"You are right, Ada. I can never thank you enough for what you have done to-day, but I will strive to deserve it!"
"I know that. God guard you from danger, and now good-bye."
"No, you cannot wish that for me!" said Hartmut sadly. "This battle of life and death into which I go can ease my own conscience of a load, but my father and Egon will never know, if I live, that I have fought for my country, and the old stain will still be there. But if I fall, then you can tell them that I fought under a strange name, and am at rest, perhaps under foreign soil. They will at least have some respect for my grave."
"You would fall?" asked Ada, with sad reproof in her voice. "Even if I tell you that your death will be mine too?"
"Yours, Ada?" he cried excitedly, "and do you no longer turn in abhorrence from my love, from the fate which threw us together? To possess you would be my highest glory, for you are free. Such joy comes to me now, only for a single fleeting minute, and then ascends again to unattainable heights, like the prophetess of my drama who bore your name. No matter; it is with me now in this moment of parting."
He drew her to him and pressed a kiss on her brow, while she broke into a passion of tears on his shoulder.
"Hartmut, promise me that you will not seek death."
"No, but it will seek me! Good-bye, my own, good-bye."
He tore himself from her, and rushed away through the storm. She stood still, leaning in her turn against the old tree, whose branches tossed their arms and kept time to the moaning and shrieking winds which played at hide and seek through the leafy foliage. But suddenly in the west, through a rent in the angry clouds, shone a purple ray. It was only for a minute, only a single lost beam of the descending sun, but it lighted up the woodland height and beamed across the face of the departing man, as he turned back once to wave a last adieu. Then the dark clouds met again, and hid the light—the last greeting of the setting sun.
The red, flickering firelight lit up the interior of a small house which had formerly been the home of a signal man, but now served as headquarters for the officers of the advanced guard. The room made anything but a comfortable impression, with its cold, rough, whitewashed walls, low ceilings and narrow barred windows; the heavy logs of wood which blazed and crackled in the clumsy stone fire-place, threw out a grateful warmth, for the weather was bitter cold and the ground covered with snow. The regiments which lay here were little better off than those before Paris although these belonged to the army of the South.
Two young officers entered the room, and one, as he held the door open for his comrade, said with a laugh: "You'll have to stoop here, for the entrance to our villa is somewhat out of repair."
The warning was not unnecessary, for the tall figure of the guest, a Prussian Lieutenant of Reserves, had need to stoop to avoid the loose, overhanging plaster. His companion who was doing the honors, wore the uniform of a South German regiment.
"Permit me to offer you a chair in our salon," he continued. "Not so bad after all, considering everything; we'll have worse than this before the campaign is over. You are looking for Stahlberg. He is at an outpost near here with one of my comrades, but he'll certainly be back soon. You won't have to wait above fifteen minutes."
"I'll wait with pleasure," responded the Prussian. "Eugen's wound was not very serious, I judge. I looked for him in the hospital and heard that he had gone on a visit to the outpost, but would probably be back shortly, so I thought I'd come over and see him at once."
"The wound was but a slight one, a shot in the arm, but not deep; it's almost healed now, but Stahlberg cannot use it in active service for some time yet. You are acquainted with him?"
"Oh, yes, I was a kinsman of his sister's late husband. I see you do not remember me. My name is Willibald von Eschenhagen. I have met your highness several times in past years."
"At Fuerstenstein!" exclaimed Egon with animation. "Certainly, now I remember you well, but it is wonderful what a change the uniform makes in one's appearance. I didn't recognize you at all at first."
He cast an admiring, surprised glance at the tall, handsome man whom he had once ridiculed as a cabbage grower, but who looked so brave and manly in his military dress. It was not the uniform which had so altered Willibald; love, camp life and entire change from the old monotonous existence had done it. The young heir was no longer a "weak tool," as his uncle Schoenau had called him, but a brave, determined, genuine man.
"Our former meetings have been but fleeting," the prince went on, "so you must forgive the liberty if I offer you my congratulations; you are betrothed, I believe to—"
"I believe your highness is laboring under a mistake," Willibald interrupted him, with some embarrassment. "When I last saw you at Fuerstenstein I was to be the future son of that house, but—"
"That's all changed," interrupted Egon, laughing. "I know all about it from a comrade of mine, Lieutenant Walldorf, who is to marry your cousin, Fraeulein von Schoenau. My words had reference to Fraeulein Marietta Volkmar."
"Now Frau von Eschenhagen."
"What! you are a married man?"
"And have been for five months. We were married just before I marched, and my wife is at Burgsdorf with my mother."
"Then I can congratulate you upon your marriage. But seriously, Herr Comrade, I ought to call you to account for your robbery of an artist from our midst. Please tell your wife that the whole city is in sackcloth and ashes over her loss."
"I will tell her, although I think the city has no time for such light sorrows now. Ah, there are the gentlemen! I hear Eugen's voice."
There they were, true enough. They entered just as Willibald ceased speaking. Young Stahlberg greeted his friend with a joyous cry of surprise. They had not seen each other since the war began, though they were in the same army corps. Eugen's arm was in a sling, otherwise he looked well and happy. He had none of his sister's beauty, neither had he the strength and earnestness of expression which had been her legacy from their father. The son seemed, to judge from his appearance, of an amiable and yielding, rather than a strong nature; but notwithstanding all this he resembled his sister strongly, and that was the secret of Egon's friendship for him. His companion was a handsome young officer, with keen, merry eyes, and as he stepped into the room the prince introduced him to Willibald.
"I need not fear a duel when I mention your names to one another," he said laughing. "You'll have to meet some day. Herr von Eschenhagen—Herr von Walldorf."
"Bless me! I at least declare for peace!" cried Walldorf gaily. "Herr von Eschenhagen, I am rejoiced to know my future wife's cousin, who got ahead of us at the altar. We, too, wanted a marriage from the saddle, but my future father-in-law assumed his fiercest look and declared: 'First conquer, and then marry.' Now we've been doing the former for the last five months, and when I go home again I'll see to the latter."
He shook Toni's cousin warmly by the hand, then turning to the prince, said:
"We have something here for you. Orderly from Rodeck, present yourself before his highness, Herr lieutenant, Prince Adelsberg."
Through the open door came a tall figure which Egon recognized as that of his old, gray-haired steward. He closed the door cautiously, and came forward into the room.
"Saints preserve us, it's Peter Stadinger!" It was, indeed, old Peter who stood in front of his master. He was not unknown to the other officers, either, for they all greeted him with a shout.
"Well, we must have lights now, that your highness may have a good view of this old 'ghost of the woods,'" cried Walldorf, as he lit two candles and placed them with comic gravity before the old man. Egon laughed as he said:
"You see, Stadinger, what a prominent personage you are, and how much I talk about you; now I'll present you in all form; here, gentlemen, is Peter Stadinger, noted for his unfailing incivility and his everlasting moral lectures. He thinks that I need both to keep me in order and even here in the field he has followed me in order that he might keep up the friendly custom. I trust he pleases you, my masters—now you can let me go, Peter."
But instead of obeying this order, the old man held his two hands all the more firmly, while he said in a tone of deep emotion: "Ah, your highness, you cannot know how anxious we have been about you at Rodeck."
