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Title: Quisisana, or Rest at Last
Author: Spielhagen, Friedrich, 1829-1911
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Quisisana, or Rest at Last" ***

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Transcriber's Note:
   1. Page scan source:
      http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924031341906

   2. The diphthong oe is represented by [oe].



                           Q U I S I S A N A


                              REST AT LAST



                    From the German of F. Spielhagen


                                   BY

                           H. E. GOLDSCHMIDT



            ONLY TRANSLATION SANCTIONED BY THE AUTHOR AND BY
                 THE INTERNATIONAL LITERARY ASSOCIATION



                               NEW YORK:
                   JAMES B. MILLAR & CO., PUBLISHERS.
                                 1885.



                                 TROW'S
                   PRINTING AND BOOKBINDING COMPANY,
                               NEW YORK.



                               QUISISANA.


                                   I.


"Why have you roused me, Konski?"

"You were lying on your left side again, sir," the servant, who held
his master clasped by the shoulder, replied, as he completed the task
of restoring him to a sitting posture on the sofa; "and you have been
drinking champagne at dinner, more than a bottle, John says, and that
surely is ..."

Konski broke off abruptly, and turned again to the travelling boxes,
one of which was already unlocked; he commenced to arrange its contents
in the chest of drawers, and went on, apparently talking to himself
rather than to his master--

"I am merely doing what the doctor has insisted upon. Only last night,
in Berlin, as I was showing him to the door, he said: 'Konski, when
your master is lying on his left side and begins then to moan, rouse
him, rouse him at once, be it day or night. I take the responsibility.
And, Konski, no champagne; not for the next six weeks, anyhow, and best
not at all. And when you have once got into Italy, then plenty of water
to be mixed with the wine, Konski, and ...'"

"And now oblige me by holding your tongue."

Bertram had remained sitting on the sofa, his hand pressed to his brow;
he now rose rapidly and strode impatiently about the room, casting
every now and then an angry glance at his valet. Then he stepped to one
of the windows. The sun must be setting now. The high wooded hills
yonder still shone forth in sunny splendour, but the terrace gardens
sloping towards the valley, and the valley itself, with the village
within, lay already in deepest shadow. The picturesque view, the
graceful charm of which he was wont to appreciate so heartily, had no
charm to-day for his dulled brain. Konski was quite right; the
champagne which he had to-day taken for the first time since his
illness, in direct defiance of the doctors injunctions, had not agreed
with him. Well, he had taken champagne because his throat had got
unbearably dry from much talking, and he had talked so much because the
frequent pauses in the dinner conversation were making him nervous. The
whole thing had been a positive bore; the genial host, the fair hostess
had surely fallen off, changed sadly for the worse during the last
three years. Or ... could he possibly have changed himself? Did he
really begin to grow old? If you get seriously ill at fifty, you are
apt to go downhill with startling rapidity!

This had been the second emphatic _memento mori_--after an interval of
twenty years! The first--the first had been her work. Aye, and she had
kissed him a thousand times, and had vowed deathless fidelity yonder on
the mountain-slope, where the giant oak still lifted its mighty crown
of foliage above the bronze-coloured leafy roof of the beeches. Why the
deuce did they always give him these rooms? He'd better ask Hildegard
this very evening for other rooms--at once, before that blockhead
Konski had unpacked everything.

"Leave these things alone," he exclaimed, turning round from the
window; "I do not intend to remain in these rooms. I do not intend to
stay here at all, I think. We shall probably be off to-morrow."

Konski, who was already deep in the recesses of box number two,
believed he had not heard aright. He lifted his head out of the box and
looked in amazement at his master.

"To-morrow, sir? I thought we were to stay a week at the least."

"Do what I bid you."

Konski replaced, the shirts which he was holding in the portmanteau and
rose hastily from his knees. His master was evidently in a very bad
temper; "but that kind of thing never lasts long with him," Konski was
saying to himself, "and then the champagne ..."

Aloud he said--
"You can be sure, sir, that there won't be much trouble about the
officers who are going to be quartered here. I know all about it from
Mamsell Christine. Only a colonel, a major, a couple of captains, and
some six lieutenants or so, and perhaps a surgeon-major. None of our
princes, and certainly none of theirs. A mere handful for a large place
like this; they'll be lost, like currants in a bun. And you can remain
in these rooms, where we always have been, and you'll see none of them,
for I don't suppose they'll have this blessed man[oe]vre in the garden
below."

"I do not know at, all what you want with your everlasting
man[oe]vres," Bertram exclaimed angrily.

He had gone back, to the open window, through which there came a strong
current of air. Konski went and closed the door of the adjoining room,
then stepped up to within a certain respectful distance of his master,
and said modestly, lowering his voice--

"I beg your pardon, sir, but what does it matter, after all, if Miss
really comes ..."

"What do you mean?" Bertram said without turning round. "What has that
to do with my going or staying? Why should the little one not come?"

Konski rubbed up his stiff black hair with a certain sly smile, and
said--

"Not Miss Erna; the other lady--who is never allowed to come when you
are here."

"Lydia? Fräulein von Aschhof? Are you mad?"

Bertram turned round with the rapidity of lightning, and now uttered
these words in a rough tone, whilst his eyes, generally so gentle,
shone out in great anger. Konski was frightened; but his curiosity was
greater than his terror. He would gladly have at last learned the real
truth about the young lady who was not allowed to come when his master
came on a visit to Rinstedt, and whom he had therefore never yet seen,
although in the course of years he had accompanied his master half a
dozen times. But he was once more doomed to disappointment; his master
had suddenly become perfectly calm again, or at least preserved the
appearance of perfect calmness, and now asked in his usual voice--

"From whom have you got your information? Of course from Mamsell
Christine?"

"From Mamsell Christine, of course," Konski made answer.

"And she got it from My Lady?"

"From her Ladyship direct."

"And when is the lady expected to arrive?"

"This very evening, along with Miss Erna; and there will also come a
Baron Lutter or Lotter--I could not quite make the name out; they
pronounce things so queerly here in Thuringia."

"Well, well!"

Bertram now remembered that Hildegard, his hostess, had at table
mentioned more than once the name of the Baron von Lotter-Vippach. Of
Lydia, too, although he made it a point never to be drawn into
conversation about her, she had again and again commenced to speak;
clearly, as he perceived now, with the intention of preparing him to
some extent for the intended surprise. But My Lady had reckoned without
her host. This was a downright want of consideration; nay, worse, it
was a breach of good faith. There was no reason why he should put up
with it, and he did not mean to put up with it.

"Where's the master? and where is My Lady?" he asked aloud.

"The master has ridden over to the coal mines; her Ladyship has gone
into the village. They left word that they would be back before you
were awake again; and you had not lain down on your left ..."

"That'll do. Into the village, did you say? Give me my hat."

"Please take your overcoat too, sir," said Konski; "there's a nasty
mist rising from the valley, sir; and the doctor, he did say that if
you caught cold now, sir ..."

Bertram had put his hat on, and waived the proffered garment back. In
the doorway he turned, and said--

"Do not trouble about the boxes. We leave again in an hour. And one
thing more. If you say one word to Mamsell Christine, or to anybody in
the house, now or later--you understand me--and I hear of it--we
part--for all that."

He had left. Konski was now standing by the open window scratching his
head, and the very next minute he saw him striding swiftly down the
garden.

"Upon my word!" he murmured; "who'd think that six weeks ago he lay at
the point of death?--And off this evening again--an hour hence! Not if
I knows it. First, I must settle my little business with Christine, and
that is not to be done all at once. Christine says that at that time
the Fräulein would have nothing to say to him. I can't make it out.
Twenty years ago he must have been a very handsome fellow; why, he is
so almost still. Nor was he a poor man even then, though, of course, he
has inherited lots since. I am devilish keen about seeing the old maid.
One thing is sure and certain, she will arrive this very evening."

Then he cast one dubious look at the boxes. Perhaps it was taking
needless pains to unpack them.

"But, but--he'll surely think better of it--he is not the one to run
away from any woman, even if she should number forty years or
thereabout; and--and ..."

And so the faithful Konski, after having given a most incredulous shake
of the head, set to work, and continued to unpack his master's
travelling boxes.



                                  II.


Meanwhile Bertram, had already crossed the bridge which spanned the
brook at the bottom of the garden terrace, and was hurrying along to
the village along the line of meadows. His hostess, Hildegard, had said
at dinner that she meant to-day, like every Thursday afternoon, to
visit her newly-founded Kindergarten; so he thought there would be no
difficulty in finding her. He had been a frequent visitor at Rinstedt,
and knew every lane in the village; and the Kindergarten, they said,
was on the main road, not far from the parsonage. Well, and what did he
mean to say to Hildegard when he met her? First, of course, make sure
of the facts. But there was little need for that. Konski was a smart
fellow, who was not likely to have made a mistake; and then he was on
such excellent terms with the omniscient Mamsell Christine! He would
ask her what had induced her to break through the agreement to which
she had now adhered for the last twenty years. And yet--what a needless
question! Why, women are never consistent! And in such things they
always like to assist each other and work into each other's hands, even
if they are by no means specially fond of each other. And now it seemed
as if there were special fondness between these two. His beautiful
hostess had, quite contrary to her wont, sung Lydia's praises in every
possible variety of way! And then, take the fact that she had sent her
own daughter to Lydia's _pension_, and had left the girl there in the
small _Residenz_ for three years. Poor Erna! Fancy her for three years
under the care of that crazy woman! Poor Erna--the beautiful creature
with the great, deep, blue eyes! That should never have happened. It
was a positive insult to him. He had urged every argument against it;
had found out a supremely suitable place in Berlin for her; had offered
to undertake careful personal supervision; had urged them to confide
the child to his care, to give the child an opportunity of seeing
something of life under its larger, nobler aspect. And they had said
yes to everything; had thanked him so very much for his exertions, his
kindness; and at the last moment they had contentedly plumped back into
the beloved mire and stagnant waters of the pettiness of life in the
small _Residenz_. To be sure, My Lady herself had been brought up in
that social quagmire, and still cherished with plaintive delight
recollections of bygone splendour, and mourned in secret over her own
hard fate which had not permitted her, like Lydia, to sun herself all
the days of her life in the immediate rays of princely favour, but had
doomed her to marry a man who was not nobly born--a man rich enough,
forsooth, but bearing the unaristocratic name of Bermer, and having
friends of similarly unaristocratic names, to whom, for all that, one
had to be civil. Yes, a real Baron--a Baron von Lotter-Vippach--would,
of course, be infinitely preferable! And fancy her, fancy My Lady
forcing the Baron's company upon him after he had expressly urged that,
being only half convalescent, he needed perfect repose; and would, if
they were to have company in the house, rather in the meanwhile deny
himself the delight of seeing his old friends, and would come to them
in spring instead on his return from Italy!

Yes, something like this he would say to his beautiful hostess, in
perfect calmness and good temper, of course, only tinged with a touch
of finest irony.... And this new building by his side--why, it must
surely be the Kindergarten!

So it was. But the girl who was in charge of the children who were
playing on the garden-plot in front of the building, said to him, in
answer to his question, that My Lady had left half an hour ago; had
gone to the parsonage, she thought. A couple of boys who were running
about told him My Lady had gone to the village-mayor along with the
parson.

The mayor's farm was situated at the opposite end of the village.
Bertram started off in that direction, but before he had got half way
he bethought himself that the parson would probably walk back with
Hildegard, and that in that case he would of course have no opportunity
of speaking plainly to her. So he turned back, determined to wait for
her near the parsonage, which she was bound to pass on her way home.
And yet, how could he wait? He could not tell whether he would have
time left to carry out his intended flight; nay, every moment brought
Lydia nearer, every moment he must expect to see the carriage whirl her
past him where he stood. What? was he to stand here like this, and be
compelled to bow to her? Never! To the left a narrow lane led direct to
the forest, which, higher up, almost bordered on the mansion-house.
This road back was somewhat longer than the one he had come by, and was
steeper too; but anyhow it was much shorter than the carriage-drive,
for that branched off from the high road in the main valley at the
entrance to the side valley, thus intersecting the whole length of the
village, and ultimately wound its long serpentine road up the high hill
crowned by his friend's stately mansion. This way he would gain an
advance of a good half-hour anyhow. It was to be hoped that his friend
and host, Otto Bermer, had meanwhile returned from the coal mines; they
lay in the opposite direction. He'd make a clean breast of it to Otto,
and make Otto take his farewell compliments to My Lady. Poor Otto! "The
grey mare was the better horse," no doubt; and poor Otto would not
relish the task; but what was to be done? And did not he, Bertram,
anyhow enjoy the doubtful reputation of being selfishness incarnate!
Well, then, this done, they would swiftly get some conveyance or other
ready for him. If required, Konski could stay behind with boxes and
such-like impedimenta; and in two or three hours' driving, first
through the forest, to avoid the danger of meeting her, then along the
high road, he would reach Fichtenau. He was fond of Fichtenau. There he
would rest in that evergreen dale for a few days, and recover from the
fatigue of the journey and from this day's manifold annoyances. Anyhow,
he would have escaped from Lydia, have broken away from the snare which
those women had set for him! He owed this satisfaction to himself, and
perhaps the reflection would smooth the rough forest path he had now
entered upon.

For it was rough, was that path; much more so than he remembered it
being formerly. Much rougher and much steeper too; in fact, most,
most--abominably steep. Never mind; by following the tiny brooklet
which was murmuring in the glen by his side, and which fell into the
big brook in the valley below, he must speedily reach the little bridge
leading to the opposite side; and then a smooth, or at least a fairly
smooth, path would lead him on to the mansion.

What on earth could she have to do, she and the parson, at the mayor's?
Something, probably, about getting appropriate quarters for those who
were coming to the man[oe]vres; to be sure, My Lady, never idle, must
needs take an interest in everything! Or perchance it was some
charitable purpose, something for the sick, for the poor; in the
pursuit of such noble aims My Lady never spared herself now, that is
never since Royalty had set the example, and made it fashionable! And
anyhow, it was hardly polite, in one so uniformly polite as My Lady, to
leave the house and walk right away to the far end of the village with
one guest already in the house, and with other guests expected every
minute. Possibly--possibly My Lady was not unwilling to avoid the one
guest; and the others, to be sure, must needs drive past the mayor's
house. What more natural than, in such a case, to enter the carriage
that brought the new guests; whilst driving with them through the
village, what more simple than to give a confidential hint or two, just
the merest suggestion, as to the treatment of the bird which she had
captured--oh, so cleverly! No, no, My Lady--not captured yet ... not
yet!

But where was the little bridge? It ought to have appeared long ere
this. What! Climb down the steep glen, get your feet wet in the brook
below, and climb up again the opposite side? Perish the thought! Why,
everything seemed to go against him to-day!

At last. And a broad new bridge too. And pair fully rustic, with
elaborate rustic ornaments of curiously entwined and intertwisted tree
branches. And, worst of all, such a confounded bit higher up the stream
than where the old bridge had been.

And the path on the opposite side, too; new, new like the bridge, new
and fashionable, a regular promenade path; belonging, no doubt, to the
elaborate system of paths which his noble and beautiful hostess had for
years woven, like a complicated network, through the woods around. Of
course, like Charlotte in the "Elective Affinities," the fair
châtelaine must needs have that passion for beautifying everything;
like Charlotte, but not, oh dear! no, with any tender _penchant_ for
her husband's well-born friends. Well, well! He himself had never
doubted the unapproachable virtue of My Lady: what if she now, tried
her gentle hand ever so little at this, surely it was only the outcome
of the excessive goodness of her chaste, and cool, and philanthropic
heart.... Heart! ... And oh the wretched pain, the horrid, horrid
sensation in my own heart. Who the mischief could be philanthropical if
he felt like this? Perhaps this insane running and climbing has brought
on a relapse. The story might then close where it began, and fair Lydia
would come just in the nick of time to see that when people talk of a
broken heart, they are not necessarily talking nonsense.... What
rubbish, though! If my heart breaks, it will be because it has got some
organic fault, and because I took champagne when I should not have done
so.

He had dropped upon a bench by, the wayside, and there he crouched,
almost bent double, pressing his handkerchief to his mouth, to prevent
his moans from being heard in the silence of the darkening woods.

The attack passed away. Gradually the agonising pains grew less. With
the physical anguish much of the fierce passion into which he had
worked himself passed away too. In its stead he felt a terrible
heaviness, a dull languor in all his limbs, and there was a sort of
stupor about his brain.

Supposing it had given way, he mused. Fancy, sitting alone here in the
wood, a dead man, for goodness knows how long, and then terrifying a
poor wretch who chanced to pass this way first! This was not a pleasing
thought. But this anyhow would have been the worst. Death in itself he
did not dread. Why should he? Death was but the end of life. And life?
His life? If he could say that his living harmed no one, except perhaps
poor Konski whom he sometimes tormented by his wayward moods--yet, on
the other hand, it gladdened no one, least of all himself. The few poor
students or struggling artists would have their allowances paid out to
them for the time fixed, whether he lived on or not, and a few public
institutions were welcome to divide the residue between them. All that
would be settled in the shortest and most business-like manner. Never a
tear would be shed by any human being, unless perchance by old Konski.
But no; it was impossible to think of the good, easy-going fellow in
tears.

He was sitting at the foot of a spreading beech tree. A crow, perched
on the top, uttered a shriek.

Bertram looked up with a grim smile. "Patience!" he said.

But it was not on his account that the crow had uttered that cry, but
probably because somebody was approaching. He saw a lady coming down
the side-path which led from the forest direct to his bench. Again,
this convulsive pain at the heart! But he forced himself to look again;
and no, it was not Lydia. Lydia was taller, and her blonde hair was of
ashen hue; this lady's hair was dark, very dark. And the style of
walking, too, was different, very different: an easy, even, step,
making it appear as if she were floating down the somewhat steep path,
although he could see the movement of the feet beneath the light summer
dress. And now she had come quite close to him. She gave a little
start, for, gazing up to the shrieking crow, she had not noticed him,
and he had sprung up somewhat abruptly from the bench. But in a moment
she was collected again, and the flush faded as quickly from her cheek
as it had spread.

"Is, it possible?--Erna!"

"Uncle Bertram!"

There was something wondrously melodious in the voice, but not the
slightest trace of the glad emotion which he himself had experienced
which he himself had experienced on seeing his darling. His heart
contracted; he would fain have said: "You were wont to give me a
different reception;" but he blushed to face the young beauty as a
beggar, and letting, go her hands, he only said--

"You did not expect to find me here?"

"How could I?" was her reply.

"To be sure!" thought Bertram. "How could she? What a silly question of
mine!"

He knew not what next to say, and, in some embarrassment, he stood
silent. The crow above had been silent during the last half-minute or
so, and now commenced to croak, abominably. Both had involuntarily
gazed up; now they were, walking silently side by side along the path.



                                  III.


The evening was closing in around them. Through the thick undergrowth
of wood which bordered the path on both sides but little light could
penetrate; overhead the leafy crowns of the beeches interlaced and
formed an almost continuous roof. At a certain abrupt declivity a few
rough steps had been placed.

"Will you take my arm. Uncle Bertram?" said Erna. It was the first word
spoken between them since, several minutes ago, minutes which had
weighed like lead upon Bertram, they had left the bench under the beech
tree.

"I was just going to put the same question to you," he replied.

"Thanks," said Erna. "I know every step here; but you--and then, you
have been ill."

This might, of course, have been meant in all friendliness; but there
was a coldness about the tone, something like giving alms, Bertram
thought.

"Have been," he made answer; "but quite well again--quite well."

"I understand you are going to Italy for the winter--for the sake of
your health."

"I am going to Italy because I hope I shall be rather less bored in
Rome than in Berlin--that is all."

"And suppose you are bored in Rome too?"

"You mean, bores are bored everywhere?"

"No, I do not mean that; indeed, it would have been most disagreeable
on my part had I meant anything of the kind. I only wanted to know
where people go to from Rome, if they desire still to travel on. To
Naples, I should say?"

"To be sure. To Naples, to Capri! In Capri there stands amidst orange
groves, with sublimest view of the blue infinity of the ocean, a fair
white hostelry, embowered in roses, Quisisana. Years ago I was there,
and I have longed ever since to be back again. _Qui si sana!_ What a
sound of comfort, of promise! _Qui si sana!_ Here one gets well! Even
those who ate fairly well, physically, have something to recover from.
Why, life itself--what is it but a long disease, and death its only
cure?"

Another pause. He had intended that there should be no new break in
their conversation and yet the very words he had just uttered, still
under the impulse of the invalid's peevish humour, were little likely
to induce the beautiful and taciturn girl by his side to talk. He
wanted to make heir talk. It never occurred to him that her silence was
due to a lack of ideas, or even to shyness. Quite the reverse. She
interested him more and more every moment, and he was strongly
impressed that he was dealing with a girl of marked individuality,
reposing securely in her own strength. Of her whom he had known and
loved as a child, and whose image he had cherished in fondest, truest
memory, never a trace!

"You know, Uncle Bertram, that you are going to see Fräulein von
Aschhof--Aunt Lydia--to-night?" she resumed abruptly.

Bertram started. That name--from her, fair, chaste lips--had a doubly
hateful sound.

"I know," he answered; "not from your parents, but I know."

"They will have shrunk from telling you," Erna continued. "Mamma was
most reluctant to sanction Aunt Lydia's coming; but Aunt Lydia begged
so very hard to be allowed to see you once more, and she thought that
now, when you have been so very, very ill, and when you are going away
for such a long time, you might be in gentler mood. And yet she was
afraid to encounter you. She grew so nervous as we were driving along,
that I believe she was uncommonly near getting out and leaving us to
continue the journey without her. At last I could scarcely bear to
witness her uneasiness any longer, and I felt considerable relief when
I got out myself in order to walk across the hill--from Fischbach,
don't you know--and as I was coming along, I was debating whether, if I
reached home before them, I might not beg you to be a little friendly
towards auntie. You ... but I am not sure whether to go on ..."

"I beg you will do so."

"I only wanted to add: you owe it to her."

"Do I?"

"I should think so; for her only fault has been that she has loved you
and still loves you, and you ..."

"My dear child, I beg you will go on without any shyness. I am anxious,
very anxious, you should do so."

"And you ... left her, after you had been engaged for a whole year!"

"And then I wrote her a letter of renunciation, did I not? And the poor
forsaken one, in her despair, engaged herself within four-and-twenty
hours to Count Finkenburg, who had long been vainly suing for her hand?
And the old gentleman was so enchanted that scarce a week after he died
from rapture and paralysis combined, without even having time to
remember his fair bride in his will! Was it not so?"

"Let us change the topic, Uncle Bertram," Erna replied. "I hear from
your words and from your tone that you are excited, and I now feel
doubly how awkward I was in turning our talk, for auntie's sake, to a
subject I ought to know nothing of, and which I certainly should never
have mentioned."

"I cannot let you off like that, alas! my child," Bertram said in
reply. "I must still ask you from whom your information is derived.
From Fräulein von Aschhof, of course?"

"I cannot find it unnatural," Erna said, "if Aunt Lydia, in the
excitement she has laboured under ever since your visit here was
announced, and since she determined to see you again, has unburdened
her overflowing heart to me, and has told me all which--or the greater
part of which--I knew or guessed. And she has urgently entreated me not
to repeat a word of this to you, and I am sure she is convinced that I
would do nothing of the kind. But I gave her no promise, for I have
always been very fond of you, Uncle Bertram, very, very fond; and I was
so sorry that you ... that I now could no longer be fond of you. I have
always in my heart taken your side, when they were saying that you were
cold and selfish, and cared for nobody but yourself. I have always
thought: he has never found any one worthy of him! And now I know all,
I should like to say: perhaps Aunt Lydia was not worthy of him either;
she has many qualities which I do not like at all--but she would surely
have turned out differently if you had not betr ... had not forsaken
her. How can a girl remain good, if she is forsaken by the man she
loves! How can she, if her heart is easily touched, become aught but a
coquette, and assume manners that people will laugh and jeer at; or, if
she be proud, and ashamed of her misfortune, she must needs grow cold
and heartless, and full of contempt for all men, nay, for all mankind!"

The calm, low voice had remained the same to the very last word, but in
striking contrast to that calm and that self-control there was the
passionate gleam of the great dark eyes, which now looked up to Bertram
with wondrous firmness, such as the ancients may have imagined the gaze
of the gods--"whose eyelids quiver not, like those of mortals."

The narrow path had widened to a glade; there they stood for a few
moments gazing in each other's eyes; and Bertram felt the fascination
of that wondrous firmness, felt, too, that no consideration could
condemn him to stand before those eyes as a contemptible wretch, and
that, at any cost, he must tear to pieces the dark curtain which
unscrupulous lies had woven and spread between her and him.

He took her arm, as though to make sure that she would not escape from
him, and, striding swiftly along, and almost dragging her with him, he
said--

"And now hear me, too, and despise me, if you still can do so after you
have heard me! Forsaken, did you say, forsaken and betrayed? Yea,
verily! But she it was who practised the treachery--most infamous, most
horrible treachery, with never the shadow of an excuse for it, if
indeed anything ever can excuse treachery. I loved her--I will not say
more than ever man did love--I know not how other men love--I only,
know, that I loved her with the best and purest strength, of my heart.
I was no longer a youth when, at your parents' wedding, I made the
acquaintance of your mother's friend. I was almost thirty years
of age, and was living, as you know, in Leipzig as a mere private
scholar--_Privat-Gelehrter_ they call it. I had planned my scheme of
study on a very great scale, and, being very much, in earnest about
science and art, as indeed about all things I take up, I was wont to
devote years to tasks which other men, with less time or more genius,
accomplish in as many months. Moreover, I had what I required for the
expenses of living, perhaps even a little more--I, am not given to
paying attention to that kind of thing. Now everything became changed
at once. I loved her, I fancied myself loved in return. We had met here
again, and, more than once, and had become engaged, though at first,
and at my own special request, in all secrecy. I comprehended that a
man engaged to so high-born and gifted, a girl as Lydia von Aschhof,
must needs be something better than a mere obscure private scholar, and
I readily 'pulled myself together,' determined to reach my goal. Some
time, of course, was required before my great work could be completed.
Some time; too much for her patience. Perhaps she doubted its ultimate
success. Perhaps she cared naught for the success, notwithstanding the
enthusiasm which she pretended to feel for my efforts, notwithstanding
her being so very kind as to assure me a thousand times that my genius,
my talent, had made her my captive, and would hold her my captive, yea,
though a crown were laid at her feet. As it turned out, no princely
crown was needed; only a plain coronet--and one surmounting a grey,
decrepit head into the bargain. Oh! she wrote me a most touching, most
generous letter of renunciation. 'I am but hindering you in your lofty
striving; an artist, a scholar must be free, unshackled; your fame is
more to me than my love,' and so on, and so on. Two or three pages
more, high-sounding phrases in daintiest handwriting, concluding, of
course, with the announcement of her new engagement, by which, as by a
_fait accompli_, she must needs assist her wavering heart.

"The letter was written from here, from Rinstedt. I hurried to the
railway; at the last station I got hold of a vehicle. When we got to
Fischbach, the poor overdriven steeds could not get on any further. By
the shortest, steepest path I climbed to the top of the Hirschstein,
the hill you have just come by; here, on the top, I fell down like one
dead. I gathered myself together again, and staggered on, on, until I
reached your father's house. She must have had some foreboding that I
would not submit to this in all patience; she had left your father's
house an hour before, driving to Fichtenau, taking the road by which it
was impossible for me to come. Afterwards I came to be grateful to her
for her circumspection and her precaution, for I think I must have been
simply raving mad; and it was well for both of us that my power was
broken, that I could not pursue the fair fugitive, but had to remain
here, a burden on your parents, sick unto death, given up by the
doctors, until some six or eight weeks' after, I surprised them all by
recovering, enabled to live on as best one can with a sorely wounded
heart--and a heart injured, not in the physical sense alone. What good,
do you think, did it do me whilst I was struggling with death here, and
afterwards dragged myself on crutches through the terrace-gardens, that
my work had appeared, had taken the world by storm, and made me, once
for all, what they call a famous man? What good that, just at that time
a childless old miser of an uncle took it into his head to die, and
that, in default of other heirs, his whole huge fortune fell to me? I
had had enough of the lying and cheating of humanity. Fame, love--I
cared no longer for these things. I became what I am, what my
acquaintances know me to be, what they have called me to you--a cold
egotist. What if for all that I do not cross my hands idly in my lap
but work on, and now and again utter a word of freedom which others,
less independent, might lack the courage to utter; or if I start and
encourage works of general utility; or if here and there I help some
lame dog over a stile; these things I surely do not for the love of the
Lord, nay, solely, so as not to lose that modicum of self-respect which
belongs to the indispensable stock-in-trade of a discreet egotist. And
talking of self-respect, dear, I begin to perceive with pain that I am
lessening the aforesaid modicum considerably in telling you all this.
For, in affairs of the hearts a gentleman should always spare the lady
the utterance of the first word and leave her the last, and if she
asserts that he is Don Giovanni and she Donna Elvira, why, he has but
to bow and thank her for assigning so brilliant a part to him. And now,
my dear child, now try to be fond of your garrulous old uncle once
more, will you not?"

The girl made no reply. A feeling of shame had gradually stolen over
Bertram as he spoke, and he had tried in vain to weaken it by
concluding with a semi-humorous turn. Now this feeling grew intensified
by Erna's silence. How had, it been possible for him to forget himself
so far as to reveal to a young girl, one almost a child still, one
without comprehension for such sad, ugly, painful experiences, the
deepest secret of his heart--a secret which he had trained himself to
pass by, as it were, with his own face turned away? And he had told of
this, to a girl who stood to the object of his vehement denunciation in
the peculiarly tender and delicate relation of pupil! How mean, how
ignoble of him! He had acted like a raw, immature lad! He wished
himself a thousand miles away; he cursed his want of determination,
inasmuch as he might have left the place abruptly an hour ago, and thus
have escaped all this horrible confusion. Now he must needs depart at
once, this very evening, if possible without seeing, without speaking
to, a soul; most certainly without entering upon any explanation
whatever. He had just tasted the delight of such explanations, and it
would be long before he lost the bitter after-taste of them!...

They were quite cleat of the wood now, and were approaching--walking
across some meadow land--a tiny gate in the thick old wall, which led
to the courtyard.

Suddenly Erna said, "And you have told nobody all this?"

"No," he answered; and it cost him a curious struggle to get the one
brief word--out.

They passed through the tiny gate; it was almost dark in the yard now.
Before the entrance to the house stood a large open travelling
carriage; servants were removing the belongings of the travellers who
had already alighted. Through the main gate, on the opposite side, a
cart, laden with the heavier articles of luggage, was entering.

"Uncle Bertram," whispered Erna.

Just as they were about to cross the threshold of the tiny gate she had
seized his hand with gentle pressure. He had involuntarily stopped.
Again she was gazing up at him, but not now, as before in the wood,
with a stern expression. Was it a reflection of the radiance of the
young moon, just then rising above the gloom which was enfolding the
buildings around--or could it be tears that glistened in the great
eyes?

"You want to leave us, Uncle Bertram?"

"Who told you so?"

"It matters not. You want to leave us?"

"Yes."

"Stay! Pray, stay--for my sake!"

She dropped the hand which she had clasped until now, and hurried
across the yard to the mansion-house, while he ascended the stairs to
the side wing where his own rooms were situated, his whole soul full of
the image of this wondrous girl, whose words, whose looks, had so
potent a spell over him, that he no longer seemed to have a will of his
own as against hers.



                                  IV.


His master's long absence had at length commenced to disquiet faithful
Konski considerably. True, he knew from his ten years' experience that
he need not pay much attention to any orders that master gave him when
in a state of great excitement; and, of course, the later it grew, the
more improbable it became that the departure, although announced, would
really take place; but then, supposing some accident had happened to
him? The doctor in Berlin had most strongly urged him to take every
possible precaution lest, during the first few weeks anyhow, his master
should over-exert himself in any way--and master had hurried down those
terrace steps like one possessed! And all on account of this infernal
old maid who was never allowed to visit at this house when they, master
and he, were here! Oh, why had he not held his silly tongue, and not
brought the great news at once to his master!

He would have liked hurrying after him into the village, but dared not
leave his post. And now their host came in and inquired for master, and
seemed greatly concerned when Konski, to soothe his own anxiety as it
were, hinted that his master had not been over pleased when told that
additional guests were expected; and Konski added, as a sort of
conjecture of his own, that he had probably gone out for a walk, so as
to avoid having to be present at their reception. And meanwhile My Lady
had returned and had sent for him, and Konski had to repeat to her
Ladyship--for whom he entertained the most confounded respect--what he
had already told her Ladyship's husband; and her Ladyship had looked so
hard at him with those piercing brown eyes of hers, that he was jolly
glad when he was back at his post of observation at the lobby-window,
whence he could survey the whole extensive court-yard. And there--an
open carriage was just entering it; only two people in it--a lady and a
gentleman--thank Heaven, one lady only! In the gathering twilight
Konski could not distinguish, the lady's features or figure, but, if
there was only one lady, why, who could it be but dear Miss Erna? And
from her, master was not likely to run away; and all was well now, if
only he himself were safely back.

The door below was opened. Konski heard his master's step upon the
stairs and hurried to meet him, joyfully telling him all that he had
observed; and did master know already that Miss Erna was the only lady
who had arrived?

His master had thrown himself into an arm-chair in the sitting-room,
where careful Konski had already lighted a liberal supply of candles,
and was staring hard in front of him, passing at intervals his hands
over brow and eyes. Suddenly he sat bold upright and said:

"What did you say?"

Poor Konski had said nothing at all during the last few minutes, but
inquired now whether his master would not dress for supper; he thought
it was getting quite late enough.

Bertram rose and passed into the adjoining bedroom where Konski had
laid out such a costume as he deemed appropriate for the occasion. He
lent him the necessary aid, and marvelled greatly that his master, who
was wont to talk to him during the process of dressing more than at any
other time, did not say a single word to-night. Another curious thing
was this: quite contrary to his custom, the master looked hard at
himself in the mirror again and again, and, strangest sight of all, he
pulled and twisted his moustache about! However, seeing that master,
though looking very grave, did not appear either annoyed or angry,
Konski was quite satisfied. To-night then, anyhow, their departure need
not be provided for.

There was a knock at the door. Their host entered as hurriedly as was
consistent with his being so very stout.

"Thank Heaven that you are here!" he exclaimed, shaking both his
friend's hands again and again, as though he had been 'long looked-for,
come at last!' "Thank Heaven; we have been quite frightened about you.
Hildegard was very angry that I had left you alone. I said to her,
'Why, he is not a child, requiring to be watched at every step;' that
is to say, I did not actually say so in so many words. I ... thought
so. My wife is terribly nervous to-day. I had told her at once ..."

Here he noticed the servant's presence, and in some embarrassment broke
off abruptly. Bertram having now completed his toilet, the two
gentlemen left the room together. As they were walking through the long
passage which led to the main building, his host put one arm round his
friend's slender waist and said confidentially, lowering his voice by
way of precaution--

"I had told Hildegard at once that you would be annoyed; at least I did
not say so in so many words, but I--hinted it, for, you know, my wife
cannot beat contradiction; and I soon found out that the two women,
between them, had determined that the meeting should take place. Now
Erna tells me--she is a darling, is she not? a little peculiar, a
little odd, but always good to me; how nice that you met on the
hills--well, Erna tells me that you were not particularly angry that
Lydia had accompanied her; that is to say, Erna does not know anything
of the old stories, or has only heard some vague rumours that you
cannot bear each other, or that you cannot bear Lydia. Never mind, it's
all the same now; only tell me that you are not particularly angry."

"I was at first, but I am so no longer."

"That's all I ask for. And after all, old chap, well, misunderstandings
and all that sort of thing! But the blame is sure to be yours, or
almost entirely yours. Why, it's always the man who is to blame, eh? I
should know that much, having been married these twenty years!"

He laughed. Bertram, to change the conversation, asked where the others
were.

"The ladies are on the verandah; the Baron was still in his room when I
came away."

"By the by," Bertram asked, "who is this Baron? You were talking about
him once or twice at table, but I confess I hardly listened."

"Lotter?" his friend said. "Look here; you'll like him immensely.
Stunning fellow, Lotter. Has read every mortal thing; plays the piano;
paints--portraits, landscapes, anything you like. Has come home to do
some painting; studies at our academy, don't you know?--and is a
constant guest at Court, of course."

"Does he belong to these parts?"

"Oh; dear no! hails from Würtemberg. A very, very old family;
Lotter-Vippach. His father was a General, I believe; his uncle a
Minister of State; that sort of thing, don't you know? He has been in
the army himself; was in the '70 campaign. But he is a bit of a rover.
Has been up and about a good deal; in Algiers, South America; that,
sort of thing. I pressed him to come and stay here during the
man[oe]vres, to help me to do the honours, as I never was in the army
myself. He is awfully anxious to make your acquaintance; has read all
your works and--and--but where on earth are our ladies? I'll go and
look. You stop where you are; do not come out bareheaded."

The last words had already been spoken in the garden saloon, the great
French windows of which, leading to the verandah, stood wide open. His
host had hurried off to look for the ladies, and Bertram, left alone,
strode up and down in the large, half-darkened room. Had he not,
perhaps, yielded all too readily to Erna's command? If obedience was to
be easy to him, nay, if it was to be at all possible for him, she ought
to have stayed by his side. And now her very image was gone from his
inner eye, and its place had been taken by her whom he had once so
passionately loved, as if twenty years had not gone by since he last
saw her, as if she had only passed a minute ago with her beautiful
friend and hostess into the garden, thence to return immediately under
some pretext or other, to rush to his embrace, to shower hot,
passionate kisses upon him--here, in this very saloon, as she had so
often, so often done--here, where the faint fragrance of violets still
seemed to float, that she was so fond of, and which in those days he
was ever associating with her presence!

He was standing in the semi-darkness, his back turned to the verandah;
a gentle rustling sound was coming up the steps. He turned. Framed in
by one of the doors against the brighter background of the evening sky,
appeared the shadowy outline of a lady, lingering a moment or two on
the threshold, then hastening with raised arms towards him, as he stood
motionless, spellbound.

Before he could prevent it, she had sunk on her knees before him, had
seized his hands which he was involuntarily stretching forth to lift
her up, and now she was pressing them to her bosom, to her lips. A
dense cloud of violet perfume came floating up to him.

"Mercy, Charles, mercy!"

"I entreat you, My Lady, ... for Heaven's sake ..."

He had been barely able to stammer out these words; he felt the most
acute physical anguish at his heart; cold beads of perspiration stood
upon his forehead; ice-cold were the hands which Lydia had held till
then, and which now she dropped, terrified, rising as she did so from
the ground.

"My Lady!" she murmured, "My Lady ... Ah, I knew it!"

The convulsive pain at his heart had ceased now; it beat on, but
slowly, heavily; even so his anger and pain were giving way to
compassion.

"Let bygones be bygones," he said.

"If it were possible!" whispered Lydia.

"It must be possible."

She knew from his gentle but firm tone that, for the moment, she dare
go no farther; and though she had to confess to herself that she had
been deceived in her fond hope of reconquering his affections by one
grand assault at starting, something was secured anyhow, and something
desirable and even necessary--a fairly satisfactory footing when they
met in society.

"The dear voice!" she whispered; "the old, dear, gentle voice! But ...
those hard, cruel words! Yet I have no right to complain, and I will
not lament; it must, indeed, be possible!"

Much to his relief Bertram was spared the necessity of replying, for
his host and hostess were just then coming in from the garden,
accompanied by Erna and Baron Lotter. At the same moment a servant
opened the folding-door which led to the dining-room; the two gentlemen
were introduced to each other; the Baron offered his arm to the lady of
the house, Lydia was clinging to the master, and thus Erna fell to
Bertram's share. They were lingering a little behind the rest.

"How good you are!" whispered Erna.

"Am I?" he made answer. "I feel most contemptible."



                                   V.


In very truth the feeling that he had done wrong in thus opening his
heart to Erna had come back in renewed strength to Bertram, since he
had to admit to himself that he had emphatically broken his own dictum
that bygones were to be bygones. The past was no longer a secret
between those concerned; and what would henceforth happen--each word,
each look which they exchanged, all, all would have a sense, a meaning
for somebody else--for the beautiful girl who was so grave beyond her
years, the girl with the great, still, godlike eyes.

Thus Bertram was profoundly in earnest when he declined to accept
Erna's praise; but, anyhow, he hoped that the worst was over now.

How greatly he was mistaken in this, came most painfully home to him
with the first stolen glimpse which he ventured to take of Lydia's face
in the pitiless radiance of the bright candles which shone upon the
round table in the dining-room, where he sat opposite her. Was that
really ... Lydia? Or had some mischievous imp, by cruel witchcraft, put
a caricature of herself in her place, and changed the picture of the
bright and gifted girl, overflowing with jest and fun, with humour and
wit; the girl with the somewhat irregular but most piquant features,
with the big, light-blue, mischievous eyes, fresh and rosy of colour,
with wild, fluttering, blonde locks, into the picture of an aging
coquette, for ever pouting her thin lips, even when she laughed, so as
to hide her false teeth; now lowering, now lifting her eyelids, like an
actress, in vain endeavouring to give some light to her eyes--a light
as treacherous as the all too bright pinkiness of the lean cheek, the
all too dark carmine of the ears, adorned though they were with
sparkling diamonds? An ugly old woman, who now let the gold embroidered
white silk shawl glide from the scraggy shoulders, only to draw it up
again immediately and attempt a more picturesque drapery--which was not
a success, so that the game had to be renewed forthwith!

And he had once loved this painted, dressed-up, revoltingly coquettish
person; had loved her with the best, purest strength of his heart, as,
but a little while ago, he had assured Erna with passionate eagerness.
It was horrible! Would Erna believe that yonder withered shrub had ever
blossomed in vernal brightness and beauty? How could she believe it,
when she looked at the friend of Lydia's youth, her own mother, whose
majestic beauty was barely touched by Time in his flight? Her great
brown eyes had lost none of their velvety softness, her raven hair
still shone in undimmed splendour. And if the difference in appearance,
in manner, was now so great between the two ladies, must it not always
have existed? And must not the taste of a man, whose feelings could at
any time have led him so far astray, have been at all times most
lamentable?

And if the pitiless brightness had brought so terrible a discovery to
him, how would he himself appear before Erna's searching gaze? Had not
some horrible change taken place with him too? Why, these twenty years
had altered Erna's father, who at college had been rightly surnamed
'The Beauty,' into an excessively stout gentleman, with a somewhat
bloated countenance, and a mighty skull, which was getting painfully
bald in the region of the temples! And he himself had never been
distinguished for personal attraction; true, his hair was as dark as
ever; and, before supper, in the glass, he had thought that he saw a
pale and grave, but not a worn, face. But then the complaisant mirror
of vanity might make one fancy one saw all sorts of things. No doubt
Lydia had just such a mirror in her room!

Bertram felt more and more sad at heart. He no longer dared lift his
eyes, but kept them fixed upon the plates, which the servants changed
without his having tasted any of the dishes to which he helped himself
mechanically. So he sat on, scarcely hearing a word of the
conversation, which was principally carried on by Lydia and the Baron.
Apparently they were talking about some Court affairs, and very amusing
and piquant they would appear to be. Anyhow, there was much laughter,
chiefly on the part of Lydia and the Baron, and My Lady held up her
hand once or twice, and reminded the two of the respect due to the
Grand Ducal family. Then the conversation touched upon the approaching
man[oe]vres, and the Baron proclaimed his minute knowledge of every
detail, and endeavoured to explain to the ladies, with the help of
spoons and forks and what not, the original positions both of the
attacking party and the attacked, and duly weighed the various events
which might or must occur, according whether the commanding officers
did or did not take certain steps. Under any circumstances, the
decisive portion of the sham-fight must come off in the immediate
neighbourhood of Rinstedt itself, if not in Rinstedt itself;
unfortunately, the ground being singularly unsuitable for cavalry, the
ultimate issue would lie between artillery and infantry. He himself,
said the Baron, having formerly been a cavalry officer, was very sorry
for that; but, anyhow, the ladies, could look forward to a glorious
sight. What, a pity, he added, that in spite of his having so many
friends in the army, he did not chance to have any personal
acquaintances among the officers of this particular regiment.

"Well, I know a number of them," said the host. "The 99th were
stationed at Erfurt until a twelvemonth ago. I used to meet the
officers over and over again out shooting."

"Then," said the Baron, turning to Lydia, "you must know some of them
too. They are sure to have attended some of our Court balls."

"Of course," the lady replied; "and they were also in the habit of
coming over in shoals to the play; but who is to distinguish one red
collar from another? Not I! I love plain, quiet, civilian colours. Ask
Erna; she is sure to know. She spent six weeks last summer with her
Aunt Adelheid in Erfurt, and there the officers, are constantly coming
and going. Is it not so, Erna?"

"You are forgetting," said Erna, "that aunt was in mourning at the
time. Of course there were no parties then."

"But still," the Baron observed, "people go to a house without being
actually bidden to parties, inspire of the family being in mourning, if
there are six marriageable daughters in it, as is the case in your
aunt's house."

"Possibly; then my power of discriminating between different red
collars is not more strongly developed than Aunt Lydia's; anyhow, I do
not remember any one of the gentlemen."

This was uttered in such a stern tone, as of one who would decline to
pursue the subject, that Bertram looked up involuntarily. Her dainty
features were perfectly composed, but the blue eyes, which she was
bending upon him, not upon her interlocutor the Baron, seemed to have a
deeper radiance than that of suppressed annoyance. This was the first
time that their looks had met across the table, and a curious thrill
passed through his frame. He felt the hot blood surging to his temples;
and to mask his growing embarrassment, he asked who was in command of
the regiment in question.

"Colonel von Waldor," the Baron replied promptly.

"I knew an officer of that name," said Bertram, "long ago, in Berlin;
at that time he had been told off to the Military Academy of that town.
For some years I kept up a correspondence with him, but somehow I lost
sight of him afterwards. But I rather think that was not his regiment?"

"No," replied the Baron. "You are quite right; he used to be in the
210th. He got the colonelcy of the 99th about a year ago. He made quite
a name for himself in the '70 campaign."

"Even at the time I recall, my friend was considered a very smart
officer," said Bertram.

"No doubt, no doubt," replied the Baron; "it must be the same man. As
far as I know, there are not two Waldors in the army, at least not
among regimental commanders, for I think I know all their names by
heart. Your Colonel is a queer fish, anyhow."

"What is a 'queer fish'?" asked Lydia, touching the Baron's arm with
her fan.

He laughed, and said: "Well, that question is more easily asked than
answered."

"Then, pray, do not answer it at all," said Hildegard, the hostess,
glancing at her daughter Erna.

"Why not, my Lady?" the Baron exclaimed. "It is harmless enough to let
the facts speak, and it is a fact that Waldor who--I do not know him
personally, but Dr. Bertram will assuredly confirm my statement--was
known throughout the army not only on account of his gallantry, but
also on account of his manly beauty, and who had consequently broken
countless hearts, is still a bachelor."

"You say 'consequently,'" exclaimed Lydia, "and consequently you think
very meanly of our sex."

"How so?"

"Well, you seem to assume that manly beauty suffices to touch--or, as
you are pleased to call it, to break--female hearts. Alas, my dear
Baron, how little do you know our sex!"

"I beg a thousand pardons--but I really said nothing of the kind. Venus
and Mars--the alliance of valour and beauty, you know--your poets know
something of this. Why, there is a poet here among us--let him speak up
for me!"

With these last words the Baron had turned to Bertram; his tone and the
accompanying gesture had something insultingly patronising about them;
in fact, in Bertram's eye the whole demeanour of the young man,
almost a giant in stature, was saturated with an arrogant sort of
self-complacency, which seemed to take unanimous applause for granted.
Nevertheless he replied with calm politeness:

"I neither consider myself a poet, nor am I, to the best of my
knowledge, considered one by anybody who has read the few miserable
trifles in verse which I published years ago."

"I protest against this most emphatically," exclaimed Lydia. "I have
read those 'miserable trifles in verse,' as you call them--what a
horrible expression. I know them by heart, and I consider the author to
be a poet--a poet by grace divine."

"I am extremely obliged to you," replied Bertram. "However, surely what
a man is born for is wont to announce itself, sooner or later, in a
man's own heart. With me that voice is absolutely silent; and,
therefore, I might surely claim the right of refusing to give the
evidence required of me. But not being specially qualified, and being
absolutely impartial, I would fain warn my friends not to repose
overmuch confidence in poets on that particular point. Anxious for the
applause of the many, as their trade seems to demand, they accommodate
themselves but too readily to the taste of the many, who, as we all
know, like very children, seize eagerly upon anything bright,
glistening, motley-coloured. Therefore, why should they not picture the
heroine as beautiful beyond compare, the hero as valorous beyond
comparison, and heap any number of additional titles to fame upon their
blessed heads! Whether one quality does not perchance exclude another,
whether the measure dealt out does not, anyhow, exceed all that is
reasonably possible--dear, dear, there are few who'll ask that
question; and if any one does, why, then, he is a pedant, and for
pedants the heroes of romance have no existence, any more than real
heroes have for their valets."

"Oh! you scoffer--you wretch!" exclaimed Lydia. "Why, you will prove
next that beauty, that valour, that every virtue in the world, belongs
to the region of romance. What a terrible thing scepticism is! But our
friend was ever thus. Did I not say a short while ago: Hildegard, I
cannot believe that he has changed; he cannot change! And behold, he
is exactly what he always was!"

"Well, that's coming it pretty strong, seeing it's twenty years since
..."

The corpulent host had laughingly given utterance to these words, then,
feeling his wife's dark eyes bent upon him in stern disapproval, he
broke off abruptly with Ahem! poured some wine into his own glass,
which was but half emptied, and then wanted to know why the gentlemen
present were not doing justice to the wine that night.

Bertram, wishing to relieve his friends in their evident embarrassment,
came to the rescue, saying, with smiling, easy politeness: "Fräulein
von Aschhof only proves by her kind assertion of my immutability, that
she is indeed looking upon the world and mankind with a poetical eye.
But let us remember this--the poets themselves allow only the fair sex
to participate in the pleasing prerogative of the calmly careless ever
youthful gods; and the poets may venture on this deception, because the
listener is willing to be deceived. 'Breathes there a man with soul so
dead,' who ever ventured to count up the years of an Antigone, an
Iphigenia, a Helena? They are what they were--else they are not. But,
even the poet's flattering arts cannot keep the man from aging; and if
the poet would grant perennial youth to a man, he must needs let him
die in his youth--like Achilles."

"I protest against this theory," Lydia exclaimed eagerly. "I assert
that heroes age as little as heroines."

