A week—ten days passed. I did not see the beautiful girl again—nor did I forget her. One night at the opera I found her. It was “Lohengrin”—but she has told all that story herself—how Eugen came in late (he had a trick of never coming in till the last minute, and I used to think he had some reason for it)—and the recognition and the cut direct, first on her side, then on his.
Eugen and I walked home together, arm in arm, and I felt provoked with him.
“I say, Eugen, did you see the young lady with Vincent and the others in the first row of the parquet?”
“I saw some six or eight ladies of various ages in the first row of the parquet. Some were old and some were young. One had a knitted shawl over her head, which she kept on during the whole of the performance.”
“Don’t be so maddening. I said the young lady with Vincent and Fräulein Sartorius. By the bye, Eugen, do you know, or have you ever known her?”
“Who is she?”
“Oh, bother! The young lady I mean sat exactly opposite to you and me—a beautiful young girl; an Engländerin—fair, with that hair that we never see here, and—”
“In a brown hat—sitting next to Vincent. I saw her—yes.”
“She saw you too.”
“She must have been blind if she hadn’t.”
“Have you seen her before?”
“I have seen her before—yes.”
“And spoken to her?”
“Even spoken to her.”
“Do tell me what it all means.”
“Are you so struck with her, Friedel? Don’t lose your heart to her, I warn you.”
“Why?” I inquired, wilily, hoping the answer would give me some clew to his acquaintance with her.
“Because, mein Bester, she is a cut above you and me, in a different sphere, one that we know nothing about. What is more, she knows it, and shows it. Be glad that you can not lay yourself open to the snub that I got to-night.”
There was so much bitterness in his tone that I was surprised. But a sudden remembrance flushed into my mind of his strange remarks after I had left him that day at Cologne, and I laughed to myself, nor, when he asked me, would I tell him why. That evening he had very little to say to Karl Linders and myself.
Eugen never spoke to me of the beautiful girl who had behaved so strangely that evening, though we saw her again and again.
Sometimes I used to meet her in the street, in company with the dark, plain girl, Anna Sartorius, who, I fancied, always surveyed Eugen with a look of recognition. The two young women formed in appearance an almost startling contrast. She came to all the concerts, as if she made music a study—generally she was with a stout, good-natured-looking German Fräulein, and the young Englishman, Vincent. There was always something rather melancholy about her grace and beauty.
Most beautiful she was; with long, slender, artist-like hands, the face a perfect oval, but the features more piquant than regular; sometimes a subdued fire glowed in her eyes and compressed her lips, which removed her altogether from the category of spiritless beauties—a genus for which I never had the least taste.
One morning Courvoisier and I, standing just within the entrance to the theater orchestra, saw two people go by. One, a figure well enough known to every one in Elberthal, and especially to us—that of Max von Francius. Did I ever say that von Francius was an exceedingly handsome fellow, in a certain dark, clean-shaved style? On that occasion he was speaking with more animation than was usual with him, and the person to whom he had unbent so far was the fair English woman—that enigmatical beauty who had cut my friend at the opera. She also was looking animated and very beautiful; her face turned to his with a smile—a glad, gratified smile. He was saying:
“But in the next lesson, you know—”
They passed on. I turned to ask Eugen if he had seen. I needed not to put the question. He had seen. There was a forced smile upon his lips. Before I could speak he had said:
“It’s time to go in, Friedel; come along!” With which he turned into the theater, and I followed thoughtfully.
Then it was rumored that at the coming concert—the benefit of von Francius—a new soprano was to appear—a young lady of whom report used varied tones; some believable facts at least we learned about her. Her name, they said was Wedderburn; she was an English woman, and had a most wonderful voice. The Herr Direktor took a very deep interest in her; he not only gave her lessons; he had asked to give her lessons, and intended to form of her an artiste who should one day be to the world a kind of Patti, Lucca, or Nilsson.
I had no doubt in my own mind as to who she was, but for all that I felt considerable excitement on the evening of the haupt-probe to the “Verlorenes Paradies.”
Yes, I was right. Miss Wedderburn, the pupil of von Francius, of whom so much was prophesied, was the beautiful, forlorn-looking English girl. The feeling which grew upon me that evening, and which I never found reason afterward to alter, was that she was modest, gentle, yet spirited, very gifted, and an artiste by nature and gift, yet sadly ill at ease and out of place in that world into which von Francius wished to lead her.
She sat quite near to Eugen and me, and I saw how alone she was, and how she seemed to feel her loneliness. I saw how certain young ladies drew themselves together, and looked at her (it was on this occasion that I first began to notice the silent behavior of women toward each other, and the more I have observed, the more has my wonder grown and increased), and whispered behind their music, and shrugged their shoulders when von Francius, seeing how isolated she seemed, bent forward and said a few kind words to her.