The prince answered him impatiently: "Indeed, and that's why you have run away and left things at sixes and sevens at Rodeck, despite all my solemn charges? I had not thought you would be so neglectful of duty."
Stadinger looked at him quite puzzled.
"But I came on receipt of your letter telling me to do so. You wrote me to fetch Lois from the hospital, so I started at once. I saw the boy this morning, and found him as gay as he could be, but he can't be moved for a week, the doctor said; then I am to take him home. What your highness, and Lois, and all the rest from Rodeck would have done if I had not stayed home to guard and control—God alone knows."
Egon drew his hand back impatiently.
"I am Herr Lieutenant here, and have no other title but my military one, remember that! and here you are as meek as a lamb, when I counted on a fine sermon for the benefit of us all. Lois, gentlemen, is the grandson of this old growler, a fine, brave fellow, and he has a sister as sweet as a peach. But her grandfather sends her away regularly the minute I set foot in Rodeck. Why didn't you bring Zena with you, and let her see a little of the world?"
The old man, notwithstanding his desire for peace, threw back his head at this interrogatory, and answered with all the old acerbity:
"I believed your highness had no time for folly now."
"You made a mistake then. We lead the wildest kind of a life in the army, and when I go home again—"
"Your highness has promised to marry," finished the steward in such an impressive manner that the officers all shouted. Egon joined in, but something was wanting in his merriment, and in his answer too.
"Yes, yes, I've promised that, sure enough, but I have many matters to settle in the meantime, I'll keep my word in ten years, or perhaps in twenty—perhaps never!"
Stadinger listened to his highness's words—not for worlds would he have obeyed the order to call him Herr lieutenant—and his face darkened.
"I almost thought as much, for when your highness really does plan for the future your plans don't last twenty-four hours. Your blessed father married, and I married, and all men marry, and it's the only way to cure you of your foolishness, and—"
"Now gentlemen, the sermon's coming," laughed Egon good-naturedly. He was not far wrong, for Stadinger spoke his mind as usual, and to the point too, so that before he finished the officers felt he had the best of it against the prince. After half an hour's chatter, Willibald and Eugen Stahlberg rose to go. As they bade good-night to the prince he said:
"You push on to-morrow, I hear?"
"Yes, we march to R—— at daybreak to meet Major General von Falkenried and his brigade. We'll be some days on the way, I fancy, for the whole of this region is infested with the enemy, and our next move will depend upon theirs," answered Willibald.
"Then tell the general, Will, that I'll be there at latest in a week," said Eugen. "It's pretty bad to have to stay behind on account of a scratch that's not worth talking about. In another week I'll be all right. I don't care what the doctor says, and I hope to join my regiment before you take R——."
"We'll have to be active now," said Egon, "for resistance doesn't continue long where General von Falkenried commands. He's always first with his men and has been victorious beyond belief. It seems as if no difficulties were too great for him to surmount."
"He seems to stand at the head," answered Lieutenant Walldorf. "He may take R—— while we are lying here idle; perhaps he has taken it already. No news can reach us with the enemy between."
He rose to accompany his departing comrades a short distance, while the prince remained behind by the fire. He folded his arms and looked vacantly at the burning logs, but the expression of his face was not in accord with the gaiety he had exhibited before his friends. It was dark and gloomy, and all light and happiness seemed gone out of it. He had forgotten Stadinger's presence until the latter gave a little cough, then he turned and said:
"Ah, you are there yet, are you? Tell Lois I asked for him, and that I will see him to-morrow some time. I'll see you again, of course, for you'll have to wait several days for him. You didn't think we had such a fine time here, did you? No need to take life hard just because we may lose it any day."
The old man looked keenly at his master.
"Yes, the gentlemen were jolly enough, and you were the ring-leader, but—your highness is not gay now."
"I? What's the matter now? Why shouldn't I be gay?"
"I don't know, but I see you are not happy," declared Stadinger. "When you were at Rodeck with Herr Rojanow you were quite different. As you stood looking into the fire just now I could see that something lay on your heart."
"Don't bother me with your observations," exclaimed Egon impatiently. "Do you think I should never have a serious thought, when it may be we go into battle to-morrow?"
Then he resumed his old position, and Stadinger, though silent, was unconvinced. He knew full well that something was the matter with his master, that it was no thought of battle which clouded his sunny face. The door opened and Lieutenant Walldorf entered without closing it.
"Come in," he cried to some one behind him. "Here's an orderly from the seventh regiment with some information. Come in, orderly!"
Walldorf repeated his invitation to enter in an impatient tone. The soldier who stood on the threshold of the door had hesitated, and made a movement to retreat into the darkness again. Now he obeyed; he remained close to the door, his face in the shadow.
"You come from the outpost yonder on chapel mountain?" questioned Walldorf.
"At your service, Herr lieutenant."
Egon, who had turned round indifferently when the soldier entered, started as he heard the voice. He took a hasty step forward, then halted suddenly, as if he remembered something, but his glance embraced the stranger with a look almost of horror. He was, as far as one could see in the semi-darkness, a tall young soldier wrapped in the coarse mantle of the private, with a helmet over his closely cut black hair. He stood stiff and immovable, and gave his message minutely. His voice had a suppressed, almost suffocated tone.
"I come from Herr Captain Salfeld!" he announced. "We have seized a suspicious looking man, dressed as a peasant, but probably from the relief corps, who was sneaking into the fortress. There was some writing found on him."
"Come over closer," ordered Walldorf sharply. "I can't hear you over there by the door."
The soldier obeyed at once, and stepped up to the officers. The firelight gleamed full upon the face, which was pallid, and on the tightly compressed lips, but not on the eyes, for they seemed fastened to the ground.
Egon's hand seized the hilt of his sabre with convulsive grasp; it was all he could do not to cry out, while Stadinger stared at the man with wide open eyes.
"There was some writing found on him, but it was of no consequence, nor what he told by word of mouth either. Now the Herr Captain wants to know whether he shall send the prisoner here, or to headquarters, for he thinks there is more in the papers than meets the eye."
There was nothing uncommon in this message. Suspicious characters were arrested daily, particularly from the relief corps, but Prince Adelsberg hesitated, as if he feared the sound of his own voice, then he gave the answer:
"Tell the Herr Captain to send the prisoner here. We relieve the guard in two hours, and he can be taken on to headquarters at once."
"I hope we can make the churl say something," said Walldorf. "Many a coward loses his hold when he knows there's a court martial ahead of him. Well, we'll see."
The soldier stood waiting for his dismissal; not a muscle of his face moved, but he never lifted his eyes. Egon had recovered himself now, and he asked, in his coldest, most distant tones:
"You belong to the seventh regiment?"
"At your service, Herr lieutenant."
"Forced into service?"
"No, a volunteer."
"Since the thirtieth of July."
"You have been through the whole campaign?"
"At your service, Herr lieutenant."
"Very well. You can take my message to the Captain."
The soldier saluted and left the room. Walldorf had been a little surprised at this examination, but gave no second thought to it. He looked after the retreating figure and said as he shrugged his shoulders: "The men on Chapel hill have the devil's own time. They have no rest day or night, and have to exert themselves to the utmost. The poor fellows have to work in the hard frozen trenches until the sweat runs from their faces and their hands are covered with blood. Fighting is the only relief they get."
