“And nearer still shall further be,
And words shall plague and vex and buffet thee.”
It was December, close upon Christmas. Winter at last in real earnest. A black frost. The earth bound in fetters of iron. The land gray; the sky steel; the wind a dagger. The trees, leafless and stark, rattled their shriveled boughs together in that wind.
It met you at corners and froze the words out of your mouth; it whistled a low, fiendish, malignant whistle round the houses; as vicious and little louder than the buzz of a mosquito. It swept, thin, keen and cutting, down the Königsallée, and blew fine black dust into one’s face.
It cut up the skaters upon the pond in the Neue Anlage, which was in the center of the town, and comparatively sheltered; but it was in its glory whistling across the flat fields leading to the great skating-ground of Elberthal in general—the Schwanenspiegel at the Grafenbergerdahl.
The Grafenberg was a low chain of what, for want of a better name, may be called hills, lying to the north of Elberthal. The country all around this unfortunate apology for a range of hills was, if possible, flatter than ever. The Grafenbergerdahl was, properly, no “dale” at all, but a broad plain of meadows, with the railway cutting them at one point, then diverging and running on under the Grafenberg.
One vast meadow which lay, if possible, a trifle lower than the rest, was flooded regularly by the autumn rains, but not deeply. It was frozen over now, and formed a model skating place, and so, apparently, thought the townspeople, for they came out, singly or in bodies, and from nine in the morning till dusk the place was crowded, and the merry music of the iron on the ice ceased not for a second.
I discovered this place of resort by accident one day when I was taking a constitutional, and found myself upon the borders of the great frozen mere covered with skaters. I stood looking at them, and my blood warmed at the sight. If there were one thing—one accomplishment upon which I prided myself, it was this very one—skating.
In a drawing-room I might feel awkward—confused among clever people, bashful among accomplished ones; shy about music and painting, diffident as to my voice, and deprecatory in spirit as to the etiquette to be observed at a dinner-party. Give me my skates and put me on a sheet of ice, and I was at home.
As I paused and watched the skaters, it struck me that there was no reason at all why I should deny myself that seasonable enjoyment. I had my skates, and the mere was large enough to hold me as well as the others—indeed, I saw in the distance great tracts of virgin ice to which no skater seemed yet to have reached.
I went home, and on the following afternoon carried out my resolution; though it was after three o’clock before I could set out.
A long, bleak way. First up the merry Jägerhofstrasse, then through the Malkasten garden, up a narrow lane, then out upon the open, bleak road, with that bitter wind going ping-ping at one’s ears and upon one’s cheek. Through a big gate-way, and a court-yard pertaining to an orphan asylum—along a lane bordered with apple-trees, through a rustic arch, and, hurrah! the field was before me—not so thickly covered as yesterday, for it was getting late, and the Elberthalers did not seem to understand the joy of careering over the black ice by moonlight, in the night wind. It was, however, as yet far from dark, and the moon was rising in silver yonder, in a sky of a pale but clear blue.
I quickly put on my skates—stumbled to the edge, and set off. I took a few turns, circling among the people—then, seeing several turn to look at me, I fixed my eyes upon a distant clump of reeds rising from the ice, and resolved to make it my goal. I could only just see it, even with my long-sighted eyes, but struck out for it bravely. Past group after group of the skaters who turned to look at my scarlet shawl as it flashed past. I glanced at them and skimmed smoothly on, till I came to the outside circle where there was a skater all alone, his hands thrust deep into his great-coat pockets, the collar of the same turned high about his ears, and the inevitable little gray cloth Studentenhut crowning the luxuriance of waving dark hair. He was gliding round in complicated figures and circles, doing the outside edge for his own solitary gratification, so far as I could see; active, graceful, and muscular, with practiced ease and assured strength in every limb. It needed no second glance on my part to assure me who he was—even if the dark bright eyes had not been caught by the flash of my cloak, and gravely raised for a moment as I flew by. I dashed on, breasting the wind. To reach the bunch of reeds seemed more than ever desirable now. I would make it my sole companion until it was time to go away. At least he had seen me, and I was safe from any contretemps—he would avoid me as strenuously as I avoided him. But the first fresh lust after pleasure was gone. Just one moment’s glance into a face had had the power to alter everything so much. I skated on, as fast, as surely as ever, but,
“A joy has taken flight.”