"Even that," Bertram replied with a smile, "would not help me, seeing
that I am no hero, assuming even that you were right. But I may be
permitted to indulge in some humble doubt. At best the hero of the
Odyssey appears distinctly as a man of mature age,--to put it
mildly,--and Pallas Athene must practise upon him her divine art of
beautifying before she ventures to introduce him among the Phæaci."

The Baron was meanwhile playing with his spoons and forks again; he was
evidently annoyed at having been so long kept out of the conversation.

Bertram went on as though he did not notice it at all; he very surely
was not speaking for that fellow's sake. He only cared to clear himself
in Erna's eyes from any suspicion that he, like the aged coquette
opposite him, was laying claim to a juvenility which had gone by for
ever; and seeing those eyes steadily bent upon him, he took heart of
grace, and went on in the same tone of easy, good-humoured banter--

"Göethe, a modern, and in this case a tragic, poet too, in his
Nausicaan fragments, wisely forebore to bring in that art of
beautifying, which is only lawful for the epic poet in his antique
naïvety, and in order to bridge over the mighty difference and distance
of years, and to change the evidently improbable into something at
least credible, he takes refuge in illusion, causing it to arise from
the child's very heart, like a fog enveloping those pure eyes, that
clear mind--


           'That man must ever be a youthful man,
            Who is well-pleasing to a maiden's eyes.'[1]


Thus the aged nurse, taking the unspoken words, as it were, from
Nausicaa's chaste lips. A touching saying, touching, like children's
belief in the omnipotence of their parents! And about that
youthfulness, which exists nowhere except in the glorious dreams of a
young, inexperienced, generous soul, well, Göthe has told us something
with exquisite humour, not, as true humour indeed never is, without a
touch of melancholy, in the novelette of the man of fifty. Poor old
Major! I have always been heartily sorry for him. Remember how he begs
the services of the valet (skilled in the use of cosmetics) from his
friend the great actor; how that adroit official uses his balm, and his
stays, and his wadding for the aged gentleman, and yet cannot save the
diseased front tooth, and certainly cannot keep fair Hilarie from
falling vehemently in love with young Flavio, solely because she sees
him in raptures with the clever widow, solely because in Flavio's
raptures she beholds for the first time a representation of genuine,
ardent, youthful passion. All this is as true as it is charming, as
charming as it is melancholy, at least for the reader who is in a
position to test the hero's experiences and sentiments by his own
sentiments and experiences."

"Of course; 'there's no fool like an old fool,' and I suppose that
really is the final outcome of the whole business," said the Baron.

"How dare you talk of things you know nothing about, you prosaic
individual?" exclaimed Lydia, bringing her fan down upon the giant's
arm. "There is no talk of old people here. A man of fifty is not old,
he is in the prime of life, and is often ten times younger than your
used-up so-called young gentlemen. But I must really say something for
Göthe against our 'learned friend.' Yes, yes, my friend, I know the
novelette well; I read it aloud to the Court barely a week ago. Who
bids you take a comedy in that tragic way?--for the novelette in
question is a comedy--a 'Comedy of Errors.' Hilarie fancies she is in
love with the uncle, and really loves Flavio; Flavio fancies himself in
love with the young widow, whilst really he loves Hilarie; and how the
Major--well, I think the final scene at the inn proves emphatically
that he had only turned his feelings to--to--to--the wrong address, if
I may venture upon the expression; and that he and the clever widow
subsequently became a happy pair is perfectly clear to me. Or, do you
think not?"

A warning glance flashed from Hildegard's dark eyes. Lydia positively
blushed through her layers of paint. She had shown her hand too
plainly!

Bertram struggled successfully against a strong inclination to smile;
nay, curiously enough, something like pity for her indiscretion stirred
within him. He went on--

"To be sure, you are right, right, above all, in calling the novelette
a comedy. How little Göthe cared to have a tragic conflict is evident
from the fact that he chose circumstances as favourable as possible for
a happy conclusion, and that he from the very beginning secured a line
of retreat for every one concerned. The Major is the uncle of Hilarie,
the only daughter of his widowed mother, and he has doubtless acted the
part of father to her--has, up till now, loved her as his own child.
His rival, in whose favour he resigns his claims, is his own only son,
to whom he is also very much attached, and with whom he is on excellent
terms, whom he in fact treats like a comrade. Again, behind Hilarie, as
she vanishes from him, stands as it were the young widow; and in her
arms the Major will speedily forget the small humiliation. And lastly,
and this seems to me to be the chief point, Göethe has wisely avoided
to introduce the one element whereby he would have been enabled, nay
compelled, to turn the comedy into tragedy; he has ... but I beg pardon
of our fair hostess for being so garrulous. To be sure, it is high time
we rose from table!"

Truly enough, the turn which the conversation had taken had, for Erna's
sake, been unwelcome to her mother. So she seized the opportunity and
rose from table. Erna, who had sat without turning her gaze from
Bertram, took a deep breath, like some one who is being recalled from
deep dreams to the consciousness of present realities, and followed the
example of the others. She and Bertram were the last couple that left
the dining-room on their return to the garden-saloon, which had
meanwhile been lighted up, and Bertram thought she was walking very
slowly--on purpose.

"What was the one element, Uncle Bertram?" she asked.

"What one element?"

He knew what she meant; but he had broken off at table, because he
himself dreaded the utterance of the word. So he delayed his reply, and
just then his host appeared, bringing cigars: the gentlemen might smoke
on the verandah, whilst Lydia would give them some music.

"You remember, Charles, do you not," he went on, "the _sonata
pathétique_--that used to be your favourite piece? And Lydia has
practised it often since, I think."

Lydia was ready. Bertram, however, begged to be excused from remaining.
He felt, he said, after all, tired with the day's journey, and it was
but the charm of their company which had made him forget that he was
still a convalescent. He barely gave Hildegard time to draw him aside,
and to say to him in a whisper--

"You really are most amiable. How good of you to take it so kindly. I
had not at dinner to-day courage enough to make my confession. Indeed I
have to confess, to say much to you--to-morrow ..."

"To-morrow be it, fair friend," said Bertram, kissing the lady's hand,
bowing to the rest, and making hastily for the door. He had not reached
it before Erna was by his side.

"You used to say good-night to me less formally."

He did not venture to press a kiss on the proffered brow, but only took
her hand.

The great grave eyes gazed at him as though they would fain read what
was passing in his inmost soul.

"Good-night, dear child," he said hurriedly.

"Good-night," she replied slowly, letting his hot, trembling hand glide
out of her own cool little one.

"It is lucky," said Bertram to himself, after he had dismissed Konski,
and as he stood alone by the open window in his bedroom, "it is very
lucky, indeed, that it is not very easy to read what is passing in
somebody else's soul. She would have found queer reading!"

He leaned out of the window and gazed into the darkness. Not a breath
of air. From the garden below the fragrance of mignonette was wafted
up; the brook murmured aloud; a thin white veil was spread over the
valley, with here and there a dim speck of light. The sky was
cloudless, of deep blue, almost black colour; the moon looked like a
mass of gold, and one solitary star near it shone forth in red
splendour.

Bertram recalled just such a night, long years ago, when a friend, the
assistant-astronomer, had given Erna's father and himself the
opportunity of witnessing, from the Bonn Observatory, the transit of
that same star--Aldebaran--through the moon! Afterwards he had
accompanied Otto back to Poppelsdorf, and Otto had in his turn walked
back with him to the Pförtchen in Bonn; and so backward and forward,
all through the mild summer's night, until the light of morning had
come, and the birds were beginning to twitter in the leafy crowns of
the chestnut trees. And they had been raving of friendship and love--of
the love they both, most fraternally, cherished for one and the same
black-eyed beauty, the daughter of one of their professors, and they
had both been sublimely happy, all their misery notwithstanding, for
the black-eyed one was known to love another--"Great Heaven, how long,
how long ago? A generation, and more. And now ...?"

"Now," he went on, "you are about to fall in love with the daughter
of the same man whom then you rivalled in absurdly exaggerated,
donkey-like phantasies--with a girl of eighteen, whose father you could
be. And this time you would not get off with raving incoherently for a
night of two, and with scribbling a few mediocre sonnets! Be
reasonable, old man. Let it go--let it go! You know full well you can
have no abiding place here, any more than the horseman in the
Piccolomini. Behind you, too, as you ride along, crouches the lean
companion and clasps you in his bony arms, and every now and again taps
at your heart, to test if it is still stupid enough to throb for a
beauteous maiden who is seated by the window among wallflowers and
rosemary.

"And behind the curtain stands her lover, and bends across her, that
he, too, may look upon the mad horseman, who is stretching out his neck
to see his darling. And the clumsy fellow with the bull's neck wrinkles
his silly brow, twirls his mustachio, strokes his beard, mutters _Mort
de ma vie!_ and shakes his coarse fist. But she pouts, and giggles and
bursts out laughing, and falls on the neck of the jealous one ...

"No, no; it cannot be! You only want to hear from her lips that it
cannot be. And then--away, away--ride out of the gate--to swift,
honourable death. And God's blessing on thee, thou gentle, lovely, and
beloved child!"

He closed the window gently, and so to bed; to bed, but not to sleep.
He could not find that repose he stood so much in need of. The brook
murmured so loudly, or was it the hot bloody surging to his temples?

And was he about to sink into slumber, he would start up again
immediately; he seemed again, to be holding her by the hand, and she
bent her forehead to be kissed by him.

"No--no! Lead me not into temptation! Do not ask me what the one thing
is! I would not say it, even, if--what God forbid!--it were so. I will
not let you beguile me into a tragedy, any more than from one comedy
into another."



                                  VI.


This thought, which had at length quieted Bertram's, wildly tumultuous
spirits, was also his first, when late next morning he awoke from deep
and dreamless slumbers--neither tragedy nor comedy! Calm and clear
observation, as best becomes a solitary individual who has done with
life; who neither hopes nor fears anything from Fate for himself;
maintaining a benevolent interest in the fate of others, where
benevolence is merited and interest is justified; cherishing throughout
the conviction that, after all, every one makes or mars his own life;
that interference and advice are rarely of much use, and generally
distinctly hurtful; and that, even under the most favourable
circumstances, the task of mediator is ever, of all tasks, the most
thankless.

In the clear light of these contemplations and of the delicious morning
which was resting in sunny radiance above the lovely landscape, last
night's scenes appeared to Bertram like the confused darkness of a
feverish dream; nay, he derived some comfort from the thought that he
probably had been ill, and was therefore only partly responsible for
his extraordinary demeanour. Still, he was gravely responsible for one
thing--he ought sooner to have become conscious of his condition. He
might well thank his stars that in his excited state he had not behaved
even more strangely; above all, that to-day, for the first time since
his last long and severe illness, he felt as fresh and strong as in his
best days. Assuredly with the morning all things seemed to have become
better--much better than he could have expected--than he deserved!

The master's disposition was singularly serene, and he gave it a most
friendly expression in the course of his toilet, showing himself ready
for a friendly gossip with Konski; but Konski, strange, to say, was out
of temper, and refused to be gossiped with.

At last Bertram said: "What ails you? If you are displeased, at what I
said yesterday about our speedy departure, you may calm yourself. We
still remain here for the whole time we had originally arranged. I see
you have unpacked already."

"We may leave to-day, for aught I care!" grumbled Konski.

"What's up now? Out with it, Konski! You know I cannot bear sour looks.
Anything in connection with Mamsell Christine?"

"Of course it is!" replied Konski; "and I wonder who's to keep from
sour looks under these circumstances! I had written to her that this
was to be my last trip with you, and when we returned from Italy in
March we might go and be spliced. I did not want to tell you at all,
but don't you see, sir, one gets older every year, and it has to be
some time or other, and ..."

"And now you wish to marry at once, and I am to give you your
discharge?"

"Marry at once, indeed!" sniffed Konski; "she won't marry at all
now--leastways, not me--and that, after we have been engaged these
five years! But there is no trusting them women, and especially the old
ones! She is five and forty years of age, she is,--a year older than I
am myself; and now she's going to marry a young greenhorn of five and
twenty!"

It was some time before Konski, generally so calm and patient, could
explain in detail to his master how badly he had been treated.
According to his account, Mamsell Christine had written the tenderest
letters to him until a few weeks ago, and had declared herself
agreeable to all his suggestions and proposals; and now it appeared
from the statements of the other servants whom he had cross-questioned,
and whose evidence the faithless one could not but corroborate, that
she had been "carrying on" for a long while with one Peter Weissenborn,
who had formerly been head-gardener at Rinstedt, and who had been
settled in the neighbouring town for the last six months, and who was
now, it was said, likely to be appointed one of the Court gardeners,
thanks to the protection of the Herr Baron. The Herr Baron, Konski went
on, had also induced My Lady to give Mamsell Christine leave to quit
her service at any time without formal notice; and, indeed, the
servants all said, that the way to get My Lady's consent to anything,
was to get the Herr Baron on your side; that made success quite
certain. And My Lady was said to be quite in favour of this marriage
between Christine and the future Court gardener. In that case she would
always have two of her former servants at hand when she came to town,
and that was likely to be an event of frequent occurrence now; if,
indeed, she did not go to live there altogether, as some of the
servants asserted--Aurora, for instance--My Lady's maid, who was her
second favourite, next to Christine.

Bertram endeavoured to comfort the poor fellow. He pointed out to him
that he should be glad to be rid of a person who had evidently never
meant honestly by him, and who would in all probability have been as
faithless in marriage as she had now proved before. This conviction led
him to reject any wish there might exist to get the matter rectified
again, as was done sometimes, and in much higher social circles too;
otherwise he would have been willing to use his influence with My Lady,
which presumably would have been at least as telling as that of the
Herr Baron.

Konski shook his head. "I am extremely obliged to you, sir," said he.
"I am quite content if you will still keep me on, after I have proved
myself to be such a thorough ass. And, as far as talking to her
Ladyship goes, that would be in vain--the Herr Baron is cock of the
walk there. I could tell you a good deal more about that, but I know
you do not like that sort of thing!"

Bertram was startled. The man's last remark could have but one meaning,
and the image of the girl among the wallflowers and with the jealous
lover, emerged in singular distinctness from last night's feverish
phantasies. He would fain have for once broken through his rule of
never going out of his way to listen to the gossip of kitchen and
servants' hall, but, as Konski did not volunteer any further remarks,
he was ashamed to put any direct questions. Just at that moment, too,
there came a knock, and a servant brought a message from her Ladyship.
She had learned that the Herr Doctor had risen, and might she request
the Herr Doctor's' company on the verandah to tea?

Bertram lost no time in following the invitation. Hildegard, who had
been sitting in a shaded corner of the verandah at the deserted
breakfast-table, came forward to meet him. As she moved towards him
with well-balanced step, he could not but recall last night's talk
about the never-changing beauty of a poet's heroine. He gazed upon the
lofty figure in its youthful slimness, the clear, deep colouring of the
incomparably beautiful countenance, the blue-black splendour of the
ample hair, smooth at the temples, and crowning the glorious head with
a dense braid.

There was a smile on her dainty lips, and if deepened a little as she
saw her guest's speaking eyes bent upon her in undisguised admiration.
She was making tender inquiries about the state of his health, leading
him the while to the table and making him sit beside her, with the
kettle bubbling in front of them.

"Otto," she said, "is, as usual, somewhere about the estate. The Baron
is painting a portion of the village from the bottom terrace, and Lydia
is, I believe, keeping him company with a book. Erna, you will probably
find later on in her favourite place, under the big plantain tree. I
have sent them all away, because I so long to have a comfortable
confidential chat with you. Yesterday we did not manage to have one.
And first of all, dear friend, accept my hearty thanks for having so
kindly pardoned a breach of confidence of which I--not from choice--had
been guilty. Nay, do not refuse the expression of my gratitude. I saw
how hard you found it to appear unconscious and serene; I thank you all
the more. But I knew that with your wonted cleverness you would at once
find the only correct point of view--that of pity. Whatever has been
done and sinned between the two of you,--she is the one to be pitied. A
poor girl, growing old, even if she is in favour at Court; and although
the Grand Ducal family could not be kinder, yet all this cannot satisfy
the cravings of her eager mind--but I perceive that this is a painful
topic for you!"

"It is not painful for me," replied Bertram; "or at least only so far
as the description of a dissatisfied, unquiet soul must ever be painful
for us, if it is hopelessly out of our power to bring satisfaction and
peace to it."

"I understand you," said Hildegard; "and you will understand me when I
beg of you not quite to rob the poor soul in question of its utterly
foolish hopes to which it clings, alas! with incredible tenacity. You
can do this so easily: you need but be amiable and, courteous to her,
as you are to everybody--no more, but, to be sure, no less--do you
consent?"

"I will try, since you wish it--on one condition!"

"And this condition?"

"I have come to the following determination--indeed, it is a matter of
course for me. In the drama of human life I will not henceforth ever
again leave, my well-won place in the stalls, and under no
circumstances will I take a part on the stage itself--no tragic
part--and still less a comic one!"

"From the latter," replied his fair hostess with a smile, "you are
safe under any circumstances, through your own cleverness; from the
former----"

"Through my age."

"I meant to say, also through your cleverness; or, if you prefer it,
through the cool, unimpassioned frame of mind which you have grown
into, and which I often envy you!"

Bertram looked up in amazement, and then quickly busied himself with
his tea-cup. Hildegard, to envy him his coolness! Hildegard, who had
ever appeared to him the very embodiment of conscious equanimity!

"You may be surprised to hear this from me," she continued; "but must
we not all, sooner or later, learn the lesson of resignation? And my
time surely has come. Indeed, it has been so all my life. What have not
I had to resign in the course of my life! Or do you think that the
husband's wealth can blind the wife, if she be proud, to the
consciousness that she is not loved as she longs, and as, may be, she
deserves to be loved?"

Bertram knew these phrases from of old; but he said to himself that
to-day particularly he must make the best of everything, so he
exclaimed--

"Is it possible, my friend, that you still cherish this hypochondriacal
fear which you have given utterance to before, but from which I deemed
you cured long ago? How can you complain of a deficiency in love, when
your husband positively adores you? You can utter no wish, simply
because what you could wish for is already fulfilled. Or you need but
have a wish, and it is forthwith fulfilled."

"You are pleading for the friend of your youth," she made answer,
raising her dark eyebrows. "Do not forget this: I am bringing no charge
against him. I am resigned. Were I to die to-day, what would his loss
come to? What would he miss?"

"The brightness of his life," Bertram replied gallantly.

"As if he cared for the brightness of his life!" said his wife. "Is it
so? Does he share one of my fancies, my harmless _penchants_? Does he
not vainly strive to appear interested in the things of beauty with
which I love to surround, myself and to decorate our dwelling? Did he
not consent wit evident repugnance to have the mansion-house restored
in a style befitting a whilom princely residence--to let me seek out
and renew the old, tangled paths through the Park? Does he support me
in my humane undertakings? Have I not had to beg the few thousand
thalers from him that I required for my Kindergarten and for my
poorhouse? Why, he lives solely for his porcelain factory, his sugar
refinery, his coal-mines, his new railway project! I say again: I have
accepted all this as inevitable, and as a matter of course, as long as
I alone was concerned, as long as I alone suffered. But, indeed, to
bring Erna into this life of trivialities, to leave the dear child in a
sphere where she sees nothing, hears nothing, that could give the
slightest nourishment to head or heart, where anything and everything
revolves round Mammon, is sacrificed to Mammon--that is beyond me,
beyond my strength!"

"Then, if I understand you aright, you wish, to get Erna married?"

Through the soft, velvety radiance of the deep-brown eyes flashed
something like a deeper light. The question was evidently not
expected--at least not yet--but the next moment already her eyes had
resumed their customary expression, and she forced those beautiful lips
to smile, as she said, in a tone of gentle reproach--

"Let us express it rather less egotistically. I should like Erna to
find a husband worthy of her."

"A most natural wish too! One which every mother cherishes for a
grown-up daughter. And as an old friend of the family I heartily join
in the wish, and do not for a moment doubt that we shall readily agree
as to what we shall expect her husband to be."

"I am not so sure on that point."

"Let us try anyhow. Firstly, he should be noble!"

"That is not your conviction."

"Then let it be a concession. If people wish to come to an
understanding they must be prepared to make concessions."

"This concession I accept gladly. Go on, please."

"He should not be a scholar by profession; but have a good--a man of
the world's--education, and a taste for the fine arts. In fact, we want
a cavalier, of course, in the best sense of the word."

"Agreed."

"He need not be wealthy. In fact, it would be preferable that he had no
fortune, he would in that case be all the more indebted to Erna."

"Most true!"

"He should not be a landed proprietor, or at least not a man who feels
it a duty and an absolute necessity to live in the country and devote
himself to agriculture. Best of all, he should have no definite
calling, or, anyhow, only one which did not impose difficult and
troublesome duties; say a position which should have it as a natural
consequence that the man in question moved in the best society, and
even came occasionally into pleasant contact with Court circles."

"Best of friends, how strangely skilled you are in reading a mother's
heart!"

"Let me, then, look to the very bottom of it, where possibly the name
of the individual in question is already written. If I read the
characters correctly, they form the name ..."

"Now I am truly keen to know."

"Baron Kuno von Lotter-Vippach."

"Lydia has told you!"

"No. Neither Fräulein von Aschhof nor any one else has spoken to me, I
give you my word of honour."

"But it is most strange ..."

"Why so strange? Am I not a very old friend, to whom you have many a
time talked on most important topics, and whom you have many a time
honoured with your most intimate confidence?"

"Then it is all the better, all the more deserving of my gratitude;
and I thank you heartily, sincerely ..."

She had seized both his hands; her beautiful countenance, now lighted
up with a flush of gladness, had never been more beautiful; yet to
Bertram it appeared like some hideous mask.

"I cannot accept your thanks," he said, withdrawing his hands with
slight and very hurried pressure. "I could but do so honestly, if I
shared those wishes of yours which I have guessed. That is not quite
the case. The impression which Baron Lotter made upon me yesterday was
not specially favourable; to be quite open, the impression was
unfavourable."

"That," Hildegard replied eagerly, "leaves me very calm. You men
seldom like each other at a first encounter, and at a second you find
one another charming. In the Baron's case no second encounter has even
been necessary; he overflows with your praises; he calls you the
cleverest and most amiable of men; he is charmed to have made your
acquaintance; and I am convinced that you, too, my friend, will soon
modify your judgment--I should almost like to say your prejudice--once
you come to know the Baron better. He is somewhat spoiled, like all
very handsome men; somewhat conceited, if you like; but at bottom very
modest, easily led, good as gold. He will please you, believe me, and
more than please you! You will come to esteem and love him!"

"Is the more important question, to me the most important, already
settled? Does Erna think as favourably of the Baron? Does she love him?
For that he loves her, I must, I suppose, assume."

"That is beyond all doubt," Hildegard made answer; "as for Erna, I hope
so, I believe so; anyhow she does not express herself unfavourably
about him, and that, with Erna, means a good deal, for she is not at
all easily pleased, and is not accustomed to conceal her dislike, if
dislike there be. It is of course difficult to form a correct opinion
of Erna's sentiments; doubly difficult for me, because she has
been so long from home, and we are not always in accord in our
views and tendencies. Again, in Lydia she has never placed full
confidence--which, by the by, I can scarcely wonder at. I only know one
being whom she thoroughly trusts--and you dear friend, are the one!"

"I?"

"Are you surprised to hear this? Surely not? Has not the child always
been so fond of Uncle Bertram, that we, her parents, might have grown
jealous? Has she not ever been your favourite? If she is so no longer,
for goodness sake do not let the poor girl see it. She would be
inconsolable."

"Now, you are laughing at me."

"Indeed, I am not. Ask Lydia. That Lydia often speaks of you, you will
find natural enough, and that now and again a word of bitterness slips
in, you will find pardonable. Erna does not pardon it. In her eyes you
are once and for good raised above all reproach. You are, as it were,
her ideal. It is a downright case of infatuation, and it goes so far
that she once assured us, with all a child's gravity--she was still
almost a child--that if ever she married, Uncle Bertram must be her
husband and she got quite angry when Lydia and I laughed at her."

The beautiful lady smiled, and Bertram succeeded in forcing a smile
too.

"How very funny," he said; "but then very young girls are proverbially
prone to conceive infatuation for some one or other of their masters,
and I think, in Lydia's eyes, I have always been one of her
instructors, in literature and what not. Poor girls! they give their
affections to old Mentor, but they mean young Telemachus. Well, and
there is apparently a young Telemachus on the stage already, if you
have seen aright."

"Just to decide that point," replied Hildegard, "Mentor must not yet
resign his functions. On the contrary, I must entreat him most urgently
to help the mother with his clear vision and his advice, and to use his
old influence with the daughter. I may rely upon this, my trusty
friend, may I not?"

She held out her hand to him with these words. He raised it
deferentially to his lips and said--

"You may rest convinced that Erna's well-being is dearer to me than
anything else in the world."

Hildegard had wished and had expected another, a more definite, answer.
It was still doubtful whether she had really acquired an ally in him.
However, the main point was gained; she had taken the initiative, had
represented the affair from her own point of view, had appealed to
Bertram's friendship, had asked for his assistance, had given him a
proof of her confidence, which he would doubtless accept as
unconditional. This sort of thing is always flattering to a man, always
makes him feel indebted. Of course, a woman must flatter a man if she
would make him feel indebted.

Just then it was anyhow impossible to obtain a more definite assurance
from Bertram, for the Baron and Lydia were ascending the main steps of
the terrace; the Baron, in his temporary capacity as artist, clad in a
costume of brown velvet, and a straw hat with a stupendously broad
brim, and Lydia in such a grotesquely fantastic morning costume as to
suggest the idea that she had been acting as model for some wonderful
sketch of the artist. And indeed she did figure upon the canvas, but
only as a bit of the foreground, which represented a portion of the
terrace, across which you looked down into the valley and at the
village, with the wooded hills rising behind. The Baron was evidently
much pleased with his work, although he declared again and again not to
have half finished it; it was not fair, he added, to apply to a hasty
sketch the same standard of judgment as to a regular studio picture, in
which everything would of course turn out quite different. This,
Bertram could not but think, would be most desirable, but hardly very
probable. This so-called sketch was evidently a picture which had
already been touched and retouched, some portions had been painted over
two, even three times, and divers desultory dilettante endeavours had
failed to bring anything like harmony into the composition.
Nevertheless he politely agreed with the ladies' words of praise, which
flowed freely from Hildegard's lips, while Lydia, as was her wont,
launched out in extravagant eulogy: wonderful, was it not, what
progress the Herr Baron made day by day? At last there was once more a
painter with a mission for historical landscapes on a grand scale! The
resemblance of his genius to that of a Rottmann, a Preller--became more
and more apparent. Nor did she alone think so. Only the other day, at
Court, when they were talking of the pupils at the Academy of Arts, and
some one mentioned the Baron's name, Princess Amelia said, and said
with marked emphasis, "No pupil he, ladies, nay, a master, and a great
master! The Baron is a distinct acquisition for our School of Arts; he
represents a triumph!"

"Yes, it is true; the august lady is very graciously disposed towards
me," asserted the Baron, stroking his natty beard. "I wonder what she
will say to my new sketches."

Fortunately for Bertram, who was planning his escape under some pretext
or other from this painful scene, his host now came up to greet his
friend, and to ask if he felt strong enough and was inclined to go for
a little drive with him; only to the porcelain factory, they would be
back in an hour. Bertram declared his readiness.

"The Baron would surely like to go with you," said Hildegard,
exchanging glances with her husband; "but I fear there is barely
comfortable room even for two in your little trap."

The Baron hastened to assure her that he could not go, anyhow, as he
had promised Miss Erna to try the accompaniment to some new songs with
her.

Hildegard asked Bertram if he would not, before starting, say good
morning to Erna, who would be hurt if he left without having done so.

They called for Erna in vain. It seemed to Bertram that Hildegard only
wished to find time enough to beckon him aside, and to whisper to him
that he need not conceal from her husband what they had been discussing
in reference to Erna. On the contrary, she was anxious to learn Otto's
opinion of the whole matter; he would probably speak with less reserve
to his friend than, alas! to her, and that Bertram would take her side
she felt sure now.

"But Erna is not coming, I see," she exclaimed aloud; "I will not keep
you gentlemen any longer. _Au revoir_--an hour hence."



                                  VII.


The little trap was so light, and the road was in such good condition,
that the friends were able to drive at a very fair pace, in spite of
the not inconsiderable gradient. Soon they passed into the wood.
The easy, comfortable motion, the perfect beauty of the morning, the
fact that the friends were for the first time in undisturbed
companionship--all seemed to favour a confidential exchange of
thoughts. Yet both men were silent, and barely exchanged a word or two
on indifferent topics. At last Otto said, after he had taken a stolen
side-glance or two of his friend--

"What do you think, Charles--shall we walk a bit? The road now will be
virtually level for some distance."

Bertram nodded assent. The carriage stopped. Otto bade the man drive
slowly on in front of them, in the direction of the factory.

"You never can be sure," he began, as they were striding along the
well-kept footpath by the side of the road, "that these beggars do not
hear more than they should; and I particularly want to ask you
something. Tell me--but quite honestly, mind--how do you like the
Baron?"

"Let us come to the point at once," replied Bertram; "I have had a talk
with your wife."

"Oh! indeed!" exclaimed Otto, hiding his embarrassment as best he could
by bursting out laughing, and abruptly leaving off again. "That is to
say, I rather thought you would. I should like to have done the same--I
mean had a talk with you--yesterday, in fact; but my wife told me not
to ... and, don't you know, the ladies always claim precedence."

"Very well; then let me commence at the point where my conversation
with your wife came to an end--with the question which she either could
not or would not answer when I pressed her, and which seems to me of
paramount importance--Does Erna love the Baron? Have you, between you,
or have you yourself, any proof of--any support of this? Have you made
any observation from which you could conclude such a thing?"

"Look here, old man," said Otto, "you are asking a lot at once. I can't
follow you. Proof--support--observation! Good Heaven! Who can look into
a girl's head and heart? She has said nothing to me, and rather than
ask her--ask her--it's such a queer question to ask, and possibly one
might only do harm by it, and learn nothing in the long run, or at
least not the truth. Of course she is fond enough of me, and has
confidence in me. Heaven knows how fond I am of her! but father and
daughter, you know--or rather you do not know, for you never had a
daughter--that's a curious business!"

He had taken off his hat and was scratching his head in his perplexity.
Bertram understood that he was not likely to get anything out of him
that way. After a pause Bertram said--

"Well, let us assume--although, to say the truth, I find it very hard
to do so--let us assume that Erna does love this man. Would you then be
able to say Yea and Amen with a good conscience? In other words, are
you convinced that the man would make Erna happy? That he has, anyhow,
the qualities which according to human reasoning and experience, render
her happiness at least possible? That he is a man of honour, of fit and
upright disposition;--in a word, that he is a gentleman?"

"A gentleman!" exclaimed Otto in amazement "Why, good Heaven!--a man
belonging to such a family--bearing such a name--a constant guest at
Court--invited to every ball, every evening party there; besides
joining their private circle, once or twice every week--why, he must be
a gentleman!"

"The deuce he must!" exclaimed Bertram angrily. "If you have no better
guarantee than Court balls and such like humbug!"

"But what more would you have?" said Otto. "What more would any one
have? If that is no guarantee I wonder what you would call one. I have
it as a matter of certainty from Lydia, that his nomination as
Chamberlain is made out, is lying ready for signature in the Grand
Duke's cabinet; and Lydia ought to know, for, between you and me, she,
with the help of our Court Marshal, an old friend of Lotter's father,
has been urging the matter strongly at Court. Lotter is very grateful
to her, and says quite frankly, that but for her he might have had to
wait much longer; and I think that is, a trait in his favour--although
I am convinced--but you must please not give any indication that you
know--although I am convinced that Lydia has not tried her hardest for
Lotter's own sake, but to conciliate my wife, who is bent upon seeing
her future son-in-law hold some Court appointment. And the reason why
Lydia had to keep in my wife's good graces is not far to seek; and, old
fellow, she has had her way at last, and is allowed to sojourn once
more under the same roof with you. You see: _manus manum lavat._"

"So I see, indeed," laughed Bertram. "And now Hildegard must again keep
me in good-humour, that I, in my turn, may keep you in good-humour. It
were strange indeed, if, under these circumstances, we were not, all of
us, in the very best humour!"

"This hardly seems to be your case as yet," said Otto, "your laughter
notwithstanding."

"Nor, I hope, yours either," exclaimed Bertram.

"Why do you hope so?"

Bertram made no answer. His Heart was full of sorrow and wrath. He saw
that the whole affair was arranged--among the two women anyhow--and the
easy-going henpecked husband by his side would be sure to say yes to
everything, had probably done so already, and this was but the second
scene this morning in a nicely-arranged comedy, with all the parts
carefully distributed beforehand. Evidently the drive had but one
object--to give Otto an opportunity of saying his part. And he,
himself?--Why, barely an hour ago he had solemnly protested to the fair
stage-manager that never more would he act again! And she had listened
to his solemn protest without laughing in his face! Well, well; there
might yet be a chance of interpreting some passage in a way that the
clever lady had not thought of!

Otto broke the silence, after they had been walking side by side for
some little time, by saying somewhat humbly--

"You are angry with me!"

"What right could I have to be so?" replied Bertram. "I am no relation
of yours. I am nothing but a friend; and, as such, I have no right
whatever. It is only my duty to give an honest answer if you consult me
on a matter of importance. And there is properly no consultation in
this case. You are not in need of any advice; you, her parents, are
resolved. Nothing is wanting, but the merest trifle--Erna's consent.
And, as that is sure to be given in good time, the whole thing is
clearly settled, and we may as well talk of something else."

"No, no!" exclaimed Otto, "nothing is settled; and the matter is by no
means clear--clear--not in my mind, anyhow; and Hildegard has not the
faintest conception how things really stand. She thinks it is only my
want of resolution that ... And because she knows how much I value your
judgment--if I could only tell you everything ..."

"But you cannot, and you would be, sorry for it afterwards. Therefore,
you had better not try."

"But I must at length tell some one, and there is no one else in the
world whom I could say it to. Listen: I ... I ..."

A kind of spasm passed over the full, round, good-humoured face; the
blue eyes, which he kept rigidly fixed upon his friend, seemed to
struggle against rising tears.

"I--I am ruined!"

He had just managed to pronounce these words hoarsely; then he broke,
down and sunk upon a log of wood which was lying by the roadside.

Bertram had, at first to struggle against the terrible notion that his
friend had suddenly gone mad. But his look, though one of utter
despair, was not that of a madman.

"What is this you say, Otto? Impossible, impossible!" he said, sitting
down upon the log by the side of his friend, who seemed bereft of all
strength. "Go on, anyhow, that I may judge what it comes to. I am quite
convinced--beforehand that it comes to nothing at all. But speak, for
goodness sake, speak!"

Otto nodded assent, and murmured--

"Yes, yes, I will speak. Come to nothing, forsooth! I have seen it
coming--for a long time past--for the last four years at least--ever
since I started, in addition to all the other things, that confounded
sugar refinery. We made it a Company; but I hold all the shares myself
now--I could not bear to ruin the poor beggars who, trusting in me,
had taken up the rest. This has cost me untold money; and the whole
thing was a failure, and the building is ready to be pulled down
again--would already have been pulled down if that, again, did not
require money. Besides, a thousand acres of my best soil planted with
beetroot--food for the pigs now. And yonder is that porcelain factory,
year by year a balance on the wrong side; and then the mines--yes, yes,
formerly, but not now ..."

There had been one long series of enterprises, each of which had turned
out more unsatisfactory, and, in the long run, more ruinous than the
other; and with increasing swiftness they had swallowed up ever bigger
sums, and had now at length given at least a most severe shock to a
very considerable fortune. This much Bertram gathered clearly from the
statements of his friend, although he only understood a small part of
the technical and mercantile details.

"But how on earth," he exclaimed, "could a quiet, sensible man like
yourself ever dream of venturing on this 'inclined plane'? How could
you graft one reckless, foolhardy speculation upon another; neglect,
ruin those splendid estates, the legacy of your fathers; stake your
peace of mind, your happiness? And if it had been a question of
yourself only! But your child--your wife ..."

He paused abruptly.

"Poor chap!" he murmured. "I think I understand after all--poor, good
chap!"

He was pressing Otto's hand warmly. Their eyes met. His unhappy friend
was smiling, and a most melancholy smile it was.

"To be sure, to be sure," he said; "I did not want it cried from the
house-tops; I knew you would find the reason. I myself--dear, dear--I
would not have cared to increase my gains. I should have been more than
satisfied with the estates and the mines, or with the estates alone, if
the mines ceased to yield a profit. You know how as a young man I used
to be quite ashamed of having so much money, never a farthing of which
I had earned, when I saw how my betters had to toil and moil. And I
knew too that I was not good enough for her--that it was great
condescension on her part to marry me at all--that I must needs ever
be in her debt. From the very commencement I let her have her own
way--she should never be able to say that I, the _bourgeois_
proprietor's son, was ignorant of what befitted and became a beautiful
young lady of high degree. I even--don't laugh at me, man--even tried
to procure a patent of nobility, she wished it so very much; and I have
made many a sacrifice with that object. This whole, ill-starred
porcelain factory, for instance--I had been told that at Court they
would like me to establish one, and indeed they buy here what they
require, though, to be sure, only for kitchen and servants' hall--and
there was many another thing besides. And then she wanted the terraces
and the park and the mansion-house restored--in the true style, I think
they call it--and she takes delight in all this, trumpery rubbish of
dim old mirrors, and shaky old chairs, and worm-eaten old cabinets, and
coffee-coloured, pictures, and abominable old pots and pans; and I,
great God! would willingly buy the whole world for her--lay it at her
feet--if only she would love me a little in return. But--you see,
Charles, it has all been in vain--quite in vain!"

The big man had buried his face in his hands, and was sobbing like a
child. Bertram's soul was filled with pity. The wretched weakness of
his friend in reference to his beautiful and beloved, but cold,
unloving wife, and its mournful consequences--he now understood it all
too well not to be ready to pardon--to a certain extent. But that,
husband and wife must settle, must bear, among them--only Erna should
not be dragged to ruin, should not also be sacrificed to her mother's
unbounded selfishness. And perhaps this was the one bright spot in the
dark picture which his friend had drawn of his position.

"You have not endeavoured to give the Baron a clear view of your
situation?" he asked.

"For goodness sake--no; certainly not," exclaimed Otto, rising in
terror from his stooping position. "Anything but that!"

"And yet you will have to do so as soon as he formally asks Erna's hand
from you."

"How can I tell him the truth? He would withdraw immediately."

"Otto, are you not ashamed of yourself? And you would really give Erna
to such a cur?"

"What am I to do?"

"What you are simply obliged to do as a man of honour, not to say as a
father!"

"And he'll talk about it--here, in the town, at Court--and everything,
everything depends upon my credit remaining unquestioned, at least a
little longer. If the projected railway is made to pass through here in
lieu of through the valley below, it would be done mainly on account of
my establishments, my factories, and what not. And in that case I am
saved--nay, I must needs grow wealthier than ever I have been. But the
ultimate granting of the concession--our local Parliament
notwithstanding--rests with the Government; and Lotter, with his divers
relations, his well-known influence ..."

He paused, then resumed in a somewhat less confident tone--

"If, therefore, I do not reveal everything to him at present--and, by
the by, there is no need for it yet--I am not acting dishonestly, but
in everybody's interest. You will grant me this much."

"To be sure," replied Bertram. "I only fear you will not be able to
continue this profitable silence for any length of time. For any
day it may happen that the young people come to an understanding,
and--to-morrow, perhaps, or this very day--they may come and ask for
your blessing."

"It would kill me!"

"It would, anyhow, be extremely awkward! Therefore, I beg to make the
following proposal to you. I am already authorised by your wife to
sound Erna; I now ask you to give me the same commission; and you will
tell your wife that you have spoken to me about it. Thus you will both
have placed the matter into my hands as it were. Now I shall find Erna
either distinctly favourable to your plan, or else distinctly
unfavourable, or undecided. In the latter case, I will try to confirm
her in that state of mind; and would prove to your wife that to advance
with inconsiderate rashness must needs be risking, and, probably,
spoiling everything. But even if Erna, really loves the Baron, or, on
the other hand, if she is satisfied in her own mind that he is not the
man who corresponds to her ideal--all girls create such an ideal for
themselves--well, I think I have influence enough with her--or, in case
of need, I possess diplomatic talent enough, to get the ultimate
decision put off one way or the other. For how long--we shall judge by
and by, once you and I are so far agreed."

"My dear boy, I put myself entirely in your hands. I'll not take a step
without you. Gracious me--what a lucky thing that you have come! I do
not know what would have become of me, and of the whole business."

He shook and pressed both his friend's hands in the excess of his
gratitude, looked upon his situation already in a much more hopeful
light, turned the conversation again to the new railway and to the
stupendous chances which would come to him in case the decision was
favourable, and that it would be so, he suddenly assumed to be
probable, nay, certain. He never noticed that Bertram had made the
little carriage turn which was waiting for them at the end of the wood,
and that now they were driving back the way they had come. The
suggested inspection of the factory had only been a pretext for having
an undisturbed hour with Bertram.

His friend was now sitting in silence by his side. Otto kept on talking
to him, lowering his voice on account of the driver's presence. Bertram
hardly heard what he said. He hardly saw, either--or if he saw, it was
like in a dream--the golden lights flash down through the top of the
giant firs, and play around the brown stems and along the mossy ground;
he saw but as in a dream the lovely vistas which opened here and there,
giving glimpses of loveliest landscape beauty in the valley far below.
His busy mind was working and modelling away at the part in the family
drama which had, after all, been forced upon him, and which he had not
dared to decline--for Erna's sake.



                                 VIII.


For Erna's sake! How often he repeated that phrase to himself in the
course of the day! He wanted nothing for himself. What, indeed, could
he have wanted for himself? Nothing more than a man who should see a
child lost, in danger, among a crowd of carriages, and who should bound
to the spot and carry the child away to some place of safety; nothing
more than a wanderer, who sees a fellow-traveller start upon a road of
which he knows of old the insecure state, and who warns the heedless
man to take some other road instead. One does so because it is one's
duty as a human being; one does so because one's heart urges one to do
it, because one cannot help doing it.

Yes, a man acts and speaks in such situations as he would hardly act or
speak for his own sake. He is more courageous or more anxious than he
would be, if his own weal or woe were at stake. One grows beyond one's
self, or else sinks beneath one's own everyday moral level.

"And the latter is meanwhile my case," said Bertram to himself, as he
played his part with due zeal, and, as he thought, with great success.
It was a natural consequence, of that part that he lectured Hildegard
(after the event), because she had not yesterday taken him at once into
her confidence; that he exchanged with his friend Otto looks of the
completest accord and understanding; that he used with Lydia--to her
evident delight--a tone of mingled melancholy and fun, which appeared
half to express and half to hide a deeper emotion; and that with the
Baron he completely dropped his calm manner of the day preceding. How
else could he form an opinion of the man? And how could he be a
faithful counsellor to Erna without having formed an opinion?

So he examined the Baron's portfolio with patient attention, whilst
that nobleman turned over the leaves and gave explanations. The
collection would have been a priceless treasure if the quality had
corresponded with the quantity. There were sketches from almost every
country in Europe; the northern coast of Africa, too--Algiers,
Tunis--was largely represented. And then the painter's talent
embraced all styles and kinds of painting:--landscape, architecture,
still-life, portraiture--nothing had escaped the unwearied brush,
nothing had appeared too difficult. On the contrary, there were the
most unlikely effects of light and shade, the oddest scenes, the most
_risqué_ situations, involving the wildest inroads on the laws of
perspective and the most reckless foreshortening--and the daring
sketcher seemed positively to have revelled in these. And yet Bertram
had to confess to himself that a not inconsiderable talent, which, with
patient and careful schooling, might have borne beautiful fruit, had
been recklessly wasted--and, indeed, generally recklessness did seem to
him to be the Baron's leading characteristic. Anyhow, the painter's
fluent comments on his own sketches quite corresponded to the reckless
style of painting. Everywhere his ideas, good ones and bad ones, and
some really original ones, were clothed in the same hurried, flurried,
sometimes absurd form, showing a ready, but never a profound insight
into human relations, into manners and customs of nations; much, but
most desultory reading; extensive, and yet scattered knowledge. The man
spoke as he painted, and painted as he played music. Reckless,
superficial, inconstant, like his work and his talk, will and must his
love be too, thought Bertram.

Could love like that lastingly suffice for Erna? It seemed impossible.
But is there such a word as impossible in connection with the magic
world of the human heart? Are not the natures of truly noble women at
times visited by irresistible and undying passion for wavering,
unstable, yes, even for morally worthless men? Does it not well-nigh
seem to have all the stability of a law of nature, that totally opposed
characters, all inward resistance notwithstanding, feel drawn to and
fascinated by each other?

Was this fatal fascination visible in Erna?

Bertram kept his attention unconsciously fixed on that one decisive
point, but without being able to come to any definite result. True, he
had to confess to himself that even a still keener observer would have
vainly tried his hand at the task. Erna joined to-day even less
directly than on the previous day in the general conversation; nay
more, he thought he noticed what had not been the case yesterday, or
what had at least escaped him then, that her gaze, usually so firm,
seemed at times fixed on vacancy, then again appeared directed inward,
anyhow was not dwelling on her surroundings--a symptom which by no
means pleased the observer, because from it one might surely conclude
that there existed a deeper sentiment, one which absorbed her inner
life. And this sentiment was not likely to be one of aversion to the
Baron, to whom she talked more, in her own calm way, than to anybody
else; with whom she played music two or three times during the day; and
with whom she played chess after supper in her own grave, attentive
manner. Hildegard came and explained all these details to Bertram ...

"Believe me," she said, "I know Erna. Mind, my words of this morning.
She may be long in confessing her preference for any man, but if she
were to dislike any one, he would find it out pretty soon."

"I fear that I am experiencing something of the sort," Bertram replied.

"How so?"

"Have you not noticed that she has not said three words to me all the
evening?"

"Insatiable man! Are you not satisfied with Lydia who is ransacking her
repertory for your sake? Would you have all womankind at your feet? I
shall warn Lotter against you as against his worst rival."

"Do not destroy our budding friendship. But, joking apart, can there be
a rival?"

"What are you thinking of? And if there were, I should be sure to know
it through Lydia, who, like all elderly girls, is apt to err on the
side of seeing too much rather than too little. Moreover, we two, Lydia
and I, have never lost sight of the child, and in Erfurth, where, it is
true, she went alone once or twice during the last few years, she was
always in the company of my sister and her six girls, and I never heard
a word, nor the slightest hint. One of the girls, Agatha, the third,
Erna's bosom friend, is coming here, by the way, in a day or two; and a
good, modest, sensible girl she is, though not as pretty as the rest.
But you surely remember Agatha? Well, I'll question her a little when
she comes, but I know beforehand that she will not have anything to
tell. Oh, you'd better concentrate your jealousy upon Lotter!"

Hildegard surely felt very certain of her ground, else she would not
have jested--a rare occurrence with her. Bertram took up a similar
tone, and during the game of whist to which he and Otto soon afterwards
sat down with the two older ladies, he was remarkably merry and
talkative.

But two hours later Konski found him all the more gloomy and taciturn,
and so silent that he did not even reply to the "good-night, sir," of
that faithful servitor.

"It's the old one," soliloquised Konski, as he meditatively brushed his
master's boots in his own little room, "who is bothering him. 'Dear Mr.
Konski,' here, 'My good Mr. Konski,' there--I know what she is after.
And then, to give me a whole dollar! And she has not any to spare, I
can see that much, in spite of her grand airs and her trimmings. And
she to rule the roast for master and me! Not if we knows it! And now
we'll both marry; and marry smart young ones too! And may the devil fly
away with all old women!"



                                  IX.


For this morning, after breakfast, a general expedition had been
planned--a drive to a certain eminence, from which the Baron was
desirous of expounding to them all the arrangements for the forthcoming
man[oe]vres. Bertram had at the last moment made an excuse: much to his
regret, he sent Konski to say, that he had forgotten to write some
really important letters, and must needs stay at home to do so now.
Would the others, please, on no account give up their drive for his
sake.

"At first they would not go without you, sir," Konski reported; "but I
got them to do it, and they are getting the horses ready now; the
ladies are to drive, the gentlemen will go on horseback. So you may
stay quietly in bed and try to get another hour's sleep. I am afraid,
sir, you have had another awful night!"

And indeed it had been a worse night for Bertram than the preceding
one, and this time the morning had not improved him. That he had to
admit to himself when, after having first vainly endeavoured to follow
the faithful servant's advice, he had at length risen in very low
spirits and dressed, trying whether a stroll along the terrace
garden-walk would cool his fevered brow and refresh his weary heart.

He had no right to be wearied. He was bound, when they came back, to
meet them merrily and serenely; that belonged to his part. How could
they give their confidence to one who appeared to have none in himself,
in his own strength, his own courage?

And he would need all his courage to look, if it could be done, deeper
than hitherto into Erna's eyes, into Erna's heart: and he would need
all his strength if that look were to confirm what, yesterday, he had
deemed impossible, but what, during the awful night, had come to appear
to him as thoroughly possible, nay, as probable. If it were so, then
the whole elaborate plan which he had yesterday confided to his friend,
had therewith fallen to the ground. Otto's embarrassments were scarcely
as great as he had represented them; and even if he had not, according
to his wont, exaggerated things, what would be the use of delaying the
decision? On the contrary, the more swiftly it came, the better for
all. If the Baron was a man of honour; he would not withdraw on
learning that the maiden of his choice was not wealthy; if he had
influence at Court, if this influence really amounted to something
considerable, he would now try all the more to use it for his future
father-in-law. They might then make their own arrangements, as best
they could; and they would make arrangements; sacrifice some things on
both sides, give up some hopes. What would one not sacrifice, what
would one not give up, if one loved from one's very heart? But to have
to look on at such hearty love, love delighting in sacrifice--never! To
run away would be cowardly, no doubt. But then valour, like honesty, is
appropriate only when it is needed, and when it will be of some use. He
would have to think beforehand of some suitable pretext which should
render a sudden departure possible.

Thus lost in mournful thought, Bertram was pacing backward and forward
along the terrace-walk, now past sunny espaliers, along which ruddy
grapes were already commencing to shine through the dense clusters of
vine-leaves, anon between rows of beeches, which were entwined overhead
and formed dusky arbour-like groves.

Having reached the end of one of these groves, he paused as one
terrified. In front of him, on the platform where the terrace widened,
Erna was seated beneath the great plantain tree which overshadowed the
whole place with its broad branches. An open volume lay upon the
round table before her; she was writing busily, bending over a
blotting-book. The graceful form, the finely-chiselled features, stood
out in clearest profile against the green terrace above her. In this
subdued light the dainty cheek seemed even paler than usual; and as she
now paused, pen in hand, lifting a long eyelash and glancing
meditatively up at the leafy roof above, the great eyes shone like
those of an inspired Muse.