He stepped into another room to order the watch for the expected prisoner, and to make some additional arrangements. Egon threw open the window and leaned out—he felt he was suffocating. Then he heard Stadinger's voice behind him in a half-whisper as though he were too frightened to speak out loud.
"What is it?" the prince answered without turning around.
"But didn't your highness see—?"
"The orderly, who was just here—that was Herr Rojanow, as sure as he lives and breathes."
Egon saw that presence of mind was necessary here; he turned and said coldly: "I believe you see ghosts!"
"But, your highness—"
"Nonsense! only a passing resemblance. I noticed it myself. That's why I asked the man his name. You heard him say his name was Tanner!"
"Yes, but it was Herr Rojanow for all that," said Stadinger, whose sharp eyes were not to be deceived. "To be sure the black locks were gone, and the proud, independent manner, but his voice was, the same!"
"Do cease your senseless chatter," said Egon violently. "You know very well that Herr Rojanow is in Sicily, and now you find him in an orderly of the seventh regiment. It is really laughable."
Stadinger was silent; everything that he said was laughable or impossible. The prince was only vexed because he had discovered that his friend was only a common soldier. To be sure the Herr Rojanow of Rodeck, who ordered every one around, even the prince himself, and the orderly whom Lieutenant Walldorf ordered to come forward because he didn't speak loud enough, were as far apart as heaven and earth. If it had not been for the voice!
"Then your highness, you think—" Stadinger began again.
"I think you're an old ghost-hunter," said Egon gently. "Go to your quarters and get a good night's rest after your journey; otherwise you'll be discovering resemblances throughout the whole garrison—good-night!"
Stadinger obeyed, and left for his own quarters at once. He shook his head as he went—he was by no means satisfied with his master's peremptory dismissal of the subject.
The prince paced the little room in great excitement as soon as he was alone. His former friend had forced his way into the army notwithstanding. Joseph Tanner! He remembered perfectly to whom the name had belonged, and knew only too well whose hand had opened the way for Hartmut. What will not a woman do for the man she loves, what price will she not pay? She had even sent him into danger in order that he might be reconciled to life and himself.
Jealousy, fierce and wild, filled Egon's heart at these thoughts, and above all rose the fearful suspicion of the man's fidelity to his flag and country. Was his presence at the dangerous outpost an answer to suspicions, or was it a cloak to hide secret machinations?
Then the prince thought of the pale, dark face which had been so dear to him, and with a motion of torture, he tried to put the memory from him. He knew, none so well, Hartmut's intense pride, and this pride was dragged in the dirt day after day in the degrading position which he occupied.
He had heard of the ceaseless labor on Chapel hill, of the days and nights employed in digging trenches, of the worn bodies, the bleeding hands. That was what Rojanow did now, the same Rojanow who had had a city at his feet one short year before, who had been the honored guest at princely boards, whose successful work had not only placed the laurel wreath on his brow, but had brought him a fortune as well. And besides all this, he was General von Falkenried's son.
Egon's breast heaved violently as he thought of it all. Then his lost confidence came back to him slowly, and banished the unjust doubts. Hartmut was atoning now for his boyish folly. As for the rest, his mother, and she alone, was to blame.
It was about nine o'clock in the evening when the prince left his quarters in order to visit the commandant. He did not go on an affair of service, but in answer to an invitation from the general, who had been an old friend of his father, and had looked after the son, since the campaign began, with fatherly solicitude. Egon would have given much to be alone this evening, for his meeting with Hartmut had moved him deeply, but a soldier has little time for brooding, and an invitation from a commanding officer must not be set aside.
As the young prince went into the house he met an adjutant coming out, who explained breathlessly that there was bad news, but that the general would tell him all.
The general was alone, and was pacing the room in great excitement, gesticulating and muttering as he went.
"Ah, Prince Adelsberg, is it you?" he exclaimed, halting in his walk as Egon entered the room. "I can't promise you a pleasant evening, for we have had intelligence which destroys all sociability for us to-night."
"The adjutant said something about trouble," answered Egon. "What is it, your excellency? The despatches at midday were very favorable."
"I only got the news an hour ago. The man you sent to headquarters to-night as a suspicious character had it all. Do you know what he had with him?"
"Captain Salfeld sent word he had papers of little importance, apparently, but thought they might contain some secret advices; of course, a spy would not carry anything in writing that looked suspicious on the surface."
"Well, the papers were most important. The man was a coward, naturally, and when he was threatened with a bullet, he revealed all, and, alas! we cannot doubt the truth of his statements. You may remember a few lines on a slip of paper which read that one had better in an extreme case follow the heroic example of the commanding general before R——."
"Yes, I didn't understand that, for the fort will have to surrender soon. General von Falkenried said he hoped to take it to-morrow."
"Yes, and I fear he will do it!" answered the General, excitedly.
"You fear, your excellency?"
"Yes, there's been treachery, there's been foul villainy at work! They will surrender the fort, and then as soon as their garrison have been taken off as prisoners of war, and our men occupy the citadel, it will be blown up."
"God help us!" cried the young prince, excitedly. "Cannot General Falkenried be warned?"
"I fear we cannot possibly do it. I have already sent warnings by two different ways, but our direct course to R—— is cut off. The enemy holds the mountain pass, and it is quite impossible for the messengers to reach the place in time."
Egon was silent for a moment.
The pass was obstructed by the enemy. He knew that Eschenhagen's regiment was going forward to open it, but that would not be done for a day or two.
"We have thought of everything," continued the general, "but there isn't the faintest hope of doing anything. Falkenried will force them to close, he never turns back, and then he and hundreds, yes, thousands, of his men, will perish."
He began his walk again, too excited to keep still. But the young prince stood by helpless; then a sudden bright thought entered his mind.
"If it were possible in spite of everything, to send the despatches by the mountain path—a good rider could get to R—— by to-morrow morning; to be sure he'd have to ride for life or death—dash right through the enemy."
"What folly! You are a soldier and should know that such a course would be madness. The boldest rider would be shot down before he had been gone an hour."
"But if one could find the man who would make the attempt? I know a man who would do it."
The general scowled at the young man.
"Do you mean that you would venture upon this useless exposure? I forbid it, once for all, Prince Adelsberg. I pride myself upon my officers' bravery, but I cannot permit any such senseless experiments."
"I do not mean myself, your excellency," said Egon, earnestly. "The man whom I mean is in the seventh regiment, and is at this moment on outpost duty on Chapel mountain. It was he who brought me word of the prisoner."
The general shook his head thoughtfully.
"I tell you it's impossible, but—who is the man?"
"Yes, a volunteer."
"You know something about him?"
"Yes, your excellency; he is perhaps the best rider in the whole army,—bold to a fault and capable enough, in case of necessity, to act with the caution of an officer. If the thing can be done, that man'll do it."
"And you believe—it's a terrible responsibility to ask a man to ride to sure death—you believe the man will do it freely—willingly?"
"I'll swear he will, your excellency."
