It was a wild night. Driving clouds kept hiding and revealing the stormy-looking moon. I was out-of-doors. I could not remain in the house; it had felt too small for me, but now nature felt too large. I dimly saw the huge pile of the schloss defined against the gray light; sometimes when the moon unveiled herself it started out clear, and black, and grim. I saw a light in a corner window—that was Sigmund’s room; and another in a room below—that was the Graf’s study, and there the terrible man sat. I heard the wind moan among the trees, heard the great dogs baying from the kennels; from an open window came rich, low, mellow sounds. Old Brunken was in the music-room, playing to himself upon the violoncello. That was a movement from the “Grand Septuor”—the second movement, which is, if one may use such an expression, painfully beautiful. I bethought myself of the woods which lay hidden from me, the vast avenues, the lonely tanks, the grotesques statues, and that terrible figure with its arms cast upward, at the end of the long walk, and I shivered faintly.
I was some short distance down the principal avenue, and dared not go any further. A sudden dread of the loneliness and the night-voices came upon me; my heart beating thickly, I turned to go back to the house. I would try to comfort poor Countess Hildegarde in her watching and her fears.
But there is a step near me. Some one comes up the avenue, with foot that knows its windings, its turns and twists, its ups and downs.
“Eugen!” I said, tremulously.
A sudden pause—a stop; then he said with a kind of laugh:
“Witchcraft—Zauberei!” and was going on.
But now I knew his whereabouts, and coming up to him, touched his arm.
“This, however, is reality!” he exclaimed, infolding me and kissing me as he hurried on. “May, how is he?”
“Just the same,” said I, clinging to him. “Oh, thank Heaven that you are come!”
“I drove to the gates, and sent the fellow away. But what art thou doing alone at the Ghost’s Corner on a stormy night?”
We were still walking fast toward the schloss. My heart was beating fast, half with fear of what was impending, half with intensity of joy at hearing his voice again, and knowing what that last letter had told me.
As we emerged upon the great terrace before the house Eugen made one (the only one) momentary pause, pressed my arm, and bit his lips. I knew the meaning of it all. Then we passed quickly on. We met no one in the great stone hall—no one on the stairway or along the passages—straight he held his way, and I with him.
We entered the room. Eugen’s eyes leaped swiftly to his child’s face. I saw him pass his hand over his mouth. I withdrew my hand from his arm and stood aside, feeling a tremulous thankfulness that he was here, and that that restless plaining would at last be hushed in satisfaction.
A delusion! The face over which my lover bent did not brighten; nor the eyes recognize him. The child did not know the father for whom he had yearned out his little heart—he did not hear the half-frantic words spoken by that father as he flung himself upon him, kissing him, beseeching him, conjuring him with every foolish word of fondness that he could think of, to speak, answer, look up once again.
Then fear, terror overcame the man—for the first time I saw him look pale with apprehension.
“Not this cup—not this!” muttered he. “Gott im Himmel! anything short of this—I will give him up—leave him—anything—only let him live!”
He had flung himself, unnerved, trembling, upon a chair by the bedside—his face buried in his hands. I saw the sweat stand upon his brow—I could do nothing to help—nothing but wish despairingly that some blessed miracle would reverse the condition of the child and me—lay me low in death upon that bed—place him safe and sound in his father’s arms.
Is it not hard, you father of many children, to lose one of them? Do you not grudge Death his prize? But this man had but the one; the love between them was such a love as one meets perhaps once in a life-time. The child’s life had been a mourning to him, the father’s a burden, ever since they had parted.
I felt it strange that I should be trying to comfort him, and yet it was so; it was his brow that leaned on my shoulder; it was he who was faint with anguish, so that he could scarce see or speak—his hand that was cold and nerveless. It was I who said:
“Do not despair, I hope still.”
“If he is dying,” said Eugen, “he shall die in my arms.”
With which, as if the idea were a dreary kind of comfort, he started up, folded Sigmund in a shawl, and lifted him out of bed, infolding him in his arms, and pillowing his head upon his breast.
It was a terrible moment, yet, as I clung to his arm, and with him looked into our darling’s face, I felt that von Francius’ words, spoken long ago to my sister, contained a deep truth. This joy, so like a sorrow—would I have parted with it? A thousand times, no!
