had become more rigid in the last few months, but over her face lay a new expression, one of pain and anxiety, as if some secret and hitherto unknown spring had been touched; the blue eyes lost their cold, passionate look, deep shadows lay in them, which told of strife and anguish, and the blonde head sank low, as under some unsupportable burden.
And yet Adelheid breathed more freely than she had done for many a day, at the thought that this was the last one at Fuerstenstein. To-morrow at this time, she would be far away, and distance she prayed would save her from that dark influence against which she had been battling for weeks in vain, when she would no longer see those eyes whose power she dreaded, or hear the voice which bewitched her. When she had flown from the mysterious power which held her, she could conquer and utterly destroy it. God be praised!
The sound of the hunt grew each moment less distinct, and was finally lost altogether in the distance; but in the wood, near the elevation on which she stood, the baroness could hear crunching footsteps which told her she was no longer alone. She turned to go in an opposite direction, but as she turned, a man's form appeared among the trees, and Hartmut Rojanow stood before her.
The meeting was so sudden that Adelheid lost her self-possession.
She drew back as if seeking protection among the trees beneath which she had been standing, and stared at him with the eyes of a wounded animal watching the pursuing hunter.
Rojanow did not appear to perceive this. He bowed and asked hastily: "Are you alone, baroness? The accident was not serious, then?"
"I heard you'd been thrown from your horse!"
"What an exaggeration. My saddle girth broke, and as I saw it in time I jumped to the ground, while the animal stood perfectly still—that was the accident."
"Thank God—I heard something of a plunge, a fall, and as you did not return to the hunting field I—"
He stopped suddenly, for Adelheid's glance showed him she did not believe his statement; he had probably met the groom and had questioned him. Now at last her self-possession returned, and she said very coldly:
"I thank you, Herr Rojanow, but your solicitude was altogether unnecessary. You should have reflected that the duchess would not have allowed me to remain unsought in the wood had so serious an accident occurred. I sent her word I was on my way to Bucheneck."
She would have passed by him now, but as he stepped aside, he said in a low voice:
"My dear madame—I have to beg your pardon."
"My pardon—for what?"
"For the favor for which I plead so hard and injudiciously. I only asked for a flower. Is my crime then so great that your anger must last for weeks?"
Adelheid remained standing, almost without knowing it. She was again under the influence of those eyes and that wonderful voice.
"You are mistaken, Herr Rojanow," she responded. "I am not angry with you."
"No? And yet you assume again that icy tone which is ever yours when I am near you, and now that you have heard my drama you make no sign of approval. You were present when I read it at Fuerstenstein. I heard words of praise on all sides. Your lips alone were closed. From you I received no single word of commendation—will you deny it to me now?"
"I thought we were out for a hunt, to-day," said Adelheid evasively, "and this is neither the time nor the place to discuss poetry."
"We have both left the hunt for to-day; it's on its way now toward the Rodecker heights. Here is the true forest loneliness. Look at the perfect autumn landscape around us. It speaks to the heart of peace and forgiveness. Look at that placid sheet of water, a those heavy storm-laden clouds against the horizon—to me there is more poetry in this than in the crowded salons of Fuerstenstein."
The aspect of the landscape had entirely changed since the morning hours, and a dull, gloomy light had taken the place of the bright, clear sunshine, beneath whose gleams the cavalcade had set forth so merrily.
The endless stretch of forest which lay before them was in its gayest autumn dress, but in the sombre light of the approaching storm, its brilliant leaves looked faded and faint. The deep reds and many tinted yellows of the foliage formed a beautiful picture, but these were the colors of decay and death, and told that the end of their life and bloom was not far distant.
Beneath them lay the little lake, dark and motionless, surrounded by high grasses and swamp reeds. It looked like another lonely sheet of water in the far northland—the Burgsdorf fish pond, and back from this little lake stretched a meadow green and marshy, from which, even now, a faint mist was rising, a mist, which as night came down, would change into a rain, while the will-o'-the-wisp in its endless sport and motion, would play in and out among the long green rushes, now gleaming, now disappearing—thus perfecting that far off picture of long ago.