"Then I dare not refuse, though it's a fearful venture. I'll send for Tanner at once."
"May I take the order to him?" interrupted Egon, quickly. The general turned in surprise and looked at him.
"You, yourself, do you mean? Why?"
"Only to save time. The way which Tanner must take lies over Chapel mountain; before he'd get to headquarters and back again to his starting place an hour would be lost."
There was nothing to be said in answer to this, and yet the general felt there was something about the whole affair which he did not understand. A common soldier rarely undertook, voluntarily, a mission which drove him into the arms of death, but the old warrior asked no further questions, he only said: "You will be responsible for the man?"
"Yes," said Egon, quietly but emphatically.
"Good, then you can give him all the necessary instructions; there is one thing more; he must have credentials if he ever reaches our own posts, for any detention would be fatal where every minute counts."
He turned to his writing table, and after setting his seal to a paper, handed it to the prince.
"Here are the necessary papers, and these are the despatches for General Falkenried. Let me know at once whether Tanner was willing to go or not."
"I'll let your excellency know immediately."
Egon hurried to his own quarters, where he ordered his horse to be saddled. In five minutes he was off for Chapel mountain.
Chapel mountain, which the German troops had so christened from the little church which stood on its summit, was one of a subordinate range of hills, which traversed the country in the region where the army corps of the South were quartered. The little church lay desolate and lonely, half buried in the deep snow. Priest and sacristan were gone long since, and the house of God bore traces of demolition, for a deadly battle had been fought on this height. The walls were standing and part of the pointed roof; the rest had been carried away by shot and shell, and the wind whistled through the shattered windows. Ice and snow covered the surrounding wood, and a faint half-moon lit up the whole with a ghastly, uncertain light.
It was a bitter cold night, like that memorable one at Rodeck. A deep red flame lit up the horizon, but it was no northern light this time, no purple glow to lessen the gloom, it was the signal of war, the deep, blood-red flash such as went up from every village and hamlet in Germany, rousing men to action, waving them on to battle and—to death!
A single guard stood at one of the lonely outposts—Hartmut von Falkenried. His eyes were fixed on distant watch fires which from time to time sent up their showers of sparks to heaven. In the distance, warmth and light, here, ice and night. The cold which had been intense all day strengthened with the night, and seemed to freeze out all life from the solitary watch on duty. True there were other sentinels, at various posts, but they were not accustomed to winters in the Orient or in Sicily. Hartmut had spent no winters in the north since his boyhood's days, and the cold seemed to freeze the very blood in his veins.
A deadly languor came over him, which was not the forerunner of sleep; it crept into the limbs and closed the heavy eyelids. He fought it off bravely, but it would return again and again as the icy air grew colder. He knew what it meant and struggled bravely against it. Surely he would not freeze to death.
His glance turned, as if seeking strength, to the little half-ruined house of God. What were church and altar to him? He had cast all belief from him long ago. Death was an eternal night, and life alone could give him all he wished, full expiation of his early fault, the woman he loved, the poet's crown, his father's blessing! But here he stood at his post waiting an inglorious death, which he felt would meet him ere the night was over. He would not swerve from duty, death might seek him and find him—on guard.
Then in the distance he heard steps and voices which came nearer; they waked him up from the lethargy into which he had fallen. He aroused himself and grasped his gun more firmly, though he knew it was some one from his own regiment. What was it? The hour of redemption was close at hand though he knew it not. A few minutes later a corporal with another man stood before him.
"Picket! Orders from headquarters brought by an officer!" cried the corporal. The relief had come! The man who but a second since stood on the bleak, dreary shore of despair, felt himself recalled to life at the sound.
He started to follow the corporal, when the other man, an officer also, stepped forward.
"Let the corporal go on. I wish to speak to you alone, Tanner. Follow me!"
Prince Adelsberg, who wished no witnesses, stepped into the little church, and Hartmut followed him. The pale moonlight entering through the open window showed only disorder and confusion. The roof had been pierced by a cannon ball, which had shattered pulpit and desk as well; only the little altar, in its quiet niche, remained undisturbed.
Egon stepped into the middle of the room, then he turned and said:
"Drop that now; we are alone. I did not think we would see one another so soon again."
"And I hoped it would have been spared me, too," said Hartmut gloomily. "You come—"
"From headquarters, I heard that you were on picket duty on Chapel mountain. A fearful night for such a service."
Hartmut was silent. No need to say that had he not been roused it would have been his last. Egon glanced uneasily at him; despite the uncertain light he saw how exhausted and spent the man before him was as he leaned against a pillar as if needing support.
"I came with a commission which you can accept or not as you see fit," he began again. "The thing is almost impossible, would be altogether so for any one but you. You have the courage, but whether, after all your exertions you have the strength, is another question."
"A quarter of an hour of warmth and some refreshment will bring back my strength. What is it?"
"A ride of life and death. To take some intelligence to R—— through the mountain pass just where the enemy lies."
"To the front!" cried Hartmut; "that's where—"
"General Falkenried is with his brigade. He is lost if the news does not reach him. We put the means of saving his life in the hands of his son!"
Hartmut grasped his friend's arm. He was all excitement and anxiety in an instant.
"I can save my father? I? What has happened? What am I to do?"
"Listen. The prisoner which you sent to us this evening has made some terrible revelations. The fort is to be blown up after the surrender, as soon as the French garrison are out and our men are in it. The general has sent two messengers—but they take round-about ways and will never reach there in time. Your father intends to seize the fort to-morrow. He must be warned in time, and there's but one way. The news must go through the mountain pass which the enemy hold; that is the only chance to reach our friends. But that way—"
"I know it. Our regiment marched through it two weeks ago before the enemy had taken it," cried Hartmut.
"All the better! You must of course lay aside your uniform."
"I only need exchange my cloak and helmet. If I had stayed here I'd have been dead in a few hours; now if I ride fast enough I have one chance. If I only had a good horse."
"That is ready for you, I brought my own Arabian, Sadi, with me. You know him well, have ridden him often. He'll fly like a bird on a night like this, he'll need no whip to spur him on."
The conversation was whispered in stormy haste, and the prince handed him the papers.
"Here is the general's order which you present when you reach our sentinels, and here are the dispatches. Take a half hour to get some warmth and strength into your body, then you can start."
"Do you think I want rest or warmth?" cried Hartmut, the old Hartmut again. "When I break down now it will be from the enemy's bullet. I thank you Egon for this hour, in which you have at last, at last, exonerated me from a fearful suspicion!"
"And in which I send you to your death," said the prince gently. "We must not hide the truth from ourselves—only a miracle can save you."
"A miracle?" Hartmut's glance sought the altar which the flickering moonlight revealed. He had ceased to pray long years ago, and yet in this moment a hot, speechless prayer went up to Heaven for strength to accomplish this miracle. "If I can only save my father then I am content!"
In the next second he turned, and Egon, who had put new life into him and given him back his courage, said gently:
"And now let us say good-bye! God bless you, Hartmut!"
The two friends clung to one another in a last embrace. All that had come between them was lost sight of forever, and the old, warm love was mightier than ever in this last hour, for they both felt that it was a farewell for all time.