The pleasant sensation of solitude, which I could so easily have felt among a thousand people had he not been counted among them, was gone. The roll of my skates upon the ice had lost its music for me; the wind felt colder—I sadder. At least I thought so. Should I go away again now that this disturbing element had appeared upon the scene? No, no, no, said something eagerly within me, and I bit my lip, and choked back a kind of sob of disgust as I realized that despite my gloomy reflections my heart was beating a high, rapid march of—joy! as I skimmed, all alone, far away from the crowd, among the dismal withered reeds, and round the little islets of stiffened grass and rushes which were frozen upright in their places.
The daylight faded, and the moon rose. The people were going away. The distant buzz of laughter had grown silent. I could dimly discern some few groups, but very few, still left, and one or two solitary figures. Even my preternatural eagerness could not discern who they were! The darkness, the long walk home, the probe at seven, which I should be too tired to attend, all had quite slipped from my mind; it was possible that among those figures which I still dimly saw, was yet remaining that of Courvoisier, and surely there was no harm in my staying here.
I struck out in another direction, and flew on in the keen air; the frosty moon shedding a weird light upon the black ice; I saw the railway lines, polished, gleaming too in the light; the belt of dark firs to my right; the red sand soil frozen hard and silvered over with frost. Flat and tame, but still beautiful. I felt a kind of rejoicing in it; I felt it home. I was probably the first person who had been there since the freezing of the mere, thought I, and that idea was soon converted to a certainty in my mind, for in a second my rapid career was interrupted. At the furthest point from help or human presence the ice gave way with a crash, and I shrieked aloud at the shock of the bitter water. Oh, how cold it was! how piercing, frightful, numbing! It was not deep—scarcely above my knees, but the difficulty was how to get out. Put my hand where I would the ice gave way. I could only plunge in the icy water, feeling the sodden grass under my feet. What sort of things might there not be in that water? A cold shudder, worse than any ice, shot through me at the idea of newts and rats and water-serpents, absurd though it was. I screamed again in desperation, and tried to haul myself out by catching at the rushes. They were rotten with the frost and gave way in my hand. I made a frantic effort at the ice again; stumbled and fell on my knees in the water. I was wet all over now, and I gasped. My limbs ached agonizingly with the cold. I should be, if not drowned, yet benumbed, frozen to death here alone in the great mere, among the frozen reeds and under the steely sky.
I was pausing, standing still, and rapidly becoming almost too benumbed to think or hold myself up, when I heard the sound of skates and the weird measure of the “Lenore March” again. I held my breath; I desired intensely to call out, shriek aloud for help, but I could not. Not a word would come.
“I did hear some one,” he muttered, and then in the moonlight he came skating past, saw me, and stopped.
“Sie, Fräulein!” he began, quickly, and then altering his tone. “The ice has broken. Let me help you.”
“Don’t come too near; the ice is very thin—it doesn’t hold at all,” I chattered, scarcely able to get the words out.
“You are cold?” he asked, and smiled. I felt the smile cruel; and realized that I probably looked rather ludicrous.
“Cold!” I repeated, with an irrepressible short sob.
He knelt down upon the ice at about a yard’s distance from me.
“Here it is strong,” said he, holding out his arms. “Lean this way, mein Fräulein, and I will lift you out.”
“Oh, no! You will certainly fall in yourself.”
“Do as I tell you,” he said, imperatively, and I obeyed, leaning a little forward. He took me round the waist, lifted me quietly out of the water, and placed me upon the ice at a discreet distance from the hole in which I had been stuck, then rose himself, apparently undisturbed by the effort.
Miserable, degraded object that I felt! My clothes clinging round me; icy cold, shivering from head to foot; so aching with cold that I could no longer stand. As he opened his mouth to say something about its being “happily accomplished,” I sunk upon my knees at his feet. My strength had deserted me; I could no longer support myself.