"One draught before I pass onward--on the shadeless remainder of my
dreary road," Bertram muttered to himself.

He might have stepped back without being noticed, but he did not do so;
his motionless eyes clung to the beautiful picture before him, as one
perishing of thirst might gaze upon a brimming cup, when, lo! she
turned.

"Uncle Bertram!"

She had said it quite calmly, and now, slowly, she laid down her pen
and closed her blotting-book, rising at the same time and holding out
her hand to him as he came up.

"I felt that somebody, was looking at me."

"And you wished, to remain unseen, or at least undisturbed. But could I
have guessed that I should find you here? Why are you not away with the
others?"

A smile flitted over her face.

"I had important letters to write, too."

"Well, you have written, anyhow."

"And have you not? For shame. If you make any excuses you should
yourself take them in earnest; then you will come to fancy afterwards
that the excuses were really valid."

"I'll remember this in future. But what makes you tell me to my face
that my important letters were but an excuse?"

"I thought that you did not care to go; and I think I know the reason
why."

"Indeed! I am curious to hear it from you."

"I will tell you. I wanted to say so last night already, for then I
noticed quite well how gladly you would have made an excuse, only you
could not at the moment think of a suitable one; but I could not have
said what I wished to say in a few words, and so I determined to try
and have an undisturbed talk with you. Shall we not sit down?"

They sat dawn, Erna with her blotting-book before her, Bertram on the
seat opposite. Her large eyes were lifted up to him. But a minute
before he had greatly longed to be able to see deep, deep into these
eyes, right to the innermost recess of her soul; and now, when it could
be, when it was to be, he shrank from it, he wished the time deferred.
He would in any case learn the secret all too soon.

"Uncle Bertram, I wanted to tell you that ..."

The dark eyelids had closed after all; well, she anyhow did not see the
breathless excitement with which he hung upon her lips. In his mind he
heard already the words--"that--I engaged myself last night to be
married to the Baron." The pause she made--of a second or two--seemed
to him an eternity.

"My dear child," he said in a voice well-nigh inaudible ...

"That ... you shall not for my sake lay upon yourself a burden which
you can no longer bear."

The large eyes were gazing firmly at him again, while he bent his own
in deadly confusion.

He murmured--

"I--I do not understand you."

"You are too good to wish to understand me; but the excess of your
goodness weighs me down and frightens me. I know that you are fond of
me, that you do it only because you love me. But I love you too, Uncle
Bertram, love you very much, more than formerly, when I did not really
know you, did not at all understand you. I am no longer a child, and
therefore you should not treat me like a spoiled child and do what I
ask, especially when I see that I ask for something to which I had no
right. I had no right to ask--I should not have entreated you to be
kind to Aunt Lydia. And now I beg of you not to be so any longer, or to
the same extent. I cannot bear it. She has harmed you as terribly, as
terribly as only an evil heart can harm a good one. And she to be
allowed to take your hand, look into your eyes, jest with you, as if
nothing had occurred! If this had happened to me, I would not tolerate
it--never, never!"

Her voice quivered, her lips trembled; the pale cheek was flushed now,
the great eyes were flashing. She said she had not known him, had not
understood him--and he? What had he known of her? of the strength of
feeling of that heart of hers which had seemed to him to beat in such
steady measure? His gaze was fastened on her now in raptured amazement,
like the gaze of a mortal to whom something divine is being revealed.

But next moment the wondrous girl had conquered that passionate
impulse, her features regained their usual expression, and she went on,
calmly enough--

"And you, Uncle Bertram, should not tolerate it either--you, least of
all. You cannot lie, cannot play the hypocrite. Let others do so; it
befits you ill, it is unworthy of you. I cannot, will not see anything
unworthy in you. I will have one human being whom I can believe and
trust unconditionally. This one you are, you must be; is it not so,
Uncle Bertram?"

She held out her hand to him across the table. He could not refuse it,
and yet, as he touched those slender fingers, something thrilled
through him as though he had been guilty of some act of desecration.

"You think me too good, too great," he said. "I can only reply, I will
try to deserve your confidence."

"And I will give you an opportunity at once. I am not contented with
myself either. I too--for the sake of others, to please papa and mamma
who seemed greatly to wish it--have been kinder to somebody than at
heart I felt justified in being, and I must henceforth change my
conduct towards him."

"He has proposed to you?"

"Proposed? To me?"

A scornful smile played round her exquisite lips.

"I beg your pardon, dear Erna. He was so remarkably assiduous in his
attentions to you yesterday. You admit yourself that you have been
kinder to him than now you care to have been, and he strikes me as
being one of those men who grasp the whole hand the moment you hold out
your little finger to them. And moreover, I know that your parents
encourage him much, and he is surely aware of that too. Thus my
question was not wholly groundless; still, I beg your pardon."

"And indeed you need it in this case, Uncle Bertram. Or, have I perhaps
behaved so childishly that even a clever man like you could deem such a
thing possible?"

"No, no; pray, try to forget what I said without thinking, or take it
for a proof that I was right, that I am neither so good nor so clever
as you thought."

The words sounded diffident, almost submissive, but his heart was
swelling with proud delight, and the songsters perched above in the
shady recesses of the big plantain tree seemed to have been silent till
now, and to be then commencing all at once to twitter and sing and make
sweetest melody; and from the terraces beneath there was wafted up to
them in fragrant cloudlets the perfume of carnation and mignonette.
What a beautiful, divinely beautiful morning it was!

"Henceforth," said Erna, "we will be open to each other, and then such
misunderstandings will not occur again. This one, truly, should make me
blush. The Baron is the very last man in whom I could take the very
slightest interest. I find nearly everything he says stupid and silly,
and if a fairly good idea turns up, as it does every now and then, it
is impossible to enjoy it, for the question is sure to obtrude itself:
'What nonsense will he talk next?' I am only now making his
acquaintance; he, it is true, has been often here before, but in my
absence; and in town, when he came, as he sometimes did, to see Aunt
Lydia, I always avoided having to meet him."

"You have met few young men yet?"

"And those few have not made me anxious to meet any more."

"This sounds very hard; but, to say the truth, you are not the first
girl whom I have heard talk like this."

"My only wonder is that all do not talk, or, at least, think like this.
My own idea is, that men are naturally selfish, frivolous, and vain,
and only become with advancing years good, and noble, and amiable, and
this applies only to the few exceptions; for I suppose the bulk remain
as they were."

"Are you serious?"

"Perfectly. And that is why, the night before last, I could not agree
with you at all when you asserted that a young girl could not love a
much older man, or was at least committing an act of folly if she did
so, which, to her sorrow, she was bound to realise sooner or later, and
therefore the sooner the better. Nor is it at all this consideration
which makes Hilarie change, and which throws her into the arms of that
youth who is behaving so childishly and insanely, that Flavio;--there
is quite a different reason for it."

"Then you know the novelette?"

"No; I only read it now; and I had to hunt a long time for it, until I
found it in the _Wanderjahre_. The book is lying there. And now I also
understand the 'one element,' which you said the night before last
that Göthe had excluded, or had not made use of--which is the right
expression in this case?--because otherwise the comedy would have been
turned into a tragedy."

"And this 'one element,' what is it?"

"The fact that her uncle is not in love with her at all. Was not that
it?"

"To be sure. I only wonder at your having found it out."

"And my only wonder is that Hilarie did not discover it sooner. She
must have been very blind not to have seen that her uncle returns--or
rather does not return--her love from sheer kindliness of disposition;
that at best his _penchant_ is but the faintest reflex of her
passionate love. Look at this passage: 'You are making me the happiest
man beneath the sun! Exclaiming this, he fell at her feet.' How feeble,
how strained! And it contents her, makes her happy. I should have been
ashamed of the whole business."

"You must make some allowance for the spirit of the time, for the
manner and expression of the period; in that case, these things do not
look or sound quite as bad. But now for the other side of the medal:
You hold that Hilarie did truly love her uncle, and would have remained
faithful to her love, in spite of any number of Flavios, if her passion
had been returned?"

"Most certainly!"

"Well, be it so. He loves, loves passionately. Enter Flavio, loving,
loving passionately, too. The father perceives it. He sees that his own
love would seal the doom of the son whom he loves. Moreover, he is
sure--if he is not a conceited fool, but a man of heart and head, he
must be sure--that Hilarie would undoubtedly, return his son's passion,
if he, the father, the uncle, did not unfortunately stand between them;
that the girl's love for the young man, and _vice versa_, is the only
natural--that means, the only right thing; that therefore Hilarie
cannot truly love him; that her love rather, if it be not absolutely
unnatural, is anyhow an error, an aberration, from which she shall and
must turn. Given these things, am I wrong in asserting that then,
indeed, the comedy changes to tragedy--a tragedy the secret and silent
stage of which, I admit, will be solely ... the elderly man's heart? Do
you not agree with me?"

"I must, I think; if I have first granted your suppositions and
assumptions, particularly this: that a girl's love for a man much older
than herself must needs in every case be an error, an aberration. But
then, again, I do not see why the elderly man's love for the girl does
not also tend to self-deception, to a fact which he, being more
far-sighted, clever, experienced; is bound to realise all the sooner.
And then, where is your tragedy?"

Once more the great eyes flashed, the dainty lips quivered, an angry
cloud lay on her brow. There was a wild voice in his heart crying:
"Where?--here, here--for I love, I love thee! and it is impossible that
into thy maiden heart, there should ever fall one spark of the wild
conflagration raging here." But he succeeded this time, too, in
subduing the tumult in his heart, and he said smilingly--

"I hoped, nay, I knew that you would make this objection, which is
absolutely correct, and which helps the Master to regain that absolute
sovereignty and undeviating correctness in matters of the heart in
which I, wantonly, tried to argue Göthe was deficient. Of course, so
the matter stands, turn and twist it as you will--Hilarie's love is an
illusion; or, more correctly, it is a foreshadowing of that true and
genuine passion which she will feel one day. The Major's love is a
reminiscence of what his heart once, in the bygone days of his far-away
youth, was glowing with, and what it never again will glow with now.
Anything of a warmer feeling that haply still survives, may be
sufficient for a sensible, reasonable marriage, with the clever widow,
in whose sentiments towards him again reminiscence acts the part of a
kindly mediator, and ... but surely ... why, they are back already!
Shall we go and meet them?"

From the verandah Lotter's loud voice was heard. Lydia, too, was
calling out; she was calling Erna. Bertram had risen, glad of the
interruption; he felt his strength very nearly exhausted. He was
resting his hand on the back of her chair, lest Erna, if they shook
hands, should feel how his hand trembled. But Erna was gazing straight
before her with a very gloomy expression of countenance.

"I should like to finish my letter first," she said.

"Then I will disturb you no longer."

He had gone; had gone without offering her his hand. Erna sat for a
while without looking up; then she re-opened her blotting-book, and
read the last page she had written:--

"I see him always, absent or present; I see his noble, pale
countenance, the deep, thoughtful eyes, that mouth which can jest so
delicately, and which yet (for me) quivers so often in sorrow for a
wasted life, a lost happiness. For me! The others never see it; how
should they? To them he is the cold-hearted egotist, the bitter jester,
who believes in nothing, least of all in love. To be sure--once
betrayed as he has been--alas! Agatha, that is the very thing which
draws me irresistibly to him. I can now gaze deep, deep into his noble
heart, can feel all the pangs that have torn it, and must be tearing it
again now in the presence of the viper who--oh, I do hate her! ... And
he manages to be quite friendly in his demeanour to her, because I
asked him to, before I knew all the circumstances. But he shall do so
no longer. I cannot bear it, when he turns his good, truthful eyes to
me, as though he would ask: 'Is it right thus?' No, it is wrong, a
thousand times wrong! But is it not wrong, too, that I should be
allowed to read in his heart, and he not in mine? Shall I tell him ...
all? It is ever on my lips, but then ... no. I should not be ashamed in
his presence, he is so kind, and he would understand me! Resting on his
protecting arm he would let me shed the last of those hot, angry tears,
which will yet persist in sometimes rising to my eyes, and which I
brush away indignantly; and I would gratefully accept his mercy, but on
one condition only, that I may go on resting on that arm, that he would
permit me to love, to serve him, to-day and for ever, as his friend,
his daughter, his slave! ... Shall I tell him?"

Erna gave a bitter smile, and took the sheet of paper in both her hands
in order to tear it in pieces. Then she laid it down again, and seized
her pen once more.

"She who has written this is a conceited little fool, and deserves
exemplary punishment for her conceit, and the said punishment is to
consist in her sending these lines to her granny, in order to receive
by return of post the requisite scolding, even if granny, and this is
an urgently repeated request, is coming here the day after to-morrow.
For between granny and me there shall not be said one word on this
subject, and even less about the other thing and the other one; and
now, dearest granny ..."

"Ah, there is Miss Erna!" exclaimed the Baron, issuing with Lydia from
the terrace walk.

"We have been looking everywhere for you," said Lydia. "Heavens! how
the child has flushed and heated herself over her writing! To Agatha,
of course!"

"Ah, if one could read the letter!" exclaimed the Baron.

"There is nothing about you in it, I can give you that assurance, if it
will set your mind at ease," said Erna, closing her blotting-book with
the unfinished letter in it, and rising.



                                   X.


"Have you availed, yourself of the opportunity to talk to Erna?"
Hildegard asked Bertram as soon as they were alone.

Bertram had expected this question, and had sought and found time to
prepare his answer to it. His first impulse has been to taste the full
delights of triumph, and to assure Hildegard, in strict accordance with
the actual truth, that the Baron need never expect to gain Erna's
affection. But then he considered that so brusque a revelation, would,
without the slightest doubt, cause the proud lady to burst forth into a
tempest of indignation, would bring Erna into a disagreeable position,
and possibly involve her in extremely awkward scenes. Her feeble father
would be no support to her whatever--on the contrary, he wished the
decision to be put off as long as possible. And, lastly, he saw now
quite clearly that Hildegard's pressing invitation to make a lengthened
stay had had the very definite aim to secure in him, as in a very
influential friend, an ally in the execution of her plans. Now he had
failed in his diplomatic mission, and though they would not openly
deprive him of his confidential position, they would very surely not
consult him again. Future events would then occur behind his back, and
the sooner he went away the better for them. And was he to go now? He
felt as though he could as readily bid farewell to life and light.

And so his answer came to be nothing but an adroit evasion. He had, he
said, done his best, and Erna had met him in the heartiest and most
confiding manner. But on this very ground he considered himself
justified in stating that there was at present no trace of any definite
_penchant_ for the Baron on Erna's part, and that he could only advise
them all to possess their souls in patience, to bide their time, and to
hope for the best from the gradual, but all the more sure, influence of
daily intercourse.

The apparent genuineness of conviction with which all this was
expressed deceived Hildegard completely. Her assumption that Erna took
a special interest in the Baron was chiefly founded on Lydia's
assertions, and Lydia, poor soul, was for ever weaving matrimonial
projects, was much addicted to exaggeration, and to the making of
molehills into mountains, and would, in this particular case, to get
into Hildegard's good graces and maintain herself there, amply confirm
anything she might be desirous of hearing. Now, when Hildegard was for
the moment looking at things through friend Bertram's clearer and, as
she thought, perfectly unprejudiced eyes, she was bound to admit the
justice of his observations; indeed, in Erna's manner to the Baron
there was very little indication of anything like a warmer sentiment,
so little in fact, that the varying ways in which she treated him might
almost seem matters of congratulation. Bertram asked himself why
Hildegard did not give up a project which looked so very unlike
fulfilment, since Erna, in all the charm of her young beauty, would
assuredly have no lack of suitors, while her mother, not having the
slightest suspicion of her husband's awkward financial situation, must
needs, as indeed she did in her matrimonial plans in reference to Erna,
reckon wealth among the attractions. There seemed to be something
self-contradictory here, anyhow it was passing strange; and yet, as he
went on meditating, he thought he had found the key to the enigma. Fair
Hildegard herself was most pleasantly impressed by the Baron's striking
appearance and confident manner, and was much flattered by the homage
he paid to her beauty, her cleverness, her kindness, a homage to which,
he gave even in company a very perceptible, and in their not infrequent
_tête-à-têtes_ probably even a more emphatic expression. And then the
circumstance which, by the by, the Baron by no means concealed, that,
to use his own words, he was as poor as a church mouse, she looked upon
as a distinct point in his favour.

"Herein," she said to Bertram, "I see the finger of a just and
compensating Fate. I know, my friend, that you are too wise and
enlightened not to pardon an aristocratic fancy of mine, namely, that
it is best if the aristocracy marry among themselves, and the
_bourgeoisie_, for whom I have the greatest respect, also among
themselves. Well, I, being a very poor lady with a long pedigree--for,
indeed, the traditions of our family are reckoned by centuries--have
had to break with these traditions, and was in this way the first to
contract a _bourgeois_ alliance. I do not complain of my lot; it was my
lot, and there's an end of it; but I have never ceased to pray to God
that my only daughter might be granted a different fate. And if a
family, which is still older than mine, is enabled to resume its
rightful position in the world, I really do not know what better I
could wish, assuming always that Erna, as would doubtless be the case,
gets a husband who loves her, and who--not to reckon his little
cavalier's foibles, in reference to which a wise woman will be
judiciously blind, knowing that this kind of thing is sure to stop of
its own accord--is in every way worthy of her love."

"And whom," added Bertram mentally, "I hope to bring as completely
under my control as my husband."

He was convinced that this thought was the leading one in the
calculations of the selfish lady, in spite of the great care with which
she endeavoured to avoid even the faintest appearance of any egotistic
motive. Even as she was fond of representing her life as one long chain
of sacrifices made by her on behalf of others, so she would now appear
prepared to give up her own comfort for Erna's sake. Of course, she
explained, it would not be possible to leave the poor child alone in
town, among indifferent strangers; and she and Otto must in consequence
make up their minds to spend the winter there in future. This, to be
sure, would necessitate the purchase of a house of their own in town;
but the question of expense was not to be taken into consideration
where the happiness of their child was concerned; and, by a lucky
accident, there happened to be for sale, and at quite a reasonable
price, a newly-erected villa close to the Park, surrounded by a pretty
garden, and roomy enough to enable them all, parents and children, to
live comfortably together. And it would be quite feasible and not
very expensive either, to build a studio for the Baron, she added.
Perhaps Bertram would not mind driving to town with Otto, to look
at the house? When? Why not to-day? Otto, as usual, could not make
up his mind, although it would be an excellent investment, even
supposing--supposing--but no, that case was not likely to occur, the
momentary, somewhat unfavourable, aspect of things notwithstanding.

"For in this, too, my friend," she said, in concluding her
explanations, "you will agree with me: the more carefully we prepare
all things needful, and thus show the child, as it were, an image of
the safe and sure and peaceful happiness awaiting her, the more swiftly
and fondly her fancy will busy itself with that image, and from the
fair image to the fairer reality--_il n'y a qu'un pas_. But first we
must settle about the villa. There will be no difficulty if you speak
seriously to Otto."

"I promise," replied Bertram.

The incident was most opportune, he thought. Here Otto, already
harassed on all sides, was threatened, with huge additional
expenditure, before which even his fatal readiness to yield must needs
pause at length, as before an absolutely insuperable obstacle. The
consequences were clear. He could not simply meet his wife's request by
a refusal. There must be a full explanation between husband and wife;
there would be a fearful storm, but it had to come, it was absolutely
required to clear the sultry atmosphere, to disentangle the wretchedly
involved situation. Hildegard's frivolous scheme would burst like a
soap-bubble, and at one stroke Erna would be freed from an importunate
suitor, and her father from an unworthy and intolerable position.
Yesterday already he had been determined to stand by his friend through
all the anxieties, embarrassments, and perils which were bound to
ensue. To-day his heart beat anxiously, eager as he was to face those
perils, for every peril cleared out of her path and victoriously
conquered, was a trophy laid at her feet, hers, for whom he would have
willingly shed his heart's blood drop by drop.

Fancy his terror and his indignation when, driving to town with Otto
later in the day, he found his friend more removed than ever from any
manly resolve.

"The purchase of this villa, dear me--why, if Hildegard cares for it so
much--would, after all, be a comparative trifle--really. And then, what
I told you yesterday regarding my situation, why, dear me, you know me
well enough, old man, to ... to know how I am influenced by passing
moods. That makes me look at all things accordingly; things are either
black or white to me. And yesterday, why, I had a black, a very black
mood. To be sure, my factories are not a success, and, indeed, may now
and again involve a loss. But, then, look at those fields, and think of
the crop we'll have; and with such a prospect I can afford to leave
myself a very fair margin, the more so as the harvest in Russia and in
Hungary promises to be very bad--so the reports say--and in that case
we shall make no end of money. And then--look here--just you read his
paragraph in the paper about the railway question. Eh--and the
paragraph, I feel sure, is from the pen of the President of our own
local Parliament, who is, by the by, a great friend of mine, and has
for years been my lawyer. Well, what do you say now?"

"I say," replied Bertram gravely, "that things are exactly in the
position which you described yesterday. Your friend here clearly
represents only his own, or, if you like, your views and wishes; and
will, moreover, naturally put some pressure upon Government, by
representing it as impossible for them to decide differently from your
wishes and hopes."

"But the Government--which means the Court--is already more than half
won over. Lotter assures me...."

"For Heaven's sake! leave him out of the business."

"Oh, of course, of course; if you are so prejudiced against him that
you refuse him even the common credibility which you allow otherwise to
everybody!"

"There is no question here of credibility or incredibility," exclaimed
Bertram indignantly; "but the thing is this: you are mistaking your
illusions and hopes for realities and facts; you are voluntarily
blinding yourself lest you see the abyss into which you are about to
plunge. And mind this: by your miserable hesitation you are really
accelerating the coming of the dreaded moment; nay, you render it only
the more dreadful. There is still time; this very day you can go and
say to your wife: I have met with losses, terrible losses, and we must
needs retrench, and therefore.... Why, man, you will let it come to
this, that you must confess to her: We have nothing further to lose;
all is gone! Think of this, friend, I entreat you. Your boat is
overloaded; away with the ballast which all but sinks it now; overboard
with it all! Were it a question of yourself alone, you would be manly
enough not to hesitate; and with wife and child on board, whose ruin is
certain unless you act at once, you ... cannot, will not act!"

Otto would say neither yea nor nay. Bertram was silent in his despair.
What would come of it all?

And so they arrived in town, having hardly exchanged a word more. They
looked over the villa, and again hardly a word was exchanged; just an
indifferent remark here and there, nothing more. Otto was apparently
annoyed at something, but Bertram saw well enough that this appearance
of annoyance was but assumed to hide his irresolution.

"I know, I know," Otto said at last grumpily, "we are not likely to
agree as it is. Had we not better call together upon my lawyer and hear
his opinion about the whole business? He is, moreover, on your side, in
politics, and will be delighted to make your acquaintance."

Bertram seized eagerly upon so sensible a proposal, and to the lawyer's
they drove accordingly; but when they had got to the door, Otto
remembered that he had to do some commission for Hildegard: he even
explained--

"About those officers who are going to be quartered upon us, don't you
know?--extra provisions and that kind of thing. She can never, she
thinks, have too much on hand, in case.... Well, well, it's her nature
to ..."

And so the broad-shouldered figure of his friend passed down the lonely
sunlit street; and Bertram added, speaking to himself, this comment,
"And your nature is ... to do things by halves only, unless you mean,
in this case, to throw the whole responsibility upon my shoulders."

And in this view his friend's lawyer completely confirmed him.

"Look here," said the latter to Bertram, when, after a hearty, mutual
welcome, the two had swiftly grown to be confidential with each other,
"you may take my word for this, he is most anxious we should have a
perfectly unrestrained talk about his affairs, and has backed out of
being present simply to avoid having to hear all the disagreeable
things we could not spare him; moreover, he might oppose to you and to
me, separately, a certain resistance which he would not have the
courage to do if he, found us confronting him together. Under these
circumstances I do not consider it indiscreet, but I think I am acting
according to the wishes, and I know I am acting in the interest of our
common friend, if I now add a few words of explanation to what you know
already; then, indeed, you will be thoroughly acquainted with the state
of his affairs."

The lawyer then proceeded to describe Otto's position in detail; and to
his amazement Bertram found his own conception confirmed throughout.
Why, even his own image of the ballast which required to be heaved
overboard to set the ship once more afloat, figured in the exposition.
To be sure, Bertram now learned for the first time how weighty that
ballast really was. Thus, to give but one example, Otto had never
mentioned, had not even hinted at the fact that Hildegard's elder
sister, the widow of the late Secret Counsellor von Palm, and her whole
family, lived entirely upon Otto's bounty. "And that," said the lawyer,
"is an awful item! For the lady in question is, in every respect, a
true sister of your friend's wife. She thinks that death and the end of
all things must needs be at hand, if she and hers cannot live on a very
grand scale indeed. And then her house in Erfurth is a sort of
gathering-place for all who, by rank or position, may aspire to the
honour of appearing in such sublime surroundings; half-pay general
officers and colonels galore--and the little town was ever full of
them--and, of course, the whole number of officers actually on
duty in the garrison, and so on, and so on. The girls--and there is
half-a-dozen of them--are as bad as their mother, always excepting one
dear, sensible creature--not one of the pretty ones, though--whom, I
understand, you are about to meet in Rinstedt. Well, if the daughters
are extravagant, the two sons--both, as you know, in the army, go on as
though their uncle's cashbox had no bottom to it. Three times, four
times, already he has paid the debts of those young men, whom, by the
by, he cannot bear at all, and this, and all this, simply _in majorem
gloriam Hildegardis_, his well-beloved wife, a lady of such an old
family that the scions thereof cannot, of course, be measured by the
same standard as common mortals."

"And do you not perceive any way of escape from this vicious circle our
friend is wandering in?" Bertram asked.

"Only the one you have already pointed to," the lawyer made answer.
"But how the deuce can you advise a man who will not be advised, or
rather, who accepts all the advice you give him and never acts upon it
for all that ...? And there is one thing yet in which you have, too,
judged aright. It is by no means too late yet! If he give up those
factories of his which will never pay, even if--and on that his whole
hope is now centred--the new line of rails passes straight through his
estates, and if he meets My Lady with a _sic voleo, sic jubeo_, and if,
with one determined cut, he severs the boundlessly costly train from My
Lady's garment, leaving it, for all that, a very respectable garment,
he would be enabled to discharge his other liabilities gradually, or at
once if somebody would, at fair interest, lend him a biggish capital.
This, of course, times being bad, will not be very easy to manage, more
particularly if people begin to talk about his being embarrassed."

"And how large, think you, should that capital be?"

"I think that I could settle everything if I had a hundred thousand
thalers at my disposal, without there being any formal arrangement with
his creditors, or even a voluntary surrender."

"In that case I beg to put the sum mentioned at your disposal."

The lawyer looked up in amazement.

"I had no idea that you were so wealthy," he said simply.

"It does not represent half my fortune. Anyhow, I am not running any
risk."

"No, to be sure," replied the lawyer; "I should be able to secure you
against any loss; the rate of interest, as I observed before, would be
low. But I may tell you beforehand that your generous offer will be
refused. I know our friend. He would rather borrow from the most
unscrupulous cut-throat of a usurer than from you, for whom he has, as
I know, the profoundest respect. For, though you may be the best of
friends, you are not his brother, not his cousin, not a kinsman at all.
If you could say to him, you owe it to our family to do so--such an
appeal to the family honour, which he holds in the highest esteem, he
would comprehend much better. But as it is, his very pride, or his
vanity rather--for vanity is distinctly his ruling passion--will be
hurt; he will appear to be immensely grateful to you, will say that you
are his good angel, and--will not accept a farthing from you, as long
as he sees, or fancies he sees, any other way out. He may possibly come
to his senses when his last hope, the railway, proves illusory. I
fear--I am a keen promoter of the project myself, but on different
grounds--I fear that will occur presently. Meanwhile, try your luck, or
his rather, by all means. But I repeat, you will not succeed with the
mere appeal to your friendship."

Bertram, as previously arranged, then called for his friend, and as
they drove home together he made his attempt The lawyer's prophecy was
literally fulfilled. Otto overflowed in expressions of the greatest
gratitude for an offer so thoroughly characteristic of his generous
friend, and which, for the sake of their long friendship, he would
unconditionally accept--if there were any occasion for it. But that,
thank goodness, was not the case.

And then came the wretched old story which Bertram knew by heart
already, and to which, for all that, he now listened; not, as before,
with disgust, but with an odd feeling of anxiety and doubt. To be sure,
mere friendship was not sufficient. He would have required another
title, one giving the right to demand what now he begged for in vain.
Should he venture upon the word that was trembling on his lips, and
that yet was ever beating a cowardly retreat to the tremulous heart?
Cowardly? No! It would have been cowardice, miserable cowardice, if he
had spoken it; cowardice, trying to take by miserable money-bribes a
fortress invincible to valour and high courage; cowardice and treason,
treason to the sanctity of a love which had hitherto been unselfish and
as pure as the heart of the great waters. If things came to the worst,
if it was a question of guarding the beloved child against common want,
she would be noble enough not to refuse the helping hand of a
protecting friend. But woe to him if that hand were not unsullied; if
even the shadow of a suspicion of selfishness fell upon it!

And as they thus drove homewards, with the evening darkening around
them, he fixed his eye on high, where now the heavenly lights were
appearing in ever-increasing numbers, with ever-growing splendour; and
he reverently repeated to himself the poet's great saying of the stars
above, in whose majestic beauty man should rejoice without coveting
their possession.



                                  XI.


But no poet's word could henceforth stay the wild conflagration which
raged in his heart; and every thought by which his mind strove to
obtain rest and clearness proved a faint-hearted hireling soldier that
takes the first opportunity of deserting to the ranks of the more
potent foe. In vain did he recall the arguments by which, in a certain
memorable conversation, he had tried to refute Erna's assertions--it
had been a lie, a lie--or, at best, mere theoretical twaddle. His love
a reminiscence merely? And of what, pray? Perhaps of that mournful
aberration when his heart, his thirty years notwithstanding, was
still full of faith and devoid of experience? Or of the coquettish
phantom-fights and ugly caricatures of passion with which a heart that
has ceased to believe, in love, endeavours to deceive itself regarding
its own needs? Thee, he exclaimed, thee I have always loved. My whole
life has been one unbroken longing for thee; and when now at length I
have reached the land of promise, am I solely to see it, bless God, and
die? I am no longer weary of life. Nay, life has never yet appeared so
fair to me, and never yet have I so felt the desire and the power to
enjoy it. Die we must; die, however empty life may have been; but oh,
how better far to die in the full bliss of love! No, no! If I love her,
my only reminiscence is one of weary deserts traversed until I reached
her: if she could love me, her love should be no mere mirage of an
oasis in the future; palms should rustle above her fair head, silvery
brooks should run at her feet. Love surely has this potent spell: it
can create a paradise on earth!

And from these fairy dreams of future bliss he was startled by the
thought that Erna's heart must have already once received some mighty
impression. For it was surely passing strange that she knew so well how
to interpret some of the mysterious symbols in the book of passion;
that she evidently liked to read in that book. But since all his
cautious questioning led to no result, since she spoke of the few young
men whom she seemed to know at all either with indifference, or even,
as in the case of her two cousins, with a perceptible touch of irony,
he could not but conclude that his suspicion was unfounded, and he
became more and more familiar with a fond hope, from which he at first
recoiled as from a temptation to sheer madness.

But he still had the full use of his senses, and they, had never been
so acute as now. How was he to explain that her voice, whenever she
turned to him, and particularly when they were alone, was quite
different from its usual tone--softer, deeper, more intense? How was he
to explain that she--surely without being aware of it--kept sometimes,
at table, if he happened to speak eagerly, her gaze fixed upon him for
several minutes--that strange, fixed gaze which he had never before met
from any human eye, and which reminded him again and again of the gaze
of the gods,--


           "Whose eyelids quiver not like those of mortals;"


and then when he ceased to, speak she was like one awakening from a
dream, drawing a long breath, which caused her maiden bosom to rise and
sink!

Nor were other promising tokens wanting. He had, for good reasons of
his own, disregarded Erna's request to be henceforth less kind to
Lydia; nay, he had doubled his attentions and courtesies, not only
towards the coquettish lady, but towards the Baron too. It seemed so
easy now to pardon, to show indulgence, to look at all things from the
best and most amiable point of view; and politeness is a veil behind
which one may hide so much. At first he had been prepared for
opposition or serious displeasure on the part of the proud, self-willed
girl; but nothing of the kind occurred; she either seemed not to notice
his disobedience, or actually to approve of it; and once or twice, when
he somewhat overdid his part, a meaning smile played about her mouth.
Nay, more, she followed, though with evident hesitation, his example;
she no longer met Lydia's fantastic exaggerations with short and sharp
replies, or with that frigid non-recognition which is more cutting than
direct blame: she continued, as on the first evening or two, to sing
and play with the Baron; she even suffered herself to be put into the
famous terrace picture, and was patient enough to sit to him for a
couple of hours, in which the Baron, with his brush, was constantly
taking one step forward and two backward, as it were; while he vowed
again and again that this was the most grateful, but also the most
difficult, task which he had ever undertaken in his life.

And there was yet one thing more which had struck him as peculiarly
strange and important. Erna was accustomed to repeat her interlocutors'
names frequently in the course of conversation, and to add them, even
to quite trivial phrases or questions. From the first days of his
visit he still recalled with delight her sweet "How are you, Uncle
Bertram?"--"Yes, Uncle Bertram"--"No, Uncle Bertram." But sweeter,
sweeter far it seemed to him that he now no longer heard it--no, not
once--that her conversation now was plain yea and nay, as enjoined in
Holy Writ, and quite in accordance with the wild wish of his heart.
Hilarie, too, had surely ceased to call her lover--Uncle. Poor Major!
But it served him right, after all, for it was not youth so much that
he lacked, as the courage and force of genuine passion.


           "That man must ever be a youthful man
            Who is well-pleasing to a maiden's eyes!"


And he does please her well, because she feels with the unerring
instinct of true love that he can and will give love for love.

And as though he would force Fate to grant him all, because he was
staking his all upon it, he looked on with a happy smile, whilst the
fire of his great love burned up with increasing vehemence with every
day, with every hour, spreading around and engulfing his entire being.
He was proud that he could no longer feel anything else, think of
anything else, but always her, and her alone. If she was away, how
empty, how barren did the whole world seem! With what painful
impatience did he await the moment when he should behold her again; and
when he beheld her again, it seemed as though he had never beheld her
before--as though the Creator had but just uttered the command: "Let
there be light!" and as though the world lay before him in all the dewy
freshness and brightness of the morn of creation.

Then, when the torment of delight became overpowering, he fled from
her, to dream, often for hours, in the solitude of the forest, in lone,
rocky caves, or on sunny summits--to listen in the deep silence around
for the echoing of her sweet voice within his heart, to whisper her
loved name to the discreet herbs and trees; to hear that name in the
murmur of the brooks, in the rustling of the breezes, in every note of
the birds' songs; to see her fair image smiling down upon him from
among the dainty white cloudlets that flecked the deep-blue sky, or
gazing at him with musing gravity from the dusky shadows of the
towering trees, gazing with those great, still, potent, godlike orbs.

That those orbs were now smiling more rarely, that they were fuller of
gravest thought, often gazing with a certain sweet fixity of intensest
concentration, he had not failed to observe, and he had not interpreted
it as a symptom unfavourable to himself; how should, how could it be
otherwise, if there fell into her young soul even the faintest reflex
of the bright radiancy that was filling his own to its deepest depths?

But he had not failed to observe either, and this he knew not how to
explain, that this musing gravity from which his own love in its
hopefulness drew sweetest sustenance--like a bee from the chalice of a
budding blossom--was turning to a gloomy indignation, which not only
was for ever veiling the beloved eyes, but was not unfrequently
enfolding the fair face with its fine, energetic features in darkest
night, luridly illumined by wrathful flashes.

This startling change had occurred quite suddenly, coincident,
strangely enough, with the day, almost with the hour, of Agatha's
arrival.



                                  XII.


On the occasion of former visits at Rinstedt Bertram had repeatedly
seen Agatha, and had always been on the best of terms with the ever
equally pleasant, amiable child. Now, of course she had, like Erna,
developed during the last few years into a maiden, though one could not
say that she had gained by the process of metamorphosis. The blonde
hair now was almost red, freckles abounded unpleasantly on brow and
cheek, and an awkward tendency to one side had become an undoubted
lurch; so that, taking all these things together, one might indeed be
tempted to take the nickname "Granny," which Erna had bestowed upon her
cousin and bosom friend, not in its moral meaning alone. But the bright
blue eyes had faithfully preserved the old, dear expression; nay, even
more openly than of old, there spoke out of them a heart full of
kindliest goodwill to all men, desirous of riving in peace and
friendship with all men, and seeming not so much to loathe as simply
not to comprehend the evil emotions and passions of the human heart.

So gentle a creature, made but for sympathy in joy or in sorrow, could
scarcely have found the requisite courage to destroy even the
commonplace illusions of a commonplace heart, and would most likely
have recoiled from the mere attempt to lay violent hands upon a heart
like Erna's, deviating as it did so greatly from the humdrum, everyday
pattern. And, again, Bertram had to drop the suspicion which at first
had come to him in his perplexity; to wit, that Agatha had, whether in
carelessness or intentionally, blabbed about something confided to her
by Erna. Such a thing would have been in downright contradiction to the
character of the girl, who was as clever as she was good; and, lastly,
that he himself should have betrayed his feelings to the rest--that was
absolutely impossible. He was only too painfully conscious of having
from the very first moment put a most careful guard on his conduct, of
having weighed his every word, controlled his every smile and look: of
course he had! Why, he recoiled in horror from the very thought that
Erna might discover his great secret; it was certain that she had not
discovered it, and how could others have done so?

But why should they, again, not have seen, and seen in envy,
uncharitableness, and terror, what it was the utmost delight to him to
see? Though he, in the full consciousness of his love, in the anxious
doubt as to whether that love was not a folly, a crime even, had put
the utmost restraint upon himself, yet Erna had assuredly not been
equally careful in expressing her feelings, whose real significance she
might guess at, though most assuredly she could not measure it. Why,
the most harmless and innocent things in the attentions she was
spoiling him with, the many kindly little offices which she did for him
without any fuss, _en passant_, as it were--all these things might have
been malevolently criticised and viciously explained, suspicion being
once aroused one way or the other!

And that such must be the case he could scarcely doubt any longer, when
he submitted the demeanour of the others towards him during the last
few days to a subsequent examination. Thus, in the light of newly-won
knowledge, sundry things stood out in a very marked way, which, under
other circumstances, he would either not have heeded, or anyhow have
interpreted differently. His beautiful hostess, who used to avail
herself of every tête-à-tête with him to turn their talk to Erna and
the Baron, had not resumed her favourite topic of conversation; and, on
the other hand, Lydia now manifested infinite interest in Erna, and
never wearied of starting contemplative talks in reference to the
qualities of her former pupil, wondering how one should represent to
oneself the future of such a singular being as likely to develop
itself. The Baron had still, on each Occasion when Bertram and he had
met, overflowed with civility, but had yet tormented him less often
with challenges to billiard-matches and to contests in pistol-shooting,
but had on the other hand undertaken more frequent solitary shooting
expeditions--neither Bertram nor Otto, their host, cared for shooting,
as it happened--and had extended them farther too. Otto himself had
certainly and most clearly avoided him. At first he had thought that
Otto did it to avoid new and painful discussions in reference to his
financial position, but Bertram now assumed that it was done lest Otto
should distinctly show that he was angry with his friend for Erna's
sake, or, what--with his natural weak readiness to yield--came
virtually to the same thing, that he had been bidden by the ruling
spirit to be angry with Bertram.

These were curiously mixed feelings which were roused within him by his
recognition of the new position he so suddenly found himself in. He
said to himself that the things which caused anxiety and terror to his
adversaries were for himself objects of joy and triumph, and
constituted the clearest proof that he had not only dreamed a dream of
rapturous delight. And to be sure, his love could not for ever remain
in the far-off regions of starry splendour; it was bound some time to
approach this earth, to become visible to the dull, mole-like eyes of
these men. But then again, putting himself in the place of these
others, and examining himself and his love, as these others were
undoubtedly doing, he would hear anew, and this time from the lips of
unjust accusers, the old evil questions which he thought had long ago
been done with, to wit--Is your longing and your desire really and
truly free from every vestige of selfishness, from every frivolous
admixture? Has the satisfaction of your own vanity, inasmuch as you may
prove that you, a man of fifty, are able to win the love of such a
youthful, and, in every respect, such a highly-favoured and gifted
girl, against the wishes of her own parents, before her who had once
spurned your love, in the presence and to the shame and discomfiture of
so much more likely a rival--have these considerations nothing, nothing
whatever to do with your love?

And supposing he were to allow himself to be urged by pressure on the
part of his foes to make a declaration before the right time; or
supposing there never had been and never would be such a time at
all--supposing he and all of them had blundered;--supposing Erna's
heart knew nought of love, and rejected his love, amazed, terrified,
insulted--what then? Ye Heavens above! what then? Where was then that
line of retreat which Göthe had so wisely secured for his hero?

He realised it to be one of those horribly hideous contradictions of
human life that, while before his inner eye the possibilities of his
future fate concentrated themselves as in a focus, he was busied before
the mirror in exchanging the cravat which Konski had put out for him
for the early dinner, for another (the first dressing-bell having just
rung), in reference to which Erna had once said that it suited him
particularly well.

He stepped, annoyed, from the mirror to the open window. There came
floating through the balmy, sunny air a gossamer thread and fixed
itself on his shoulder. He sighed wearily, he felt unutterably sad.

There was always one line of retreat open, and that was--Death. Perhaps
his life was really hanging on as slight a thread as this bit of
gossamer. But then, was not his love for that very reason both madness
and sacrilege? Was that love which at bottom thought, after all, of
itself only, and thought not first and last of this? Could one,
according to human judgment, really undertake the guarantee for the
well-being of those whom one ... made believe one loved? Whether, for
her, weal would not swiftly change to woe, whence, even though time and
that youthful vigour which refuses to be crushed were to heal the
grievous wounds, there could never again blossom forth a full, whole
happiness? And thus, and for this reason, to have henceforth, like
humdrum everyday folks, to dread death, when he had already again and
again looked into his hollow eyes!

There was some noise behind him, and he started in terror. It was only
Konski who had come back bearing a letter. The post which was due in
the morning had arrived now, and there had been lots of letters for the
other ladies and gentlemen too, and some of them would seem to be
mighty important, for My Lady had given orders to put dinner back half
an hour, so the Herr Doctor could anyhow read his letter in peace.

Konski had gone away again, and Bertram held the letter still unopened
in his hand. How odd that his physician and friend should write to him
just now--that the busiest of men should so swiftly reply to his own
letter, in which, on the second day of his visit, he had, as requested,
given news of his state of health, a letter which really called for no
reply at all. Was his friend now going to tell him that he ... was
doomed to speedy death? Well, the letter could not have come at a more
opportune moment.

With trembling hand he broke the seal and read this--

"Dearest Friend,--Laugh if you like. On reading your letter a second
time--your letters are not, like most others, consigned to the
waste-paper basket--I have even more strongly the same impression which
the first perusal had given me; namely, that, possibly unknown to
yourself, there is to be read between the lines of your letter a
question, which can be answered only by omniscient Fate and by 'Yours
Truly;' and which, seeing Fate is not altogether to be relied upon in
this respect, Yours Truly has the honour and likewise the great
pleasure of answering herewith. Reduced to its simplest formula, then,
the question comes to this: May I marry? Seeing that you do not laugh,
but, on the contrary, look extremely grave, I will not keep you
needlessly on the tenter-hooks of expectation, but will reduce my
reply, too, to the simplest form, viz.:--Yes, best of friends, you may
marry, in spite of your late serious attack; nay, oddly enough, all the
more because of it. For although even before your illness I had no
doubt that your curiously powerful nature would for years continue to
hold its own against the severe damage done (to deny or reason away the
existence of which was unfortunately impossible), I now have hardly any
misgiving in that respect. For your last illness was simply and solely
a remarkably energetic attempt at self-help on the part of nature, and
the attempt has all but succeeded. What remains to be done to complete
the cure is but little, and that this little be done as swiftly and
thoroughly as possible, you can yourself greatly help. How so? Well, by
marrying! You, having always been over-conscientious and abnormally
scrupulous, having ever lived but for ideal aims and for the benefit of
other folk, should now at length begin to live for yourself, should now
at length find that quiet happiness which you so richly deserve, and be
happy in that happiness; though, to be sure, for the last condition
more good sense is required than what the majority of mankind have been
ready to employ. You, my good friend, have that amount of sense.
_Ergo_--marry for goodness' sake, marry for your own good, marry for
the good of those whom you love, and, lastly, marry with my full
consent, without which I know you would not do it at all.

"But now, seeing that you are too accustomed to suffering of some sort
to be able to dispense with it altogether, I owe you a fresh supply to
make up for what I am depriving you of, and I am going to saddle you
with one of the most awful kinds of suffering a free man can be
tormented with in these hard and distressing times--you must stand for
Parliament. There is no help for it; we must have you in the
_Reichstag_. Good old S. can bear the burthen no longer; he is going to
retire. I should have insisted upon it on medical grounds if he had not
at length come to see himself that there was no help for it. He is done
for, and doomed to speedy death. And you, who are vigorously advancing
to complete restoration of health, shall and must take his place--by
order of the Electoral Committee, who met at a late hour last night and
ultimately came to a unanimous conclusion on the subject, all, finally,
voting for you! There is no reason why I should keep back the fact
that, to begin with, O. and B. were opposed to it, and so were a few
others, asserting that you could be of greater use to the common cause
as an outsider. They went on arguing that your absolutely independent
position within the party had hitherto enabled you, and would continue
to enable you, to ventilate certain grievances which really require to
be ventilated, and which it is impossible for ourselves, sitting as
members of the _Reichstag_, to bring forward, because, sitting there,
we must pay a certain regard to ... what not. This great and invaluable
activity of yours, they wisely contended, would be rendered absolutely
barren by your entering the serried ranks of a definite political
phalanx within the House itself. Right they are, I know well enough,
none better; for I have, as you know, always maintained the same view.
But, for all that, you must stand. The need is imperative. We have,
alas! none but you; and therefore our arguments prevailed: and the
requisition I am now forwarding to you in the name of our common party
is, as aforesaid, unanimous. Knowing you as well as I do, and knowing
therefore with what a struggle you make up your mind, ever determined
to adhere unswervingly to a resolution you have once arrived at, I'll
give you three days to think it over. Perhaps you'll talk it over with
our friend G. in W., whose acquaintance you have probably made ere
this; not to get him to appeal to your conscience--small need for that
in your case--but because an old veteran like him may be able, from the
fulness of his experience, to give you some hint or other which may be
of use to you in your candidature. It is very probable that you may
have to appear speedily in the arena. The Government would appear to
feel very confident of success, and will not delay the election. Four
weeks hence everything may be settled. That would leave you another
month before the meeting of Parliament to recover from the fatigue of
the electioneering campaign. The Italian trip will have to be given up,
it is true. But no one can serve two masters; and as for the mistress,
if my conjecture be correct, I do not dread her jealousy. If it were
permitted to harbour any doubt whether you have chosen wisely, or if
there were any need to apply a special test, there could be no surer
touchstone than this. The true gold of a genuine woman's love never
shines more brightly than when a sacrifice has to be made for the sake
of letting a man's worth stand out clearly. Commend me cordially to the
fair unknown, and accept my own affectionate greetings."

The second dinner-bell had rung, and Bertram still sat staring at the
letter. Could this be true? It looked like witchcraft. By what
wonderful ingenuity had his friend rightly interpreted the state of his
heart, judging from hints which were not intended to be hints at all?
Well, if it was a miracle, it was a very auspicious one--one that could
only have had its origin in the great strength of truest friendship.
Impossible for the tempter to have assumed the guise of the best and
noblest of men!

He pressed the letter to his lips, and gazed upward to the blue sky.
And, lo! as he moved, the gossamer thread floated away from his
shoulder, away into the sunny afar.

With glowing eye he followed its flight.

"Right, right! Fly and float with it, ye cowardly thoughts of retreat!
Who fears not death has already half won the battle!"



                                 XIII.


Below, in the garden saloon, Bertram found only Otto and the Baron, who
abruptly stopped an eager conversation as Bertram entered. Otto looked
greatly embarrassed; the Baron gave him one angry look, then turned
away to the young ladies, who were walking on the verandah.

"I seem to have disturbed you," said Bertram.

"Don't be annoyed," replied Otto. "The Baron had, last night already,
disagreeable news from home, which is confirmed to-day, and will compel
him to travel back; and just now, in this time of tension, he wishes of
course--it is extremely awkward ..."

"In one word, he has officially asked you for your daughter's hand?"

"Not exactly officially; we really do not know about Erna. You had
undertaken to put us _au courant_, to advise and help us, and now you
are not helping us at all, and--and my wife is rather annoyed with you
on this ground."

"So I have observed; and therefore, to make up for previous omissions,
I'll give you my advice now: get rid of him as quickly as possible, and
spare Erna the humiliation of having to refuse the fellow."

"Humiliation? The fellow? How oddly you talk!"

"I talk how I feel. He is unworthy of Erna, absolutely."

"So you say; but why?"

Bertram made no answer. What good could it do now to have a dispute
with Otto about the worthiness or unworthiness of the Baron?

"You see," said Otto triumphantly, "you have no real reason to give!"
Then, seeing his friend look extremely grave, he went on--"I know of
course that you mean well by Erna, by me, by all of us. Perhaps you are
right, too, at least in this--that Erna may say: No. If she does, well,
then there is an end of it, and Hildegard and he may see how they can
best put up with it. If only it had not happened just now. I have my
head quite full enough as it is--all these officers coming to be
quartered here to-morrow, then the final debate on the railway
question, and then I just remember that I have also to redeem
to-morrow a certain mortgage, not much, only five thousand thalers, but
it happens most inopportunely, I wanted to talk to you about it before,
but I did not like to disturb you in your rooms; perhaps after dinner,
or to-night sometime--there is my wife coming, for God's sake no fuss,
I entreat you!"

