“And behold, though the way was light and the sun did shine, yet my heart was ill at ease, for a sinister blot did now and again fleck the sun, and a muttered sound perturbed the air. And he repeated oft ‘One hath told me—thus—or thus.’”
Karl Linders, our old acquaintance, was now our fast friend. Many changes had taken place in the personnel of our fellow-workmen in the kapelle, but Eugen, Karl, and I remained stationary in the same places and holding the same rank as on the day we had first met. He, Karl, had been from the first more congenial to me than any other of my fellows (Eugen excepted, of course). Why, I could never exactly tell. There was about him a contagious cheerfulness, good-humor, and honesty. He was a sinner, but no rascal; a wild fellow—Taugenichts—wilder Gesell, as our phraseology had it, but the furthest thing possible from a knave.
Since his visits to us and his earnest efforts to curry favor with Sigmund by means of nondescript wool beasts, domestic or of prey, he had grown much nearer to us. He was the only intimate we had—the only person who came in and out of our quarters at any time; the only man who sat and smoked with us in an evening. At the time when Karl put in his first appearance in these pages he was a young man not only not particular, but utterly reckless as to the society he frequented. Any one, he was wont to say, was good enough to talk with, or to listen while talked to. Karl’s conversation could not be called either affected or pedantic; his taste was catholic, and comprised within wide bounds; he considered all subjects that were amusing appropriate matter of discussion, and to him most subjects were—or were susceptible of being made—amusing.
Latterly, however, it would seem that a process of growth had been going on in him. Three years had worked a difference. In some respects he was, thank Heaven! still the old Karl—the old careless, reckless, aimless fellow; but in others he was metamorphosed.
Karl Linders, a handsome fellow himself and a slave to beauty, as he was careful to inform us—susceptible in the highest degree to real loveliness—so he often told us—and in love on an average, desperately and forever, once a week, had at last fallen really and actually in love.
For a long time we did not guess it—or rather, accepting his being in love as a chronic state of his being—one of the “inseparable accidents,” which may almost be called qualities, we wondered what lay at the bottom of his sudden intense sobriety of demeanor and propriety of conduct, and looked for some cause deeper than love, which did not usually have that effect upon him; we thought it might be debt. We studied the behavior itself; we remarked that for upward of ten days he had never lauded the charms of any young woman connected with the choral or terpsichorean staff of the opera, and wondered.
We saw that he had had his hair very much cut, and we told him frankly that we did not think it improved him. To our great surprise he told us that we knew nothing about it, and requested us to mind our own business, adding testily, after a pause, that he did not see why on earth a set of men like us should make ourselves conspicuous by the fashion of our hair, as if we were Absaloms or Samsons.
“Samson had a Delilah, mein lieber,” said I, eying him. “She shore his locks for him. Tell us frankly who has acted the part by you.”
“Bah! Can a fellow have no sense in his own head to find such things out? Go and do likewise, and I can tell you you’ll be improved.”
But we agreed when he was gone that the loose locks, drooping over the laughing glance, suited him better than that neatly cropped propriety.
Days passed, and Karl was still not his old self. It became matter of public remark that his easy, short jacket, a mongrel kind of garment to which he was deeply attached, was discarded, not merely for grand occasions, but even upon the ordinary Saturday night concert, yea, even for walking out at midday, and a superior frock-coat substituted for it—a frock-coat in which, we told him, he looked quite edel. At which he pished and pshawed, but surreptitiously adjusted his collar before the looking-glass which the propriety and satisfactoriness of our behavior had induced Frau Schmidt to add to our responsibilities, pulled his cuffs down, and remarked en passant that “the ’cello was a horribly ungraceful instrument.”
“Not as you use it,” said we both, politely, and allowed him to lead the way to the concert-room.
A few evenings later he strolled into our room, lighted a cigar, and sighed deeply.
“What ails thee, then, Karl?” I asked.
“I’ve something on my mind,” he replied, uneasily.
“That we know,” put in Eugen; “and a pretty big lump it must be, too. Out with it, man! Has she accepted the bottle-nosed oboist after all?”
“Have you got into debt? How much? I dare say we can manage it between us.”
“No—oh, no! I am five thalers to the good.”