Whether the motion and movement roused him, or whether that were the crisis of some change, I knew not. Sigmund’s eyes opened. He bent them upon the face above him, and after a pause of reflection, said, in a voice whose utter satisfaction passed anything I had ever heard: “My own father!” released a pair of little wasted arms from his covering, and clasped them round Eugen’s neck, putting his face close to his, and kissing him as if no number of kisses could ever satisfy him.
Upon this scene, as Eugen stood in the middle of the room, his head bent down, a smile upon his face which no ultimate griefs could for the moment quench, there entered the countess.
Her greeting after six years of absence, separation, belief in his dishonesty, was a strange one. She came quickly forward, laid her hand on his arm, and said:
“Eugen, it is dreadfully infectious! Don’t kiss the child in that way, or you will take the fever and be laid up too.”
He looked up, and at his look a shock passed across her face; with pallid cheeks and parted lips she gazed at him speechless.
His mind, too, seemed to bridge the gulf—it was in a strange tone that he answered:
“Ah, Hildegarde! What does it matter what becomes of me? Leave me this!”
“No, not that, Eugen,” said I, going up to him, and I suppose something in my eyes moved him, for he gave the child into my arms in silence.
The countess had stood looking at him. She strove for silence; sought tremulously after coldness, but in vain.
“Eugen—” She came nearer, and looked more closely at him. “Herrgott! how you are altered! What a meeting! I—can it be six years ago—and now—oh!” Her voice broke into a very wail. “We loved you—why did you deceive us?”
My heart stood still. Would he stand this test? It was the hardest he had had. Gräfin Hildegarde had been—was dear to him. That he was dear to her, intensely dear, that love for him was intwined about her very heart-strings, stood confessed now. “Why did you deceive us?” It sounded more like, “Tell us we may trust you; make us happy again!” One word from him, and the poor sad lady would have banished from her heart the long-staying, unwelcome guest—belief in his falseness, and closed it away from her forever.
He was spared the dreadful necessity of answering her. A timid summons from her maid at the door told her the count wanted to speak to her, and she left us quickly.
Sigmund did not die; he recovered, and lives now. But with that I am not at present concerned.
It was the afternoon following that never-to-be-forgotten night. I had left Eugen watching beside Sigmund, who was sleeping, his hand jealously holding two of his father’s fingers.
I intended to call at Frau Mittendorf’s door to say that I could not yet return there, and when I came back, said Eugen, he would have something to tell me; he was going to speak with his brother—to tell him that we should be married, “and to speak about Sigmund,” he added, decisively. “I will not risk such a thing as this again. If you had not been here he might have died without my knowing it. I feel myself absolved from all obligation to let him remain. My child’s happiness shall not be further sacrificed.”
With this understanding I left him. I went toward the countess’s room, to speak to her, and tell her of Sigmund before I went out. I heard voices ere I entered the room, and when I entered it I stood still, and a sickly apprehension clutched my very heart. There stood my evil genius—the böser Geist of my lover’s fate—Anna Sartorius. And the count and countess were present, apparently waiting for her to begin to speak.
“You are here,” said the Gräfin to me. “I was just about to send for you. This lady says she knows you.”
“She does,” said I, hesitatingly.
Anna looked at me. There was gravity in her face, and the usual cynical smile in her eyes.
“You are surprised to see me,” said she. “You will be still more surprised to hear that I have journeyed all the way from Elberthal to Lahnburg on your account, and for your benefit.”
I did not believe her, and composing myself as well as I could, sat down. After all, what could she do to harm me? She could not rob me of Eugen’s heart, and she had already done her worst against him and his fair name.
Anna had a strong will, she exerted it. Graf Bruno was looking in some surprise at the unexpected guest; the countess sat rigidly upright, with a puzzled look, as if at the sight of Anna she recalled some far-past scene. Anna compelled their attention; she turned to me, saying:
“Please remain here, Miss Wedderburn. What I have to say concerns you as much as any one here. You wonder who I am, and what business I have to intrude myself upon you,” she added to the others.