Scarcely fifteen minutes later a rider dashed out of the camp. The slender Arab's hoofs hardly touched the ground over which it sped; in a wild gallop it went on over the snow-covered ground, through the ice-clad forest, over frozen streams, on, on, into the mountain pass!
The following day brought clear, frosty weather. The intense cold had abated and the sun shone out warm and bright. Eugen Stahlberg and Lieutenant Walldorf, free from duty for the time being, were in Prince Adelsberg's quarters. Walldorf had been thrown from his horse the previous evening, and his hand had been injured, and this prevented him from going out with his company, as Egon had done. The gentlemen were waiting for the return of their princely comrade, who must be back soon now, and as they waited, they teased and guyed old Peter Stadinger, who was on duty early at his master's quarters.
The young officers had heard nothing of the news which had been learned over night at headquarters, they were as merry as could be, and indulged in much raillery over old Peter's lectures to his master. But the old man said little in answer to their banter this morning; his master was long in returning, and Stadinger had reached the age when he borrowed trouble, and it rested heavily upon him. Finally Walldorf got out of all patience with him and said:
"I believe, Stadinger, you'd like to strap the prince on your back and take him off to Rodeck with you. The camp is no place for anxiety or alarm, remember that."
"Then the prince had to reconnoitre to-day," added Eugen. "He has to make a detour from Chapel mountain to the valley beneath and through the ravine, in order to see what the outlook is. We'll probably have a pleasant exchange of civilities with the French gentlemen within the next few days, and we want to be ready for them at all points."
"But there's plenty of chances for them to shoot now, isn't there?" asked the old man with such anxiety that the officers had to laugh aloud.
"Yes, there's chances enough to shoot," Walldorf asserted. "You seem to be afraid of a gun. You're safe from any stray shots here!"
"I?" the old man straightened himself; he was deeply insulted. "I wish to God I could be in the midst of it all."
"Yes, you'd stay by the prince, and when you saw a bullet coming you'd give his coat a pull and say: 'Be careful, your highness, here comes a bullet.' That would be great fun."
"Herr Lieutenant," said the old man so earnestly that their merriment was silenced, "you should not talk so to an old hunter, who has climbed time and again to the mountain's summit, and shot, and killed too, where he had scarcely room to plant his foot. It is only here that I am so anxious and discouraged—I would the day were well over."
"We were only in fun," said Eugen good naturedly. "Of course you're not afraid of a shot, one only has to look at you to know that. But don't come to us with your presentiments and misgivings; after men have stood under a shower of bullets they don't heed croakings. When we're all home again I am going to visit my sister at Ostwalden and we'll be good neighbors, you and I. The prince is very fond of his hunting castle at Rodeck, is he not? But you can banish your gloomy thoughts, for here he comes."
There was a quick step without on the stair; the old man gave a relieved sigh, but when the door opened it was only Eugen's man who appeared.
"Isn't his highness coming?" asked Walldorf; but Stadinger gave the man no time to answer. He had glanced at his face, only a glance, then he started forward and seized his hand half-frantically.
"What is it? Where—where is my master?"
The man shook his head sadly and pointed to the window; the two officers hastened to it, but Stadinger lost no time in looking; he rushed out of the door and down the steps and across the little yard, and sank down with a piercing cry beside a litter which two soldiers were carrying, and upon which a tall, youthful form was stretched.
"Silence!" said the surgeon, who accompanied the sad little procession. "Control yourself, the prince is badly wounded."
"I see that," said the old man, huskily. "But his wound is not mortal? Tell me it's not mortal!"
He glanced up at the physician with a look of such despair, that the latter had not the heart to tell him the truth. He turned to the two officers who had followed Stadinger, and answered their questions instead.
"A bullet in the breast," he said in a whisper. "The prince desired to be brought to his own quarters, and we have been as careful as we could, but the end is nearer than I thought."
"No hope then?" asked Walldorf.
"Not the slightest."
The men were already lifting their burden to carry him into the house, when the physician motioned them to put him down.
"Wait! The prince wants to speak to his old servant, I think. A few minutes here or there doesn't matter now."
Stadinger saw and heard nothing of what was going on around him, he saw only his master. Egon appeared to be unconscious; the blonde hair was thrown back, the eyes were closed, and under the mantle with which the man had covered him was the blood-soaked uniform.
"Your highness!" said the old man in low, heart-rending tones. "Look at me, speak to me! It is your old Stadinger."
The well-known voice found its way to the dying man's ear; he opened his eyes slowly, and a faint smile crossed his face as he recognized his faithful servant.
"My old ghost of the woods," he said softly; "and you are with me at the last."
"But you'll not die, your highness," murmured Stadinger. His whole body was in a tremble, but he never took his eyes from his adored master. "No, you will not die, you will not die .'"
"Do you think it is so hard?" said Egon quietly. "Yesterday you were quite right, a burden was on my heart, now it is light. Take a greeting to dear Rodeck, and the forest, and to the lady of Ostwalden."
"To whom? To Frau von Wallmoden?" asked Stadinger, thinking he had not heard aright.
"Yes, tell her I send her my last greeting; she must think of me sometimes."
The words came slowly, brokenly, from the lips which would so soon refuse to do further service, but there was no mistaking their full significance. Eugen was startled when he heard his sister's name, and bent over the dying man, who looked into the countenance which so resembled Adelheid's, and again a smile lighted his face. Then he raised his head and laid it heavily on the breast of his old ghost of the woods, and the sunny blue eyes closed forever.
It was a short, painless battle with death, a peaceful falling to sleep. Stadinger hardly breathed while life remained in the body of him he had nursed as a babe and cherished as a man, but was to lose forever now. When all was over the old man lost control of himself, and threw himself in despair on the body of his beloved master, and sobbed like a child.
* * * * *
Yonder, on the other side of the mountain-pass, the clear, bright winter sun lighted up the citadel which had just surrendered to the German troops. The garrison which had occupied it were marching off prisoners of war, while a portion of the victors were already on their way to the fort.
General von Falkenried, surrounded by his staff, was standing in the market-place of the little city, and was just on the point of marching to the fortress. The helmets and guns of the men gleamed brightly in the morning sun as they marched in solemn order toward the citadel.
General von Falkenried, who had been giving various orders, now turned to his officers and gave the signal to move forward.
At that moment a rider came dashing down the main street at a mad galop. His noble horse was covered with sweat and froth, and his flanks were bleeding from the sharp spurs which had been pressed into his side. The rider's face was covered with blood, too, which evidently came from a wound in the forehead which had been hastily bound with a cloth. As if fleeing before a storm, he heeded naught in his path, but rushed on in his mad ride toward the market-place where the commanding general was to be found.
Just a few steps from his goal the horse's strength gave out and he fell. But in the same instant the rider had sprung from the saddle, and hastened to the commander-in-chief.
"I come from General M——."
Falkenried drew a sharp, quick breath; he had not recognized the blood-stained face, he only knew that the man must have come on some important mission, but the tone of the man's voice gave him some premonition of the truth.
Hartmut swayed for a moment and put his hand to his head—it seemed as if he, like his horse, would succumb at the last moment; but he gathered himself together for a final effort.
"It is a warning from the general—there is treachery, the citadel is to be blown up as soon as our men are in it—here are the dispatches."