I liked him for it. After all, he was a man. But his distinguishing the child did not add to the delights of her position—rather made it worse. I put myself in her place as well as I could, and felt her feelings when von Francius introduced her to one of the young ladies near her, who first stared at him, then at her, then inclined her head a little forward and a little backward, turned her back upon Miss Wedderburn, and appeared lost in conversation of the deepest importance with her neighbor. And I thought of the words which Karl Linders had said to us in haste and anger, and after a disappointment he had lately had, “Das weib ist der teufel.” Yes, woman is the devil sometimes, thought I, and a mean kind of devil too. A female Mephistopheles would not have damned Gretchen’s soul, nor killed her body, she would have left the latter on this earthly sphere, and damned her reputation.
Von Francius was a clever man, but he made a grand mistake that night, unless he were desirous of making his protégée as uncomfortable as possible. How could those ladies feel otherwise than insulted at seeing the man of ice so suddenly attentive and bland to a nobody, an upstart, and a beautiful one?
The probe continued, and still she sat alone and unspoken to, her only acquaintance or companion seeming to be Fräulein Sartorius, with whom she had come in. I saw how, when von Francius called upon her to do her part, and the looks which had hitherto been averted from her were now turned pitilessly and unwinkingly upon her, she quailed. She bit her lip; her hand trembled. I turned to Eugen with a look which said volumes. He sat with his arms folded, and his face perfectly devoid of all expression, gazing straight before him.
Miss Wedderburn might have been satisfied to the full with her revenge. That was a voice! such a volume of pure, exquisite melody as I had rarely heard. After hearing that, all doubts were settled. The gift might be a blessing or a curse—let every one decide that for himself, according to his style of thinking—but it was there. She possessed the power which put her out of the category of commonplace, and had the most melodious “Open, Sesame!” with which to besiege the doors of the courts in which dwell artists—creative and interpretative.
The performance finished the gap between her and her companions. Their looks said, “You are not one of us.” My angry spirit said, “No; you can never be like her.”
She seemed half afraid of what she had done when it was over, and shrunk into herself with downcast eyes and nervous quivering of the lips at the subdued applause of the men. I wanted to applaud too, but I looked at Eugen. I had instinctively given him some share in the affairs of this lovely creature—a share, which he always strenuously repudiated, both tacitly and openly.
Nevertheless, when I saw him I abstained from applauding, knowing, by a lightning-quick intuition, that it would be highly irritating to him. He showed no emotion; if he had done, I should not have thought the occasion was anything special to him. It was his absurd gravity, stony inexpressiveness, which impressed me with the fact that he was moved—moved against his will and his judgment. He could no more help approving both of her and her voice than he could help admiring a perfect, half-opened rose.
It was over, and we went out of the saal, across the road, and home.
Sigmund, who had not been very well that day, was awake, and restless. Eugen took him up, wrapped him in a little bed-gown, carried him into the other room, and sat down with him. The child rested his head on the loved breast, and was soothed.
She had gone; the door had closed after her. Eugen turned to me, and took Sigmund into his arms again.
“Mein Vater, who is the beautiful lady, and why did you speak so harshly to her? Why did you make her cry?”
The answer, though ostensibly spoken to Sigmund, was a revelation to me.
“That I may not have to cry myself,” said Eugen, kissing him.
“Could the lady make thee cry?” demanded Sigmund, sitting up, much excited at the idea.
Another kiss and a half laugh was the answer. Then he bade him go to sleep, as he did not understand what he was talking about.
By and by Sigmund did drop to sleep. Eugen carried him to his bed, tucked him up, and returned. We sat in silence—such an uncomfortable constrained silence, as had never before been between us. I had a book before me. I saw no word of it. I could not drive the vision away—the lovely, pleading face, the penitence. Good heavens! How could he repulse her as he had done? Her repeated request that he would take that money—what did it all mean? And, moreover, my heart was sore that he had concealed it all from me. About the past I felt no resentment; there was a secret there which I respected; but I was cut up at this. The more I thought of it, the keener was the pain I felt.
I looked up. Eugen was leaning across the table and his hand was stretched toward me; his eyes looked full into mine. I answered his look, but I was not clear yet.
“Forgive thee what?”
“This playing with thy confidence.”
“Don’t mention it,” I forced myself to say, but the sore feeling still remained. “You have surely a right to keep your affairs to yourself if you choose.”
“You will not shake hands? Well, perhaps I have no right to ask it; but I should like to tell you all about it.”
I put my hand into his.
“I was wounded,” said I, “it is true. But it is over.”
“Then listen, Friedel.”
He told me the story of his meeting with Miss Wedderburn. All he said of the impression she had made upon him was:
“I thought her very charming, and the loveliest creature I had ever seen. And about the trains. It stands in this way. I thought a few hours of her society would make me very happy, and would be like—oh, well! I knew that in the future, if she ever should see me again, she would either treat me with distant politeness as an inferior, or, supposing she discovered that I had cheated her, would cut me dead. And as it did not matter, as I could not possibly be an acquaintance of hers in the future, I gave myself that pleasure then. It has turned out a mistake on my part, but that is nothing new; my whole existence has been a monstrous mistake. However, now she sees what a churl’s nature was under my fair-seeming exterior, her pride will show her what to do. She will take a wrong view of my character, but what does that signify? She will say that to be deceitful first and uncivil afterward are the main features of the German character, and when she is at Cologne on her honey-moon, she will tell her bride-groom about this adventure, and he will remark that the fellow wanted horsewhipping, and she—”
“There! You have exercised your imagination quite sufficiently. Then you intend to keep up this farce of not recognizing her. Why?”