The air was oppressive and sultry, and the distant clouds were forming deeper and darker heights against the horizon.
Adelheid had not answered Hartmut's question; she stood looking into the distance with face turned away from the man who was watching her, and yet she felt the dark consuming glance resting on her, as she had felt it so many times during the past few weeks.
"You are going away to-morrow, my dear baroness!" he began again. "Who knows when you will return—when I shall see you again. May I not beg for your verdict now, may I not ask whether my words have found favor in Ada's eyes?"
Again her name upon his lips, again that soft, veiled, passionate tone which she so feared, and which rang in her ear like the voice of an enchanter. She felt there was no escape, no chance for flight, she must look the danger in the eye. She turned to her questioner, and her face betrayed that she had decided to fight out the battle—the battle with herself.
"Are you interested in my verdict merely because I bear this name?" she said coldly and proudly. "It stands at the beginning of your poem, which by the way was sent me the other day by some mysterious hand, without name."
"And which you read notwithstanding?" he interrupted triumphantly.
"Yes, and burned."
"Burned?" The old savage expression came over Hartmut's face, that intense angered look which had evoked from Egon's lips the expression, "You look like a demon, Hartmut." The demon of hate and revenge burned once again in his breast as he thought of his recent insults from this woman's husband, insults which must be resented to the full. And yet he loved the woman before him as only Zalika's son could love, with a wild, consuming passion. But in this moment hate gained the mastery.
"My poor pages!" he said with unconcealed bitterness. "They, too, suffered in the flame; they were, perhaps, worthy a better fate."
"Then you should not have sent them to me. I will not and dare not accept such poems."
"You dare not, my dear Baroness? It is the homage of a poet which he lays at a woman's feet, and poets have had that right for all time. It is incumbent on you to accept such an offering."
The words were spoken in such a hot, passionate whisper that Adelheid trembled.
"Perhaps you pay homage to the women of your country in such words. German woman do not understand them."
"But you understand them," said Hartmut fiercely, "and you understand the fire and passion of my 'Arivana,' which rises above all laws and restrictions of this narrow, human life. I saw that on the evening when you turned your back on me, while the rest of the world applauded and came forward with their congratulations. Do not deceive yourself, Ada. When the god-like spark enters two souls, it bursts into flame whether they be of the south or the cold north, and that spark has ignited and burns in us both. All strength and will dies in its fiery breath, it extinguishes all else, nothing remains but that holy, sacred fire which illumines and blesses, even while it consumes. You love me, Ada, I know it; do not try to deceive me, and I love you beyond all power of speech."
He stood before her in the triumph of victory. Never before had his dark beauty shone forth so strongly, never before had his eyes glowed with such intensity, or his face expressed such passion and longing.
And he had spoken the truth.
The woman who leaned against the tree, trembling and deadly pale, loved him; loved him as only a pure, exalted nature can love. This cold, haughty woman, whom the world had named heartless, was swayed and torn by this, the first love of her young life.
She felt within her a passion to which she could no longer blind herself; the fiery breath, with all its fierceness, was blowing down upon her. Now came the crucial-test.
"Leave me at once, Herr Rojanow—this instant," she said. The words had a choked, scarcely audible sound, and they were spoken to a man who was not accustomed to yield when he felt himself the victor. He would have gone closer to her—but something in the young wife's eye, in spite of all, kept him within bounds. But he spoke her name again, and in a tone whose power he best knew:
She shuddered, and made a protesting motion.
"Not that name. For you I am only Adelheid von Wallmoden. I am married; you know that."
"Yes, married to a man who is standing on the threshold of old age; who does not love you, and for whom you could feel no love even if he were younger. What does that cold, calculating diplomat know of love? The Court, his position, his advancement, is all in all to him; his wife is nothing. He exults over the possession of a treasure whom he knows not how to prize, and to whose happiness and peace he gives not a thought."
