We had been bidden to dine at the schloss—Frau Mittendorf, Stella, and I. In due time the doctor’s new carriage was called out, and seated in it we were driven to the great castle. With a renewed joy and awe I looked at it by twilight, with the dusk of sunset veiling its woods and turning the whole mass to the color of a deep earth-stain. Eugen’s home: there he had been born; as the child of such a race and in its traditions he had been nurtured by that sad lady whom we were going to see. I at least knew that he had acted, and was now acting, up to the very standard of his high calling. The place has lost much of its awfulness for me; it had become even friendly and lovely.
The dinner was necessarily a solemn one. I was looking out for Sigmund, who, however, did not put in an appearance.
After dinner, when we were all assembled in a vast salon which the numberless wax-lights did but partially and in the center illuminate, I determined to make an effort at release from this seclusion, and asked the countess (who had motioned me to a seat beside her) where Sigmund was.
“He seemed a little languid and not inclined to come down-stairs,” said she. “I expect he is in the music-room—he generally finds his way there.”
“Oh, I wish you would allow me to go and see him.”
“Certainly, my child,” said she, ringing; and presently a servant guided me to the door of the music-rooms, and in answer to my knock I was bidden herein!
I entered. The room was in shadow; but a deep glowing fire burned in a great cavernous, stone fire-place, and shone upon huge brass andirons on either side of the hearth. In an easy-chair sat Brunken, the old librarian, and his white hair and beard were also warmed into rosiness by the fire-glow. At his feet lay Sigmund, who had apparently been listening to some story of his old friend. His hands were clasped about the old man’s knee, his face upturned, his hair pushed back.
Both turned as I came in, and Sigmund sprung up, but ere he had advanced two paces, paused and stood still, as if overcome with languor or weariness.
“Sigmund, I have come to see you,” said I, coming to the fire and greeting the old man, who welcomed me hospitably.
I took Sigmund’s hand; it was hot and dry. I kissed him; lips and cheeks were burning and glowing crimson. I swept the hair from his brow, that too was burning, and his temples throbbed. His eyes met mine with a strange, misty look. Saying nothing, I seated myself in a low chair near the fire, and drew him to me. He nestled up to me, and I felt that if Eugen could see us he would be almost satisfied. Sigmund did not say anything. He merely settled his head upon my breast, gave a deep sigh as if of relief, and closing his eyes, said:
“Now, Brunken, go on!”
“As I was saying, mein Liebling, I hope to prove all former theorists and writers upon the subject to have been wrong—”
“He’s talking about a Magrepha,” said Sigmund, still not opening his eyes.
“A Magrepha—what may that be?” I inquired.
“Yes. Some people say it was a real full-blown organ,” explained Sigmund, in a thick, hesitating voice, “and some say it was nothing better than a bag-pipe—oh, dear! how my head does ache—and there are people who say it was a kettle-drum—nothing more nor less; and Brunken is going to show that not one of them knew anything about it.”
“I hope so, at least,” said Brunken, with a modest placidity.
“Oh, indeed!” said I, glancing a little timidly into the far recesses of the deep, ghostly room, where the fire-light kept catching the sheen of metal, the yellow whiteness of ivory keys or pipes, or the polished case of some stringed instrument.
Strange, grotesque shapes loomed out in the uncertain, flickering light; but was it not a strange and haunted chamber? Ever it seemed to me as if breaths of air blew through it, which came from all imaginable kinds of graves, and were the breaths of those departed ones who had handled the strange collection, and who wished to finger, or blow into, or beat the dumb, unvibrating things once more.
Did I say unvibrating? I was wrong then. The strings sometimes quivered to sounds that set them trembling; something like a whispered tone I have heard from the deep, upturned throats of great brazen trumpets—something like a distant moan floating around the gilded organ-pipes. In after-days, when Friedhelm Helfen knew this room, he made a wonderful fantasia about it, in which all the dumb instruments woke up, or tried to wake up to life again, for the whole place impressed him, he told me, as nothing that he had ever known before.
