“Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.”
I felt a deep rapture in being once more in that land where my love, if he did not live, slept. But I forbear to dwell on that rapture, much as it influenced me. It waxes tedious when put into words—loses color and flavor, like a pressed flower.
I was at first bitterly disappointed to find that Stella and I were only to have a few days at Elberthal. Dr. Mittendorf no longer lived there; but only had his official residence in the town, going every week-end to his country house, or “Schloss,” as he ambitiously called it, at Lahnburg, a four-hours’ railway journey from Elberthal.
Frau Mittendorf, who had been at Elberthal on a visit, was to take Stella and me with her to Lahnburg on the Tuesday morning after our arrival, which was on Friday evening.
The good doctor’s schloss, an erection built like the contrivances of the White Knight in “Through the Looking-glass,” on “a plan of his own invention,” had been his pet hobby for years, and now that it was finished, he invited every invitable person to come and stay at it.
It was not likely that he would excuse a person for whom he had so much regard as he professed for me from the honor, and I was fain to conceal the fact that I would much rather have remained in Elberthal, and make up my mind to endure as well as I could the prospect of being buried in the country with Frau Mittendorf and her children.
It was Sunday afternoon. An equinoctial gale was raging, or rather had been raging all day. It had rained incessantly, and the wind had howled. The skies were cloud-laden, the wind was furious. The Rhine was so swollen that the streets in the lower part of the town sloping to the river were under water, and the people going about in boats.
But I was tired of the house; the heated rooms stifled me. I was weary of Frau Mittendorf’s society, and thoroughly dissatisfied with my own.
About five in the afternoon I went to the window and looked out. I perceived a strip of pale, watery blue through a rift in the storm-laden clouds, and I chose to see that, and that only, ignoring the wind-lashed trees of the allee; the leaves, wet, and sodden and sere, hurrying panic-stricken before the gale, ignoring, too, the low wail promising a coming hurricane, which sighed and soughed beneath the wind’s shrill scream.
There was a temporary calm, and I bethought myself that I would go to church—not to the Protestant church attended by the English clique—heaven forbid! but to my favorite haunt, the Jesuiten Kirche.
It was just the hour at which the service would be going on. I asked Stella in a low voice if she would not like to come; she declined with a look of pity at me, so, notifying my intention to Frau Mittendorf, and mildly but firmly leaving the room before she could utter any remonstrance, I rushed upstairs, clothed myself in my winter mantle, threw a shawl over my arm, and set out.
The air was raw, but fresh, life-giving and invigorating. The smell of the stove, which clung to me still, was quickly dissipated by it. I wrapped my shawl around me, turned down a side street, and was soon in the heart of the old part of the town, where all Roman Catholic churches were, the quarter lying near the river and wharves and bridge of boats.
I liked to go to the Jesuiten Kirche, and placing myself in the background, kneel as others knelt, and, without taking part in the service, think my own thoughts and pray my own prayers.
Here none of the sheep looked wolfish at you unless you kept to a particular pen, for the privilege of sitting in which you paid so many marks per quartal to a respectable functionary who came to collect them. Here the men came and knelt down, cap in hand, and the women seemed really to be praying, and aware of what they were praying for, not looking over their prayer-books at each other’s clothes.
I entered the church. Within the building it was already almost dark. A reddish light burned in a great glittering censer, which swung gently to and fro in the chancel.
There were many people in the church, kneeling in groups and rows, and all occupied with their prayers. I, too, knelt down, and presently as the rest sat up I sat up too. A sad-looking monk had ascended the pulpit, and was beginning to preach. His face was thin, hollow, and ascetic-looking; his eyes blazed bright from deep, sunken sockets. His cowl came almost up to his ears. I could dimly see the white cord round his waist as he began to preach, at first in a low and feeble voice, which gradually waxed into power.
He was in earnest—whether right or wrong, he was in earnest. I listened with the others to what he said. He preached the beauties of renunciation, and during his discourse quoted the very words which had so often haunted me—Entbehren sollst du! sollst entbehren!
His earnestness moved me deeply. His voice was musical, sweet. His accent made the German burr soft; he was half Italian. I had been at the instrumental concert the previous night, for old association’s sake, and they had played the two movements of Schubert’s unfinished symphony—the B minor. The refrain in the last movement haunted me—a refrain of seven cadences, which rises softly and falls, dies away, is carried softly from one instrument to another, wanders afar, returns again, sinks lower and lower, deeper and deeper, till at last the ’celli (if I mistake not) takes it up for the last time, and the melody dies a beautiful death, leaving you undecided whether to weep or smile, but penetrated through and through with its dreamy loveliness.
