BARLASCH OF THE GUARD
By Henry Seton Merriman
"And they that have not heard shall understand"
I. ALL ON A SUMMER'S DAY II. A CAMPAIGNER III. FATE IV. THE CLOUDED MOON V. THE WEISSEN ROSS'L VI. THE SHOEMAKER OF KONIGSBERG VII. THE WAY OF LOVE VIII. A VISITATION IX. THE GOLDEN GUESS X. IN DEEP WATER XI. THE WAVE MOVES ON XII. FROM BORODINO XIII. IN THE DAY OF REJOICING XIV. MOSCOW XV. THE GOAL XVI. THE FIRST OF THE EBB XVII. A FORLORN HOPE XVIII. MISSING XIX. KOWNO XX. DESIREE'S CHOICE XXI. ON THE WARSAW ROAD XXII. THROUGH THE SHOALS XXIII. AGAINST THE STREAM XXIV. MATHILDE CHOOSES XXV. A DESPATCH XXVI. ON THE BRIDGE XXVII. A FLASH OF MEMORY XXVIII. VILNA XXIX. THE BARGAIN XXX. THE FULFILMENT
CHAPTER I. ALL ON A SUMMER'S DAY.
Il faut devoir lever les yeux pour regarder ce qu'on aime.
A few children had congregated on the steps of the Marienkirche at Dantzig, because the door stood open. The verger, old Peter Koch—on week days a locksmith—had told them that nothing was going to happen; had been indiscreet enough to bid them go away. So they stayed, for they were little girls.
A wedding was in point of fact in progress within the towering walls of the Marienkirche—a cathedral built of red brick in the great days of the Hanseatic League.
"Who is it?" asked a stout fishwife, stepping over the threshold to whisper to Peter Koch.
"It is the younger daughter of Antoine Sebastian," replied the verger, indicating with a nod of his head the house on the left-hand side of the Frauengasse where Sebastian lived. There was a wealth of meaning in the nod. For Peter Koch lived round the corner in the Kleine Schmiedegasse, and of course—well, it is only neighbourly to take an interest in those who drink milk from the same cow and buy wood from the same Jew.
The fishwife looked thoughtfully down the Frauengasse where every house has a different gable, and none of less than three floors within the pitch of the roof. She singled out No. 36, which has a carved stone balustrade to its broad verandah and a railing of wrought-iron on either side of the steps descending from the verandah to the street.
"They teach dancing?" she inquired.
And Koch nodded again, taking snuff.
"And he—the father?"
"He scrapes a fiddle," replied the verger, examining the lady's basket of fish in a non-committing and final way. For a locksmith is almost as confidential an adviser as a notary. The Dantzigers, moreover, are a thrifty race and keep their money in a safe place; a habit which was to cost many of them their lives before the coming of another June.
The marriage service was a long one and not exhilarating. Through the open door came no sound of organ or choir, but the deep and monotonous drawl of one voice. There had been no ringing of bells. The north countries, with the exception of Russia, require more than the ringing of bells or the waving of flags to warm their hearts. They celebrate their festivities with good meat and wine consumed decently behind closed doors.
Dantzig was in fact under a cloud. No larger than a man's hand, this cloud had risen in Corsica forty-three years earlier. It had overshadowed France. Its gloom had spread to Italy, Austria, Spain; had penetrated so far north as Sweden; was now hanging sullen over Dantzig, the greatest of the Hanseatic towns, the Free City. For a Dantziger had never needed to say that he was a Pole or a Prussian, a Swede or a subject of the Czar. He was a Dantziger. Which is tantamount to having for a postal address a single name that is marked on the map.
Napoleon had garrisoned the Free City with French troops some years earlier, to the sullen astonishment of the citizens. And Prussia had not objected for a very obvious reason. Within the last fourteen months the garrison had been greatly augmented. The clouds seemed to be gathering over this prosperous city of the north, where, however, men continued to eat and drink, to marry and to be given in marriage as in another city of the plain.
Peter Koch replaced his snuff-stained handkerchief in the pocket of his rusty cassock and stood aside. He murmured a few conventional words of blessing, hard on the heels of stronger exhortations to the waiting children. And Desiree Sebastian came out into the sunlight—Desiree Sebastian no more.
That she was destined for the sunlight was clearly written on her face and in her gay, kind blue eyes. She was tall and straight and slim, as are English and Polish and Danish girls, and none other in all the world. But the colouring of her face and hair was more pronounced than in the fairness of Anglo-Saxon youth. For her hair had a golden tinge in it, and her skin was of that startlingly milky whiteness which is only found in those who live round the frozen waters. Her eyes, too, were of a clearer blue—like the blue of a summer sky over the Baltic sea. The rosy colour was in her cheeks, her eyes were laughing. This was a bride who had no misgivings.
On seeing such a happy face returning from the altar the observer might have concluded that the bride had assuredly attained her desire; that she had secured a title; that the pre-nuptial settlement had been safely signed and sealed.
But Desiree had none of these things. It was nearly a hundred years ago.
Her husband must have whispered some laughing comment on Koch, or another appeal to her quick sense of the humorous, for she looked into his changing face and gave a low, girlish laugh of amusement as they descended the steps together into the brilliant sunlight.
Charles Darragon wore one of the countless uniforms that enlivened the outward world in the great days of the greatest captain that history has seen. He was unmistakably French—unmistakably a French gentleman, as rare in 1812 as he is to-day. To judge from his small head and clean-cut features, fine and mobile; from his graceful carriage and slight limbs, this man was one of the many bearing names that begin with the fourth letter of the alphabet since the Terror only.
He was merely a lieutenant in a regiment of Alsatian recruits; but that went for nothing in the days of the Empire. Three kings in Europe had begun no farther up the ladder.
The Frauengasse is a short street, made narrow by the terrace that each house throws outward from its face, each seeking to gain a few inches on its neighbour. It runs from the Marienkirche to the Frauenthor, and remains to-day as it was built three hundred years ago.
Desiree nodded and laughed to the children, who interested her. She was quite simple and womanly, as some women, it is to be hoped, may succeed in continuing until the end of time. She was always pleased to see children; was glad, it seemed, that they should have congregated on the steps to watch her pass. Charles, with a faint and unconscious reflex of that grand manner which had brought his father to the guillotine, felt in his pocket for money, and found none.
He jerked his hand out with widespread fingers, in a gesture indicative of familiarity with the nakedness of the land.
"I have nothing, little citizens," he said with a mock gravity; "nothing but my blessing."
And he made a gay gesture with his left hand over their heads, not the act of benediction, but of peppering, which made them all laugh. The bride and bridegroom passing on joined in the laughter with hearts as light and voices scarcely less youthful.
The Frauengasse is intersected by the Pfaffengasse at right angles, through which narrow and straight street passes much of the traffic towards the Langenmarkt, the centre of the town. As the little bridal procession reached the corner of this street, it halted at the approach of some mounted troops. There was nothing unusual in this sight in the streets of Dantzig, which were accustomed now to the clatter of the Saxon cavalry.
But at the sight of the first troopers Charles Darragon threw up his head with a little exclamation of surprise.