He tore the dispatches from his breast and handed them to Falkenried. The officers were startled by the unexpected news, and gathered around their chief waiting the corroboration or denial of the statement just made, but a strange sight met their eyes. Their general, who never lost his presence of mind, no matter how unexpected or how dreadful the calamity which he faced, stood gazing at the orderly as if a ghost had risen from the earth, still holding the unopened dispatches in his hand.
"Herr General, the dispatches!" said one of the adjutants, half aloud. He understood his leader as little as did the others. It was enough to bring Falkenried to his senses. He tore open the dispatches and learned their contents in a second, then again he was a soldier who thought of nothing but duty. He gave his orders in a loud, clear voice, the officers hurried hither and thither, cries of command were given, and signals sounded in every direction, and a few minutes later the division marching to the fortress was brought to a standstill, while the withdrawing garrison was also brought to a sudden halt.
Now the alarm signal was sounded from the citadel. Neither friend nor foe knew what it signified, only the newly conquered fort must be evacuated at once. The orders were carried out promptly. Despite the haste there was no disorder; the troops turned to march back to the city as they marched from it.
Falkenried still stood in the same place issuing orders, receiving communications, while with glance and word he watched and guided all. But he found a minute's time to turn to his son, he to whom he had given no sign of recognition.
"You are bleeding—your wound must be bound."
Hartmut shook his head.
"Later; first I must see the retreat and know we are saved."
The fearful excitement kept him up. He swayed no more, but watched with feverish impatience every movement of the troops. Falkenried looked at him, then he said:
"Which way did you come?"
"Over the pass."
"Why, the enemy hold it," cried the General.
"Yes—they hold it."
"And yet you came that way?"
"There was no choice; we only knew it last night, and I had no time for any other."
"That's a piece of heroism without parallel," said a high officer, who had just come up with a communication and heard the last words. "Man, how did you dare to run such a risk?"
Hartmut was silent; he raised his eyes slowly, and looked at his father. Now he was not afraid to meet those eyes, and in them he read that he was absolved.
But even the strength of him who has ventured all—and won, has its limits.
His father's face was the last he saw, then a bloody veil covered his eyes; he felt the blood again, hot and wet, running down his face, and all was night to him as he sank to the ground.
There was a roar and a shock which made the whole city quake and tremble. The citadel whose outline rose bold and clear toward the blue heavens seemed suddenly to be turned into a seething, glowing crater, vomiting flame. Within the bursting walls a very hell seemed to gape, as the shower of stones rose in the air only to sink again in the fiery hollow, and, as the gigantic wreck burned and blazed, it made one mighty pillar of fire reaching to the very heavens above—a vengeful, hideous flame of death.
The warning had not come a moment too soon. In spite of all precautions there had been some victims who lived in the immediate vicinity of the citadel and could not be reached, who were either blown to pieces or severely wounded; though in comparison with the fearful calamity which might have occurred and would have paralyzed all Germany, the loss was slight.
The General with his officers and all his troops were saved.
The General, with his wonted foresight and energy, had taken every precaution to avoid the terrible catastrophe, while his coolness, his example, had done more than anything else to inspire both officers and men to action. But now, when his duty as commander-in-chief was done, he had his rights as a father.
Hartmut had been carried, when he fell, to a house near by, and lay unconscious on his narrow cot. He neither saw nor heard his father, who stood with the surgeon by his side.
Falkenried looked earnestly at the pale, worn face and closed eyes, then he turned to the surgeon and said:
"Do you consider the wound mortal?"
The physician shrugged his shoulders.
"The wound of itself is not, but the strain and excitement of that fearful ride, the loss of blood, and the terrible night—I fear, General, there's little hope for the brave fellow. We must be prepared for the worst."
"I am prepared!" said Falkenried earnestly, then he kneeled and kissed his son, whom he had only found, he feared, to lose again; as he rose two hot tears fell on the death-like face.
But the father had no time to stay by his son. He must be up and doing. After a few minutes he left the room, leaving repeated injunctions with the doctor not to relax his watchful care for an instant.
The General's staff and many other officers were waiting in the market-place for their commander. As they waited they talked of the man who had ridden through the jaws of death to save them all; none knew his name, but he had come through the mountain pass, had faced a revengeful and infuriated foe, with death on all sides, and had reached them in time.
When the general appeared they surrounded and questioned him at once concerning the brave stranger.
Falkenried had his usual earnest look, but the settled gloom of his face was gone forever, and in its stead was an expression which those around him had never seen before. His eyes were wet, but his voice was firm and clear as he answered:
"Yes, gentlemen, he is severely wounded, and perhaps the ride which saved us all was his death ride. But he has done his duty as a man and a soldier, and if you would know his name, he is my son—Hartmut von Falkenried."
The old manor house of Burgsdorf lay peaceful and quiet in the summer sunshine. Its young master, who had been away from it for a whole year had just returned to it and to his young wife, for the war was over.
The great estate had not suffered during his long absence; it had been well cared for. The mother had taken the reins in hand again, and had governed as of old with judgment and a watchful eye, but she now resigned them willingly to her son, and declared her intention of taking up her residence in Berlin.
She looked well and happy to-day as she stood upon the broad stone veranda talking with her son who was by her side. He had never before seemed so handsome in her eyes, for his military life and discipline had given him a fine, stately bearing. She might well feel that he had gained something with which her education had not provided him, but she would not have admitted that for the world.
"So you intend to build?" she asked.
"I had thought of it."
"The old house in which your father and I lived is not good enough for your princess, whom you must needs surround with all possible glitter and splendor. Not that I care. You have the money to do it with. If all these fine doings please you, well and good. It's nothing to me, thank God."
"Don't try to be so severe, mother," laughed Willibald. "If a stranger heard you he'd think you were the worst kind of a mother-in-law. If Marietta's letters had not given me assurance enough that you spoiled her, your own actions every day would do so."
"Now and then one plays, even in old age, with a pretty doll," Regine answered dryly. "And your wife is but a fragile doll. Do not imagine she'll ever be a capable housewife—I saw at a glance that she hadn't it in her to manage here."
"You are quite right," answered her son eagerly "The work and the management of the estate are my care and mine alone, and I shall never bother Marietta with them. One takes pleasure in work too with such a sweet little singing bird by his side and in his heart."
"Willibald, I don't believe your head is right yet," said Frau von Eschenhagen with her old acerbity. "Who ever heard a sensible man, a married man and a landed gentleman, speak in such a manner of his wife, 'A sweet little singing bird.' You've been learning that from your bosom friend, Hartmut, whom you all think such a great poet."
"No mother, that's my own poetry," said Willibald, defending himself. "I never wrote but one poem, and that was on the night when I saw Marietta play. I gave it to Hartmut and asked him to change it a little and make it read more like his. I'll tell you what he said in answer. 'Dear Will, your poem is very beautiful and full of feeling; but you'd better let it remain as it is. The public would in all probability not appreciate the lines as they deserve, and your wife will value your work better without any rearrangement by me.' That was my bosom friend's judgment."