This exquisite refrain lingered in my memory and echoed in my mind, like a voice from some heavenly height, telling me to rest and be at peace, in time to the swinging of the censer, in harmony with the musical southern voice of that unknown Brother Somebody.
By degrees I began to think that the censer did not sway so regularly, so like a measured pendulum as it had done, but was moving somewhat erratically, and borne upon the gale came a low, ominous murmur, which first mingled itself with the voice of the preacher, and then threatened to dominate it. Still the refrain of the symphony rang in my ears, and I was soothed to rest by the inimitable nepenthe of music.
But the murmur of which I had so long been, as it were, half-conscious, swelled and drove other sounds and the thoughts of them from my mind. It grew to a deep, hollow roar—a very hurricane of a roar. The preacher’s voice ceased, drowned.
I think none of us were at first certain about what was happening; we only felt that something tremendous was going on. Then, with one mighty bang and blow of the tempest, the door by which I had entered the church was blown bodily in, and fell crashing upon the floor; and after the hurricane came rushing through the church with the howl of a triumphant demon, and hurried round the building, extinguishing every light, and turning a temple of God into Hades.
Sounds there were as of things flapping from the walls, as of wood falling; but all was in the pitchiest darkness—a very “darkness which might be felt.” Amid the roar of the wind came disjointed, broken exclamations of terrified women and angry, impatient men. “Ach Gott!” “Du meine Zeit!” “Herr du meine Güte!” “Oh je!” etc., rang all round, and hurrying people rushed past me, making confusion worse confounded as they scrambled past to try to get out.
I stood still, not from any bravery or presence of mind, but from utter annihilation of both qualities in the shock and surprise of it all. At last I began trying to grope my way toward the door. I found it. Some people—I heard and felt rather than saw—were standing about the battered-in door, and there was the sound of water hurrying past the door-way. The Rhine was rushing down the street.
“We must go to the other door—the west door,” said some one among the people; and as the group moved I moved too, beginning to wish myself well out of it.
We reached the west door; it led into a small lane or gasse, regarding the geography of which I was quite at sea, for I had only been in it once before. I stepped from the street into the lane, which was in the very blackness of darkness, and seemed to be filled with wind and a hurricane which one could almost distinguish and grasp.
The roar of the wind and the surging of water were all around, and were deafening. I followed, as I thought, some voices which I heard, but scarcely knew where I was going, as the wind seemed to be blowing all ways at once, and there came to me an echo here and an echo there, misleading rather than guiding. In a few moments I felt my foot upon wood, and there was a loud creaking and rattling, as of chains, a groaning, splitting, and great uproar going on, as well as a motion as if I were on board a ship.
After making a few steps I paused. It was utterly impossible that I could have got upon a boat—wildly impossible. I stood still, then went on a few steps. Still the same extraordinary sounds—still such a creaking and groaning—still the rush, rush, and swish, swish of water; but not a human voice any more, not a light to be seen, not a sign!
With my hat long since stripped from my head and launched into darkness and space, my hair lashed about me in all directions, my petticoats twisted round me like ropes, I was utterly and completely bewildered by the thunder and roar of all around. I no longer knew which way I had come nor where to turn. I could not imagine where I was, and my only chance seemed to be to hold fast and firm to the railing against which the wind had unceremoniously banged me.
The creaking grew louder—grew into a crash; there was a splitting of wood, a snapping of chains, a kind of whirl, and then I felt the wind blow upon me, first upon this side, then from that, and became conscious that the structure upon which I stood was moving—floating smoothly and rapidly upon water. In an instant (when it was too late) it all flashed upon my mind. I had wandered upon the Schiffbrucke, or bridge of boats which crossed the Rhine from the foot of the market-place, and this same bridge had been broken by the strength of the water and wind, and upon a portion of it I was now floating down the river.
With my usual wisdom, and “the shrewd application of a wide experience so peculiar to yourself,” as some one has since insulted me by saying, I instantly gave myself up as lost. The bridge would run into some other bridge, or dash into a steamer, or do something horrible, and I should be killed, and none would know of my fate; or it would all break into little pieces, and I should have to cling to one of them, and should inevitably be drowned.
In any case, my destruction was only a matter of time. How I loved my life then! How sweet, and warm, and full, and fresh it seemed! How cold the river, and how undesirable a speedy release from the pomps and vanities of this wicked world!
