“Oftmals hab’ ich geirrt, und habe mich wiedergefunden,
Aber glücklicher nie.”
It was beginning to be dusk when we alighted the next day at Lahnburg, a small way-side station, where the doctor’s brand-new carriage met us, and after we had been bidden welcome, whirled us off to the doctor’s brand-new schloss, full of brand-new furniture. I skip it all, the renewed greetings, the hospitality, the noise. They were very kind. It was all right to me, and I enjoyed it immensely. I was in a state of mind in which I verily believe I should have enjoyed eating a plate of porridge for supper, or a dish of sauerkraut for dinner.
The subject for complacency and contemplation in Frau Mittendorf’s life was her intimacy with the von Rothenfels family, whose great, dark old schloss, or rather, a portion of it, looking grimly over its woods, she pointed out to me from the windows of her salon. I looked somewhat curiously at it, chiefly because Eugen had mentioned it, and also because it was such a stern, imposing old pile. It was built of red stone, and stood upon red-stone foundations. Red were the rocks of this country, and hence its name, “Rothen-fels,” the red rocks. Woods, also dark, but now ablaze with the last fiery autumn tints, billowed beneath it; on the other side, said Frau Mittendorf, was a great plateau covered with large trees, intersected by long, straight avenues. She would take us to look at it; the Gräfin von Rothenfels was a great friend of hers.
She was entertaining us with stories to prove the great regard and respect of the countess for her (Frau Mittendorf) on the morning after our arrival, while I was longing to go out and stroll along some of those pleasant breezy upland roads, or explore the sleepy, quaint old town below.
Upon her narrative came an interruption. A servant threw open the door very wide, announcing the Gräfin von Rothenfels. Frau Mittendorf rose in a tremulous hurry and flutter to greet her noble guest, and then introduced us to her.
A tall, melancholy, meager-looking woman,—far past youth—on the very confines of middle age, with iron-gray hair banded across a stern, much-lined brow. Colorless features of a strong, large, not unhandsome type from which all liveliness and vivacity had long since fled. A stern mouth—steady, lusterless, severe eyes, a dignity—yes, even a majesty of mien which she did not attempt to soften into graciousness; black, trailing draperies; a haughty pride of movement.
Such was the first impression made upon me by Hildegarde, Countess of Rothenfels—a forbidding, if grand figure—aristocrat in every line; utterly alien and apart, I thought, from me and every feeling of mine.
But on looking again the human element was found in the deeply planted sadness which no reserve pride could conceal. Sad the eyes, sad the mouth; she was all sad together—and not without reason, as I afterward learned.
She was a rigid Roman Catholic, and at sixteen had been married for les convenances to her cousin, Count Bruno von Rothenfels, a man a good deal older than herself, though not preposterously so, and whose ample possessions and old name gave social position of the highest kind. But he was a Protestant by education, a thinker by nature, a rationalist by conviction.
That was one bitter grief. Another was her childlessness. She had been married twenty-four years; no child had sprung from the union. This was a continual grief which imbittered her whole existence.
Since then I have seen a portrait of her at twenty—a splendid brunette, with high spirit and resolute will and noble beauty in every line. Ah, me! What wretches we become! Sadness and bitterness, proud aloofness and a yearning wistfulness were subtly mingled in the demeanor of Gräfin von Rothenfels.
She bowed to us, as Frau Mittendorf introduced us. She did not bestow a second glance upon Stella; but bent a long look, a second, a third scrutinizing gaze upon me. I—I am not ashamed to own it—quivered somewhat under her searching glance. She impressed and fascinated me.
She seated herself, and slightly apologizing to us for intruding domestic affairs, began to speak with Frau Mittendorf of some case of village distress in which they were both interested. Then she turned again to us, speaking in excellent English, and asked us whether we were staying there, after which she invited us to dine at her house the following day with Frau Mittendorf. After the invitation had been accepted with sufficient reverence by that lady, the countess rose as if to go, and turning again to me with still that pensive, half-wistful, half-mistrustful gaze, she said:
“I have my carriage here. Would you like to come with me to see our woods and house? They are sometimes interesting to strangers.”
“Oh, very much!” I said, eagerly.
“Then come,” said she. “I will see that you are escorted back when you are tired. It is arranged that you remain until you feel gené, nicht wahr?”
“Oh, thank you!” said I, again, hastening to make myself ready, and parenthetically hoping, as I ran upstairs, that Frau Mittendorf’s eyes might not start quite out of her head with pride at the honor conferred upon her house and visitors.
Very soon I was seated beside the Gräfin in the dark-green clarence, with the grand coachman and the lady’s own jäger beside him, and we were driving along a white road with a wild kind of country spreading round—moorland stretches, and rich deep woods. Up and down, for the way was uneven, till we entered a kind of park, and to the right, high above, I saw the great red pile with its little pointed towers crowned with things like extinguishers ending in a lightning-rod, and which seemed to spring from all parts of the heavy mass of the main building.
