“Didst thou, or didst thou not? Just tell me, friend!
Not that my conscience may be satisfied,
I never for a moment doubted thee—
But that I may have wherewithal in hand
To turn against them when they point at thee:
A whip to flog them with—a rock to crush—
Thy word—thy simple downright ‘No, I did not.’
* * * * * * *
What’s this? He does not, will not speak. Oh, God!
Nay, raise thy head and look me in the eyes!
Canst not? What is this thing?”
It was the last concert of the season, and the end of April, when evenings were growing pleasantly long and the air balmy. Those last concerts, and the last nights of the opera, which closed at the end of April, until September, were always crowded. That night I remember we had Liszt’s “Prometheus,” and a great violinist had been announced as coming to enrapture the audience with the performance of a Concerto of Beethoven’s.
The concert was for the benefit of von Francius, and was probably the last one at which he would conduct us. He was leaving to assume the post of Königlicher Musik-Direktor at ——. Now that the time came there was not a man among us who was not heartily sorry to think of the parting.
Miss Wedderburn was one of the soloists that evening and her sister and Mr. Arkwright were both there.
Karl Linders came on late. I saw that just before he appeared by the orchestra entrance, his beloved, her aunt, and Fräulein Sartorius had taken their places in the parquet. Karl looked sullen and discontented, and utterly unlike himself. Anna Sartorius was half smiling. Lady Le Marchant, I noticed, passingly, looked the shadow of her former self.
Then von Francius came on; he too looked disturbed, for him very much so, and glanced round the orchestra and the room; and then coming up to Eugen, drew him a little aside, and seemed to put a question to him. The discussion, though carried on in low tones, was animated, and lasted some time. Von Francius appeared greatly to urge Courvoisier to something—the latter to resist. At last some understanding appeared to be come to. Von Francius returned to his estrade, Eugen to his seat, and the concert began.
The third piece on the list was the Violin Concerto, and when its turn came all eyes turned in all directions in search of ——, the celebrated, who was to perform it. Von Francius advanced and made a short enough announcement.
“Meine Herrschaften, I am sorry to say that I have received a telegram from Herr ——, saying that sudden illness prevents his playing to-night. I am sorry that you should be disappointed of hearing him, but I can not regret that you should have an opportunity of listening to one who will be a very effectual substitute—Herr Concertmeister Courvoisier, your first violin.”
He stepped back. Courvoisier rose. There was a dead silence in the hall. Eugen stood in the well-known position of the prophet without honor, only that he had not yet begun to speak. The rest of the orchestra and von Francius were waiting to begin Beethoven’s Concerto; but Eugen, lifting his voice, addressed them in his turn:
“I am sorry to say that I dare not venture upon the great Concerto; it is so long since I attempted it. I shall have pleasure in trying to play a Chaconne—one of the compositions of Herr von Francius.”
Von Francius started up as if to forbid it. But Eugen had touched the right key. There was a round of applause, and then an expectant settling down to listen on the part of the audience, who were, perhaps, better pleased to hear von Francius the living and much discussed than Beethoven the dead and undisputed.
It was a minor measure, and one unknown to the public, for it had not yet been published. Von Francius had lent Eugen the score a few days ago, and he had once or twice said to me that it was full not merely of talent; it was replete with the fire of genius.
And so, indeed, he proved to us that night. Never, before or since, from professional or private virtuoso, have I heard such playing as that. The work was in itself a fine one; original, strong, terse and racy, like him who had composed it. It was sad, very sad, but there was a magnificent elevation running all through it which raised it far above a mere complaint, gave a depth to its tragedy while it pointed at hope. And this, interpreted by Eugen, whose mood and whose inner life it seemed exactly to suit, was a thing not to be forgotten in a life-time. To me the scene and the sounds come freshly as if heard yesterday. I see the great hall full of people, attentive—more than attentive—every moment more inthralled. I see the pleased smile which had broken upon every face of his fellow-musicians at this chance of distinction gradually subside into admiration and profound appreciation; I feel again the warm glow of joy which filled my own heart; I meet again May’s eyes and see the light in them, and see von Francius shade his face with his hand to conceal the intensity of the artist’s delight he felt at hearing his own creation so grandly, so passionately interpreted.
Then I see how it was all over, and Eugen, pale with the depth of emotion with which he had played the passionate music, retired, and there came a burst of enthusiastic applause—applause renewed again and again—it was a veritable succès fou.