The wind was still howling horribly—chanting my funeral dirge. Like grim death, I held on to my railing, and longed, with a desperate longing, for one glimpse of light.
I had believed myself alone upon my impromptu raft—or rather, it had not occurred to me that there might be another than myself upon it; but at this instant, in a momentary lull of the wind, almost by my side I heard a sound that I knew well, and had cause to remember—the tune of the wild march from “Lenore,” set to the same words, sung by the same voice as of yore.
My heart stood still for a moment, then leaped on again. Then a faint, sickly kind of dread overcame me. I thought I was going out of my mind—was wandering in some delusion, which took the form of the dearest voice, and sounded with its sound in my ears.
But no. The melody did not cease. As the beating of my heart settled somewhat down, I still heard it—not loud, but distinct. Then the tune ceased. The voice—ah! there was no mistaking that, and I trembled with the joy that thrilled me as I heard it—conned over the words as if struck with their weird appropriateness to the scene, which was certainly marked:
And wirbelwind—the whirlwind—played a wild accompaniment to the words.
It seemed to me that a long time passed, during which I could not speak, but could only stand with my hands clasped over my heart, trying to steady its tumultuous beating. I had not been wrong, thank the good God above! I had not been wrong when my heart sung for joy at being once more in this land. He was here—he was living—he was safe!
Here were all my worst fears soothed—my intensest longings answered without my having spoken. It was now first that I really knew how much I loved him—so much that I felt almost afraid of the strength of the passion. I knew not till now how it had grown—how fast and all-denominating it had become.
A sob broke from my lips, and his voice was silenced.
“Herr Courvoisier!” I stammered.
“Who spoke?” he asked in a clear voice.
“It is you!” I murmured.
“May!” he uttered, and paused abruptly.
A hand touched mine—warm, firm, strong—his very hand. In its lightest touch there seemed safety, shelter, comfort.
“Oh, how glad I am! how glad I am!” I sobbed.
He murmured “Sonderbar!” as if arguing with himself, and I held his hand fast.
“Don’t leave me! Stay here!” I implored.
“I suppose there is not much choice about that for either of us,” said he, and he laughed.
I did not remember to wonder how he came there; I only knew that he was there. That tempest, which will not soon be forgotten in Elberthal, subsided almost as rapidly as it had arisen. The winds lulled as if a wizard had bidden them be still. The gale hurried on to devastate fresh fields and pastures new. There was a sudden reaction of stillness, and I began to see in the darkness the outlines of a figure beside me. I looked up. There was no longer that hideous, driving black mist, like chaos embodied, between me and heaven. The sky, though dark, was clear; some stars were gleaming coldly down upon the havoc which had taken place since they last viewed the scene.
Seeing the heavens so calm and serene, a sudden feeling of shyness and terror overtook me. I tried to withdraw my hand from that of my companion, and to remove myself a little from him. He held my hand fast.
“You are exhausted with standing?” said he. “Sit down upon this ledge.”
“If you will too.”
“Oh, of course. I think our voyage will be a long one, and—”
“Speak German,” said I. “Let me hear you speaking it again.”
“And I have no mind to stand all the time,” he concluded in his own tongue.
“Is there no one else here but ourselves?”
I had seated myself and he placed himself beside me. I was in no laughing mood or I might have found something ludicrous in our situation.
“I wonder where we are now,” I half whispered, as the bridge was still hurried ceaselessly down the dark and rushing river. I dared not allude to anything else. I felt my heart was too full—I felt too, too utterly uncertain of him. There was sadness in his voice. I, who knew its every cadence, could hear that.
“I think we are about passing Kaiserswerth,” said he. “I wonder where we shall land at last.”
“Do you think we shall go very far?”
“Perhaps we may. It is on record that the Elberthal boat bridge—part of it, I mean—once turned up at Rotterdam. It may happen again, warum nicht?”
“How long does that take?”
“Twelve or fourteen hours, I dare say.”
I was silent.
“I am sorry for you,” he said in the gentlest of voices, as he happed my shawl more closely around me. “And you are cold too—shivering. My coat must do duty again.”
“No, no!” cried I. “Keep it! I won’t have it.”
“Yes you will, because you can’t help it if I make you,” he answered as he wrapped it round me.
“Well, please take part of it. At least wrap half of it round you,” I implored, “or I shall be miserable.”
“Pray don’t. No, keep it! It is not like charity—it has not room for many sins at once.”
“Do you mean you or me?” I could not help asking.
“Are we not all sinners?”
I knew it would be futile to resist, but I was not happy in the new arrangement, and I touched his coat-sleeve timidly.