That, then, was Schloss Rothenfels. It looked the very image of an aristocratic, ancient feste burg, grim and grand; it brooded over us like a frown, and dominated the landscape for miles around. I was deeply impressed; such a place had always been like a dream to me.
There was something so imposingly conservative about it; it looked as if it had weathered so many storms; defying such paltry forces as wind and weather, and would through so many more, quite untouched by the roar of life and progress outside—a fit and firm keeping-place for old shields, for weapons honorably hacked and dinted, for tattered loyal flags—for art treasures and for proud beauties.
As we gained the height, I perceived the huge scale on which the schloss was constructed. It was a little town in itself. I saw, too, that plateau on the other side, of which I had heard; later I explored it. It was a natural plain—a kind of table-land, and was laid out in what have always, since I was a child, impressed me more than any other kind of surroundings to a house—mile-long avenues of great trees, stretching perfectly straight, like lines of marching troops in every direction.
Long, melancholy alleys and avenues, with huge, moss-grown stone figures and groups guarding the terraces or keeping fantastic watch over the stone tanks, on whose surfaces floated the lazy water-lilies. Great moss-grown gods and goddesses, and strange hybrid beasts, and fauns and satyrs, and all so silent and forlorn, with the lush grass and heavy fern growing rank and thick under the stately trees. To right they stretched and to left; and straightaway westward was one long, wide, vast, deserted avenue, at the end of which was an opening, and in the opening a huge stone myth or figure of a runner, who in the act of racing receives an arrow in his heart, and, with arms madly tossed in the air, staggers.
Behind this terrible figure the sun used to set, flaming, or mild, or sullen, and the vast arms of it were outlined against the gorgeous sky, or in the half-dark it glimmered like a ghost and seemed to move. It had been there so long that none could remember the legend of it. It was a grim shape.
Scattered here and there were quaint wildernesses and pleasaunces—clipped yews and oddly trained shrubs and flowers trying to make a diversion, but ever dominated by the huge woods, the straight avenues, the mathematical melancholy on an immense scale.
The Frau Gräfin glanced at me once or twice as my head turned this way and that, and my eyes could not take in the strange scene quickly enough; but she said nothing, nor did her severe face relax into any smile.
We stopped under a huge porte-cochère in which more servants were standing about.
“Come with me,” said the lady to me. “First I will take you to my rooms, and then when you have rested a little you can do what you like.”
Pleased at the prospect, I followed her; through a hall which without any joking was baronial; through a corridor into a room, through which she passed, observing to me:
“This is the rittersaal, one of the oldest rooms in the house.”
The rittersaal—a real, hereditary Hall of Knights where a sangerkrieg might have taken place—where Tannhauser and the others might have contended before Elizabeth. A polished parquet—a huge hearth on which burned a large bright wood fire, whose flames sparkled upon suits of mail in dozens—crossed swords and lances, over which hung tattered banners and bannerets. Shields and lances, portraits with each a pair of spurs beneath it—the men were all knights, of that line! dark and grave chiefly were these lords of the line of Sturm. In the center of the hall a great trophy of arms and armor, all of which had been used, and used to purpose; the only drapery, the banners over these lances and portraits. The room delighted me while it made me feel small—very small. The countess turned at a door at the other end and looked back upon me where I stood gasping in the door-way by which we had entered. She was one of the house; this had nothing overpowering for her, if it did give some of the pride to her mien.
I hurried after her, apologizing for my tardiness; she waved the words back, and led me to a smaller room, which appeared to be her private sitting-room. Here she asked me to lay aside my things, adding that she hoped I should spend the day at the schloss.
“If you find it not too intolerably stupid,” she added. “It is a dull place.”
I said that it seemed to me like something out of a fairy tale, and that I longed to see more of it if I might.
“Assuredly you shall. There may be some few things which you may like to see. I forget that every one is not like myself—tired. Are you musical?”
“Very!” said I, emphatically.
“Then you will be interested in the music-rooms here. How old are you?”
I told her. She bowed gravely. “You are young, and, I suppose, happy?” she remarked.
“Yes, I am—very happy—perfectly,” said I, smiling, because I could not help it.
“When I saw you I was so struck with that look,” said she. “I thought I had never seen any one look so radiantly, transcendently happy. I so seldom see it—and never feel it, and I wished to see more of you. I am very glad you are so happy—very glad. Now I will not keep you talking to me. I will send for Herr Nahrath, who shall be your guide.”
She rang the bell. I was silent, although I longed to say that I could talk to her for a day without thinking of weariness, which indeed was true. She impressed and fascinated me.