“Frozen!” he remarked to himself, as he stooped and half raised me. “I see what must be done. Let me take off your skates—sonst geht’s nicht.”
I sat down upon the ice, half hysterical, partly from the sense of the degrading, ludicrous plight I was in, partly from intense yet painful delight at being thus once more with him, seeing some recognition in his eyes again, and hearing some cordiality in his voice.
He unfastened my skates deftly and quickly, slung them over his arm, and helped me up again. I essayed feebly to walk, but my limbs were numb with cold. I could not put one foot before the other, but could only cling to his arm in silence.
“So!” said he, with a little laugh. “We are all alone here! A fine time for a moonlight skating.”
“Ah! yes,” said I, wearily, “but I can’t move.”
“You need not,” said he. “I am going to carry you away in spite of yourself, like a popular preacher.”
He put his arm round my waist and bade me hold fast to his shoulder. I obeyed, and directly found myself carried along in a swift, delightful movement, which seemed to my drowsy, deadened senses, quick as the nimble air, smooth as a swallow’s flight. He was a consummate master in the art of skating—that was evident. A strong, unfailing arm held me fast. I felt no sense of danger, no fear lest he should fall or stumble; no such idea entered my head.
We had far to go—from one end of the great Schwanenspiegel to the other. Despite the rapid motion, numbness overcame me; my eyes closed, my head sunk upon my hands, which were clasped over his shoulder. A sob rose to my throat. In the midst of the torpor that was stealing over me, there shot every now and then a shiver of ecstasy so keen as to almost terrify me. But then even that died away. Everything seemed to whirl round me—the meadows and trees, the stiff rushes and the great black sheet of ice, and the white moon in the inky heavens became only a confused dream. Was it sleep or faintness, or coma? What was it that seemed to make my senses as dull as my limbs, and as heavy? I scarcely felt the movement, as he lifted me from the ice to the ground. His shout did not waken me, though he sent the full power of his voice ringing out toward the pile of buildings to our left.
With the last echo of his voice I lost consciousness entirely; all failed and faded, and then vanished before me, until I opened my eyes again feebly, and found myself in a great stony-looking room, before a big black stove, the door of which was thrown open. I was lying upon a sofa, and a woman was bending over me. At the foot of the sofa, leaning against the wall, was Courvoisier, looking down at me, his arms folded, his face pensive.
“Oh, dear!” cried I, starting up. “What is the matter? I must go home.”
“You shall—when you can,” said Courvoisier, smiling as he had smiled when I first knew him, before all these miserable misunderstandings had come between us.
My apprehensions were stilled. It did me good, warmed me, sent the tears trembling to my eyes, when I found that his voice had not resumed the old accent of ice, nor his eyes that cool, unrecognizing stare which had frozen me so many a time in the last few weeks.
“Trinken sie ’mal, Fräulein,” said the woman, holding a glass to my lips; it held hot spirits and water, which smoked.
“Bah!” replied I, gratefully, and turning away. “Nie, nie!” she repeated. “You must drink just a Schnäppschen, Fräulein.”
I pushed it away with some disgust. Courvoisier took it from her hand and held it to me.
“Don’t be so foolish and childish. Think of your voice after this,” said he, smiling kindly; and I, with an odd sensation, choked down my tears and drank it. It was bad—despite my desire to please, I found it very bad.
“Yes, I know,” said he, with a sympathetic look, as I made a horrible face after drinking it, and he took the glass. “And now this woman will lend you some dry things. Shall I go straight to Elberthal and send a drosky here for you, or will you try to walk home?”
“Oh, I will walk. I am sure it would be the best—if—do you think it would?”
“Do you feel equal to it? is the question,” he answered, and I was surprised to see that though I was looking hard at him he did not look at me, but only into the glass he held.
“Yes,” said I. “And they say that people who have been nearly drowned should always walk; it does them good.”
“In that case then,” said he, repressing a smile, “I should say it would be better for you to try. But pray make haste and get your wet things off, or you will come to serious harm.”
“I will be as quick as ever I can.”
