A GERMAN POMPADOUR
A GERMAN POMPADOUR
Being the Extraordinary History of
WILHELMINE VON GRAeVENITZ
LANDHOFMEISTERIN OF WIRTEMBERG
A NARRATIVE OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
AUTHOR OF 'DIANNE DE POYTIERS' AND 'AN UNREQUITED LOYALTY'
SECOND IMPRESSION NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1906
Edinburgh: T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to His Majesty
THIS BOOK OF MEMORIES IS DEDICATED
'The Past that is not overpast, But present here.'
IN a dusty, time-soiled packet of legal papers which had lain untouched for nigh upon two hundred years, the extraordinary history of Wilhelmine von Graevenitz is set forth in all the colourless reticence of official documents. And yet something of the thrill of the superstitious fear, and the virtuous disapproval of the lawyers who composed these writings, pierces through the stilted phrases. Like a faint fragrance of faded rose-leaves, a breath of this woman's charm seems to cling and elusively to peep out of the curt record of her crimes. Enough at least to incite the wanderer in History's byways to a further study of this potent German forerunner of the Pompadour.
To search through the Stuttgart archives, to ferret out forgotten books in dusty old book-shops, to fit together the links in the chain of events of the woman's story, to haunt the scenes of bygone splendour in deserted palace and castle, old-world garden and desolate mansion; such has been the delightful labour which has gone to the telling of the true history of the Graevenitz. The Land-despoiler the downtrodden peasantry and indignant burghers named her, for they hated her as their sort must ever hate the beautiful, elegant, haughty woman of the great world. They called her sinner, which she was; and she called them canaille, which they probably were.
And traces of all this linger in Wuerttemberg. They still deem the Countess Graevenitz a subject to be mentioned with bated breath—a thing too evil, too terrible, for polite conversation. The very guides at Ludwigsburg slur over her name, and if they go so far as to mention her, they say: 'Ja, das war aber eine schlimme Dame,' and turn the talk to something else. But her memory lives magnificently in the great palace built for her, in her little 'Chateau Joyeux' of La Favorite, and in the many beautiful properties which belonged to this extravagant Land-despoiler. She came to Wuerttemberg when the country was at a low financial ebb. Louis XIV. had preyed upon the land for years. Robber raids they called these wars which he waged for trumped-up pretexts. After these invasions came the war of the Spanish succession, and Wuerttemberg lying on the high-road from France to Austria, the belligerent armies swept over the Swabian land on their way to battle. The Duke of Wuerttemberg, loyal to his Suzerain the Emperor at Vienna, joined in the fray and fought bravely at the side of Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy against the French terror. When Blenheim had been fought and won, the war-tide swept northwards to the Netherlands, leaving Southern Germany for the nonce at rest, and Eberhard Ludwig of Wuerttemberg repaired to Stuttgart to attend to his Duchy's government. Now began the love-story of his life, the long-drawn episode which made his name a target for the gossip and scandal of early eighteenth-century Germany; the episode which changed the simple, stiff family life of the Wuerttemberg ducal circle to a brilliant, festive court, which travellers tell us in their memoirs vied in magnificence with the glories of Versailles itself.
CHAP. PAGE I. THE INTRIGUE, 1 II. THE AVE MARIA, 13 III. THE FIRST STEP, 27 IV. THE JOURNEY, 50 V. THE PLAY-ACTING, 68 VI. LOVE'S SPRINGTIDE, 82 VII. THE FULFILMENT, 90 VIII. THE GHETTO, 103 IX. 'SHE COMES TO STAY THIS TIME,' 116 X. THE ATTACK IN THE GROTTO, 129 XI. THE MOCK MARRIAGE, 153 XII. THE MOCK COURT, 167 XIII. THE DUCHESS'S BLACK ROOMS, 181 XIV. THE SECOND MARRIAGE, 196 XV. THE RETURN, 212 XVI. LUDWIGSBURG, 224 XVII. THE BURNING IN EFFIGY, 242 XVIII. THE SINNER'S PALACE, 261 XIX. THE GREAT TRIUMPH AND THE SHADOW, 279 XX. SATIETY, 302 XXI. THE DOWNFALL, 325 XXII. REST, 350
A GERMAN POMPADOUR
'Es ist eine Hofkabale.'—SCHILLER.
ON the outskirts of the village of Oberhausen in South Wirtemberg stands a deserted house. Rats are its only denizens now; rats and the 'poor ghosts,' so the peasants say. Two hundred years ago this eerie mansion was occupied by living men and women, perchance the ghosts of to-day. Who can tell? But I, who have grown to love them, having studied the depths of their hearts, I pray that they may rest them well in their graves, and that the Neuhaus ghosts be not my friends of 1705.
It was a fitting place for intrigues this Neuhaus, standing as it did so near in actual mileage to the court of Stuttgart, and hard by the Jesuit centre of Rottenburg. The high-road was close at hand, yet Neuhaus, shut off by peaceful fields, was hidden from the passer-by, and here began the great intrigue, as it was called then. Of a truth the plot, as it was conceived, was no mighty thing; it was designed, as many another gossamer web of court gallantry and petty pecuniary gain, for obscure individuals; but great it became through the potent will of a woman.
On a dreary November afternoon of the year 1705, a party of four was assembled in the Neuhaus, the seldom-used country mansion of Madame de Ruth, an important personage at Stuttgart's court, and of Monsieur de Ruth, an undistinguished character, who played no role that we know of, save to bequeath his ancient name—and the Neuhaus—to his relict.
The house was a long, two-storied building, with large, black wooden beams showing quaintly outside against the white plastered walls; it was no imposing structure, but a certain air of melancholy aloofness lent it distinction.
A high wall shut off the village street on the one side, while to the south and east the mansion was surrounded by a garden. A row of beech-trees grew close to the windows, a narrow pathway led from a side door across the garden to a vast orchard. It was doubtless a beautiful spot in spring or summer, but on this November afternoon it was inexpressibly dreary. The rain had beaten down the unkempt grass, which lay in draggled sheaves along the edges of the pathway. Brown, fallen beech leaves made a sodden carpet around the tree-roots; the trees themselves, bare and gaunt, lifted their grey, leafless branches towards the hurrying, wind-driven clouds. The wind moaned fitfully round the house; every now and then, as though in uncontrollable wrath, it broke forth into a whistling howl. At intervals bursts of rain were borne by the tempest against the windows, adding a hurried patter to the tapping of the long beech branches, which grew near enough to enable the wind to drive them against the window-panes, while the greater branches strained and creaked in the blast. Rain-laden clouds swept across the sky, hastening the darkness of approaching night. It seemed strange that on so desolate a gloaming the inmates of the Neuhaus had not drawn the curtains to shut out the sadness of the storm-ravaged garden. The windows remained like despairing, unblinking eyes gazing at the desolate scene without. The room wherein was assembled the small company was unlit, save from the glow from the embers in the stove. The upper grating had been opened, and in the furnace a handful of half-dry wood sputtered and crackled, rising sometimes to a momentary flame, in whose glow four persons threw strangely contorted shadows on the ceiling. But for this, and a faint, uncertain light which crept through the windows, the room was entirely dark. When the wood flared, a lady seated to the left of the stove cast a caricature-like shadow slantwise on the ceiling, her head seeming gigantic in its piled-up masses of elaborately dressed hair. In the middle of the room was a huddled figure bending over the centre table. It seemed to be a mere heap of dark garments. The firelight caught and illumined a white ruffle and large pale hand belonging to this figure, but as it was flung out across the sombre covering of the table, the arm was invisible, and only the hand in the ruffled sleeve could be seen, and it seemed like some hideous dismembered thing. Outlined against the fading light stood a tall figure with an enormous ringleted wig falling far over the shoulders. When this being moved, his shadow, thrown upon the ceiling by the embers' glow, appeared to join in the wavering, dance-like movements of the other shadows, and seemed like some ungainly monster. One portion of the room was not reached either by light of fire or fading day, and out of this utter darkness came the sound of repressed sobbing, which alone revealed the presence of a fourth member of this lugubrious party. For many minutes the silence was unbroken save for the stealthy sobbing, the sough of the wind without, the pattering rain, and the tap-tap of the twigs on the windows, sounding for all the world like the fumbling of invisible fingers seeking for admittance. The man at the centre table broke silence at length.
'Impossible!' he said in a harsh voice. 'Madame la Baronne cannot imagine we can live in Stuttgart at the court,' this last pompously, in spite of the real distress of the voice. 'How can we? on five hundred gulden a year and debts to pay—alas! No! I must return to the army, only coming on leave once a year to fulfil my court appointment; and, Marie, you must live in Rottenburg with your mother while I am away.'
At this a figure moved out of the darkness behind the stove, and another fantastic shadow was cast upon the ceiling.
'Never, Friedrich! It is cruel to ask it. You know well enough that, if you did not gamble, we could live quite finely on what we have got. Your duties as Kammerjunker need not keep you for ever in Stuttgart; we might live in Rottenburg.' She clasped her hands, her voice trembled between tears and anger.