Hildegard entered, Lydia followed soon after, the young ladies and the
Baron came in from the verandah, and they all went to dinner.
Conversation somehow flagged; every one was busy with his own thoughts,
and, if one were to judge by looks, these thoughts did not seem to be
pleasant ones, except in Hildegard's case. She kept smiling
mysteriously to herself, and at last, when there had been a pause of
some little duration, she held up a couple of letters which she had
laid by the side of her plate, and said--

"It is really too bad; here, I am sitting with quite a treasury of most
interesting surprises, and none of you take the trouble to show the
slightest symptom of curiosity. It would really serve you right if I
were not to say a word to you; but I will be gracious, as usual, and
let you participate in my joy. First, then, your mother, Agatha, has
after all yielded to my entreaties. It is most kind of her. She has a
big party to-morrow, too; some twenty officers, she says, and can ill
spare any of the girls. Still, she understands that I have even greater
need of them in our solitude, if the crowd of uniforms is not to become
intolerably monotonous--_enfin_, she'll send Louise and Augusta. They
will arrive to-day; so we shall really be able to have a dance to
morrow evening, if we invite the girls from the parsonage and a few
others. Well, what do you say?"

Erna made no reply; she seemed hardly to have listened. Agatha said--

"You are very kind, aunt," but it did not sound hearty.

"Is that all?" exclaimed Hildegard. "Of course I am kind, far too kind
to you ungrateful _blasée_ girls, who cannot rise to enthusiasm even
with the prospect of a dance! But you, Baron?"

"I envy the gentlemen," replied he, "who will benefit by your kindness;
I myself, as you are aware, will scarcely be able to participate in
it."

Hildegard raised her eyebrows.

"I thought," she said, "that the matter was settled. Your relations may
see how they can best do without you. I wish to hear nothing more upon
the subject. This is my ultimatum, and I beg you will respect it."

The Baron bowed, and muttered something about _force majeure_.
Hildegard paid no heed to it; she had already taken up the second
letter.

"I must beforehand apologise for my bad French accent. The letter is
from the Residenz, and I ought to mention ..."

"From Princess Amelia?" the Baron asked eagerly.

"Not from our gracious Princess," replied Hildegard with a courteous
smile, "but from a princess, for all that."

"Perhaps you would translate it?" suggested Otto timidly.

"Very well," replied his wife. "I was thinking of doing so anyhow, for
I know you pretend that you do not understand French.  Well, then--

"Madam,--Will you pardon a perfect stranger who ventures to request a
favour which it is usual to grant only to one's friends, or to duly
accredited persons--the favour of being your guest for a short time?
You are amazed, madam; but why do you own a mansion whose classic style
of architecture and whose internal fittings are the marvel of the land?
Why does every one who can judge, laud you as unsurpassed in the
horticultural art? I travel through Germany chiefly with the object of
studying all that is best and most beautiful in these things, in order
to try and imitate it upon my estates in Livadia. I shall not, as I
said, trouble you long; only a day or two. To-morrow and the day after,
if I may, for I can unfortunately not dispose differently of my time.
And as regards the inconvenience I must needs cause you, I will try to
reduce it to a minimum. A gardener or forester to pilot me about
outside, a steward to show me some of the things inside, a little
corner by your fireside, a little place at your table, a little chamber
to sleep in; that is all! True, already too much, if I reflect; but one
should not reflect, if one is the thorough egotist who has the honour
of remaining, Madam, your obedient servant,--Princess Alexandra
Paulovna  ..."

Hildegard looked up from her letter, and said with a smile--

"I cannot make out the surname."

She passed the letter to Bertram, who was sitting on her right.

"Well," said the Baron, on her left, "she would seem to be a Russian,
anyhow."

"No doubt of that. Well, my friend?"

"No," replied Bertram, "I cannot make it out."

"Will you allow me?" said the Baron.

Bertram handed the letter back to Hildegard, who passed it on to the
Baron.

"Why," he exclaimed, "it is quite plain, Bo--Bo!" He paused.

"Bo, Bo, Bo!" laughed Lydia. "Let me try."
But Lydia failed too; the note was passed round the table; Otto and
Agatha tried and failed; Erna passed it on to Bertram without casting
one glance at it.

"Will you not try?" asked Bertram.

"No."

She uttered this so sharply that Bertram looked up terrified.

"How very unkind," said her mother.

Bertram had the same impression at first, but he knew Erna too well;
there was assuredly something else going on in her mind, something
which had tried to find expression in the abrupt No. She was very pale,
and had pressed her teeth against her under lip, whilst her eyes looked
gloomily and fixedly straight in front of her. One might have expected
her to burst into a flood of tears the next moment. To turn the
attention of the rest from her, and also to overcome his own feelings
of uneasiness, he began once more diligently to spell away at the
signature, and suddenly exclaimed--

"I have got it, I think--Volinzov--Alexandra Paulovna Volinzov!"

"Let me see, please?" exclaimed Hildegard. "Really, Volinzov; and quite
plain too. How blind we have been! Dear me, Herr Baron, what is the
matter with you?"

"I beg a thousand pardons," said the Baron from behind his
handkerchief, which he held pressed to his face, rising from the table
as he spoke, and swiftly withdrawing from the room.

Hildegard looked sadly after his retreating figure.

"Poor fellow!" she said, "I am so sorry. He is in a terrible state of
excitement. And now, in addition, this home news--if I only knew what
it is all about, but he is discretion personified."

Bertram, still pondering over Erna's strange demeanour, had almost
mechanically cast his eye over the whole letter, and only became
conscious of this on coming to a passage which he did not remember
having heard in Hildegard's translation.

"Here," he said, "is one line, my fair friend, which has escaped you,
and which yet strikes me as important. Listen: 'thorough egotist who
has the courage to follow her letter at once, and has the honour,' &c."

"Impossible!" exclaimed Hildegard.

"There it stands; see for yourself. You passed from the last line but
two on to the last."

"Oh dear! oh dear!" exclaimed the hostess. "She will be wanting to
dine of course; and that is not the worst, but all the rooms will be
occupied by to-morrow afternoon."

"The officers must do with a little less accommodation," said Otto. "It
will be all right."

"No, it will not be all right," said his wife, "if each of them is to
have a room of his own;  and we cannot put less than two each at the
disposal of the two Majors and the Colonel."

"Let me help you in your embarrassment," said Bertram. "You know, I
originally intended leaving early to-morrow, let us adhere to the old
plan; the more so, because I have just received a letter which
necessitates my very speedy return to Berlin."

"That is an excuse," exclaimed his friend.

"No excuse, my dear fellow; you may see the letter yourself. But I may
as well say what it is about. I have been selected by my political
friends for a forthcoming vacancy in the _Reichstag_."

"But you will surely not stand?"

"Indeed, I mean to do so."

"And your Italian trip?"

"Postponed to some future day."

"But your illness?"

"Thanks to your excellent nursing, I never felt better in my life."

"But it's quite out of the question!" cried Otto. "I cannot let you.
It would be downright ..."

In thus urging his friend to stay, Otto was simply following the
dictates of his own good-natured heart, without any reference to his
own special interests; now it suddenly occurred to him that his wife
had that very morning called Bertram's presence a positive misfortune,
and had accused him of standing--the one obstacle--between herself and
the execution of her favourite plan.

So he broke off abruptly, casting a sheepish, embarrassed look at his
wife.

Hildegard blushed to the very temples. Now she was obliged to urge him
to stay, if everything she had been settling during the last few days
in secret with Lydia and the Baron, and at last with her husband too,
was not to lie like an open book before Bertram, and unless there was
to be a real rupture, which, of course, it was desirable to avoid as
long as possible. In order to conceal the true reason of her blush, she
seized, as though obeying some uncontrollable impulse, both his hands,
and said--

"I am almost speechless with amazement, my friend! Otto is quite right;
the thing is impossible, it would be downright--abominable--that is
what you were going to say, is it not, dear Otto? You cannot, must not
leave us now. In a few days, if it really must be, well and good; but
not now. I have--quite apart from our own feelings--revelled in the
thought of the pleasant surprise it will be for Herr von Waldor to meet
here, upon the threshold of a strange house, an old friend of his own.
And if old friendship cannot exercise a spell over you, are you not
allured by the prospect of meeting the mysterious Russian, whose name
you alone were able to decipher, and who will not care to converse with
any one except yourself, once she has heard how beautifully you speak
French? But come--Otto, Lydia, Agatha--help me to entreat our friend to
stay."

In the general excitement, every one had risen from table, dinner being
finished anyhow, and now they were talking on the verandah. The Baron
had reappeared too, but was keeping at some little distance; he
evidently had not quite recovered from his attack. Those to whom
Hildegard had appealed by name hastened to comply with her request, and
were all urging Bertram to remain. He never heard them at all; he did
not even see them;  he had eyes for Erna only.

Erna, as though she had no interest whatever in the matter under
discussion, had stepped down from the verandah to one of the
flower-plots on the lawn. Suddenly she turned, retraced her steps
slowly, ascended the verandah again, and approached him. Her cheeks--so
pale but a short time ago--were flushed now; there was a light in those
large eyes, and a defiant smile played round her dainty lips. She
fastened a beautiful red rose, just about to unfold, in his buttonhole.

"I prayed you the night you came--I pray you again: Stay! stay--for my
sake! Come, Agatha!"

She had seized her cousin by the hand, and drawn her away into the
garden; Bertram had stepped into the billiard-room, and was knocking
the balls about; the others looked at each other, amazed, embarrassed,
frightened, scornful. But, greatly though their various feelings
desired expression and exchange, and opportune though the occasion
might appear, there was no chance in the meantime. For the very next
moment the sound of a post-horn was heard coming from the great
courtyard, and announced, to Hildegard's terror, that Princess Volinzov
had interpreted her own letter literally, and had really followed it
without delay.



                                  XIV.


The sunny brightness of the day was suddenly interrupted by a
thunderstorm, and the evening closed in dark and stormy. Up from the
valley and down from the wooded hills thick grey mists came rolling
along, and violent showers of rain ensued. It was chilly and
disagreeable; and the "corner by the fireside," referred to in the
letter of the Princess, seemed no longer to be a mere phrase, but to
embody a very natural wish, and one which Hildegard took care to
fulfil, by having fires kindled in all the drawing-rooms. There was
quite a party at the mansion this evening. An hour after the arrival of
the Princess, the sisters of Agatha had come; then the forest-ranger,
the Herr _Oberförster_,  had turned up, without having brought his
ladies, on account of the disagreeable weather, but there had come with
him a young gentleman from the Forests and Woods' Department, Herr von
Busche, who had been absent for a week, and who, as he laughingly
assured them, must try very hard to make up for the many pleasant hours
he had lost. He seemed determined to carry this into practice, for he
was most indefatigable in suggesting new games and new jests, and kept
the four young ladies in constant laughter.

"_Qu'y a-t-il de plus beau_,"  said the Princess, talking, as before,
now French, now German with equal readiness, "thus to hear, from an
adjoining room, the happy laughter of girls, while one is sitting
snugly by the fire talking to a friend. The past and the present mingle
and separate again, like the red and blue flames among those coals; and
sometimes there flashes between them a green one, which we may take for
a light giving a glimpse of the future--and indeed it vanishes again
very swiftly. How comfortable, how beautiful everything's in your
house, _ma chère_.  And how can I thank you enough for admitting me to
the full enjoyment of your charming home?"

She had seized both Hildegard's hands as she spoke, and seized them so
eagerly that the bracelets on her round white arms jingled.

"I have to thank you, Princess ..."

"For goodness' sake, do not call me that any longer. Say Alexandra,
will you not?"

"Will you say Hildegard?"

"_Cela va sans dire_--Hildegard--a beautiful name--beautiful like her
whose it is! What were we talking about? The future, yes, to be sure.
Well, there is a glorious future in store for you in your lovely
daughter."

"Do you like Erna?"

"Like her?  _Mon Dieu!_  only a mother's modesty can ask this. She is
simply divine. Not that I never saw more beautiful girls--you see I am
quite frank--but there is something in her whole bearing, the way in
which she walks or stands, every movement, every gesture, her
expression, her smile, her gravity even, there is a grace and a charm
about it all which completely bewitch me, woman though I am. How may
men feel?  Poor men!  Poor broken hearts, I pity you!"

"She has scarcely had the chance yet of breaking hearts," replied
Hildegard with a smile; "she has only just left school."

"But even very young ladies, I am told, manage sometimes to do it,"
said the Princess. "I am afraid I broke one or two myself whilst I was
at a boarding-school, and it was a strict one, too! But to be serious,
have you already chosen for your fair child?"

"Our girls in Germany are wont to claim the right of choice for
themselves," replied Hildegard, casting a stolen glance at Bertram,
who, walking up and down the saloon with Otto, happened just at that
moment to be inconveniently near.

"A bad German peculiarity," said the Princess. "If a girl who does not
know the world, does not know men--except her father, of whom she is
afraid, and her brothers, whom she thinks ridiculous--is allowed to
choose a husband according to the confused illusions of her silly
little head--you may bet a hundred to one that the result will be
either a  _bêtise_  or a  _malheur_--which, according to the saying of
the witty Frenchman, are, however, identical terms."

"That is quite my idea, dear--Alexandra," said Hildegard, bending her
head with a courteous smile to her new-found friend; "quite my idea!"

"Clever women understand each other _à demi mot_," replied Alexandra.
"But there are exceptions, and your Erna is such an exception. She
would never dream of losing her heart to a man simply because he stands
six feet, and knows how to brush himself up and to cut a figure,
however confused things may look beneath the smoothly-parted hair,
however rotten a heart may beat behind the dainty cambric shirt-front."

Hildegard did not dare to stir; she had noticed that during the last
few words of the Princess the Baron had been standing within a couple
of steps from them, evidently with the intention of joining them. But
as neither lady seemed to see him, or wish to see him, he examined a
vase which stood upon a marble table near, and turned on his heel
again. Hildegard breathed more freely.

"You may be quite assured," said Alexandra, "I spoke in French on
purpose when I saw him coming. I had made sure that he speaks it very
badly, and understands it even worse, which, by the by, is rather
curious in a cavalier who is anxious to obtain a Court appointment."

Hildegard felt very uneasy, although it was of course out of the
question that the Princess should have meant the Baron when she spoke
of a "man standing six feet."

"You know," she said with some little hesitation, "that the Baron is
very intimate at Court?"

"I was at Court last night," replied Alexandra, "to tea. We Russians
are in very good odour at your Court, you know; and, moreover, I had
made the acquaintance of their Highnesses during their last visit to
St. Petersburg. Princess Amelia is specially gracious to me, and she is
the one who interests herself in the Baron."

"To be sure," Hildegard assented eagerly. "Pray, tell me more, it has
much interest for me."

"I have not much to tell. I mentioned in the course of general
conversation that I intended to pay you a visit to-day. This led to
Fräulein von Aschhof and the Baron being mentioned as your guests. For
that curious lady every one seemed to have a smile, nothing more,
which, by the by, I can quite understand. About the Baron--well, _chère
amie_, since you are interested in the young man, I must be indiscreet
enough to tell you of a very confidential conversation I had afterwards
in a window recess about him with that dear old man, Count Dirnitz, the
Court-Marshal. He told me that the opinions regarding the Baron were at
least much divided at Court. The Grand Duke himself, he said, in
particular, could not overcome a certain antipathy to him, and that was
the reason why his appointment as one of the chamberlains, although
duly made out, still awaited the Grand Duke's signature. The Count said
that he himself, although he had been an intimate friend of the Baron's
father, did not know what to advise. Just then the Grand Duke came up
to us; he had heard the last words of Count Dirnitz, and said
laughingly: 'That, my good Count, happens pretty often to you; but may
I ask what it is about?' And when Dirnitz, who, I suppose, had no
option, had told him, he said: 'Well, in this case, I must admit I am
perplexed myself; I should so much like to oblige Princess Amelia, and
yet ...' Then the Grand Duke suddenly turned to me and said: '_A
propos_, Princess Volinzov, as you are going to Rinstedt to-morrow, you
might have a good look at our man. I will gladly confide the matter to
your unprejudiced decision. If you think him suitable for us, _eh
bien_, I'll risk it.' ... What a truly charming ceiling this is! Quite
a work of art."

Princess Alexandra was leaning back in her arm-chair examining through
her double eye-glass the painted ceiling.

"I see," she said, "a fine imitation of that Guercino in the Villa
Ludovisi. It is superb, truly superb!"

Hildegard was in a state of painful excitement. The young Princess had,
anyhow, impressed her greatly; now this unexpected, but of course
perfectly natural, intimacy at Court, and specially such a mission,
possibly the one solitary motive of the whole visit, and upon which the
Baron's fate depended. She felt almost dizzy, and it cost her a
considerable struggle to be able to say with some calmness--

"I beg your pardon, my dear Alexandra, but you have forgotten the main
thing."

"The main thing! What main thing?

"What your unprejudiced opinion of the Baron now is."

"To be sure!"

She looked again at Hildegard. There was an odd smile on her lips now.

"If my opinion were only unprejudiced. But how can that be when the
friends of our friends are our own, or ought to be?"

"You shall not escape thus," said Hildegard, whose sinking courage the
fair visitor's smile had revived a little.

"I do not mean to escape," replied the Princess; "only I do not quite
like to confess a silly trick to you which my memory, which is
generally very fair as far as physiognomies are concerned, is playing
me in this case. But it is simply impossible to free one's self
altogether from the influence which a marked personal likeness
exercises; and when I first saw the Baron, there came to me the most
disagreeable reminiscence of an episode of the last journey I made with
my lamented mother to Italy. However, as I ought at once to state,
there is no harm in the matter, for the Baron, whom I asked, says he
was not in Monaco that year."

"In Monaco?" cried Hildegard.

"Alas, my good mamma, the Countess Lassounska, you must know, was a
great votary of the green cloth. Well, she could afford to indulge a
passion which, among the ladies of the Russian aristocracy, not seldom
survives or reappears, when they have had to bury all other passions.
And in all others poor mamma had been so very unfortunate; but in this
she was singularly lucky. Thus, one night--it was in autumn '72--she
died next spring, four weeks after my marriage with the Prince, who had
at that time followed us to Monaco, and to whom I had just, being then
sixteen years of age, become engaged--good Lord, and he has been dead
these two years! How time passes! But what was I going to say? Oh yes;
mamma had won an immense sum one night, so much that at last she was
barely paying any attention to what she was staking, and when she
noticed a friend, she turned round to talk to him, without leaving her
chair, until the gentleman himself called her attention to the
accumulating gains, and asked if she would not withdraw them. But she
said there was no hurry, and went on chattering, to the amazement of
her neighbours and the terror of the bank, for they kept and kept
losing on the red. At last mamma did turn round again to the table, her
own curiosity roused by the divers exclamations of the bystanders; but
just at that moment a gentleman, who had been sitting by her side all
night, was pocketing the whole huge heap of banknotes and rouleaux of
gold. Mamma claimed her property, of course; the gentleman assured her
she was mistaken. Mamma knew that this was not the case, but a scene in
a gambling-room, don't you know, dear, _c'est une horreur_ for a lady
with aristocratic nerves like poor mamma, the friend she had been
conversing with wanted to interfere, so did a number of the bystanders,
and play had to be suspended. Mamma said that if the gentleman asserted
that the money was his, she would waive her claim; rose, took her
friend's arm, and left the room. Here the matter ended, and nothing
further followed, for the 'gentleman' elected to leave that very night
for Nice. There, they say, he speedily got rid of his illgotten gains.
At least, when we arrived there four weeks later, they pointed out a
gentleman in the play saloon to us who had recently lost fabulous sums.
On that occasion I saw him for the first time--I was not generally
allowed to enter the gambling-rooms--and for the last time, for he had
no sooner caught sight of our party, than he rose from the table and
vanished from the room, and I think from Nice; anyhow, he never,
appeared again during the rest of our sojourn. Mamma had given strict
orders not to take any notice; whatever of the adventurer."

"And this--adventurer, had a distant likeness to the Baron?"

"A distant likeness? No, dear, a most distinct one. That's the
misfortune!"

Alexandra was leaning back again in the arm-chair and toying with her
rings. Hildegard was staring gloomily in front of her. The execution of
her long-cherished, plan, the fulfilment of her eager desire, was now
threatened by an obstacle which seemed much worse than any previous
one; and she was already almost reduced to despair by the others that
she had to struggle against.

"A misfortune, indeed!" she said; "a great misfortune for our friend,
who, will now have to suffer so bitterly for an accident he is
guiltless of."

"How suffer, dear?"

"Were you not saying yourself a short while ago that this wretched
likeness was making it impossible for you to arrive at an unprejudiced
opinion about the Baron? Well, it matters everything to him, of course,
that your opinion should not only not be prejudiced but favourable.
And--to confess the truth--to me, to us, it matters much, very much."

Alexandra drew herself up, the old odd smile was hovering about her
lips again.

"Does it really matter so much to you?" she said. "Do I understand you
correctly?"

"Let us assume that you do," replied Hildegard, trying as she spoke to
imitate Alexandra's smile.

"Then I can only answer: _Je n'en vois pas la nécessité._"

"Of what?"

"That this particular man should marry Erna. Where is the necessity? If
she were in love with him, the matter would have to be discussed at
least. Now it is not worth while. A girl like your Erna--proud,
self-willed, large-hearted--will never be in love with this Baron,
never! It is impossible, it is contrary to nature--I mean contrary to
the nature of a gifted heart, for there are gifted hearts, just as
there are gifted heads. One can, nay, one must, have absolute
confidence in both, even supposing that, from very excess of feelings
or thoughts, they seem not to have confidence in themselves. One must
let them have their way, they cannot err long."

"But they can err for all that," replied Hildegard bitterly. "Would
you not call it an error, would you think it to be in accord with the
nature of that gifted heart you speak of, if the girl in question were
to take a special interest in--out with it, were to love--a man who,
according to years, might be her father, a man of fifty?"

The question seemed to come upon Princess Alexandra as a great
surprise. She had almost risen from her chair, and was staring fixedly
at Hildegard with a burning blush on her cheek. But the very next
moment mien and colour had resumed their former state, and nestling
even more snugly in the recesses of the deep arm-chair, she said
slowly--

"This question it is impossible to answer with an unconditional Yes or
No. So much would depend upon the individual. Let us speak of the girl
first. You are of coarse referring to ..."

"To Erna."

The eyes of the Princess were all but closed now; something seemed to
flash from beneath the long eyelids.

"Of course," she replied very slowly. "And ... he?"

Hildegard bent her eyes in the direction of the opposite side of the
drawing-room, where Bertram was conversing with the forest-ranger.

"Ah!" was all the Princess said, putting up her double eyeglass and
surveying Bertram curiously. Then, after a long pause--

"Are you sure?"

"Quite."

"It is so easy to make a mistake in these things."

"There is no chance of a mistake here."

"How so?"

Hildegard hesitated before she replied. But her heart was too full. The
pain--repressed with difficulty--caused her by the merciless
condemnation of the Baron, her displeasure in reference to Bertram, her
anger against Erna--all these emotions were clamouring for expression,
although her pride bade her desist. She bent over the Princess and
whispered hurriedly--

"You will not condemn a mother even if, in her despair, she has
recourse to desperate remedies, or, at least, allows things to be done
on which she could never voluntarily determine. I was positively free
from the faintest suspicion, but Lydia--Fräulein von Aschhof--who had
reasons of her own for exercising minute control over the gentleman's
demeanour, felt sure she had found it out. Indeed, she communicated to
me observations she had made--words she had heard, looks she had
intercepted--I thought the charge monstrous, incredible, abominable;
but my confidence was shaken--I saw with new eyes, heard with new
ears--saw and heard what caused me to shudder. And yet I would
certainly have shrunk much longer from accepting a conviction which
every day and every hour was urging upon me anew; but two days ago
Fräulein von Aschhof brought me a letter which my daughter had written
to her cousin Agatha, written but not sent--why, I know not. Nor do I
know how Lydia--Fräulein Von Aschhof--got hold of the letter. I
believe ..."

"Go on, go on!" said Alexandra, as Hildegard, embarrassed, was pausing.
"That does not matter at all. The chief thing is that you have seen the
letter. And what did the letter say? That she loved this man?"

"Not in these words, but in words which it were impossible to interpret
differently."

"Have you the letter still?"

"No, I am sorry to say. Lydia has ..."

"Has replaced it where she found it; of course. It's a pity, though. It
might be possible to imagine another interpretation. However, let us
assume that it is so. What have you resolved?"

"To die rather than give my consent--a thousand times rather!"

Their eyes met, and they looked; steadily at each other for a few
moments. Then the Princess nodded, and said--

"I see you are in earnest. I can quite understand it; nay, more, I will
help you. You will not have to die. I promise my help. Will you reject
it?"

She had seized Hildegard's hand.

"I shall be eternally grateful to you," said Hildegard; "but ..."

"No 'but!' I am one of these people who always do what they undertake.
You shall be content with me."

"I fear, I fear it is too late."

"We shall see about that. Now, in the first instance, bring me the man,
and leave me alone with him. One more condition: you are never to ask
me what means I have employed. Will you promise?"

"Anything you wish, my kind, good friend!"

She would have pressed the little ringed hands, (which she still held
clasped) to her lips, but the Princess prevented it by a swift
movement, saying as she did so--

"For goodness sake, do not be demonstrative! People are not to see what
intimate friends we have become!"

Hildegard had risen to fetch Bertram. Alexandra was again examining,
with the help of her double eyeglass, the painted ceiling above; but
her thoughts were not with Apollo and the nymphs.

"So now we are going to see Mr. Right! To be sure, the other one was
scarcely worth the trouble. But this one it will not be so easy to
subdue. Poor Kurt--I could take such sweet revenge here! But no, no! I
have vowed to myself, by the love wherewith I loved you, wherewith I
love you still--as a brother--that I would bring you back your loved
one though I should have to fetch her out of Inferno. I will keep my
vow. I will be able to look with a clear conscience into your beautiful
eyes to-morrow.... Ah, Mr. Bertram! Now I call this very nice of you. I
was already beginning to feel offended. I am not accustomed to be
neglected by clever people. You must try to atone for it now. Pray, sit
down!"



                                  XV.


Bertram had no difficulty in replying merrily to the merry questions of
the fair stranger. His head was full of merry thoughts, there was
nothing but rapture in his heart. All the world seemed to him to be
filled with the fragrance of that rose Erna had given him to-day, that
rose which he had since worn near his heart, and from which the hostile
looks of Hildegard and the others fell off harmless, as from a potent
talisman. Human envy notwithstanding, things awarded him by the grace
of the gods were coming to him, nay, had come. If he had still required
any confirmation, what confirmation more delightful could he have had
than the exuberant mirth to which the beloved child's melancholy
gravity had suddenly turned? Like fairy music her rippling laugh seemed
to him, coming from the adjoining room, where, surrounded by her
cousins, she was as indefatigable in admiring Herr von Busche's feats,
as that gentleman himself was in performing them. And he was willing to
bear in patience that she was taken up by her friends all the evening,
even as he was himself by the rest of the company, and that thus he had
not found one single moment when he might have approached her, might
have told her what she knew already, what no longer required to be
said, what could be said only by a kiss on those pure, sweet lips.

In such rapturous dreams his soul was rejoicing whilst he was
conversing gaily with the Russian beauty. And rapture, too, it was to
compare this foreign beauty, from whom, in spite of her youth, the
strong and not always pure breath of the great world had long ago
brushed away the dainty down, with the chaste grace of the beloved
maid. She needed no sparkling diamonds, no jingling of golden
bracelets; she could dispense with all these over-refined arts of the
toilet, this coquetterie which calculated every pose of the plump
little frame, every movement of the round arms and the white hands,
every rise and fall of the long lids, every glance, every smile from
the black eyes! His Erna was the fairer and nobler of the two, a born
Princess!

In their conversation, which was carried on, as far as Bertram was
concerned, all the more eagerly the less his heart was touched by it,
and to which Alexandra, passing as lightly as a bird from one subject
to another, was constantly adding fresh topics of interest, they were
interrupted by the loud laughter of the girls. Indeed, two of the
sisters came rushing into the drawing-room to invite those who were
there to come and admire a positively incredible trick which Herr von
Busche had just performed, and which he was prepared to repeat--but by
universal desire only. They drew the others away with them, uncle and
aunt, the Herr _Oberförster_ and the Baron.

"You would like to go," said Alexandra. "Do not stay on my account. I
have already withdrawn you too long from the society of the others."

"You dismiss me?"

"One should never detain any one who wants to escape!"

"But what has brought such evil suspicion upon me?"

"Your eyes, which are constantly, though ever so discreetly, wandering
to that door, in whose frame, it is true, the group of young ladies
appears as full of charms as one of Winterhalter's tableaux. Four
girls, one of whom, for the sake of contrast, I suppose, has had the
superb inspiration to be ugly, while the other three vie with each
other in beauty. Which of the girls do you think the most beautiful?"

"I thought the question could not be asked."

"Do you think so? But since I have asked it, I suppose you will have to
be polite enough to answer it. You mean the young lady with the lovely
neck and the glorious Titian-like hair? I could wager that you do."

"Don't; you would lose your wager."

"Then I declare that you are not an impartial judge, perhaps absolutely
bribed; bribed by the rose, say, that you wear in your button-hole."

Alexandra had dropped the eye-glass which she had raised to look upon
the group of girls in the doorway, and now, turning swiftly round to
Bertram, she looked laughingly into his eyes, and said--

"That was indiscreet, was it not?"

"Not at all," Bertram replied. "This rose, it is true, is the gift of
one of the young ladies, and indeed, of the one who seems to me to be
by far the most beautiful--the daughter of our host, if you wish to
know. But it was no secret gift. I have had it awarded to me before the
whole party assembled, as a reward, by the way, for staying a few days
longer than I had promised. You see in this case, as in so many others,
the small merit is out of all proportion to the great reward."

"Then I was not altogether wrong," said Alexandra, "there was a certain
amount of bribery connected with it, although there was no call for it.
Openly speaking, I can but confirm your decision. Fräulein Erna is by
far the most beautiful, most graceful, most interesting, not only of
the few young ladies yonder, but of all those I have recently, perhaps
whom I have ever seen. And my evidence is assuredly unprejudiced and
unbribed, nay, more, it is generous, for, between you and me, Fräulein
Erna is not treating me in a friendly way."

"That," Bertram asserted eagerly, "is assuredly a mistake; it may seem
so, but her cousins are claiming so much of her attention, and, perhaps
too, having been so little in society as yet, she may be a little shy
before a lady of the _grand monde_."

"Perhaps," said Alexandra, "although the latter alternative would not
be very flattering for me, seeing that I fancy, besides being somewhat
of a grand lady, I have remained a good deal of the _bonne enfant_. Nor
have I at all given up the hope of proving to the dear child that I am
indeed her friend. I believe I have found out that she needs one. Do
you not think so?"

Bertram was puzzled. But she had spoken kindly, naturally, just like
some one rather given to blurt out whatever thought came uppermost.

"Who does not need friends?" he answered with a smile.

"Very true," replied the Princess, "and very diplomatic. I quite
understand your diplomacy. You are the friend of this fair creature; it
is therefore your bounden duty, if other people clamour for admission
to the ranks of her friends, to be very critical, particularly so if it
strikes you as incomprehensible whence those others derive the sudden
sympathy to which they lay claim. But, _que voulez-vous?_ A young
woman, whose heart is wholly unoccupied, and who is driven about in the
world by this aforesaid unoccupied heart, like a balloon that has lost
its ballast--what other and what better thing can she do, than be
interested in anything interesting that chance puts in her way? This is
my occupation. Any occupation seriously pursued makes you an expert,
sooner or later, in that occupation. I have always pursued mine
seriously, and have pursued it long enough to claim to be something
like an expert in it. Now here everything is so simple and clear that
the meanest understanding can make for itself a fairly correct picture
in half a dozen hours. Given: a man who would be the very pattern of a
loving father for his daughter, if he were not a rare specimen of the
truly obedient husband; a wife who would swear by all she held sacred
that she thinks of nothing but how to make her daughter happy, and who
makes her as unhappy as only a narrow-hearted narrow-minded mother
can make a singularly gifted, large-hearted daughter; an aged
scandal-loving, intriguing _confidante_, who likes to make mischief,
the better to pursue her own mean objects in troubled waters; a young
suitor, endowed by nature for the very part of _jeune premier_ at a
second-rate theatre; an older friend of the family whose clear, clever
eyes see all this, of course, and whose whole sympathy, equally a
matter of course, is enlisted for the girl whose gradual growth and
glorious development he has watched. Why, I should think the matter was
as plain as the 'secret' in the most casual novel. And, should you care
for a more complicated ... fable,--let the friend of the family
conceive a serious, passionate attachment to the 'dear child,' and then
you have abundant material for volume number two."

Bertram started. This could no longer--it was impossible--be the mere
inspiration of the moment, and only a harmless _causerie_. There was
treachery at work here, evidently inspired by Hildegard, with whom the
Russian lady had, a short time ago, conversed so long and so eagerly.
And if the Princess, as was quite possible, considering the great
vivacity of her disposition, had already chosen a side: which side?
Erna's? or that of her mother? Probably the latter, for she spoke so
very bitterly of her. One does that kind of thing to draw one's
opponent out. But in that case the great lady must use greater cunning
yet.

"I admire your wonderful imagination," he said, "and if I were a poet,
I would envy it. How charming to see poetical elements everywhere, and
also to be at once clear as to the arranging and dove-tailing which
torments the poet so much. You should really make a book of it. Even if
the subject is not quite new--where, indeed, could, quite new ones be
found nowadays?--a clever author will see something new even in the
most hackneyed subject. For myself, of course, the second volume would
be specially interesting, when the old friend of the family comes on
the stage; for him, of course, the business cannot possibly end well."

"I beg," said the Princess, "that you, will not spoil my text. I have
by no means said that my hero is old. On the contrary, he is in the
prime of life; of that age when we women only begin to find you men
amiable, and rightly so, for you only begin then to become amiable;
somewhere about fifty, we'll say."

Bertram bowed.

"Accept my sincere thanks," he said, "in my own name, seeing I am of
the amiable age, and in the name of my many contemporaries. You are
taking a load off my heart, for now, equally of course, the issue need
by no means be so bad. The chances for and against are anyhow equal."

"There, again, you go too far," replied the Princess. "The bad issue,
to be sure, is no longer necessary; it must, however, always remain
probable."

"Always?"

"I think so, even under the most favourable circumstances."

"What would you call favourable circumstances?"

"We will talk of that later on. Let us first take a specially
unfavourable case, which, perhaps, is so all the more the less it would
appear to be so. It seems, for example, that our fair young friend
would feel less keenly the difference in years, and all the unpleasant
and awkward things connected with it, and resulting from it. She is--at
least so I judge her to be, and that is sufficient for our purpose--one
of those deeply serious natures who are greatly given to confounding
the wild phantasies of the head with the true enthusiasm of the heart,
and who will conscientiously, and to its utmost consequences, adhere to
what once they have seized upon and vowed. But I presume that she is as
passionate as she is conscientious; and if her passion and her
conscience once come in conflict, the struggle will be terrific. She
may come forth victorious from the battle, but what avails a victory
that ends in resignation? There we should have an issue, which may be
convenient enough for the oldish husband, but then--his convenience and
her happiness are surely very different things."

"If I under stand you correctly," Bertram made answer, "you plead for
the same theory which I hold, too, and which, as it happens, I have had
to defend repeatedly during the last few days in our little circle:
namely, that a man who is no longer young, cannot become the object of
a passionate attachment on the part of a young girl; or it is anyhow in
some way an aberration, and therefore cannot last."

"That is exactly what I mean," the Princess assented eagerly. "We come,
then, to a law of nature, which we must accept like other laws,
although they are by no means flattering, nay, downright humiliating to
our pride. Perhaps, however, on the other hand, the danger of an error
and of the consequent conflict is not quite so great in the case in
point, since the curiously-veiled radiance of the glorious eyes of that
fair child seems to imply that she has already more than a mere vague
foreboding of that passion--that she has already loved, perhaps loved
unhappily, and would, consequently, not have to make these bitter
experiences, which teach us to be wise, and quiet, and resigned, one
after the other, in actual wedlock. But who is to give us the guarantee
that the last supposition is correct? I could tell you a curious story,
if you care to hear it."

"You simply owe me the story, my gracious Princess, as a proof of our
joint theory."

"Well, it is fortunately not a long story, and the rest of the company
have given us up, anyhow. Listen, then."

Alexandra's eyes had been examining the large chamber; they were quite
alone in it now, for all the others were crowding with merry laughter
round the magician's table. She leaned forward in her chair; Bertram
courteously, approached his own, and she began with a lowered voice,
keeping her black eyes under the half closed lids steadily fixed upon
him:--

"The scene is Paris; the time some two years ago; the heroine is a
friend of mine, a lady belonging to the highest society in France,
whose fate had been similar to my own in one respect only: she too had
married at sixteen, and been shortly after left a childless widow.
Claudine--I give you her Christian name alone, for the other is
unimportant to us--was not only, of course, much more beautiful than I,
in fact, extraordinarily beautiful and much more gifted; she was also
for good--and, as I may add without boasting, for evil--a much greater,
more energetic creature. Not that I have anything very bad to say of
dear Claudine, or, at least, nothing worse than has been said of many a
woman who could not, perhaps, claim such weighty 'extenuating
circumstances.' Her mother had, for reasons of her own, persuaded her
into this marriage, which had turned out singularly unhappy. Her
husband, although allowing for the difference of sex, he was scarcely
older than she herself at the time of the marriage--he was then
two-and-twenty--had, though so young, already managed to be
acknowledged as one of the completest _roués_ of all Paris, in spite of
the keen rivalry of his high-born compeers. He had seen in the innocent
young girl only an additional mistress whom, after a brief period, one
could neglect with the greater impunity, since one could feel sure of
her, and since she, moreover, in spite of, or perhaps, rather because
of, her pride, did not seem to belong to those troublesome women who
make 'scenes.' And indeed, after she had realised what, from another
side, was made clear to her, they had but one 'scene,' but a terrible
one, a recurrence of which was both impossible and unnecessary. He
thoroughly understood her then--and she had proved a hundred times the
stronger of the two. He was allowed to continue his own way of living,
on the one condition that he did not concern himself in the least about
hers. And hers? Well, I told you hers was a passionate nature, and she
was an unhappy wife; that combination can yield nothing but
unhappiness. Fortunately for her, she was speedily set free from the
worst impulse, the one which had poisoned and warped her passionate
nature; for her husband died. She was free once more, and vowed to
remain free. Not that she did not mean to marry again; in the circles
where she lived, she could only by a second marriage escape from the
bondage of those relationships into which one is forced as into a new
fashion, abominable though you may think either. Her second marriage
was but to guarantee her a clear position in the world; the other
guarantees for peace and for freedom she thought she bore within
herself. And so she made her choice.

"At this period of the story I became intimate with Claudine, whose
acquaintance I had previously but hurriedly made when travelling. It
was in Trouville. You know how swiftly people become intimate in a
watering-place. She introduced to me the victor in the endless row of
suitors for her hand. After careful examination I could not altogether
agree with her choice. In most points, it is true, he answered the
requirements of the programme. He was no longer young--fifty-one,
or -two; held a high command in the army, and brought her as dower a
not inglorious past. He had led a wild and wandering life, and been the
hero of a thousand adventures, but there was not the slightest stain
upon his name--at least not in the eyes of society. Moreover, though
not an intellectual man,--which she would have disliked in the long
run,--he was one of those who are able to captivate even the most
fastidious company, by their quick perception, their lively
temperament, and their varied and abundant experience, upon which they
can, aided by an excellent memory and natural eloquence, draw at all
times. All this was, as I said, excellent as far as it went; but one
thing I thought very hazardous--it seemed by no means impossible to me
that he should still be capable of a serious, passionate attachment,
and--this comes, almost to the same thing--still capable of inspiring
it. Now, either lay assuredly beyond the programme which my friend had
sketched out for herself.

"I told Claudine of my fears. She endeavoured to argue me out of them
thus: 'What you think to be real and direct light,' she would say, 'is
nothing but the reflection of the sun that set long ago upon glacial
Alpine summits. It looks beautiful, and people cry, Ah! and Oh! when
they see it; and for their sake I would not willingly miss it. But one
cannot be warmed by it, or set on fire by it! My dear child, with all
that blaze you could not make your kettle boil, far less rekindle the
bitter and bare embers of a heart like mine!'

"As far as the gentleman was concerned, Claudine might be right. At
least the somewhat boastful and exaggerated gallantry with which he
laid his homage at her feet corresponded, as far as I could judge,
exactly with her prediction. But how greatly she had been mistaken
about herself the immediate future was to show.

"There were delays before the marriage could be concluded. Both
Claudine and her friend had to free themselves from certain tender
bonds. That required tact, management, caution. Moreover, she had
become entangled in a law-suit with the family of her first husband,
which, for some reason or other, might end badly for her, if it became
known that she was contemplating a second marriage. Enough, absolute
secrecy regarding their relations and intentions was requisite for some
considerable time, and they had both taken their measures accordingly.
Claudine had retired from society, and lived in deepest seclusion near
Paris, on the estate of a widowed sister of her friend's--she, of
course, being in the secret. Her friend went to see her when he
could--which was not often the case. The requirements of the service
were just then peculiarly exacting, and it was not possible for him to
indulge in frequent absences, which anyhow, in the case of a man whom
society did not care to miss, and whose doings society carefully
controlled, would have caused remarks. The situation became even more
critical when, in spite of all precaution, Claudine's place of sojourn
had after a little been discovered, and when she saw herself watched by
her foes at every turn. At last they scarcely dared to write to each
other, dreading lest by treason on the part of bribed domestics a
letter should be intercepted or purloined. It became absolutely
indispensible to employ a thoroughly trustworthy go-between, on whom,
at the same time, it should be impossible that suspicion could fall,
and her friend found one--found him in the person of a young officer in
his regiment, the son of an old companion in arms who had fallen in the
last campaign--a young officer whom he loved like his own son, and who
was likewise devoted to his chief in most loyal love. The youth had
soon an opportunity of indeed proving that love and loyalty."

Alexandra drew a long breath, as though she were fatigued by the rapid
low-voiced utterance. In her deep black eyes which now, after a quick
survey of the still untenanted chamber, she turned upon Bertram again,
there was an uneasy light, and the soft voice quivered as she went on,
now speaking even quicker and lower than before, so that Bertram could
scarcely follow her--

"I must be more brief if I am ever to finish my story. And why, indeed,
picture in detail to a man like you what you understand without
comment, and what, understanding, you pardon! Poor Claudine! She
thought she needed no forgiveness. She thought she was in the right
when she abandoned herself without resistance to a passion, which
indeed would seem to have brooked no resistance. I had never observed
anything like this with any other woman--least of all, God be thanked,
with myself. I should simply not have deemed it possible. It was like a
hurricane--a cyclone; it was simply awful! I trembled for the reason,
for the very life of the unhappy woman: for she could not conceal from
herself that her passion was not returned, although she, being anyhow
little accustomed to control herself, and being now solely engaged by
her own overpowering feelings, neither would nor could hide her great
love from the handsome young officer. Fortunately for her, the
catastrophe was not long in coming. Nay, rather, she brought it about
herself, resolute and energetic as she always was; and now feeling that
so, and only so, she might yet save herself from herself, she forced
from him the avowal that his heart was no longer free, that it was
entirely filled by his love for a charming young girl whose
acquaintance he had made in a distant garrison-town where a portion of
his regiment had until recently been quartered, and to whom he had
become engaged in secret. The youth was bitterly poor, the girl's
parents were rich and proud; he wanted to have his captain's commission
before he ventured to apply for her hand, and--dear, dear--they were
both of them so young and so romantic, and so fond of each other, and
in their love they were so sure of the future. Why then be niggardly
with the moment? And secrecy is like a phantastic mask through the
hollow apertures of which the light in the eyes of those we love shines
with doubly seductive brilliancy.

"Claudine was at first utterly crushed by a blow which, in spite of
everything, had found her unprepared--for where is the loving heart
that would willingly let the last faint gleam of hope die out? Then
there came a fierce burst of jealous resentment, raging like a fever;
then she endeavoured to wrap herself in her pride and to see in the
idol of her heart the last and least of men; and ultimately she
grovelled at his feet and entreated him to look upon her as his slave,
and the slave of her whom he loved, and to ask from her what he would,
to bid her do what he chose, and do it she would by all that she held
sacred!

"Nor was it long before he took her at her word.

"One day he came to her presence, haggard of look, in a state of
desperation, scarcely worse than the one over which she herself had but
so recently triumphed. The girl had sent him back the half-dozen
letters which he had written to her in the twelvemonth since they were
separated, and the tiny collection of ribbons and flowers and other
tokens with which innocent love tries to prove to itself its own
fabulous fairylike existence. I know not, nor does it matter, how she
had heard the story of his connection with Claudine; not of course, the
true story, but a caricature, such as the clumsy hands of one's own
good friends and the subtle hands of one's foes are equally able to
sketch and fill in with revolting effectiveness. Anyhow, the young lady
had made up her mind, and as she belonged to those energetic characters
that cling tenaciously to their errors, things really looked desperate
for Claudine's youthful friend. Every attempt on his part to bring an
understanding about was abruptly refused; the poor fellow at last was
in downright despair; he told his sorrows to Claudine, who told him
that she would bring him back the loved one whom, for her sake, he had
lost; he looked at her with an incredulous smile. How was she--she
particularly--to manage that?

"But she had never yet let herself be baulked by difficulties if she
really cared to have her own way, even though, it might have been but a
whim. And now the noblest impulse that can fill a woman's heart urged
her to energetic action. Above all, she had to prove to herself, and to
those to whom she had so greatly boasted, that, though she had become
unfaithful to her programme, and had not guarded herself against a
passionate attachment--which she called the only real one of all her
life--she yet possessed the force to subdue this passion, and to
re-conquer her own peace of heart. Only personal interference on her
part could now bring them to the wished-for goal; but that alone would
not suffice; the friend, too, for whose sake the youth had sacrificed
himself, must needs come forward. That, of course, would completely put
an end to the secrecy of their connection, and this just at the moment
when the lawsuit was at last about to be settled, and when so much
depended upon having the veil drawn as closely as possible. For herself
no such consideration existed; but she was by no means sure that her
friend, who, of course, did not know her real motives, and could never
be allowed to know them, and who equally, of course, took things much
more coolly, thought the same; nor did she know at all whether the
young man would accept the sacrifice. So it became necessary to create
a situation, which should not leave either of them a choice, whether
they cared to join or not; and whilst she was cudgelling her brain how
to bring such a situation about, an unprecedentedly lucky accident had
already arranged everything according to her wishes, nay, far beyond
her most daring wishes, in the very best manner possible. To explain
the full details would take me too long, and is not really called for;
enough, circumstances over which they could not possibly have control,
would bring both gentlemen on a given day to the house of the parents
of the young lady in question. Claudine, still keeping her own counsel,
managed to get a day's start of them, introduced herself--by what means
I cannot remember--into the family who, I may add, was absolutely
unknown to her, and she was, having presumably got hold of some
excellent letters of recommendation or something of that sort, most
kindly received by every one, excepting, of course, the young lady
herself, who, with feelings that can be readily imagined, saw the foe
suddenly in the secure camp of her parental abode, and avoided her in
every way. That, Claudine had expected; she looked forward with glee to
the following day which was to remove all obstacles, solve all enigmas.
But who can describe her terror when she, who has eyes and ears for
everything, and who, in a few hours, was completely at home on the new
and strange ground, discovered among the visitors, besides a suitor
_sans conséquence_, a man whom an abundance of exquisite gifts and
qualities and a whole sequence of special relations, every one of which
spoke for him, might turn, nay, if everything did not belie assurances,
had already turned into a terrible rival for her young friend. For ..."

Alexandra paused, glancing at the same time at the other room; then she
said with a laugh which sounded quite natural--

"But I really do not think it right to keep you any longer from the
rest of the company, and to go on with my experiment as to whether is
greater, your patience or my garrulousness. Moreover, the rest does not
properly belong to the story, at least not to the story I meant to tell
you. Come away!"

She had risen swiftly; Bertram followed her example so hesitatingly
that she could hardly leave at once. And then, having risen, he
remained standing, leaning one arm on the mantelpiece, and said--

"What a pity! What a great pity! I should have so much liked hearing
the rest. The more so, as I believe it contains a new illustration to
the moral of the fable. Or am I mistaken in assuming that the
unexpected rival is ... no longer a young man?"

His lips were smiling; still Alexandra thought that his large
expressive eyes we're resting upon her with a very meaning, very
searching look; yet she managed to put on an air of surprise, deeming
it absolutely requisite now.

"Indeed!" she exclaimed. "How very curious! But then there is no hiding
anything from you clever men!"

"Oh yes, yes. For example, which of the two suitors succeeded--the
older and younger, or the newer and older?"

"Charming! Charming! An exquisite play on the words. What a suitable
language yours is for that kind of thing, in the hands of a real
master, I mean. Ah! which succeeds? Why, the former, of course!"

"I should scarcely have considered it such a matter of course. I should
not be surprised if, for all that, the young lady's feelings for him
had never again recovered the former degree of warmth. Your beautiful
and clever friend, I admire her extremely, but--do not be angry with me
for what I am going to say--but I had, during your description of her,
always to think of Circe. There was only one man who left the palace of
the sorceress with absolute impunity, and he only by the aid of a
certain herb a god had given him. Now, young and ardent officers are
not said to meet the god very frequently."

"But I really cannot make the story anything different from what it
truly was like," cried the Princess, half pouting, half laughing.

"Certainly not; but what became of the man who was no longer young? How
bore he the loss of hopes to which he had clung all the more
tenaciously because he had not many more to lose?"

"That, as a punishment for your scepticism, you are to say yourself."

"How can I? Had he been a poet he might have written a novel, after the
manner of the 'Elective Affinities,' and thus cleared his soul from the
purgatory of jealousy and humiliation. But being no poet ..."

"How do you know that?"

"I assume it. I am driven to assume things, am I not?"

"Well then?"

"Therefore his ultimate fate is quite problematical to me. There are so
many and such various possibilities. Perhaps he killed himself, or
perhaps he married your fair friend."

"My friend--Claudine? Oh, this is exquisite!" The Princess laughed
aloud, and Bertram laughed too.

"It is not," he said, "after all so very laughable, or at least so very
improbable. Upon the basis of mutual imperturbability, I should think
one could erect and overthrow and rebuild relationships, like houses of
cards."

"Mow malicious!" cried Alexandra, "and yet how true! Claudine must hear
of this; I must write this to Claudine!"

"For goodness sake not, most gracious lady; or, anyhow, do not mention
me by name! I travel a good deal, the lady probably too; we might meet
some day by some unlucky chance, even as the luckiest of chances has
brought me into your presence. How hideously embarrassed I should be!"

"Very well, your name shall not be mentioned, then. Here is my hand in
pledge of this."

And she held out to him her small hand with its many rings.

"But now I really must disturb your tête-à-tête," said Hildegard,
entering from the adjoining drawing-room.

"It is just finished!" the Princess called out to her; then turning
again to Bertram, she said, "And thank you very much for a most
charming _causerie_!"