Desiree looked at him and then turned to follow the direction of his gaze.
"What are these?" she murmured. For the uniforms were new and unfamiliar.
"Cavalry of the Old Guard," replied her husband, and as he spoke he caught his breath.
The horsemen vanished into the continuation of the Pfaffengasse, and immediately behind them came a travelling carriage, swung on high wheels, three times the size of a Dantzig drosky, white with dust. It had small square windows. As Desiree drew back in obedience to a movement of her husband's arm, she saw a face for an instant—pale and set—with eyes that seemed to look at everything and yet at something beyond.
"Who was it? He looked at you, Charles," said Desiree.
"It is the Emperor," answered Darragon. His face was white. His eyes were dull, like the eyes of one who has seen a vision and is not yet back to earth.
Desiree turned to those behind her.
"It is the Emperor," she said, with an odd ring in her voice which none had ever heard before. Then she stood looking after the carriage.
Her father, who was at her elbow—tall, white-haired, with an aquiline, inscrutable face—stood in a like attitude, looking down the Pfaffengasse. His hand was raised before his face with outspread fingers which seemed rigid in that gesture, as if lifted hastily to screen his face and hide it.
"Did he see me?" he asked in a low voice which only Desiree heard.
She glanced at him, and her eyes, which were clear as a cloudless sky, were suddenly shadowed by a suspicion quick and poignant.
"He seemed to see everything, but he only looked at Charles," she answered. For a moment they all stood in the sunshine looking towards the Langenmarkt where the tower of the Rathhaus rose above the high roofs. The dust raised by the horses' feet and the carriage wheels slowly settled on their bridal clothes.
It was Desiree who at length made a movement to continue their way towards her father's house.
"Well," she said with a slight laugh, "he was not bidden to my wedding, but he has come all the same."
Others laughed as they followed her. For a bride at the church-door, or a judge on the bench, or a criminal on the scaffold-steps, need make but a very small joke to cause merriment. Laughter is often nothing but the froth of tears.
There were faces suddenly bleached in the little group of wedding-guests, and none were whiter than the handsome features of Mathilde Sebastian, Desiree's elder sister, who looked angry, had frowned at the children, and seemed to find this simple wedding too bourgeois for her taste. She carried her head with an air that told the world not to expect that she should ever be content to marry in such a humble style, and walk from the church in satin slippers like any daughter of a burgher.
This, at all events, was what old Koch the locksmith must have read in her beautiful, discontented face.
"Ah! ah!" he muttered to the bolts as he shot them. "But it is not the lightest hearts that quit the church in a carriage."
So simple were the arrangements that bride and bridegroom and wedding-guests had to wait in the street while the servant unlocked the front door of No. 36 with a great key hurriedly extracted from her apron-pocket.
There was no unusual stir in the street. The windows of one or two of the houses had been decorated with flowers. These were the houses of friends. Others were silent and still behind their lace curtains, where there doubtless lurked peeping and criticizing eyes—the house of a neighbour.
The wedding-guests were few in number. Only one of them had a distinguished air, and he, like the bridegroom, wore the uniform of France. He was a small man, somewhat brusque in attitude, as became a soldier of Italy and Egypt. But he had a pleasant smile and that affability of manner which many learnt in the first years of the great Republic. He and Mathilde Sebastian never looked at each other: either an understanding or a misunderstanding.
The host, Antoine Sebastian, played his part well enough when he remembered that he had a part to play. He listened with a kind attention to the story of a very old lady, who it seemed had been married herself, but it was so long ago that the human interest of it all was lost in a pottle of petty detail which was all she could recall. Before the story was half finished, Sebastian's attention had strayed elsewhere, though his spare figure remained in its attitude of attention and polite forbearance. His mind had, it would seem, a trick of thus wandering away and leaving his body rigid in the last attitude that it had dictated.
Sebastian did not notice that the door was open and all the guests were waiting for him to lead the way.
"Now, old dreamer," whispered Desiree, with a quick pinch on his arm, "take the Grafin upstairs to the drawing-room and give her wine. You are to drink our healths, remember."
"Is there wine?" he asked with a vague smile. "Where has it come from?"
"Like other good things, my father-in-law," replied Charles with his easy laugh, "it comes from France."
They spoke together thus in confidence, in the language of that same sunny land. But when Sebastian turned again to the old lady, still recalling the details of that other wedding, he addressed her in German, offering his arm with a sudden stiffness of gesture which he seemed to put on with the change of tongue.
They passed up the low time-worn steps arm-in-arm, and beneath the high carved doorway, whereon some pious Hanseatic merchant had inscribed his belief that if God be in the house there is no need of a watchman, emphasizing his creed by bolts and locks of enormous strength, and bars to every window.
The servant in her Samland Sunday dress, having shaken her fist at the children, closed the door behind the last guest, and, so far as the Frauengasse was concerned, the exciting incident was over. From the open window came only the murmur of quiet voices, the clink of glasses at the drinking of a toast, or a laugh in the clear voice of the bride herself. For Desiree persisted in her optimistic view of these proceedings, though her husband scarcely helped her now at all, and seemed a different man since the passage through the Pfaffengasse of that dusty travelling carriage which had played the part of the stormy petrel from end to end of Europe.
CHAPTER II. A CAMPAIGNER.
Not what I am, but what I Do, is my Kingdom.
Desiree had made all her own wedding-clothes. "Her poor little marriage-basket," she called it. She had even made the cake which was now cut with some ceremony by her father.
"I tremble," she exclaimed aloud, "to think what it may be like in the middle."
And Mathilde was the only person there who did not smile at the unconscious admission. The cake was still under discussion, and the Grafin had just admitted that it was almost as good as that other cake which had been consumed in the days of Frederick the Great, when the servant called Desiree from the room.
"It is a soldier," she said in a whisper at the head of the stairs. "He has a paper in his hand. I know what that means. He is quartered on us."
Desiree hurried downstairs. In the entrance-hall, a broad-built little man stood awaiting her. He was stout and red, with hair all ragged at the temples, almost white. His eyes were lost behind shaggy eyebrows. His face was made broader by little whiskers stopping short at the level of his ear. He had a snuff-blown complexion, and in the wrinkles of his face the dust of a dozen campaigns seemed to have accumulated.
"Barlasch," he said curtly, holding out a long strip of blue paper. "Of the Guard. Once a sergeant. Italy, Egypt, the Danube."
He frowned at Desiree while she read the paper in the dim light that filtered through the twisted bars of the fanlight above the door.
Then he turned to the servant who stood, comely and breathless, looking him up and down.
"Papa Barlasch," he added for her edification, and he drew down his left eyebrow with a jerk, so that it almost touched his cheek. His right eye, grey and piercing, returned her astonished gaze with a fierce steadfastness.
"Does this mean that you are quartered upon us?" asked Desiree without seeking to hide her disgust. She spoke in her own tongue.
"French?" said the soldier, looking at her. "Good. Yes. I am quartered here. Thirty-six, Frauengasse. Sebastian; musician. You are lucky to get me. I always give satisfaction—ha!"