Brunken went on in a droning tone, giving theories of his own as to the nature of the Magrepha, and I, with my arms around Sigmund, half listened to the sleepy monotone of the good old visionary. But what spoke to me with a more potent voice was the soughing and wuthering of the sorrowful wind without, which verily moaned around the old walls, and sought out the old corners, and wailed, and plained, and sobbed in a way that was enough to break one’s heart.
By degrees a silence settled upon us. Brunken, having satisfactorily annihilated his enemies, ceased to speak; the fire burned lower; Sigmund’s eyes were closed; his cheeks were not less flushed than before, nor his brow less hot, and a frown contracted it. I know not how long a time had passed, but I had no wish to rise.
The door was opened, and some one came into the room. I looked up. It was the Gräfin. Brunken rose and stood to one side, bowing.
I could not get up, but some movement of mine, perhaps, disturbed the heavy and feverish slumber of the child. He started wide awake, with a look of wild terror, and gazed down into the darkness, crying out:
“Mein Vater, where art thou?”
A strange, startled, frightened look crossed the face of the countess when she heard the words. She did not speak, and I said some soothing words to Sigmund.
But there could be no doubt that he was very ill. It was quite unlike his usual silent courage and reticence to wring his small hands and with ever-increasing terror turn a deaf ear to my soothings, sobbing out in tones of pain and insistence:
“Father! father! where art thou? I want thee!”
Then he began to cry pitifully, and the only word that was heard was “Father!” It was like some recurrent wail in a piece of music, which warns one all through of a coming tragedy.
“Oh, dear! What is to be done? Sigmund! Was ist denn mit dir, mein Engel?” said the poor countess, greatly distressed.
“He is ill,” said I. “I think he has taken an illness. Does thy head ache, Sigmund?”
“Yes,” said he, “it does. Where is my own father? My head never ached when I was with my father.”
“Mein Gott! mein Gott!” said the countess in a low tone. “I thought he had forgotten his father.”
“Forgotten!” echoed I. “Frau Gräfin, he is one of yourselves. You do not seem to forget.”
“Herrgott!” she exclaimed, wringing her hands. “What can be the matter with him? What must I say to Bruno? Sigmund darling, what hast thou then! What ails thee?”
“I want my father!” he repeated. Nor would he utter any other word. The one idea, long dormant, had now taken full possession of him; in fever, half delirious, out of the fullness of his heart his mouth spake.
“Sigmund, Liebchen,” said the countess, “control thyself. Thy uncle must not hear thee say that word.”
“I don’t want my uncle. I want my father!” said Sigmund, looking restlessly round. “Oh, where is he? I have not seen him—it is so long, and I want him. I love him; I do love my father, and I want him.”
It was pitiful, pathetic, somewhat tragic too. The poor countess had not the faintest idea what to do with the boy, whose illness frightened her. I suggested that he should be put to bed and the doctor sent for, as he had probably taken some complaint which would declare itself in a few days, and might be merely some childish disorder.
The countess seized my suggestion eagerly. Sigmund was taken away. I saw him no more that night. Presently we left the schloss and drove home.
I found a letter waiting for me from Eugen. He was still at Elberthal, and appeared to have been reproaching himself for having accepted my “sacrifice,” as he called it. He spoke of Sigmund. There was more, too, in the letter, which made me both glad and sad. I felt life spreading before me, endowed with a gravity, a largeness of aim, and a dignity of purpose such as I had never dreamed of before.
It seemed that for me, too, there was work to do. I also had a love for whose sake to endure. This made me feel grave. Eugen’s low spirits, and the increased bitterness with which he spoke of things, made me sad; but something else made me glad. Throughout his whole letter there breathed a passion, a warmth—restrained, but glowing through its bond of reticent words—an eagerness which he told me that at last
“As I loved, loved am I.”
Even after that sail down the river I had felt a half mistrust, now all doubts were removed. He loved me. He had learned it in all its truth and breadth since we last parted. He talked of renunciation, but it was with an anguish so keen as to make me wince for him who felt it. If he tried to renounce me now, it would not be the cold laying aside of a thing for which he did not care, it would be the wrenching himself away from his heart’s desire. I triumphed in the knowledge, and this was what made me glad.