"It is for me to say thank you, my Lady. Your story was most
interesting, and you told it capitally."

He touched those slim fingers with his lips as Alexandra left him. She
hurried up to Hildegard, who had remained standing, gazing with great
wondering eyes at the group by the fireside, and putting her arm
through that of her hostess and drawing her away with her, the Russian
lady whispered--

"You are absolutely mistaken, or else the man is the greatest actor I
ever saw."

Bertram had bent over the fire; with his left hand he was half
unconsciously stirring up the dying embers in the grate, his right hand
was laid on the rose he wore, which he wore above a heart now quivering
in spasmodic agony, and he painfully whispered to himself--

"Ashes to ashes!"

His hand, nerveless, glided down.

"No," he murmured, "no, not yet; I will hear it from herself."



                                  XVI.


The company was breaking up now. The gentlemen from the _Oberförsterei_
were anxious to avail themselves of the momentary cessation of the rain
for their homeward drive; the Princess, pleading fatigue, had retired,
and Hildegard speedily gave the signal for retreat to the others.

"We shall have a trying day to-morrow," she said, "we all need rest
beforehand. And this remark is specially meant for you young ladies; I
really must request you not to lark and laugh, as is usual with you,
till a late hour!"

The unexpected visit of Princess Alexandra had considerably diminished
the available spare rooms, seeing so many were reserved for the
officers, who were expected on the following day; for her protest
against having to accept a splendid saloon, a dressing-room, and a
couple of bedrooms for herself and her maid, had met with no response.
Hildegard had assured her that there was abundant room, and that she
blushed as it was at having to offer such humble quarters to so valued
and cherished a guest. But the two bedrooms had really been originally
intended for the three sisters von Palm, who had now to be content with
a tiny chamber in the turret, whilst a bed for Agatha was rigged up in
Erna's bedroom. Fortunately for the young ladies, the corridor by the
side of which Erna's rooms were situated, brought one after a very few
steps to the door of the turret-chamber; and thus, in spite of
Hildegard's special injunction to the contrary, there was for an hour
or so plenty of rushing to and fro, and no end of laughing and giggling
and eager secret whispering and chattering, until at last 'Granny'
Agatha blew out the light in her sisters' room, and drawing with her
Erna, who this evening was in the highest spirits imaginable, groped
her way to the door.

"I could not bear your mirth any longer," she said, when they had
arrived in Erna's room; "I thought every moment ... Good Heaven! I knew
how it would be."

She had begun to undo her hair before the mirror, and now started on
hearing a pitiful moan. Erna was sitting in a low chair by her own
bedside, both hands pressed to her face. The slender frame seemed
shaken as though by a fit of ague, the gentle bosom rose and fell
feverishly, and her breath came and went with difficulty, as if she
were moaning. Her friend was now kneeling by her side, and held her
clasped with both arms; her head fell on Agatha's shoulder, and at last
the long-repressed tears welled forth in a violent flood. She was
weeping as though her very heart must break.

"My poor, poor Erna! My own sweet love! Weep, weep away! Better this,
better far than that awful unnatural mirth of yours all day. You will
come round now. You will be again my own sensible Erna. Poor, unhappy,
darling child! All things will come right now. It is impossible for any
one not to love you, and, believe me, he, too, loves you still."

"I would not have his love. I am no longer thinking of him. I hate, I
loathe him!"

"Then why should you weep like this?"

Erna started to her feet, flinging off Agatha's protecting arm.

"Do you think I weep for him?"

She was pacing up and down the bed-chamber. Her long hair, which she
had previously undone, fell in dark masses over her neck and bosom; her
face was aglow, her eyes were flashing wildly.

"For him? Never say that again! For him, forsooth! I have wept for very
shame, because that woman dares to come before me, and I must bear it!
because I cannot step up to her and hurl defiance at her painted face:
Away from this house--honest people live here! Even audacity should
have its bounds, and hers is boundless!"

Agatha had now risen from her knees, and was sitting in her chair
casting looks of pain at Erna and waiting in patience, until at least
the first tempest of wrath should have passed.

"I am sure," she said at last, "that he does not even know that she is
here, and--you are sure, too."

"And were it so," cried Erna, "what does it alter? The sting lies in
her daring to do it at all. She would not do so, did she not know from
the beginning how he will take it. Perhaps he will be terrified just at
first--I dare say he will--and then he will thank her for having had
the base courage to help him to achieve this vile triumph. In fact,
they are a worthy couple!"

"It would be quite too terrible," said Agatha, shaking her head.
"People cannot be as bad as that; it is impossible."

"Oh, of course!" cried Erna scornfully; "quite impossible; as
impossible as that he will himself be here to-morrow."

"But, Erna, an officer is surely bound to go to any place to which he
is ordered. In such a case he has no will of his own."

"Then he should have a pistol of his own, and rather put a bullet into
his head than let a shameless woman make him figure in such a
spectacle, if indeed she, the wretch, has arranged a spectacle for my
humiliation. But she is very much mistaken. I shall not let her have
her triumph. I, even I, shall triumph. Let her boast of her conquest, I
shall outshine it and her by far. Oh! how I look forward to to-morrow's
joy! What are a thousand like him to the best of men, the only one?"

"Erna! Erna!!" cried Agatha aghast, lifting both her folded hands in
agonised entreaty, "I conjure you, do not go too far. Do not make
yourself for ever unhappy. Do not make Kurt unhappy...."

"Do not mention his name!" Erna exclaimed. "I wish to hear no more."

"I must mention his name, for I must speak of him, and you must hear
me, lest you do something of which you will for ever and ever repent."

"Why repent? I love Bertram!"

"You do not."

"Can you read in my heart?"

"Yes, dear, better than you can yourself, being now blinded by passion.
And however angrily you may look at me with those beautiful eyes of yours,
that I myself am in love with, and though you send me away for good and
all, and though I cry myself to death for love of you--I should not be
loving you, and I should not be your poor, unhappy 'Granny' if ..."

Poor child! She could get no further. Like Erna half an hour ago, she
was now sitting, her hands pressed to her face, weeping convulsively,
and now Erna was kneeling by her side, and tried to draw those hands
away from her countenance, and begged her to calm herself, and to be
fond of her again, and to be once more her own good 'Granny.'

Then--neither could have said how the change of scene had been brought
about--Erna was lying in her bed, and Agatha, in her nightgown, was
sitting on the edge of the bedstead, and all they had discussed during
these last days in many a fragmentary talk was once more, and now
connectedly, discussed between them. But if clever Agatha had flattered
herself that she would thus induce the fair penitent to see that her
little soul was not, after all, as black as she thought in her
excitement, that hope was not destined to be fulfilled; the very
contrary happened. With every word she uttered Erna seemed to talk
herself more and more into a passion, in the existence of which Agatha
would not, and yet all but had to, believe, when her friend now
recapitulated all her relations to Bertram, beginning with that first
meeting in the woods, and continuing her account, to this very evening,
and when Erna tried to prove from a hundred minute details, which she
strung together with marvellous logic, that there was on her part no
whim, no caprice, no aberration of an extravagant fancy, no
satisfaction of injured pride, no despair, no, nought but true and
genuine love that knew no bounds, and knew only the one doubt whether
she herself was worthy of the man she loved. But not unworthy because
she had once before thought herself in love. That was a necessary error
for the sake of getting her to understand herself; to convince her that
love was not an intoxication, but a deep and clear sentiment attracting
and absorbing all other feeling and thought, even as a mighty stream
absorbs the springs and brooks around; and now in her love, like banks
in the waves of a stream, were mirrored her whole existence, her past
and her present, mirrored and beautified, made far more glorious than
reality.

Erna's words flowed on, not unlike the object of the image in which she
saw her life and love; and her voice, although pitched so low, had such
a curiously intense ring, and her great eyes, which were opened wide,
shone so strangely in the flickering light of the tall candles upon the
dressing-table, that poor Agatha was almost beside herself with terror.
Was Erna still aware of what she was saying? Was she raving? And,
horrible to think of, could she be going mad?

"Erna! Erna!" she cried aloud, seizing and pressing both her hands.
"Awake, awake! I have just been counting it up--when you are
eight-and-thirty, like your mother now, he will be seventy--only he
will never reach that age."

Erna gave a contemptuous smile.

"I thought so!" she said. "As if time had anything to do with love! As
if one year during which I can serve him, love him, did not outweigh a
century! O Agatha, how meanly you think of love! And if he dies
to-morrow, I'll die with him! There, that is the way I count, and I
think it is simple and plain enough."

Despair lent Agatha courage enough to revert to the one point on which,
as she had observed more than once during the last day or two, Erna was
most sensitive.

"I will grant it all," she said. "I will believe all you assert about
yourself, for I cannot read your heart. But Herr Bertram's heart is not
your heart, and what is going on in his heart, Heaven only knows; you
do not know it, at least he has never betrayed it to you by word or
look. And I hold that he would have done so long ago if he loved you.
What reasons should he have for hiding his love?"

"A thousand!" exclaimed Erna. "Or is it not a reason that he should
have tortured himself for days with the idea that I might be fond of
the Baron?"

"That idea he has assuredly given up ere this."

"Then, that mamma will be furious."

"For all that, he might tell you what he feels for you."

"And what if he doubts whether I love him?"

"Good Heavens, dearest! how can he doubt that?"

"He can indeed. During the first few days I was not clear about it
myself. And when I was feeling that I loved him, I often was odd and
capricious and defiant; and above all, when I discovered that the
letter was missing from my blotting-book, and I hunted for it
everywhere, and when suddenly it turned up again, having in the
meantime passed through I do not know how many hands, and having very
surely been read by mamma too--I was so indignant, I could see that he
sometimes did not know what to think of me."

"You did not make him feel your indignation; on the contrary, you gave
him one token of your favour after the other."

"And in that I did right, for I was determined to let mamma see that I
was not afraid of her wrath."

"And that rose to-day! and your prayer that he should stay--for your
sake! Was that right too?"

"Was I to let him go to-morrow?"

"If he wanted to go, was it for you to keep him? Erna, there is but one
thing wanting now. Why not say to him: 'Will you marry me?'"

"And I should not think it shame to say so, if I were sure that he
wished me to do so. Yes, yes; he does wish it; I see it clearly now; he
wishes to avoid even the semblance of suspicion of having beguiled and
over-persuaded me; he wishes it on account of my father and mother.
Well, God be thanked, now I know what I have to do to-morrow."

"Nay, the pity of it, Erna, the pity of it, that you can talk in such a
way; for it is impossible that you should really think so, really do
it. My proud Erna cannot forget herself so far. I entreat you, by our
great friendship, Erna, follow my advice in this one thing; if it must
be, let him at least say the first word--the word that then will be
decisive of your fate; and then let come what God will!"

She had folded her hands as if in prayer; big tears were coursing down
her cheeks. The simple expression of her great grief touched Erna. She
embraced "Granny" and kissed her, and promised at last that she would
do what Agatha kept asking of her again and again.

"And now get to your bed, you poor child! You are so wearied, and I
too."

Agatha had already lain quietly in bed for an hour or so, mournfully
thinking it all over again, and assuming that Erna, who did not stir
either, had fallen asleep, when suddenly she thought that she heard
subdued sobs.

"Erna!"

No answer.

"Erna! If it comes out that Kurt is really innocent, what will you do?"

Again no answer.

Had she been mistaken? Had Erna wept in her sleep? Had she really asked
that question of Erna? Or had she only thought of it?



                                 XVII.


It was a day of tremendous excitement for all the in habitants of
Rinstedt. True, the arrival of the soldiers was not to occur before
four o'clock in the afternoon, but it was known that the corps to which
the 99th belonged had been on the march from the north since four
o'clock in the morning, in order to take possession of certain
positions whence they were to operate against the fortress. And that
might turn out an awkward job, for not only was the fortress strongly
manned, but there was also approaching from the west, in forced
marches, a large hostile corps, and against them the 99th would have to
be on their guard, if they did not mean to get wedged in between them
and the garrison, who were simply awaiting the moment for making a
sally. Thus the attacking party being themselves attacked, might get
into desperate straits.

The village-mayor had expounded this situation to the farmers,
and he ought to know. He had been only three days ago to see his
brother-in-law, who was employed in the War-Office branch at Erfurt. He
had himself served in the French war as sergeant, and in that capacity
he had, during the fighting about Orleans, been in command of a
company, every officer of which was dead or _hors de combat_. And as
almost half his auditory consisted of men who had served in the army,
and who only required to draw upon the ample treasury of their
experiences and reminiscences, in order to confirm or contradict the
assertions of their chief, there had been no lack of eager discussion
in the village inn. But from the very beginning the opposition had not
been strong, and ultimately it was almost completely silenced. The
whole village now stood like one man on the side of the attacking
party, and the 99th was only spoken of as "Our Regiment." Their arrival
was looked forward to with the utmost impatience, as though they were
bringing relief and release from some yoke long borne.

My Lady's urgent appeal to give "Our Regiment" a brilliant reception,
and to let nothing be wanting, had met with the readier a response,
since she had not only, with customary liberality, taken upon herself
the cost of any "extraordinaria," to use the expression of the
village-mayor, but in the case of the poorer inhabitants in whose
houses accommodation and larder were not of the best, had specially
promised to pay for anything and everything, and had actually freely
distributed money beforehand. The mansion-house was moreover setting
the village a capital example. The long winding road up to the house
was transformed into a _via triumphalis_ with towering poles, from
which fluttered the German and Thuringian flags, with garlands of
fir-branches stretching from pole to pole all the way up the hill, up
to the richly-decorated portals which opened upon the equally
decked-out great courtyard. And at night a ball in the mansion-house,
and fireworks on the village-common in front of the lowest flight of
the terrace-steps, with blue-lights and what not!--No wonder that the
young barbarians of the village, down to the tiniest lads and lasses,
were only kept from breaking out into frantic disorder by being
employed, for days beforehand, in lending a hand in the preparation of
all these glories.

And yet, much to Hildegard's dismay, it seemed doubtful whether
everything would be ready in time. Her own attention was fully absorbed
indoors by the preparations for banquet and ball; and now, at the last
moment, the Baron had to go to town on business that brooked no delay,
and she had to entrust the supreme command of the department of the
exterior to new hands: fortunately Herr von Busche, the young gentleman
from the Forests and Woods' Office, was willing to take the Baron's
place.

But yesterday Hildegard would, under no circumstances, have allowed the
Baron to go, for then his star was still in the ascendant, whilst now
it was sinking rapidly. For the Princess he no longer existed, after
she had given her judgment upon him last night; she had not observed
his entry into the breakfast room, had not returned his bow, just as
though the not inconsiderable space filled by his presence had been
vacant. And the Grand Duke had a certain antipathy to this man; and
even his father's old friend, the influential Court-marshal, did not
dare to stand up for him energetically. No one seemed to favour him at
Court, except Princess Amelia, whose caprices, it was notorious, were
frequently as changing as the phases of the moon. And then that ugly
Monaco story! It was, of course, not possible that Lotter could be the
man--gracious goodness, no! Nor had Alexandra said so! But--one ought
not to have an awkward likeness to people who figure so unpleasantly in
the memory of distinguished visitors; and then--and this made the
matter peculiarly unpleasant for Hildegard--she was aware that the
Baron, even if he was no gambler, was very fond of high play. Up to
last night this had been one of his gentlemanly foibles, now it was a
wicked passion which he who was wooing Erna had no right to indulge in!

It was nearly eleven o'clock when the Baron went to find Otto, to ask
for a carriage to take him to town, and to tell him at the same time
the drift of the disagreeable news which he had received from home. A
younger brother, in the army of course, had contracted debts, and was
on the point of being cashiered if those debts--in the contracting of
which there would seem to have been some discreditable element or
other--were not forthwith paid. His relatives, poor people every one of
them, were incapable of helping the young man; as a last refuge they
had applied to him, the elder brother, who, though not likely to be
himself possessed of the necessary means, might yet probably be able to
obtain the money on loan from the wealthy friends with whom he was on
such good terms. Could Otto help him in an embarrassment that was
weighing more heavily upon him than any one of his own making had ever
done? It was not a big sum which he required--a mere miserable three
thousand thalers!

Otto was quite distressed. His stock of cash was exhausted by the
incessant demands that Hildegard had made upon him during the last few
days, and to-morrow he would have to redeem that mortgage of five
thousand thalers which he had mentioned to Bertram, without as yet
knowing where to lay his hands on the money. The moment, of which
Bertram had said that it would very surely come, was at hand, had, in
fact, virtually come already; the terrible moment when he must discover
his situation to his wife. And yet his wife could parry the first
thrust for him. He had in the course of years given her, on different
occasions, considerable sums of money as special donations, and all
this was invested in excellent securities, though she was for ever
spending the interest beforehand. He loathed the idea of claiming back
a portion of the money from her, and he had vowed that he would not do
so, come what might. But still a man will do for a friend what he would
not have the courage to do for himself; and so he told the Baron that,
being for the moment unable to oblige him himself, he would ask
Hildegard to do so, and he felt sure that she would willingly render
this small service to her _protégé_. The Baron hesitated for a moment,
but opined that one could not discuss such things with women; he would
find help some other way. He then begged Otto to make his excuses to
the ladies--who were not to be found, and promised to return, if not
for dinner, at the latest before the beginning of the ball; managed to
see Lydia, and so drove off.

Otto would have liked nothing better than to have gone with him. The
ground beneath him seemed to be on fire. To-day the all-important
debate in Parliament was coming off. If the vote was in his favour, he
really might, without being too sanguine, expect his factories to rise
so greatly in value as to enable him, after all, to weather the
threatening storm. But, with an adverse vote, he knew he was ruined,
and he kept repeating this to himself, unless he would take the extreme
step of requesting Bertram's assistance. Bertram certainly would not
refuse it, but, as assuredly, he could not ask for it, considering the
awkward relations now subsisting between his wife and his friend.

After considerable hesitation, Hildegard had the day before yesterday
communicated to him her suspicions that no one but Bertram was standing
in the way of the alliance upon which she had set her heart. She wisely
refrained from mentioning the impure source from which she had drawn
her suspicions--though it was not of a suspicion that she spoke to her
husband, but of a fact. Poor Otto naturally had to express the utmost
horror, though at heart he was anything but dissatisfied. He would
certainly have liked Erna to have a younger husband, but he himself
loved and admired the friend of his youth sincerely, and if Erna loved
him in her own way, why she had always had a taste of her own; he had
never comprehended her; she would herself know best how it stood with
her heart; and then if Bertram, as friend, would gladly have helped
him, as son-in-law he would very surely have done so, and in that case,
he too would get over the shrinking which he felt now. But it was not
to be. Hildegard would never sanction it, and yet, how strange, just as
he was returning to the house after seeing the Baron off, here was
Hildegard coming to explain that she had been absolutely mistaken about
Bertram, that Bertram was completely innocent, that she had to crave
his forgiveness for much, and that she would be truly disconsolate if
Bertram were to go away after all, as she concluded from some hints of
Konski's. Would Otto please go up to him at once and make sure of his
staying? She would do so herself, but she really had not a moment to
spare, for, he could judge for himself, the Princess did not leave her
alone for a minute.

Otto knew not whether to rejoice or to grieve over the new turn of
events. He had, suffered intensely from the tension between his wife
and his friend; and that things were right once more and better than
ever, was of course very nice and pleasant. But with Hildegard's
assurance that Bertram was not thinking of marrying Erna, there
vanished the last ray of hope that help in his need would come from
that quarter. Moreover, he said to himself that Bertram would never
dream of going without speaking once more, for the last time, of his
money difficulties and repeating the previous offer; and Otto was
afraid of himself, afraid he might be weak enough to close with the
offer. So he promised Hildegard that he would at once go to Bertram and
try every means in his power to induce him to stay, but he did not go.
There really seemed no need for all this hurry. Bertram could not leave
without asking for a carriage too. And that had not yet been done.
Perhaps it would not be done at all, and in that case, why needlessly
bring such terrible excitement on one's self? And again, Herr von
Busche was sure not to get on with the decoration of the portals unless
he went to help him. Hildegard had been saying all along that the old
Gothic structure, being the termination of the _via triumphalis_, must
also be the chief point of splendour. Hildegard should be really
pleased.

And five minutes later Otto was waging furious war with Herr Von
Busche, who wanted the flag of the country to float from the left-hand
balcony, whilst Hildegard had given express orders that it should float
from the right-hand one.

Hildegard had meanwhile hurried to rejoin the Princess; she had not
exaggerated,--Alexandra really would scarce leave her for a moment. She
was bent upon knowing how, on such an occasion, things were managed in
a German household. She could not, she said, form any idea of it,
because in Russia all these things were left to the steward and other
officials, and the hostess, like her guests, was simply among the
spectators. It would be such a pleasure to her to be allowed to peep
behind the scenes for once; if Hildegard was really fond of her, if
ever so little, she should not deny her the treat. Hildegard did not
find it too difficult to overcome the first shyness which she felt at
such an odd request being made. The arrangements about her kitchens,
pantries, and store-rooms were as splendid and in as grand a style as
in any princely palace, quite in keeping with the colossal preparations
for the entertainment; she could modestly accept the many exclamations
of amazement and admiration which the young Princess indulged in
lavishly, as a fit and proper tribute. But mere idle admiration did not
satisfy Alexandra; she insisted upon lending a helping hand, and
pushing back her rich lace sleeves from her fair white arms, she seized
a big wooden spoon, and, to the delight of all the servants employed
about the kitchen, she set to work stirring up a pudding. With all this
exuberance of good-humour she was so charmingly amiable, so utterly
free from all affectation, and the wildest nonsense she indulged in
suited her so quaintly and funnily, that Hildegard was positively
enchanted, and called upon Lydia in passing, to study in the appearance
and demeanour of the Princess the mighty difference which existed
between a really gifted woman and one who merely affected to be clever,
and who thereby only provoked the scornful laughter of really clever
people.

These cruel words were the first she had addressed to Lydia since last
night.

It was impossible for the Baron to fall so suddenly into dire disgrace
without involving Lydia in his fall; nay, in Hildegard's eyes she was,
if possible, the guiltier of the two. Had she not been incessantly
singing the Baron's praises, giving the most glowing testimony to him,
been scarcely able to paint the great position he enjoyed at Court in
sufficiently bright colours; and all this, of course, solely to beguile
her unsuspecting hostess and to deceive her in reference to her own
intentions as to Bertram. Serve her right, the story-teller, if she was
completely foiled in her intentions! And now, as though the measure of
her iniquity had not been already abundantly full, she must actually
bring these terrible charges against poor innocent Bertram; must needs,
to confirm and apparently substantiate these charges, commit a theft,
and make her--a mother--an accomplice, forcing that miserable letter
upon her, which, as it turned out now, had been nothing more than the
harmless enough effusion of a somewhat overstrained imagination that
the child had indulged in--well, well, the time would come when she
could show the intriguing old maid this long list of offences;
meanwhile, silent contempt should be her well-deserved, only far too
lenient, chastisement.

Now, it is true she had broken through her contemptuous silence, but
poor Lydia knew her friend quite well enough to be aware of the evil
plight into which she had fallen. And had she been still able to have
any doubt on the subject, the reproaches with which the Baron had
overwhelmed her would certainly have enlightened her. Last night, even,
he had ventilated his bad humour by all sorts of bitter and scornful
utterances; but to-day, when he had sought Lydia in the garden after
his conversation with Otto, and before he hurried off to town, his
wrath knew no bounds. This, then, he sneered, was his boasted firm
position in the house! A casual adventuress could come and deprive him
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, of the good graces of the
mother--in those of her daughter he had long since ceased to believe
anyhow--rob him of the father's friendship, and expose him to a
treatment no commercial traveller would put up with! And he would not
put up with it, not he; Lydia might be sure--quite sure of that! He
would prove it to the miserable toady and sycophant who changed her
friends as readily as her gloves; to the poor henpecked husband, the
miser who could not even spare a few dirty thousands to a friend in
need of help; he would prove to them that a Lotter-Vippach was not to
be insulted with impunity. And, above all, that conceited amorous old
pedant should suffer for it, for he, of course, had set the whole train
going against him! If Lydia,--if the others, could not or would not
see, he kept his eyes open, and was not to be taken in; he knew what
was what, and ... but they should see. And to-night, to the sorrow and
annoyance of his so-called friends, who would wish him far enough, he
would make a point of turning up in good time. Would Fräulein Lydia be
gracious enough to reserve the first Lancers for her obedient servant?

So, with a mocking bow, he had hurried away, leaving Lydia in sorrow
and terror. But the terror was greater than the sorrow. She had never
seen the Baron like this, never dreamed that he could be like this.
What if he carried out his threats! His eyes had been bloodshot and had
a glassy kind of stare; and then his laugh had been awful; and he was a
great strong man, assuredly in physical strength ever so much the
superior of poor delicate Bertram. What if the Baron were to-night to
bring about a scene, have recourse to actual violence! What will men
not do in rage and despair!

Her old love for Bertram, which after all she had felt in her own way,
and which long ago she had sacrificed to her vanity and worldliness,
was stirring again. Lydia felt it, and was enraptured. True, she had
been lying and cheating to reach a certain goal that pure calculation
had fixed. Still, she was a better woman than she had thought herself.
She had thought that she was following the dictates of her reason only,
and lo! she had unconsciously remained faithful to her own heart. She
knew it now, at the moment when a serious danger was threatening the
loved one. And, curiously, although during the last few days she had
positively given up all hope of regaining the loved one, and had in
envy and anger seen him in the bonds of affection for a fair young
rival--an affection which, moreover, was warmly reciprocated; yet she
suddenly began to doubt the justice of her observations; the old dreams
were coming back and asserted that they were a reality, and that
everything else was but a chimera. All, all would yet come right.
Falsehood and hypocrisy had been powerless; truth and love, however,
would be omnipotent!

Then she began to rehearse in her mind that unfortunate letter which
she had purloined in order to gain a clear insight into Erna's
sentiments, now endeavouring to give the gentlest interpretation to
every word that referred to Bertram; she remembered, too, the passage
which seemed to refer to a former love affair of Erna's. But she and
Hildegard, eager only to discover what they most, or rather what they
only, feared, namely, an attachment to Bertram, had added no weight to
the brief allusion in question. Some childish "dancing-lesson
fondness," Hildegard had said, and she had assented to it, partly to
guard against the possibility of the reproach that she, in her
responsible position as Erna's educator and second mother, had
overlooked or actually allowed any serious attachment on her part.
"Betrayed"--that surely was plain enough, and made many things clear,
even though in itself it was hard to understand, was, in fact, all but
absolutely incomprehensible. Such a charming creature as Erna no one is
likely to betray, no one at least who is in possession of his five
senses, as young gentlemen generally are. If the thing was anything
more than a passing fancy--and that one had to assume, considering how
averse from anything frivolous Erna was--then her easily-wounded pride
must have brought the rupture about, and it might yet be healed; and if
it were healed, would turn the child from her caprice for Bertram,
would set Bertram free again, if indeed he had allowed himself to be
captivated by Erna's unconcealed admiration for him, set him free for
herself, his first, his true, his only love!

With fancies like these, Lydia, now banished from the favour and the
presence of Hildegard, was wandering along the garden-terraces, now
dissolved in tears and lamenting her bitter lot, now smiling
complacently and congratulating herself upon a happiness which was all
the more precious the longer she had been compelled to wait for it. If
she were now to meet Erna, if she could have an explanation with her,
become reconciled to her, prove to her in very truth how well she meant
by her! She was in the very mood for this, and here was Erna coming
along! The shrinking which she often felt in the presence of the proud
and self-willed girl was making itself perceptible again, but one swift
glance showed her that Erna had been weeping quite recently, and that
she could risk it now.

Erna had been weeping quite recently, and so indeed she had done ever
since last night, whenever she felt sure that no one was looking upon
her despair. For the gentle creature was in despair. All through the
long sleepless night she had seemed to hear Agatha's whispered
question, "What will you do if it comes out that Kurt is innocent?" She
had seemed to hear it like the voice of a warning angel, and neither
head nor heart had been able to reply anything but, again and again:
"In that case I have betrayed him, and I have made him unhappy." Could
he be innocent? She had struggled so long against the belief in Kurt's
guilt, and had only accepted it when he declared that he could not
explain his relations to the Russian lady; no, not even to her, from
whom, for the sake of their love, he was to expect entire confidence;
for confidence was the very soul and at the same time the touchstone of
love. Alas, she knew yet another and a more terrible touchstone, and
that was the jealousy which she had cherished in secret towards the
unknown lady, and which had blazed up brightly when yesterday she
beheld her, the hated temptress, in the splendour of her youth, beauty,
and grace. In vain did she struggle against the charm which the lady
seemed to radiate; in vain did she declare everything about her to be
unreal, except her diamonds perhaps; with every furtive glance at her
rival she felt herself more and more fascinated, allured, beguiled,
and, in equal measure, conquered, and at last crushed.

It was a terrible state which wrapped her poor fluttering heart in
absolute night, and yet even then there was something like a faint
glimmering of the star of hope. If Kurt had ever loved her--and he
had--he had done so once--how could he love another woman, who, however
charming and seductive, was yet in all things the very opposite of
herself? Kurt, who had so often assured her that he hated all display
and all vanity, that he loved her because there was nothing of display,
nothing, of vanity about her, because she was his own rose, which, in
its dewy freshness, he would not exchange for a world of brilliant
exotics!

And his large brown eyes had shone down upon her so gravely and
lovingly as he spoke, and his lips had trembled with genuine
emotion--and had all this been naught but lies on the part of him whom
she in her turn had loved, because he had appeared to her as a lofty
and lordly image of truthfulness and fidelity?

It could not be.

But then, again, what had she done? What was she to do when the other
one, that good and noble man, to whom--so Agatha said, and her own
heart could not but confirm it--she had given such unequivocal proof of
her affection, when he came into her presence and said: "I have come to
take you at your word. Not all the Flavios in the world would have kept
Hilarie from loving her uncle, had she been convinced that he truly
loved her. And you know it: I love you!" What could she do, but, with
Hilarie, say: "I am yours for ever"? He would not fall at her feet
and exclaim: "You make me the happiest man beneath the sun," but she
knew,--she knew that he would be happy!

Ah me!--why had she not obeyed the voice which called to her that first
evening when she met him in the wood, and he laid his heart open to
her: "Open thy heart to him too," the voice had said, "tell him all."
That would have been the time, the only right time. For the very next
day she had read in his eyes what now made her so proud--so happy. So
happy? Gracious heavens!

This was happiness, was it, that she now desired nothing better than
death, swift death, to escape from the torments that tore her heart to
pieces?

Did he divine nothing of these torments! Why had he not come to her
last night? He might surely have spared her a minute--he had given the
Princess a full hour. It was, perhaps, a relief, a sort of recreation,
for him, seeing he had so long had to dispense with any intellectual
conversation. Was she perchance the beautiful widow in the novelette
who consoled the uncle for the loss of Hilarie? And had Hilarie already
got to the point of wishing and longing for such consolation for her
uncle?

Her shamefaced gaze wandered up to Bertram's windows, under which she
had arrived--not quite unintentionally. What if he were to appear
above--signalling: "Wait, I am coming down!"

Like a startled fawn she flitted away to one of the terrace-walks,
behind whose protecting wall she could not be seen from those windows
of his, and burst into tears, as she became conscious of her cowardice.
Lydia appeared at the opposite entrance; she could not avoid Lydia now;
she bent toward the espalier, to dry her eyes unobserved, and lo! there
was Lydia at her side, at her feet, clasping Erna's knees, pressing her
face against Erna's robe, sobbing.

It was a theatrical display, such as Lydia employed on all possible
occasions, suitable or otherwise; Erna knew that well enough. But she
had not the courage to tear herself away; never a harsh or ironical
expression came forth from her to-day; nay, she all but envied a human
being that found such expression for its feelings, whatever they might
be. She endeavoured to raise the kneeling lady.

"I must remain on my knees until you have pardoned me," murmured Lydia.

"I'll do anything you wish--but rise, rise, I entreat you!"

She had drawn Lydia up and away into a niche in the wall, thus gaining
at least some shelter from the eyes of the servants, many of whom were
still busy everywhere up and down the terraces with the preparations
for the illumination.  There was a stone bench with a stone table in
front inside the niche. Lydia sank down upon the bench, laid her face,
covered by her hands, against the edge of the table, and murmured her
miserable confession of guilt in a voice which was scarcely audible,
owing to her constant weeping and sobbing. She had, she whined out,
found out by questioning the servants that the letter had not been
sent, which Erna had on the morning in question written beneath the
plantain tree, and which, she assumed, was certainly addressed to
Agatha; and she had, moreover, learned from Agatha--who evidently
suspected nothing--that she had received no letter just before her
departure from home. Then, passing through Erna's rooms, she had seen
her blotting-book lying about, unlocked, as she had been astonished to
notice. Then she had been unable to resist the temptation of trying if
the letter was still there. The letter had been there--a sort of
dizziness had come over her, and--

"I said to myself," she went on, "that you have no secrets from Agatha,
that you were likely to have written to her what you felt towards
Bertram, whether you loved him--I required to know it--my future, my
happiness, my salvation--all, all depended upon that one question. Have
pity on a poor wretched woman whom jealousy made a criminal--against
her own child, too! for I have ever loved you as my own child, ever,
and would gladly have sacrificed all for you, all, only not this--the
trial was too much for my strength."

Then Lydia in her self-abasement and grief wept bitterly. Again Erna
felt it strange that she did not spring up from her place beside the
weeping old woman, did not leave her alone with her silliness and her
lies; that she could listen to her exaggerated and sentimental twaddle
without positive disgust. There was something stirring within her that
she was frightened at herself--something almost like a wish that, this
time, Lydia might not be lying.

Lydia noticed through the veil of tears in which she had wrapt herself
that Erna was accepting her confession much more favourably than she
had dared to hope. This gave her courage enough to pursue to the utmost
the advantage thus already gained.

"I cannot and will not try to prove that I have been quite free from
blame," she cried. "I have been vain and frivolous. I did yield to the
temptation of becoming Countess of Finkenburg! Many more would have
yielded who cannot retrace, like one of the family of von Aschhof, the
long line of their ancestors to the time of the Crusaders, and who do
not, as we do, have Moors' heads in their escutcheons! But vanity and
frivolity alone did not make me do it. I was honestly convinced that
this alliance with a poor lady of high lineage, who would bring him no
other dower but her many claims and wants, could be nought but a
hindrance to Bertram; that he might have made, and probably thereafter
would make, a better and a more suitable choice if I released him from
his engagement. Indeed, indeed; if I could but have divined how he
would take it to heart, nothing in the world would have made me act as
I did. And now I would give everything in the world to atone, as far as
I still may, for what I did. Must it really be out of the question,
dearest? Look here. He is about fifty years of age, and how long will
it be before he is an old man? He is very delicate too. His servant
tells me that he suffers from palpitation of the heart, and from
insomnia, and that his Berlin doctor has enjoined upon him no end of
precautions and care for these travels of his. Why then, he really
needs some one who will nurse him and who will patiently bear with all
his sickly caprices--all sick folk are capricious, don't you know? I
know it but too well; I saw it in the case of my own uncle, the
Minister of State, whom every one thought a very lamb in the way of
kind, gentle equanimity, and who was so until one of his asthmatic
attacks came upon him; and then never a living soul could bear to stay
near him. Yes, yes, one must have gone through these things to know;
and may God in His mercy keep you, my own dear, sweet, good child, from
ever knowing it, from mourning away your sweet young life by the side
of a broken-down man who has no passion left, save his books and his
politics. If his politics call him he must needs follow, and poor
Konski must pack the trunks. Poor fellow, Konski! I spoke to him a
little while ago; he'd like to stay and see all the fun that is coming
now with these man[oe]vres here, and what not. Besides, I rather think
he is in love with Aurora. But he says there is no help for it, and off
they go to-morrow, his master and he. Perhaps it is right enough, for
the Baron is furious with him, and I really know not what the Baron
will do, unless you convince him that he has been mistaken, like the
rest of us. Oh, that we had! My own sweet child, you would be restoring
peace and happiness to us all, and I would never weary of kissing your
dear hands, nay, the very hem of your garment!"

She covered Erna's hands and robe with kisses. Erna let her have her
way, she paid no heed to what Lydia was saying and doing; there she sat
gazing fixedly across the gardens and across the village on the
mountain slope, where a portion of the high road was visible which led
from the north across the hills to Rinstedt. Lydia, following the
direction of Erna's gaze, saw what Erna saw--a great cloud of dust,
with occasional flashes of bright arms, winding down the high road, and
now there came, softened by the great distance but still distinctly
audible, the sound of the drum; and below, at the entrance to the
village, they fired a cannon as a signal that the regiment was coming
up.

Erna started as though the shot had gone through her heart!

"For goodness sake, child, what ails you?" exclaimed Lydia, terrified
on noticing the pallor of her cheek and her fixed rigid look.

And again she was terrified when Erna suddenly flung herself into her
arms as seeking help from a threatening danger, and then with equal
suddenness tore herself away, hurried up the walk and straightway
vanished behind a projecting portion of the wall.

"What does it all mean?" Lydia asked herself.

As if in answer, there came across the garden, now more distinctly, the
sound of the drum.

"Ah!" said Lydia, and a meaning smile flitted over her face. "It would
not be impossible," she murmured, "and if it is the case, I'll find it
out!"

She turned to enter the mansion house just as the big flag was being
hoisted upon the turret as a salute to "Our Regiment," at the moment
when the soldiers set foot upon the village road.



                                 XVIII.


Bertram, too, had heard the warlike sounds. He leaned back in his
writing chair and listened with bated breath.

"How her heart is sure to beat!" he said to himself.

He rose and went to the open window. From the elevation on which he
was, he could see a considerable portion of the high road, could
discern the flash of the bayonets through the clouds of dust which a
brisk breeze was scattering at times, so that sections of the columns
on the march became visible.

In the village below they were firing cannon; from the mountains yonder
the echo came rolling.

"How this will resound within her heart!"

From the adjoining bedroom, where he had already begun to put up his
master's things in view of their departure, fixed for the day
following, Konski came hurrying in to ask, if the Herr Doctor was not
going to dress? It was getting late.

"I am in no hurry," said Bertram.

"Well, sir," said Konski, "My Lady is most anxious you should be
present at the reception of the officers. Aurora has twice come to the
door with a message about it."

And he pointed, as he spoke, to the bedroom door and grinned.

"I do not intend to be present at the reception," Bertram said; "but I
may as well dress now." And he followed Konski into the bedroom.

As Konski was assisting him, he said to him--

"Well, on what terms are you with that girl now? You will have to make
haste if you wish to settle everything before we go."

"It is already settled, and settled very nicely," Konski made answer,
"since last night, sir. With the like of us, such things are settled
smartly, Herr Doctor, and I have a favour to ask of you in connection
with it. Aurora--it's a strange name that, sir, is it not? and her two
others are just as bad: Amanda Rolline--thank you, says I. Well, it is
not her fault, though, poor thing, and I won't mind re-baptizing her
once we, are in Berlin. But, as I was going to say, Herr Doctor, she
insists upon our getting married in the beginning of October, because
at the end of October Christine is going to be married to Peter
Weissenborn, and she wants to annoy Christina by being married before
her, so she says; but I fancy it's meant for Peter, who used to be
uncommonly sweet upon her, and, I rather think, promised to marry her
at one time. And if the Herr Doctor is not going to Italy at all, or
leastways not now, we thought ..."

"You know," said Bertram, "how sorry I shall be to part with you; but I
will not stand in the way of your happiness."

"It would be my greatest happiness, sir," said Konski, "to remain with
you as long as I live. And there's just one way, so Aurora says ..."

"Well?"

Konski hesitated a little, then took heart of grace, and said, with an
embarrassed sort of smirk--

"If the Herr Doctor would be so very kind as to marry too!"

"I am afraid," said Bertram, "you will have to devise some other way
out of the difficulty."

Konski was meditatively removing some specks of dust from the black
waistcoat which he held in his hand, and said--

"No offence, sir! These women are always a-puzzling out something or
other in their brains, and Aurora's brains are by no means bad brains.
She thinks it would be uncommon nice, if I would remain the Herr
Doctor's valet, and she was to be maid to your lady, sir; and then,
whether you went to Italy or elsewhere, we four would always be nice
and snug together."

"I have no idea what you are talking about," said Bertram. "Give me my
waistcoat."

"No offence, sir," Konski repeated, as he handed his master the
waistcoat and took up the dress-coat; "but she leaves me no peace, she
does not, and she says that it's all up with the Baron; and from what
she heard My Lady say to master this morning about the Herr Doctor,
says she, the Herr Doctor need but ask and they'd give him a half dozen
daughters, only they have not got more than one; and that one, dear
Miss Erna--why, I knows, and no one knows better than me--how fond she
is of the Herr Doctor."

As Bertram had again turned away, the poor fellow, much to his regret,
could not see what impression his remarks had made upon his master; and
now they heard a heavy, hurried step coming through the study. There
was a knock, then Otto put in his head and asked if he might trouble
Bertram for a minute. Bertram begged him to come in, and beckoned his
man to leave the room.

"I have been repeatedly wishing to come up and see you," said Otto;
"Hildegard is so afraid that you mean to go--and--dear me, you have
really been packing."

"For to-morrow," Bertram made answer. "In no case can I remain longer.
For to-day I am, as you see, already, like yourself, in evening dress.
Only--you must please excuse me if I do not put in an appearance before
dinner; I have not finished my letters yet, and, to say the truth, I
should like to cut the reception business."

"So should I," said Otto, "if I could. They will be here in less than
ten minutes now. I have not a minute to spare, not a minute."

But for all that he did not stir from the chair into which he had
dropped. His mind was clearly far away. Presently he muttered--

"What if Parliament has decided against the railway!"

"We must be prepared for it," replied his friend.

"It is half-past four now, the sitting is sure to be over by this
time."

"You will know the result to-morrow, and early enough, too!"

"I think that Lotter, who has had to go to town, will have waited to
hear the result of the vote; I asked him to. He said he would be back
in time for dinner. But I no longer believe in his influence."

"All the better."

Both were speaking in gloomy tones, as though a heavy pressure was
weighing equally on either. Bertram was staring down in front of him
with arms crossed behind his back, and Otto's eyes were wandering about
the room--he was mechanically fingering the arms of his chair, then
suddenly gave a convulsive clutch at them.

"I must go," he said.

He jumped up and was making for the door.

"Otto!"

"Are you coming too?"

"No; I have a small favour to ask which you are not to refuse me."

Bertram had meanwhile gone up to his friend, holding out his hand to
him. Otto mechanically put his own into it.

"I wanted to ask you to make use of me in case you have not yet
arranged about redeeming, to-morrow, that mortgage, and in the present
hurry and worry, what more likely? I have not even had to write to
Berlin about it. My Italian trip is given up. You know I had made
arrangements for a very lengthened absence. My letter of credit is
addressed to your own banker, as I had anyhow been intending to draw a
large sum; I can get the money at once, and there will be just enough."

"Time enough to-morrow," murmured Otto; "however, I am much obliged to
you for your kind intention. Perhaps I'll drive you to town to-morrow,
if you insist upon going; we can then see about it."

His cheeks were burning; his hand, which Bertram was still holding,
trembled like that of a man in great physical pain. Bertram noticed it
all.

"I am very sorry," he said, "that I must thus torment you, but you left
me no choice as to the time. I am sure I shall not be able to speak to
you again to-day, and perhaps not to-morrow. Therefore, look here: I
have made all the requisite preparations, with due despatch, to make as
much of my fortune available as you will need for the settlement of
your affairs. You remember our conversation when we were driving back
from town last Saturday. I put no other conditions now than I did
then; that you arrange the settlement with the help of your lawyer,
that you leave him as free as possible in his dispositions regarding
the factories, and lastly, that your wife is taken into your
confidence--these are not so much conditions, as necessities. And of
the last, and doubtless the most painful one, I am willing to relieve
you."

Otto flushed to the roots of his hair.

"It is impossible!" he ejaculated. "I cannot take it."

"I am not making you a present of the money, man!"

"The money--the money--but Hildegard! To-day all this display--the
Princess--all those officers--a huge party--covers for a hundred
or so; and then to-morrow the most awful wretchedness--it is quite
impossible. And even if you had the courage--if you were to speak to
her, I mean--you are on such good terms again, she had intended to come
herself and see you, and I had thought--but that, that she would never
forgive you--never!"

"I am prepared for that," replied Bertram. "To be quite frank, I care
infinitely more for your welfare than for your wife's favour. Otto,
these is no time for long debating. A plain yes from you, and the thing
is settled--now or never--do you hear me?"

From the great courtyard there came the sound of merry military music;
many voices, too, were heard. Otto was still standing by the door
irresolute.

He suddenly seized Bertram's other hand and exclaimed--
"Then marry Erna at least! Hildegard will get reconciled to it, once
she knows all. Erna is fond of you--let me talk to her!"

"One word from you, and--I shall not alter my resolve, it is fixed for
good; but you and I will never meet again."

Bertram had torn himself away and was striding along the chamber. Now
he came back to Otto who was standing there in utter helplessness, laid
his hand on his shoulder, and said to him--

"Otto, remember what we vowed to each other in the dear old student
days in Bonn: to be and to remain friends in gladness or sadness,
friends to the death! This surely is sufficient. Let us not speak of
Erna, or, at least, let us not connect her name with this business;
such a connection is an insult to me, because it is casting doubt upon
the purity of my motives. I can tell you something else, in reference
to which I must, in the meantime, request your discreet silence. I have
good reasons for assuming that Erna has already disposed of her heart,
and this may explain certain oddities in her demeanour which have
struck us both. I believe I shall soon know if I am right. In warning
you, and your wife against Lotter, I gave you a proof of my careful
observation and of my faithful friendship. Confide in me further: you
will not repent of it. And now, old boy, go with a lighter heart than
you came, and receive your guests, or else the great event will come
off without you, and for that Hildegard would never forgive you, and
she would be right."

He was almost pushing poor helpless Otto out of the door, when Konski
came hurrying up with an impatient message from My Lady.

"Would Otto come at once? The military were just marching up the
courtyard."

Otto hurried away. Bertram was still standing near the door, his eye
rigidly fixed upon it.

He was murmuring to himself: "That was the first step. I should not
have thought, after all I have already endured, that it would prove so
hard. But it had to be done!"

He walked slowly up and down, and paused again.

"Had it to be done? And thus? Would it not have been better if I had
not absolutely denied it? Anyhow, I have not resigned in every case;
only, in case it is as I fear. Supposing it is not? What if the young
man who has gone through the schooling of a Princess Volinzov, is not
one whom our Erna can and should love? What if the Princess is mistaken
in this part of the story, or if she has been deceived by the man who
may have, had good reasons of his own? What if the whole thing has been
a little gentle dallying which Erna has all but forgotten, and I were,
with my diplomatic wiles, to fan again into life and light the almost
extinguished flame, were to repel her from me and push her into his
arms, which will be willing enough to open?"

He stretched out his hands, as though he wished to ward off something.
They were all assailing him again now in the broad light of the day,
those dread phantoms with which he had wrestled in the awful darkness
of the night. Then he had conquered them. Was he to be vanquished now?
Was his strength exhausted?

No, no; the worst had yet to come. Though he had persuaded himself that
it would be only fair and proper not to be a witness of their first
meeting, yet he would have to see them together, perhaps learn at the
first glance that they had already made it up, and that the great
sacrifice, which the beautiful Princess was making for her darling, had
been wholly unnecessary. All the better! In that case the torture of
uncertainty would be over all the sooner, and he would at least be
spared the humiliation of pushing Quixotic generosity to its utmost
limits, and of acting the part of an obtrusive mediator, who clears
away all obstacles and ultimately joins the lovers' hands with a "Bless
you, my children!"

He sat down at the writing-table to complete his election address. But
he could not write, could not think. Pen in hand he sat, hearkening to
all the confused sounds which came up and across him from courtyard,
garden, and mansion house. The music, after some little pause, is now
playing again in long-drawn triumphant strains--representing the salute
of the regiment to the house that now guarded its colours; the fair
mistress appears on the threshold, surrounded by the other ladies, and
the tall and gallant-looking Colonel, hastening up, followed by his
officers, bows deferentially and kisses her hand. And lo! from the
circle around the mistress of the house, there steps forth another
lady, at whose sight the gallant soldier starts. But she smiles, and
signals with those mobile orbs of hers--

"Be calm, my friend, be calm! I shall explain all as soon as we are
alone for a minute, or, if not all--that being contrary to my habit--as
much as you need know. It is a matter concerning these people."

And she points aside to another pair, bowing to each other and
presumably renewing--a casual acquaintance, shall we say?

"I hardly know, my gracious Fräulein, whether I still have the
honour..."

What a farce it all was!

And what a ghastly tragedy too--its silent scene his heart--forsaken,
lonely as he was.

So he sat on, brooding gloomily, musing dismally, he knew not how long.
Silence now reigned around without. Had they forgotten him? Oh, that
they had! and that he could steal away from the house--from the
farce--from life!

But no, they would not be so pitiful. Hearken!--yes, this is Konski's
swift step.

"I beg your pardon, sir, but My Lady bade me urge you to come. They are
just going to dinner, and are only waiting for the Herr Doctor!"



                              CHAPTER XIX.


It was a princely banquet that Hildegard had prepared for her guests in
the dining-hall of the whilom princely abode. The closed curtains had
excluded the daylight from the beginning, and the light of innumerable
candles fell upon the table from the three great chandeliers and from a
number of candelabras fixed to the wall. The table shone and sparkled
with crystal and silver, was decked with a profusion of the choicest
flowers, and surrounded by a most brilliant company. There were five
and twenty officers in their uniforms--and the general _coup d'[oe]il_
was truly enchanting. Everything went off well. Hildegard herself could
scarcely distinguish from her own serving-men the extra waiters ordered
from town, and put into liveries; in the adjoining hall the band of the
99th was playing, for Colonel von Waldor had insisted upon My Lady thus
honouring his regiment, although she had a band from town in readiness.
The toasts, in reference to which she had been somewhat uneasy, had
been a wonderful success. Otto had not blundered or stopped short in
the first toast--His Majesty the Emperor, of course; then Bertram, whom
she had, at dinner, by means of a pencilled note, asked to do so, had
in the name of the host, and as the oldest friend of the family
present, welcomed the guests and proposed the health of the 99th.
Thereupon Colonel von Waldor returned thanks in a really capital
speech, abounding in merry quips and happy inspirations. He called the
brilliant reception given to the regiment, a posthumous celebration of
their doings in the last war, and a lordly payment "on account" for
what they were destined to do in the campaigns of the future. He then
proceeded to describe the reception in detail, and added that to him,
personally, it had been the most charming of all the charming surprises
of the day, to find in the gentleman who had so cordially welcomed them
all to this most hospitable house, an old and dear friend from whom he
had been separated for years; and at last, passing adroitly from the
host's representative to the host himself, he proposed the health of
"their far too generous entertainer, and of the kind, gracious, and
beauteous lady of the manor, by whose side, he had the rare happiness
of being seated."