'Rottenburg——' The man's voice was full of scorn, vibrating with derision. 'Ah! yes!—Mass each morning, and——'
'Friedrich, I will never let you return to the army; rather would I humble myself before that wicked woman, Madame de Geyling, and beg her to influence Serenissimus to give you a higher and better paid appointment. I tell you——'
'Madame,' broke in a deep voice, and the figure at the window moved forward, 'there are other ways of gaining gold at court; a beautiful woman need never be poor, I can vouch——'
'Monsieur de Stafforth!' almost shouted the first speaker, 'you address my wife! I am poor, but the honour of a wife of a Graevenitz shall not be smirched.'
'Your pardon, Kammerjunker, but we were discussing necessities, not ideals, and surely I proposed a great honour. Serenissimus is charming; besides, there are others——'
The hostess, whose shadow we have seen on the ceiling, rose and joined the three disputants.
'My friends, only fools end their conclaves with quarrels. We have been discussing ways and means for the continuance of our friends Monsieur and Madame de Graevenitz's court life, and finding no practical scheme, here is Graevenitz crying out that he will return to the army. Marie Graevenitz, after sobbing her heart out, flies into a rage and declares she will go whining to that upstart Geyling! And you, Monsieur de Stafforth, Hofmarshall and successful courtier, propose terms to a young husband in so unpolished a fashion, that even a peasant would be obliged to retort with the old affectation of a wife's honour and purity. Now hear me; I know the court better than you do——' The darkness hid the meaning smiles which played over the lips of the others, for Frau von Ruth (Madame de Ruth as she was named at court, German being considered as a language only fitting for peasants' use) was well known to have a knowledge of court life not compatible with strictly decorous behaviour. 'Well! and I say to you, where there is a court there is always a way. And if you will so far honour me as to drink a bowl of punch to lighten our wits, we may find some solution of our friends' difficulties. First let me call for lights, and let me shut out this dreary evening. Courage, my friends! I warrant we shall smile some day at our present desperate straits, and meanwhile "to wait" is the verb we must conjugate.'
Madame de Ruth went to the door and called for light. A sullen-faced peasant boy appeared, carrying two silver candlesticks of a handsome old German design. He placed them on the middle table, and the feeble yellow flame of the waxen tapers shed a flicker into the long, gloomy room. Then he stood idly staring, with the heavy dull-wittedness of the Swabian peasant. Madame de Ruth eyed him for a moment, with that half-humorous, half-pitying glance which she was wont to bestow on those she found stupid. She was an odd-tempered, free-mannered woman, deeply crafty, absolutely unmoral, and yet with a true kindliness of heart and a thorough understanding of human nature which, together with her ready laugh, her clever, indecorous anecdotes and sharp wit, made her attractive. For these traits people forgave her her ugly face and fifty years of a past even less reputable than was usual in the eighteenth century.
In her early youth, it was whispered, the Duke Wilhelm Ludwig, father of the reigning Duke of Wirtemberg, had initiated her into the ways of the world in general and of courts in particular; in gratitude wherefore she was reputed to have performed the same office, twenty years later, for his son Eberhard Ludwig. The Duke of Zollern, several Hohenlohes, and many Gemmingens had been her slaves; not to mention other less illustrious cavaliers to whom she had been rather more than kind. She was now a useful friend to princes, and new arrivals at court found her friendship indispensable, especially if the new arrival happened to be a lady with aspirations to royal favour and a career. Up to date these careers had been brilliant but short, and Madame de Ruth had generally played an important part in each.
'Ah! Dieu! ces paysans, quelles brutes!' she said, as she looked at her servant; and then speaking in the rough Wirtemberg dialect she continued: 'Heinrich, thy mother gave thee hands; God knows thy father did not forget thy big feet. Use both and bring the punch, as I told thee; or I will give thee hay for thy evening meal, as were fitting for an ass's feed!' This somewhat drastic speech seemed to please the lad and to stir up his slow wits, but the company looked surprised at the familiarity of the 'thou,' it being the general custom in those days for superiors to address their inferiors in the third person singular. Directly to address a serving-man or maid was deemed incorrect, for it would have betokened an unfitting equality. However, Madame de Ruth's peasant lad responded with alacrity to his lady's homely speech, and in an astonishingly short time he reappeared with an enormous bowl of the steaming hot spirits—the punch, which Marlborough's army had brought into fashion on the Continent, and which the damp of South Germany in the autumn made a welcome beverage.
'Come, my friends, and drink to the sharpening of our wits, which are strangely dull this evening. I must announce to you that I await the visit to-night of the Duke of Zollern, but this cruel weather has proved, I fear, too much even for his youthful sixty years.'
'Madame,' said Monsieur de Stafforth, 'if the Duke of Zollern does not brave the elements, in order to visit you, he must indeed be feeling his sixty years.'
'Stafforth, do not natter me in that tone. I adore flattery, but a stupid compliment is worse than an insult. You know the Duke of Zollern and myself have long ceased incommoding ourselves for each other's sakes, with the consequence that we are really friends. He sees me when he wishes, and I see him when I feel inclined. After twenty years nous avons fini nos simagrees; but after all, listen, I think I hear wheels.' Her ugly old face flushed through the overlying paint and powder. In spite of her protest, Madame de Ruth had a remnant of her youth—a poor, faded flower of sentiment for this old man. A huge lumbering coach drew up at the door, and therefrom descended a small and shrunken figure, with a wrinkled, dried-up face. A voluminous peruke fell over the padded shoulders, rich lace ruffles adorned the sleeves of the brown satin longcoat, a waistcoat of heavily embroidered brocade reached far down, nearly to the shrunken knees, below which were a pair of calves thin as pipe-stems and adorned with brown silken hose; the shoes were of brown leather with high, red heels and enormous ribbon rosettes and diamond buckles. One withered hand held a cane with a china top, on which, could you have examined it, you would have found mythological subjects depicted with much delicacy of workmanship, but less delicacy of sentiment. A beau indeed, elegant, lavish, and with that air for the which Monsieur de Stafforth, adventurer and burgher by birth, would have given many a year of his successful climbing career to have possessed even a shade,—the indescribable and inimitable air of the Grand Seigneur.
Madame de Ruth met this gentleman at the door of her abode, her peasant servant standing behind her, holding a flaring torch to light the entry of his Grace. She curtseyed deeply, and Monsieur de Zollern, having successfully hobbled from his coach, returned her salute with so tremendous a bow, that the long feather of his three-cornered hat swept the floor.
'I had almost given up the expectation of your visit, Monseigneur,' said the lady, 'but now you are here, the pleasure is all the greater'; and as he bowed once more over her hand, she whispered: 'Pleasure you always gave me, dear friend.'
'Madame chere amie, those times are past, alas! Enfin! we can still laugh together.'
They passed on through the gloomy corridor, and Madame de Ruth herself threw open the door of the salon, crying as she did so: 'The Duke of Zollern and Punch together must make even a dark day bright!'
'Madame, in these days the last title might describe me perfectly,' he said. Then as he saw the inquiring look on the faces around him, he added: 'Autrefois j'etais polichon, aujourd'hui, helas! ne suis-je qu'un vieux Polichinelle—"Punch" they call it in England.'
'Monseigneur, Punch must be a pretty wit indeed if he be like your Grace,' said Stafforth, with his usual desire to ingratiate himself with the great of the earth; but Monsieur de Zollern did not deign to answer. Like Madame de Ruth he preferred less directly expressed adulation. 'The fine flavour of flattery is delicious,' he was wont to aver, 'but like all else in life, to practise it requires an expert or a genius. Open compliments on any subject are like sausages, to be appreciated by peasants and our greasy friends the burghers, but for us—we cannot digest them!' So he looked away from Stafforth, giving his attention to the Graevenitz couple. 'Madame de Graevenitz,' he said, 'I observed you at Mass in the Cathedral of Rottenburg a few days since. God forgives the inattention at Mass of an old man when he sleeps; of a young man when he loves; and the wandering attention of an old man blessed with a young heart the Almighty will surely pardon, for He Himself must admire beauty, since He made it.' Madame de Graevenitz looked perturbed. She was a good and conscientious Catholic, and this light way of speaking of things sacred seemed alarmingly daring to her; also, being rather stupid, it bewildered her, and she had no answer for the old courtier.
'Ah, Monsieur de Graevenitz,' continued Zollern, 'what news from Mecklemburg? Does not your heart smite you when you think of the country which gave you birth?'
'Monseigneur, it was the only gift Mecklemburg ever gave me, and indeed, to-night I am hardly grateful for the gift. What is the use of life when it is so fierce a struggle not to die of hunger?' he said, and drained his glass of punch. 'I have such simple tastes.—Madame de Ruth, may I drink another glass of your excellent punch?—I have such simple tastes, and even these I cannot satisfy!'
The Duke of Zollern watched him, and his fine smile was more of a commentary than many a spoken word. Graevenitz observing it broke into a laugh, which was echoed by the company.
'Monseigneur,' said Madame de Ruth, 'we have been sitting here in the dark for two hours discussing Graevenitz's future. I mean, of course, his fortune; we always say future when we mean fortune! He vows that if more gulden cannot be lured into his pocket, he must retire from court. We can find no way out of our friend's dilemma. Can you suggest some course?'
'Madame, to serve a friend of yours I am always ready! Surely Serenissimus will not willingly lose a courtier he has delighted in; but at this moment, I believe, Monsieur de Stafforth will bear me out when I say all the court charges are engaged; and Monsieur de Graevenitz, not being of the sex, cannot hold the most important charge of any court, for Madame de Geyling usurps that! So what can I suggest?'