“Send Herr Nahrath here,” she said, and presently there came into the room a young man in the garb of what is called in Germany a Kandidat—that is to say an embryo pastor, or parish priest. He bowed very deeply to the countess and did not speak or advance much beyond the door.
Having introduced us, she desired him to act as cicerone to me until I was tired. He bowed, and I did not dispute the mandate, although I would rather have remained with her, and got to know something of the nature that lay behind those gray passionless features, than turn to the society of that smug-looking young gentleman who waited so respectfully, like a machine whose mainspring was awe.
I accompanied him, nevertheless, and he showed me part of the schloss, and endeavored in the intervals of his tolerably arduous task of cicerone to make himself agreeable to me. It was a wonderful place indeed—this schloss. The deeper we penetrated into it, the more absorbed and interested did I become. Such piled-up, profusely scattered treasures of art it had never before fallen to my lot to behold. The abundance was prodigal; the judgment, cultivation, high perception of truth, rarity and beauty, seemed almost faultless. Gems of pictures—treasures of sculpture, bronze, china, carvings, glass, coins, curiosities which it would have taken a life-time properly to learn. Here I saw for the first time a private library on a large scale, collected by generation after generation of highly cultured men and women—a perfect thing of its kind, and one which impressed me mightily; but it was not there that I was destined to find the treasure which lay hidden for me in this enchanted palace. We strayed over an acre or so of passage and corridor till he paused before an arched door across which was hung a curtain, and over which was inscribed Musik-kammern (the music-rooms).
“If you wish to see the music, mein Fräulein, I must leave you in the hands of Herr Brunken, who will tolerate no cicerone but himself.”
“Oh, I wish to see it certainly,” said I, on fire with curiosity.
He knocked and was bidden herein! but not going in, told some one inside that he recommended to his charge a young lady staying with the countess, and who was desirous of seeing the collection.
“Pray, mein Fräulein, come in!” said a voice. Herr Nahrath left me, and I, lifting the curtain and pushing open the half-closed door, found myself in an octagonal room, confronted by the quaintest figure I had ever seen. An old man whose long gray hair, long white beard, and long black robe made him look like a wizard or astrologer of some mediæval romance, was smiling at me and bidding me welcome to his domain. He was the librarian and general custodian of the musical treasures of Schloss Rothenfels, and his name was Brunken. He loved his place and his treasures with a jealous love, and would talk of favorite instruments as if they had been dear children, and of great composers as if they were gods.
All around the room were large shelves filled with music—and over each division stood a name—such mighty names as Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, Haydn—all the giants, and apparently all the pygmies too, were there. It was a complete library of music, and though I have seen many since, I have never beheld any which in the least approached this in richness or completeness. Rare old manuscript scores; priceless editions of half-forgotten music; the literature of the productions of half-forgotten composers; Eastern music, Western music, and music of all ages; it was an idealized collection—a musician’s paradise, only less so than that to which he now led me, from amid the piled-up scores and the gleaming busts of those mighty men, who here at least were honored with never-failing reverence.
He took me into a second room, or rather hall, of great size, height, and dimensions, a museum of musical instruments. It would take far too long to do it justice in description; indeed, on that first brief investigation I could only form a dim general idea of the richness of its treasures. What histories—what centuries of story were there piled up! Musical instruments of every imaginable form and shape, and in every stage of development. Odd-looking pre-historic bone embryo instruments from different parts of France. Strange old things from Nineveh, and India, and Peru, instruments from tombs and pyramids, and ancient ruined temples in tropic groves—things whose very nature and handling is a mystery and a dispute—tuned to strange scales which produce strange melodies, and carry us back into other worlds. On them, perhaps, has the swarthy Ninevan, or slight Hindoo, or some
“Dusky youth with painted plumage gay”
performed as he apostrophized his mistress’s eyebrow. On that queer-looking thing which may be a fiddle or not—which may have had a bow or not—a slightly clad slave made music while his master the rayah played chess with his favorite wife. They are all dead and gone now, and their jewels are worn by others, and the memory of them has vanished from off the earth; and these, their musical instruments, repose in a quiet corner amid the rough hills and oak woods and under the cloudy skies of the land of music—Deutschland.
Down through the changing scale, through the whole range of cymbal and spinet, “flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music,” stand literally before me, and a strange revelation it is. Is it the same faculty which produces that grand piano of Bechstein’s, and that clarion organ of Silbermann’s, and that African drum dressed out with skulls, that war-trumpet hung with tiger’s teeth? After this nothing is wonderful! Strange, unearthly looking Chinese frames of sonorous stones or modulated bells; huge drums, painted and carved, and set up on stands six feet from the ground; quaint instruments from the palaces of Aztec Incas, down to pianos by Broadwood, Collard & Collard, and Bechstein.