And the other officers--four and-twenty in number--had started from
their seats like one man, and had three times shouted their _Hoch_ in
singularly sharp and definite intervals, overpowering the _Hoch_ of the
other guests as the roar of cannon drowns the sound of musket firing,
and the band had joined in the celebration; and they had all crowded
around Hildegard, with their champagne-goblets held on high; and as she
received all these homages, she looked radiantly, superbly beautiful,
and so the Colonel had told her, adding that she was by far the fairest
of all the fair ladies there; and as they settled in their places
again, he had kissed her hand in eager gallantry.

Hildegard thanked the enchanted Colonel with a gracious smile for his
flattery, and thanked him warmly, too, for his excellent toast, in
which she had missed but one thing, to wit, some clever allusion,
some dainty reference to her illustrious guest, the Princess, who, from
her place of honour next to Otto, on the opposite side of the
banqueting-table, had, followed the speaker with the greatest
attention, and had evidently expected something of the kind.

The Colonel smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"I had thought of it, too, My Lady," he said; "but, upon honour, it
could not be done."

"Why not?

"I have already told My Lady that the Princess and I met last year in
Teplitz. Since My Lady--and I must express my sincere gratitude for the
condescension--did me last night repeatedly the honour of mentioning my
name to her, without, it would appear, recalling any reminiscence on
her part, I surely could not indulge in reminiscences. My wounded
vanity peremptorily forbade any such thing. And, moreover, it was
wounded ere then. It is no joke for a Colonel who has been somewhat
spoiled, to see a young officer, and particularly one belonging to his
own regiment, preferred to himself, and such, was then undoubtedly the
case. The young gentleman suffering, like myself, from a severe wound
received during the '70 campaign, had accompanied me to Teplitz, and
was my constant companion, so that he can bear witness to everything.
The reminiscence of that wound inflicted upon my vanity is at this
moment the more vivid, because the young gentleman is here."

The Colonel pointed, as he spoke, to a slender young officer, dark of
eye and hair, who was sitting between Agatha and Augusta, and who was
conversing eagerly with the former, while Augusta, a coquettish beauty,
looked supremely bored.

Upon Hildegard the young man's appearance had already made so pleasing
an impression after he had been introduced to her, that she had
actually remembered his name and rank--Premier-Lieutenant and Adjutant
Ringberg. But she thought she was acting prudently in saying that she
saw nothing remarkable in the young gentleman. Much to her amazement,
the Colonel seemed almost offended at this; Ringberg, he said, was
really in every way a remarkable man, the most studious, and at the
same time the smartest officer in his regiment, a man of excellent
character; and a jolly companion, for whom he himself had a sort of
paternal fondness; indeed, Ringberg was the son of a dear friend of his
own, left early an orphan, and he, the Colonel, had acted for him _in
loco parentis_, and wished him every happiness under the sun, including
the conquest of the beautiful Russian and her millions.

"But there seems little prospect of that," Hildegard said, smilingly
interrupting the Colonel in his eager talk; "as far as I have been able
to observe, your _protégé_ does not exist for our beautiful friend."

"That may be one of her masks," replied the Colonel. "I think the lady
has a great many."

"You must not talk like this to me; I adore Alexandra."

"But, My Lady, so do I too, otherwise I should never dream of abusing
her."

"That, too, I must forbid."

"Then I will swear that she does not even know what a mask is, and I am
ready to face a world in arms in proof of the assertion," laughed the
Colonel, and Hildegard laughed too, and kissed her hand to the Princess
across the table, a compliment which the fair Russian returned eagerly.

Hildegard felt so happy by the side of her brilliant cavalier, that she
could scarcely make up her mind to give the signal for rising from the
table. But at last it had to be done, after she had exchanged a few
hurried words with Herr von Busche, who had quietly come up behind her
chair. When, a few minutes later, she rose from her seat, the curtains
were suddenly and simultaneously withdrawn from the windows and doors,
the glass doors flew wide open, and before the amazed eyes of the
company lay the garden in fairy-like illumined splendour. Rows of
coloured balloons were drawn like garlands along and adown the
terraces; and every prominent point--and there were many of them--had
been utilised for some effective purpose of decoration: a pyramid of
stars, a wreath of light, or a radiant crown. And the guests, now
hurrying away from the tables, had scarcely all gathered upon
the verandah before they found themselves enveloped in the dazzling
brilliancy of coloured lights; the magnificent façade of the
mansion-house, wrapt in a glorious purple glow, stood out with
wonderful effect against the darkening sky, and a deep green flame sent
a soft and tender light along the terraces and mingled on the great
grass plot in front of the verandah with the red light, the combination
yielding a dim, mysterious kind of magic dawn. And before the glow had
faded away, and before the admiring and wondering exclamations of the
delighted and surprised guests had ceased, there was the thunder of
cannon, a signal, and lo! from the wide common below, a rocket winged
its shining flight upwards, followed by another and yet another, in
such swift succession that the fiery missiles bursting anon high, high
up in the air, seemed to fill the dark sky with a galaxy of glowing
stars, whilst below squibs and crackers were exploding and wheels of
fire were whirling round in all directions.

But now the younger members of the company could be restrained no
longer. In vain did anxious mammas preach patience and caution and call
for shawls and cloaks, the young ladies would not wait, and fortunately
the night was so calm and warm that they could really dispense with
wrappings; the officers had, anyhow, to remain bare-headed unless they
cared to put on the spiked helmets with which they had appeared at the
banquet. So they all danced merrily down the wide steps; and were soon
scattered over the terraces; and from all sides there came the laughing
shouts of those who were looking for each other, who perhaps met
unexpectedly at some turn in the labyrinth, or who were pretending to
escape, a merry game in which the young ladies, whether staying in the
house or belonging to the neighbourhood, being familiar with the
locality, gladly assumed the leadership, adroitly using their knowledge
to their own advantage.

Meanwhile the greater part of the guests had gradually withdrawn to the
chambers on either side of the great banqueting-hall, the ladies to the
music-rooms and tea-rooms on the left, the gentlemen mostly to the
billiard-room, which opened into the smoking- and card-rooms. Some
still went in and out at the great French windows, all of which opened
on the verandah, but on the verandah itself there were now
comparatively few people, so that Bertram had but now and again to
exhort the Colonel to lower his sonorous voice a little. The friends
were pacing up and down arm in arm; the Colonel's uniform was all but
entirely unbuttoned, he was puffing vigorously at his cigar, and his
handsome, gallant features were aglow with the after-effect of the
champagne, and with the excitement which increased with every word
which he was rapidly uttering.

"Believe me," he cried, "my good fellow, if anything could still
increase my feeling of absolute worship for this unique woman, it would
be the pluck with which she went into action for young Ringberg. But
unfortunately with all those fair and adorable creatures, intention and
execution never correspond. A masterly outflanking of the foe, an
assault _comme il faut_, and then at once this ludicrous mistake! I
could have died with laughter! Not the slightest idea on her part that
you are such a very special and intimate friend of mine! And so she
goes and tells you all the minutest details of our story, as to an
absolute stranger, supposed to be quite incapable of translating it
back into German from the French, because he can have no idea as to the
identity of the real persons involved! And why this stupendous want of
caution? To frighten you away! From what? From falling in love with the
little damsel, or to induce you, in case you had already done so, to be
kind enough to retire immediately! As though the like of us were to be
rightened away from our purpose by a reconnoitring like this, however
forced! 'You may thank your stars,' I said to her 'that Doctor Bertram
has better things to occupy himself with than the childishness which
you impute to him!' To be sure she swears that she became convinced of
it last night, for you remained perfectly calm and self-possessed, and
had the contrary been the case, it would certainly not have escaped
her, as she was scrutinising your every mien with the upmost care; but
then her own mien, as she was telling me all this, proved how pleased
and relieved she felt that all had gone off so happily!"

"And what," asked; Bertram, "have you decided in Ringberg's affair?
Will you not at least take Erna, and, of course, her parents, into the
secret?"

"The deuce I will!" cried Waldor. "I surely should not hesitate to
rescue Ringberg at any cost from some position of great danger, but
this is, not a question of my making a sacrifice, but of Alexandra
making one that she cannot make, unless she wishes to give up half her
fortune, which goes to the deuce as soon as our engagement gets
known. But I want the whole fortune and not the half! When I was but
a lieutenant I swore a great oath to myself that I would die a
Field-Marshal, and would live like a Prince until I got to be one! Now
you surely cannot expect that I should break my oath, and, to myself
too?"

Bertram did not think it advisable to point out to his friend, the
contradictions he was guilty of in one breath. He only said--

"I should think the sacrifice might be avoided, if you made the people
who are interested pledge themselves to secrecy. None of them would
hesitate to accept that objection."

"In such things," replied the Colonel, "one should not trust any one's
promise of secrecy. Why, every thing would already be betrayed, if
Alexandra had honoured any one but yourself with her indiscretions!"

"But if the Princess absolutely insists upon making the sacrifice?"

"Then I shall as absolutely forbid her doing anything of the kind! The
services which Kurt has rendered us are considerable, I admit; but
then, in the first case, they were rendered to me. How can I ask her to
act such a generous part? Nay, what does she mean by wishing to do it?
One would not, one could not, do more for one's lover! And, to the best
of my knowledge, she is in love with me, and not with Ringberg!"

His cigar had gone out and he flung it away, turning to light a new one
at one of the lights placed along the verandah. Thus he did not see the
smile which Bertram--though his heart was little attuned to mirth--had
not been able to repress at the words which his not over-modest friend
had been uttering.

"In that case the Princess will have to say, like the priest Domingo,
in Schiller's 'Don Carlos:' 'We have been here in vain,'" he resumed,
as the Colonel took his arm again.

"To be sure," was the calm reply; "and I have strongly urged her to
leave to-morrow. Surrounded as we are here by my officers, one or two
of whom are already likely enough to know more than I care for, we are
not for a single moment safe from startling disclosures. I think I have
as strong nerves as most people, but to be seated upon a powder-barrel
when there is a conflagration raging all round, is uncomfortable for
the most courageous."

"What is uncomfortable, Colonel?" asked Alexandra's voice behind them.

The Colonel turned on his heels; and quickly buttoning his uniform,
exclaimed--

"Ah, most gracious Princess!"

"Let us call each other by our names before this good friend," said
Alexandra. "Give me your arm, dear Doctor Bertram; and you, my friend,
please to come to the other side. So now we can talk confidentially."

"May I go on with my cigar?"

"I should like to smoke one myself, if I dared! But now to the point.
What have you decided?"

"That is the very question," Bertram said, "which I was just submitting
to Waldor."

"I have decided, that the young people are to see how they can best
settle things for themselves!"

"That is an abominable decision!"

"It is necessary."

"Not for me!  I shall speak to the young lady."

"You will not do so if you value my advice ever so little. Moreover, if
you felt so sure of this, why did you not do so yesterday?"

"Because I require your co-operation."

"Which I refuse!"

They were talking excitedly, almost vehemently now. Then, there was a
pause, a very uncomfortable one for Bertram, although he said to
himself that discord between the two ought to be welcome to him. He had
closely watched Erna and Ringberg. At dinner, where they had been
seated almost directly opposite to each other, they had not exchanged a
single word; and just now, whilst Erna had followed the other young
ladies into the garden, Ringberg had remained on the verandah and had
subsequently gone into the billiard-room. As Erna was so very proud, a
meeting of the two seemed difficult, almost impossible, without kind
and skilful mediation, and there would be little time or opportunity
for it now. To-morrow the regiment was again to leave its quarters.
They would again be separated for long--for ever, if he chose to avail
himself of the influence which he doubtless had over Erna; and if he
could only bring into play something of the robust egotism, with which
the handsome soldier by his side was smoothing his own way to rank and
unlimited riches.

"Then I only know one way to achieve our object," the Princess said at
last, speaking somewhat huskily.

"I knew you would find something," said Waldor; "but what is it?"

"It is this ..."

Alexandra paused abruptly, for as they reached the end of the verandah,
and were turning round, the very man of whom they were all thinking was
approaching them.

"Anything for me, my dear Ringberg?" exclaimed the Colonel.

"Yes, Colonel; an orderly from the General in command ..."

"May the ..." muttered the Colonel through his teeth.

He went up to the young officer, who made his report in a low voice,
whilst the Princess and Bertram remained standing at some little
distance. They saw the Colonel angrily fling away his cigar, and draw
himself up.

"Thank you, my dear Ringberg; you need not come with me. It is bad
enough if one of us has to lose all the fun. No remonstrance, sir! I
shall want an orderly to go with me, and, perhaps, you will, in
passing, kindly bid them saddle Almansor."

"Yes, Colonel," said the young officer, saluting.

Ringberg had gone. Waldor turned round.

"It seems," he said, "that the soldiers have taken a different position
from what His Excellency had expected, and now he is getting all the
officers in command of regiments together, to get things done as
noisily as possible. The old owl! Upon my word, I would let him have a
bit of my mind, if he did this in actual war, and summoned me at such a
time two or three miles off from a position where we may be 'alarmed'
at any moment. However, there is no help for it. I shall not spare the
horse, but I am afraid I shall not be back before one o'clock. My
officers must be in their quarters by twelve o'clock precisely, and the
rest of the party are likely to vanish too. I presume that we shall be
attacked between two and three o'clock. If, then, I do not see you
again, dearest Alexandra, the arrangement is this: you drive to town
to-morrow and remain there until I can look in for a moment, as I hope
to be able to do the day after, or else until I send word. Farewell,
dearest! And you, my good friend, will probably not have gone to bed
before I return. I will come to your room, and learn what the best and
cleverest of women will have planned in the interest of our
_protégés_."

The Colonel kissed her hand again, and hurried away. Alexandra looked
gloomily after him, standing with her hands crossed over her bosom,
until he had vanished through the door of the billiard-room; where
several of the senior officers were advancing to meet him. Then, with a
passionate gesture, she turned to Bertram.

"He is mistaken! Alexandra Volinzov is not to be ordered about like a
pack of recruits. I shall not leave to-morrow! I shall not leave at
all, until I have achieved my object; and you, friend, you must help me
to achieve it."

She flung the end of her shawl impatiently across her shoulder, and
took Bertram's arm, drawing him away from the verandah down into the
garden, whence the young people, in pairs and in groups, were now
hurrying merrily back to the mansion-house, attracted by the sound of
the band striking up a polka in the banqueting-hall, which had been
cleared in the interval.

"And what is my help to consist in?" asked Bertram.

"You must speak to Erna. You must explain all to her. I am powerless
without Waldor's co-operation, and you have heard how he refuses it?
Nay, more; I have learned from Hildegard, that he has definitely
denied standing in any special relation to me, and as he could not
disown me altogether, has accounted for it all by talking of a casual
watering-place acquaintance; nay he has actually gone the length, of
reviving the old suspicion of there being something between Kurt and
myself; in a word, he has done his utmost to shake my credibility
with the parents, and with Erna; and to make my interference, if I
dared interfere, appear a ridiculous and hideous farce. You are the
intimate friend of the parents; you are Erna's natural protector and
guardian--you are more to her than her own father. The foolish dread of
the mother, that you loved the dear child in a different way, I have
absolutely put an end to; you will be met on all sides with the utmost
confidence, and if any doubt still existed, if any objections were
still raised, why, you are so clever, so wise, so eloquent, that you
will with ease remove every objection, that you will with a sure hand
bring all things to a good end, be the saviour of those two poor dear
souls, and rescue them from the infernal torments of jealousy, doubt,
and despair. I shall not be found wanting; I shall confirm everything
that you say; I shall take the full responsibility of it all, of
course. I am firmly resolved upon this; it is simply my duty, and I
shall do it, and Waldor may put up with it or not, as he pleases."

Alexandra had been saying all this with hurried breath and heaving
bosom. Bertram's own excitement was intense, too, but he managed to
reply in calmer accents--

"You ask much, My Lady. You call me Erna's guardian,  her second
father. I accept these titles; now, will you please and try to fancy
yourself in the position of a guardian, a father, under these
circumstances. In the story of Claudine you have told me your own,
striving, I do not doubt for a moment, to be strictly truthful, seeing
no danger in this, when speaking to a stranger, and being, moreover,
impelled to do so, both by your quick temperament and by your
passionate sympathy. But now comes the question: Has your truthfulness
really brought out the truth? Not the truth of yesterday and to-day,
but of to-morrow. The truth, the truthful picture of the future, when
you will be constantly and closely brought into contact with the former
object of your ardent love, when you will be ever seeing him by the
side of a woman who is not much younger than yourself, who is not as
beautiful as you, not as clever as you; who, however graceful, lacks
that nameless charm which is radiated by a beautiful and clever woman
of the great world, and which is so apt to beguile the hearts of men;
can you then--I am now speaking of yourself only, My Lady, only of what
is in your power--can you, for your part, for your own heart, undertake
the guarantee for the future? I conjure you, by all you hold sacred,
can you conscientiously give the guardian, the father, this assurance?"

"By all I hold sacred," replied. Alexandra, "yes! And I will rather die
than break my oath!"

She had stooped suddenly, and was about to draw Bertram's hand to her
lips, but he prevented her with gentle force.

"We must not soften each other's hearts," said he, his own voice
quivering with emotion, "must not dim the clearness of our vision by
tears of emotion. I accept your vow. And now I crave but one boon from
Fate, to wit, that I be permitted one look, one deep, searching look
into the young man's heart,--and into Erna's heart!"

He had been murmuring the last words in a scarcely audible tone; his
lips were trembling; Alexandra also was too much moved to be able to
speak. Thus they had silently reascended the verandah-steps and moved
on--unintentionally--to the open door which led to the card-room.
Alexandra paused, uttering a slight exclamation.

"What is it, My Lady?"

She made no answer, but drew her arm swiftly out of his, and hurried
away from him into the card-room. Bertram did not follow her; amazed
and hurt that she could so suddenly leave him, attracted it would seem
by the large oval table, around which there stood a fairly large group
of gentlemen, either staking money themselves or watching the progress
of the game which was evidently some game of chance, with Lotter acting
as banker. Bertram anyhow saw that hated person sitting at the head of
the table and dealing the cards, and next moment he heard that loud
voice of his, which he disliked so much, exclaiming: "_Faites votre
jeu, messieurs!_" Alexandra had advanced to the table as though she
meant to join in the game, and Bertram turned away in grave
displeasure. How could he have full confidence in a being, who was
accustomed to obey every movement of a restless heart, every temptation
of a light-winged fancy? No, no! If he was to resign, Erna's happiness
must be anchored in firmer ground!

He leaned against the door of the hall in which the couples were taking
their places for the Lancers. Erna and her partner were standing but a
few yards off. She was conversing with him in her usual, measured way;
he could watch every movement of those beloved lips, when she spoke or
when, with a fleeting smile, she answered a jesting word of her
partner's. Her face was partly turned in his direction; he thought
every moment that she would turn round completely and look at him. I
"felt that some one was looking at me,"  she had said on that memorable
morning, when he found her writing beneath the plantain-tree. Now she
did not feel it. What had broken the magic spell of his glance? Was it
because his love was no longer unselfish? Because a fierce wild longing
seized him to press the slender white-robed form in his arms, to cover
the sweet lips with wild kisses? No, no--it was not that! It was this!
her heart no longer knew anything of him. It was this: new and younger
gods had moved inside the temple, and the old one's might now depart
ingloriously and hide their disgrace in the darkness of night!

The music struck up, Erna held out her hand to her partner and floated
across to the other side of the hall; and Bertram hurried away, down
the verandah steps, away into the garden.

Then he wandered about aimlessly, muttering wild words, wringing his
hands despairingly. The deserted garden, with the coloured lamps
swinging in the night wind, some dead, some dying, seemed a fit image
of his wasted and desolate life; whilst the strains of mirthful music
wafted across to him in mighty volumes from the brightly illumined
mansion-house, and the sounds of singing and rejoicing that came up to
him from the village below, seemed to mock the solitary self-tormentor.
He felt that this could not go on, if he did not wish to go mad; he
asked himself, pressing his hands to his throbbing temples, whether he
was not mad already? Whether he was not the ill-omened victim, pursued
by the relentless furies of jealousy, pursued until he breaks down--and
to be spared only by voluntary resignation? Yet you surely can but
resign what you own, what--if need be--you could defend; the possession
of which you could dispute anyhow with your adversary to the last gasp.
Despair does not resign, it only lets go what can no longer be held.
What had he done to hold Erna? What was he doing at this very moment,
except again making room for a rival, for whom, as it was, the stars in
their courses were fighting, one who had youth and the privilege of an
earlier attachment on his side? No, he deserved to be conquered, he who
neither had the strength to conquer himself, nor the courage to join
issue with the rival. Let the decision come then!



                                  XX.


Bertram stood on the lowest step of the terrace when this decision
struggled forth from his tempest-tossed soul, that could no longer bear
the torment. A small steep stair led upward from this place, at the
very extremity of the garden, without any landing-places; he hurried
up, taking two and three steps at a time. He had reached the top; next
he turned to the right, across the lawn, in the direction of the
verandah, when suddenly the music was silent within the hall, and
instantly the dancers came forth from the many doors to cool and
refresh themselves in the balmy night air. He did not care to meet the
merry, motley multitude. Here and there isolated couples were
descending the stairs. He withdrew into the darkness of the shrubberies
surrounding the winter garden. It was lighted up; and, as far as he
could judge by a glance through the windows, was deserted; he would
pass through it, and so regain, unseen and undisturbed, the rooms where
the others were.

He entered. Between palm-trees and many broad-leaved plants there was a
narrow passage, bisected in the centre by a shorter and broader one.
Where the two passages met, towered a huge palm, set in a tub of mighty
dimensions, and all but touching the glass-dome above. Behind, within
the enclosure of the wall, was a small recess, furnished with dainty
iron garden-chairs and with a table.

This, he knew, was a favourite spot of Erna's, where, on rainy days,
she was wont to spend hours. He could not resist the temptation of
visiting the spot which on her account was sacred to him. He sank into
one of the chairs, put his folded hands to his head, and let it rest
upon the little table. As he sat thus in the attitude of one praying,
his thoughts became a prayer: and he prayed that Fate would now
determine his lot, now and here, be it bliss or be it--death. He was
willing to submit to either, in all humility, knowing himself subject
to the heavenly powers that would deal with him by their own
inscrutable will.

He lifted his head and rose slowly, hesitatingly, from his stooping,
position. Was his prayer not heard? Could love not work a miracle, like
faith, which was less strong? Surely, she would come, for whom he was
longing with all the force of his heart!

And lo!--as he turned his gaze to the door, the velvet curtain which
draped it was drawn aside, and she appeared on the threshold, a
slender, white-robed figure, bending forward, gazing into the silent
green wilderness before her, listening! And now she was descending the
stairs with lightsome step, moving along the passage that led to the
tall palm-trees, and again she paused, leaning one hand against the
edge of the tub, pressing the other against her bosom.

"Erna!"

He had, for fear of frightening her, uttered her name in a very low
voice; yet she started where she stood, but did not turn to him who was
so near, but stooped, listening, towards the other side; and at the
same moment he heard, the little door open, by which he had himself
entered the winter garden; and now some one was hurrying along the
passage, towards Erna, who made a movement as though she would escape,
but could not.

"Miss Erna!"

She made no answer, and Lieutenant Ringberg seemed to have exhausted
his strength and his presence of mind with these two words, which he
had uttered in a very diffident tone of voice. For a few seconds they
both stood motionless. Then Erna said--

"Fräulein von Aschhof has told me that you wished to speak to me. I
only came to request you not to honour Fräulein von Aschhof any longer
with your confidence. I--I am indignant that you could do so at all."

"By Heaven! there is some misunderstanding here. I should never have
dared to apply to Fräulein von Aschhof. She began, and spoke so
confidently that no doubt ever arose in me. I could not but believe
that you--that yourself, Miss Erna...."

"This is too much!"

The breathless listener heard the rustling of her robe, and then some
hurried words of entreaty which again chained her to the spot.
Meanwhile they had somewhat changed their position; the dense foliage
of some shrubs now intervened between himself and them, and he could
now scarcely see anything of them, but he could hear every word even
better than before.

"You must not let me suffer for a misunderstanding of which--I swear
it--I am so innocent, that I cannot even guess how it has come about.
But be this as it may, I bless it as a heavenly favour, for surely
Heaven would not have me condemned unheard. I pray and entreat you:
listen!"

"What have you to say?"

"What I wrote in my last letter. If you will not believe in my
assurances--and indeed I can understand that, as things are,
appearances are against me--give me time--only a little time, until
these unfortunate circumstances have become clearer, and those
appearances will dissolve themselves into nothing. Only this much I
can, I must say, I am not in love with the Princess, and I never have
been, I have never felt anything for her but sympathy, respect,--and
friendship, if you will,--feelings which that rarely-gifted woman will
awaken in all who come to know her intimately. She is here for no other
purpose but to plead for me, to clear up this wretched mystery which
condemns me to silence, at the sacrifice of considerable personal
advantages to herself. But she has met with resistance which she cannot
overcome, and which compels her, and compels me also, to remain in this
miserably odd position. Therefore, once more, give me time--give me a
respite. A criminal gets that, and I am free from guilt, unless it be a
crime that I look upon those duties which gratitude and the friendship
of years impose upon me as sacred, even now, when it is so unspeakably
hard for me, and when it puts me to the risk of forfeiting the
happiness of my life!"

"Is this all you have to say to me?"

"All; for what else. I might say would find no credence, if your faith
in my veracity does not go even this length."

"Good-bye."

"Erna! is it possible? Is every voice silent in your heart? Does
nothing stir, nothing plead for one whom once you--I dare not say the
word any longer, for I must fear to offend you again if I remind you of
what once was? Great heavens! and I had thought, that if my pen were
powerless, and my pleading on paper appeared clumsy and lifeless, I
should but require to be once more face to face with you, looking into
your loved eyes whilst you looked into mine, and that then you would
believe me even before I uttered a word. And now, now, my glance is
powerless, my words are mere sound. I no longer know what to say; I am
standing here like a beggar who has been telling his story of bitter
woe, and in whose face people close the door at which he has knocked
with trembling hand. Have I become so poor? Well, I am most unwilling
to appeal to a friend for help, but you leave me no choice. There is,
living in your own circle, a gentleman who is in the secret, to whom
the Princess has told it, half involuntarily; drawn on by the vivacity
of her temperament, which she has never learned to control, half
voluntarily, hoping that she was not betraying anything which all, or
at least all concerned, would not know to-day. Well, this hope of hers
has not been fulfilled. The gentleman in question knows it; and not
deeming himself, under the circumstances, justified in speaking, he
will, if I judge him correctly, be silent, although the Princess has
already given him full liberty, nay, has entreated him to tell you all.
I must confess, I was much taken aback when, a little time ago, she
came and told me this; apart from other considerations, it was painful
to me to know that the key to the fatal enigma was in the hands of a
third person. But now, when, to my sorrow, I realise my impotence, let
him plead for me, if he will. He will do it, if I, too, entreat him. I
have barely exchanged three words with him, but looks like his, so
imbued with the true nobility of the soul, cannot lie. Ask him--you
will believe him!"

"Never!"

"You will not believe him?"

"I will die rather than hear from him, speak to him of ... It is a
shame, a shame! This is going too far. What happened before was ... but
this, this ..."

"How now? By the heavens above us, what is the meaning of this?"

"The meaning is this: my last word to you is, Begone!"

"I go. But one thing more, and let it be my last word. It is very
bitter to have to say it. There is one greater misfortune yet than to
see one's love misjudged, scorned, rejected, and that is, to have to
say to one's self that she whom one had loved more,--a thousand times
more than one's self,--is surpassed by other women, whom one had never
dared to put on the same level as her, had barely dared to compare with
her, in kindness and in generosity."

There was a quick step passing away over the tiled passage, then the
sound of the little garden-door being opened and closed, and then a cry
of anguish, half suppressed, and all the more terrible on that account,
the cry of one who had met with a deadly hurt.

Bertram hurried round the intervening shrubs to where Erna stood with
her arms raised on high, with wild staring eyes.

And then she gave another cry, and the next moment she lay in his arms,
clutching him, clinging to him, as a drowning man would clutch, would
cling to, a rock.

"Uncle Bertram! dear, dear Uncle Bertram!"

"My sweet child!"

"Save me! save me!!"

A great gush of tears relieved her. She was now sobbing aloud, bending
over his shoulder. Thus had come to pass that for which, but a brief
time before, he had longed as the greatest bliss; a bliss he would fain
taste for a moment, and for which he would willingly die, after having
tasted it. He held her close to his heart, held the slender maiden's
frame, the tender, heaving bosom; her sweet breath was floating around
his heated cheek, and he knew she was his, was in his keeping; he had
the power to hold her now, and it would cost him but one word. And yet
it was all a dream-gift, which one may retain for a second or two by
keeping one's eyes closed, but which fades away, to return no more, as
soon as the eyes re-open.

"Yes, I will save you, save you from yourself; you have lost yourself,
and I will restore you."

She lifted her head and looked at him, confused, questioning.

"Not to-day, my sweet child, to-morrow; but you must be a good and
obedient girl."

"I will do all that you wish, that you command, dear one, beloved one!
For there is none as good, as noble as you, not one, and I love no one
as I love you!"

Again she clasped him, more violently even than before, and pressed her
hot, quivering lips, to his.

But he did not return her kiss, and a gentle, melancholy smile played
about his mouth as he said, putting her gently from him, and stroking
her dark hair--

"And never did father love his dearest child better than I love you."

And again she gazed up to him with a strange expression of fear and
shame.

"Now go, my child; to-morrow we will talk together. I shall not leave
to-morrow. I shall not go until you need me no longer. Good-bye till
then. And then your dear eyes are to weep no more."

She clung to him still, but hesitatingly, shyly now; he disengaged
himself gently, and repeated--

"Go, my child, go."

She went, slowly, reluctantly, holding her head very low. On the
topmost step, in the doorway leading to the tea-room, she paused and
turned, as though expecting that he would summon her back.

But he beckoned with eye and hand: "Go!"

She vanished behind the velvet curtain. He was alone!



                                  XXI.


The mirth and fun of the feast were at their height now. The
commander-in-chief had ordered that at twelve o'clock all officers
should be in their respective quarters, including those who had been
told off to the houses of the ranger, the mayor, and the other chief
denizens of the village. It was past eleven o'clock already. No time
was to be lost, if the guests wished to drain the cup of delight which
the hospitable mansion-house proffered in such abundance.

"Vivat Champagne!" exclaimed one of the young officers, taking a glass
of the foaming wine from the salver which a footman offered him.

"And pretty girls!" returned his friend von Köppingen, emptying his
goblet at one draught, replacing it on the salver, and turning upon his
heel to hurry to the fair Augusta, with whom he was engaged to dance
the _Rheinländer_, the music of which the orchestra was just playing.

"And where have you been, Ringberg?" asked another comrade, Herr von
Rollintz; "been gambling a little?"

"You know I never play," replied Kurt, who was leaning against the
door.

"Nor dance? Well, well, you are always so sensible; I feel half dead
already, upon my honour! And yet I have to dance this _Rheinländer_
with the belle of the ball. I am looking for her everywhere; have you
seen her, perchance? Ah, there she is!"

Von Rollintz flew right across the room to meet Erna, who was just
entering from the tea-room. A minute later the pair whirled past Kurt;
von Rollintz, with radiant and glowing face, chattering even during the
dance, Erna still and pale, the long dark eyelashes lowered.

Kurt gazed gloomily after them; then he turned away and began pacing
the verandah. After a little while he saw, at the end opposite to him,
a gentleman ascending the steps, in whom, as soon as the bright light
fell upon him, he recognised Bertram. The young man advanced rapidly
two or three steps, then paused hesitatingly.

"Why, after all!" he murmured, "everything now would be in vain."

Bertram, who had gone up to one of the windows of the ball-room, was
now slowly coming along the verandah. It was painful to Kurt to meet
the man to whom, but a minute ago, he had been willing to apply for
help. So, happening to be just in front of the card-room, he slipped
in.

"He avoids me," said Bertram to himself. "In that case the mountain
will indeed have to go to Mahomet!"

As he was about to look for Kurt in the card-room, he saw, on his way
past the open doors of the ball room, Lydia in conversation with one of
the older officers, a conversation carried on by Lydia with her
customary abundance of gesture and the frequent use of her fan. He drew
nearer, and, as he had hoped, her ever-roving glance had soon lighted
upon him. A slight movement of his eyes was sufficient for the highly
experienced lady, who left the Major with a jesting word, and tripped
up to Bertram.

"You have something to tell me, dear friend?"

"Can you spare me one minute?"

"One minute? For you?"

She gave a sentimental glance at Bertram and started.

"Merciful Heaven!" she exclaimed, "you are ill. You wish the doctor
sent for; but there is one here, nay, there are two,--pray let me...."

"Pray remain here," said Bertram, seizing her by the hand as she was
hastening away. "It is true that I feel rather worn out--a consequence
of the unrest and noise to which I am not accustomed--but otherwise
perfectly well. Let us sit down there!"

He pointed, to a couch near, and sat down; Lydia followed him with
trembling knees, shaking all over, feeling her heart rising to her
throat. The whole unusual approach of Bertram who was generally so
reserved, his pallor, his solemn manner--all this could have but one
reason, one meaning--and what was she to reply? Act surprise and
terror, of course! But not too long, just a few moments of half
fainting, with her head leaning back against the wall and her eyes
turned rapturously towards the chandelier.

"My dear friend--for I must appeal to your friendship--to your
love...."

"Good Heavens!" murmured Lydia.

"To the love which you doubtless cherish for Erna, and which has, I
assume, misled you to this last extremely equivocal step of yours."

"Good Heavens!" murmured Lydia again, but this time with accents of the
greatest terror, as of some one who suddenly feels the ground beneath
him giving way.

"I will not reproach you," continued Bertram, "which indeed I have no
right to do. I was wrong myself in not taking you into my confidence in
reference to Erna, in wrapping myself in secrecy and silence, and thus
all but compelling you to act alone and independently in order to help
our dear child to what, let us trust, will prove her lasting happiness.
But the remedy which you applied came too soon and was too strong; it
has not had the desired effect, at least not in the meantime; indeed,
at present things look desperately bad. Do not ask me how I have
learned this, I may tell you later on, when perhaps you will tell me,
too, how you discovered the secret which both guarded so carefully. All
this does not matter just now; but one thing is of the greatest
importance, and this I heartily beg you will grant me. We must
henceforth act in common, take no one into our confidence of whom we
cannot be sure that he aims at the same thing as we do--namely, at
Erna's happiness. And I think you will do best if you leave me to judge
when this is the case. Are you agreed?"

Poor Lydia was sadly embarrassed. For her terrible disappointment it
was some compensation that Bertram himself had evidently no matrimonial
intentions with reference to Erna, and that he was offering Lydia his
alliance and friendship. How gladly would she have agreed! How gladly
said yes to everything, averring that she would blindly obey his
behests. But alas, in addition to her first indiscretion which he had
so kindly pardoned, she had meanwhile committed another which he would
scarcely pardon.

"It is too late, I see," said Bertram, who had not failed to notice the
terribly anxious expression of her mobile countenance. "You have
already told Hildegard."

"No, no--not Hildegard--worse! far worse!" murmured Lydia, wringing her
hands and casting down her eyes. "In my anxiety, my--ye Heavens! I
cannot excuse myself on any other ground--in my tender anxiety, for you
... the Baron ... you ..."

"Pray speak distinctly," said Bertram, repressing his anger. "I must
know all. The Baron ..."

"He was so angry with you ever since that miserable letter--no, I
cannot tell you that; I am too much ashamed of myself--but Erna has
already pardoned me, and so will you. We had all lost our heads. He
asserted that you alone were to blame for his failure with Erna. And
that Otto had not given him the money--a great big sum--three thousand
thalers--was your doing too, he said. This morning already, before he
drove away, he vowed in my presence that he would inflict a terrible
vengeance upon you; and at dinner, when he sat next to me, he talked
dreadfully, and drank ever so much champagne--and I knew--I thought I
knew--I saw that Erna and Ringberg--Erna had denied him altogether; and
the girls--Augusta, you know, and Louise--told me that Ringberg used
constantly to meet her at their house ...! Erna was so excited when the
regiment came, and ..."

"Go on!" cried Bertram.

"And now the Baron wanted to make you suffer for it. And I really could
not tolerate it, seeing that perhaps I had contributed to the Baron's
wrath against you."

"And so you told the Baron all?"

Lydia was sitting with rigid, tearful eyes, and started in terror as
Bertram quickly rose.

"What would you do?"

"Try if I can repair the mischief a little."

"Let me go, I entreat you! and I will tell the Baron ..."

"And I wish you to tell him nothing. I wish you to remain where you
are, and to appear as unconcerned as possible to all, specially to
Erna, if she should come to you, which, however, I doubt; and mind that
you do not betray one word of what we have been discussing here. Will
you promise that?"

"I promise everything you wish."

"I shall not be ungrateful."

Lydia gazed after him with tears in her eyes as he hurried away. "I
shall not be ungrateful," he had said; and saying that, he had pressed
her hand--for the first time since they had met--and supposing,
supposing that it came to pass after all!

Major von Keberstein approached her again, and said laughingly--
"You seem to have had quite a long confidential conversation with the
gentleman who carried you off so abruptly from my side. And then a poor
old bachelor like me is not to get jealous!"

"I will do my best now to make up for it."

"It will take you all your time, we shall have to tramp back to our
quarters in ten minutes."

"Can you not throw in half an hour?"

"Not for worlds!" exclaimed the major, replacing his watch which he had
been consulting. "My orders are very strict."

"Then I must claim the ten minutes at least," she rejoined, gathering
her robe together and making way for the stout old gentleman by her
side on the couch.

In the adjoining card-room, too, the guests were bent upon making the
most of the last few minutes by doubling and trebling their high
stakes. All the players now were civilians, chiefly neighbouring
proprietors, who could afford to lose a few hundreds. Some of the
officers had at first joined in the game, but only at first, and with
very small stakes, as if to show that, so far as they were concerned,
the whole thing was a little harmless social amusement--nothing more.
When heavier sums began to be staked, they had at once ceased playing,
and had gradually melted away. The _Oberförster_, or ranger, who was
only looking on, thought that this had been done in obedience to a
signal from the Colonel himself, who had passed through the card-room
on his way out.

"All the better," the Baron had sneered; "then we shall remain snugly
among ourselves. _Faites votre jeu, Messieurs!_"

And indeed the Baron, so the gentlemen present thought, had good reason
to find his position a snug one. He was winning almost without
interruption. The heap of bank-notes and gold coins by his side was
ever increasing; among the bank-notes were already a good few slips, on
which the players had written their names and the amount of their
stakes; his gains were said to be several thousands. He asserted that
it was nothing like that sum, and repeatedly offered to let some one
else take the bank; but no one cared to accept his offer; and thus the
losers had no right to grumble, although for some time now they had
been, as one of them said, hurrying in pursuit of their own money. They
had need to hurry if they would overtake the money which was ever
fleeting. The Baron's proposal that the game should cease punctually at
half-past eleven, the time fixed for the conclusion of the ball, had
been agreed to, and it was now almost a quarter past. The Baron saw
already, from the large stakes which the players were venturing, that,
as the cards were more than ever in his favour, his gains would be
doubled; his jubilant mirth proved the excitement he was labouring
under; he had some funny word for every card he dealt, every deal he
scored, and all the while his eyes were glowing, and his busy hands
were twitching nervously. Suddenly there was a change. One of the
players had staked a sum equivalent to the total of his losses during
the evening--and had won! This daring play, and the success which had
crowned it, stimulated the others; and now everything went against the
banker. In a few minutes his heap had dwindled down to less than half,
and it became evident that if, during the remaining quarter of an hour,
the bank were pursued by the same bad luck, it must needs end with a
considerable balance the wrong way. The jests of the Baron became more
and more bitter; presently he took to whistling savagely through his
closed teeth, interspersing this with muttered curses; his eyes, now
roving restlessly around the room, seemed repeatedly to be fixing
themselves upon same one within the room. Suddenly he stopped in the
middle of a deal, and exclaimed, with a semi-audible curse--
"You are bringing me bad luck, sir! You are in my way, sir!"

These words, which he had uttered in the most violent way, were
accompanied by a fierce look at Kurt, who, to avoid meeting Bertram,
had entered the room a few minutes ago, and had since been standing
with folded arms among the spectators, who, attracted and enchained by
the sight of the maddening game, had, in ever-increasing numbers,
grouped themselves around the board of green cloth. The scene had not
had any attraction for him; his mind was far away; he had stared
mechanically before him without seeing anything; nor had he heard the
Baron's words; he only felt it disagreeable that several gentlemen near
him were looking hard at him. One of them thought it incumbent upon
himself to whisper to Kurt that the Baron had meant his remarks for
him. Kurt, under the impression that Lotter had been asking him to join
in the game, and not wishing to say it aloud, replied in a courteous
whisper to the gentleman who had called his attention to the fact that
the Baron had meant his remarks for him--

"I am sorry, but I never play."

He accompanied this by an apologetic shrug of the shoulders towards the
Baron, and turned upon his heel. As soon as he was free of the crowd
surging around him, he made for the door leading to the verandah,
hoping that there he would be left to himself and to his own sad
thoughts.

The Baron burst into a hoarse, mocking laughter when he saw Kurt turn;
he went on dealing, with trembling hands, then jumped suddenly to his
feet, exclaiming--

"Excuse me, but I must ask the gentleman, what he means by shrugging
his shoulders."

He flung the remaining cards upon the table, and was rushing towards
the door through the crowd of amazed and excited spectators, whom he
pushed rudely aside if they did not make way quickly enough. Before he
reached the door, however, Bertram faced him, barring the way.

"What do you want?" the Baron hissed through his teeth.

"I want to call your attention to the fact that you are the guest of
this house, and that you are on the point of basely violating its
proffered hospitality."

Bertram had spoken firmly, but in so low a voice that the Baron alone
could hear him. His look, too, was perfectly calm; even those next to
him, who saw but his face, whilst the Baron was turning his broad back
upon them, could not but think that it was simply some indifferent
communication.

The Baron was speechless with wrath. Bertram gave him no time to break
out. He continued in the same low, incisive tone--

"I see that you quite understand me. I need scarcely add that I am at
any time at your service, should you consider yourself in need of a
comment upon the lesson which I have given you."

"You shall hear from me, and forthwith!"

"The sooner the better!"

He bowed slightly; then, raising his voice as he turned to the others,
he said--

"A thousand pardons, gentlemen; but I was commissioned by our amiable
host to remind you that his military-guests have, alas! to retire
already; and that they will be wishing to bid you farewell."

As if in confirmation of Bertram's words, the music just then broke off
in the adjoining ball-room, the door flew open, and quite a host of
officers came rushing in. There could no longer be any question of
resuming the game, even if the players had been willing, which they,
however, certainly seemed not to be. Some of the older ladies had come
in, looking for their husbands; some others, young ones, followed; the
room was overflowing with guests; the players had difficulty in
getting back to the table to pocket their stakes. Not a few of them
had yet to square accounts with the Baron; they crowded round him, but
he was shoving the remnant of his gains--gold coins, bank-notes,
I.O.U.s--higgledy-piggledy into his pockets, and when questioned, as he
constantly was, replied with surly mien and in briefest words, and
repelled rather than answered their questions--muttering that they
might apply to-morrow; and that, in this confusion to-night, the devil
himself could neither hear nor impart information.

Bertram had eagerly watched, this scene, keeping close to the door
which led to the verandah. He made sure that the Baron's time was
meanwhile absolutely taken up, and that he would, not be able to think
of following Kurt and inventing some new reason for a quarrel, since
the first attempt had failed. Under any circumstances, the Baron would
have to settle with him first; and then he saw how, breaking away from
the players who were still surrounding him, the Baron hurried up to
meet Herr von Busche, who, looking very heated and flushed, was just
coming from the ball-room. The two gentlemen Bertram knew to be, as
shooting companions, on good, though not on specially friendly terms;
anyhow, there could be no doubt as to the subject of their present
discussion in yonder far-away corner, where the Baron was
gesticulating, while Herr von Busche, the young gentleman from the
Woods and Forests' Office, listened intently, now and again shaking his
head, and at last nodding it, more, it seemed, in courtesy than in
assent. Then Bertram remembered that it was time for him also to look
out for a second.

Looking for Ringberg, he saw him on the verandah, which now was filled
by the guests, among a small group of officers, already with helmets
and overcoats on, who were bidding him good-bye. These departing heroes
had their quarters in the village; they were in a mighty hurry; a
couple of servants were in readiness with lanterns to light up the
shorter way to the village, down the terraces; fair Hildegard had,
indeed, been mindful of everything needed. As the other officers were
hastening down the steps, Bertram stepped up to Kurt.

"Can you spare me a minute, Lieutenant Ringberg?"

Kurt was evidently very much surprised, but he at once bowed his
assent.

"To be sure, a minute will not suffice, if, as I hope, you will grant
my request."

The young man's bronzed cheeks assumed a yet deeper hue, as he said--

"Pray, speak; and be assured beforehand that it will be a pleasure and
an honour to me to be of use to you in any way."

"Then have the kindness to give me your arm and to accompany me into
the garden, that I may tell you uninterruptedly what is the matter.
Well, it is briefly this: Baron Lotter--I do not know whether you have
had the doubtful pleasure of making his acquaintance--a friend of our
host's, by the way, with whom he and I have been staying here for the
past week,--thinks himself insulted by me, and, according to the usual
code and my own conviction, he has good cause for it. It is an old feud
resulting from a certain mutual rivalry as to the respective
consideration and influence which he and I claim, or think we may
claim, in this house, an old feud about to be ultimately settled. The
actual occasion of the quarrel is merely accidental, and, as such,
absolutely irrelevant. I mention this particularly to enable me to add
the request that in the subsequent negotiations, supposing that you are
willing--well, very well, then, and I am really obliged to you--that in
these negotiations you may lay absolutely no stress upon that occasion,
nay, that you may avoid touching upon it at all. You will please accept
the conditions for the hostile meeting exactly as they may be proposed
by the other side; I have my own reasons for wishing to be particularly
obliging in that respect. Only the fixing of time and place troubles
me. Here of course the duel cannot take place. I should therefore
propose some spot near town. This would suit me all the better, as I
have, anyhow, announced my intention of leaving this place to-morrow,
and could, therefore, remain in town for a short while without
attention being called to it; and as the Baron also was to leave
to-morrow too, and as he also must pass through town, the delay will be
very brief for him. The only question now is: Whether and when do you
think you can be free yourself?"

"In no case," replied Kurt, "before to-morrow afternoon, but then for
certain, because, if circumstances were less favourable, I could then
get leave of absence from the Colonel--without, of course, mentioning
the special reason why I needed it. Circumstances are, however,
favourable, and, if our suppositions are at all correct, and if the big
sham-fight is once over, the regiment will, sometime to-morrow
afternoon, be somewhere between this and town, and may even have to
bivouack there. Under any circumstances, I shall be able to attend
punctually at the time required.

"This," said Bertram, "will do excellently. So we are now free from
this trouble; and this, I think, is all that we need settle in the
meantime. Now it may be as well if I put you in communication with Herr
von Busche. I have no doubt that he is to be the Baron's second. If
required, a question from you, as to whether he chanced to have a
commission, a message, for me, would at once settle things."

They had meanwhile come again near the verandah, and just then Herr von
Busche was coming out of the card-room, looking round apparently in
search of some one. Bertram and Kurt hurried their advancing steps, and
he again turned swiftly round, to speak to Bertram, the moment he had
recognised him, saying--

"I am so glad, Herr Doctor, to have met you at last, since I was about
to do myself the honour of bringing you a message of some importance. I
have already been looking, and looking in vain for you, in all the
rooms."

"A thousand pardons," replied Bertram; "but I, myself, have not in the
meantime been idle in this affair. May I now have the pleasure of
introducing to you the Premier-Lieutenant Ringberg, who ..."

"I have already had the honour," said Herr von Busche with a bow.

"All the better. Then I will no longer disturb you, gentlemen. You will
find me in my rooms. Good-bye till then."

He shook hands with Kurt, bowed to Herr von Busche, and left them both,
as they retreated into the semi-obscurity of the shrubbery, until,
passing along the verandah and the side building, he reached a postern,
from which a stair led, straight from the garden, to his rooms.



                                 XXII.


Even on this stirring evening Konski had not been oblivious of his
duty. He knew from experience that his master was wont to retire from
festivities before their actual close, and thus Bertram, on entering
his rooms, found his candles duly lighted, and all preparations made
for the night. He praised his faithful servant for his careful
attention, but told him he was not in a hurry to go to bed, as he was
expecting a visit from Lieutenant Ringberg, and that Konski might hurry
back to his sweetheart, as no doubt he would like.

This he said in his wonted playful tone, to Konski's intense delight,
for the servant gathered from this that his fear, lest his master
should again be the worse for all the noise and excitement of the big
entertainment, had been uncalled-for. He even ventured upon a remark on
the subject.

"I am astonished myself," Bertram said in reply. "I think you must be
right; we both had put ourselves down too soon as old fogies."

Bertram smiled as he spoke, and Konski thought that his hint had fallen
upon fruitful soil, and that his own favourite wish would, after all,
be fulfilled. Perhaps his Aurora might know some details. To be sure,
My Lady had given strict orders that within ten minutes after
the departure of the last carriage no soul was to stir about the
mansion-house, lest any of the officers billeted there should be
disturbed in their brief slumbers. But Aurora would surely find out
some place where they could quietly converse.

So the faithful servant left Bertram, and instantly the master's serene
mien changed, and assumed a look of great anxiety. He listened: perhaps
his expected visitor was even now crossing the servant's path. No; the
noise died away in the corridor and on the stair. Konski had vanished
somewhere in the court-yard, and all now was silent. Bertram began to
pace softly up and down his room, then paused again, listening. What if
Kurt were to learn that the duel was to be fought for his sake? In that
case, the chances were everything to nothing that he would insist upon
precedence, and would himself challenge the Baron. Bertram, anyhow, had
some scruples as to whether he should not have told the young man the
true state of affairs, because he had now exposed Kurt to the
possibility of one or other of the witnesses of the scene in the
card-room misinterpreting Kurt's action, and asserting that he had
simply been unwilling to understand Lotter's insulting remarks; and
this would, of course, according to the military code of honour, have
been identical with a reproach of downright cowardice.