Madame de Ruth was thoughtful for a moment; then, throwing up her hands, she exclaimed: 'And you call me a woman with wits? For two long hours have we deliberated and found nothing, and it needed the punch-bowl to give me an idea! We want three things, nay, four: to help Graevenitz with funds; to dethrone that Geyling, whose airs and graces have become intolerable; Monsieur de Stafforth seeks a friend in the Duke's intimate, most intimate, council; and our Mother Church desires a friend there too.' She ticked off each succeeding clause on her much-beringed fingers.
'Monsieur de Graevenitz, you once told me you had a pretty sister wasting her charms at Guestrow. Let us put her in the Geyling's place! A few years of that envied position and we achieve our first two objects! Stafforth, my friend, you are the man to find means of gaining your aims thereby as well.' The adventurer smiled fatuously. 'And the Church—ah, we forget the Church!' At these words the mocking smile faded from Zollern's face; his expression was that of a man whose interest was stirred, as indeed it was; for though to Monseigneur de Zollern there was nothing sacred, and he subjected all things to his biting wit, he gave conscientious allegiance to the Church of Rome, which he regarded as the only faith fitted for a gentleman. He belonged to the political party desirous of governing Wirtemberg in conjunction with the Jesuits. No matter that the people were strict and bigoted Protestants, or that the adoption of Roman Catholicism would mean the revolt of half the population; he considered the religious beliefs of burghers to be but pawns in that vast political game which was being played at that time in Europe, and in Germany in particular, under the name of religion. Wirtemberg was governed by a Protestant ruler, the people regarded the Roman Faith as the religion of Antichrist, but the nobles were nearly all Catholics; and as long as Wirtemberg remained Protestant, they, naturally, played but small roles in the government. The peasants of Wirtemberg had more freedom than any other people of the Empire. A heavy, stubborn race, these Wirtembergers, hating their French-speaking rulers and jealously safeguarding those ancient rights and liberties accorded to them by the testament of Eberhard der Greiner in 1514. This Magna Charta of Swabia granted the people a degree of freedom which was exceedingly irksome to the Dukes of Wirtemberg. The nobles of the land who regarded themselves as too mighty to attend the petty court of Stuttgart, for the most part sulked in their castles, or repaired to the imperial court in Vienna. The Dukes of Wirtemberg had perforce accepted this with as good grace as possible, but when Eberhard Ludwig attained his majority he welcomed foreigners from every part of Germany, forming from this band of usually noble, but invariably penniless, adventurers a court of a certain magnificence and brilliance. 'Here it is possible to enrich oneself; whereas in all other courts it is impossible not to be ruined,' Monsieur de Poellnitz tells us of the Wirtemberg of Eberhard Ludwig's day.
It was in this wise that Stafforth, a man of little birth from Hanover, had succeeded in becoming an important person, and even pushed and intrigued himself into the high position of Oberhofmarshall.
Herr Friedrich Wilhelm von Graevenitz, another courtier and newcomer, was a gentleman of Mecklemburg. He had served in one of the Mecklemburg regiments attached to Marlborough's troops when that great general, with the Imperial Army, defended the banks of the Rhine from the invasion of Louis XIV.
Duke Eberhard Ludwig espoused the cause of his suzerain, the Austrian Emperor, and at the head of such troops as he could muster out of Wirtemberg joined the Allied Army serving under the Duke of Marlborough. On his return from the campaign he brought with him, on a visit to Stuttgart, several gentlemen, his comrades in arms, among whom was Graevenitz. This young soldier having little to gain by returning to Mecklemburg, and finding Stuttgart a pleasant abode, remained at Eberhard Ludwig's court; married a Fraeulein von Stuben of Rottenburg on the Neckar, hard by Tuebingen; was created Kammerjunker to the Duke, and, as we have just seen, felt himself in spite of this office but ill-rewarded for having taken domicile in Wirtemberg.
'The Church, Madame,' said the Duke of Zollern, 'is in so sorry a plight in this country, that she will certainly be ready to assist herself by the means you mention. But, in this case, we are not sure if the "means" be willing; for I fear Mademoiselle de Graevenitz, like her brother, is of the Protestant sect? Is that not so, Graevenitz?'
'Monseigneur, my sister is not made of martyr stuff. I fancy that she would be willing to further the aims of the Church, were it in her power to do so, and if it were clearly to her advantage. We are talking openly,' he added with a slight flush, for he was still young, only four-and-twenty, and more used to the ruder if more honest code of the camp, than to court manners and customs.
'Now let us consider our strategics,' said Madame de Ruth. 'Bonte divine! How it refreshes one to have a scheme on hand! Stafforth, you say nothing? Marie, you are shocked; how foolish in this workaday world! Why, girl, each does what he can; and, believe me, it is not a lazy life I propose for your sister-in-law. God does not forgive the lazy—it is one of the deadly sins—especially at court. Allons! Let us consider: Monsieur de Stafforth remind us of the dates of the coming court festivities! A ball? No! A ball is useful during a well-started intrigue. I have it! there will be theatricals in the Lusthaus on the 29th of April. Three days? Perfect! And your sister sings? Graevenitz, how does she sing?'
'Well, Madame, divinely well; but her voice is deep, very low—a dark rich voice that mad old dreamer, the schoolmaster at Guestrow, calls it——' he began, but the garrulous lady interrupted eagerly:
'Heaven guard the boy for a simpleton! Do you not know the invincible thrill of the new, the unaccustomed? We are all sick to death of the Geyling's shrill pipe; your sister's voice would be invaluable, as a contrast.'
'When Madame de Ruth talks it is like the ripple of the brooks,' said Zollern laughing; 'your pardon, dear friend, that I interrupt! Your plan is admirable, but first let us get the lady here, see her, hear her, and then we shall know what to do. Meanwhile I must go homewards. Monsieur de Berga, my old friend, who bores me with his virtue but holds me by his well-tried affection, awaits me for supper, and I have a long road before me ere I get to my house.'
So saying, the Duke of Zollern rose to depart. 'Berga!' laughed Madame de Ruth, 'there is the very man we want for the end of our intrigue! When his Highness has plucked the flower and enjoyed its sweetness, we will give it to Berga to dry between the leaves of his Bible! He shall marry Mademoiselle de Graevenitz in a few years' time; it will be a pious act for him, and a small reward to us for having borne his lectures with such good grace this twenty years.' Zollern smiled. He knew his austere old friend too well, and he could not picture him in the ridiculous role of husband of a cast-off courtesan. With a profound salute the old beau took leave of the company, and followed his hostess into the ill-lit corridor.
'A fine plan, dear friend, a very fine plan! By the way, let us hope this Graevenitz girl talks a little better French than does her sister-in-law. I verily believe Madame Friedrich de Graevenitz prefers peasant German to our own speech, and at court no word of that inelegant language could be tolerated.'
Once more he bent over Madame de Ruth's hand, murmuring, 'Merci de mes souvenirs, amie bien chere,' and then he climbed back into his heavy coach and drove out into the stormy darkness. Madame de Ruth watched the lights of the carriage disappearing, and with a sigh re-entered the salon, where she found Graevenitz writing a letter to his sister, helped by suggestions from Oberhofmarshall Stafforth.
 Wuerttemberg was formerly and more correctly spelt Wirtemberg. This ancient spelling has been retained in the present work.