“Now hurry,” he replied, sitting down, and pulling one of the woman’s children toward him. “Come, mein Junge, tell me how old you are?”
I followed the woman to an inner room, where she divested me of my dripping things, and attired me in a costume consisting of a short full brown petticoat, a blue woolen jacket, thick blue knitted stockings, and a pair of wide low shoes, which habiliments constituted the uniform of the orphan asylum of which she was matron, and belonged to her niece.
She expatiated upon the warmth of the dress, and did not produce any outer wrap or shawl, and I, only anxious to go, said nothing, but twisted up my loose hair, and went back into the large stony room before spoken of, from which a great noise had been proceeding for some time.
I stood in the door-way and saw Eugen surrounded by other children, in addition to the one he had first called to him. There were likewise two dogs, and they—the children, the dogs, and Herr Concertmeister Courvoisier most of all—were making as much noise as they possibly could. I paused for a moment to have the small gratification of watching the scene. One child on his knee and one on his shoulder pulling his hair, which was all ruffled and on end, a laugh upon his face, a dancing light in his eyes as if he felt happy and at home among all the little flaxen heads.
Could he be the same man who had behaved so coldly to me? My heart went out to him in this kinder moment. Why was he so genial with those children and so harsh to me, who was little better than a child myself?
His eye fell upon me as he held a shouting and kicking child high in the air, and his own face laughed all over in mirth and enjoyment.
“Come here, Miss Wedderburn; this is Hans, there is Fritz, and here is Franz—a jolly trio; aren’t they?”
He put the child into his mother’s arms, who regarded him with an eye of approval, and told him that it was not every one who knew how to ingratiate himself with her children, who were uncommonly spirited.
“Ready?” he asked, surveying me and my costume and laughing. “Don’t you feel a stranger in these garments?”
“I should have said silk and lace and velvet, or fine muslins and embroideries, were more in your style.”
“You are quite mistaken. I was just thinking how admirably this costume suits me, and that I should do well to adopt it permanently.”
“Perhaps there was a mirror in the inner room,” he suggested.
“A mirror! Why?”
“Then your idea would quite be accounted for. Young ladies must of course wish to wear that which becomes them.”
“Very becoming!” I sneered, grandly.
“Very,” he replied, emphatically. “It makes me wish to be an orphan.”
“Ah, mein Herr,” said the woman, reproachfully, for he had spoken German. “Don’t jest about that. If you have parents—”
“No, I haven’t,” he interposed, hastily.
“Or children either?”
“I should not else have understood yours so well,” he laughed. “Come, my—Miss Wedderburn, if you are ready.”
After arranging with the woman that she should dry my things and return them, receiving her own in exchange, we left the house.
It was quite moonlight now; the last faint streak of twilight had disappeared. The way that we must traverse to reach the town stretched before us, long, straight, and flat.
“Where is your shawl?” he asked, suddenly.
“I left it; it was wet through.”
Before I knew what he was doing, he had stripped off his heavy overcoat, and I felt its warmth and thickness about my shoulders.
“Oh, don’t!” I cried, in great distress, as I strove to remove it again, and looked imploringly into his face.
“Don’t do that. You will get cold; you will—”
“Get cold!” he laughed, as if much amused, as he drew the coat around me and fastened it, making no more ado of my resisting hands than if they had been bits of straw.
“So!” said he, pushing one of my arms through the sleeve. “Now,” as he still held it fastened together, and looked half laughingly at me, “do you intend to keep it on or not?”
“I suppose I must.”
“I call that gratitude. Take my arm—so. You are weak yet.”
We walked on in silence for some time. I was happy; for the first time since the night I had heard “Lohengrin” I was happy and at rest. True, no forgiveness had been asked or extended; but he had ceased to behave as if I were not forgiven.
“Am I not going too fast?” he inquired.
“Yes, I am, I see. We will moderate the pace a little.”
We walked more slowly. Physically I was inexpressibly weary. The reaction after my drenching had set in; I felt a languor which amounted to pain, and an aching and weakness in every limb. I tried to regret the event, but could not; tried to wish it were not such a long walk to Elberthal, and found myself perversely regretting that it was such a short one.