There were trophies of Streichinstrumente and Blaseinstrumente. I was allowed to gaze upon two real Stradivarius fiddles. I might see the development by evolution, and the survival of the fittest in violin, ’cello, contrabass, alto, beside countless others whose very names have perished with the time that produced them, and the fingers which played them—ingenious guesses, clever misses—the tragedy of harmony as well as its “Io Pæan!”
There were wind instruments, quaint old double flutes from Italy; pipes, single, double, treble, from ages much further back; harps—Assyrian, Greek, and Roman; instruments of percussion, guitars, and zithers in every form and kind; a dulcimer—I took it up and thought of Coleridge’s “damsel with a dulcimer;” and a grand organ, as well as many incipient organs, and the quaint little things of that nature from China, Japan, and Siam.
I stood and gazed in wonder and amazement.
“Surely the present Graf has not collected all these instruments!” said I.
“Oh, no, mein Fräulein; they have been accumulating for centuries. They tell strange tales of what the Sturms will do for music.”
With which he proceeded to tell me certain narratives of certain instruments in the collection, in which he evidently firmly believed, including one relating to a quaint old violin for which he said a certain Graf von Rothenfels called “Max der Tolle,” or the Mad Count Max, had sold his soul.
As he finished this last he was called away, and excusing himself, left me. I was alone in this voiceless temple of so many wonderful sounds. I looked round, and a feeling of awe and weirdness crept over me. My eyes would not leave that shabby old fiddle, concerning whose demoniac origin I had just heard such a cheerful little anecdote. Every one of those countless instruments was capable of harmony and discord—had some time been used; pressed, touched, scraped, beaten or blown into by hands or mouths long since crumbled to dust. What tales had been told! what songs sung, and in what languages; what laughs laughed, tears shed, vows spoken, kisses exchanged, over some of those silent pieces of wood, brass, ivory, and catgut! The feelings of all the histories that surrounded me had something eerie in it.
I stayed until I began to feel nervous, and was thinking of going away when sounds from a third room drew my attention. Some one in there began to play the violin, and to play it with no ordinary delicacy of manipulation. There was something exquisitely finished, refined, and delicate about the performance; it lacked the bold splendor and originality of Eugen’s playing, but it was so lovely as to bring tears to my eyes, and, moreover, the air was my favorite “Traumerei.” Something in those sounds, too, was familiar to me. With a sudden beating of the heart, a sudden eagerness, I stepped hastily forward, pushed back the dividing curtain, and entered the room whence proceeded those sounds.
In the middle of the room, which was bare and empty, but which had large windows looking across the melancholy plateau, and to the terrible figure of the runner at the end of the avenue—stood a boy—a child with a violin. He was dressed richly, in velvet and silk; he was grown—the slender delicacy of his form was set off by the fine clothing that rich men’s children wear; his beautiful waving black hair was somewhat more closely cut, but the melancholy yet richly colored young face that turned toward me—the deep and yearning eyes, the large, solemn gaze, the premature gravity, were all his—it was Sigmund, Courvoisier’s boy.
For a moment we both stood motionless—hardly breathing; then he flung his violin down, sprung forward with a low sound of intense joy, exclaiming:
“Das Fräulein, das Fräulein, from home!” and stood before me trembling from head to foot.
I snatched the child to my heart (he looked so much older and sadder), and covered him with kisses.
He submitted—nay, more, he put his arms about my neck and laid his face upon my shoulder, and presently, as if he had choked down some silent emotion, looked up at me with large, imploring, sad eyes, and asked:
“Have you seen my father?”
“Sigmund, I saw him the day before yesterday.”
“You saw him—you spoke to him, perhaps?”
“Yes. I spoke long with him.”
“What did he look like?”
“As he always does—brave, and true, and noble.”
“Nicht wahr?” said the boy, with flashing eyes. “I know how he looks, just. I am waiting till I am grown up, that I may go to him again.”
“Do you like me, Sigmund?”
“Yes; very much.”
“Do you think you could love me? Would you trust me to love those you love?”
“Do you mean him?” he asked point-blank, and looked at me somewhat startled.
“I mean, to take care of him, and try to make him happy till you come to him again, and then we will all be together.”
He looked doubtful still.
“What I mean, Sigmund, is that your father and I are going to be married; but we shall never be quite happy until you are with us.”
He stood still, taking it in, and I waited in much anxiety. I was certain that if I had time and opportunity I could win him; but I feared the result of this sudden announcement and separation. He might only see that his father—his supreme idol—could turn for comfort to another, while he would not know how I loved him and longed to make his grave young life happy for him. I put my arm round his shoulder, and kneeling down beside him, said:
“You must say you are glad, Sigmund, or you will make me very unhappy. I want you to love me as well as him. Look at me and tell me you will trust me till we are all together, for I am sure we shall be together some day.”