Almost before we had finished breakfast in the morning, there came a thundering of wheels up to the door, and a shriek of excitement from Frau Mittendorf, who, morgenhaube on her head, a shapeless old morning-gown clinging hideously about her ample figure, rushed to the window, looked out, and announced the carriage of the Frau Gräfin. “Aber! What can she want at this early hour?” she speculated, coming into the room again and staring at us both with wide open eyes round with agitation and importance. “But I dare say she wishes to consult me upon some matter. I wish I were dressed more becomingly. I have heard—that is, I know, for I am so intimate with her—that she never wears négligé. I wonder if I should have time to—”
She stopped to hold out her hand for the note which a servant was bringing in; but her face fell when the missive was presented to me.
“Liebe Mai”—it began—“Will you come and help me in my trouble? Sigmund is very ill. Sometimes he is delirious. He calls for you often. It breaks my heart to find that after all not a word is uttered of us, but only of Eugen (burn this when you have read it), of you, and of ‘Karl,’ and ‘Friedhelm,’ and one or two other names which I do not know. I fear this petition will sound troublesome to you, who were certainly not made for trouble, but you are kind. I saw it in your face. I grieve too much. Truly the flesh is fearfully weak. I would live as if earth had no joys for me—as indeed it has none—and yet that does not prevent my suffering. May God help me! Trusting to you, Your,
“Hildegarde v. Rothenfels.”
I lost no time in complying with this summons. In a few moments I was in the carriage; ere long I was at the schloss, was met by Countess Hildegarde, looking like a ghost that had been keeping a strict Lent, and was at last by Sigmund’s bedside.
He was tossing feverishly from side to side, murmuring and muttering. But when he saw me he was still, a sweet, frank smile flitted over his face—a smile wonderfully like that which his father had lately bent upon me. He gave a little laugh, saying:
“Fräulein May! Willkommen! Have you brought my father? And I should like to see Friedhelm, too. You and der Vater and Friedel used to sit near together at the concert, don’t you remember? I went once, and you sung. That tall black man beat time, and my father never stopped looking at you and listening—Friedel too. I will ask them if they remember.”
He laughed again at the reminiscence, and took my hand, and asked me if I remembered, so that it was with difficulty that I steadied my voice and kept my eyes from running over as I answered him. Gräfin Hildegarde behind wrung her hands and turned to the window. He did not advance any reminiscence of what had happened since he came to the schloss.
There was no doubt that our Sigmund was very ill. A visitation of scarlet fever, of the worst kind, was raging in Lahnburg and in the hamlet of Rothenfels, which lay about the gates of the schloss.
Sigmund, some ten days before, had ridden with his uncle, and waited on his pony for some time outside a row of cottages, while the count visited one of his old servants, a man who had become an octogenarian in the service of his family, and upon whom Graf Bruno periodically shed the light of his countenance.
It was scarcely to be doubted that the boy had taken the infection then and there, and the doctor did not conceal that he had the complaint in its worst form, and that his recovery admitted of the gravest doubts.
A short time convinced me that I must not again leave the child till the illness was decided in one way or another. He was mine now, and I felt myself in the place of Eugen, as I stood beside his bed and told him the hard truth—that his father was not here, nor Friedhelm, nor Karl, for whom he also asked, but only I.
The day passed on. A certain conviction was growing every hour stronger with me. An incident at last decided it. I had scarcely left Sigmund’s side for eight or nine hours, but I had seen nothing of the count, nor heard his voice, nor had any mention been made of him, and remembering how he adored the boy, I was surprised.
At last Gräfin Hildegarde, after a brief absence, came into the room, and with a white face and parted lips, said to me in a half-whisper.
“Liebe Miss Wedderburn, will you do something for me? Will you speak to my husband?”
“To your husband!” I ejaculated.
“He longs to see Sigmund, but dare not come. For me, I have hardly dared to go near him since the little one began to be ill. He believes that Sigmund will die, and that he will be his murderer, having taken him out that day. I have often spoken to him about making der Arme ride too far, and now the sight of me reminds him of it; he can not endure to look at me. Heaven help me! Why was I ever born?”
She turned away without tears—tears were not in her line—and I went, much against my will, to find the Graf.
He was in his study. Was that the same man, I wondered, whom I had seen the very day before, so strong, and full of pride and life? He raised a haggard, white, and ghastly face to me, which had aged and fallen in unspeakably. He made an effort, and rose with politeness as I came in.