He gave a curt laugh in one syllable only. His left arm was curved round a bundle of wood bound together by a red pocket-handkerchief not innocent of snuff. He held out this bundle to Desiree, as Solomon may have held out some great gift to the Queen of Sheba to smooth the first doubtful steps of friendship.
Desiree accepted the gift and stood in her wedding-dress holding the bundle of wood against her breast. Then a gleam of the one grey eye that was visible conveyed to her the fact that this walnut-faced warrior was smiling. She laughed gaily.
"It is well," said Barlasch. "We are friends. You are lucky to get me. You may not think so now. Would this woman like me to speak to her in Polish or German?"
"Do you speak so many languages?"
He shrugged his shoulders and spread out his arms as far as his many burdens allowed. For he was hung round with a hundred parcels and packages.
"The Old Guard," he said, "can always make itself understood."
He rubbed his hands together with the air of a brisk man ready for any sort of work.
"Now, where shall I sleep?" he asked. "One is not particular, you understand. A few minutes and one is at home—perhaps peeling the potatoes. It is only a civilian who is ashamed of using his knife on a potato. Papa Barlasch, they call me."
Without awaiting an invitation he went forward towards the kitchen. He seemed to know the house by instinct. His progress was accompanied by a clatter of utensils like that which heralds the coming of a carrier's cart.
At the kitchen door he stopped and sniffed loudly. There certainly was a slight odour of burning fat. Papa Barlasch turned and shook an admonitory finger at the servant, but he said nothing. He looked round at the highly polished utensils, at the table and floor both alike scrubbed clean by a vigorous northern arm. And he was kind enough to nod approval.
"On a campaign," he said to no one in particular, "a little bit of horse thrust into the cinders on the end of a bayonet—but in times of peace..."
He broke off and made a gesture towards the saucepans which indicated quite clearly that he was between campaigns—inclined to good living.
"I am a rude fork," he jerked to Desiree over his shoulder in the dialect of the Cotes du Nord.
"How long will you be here?" asked Desiree, who was eminently practical. A billet was a misfortune which Charles Darragon had hitherto succeeded in warding off. He had some small influence as an officer of the head-quarters' staff.
Barlasch held up a reproving hand. The question, he seemed to think, was not quite delicate.
"I pay my own," he said. "Give and take—that is my motto. When you have nothing to give... offer a smile."
With a gesture he indicated the bundle of firewood which Desiree still absent-mindedly carried against her white dress. He turned and opened a cupboard low down on the floor at the left-hand side of the fireplace. He seemed to know by an instinct usually possessed by charwomen and other domesticated persons of experience where the firewood was kept. Lisa gave a little exclamation of surprise at his impertinence and his perspicacity. He took the firewood, unknotted his handkerchief, and threw his offering into the cupboard. Then he turned and perceived for the first time that Desiree had a bright ribbon at her waist and on her shoulders; that a thin chain of gold was round her throat and that there were flowers at her breast.
"A fete?" he inquired curtly.
"My marriage fete," she answered. "I was married half an hour ago."
He looked at her beneath his grizzled brows. His face was only capable of producing one expression—a shaggy weather-beaten fierceness. But, like a dog which can express more than many human beings, by a hundred instinctive gestures he could, it seemed, dispense with words on occasion and get on quite as well without them. He clearly disapproved of Desiree's marriage, and drew her attention to the fact that she was no more than a schoolgirl with an inconsequent brain, and little limbs too slight to fight a successful battle in a world full of cruelty and danger.
Then he made a gesture half of apology as if recognizing that it was no business of his, and turned away thoughtfully.
"I had troubles of that sort myself," he explained, putting together the embers on the hearth with the point of a twisted, rusty bayonet, "but that was long ago. Well, I can drink your health all the same, mademoiselle."
He turned to Lisa with a friendly nod and put out his tongue, in the manner of the people, to indicate that his lips were dry.
Desiree had always been the housekeeper. It was to her that Lisa naturally turned in her extremity at the invasion of her kitchen by Papa Barlasch. And when that warrior had been supplied with beer it was with Desiree, in an agitated whisper in the great dark dining-room with its gloomy old pictures and heavy carving, that she took counsel as to where he should be quartered.
The object of their solicitude himself interrupted their hurried consultation by opening the door and putting his shaggy head round the corner of it.
"It is not worth while to consult long about it," he said. "There is a little room behind the kitchen, that opens into the yard. It is full of boxes. But we can move them—a little straw—and there!"
With a gesture he described a condition of domestic peace and comfort which far exceeded his humble requirements.
"The blackbeetles and I are old friends," he concluded cheerfully.
"There are no blackbeetles in the house, monsieur," said Desiree, hesitating to accept his proposal.
"Then I shall resign myself to my solitude," he answered. "It is quiet. I shall not hear the patron touching on his violin. It is that which occupies his leisure, is it not?"
"Yes," answered Desiree, still considering the question.
"I too am a musician," said Papa Barlasch, turning towards the kitchen again. "I played a drum at Marengo."
And as he led the way to the little room in the yard at the back of the kitchen, he expressed by a shake of the head a fellow-feeling for the gentleman upstairs, whose acquaintance he had not yet made, who occupied his leisure by touching the violin.
They stood together in the small apartment which Barlasch, with the promptitude of an experienced conqueror, had set apart for his own accommodation.
"Those trunks," he observed casually, "were made in France"—a mental note which he happened to make aloud, as some do for better remembrance. "This solid girl and I will soon move them. And you, mademoiselle, go back to your wedding."
"The good God be merciful to you," he added under his breath when Desiree had gone.
She laughed as she mounted the stairs, a slim white figure amid the heavy woodwork long since blackened by time. The stairs made no sound beneath her light step. How many weary feet had climbed them since they were built! For the Dantzigers have been a people of sorrow, torn by wars, starved by siege, tossed from one conqueror to another from the beginning until now.
Desiree excused herself for her absence and frankly gave the cause. She was disposed to make light of the incident. It was natural to her to be optimistic. Both she and Mathilde made a practice of withholding from their father's knowledge the smaller worries of daily life which sour so many women and make them whine on platforms to be given the larger woes.
She was glad to note that her father did not attach much importance to the arrival of Papa Barlasch; though Mathilde found opportunity to convey her displeasure at the news by a movement of the eyebrows.
Antoine Sebastian had applied himself seriously now to his role of host, so rarely played in the Frauengasse. He was courteous and quick to see a want or a possible desire of any one of his guests. It was part of his sense of hospitality to dismiss all personal matters, and especially a personal trouble, from public attention.
"They will attend to him in the kitchen, no doubt," he said with that grand air which the dancing academy tried to imitate.
Charles hardly noted what Desiree said. So sunny a nature as his might have been expected to make light of a minor trouble, more especially the minor trouble of another. He was unusually thoughtful. Some event of the morning had, it would appear, given him pause on his primrose path. He glanced more than once over his shoulder towards the window, which stood open. He seemed at times to listen.
Suddenly he rose and went to the window. His action caused a brief silence, and all heard the clatter of a horse's feet and the quick rattle of a sword against spur and buckle.