Our countenances grow more serious. Not debt? Then what was it, what could it be?
“I hope nothing has happened to Gretchen,” suggested Eugen, for Gretchen, his sister, was the one permanently strong love of Karl’s heart.
“Oh, no! Das Mädel is very well, and getting on in her classes.”
“Then what is it?”
“I’m—engaged—to be married.”
I grieve to say that Eugen and I, after staring at him for some few minutes, until we had taken in the announcement, both burst into the most immoderate laughter—till the tears ran down our cheeks, and our sides ached.
Karl sat quite still, unresponsive, puffing away at his cigar; and when we had finished, or rather were becoming a little more moderate in the expression of our amusement, he knocked the ash away from his weed, and remarked:
“That’s blind jealousy. You both know that there isn’t a Mädchen in the place who would look at you, so you try to laugh at people who are better off than yourselves.”
This was so stinging (from the tone more than the words) as coming from the most sweet-tempered fellow I ever knew, that we stopped. Eugen apologized, and we asked who the lady was.
“I shouldn’t suppose you cared to know,” said he, rather sulkily. “And it’s all very fine to laugh, but let me see the man who even smiles at her—he shall learn who I am.”
We assured him, with the strongest expressions that we could call to our aid, that it was the very idea of his being engaged that made us laugh—not any disrespect, and begged his pardon again. By degrees he relented. We still urgently demanded the name of the lady.
“Als verlobte empfehlen sich Karl Linders and—who else?” asked Eugen.
“Als verlobte empfehlen sich[D] Karl Linders and Clara Steinmann,” said Karl, with much dignity.
“Clara Steinmann,” we repeated, in tones of respectful gravity, “I never heard of her.”
“No, she keeps herself rather reserved and select,” said Karl, impressively. “She lives with her aunt in the Alléestrasse, at number 39.”
“Number 39!” we both ejaculated.
“Exactly so! What have you to say against it?” demanded Herr Linders, glaring round upon us with an awful majesty.
“Nothing—oh, less than nothing. But I know now where you mean. It is a boarding-house, nicht wahr?”
He nodded sedately.
“I have seen the young lady,” said I, carefully observing all due respect. “Eugen, you must have seen her too. Miss Wedderburn used to come with her to the Instrumental Concerts before she began to sing.”
“Right!” said Karl, graciously. “She did. Clara liked Miss Wedderburn very much.”
“Indeed!” said we, respectfully, and fully recognizing that this was quite a different affair from any of the previous flirtations with chorus-singers and ballet-girls which had taken up so much of his attention.
“I don’t know her,” said I, “I have not that pleasure, but I am sure you are to be congratulated, old fellow—so I do congratulate you very heartily.”
“Thank you,” said he.
“I can’t congratulate you, Karl, as I don’t know the lady,” said Eugen, “but I do congratulate her,” laying his hand upon Karl’s shoulder; “I hope she knows the kind of man she has won, and is worthy of him.”
A smile of the Miss Squeers description—“Tilda, I pities your ignorance and despises you”—crossed Karl’s lips as he said:
“Thank you. No one else knows. It only took place—decidedly, you know, to-night. I said I should tell two friends of mine—she said she had no objection. I should not have liked to keep it from you two. I wish,” said Karl, whose eyes had been roving in a seeking manner round the room, and who now brought his words out with a run; “I wish Sigmund had been here too. I wish she could have seen him. She loves children; she has been very good to Gretchen.”
Eugen’s hand dropped from our friend’s shoulder. He walked to the window without speaking, and looked out into the darkness—as he was then in more senses than one often wont to do—nor did he break the silence nor look at us again until some time after Karl and I had resumed the conversation.
So did the quaint fellow announce his engagement to us. It was quite a romantic little history, for it turned out that he had loved the girl for full two years, but for a long time had not been able even to make her acquaintance, and when that was accomplished, had hardly dared to speak of his love for her; for though she was sprung from much the same class as himself, she was in much better circumstances, and accustomed to a life of ease and plenty, even if she were little better in reality than a kind of working housekeeper. A second suitor for her hand had, however, roused Karl into boldness and activity; he declared himself, and was accepted. Despite the opposition of Frau Steinmann, who thought the match in every way beneath her niece (why, I never could tell), the lovers managed to carry their purpose so far as the betrothal or verlobung went; marriage was a question strictly of the future. It was during the last weeks of suspense and uncertainty that Karl had been unable to carry things off in quite his usual light-hearted manner; it was after finally conquering that he came to make us partners in his satisfaction.