THE AVE MARIA
A ROOM with rudely bulging plaster walls, once painted a harsh blue, now toned by time and damp to a hundred parti-coloured patches. A rough, uneven floor; for furniture a narrow, oaken bedstead, a heavy chair lamed by four legs of various heights, a rickety table steadied by a pad of rags beneath one foot, a long chest of painted wood: such was the sleeping-room of Wilhelmine von Graevenitz, in her mother's house at Guestrow in Mecklemburg. And here on a December morning of the year 1705 Wilhelmine sat disconsolately on the edge of the narrow bed. A feeble ray of winter sunshine crept through the small lattice window and made the dust twirl in a straight shaft of haze. The sunbeam kissed a cheerfulness into the dreary chamber, but the girl evidently felt no answering thrill of gladness, for she remained in her dejected attitude gloomily contemplating the dust dancing in the sunray. It was bitterly cold, and the feeble sun seemed only a teasing trick of nature, emphasising the general unfriendliness of the morning. Wilhelmine shivered in her thin bedgown, but she made no movement towards clothing herself; she was a prey to a mood of profound melancholy, and her expression was mournful, almost sinister. Though hers was a strangely haunting face, giving the impression of loveliness, yet, had one called this girl beautiful, it would have conveyed a totally erroneous picture of her, and but ill defined her subtle fascination. Her features were irregular, a trifle heavy perchance, with high cheek bones and massive square chin, with a cleft in the centre as though the Master Sculptor had said: 'This were too strong a face for a woman; I will give her a hint of tenderness to make her utterly irresistible,' and so He had planted a child's dimple in her chin and another near her lips when she smiled. Wilhelmine was over-tall, lithe of limb, and spare as a Greek runner; then suddenly, unexpectedly, full breasted—surprising, when one considered the rest of her proportions. Her hair was deep brown, nearly black, save where the light showed a tinge of red, a glint of gold. It was almost too abundant; like a rich, virulent weed it grew triumphant. Her lips were thin yet perfectly modelled, a long gracious curve; the upper lip a trifle thicker and short below the sensitive, wide-open nostrils. The brow serene and white, heavy over the deep-set blue eyes. And the eyes! No one could ever describe Wilhelmine von Graevenitz's eyes, or no two persons could agree concerning them, which comes to the same thing. They were blue and deeply set, the lids heavy, the lashes short and thick, the eyebrows strongly marked, arched and almost joining over the nose. But these are mere outward presentments, and tell nothing of the spirit living in those marvellous eyes. This was a thing of vital force, for ever changeful. Even the colour of her eyes was varying, and yet there was a curious persistency of gaze, a power of fixing. The Guestrow citizens called Wilhelmine von Graevenitz witch and sorceress because of these strange eyes; they said she could freeze men with a look, that she had a serpent's gaze that grew cold and petrifying, when she chose, and yet those who loved her (they were not many) knew that her eyes could dance with laughter like a child's, that they could soften to tenderness, could glow with enthusiasm over a song or poem. But these softer moods were rare; in Wilhelmine's life there was little to call forth a gentle feeling. She lived alone with her mother in the small dark house, her brother Friedrich was away at the wars, her elder sister had married a middle-class personage of the name of Sittmann, a struggling Berlin merchant; and thus Wilhelmine led a dull life enough, for she despised the homely Guestrow citizens, who in return disliked and feared her and called her witch. Frau von Graevenitz was a talkative dame, who passed her days in gossip and in waiting for news of her son Friedrich—'my soldier son at the wars with our brave Mecklemburgians, who follow the allied army under the great Englishman Malbruck!' as she informed her neighbours a hundred times a day. Upon Wilhelmine she lavished little affection, grudging her the scanty fare, and continually reminding her that she must marry. 'And who is more fitting a husband than Herr Pastor Mueller?' she would add. 'Though,' she grumbled, 'he is not of noble birth, still he is a solid man; and really in these days, when all the country is upset and one never knows when the French King and his wickedness may come upon us; what with one thing and another, indeed, a maiden may be pleased to find even a plebeian protector.' Thus she rambled on in her sharp voice, yet there was cause for her anxiety, and truth lay beneath her cackle, but the wisdom of age is often obscured by its presentment.
Wilhelmine paid little heed to her mother's eloquence; though this morning, as she sat on the edge of her bed, it was of those daily tirades that she thought.
Frau von Graevenitz was a sore trial. The food in her house was poor and scanty. The house itself dirty and untidy, with one peasant girl to do all the work. Wilhelmine hated this misery. She dreamed of ease and plenty, of soft linen, of bright garments, of balls and masques, of gaiety and splendour.
Pastor Mueller had none of these things to offer, she reflected; and she saw in prospect long years of dull sermons to be yawned through, stockings—thick, ugly stockings—to darn, stuffy respectability!—A timid knock came at the door, and Wilhelmine called the permission to enter, in a voice still clouded and harsh from her dreary reflections. The door opened, disclosing a curious and pathetic figure wrapped in a tattered homespun cloak.
It seemed to be a child, for it had but childhood's growth; yet the body had the clumsy decrepitude of old age. The shoulders were high and pointed; the long, emaciated arms reached almost to the ground. Enormous hands hung on these poor limbs—hands for a very big woman, beautiful hands; for in spite of their huge size they were wonderfully modelled and imposingly strong, with the long, nervous fingers of the artist or the enthusiast. The head was grotesquely oversized, though essentially beautiful; but it seemed like some sculptor's masterpiece placed upon a ridiculous figure, or some fine boulder rock balanced absurdly on a narrow, crooked flower-stem. The face arrested attention immediately; it was beautiful, finely chiselled and of classic line, without a hint of deformity or disease on its glowing health. The eyes were large, liquid, appealing, yet painfully watchful, as are the eyes of all the deformed. A yearning soul looked out of them, longing for sympathy, suspicious of pity—pity which is of all things most hateful to the cripple and the hunchback. As she stood in the doorway, there was a look of almost stern disapproval on her face, though the eyes softened with the tenderness of a woman watching the gracious naughtiness of a child.
'Wilhelmine,' she said, her grave glance meeting the other's angry frown, 'Wilhelmine, what is it now? Has the mother been singing her usual song of poverty and marriage? Come, beloved one, never frown at me so; you know it hurts me when you frown, more than the sneers and laughter which I always hear around me.—My friend! Nothing is worth a frown, though many things are worth tears.'
Wilhelmine turned away abruptly. Anna Reinhard was her friend, one of the few people in the world for whom she felt affection; but the pedantic words of the deformed girl often irritated her, and she found that spoken wisdom of Anna's infinitely wearisome, yet she was seldom querulous to her, partly because of the real affection she bore her, partly from a certain fear of the hunchback's quick wit and vehemence.
'No,' said Wilhelmine, 'it is not really the recollection of mother's lectures which disturbs me; but oh, Anna, this existence is becoming unbearable! It is all very well for you; you have your beloved books, and your religion to occupy you, but I have got nothing, and I want so much! Believe me, all those things you call amusement and luxury are necessities to me. I want to lie soft in sweet linen, to wear rich clothes, to dance, and—yes, Anna, don't look wise and solemn! I want admiration, applause, power. Anna, Anna, I wish I had been born like you' (the hunchback shuddered), 'yes, yes! You know what I mean! To like those things you like, all of which you can get——'
'What foolishness!' broke in Anna; 'content with what one can have is the only happiness. Wilhelmine, some day perhaps you will have the things you pine for, far more perhaps, and then you will want others, always more!'
'Give me these things, and I will not ask for more!' burst out Wilhelmine.
'So you always say, Wilhelmine, and always will—even when——'
'Anna, you do not understand! how could you? I want life and all that life holds——' She opened her strange, grasping hands, and they closed over the other's wrists in a compelling grip.
At this moment a clatter arose in the narrow, ill-paved street, in which stood Frau von Graevenitz's house.
A man on a mud-bespattered horse cantered to the door of the Rathaus and pulled up with a flourish, blowing a shrill blast on a horn. He was accoutred in the blue and silver uniform which the Princes of Thurn and Taxis decreed to be worn by the Imperial Post.
The Taxis were Hereditary Grand Masters of the Imperial Post, which office they had found to be a valuable source of income, for the entire return of the exorbitant postal rates went into their pockets; still the people had cause for gratitude to the Taxis, as, at least, their care assured a tolerably safe carrying of letters, and, to a certain extent, a systematised postal service.
In those days the arrival of the mail was an important event. It awoke the small German town from its habitual slumberous dullness, and a letter caused its recipient to be regarded as a person of consequence.
A crowd of town cronies and gossips immediately formed round the horseman. They did not ask if he brought a letter; indeed, that was unlikely, but news! news of the war! What were the Frenchmen doing? had they gone back to their godless country?
The man answered these questions as best he might. He knew little, he said, for he only carried despatches from Schwerin. News of the war in the South? Well,—they said in Schwerin that Marshal Villars had left Wirtemberg with his army, but there was a letter in his bag from Wirtemberg for the Fraeulein von Graevenitz, and perchance she would be able to tell them. At mention of this a busybody ran up the narrow street, calling loudly: 'Fraeulein Wilhelmine! Fraeulein Wilhelmine! there is a letter from your brother! Come and tell us the news of the army. He may tell when to expect our soldiers' return.'
Wilhelmine, who had dressed hurriedly on hearing the post arrive, came slowly down the street. She looked angrily at the woman, for she hated the familiarity of the townsfolk and resented their open curiosity. Did they expect her to read her brother's letter aloud to a gaping group, as though it were a public gazette? But she wanted the letter, and wished to get it before her mother, hearing the tumult, could come and snatch it from her. The people eyed the proud girl with no good will. She was reserved and haughty, and some said she had the evil eye.
The messenger handed her the letter and she walked quickly away, followed by many a disapproving grunt and sarcastic comment from the crowd. She gained the door of her mother's house and, springing up the creaking stair, went quickly into her room, shutting and bolting the door behind her.
* * * * *
'DEAR SISTER,'—she read—'Since last I wrote to thee, I have left my Lord of Marlborough's army, being invited to visit the court of my honoured brother in arms, Monseigneur le Duc de Wirtemberg. This happened six months since; meanwhile I have married Mademoiselle Marie von Stuben, a lady of Rottenburg (a small town on the borders of my Lord Duke's territory). I have been appointed Kammerjunker at court, and shall not be returning to Guestrow for some time. I write this news so that thou mayst break it gently to our mother, who, I fear, may be disappointed in that I do not return immediately to visit her. But assure her that I will ride North to see her whenever I can, and that shortly I hope to be in a position to offer her hospitality in Stuttgart.
'I am convinced that it would be to thine advantage, dear sister, if thou camest immediately to visit us. Tell our mother that I know many rich noblemen here, and that I will endeavour to arrange a marriage for thee, more fitting than the alliance of our sister Sittmann. The great thing is that thou shouldst set forth soon, for there will be court festivities in the spring. After which, there is usually little gaiety until the late autumn.
'A good friend of mine, Madame de Ruth of Oberhausen, is willing to receive thee, and will arrange that thou shouldst take part in these court gaieties. A thousand greetings to our mother, and beg her, for my sake, to permit thee to travel southward without too much delay.—Thy brother,
'FREIDRICH WILHELM VON GRAeVENITZ.