After a glance he came back into the room.
"Excuse me," he said, with a bow towards Mathilde. "It is, I think, a messenger for me."
And he hurried downstairs. He did not return at once, and soon the conversation became general again.
"You," said the Grafin, touching Desiree's arm with her fan, "you, who are now his wife, must be dying to know what has called him away. Do not consider the 'convenances,' my child."
Desiree, thus admonished, followed Charles. She had not been aware of this consuming curiosity until it was suggested to her.
She found Charles standing at the open door. He thrust a letter into his pocket as she approached him, and turned towards her the face that she had seen for a moment when he drew her back at the corner of the Pfaffengasse to allow the Emperor's carriage to pass on its way. It was the white, half-stupefied face of one who has for an instant seen a vision of things not earthly.
"I have been sent for by the... I am wanted at head-quarters," he said vaguely. "I shall not be long..."
He took his shako, looked at her with an odd attempt to simulate cheerfulness, kissed her fingers and hurried out into the street.
CHAPTER III. FATE.
We pass; the path that each man trod Is dim; or will be dim, with weeds.
When Desiree turned towards the stairs, she met the guests descending. They were taking their leave as they came down, hurriedly, like persons conscious of having outstayed their welcome.
Mathilde listened coldly to the conventional excuses. So few people recognize the simple fact that they need never apologize for going away. Sebastian stood at the head of the stairs bowing in his most Germanic manner. The urbane host, with a charm entirely French, who had dispensed a simple hospitality so easily and gracefully a few minutes earlier, seemed to have disappeared behind a pale and formal mask.
Desiree was glad to see them go. There was a sense of uneasiness, a vague unrest in the air. There was something amiss. The wedding party had been a failure. All had gone well and merrily up to a certain point—at the corner of the Pfaffengasse, when the dusty travelling carriage passed across their path. From that moment there had been a change. A shadow seemed to have fallen across the sunny nature of the proceedings; for never had bride and bridegroom set forth together with lighter hearts than those carried by Charles and Desiree Darragon down the steps of the Marienkirche.
During its progress across the whole width of Germany, the carriage had left unrest behind it. Men had travelled night and day to stand sleepless by the roadside and see it pass. Whole cities had been kept astir till morning by the mere rumour that its flying wheels would be heard in the streets before dawn. Hatred and adoration, fear and that dread tightening of the heart-strings which is caused by the shadow of the superhuman, had sprung into being at the mere sound of its approach.
When therefore it passed across the Frauengasse, throwing its dust upon Desiree's wedding-dress, it was only fulfilling a mission. When it broke in upon the lives of these few persons seeking dimly for their happiness—as the heathen grope for an unknown God—and threw down carefully constructed plans, swept aside the strongest will and crushed the stoutest heart, it was only working out its destiny. The dust sprinkled on Desiree's hair had fallen on the faces of thousands of dead. The unrest that entered into the quiet little house on the left-hand side of the Frauengasse had made its way across a thousand thresholds, of Arab tent and imperial palace alike. The lives of millions were affected by it, the secret hopes of thousands were undermined by it. It disturbed the sleep of half the world, and made men old before their time.
"More troops must have arrived," said Desiree, already busying herself to set the house in order, "since they have been forced to billet this man with us. And now they have sent for Charles, though he is really on leave of absence."
She glanced at the clock.
"I hope he will not be late. The chaise is to come at four o'clock. There is still time for me to help you."
Mathilde made no answer. Their father stood near the window. He was looking out with thoughtful eyes. His face was drawn downwards by a hundred fine wrinkles. It was the face of one brooding over a sorrow or a vengeance. There was something in his whole being suggestive of a bygone prosperity. This was a lean man who had once been well-seeming.
"No!" said Desiree gaily, "we were a dull company. We need not disguise it. It all came from that man crossing our path in his dusty carriage."
"He is on his way to Russia," Sebastian said jerkily. "God spare me to see him return!"
Desiree and Mathilde exchanged a glance of uneasiness. It seemed that their father was subject to certain humours which they had reason to dread. Desiree left her occupation and went to him, linking her arm in his and standing beside him.
"Do not let us think of disagreeable things to-day," she said. "God will spare you much longer than that, you depressing old wedding-guest!"
He patted her hand which rested on his arm and looked down at her with eyes softened by affection. But her fair hair, rather tumbled, which met his glance must have awakened some memory that made his face a marble mask again.
"Yes," he said grimly, "but I am an old man and he is a young one. And I want to see him dead before I die."
"I will not have you think such bloodthirsty thoughts on my wedding-day," said Desiree. "See, there is Charles returning already, and he has not been absent ten minutes. He has some one with him—who is it? Papa... Mathilde, look! Who is it coming back with Charles in such a hurry?"
Mathilde, who was setting the room in order, glanced through the lace curtains.
"I do not know," she answered indifferently. "Just an ordinary man."
Desiree had turned away from the window as if to go downstairs and meet her husband. She paused and looked back again over her shoulder towards the street.
"Is it?" she said rather oddly. "I do not know—I—"
And she stood with the incompleted sentence on her lips waiting irresolutely for Charles to come upstairs.
In a moment he burst into the room with all his usual exuberance and high spirit.
"Picture to yourselves!" he cried, standing in the doorway with his arms extended before him. "I was hurrying to head-quarters when I ran into the embrace of my dear Louis—my cousin. I have told you a hundred times that he is brother and father and everything to me. I am so glad that he should come to-day of all days."
He turned towards the stairs with a gesture of welcome, still with his two arms outheld, as if inviting the man, who came rather slowly upstairs, to come to his embrace and to the embrace of those who were now his relations.
"There was a little suspicion of sadness—I do not know what it was—at the table; but now it is all gone. All is well now that this unexpected guest has come. This dear Louis."
He went to the landing as he spoke, and returned bringing by the arm a man taller than himself and darker, with a still brown face and steady eyes set close together. He had a lean look of good breeding.
"This dear Louis!" repeated Charles. "My only relative in all the world. My cousin, Louis d'Arragon. But he, par exemple, spells his name in two words."
The man bowed gravely—a comprehensive bow; but he looked at Desiree.
"This is my father-in-law," continued Charles breathlessly. "Monsieur Antoine Sebastian, and Desiree and Mathilde—my wife, my dear Louis—your cousin, Desiree."
He had turned again to Louis and shook him by the shoulders in the fulness of his joy. He had not distinguished between Mathilde and Desiree, and it was towards Mathilde that D'Arragon looked with a polite and rather formal repetition of his bow.
"It is I... I am Desiree," said the younger sister, coming forward with a slow gesture of shyness.
D'Arragon took her hand.
"I have been happy," he said, "in the moment of my arrival."
Then he turned to Mathilde and bowed over the hand she held out to him. Sebastian had come forward with a sudden return of his gracious and rather old-world manner. He did not offer to shake hands, but bowed.
"A son of Louis d'Arragon who was fortunate enough to escape to England?" he inquired with a courteous gesture.
"The only son," replied the new-comer.
"I am honoured to make the acquaintance of Monsieur le Marquis," said Antoine Sebastian slowly.