“You have quite a thin coat,” I remonstrated, “and I have a winter dress, a thick jacket, and a shawl.”
“And my coat, und doch bist du—oh, pardon! and you are shivering in spite of it,” said he, conclusively.
“It is an awful storm, is it not?” I suggested next.
“Was an awful storm, nicht wahr? Yes. And how very strange that you and I, of all people, should have met here, of all places. How did you get here?”
“I had been to church.”
“So! I had not.”
“How did you come here?” I ventured to ask.
“Yes—you may well ask; but first—you have been in England, have you not?”
“Yes, and am going back again.”
“Well—I came here yesterday from Berlin. When the war was over—”
“Ah, you were in the war?” I gasped.
“Natürlich, mein Fräulein. Where else should I have been?”
“And you fought?”
“Where did you fight? At Sedan?”
“Oh, my God!” I whispered to myself. “And were you wounded?” I added aloud.
“A mere trifle. Friedhelm and I had luck to march side by side. I learned to know in spirit and in letter the meaning of Ich hatt’ einen guten Cameraden.”
“You were wounded!” I repeated, unheeding all that discursiveness. “Where? How? Were you in the hospital?”
“Yes. Oh, it is nothing. Since then I have been learning my true place in the world, for you see, unluckily, I was not killed.”
“Thank God! Thank God! How I have wondered! How I have thought—well, how did you come here?”
“I coveted a place in one of those graves, and couldn’t have it,” he said, bitterly. “It was a little thing to be denied, but fallen men must do without much. I saw boys falling around me, whose mothers and sisters are mourning for them yet.”
“Well—Friedel and I are working in Berlin. We shall not stay there long; we are wanderers now! There is no room for us. I have a short holiday, and I came to spend it at Elberthal. This evening I set out, intending to hear the opera—‘Der Fliegende Holländer’—very appropriate, wasn’t it?”
“But the storm burst over the theater just as the performance was about to begin, and removed part of the roof, upon which one of the company came before the curtain and dismissed us with his blessing and the announcement that no play would be played to-night. Thus I was deprived of the ungodly pleasure of watching my old companions wrestle with Wagner’s stormy music while I looked on like a gentleman.”
“But when you came out of the theater?”
“When I came out of the theater the storm was so magnificent, and was telling me so much that I resolved to come down to its center-point and see Vater Rhein in one of his grandest furies. I strayed upon the bridge of boats; forgot where I was, listened only to the storm: ere I knew what was happening I was adrift and the tempest howling round me—and you, fresh from your devotions to lull it.”
“Are you going to stay long in Elberthal?”
“It seems I may not. I am driven away by storms and tempests.”
“And me with you,” thought I. “Perhaps there is some meaning in this. Perhaps fate means us to breast other storms together. If so, I am ready—anything—so it be with you.”
“There’s the moon,” said he; “how brilliant, is she not?”
I looked up into the sky wherein she had indeed appeared “like a dying lady, lean and pale,” shining cold and drear, but very clearly upon the swollen waters, showing us dim outlines of half-submerged trees, cottages and hedges—showing us that we were in midstream, and that other pieces of wreck were floating down the river with us, hurrying rapidly with the current—showing me, too, in a ghostly whiteness, the face of my companion turned toward me, and his elbow rested on his knee and his chin in his hand, and his loose dark hair was blown back from his broad forehead, his strange, deep eyes were resting upon my face, calmly, openly.
Under that gaze my heart fell. In former days there had been in his face something not unakin to this stormy free night; but now it was changed—how changed!
A year had wrought a terrible alteration. I knew not his past; but I did know that he had long been struggling, and a dread fear seized me that the struggle was growing too hard for him—his spirit was breaking. It was not only that the shadows were broader, deeper, more permanently sealed—there was a down look—a hardness and bitterness which inspired me both with pity and fear.
“Your fate is a perverse one,” he remarked, as I did not speak.
“It throws you so provokingly into society which must be so unpleasant to you.”
“You are much mistaken,” said I, composedly.
“It is kind of you to say so. For your sake, I wish it had been any one but myself who had been thus thrown together with you. I promise you faithfully that as soon as ever we can land I will only wait to see you safely into a train and then I will leave you and—”
He was suddenly silenced. I had composed my face to an expression of indifference as stony as I knew how to assume, and with my hands folded in my lap, had steeled myself to look into his face and listen to him.
I could find nothing but a kind of careless mockery in his face—a hard half smile upon his lips as he went on saying the hard things which cut home and left me quivering, and which he yet uttered as if they had been the most harmless pleasantries or the merest whipped-cream compliments.