'Neuhaus, Oberhausen, pres Rottenburg sur le Neckar.
WIRTEMBERG. Ce 29 Nov. 1705.
'I hope thy friend Monsieur Gabriel has really taught thee fine French, for no one speaks German here at court; it is considered as peasants' speech! As thou wilt see, I do not even write to thee in German! French talk, French manners, in spite of French battles!'
* * * * *
Wilhelmine sat motionless for a few moments after she had perused this effusion. In her mind she saw a succession of pictures of courtly splendour and graceful adventure—and in each she herself was the central figure. She looked around her bare room; the bulging walls, the rude furniture. Her eyes narrowed into that strange look of hers which the people of Guestrow declared was like a serpent's gaze, and could hold animals powerless as long as it was directed upon them. She was thinking deeply—swiftly—and perhaps it was at this moment that Wilhelmine von Graevenitz vowed her soul to worldly success; her indomitable will directed to the goal of worldly power at all costs and at all hazards. She rose shivering. It was cheerless and cold in her room; the momentary gleam of the winter sun had died away, and the sky was grey and heavy with coming snow. She unhooked her cloak from the peg, fastened it round her, and with her letter hidden away in the folds she stepped softly out and down the stair, throwing a quick backward glance to see if her mother followed or observed her. Noiselessly she lifted the latch of the house door and took her way up the narrow street.
She passed the old Rathaus with the quaint fourteenth-century belfry, and the clock whence sprang out the brightly painted leaden figure of a knight, to smite the chime with his sword at each hour. In the market-place beneath, the weekly market was being held.
Many small booths had been erected, and the venders were expostulating with the citizens, who drove hard bargains with them. It was a picturesque scene enough, had Wilhelmine paused to watch—much colour in the peasants' dress, much variety in the women's headgear, and over all the wonderful old building, which would have delighted a painter's soul. That morning Wilhelmine noted nothing of all this, though on another occasion she would have taken pleasure in it, for like most sensuous natures she had a keen feeling for colour, and the grouping of a peasant crowd appealed to her artistic eye; but that day she was so absorbed in her own dreams that she did not even observe her mother walking towards her, an expression of annoyance on her sharp features. Wilhelmine started when Frau von Graevenitz, laying an ungentle hand on her shoulder, said close to her ear: 'And where may my fine daughter be going at so early an hour? Generally Miss Lie-abed is still reposing at nine of the clock!'
'O mother!' she answered, 'I am going to Monsieur Gabriel for my singing lesson. God knows, you cannot grudge me that, for he teaches me without payment.' Her quick wit told her that to draw her mother's attention to this fruitful source of complaint, her poverty, would ensure an escape unquestioned. She reflected that she could tell of Friedrich's letter, pretending she had received it on her way home. Or, if her mother discovered the earlier delivery of the post, she would say the angry attack in the market-place had made her forget to mention it. This plan met with success, and Frau von Graevenitz remained in the pleasurable throes of a talkative woman with a grievance, holding forth to an appreciative audience composed of several of her gossips, who had gathered round as soon as they heard her shrill excited tones. A market-woman or two joined the group and stood with hands on hips, listening with open amusement, for the garrulous dame was a well-known character in the country town.
As Wilhelmine gained the shelter of the dark street which ran from the Marktplatz to the cathedral, she saw Pastor Mueller's fat form added to her mother's assemblage. How she hated that stout person, his pompous condescension to her, and his greasy face!
The Klosterstrasse seemed deliciously quiet after the noise of the Marktplatz, and before her, at the end of the street, she could see one tall buttress of the cathedral, and a corner of the graveyard. She walked up the pathway between the tombs and pushed open the heavy church door. The cathedral nave was dark. Wilhelmine peered about and, thinking there was no one in the church, turned to go, when from the organ, far away near the high altar (or where the high altar had been before Protestant fury had torn it down), came a whisper like the awakening of the cathedral's soul; a long-drawn note which grew stronger and fuller, filling the whole building with a pulse of sound.
Wilhelmine paused, then, turning silently to one of the oaken pews, sat down. A wondrous melody crept through the air, strong, noble, uncomplicated; then followed chords growing each moment more the expression of a soul on fire. They rose stronger, they swelled and strove and implored, they wailed with the passion of finite hearts that yearn infinitely; then suddenly sank back into the solemn major key whence they started. And it was as the renunciation of some terrible striving, as though the organ chanted the litany of some perfect calm reached through an agony of endeavour and suffering. Wilhelmine's eyes were wet, while she leaned her head against the back of the oaken pew. To her music was the only form of prayer, and it never failed to move her to a vague aspiration, she herself knew hardly what. Her dreams of the world faded, and she was only cognisant of the dim church and the inspired improvisation of her beloved Monsieur Gabriel. This was his answer to her as yet unasked question. She had come to him for guidance, to beg his counsel concerning her brother's letter, and he had told her in his music all that he knew of the world. He had shown her the cruel agony of the worldly life, the unrest, the bootless seeking, the satiety of realised ambition, and the calmness, the peace of the renunciation of these things.
The organ was silent for a moment, and then through the stillness of the shadowy aisle floated the first notes of an 'Ave Maria,' which Wilhelmine knew well and had often sung when no disturbing element of disapproving Protestant burgherdom was near. Instinctively she came in at the appointed bar for the voice's commencement. 'Ave Maria gratia plena,' she sang, and her powerful notes echoed through the cathedral with all the sombre glory which lay in her great contralto voice. The player at the organ immediately softened his music to a mere accompanying whisper, which yet supported the voice, greeting it with the newly awakened soul of the organ. 'Ora pro nobis, peccatoribus,' she sang, and surely the Mother of God must have listened to so wonderful a tone prayer? 'Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae, Amen.' And the organ wandered on repeating the 'Amen' again and again in a solemn, dreamy deepening of chords, which the beautiful voice followed and answered with that certainty and ease which belong to a few of the world's singers when they sing to the accompaniment of one with whom they are in perfect musical and sympathetic understanding. The music came to an end and the church seemed doubly silent, with the painful stillness one sometimes feels when a song is ended; it is almost the same sudden forlorn feeling as when a beloved friend goes away, that sense of the departure of a beautiful presence, or it may be that our souls have returned to earth after soaring towards some beauteous mystic region. Wilhelmine passed up the nave, through a small door in the side of the carven wooden screen, and up a dark and narrow winding stair which led to the organ-loft. It was unusual to find an organ even in a cathedral in those days, but a pious Duke of Mecklemburg-Guestrow had given this one to the church as a thankoffering, and had caused it to be built by the famous organ-makers of Venice.
The organist's face and figure commanded attention. Tall and spare, with the scholar's stoop, a long narrow head broadening at the brow, a mass of iron-grey hair,—a thin, eager face lit by almost colourless eyes, which looked as though the blue of youth had been washed away by tears, or faded by vigils and patient suffering. This was the individual whom the townsfolk called the 'mad French schoolmaster, Monsieur Gabriel,' and whose youth they whispered had been spent at the court of France, till Madame de Maintenon had set his enemies upon him, and he, being proved a heretic, had fled for his life across the frontier and wandered northwards. The course of his wanderings brought him to Mecklemburg where, hearing that the schoolmaster at Guestrow had died, he had sought the post and it had been granted him, because of his proved learning and his skill as a musician. This uneventful calling he had followed for many years, and the people had ceased to wonder at his eccentricities, his silence, and his friendlessness. The children loved him, and his school became famous through the countryside, and on Sundays and feast days the citizens flocked to hear his organ playing, and the performance of the choir of youths and maidens he had trained to sing so well.
Pastor Mueller, according to his coarse nature, was jealous of him and insolent to him, yet he feared the mild gaze of those faded eyes and the imperturbable courtesy of the old Frenchman's manner. The pastor would often question the schoolmaster sharply concerning the music he played. 'Chorales are all very fine,' he said, 'but surely oftentimes you play music from the abominable Mass, not fitting indeed in a holy place set apart for the worship of the Lord according to our pure faith?' 'Ah! Pastor, but the notes cannot contaminate,' Monsieur Gabriel would answer; 'Luther himself made use of the monk's melodies in his canticles.' And Pastor Mueller retired to his dirty, airless house, feeling rebuked himself where he had wished to chide.
When Wilhelmine von Graevenitz appeared at the Guestrow school, a curly-haired child, Monsieur Gabriel had immediately fallen victim to her wayward charm, and had lavished much care on her studies. He taught her French thoroughly. 'I am told,' he was wont to say, 'that even in Germany no lady speaks aught save French, and you, my child, must be a great lady some day. Believe me, there is no more magnificent being than a true grande dame, and for this destiny the good God fashioned you.' He trained Wilhelmine in music, till thorough-bass, counterpoint, and the rest became to her an easy exercise. He read her of the history of France; taught her to know and love the Roman de la Rose, and the poems of the singers of La Pleiade. Often he would quote Malherbes, saying with a smile and a sigh as he looked at her radiant youth: 'Et rose, elle a vecu ce que vivent les roses, l'espace d'un matin; for,' he said, 'the flowers of the world fade quickly, and thou art surely a flower, my little one.' He read her the works of Racine, Corneille, Moliere, all of which learning she assimilated rapidly, and with an accuracy which delighted the old scholar. Sometimes, of an evening, he would keep her with him long after school hours, and one winter he took it into his head that she must learn to dance. He tied an inky tablecloth to her shoulders to serve as a sweeping garment. It was infinitely droll to see the two, mincing, bowing, and pirouetting in front of the mirror. 'You must see yourself curtsey,' he said, 'if you would learn the real movement.' He taught her the gavotte, the pavane, and many other dances, playing the measures on an old violin the while. The school desks served for dummy dancers, and were arranged to give her a notion of the ordering of the figures. The aged recluse, in his musty coat, seemed transformed into a very courtly gentleman, but Wilhelmine always fancied that his eyes were more melancholy than usual after these mimic courts. One day she asked him if it saddened him to revoke the past. 'Ah! mon enfant!' he replied, 'que voulez-vous? un coeur profondement blesse ne guerit jamais; and the melodies of these dances remind me of my wound, which I thought had healed in your peaceful northern land. Ah! little one, there is no sadder music to the old than the dance-music of a vanished youth.'