Adelheid's lips trembled. She knew only too well that all he said was true. She did not answer.
"And what binds you to this man?" continued Rojanow, coming closer. "A word, a single 'yes,' which you have spoken without knowing its significance, without knowing yourself. Shall you permit it to bind you for your whole life? Shall you allow it to make us both miserable for all time? No, Ada, love, that eternal, undying right of the human heart, must have its own. Men prate of guilt, others of destiny. It is destiny which is beckoning us to-day, and we must follow after. A feeble word cannot separate us."
At this moment a lightning flash parted the heavy, distant clouds, and cast a long, narrow, dazzling light over the great forest, and gleamed across Hartmut's face and figure where he stood.
Surely he was his mother's son now. He never looked more like her than at this moment, with his dark, destroying beauty, and his peculiar, passionate, demoniacal glance. Perhaps it was this glance which brought Adelheid to her senses, perhaps it was the something concealed behind all the fire and passion.
"A freely given and freely received word is an oath," she said, slowly, "and who breaks it breaks his honor."
Hartmut breathed hard; keen and cruel like a lightning's flash, came a memory to his soul, the memory of that hour in which he had freely given his word—and broken it.
Adelheid von Wallmoden looked straight at Hartmut now; her face was pale, and her voice trembled as she addressed him again:
"I wish you to cease this persecution, which has been going on for weeks now. You fill me with horror—your eyes, your words, your manner. I feel that everything which emanates from you is false, and no one can love that which is false."
"Ada." There was a tone of passionate entreaty in his voice, but hers had gained in steadfastness now, and she continued earnestly:
"And you do not love me. I have seen for some time that your pursuance of me was from hate, not love. You and your kind have not the capacity for loving."
Rojanow was silent from surprise. Who had taught her to read him so nearly aright?
He had not even acknowledged to himself how closely the love and hate were united in his breast.
"And you say this to the author of Arivana?" he exclaimed with bitterness. "My drama has been called the ode to love, and—"
"Then those who so named it have been deceived by the flimsy veil of oriental legend in which your figures are enveloped, they have seen the Eastern priest with the woman he loves succumb to an iron, inhuman law. Perhaps you are a great poet, perhaps you will astonish the world with your fame, but to me you are something else, for the passion and fiery language of 'Arivana' have taught me something of its creator; of the man who believes in nothing, to whom nothing in the world is holy, neither duty nor pledge, neither manly honor nor womanly virtue; who would drag the highest in the dust for the sport of his passion. I yet believe in duty and honor, believe in myself, and with this belief I bid defiance to the fate which you so triumphantly prophesy will enthrall me. It can drive me to death—but never into your arms."
She stood opposite him, neither trembling nor irresolute. All her secret struggles were over, and with each word one more link of the chain was loosened.
Her eyes met his, full and free; she feared their dark, baneful glance no longer—that mysterious power was broken; she felt it and breathed deeply, like one whose hour of deliverance had come.
Again there was a flash of lightning, noiseless, not followed by any thunder crash, but it seemed to open the heavens to their very depths. In the palpitating light one could see fantastic cloud pictures, forms which seemed to struggle and battle with one another as if borne by force before the storm, and yet the cloud-mountain stood immovable on the far horizon; and just as immovable stood the man upon whose dark countenance the lightning flash revealed a deep pallor.
His eyes had not turned from the young wife's face, but the wild glow within them was extinguished, and his voice had a strange sound as he said:
"And this is the sentence for which I begged. I am then, in your eyes nothing more than a—reprobate?"
"A lost man, perhaps—you have forced me to this avowal."
Hartmut stepped slowly back a few steps.
"Lost," he repeated in bitter tone. "That is probably what you think. You may be at rest, my dear madam. I will never approach you again; one has no desire to hear such words a second time. You stand so proud and firm upon your watch tower of virtue and judge so severely. You have no conception what a wild, desperate life can make of a man who goes through the world without home or family. You are right. I believed in nothing in the heavens above or on the earth beneath—until this hour."