He still hesitated some little time, but at last said, with the sedateness peculiar to him, as of one who overcame a struggle and made a sacrifice:
“If he has decided it so it must be right, you know; but—but—you won’t let him forget me, will you?”
The child’s nature overcame that which had been, as it were, supplanted and grafted upon it. The lip quivered, the dark eyes filled with tears. Poor little lonely child! desolate and sad in the midst of all the grandeur! My heart yearned to him.
“Forget you, Sigmund? Your father never forgets, he can not!”
“I wish I was grown up,” was all he said.
Then it occurred to me to wonder how he got there, and in what relation he stood to these people.
“Do you live here, Sigmund?”
“What relation are you to the Herr Graf?”
“Graf von Rothenfels is my uncle.”
“And are they kind to you?” I asked, in a hasty whisper, for his intense gravity and sadness oppressed me. I trembled to think of having to tell his father in what state I had found him.
“Oh, yes!” said he. “Yes, very.”
“What do you do all day?”
“I learn lessons from Herr Nahrath, and I ride with Uncle Bruno, and—and—oh! I do whatever I like. Uncle Bruno says that some time I shall go to Bonn, or Heidelberg, or Jena, or England, whichever I like.”
“And have you no friends?”
“I like being with Brunken the best. He talks to me about my father sometimes. He knew him when he was only as old as I am.”
“Did he? Oh, I did not know that.”
“But they won’t tell me why my father never comes here, and why they never speak of him,” he added, wearily, looking with melancholy eyes across the lines of wood, through the wide window.
“Be sure it is for nothing wrong. He does nothing wrong. He does nothing but what is good and right,” said I.
“Oh, of course! But I can’t tell the reason. I think and think about it.” He put his hand wearily to his head. “They never speak of him. Once I said something about him. It was at a great dinner they had. Aunt Hildegarde turned quite pale, and Uncle Bruno called me to him and said—no one heard it but me, you know—‘Never let me hear that name again!’ and his eyes looked so fierce. I’m tired of this place,” he added, mournfully.“I want to be at Elberthal again—at the Wehrhahn, with my father and Friedhelm and Karl Linders. I think of them every hour. I liked Karl and Friedhelm, and Gretchen, and Frau Schmidt.”
“They do not live there now, dear, Friedhelm and your father,” said I, gently.
“Not? Then where are they?”
“I do not know,” I was forced to say. “They were fighting in the war. I think they live at Berlin now, but I am not at all sure.”
This uncertainty seemed to cause him much distress, and he would have added more, but our conversation was brought to an end by the entrance of Brunken, who looked rather surprised to see us in such close and earnest consultation.
“Will you show me the way back to the countess’s room?” said I to Sigmund.
He put his hand in mine, and led me through many of those interminable halls and passages until we came to the rittersaal again.
“Sigmund,” said I, “are you not proud to belong to these?” and I pointed to the dim portraits hanging around.
“Yes,” said he, doubtfully. “Uncle Bruno is always telling me that I must do nothing to disgrace their name, because I shall one day rule their lands; but,” he added, with more animation, “do you not see all these likenesses? These are all counts of Rothenfels, who have been heads of the family. You see the last one is here—Graf Bruno—my uncle. But in another room there are a great many more portraits, ladies and children and young men, and a man is painting a likeness of me, which is going to be hung up there; but my father is not there. What does it mean?”
I was silent. I knew his portrait must have been removed because he was considered to be living in dishonor—a stain to the house, who was perhaps the most chivalrous of the whole race; but this I could not tell Sigmund. It was beginning already, the trial, the “test” of which he had spoken to me, and it was harder in reality than in anticipation.
“I don’t want to be stuck up there where he has no place,” Sigmund went on, sullenly. “And I should like to cut the hateful picture to pieces when it comes.”
With this he ushered me into Gräfin Hildegarde’s boudoir again. She was still there, and a tall, stately, stern-looking man of some fifty years was with her.
His appearance gave me a strange shock. He was Eugen, older and without any of his artist brightness; Eugen’s grace turned into pride and stony hauteur. He looked as if he could be savage upon occasion; a nature born to power and nurtured in it. Ruggedly upright, but narrow. I learned him by heart afterward, and found that every act of his was the direct, unsoftened outcome of his nature.
This was Graf Bruno; this was the proud, intensely feeling man who had never forgiven the stain which he supposed his brother had brought upon their house; this was he who had proposed such hard, bald, pitiless terms concerning the parting of father and son—who forbade the child to speak of the loved one.
“Ha!” said he, “you have found Sigmund, mein Fräulein? Where did you meet, then?”
His keen eyes swept me from head to foot. In that, at least, Eugen resembled him; my lover’s glance was as hawk-like as this, and as impenetrable.