"It served you right; what had you, a landlord, to do with verses?" cried Regine sharply. Just then the door from the dining-room opened, and a dark curly head peeped out, while a fresh voice said playfully:
"May a poor subject have a moment's speech with her most gracious majesty?"
"Come here with you," said Frau von Eschenhagen, but the invitation was unnecessary, for the young wife was already in her husband's arms, while he, drawing her to him, whispered something in her ear.
"There you begin again," said his mother. "Some people never grow tired of folly."
The young wife turned toward her mother-in-law and said:
"You mustn't forget that we had no honeymoon when we were married, and so we are taking it now. You know from experience that one is permitted an extra share of happiness during that time."
Frau Regine shrugged her shoulders. Her honeymoon with Herr von Eschenhagen of blessed memory had been of another kind.
"You received a letter from your grandfather, did you not, Marietta?" she said, changing the subject. "Good news?"
"The very best. Grandpapa is quite well, and is delighted at the thought that he'll be here with me in another month. He writes that it's the quietest summer he has known for a long time around Waldhofen. Rodeck has been desolate and deserted since the prince's death. Ostwalden is closed and Fuerstenstein will be empty soon, too. Toni is to be married in two weeks, and then uncle Schoenau will be all alone."
The last words were spoken in a peculiar tone, and Marietta gave her mother-in-law an odd glance, which the latter did not notice; she only said:
"It does seem singular for Hartmut and Ada to spend the first weeks of their marriage here in that little villa when they could go to the great castle at Ostwalden or one of the Stahlberg palaces."
"They wanted to be as near the general as possible," said Willibald.
"Well, in this case, Falkenried could have gotten leave and gone to them. God be praised! The man seems to live again since he has his son with him. I knew better than any one how the boy's flight struck him, for he fairly worshipped his son, notwithstanding his severity. That famous ride which saved his father and his troops, absolved him from all his boyhood's errors, for which, after all, his mother alone was accountable."
"If we only had some wedding festivities in the family," said Marietta. "Will and I were married without any, because the war had commenced, and now when the war is happily ended, Hartmut and Ada are married just as quietly as we."
"My child, when a man has gone through all that Hartmut has endured, he has little desire for gaieties," said Frau von Eschenhagen, earnestly. "Besides, he has by no means recovered his strength yet. You saw how pale he was when they were married. Adelheid's first marriage was very different from her second one. Her poor father gave her away, although he was so ill, and she in her train and lace and diamonds looked like a queen; but her face was pale and cold. Now, she seemed like a different creature as she turned with Hartmut from the altar in her simple white silk gown and gauzy veil. I have never seen so peaceful, so happy a face! Poor Herbert! He never possessed his wife's love."
"Who could love so old a man? Always with his diplomatic coat and manner on, too. I shouldn't have been able to do it, I'm sure," cried Marietta, thoughtlessly.
Her mother-in-law, who held her brother's memory sacred, said tartly:
"Such an opportunity would never have come in your way. A man like Herbert von Wallmoden would scarcely have chosen you, you little insolent thing—"
The little insolent thing threw her arms around Frau Regine's neck, and said, flatteringly:
"Now, don't be angry, mamma! I wouldn't exchange my Will for all the great ambassadors of the world, and neither would you."
"You're a little minx," said Regine, striving to look as severe as ever. "You know very well that one can't be angry with you long. Oh, there'll be a petticoat government at Burgsdorf from this time on, such as the place has never witnessed before. Will's a little ashamed before me yet, but as soon as I'm gone he'll surrender at discretion."
"Why do you cling to that idea, mother?" said Willibald, reprovingly. "Why do you want to go when all is love and peace between us?"
"Just for that reason I go, that peace may continue; we need not discuss it, my son. I must always be first where I live and work. You must be that now, and we wouldn't pull together. Until now we have been distressed and anxious about you, not knowing what hour would bring tidings to break our hearts. That's all over, but I'm not so old that I must be set aside as useless. Wherever I am I must be the head, and for that reason I am going."
She turned and entered the house, while her son gazed after her and gave a troubled sigh.
"Perhaps she is right," he said, "but it will be hard for her to be without duties or occupation. Enforced quiet will be very hard for her, I know. You should have begged her to remain, Marietta."
Marietta laid her head on his shoulder and looked up smiling:
"O no, I'll do something better. I'll have a care that when she leaves us she will not be unhappy."
"You? What will you do?"
"Only a simple thing—have her get married."
"What do you mean?"
"O, Will, to be so wise and yet see nothing," said his wife with her old sweet silvery laugh. "Have you no idea why uncle Schoenau was in such a bad humor when we met him in Berlin, and urged him to visit us? Your mother didn't invite him because she feared another proposal; he understood that, and it made him furious. I saw them at Waldhofen the time of our marriage, and I knew he would have been very glad to have a similar ceremony performed for himself, only your mother said him nay. Don't put on such a face, Will; you look exactly as you did the first day I saw you."
Her husband was gazing at her in boundless astonishment. He had never dreamed of such a possibility as his mother marrying again, or his uncle either, for that matter. It struck him now as a most excellent arrangement.
"Marietta, how wise you are!" he said, looking with admiration at the smiling girl, who was beaming with satisfaction at the manner in which her news had been received.
"I'm wiser than you think," she declared triumphantly, "for I have set the wheel going. I took occasion to let uncle Schoenau know that if he stormed the fort again, a complete surrender might follow. He said he had no intention of being refused again, but you'll see him sooner than you think. In fact he's in the house now, came half an hour ago, but I determined to say nothing about it before mamma—here he is now!"
The head forester stepped on the terrace just in time to hear the last words.
"Yes, here I am," said Herr von Schoenau. "It's all your little wife's fault, Will, that I am at Burgsdorf. I'm here at her suggestion, and if that mother of your's is not obstinate and unreasonable and pig-headed as usual—why I'll marry her."
"I pray to God you may, uncle," answered Will, to whom this summary of his mother's wonted characteristics was very singular, to say the least.
"Yes, so do I," agreed Schoenau, "your wife thinks—"
"I think that you shouldn't lose a moment," cried Marietta, "Mamma has just gone to her sitting-room and knows nothing of your arrival. Will and I will remain behind, and if the worst comes to the worst call on us. Forward, march!"
With these words she gave him a push, and the sturdy, broad shouldered man turned at her bidding, saying to Will, who entered the house with him:
"They are all commanders whether they be large or small—it's born in them, I suppose."
Regine von Eschenhagen stood at the window of her cosy room looking out upon her beloved Burgsdorf, which she was to leave in a few days. Though she had said so decidedly she would go, the decision had been no light matter to her. The strong, active, capable woman who had been mistress here for thirty years and over, dreaded the quiet and inactivity of city life, of which she had had some slight experience at the time of her quarrel with her son. She dreaded going back to it now, though she knew it was but just and fitting to leave Willibald and his wife alone, and she had the courage to do what was right. She heard the door open and turned to see the head forester enter the room.
"Moritz, you here?" she said, surprised. "It was very sensible of you to come."
"Yes, I'm always sensible," answered the head forester, with his usual lack of tact. "You didn't have the grace to invite me, but I thought I'd come in person to invite you and your children to Toni's marriage. You will come to Fuerstenstein, will you not?"