There was something in his tone and in his whole bearing which disarmed Adelheid.
She felt she had no cause to fear a further explosion of passion, and her voice grew milder as she answered:
"I judge no one, but I belong heart and soul to another world, with other laws than yours. I am the daughter of a father whom I dearly loved, who, all his life long, trod but one path, the earnest, rigid path of duty. Upon this he raised himself from poverty and privation to wealth and honor, and he taught his children to follow in the same way, and it is this thought which has been my shield and protection in this hard hour. I could not endure it if I were compelled to lower my eyes before the noble image which my memory holds. Your father is no longer alive?"
There followed a long, oppressive pause. Hartmut did not answer, but his head sank under the words of whose crushing significance the questioner had no knowledge, while his eyes seemed to pierce the ground.
"No," he said at last, slowly.
"But you have the memory of him and of your mother?"
"My mother!" Rojanow broke forth wildly now. "Do not speak of her, in this hour—do not speak to me of my mother."
It was an alarming cry, a mixture of boundless bitterness, with reproach and despair. In it the mother was sentenced by her son, he felt her memory was but a desecration of this hour.
Adelheid did not understand him, she only saw that she had touched on a point which admitted of no discussion, but she also saw that the man who stood before her with his deep, dark glance, with his tone of despair, was another than he who had stood there a quarter of an hour before. It was a dark, fathomless mystery upon which she gazed, but she had no longer any fear.
"Let us end this interview," she said, earnestly. "You will seek no second one, I believe that; but one word more before we part. You are a poet. I have felt that in spite of everything, as I have learned to know your work. But poets are teachers of mankind, and can lead to good or to ill. The wild flame of your 'Arivana' springs from a life which you, yourself, seem to hate. Look yonder," and she pointed to the distant heavens inflamed now with the lightning's play. "Those are also flaming brands, but their beginnings are from above and they point out another way—and now farewell!"
Long after she had disappeared, Hartmut stood on the same spot as if rooted to the ground. He had answered no word, made no comment, only gazed where she had pointed, with fixed, hopeless eyes.
Flash after flash of lightning was now rending the heavens and the whole landscape was enveloped in a lurid glare which reflected itself in that little sheet of water so like the Burgsdorf fish pond; the long reeds and grasses swayed and bent above the water and the mist from the meadow rose above it all.
Under just such long, waving grass the boy had lain long ago and dreamed of the day when he should mount like the falcon from which his race had taken their name, always higher and higher into boundless freedom toward the sun, and now on a similar spot the sentence had fallen upon him like a judgment from heaven, and the will-o'-the-wisp on this lowering autumn night seemed in its spectral flashes to dance over the grave of false hopes and falser aspirations. The falcon had not mounted to the skies, the earth had held him fast. He had felt for some time that the intoxicating cup of freedom and of life which his mother's hand had poured for him was poisoned; there were for him no cherished memories to guard—he dare not venture to think of his father.
Darker and darker grew the heavens with their heavy, storm laden clouds, and wilder and fiercer was the struggle between those giant figures which were riven at every flash only to come together again with greater fury, and brighter and more vivid grew that mighty flame as it mounted higher and higher in the inky firmament.
The winter gaieties had fairly begun in the South-German capital, and in the exclusive court circle the artistic element played a prominent part. The duke, who loved and fostered art, took great pride in being accounted its patron, and strove to make his capital an intellectual and artistic centre. The young poet who had been received so favorably by the court, and whose first great work was soon to be produced at the court theatre, was an object of great interest to the little world. It was an almost unheard of feat for a Roumanian to write in the German tongue, even though it was admitted that, in this instance, the writer had received his education in Germany. Here, as at Rodeck, he was the bosom friend and guest of Prince Adelsberg, and many strange and wonderful stories were related of this friendship. But Hartmut's personality, above all else, created for him an enviable position no matter where he turned. The young, handsome and genial stranger, surrounded as he was with a halo of romance and mystery, had only to appear to have all eyes turned upon him.