“In the music-room,” said Sigmund; and the uncle’s glance left me and fell upon the boy.
I soon read that story. The child was at once the light of his eyes and the bitterness of his life. As for Countess Hildegarde, she gazed at her nephew with all a mother’s soul in her pathetic eyes, and was silent.
“Come here,” said the Graf, seating himself and drawing the boy to him. “What hast thou been doing?”
There was no fear in the child’s demeanor—he was too thoroughly a child of their own race to know fear—but there was no love, no lighting up of the features, no glad meeting of the eyes.
“I was with Nahrath till Aunt Hildegarde sent for him, and then I went to practice.”
“Practice what? Thy riding or fencing?”
“No; my violin.”
“Bah! What an extraordinary thing it is that this lad has no taste for anything but fiddling,” observed the uncle, half aside.
Gräfin Hildegarde looked sharply and apprehensively up.
Sigmund shrunk a little away from his uncle, not timidly, but with some distaste. Words were upon his lips; his eyes flashed, his lips parted; then he checked himself, and was silent.
“Nun denn!” said the count. “What hast thou? Out with it!”
“Nothing that it would please you to hear, uncle; therefore I will not say it,” was the composed retort.
The grim-looking man laughed a grim little laugh, as if satisfied with the audacity of the boy, and his grizzled mustache swept the soft cheek.
“I ride no further this morning; but this afternoon I shall go to Mulhausen. Wilt thou come with me?”
Neither willing nor unwilling was the tone, and the answer appeared to dissatisfy the other, who said:
“‘Yes, uncle’—what does that mean? Dost thou not wish to go?”
“Oh, yes! I would as soon go as stay at home.”
“But the distance, Bruno,” here interposed the countess, in a low tone. “I am sure it is too far. He is not too strong.”
“Distance? Pooh! Hildegarde, I wonder at you; considering what stock you come of, you should be superior to such nonsense! Wert thou thinking of the distance, Sigmund?”
“Distance—no,” said he, indifferently.
“Come with me,” said the elder. “I want to show thee something.”
They went out of the room together. Yes, it was self-evident; the man idolized the child. Strange mixture of sternness and softness! The supposed sin of the father was never to be pardoned; but natural affection was to have its way, and be lavished upon the son; and the son could not return it, because the influence of the banished scapegrace was too strong—he had won it all for himself, as scapegraces have the habit of doing.
Again I was left alone with the countess, sitting upright over her embroidery. A dull life this great lady led. She cared nothing for the world’s gayeties, and she had neither chick nor child to be ambitious for. Her husband was polite enough to her; but she knew perfectly well, and accepted it as a matter of course, that the death of her who had lived with him and been his companion for twenty-five years would have weighed less by half with him than any catastrophe to that mournful, unenthusiastic child, who had not been two years under their roof, and who displayed no delight in the wealth of love lavished upon him.
She knew that she also adored the child, but that his affection was hard to get. She dared not show her love openly, or in the presence of her husband, who seemed to look upon the boy as his exclusive property, and was as jealous as a tiger of the few faint testimonies of affection manifested by his darling. A dull journey to Berlin once a year, an occasional visitor, the society of her director and that of her husband—who showed how much at home with her he felt by going to sleep whenever he was more than a quarter of an hour in her presence—a little interest of a lofty, distant kind in her townspeople of the poorer sort, an occasional call upon or from some distant neighbor of a rank approaching her own; for the rest, embroidery in the newest patterns and most elegant style, some few books, chiefly religious and polemical works—and what can be drearier than Roman Catholic polemics, unless, indeed, Protestant ones eclipse them?—a large house, vast estates, servants who never raised their voices beyond a certain tone; the envy of all the middle-class women, the fear and reverential courtesies of the poorer ones—a cheerful existence, and one which accounted for some of the wrinkles which so plentifully decked her brow.
“That is our nephew,” said she; “my husband’s heir.”
“I have often seen him before,” said I; “but I should have thought that his father would be your husband’s next heir.”
Never shall I forget the look she darted upon me—the awful glance which swept over me scathingly, ere she said, in icy tones:
“What do you mean? Have you seen—or do you know—Graf Eugen?”
There was a pause, as if the name had not passed her lips for so long that now she had difficulty in uttering it.
“I knew him as Eugen Courvoisier,” said I; but the other name was a revelation to me, and told me that he was also “to the manner born.” “I saw him two days ago, and I conversed with him,” I added.
She was silent for a moment, and surveyed me with a haggard look. I met her glance fully, openly.
“Do you wish to know anything about him?” I asked.
“Certainly not,” said she, striving to speak frigidly; but there was a piteous tremble in her low tones. “The man has dis—What am I saying? It is sufficient to say that he is not on terms with his family.”