"Certainly we will come, but we were surprised to hear it was to take place so soon. I thought you were going to buy them an estate first and settle the matter more slowly!"
"No, they wouldn't wait or listen to reason. Our warriors make great demands when they come home covered with glory. Walldorf said to me quite coolly: 'You know you said first conquer then marry. Well we have conquered; now I shall marry without any delay. The estate can wait, the land won't run away, but we must be married now!' Of course Toni seconded everything he said. What could I do? I let them name the day then and there."
Frau von Eschenhagen laughed.
"The young are in a hurry to marry, though they have plenty of time to wait."
"The old have none to spare, though," said the head forester promptly, glad of so good a chance to get on the subject near his heart. "Have you reflected enough over our little affair, Regine?"
"Why, our marriage. I trust you are in the humor for it now." Regine turned away somewhat embarrassed.
"How you do love to take one by surprise, Moritz."
"So that is what you call taking by surprise?" cried the head forester, irritated. "Over five years ago I asked you to marry me, then last year a second time, and now for the third time, so you have had plenty of time to consider the matter. Yes, or no? If you send me away this time I'll never come again, understand that!"
Regine did not answer, but it was not indecision which made her hesitate. Notwithstanding her hard, unyielding nature, deep down in her heart there had always been a warm feeling for the man who was to have been her husband long years ago, for Hartmut von Falkenried. When he had turned from her she had married another, for she had no thought of leading a desolate, useless life; but the same feeling of bitter woe which had entered the young girl's heart was in the heart of the older woman to-day and closed her lips. She stood silent for a few minutes, then cast the sweet, sad memory from her forever, and gave her hand to her brother-in-law:
"Well then, yes, Moritz! I will make you a good and true wife."
"Thank God!" said Schoenau earnestly, for he had feared her hesitation would result in a third refusal. "You should have said that five years ago, Regine, but better late than never. It's all right at last."
And with these words the persevering man folded her in his arms with affectionate tenderness.
* * * * *
The sun shone down warm and bright on the meadow land and penetrated even into the forest depths. It fell across the pathway of General von Falkenried and his son and daughter, who were sauntering along under the high firs on the way which led to Burgsdorf.
Falkenried did not seem the same man he had been for the past ten years. The war which, despite its victories and final triumph, had made so many old before their time, had affected him apparently in a different manner. His white hair was thin over his deeply furrowed brow, but his features had life again, his eyes had fire and expression, and one saw at a glance that this was no old man, but one in the zenith of his strength and power.
Falkenried's son had not fully recovered his strength yet, and his face showed traces of great suffering. The war had not left him younger, on the contrary he had grown older; his pallid face, and the broad, red scar on his forehead, told a tale of their own. For months after that fearful night he had lain at death's door, but with returning life and strength all traces of the old Hartmut, of Zalika's son, disappeared forever.
It seemed as if, in casting from him the name of Rojanow, he cast with it the unholy heritage of her who had borne him. The dark curly locks were beginning to grow again over the high, broad forehead, so like his father's.
The young wife by his side, so beautiful, so winning always, was lovelier than ever now, for joy and happiness had set their seal on her bright, girlish face! Who would recognize in this slender, graceful figure, clad in a simple, summer frock, the proud, cold court beauty in her laces and jewels? The smile, the tone in which she spoke to her father and husband, Frau von Wallmoden had never known, for it was Ada Falkenried who had learned it.
"You can go no farther to-day," said the general, standing still. "You have a long walk back, and Hartmut is not strong enough for much yet. The physician was very decided about his not exerting himself."
"If you only knew, father, how hard it was to be mistaken for an invalid when I am getting so well and strong again," said Hartmut. "I am getting strong enough—"
"To bring on a relapse by your folly," his father answered. "You have never learned patience, and it is altogether owing to Ada that you are as strong as you are."
"If it hadn't been for her there would be no Hartmut to-day," said her husband, giving her a glance of tenderest love. "I believe the case was almost hopeless when she came to me!"
"The physicians at least gave no hope, when I telegraphed for Ada in response to your cry. The first minute you recovered consciousness, you called for her, to my boundless astonishment, for I did not know you even knew one another."
"That hardly seemed fair to you, papa, did it?" As she glanced up laughing into her father's face, he drew her to him, and kissed her forehead.
"You know best what you have been to Hartmut and me, my child. I thank God for bringing him back to me through your nursing. And you are right in detaining him here, although the physician says he could travel now. He must first learn to know his fatherland and his home to which he was so long a stranger."
"First learn?" said Ada, reprovingly. "What he read to you and to me to-day shows that he has long since learned it; his new poem breathes a different spirit from his wild, passionate 'Arivana.'"
"Yes, Hartmut, your new work is certainly fine," said his father, as he reached out his hand to his son. "I believe the fatherland will yet honor my boy in peace, as well as in war."
Hartmut's eyes lighted as he returned the warm hand pressure. He knew what such praise from his father's lips signified.
"Good-bye," said the general, kissing his daughter. "I'll go on from Burgsdorf to the city, but in a few days we'll meet again. Good-bye, children."
As he disappeared through the trees, Hartmut led Ada toward the Burgsdorf fish-pond. When they reached it they stood gazing down on the still sheet of water which lay so placid and clear in its setting of water lilies and reeds.
"Here, as a boy, I played for hours with Will," said Hartmut softly, "and here my destiny was decided for me on that fateful night. I realize now, for the first time, all that I did to my father in that fearful hour."
"Ah, but you have repaid him for all his suffering," answered Ada, as she laid her hand on her husband's arm. "The world, too, has forgotten your boyhood's folly. That was proven by the words of praise and congratulations which poured in upon your father from all sides about his heroic son."
Hartmut shook his head. "That was no heroism, it was despair. I did not think I should succeed. No one thought so; but even had I fallen, the enemy's bullet would have redeemed my honor. Egon understood that, and that was why he put my salvation in my own hands. When we two said good-bye in the little ruined church on that icy winter's night, we knew we should never meet again, but we both thought I would be the victim, for I rode to almost certain death. But a spirit-hand seemed to lead me, and in the hour in which I reached my goal, poor Egon fell. You need not hide your tears, dear. I have no jealousy of the dead."
"Eugen brought me his last greeting," said the young wife, the hot tears standing in her eyes. "And poor Stadinger wrote me, too, of his master's last words. I fear the old man won't live long; his letter sounded as though he were heart-broken."
"My poor Egon!" Hartmut's voice told how deep was his sorrow for his loss. "He was so sunny, so amiable always. He seemed created for a long, cloudless life. Perhaps you would have been happier by his side, Ada, than with your wild, stormy Hartmut, who will so often vex you with the dark shadows of his life."
Ada glanced up at him, smiling through her tears.
"I have only one love, and that is my wild, stormy Hartmut, and I know no greater happiness than to be his wife!"
Wood and water lay quiet in the afternoon sunshine. The old firs stood dark and tall, while the reeds whispered softly to one another, and thousands of sunny sparks danced on the water. Far above, in the heavens to which the boy had once longed to mount like a falcon, the sun rode on his glorious course. In splendor he shed his rays on all beneath—mighty, eternal and glorious source and promise of life and joy.