At length the lights of the town came in sight. I heaved a deep sigh. Soon it would be over—“the glory and the dream.”
“I think we are exactly on the way to your house, nicht wahr?” said he.
“Yes; and to yours since we are opposite neighbors.”
“You are not as lonely as I am, though; you have companions.”
“And—your little boy.”
“Sigmund also,” was all he said.
But “auch Sigmund” may express much more in German than in English. It did so then.
“And you?” he added.
“I am alone,” said I.
I did not mean to be foolishly sentimental. The sigh that followed my words was involuntary.
“So you are. But I suppose you like it?”
“Like it? What can make you think so?”
“Well, at least you have good friends.”
“Have I? Oh, yes, of course!” said I, thinking of von Francius.
“Do you get on with your music?” he next inquired.
“I hope so. I—do you think it strange that I should live there all alone?” I asked, tormented with a desire to know what he did think of me, and crassly ready to burst into explanations on the least provocation. I was destined to be undeceived.
“I have not thought about it at all; it is not my business.”
Snub number one. He had spoken quickly, as if to clear himself as much as possible from any semblance of interest to me.
I went on, rashly plunging into further intricacies of conversation:
“It is curious that you and I should not only live near to each other, but actually have the same profession at last.”
Snub number two. But I persevered.
“Music. Your profession is music, and mine will be.”
“I do not see the resemblance. There is little point of likeness between a young lady who is in training for a prima-donna and an obscure musiker, who contributes his share of shakes and runs to the symphony.”
“I in training for a prima-donna! How can you say so?”
“Do we not all know the forte of Herr von Francius? And—excuse me—are not your windows opposite to ours, and open as a rule? Can I not hear the music you practice, and shall I not believe my own ears?”
“I am sure your own ears do not tell you that a future prima-donna lives opposite to you,” said I, feeling most insanely and unreasonably hurt and cut up at the idea.
“Will you tell me that you are not studying for the stage?”
“I never said I was not. I said I was not a future prima-donna. My voice is not half good enough. I am not clever enough, either.”
“As if voice or cleverness had anything to do with it. Personal appearance and friends at court are the chief things. I have known prime-donne—seen them, I mean—and from my place below the foot-lights I have had the impertinence to judge them upon their own merits. Provided they were handsome, impudent, and unscrupulous enough, their public seemed gladly to dispense with art, cultivation, or genius in their performances and conceptions.”
“And you think that I am, or shall be in time, handsome, impudent, and unscrupulous enough,” said I, in a low choked tone.
My fleeting joy was being thrust back by hands most ruthless. Unmixed satisfaction for even the brief space of an hour or so was not to be included in my lot.
“O, bewahre!” said he, with a little laugh, that chilled me still further. “I think no such thing. The beauty is there, mein Fräulein—pardon me for saying so—”
Indeed, I was well able to pardon it. Had he been informing his grandmother that there were the remains of a handsome woman to be traced in her, he could not have spoken more unenthusiastically.
“The beauty is there. The rest, as I said, when one has friends, these things are arranged for one.”
“But I have no friends.”
“No,” with again that dry little laugh. “Perhaps they will be provided at the proper time, as Elijah was fed by the ravens. Some fine night—who knows—I may sit with my violin in the orchestra at your benefit, and one of the bouquets with which you are smothered may fall at my feet and bring me aus der fuge. When that happens, will you forgive me if I break a rose from the bouquet before I toss it on to the feet of its rightful owner? I promise that I will seek for no note, nor spy out any ring or bracelet. I will only keep the rose in remembrance of the night when I skated with you across the Schwanenspiegel, and prophesied unto you the future. It will be a kind of ‘I told you so,’ on my part.”
Mock sentiment, mock respect, mock admiration; a sneer in the voice, a dry sarcasm in the words. What was I to think? Why did he veer round in this way, and from protecting kindness return to a raillery which was more cruel than his silence? My blood rose, though, at the mockingness of his tone.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said I, coldly. “I am studying operatic music. If I have any success in that line, I shall devote myself to it. What is there wrong in it? The person who has her living to gain must use the talents that have been given her. My talent is my voice; it is the only thing I have—except, perhaps, some capacity to love—those—who are kind to me. I can do that, thank God! Beyond that I have nothing, and I did not make myself.”