“So he told me,” said I, struggling on my own part to keep back the burning words within me.
The countess looked at me—looked again. I saw now that this was one of the great sorrows of her sorrowful life. She felt that to be consistent she ought to wave aside the subject with calm contempt; but it made her heart bleed. I pitied her; I felt an odd kind of affection for her already. The promise I had given to Eugen lay hard and heavy upon me.
“What did he tell you?” she asked, at last; and I paused ere I answered, trying to think what I could make of this opportunity. “Do you know the facts of the case?” she added.
“No; he said he would write.”
“Would write!” she echoed, suspending her work, and fixing me with her eyes. “Would write—to whom?”
“You correspond with him?” There was a tremulous eagerness in her manner.
“I have never corresponded with him yet,” said I, “but I have known him long, and loved him almost from the first. The other day I promised—to—marry him.”
“You?” said she; “you are going to marry Eugen! Are you”—her eyes said—“are you good enough for him?” but she came to an abrupt conclusion. “Tell me,” said she; “where did you meet him, and how?”
I told her in what capacity I had become acquainted with him, and she listened breathlessly. Every moment I felt the prohibition to speak heavier, for I saw that the Countess von Rothenfels would have been only too delighted to hail any idea, any suggestion, which should allow her to indulge the love that, though so strong, she rigidly repressed. I dare say I told my story in a halting kind of way; it was difficult for me on the spur of the moment to know clearly what to say and what to leave unsaid. As I told the countess about Eugen’s and my voyage down the river, a sort of smile tried to struggle out upon her lips; it was evidently as good as a romance to her. I finished, saying:
“That is the truth, gnädige Frau. All I fear is that I am not good enough for him—shall not satisfy him.”
“My child,” said she, and paused. “My dear child,” she took both my hands, and her lips quivered, “you do not know how I feel for you. I can feel for you because I fear that with you it will be as it was with me. Do you know any of the circumstances under which Eugen von Rothenfels left his friends?”
“I do not know them circumstantially. I know he was accused of something, and—and—did not—I mean—”
“Could not deny it,” she said. “I dare not take the responsibility of leaving you in ignorance. I must tell you all, and may Our Lady give me eloquence!”
“I should like to hear the story, madame, but I do not think any eloquence will change my mind.”
“He always had a manner calculated to deceive and charm,” said she; “always. Well, my husband is his half-brother. I was their cousin. They are the sons of different mothers, and my husband is many years older than Eugen—eighteen years older. He, my husband, was thirty years old when he succeeded to the name and estates of his father—Eugen, you see, was just twelve years old, a school-boy. We were just married. It is a very long time ago—ach ja! a very long time ago! We played the part of parents to that boy. We were childless, and as time went on, we lavished upon him all the love which we should have bestowed upon our own children had we been happy enough to have any. I do not think any one was ever better loved than he. It so happened that his own inheritance was not a large one; that made no difference. My husband, with my fullest consent and approbation, had every intention of providing for him: we had enough and to spare: money and land and house room for half a dozen families, and our two selves alone to enjoy it all. He always seemed fond of us. I suppose it was his facile manner, which could take the appearance of an interest and affection which he did not feel—”
“No, Frau Gräfin! no, indeed!”
“Wait till you have heard all, my poor child. Everyone loved him. How proud I was of him. Sometimes I think it is a chastisement, but had you been in my place you would have been proud too; so gallant, so handsome, such grace, and such a charm. He was the joy of my life,” she said in a passionate under-tone. “He went by the name of a worthy descendant of all essential things: honor and loyalty and bravery, and so on. They used to call him Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter, after the old song. He was wild and impatient of control, but who is not? I hate your young men whose veins run milk, not blood. He was one of a fiery passionate line. At the universities he was extravagant; we heard all sorts of follies.”
“Did you ever hear of anything base—anything underhand or dishonorable?”
“Never—oh, never. High play. He was very intimate with a set of young Englishmen, and the play was dreadful, it is true; he betted too. That is a curse. Play and horses, and general recklessness and extravagance, but no wine and no women. I never heard that he had the least affinity for either of these dissipations. There were debts—I suppose all young men in his position make debts,” said the countess, placidly. “My husband made debts at college, and I am sure my brothers did. Then he left college and lived at home awhile, and that was the happiest time of my life. But it is over.
“Then he entered the army—of course. His family interest procured him promotion. He was captain in a fine Uhlan regiment. He was with his regiment at Berlin and Munich, and ——. And always we heard the same tales—play, and wild, fast living. Music always had a hold upon him.
“In the midst of his extravagance he was sometimes so simple. I remember we were dreadfully frightened at a rumor that he had got entangled with Fräulein ——, a singer of great beauty at the Hofoper at ——. I got my husband to let me write about it. I soon had an answer from Eugen. How he laughed at me! He had paid a lot of debts for the girl, which had been pressing heavily upon her since her career began; now he said he trusted she would get along swimmingly; he was going to her benefit that night.