It was at this moment that the wind, rising again in a brief spasm, blew a tress of my loosened hair across his face. How it changed! flushed crimson. His lips parted—a strange, sudden light came into his eyes.
“I beg your pardon!” said I, hastily, started from my assumed composure, as I raised my hand to push my hair back. But he had gathered the tress together—his hand lingered for one moment—a scarcely perceptible moment—upon it, then he laid it gently down upon my shoulder.
“Then I will leave you,” he went on, resuming the old manner, but with evident effort, “and not interfere with you any more.”
What was I to think? What to believe? I thought to myself that had he been my lover and I had intercepted such a glance of his to another woman my peace of mind had been gone for evermore. But, on the other hand, every cool word he said gave the lie to his looks—or did his looks give the lie to his words? Oh, that I could solve the problem once for all, and have done with it forever!
“And you, Miss Wedderburn—have you deserted Germany?”
“I have been obliged to live in England, if that is what you mean—I am living in Germany at present.”
“And art—die Kunst—that is cruel!”
“You are amusing yourself at my expense, as you have always delighted in doing,” said I, sharply, cut to the quick.
“Aber, Fräulein May! What do you mean?”
“From the very first,” I repeated, the pain I felt giving a keenness to my reproaches. “Did you not deceive me and draw me out for your amusement that day we met at Köln? You found out then, I suppose, what a stupid, silly creature I was, and you have repeated the process now and then, since—much to your own edification and that of Herr Helfen, I do not doubt. Whether it was just, or honorable, or kind, is a secondary consideration. Stupid people are only invented for the amusement of those who are not stupid.”
“How dare you, how dare you talk in that manner?” said he, emphatically, laying his hand upon my shoulder, and somehow compelling my gaze to meet his. “But I know why—I read the answer in those eyes which dare everything, and yet—”
“Not quite everything,” thought I, uncomfortably, as the said eyes sunk beneath his look.
“Fräulein May, will you have the patience to listen while I tell you a little story?”
“Oh, yes!” I responded, readily, as I hailed the prospect of learning something more about him.
“It is now nearly five years since I first came to Elberthal. I had never been in the town before. I came with my boy—may God bless him and keep him!—who was then two years old, and whose mother was dead—for my wife died early.”
A pause, during which I did not speak. It was something so wonderful to me that he should speak to me of his wife.
“She was young—and very beautiful,” said he. “You will forgive my introducing the subject?”
“Oh, Herr Courvoisier!”
“And I had wronged her. I came to Friedhelm Helfen, or rather was sent to him, and, as it happened, found such a friend as is not granted to one man in a thousand. When I came here, I was smarting under various griefs; about the worst was that I had recklessly destroyed my own prospects. I had a good career—a fair future open to me. I had cut short that career, annihilated that future, or any future worth speaking of, by—well, something had happened which divided me utterly and uncompromisingly and forever from the friends, and the sphere, and the respect and affection of those who had been parents and brother and sister to me. Then I knew that their good opinion, their love, was my law and my highest desire. And it was not their fault—it was mine—my very own.
“The more I look back upon it all, the more I see that I have myself to thank for it. But that reflection, as you may suppose, does not add to the delights of a man’s position when he is humbled to the dust as I was then. Biting the dust—you have that phrase in English. Well, I have been biting the dust—yes, eating it, living upon it, and deservedly so, for five years; but nothing ever can, nothing ever will, make it taste anything but dry, bitter, nauseating to the last degree.”
“Go on!” said I, breathlessly.
“How kind you are to listen to the dull tale! Well, I had my boy Sigmund, and there were times when the mere fact that he was mine made me forget everything else, and thank my fate for the simple fact that I lived and was his father. His father—he was a part of myself, he could divine my every thought. But at other times, generally indeed, I was sick of life—that life. Don’t suppose that I am one of those high-flown idiots who would make it out that no life is worth living: I knew and felt to my soul that the life from which I had locked myself out and then dropped the key as it were here in midstream, was a glorious life, worth living ten times over.
“There was the sting of it. For three years I lived thus, and learned a great deal, learned what men in that position are—learned to respect, admire, and love some of them—learned to understand that man—der Mensch—is the same, and equally to be honored everywhere. I also tried to grow accustomed to the thought, which grew every day more certain to me, that I must live on so for the future—to plan my life, and shape out a certain kind of repentance for sins past. I decided that the only form my atonement could take was that of self-effacement—”
“That is why you never would take the lead in anything.”