But, then, it might be hoped that in the wild confusion and frantic
excitement of the moment, no one had been at leisure to observe the
little incident minutely enough to be able to give a clear account of
it either to himself or to any one else. On such occasions a dispute or
wrangle was by no means of rare occurrence, and none of the spectators
had looked as though they were in the habit of attaching much
importance to such scenes; and it certainly would be foreign to the
good, easy-going Thuringians to have done so. Fortunately, not one of
Kurt's fellow-officers had been present at the time; and even Herr von
Busche, the young gentleman from the Woods and Forests, had only come
in at the last moment. The question was simply whether the Baron would
subsequently try to pick a quarrel with Kurt, seeing his first attempt
had clearly failed through no fault of Kurt's; and now, of course, the
Baron would have a capital chance of doing so. The pity of it, thought
Bertram; why had he blindly followed that inner voice which bade him
choose Kurt for his second? Why? It had been Bertram's only chance of
getting one deep, searching look into the young man's heart? But was
not the fulfilment of his ardent prayer purchased all too dear, if it
led the way to the very thing which he was desirous of preventing at
the sacrifice of his own life?

And yet, he said to himself, he need not quite despair. Lotter, to be
sure, now knew who was his real rival. And the desire to wreak his
vengeance upon that rival, to annihilate him, if possible, was very
sure to become overpowering in the heart of a hot-blooded, terribly
angered, absolutely unscrupulous man, one never at a loss, and one
passionately in love with Erna. But was this really the case? No, and
again, no! That man never had loved Erna. His whole suit had, from
beginning to end, been nothing but a vulgar speculation upon Erna's
presumably colossal fortune, by means of which he hoped to free himself
from disagreeable temporary embarrassments, and to continue his
good-for-nothing life of self-indulgent ease. Even before Kurt had
appeared upon the scene, those dreams of a brilliant future had become
greatly obscured; he had, it was clear, been virtually dropped; and he
was surely quick enough to have found out speedily to whom he was
indebted for this fate. His savage utterances to Lydia were sufficient
proof that he knew quite well who, from the very beginning, had stood
between Erna and him, who afterwards had delayed the decision,
prevented any further approach, roused the distrust of the parents,
turned the daughter's thoughts away, and ultimately had done the very
worst for him. If there was any one who had deserved the Baron's wrath
and hatred, on whom his vengeance was certain to fall, surely it was
himself. Why pick a quarrel with any one else as well? The Baron was no
coward, far from it; yet, being a perfect shot, he would have it all
his own way with an opponent like Bertram, who had hardly ever hit the
target when they practised together. Why then should the Baron not play
a trump card when lie had one in his hands?

Thus cudgelling his brain, carefully weighing every reason for and
against it, Bertram kept viewing his position, and all the while the
weary moments seemed to creep slowly, slowly by, and each succeeding
one weighed more and more heavily upon his soul. And yet, would he not
perchance learn all too soon, that his bold attempt to take the place
of Erna's lover, and thus to guard their new-born happiness, which was
already so much endangered, against a new and most serious peril, had
failed, and that he himself had missed this most excellent opportunity
of dying? He was doomed to go on living this life of his, which had
lost its savour and had no longer any meaning for him! Half an hour had
already gone by; they might have finished their consultation long ere
this, for there was little enough to consult about--unless it was the
other duel!

In the court-yard, whence the noise of the departing carriages and
divers shouts had been ascending, silence began to prevail. Bertram
could master his impatience no longer; he stepped across the corridor
and went to one of the windows looking out upon the court-yard which
the expected lieutenant would have to cross. Presently he heard a
swift, elastic step upon the stairs; he hastened to meet his hurrying
visitor, and cried, holding out his hand to him--

"Is everything settled?"

"Everything."

"Thank Heaven!" Bertram had all but said; he just managed to change it
into a polite, "Thank, you so much!"

He kept Kurt's hand in his own as he led him into his room. He made him
sit upon the sofa, and seated himself by his side. Kurt thought that
one could not welcome a dear friend, the bringer of the most pleasant
news, with greater warmth and delight. This feeling was still more
strengthened when his singular host presently sprang up again, and
fetched from his stock of provisions for the journey a bottle of wine,
which he proceeded to uncork; next he brought some glasses, and even a
small box of cigars. Although no smoker himself, he said, he always had
some cigars by him for his friends.

He filled the glasses, and held out his own to Kurt.

"May everything turn out as we wish!"

"With all my heart!" replied the young officer.

Kurt said these words with a deep, almost melancholy gravity; which
contrasted strangely with the gladsome excitement of the older man;
Kurt's lips barely touched the wine, whilst Bertram drained his glass
hurriedly, greedily, and instantly refilled it.

"I have fasted almost all day," he said, as if by way of excuse. "A
festive entertainment always puts me out and takes away my appetite.
But now, please, tell me--do they agree to everything?"

Kurt reported with military brevity and precision. The only difficulty
had been to fix the time, as the Baron had at first asserted that he
could not delay his departure beyond noon on the following day at the
latest; ultimately, however, he had agreed to the meeting coming off at
six o'clock in the afternoon. The place was to be a certain spot in the
great forest, almost exactly midway between Rinstedt and the town, by
the banks of a little lake. It would be easy to move thence to a still
more remote portion of the wood, in case the man[oe]vres should have
brought any one to the neighbourhood, which, in its normal state, is
absolutely deserted.

"I remember the place exactly from former walks," Bertram said.

"Capital," replied the young man, "for that removes another
difficulty--namely, how you were to find your way to it from the town.
The spot suits me singularly well, because we shall probably bivouac
not a mile from it. I forgot to mention that I have already secured the
services of our very skilful staff-surgeon, and that Herr von Busche
will provide a carriage. Lastly, for the sake of keeping the whole
affair secret, it seemed desirable that the Herr Baron should not go
straight from here to the meeting. So, under pretext of wishing to make
to-morrow an excursion to the scene of the man[oe]vres in company with
Herr von Busche, of returning here at night, and leaving definitely on
the day following, he has sent word asking his host and hostess to
excuse him until to-morrow evening, and even now he is driving with
Herr von Busche to the ranger's house, where he is to pass the night."

"Excellent! excellent!" exclaimed Bertram. "Everything is arranged most
thoughtfully and carefully. I thank you very much. Herr von Busche
appears to have been perfectly willing to facilitate all arrangements?"

"He was charming," replied Kurt; "nay, more, he told me quite openly
that he was doing the Herr Baron this service most reluctantly, very
much against his own will indeed, and only in deference to the
traditional courtesy in such matters, and that he would give a good
deal, if it lay in his power to settle the whole affair amicably. I
confess I fully sympathise with him in the last point. It was a most
painful thought for us both that a man like you should risk his life
against a Baron Lotter, who, it seems, does not enjoy any one's special
sympathy; and all the chances are against you, too."

"Why all the chances?"

"Herr von Busche said that your opponent was one of the best
pistol-shots that he knew, unerring of aim, and steady of eye and hand.
Herr von Busche, of course, has never seen you practise, but he fears,
and so do I, that ..."

"That I am a miserable shot?" exclaimed Bertram smilingly. "Out with
it! Yes, yes, you gentlemen have little confidence in us bookworms for
this sort of thing. But fortunately you are mistaken. I am more or less
out of practice, I admit; but I can shoot a little, and at such a short
distance too!"

"I am delighted to hear you say so," replied Kurt. "And yet I would
like to ask you if there is no possibility of bringing about an
amicable settlement. It is not by any means too late yet. Herr von
Busche quite agrees with me in this. Only, as we are both absolutely
ignorant of the real cause ..."

"But I have already told you that an old feud is about to be settled,"
Bertram interrupted him somewhat impatiently. "The momentary cause--by
the way, a small lesson in good manners which I gave the Baron--is of
no consequence at all."

"So Herr von Busche, too, had been told by his client, and we agreed to
accept this as sufficient, considering that a man like you would not
act in such an affair except with due deliberation, and that we younger
men must respect your motives, even if we regret that they are not
communicated to us."

"I thank you both all the more for the sacrifice which you are making
for me," exclaimed Bertram, holding out his hand to Kurt.

"Then I will say good-bye; you will be in need of rest."

Kurt had risen; Bertram retained him.

"Stay a little longer," he said, "if you are not too tired. I am not
fatigued at all. To-morrow's meeting is not weighing upon my mind in
the slightest; nay, more, I am as sure of my good fortune as ever Cæsar
was of his; and I hope, confidently, that we two shall meet many a time
again in the land of the living. Yet one should not claim from the
future what the present offers, and therefore let me, at this present
moment, touch upon a matter which concerns you very specially, and
which I have, Heaven knows, much more at heart than this wretched
business over which we have already wasted far too much precious time."

A deep blush burned upon the young officer's cheeks; his dark eyes now
evaded the bright light of those great blue orbs, whose extraordinary
brilliancy and beauty he had already repeatedly admired in the course
of their previous conversation.

"You know what I wish to speak about?" Bertram asked next; and again
the young man was struck by the complete harmony of the ring of that
voice and of the radiance of those eyes.

"I think I do," he replied, almost in a whisper.

"Then you will know, too, the sort of relation in which I stand to
Erna?"

Kurt still dared not look up. He nodded his assent.

"But you cannot know," continued Bertram, "how very intimate this
relation is--so much so, that I cannot find quite an appropriate name
for it. I should say that of a father towards a most beloved child, if
there did not mingle with my feelings for her a touch which--perhaps
you will understand me--I would call chivalrous tenderness. This touch
may perhaps occur in other cases too, I mean between a real father and
daughter--I am sorry to say I never had a daughter of my own--and I
only mention this element, because it helps me to understand why Erna,
who otherwise confides in me unconditionally, has kept her love a
secret from me. Perhaps it was solely an outcome of the long interval
of time during which we had not met; in such cases a kind of
estrangement is apt to occur, which, to be sure, once overcome, is wont
to be followed by a greater cordiality. But above all, the poor darling
deemed herself rejected, betrayed. Her happiness she would gladly have
let her paternal friend share; unhappiness always seals the lips of the
proud; and yet I know that more than once the secret was trembling upon
those sweet lips of hers, and that had she overcome her shy shrinking,
she would have spared herself--and spared you, my friend--much
suffering; and the palms in the winter garden would, an hour ago, have
waved their magnificent heads above two happy, blissful souls, and not
above two young fools who, from sheer love, were tearing each other's
hearts to pieces!"

Kurt gave a quick quiver, and all but jumped from the sofa; but
Bertram's eyes shone forth in glorious radiance, and a smile of
infinite tenderness played about his mouth. A strange thrill passed
through the young man's heart, as though he were in the presence of
something unapproachably lofty, something which imperatively demanded
humble submission and confiding obedience. So he lowered his eyes,
which had flashed indignantly for a moment, and said, scarcely above
his breath--

"I thank Heaven that He led you to that spot."

"And I," replied Bertram, taking both the young man's hands and
pressing them heartily, "I thank you for that word which sets me free
from all restraint, and takes away the last remnant of shrinking
shyness. Who, indeed, would not shrink, feel awe-struck, when it comes
to touching those tender threads that spin themselves from heart to
heart, until, God willing, they become united in a woof so strong that
death itself cannot rend, it? What God joins, let no man put asunder;
what God puts asunder, let no man try to join! What has come between
you two is sheer misunderstanding, provoked by extraordinary
circumstances, which would have puzzled even older and more experienced
people, and in which you young, passionate, inconsiderate folk knew
not what to do. And being so thoughtless and helpless, you have
assuredly committed mistakes, mistakes on either side, and the demon of
pride--'by that sin fell the angels'--will have gloated over it all.
Not to enable me to register and chronicle your mutual faults, but only
in order that, being taught by the past, we may look the future more
clearly in the face, just tell me how it all came about? When did you
make Erna's acquaintance? Was it not in her aunt's house in Erfurt?"

"Yes," replied Kurt; "and to know her and love her was one and the same
thing; nay, I may say, without the slightest exaggeration, that she was
one 'whom to look at was to love.' One evening, I saw her at a party. I
had been visiting at the house for some time, and I think I was rather
fond of Augusta von Palm, who is staying here now, and with dear Agatha
I was on terms of heartiest friendship; but Agatha; wishing to give me
a surprise, had not told me of Erna's visit. So I saw her quite
unexpectedly among the other young ladies. It would be quite bootless
for me to try and describe what went on in my heart. So, I thought
afterwards, the men must have felt of whom the Bible tells us that they
were held worthy of beholding some divine apparition. My breath failed
me; all the others present seemed to vanish from my sight; I saw only
her, or, properly speaking, not her, only her eyes. It seemed like a
double stream of unearthly, transcendent light; and again it was a
stream which bore me resistlessly onward and upward into realms of
bliss, whereof but an hour before I had known nought, divined nought,
and which yet were, I felt clearly, my true home, to which I was soon
returning after much aimless wandering in far off regions."

The young man's voice quivered. He drained the glass which, before, his
lips had scarcely touched. Bertram filled it afresh. Kurt never saw how
his hand shook as he poured out the wine, nor observed how curiously
veiled the voice was in which Bertram, breaking the pause, said--

"Strange, or perhaps less strange than highly gratifying, that at least
for once I find, this kindling effect of Love's divine flash confirmed
in reality, of which the poets of all times and in all climes have sung
in praise. I am almost ashamed to confess that although I do not think
I am a hopelessly prosaic individual, I have always thought this but a
fond and fair dream."

"And it is a dream," Kurt made answer, "inasmuch as things real are
most curiously shifted and changed in it, and as one can give scarcely
a clearer account than a somnambulist, of what occurs and of what one
does one's self. I do not remember how I got home that night; I have no
idea whether it was several days after, or really on the day following,
that, during a picnic in the country, I was strolling apart from the
rest by her side through a leafy grove. The light of the dying sun was
trembling among the trees, and a few subdued notes of birds' song were
heard. Silence was all around; and in silence we passed on, side by
side. Sometimes she stooped to gather a flower for the tiny bunch which
she held in her hand, and once, as she stooped again, and I wished to
anticipate her, our hands touched; and, startled, we both looked up,
looked into each other's eyes, and the flowers dropped from her hands,
and--well, it was just a dream, a brief and blissful dream. Who can
tell the story of a dream?"

The young man had risen and gone to the window. Bertram kept his seat,
leaning his head on his hands. When Kurt turned back to the table, he
thought that the noble countenance which now looked up with a very
sweet smile was paler than before.

"Pardon me," he said, "but I think I see that you are in need of rest;
let me pause here. You know what happened next."

"Yes, but not quite how it happened," said Bertram in reply. "Please
sit down by my side again, unless you are tired yourself. As for me, I
am a regular old night-owl. How it happened, yes--how did Erna come to
hear of your connection with the Princess? Some malevolent traitor must
have been at work there."

"Would that it had been the case!" answered Kurt. "A traitor Erna's
clear eyes would have speedily recognised as such. But the one who told
her of it was a dear friend of my own, a fellow-officer, who in the
course of a visit to our former garrison--our own regiment had
meanwhile been transferred to Magdeburg--made Erna's acquaintance,
without having the slightest conception of our relations. And as the
conversation chanced to turn upon me, he babbled, under a promise of
discretion, of the secret; and probably adorned and amplified matters,
so as to let the enormous stroke of good luck which was supposed to be
in store for me appear in its greatest splendour. As he was known to be
on very intimate terms with me, as I had myself given him an
introduction to the von Palms, and specially commended him to Erna, she
had to believe that his romantic story was sheer truth; nay, the awful
thought came to her that I had myself authorised my friend to make
these communications, or, if this had been quite too infamous, she
assumed at least that he had been commissioned by me to prepare her,
and had solely blundered over his commission, so that I was personally
responsible, if not for the manner, certainly for the matter. We
corresponded, and with the connivance of Agatha, under cover of a
correspondence of hers with an old school-friend in my present
garrison; but Erna's next letter contained nothing but the question
whether it was true that I had some relations or other with the
Princess? The question thus put, I could not but answer in the
affirmative, begging her at the same time, in connection with the
subject, not to believe in what any one, except myself, might say. My
request came somewhat late, but still did not fail to have its effect
upon Erna's heart, which had assuredly opened with the greatest
reluctance to the terrible suspicion, and which was now jubilant at
being freed from it. She teased my friend about his fertile fancy which
invented stories devoid of a particle of foundation, as she had since
learned from a trustworthy source. Thus challenged, and piqued at being
declared undeserving of credit, my friend stated that he had the
knowledge, if not at first, at least at second hand, for his authority
was my own Colonel, whose testimony Erna would surely not reject. Again
he begged her to be discreet, but hinted pretty plainly that other
fellow-officers were aware of it too, and had likewise learned it from
the Colonel. And now for Erna the doubts which she thought she had
vanquished turned to despair. She knew through me the very intimate
terms on which Herr von Waldor and I stood, and indeed many a time I
had called him to her my best and kindest friend, my protector and
second father. Erna wrote another question. Did Herr von Waldor know my
relations to the Princess? And again I had to answer in the
affirmative, without being able to mention the suspicion which now--and
now for the first time--rose within me, that Herr von Waldor might have
purposely misrepresented those relations in his own interest--you know
why. What need to continue to describe the wretched position in which I
now was placed; how the net was tightened more closely and more fatally
round me, so that I at last had given up all hope of ever being freed
from it; all the more because Erna--as you heard yourself--repelled
with such passionate indignation your mediation, which I was about to
claim. I must confess, I cannot even guess why."

The dark eyes of the young man were raised inquiringly to Bertram, who
did not at once reply to the questioning look. He had turned aside a
little, and was busied refilling the glasses; he did not seem to notice
that he was filling the second to overflowing, and that the wine was
saturating the table-cloth.

"Dear me," he said, presently, "I beg your pardon; I was--thinking.
Why, did you ask? Well, we settled already that, according to all
experience, girls are not fond of confiding to their fathers the
secrets of their hearts. They dread paternal jealousies, a paternal
prejudice against the one who ventures to claim the little hand, which,
as a matter of course, is far too precious even for the best of the
best. But fear not! Erna shall find in me a friend, protector, and
counsellor, who hopes to give the proof that one may love like a father
without being blinded by a father's prejudices, and, above all, one who
means more honestly by her than, I am sorry to say, Herr von Waldor
does by you."

A dark shadow flitted over the young man's open countenance.

"I thank you," he said very gently, "I thank you from the bottom of my
heart for so much goodness, and to deserve it will be the fairest task
of my life. But pray do not condemn Herr von Waldor. It is impossible
to measure him by the common standard. Contempt of death and greed of
life, princely generosity and petty egotism, tenderest love and
bitterest hatred--all these things lie side by side in his soul, and
cross and re-cross each other in such a way that even to me (and I
think I know him better than any one else) it is a perfect enigma. But
if at times I cannot solve it all, if in this present case I cannot but
see that he is willing--I must not say to sacrifice, but to stake--me
and my happiness in the hope of gaining his own great stakes, then I
need only remember what he has been to the orphaned boy, after he had
carried my father, fatally wounded, upon his own shoulders out of the
bloody struggle around the fortifications of Düppel; how he, of all men
the most impatient, has watched over me with a mother's loving patience
when I have been ill; how he resumed his studies in order to be able to
supervise and guide mine; how he paid my expenses when I was a cadet;
how he equipped and helped the ensign, the young officer; how he
pressed upon the poor young man of _bourgeois_ birth abundant help to
enable him to hold his own in an expensive and aristocratic regiment;
and how he thundered in his wrath when I refused to accept it any
longer, as I had learned that he had himself to borrow the needful
money at usurer's interest. Surely you will admit that one so deeply
indebted to Herr von Waldor as I am, has lost the right, nay, more, the
ability to struggle and resist, even if the hand which has done so much
in the way of kindness weighs heavily, terribly so, upon him."

"I think I can follow you in your feelings," replied Bertram, "although
Waldor is by no means thereby excused in my eyes; on the contrary, I
adhere firmly to the Scriptural saying, that the right hand should not
know what the left does; and I hold that he who claims gratitude has
already his reward. Moreover, was the sacrifice really requisite, which
Waldor expected from you, when he put you into this ominous position?
From a moral point of view it is a matter of indifference; but I should
like, if possible, to be enlightened on this point, which I have not
hitherto understood."

"How things stand exactly," Kurt replied, "I can hardly say myself. I
assume that the marriage-contract of the Princess contains certain
conditions which deprive her of the greater part of her present
fortune, if she contracts a new matrimonial alliance; or rather, would
seem to deprive her, for a judicial interpretation of this dubious
point is to be the result of the law-suit which is now reaching its
final stage. Further, it may be assumed that the view of the Princess
herself is the only correct one by all the laws of sound logic; but she
fears--whether rightly or wrongly I know not--that the decision will be
adverse to her if the authorities learn that her choice has fallen upon
an alien."

"But you are an alien, too," objected Bertram.

Kurt shrugged his shoulders.

"An obscure lieutenant, not of noble birth, and Princess Volinzov! No
one need imagine that they would have taken this _au sérieux_, any more
than a dozen other _liaisons_...."

He paused abruptly, blushing to the very roots of his hair.

"For shame!" he cried, "that was basely said. Let others sit in
judgment upon the poor victim of a most abominable bad education and of
most wretched circumstances. I dare not, I dare not feel for her aught,
but admiration and gratitude, and renewed gratitude, for I know and
have experienced in my own person that, through all the badness and
baseness that have been crowding around her from her childhood, she has
preserved the capacity for a great and heroic love, a love of which we
men are scarcely ever, and of which among women only the best and
noblest are, capable."

Only at the last words Kurt had again ventured to look up, and he
swiftly lowered his eyes again. Bertram's great eyes shone in wondrous
radiance, and a curious smile, half melancholy, half ironical, was
hovering about his lips, as he slowly answered--

"To be sure! you are quite right. Only the noblest women! We men are
egotistical scoundrels; that is our lordly privilege; and he who
resigns it, deserves to be crucified with malefactors on either side."

He had risen and was now pacing up and down the room; then he stepped
to the open window. Kurt had kept his seat, thinking that Bertram would
turn to him again. But he did not. The young man grew embarrassed.
Reverence forbade him to disturb the dreamer. Never before had Kurt met
one whose presence had thus thrilled him as with a breath of highest,
purest vitality. And to this consciousness, which seemed to lift him
out of and above himself, was joined the painful feeling which
humiliated him in his own sight: that he had but just now been petty
enough to say a bitter word about the woman of whom he yet knew, that
she had come here to bring the greatest of all sacrifices that a loving
heart can bring. And he, Bertram, knew this too; for Alexandra had said
to Kurt: I have confessed all to Bertram! What a painful discord his
own evil words must have been in the pure and high-souled Bertram's
ear! And now Bertram, who had in all good faith shown him so much
sympathy, had found him ungrateful, had turned from him, now and for
ever.

He would, he must go!

But invisible fetters seemed to chain him to the spot; and as he sat
there, angry with himself, in gloomy thought, it was no longer only the
heavy, weary limbs that refused to obey him. His thoughts, too, flitted
and wandered beyond his control. Something like a dense veil sunk upon
his eyelids, and he saw surrounding objects but momentarily,
indistinctly; the lighted candles upon the table seemed to be far-off
bivouac fires, then they turned to dim and distant stars, then were
lost in night and darkness.

Bertram had carried the candles to the writing-table, and shadows now
rested upon the weary sleeper. Then he returned to the sofa and spread
a coverlet over him.

"Poor lad! I saw how you were struggling against your sleepiness. The
examination was a long one. But I could not spare you, and you have
done well!"

He stood gazing upon him.

"And, like this, his head will rest by the side of hers--on one
pillow!"

He drew his hand over his eyes, stepped noiselessly back to the
writing-table, and presently his pen was gliding lightly and gently
over the paper.

"My dear child,--I may henceforth with good right call you so, since
Fate gives me one opportunity after another, to prove myself a good,
and, I hope, also a thoughtful, father to you. But an hour ago I had to
calm and comfort my beloved child, and yet dared not give her true
comfort, dared not express my full and firm conviction that a good,
upright heart always makes choice of the right thing at once. For good
and upright as my dear child's heart is, yet it is a very defiant heart
too, and would rather be miserable in its own way, than happy and
blessed in other people's way; and it would have steeled itself against
my persuasion and against my testimony, and would again and again have
reverted to this: You do not know him! But now I say to you: I do know
him; and you must accept my testimony as that of a man of great
experience and knowledge of the human heart, of a man whose eyes--sharp
as human eyes go--love for you and care for your welfare have filled
with divine perspicuity. I know him now, after one hour spent here in
my room in confidential conversation, as though I had known him from
childhood, stalwart young man as he is; and even as I sit writing this,
he is sleeping, under my watchful care, the sweet sleep of exhausted
youthful vigour, notwithstanding his painful anxieties and the bitter
sorrow of his heart. I have been watching him in his sleep. Sleep is a
terrible betrayer of narrow minds and feeble hearts. Here there is
nothing to betray, and sleep can but put its soft yet sure seal upon
the beauteous image of a great and noble soul. And even as this soul,
helpless and resistless as it were, is in my keeping, receive it, loved
one, from my hands, as a great and glorious gift of the gods on high,
who have deemed me worthy to be their envoy and the executor of their
sacred decision.

"I promised you not to leave as long as you had need of me. You need me
no longer, and I shall leave in the morning without bidding you
farewell. From your mother, too, I shall take leave in writing; she
knows my weakness for vanishing noiselessly from society. It is a long
journey that lies before me, and we shall not soon meet again.
Separation is death for a time, and time, again, is nought but a tiny
speck, and its complement is eternity. A noble human being should plan
his thoughts and action not in reference to the former, but the latter.
Let, therefore, what I now say to you, for the brief space wherein we
shall not behold one another, be said for evermore: Fare thee well,
_Lebe wohl!_ that is, live according to the bidding of your heart, as
you hear it when you listen to it in secret silence and reverence!
Howsoever this our life may be shaped, it is no longer our concern, but
that of the powers on high, over whom we have no influence, and
therefore it matters nothing to us. Once more then: _Lebe wohl!_

"My kindliest greetings to sweet Agatha! She is your true friend. I
always felt that she would counsel nothing that I would not counsel
myself.

"And another is your friend, too, though you do not think her to be
one. You know I am speaking of the Princess. She also will leave your
house to-morrow, not without making an attempt to prove to you that she
is your friend. Be good to her for my sake; in that case I feel
convinced that you will part from her with kind and grateful feelings,
and that she herself will have inspired them. Whatever she may say to
you, I guarantee its truth. Hers is one of those natures that may go
astray, but that can never be untrue.

"Should you have a message to send me, send if through your father,
whom I shall see in W---- tomorrow. Should I have anything else to say
to you, I will send my message through Kurt, whom also I shall meet
again to-morrow.

"And now remember your promise to be my good and obedient child; and
again, and for the last time: _Lebe wohl!_"

He had put the letter into an envelope, and now turned in his chair,
looking towards the sofa. His young guest was still lying in the same
position, only his head had fallen back a little. Perhaps deeper
shadows were now falling on the forehead and on the closed, eyes,
whilst chin and lips stood out in brighter light and bolder relief;
anyhow, the features that appeared so soft awhile ago seemed sharper,
and the expression of almost feminine gentleness was turned to one of
manly resolution, nay, of angry indignation.

"Thus Simon Peter may have contracted his brows, thus his lips may have
quivered that night! And yet he could sleep, although he knew what was
to happen. Even as this one, knowing, yet sleepeth!"

Again he stood by the open window, leaning against it.

A dead silence; only at times the night wind came rushing past, and
there was rustling and roaring among trees and shrubs. In the village,
veiled in mist, a dim red light gleamed faintly here and there. At
times confused sounds, as of far-off horses' tramp and the measured
step of soldiers on the march, with clashing of arms. Then deep, dead
silence again, and then, piercing the deep silence, the half-smothered
crow of a cock. Over the edge of yonder mountains the moon--almost at
the full--hung, bloody-red, in the vapour which came steaming up from
the woods.

"Did you look so mournfully up to it that night? And had all the
heavenly stars to expire for Him too, that He might remember the heaven
within His heart?

"Alas! He knew that He was dying for the world. I humbly claim but to
die for her,--she is my world.

"One cannot choose one's own Gethsemane. One must take it as it comes,
whether to the sound of the last trump on the Day of Judgment, ringing
through the hearts of all the generations of men, or in deep and
world-forgotten loneliness and secrecy, whither human eye shall never
penetrate, any more than it penetrates into the nethermost depths of
the sea.

"And this is my silent Gethsemane!"

The moon had sunk behind the hills, and the cool morning breeze came
floating along. Bertram was about to close the window when he heard
from afar a short, sharp sound, soon succeeded by other similar sounds,
succeeding each other so swiftly that the echo could clearly continue
the scattered noises and reverberate them as thunder. And now shrill,
long-drawn trumpet-blasts were heard, mingling with the beat of the
drum.

Bertram quickly turned to the sleeper, who was not, for his sake, to
neglect his military duties. But already Kurt had staggered up from his
sofa-corner, his eyes wide open, though still veiled by slumber, and
his arms stretched out, clutching the air, as though in search of some
weapon.

"I--I--not you! I will fight him! Give me the pistol!"

Bertram touched his shoulder.

"They are sounding the assembly in the village!"

"Oh! I thought ..."

He brushed his hand across his eyes.

"I have been asleep! Pardon me. How good you are! You have been
watching for me. Is it long since ...?" and he pointed to the window.

"Not half a minute."

"Then I am in good time!"

He had already fastened his sword, and seized his helmet.

"Excuse my hurry. You know ..."

"No excuses! A matter of course. _Au revoir_."

He held out his hand to the young man, in whose fine features, now full
of life again, he noticed a strange quiver. Kurt evidently wanted to
say something, and could not hit upon the right word. So he only
pressed Bertram's hand vigorously.

"Well, _au revoir!_"

He hurried away. Bertram stood gazing at the door through which the
slender young figure had vanished.

"Heaven be thanked! It is at least no disgrace to yield to him. He is
thoroughly sound and sweet,--mind and body alike!"



                                 XXIII.


In the mansion-house which had until now been hushed in slumber, many
voices were heard shouting, and the tramp of horses came echoing from
the court-yard. A smart, heavy step was heard below in the passage.

"Which door?"

"The second, Colonel. Allow me, Colonel."

But Bertram had already opened the door, and Colonel von Waldor came
rushing in.

"Good evening, friend, or rather good morning. A good thing that I met
your servant at once--otherwise I might have been hunting for you ever
so long--I have only one minute to spare--where is Ringberg? Your
servant said he was here."

"He left five minutes ago, when they were sounding the assembly."

"That came unexpectedly, eh?" cried the Colonel. "An hour before
the time--I did it on my own responsibility. His Excellency will
be furious--wait for the attack, forsooth!--in such an exposed
situation--not if I know it!--we shall have to retreat ultimately as it
is--so I'll give them some trouble first. But that does not concern
you. Here is something that does, a little, and which will greatly
please you. Read this!"

Waldor drew a folded paper from between a couple of buttons in his
uniform and handed it to Bertram. The telegram was in French, and in
the following! words:--

"I sincerely congratulate Madame la Princesse. Lawsuit definitely
gained.

            Your obedient servant,              Odintzov."

"Odintzov," Waldor explained, "is our Petersburg lawyer and
business-man, a most trustworthy fellow. What do you say now?"

"That I do congratulate you heartily. How did you get hold of this?"

"See what it is to be in luck! I knew that the lawsuit would soon be
decided, though Alexandra refused to believe it. So I gave orders that
any telegram arriving, by day or by night, was to be straightway sent
here by mounted express. Returning just now from the outposts, close to
Rinstedt, I overtook on the high-road a fellow trotting along in front
of me. 'Telegram from Rinstedt?' 'Yes, sir.' 'Princess Volinzov?' 'Yes,
sir.' 'Give it to me.' The beggar had got rid of the telegram before he
knew what was up. I read it by the light of my cigar; hence this stain.
May I trouble you for an envelope? Or perhaps you would be so kind as
to hand it to the Princess with my respectful compliments? It would
give her double pleasure. I can assure you that you are still as
fortunate as ever with the sex! Alexandra quite raves about you. Good!
Now, you may both put your wise heads together and settle how and when
the battle, which is won, is to be utilised for the benefit of our
young _protégés_. I give you two _plein pouvoir_. I should say, let
them dangle a little longer. I could come over with Kurt, never saying
a word of this to him. We would have a nice little supper. 'Ladies and
gentlemen, I have the exquisite pleasure of presenting my future wife
to you--the Princess Alexandra Paulovna.' Capital! The amazed look in
the eyes of our beautiful hostess is worth doing it for. And then the
young ones immediately afterwards--only, of course, you must first
pitch into the little girl properly; she seems to have a bit of a will
of her own. All right, you'll see to it all between you, no doubt.
Good-bye, _mon cher_! You are looking deucedly fagged. That's the
result of being so much indoors. I have been on my legs since four
o'clock yesterday morning, and feel as fresh as paint. Is this Kurt's
glass? Oh, bother all ceremony! It is not the first that he and I have
been using the same glass."

He filled the glass and drained it at one draught.

"Capital wine that! Well, good-bye, and _au revoir!_"

The Colonel had rushed off again.

"And thus," said Bertram with a smile, "one conquers the world. Perhaps
it looks harder than it really is."

He again sat down at the writing-table and took up a fresh sheet of
paper.

"Gracious Princess,--Waldor has just left me, after handing me, for
transmission to you, the enclosed telegram, on the contents of which I
beg to offer my hearty congratulations. I am sorry I must do so in
writing, for a few hours hence I shall leave this--secretly--not to
return. Business that will brook no delay makes this imperative, and I
have not told Waldor of it. He hopes to find me here this evening, that
I may be a witness to the amazement which the announcement of your
engagement will cause in this friendly circle, as all obstacles to it
are now removed. I am sincerely sorry that I cannot afford him that
pleasure--for to him it would really be a pleasure.

"I regret it the more, because I must prepare a worse disappointment
for him. For I consider it, in the interest of our _protégés_, to be
desirable--necessary, if you wish--that you, My Lady, should also leave
to-morrow; without waiting for Waldor's evening visit. The
communication which you were resolved to make to our fair young friend
Erna, before Waldor had given you _plein pouvoir_ (which he now begs to
do through me), will only have the right calming effect if you strike
the proper note on Erna's heart, and then let it ring out full and
clear. In life, as on the stage, a good ending has to be provided for.
This is missed if one lingers on the stage, when once the decisive word
has been spoken.

"And what about the communication itself?

"I should deem it presumptuous on my part, were I to venture to advise
Claudine's clever friend on this point. She knows that one is compelled
to say the whole truth only in a court of law. In life it is
sufficient, nay, it is often requisite in the interest of humanity, to
say nothing but the truth, to be sure, but, of the truth, only what is
needful and useful--to use the words which Lessing puts into the mouth
of his wise Jew Nathan.

"And, now, let me add to my requests, a word of deep and sincere
gratitude that you deemed me worthy to make the acquaintance of
Claudine and of yourself. Your friend is perhaps more interesting and
intellectual--at least you said so--but your heart is a thousand times
more noble.

"I have always paid due respect to intellectual capacity; but before a
noble heart I gladly and reverently bend my knee."

Silence had for a long time been reigning again in the mansion-house.
The combat, too, though it had commenced in the immediate vicinity, was
now being continued a long way off, and one only heard something like
the rumbling of a distant thunder-storm. The candles on Bertram's
writing-table had all but burned down to the sockets; he turned his
wearied eyes towards the window, through which the dull grey morning
light was coming. Konski came into the room.

"What time is it?"

"Just five, sir."

"So late? Well, I am ready. Did you get hold of a carriage?"

"It is waiting at the bridge below."

"Did you get if from the mayor?"

"Yes, Herr Doctor. At first he was making no end of excuses; for they
all want to drive to the man[oe]vres, every man of them; and Herr von
Busche has ordered a trap, too, for the afternoon. He'll have to be
content with a common cart and a sack. Never mind that, though!"

"Why should you look so miserable about that?"

"It isn't about that at all, Herr Doctor."

"Well?"

"It is because I do not like to let the Herr Doctor drive away like
this. Can you not take me with you?"

"Impossible! You see yourself that you have a couple of hours' work
before you yet. These sealed packets are to go into the small
portmanteau which you keep by you. These letters you will deliver, when
the ladies have risen. This money is for the servants. Do not forget
any one, and do not be stingy, Konski! And remember me kindly to your
Aurora. And now my cloak, please, and so good-bye, Konski."

"Am I not at least to see the Herr Doctor to the carriage?"

"No."

"Herr Doctor, do not be angry; I really mean so well by you, and Aurora
does too. We have been speaking of nothing else. And she swears that
the Herr Doctor, if he wished it, could have Miss Erna for the asking."

"Then tell your Aurora that the Herr Doctor does not wish it, and that
the Herr Doctor has better things to do than to spoon and fool about,
like you and her."

He had held out his hand to the faithful servant, and now he was gone.
A minute later, Konski, standing mournfully by the window, saw the
dark figure striding swiftly past the lawn, and vanish behind the
terrace-wall. He closed the window with a sigh.

Bertram lessened his pace, as soon as he knew himself unobserved.
Slowly he descended the steps to the second terrace. Here was the
leafy grove which, on the left, led to the platform beneath the
plantain-tree. He glanced timidly that way. His foot had already
touched the next step, he wanted to get down,--to get away,--but
something like a magic spell drew him to the spot.

There, in this chair, she had sat; he was facing her; and the golden
sunbeams had flitted through the dense foliage, and the birds had been
holding a gleeful festival in the branches, and from the gardens below
fairest fragrance of flowers had been wafted up, and his heart had been
full of light and joy, and of all the blissfulness of spring. And now!
and now!

"Thou sacred dawn of early morn, forgive me! You quiet trees and
bushes, tell it not! I have borne what man can bear; more, I cannot."

And pressing his hand to his face, he wept.



                                 XXIV.


In the little-garden, under wide-spreading chestnut-trees, the lawyer
and Bertram were sitting, about four o'clock in the afternoon, at a
table covered with books, documents, and papers. From, the small garden
one could look across a narrow court-yard, at the windows of the
office, where they had just begun to make a fair copy of the will,
which had been settled after long deliberation.

"And now, most grave and most conscientious of men, seeing that you go
into this election campaign as into actual war, let us drink that
victory may be on your side--that is, on ours, on the side of liberty,
and right--and that the victor be granted, over and above his allotted
time, as special allowance for special services rendered, a respectable
series of not inglorious years, at least as many as this '68
Rüdesheimer wine numbers!"

The lawyer took a venerable-looking bottle, from a side table, filled a
couple of green goblets, and touched Bertram's with his own.

"I thank you for the kindly wish, and drink to its fulfilment, although
as you know, I have well-founded reasons for assuming that it will not
occur."

"Nonsense!" cried the lawyer. "I am not a giant either, but I
confidently expect to outlive all the giants among my contemporaries.
What does Wallenstein say?--'Es ist der Geist der sich den Körper
bauet' (It is the mind that builds, this frame of ours). And I would
add, that also keeps the building together, even if it were shaky in
every joint; and that is assuredly far from being the case with you."

Bertram smiled absently. His looks were wandering away to the garden
gate.

"I wonder where Otto can be?" he said. "I urgently asked him to be here
at four o'clock at the latest."

"I am in no hurry at all," replied the lawyer. "After having had to
keep you waiting the whole forenoon, my entire evening is at your
disposal instead; or, if you insist upon leaving at five, we can have
another second witness in, and you can communicate to our friend in
writing those points which have special reference to him."

"I am most anxious to do so by word of mouth."

Upon the wretched pavement of the narrow street which lay behind the
garden wall, a carriage came hurriedly thundering along.

"_Lupus in fabula!_" exclaimed the lawyer. "Any one coming from
Rinstedt would have to pass this way."

As he spoke, Otto's broad-shouldered figure appeared in the little
yard.

The two men had meanwhile risen from their seats below the
chestnut-trees, and had gone to meet the newcomer.

"What tricks are these of yours?" Otto was saying, "to cut away from
the village in the middle of the night in a trap? What will people
think? Why, that I am driving my guests from my house! But, of course,
you intellectual people never can do things like the rest of us
mortals; always something out of the way! Eh, old fellow?"

He brought his hand with a laugh down upon Bertram's shoulders; but the
laugh was forced, and, indeed, in all his look and manner there was
painful unrest.

"I am sorry that I must leave you gentlemen alone for a little," said
the lawyer, with a meaning look at Bertram; "but you can call me at any
time from the office. By the way, there is an empty glass here, Bermer.
You must be thirsty after your drive along the hot road, and you have
not in your own cellars at Rinstedt a better Rüdesheimer than this."

He turned his back upon the friends now, and forthwith the last trace
of forced mirth vanished from Otto's face. He had flung himself into a
garden chair, and there he sat, his elbows leaning on his knees, his
hands put to his full round cheeks, staring fixedly in front of him.

"This has been a day which I shall remember!" he said.

"You have spoken to your wife?"

Otto nodded.

"In detail?"

"Well, yes; that is to say ..."

"That you might have spoken in greater detail. It does not matter,
however, as long as you have informed her of your situation in the
main. That has surely been done?"

"Been done!" exclaimed Otto. "Great Heavens! it was fearful! At first
she seemed to think that I had gone mad; at least she looked so ... so
frightened at me, don't you know, and wanted to ring the bell. But I
told her that I was, unfortunately, still quite in my right mind, and
perfectly sober, although yesterday I did perhaps, in my despair,
drink a little too much. And then, I do not know how it came about,
but one word led to another; and when she told me that the whole thing
was my own fault, and the outcome of my bad economy and my costly
foibles,--she could not mean anything more by this, than that I like to
drink a good glass of wine and to smoke a decent cigar;--why, then,
something passed within me that I cannot describe. I felt as though my
very heart were turning, and as though I had never loved her in all my
life. And then there was no longer any need to hunt for appropriate
words; they came fast enough, and harder, too, than I liked at last. It
was horrible!"

Otto gave a deep sigh and drained his glass.

"This is really good wine," he said, taking up the bottle and looking
at the mouldy label. "I wonder where he got hold of it. But what does
it matter to me? All grapes are sour for me henceforth."

"I hope not," said Bertram. "Anyhow, I thank you for having taken to
heart and faithfully carried out what I wrote to you last night. This
was indeed the first needful step, if the execution of my plan, the
details of which I will immediately communicate to you, was to be
possible. But one question first: you have not let Erna hear anything
of the subject of the conversation between you and your wife? And, as I
know your wife, she will surely keep as long as possible from Erna,
what she considers less a misfortune than a disgrace?"

"You can rely on that," replied Otto; "she would rather bite her tongue
off. But how long will it be before Erna has to learn all?"

"I hope that will never be the case!" replied Bertram. "Now, to come to
the point. I have asked you to come here to-day to be a witness to my
last will and testament. I might have told you its contents yesterday,
but I did not do so, because--to speak quite frankly--I was afraid you
would not keep the secret entirely, and thus the impression upon your
wife, on learning the whole truth, might have been considerably
lessened. If, after all, things come round again and change for the
better, then--for she is not bad, your wife, only spoiled and not given
to looking beneath the surface--then something like gratitude will stir
within her. And should this really not be the case, then I am, as it
were, master of the situation and you will both yield; you willingly,
she, because she must. Well then: in this will of mine, of which they
are now making a fair copy in the office, I have made Erna my residuary
legatee, except some smaller legacies, among which there is a suitable
annuity for Lydia. From her future inheritance, there will at once be
taken and made immediately available the sum which you require to set
your affairs thoroughly right again, with our legal friend's help. He
guarantee's that with this sum the greater part of your fortune
may yet be saved, if you agree to his arrangements, above all about
the factories. This sum will be advanced as a mortgage on your
estates--our friend will explain to you how it can be done--at a
moderate percentage, and the total revenue accruing from it is to be
Erna's from the day of her marriage. Concerning that marriage, Erna has
of course absolute freedom of choice, although I for my part hope that
she will fall in with the wishes which I have expressed to her on this
subject. And now shake hands, old man, and pardon me if I have had to
add another unpleasant hour to the one which I already caused you
to-day. _Tu l'as voulu!_ From me you would not accept anything; with
your own child you will, I trust, stand upon less ceremony."

"It is your money for all that," murmured Otto.

"As long as I live; who knows how long that will be! And there is our
legal friend coming, bringing the document in question with him, which
you are now to hear read, and which afterwards you are to adorn with
your signature, as one of the two witnesses."

"The other," said the lawyer, now approaching the group with his chief
clerk, "will be Mr. Kasper here. Sit down, Kasper, and read away."

During the reading of the somewhat lengthy document Otto's countenance
kept changing colour; his eyes were very wet, and he repressed his
tears with difficulty. When the lawyer handed him a pen for signature,
his big powerful hand trembled to such an extent, that he could
scarcely produce a few strokes in lieu of writing his name.

The document in question was now legally completed, and the lawyer had
left the friends, to put it himself into a safe place of keeping. He
came back at once. Would the gentlemen kindly excuse him? His
Excellency the Herr Oberhofmarshal von Dirnitz had just appeared in the
office, and desired to see him on business of importance.

"It probably will not be so very important, after all," said the
lawyer, "I hope to settle, it in a very few minutes, and then we can
talk at our ease."

Again the friends were alone. Otto seemed to have paid no heed to the
lawyer's coming or going. He sat still at the table, supporting his
head upon it, and staring gloomily before him. Bertram bent over him,
and said, laying his hand upon his friend's shoulder--

"Otto, old man, you must not view the matter in too tragic a light."

"Perhaps I ought to look upon it as a joke having signed my own
death-warrant," murmured Otto, without stirring from his position.

"You have done nothing of the kind," replied Bertram. "I should rather
say, that now a new life was beginning for you; a life of purpose,
sobriety, energy, independence, however strange the last word may sound
to you. Until this day you were not living an independent life; nothing
but a sham existence, in slavish subjection to the caprices of your
wife, to whom you sacrificed your fortune, and, worse than that, your
own better judgment. Now, having come to see this, you are enabled, by
means of some assistance, to re-conquer your fortune, or at least the
greater part of it; and this surely is no alms, but a mere loan, for
which you are responsible in every respect; and, perhaps, in addition,
you may conquer what you never possessed before--I mean, the love, or,
at the very least, the respect of your wife, which she only denied to
the husband who had no will of his own, but which she will not refuse
to grant to the husband who is strong, determined, and who respects
himself."

"Yes, yes," Said Otto; "it all sounds very well, and I surely mean to
try to atone for my miserable shortcomings; but this I know already
to-day, it will not do. I mean, I shall not have the energy you speak
of, nay, I shall look upon myself as a downright scamp, and I shall not
dare look my wife or any one else in the face, far less confront them
energetically, as long as I see no chance of paying off my whole
stupendous debt to you. Not to the uttermost farthing, that may perhaps
be made possible--but in my heart. I do not know how to express it
aright, but you will understand my meaning--by giving you in exchange
something that no one else could give you."

He lifted his eyes to Bertram in anxious inquiry. Bertram shook his
head.

"I thought we were not to mention it again," he said.

"Nor should I, to be sure, have done so," replied Otto; "however fond
one may be of a man, and however indebted to him, one's only child is
of course one's only child; and just now, above all, to have to give
her up, to live in the big house alone with--but I cannot give up the
thought that now, after all, nothing is to come of it, after they,
Lydia and my wife, have tried to prove to me in writing--in black and
white, don't you know--that you loved each other, and that at least
Erna ..."

"I hardly know what you are talking about," Bertram impatiently
interrupted his friend; "and what do you mean by 'in black and white'?"

"A stupid story," Otto made answer, embarrassed, "in which those women
have got me involved, and which; yesterday, I did not wish to refer to,
as I was desirous of sparing Hildegard. But now let the whole thing
come out; it may as well. Listen, then!"

So he told him of the letter which Erna had written to Agatha, and
which Lydia had purloined for a few hours. Hildegard had read the
letter to him, and his excellent memory enabled him to reproduce it
now, if not literally, at least in its general bearings. He also had
remembered well the passage referring to some _liaison_ which Erna
would seem to have had, and to which the ladies had not attributed any
special significance.

"Now," he concluded his report, "you see why my wife, who was so bent
upon having Lotter for a son-in-law, was so annoyed with you during the
last few days; nor do I know what would have come of it all, if the
Princess had not yesterday brought, her round to reason: how she
managed it is a riddle to me, but it is a fact, there, is an end of
Lotter, for good and all. This morning Hildegard went the length of
saying that it had been I who had favoured Lotter, and--for I may as
well tell you all now--you suddenly appeared to her not only as an
acceptable husband for Erna, but rather she saw in your union the only
possibility--if my carelessness had really wrought our ruin--to save
Erna at least, and to preserve for her such a position in society as
she was born for. Well, old man, it's off my mind at last, and for all
that, and, all that, it would be the grandest day in my whole life if
you were able to say to me: 'Well, better late than never!'"

"It is too late!" Bertram replied.

He had ejaculated those words, in intensest excitement, bounding from
his chair as he did so, and now he was, with uneven step, pacing up and
down beneath the chestnut-trees. But presently he returned to Otto,
who, frightened, had not stirred from his seat, and said in his usual
calm tone--

"It would be too late, even if everything were--as it is not. I did not
mean to speak about it, because I am not commissioned to do so, and
because, therefore, those interested might have had good reason to be
annoyed, if I told you before they themselves thought the time had come
for doing so. I meant to rest satisfied with paving the way, so that
there should be no obstacle to the fulfilment of their wishes. But now,
since you seem unable to rid yourself of the curious idea of an
alliance between Erna and myself; since, oddly enough, your wife finds
pleasure therein; and since now, perhaps the fact of my making Erna my
heiress, might seem to both of you an indirect confirmation of your
opinion, I had better tell you this. I know that Erna has already given
away her heart, that for more than a year she has loved Lieutenant
Ringberg, and has been loved by him. It is my most earnest wish that
the union of the lovers may meet with no obstacle, and I firmly believe
that this marriage will lead to Erna's supreme happiness. And now let
me confess one thing more, so that I may have nothing whatever on my
conscience with regard to you. It was not for nothing that I have thus
hastened to put order into my own, and, I trust, into your affairs, and
to secure Erna's future. In the very next hour I have to go forth on an
errand from which, in all human probability, I shall not return with my
limbs whole, and where, very possibly, I may lose my life."

Then he briefly told his friend of his quarrel with the Baron last
night and of its consequences. The true reason he did not refer to any
more than he had to Kurt.

Otto was quite beside himself when he heard of it.

"It must not be, it shall not be!" he cried again and again. "It is
sheer madness. How can you go and fight a duel with pistols when you
scarcely know how to fire one? And with Lotter, of all men, who hits an
ace at twenty paces. This is no duel, it is downright murder. I will
not allow it!"

"Please do not speak so loud, anyhow," said Bertram; "they can hear you
in the office."

"All the better!" cried Otto; "every one may hear that you cannot fight
the fellow. Why, Ringberg is far more sensible than you, for he
pretended last night not to notice the fellow's impertinence, and left
the card table without replying a word."