While Wilhelmine read her brother's letter on that cold December morning, it was to Monsieur Gabriel she at once decided to confide its surprising contents. Her mother, she knew, would raise a dozen difficulties, and it were best to talk with Monsieur Gabriel and devise some means of procuring sufficient money to pay the cost of her journey to Wirtemberg. Then, if they could hit upon a scheme to propose to Frau von Graevenitz, there was more likelihood of gaining her consent. But the music had changed Wilhelmine's mind, and as she climbed up to the organ-loft she was almost prepared to abandon her intended journey.
'Monsieur Gabriel!' she said, 'I have great news, so strangely unexpected that I wonder if I am dreaming it! Read this letter of my brother's, and give me your advice.' The old man stretched out his left hand to take the paper, while his right hand remained on the organ keys, and as he read he played a few chords. 'Helas!' he murmured as he refolded the letter, 'so the time has come when you must go forth into the world. Well, well—it is right; you are wasted here, though God knows it will be very dark without you.'
'But, Monsieur Gabriel,' she said, 'you talk as though I should start to-morrow! I have not told my mother yet, and I have come to you for advice. Where could I get the money to pay my journey? It will cost many gulden.'
The old man smiled. 'Money? your brother sends you none, of course? Your mother? she also has none. Does Friedrich think you can fly southward on a swallow's wing? And the swallows have gone to the south long ago,' he added dreamily.
'O Monsieur Gabriel,' cried Wilhelmine, 'help me!—you have always helped me! tell me where to get this money.'
'My child, I must think; do you know what the cost will be? No, nor I either; but let me see—how long has this letter been on the road?—sixteen days—and you could not travel so far without rest and refreshment. Well! you must have a hundred gulden. But, child, to what am I sending you?'
Wilhelmine started; she knew by his last words that he could procure the money.
'To success!' she answered in a low voice.
'Success? Yes, probably, but that is the greatest danger! We can most of us remain pure of heart, tender, generous while we are poor or sad, but it is when the world smiles that the heart so often grows cold and hard.'
Wilhelmine clambered on to the organ bench, pushing Monsieur Gabriel gently aside. She struck a chord, but the half-witted bellows-blower, whose presence they had forgotten, had ceased to pump air into the organ, and there came only a painful droning from the empty pipes. She called to him imperiously, and with a muttered grumble he resumed his pumping.
'A bad omen,' said Wilhelmine; 'I strike a chord and I achieve dissonance and wailing.' She threw back her head and pressed her fingers on the keyboard: this time a thin flute-like chord came forth, and Wilhelmine lifted her voice and sang:
'Cher ami de ma jeunesse Souriez a ma liesse— Au Printemps chansons et fleurs! Pour l'hiver gardons les pleurs.
Cher ami, la vieillesse Est reveche a l'alegresse Je cueillerai les douces fleurs Pour l'hiver gardant mes pleurs.'
She managed the organ wonderfully, and succeeded so well in playing a light, graceful accompaniment to the old French melody, that Monsieur Gabriel, listening with a smile and nodding his head, whispered as though to some invisible confidant: 'I have made her a true artist!—no, God makes the artist, but those who love them teach them to give their genius to the world. Well, my child,' he continued, 'I will find the money for you, but leave me now. Be satisfied, your song has done its work; I will send you on your search for the flowers, and God grant you may not find the tears too soon!—I do not love that song with its refrain of fleurs et pleurs, it is so terribly true.' But Wilhelmine was not listening to his rambling talk; her strange eyes had lost the brightness which had been theirs while she sang the gay French song; they had narrowed to that hard, compelling gaze which, in truth, was curiously serpent-like in its cold fixity.
Monsieur Gabriel laid his hand on her shoulder, and together they went down into the silent nave of the church. They separated at the door; the old man going up the Klosterstrasse to the schoolhouse, while Wilhelmine walked rapidly away, through the graveyard, towards the bleak fields and the marshland which surrounded the dreary northern town.
THE FIRST STEP
'Happy the nations of the moral North! Where all is virtue, and the winter season Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth.'
Don Juan, Canto II.
WILHELMINE walked on for some twenty minutes, the cold morning air bringing a bright colour to her cheeks and a sparkle to her eyes. Her gait was one of her greatest charms; it never seemed hurried, and yet the long, even steps carried her swiftly onwards. There was vigorous elasticity in her tread; she walked freely and with perfectly assured balance, her shoulders thrown back and head erect. It was in a measure this walk of hers which caused the townsfolk to call her 'the proud hussy,' though they were careful not to let her hear their disparaging remarks, for they feared the compelling power of her strange eyes. It was whispered that it was dangerous to offend her. 'Though, of course,' they declared, 'we do not really believe in witchcraft and such Popish abominations, still it is certainly true that Hans Frisch, the blacksmith's child, who threw a snowball at her last winter and had the misfortune to hit her on the face, went home, took to his bed, and nearly died of convulsions.' Of this talk Wilhelmine was unaware, though, knowing the effect of her eyes upon people, she would often voluntarily narrow her lids, causing the pupils to contract. She practised this feat before the mirror, but she was careful not to do so at night, for it gave her an uncanny feeling, and she sometimes succeeded in frightening herself, as she did others. That cold morning, while she walked, there was none of all this in her face; she was merely a gloriously healthy young being rejoicing simply and naturally in the morning freshness and in the pulsing of the blood in her veins. She was feeling the elation of health, and it chased away her morbid fancies in spite of the dreariness of the wet fields around her. Indeed, it needed the buoyancy of youth to counteract the profound melancholy of the Mecklemburg lake-country in winter. The enormous flat fields stretching away in unbroken monotony, the road very straight, with a division of colour in the middle where the summer road marched with the winter road; the former merely a soaking mud-bog, the latter hard and stony. On each side of the highway a line of apple and pear trees lifted gaunt twisted arms to the leaden sky, as though in protest against the sullen aspect of the world. Wilhelmine paused and looked about her. The snow was surely coming; there was the hush in the air which precedes a snowstorm, and she was some distance from home. She strained her eyes westward and endeavoured to catch a glimpse of the lake towards which she was journeying, but she could see nothing save the drenched fields, and in the dim distance the dark line of fir woods. She turned her face homewards and began to walk with a quickened step. The cold air had made her hungry; she had only partaken of a lump of black bread and a glass of milk, and it was now late in the morning. She felt a soft cold touch on her cheek, the first snowflake of the gathering storm. At first the snowflakes only added to the slush on the road; they melted shudderingly and were devoured by the brown mud, but as the snow fell the mud was conquered and lay hidden beneath a dazzling white covering. Ever faster came the snow. It beat down on Wilhelmine, the large fleecy patches almost blinding her. She had walked farther than she had realised, and her feet sinking deep through the snow into the mud beneath, the high heels of her thin shoes stuck and impeded her progress. At length she reached the outskirts of the town, whose red roofs were already almost hidden by a white layer of snow. She hurried up the deserted street, past the cathedral. When she came to the corner of the market-place she saw a dark figure in a cloak of peasant's frieze coming towards her, and with a feeling of annoyance she recognised Pastor Mueller.