"Oh, you must not call me that," replied D'Arragon with a short laugh. "I am an English sailor—that is all."
"And now, my dear Louis, I leave you," broke in Charles, who had rather impatiently awaited the end of these formalities. "A brief half-hour and I am with you again. You will stay here till I return."
He turned, nodded gaily to Desiree and ran downstairs.
Through the open windows they heard his quick, light footfall as he hurried up the Frauengasse. Something made them silent, listening to it.
It was not difficult to see that D'Arragon was a sailor. Not only had he the brown face of those who live in the open, but he had the attentive air of one whose waking moments are a watch.
"You look at one as if one were the horizon," Desiree said to him long afterwards. But it was at this moment in the drawing-room in the Frauengasse that the comparison formed itself in her mind.
His face was rather narrow, with a square chin and straight lips. He was not quick in speech like Charles, but seemed to think before he spoke, with the result that he often appeared to be about to say something, and was interrupted before the words had been uttered.
"Unless my memory is a bad one, your mother was an Englishwoman, monsieur," said Sebastian, "which would account for your being in the English service."
"Not entirely," answered d'Arragon, "though my mother was indeed English and died—in a French prison. But it was from a sense of gratitude that my father placed me in the English service—and I have never regretted it, monsieur."
"Your father received kindnesses at English hands, after his escape, like many others."
"Yes, and he was too old to repay them by doing the country any service himself. He would have done it if he could—"
D'Arragon paused, looking steadily at the tall old man who listened to him with averted eyes.
"My father was one of those," he said at length, "who did not think that in fighting for Bonaparte one was necessarily fighting for France."
Sebastian held up a warning hand.
"In England—" he corrected, "in England one may think such things. But not in France, and still less in Dantzig."
"If one is an Englishman," replied D'Arragon with a smile, "one may think them where one likes, and say them when one is disposed. It is one of the privileges of the nation, monsieur."
He made the statement lightly, seeing the humour of it with a cosmopolitan understanding, without any suggestion of the boastfulness of youth. Desiree noticed that his hair was turning grey at the temples.
"I did not know," he said, turning to her, "that Charles was in Dantzig, much less that he was celebrating so happy an occasion. We ran against each other by accident in the street. It was a lucky accident that allowed me to make your acquaintance so soon after you have become his wife."
"It scarcely seems possible that it should be an accident," said Desiree. "It must have been the work of fate—if fate has time to think of such an insignificant person as myself and so small an event as my marriage in these days."
"Fate," put in Mathilde in her composed voice and manner, "has come to Dantzig to-day."
"Yes. You are the second unexpected arrival this afternoon."
D'Arragon turned and looked at Mathilde. His manner, always grave and attentive, was that of a reader who has found an interesting book on a dusty shelf.
"Has the Emperor come?" he asked.
"I thought I saw something in Charles's face," he said reflectively, looking back through the open door towards the stairs where Charles had nodded farewell to them. "So the Emperor is here, in Dantzig?"
He turned towards Sebastian, who stood with a stony face.
"Which means war," he said.
"It always means war," replied Sebastian in a tired voice. "Is he again going to prove himself stronger than any?"
"Some day he will make a mistake," said D'Arragon cheerfully. "And then will come the day of reckoning."
"Ah!" said Sebastian, with a shake of the head that seemed to indicate an account so one-sided that none could ever liquidate it. "You are young, monsieur. You are full of hope."
"I am not young—I am thirty-one—but I am, as you say, full of hope. I look to that day, Monsieur Sebastian."
"And in the mean time?" suggested the man who seemed but a shadow of someone standing apart and far away from the affairs of daily life.
"In the mean time one must play one's part," returned D'Arragon, with his almost inaudible laugh, "whatever it may be."
There was no foreboding in his voice; no second meaning in the words. He was open and simple and practical, like the life he led.
"Then you have a part to play, too," said Desiree, thinking of Charles, who had been called away at such an inopportune moment, and had gone without complaint. "It is the penalty we pay for living in one of the less dull periods of history. He touches your life too."
"He touches every one's life, mademoiselle. That is what makes him so great a man. Yes. I have a little part to play. I am like one of the unseen supernumeraries who has to see that a door is open to allow the great actors to make an effective entree. I am lent to Russia for the war that is coming. It is a little part. I have to keep open one small portion of the line of communication between England and St. Petersburg, so that news may pass to and fro."
He glanced towards Mathilde as he spoke. She was listening with an odd eagerness which he noted, as he noted everything, methodically and surely. He remembered it afterwards.
"That will not be easy, with Denmark friendly to France," said Sebastian, "and every Prussian port closed to you."
"But Sweden will help. She is not friendly to France."
Sebastian laughed, and made a gesture with his white and elegant hand, of contempt and ridicule.
"And, bon Dieu! what a friendship it is," he exclaimed, "that is based on the fear of being taken for an enemy."
"It is a friendship that waits its time, monsieur," said D'Arragon taking up his hat.
"Then you have a ship, monsieur, here in the Baltic?" asked Mathilde with more haste than was characteristic of her usual utterance.
"A very small one, mademoiselle," he answered. "So small that I could turn her round here in the Frauengasse."
"But she is fast?"
"The fastest in the Baltic, mademoiselle," he answered. "And that is why I must take my leave—with the news you have told me."
He shook hands as he spoke, and bowed to Sebastian, whose generation was content with the more formal salutation. Desiree went to the door, and led the way downstairs.
"We have but one servant," she said, "who is busy."
On the doorstep he paused for a moment. And Desiree seemed to expect him to do so.
"Charles and I have always been like brothers—you will remember that always, will you not?"
"Yes," she answered with her gay nod. "I will remember."
"Then good-bye, mademoiselle."
"Madame," she corrected lightly.
"Madame, my cousin," he said, and departed smiling.
Desiree went slowly upstairs again.
CHAPTER IV. THE CLOUDED MOON.
Quand on se mefie on se trompe, quand on ne se mefie pas, on est trompe.
Charles Darragon had come to Dantzig a year earlier. He was a lieutenant in an infantry regiment, and he was twenty-five. Many of his contemporaries were colonels in these days of quick promotion, when men lived at such a rate that few of them lived long. But Charles was too easy-going to envy any man.
When he arrived he knew no one in Dantzig, had few friends in the army of occupation. In six months he possessed acquaintances in every street, and was on terms of easy familiarity with all his fellow-officers.
"If the army of occupation had more officers like young Darragon," a town councillor had grimly said to Rapp, "the Dantzigers would soon be resigned to your presence."
It seemed that Charles had the gift of popularity. He was open and hearty, hail-fellow-well-met with the new-comers, who were numerous enough at this time, quick to understand the quiet men, ready to make merry with the gay. Regarding himself, he was quite open and frank.
"I am a poor devil of a lieutenant," he said, "that is all."
Reserve is fatal to popularity, yet friendship cannot exist without it. Charles had, it seemed, nothing to hide, and was indifferent to the secrets of others. It is such people who receive many confidences.
"But it must go no farther..." a hundred men had said to him.