He hesitated, looked as nearly awkward as he could, and said, a little constrainedly:
“Because I think it will be for the best.”
“For you or for her?” I inquired, not very fairly, but I could not resist it.
Eugen flushed all over his face.
“What a question!” was all he said.
“I do not think it such a remarkable question. Either you have grown exceedingly nervous as to your own strength of resistance or your fear for hers.”
“Friedhelm,” said he, in a cutting voice, “that is a tone which I should not have believed you capable of taking. It is vulgar, my dear fellow, and uncalled for; and it is so unlike you that I am astonished. If you had been one of the other fellows—”
I fired up.
“Excuse me, Eugen, it might be vulgar if I were merely chaffing you, but I am not; and I think, after what you have told me, that I have said very little. I am not so sure of her despising you. She looks much more as if she were distressed at your despising her.”
“If you can mention an instance in her behavior this evening which looked as if she were desirous of snubbing you, I should be obliged by your mentioning it,” I continued:
“Well—well. If she had wished to snub you she would have sent you that money through the post, and made an end of it. She simply desired, as was evident all along, to apologize for having been rude to a person who had been kind to her. I can quite understand it, and I am not sure that your behavior will not have the very opposite effect to that you expect.”
“I think you are mistaken. However, it does not matter; our paths lie quite apart. She will have plenty of other things to take up her time and thoughts. Anyhow I am glad that you and I are quits once more.”
So was I. We said no more upon the subject, but I always felt as if a kind of connecting link existed between my friend and me, and that beautiful, solitary English girl.
The link was destined to become yet closer. The concert was over at which she sung. She had a success. I see she has not mentioned it; a success which isolated her still more from her companions, inasmuch as it made her more distinctly professional and them more severely virtuous.
One afternoon when Eugen and I happened to have nothing to do, we took Sigmund to the Grafenberg. We wandered about in the fir wood, and at last came to a pause and rested. Eugen lay upon his back and gazed up into the thickness of brown-green fir above, and perhaps guessed at the heaven beyond the dark shade. I sat and stared before me through the straight red-brown stems across the ground,
“With sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged,”
to an invisible beyond which had charms for me, and was a kind of symphonic beauty in my mind. Sigmund lay flat upon his stomach, kicked his heels and made intricate patterns with the fir needles, while he hummed a gentle song to himself in a small, sweet voice, true as a lark’s, but sadder. There was utter stillness and utter calm all round.
Presently Eugen’s arm stole around Sigmund and drew him closer and closer to him, and they continued to look at each other until a mutual smile broke upon both faces, and the boy said, his whole small frame as well as his voice quivering (the poor little fellow had nerves that vibrated to the slightest emotion): “I love thee.”
A light leaped into the father’s eyes; a look of pain followed it quickly.
“And I shall never leave thee,” said Sigmund.
Eugen parried the necessity of speaking by a kiss.
“I love thee too, Friedel,” continued he, taking my hand. “We are very happy together, aren’t we?” And he laughed placidly to himself.
Eugen, as if stung by some tormenting thought, sprung up and we left the wood.
Oh, far back, by-gone day! There was a soft light over you shed by a kindly sun. That was a time in which joy ran a golden thread through the gray homespun of every-day life.
Back to the restauration at the foot of the berg, where Sigmund was supplied with milk and Eugen and I with beer, where we sat at a little wooden table in a garden and the pleasant clack of friendly conversation sounded around; where the women tried to make friends with Sigmund, and the girls whispered behind their coffee-cups or (pace, elegant fiction!) their beer-glasses, and always happened to be looking up if our eyes roved that way. Two poor musiker and a little boy; persons of no importance whatever, who could scrape their part in the symphony with some intelligence and feel they had done their duty. Well, well! it is not all of us who can do even so much. I know some instruments that are always out of tune. Let us be complacent where we justly can. The opportunities are few.
We took our way home. The days were long, and it was yet light when we returned and found the reproachful face of Frau Schmidt looking for us, and her arms open to receive the weary little lad who had fallen asleep on his father’s shoulder.
I went upstairs, and, by a natural instinct, to the window. Those facing it were open; some one moved in the room. Two chords of a piano were struck. Some one came and stood by the window, shielded her eyes from the rays of the setting sun which streamed down the street and looked westward. Eugen was passing behind me. I pulled him to the window, and we both looked—silently, gravely.
The girl dropped her hand; her eyes fell upon us. The color mounted to her cheek; she turned away and went to the interior of the room. It was May Wedderburn.
“Also!” said Eugen, after a pause. “A new neighbor; it reminds me of one of Andersen’s ‘Märchen,’ but I don’t know which.”