“I confess—” began the countess, and Anna went on:
“You, gnädige Frau, have spoken to me before, and I to you. I see you remember, or feel you ought to remember me. I will recall the occasion of our meeting to your mind. You once called at my father’s house—he was a music teacher—to ask about lessons for some friend or protégée of yours. My father was engaged at the moment, and I invited you into my sitting-room and endeavored to begin a conversation with you. You were very distant and very proud, scarcely deigning to answer me. When my father came into the room, I left it. But I could not help laughing at your treatment of me. You little knew from your shut-up, cossue existence among the lofty ones of the earth, what influence even such insignificant persons as I might have upon your lot. At the time I was the intimate friend of, and in close correspondence with, a person who afterward became one of your family. Her name was Vittoria Leopardi, and she married your brother-in-law, Graf Eugen.”
The plain-spoken, plain-looking woman had her way. She had the same power as that which shone in the “glittering eye” of the Ancient Mariner. Whether we liked or not we gave her our attention. All were listening now, and we listened to the end.
“Vittoria Leopardi was the Italian governess at General von ——’s. At one time she had several music lessons from my father. That was how I became acquainted with her. She was very beautiful—almost as beautiful as you, Miss Wedderburn, and I, dull and plain myself, have a keen appreciation of beauty and of the gentleness which does not always accompany it. When I first knew her she was lonely and strange, and I tried to befriend her. I soon began to learn what a singular mixture of sordid worldliness and vacant weak-mindedness dwelt behind her fair face. She wrote to me often, for she was one of the persons who must have some one to whom to relate their ‘triumphs’ and conquests, and I suppose I was the only person she could get to listen to her.
“At that time—the time you called at our house, gnädige Frau—her epistles were decidedly tedious. What sense she had—there was never too much of it—was completely eclipsed. At last came the announcement that her noble and gallant Uhlan had proposed, and been accepted—naturally. She told me what he was, and his possessions and prospects; his chief merit in her eyes appeared to be that he would let her do anything she liked, and release her from the drudgery of teaching, for which she never had the least affinity. She hated children. She never on any occasion hinted that she loved him very much.
“In due time the marriage, as you all know, came off. She almost dropped me then, but never completely so; I suppose she had that instinct which stupid people often have as to the sort of people who may be of use to them some time. I received no invitations to her house. She used awkwardly to apologize for the negligence sometimes, and say she was so busy, and it would be no compliment to me to ask me to meet all those stupid people of whom the house was always full.
“That did not trouble me much, though I loved her none the better for it. She had become more a study to me now than anything I really cared for. Occasionally I used to go and see her, in the morning, before she had left her room; and once, and once only, I met her husband in the corridor. He was hastening away to his duty, and scarcely saw me as he hurried past. Of course I knew him by sight as well as possible. Who did not? Occasionally she came to me to recount her triumphs and make me jealous. She did not wish to reign supreme in her husband’s heart; she wished idle men to pay her compliments. Everybody in —— knew of the extravagance of that household, and the reckless, neck-or-nothing habits of its master. People were indignant with him that he did not reform. I say it would have been easier for him to find his way alone up the Matterhorn in the dark than to reform—after his marriage.
“There had been hope for him before—there was none afterward. A pretty inducement to reform, she offered him! I knew that woman through and through, and I tell you that there never lived a more selfish, feeble, vain, and miserable thing. All was self—self—self. When she was mated to a man who never did think of self—whose one joy was to be giving, whose generosity was no less a by-word than his recklessness, who was delighted if she expressed a wish, and would move heaven and earth to gratify it; the more eagerly the more unreasonable it was—mes amis, I think it is easy to guess the end—the end was ruin. I watched it coming on, and I thought of you, Frau Gräfin. Vittoria was expecting her confinement in the course of a few months. I never heard her express a hope as to the coming child, never a word of joy, never a thought as to the wider cares which a short time would bring to her. She did say often, with a sigh, that women with young children were so tied; they could not do this, and they could not do that. She was in great excitement when she was invited to come here; in great triumph when she returned.
“Eugen, she said, was a fool not to conciliate his brother and that doting old saint (her words, gnädige Frau, not mine) more than he did. It was evident that they would do anything for him if he only flattered them, but he was so insanely downright—she called it stupid, she said. The idea of missing such advantages when a few words of common politeness would have secured them. I may add that what she called ‘common politeness’ was just the same thing that I called smooth hypocrisy.