Soon after the return of the court to the city, the rehearsals for "Arivana" began, and its author and Prince Egon had the matter in charge.
The latter entered so enthusiastically into the spirit of it all, that he made the lives of the director and theatre attaches miserable with his many and contradictory suggestions concerning the setting of the drama, a matter about which, it is unnecessary to add, they were much more capable of directing than he. At first they could not get an actress to suit them, but they finally secured the services of a young and favorite opera-singer named Marietta Volkmar.
The preparations for the performance, which they had intended originally to bring out late in the season, were now hurried forward with all speed, for royal visitors were expected at court, and the duke was most anxious that this weird and poetical drama with its Indian setting should be presented before them. Unusual honors to the poet were prophesied as a result of this spectacle.
Such was the condition of affairs when Herbert von Wallmoden returned to the court, and he was, naturally, painfully surprised.
He had asked his wife casually, while inquiring for others, whether the prince's Roumanian friend had yet left Fuerstenstein, and she had answered in the negative. He had not expected Hartmut to leave at once, for the latter had declared most positively he would not. But Wallmoden imagined he would think it all well over, and when Prince Adelsberg left Rodeck that would end the whole matter. Under no circumstances would Rojanow appear by the prince's side at the capital where the ambassador had threatened to denounce him at once.
But Baron von Wallmoden did not understand the unyielding defiance of this man, who had indeed dared much. Now, upon his return from the north, he found this "adventurer" established on a very sure footing, in close intercourse with the court and society of the capital. It would be a most embarrassing matter to explain everything at this late day, when all were on the qui vive of expectation, and when the duke was so deeply interested both in the new drama and in its author. It would make a very painful impression in all circles. The experienced diplomat did not disguise from himself the fact that the duke would complain, and with reason, that all this exposure should have been made on the first day of the stranger's appearance rather than at this inopportune time. There remained nothing for it but to be silent and await developments.
Wallmoden had no thought of the danger which had threatened himself. He had not seen fit to tell his wife anything concerning his old friend Falkenried's history, and decided now that she had better know nothing more about Prince Adelsberg's friend than was known by their associates.
No conversation concerning Hartmut had ever passed between them save the one fleeting question and his wife's monosyllabic answer.
But he felt he dare keep silence no longer toward his nephew Willibald, for there would be a similar scene to that enacted by the mother at Hochberg if the son was surprised by the sight of his boyhood's friend.
The young heir had accompanied the Wallmodens to the southern capital, where he intended remaining a few days, when he was going on to Fuerstenstein to see his betrothed, for the head forester had expressly requested that the September visit, which was so suddenly interrupted, should be finished later in the season.
"You were only with us a week," he wrote to his sister-in-law, "and I desire to see something more of my future son-in-law. Everything is in order again, I trust, in your much loved Burgsdorf, and there is little to do in November at any rate. So send Will to us, even if you cannot come yourself. I will not take no for an answer. Toni is waiting to see her lover—so don t fail!"
Frau von Eschenhagen admitted that he was right, and she was glad enough to have Will go. He had made no further attempt to assert himself against her motherly authority, and appeared to have fully regained his reason again. He had grown quieter of late and since his return from Fuerstenstein rushed with greater zest into all his agricultural pursuits; he had, take it all in all, behaved in a most exemplary manner.
On one point alone he remained obstinate, he would not discuss with his mother the "idiocy" of which he had been guilty and which caused their sudden journey home, and avoided all reference to the subject. Of course his mother understood how it was; he was ashamed of his sudden excitement, and of a passion which had been only momentary, and wanted to forget it and have her forget it, too, as soon as possible. As for the rest, he wrote regularly to his bride-elect, who responded most punctually. Frau Regine, who considered it her special prerogative, read all this correspondence, and declared herself satisfied with it. There was no sentiment, no declaration of affection, in these letters; they were quite practical epistles, telling of home matters in a homely fashion, but they evinced Will's intention to keep his word and marry his cousin on the day appointed, and now near at hand.