“Exactly. I am naturally fond of leading. I love beyond everything to lead those who I know like me, and like following me. When I was haupt—I mean, I knew that all that by-gone mischief had arisen from doing what I liked, so I dropped doing what I liked, and began to do what I disliked. By the time I had begun to get a little into training three years had passed—these things are not accomplished in a day, and the effects of twenty-seven years of selfishness are not killed soon. I was killing them, and becoming a machine in the process.
“One year the Lower Rhenish Musikfest was to be held at Köln. Long before it came off the Cologne Orchestra had sent to us for contingents, and we had begun to attend some of the proben regularly once or twice a week.
“One day Friedhelm and I had been at a probe. The ‘Tower of Babel’ and the ‘Lenore’ Symphony were among the things we had practiced. Both of them, the ‘Lenore’ particularly, had got into my head. I broke lose for one day from routine, from drudgery and harness. It was a mistake. Friedhelm went off, shrugging his dear old shoulders, and I at last turned up, mooning at the Kölner Bahnof. Well—you know the rest. Nay, do not turn so angrily away. Try to forgive a fallen man one little indiscretion. When I saw you I can not tell what feeling stole warm and invigorating into my heart; it was something quite new—something I had never felt before: it was so sweet that I could not part with it. Fräulein May, I have lived that afternoon over again many and many a time. Have you ever given a thought to it?”
“Yes, I have,” said I, dryly.
“My conduct after that rose half from pride—wounded pride, I mean, for when you cut me, it did cut me—I own it. Partly it arose from a worthier feeling—the feeling that I could not see very much of you or learn to know you at all well without falling very deeply in love with you. You hide your face—you are angry at that—”
“Stop. Did you never throughout all this give a thought to the possibility that I might fall in love with you?”
I did not look at him, but he said, after a pause:
“I had the feeling that if I tried I could win your love. I never was such a presumptuous fool as to suppose that you would love me unasked—or even with much asking on my part—bewahre!”
I was silent, still concealing my face. He went on:
“Besides, I knew that you were an English lady. I asked myself what was the right thing to do, and I decided that though you would consider me an ill-mannered, churlish clown, I would refuse those gracious, charming advances which you in your charity made. Our paths in life were destined to be utterly apart and divided, and what could it matter to you—the behavior of an insignificant fiddler? You would forget him just when he deserved to be forgotten, that is—instantly.
“Time went on. You lived near us. Changes took place. Those who had a right to arbitrate for me, since I had by my own deed deprived myself of that right, wrote and demanded my son. I had shown myself incapable of managing my own affairs—was it likely that I could arrange his? And then he was better away from such a black sheep. It is true. The black sheep gave up the white lambling into the care of a legitimate shepherd, who carried it off to a correct and appropriate fold. Then life was empty indeed, for, strange though it may seem, even black sheep have feelings—ridiculously out of place they are too.”
“Oh, don’t speak so harshly!” said I, tremulously, laying my hand for an instant upon his.
His face was turned toward me; his mien was severe, but serene; he spoke as of some far-past, distant dream.
“Then it was in looking round my darkened horizon for Sigmund, I found that it was not empty. You rose trembling upon it like a star of light, and how beautiful a star! But there! do not turn away. I will not shock you by expatiating upon it. Enough that I found what I had more than once suspected—that I loved you. Once or twice I nearly made a fool of myself; that Carnival Monday—do you remember? Luckily Friedel and Karl came in, but in my saner moments I worshiped you as a noble, distant good—part of the beautiful life which I had gambled with—and lost. Be easy! I never for one instant aspired to you—never thought of possessing you: I was not quite mad. I am only telling you this to explain, and—”
“And you renounced me?” said I in a low voice.
“I renounced you.”
I removed my hand from my eyes, and looked at him. His eyes, dry and calm, rested upon my face. His countenance was pale; his mouth set with a grave, steady sweetness.
Light rushed in upon my mind in a radiant flood—light and knowledge. I knew what was right; an unerring finger pointed it to me. I looked deep, deep into his sad eyes, read his innermost soul, and found it pure.
“They say you have committed a crime,” said I.
“And I have not denied, can not deny it,” he answered, as if waiting for something further.
“You need not,” said I. “It is all one to me. I want to hear no more about that. I want to know if your heart is mine.”
The wind wuthered wearily; the water rushed. Strange, inarticulate sounds of the night came fitfully across ear and sense, as he answered me:
“Yours and my honor’s. What then?”