“But when he was at ——, and when he was about six-and-twenty, he really did get engaged to be married. He wrote and told us about it. That was the first bitter blow: she was an Italian girl of respectable but by no means noble family—he was always a dreadful radical in such matters. She was a governess in the house of one of his friends in ——.
“We did everything we could think of to divert him from it. It was useless. He married her, but he did not become less extravagant. She did not help him to become steady, I must say. She liked gayety and admiration, and he liked her to be worshiped. He indulged her frightfully. He played—he would play so dreadfully.
“We had his wife over to see us, and he came with her. We were agreeably surprised. She quite won our hearts. She was very beautiful and very charming—had rather a pretty voice, though nothing much. We forgave all his misconduct, and my husband talked to him and implored him to amend. He said he would. Mere promises! It was so easy to him to make promises.
“That poor young wife! Instead of pitying him for having made a mésalliance, we know now that it was she who was to be pitied for having fallen into the hands of such a black-hearted, false man.”
The lady paused. The recital evidently cost her some pain and some emotion. She went on:
“She was expecting her confinement. They returned to ——, where we also had a house, and we went with them. Vittoria shortly afterward gave birth to a son. That was in our house. My husband would have it so. That son was to reconcile all and make everything straight. At that time Eugen must have been in some anxiety: he had been betting heavily on the English Derby. We did not know that, nor why he had gone to England. At last it came out that he was simply ruined. My husband was dreadfully cut up. I was very unhappy—so unhappy that I was ill and confined to my room.
“My husband left town for a few days to come over to Rothenfels on business. Eugen was scarcely ever in the house. I thought it was our reproachful faces that he did not wish to see. Then my husband came back. He was more cheerful. He had been thinking things over, he said. He kissed me, and told me to cheer up: he had a plan for Eugen, which, he believed, would set all right again.
“In that very moment some one had asked to see him. It was a clerk from the bank with a check which they had cashed the day before. Had my husband signed it? I saw him look at it for a moment. Then he sent the man away, saying that he was then busy and would communicate with him. Then he showed me the check. It was payable to the bearer, and across the back was written ‘Vittoria von Rothenfels.’
“You must bear in mind that Eugen was living in his own house, in another quarter of the town. My husband sent the check to him, with a brief inquiry as to whether he knew anything about it. Then he went out: he had an appointment, and when he returned he found a letter from Eugen. It was not long: it was burned into my heart, and I have never forgotten a syllable of it. It was:
“‘I return the check. I am guilty. I relieve you of all further responsibility about me. It is evident that I am not fit for my position. I leave this place forever, taking the boy with me. Vittoria does not seem to care about having him. Will you look after her? Do not let her starve in punishment for my sin. For me—I leave you forever.
“That was the letter. Ei! mein Gott! Oh, it is hideous, child, to find that those in whom you believed so intensely are bad—rotten to the core. I had loved Eugen, he had made a sunshine in my not very cheerful life. His coming was a joy to me, his going away a sorrow. It made everything so much blacker when the truth came out. Of course the matter was hushed up.
“My husband took immediate steps about it. Soon afterward we came here; Vittoria with us. Poor girl! Poor girl! She did nothing but weep and wring her hands, moan and lament and wonder why she had ever been born, and at last she died of decline—that is to say, they called it decline, but it was really a broken heart. That is the story—a black chronicle, is it not? You know about Sigmund’s coming here. My husband remembered that he was heir to our name, and we were in a measure responsible for him. Eugen had taken the name of a distant family connection on his mother’s side—she had French blood in her veins—Courvoisier. Now you know all, my child—he is not good. Do not trust him.”
I was silent. My heart burned; my tongue longed to utter ardent words, but I remembered his sad smile as he said, “You shrink from that,” and I braced myself to silence. The thing seemed to me altogether so pitiable—and yet—and yet, I had sworn. But how had he lived out these five terrible years?
By and by the luncheon bell rang. We all met once more. I felt every hour more like one in a dream or in some impossible old romance. That piece of outward death-like reserve, the countess, with the fire within which she was forever spending her energy in attempts to quench; that conglomeration of ice, pride, roughness and chivalry, the Herr Graf himself; the thin, wooden-looking priest, the director of the Gräfin; that lovely picture of grace and bloom, with the dash of melancholy, Sigmund; certainly it was the strangest company in which I had ever been present. The countess sent me home in the afternoon, reminding me that I was engaged to dine there with the others to-morrow. I managed to get a word aside with Sigmund—to kiss him and tell him I should come to see him again. Then I left them; interested, inthralled, fascinated with them and their life, and—more in love with Eugen than ever.