So Willibald was told that he could go and visit his bride; the permission was granted all the more willingly because Frau Regine knew that Marietta Volkmar must have returned to the city long since. Baron von Wallmoden and his wife had paid a flying visit to Burgsdorf on their way south from the Stahlberg factories, and Willibald was put in their care and was to spend a few days in the South-German Capital. During those few days in which he would remain in the ambassador's house, he was perfectly safe, his mother assured herself.
The baron found that it would be necessary to tell his nephew about his old friend at once. On the very day of their arrival, Hartmut Rojanow's name was mentioned several times in Willibald's presence. He asked promptly to whom the name belonged, and was answered, 'to a young Roumanian poet.' An unmistakable wink from his uncle was all that saved him from further questions.
Then when they were alone the ambassador explained to Willibald who and what this Hartmut Rojanow was. An adventurer of the lowest and worst type, whom he would soon expose and force to abandon forever the role which he was now playing with so little right, but with such signal success.
Poor Willibald shook his head in a dazed sort of way over this news. His old friend, for whom he had always had a warm and unchanged affection, notwithstanding the episode of ten years before, was near him now, and he dare not see him again.
Wallmoden was especially sharp and explicit about this, and made his nephew promise to say nothing about the matter to Frau von Wallmoden or his uncle von Schoenau. But poor Willibald could not understand it at all; he needed time and quiet with this as with all other things, to comprehend them fully.
The day on which "Arivana" was to be produced, came at last. It was the work of a young and unknown poet, but the circumstances connected with its production were such that society was anxious to judge for itself of this work of the duke's latest protege. The theatre was crowded to overflowing, and the ducal couple with their suite were early in the court boxes. Although no special announcement had been made, the evening was evidently looked upon as a festival occasion, and every one was attired a la grande toilette, the ladies vieing with one another in the richness and brilliancy of their dress.
Prince Adelsberg, who was in the ducal box, was as much excited as if he had written the drama himself.
His aunt, too, was greatly interested in the success of the evening's entertainment, and had been looking carefully over the play bill when he entered the box; she called him to her at once.
"Our young friend seems to have his whims like all other poets," she remarked. "What a singular caprice to change the name of his heroine in the last hour."
"But that is not the case," Egon answered. "The change was made long before we left Rodeck. Hartmut took it into his head that 'Ada' was too cold and clear-cut a name for the passionate character of his heroine, so he re-baptized her."
"But the name 'Ada' is here on the programme," interrupted the princess.
"Certainly, but it belongs to quite a different person in the drama now, one who only appears in a single scene."
"Then Herr Rojanow has made his alterations since he read it for us at Fuerstenstein?"
"Only a few; the play is really quite unchanged with that single exception. Hartmut has added that scene with Ada in it, and I can assure your highness it's the most poetical thing he has ever written."
"Of course, everything your friend writes is wonderful in your eyes," his aunt answered, but her unusually gracious smiles showed that in this opinion she did not disagree with him.
The ambassador and his wife, who had only returned forty-eight hours before, sat in one of the large proscenium boxes. Baron von Wallmoden was anything but a willing guest of the court to-night, but he knew it was incumbent on him in his position to accept this evening's invitation. The duke had invited the whole diplomatic corps, and as the North German ambassador and his wife had dined at the ducal table that evening no excuse could be offered for declining the later entertainment.
Willibald had come too, to see and hear the work of his old-time friend; as his uncle was to be there, surely he had a right also. It did not please Wallmoden to have him there, but he could not well forbid his nephew's presence when he himself was present. Will, who had some difficulty in obtaining a seat in the parquette, unfolded the programme carelessly, when suddenly his eye caught the name of "Marietta Volkmar," and knew whom he was to see this evening. He folded the programme hastily and put it in his pocket; he regretted in this moment that he had come to the theatre at all.