“This,” I answered, stooping, sweeping the loose hair from that broad, sad forehead, and pressing my lips upon it. “This: accept the gift or reject it. As your heart is mine, so mine is yours—for ever and ever.”
A momentary silence as I raised myself, trembling, and stood aside; and the water rushed, and the storm-birds on untiring wing beat the sky and croaked of the gale.
Then he drew me to him, folded me to his breast without speaking, and gave me a long, tender, yearning kiss, with unspeakable love, little passion in it, fit seal of a love that was deeper and sadder than it was triumphant.
“Let me have a few moments of this,” said he, “just a few moments, May. Let me believe that I may hold you to your noble, pitying words. Then I shall be my own master again.”
Ignoring this hint, I laid my hands upon his arm, and eying him steadily, went on:
“But understand, the man I love must not be my servant. If you want to keep me you must be the master; I brook no feeble curb; no weak hand can hold me. You must rule, or I shall rebel; you must show the way, for I don’t know it. I don’t know whether you understand what you have undertaken.”
“My dear, you are excited. Your generosity carries you away, and your divine, womanly pity and kindness. You speak without thinking. You will repent to-morrow.”
“That is not kind nor worthy of you,” said I. “I have thought about it for sixteen months, and the end of my thought has always been the same: I love Eugen Courvoisier, and if he had loved me I should have been a happy woman, and if—though I thought it too good to be true, you know—if he ever should tell me so, nothing in this world shall make me spoil our two lives by cowardice; I will hold to him against the whole world.”
“It is impossible, May,” he said, quietly, after a pause. “I wish you had never seen me.”
“It is only impossible if you make it so.”
“My sin found me out even here, in this quiet place, where I knew no one. It will find me out again. You—if ever you were married to me—would be pointed out as the wife of a man who had disgraced his honor in the blackest, foulest way. I must and will live it out alone.”
“You shall not live it out alone,” I said.
The idea that I could not stand by him—the fact that he was not prosperous, not stainless before the world—that mine would be no ordinary flourishing, meaningless marriage, in which “for better, for worse” signifies nothing but better, no worse—all this poured strength on strength into my heart, and seemed to warm it and do it good.
“I will tell you your duty,” said he. “Your duty is to go home and forget me. In due time some one else will find the loveliest and dearest being in the world—”
“Eugen! Eugen!” I cried, stabbed to the quick. “How can you? You can not love me, or you could not coldly turn me over to some other man, some abstraction—”
“Perhaps if he were not an abstraction I might not be able to do it,” he said, suddenly clasping me to him with a jealous movement. “No; I am sure I should not be able to do it. Nevertheless, while he yet is an abstraction, and because of that, I say, leave me!”
“Eugen, I do not love lightly!” I began, with forced calm. “I do not love twice. My love for you is not a mere fancy—I fought against it with all my strength; it mastered me in spite of myself—now I can not tear it away. If you send me away it will be barbarous; away to be alone, to England again, when I love you with my whole soul. No one but a man—no one but you could have said such a thing. If you do,” I added, terror at the prospect overcoming me, “if you do I shall die—I shall die.”
I could command myself no longer, but sobbed aloud.
“You will have to answer for it,” I repeated; “but you will not send me away.”
“What, in Heaven’s name, makes you love me so?” he asked, as if lost in wonder.
“I don’t know. I can not imagine,” said I, with happy politeness. “It is no fault of mine.” I took his hand in mine. “Eugen, look at me.” His eyes met mine. They brightened as he looked at me. “That crime of which you were accused—you did not do it.”
“Look at me and say that you did,” I continued.
“Friedhelm Helfen always said you had not done it. He was more loyal than I,” said I, contritely; “but,” I added, jealously, “he did not love you better than I, for I loved you all the same even though I almost believed you had done it. Well, that is an easy secret to keep, because it is to your credit.”
“That is just what makes it hard. If it were true, one would be anxious rather than not to conceal it; but as it is not true, don’t you see? Whenever you see me suspected, it will be the impulse of your loyal, impetuous heart to silence the offender, and tell him he lies.”
In my haste I had not seen this aspect of the question. It was quite a new idea to me. Yes, I began to see in truer proportions the kind of suffering he had suffered, the kind of trials he had gone through, and my breath failed at the idea. When they pointed at him I must not say, “It is a lie; he is as honest as you.” It was a solemn prospect. It overpowered me.
“You quail before that?” said he, gently, after a pause.
“No; I realize it. I do not quail before it,” said I, firmly. “But,” I added, looking at him with a new element in my glance—that of awe—“do you mean that for five years you have effaced yourself thus, knowing all the while that you were not guilty?”