“Very shortly after this her child was born. I did not see her then. Her husband lost all his money on a race, and came to smash, as you English say. She wrote to me. She was in absolute need of money, she said; Eugen had not been able to give her any. He had said they must retrench. Retrench! was that what she married him for! There was a set of turquoises that she must have, or another woman would get them, and then she would die. And her milliner, a most unreasonable woman, had sent word that she must be paid.
“So she was grumbling in a letter which I received one afternoon, and the next I was frightfully startled to see herself. She came in and said smilingly that she was going to ask a favor of me. Would I take her cab on to the bank and get a check cashed for her? She did not want to go there herself. And then she explained how her brother-in-law had given her a check for a thousand thalers—was it not kind of him? It really did not enter my head at the moment to think there was anything wrong about the check. She had indorsed it, and I took it, received the money for it, and brought it to her. She trembled so as she took it, and was so remarkably quiet about it, that it suddenly flashed upon my mind that there must be something not as it ought to be about it.
“I asked her a question or two, and she said, deliberately contradicting herself, that the Herr Graf had not given it to her, but to her husband, and then she went away, and I was sure I should hear more about it. I did. She wrote to me in the course of a few days, saying she wished she were dead, since Eugen, by his wickedness, had destroyed every chance of happiness; she might as well be a widow. She sent me a package of letters—my letters—and asked me to keep them, together with some other things, an old desk among the rest. She had no means of destroying them all, and she did not choose to carry them to Rothenfels, whither she was going to be buried alive with those awful people.
“I accepted the charge. For five—no, six years, the desk, the papers, everything lay with some other possessions of mine which I could not carry about with me on the wandering life I led after my father’s death—stored in an old trunk in the lumber-room of a cousin’s house. I visited that house last week.
“Certain circumstances which have occurred of late years induced me to look over those papers. I burned the old bundle of letters from myself to her, and then I looked through the desk. In a pigeon-hole I found these.”
She handed some pieces of paper to Graf Bruno, who looked at them. I, too, have seen them since. They bore the imitations of different signatures; her husband’s, Graf Bruno’s, that of Anna Sartorius, and others which I did not know.
The same conviction as that which had struck Anna flashed into the eyes of Graf von Rothenfels.
“I found those,” repeated Anna, “and I knew in a second who was the culprit. He, your brother, is no criminal. She forged the signature of the Herr Graf—”
“Who forged the signature of the Herr Graf?” asked a voice which caused me to start up, which brought all our eyes from Anna’s face, upon which they had been fastened, and showed us Eugen standing in the door-way, with compressed lips and eyes that looked from one to the other of us anxiously.
“Your wife,” said Anna, calmly. And before any one could speak she went on: “I have helped to circulate the lie about you, Herr Graf”—she spoke to Eugen—“for I disliked you; I disliked your family, and I disliked, or rather wished to punish, Miss Wedderburn for her behavior to me. But I firmly believed the story I circulated. The moment I knew the truth I determined to set you right. Perhaps I was pleased to be able to circumvent your plans. I considered that if I told the truth to Friedhelm Helfen he would be as silent as yourself, because you chose to be silent. The same with May Wedderburn, therefore I decided to come to head-quarters at once. It is useless for you to try to appear guilty any longer,” she added, mockingly. “You can tell them all the rest, and I will wish you good-afternoon.”
She was gone. From that day to this I have never seen her nor heard of her again. Probably with her power over us her interest in us ceased.
Meanwhile I had released myself from the spell which held me, and gone to the countess. Something very like fear held me from approaching Eugen.
Count Bruno had gone to his brother, and touched his shoulder. Eugen looked up. Their eyes met. It just flashed into my mind that after six years of separation the first words were—must be—words of reconciliation, of forgiveness asked on the one side, eagerly extended on the other.
“Eugen!” in a trembling voice, and then, with a positive sob, “canst thou forgive?”
“My brother—I have not resented. I could not. Honor in thee, as honor in me—”
“But that thou wert doubted, hated, mistak—”
But another had asserted herself. The countess had come to herself again, and going up to him, looked him full in the face and kissed him.