But he would make no response to the plaudits. He remained obstinately seated, and there was no elation, but rather gloom upon his face. In vain von Francius besought him to come forward. He declined, and the calls at last ceased. It was the last piece on the first part of the programme. The people at last let him alone. But there could be no doubt that he had both roused a great interest in himself and stimulated the popularity of von Francius in no common degree. And at last he had to go down the orchestra steps to receive a great many congratulations, and go through several introductions, while I sat still and mentally rubbed my hands.
Meanwhile Karl Linders, with nearly all the other instrumentalists, had disappeared from the orchestra. I saw him appear again in the body of the hall, among all the people, who were standing up, laughing and discussing and roving about to talk to their friends. He had a long discussion with Fräulein Clara and Anna Sartorius.
And then I turned my attention to Eugen again, who, looking grave and unelated, released himself as soon as possible from his group of new acquaintance and joined me.
Then von Francius brought Miss Wedderburn up the steps, and left her sitting near us. She turned to Eugen and said, “Ich gratuliere,” to which he only bowed rather sadly. Her chair was quite close to ours, and von Francius stood talking to her. Others were quickly coming. One or two were around and behind us.
Eugen was tuning his violin, when a touch on the shoulder roused me. I looked up. Karl stood there, leaning across me toward Eugen. Something in his face told me that it—that which had been hanging so long over us—was coming. His expression, too, attracted the attention of several other people—of all who were immediately around.
Those who heard Karl were myself, von Francius, Miss Wedderburn, and some two or three others, who had looked up as he came, and had paused to watch what was coming.
“Eugen,” said he, “a foul lie has been told about you.”
“Of course I don’t believe a word of it. I’m not such a fool. But I have been challenged to confront you with it. It only needs a syllable on your side to crush it instantly; for I will take your word against all the rest of the world put together.”
“Well?” said Eugen, whose face was white, and whose voice was low.
“A lady has said to me that you had a brother who had acted the part of father to you, and that you rewarded his kindness by forging his name for a sum of money which you could have had for the asking, for he denied you nothing. It is almost too ridiculous to repeat, and I beg your pardon for doing it; but I was obliged. Will you give me a word of denial?”
I looked at Eugen. We were all looking at him. Three things I looked for as equally likely for him to do; but he did none. He did not start up in an indignant denial; he did not utter icily an icy word of contempt; he did not smile and ask Karl if he were out of his senses. He dropped his eyes, and maintained a deadly silence.
Karl was looking at him, and his candid face changed. Doubt, fear, dismay succeeded one another upon it. Then, in a lower and changed voice, as if first admitting the idea that caution might be necessary:
“Um Gotteswillen, Eugen! Speak!”
He looked up—so may look a dog that is being tortured—and my very heart sickened; but he did not speak.
A few moments—not half a minute—did we remain thus. It seemed a hundred years of slow agony. But during that time I tried to comprehend that my friend of the bright, clear eyes, and open, fearless glance; the very soul and flower of honor; my ideal of almost Quixotic chivalrousness, stood with eyes that could not meet ours that hung upon him; face white, expression downcast, accused of a crime which came, if ever crime did, under the category “dirty,” and not denying it!
Karl, the wretched beginner of the wretched scene, came nearer, took the other’s hand, and, in a hoarse whisper, said:
“For God’s sake, Eugen, speak! Deny it! You can deny it—you must deny it!”
He looked up at last, with a tortured gaze; looked at Karl, at me, at the faces around. His lips quivered faintly. Silence yet. And yet it seemed to me that it was loathing that was most strongly depicted upon his face; the loathing of a man who is obliged to intimately examine some unclean thing; the loathing of one who has to drag a corpse about with him.
“Say it is a lie, Eugen!” Karl conjured him.
At last came speech; at last an answer; slow, low, tremulous, impossible to mistake or explain away.
“No; I can not say so.”
His head—that proud, high head—dropped again, as if he would fain avoid our eyes.
Karl raised himself. His face too was white. As if stricken with some mortal blow, he walked away. Some people who had surrounded us turned aside and began to whisper to each other behind their music. Von Francius looked impenetrable; May Wedderburn white. The noise and bustle was still going on all around, louder than before. The drama had not taken three minutes to play out.
Eugen rested his brow for a moment on his hand, and his face was hidden. He looked up, rising as he did so, and his eyes met those of Miss Wedderburn. So sad, so deep a gaze I never saw. It was a sign to me, a significant one, that he could meet her eyes.