“It was a matter of the clearest duty—and honor,” he replied, flushing and looking somewhat embarrassed.
“Of duty!” I cried, strangely moved. “If you did not do it, who did? Why are you silent?”
Our eyes met. I shall never forget that glance. It had the concentrated patience, love, and pride, and loyalty, of all the years of suffering past and—to come.
“May, that is the test for you! That is what I shrink from exposing you to, what I know it is wrong to expose you to. I can not tell you. No one knows but I, and I shall never tell any one, not even you, if you become my other self and soul and thought. Now you know all.”
He was silent.
“So that is the truth?” said I. “Thank you for telling it to me. I always thought you were a hero; now I am sure of it. Oh, Eugen! how I do love you for this! And you need not be afraid. I have been learning to keep secrets lately. I shall help, not hinder you. Eugen, we will live it down together.”
At last we understood each other. At last our hands clasped and our lips met upon the perfect union of feeling and purpose for all our future lives. All was clear between us, bright, calm; and I, at least, was supremely happy. How little my past looked now; how petty and insignificant all my former hopes and fears!
Dawn was breaking over the river. Wild and storm-beaten was the scene on which we looked. A huge waste of swollen waters around us, devastated villages, great piles of wreck on all sides; a watery sun casting pallid beams upon the swollen river. We were sailing Hollandward upon a fragment of the bridge, and in the distance were the spires and towers of a town gleaming in the sickly sun-rays. I stood up and gazed toward that town, and he stood by my side, his arm round my waist. My chief wish was that our sail could go on forever.
“Do you know what is ringing in my ears and will not leave my mind?” I asked.
“Indeed, no! You are a riddle and a mystery to me.”
I hummed the splendid air from the Choral Symphony, the motif of the music to the choruses to “Joy” which follow.
“Ah!” said he, taking up its deep, solemn gladness, “you are right, May—quite right. There is a joy, if it be ‘beyond the starry belt.’”
“I wonder what that town is?” I said, after a pause.
“I am not sure, but I fancy it is Emmerich. I am sure I hope so.”
Whatever the town, we were floating straight toward it. I suddenly thought of my dream long ago, and told it to him, adding:
“I think this must have been the floating wreck to which you and I seemed clinging; though I thought that all of the dream that was going to be fulfilled had already come to pass on that Carnival Monday afternoon.”
The boat had got into one of the twisting currents, and was being propelled directly toward the town.
Eugen looked at me and laughed. I asked why.
“What for a lark! as they say in your country.”
“You are quite mistaken. I never heard such an expression. But what is such a lark?”
“We have no hats; we want something to eat; we must have tickets to get back to Elberthal, and I have just two thalers in my pocket—oh! and a two-pfennige piece. I left my little all behind me.”
“Hurrah! At last you will be compelled to take back that three thalers ten.”
We both laughed at this jeu d’esprit as if it had been something exquisitely witty; and I forgot my disheveled condition in watching the sun rise over the broad river, in feeling our noiseless progression over it, and, above all, in the divine sense of oneness and harmony with him at my side—a feeling which I can hardly describe, utterly without the passionate fitfulness of the orthodox lover’s rapture, but as if for a long time I had been waiting for some quality to make me complete, and had quietly waked to find it there, and the world understandable—life’s riddle read.
Eugen’s caresses were few, his words of endearment quiet; but I knew what they stood for; a love rooted in feelings deeper than those of sense, holier than mere earthly love—feelings which had taken root in adversity, had grown in darkness and “made a sunshine in a shady place”—feelings which in him had their full and noble growth and beauty of development, but which it seems to be the aim of the fashionable education of this period as much as possible to do away with—the feeling of chivalry, delicacy, reticence, manliness, modesty.
As we drew nearer the town, he said to me:
“In a few hours we shall have to part, May, for a time. While we are here alone, and you are uninfluenced, let me ask you something. This love of yours for me—what will it carry you through?”
“Anything, now that I am sure of yours for me.”
“In short, you are firmly decided to be my wife some time?”
“When you tell me you are ready for me,” said I, putting my hand in his.
“And if I find it best to leave my Fatherland, and begin life quite anew?”
“Thy God is my God, and thy people are my people, Eugen.”
“One other thing. How do you know that you can marry? Your friends—”
“I am twenty years old. In a year I can do as I like,” said I, composedly. “Surely we can stand firm and faithful for a year?”
He smiled, and it was a new smile—sweet, hopeful, if not merry.
With this silent expression of determination and trust we settled the matter.