In time we had the honor of an introduction to Fräulein Steinmann, and our amazement and amusement were equally great. Karl was a tall, handsome, well-knit fellow, with an exceptionally graceful figure and what I call a typical German face (typical, I mean, in one line of development)—open, frank, handsome, with the broad traits, smiling lips, clear and direct guileless eyes, waving hair and aptitude for geniality which are the chief characteristics of that type—not the highest, perhaps, but a good one, nevertheless—honest, loyal, brave—a kind which makes good fathers and good soldiers—how many a hundred are mourned since 1870-71!
He had fallen in love with a little stout dumpy Mädchen, honest and open as himself, but stupid in all outside domestic matters. She was evidently desperately in love with him, and could understand a good waltz or a sentimental song, so that his musical talents were not altogether thrown away. I liked her better after a time. There was something touching in the way in which she said to me once:
“He might have done so much better. I am such an ugly, stupid thing, but when he said did I love him or could I love him, or something like that, um Gotteswillen, Herr Helfen, what could I say?”
“I am sure you did the best possible thing both for him and for you,” I was able to say, with emphasis and conviction.
Karl had now become a completely reformed and domesticated member of society; now he wore the frock-coat several times a week, and confided to me that he thought he must have a new one soon. Now too did other strange results appear of his engagement to Fräulein Clara (he got sentimental and called her Clärchen sometimes). He had now the entrée of Frau Steinmann’s house and there met feminine society several degrees above that to which he had been accustomed. He was obliged to wear a permanently polite and polished manner (which, let me hasten to say, was not the least trouble to him). No chaffing of these young ladies—no offering to take them to places of amusement of any but the very sternest and severest respectability.
He took Fräulein Clara out for walks. They jogged along arm in arm, Karl radiant, Clara no less so, and sometimes they were accompanied by another inmate of Frau Steinmann’s house—a contrast to them both. She lived en famille with her hostess, not having an income large enough to admit of indulging in quite separate quarters, and her name was Anna Sartorius.
It was very shortly after his engagement that Karl began to talk to me about Anna Sartorius. She was a clever young woman, it seemed—or as he called her, a gescheidtes Mädchen. She could talk most wonderfully. She had traveled—she had been in England and France, and seen the world, said Karl. They all passed very delightful evenings together sometimes, diversified with music and song and the racy jest—at which times Frau Steinmann became quite another person, and he, Karl, felt himself in heaven.
The substance of all this was told me by him one day at a probe, where Eugen had been conspicuous by his absence. Perhaps the circumstance reminded Karl of some previous conversation, for he said:
“She must have seen Courvoisier before somewhere. She asks a good many questions about him, and when I said I knew him she laughed.”
“Look here, Karl, don’t go talking to outsiders about Eugen—or any of us. His affairs are no business of Fräulein Sartorius, or any other busybody.”
“I talk about him! What do you mean? Upon my word I don’t know how the conversation took that turn; but I am sure she knows something about him. She said ‘Eugen Courvoisier indeed!’ and laughed in a very peculiar way.”
“She is a fool. So are you if you let her talk to you about him.”
“She is no fool, and I want to talk to no one but my own Mädchen,” said he, easily; “but when a woman is talking one can’t stop one’s ears.”
Time passed. The concert with the Choral Symphony followed. Karl had had the happiness of presenting tickets to Fräulein Clara and her aunt, and of seeing them, in company with Miss Sartorius, enjoying looking at the dresses, and saying how loud the music was. His visits to Frau Steinmann continued.
“Friedel,” he remarked abruptly one day to me, as we paced down the Casernenstrasse, “I wonder who Courvoisier is!”
“You have managed to exist very comfortably for three or four years without knowing.”
“There is something behind all his secrecy about himself.”
“Fräulein Sartorius says so, I suppose,” I remarked, dryly.
“N—no; she never said so; but I think she knows it is so.”
“And what if it be so?”
“Oh, nothing! But I wonder what can have driven him here.”