Then he turned to von Francius.
“Herr Direktor, Helfen will take my place, nicht wahr?”
Von Francius bowed. Eugen left his seat, made his way, without a word, from the orchestra, and von Francius rapped sharply, the preliminary tumult subsided; the concert began.
I glanced once or twice toward Karl; I received no answering look. I could not even see his face; he had made himself as small as possible behind his music.
The concert over—it seemed to me interminable—I was hastening away, anxious only to find Eugen, when Karl Linders stopped me in a retired corner, and holding me fast, said:
“Friedel, I am a damned fool.”
“I am sorry not to be able to contradict you.”
“Listen,” said he. “You must listen, or I shall follow you and make you. I made up my mind not to hear another word against him, but when I went to die Clara after the solo, I found her and that confounded girl whispering together. She—Anna Sartorius—said it was very fine for such scamps to cover their sins with music. I asked her pretty stiffly what she meant, for she is always slanging Eugen, and I thought she might have let him alone for once. She said she meant that he was a blackguard—that’s the word she used—ein lauter Spitzbube—a forger, and worse. I told her I believed it was a lie. I did not believe it.
“‘Ask him,’ said she. I said I would be—something—first. But Clara would have nothing to say to me, and they both badgered me until for mere quietness I agreed to do as they wished.”
He went on in distress for some time.
“Oh, drop it!” said I, impatiently. “You have done the mischief. I don’t want to listen to your whining over it. Go to the Fräulein Steinmann and Sartorius. They will confer the reward of merit upon you.”
I shook myself loose from him and took my way home. It was with a feeling not far removed from tremulousness that I entered the room. That poor room formed a temple which I had no intention of desecrating.
He was sitting at the table when I entered, and looked at me absently. Then, with a smile in which sweetness and bitterness were strangely mingled, said:
“So! you have returned? I will not trouble you much longer. Give me house-room for to-night. In the morning I shall be gone.”
I went up to him, pushed the writing materials which lay before him away, and took his hands, but could not speak for ever so long.
“Well, Friedhelm,” he asked, after a pause, during which the drawn and tense look upon his face relaxed somewhat, “what have you to say to the man who has let you think him honest for three years?”
“Whom I know, and ever have known, to be an honest man.”
“There are degrees and grades even in honesty. One kind of honesty is lower than others. I am honest now because my sin has found me out, I can’t keep up appearances any longer.”
“Pooh! do you suppose that deceives me?” said I, contemptuously. “Me, who have known you for three years. That would be a joke, but one that no one will enjoy at my expense.”
A momentary expression of pleasure unutterable flashed across his face and into his eyes; then was repressed, as he said:
“You must listen to reason. Have I not told you all along that my life had been spoiled by my own fault?—that I had disqualified myself to take any leading part among men?—that others might advance, but I should remain where I was? And have you not the answer to all here? You are a generous soul, I know, like few others. My keenest regret now is that I did not tell you long ago how things stood, but it would have cost me your friendship, and I have not too many things to make life sweet to me.”
“Eugen, why did you not tell me before? I know the reason; for the very same reason which prevents you from looking me in the eyes now, and saying, ‘I am guilty. I did that of which I am accused,’ because it is not true. I challenge you; meet my eyes, and say, ‘I am guilty!’”
He looked at me; his eyes were dim with anguish. He said:
“Friedel, I—can not tell you that I am innocent.”
“I did not ask you to do so. I asked you to say you were guilty, and on your soul be it if you lie to me. That I could never forgive.”
Again he looked at me, strove to speak, but no word came. I never removed my eyes from his; the pause grew long, till I dropped his hands and turned away with a smile.
“Let a hundred busybodies raise their clamoring tongues, they can never divide you and me. If it were not insulting I should ask you to believe that every feeling of mine for you is unchanged, and will remain so as long as I live.”
“It is incredible. Such loyalty, such—Friedel, you are a fool!”
His voice broke.
“I wish you could have heard Miss Wedderburn sing her English song after you were gone. It was called, ‘What would You do, Love?’ and she made us all cry.”
“Ah, Miss Wedderburn! How delightful she is.”
“If it is any comfort to you to know, I can assure you that she thinks as I do. I am certain of it.”
“Comfort—not much. It is only that if I ever allowed myself to fall in love again, which I shall not do, it would be with Miss Wedderburn.”