"Who told you that?" cried Bertram, terrified.

"The forest-ranger," replied Otto, "He came over to breakfast this
morning. Yesterday's events were discussed; I did not pay much
attention to the talk, for the scene which I expected to have with
Hildegard was weighing upon my mind; but I remember now. The ladies
were discussing, whether Ringberg had done right in ignoring Lotter's
impertinence. Lydia thought yes, but the Princess declared that it
could not be thus, because ... I cannot remember why not; it had no
interest for me. If I had been able to divine that Ringberg and
Erna--that you ..."

"Was Erna present?"

"Erna? No. That is to say, I do not know--I was very absent--she went
out riding afterwards with the Princess, who sent me word that I had
better drive to town alone. Confound the fellow! Picking quarrels with
everybody! And we are to blame; good Heaven, it is my fault that you
... I thought the worst had already come, but this is far worse than
anything. But I cannot allow it, and I will not. Never! When did you
say it was to come off? And where?"

"I shall tell you nothing more, and I am sorry I told you anything at
all."

Bertram rose swiftly, Otto sprang up too, exclaiming as he did so--

"I shall go with you."

"You are about to leave, gentlemen?" a thin voice behind them was
asking.

In their excitement neither had noticed that the lawyer and the Herr
Oberhofmarshal had entered the garden, and had already approached
within a few yards of them.

"Will you very kindly introduce me to the Herr Doctor?" said the
Marshal, after he had courteously tendered his hand to Otto.

The introduction was made.

"It is not quite right," said the Marshal, "that only now I have the
honour ... I hear you have been for more than a week at Rinstedt, and
yet you have not had a minute to spare for us! Not for our theatre, our
school of art, our museum! Not to mention my humble self, although I
have for years been accustomed to no stranger of distinction passing my
threshold. You must make up for this yet, you really must."

Bertram answered the old gentleman in a few courteous words, looking at
the same time entreatingly at the lawyer.

"Your Excellency will excuse me," said the lawyer, "if, considering how
pressed the Herr Doctor is for time, I venture ..."

"Quite right, quite right," said the old gentleman. "Indeed, I already
noticed myself that the gentlemen were leaving. Let us come to the
point--a very, very disagreeable point, in reference to which, acting
on the advice of our common legal friend, with whom I originally
intended only to discuss the judicial bearings of the case, I should
now like to be allowed to claim also your assistance, my dear Mr.
Bermer."

"In that case," said Bertram, who in his impatience almost felt the
ground burn beneath his feet, and who also thought this a splendid
opportunity for getting rid of Otto Bermer, "you will perhaps allow me
to take my departure."

"Pray remain, Herr Doctor, I entreat you!" exclaimed the Marshal
eagerly. "Quite apart from the painful interest which the matter will
have on psychological grounds for such a profound student of human
nature, I feel a moral necessity to have an affair, which it is
desirable to withdraw from the cognisance of the judge, adjudicated
upon by a forum of men of enlightened intelligence and honourable
character--adjudicated upon and,--alas, alas!--condemned. The case is
this ..."

"If your Excellency will allow me?" said the lawyer, in response to
another still more entreating glance of Bertram's.

"Please, please," replied, the Marshal, conveying the pinch of snuff,
which he had just, taken from his box, somewhat abruptly to his nose.

"The case is this," the lawyer went on, without heeding the old
gentleman's annoyance: "your friend Baron Lotter, my dear Burner, has
been guilty of an action which amounts to fraud and forgery. He had
been commissioned to, buy a couple of race-horses for the Court
during the summer, somewhere in Bavaria, and had drawn the money for
them--three thousand thalers--from the Grand Duke's privy purse, upon
an order signed by His Excellency; but he appears not to have paid the
money, but to have given a bill of exchange instead, with the forged
signature of His Excellency, as representing the Marshal's office."

"Is not this monstrous?" cried the old gentleman, "as if the Upper
Court Marshal's office ever paid, with bills of exchange!"

"The daring of the deed is indeed tremendous," continued the lawyer,
"considering the fact which His Excellency has stated just now, and
which was also known to the Herr Baron. And indeed he had taken the
precaution to inform the clerk of the privy purse--into whose hands the
bill of exchange would necessarily come first--when presented for
payment, that the affair was all right; that he would hand him the
money a week before it was due; the little service would not remain
without its reward, as soon as the Baron had got his foot in the
stirrup, in other words, as soon as he was Chamberlain. The poor fellow
was weak enough ..."

"It is incredible!" murmured the Oberhofmarshal; "quite incredible!"

"To be sure, your Excellency," said the lawyer; "nevertheless, he was
weak enough to consent to what was evidently a fraud, until to-day, two
days before the bill was due, and when the money promised by the Baron
had not appeared, his terror compelled him to make a clean breast of it
to His Excellency. Meanwhile the bill had, yesterday, been sent to a
local banker for collection. This banker, who, of course, had never
seen anything of the kind occur in business, thought it advisable to
make private and confidential inquiries of His Excellency as to the
state of affairs, just before the clerk made his confession, and now
His Excellency has the proof in his own hands."

The little old gentleman, who accompanied the lawyer's report with many
a nod and with eager play of features, was opening his mouth, but the
lawyer continued swiftly--

"His Excellency at once went to His Highness ..."

"I beg your pardon!" cried the Marshal. "I struggled for an hour as to
whether I could not spare His Highness this grief. Moreover the young
man's father was my dear old friend, who would turn in his grave if he
could hear that a Lotter, his own son--it is terrible! And be assured,
gentlemen, if I were a rich man--every one knows I am not--I ..."

"Your Excellency would in that case not have gone to Serenissimus," the
lawyer went on; "but it was not to be avoided. His Highness, with his
customary generosity, resolved at once ..."

"That is," the Marshal interrupted him, "in consequence of my report
and recommendation."

"Of course, in consequence of His Excellency's report and
recommendation, resolved at once that the bill was to be paid as if
everything were in perfect order, under the condition that the Herr
Baron should never show his face at Court again, and depart
straightway. This latter point, the Grand Duke declared with very
natural anger ..."

"I really must beg ..." objected the Marshal.

"Declared with considerable emphasis to be the _conditio sine quâ non_,
if he were to show a merciful forbearance, in lieu of allowing the law
to take its course. And now we come to the point when ..."

"When," the Marshal said, turning to Otto, "I must claim your kind
services. You have the ... I can only say the great misfortune to be a
friend ... I mean an acquaintance of the Herr Baron, who is at present
a guest in your house. My appearance there, however greatly I should
esteem such an honour, would perhaps cause some sensation, the very
thing His Highness wishes to avoid at any cost. Serenissimus himself
suggested and our common friend here ventures to propose directly,
that ..."

"That you, my dear Bermer," resumed the lawyer, "might give the young
gentleman the requisite strong hint, to which a letter which His
Excellency has just drawn up in my office ..."

"And which I beg herewith to produce," said the Marshal.

"Would give additional emphasis," concluded the lawyer.

"I would beg your Excellency to intrust the letter to me," said
Bertram. "I chance to know where the Herr Baron, who left my friend's
house last night, is to be found at this present moment. To be sure I
must leave at once, lest I miss him. You are coming with me, Otto?"

"Of course," cried Otto; "my carriage is at the door."

"And your horses are swifter than the hired ones, which I had ordered
to be here at five. It is a quarter to five now. We have not a moment
to lose."

"But tell him it as gently as possible, I entreat you," the Marshal
called out after the two friends, who were already crossing the little
courtyard.

Bertram waved his hand in assent.

A minute later the carriage was rattling along the narrow lane behind
the lawyer's garden towards the broad street leading to the town gates.



                                  XXV.


Bertram, on entering the carriage, at once told Otto of the place in
the wood where, by the shore of the little lake, the meeting was to
take place, and Otto replied that they could easily reach it in half an
hour, going first along the high-road, then turning off to the right
and driving along some country lanes, and at last, for a brief stretch,
through the forest.

But they had scarcely left the gates when unexpected obstacles
intervened. The high-road, which had been perfectly free and clear a
little while ago, when Otto was driving to town, now swarmed with
troops belonging to the corps which had made a victorious advance; they
were now utilising this convenient road for taking up their position
for the sham-fight which was to be resumed tomorrow. This was the gist
of the information conveyed to the friends, with due military
politeness, by an officer who had hurriedly ridden up to their
carriage, whilst Otto was vainly storming at some artillerymen in
charge of a gun which they had managed to upset in a ditch, and of
which the horses were blocking the road. The officer pointed out that
the gentlemen would do better to deviate from the high-road than to try
and force their way, and he said that, farther on it was occupied in
even greater strength, and was likely to be absolutely impassable for
the next half hour.

The advice seemed very sensible, and it was possible to follow it at
once, for there was a country lane branching off to the right in that
very spot.

"It is a deuced deal farther," said Otto. "We shall have to drive by
way of Neuenhof and Viehburg; however, there is no help for it now, and
after all we shall be in good time."

"We have already lost a quarter of an hour," said Bertram.

"We'll easily make up for that," replied Otto; "you see the road is in
good condition and quite clear. Make haste, John--as quick as the
horses can go!"

Otto was very far from really feeling the energy which he was
displaying. On the contrary, he was cherishing the hope that the
round-about way would ultimately prove too long; and that, even if they
were to arrive in time, this insane duel should not come off. Thus the
one care which had still been weighing somewhat upon his elastic
temperament was gone. As for the rest, why all had come about as nicely
as possible. Could he have anticipated anything of the kind when, an
hour ago, he was driving to town in his despair, with the remembrance
of that awful scene with his wife upon him like a nightmare? What would
she say now? How would she take it? Not well, of course. She would call
it a terrible humiliation--disgraceful. Nonsense! It was the simplest
and most loyal arrangement in the world. Why should not Bertram make
Erna his heiress, for he had neither kith nor kin, and had always been
so fond of her? Hildegard had never liked Erna to call Bertram uncle.
In future, perhaps, she would not object to it. And what about the big
loan? Well, the bigness was its chief merit. A few thousand thalers
here, a few thousand thalers there, how ignoble, how mean! But a
hundred thousand thalers, that was decent; there was nothing derogatory
about that. Hildegard would herself see that; and moreover, if Erna was
to inherit the money anyhow, it remained, as it were, in the family.
Then he wondered how his wife would get on with the young lieutenant,
whom yesterday they had both seen for the first time. Only yesterday!
But a man must see his son-in-law once for the first time. And he
seemed to be such a charming fellow! What a pity that he was not of
noble birth, for that had, after all, been Lotter's chief merit in
Hildegard's eyes. Poor beggar! he really was sorry for him. That is
what a man may come to when he is seriously embarrassed! Awful! And all
for a mere trifle--those dirty three thousand thalers! If he had given
him the money yesterday, or if Lotter had won them at play, the whole
business might have been hushed up, and the beggar would not have run
a-muck at everybody. The fellow was not a bad sort, hang it, quite a
jolly fellow to get on with! Now, what fiend had possessed Bertram on
this occasion; Bertram, who, on principle, made a point of avoiding all
social conflicts, or, if the worst came to the worst, always knew how
to make a courteous and clever diversion; Bertram who, even as a
student, had never fought a duel, and had never concealed his aversion
on the subject? And where on earth was, in this case, the necessity for
fighting the man? Bertram must have known that Lotter's farce at
Rinstedt was played out, that Hildegard had given him up for good and
all. The foe who is running away should have golden bridges built him,
not be impeded in his retreat. Well, well, it was to be hoped that
Lotter at least had meanwhile come to his senses and gone away. To be
sure, this was the most likely thing to have happened. Lotter, cunning
fellow, had set all this duel business a-going, by way of putting them
on the wrong scent, knowing that his pursuers would presently be on the
alert, and now, whilst he was being looked for in the wood, he had most
probably decamped altogether.

If Otto, good easy-going fellow, on arriving at this comforting
conclusion, did not actually rub his hands in sheer glee, he refrained
solely out of regard for his companion, who was sitting by his side in
silent gloom, as though he were most terribly grieved at the prospect
of the duel not taking place after all.

And so it was. Bertram felt like a man wearied to death, drawing his
blankets around him and preparing for the greatly-desired rest, and
abruptly startled by the alarm of fire. He had, indeed, been longing
for death, but, of course, could not accept it from a dishonoured hand,
neither for his own sake nor for that of the others who had agreed to
act in what they thought an honourable cause, but which now was
irrevocably stained with dishonour. Thus he would have to live on, on,
nor might he let any one see what a torment this life was and would be
to him; no one, and least of all Erna. She was even never to guess that
he had been willing to sacrifice himself. But how was she to be kept
from this conjecture, when gradually it would appear that there had
been a connection between the Baron's insult to Kurt and his own
intervention, which occurred in the same place and the very next
minute? The remark of the Herr Oberförster at the breakfast table
proved that the right scent had been discovered. Had he not thought of
it at all? Or had he done so, and then quieted his scruples by assuming
that his death would spread an impenetrable veil over the real
circumstances of the case? And if that veil were really ever lifted in
Erna's sight, and if she had to say to herself that he had died for
her, it would be but as one note of melancholy, dissolving anon in the
pure and full harmony of her own firm happiness. Was this certain? Or
had he been playing a comedy after all, and assumed the easiest and
most grateful part himself? Had he but draped himself as a dying hero,
in order to hurt his rival, who might thereafter see how best to get on
with an uncomfortable part? And now the piece was not to end, and he
would have to remain upon the stage in the attitude of a hero, and Erna
would have ample time to make comparisons; and they must needs all tell
against Kurt! And would proud Erna forgive her lover this? And was this
to be the result of his own unselfish devotion for Erna's sake?

Thus tormenting himself, he groaned aloud under the weight of the
reproach which he was heaping upon his conscience.

"Yes," remarked Otto prosaically, "that comes from driving so fast.
However, we shall again be delayed, and no mistake!"

After a short quick drive they reached the first village, and came upon
the rearguard of corps number two retreating towards the shelter of the
woods. In the narrow village lane a very compact mass of men and horses
had accumulated, and a forward movement was quite impossible, because
those marching on in front had not yet cleared the line. The men had
stacked their rifles; by the roadside, on the road itself, weary men
were crouching; others were crowding round the different house-doors,
whence compassionate hands were holding out water in every possible and
impossible sort of vessel. In front of the little inn had gathered an
absolutely impenetrable knot of human beings. The driver was compelled
to branch off again, this time into a very narrow little lane, thence
he had to work his way with the greatest difficulty into the open, then
drive across stubble-fields, and so back to the road, frequently
alongside of columns of soldiers on the march, who made way with the
greatest reluctance; and thus they made but slow progress.

Slow, far too slow for Bertram, whose feverish impatience was
increasing every minute, although he knew not what to reply to Otto
when he argued that it really did not matter much, even if they arrived
a quarter of an hour or so too late. And what did too late mean in a
case like this? They would arrive in ample time for the awkward
explanation to the Baron.

"Well, and I might as well admit," said Otto, "that personally I hope
we shall not find him at all."

"I think we shall, though," replied Bertram; "for in spite of his
having morally gone so much astray, he is no coward. A man with weaker
nerves would not have so long borne the danger of being discovered.
And he must assume that he will be left alone until the day after
to-morrow."

"In any case," said Otto, shrugging those broad shoulders of his, "we
cannot advance any faster."

They had meanwhile passed the second village, and the troops on the
march were behind them, and as the road was now both smooth and clear,
the horses were really doing their best. They had by this time reached
the border of the forest, and again they were obliged to proceed at a
walking pace, for the road, which was old and ill-kept, had been made
much worse by the foot-deep furrows which the pressure of the cannons
had produced upon the soft soil. There were many traces of a hot combat
having been waged here; cartridge-cases abounded, being scattered all
over the place; there were plenty of broken branches, moreover, and now
they actually came upon a kind of barricade; and it was impossible to
drive round it, since on either side great trees skirted the road.

"Confound those soldiers!" said Otto; "they carry on as though they
were in the enemy's country. We shall have to get out and walk whilst
John clears away this obstacle, so as to enable him to pass;
fortunately, it does not seem to be very firmly built. The lake is
within a hundred yards of this."

The wood did indeed form a kind of glade, and in this spot a fairly
broad one; and the road now lay between the sedge-grown banks of the
little lake on the left and the edge of the forest on the right. This
was close to the very place chosen for the hostile meeting. At first
the sedge prevented a clear view, but, hurrying along, the friends soon
discovered the centre, and thence they could see the rest of the
ground, up to the spot where the wood came closing in again. All was
deserted and silent.

Otto said--

"When they came, they probably found too much company hereabouts. Rely
upon it, they have passed along the cutting, and are now in glade
number two. Come along, I know every inch of the ground. Look,--a
carriage has stopped here, and has then gone on through the cutting.
And here is no end of traces of horses' hoofs. I have no idea where,
they can all come from!"

The tracks of carriage-wheels and traces of horses' hoofs continued all
along the cutting; but the friends had only advanced a few yards in the
same direction when it occurred to Otto that his coachman, on finding
nobody on the appointed spot, would probably drive straight ahead,
possibly all the way to Rinstedt. The man was quite fool enough to do
so, he said; so perhaps he had better turn back and instruct him,
whilst Bertram went on. It was impossible, he added, for Bertram to
miss the place now.

So Otto turned and Bertram hurried on. Already a certain gathering
brightness indicated the whereabouts of the glade which Otto had spoken
of, and to which the slope was now leading, but leading so gradually
that Bertram could not yet get a glimpse of it, although he surely must
be very near it, for he heard human voices and the neighing of a horse.
And now he saw at least a portion of the glade, and there were several
horses on the spot--as he perceived to his amazement--and grooms were
holding the horses. Looking again, and more carefully, he noticed that
several of the horses had side-saddles. An abrupt thought flashed
across him. He recoiled involuntarily somewhat to the left, and then,
standing behind some broad-stemmed fir-trees at the very edge of
the glade, he saw before him a scene which for a moment held him
spell-bound with terror.

Four or five men, Colonel von Waldor and Herr von Busche among them,
were lifting a wounded man or a dead man upon a low country cart filled
with straw, and then the doctor and his assistant received their charge
and laid him carefully down, raising his head as they did so. The
evening light shone brightly on the pallid face--Kurt's face; but,
Heaven be thanked, Kurt wounded, but not dead! His eyes were open, and
a smile flitted across his pallid features as Erna bent over him where
he lay. Her fair countenance, darkened by the riding-hat which she
wore, was as pale as his own, but she, too, was smiling, and she bent
lower and lower still, and closed those lips of his that would speak
and that were not to speak, with a kiss; and then she leapt down from
the cart and bounded straightway, with Herr von Busche's help, into the
saddle, her horse having meanwhile been brought to her. The Colonel,
too, had mounted by this time, and the cart now set off, the wounded
man being supported by the doctor's assistant; the doctor had also
mounted his horse and joined the procession, which, following the
cutting in the opposite direction, soon vanished within the glade.
There remained but Herr von Busche and Alexandra, whom Bertram only saw
after the cart had disappeared; there were two grooms, too, and they
were now bringing up the horses; one of them a spare one, probably the
one which poor Kurt had been riding.

The whole scene only occupied a few minutes, during which Bertram just
had time to overcome the first paralysing feelings of horror. What
subsequently retained and restrained him in the sheltering darkness of
the trees, was a flood of curiously mingled feelings, out of which
there emerged with potent forces the warning: They have found each
other for life and death; step not again between them; touch not again
with clumsy hands the dainty and complicated wheels of a fate which
laughs your calculations to scorn!

He would have liked best to creep away unseen by any one, but here was
Otto ascending the cutting, and loudly calling Bertram's name.
Alexandra, who was just about to let Herr von Busche help her into the
saddle, started; Herr von Busche sang out in reply to Otto; Bertram
stepped forth from under the trees, and the Princess hurried up to him,
gathering her riding-habit with one hand, and holding out the other to
him.

"My dear friend! you here? Thank Heaven! I was just debating whether I
had not better wait for you, rather than leave a servant with a
message."

"Is Kurt badly wounded?"

"How do you know? but never mind! No; not badly. That is to say, it
will be a tedious affair, but the surgeon guarantees a complete cure,
and states that his life is in no danger. He found the ball at once; we
were already on the spot--and, great Heaven, what a splendid, heroic
creature Erna is!"

Otto had meanwhile come up. There was much cross-questioning, of
course; and the friends speedily gathered at least the main facts of
the occurrence. Herr von Busche was naturally best qualified to give
all the information required. He had heard from the Oberförster, upon
that gentleman's return from Rinstedt, of the scene in which Kurt,
evidently without knowing it, had acted a singular part--one quite
incompatible with the traditional honour of an officer--of a man who is
grossly insulted in the presence of many others, and who withdraws
without replying. The Oberförster had been quite excited on the subject
which he had been discussing with the ladies at the breakfast-table; he
had added that other gentlemen, who had also been present last night,
had expressed their amazement at the young' officer's conduct.

"I am myself an officer in the _Landwehr_." continued Herr von Busche,
"and my duty was clear. I was bound to communicate as quickly as
possible to Ringberg the insulting suspicion to which he had made
himself liable. To apply to the Baron for information was out of the
question. He had left the ranger's house some hours before, to pay, he
said, some farewell-calls in the neighbourhood; besides, I think, he
wanted to procure the horse on which he afterwards came to the meeting.
We had agreed to meet here. Herr Ringberg was also to be here, of
course, but then it would have been too late; there would have been two
duels in lieu of one; and Ringberg's was bound to have precedence. Then
there was no second provided for Ringberg, unless the Herr Doctor had
acted as such, and that was not exactly feasible. Well, in a word, I
got on horseback, and searched the length and breadth of the ground
employed for the man[oe]vres, until at last, when I had given up all
hope, I found Ringberg at the moment when the regiment were stacking
their rifles. This was at five. The original hostile meeting was fixed
for half-past. Ringberg was on the point of leaving, having previously,
under some pretext or other, obtained two hours' leave of absence from
the Colonel. I told Ringberg what I had heard. He requested me to
accompany him to Colonel von Waldor to whom he would have to report the
case. You know the Colonel. 'I am your second,' he cried; 'we'll teach
the Baron a lesson in good manners.' A minute or two afterwards we were
in the saddle, accompanied by the staff-surgeon and an assistant, and
galloped here. The carriage was waiting by the side of the lake, and at
the same moment the Baron appeared. I must do him the justice to say
that he not only did not deny having made the insulting remarks, but
declared his perfect readiness to give instant satisfaction for them.
The issue unhappily was what, knowing the Baron's wonderful skill, I
expected it to be; or rather, it would probably have been even more
unfortunate, if, at the moment of firing, the ladies had not appeared.
I am sure that the Baron, who stood facing the cutting, must have seen
them coming, before the rest of us heard the sound of the horses' hoofs
upon the soft turf, and that the unexpected sight robbed him of his
usual unfailing aim. I find it natural enough that, under the
circumstances, he preferred to vanish immediately, and I expect that he
will be waiting for me at the Oberförster's now. To say the truth, I am
not particularly anxious to meet him again."

Whilst the young man was relating this in his wonted vivacious style,
and whilst Otto briefly explained how Bertram and he had been detained
upon the road, they reached the end of the cutting, and had come to the
place where Otto's carriage was waiting.

"How right we were to divide," said Herr von Busche. "The escort of the
wounded man would have been really too numerous. As it is, it will
cause a certain amount of sensation, although fortunately it will not
have to leave the wood till it is close to Rinstedt."

"It might be as well to divide once more," said Alexandra. "I feel, to
say the truth, somewhat shaken, and would like to await in town news
about the sufferer; for his state inspires me with no alarm now, and I
am expected to appear at Court to-night. I know you will very kindly
let me use your carriage, and mount Lieutenant Ringberg's horse
instead. You will be glad to get home as speedily as possible, although
we sent word to your wife so as to prepare her."

"But," remonstrated Otto, "most gracious Princess, you cannot go
alone...."

"I hope the Herr Doctor will be so good as to accompany me."

Alexandra turned, as she spoke, to Bertram who was standing silent,
evidently in deep thought, and who had scarcely joined in the previous
conversation. Now he looked up, and their eyes met.

"I was just going to request that honour," he said.

Otto looked amazed, but ventured upon no remonstrance. A shrug of the
shoulder behind Alexandra's back, seemed to imply that he considered
Bertram the lamentable victim of a lady's caprice. He instructed the
coachman to regain as quickly as possible the high-road, which was now
likely to be clear of troops, for this would enable the Princess to be
driven with greater ease and quickness. He pointed out to her that
there were plenty of wrappers in the carriage, and begged her to make
use of them in the cool of the evening. The Princess thanked him for
his attentions, and added that she would not fail to inquire personally
at Rinstedt on the following day.

"And you too, of course, Charles," said Otto.

Bertram nodded--

"Then I will not detain you any longer."'

They shook hands; the gentlemen mounted their horses and galloped away,
followed by the grooms, and the carriage set off more slowly in the
opposite direction.



                                 XXVI.


For a little while Alexandra and Bertram sat silently side by side;
then Alexandra said--

"We are at one in the conviction that it will be in the interest of our
_protégés_ if we vanish from the scene?"

"Absolutely," replied Bertram. "I suffer acutely already, and recognise
the outrage that man is guilty of who would play Providence for
others."

"In that case I should have been guilty too," said Alexandra, "but I am
by no means dissatisfied with myself; on the contrary, I believe it is
good that things have happened thus; it was necessary. And when you
know all, you will admit that I am right. You must know it, for the
sake of the future, which will still claim much from us. Listen in
patience.

"I have rigidly adhered to your advice. I announced my departure for
noon to-day; my maid was despatched with the luggage a little before
ten; our host insisted upon escorting me in person to the town. Then I
went to see Erna. We had a memorable conversation which I cannot
reproduce to you in all its details, but the result was that Erna no
longer doubted the sincerity of my desire for her happiness; but her
pride revolted against receiving this happiness at my hands, or, if
that be saying too much, she had the painful impression that her
happiness could only be brought about at the cost of my own, in other
words, that I was still in love with Kurt, and that my marriage to Herr
von Waldor, which I announced to her as impending, was an act of
resignation, if not of despair. Of course she did not give utterance to
all this, nor did she even hint at it; these things one simply feels.
And there was another thing that came between her and the prospect
of calm happiness by Kurt's side. Dear friend, do not deny it any
longer--not to me, even if to all the world besides--you are in love
with Erna! Thank you for this pressure of the hand. It does not reveal
a secret to me, and yet I thank you for it with all my heart. You owed
me this satisfaction, as I have told you Claudine's story; and even as
Claudine's story is buried in your bosom, so the story of a noble human
heart shall be buried in mine."

Alexandra withdrew her hand with a cordial pressure from Bertram's.
They were both too much moved to be able to speak for some time. At
last Bertram said--

"And does Erna believe me to be in love with her, after all I have done
to shake her conviction?"

"I should not assert that her faith has not been shaken," Alexandra
replied, "but she was still under the sway of that intuitive feeling
which guides us women wellnigh always aright, and which in her case
betrayed itself in a hundred turns, every one of which had for its
object your future welfare and happiness. And then, my friend, you did
at last the very opposite of what you should have done to calm Erna,
and to brighten her future. You may thank Heaven that Erna does not
divine the real motive which influenced you; that between the two duels
she sees a sort of mechanical connection of time and place, if I may
say so, and not the real one. But for all that, if you had fallen in
this duel, Erna would never have consented to an alliance with Kurt,
and she would never in her heart have forgiven him for not being the
first on the ground. Whether it was within the limits of possibility to
have forestalled you, the woman's heart does not stop to inquire. The
loved one must be not only the best and noblest and bravest of men, but
the cleverest too; how he sets about it is his own concern! Dozens of
duels have been fought in my immediate neighbourhood, and, I am sorry
to say, I have been the direct cause more than once, so I had no
difficulty in understanding the whole business. That old chatterbox,
the ranger, was relating the circumstances to us at breakfast; I then
sent for your servant, and, examining him, found out that you had held
a long conversation with Kurt, which had been preceded by negotiations
between Kurt and Herr von Busche; and last of all came that
crackbrained person Fräulein von Aschhof, and confessed her horribly
indiscreet statement to the Baron, and your remark, my friend, that you
would try to settle the matter. I saw it all as clearly as though it
had been acted before me. Then I knew, too, what I should have to do.
Again I sought Erna, and told her that your life and Kurt's honour were
both at stake; of course I took care to represent matters in such a way
that the idea could not well occur to her of your having wished to
sacrifice yourself directly for Kurt. She spurned with contumely the
idea that Kurt had only pretended not to hear the Baron's insulting
remarks; no need for me to tell her, she said, that Kurt must be
instantly informed of it. I am convinced that she felt that her fate
was about to be decided, that now once more she became fully and
thoroughly conscious of her love for Kurt. The great, strong, energetic
nature of the glorious girl shone forth in mighty radiance. I could
have knelt at her feet and worshipped her! I may say that I forgot
completely my own self, forgot that he for whom this passion was
flaming heaven-high had been the object of my own mad love. I even
concealed what I knew--that I had distinctly recognised the Baron,
when I saw him at the card-table last night, as the man who also,
at a card-table, had cheated my mother out of a hundred thousand
francs--that the Baron was not a fit man for an officer and a gentleman
to fight. I dreaded lest that objection should destroy what I saw
coming. How we hurried all over the ground in search of Kurt; how we
came upon his regiment when he had just ridden off; how a surgeon's
assistant who had been sent back to fetch some forgotten bandages or
instruments helped us to find his track; how we followed up that track
at the utmost speed of which our horses were capable; how we reached
the goal just in time to see Kurt fall, whilst his miserable opponent
flung the pistol to the ground and fled when he beheld me--all this you
know, or may easily picture for yourself. But I picture to myself how
Erna will now be leading her love to her parental abode, to keep and to
hold him there for her very own;--for what is more, what becomes more a
woman's very own than the man whom she loves, if she has to tend him
and wrestle with death for his possession;--and I picture to myself how
now only she recognises with a shudder what a lordly treasure she had
all but forfeited through exaggerated pride and obstinacy; and I think
of, all the wealth of love and bliss which is in store for them both!
And then I look at us both, at us who have opened for them the gates of
their paradise driving away into darkness like two exiles; and I ask
you, friend, have we really need to be ashamed of the part which we
have played? Or, rather, are we not fully and fairly entitled to
rejoice in our success and to be proud of it? Yes, friend, we must be
glad, we must be proud. Where else shall we, who are sick unto death,
gain the strength to get well again? For we must not, dare not die; but
we must live and be happy, to prove to those two that they may be happy
on our account. I, my friend, mean to live on; I will and shall
recover. I shall appear at Court to-night, and be beautiful and witty
if I can, or at least serene and in good-humour. And not to-day alone,
but to-morrow too, and every day, and most so by Waldor's side, for he
very surely does not marry the Princess Alexandra for the sake of
getting a moody, melancholy wife. Some secret corner somewhere will
surely be found where now and again one may weep in peace, and let the
grievous wound bleed. And you, dear friend? What shall you do? How will
you set about recovering? I should not have an hour's quiet if I had to
think you could not. Give me your word that you will recover, give me
your hand on it."

Bertram's answer did not come at once. He raised his eyes and saw the
beacon-fees blazing on the mountain tops and far away in the plains. He
heard the calls of the patrols, the neighing of many horses, the talk
and laughter of the men round the bivouac-fires, the dull thud of
marching columns. It was but a mimic warfare, but it spoke to him of a
true and earnest fight in which he was called upon to take his place in
the ranks as a good and true soldier, to do his duty as long as
strength was granted him--it might be for years, or for a few days
only. And he held out his hand to Alexandra, and said--

"Whether I shall recover, I know not. But I swear to you that I will
try!"

                           *   *   *   *   *



                                 XXVII.


"Then you insist upon joining in to-morrow's debate?" the doctor was
saying.

"I flatter myself that it is necessary!" replied Bertram.

"As a political partisan I admit it; as your medical adviser I repeat,
it is impossible."

"Come, my good friend, you said just now, it is undesirable; now, from
that to impossible is rather a bold step. We had better stick to the
first statement."

The doctor, who had taken up his hat and stick a few minutes before,
laid both down again, pushed Bertram into the chair before his
writing-table, sat down again facing him, and said--

"Judging from your momentary condition it is merely desirable that you
should have at present absolute repose for at least a few days. But I
very much fear that to-morrow's inevitable excitement will make you
worse, and then the downright necessity for rest will arise, and that
not only for a few days. Let me speak quite frankly, Bertram. I know
that I shall not frighten you, although I should rather like to do so.
You are causing me real anxiety. I greatly regret that I kept you last
autumn from your projected Italian trip, and that I pushed and urged
you into the fatigues of an election campaign and into the harassing
anxieties of parliamentary life. I assumed that this energetic activity
would contribute to your complete restoration to health, and I find
that I made a grievous mistake. And yet I am not aware where exactly
the mistake was made. You mastered your parliamentary duties with such
perfect ease, you entered the arena so well prepared and armed from top
to toe, you used your weapons with all the skill of a past master, and
you were borne along by such an ample measure of success--and that of
course has its great value. Well, according to all human understanding
and experience, the splendid and relatively easy discharge of duties
for which you are so eminently fitted, should contribute to your
well-being, and yet the very opposite is occurring. In spite of all my
cogitations I can find but one theory to account for it. In spite of
the admirable equanimity which you always preserve, in spite of the
undimmed serenity of your disposition and appearance, by which you
charm your friends, whilst you frequently disarm your foes, there must
be a hidden something in your soul that gnaws away at your vitals, a
deep, dark under-current of grief and pain. Am I right? You know that I
am not asking the question from idle curiosity."

"I know it," replied Bertram; "and therefore I answer: you are right
and yet not right, or right only if you hold me responsible for the
effect of a cause I was guiltless of."

"You answer in enigmas, my friend."

"Let me try a metaphor. Say, somebody is compelled to live in a house,
in which the architect made some grave mistake at the laying of the
foundations, or at some important period or other of its erection. The
tenant is a quiet, steady man, who keeps the house in good order; then
comes a storm, and the ill-constructed building is terribly shaken and
strained. The steady-going tenant repairs the damage as best he can,
and things go on fairly enough for a time, a long time, until there
comes another and a worse storm, which makes the whole house topple
together over his head."

The doctor's dark eyes had been dwelling searchingly and sympathisingly
upon the speaker. Now he said--

"I think I understand your metaphor. Of course, it only meets a portion
of the case. I happen to know the house in question extremely well.
True there was one weak point in it from the beginning, in spite of its
general excellent construction, but ..."

"But me no buts," interrupted Bertram eagerly. "Given the one weak
point, and all the rest naturally follows. I surely need not point out
to such a faithful disciple of Spinoza's, that thought and expansion
are but attributes of one and the same substance, that there is no
physiological case that does not, rightly viewed, turn to a
psychological one; that so excitable a heart as mine must needs be
impressed by things more than other hearts whose bands do not snap,
happen what may, and notwithstanding all the storms of Fate. Or are you
not sure that, if you had had to examine the hearts of Werther or of
Eduard in the 'Elective Affinities,' you would have found things
undreamed of by æesthetic philosophers? I belong to the same race. I
neither glory in this, nor do I blush for it; I simply state a fact, a
fact which embodies my fate, before whose power I bow, or rather whose
power bows me down in spite of my resistance. For, however much I may
by disposition belong to the last century, yet I am also a citizen of
our own time; nor can I be deaf to its bidding. I know full well that
modern man can no longer live and die exclusively for his private joys
and sorrows; I know full well that I have a fatherland whose fame,
honour, and greatness I am bound to hold sacred, and to which I am
indebted as long as a breath stirs within me. I know it, and I believe
that I have proved it according to my strength, both formerly and again
now, when ..."

He covered forehead and eyes with his hands, and so sat for a while in
deep emotion, which his medical friend respected by keeping perfectly
silent. Then, looking up again, Bertram went on in a hushed voice--

"My friend, that last storm was very, very strong. It shook the feeble
building to its very foundation. What is now causing your anxiety is
indeed but a consequence of that awful tempest. The terribly entrancing
details no one as yet knows except one woman, whom an almost identical
fate made my confidante, and who will keep my secret absolutely. So
would you, I know. You have been before this my counsellor and my
father-confessor. And so you will be another time, perhaps, if you
desire it and deem it necessary.--To-day only this one remark more, for
your own satisfaction; for I read in your grave countenance the same
momentous question which my confidante put to me: Whether I am willing
to recover? I answered to the best of my knowledge and belief: Yes! I
consider it my duty to be willing. It is a duty simply towards my
electors, who have not honoured me with their votes that I may lie me
down and die of an unhappy and unrequited attachment. If the latter
does happen--I mean my dying--you will bear witness that it was done
against my will, solely in consequence of that mistake in the original
construction which the architect was guilty of. But, in order that it
may not happen, or may at least not happen so soon, you, my friend,
must allow me to do the very thing which you have forbidden. The dream
I dreamed was infinitely beautiful, and, to speak quite frankly, real
life seems barren and dreary in comparison with it. The contrast is too
great, and I can only efface it somewhat by mixing with the insipid
food a strong spice of excitement, such as our parliamentary kitchen is
just now supplying in the best quality, and of which our head-cook is
sure to give us an extra dose to-morrow. And, therefore, I must be in
my place at the table tomorrow and make my dinner-speech. _Quod erat
demonstrandum_."

He held out his hand with a smile. His friend smiled too. It was a very
melancholy smile, and vanished again forthwith.

"What a pity," he said, "that the cleverest patients are the most
intractable. But I have vowed I will never have a clever one again,
after you."

"In truth," replied Bertram, "I am giving you far too much trouble. In
your great kindness and friendship you come to me almost in the middle
of the night, when you ought to be resting from your day's heavy toil;
you come of your own accord, simply impelled by a faithful care for my
well-being; and, finally, you have to return with ingratitude and
disobedience for your reward. Well, well--let us hope for better
things, and let me have the pleasure of seeing you again to-morrow."

Konski came in with a candle to show the doctor the way down, for the
lights in the house had long since been extinguished. The gentlemen
were once more shaking hands, and the physician slipped his on to
Bertram's wrist Then he shook his head.

"Konski," he said, turning to the servant, "if your master has a fancy
one of these days to drink a glass of champagne, you may give him one,
as an exception; but only one."

"Now remember that, Konski!" said Bertram.

"It is not likely that it will happen," grumbled Konski.

"Konski will leave me to-morrow," explained Bertram.

"Will, is it? No, I won't, but ..."

"All right!" said his master, "we must not bother the doctor with our
private affairs. Good-bye, my friend! With your leave I will dine with
you to-morrow."

The physician left; Bertram immediately again sat down at the
writing-table, and resumed the work which this late visit had
interrupted. It was a disputed election case, and he would have to
report upon it to the House. There had been some irregularities, and it
was in the interest of his own party that the election should be
declared null and void; he had been examining the somewhat complicated
data with all the greater conscientiousness and care. But now he lost
the thread, and was turning over the voluminous page of the evidence,
when, lo! a daintily-folded sheet of paper--a letter--fell out.

"Good heavens! how came this here?"

He seized upon it with eagerness, as a wandering beggar might seize
upon a gold coin which he saw glittering among the dust on the road.
The hot blood surged to the temples from the sick and sore heart; the
hand that held the slight paper trembled violently.

"Now he would not be grumbling at my slow pulse!"

Yesterday morning he had received this letter, but had not succeeded in
composing himself sufficiently to read more than a few lines. He
thought that, perhaps, on his return from the _Reichstag_ he might have
been in a more settled frame of mind. Then he had not been able to find
again the letter which had been laid aside, although he had searched
for hours, first alone, then with Konski.

And now--after all those documents were pushed aside--he was again, as
yesterday, staring hard at the page, and again, as yesterday, the
different lines ran into each other; but he shook his head angrily,
drew his hand over his eyes, and then read:--


                                               "Capri, _April_ 24.

"Dearest Uncle Bertram,--If to-day for the first time, in our travels I
write to you, take this as a gentle punishment for not having come to
our wedding. Take it--no, I must not tell you a falsehood, not even in
jest. We--I mean Kurt and myself--regretted your absence greatly, but
were angry only with those wretched politics which would not release
you just at a time, when, as Kurt explained to me, such important
matters were at stake. Take, then, I pray you, my prolonged silence as
a proof of the confusion under which I labour, amidst the thousand new
impressions of travel, and through the hurry with which we have
travelled. Kurt has just four weeks' leave, so we had indeed to make,
haste; and, therefore, we steamed direct from Genoa to Naples, calling
at Leghorn only, and yesterday evening we arrived there only to leave
this morning, and to sail to Capri, favoured by a lively _tramontane_.

"I am writing this my first letter upon the balcony of a house in
Capri.

"Dearest Uncle Bertram, do you know such a house which 'stands amidst
orange groves, with sublimest view of the blue infinity of the ocean, a
fair, white hostelry embowered in roses'?

"The words are your own, and do you know when you spoke them to me? On
that first night when I met you in the forest on the Hirschstein hill.
You have probably forgotten it, but I remember it well, and all through
the journey your words were ever before me; and of all the glories of
Italy, I wanted first to see the house which had, since then, remained
in your fond remembrance, where you 'ever since longed to be back
again,' and the very name of which was always to you 'a sound of
comfort, of promise: _Qui si sana!_'

"And now we are here--we who need no comfort, we to whom all promise of
earthly bliss has been fulfilled, and so drink in the blue air of
heaven, and inhale the sweet fragrance of roses and oranges.

"And you, dearest Uncle Bertram, you dwell--your heart full of longing
for fair Quisisana--yonder in the dull grey North, buried beneath
parliamentary papers, wearied and worn--and, uncle, that thought is the
one grey cloud, the only one in the wide blue vault of heaven, like the
one floating yonder above the rugged rocky front of Monte Solaro, of
which our young landlord, Federigo, foretells that it will bring us a
_burrasca_. I gave him a good scolding, and told him I wanted sunshine,
plenty of sunshine, and nothing but sunshine, but I thought of you
only, and not of us. And surely for you too, who are so noble and good,
the sun does shine, and you walk in its light, in the sunny light of
great fame! Yes, Uncle Bertram, however modest you are, you must yet be
glad and proud to learn how your greatness is recognised and admired. I
am not speaking of your friends, for that is a matter of course, but
of your political opponents. In Genoa, at the table d'hôte, we made
the acquaintance of some Count from Pomerania--I have forgotten his
name--with whom Kurt talked politics a good deal. In the evening the
Count brought us a Berlin paper, which contained your last great
speech. 'Look here,' he said, 'there is a man from whom all can learn,
one of whom each party should be proud.' He had no idea why Kurt looked
so pleased and proud, nor why I burst into tears when I read your
splendid speech.

"Only fancy, Uncle Bertram! Signor Federigo has just brought me, at my
request, an old visitors' book--the one for the year 1859, the year in
which I knew you had been here. Many leaves had been torn out, but the
one upon which you had written your name was preserved, and the date
turns out to be that of the very day on which I, was born! Is not this
passing strange? Signor Federigo has, of course, had to present the
precious leaf to me, which he did with a most graceful bow--the paper
in one hand and the other laid upon his heart--and we have resolved to
celebrate here the day of your arrival in Capri and of my arrival in
the world. Why, indeed, should we travel on so swiftly? There can be no
fairer scene than this anywhere. Sunshine, the fragrance of roses, the
bright blue sky; the everlasting sea, my Kurt, and the recollection of
you, whose dear image every rock, every palm tree, everything I see
brings as if by magic before my inner eye! No, no; we surely will stay
here until my birthday.

"Signor Federigo is calling from the verandah that 'Madama' has only
five minutes more for writing if the letter is to leave to-day. Of
course it is to leave to-day; but I have the terrible conviction of
having written nothing so far. It cannot now be helped. So next time I
will tell you everything that I could not do to-day: about my parents,
who are writing letters full of happiness--papa, in particular, who
seems delighted that he has given up his factories--which surprised me
greatly; about Agatha's engagement to Herr von Busche, which did not
surprise me, for I saw it coming during the merrymakings previous to my
wedding; about ...

"Signor Federigo, you are intolerable!

"Dear Kurt, I cannot let you have the remaining space of two lines, for
I absolutely require it myself to send my beloved Uncle Bertram a most
hearty greeting and kiss from Quisisana."

Bertram laid the paper very gently down upon the table; he was stooping
to imprint a kiss upon it, but before his lips touched the letter, he
drew himself up abruptly.

"No; she knows not what she does, but you know it, and she is your
neighbour's wife! Shame upon you! Pluck it out, the eye that offends
you, and the base, criminal heart as well!"

He seized the parliamentary papers, then paused.

"Until her birthday! Well, she will assuredly expect a few kind words,
and has a right to expect them; nay, more, she would interpret my
silence wrongly. I wonder whether there is yet time? When is her
birthday? She has not mentioned the date; I think somewhere in the
beginning of May. Now, on what day did I arrive there?"

He had not long to seek in the old diaries, which he kept methodically,
and preserved with care. There was the entry: "May 1.--Arrived in
Capri, and put up at a house which I found it hard to climb up to; the
name had an irresistible attraction for me: Quisisana--_Sit omen in
nomine!_"

The first of May! Why, to-morrow is the first. It is too late for a
letter, of course, but a telegram will do, if despatched at once.

"Konski!"

The faithful servant entered.

"My good Konski, I am very sorry, but you must be off to the
telegraph-office at once. To-morrow is the birthday of Miss Erna--well,
well, you know! Of course she must hear from me."

He had written a few lines in German, then it occurred, to him that it
might be, safer to write them in Italian. So he re-wrote them.

Kanski, who had meanwhile got himself ready, entered the room.

"You will scarcely be back before midnight. And, Konski, we must begin
the morrow cheerfully. So put the key of the cellar into your pocket,
and bring a bottle of champagne with you when you return. No
remonstrance, otherwise I shall put into your character tomorrow,
'Dismissed for disobedience'!"



                                XXVIII.


                           *   *   *   *   *


It was nearly three o'clock when the doctor came hurrying in. Konski
would not leave the master, and had despatched the porter. Konski
took the doctor's hat and stick, and pointed in silence--he could not
speak--to the big couch at the bottom of the room. The doctor took the
lamp from the writing-table, and held it to the pale face. Konski
followed and relieved him of the lamp, whilst the doctor made his
investigation.

"He must have been dead an hour and more," he said, looking up. "Why
did you not send sooner? Put the lamp back upon the writing-table, and
tell me all you know."

He had sat down in Bertram's chair. "Take a chair," he went on, "and
tell me all."

Then Konski told.

He had come back at a quarter-past twelve from the telegraph-office,
and had found his master writing away busily, when he brought in the
bottle of champagne which he had been ordered to fetch from the cellar.
His master had scolded him for bringing only one glass, and made him
fetch another, for they must both drink and clink glasses to the health
of the young lady.

"Then," the servant went on, "I sat opposite to him, for the first time
in my life, in that corner, at the small round table, he in the one
chair and I in the other. And he chatted with me, not like a master
with his servant, no; exactly--well, I cannot describe it, sir; but you
know how good and kind he always was. I never heard an unkind word from
him all these ten years I have been with him, and if ever he was a bit
angry, he always made up for it afterwards. And, to-morrow I was to
leave for Rinstedt to get married, and he had given us our furniture
and all, and fitted up a new shop for us into the bargain. Then we
talked a good deal of Rinstedt, and of the man[oe]vres last year, and
of Miss Erna that was, and of Italy, where, as you know, sir, I was
with the master two years ago. Well, I mean, it was not I who was
talking so much, but master, and I could have gone on listening,
listening for ever, when he was telling of Capri, where we did not get
that time, and where Mrs. Ringberg is staying now--Miss Erna as was.
And then his eyes shone and sparkled splendidly, but he hardly drank
any wine, just enough to pledge the young lady's health with, and the
rest is in his glass still. But he made me fill up mine again and
again, for I could stand it, said he, and he could not, he said, and he
would presently finish his work; and there are the papers on the table
in front of you, sir, that he had been looking at. And then, of a
sudden like, he says, 'Konski, I am getting tired; I shall lie down for
half an hour. You just finish the bottle meanwhile, and call me at
half-past one sharp.' It was just striking one o'clock then.

"So he lay down, and I put the rug over him, sir, and, oh--I'll never
forgive myself for it; but all day long I had been running backward and
forward about these things of mine, and then at last the long walk at
night to the telegraph-office, and perhaps the champagne had gone to my
head a bit, since I am sure, that I had not sat for five minutes before
I was asleep. And when I woke it was not half-past one, but half-past
two, so that I was regular frightened like. But as the master was
a-sleeping calm and steady, I thought, even as I was standing quite
close to him, that it was a pity to wake him, even though he was lying
on his left side again, which formerly he could not bear at all, and
which you, sir, had forbidden so particularly. I mind of our first
evening in Rinstedt, sir, but then he did wake up again ... and now he
is dead."

Konski was crying bitterly. The doctor held out his hand to him.

"It is no fault of yours. Neither you nor I could have kept him alive.
Now, leave me here alone; you may wait in the next room."

After Konski had left, the doctor went to the little round table on
which the empty bottle and two glasses were standing, one empty, one
half-full. Above the sofa, to the right and left, were gas-brackets,
with one lighted jet on either side. He held the half-full glass to
the light and shook it. Bright beads were rising from the clear,
liquid.

He put the glass down again, and murmured--

"He never spoke an untruth! It was in any case solely a question of
time. He drank his death-draught six months ago. The only wonder is
that he bore it so long."

Erna's letter was lying upon the table. The doctor read it almost
mechanically.

"Pretty much as I thought!" he muttered. "Such a clever and, as it
would seem, large-hearted girl, and yet--but they are all alike!"

A scrap of paper, with something in Bertram's hand writing caught his
eye. It was the German telegram.

"All hail--happiness and blessing--to-day and for ever--for my darling
child in Quisisana."

The doctor rose, and was now pacing up and down the chamber with folded
arms. From the adjoining room, the door of which was left ajar, he
heard suppressed sobs. The faithful servant's unconcealed grief had
well-nigh unchained the bitter sorrow in his own heart. He brushed the
tears from his eyes, stepped to the couch, and drew the covering back.

He stood there long, lost in marvelling contemplation.

The beautiful lofty brow, overshadowed by the soft and abundant hair,
the dark colour of which was not broken by one silvery thread; the
daintily curved lips, that seemed about to open for some witty saying,
lips the pallor of which was put to shame by the whiteness of the
teeth, which were just visible; the broad-arched chest--what wonder
that the man of fifty had felt in life like a youth--like the youth for
whom Death had taken him.

From those pure and pallid features Death had wiped away even the
faintest remembrance of the woe which had broken the noble heart.

Now it was still--still for evermore!

He laid his hand upon that silent heart.

"_Qui si sana!_" he said, very gently.



                               FOOTNOTE.

[Footnote 1:

           "Und immer ist der Mann ein junger Mann,
            Der einem jungen Weibe wohlgefällt."]



                                THE END.





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