“Mein Fräulein, you are loading us with obligations. It is quite unheard of.”
But no thanks were implied in the tone—only bitterness. He was angry that I should be in the place he dared not come to.
If I had not been raised by one supreme fear above all smaller ones, I should have been afraid of this haggard, eager-looking old man—for he did look very old in his anguish. I could see the rage of jealousy with which he regarded me, and I am not naturally fond of encountering an old wolf who has starved.
But I used my utmost effort to prevail upon him to visit his nephew, and at last succeeded. I piloted him to Sigmund’s room; led him to the boy’s bedside. The sick child’s eyes were closed, but he presently opened them. The uncle was stooping over him, his rugged face all working with emotion, and his voice broken as he murmured:
“Ach, mein Liebling! art thou then so ill?”
With a kind of shuddering cry, the boy pushed him away with both hands, crying:
“Go away! I want my father—my father, my father, I say! Where is he? Why do you not fetch him? You are a bad man, and you hate him.”
Then I was frightened. The count recoiled; his face turned deathly white—livid; his fist clinched. He glared down upon the now unrecognizing young face and stuttered forth something, paused, then said in a low, distinct voice, which shook me from head to foot:
“So! Better he should die. The brood is worthy the nest it sprung from. Where is our blood, that he whines after that hound—that hound?”
With which, and with a fell look around, he departed, leaving Sigmund oblivious of all that had passed, utterly indifferent and unconscious, and me shivering with fear at the outburst I had seen.
But it seemed to me that my charge was worse. I left him for a few moments, and seeking out the countess, spoke my mind.
“Frau Gräfin, Eugen must be sent for. I fear that Sigmund is going to die, and I dare not let him die without sending for his father.”
“I dare not!” said the countess.
She had met her husband, and was flung, unnerved, upon a couch, her hand over her heart.
“But I dare, and I must do it!” said I, secretly wondering at myself. “I shall telegraph for him.”
“If my husband knew!” she breathed.
“I can not help it,” said I. “Is the poor child to die among people who profess to love him, with the one wish ungratified which he has been repeating ever since he began to be ill? I do not understand such love; I call it horrible inhumanity.”
“For Eugen to enter this house again!” she said in a whisper.
“I would to God that there were any other head as noble under its roof!” was my magniloquent and thoroughly earnest inspiration. “Well, gnädige Frau, will you arrange this matter, or shall I?”
“I dare not,” she moaned, half distracted; “I dare not—but I will do nothing to prevent you. Use the whole household; they are at your command.”
I lost not an instant in writing out a telegram and dispatching it by a man on horseback to Lahnburg. I summoned Eugen briefly:
“Sigmund is ill. I am here. Come to us.”
I saw the man depart, and then I went and told the countess what I had done. She turned, if possible, a shade paler, then said:
“I am not responsible for it.”
Then I left the poor pale lady to still her beating heart and kill her deadly apprehensions in the embroidery of the lily of the field and the modest violet.
No change in the child’s condition. A lethargy had fallen upon him. That awful stupor, with the dark, flushed cheek and heavy breath, was to me more ominous than the restlessness of fever.
I sat down and calculated. My telegram might be in Eugen’s hand in the course of an hour.
When could he be here? Was it possible that he might arrive this night? I obtained the German equivalent for Bradshaw, and studied it till I thought I had made out that, supposing Eugen to receive the telegram in the shortest possible time, he might be here by half past eleven that night. It was now five in the afternoon. Six hours and a half—and at the end of that time his non-arrival might tell me he could not be here before the morrow.
I sat still, and now that the deed was done, gave myself up, with my usual enlightenment and discretion, to fears and apprehensions. The terrible look and tone of Graf von Rothenfels returned to my mind in full force. Clearly it was just the most dangerous thing in the world for Eugen to do—to put in an appearance at the present time. But another glance at Sigmund somewhat reassured me. In wondering whether girl had ever before been placed in such a bizarre situation as mine, darkness overtook me.
Sigmund moved restlessly and moaned, stretching out little hot hands, and saying “Father!” I caught those hands to my lips, and knew that I had done right.