Finally the performance began. The curtain rose, and the first act, little more than a prelude, was soon over. It was an introduction to the spectators, of that weird, fantastic, legendary world into which they were to enter, with Arivana, the sacred place of offering, the holy of holies, in the foreground.
The principal character in the drama, the young priest, who in the fanaticism of his belief puts everything earthly far from him, as unclean, appeared, and in a few masterly, powerful lines, pronounced his vow, by which, for him, for time and eternity, all earthly bonds were loosed, and he was committed heart and soul to the service of his God. The oath was taken, the holy flame blazed and waved on the sacrificial altar, and the curtain fell.
The applause, started at once by the duke, resounded on all sides. This work, about which so much had been said, was bound to be a success, in a certain sense, for this one evening at least. But there was something more than idle flattery in this applause. The spectators felt at once that, a true poet had spoken to them; the creation had already had the commendation of the court, but the public were carried away with it now. They were charmed by the diction, by the characters, and by the subject, and when the curtain rose anew, there was a look of silent expectancy on every face.
The drama now moved forward in majestic measure upon a scenic background as full of warmth and color as the language and characters of the piece.
The luxuriant vegetation of India, the fabulous pomp of her temples and her palaces; the men and women with their wild loves and their still wilder hatred; the rigid laws of their faith; all this was strange and fantastic, but the manner in which these men and women felt and acted was familiar to every one. They stood under the influence of a power which is the same to-day that it was a thousand years ago; the same in the tropics and in the colder climes of the north; the power of passion in the heart of man. It was indeed a doctrine of fire, and its burden was the inalienable right of passion to sweep away every obstacle, to break down every barrier of law and custom, of oath and pledge, which stood between it and its aim.
A right which Hartmut Rojanow well understood and illustrated in the exercise of his own unbridled will, which knew no law and no duty, and to which self-gratification was the highest good.
The awakening of this passion, its mighty growth and final triumph, was described in words of ravishing eloquence, and depicted in pictures which seemed drawn, now from the purest heights of ideality, and now from the depths of the pit. The poet had done wisely to drape his characters with the veil of an oriental legend, for under this covering he might express sentiments and present scenes, which otherwise would scarcely have been forgiven, and he did this now with a boldness which threw glowing sparks into the souls of those who heard him, and held them enthralled as if by some infernal spell.
By the close of the second act, the success of Arivana was assured.
The work was presented with a skill and perfection of acting never surpassed on any stage. The actors in the two principal roles played their parts with a fire and perfection which could only have come from genuine enthusiasm. The heroine was no longer called Ada. That name was borne by a being who stood, strange and alone, in this restless world of surging passions; one of those half-fabulous creatures with whom the Indian legends people the icy summits of the Himalayas; cold and pure as the eternal snows which glisten in those lofty regions. She appeared only in one scene, and at the decisive moment of the drama, where she moved through the stormy action as if upon spirits' pinions, warning and exhorting, and Egon was quite right when he said that the words which the poet put into her mouth were the most beautiful of the whole play.
Suddenly the pure, white light of heaven breaks through the red glow of the drama; the scene is beautiful, but short and swift and fleeting as the zephyr's breath. The chaste form vanished to the snowy heights of her distant home, while here below from the river's moonlit shore rose the song of the Hindoo maiden—Marietta's soft and swelling voice; the cry of warning from above was lost in these sweet seductive tones. In the last act came the tragic ending, the judgment upon the guilty pair who suffer death in the flames. But this death was no atonement, it was rather a triumph, a glorious apotheosis, and out of the midst of the fire flamed high toward heaven the infernal doctrine of the unconditional right of passion. The curtain fell for the last time, and the applause, which had increased from act to act, rose now to a perfect storm. The house shouted for the author and would take no denial. At last Hartmut came forward, free from every trace of embarrassment, and beaming with pride and joy. He bowed his thanks to the public, which had held to his lips that night a cup of delight such as he had never before tasted. They are intoxicating, these first draughts from the goblet of fame! In the pride of victory the young poet cast a glance toward the proscenium box whose inmates he had already recognized.