"My friend, by to-morrow I shall have forgotten all about it," he invariably replied, which men remembered afterwards and were glad.
A certain sort of friendship seemed to exist between Charles Darragon and Colonel de Casimir—not without patronage on one side and a slightly constraining sense of obligation on the other. It was de Casimir who had introduced Charles to Mathilde Sebastian at a formal reception at General Rapp's. Charles, of course, fell in love with Mathilde, and out again after half-an-hour's conversation. There was something cold and calculating about Mathilde which held him at arm's length with as much efficacy as the strictest duenna. Indeed, there are some maidens who require no better chaperon for their hearts than their own heads.
A few days after this introduction Charles met Mathilde and Desiree in the Langgasse, and he fell in love with Desiree. He went about for a whole week seeking opportunity to tell her without delay what had happened to him. The opportunity presented itself before long; for one morning he saw her walking quickly towards the Kuh-brucke with her skates swinging from her wrist. It was a sunny, still, winter morning, such as temperate countries never know. Desiree's eyes were bright with youth and happiness. The cold air had slightly emphasized the rosy colour of her cheeks.
Charles caught his breath at the sight of her, though she did not happen to perceive him. He called a sleigh and drove to the barracks for his own skates. Then to the Kuh-brucke, where a reach of the Mottlau was cleared and kept in order for skating. He overpaid the sleigh-driver and laughed aloud at the man's boorish surprise. There was no one so happy as Charles Darragon in all the world. He was going to tell Desiree that he loved her.
At first Desiree was surprised, as was only natural. For she had not thought again of the pleasant young officer introduced to her by Mathilde. They had not even commented on him after he had made his gay bow and gone.
She had of course thought of these things in the abstract when her busy mind had nothing more material and immediate to consider. She had probably arranged how some abstract person should some day tell her of his love and how she should make reply. But she had never imagined the incident as it actually happened. She had never pictured a youth in a gay uniform looking down at her with ardent eyes as he skated by her side through the crisp still air, while the ice sang a high clear song beneath their feet in accompaniment to his hurried laughing words of protestation. He seemed to touch life lightly and to anticipate nothing but happiness. In truth, it was difficult to be tragic on such a morning.
These were the heedless days of the beginning of the century, when men not only threw away their lives, but played ducks-and-drakes with their chances of happiness in a manner quite incomprehensible to the careful method of human thought to-day. Charles Darragon lived only in the present moment. He was in love with her. Desiree must marry him.
It was quite different from what she had anticipated. She had looked forward to such a moment with a secret misgiving. The abstract person of her thoughts had always inspired her with a painful shyness and an indefinite, breathless fear. But the lover who was here now in the flesh by her side inspired none of these feelings. On the contrary, she felt easy and natural and quite at home with him. There was nothing alarming about his flushed face and laughing eyes. She was not at all afraid of him. She even felt in some vague way older than he, though he had just told her that he was twenty-five, and four years her senior.
She accepted the violets which he had hurriedly bought for her as he came through the Langenmarkt, but she would not say that she loved him, because she did not. She was in most ways quite a matter-of-fact person, and she was of an honest mind. She said she would think about it. She did not love him now—she knew that. She could not say that she would not learn to love him some day, but there seemed no likelihood of it at present. Then he would shoot himself! He would certainly shoot himself unless she learnt to love him! And she asked "When?" and they both laughed. They changed the subject, but after a time they came back to it; which is the worst of love—one always comes back to it.
Then suddenly he began to assume an air of proprietorship, and burst into a hundred explanations of what fears he felt for her; for her happiness and welfare. Her father was absent-minded and heedless. He was not a fit guardian for her. Was she not the prettiest girl in all Dantzig—in all the world? Her sister was not fond enough of her to care for her properly. He announced his intention of seeing her father the next day. Everything should be done in order. Not a word must be hinted by the most watchful neighbour against the perfect propriety of their betrothal.
Desiree laughed and said that he was progressing rather rapidly. She had only her instinct to guide her through these troubled waters; which was much better than experience. Experience in a woman is tantamount to a previous conviction against a prisoner.
Charles was grave, however; a rare tribute. He was in love for the first time, which often makes men quite honest for a brief period—even unselfish. Of course, some men are honest and unselfish all their lives; which perhaps means that they remain in love—for the first time—all their lives. They are rare, of course. But the sort of woman with whom it is possible to remain in love all through a lifetime is rarer.
So Charles waylaid Antoine Sebastian the next day as he went out of the Frauenthor for his walk in the morning sun by the side of the frozen Mottlau. He was better received than he had any reason to expect.
"I am only a lieutenant," he said, "but in these days, monsieur, you know—there are possibilities."
He laughed gaily as he waved his gloves in the direction of Russia, across the river. But Sebastian's face clouded, and Charles, who was quick and sympathetic, abandoned that point in his argument almost before the words were out of his lips.
"I have a little money," he said, "in addition to my pay. I assure you, monsieur, I am not of mean birth."
"You are an orphan?" said Sebastian curtly.
"Of the... Terror?"
"Yes; I—well, one does not make much of one's parentage in these rough times—monsieur."
"Your father's name was Charles—like your own?"
"The second son?"
"Yes, monsieur. Did you know him?"
"One remembers a name here and there," answered Sebastian, in his stiff manner, looking straight in front of him.
"There was a tone in your voice—," began Charles, and, again perceiving that he was on a false scent, broke off abruptly. "If love can make mademoiselle happy—," he said; and a gesture of his right hand seemed to indicate that his passion was beyond the measure of words.
So Charles Darragon was permitted to pay his addresses to Desiree in the somewhat formal manner of a day which, upon careful consideration, will be found to have been no more foolish than the present. He made no inquiries respecting Desiree's parentage. It was Desiree he wanted, and that was all. They understood the arts of love and war in the great days of the Empire.
The rest was easy enough, and the gods were kind. Charles had even succeeded in getting a month's leave of absence. They were to spend their honeymoon at Zoppot, a little fishing-village hidden in the pines by the Baltic shore, only eight miles from Dantzig, where the Vistula loses itself at last in the salt water.
All these arrangements had been made, as Desiree had prepared her trousseau, with a zest and gaiety which all were invited to enjoy. It is said that love is an egoist. Charles and Desiree had no desire to keep their happiness to themselves, but wore it, as it were, upon their sleeves.
The attitude of the Frauengasse towards Desiree's wedding was only characteristic of the period. Every house in Dantzig looked askance upon its neighbour at this time. Each roof covered a number of contending interests.
Some were for the French, and some for the conqueror's unwilling ally, William of Prussia. The names above the shops were German and Polish. There are to-day Scotch names also, here as elsewhere on the Baltic shores. When the serfs were liberated it was necessary to find surnames for these free men—these Pauls-the-son-of-Paul; and the nobles of Esthonia and Lithuania were reading Sir Walter Scott at the time.