“Now I can die happy! What folly, Eugen! and folly like none but thine. I might have known—”
A faint smile crossed his lips. For all the triumphant vindication, he looked very pallid.
“I have often wondered, Hildegarde, how so proud a woman as you could so soon accept the worthlessness of a pupil on whom she had spent such pains as you upon me. I learned my best notions of honor and chivalry from you. You might have credited me rather with trying to carry the lesson out than with plucking it away and casting it from me at the first opportunity.”
“You have much to forgive,” said she.
“Eugen, you came to see me on business,” said his brother.
Eugen turned to me. I turned hot and then cold. This was a terrible ordeal indeed. He seemed metamorphosed into an exceedingly grand personage as he came to me, took my hand, and said, very proudly and very gravely:
“The first part of my business related to Sigmund. It will not need to be discussed now. The rest was to tell you that this young lady—in spite of having heard all that could be said against me—was still not afraid to assert her intention to honor me by becoming my wife and sharing my fate. Now that she has learned the truth—May, do you still care for me enough to marry me?”
“If so,” interrupted his brother before I could speak, “let me add my petition and that of my wife—do you allow me, Hildegarde?”
“Indeed, yes, yes!”
“That she will honor us and make us happy by entering our family, which can only gain by the acquisition of such beauty and excellence.”
The idea of being entreated by Graf Bruno to marry his brother almost overpowered me. I looked at Eugen and stammered out something inaudible, confused, too, by the look he gave me.
He was changed; he was more formidable now than before, and he led me silently up to his brother without a word, upon which Count Bruno crowned my confusion by uttering some more very Grandisonian words and gravely saluting my cheek. That was certainly a terrible moment, but from that day to this I have loved better and better my haughty brother-in-law.
Half in consideration for me, I believe, the countess began:
“But I want to know, Eugen, about this. I don’t quite understand yet how you managed to shift the blame upon yourself.”
“Perhaps he does not want to tell,” said I, hastily.
“Yes; since the truth is known, I may tell the rest,” said he. “It was a very simple matter. After all was lost, my only ray of comfort was that I could pay my debts by selling everything, and throwing up my commission. But when I thought of my wife I felt a devil. I suppose that is the feeling which the devils do experience in place of love—at least Heine says so:
“I kept it from her as long as I could. It was a week after Sigmund was born that at last one day I had to tell her. I actually looked to her for advice, help. It was tolerably presumptuous in me, I must say, after what I had brought her to. She brought me to reason. May Heaven preserve men from needing such lessons! She reproached me—ay, she did reproach me. I thank my good genius, or whatever it is that looks after us, that I could set my teeth and not answer her a syllable.”
“The minx!” said the countess aside to me. “I would have shaken her!”
“‘What was she to do without a groschen?’ she concluded, and I could only say that I had had thoughts of dropping my military career and taking to music in good earnest. I had never been able to neglect it, even in any worst time, for it was a passion with me. She said:
“‘A composer—a beggar!’ That was hard.
“I asked her, ‘Will you not help me?’
“‘Never, to degrade yourself in that manner,’ she assured me.
“Considering that I had deserved my punishment, I left her. I sat up all night, I remember, thinking over what I had brought her to, and wondering what I could do for her. I wondered if you, Bruno, would help her and let me go away and work out my punishment, for, believe me, I never thought of shirking it. I had been most effectually brought to reason, and your example, and yours, Hildegarde, had taught me a different kind of moral fiber to that.
“I brought your note about the check to Vittoria, and asked her if she knew anything about it. She looked at me, and in that instant I knew the truth. She did not once attempt to deny it. I do not know what, in my horrible despair and shame, I may have said or done.
“I was brought to my senses by seeing her cowering before me, with her hands before her face, and begging me not to kill her. I felt what a brute I must have been, but that kind of brutality has been knocked out of me long ago. I raised her, and asked her to forgive me, and bade her keep silence and see no one, and I would see that she did not suffer for it.
“Everything seemed to stand clearly before me. If I had kept straight, the poor ignorant thing would never have been tempted to such a thing. I settled my whole course in half an hour, and have never departed from it since.