“Driven him here? His own choice, of course.”
“Nee, nee, Friedel, not quite.”
“I should advise you to let him and his affairs alone, unless you want a row with him. I would no more think of asking him than of cutting off my right hand.”
“Asking him—lieber Himmel! no; but one may wonder—It was a very queer thing his sending poor Sigmund off in that style. I wonder where he is.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he never tell you?”
“Queer!” said Karl, reflectively. “I think there is something odd behind it all.”
“Now listen, Karl. Do you want to have a row with Eugen? Are you anxious for him never to speak to you again?”
“Then take my advice, and just keep your mouth shut. Don’t listen to tales, and don’t repeat them.”
“But, my dear fellow, when there is a mystery about a man—”
“Mystery! Nonsense! What mystery is there in a man’s choosing to have private affairs? We didn’t behave in this idiotic manner when you were going on like a lunatic about Fräulein Clara. We simply assumed that as you didn’t speak you had affairs which you chose to keep to yourself. Just apply the rule, or it may be worse for you.”
“For all that, there is something queer,” he said, as we turned into the restauration for dinner.
Yet again, some days later, just before the last concert came off, Karl, talking to me, said, in a tone and with a look as if the idea troubled and haunted him:
“I say, Friedel, do you think Courvoisier’s being here is all square?”
“All square?” I repeated, scornfully.
“Yes. Of course all has been right since he came here; but don’t you think there may be something shady in the background?”
“What do you mean by ‘shady’?” I asked, more annoyed than I cared to confess at his repeated returning to the subject.
“Well, you know, there must be a reason for his being here—”
I burst into a fit of laughter, which was not so mirthful as it might seem.
“I should rather think there must. Isn’t there a reason for every one being somewhere? Why am I here? Why are you here?”
“Yes; but this is quite a different thing. We are all agreed that whatever he may be now, he has not always been one of us, and I like things to be clear about people.”
“It is a most extraordinary thing that you should only have felt the anxiety lately,” said I, witheringly, and then, after a moment’s reflection, I said:
“Look here, Karl; no one could be more unwilling than I to pick a quarrel with you, but quarrel we must if this talking of Eugen behind his back goes on. It is nothing to either of us what his past has been. I want no references. If you want to gossip about him or any one else, go to the old women who are the natural exchangers of that commodity. Only if you mention it again to me it comes to a quarrel—verstehst du?”
“I meant no harm, and I can see no harm in it,” said he.
“Very well; but I do. I hate it. So shake hands, and let there be an end of it. I wish now that I had spoken out at first. There’s a dirtiness, to my mind, in the idea of speculating about a person with whom you are intimate, in a way that you wouldn’t like him to hear.”
“Well, if you will have it so,” said he; but there was not the usual look of open satisfaction upon his face. He did not mention the subject to me again, but I caught him looking now and then earnestly at Eugen, as if he wished to ask him something. Then I knew that in my anxiety to avoid gossiping about the friend whose secrets were sacred to me, I had made a mistake. I ought to have made Karl tell me whether he had heard anything specific about him or against him, and so judge the extent of the mischief done.
It needed but little thought on my part to refer Karl’s suspicions and vague rumors to the agency of Anna Sartorius. Lately I had begun to observe this young lady more closely. She was a tall, dark, plain girl, with large, defiant-looking eyes, and a bitter mouth; when she smiled there was nothing genial in the smile. When she spoke, her voice had a certain harsh flavor; her laugh was hard and mocking—as if she laughed at, not with, people. There was something rather striking in her appearance, but little pleasing. She looked at odds with the world, or with her lot in it, or with her present circumstances, or something. I was satisfied that she knew something of Eugen, though, when I once pointed her out to him and asked if he knew her, he looked at her, and after a moment’s look, as if he remembered, shook his head, saying:
“There is something a little familiar to me in her face, but I am sure that I have never seen her—most assuredly never spoken to her.”
Yet I had often seen her look at him long and earnestly, usually with a certain peculiar smile, and with her head a little to one side as if she examined some curiosity or lusus naturæ. I was too little curious myself to know Eugen’s past to speculate much about it; but I was quite sure that there was some link between him and that dark, bitter, sarcastic-looking girl, Anna Sartorius.