The burghers of Dantzig ("They must be made to pay, these rich Dantzigers," wrote Napoleon to Rapp) trembled for their wealth, and stood aghast by their empty counting-houses; for their gods had been cast down; commerce was at a standstill. There were many, therefore, who hated the French, and cherished a secret love of those bluff British captains—so like themselves in build, and thought, and slowness of speech—who would thrash their wooden brigs through the shallow seas, despite decrees and threats and sloops-of-war, so long as they could lay them alongside the granaries of the Vistula. Lately the very tolls had been collected by a French customs service, and the wholesale smuggling, to which even Governor Rapp—that long-headed Alsatian—had closed his eyes, was at an end.
Again, the Poles who looked on Dantzig as the seaport of that great kingdom of Eastern Europe which was and is no more, had been assured that France would set up again the throne of the Jagellons and the Sobieskis. There was a Poniatowski high in the Emperor's service and esteem. The Poles were for France.
The Jew, hurrying along close by the wall—always in the shadow—traded with all and trusted none. Who could tell what thoughts were hidden beneath the ragged fur cap—what revenge awaited its consummation in the heart crushed by oppression and contempt?
Besides these civilians there were many who had a military air within their civil garb. For the pendulum of war had swung right across from Cadiz to Dantzig, and swept northwards in its wake the merchants of death, the men who live by feeding soldiers and rifling the dead.
All these were in the streets, rubbing shoulders with the gay epaulettes of the Saxons, the Badeners, the Wurtembergers, the Westphalians, and the Hessians, who had been poured into Dantzig by Napoleon during the months when he had continued to exchange courteous and affectionate letters with Alexander of Russia. For more than a year the broad-faced Bavarians (who have borne the brunt of every war in Central Europe) had been peaceably quartered in the town. Half a dozen different tongues were daily heard in this city of the plain, and no man knew who might be his friend and who his enemy. For some who were allies to-day were commanded by their kings to slay each other to-morrow.
In the wine-cellars and the humbler beer-shops, in the great houses of the councillors, and behind the snowy lace curtains of the Frauengasse and the Portchaisengasse a thousand slow Northerners spoke of these things and kept them in their hearts. A hundred secret societies passed from mouth to mouth instruction, warning, encouragement. Germany has always been the home of the secret society. Northern Europe gave birth to those countless associations which have proved stronger than kings and surer than a throne. The Hanseatic League, the first of the commercial unions which were destined to build up the greatest empire of the world, lived longest in Dantzig.
The Tugendbund, men whispered, was not dead but sleeping. Napoleon, who had crushed it once, was watching for its revival; had a whole army of his matchless secret police ready for it. And the Tugendbund had had its centre in Dantzig.
Perhaps, in the Rathskeller itself—one of the largest wine stores in the world, where tables and chairs are set beneath the arches of the Exchange, a vast cave under the streets—perhaps here the Tugendbund still encouraged men to be virtuous and self-denying for no other or higher purpose than the overthrow of the Scourge of Europe. Here the richer citizens have met from time immemorial to drink with solemnity and a decent leisure the wines sent hither in their own ships from the Rhine, from Greece and the Crimea, from Bordeaux and Burgundy, from the Champagne and Tokay. This is not only the Rathskeller, but the real Rathhaus, where the Dantzigers have taken counsel over their afternoon wine from generation to generation, whence have been issued to all the world those decrees of probity and a commercial uprightness between buyer and seller, debtor and creditor, master and man, which reached to every corner of the commercial world. And now it was whispered that the latter-day Dantzigers—the sons of those who formed the Hanseatic League: mostly fat men with large faces and shrewd, calculating eyes; high foreheads; good solid men, who knew the world, and how to make their way in it; withal, good judges of a wine and great drinkers, like that William the Silent, who braved and met and conquered the European scourge of mediaeval times—it was whispered that these were reviving the Tugendbund.
Amid such contending interests, and in a free city so near to several frontiers, men came and went without attracting undesired attention. Each party suspected a new-comer of belonging to the other.
"He scrapes a fiddle," Koch had explained to the inquiring fishwife. And perhaps he knew no more than this of Antoine Sebastian. Sebastian was poor. All the Frauengasse knew that. But the Frauengasse itself was poor, and no man in Dantzig was so foolish at this time as to admit that he had possessions.
This was, moreover, not the day of display or snobbery. The king of snobs, Louis XVI., had died to some purpose, for a wave of manliness had swept across human thought at the beginning of the century. The world has rarely been the poorer for the demise of a Bourbon.
The Frauengasse knew that Antoine Sebastian played the fiddle to gain his daily bread, while his two daughters taught dancing for that same safest and most satisfactory of all motives.
"But he holds his head so high!" once observed the stout and matter-of-fact daughter of a Councillor. "Why has he that grand manner?"
"Because he is a dancing-master," replied Desiree with a grave assurance. "He does it so that you may copy him. Chin up. Oh! how fat you are."
Desiree herself was slim enough and as yet only half grown. She did not dance so well as Mathilde, who moved through a quadrille with the air of a duchess, and threw into a polonaise or mazurka a quiet grace which was the envy and despair of her pupils. Mathilde was patient with the slow and heavy of foot, while Desiree told them bluntly that they were fat. Nevertheless, they were afraid of Mathilde, and only laughed at Desiree when she rushed angrily at them, and, seizing them by the arms, danced them round the room with the energy of despair.
Sebastian, who had an oddly judicial air, such as men acquire who are in authority, held the balance evenly between the sisters, and smiled apologetically over his fiddle towards the victim of Desiree's impetuosity.
"Yes," he would reply to watching mothers, who tried to lead him to say that their daughter was the best dancer in the school: "Yes, Mathilde puts it into their heads, and Desiree shakes it down to their feet."
In all matters of the household Desiree played a similar part. She was up early and still astir after nine o'clock at night, when the other houses in the Frauengasse were quiet, if there were work to do.
"It is because she has no method," said Mathilde, who had herself a well-ordered mind, and that quickness which never needs to hurry.
CHAPTER V. THE WEISSEN ROSS'L.
The moth will singe her wings, and singed return, Her love of light quenching her fear of pain.
There are quite a number of people who get through life without realizing their own insignificance. Ninety-nine out of a hundred persons signify nothing, and the hundredth is usually so absorbed in the message which he has been sent into the world to deliver that he loses sight of the messenger altogether.
By a merciful dispensation of Providence we are permitted to bustle about in our immediate little circle like the ant, running hither and thither with all the sublime conceit of that insect. We pick up, as he does, a burden which on close inspection will be found to be absolutely valueless, something that somebody else has thrown away. We hoist it over obstructions while there is usually a short way round; we fret and sweat and fume. Then we drop the burden and rush off at a tangent to pick up another. We write letters to our friends explaining to them what we are about. We even indite diaries to be read by goodness knows whom, explaining to ourselves what we have been doing. Sometimes we find something that really looks valuable, and rush to our particular ant-heap with it while our neighbours pause and watch us. But they really do not care; and if the rumour of our discovery reach so far as the next ant-heap, the bustlers there are almost indifferent, though a few may feel a passing pang of jealousy. They may perhaps remember our name, and will soon forget what we discovered—which is Fame. While we are falling over each other to attain this, and dying to tell each other what it feels like when we have it, or think we have it, let us pause for a moment and think of an ant—who kept a diary.