At that moment he too observed her, and hurried to meet her. 'Ah! Fraeulein,' he said as he came up, 'I am grieved to see you exposed to this inclement weather. May I not offer you the hospitality of my house?' He spoke in German with a careful affectation of correctness, though his accent was harsh and guttural from his native low German dialect. Wilhelmine particularly detested his speech, and it irritated her to be addressed as 'Fraeulein,' as though she were a burgher's daughter, and not of sufficiently noble birth to be styled 'gracious lady.' Of a truth, the pastor was not a person to inspire either liking or respect. He was fat in body, with short plump legs whose common shape was exhibited to the fullest extent by tight knee-breeches and woollen stockings. His face was enormous, and though his jaw showed strength and decision, the weak mouth and large protuberant lips indicated that his senses ruled what he himself styled 'the fair habitation of an immortal soul.' His eyes were small, and seemed to express inordinate greed, when they were not, as was usually the case, lifted to the sky in pious self-assurance, yet with feigned humility. Pastor Mueller was at once unctuous and insolent, a combination of contending characteristics which is often the possession of those who patronise God Almighty with their approval, and use His Name as a convenient adjunct in their homilies against all things human. His health, he was wont to declare, had suffered from his many vigils, and consequently he found himself forced to fortify his body with much nourishment, and with copious draughts of any wine which he could obtain. In spite of this, he dominated his congregation partly by reason of a certain eloquence which was at his command in the pulpit when dealing with theological questions, in which, indeed, he was deeply learned. He convinced by his uncompromising attitude towards the sinful members of his parish. In fact, the Guestrow citizens regarded him as a strong Christian, and rejoiced in his fervid biblical language. Many of the spinsters of his flock would gladly have become Frau Mueller, but he paid no heed to their blandishments, and openly avowed his intention of making Wilhelmine the mistress of the Pfarrhaus, though she appeared strangely insensible to the glory of this prospect. In the first place, with the arrogance of youth, she regarded the pastor's forty years as old age, and treated his ponderous attempts at gallantry with levity. However, when she met him in the snow that morning she was cold and hungry, and the prospect of probable warmth at his fireside, with a substantial meal provided, proved alluring; so it was with an unusually gracious manner that she accepted his offer of shelter. A few steps brought them to the door of his abode, and they passed into the small, dark corridor which led to his study. Here the stove sent forth a pleasant heat, and it was with a welcome sensation of returning warmth that Wilhelmine sank down in the large chair which the pastor drew up for her close to the stove. She had flung off her snow-covered cloak, and she sat there in her thin morning blouse, open at the neck and showing the contour of her white throat. Mueller begged her to remove her soaking shoes, and, having done so, she leaned back, stretching out her feet towards the little door in the stove, which he had opened in order to permit the red embers to give forth their full heat. He pushed some logs through the aperture, and there was a delightful crackling and the busy burning of well-dried wood. Then he left Wilhelmine while he went to forage in the kitchen for food; his old house-keeper being at the market, or more probably sheltering from the storm and gossiping in some friendly booth. Wilhelmine reclined in the comfortable chair and surveyed the room. A number of theological works lay on the table in the centre of the apartment; and another large table which stood in the window was covered with papers, closely written sheets as her sharp eyes observed. The walls were bare and ugly, but the room had a decided air of comfort; the windows shut out the cold in a manner unknown in Frau von Graevenitz's dilapidated house; the chair she lay in was soft; and, above all, it was very warm in the room. She stretched herself and wondered if, after all, there would not be sufficient creature comforts to atone for the dullness of life as Frau Mueller.
The pastor returned carrying a dish of cold meat, a loaf of home-baked bread, and under his arm a large bottle. Pushing some of the theological books aside, he set down the food on the middle table which he drew up near the stove beside Wilhelmine. Then again he disappeared to the kitchen, returning anon with plates, glasses, knives and forks. He placed himself opposite his guest, and turning his eyes towards the grimy ceiling, he folded his fat hands and recited a prayer over the victuals.
'O Lord, who hath brought this female into mine house, send a blessing, I pray thee, upon the food which I set before her!' He paused, then added: 'May this be the first of many meals she shall partake of here in Christian humility and dutiful affection.' Wilhelmine laughed. At another time the pastor would have been rebuked sharply for a speech of this kind; but she was hungry, and it did not suit her to postpone her meal to the uncertain date of Frau von Graevenitz's dinner. The pastor helped her liberally to meat, and cut a large slice from the white loaf—a luxury for Wilhelmine, used to the heavy, sour, black bread, which was provided in her mother's house. He poured out a copious draught from the black bottle, and the smell of corn brandy filled the air. Wilhelmine ate hungrily, and drank the liquor with relish, the strong spirits coursing through her with a grateful, tingling feeling, for she was really in need of food.
'Dear lady,' said Mueller, pouring a large quantity of the brandy into his own glass, 'I give you of my best; this excellent liquor was a present to me from the noble Herr von Maltzan. He is a generous friend to me. But truly, this beverage is not for those whom the Lord has blessed with health and strength, and I keep it for the use of the sick, though my own delicate constitution demands, at rare intervals, a small amount to strengthen me. Dear Fraeulein, I give it gladly to you this morning, for it is cruelly cold, and you, my dear one, were exposed to the rigours of the storm.'
'I thank you, Herr Pastor; I feel truly better for your breakfast, though my head is going round a little, I must confess,' said Wilhelmine.
Mueller looked at her curiously, then, rising, he walked to the window, and watched the driving snow. After a few moments he returned, and drawing up his chair near the stove he spread out his fat fingers, warming them at the fire. There was silence between them, only broken by the wind outside, which had risen and was whistling and howling, and driving the snow in clouds down the street. Suddenly the pastor bent down and laid his hand on her stockinged foot. 'Still damp,' he said; 'it would be well if you took off your hose and dried them.' Wilhelmine smiled lazily.
'Good Herr Pastor,' she said, 'your plenteous meal has made me sleepy. I cannot take the trouble to take off my hose even though they may be a trifle wet.' She closed her eyes. The walk in the strong winter air, followed by the warmth of the room and the unaccustomed alcohol made her drowsy, and she wished to be undisturbed in her half dream. Mueller's face flushed to a deep purple, then paled. He breathed heavily, and the veins stood out on his temples like cords.
'Wilhelmine,' he said in a hoarse, thick whisper, 'you shall indeed be my wife—I promise you—ah, you are fitted to adorn any position, Wilhelmine, my bride!' He bent and kissed her stockinged foot, and his coarse fingers pressed deep into her slight ankle.
'Your condescension amazes me, Herr Pastor,' she said mockingly, 'but I fear——'
'Nay, my dear, no maidenly modesty! Come, we are affianced now; let me give thee the lover's kiss!' He leaned over her. His breath was sour with the smell of corn brandy. His eyes were glassy, staring, and his fat face was livid, hideous. An overwhelming sense of repulsion came to her. She felt herself degraded by this man's admiration, smirched by his odious desire. The recollection flashed through her mind of a white flower she had seen—a gracious, delicate thing—and a huge, slimy, black slug had rested on the petals. She remembered how she had knocked the creature away, feeling that it defiled the flower.
'No, never! do you hear? Never! I will not marry you,' she broke out.
She struggled to remove Mueller's hand from her ankle; but he gripped strongly, and her fingers seemed terribly impotent, childishly weak.
'How dare you! Let me go. I tell you I will never marry you,' she reiterated vehemently.
'Ah! you beautiful wild thing—but I will make you love me—you will see how you will love your husband. Come, no nonsense! I will soon show you how you love me.' He loosed his grip of her ankle and flung himself over her in the chair, endeavouring to press his thick lips to hers. She struggled against him but he kept her down; with one hand on her forehead he pushed her back into the chair, while with the other he wrenched open the neck of her bodice, tearing it downward to her breast. Always a strong man he seemed now transformed into some ruthless, degraded, maddened animal. Apparently she was entirely at his mercy, but she was strong and young, and angry disgust gave her unusual strength. She caught the man's throat in both her hands, working her knuckles inwards on his windpipe with such force that he was almost choked, and instinctively put up his hands to hers endeavouring to remove her grip. But she held him, and, half-throttled, he sank down sideways on the arm of the chair. In an instant she dragged herself from him and was able to raise herself on one knee, still keeping her hold on his throat. He wrenched away her hands, his iron grip on both her wrists, but she was now able to dominate her aggressor from above and could hold him down with the full force of her arms. Face to face with her enemy, she recalled the potency of her witch-gaze. She narrowed her eyelids and directed her steely glance into the bloodshot eyes of her tormentor. During a few seconds they were thus: the girl half-standing, half-kneeling, rigid, tense, holding the man from her with all her strength. The man sprawling on his side in the chair—a huge, ridiculous being, panting, gasping, helpless, for he could not regain his balance unless he let go the woman's wrists. To Wilhelmine, in spite of her dauntless nature, these few seconds seemed endless. Fortunately for her, no misgivings as to the compelling power of her eyes crossed her mind, or probably her force might thereby have been diminished. At length she felt a slackening of the muscles of Mueller's hands—his gaze faltered. Again he struggled frantically. She resolved to hazard everything, trusting entirely in her strange power. She bent slowly downwards, all the force of her will focused in her eyes. She felt as though each eye held a dagger wherewith she could stab her enemy's very consciousness. Another moment and the man's hands relaxed entirely and fell limp and inert from her wrists. She sprang up, catching her cloak in her hand as she fled. She reached the study door before Mueller moved. For the moment he seemed transfixed, but as she opened the door, to her horror she saw him rise, and as she rushed down the short passage she heard Mueller's heavy step behind her. For the first time during the whole disgusting scene she felt afraid. Her knees seemed to fail, her feet to grow strangely heavy. She stumbled on till she gained the house door. She fumbled frantically at the latch; it was unfamiliar to her and she could not unfasten it. The pursuer was up to her now and his breath was on her cheek. Once more he threw his arms round her. She turned, like an animal at bay, and dealt Mueller a blow full on the lips. He staggered for an instant, and she succeeded, at last, in wrenching open the door. He clutched at her skirt as she sprang out. It unbalanced her, and she fell forward on her face into the snow of the street.
* * * * *
The shock of the fall, following the excitement of her struggle with Mueller, stunned Wilhelmine for a moment, and when she dragged herself up to a kneeling position and looked round, she found herself alone in the driving snow. Mueller's door was shut, and the street absolutely deserted. She rubbed the clinging snow off her face and ruefully considered the distance which lay between her and her mother's house. The snow had soaked through her thin stockings. She rose wearily, and drawing her cloak round her, and over her head, she hid both her torn bodice and her thick unbound hair, which had fallen over her shoulders during her struggle with Mueller.