He did not find what he sought.
Adelheid had leaned back in her chair and covered her face with an open fan. He saw only the cold, unmoved countenance of the man who had so deeply insulted him, and who now was the witness of his triumph.
Wallmoden understood only too well the mute language of those flashing dark eyes; they said to him:
"Dare to despise me now!"
* * * * *
At an early hour the next morning, Willibald von Eschenhagen entered the great city park, which, he had just declared to his uncle, he would explore for himself. This extensive, well-wooded park, which lay before the city's very doors, was well worth a visit, but Willibald took scant notice of its beauties as he hurried on in the keen November morning. He glanced neither to the right nor to the left, but strode on, striking into this path and now into that, frequently re-treading the very ground which he had left but a moment before.
Perhaps this brisk, aimless walk, would silence or stupefy the passion and excitement which were struggling for mastery within him.
Some of his excitement was due to seeing his old friend again, for he had been greatly moved at the sight of him. Fourteen long years he had heard nothing of Hartmut, had been forbidden even to mention his name, and now he stood before him suddenly in all the pride and glory of a rising poet's fame, wonderfully changed in appearance and manner, but yet the old Hartmut still, the same with whom he had so often frolicked and never quarreled in by-gone days. Even had he been unprepared, he would have known his dear old friend at a glance.
Wallmoden had been greatly disturbed and annoyed at the result of the previous night's performance. He had scarcely spoken as they drove from the theatre, and his wife had been equally taciturn. She explained that the heat of the crowded room had given her a headache, and in consequence retired at once upon reaching home.
Her example was followed by her husband, who, as he bade his nephew good-night, said:
"Do not forget our talk, Willibald. Be silent before every one, no matter who. You'll have to be on your guard, too, for the name of Rojanow will be on every one's lips for the next few days. He's had luck this time, like all adventurers!"
Willibald made no answer to this, but he felt that something beyond adventurer's luck had come to the author of Arivana. Under other circumstances he should have looked on this drama as something unheard of, inexplicable, without in the least understanding it, but last night he seemed to comprehend it all fully.
One could love without the consent of parent or guardian; such freedom was not confined to India alone—it often happened in Germany as well. A promise given thoughtlessly and blindly could be broken, but what then? Yes, then came the fate which Hartmut had pictured so beautifully, yet so vividly. Will was fully determined to transfer the lesson which Arivana had taught him to Burgsdorf. Surely the punishment invoked by the furious priestcraft, would be no worse than the vial of Frau von Eschenhagen's wrath.
The young heir sighed deeply as he thought of the second act of the drama, where, from the group of Hindoo maidens, the sacrificial figure steps forth. How lovely she looked in her soft, white, clinging garments, with the wealth of flowers in her dark curly hair. His eyes had never left her during the two or three times when she had appeared for a moment on the stage; then her song sounded forth from the shore of the moonlit river, the same clear, sweet voice which had captivated him in the little parlor of Waldhofen, and here again were the same old unholy feelings against which he had battled so bravely then.
And the worst of it was that he no longer considered them unholy.
The energetic walker came for the third time to a little temple which was open at one side and within which were seats inviting to rest, and a marble bust in the centre. Willibald stepped in and sat down, less from necessity for rest than with the hope he might in this seclusion get his disturbed thoughts in order.
It was about ten o'clock in the morning, and the grounds were almost entirely deserted.
Only a single pedestrian, a young man elegantly attired, lounged along slowly, and to the casual observer, purposelessly.
But he was on the lookout for some one, for he glanced with unconcealed impatience toward the winding walks which led direct from the city.
Suddenly he stepped quickly behind one of the pillars which supported the little temple, where he could see any one approaching without being seen himself.