The tone sufficiently told me that he was much in love with her already.
“She is bewitching,” he added.
“If you do not mean to allow yourself to fall in love with her,” I remarked, sententiously, “because it seems that ‘allowing’ is a matter for her to decide, not the men who happen to know her.”
“I shall not see much more of her. I shall not remain here.”
As this was what I had fully expected to hear, I said nothing, but I thought of Miss Wedderburn, and grieved for her.
“Yes, I must go forth from hence,” he pursued. “I suppose I ought to be satisfied that I have had three years here. I wonder if there is any way in which a man could kill all trace of his old self; a man who has every desire to lead henceforth a new life, and be at peace and charity with all men. I suppose not—no. I suppose the brand has to be carried about till the last; and how long it may be before that ‘last’ comes!”
I was silent. I had put a good face upon the matter and spoken bravely about it. I had told him that I did not believe him guilty—that my regard and respect were as high as ever, and I spoke the truth. Both before and since then he had told me that I had a bump of veneration and one of belief ludicrously out of proportion to the exigencies of the age in which I lived.
Be it so. Despite my cheerful words, and despite the belief I did feel in him, I could not help seeing that he carried himself now as a marked man. The free, open look was gone; a blight had fallen upon him, and he withered under it. There was what the English call a “down” look upon his face, which had not been there formerly, even in those worst days when the parting from Sigmund was immediately before and behind us.
In the days which immediately followed the scene at the concert I noticed how he would set about things with a kind of hurried zeal, then suddenly stop and throw them aside, as if sick of them, and fall to brooding with head sunk upon his breast, and lowering brow; a state and a spectacle which caused me pain and misery not to be described. He would begin sudden conversations with me, starting with some question, as:
“Friedel, do you believe in a future state?”
“I do, and I don’t. I mean to say that I don’t know anything about it.”
“Do you know what my idea of heaven would be?”
“Indeed, I don’t,” said I, feebly endeavoring a feeble joke. “A place where all the fiddles are by Stradivarius and Guanarius, and all the music comes up to Beethoven.”
“No; but a place where there are no mistakes.”
“Ja wohl! Where it would not be possible for a man with fair chances to spoil his whole career by a single mistake. Or, if there were mistakes, I would arrange that the punishment should be in some proportion to them—not a large punishment for a little sin, and vice versâ.”
“Well, I should think that if there is any heaven there would be some arrangement of that kind.”
“As for hell,” he went on, in a low, calm tone which I had learned to understand meant with him intense earnestness, “there are people who wonder that any one could invent a hell. My only wonder is why they should have resorted to fire and brimstone to enhance its terrors when they had the earth full of misery to choose from.”
“You think this world a hell, Eugen?”
“Sometimes I think it the very nethermost hell of hells, and I think if you had my feelings you would think so too. A poet, an English poet (you do not know the English poets as you ought, Friedhelm), has said that the fiercest of all hells is the failure in a great purpose. I used to think that a fine sentiment; now I sometimes wonder whether to a man who was once inclined to think well of himself it may not be a much fiercer trial to look back and find that he has failed to be commonly honest and upright. It is a nice little distinction—a moral wire-drawing which I would recommend to the romancers if I knew any.”
Once and only once was Sigmund mentioned between us, and Eugen said:
“Nine years, were you speaking of? No—not in nineteen, nor in ninety-nine shall I ever see him again.”
“The other night, and what occurred then, decided me. Till then I had some consolation in thinking that the blot might perhaps be wiped out—the shame lived down. Now I see that that is a fallacy. With God’s help I will never see him nor speak to him again. It is better that he should forget me.”
His voice did not tremble as he said this, though I knew that the idea of being forgotten by Sigmund must be to him anguish of a refinement not to be measured by me.
I bided my time, saying nothing. I at least was too much engrossed with my own affairs to foresee the cloud then first dawning on the horizon, which they who looked toward France and Spain might perhaps perceive.
It had not come yet—the first crack of that thunder which rattled so long over our land, and when we saw the dingy old Jäger Hof at one end of the Hofgarten, and heard by chance the words of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, no premonition touched us. My mind was made up, that let Eugen go when and where he would, I would go with him.
I had no ties of duty, none of love or of ambition to separate me from him; his God should be my God, and his people my people; if the God were a jealous God, dealing out wrath and terror, and the people should dwindle to outcasts and pariahs, it mattered not to me. I loved him.