Then she started homewards through the fast-falling snow. As she passed the market-place, many faces peered out at her from the venders' booths, and one friendly peasant woman called to her to take shelter, but Wilhelmine shook her head and hastened onwards. She feared that her shoeless feet would awaken curiosity, and she dared not let the people see her torn garments as they assuredly would did she tarry in the booth, for in their homely kindness they would insist on removing her wet cloak.
The Rathaus clock chimed the hour, and Wilhelmine realised with a strange, dream-like feeling that but three hours had gone by since she passed that way to visit Monsieur Gabriel. Yet it seemed to her as though days had elapsed since she sang the Ave Maria in the cathedral. At length she reached the door of her mother's house. She knocked loudly, wondering if Frau von Graevenitz had watched her from the windows of the upper story, which commanded a view of part of the market-place and the door of the Rathaus, where she had received her brother's letter that morning. She knocked again and tried to lift the latch, but it was secured within. She listened, but could hear no approaching footsteps in the corridor. She leaned against the portal, and wondered if it was her fate to remain in the snow for the rest of the day.
Suddenly a thought came to her, which sent the blood tingling in a hot wave to her cheeks: Where was her brother's letter? She felt for it in her bosom; it was not there, and she knew the precious missive must have fallen from her gown during the struggle at the Pfarrhaus. Could she go back and fetch it? she asked herself. No! that was out of the question.
At this moment the door was flung open and Frau von Graevenitz appeared. 'Lord God!' she said, when she saw Wilhelmine standing on the threshold, 'where have you been child? Surely your dear Monsieur Gabriel could keep you in the schoolhouse till this storm passed over, and not send you back to catch your death of cold or cost me an apothecary's fee!'
Wilhelmine pushed past her mother without a word, designing to gain her chamber before the old woman observed her torn garments and her lack of shoes; but Frau von Graevenitz clutched hold of the cloak and, giving it a vicious pull, exclaimed: 'No, no! I will not permit you to take your soaking clothes upstairs. Come in here and take them off.' She tugged at the heavy cloak with such vehemence that the clasp at her neck parted and the cape fell back, revealing Wilhelmine's loosened hair and her torn bodice. The old woman saw her daughter's shoeless feet. She looked at her searchingly, her face darkening and hardening from annoyance to real anger and distrust. 'Wilhelmine,' she said harshly, 'explain your extraordinary appearance. Where have you been, and why do you come home in this strange and unbecoming manner?'
'Mother,' answered the girl, 'let me take off my wet clothes and I will tell you everything.' She wished to gain time to concoct a plausible story, for she did not intend to mention Mueller's outbreak.
In the first place she was horribly ashamed, and knowing Frau von Graevenitz's garrulous tongue she feared to be made the subject of the citizens' gossip. But her mother was not to be put off so easily. She drew the girl into the kitchen, and after shutting the larder door in the servant-maid's astonished face, she planted herself firmly in front of Wilhelmine. 'Now,' she said, 'you will favour me with your story. It is strange to see a young maiden return in this state of disarray from an interview with a man, and I insist upon your clearing yourself immediately if you can.'
'Interview with a man, mother?' said Wilhelmine; 'what do you mean?' It flashed across her that Frau von Graevenitz must have seen her enter Mueller's house.
'Yes; your fine Monsieur Gabriel, with his mincing airs and his high manners! You go to him for your studies, after two long hours you return looking as though——Good Lord! child! answer me—what has that evil old Frenchman done to you?'
Wilhelmine looked at her for a moment in silence; it had not struck her that this interpretation of her dishevelled appearance could be harboured even in her mother's suspicious mind. It filled her with indignation and dismay for her friend; yet she realised with surprise that, could such a thing have occurred as for Monsieur Gabriel to lose his self-control and offend as Mueller had, it would not have disgusted her to the same extent. Somehow, she felt it would not have debased her and humiliated her as had the pastor's attack. For a moment she almost decided to let her mother suspect there had been some strange scene with the organist; anything better than own to the degradation of having suffered the insult of the greasy burgher. Then with a revulsion of feeling, her soul sickened at the injustice of letting Monsieur Gabriel pay the penalty of the pastor's wicked insolence, and she remembered that her friend would be exposed to the horrified reprobation of the sober townsfolk; nay, more, he might even be dismissed from his post.
'How can you think such a thing, mother?' she said angrily. 'I tell you Monsieur Gabriel knows nothing of all this, and as you put such an odious construction on my appearance, I shall not give you the satisfaction of telling you how it came about.'
'As you wish,' the other replied icily; 'but it will be my duty to forbid any further visits to that Frenchman, and I shall inform Pastor Mueller of the schoolmaster's real character.'
This was too much for Wilhelmine; her anger flamed, all her reticence vanished, and she poured forth the whole story. Her mother heard her to the end, and, shaking her head, she made answer: 'If this be true, Pastor Mueller should be punished. But I cannot credit it; you are shielding Monsieur Gabriel. Now go to your room and reflect. You are a sinful woman, Wilhelmine, and a disgrace to your ancient name.'
The girl turned away. The excitement of the last hours had fatigued her, and she felt an unaccountable apathy. After all, what did it matter if her mother misjudged her? She would soon be far away; her present life and surroundings appeared to her to be absolutely detached from her real self. She went slowly up the creaking stair and into her garret, and flung herself down on the bed. She was asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.
* * * * *
It was quite dark when Wilhelmine woke, and she wondered why she should awaken during the night; then, slowly, remembrance came to her, and she realised that she was still fully dressed. She lay quiet for some time, pondering on the events of the day. The Rathaus clock chimed eight slow notes, and she knew she had slept for nearly nine hours. She listened; there was some one moving downstairs in the kitchen, probably her mother preparing the meagre supper. Wilhelmine rose, groped her way to the door, and turned the handle. The door remained firmly closed. She shook it gently, pushed it—the doors in her mother's house often stuck fast; but this time it was no accidental adherence of ill-fitting hinges, the door was securely fastened from outside. Her mother had locked her in! To be locked into a room had always been a terrible thing to her. When she was a child, her brother had often teased her by pushing her into a dark cupboard and turning the key, and it was the only one of the many tricks he played her which had caused her real alarm. She hated the dark and always imagined she was stifling when she knew she was a prisoner in an unlit place. The same feeling came over her now, and she beat her hands frantically against the door, calling her mother loudly the while. But no answer came. She groped her way across the room till she felt her hand touch the window. She found the fastening and, opening the casement, leaned far out into the still night air. From across the market-place came the sound of men's voices, and a glow of light shone beneath the hostelry door. An occasional burst of song and drunken laughter told her that the bad characters of the town were carousing, as usual, on a Saturday night. Otherwise the silence was intense and the darkness unbroken by moon or star. The calm air of the winter night soothed Wilhelmine, and she was ashamed of having knocked and called so wildly; but now a dull feeling of resentment rose in her against her mother for locking her into her room like a naughty child. She leaned her head against the window-frame and wondered if any one on earth had ever been as lonely and miserable as she. Her mother disliked her, her brother was too selfish to care for any one save himself. Anna, her friend, was something in her life; but it is small avail to be loved by those who manage to make their affection tiresome. Mueller loved her! She smiled bitterly to herself; yes, that was a love which could give her happiness! That was what some people called love, she had been told. All at once a wonderful feeling came to her, a wave of infinite relief, like balsam to her wounded heart: it was the thought of Monsieur Gabriel's gentle friendship and trust in her. She saw his kind, dim eyes; the good, discriminating smile, and the thought was as though he laid his delicate, blue-veined hand on her head, soothing her unutterably. She heard a step coming on the stair, a flicker of light crept under her door, and some one fitted the key into the lock. 'Mother!' she called in a softened voice. When the door opened, she saw Frau von Graevenitz standing there, a rush-light in one hand and a plate of food balanced between her breast and the other hand, in which she held a pitcher of milk. The old woman's eyes were red with weeping, and vaguely Wilhelmine realised for the first time in her life that, in spite of grumbling, reproaches, and grudging meanness, her mother had for her a spark of that patient, yearning tenderness which is maternal love.
'Here, my child,' she said gently, 'eat and drink, and forget the horrible things you have passed through to-day.' Wilhelmine slipped an arm round the old woman's neck, and kissed her as she had not done for many a long day, perhaps never since she had been a little child. For a moment she leaned her head against her mother's shoulder, and then taking the food she began to eat. Frau von Graevenitz stuck the rush-light up between a book which was lying on the table and the edge of the plate, then shutting the window she went out, closing and re-locking the door behind her.
* * * * *
On the following morning Wilhelmine woke early, and she was dressed when her mother came to the door and bade her descend and help with the housework. All traces of the unwonted tenderness in the old woman's face had vanished. She had, apparently, forgotten the circumstances of the previous day, or at any rate she made no allusion thereto, though her daughter fancied she watched her narrowly. When the morning's work was ended Wilhelmine returned to her chamber to dress for the church service. She was brushing her hair, when she heard a knock at the house door, followed by Frau von Graevenitz's shrill tones as she conversed in the corridor with some person. Then she heard her mother mounting the stairs and calling 'Wilhelmine!' in flustered tones. The girl hastened to the door of her room and stood on the landing waiting to hear the cause of her mother's summons.