“A capacity to love those who are kind to you,” he said, hastily. “And do you love all who are kind to you?”
“Yes,” said I, stoutly, though I felt my face burning.
“And hate them that despitefully use you?”
“Naturally,” I said, with a somewhat unsteady laugh. A rush of my ruling feeling—propriety and decent reserve—tied my tongue, and I could not say, “Not all—not always.”
He, however, snapped, as it were, at my remark or admission, and chose to take it as if it were in the deepest earnest; for he said, quickly, decisively, and, as I thought, with a kind of exultation:
“Ah, then I will be disagreeable to you.”
This remark, and the tone in which it was uttered, came upon me with a shock which I can not express. He would be disagreeable to me because I hated those who were disagreeable to me, ergo, he wished me to hate him. But why? What was the meaning of the whole extraordinary proceeding?
“Why?” I asked, mechanically, and asked nothing more.
“Because then you will hate me, unless you have the good sense to do so already.”
“Why? What effect will my hatred have upon you?”
“None. Not a jot. Gar keine. But I wish you to hate me, nevertheless.”
“So you have begun to be disagreeable to me by pulling me out of the water, lending me your coat, and giving me your arm all along this hard, lonely road,” said I, composedly.
“That was before I knew of your peculiarity. From to-morrow morning on I shall begin. I will make you hate me. I shall be glad if you hate me.”
I said nothing. My head felt bewildered; my understanding benumbed. I was conscious that I was very weary—conscious that I should like to cry, so bitter was my disappointment.
As we came within the town, I said:
“I am very sorry, Herr Courvoisier, to have given you so much trouble.”
“That means that I am to put you into a cab and relieve you of my company.”
“It does not,” I ejaculated, passionately, jerking my hand from his arm. “How can you say so? How dare you say so?”
“You might meet some of your friends, you know.”
“And I tell you I have no friends except Herr von Francius, and I am not accountable to him for my actions.”
“We shall soon be at your house now.”
“Herr Courvoisier, have you forgiven me?”
“Forgiven you what?”
“My rudeness to you once.”
“Ah, mein Fräulein,” said he, shrugging his shoulders a little and smiling slightly, “you are under a delusion about that circumstance. How can I forgive that which I never resented?”
This was putting the matter in a new, and, for me, an humbling light.
“Never resented!” I murmured, confusedly.
“Never. Why should I resent it? I forgot myself, nicht wahr! and you showed me at one and the same time my proper place and your own excellent good sense. You did not wish to know me, and I did not resent it. I had no right to resent it.”
“Excuse me,” said I, my voice vibrating against my will; “you are wrong there, and either you are purposely saying what is not true, or you have not the feelings of a gentleman.” His arm sprung a little aside as I went on, amazed at my own boldness. “I did not show you your ‘proper place.’ I did not show my own good sense. I showed my ignorance, vanity, and surprise. If you do not know that, you are not what I take you for—a gentleman.”
“Perhaps not,” said he, after a pause. “You certainly did not take me for one then. Why should I be a gentleman? What makes you suppose I am one?”
Questions which, however satisfactorily I might answer them to myself, I could not well reply to in words. I felt that I had rushed upon a topic which could not be explained, since he would not own himself offended. I had made a fool of myself and gained nothing by it. While I was racking my brain for some satisfactory closing remark, we turned a corner and came into the Wehrhahn. A clock struck seven.
“Gott im Himmel!” he exclaimed. “Seven o’clock! The opera—da geht’s schon an! Excuse me, Fräulein, I must go. Ah, here is your house.”
He took the coat gently from my shoulders, wished me gute besserung, and ringing the bell, made me a profound bow, and either not noticing or not choosing to notice the hand which I stretched out toward him, strode off hastily toward the theater, leaving me cold, sick, and miserable, to digest my humble pie with what appetite I might.