“I wrote that letter to you, and went and read it to my wife. I told her that I could never forgive myself for having caused her such unhappiness, and that I was going to release her from me. I only dropped a vague hint about the boy at first; I was stooping over his crib to say good-bye to him. She said, ‘What am I to do with him?’ I caught at the idea, and she easily let me take him. I asked Hugo von Meilingen to settle affairs for me, and left that night. Thanks to you, Bruno, the story never got abroad. The rest you know.”
“What did you tell Hugo von Meilingen?”
“Only that I had made a mess of everything and broken my wife’s heart, which he did not seem to believe. He was stanch. He settled up everything. Some day I will thank him for it. For two years I traveled about a good deal. Sigmund has been more a citizen of the world than he knows. I had so much facility of execution—”
“So much genius, you mean,” I interposed.
“That I never had any difficulty in getting an engagement. I saw a wonderful amount of life of a certain kind, and learned most thoroughly to despise my own past, and to entertain a thorough contempt for those who are still leading such lives. I have learned German history in my banishment. I have lived with our trues heroes—the lower middle-classes.”
“Well, well! You were always a radical, Eugen,” said the count, indulgently.
“At last, at Köln I obtained the situation of first violinist in the Elberthal Kapelle, and I went over there one wet October afternoon and saw the director, von Francius. He was busy, and referred me to the man who was next below me, Friedhelm Helfen.”
Eugen paused, and choked down some little emotion ere he added:
“You must know him. I trust to have his friendship till death separates us. He is a nobleman of nature’s most careful making—a knight sans peur et sans reproche. When Sigmund came here it was he who saved me from doing something desperate or driveling—there is not much of a step between the two. Fräulein Sartorius, who seems to have a peculiar disposition, took it into her head to confront me with a charge of my guilt at a public place. Friedhelm never wavered, despite my shame and my inability to deny the charge.”
“Oh, dear, how beautiful!” said the countess, in tears.
“We must have him over here and see a great deal of him.”
“We must certainly know him, and that soon,” said Count Bruno.
At this juncture I, from mingled motives, stole from the room, and found my way to Sigmund’s bedside, where also joy awaited me. The stupor and the restlessness had alike vanished; he was in a deep sleep. I knelt down by the bedside and remained there long.
Nothing, then, was to be as I had planned it. There would be no poverty, no shame to contend against—no struggle to make, except the struggle up to the standard—so fearfully severe and unapproachable, set up by my own husband. Set up and acted upon by him. How could I ever attain it or anything near it? Should I not be constantly shocking him by coarse, gross notions as to the needlessness of this or that fine point of conduct? by my ill-defined ideas as to a code of honor—my slovenly ways of looking at questions?
It was such a fearful height, this to which he had carried his notions and behavior in the matter of chivalry and loyalty. How was I ever to help him to carry it out, and moreover, to bring up this child before me, and perhaps children of my own in the same rules?
It was no doubt a much more brilliant destiny which actually awaited me than any which I had anticipated—the wife of a nobleman, with the traditions of a long line of noblemen and noblewomen to support, and a husband with the most impossible ideas upon the subject.
I felt afraid. I thought of that poor, vain, selfish first wife, and I wondered if ever the time might come when I might fall in his eyes as she had fallen, for scrupulous though he was to cast no reproach upon her, I felt keenly that he despised her, that had she lived, after that dreadful discovery he would never have loved her again. It was awful to think of. True, I should never commit forgery; but I might, without knowing it, fail in some other way, and then—woe to me!
Thus dismally cogitating I was roused by a touch on my shoulder and a kiss on the top of my head. Eugen was leaning over me, laughing.
“You have been saying your prayers so long that I was sure you must be asking too much.”
I confided some of my doubts and fears to him, for with his actual presence that dreadful height of morality seemed to dwindle down. He was human too—quick, impulsive, a very mortal. And he said:
“I would ask thee one thing, May. Thou dost not seem to see what makes all the difference. I loved Vittoria: I longed to make some sacrifice for her, would she but have let me. But she could not; poor girl! She did not love me.”
“Well! Mein Engel—you do,” said he, laughing.
“Oh, I see!” said I, feeling myself blushing violently. Yes, it was true. Our union should be different from that former one. After all it was pleasant to find that the high tragedy which we had so wisely planned for ourselves had made a faux pas and come ignominiously to ground.