Desiree did not keep a diary. Her life was too busy for ink. She had had to work for her daily bread, which is better than riches. Her life had been full of occupation from morning till night, and God had given her sleep from night till morning. It is better to work for others than to think for them. Some day the world will learn to have a greater respect for the workers than for the thinkers, who are idle, wordy persons, frequently thinking wrong.
Desiree remembered the siege and the occupation of Dantzig by French troops. She was at school in the Jopengasse when the Treaty of Tilsit—that peace which was nothing but a pause—was concluded. She had seen Luisa of Prussia, the good Queen who baffled Napoleon. Her childhood had passed away in the roar of siege-guns. Her girlhood, in the Frauengasse, had been marked by the various woes of Prussia, by each successive step in the development of Napoleon's ambition. There were no bogey-men in the night-nursery at the beginning of the century. One Aaron's rod of a bogey had swallowed all the rest, and children buried their sobs in the pillow for fear of Napoleon. There were no ghosts in the dark corners of the stairs when Desiree, candle in hand, went to bed at eight o'clock, half an hour before Mathilde. The shadows on the wall were the shadows of soldiers—the wind roaring in the chimney was like the sound of distant cannon. When the timid glanced over their shoulders, the apparition they looked for was that of a little man in a cocked hat and a long grey coat.
This was not an age in which the individual life was highly valued. Men were great to-day and gone to-morrow. Women were of small account. It was the day of deeds and not of words.
Desiree had never been oppressed by a sense of her own importance, which oppression leaves its mark on many a woman's face in these times. She had not, it would seem, expected much from life; and when much was given to her she received it without misgivings. She was young and light-hearted, and she lived in a reckless age.
She was not surprised when Charles failed to return. The chaise that was to carry them to Zoppot stood in the Frauengasse on the shady side of the street in the heat of the afternoon for more than an hour. Then she ran out and told the driver to go back to his stables.
"One cannot go for a honeymoon alone," she explained airily to her father, who was peevish and restless, standing by the window with the air of one who expects without knowing what to expect. "It is, at all events, quite clear that there is nothing for me to do but wait."
She made light of it, and laughed at her father's grave face. Mathilde said nothing, but her silence seemed to suggest that this was no more than she had foretold, or at all events foreseen. She was too proud or too generous to put her thoughts into words. For pride and generosity are often confounded. There are many who give because they are too proud to withhold.
Desiree got her needlework and sat by the open window awaiting Charles. She could hear the continuous clatter of carts on the quay, and the voices of the men working in the great granaries across the river.
The whole city seemed to be astir, and men hurried to and fro in even the quiet Frauengasse, while the clatter of cavalry and the heavy rumble of gun carriages could be heard over the roofs from the direction of the Langenmarkt. There was a sense of hurry in the dusty air. The Emperor had arrived, and the magic of his name lifted men out of themselves. It seemed nothing extraordinary to Desiree that her life should be taken up by this whirlwind, and carried on she knew not whither.
At dinner-time Charles had not returned. Antoine Sebastian dined at half-past four, in the manner of Northern Europe; but his daughters provided his table with the lighter meats of France, which he preferred to the German cuisine. Sebastian's dinner was an event in the day, though he ate sparingly enough, and found a mental rather than a physical pleasure in the ceremonious sequence of courses.
It was now too late to think of going to Zoppot. After dinner Mathilde and Desiree prepared the rooms which had been destined for the occupation of the married pair after the honeymoon.
"We shall have to omit Zoppot, that is all," said Desiree cheerfully, and fell to unpacking the bridal clothes which had been so merrily laid in the trunks.
At half-past six a soldier brought a hurried note from Charles.
"I cannot return to-night, as I am about to start for Konigsberg," he wrote. "It is a commission which I could not refuse if I wished to. You, I know, would have me go and do my duty."
There was more which Desiree did not read aloud. Charles had always found it easy enough to tell Desiree how much he loved her, and was gaily indifferent to the ears of others. But she seemed to be restrained by some feeling which had found birth in her heart during her wedding day. She said nothing of Charles's protestations of love.
"Decidedly," she said, folding the letter, and placing it in her work-basket, "Fate is interfering in our affairs to-day."
She turned to her work again without further complaint, almost with a sense of relief. Mathilde, whose steady grey eyes saw everything, penetrating every thought, glanced at her with a suddenly aroused interest. Desiree herself was half surprised at the philosophy with which she met this fresh misfortune.
Antoine Sebastian had never acquired the habit of drinking tea in the evening, which had found favour in these northern countries bordering on Russia. Instead, he usually went out at this time to one of the many wine-rooms or Bier Halles in the town to drink a slow and meditative glass of beer with such friends as he had made in Dantzig. For he was a lonely man, whose face was quite familiar to many who looked for a bow or a friendly salutation in vain.
If he went to the Rathskeller it was on the invitation of a friend; for he could not afford to pay the vintage of that cellar, though he drank the wine with the slow mouthing of a connoisseur when he had it.
More often than not he took a walk first, passing out of the Frauenthor on to the quay, where he turned to left or right and made his way back through one or other of the town gates, by devious narrow streets to that which is still called the Portchaisengasse though chairs and carriers have long ceased to pass along it. Here, on the northern side of the street is an old inn, "Zum weissen Ross'l," with a broken, ill-carved head of a white horse above the door. Across the face of the house is written, in old German letters, an invitation:
Gruss Gott. Tritt ein! Bring Gluck herein.
But few seemed to accept it. Even a hundred years ago the White Horse was behind the times, and fashion sought the wider streets.
Antoine Sebastian was perhaps ashamed of frequenting so humble a house of entertainment, where for a groschen he could have a glass of beer. He seemed to make his way through the narrower streets for some purpose, changing his route from day to day, and hurrying across the wider thoroughfares with the air of one desirous to attract but little attention. He was not alone in the quiet streets, for there were many in Dantzig at this time who from wealth had fallen to want. Many counting-houses once noisy with prosperity were now closed and silent. For five years the prosperous Dantzig had lain crushed beneath the iron heel of the conqueror.
It would seem that Sebastian had only waited for the explanation of Charles's most ill-timed absence to carry out his usual programme. The clock in the tower of the Rathhaus had barely struck seven when he took his hat and cloak from the peg near the dining-room door. He was so absorbed that he did not perceive Papa Barlasch seated just within the open door of the kitchen. But Barlasch saw him, and scratched his head at the sight.
The northern evenings are chill even in June, and Sebastian fumbled with his cloak. It would appear that he was little used to helping himself in such matters. Barlasch came out of the kitchen when Sebastian's back was turned and helped him to put the flowing cloak straight upon his shoulders.
"Thank you, Lisa, thank you," said Sebastian in German, without looking round. By accident Barlasch had performed one of Lisa's duties, and the master of the house was too deeply engaged in thought to notice any difference in the handling or to perceive the smell of snuff that heralded the approach of Papa Barlasch. Sebastian took his hat and went out closing the door behind him, and leaving Barlasch, who had followed him to the door, standing rather stupidly on the mat.
"Absent-minded—the citizen," muttered Barlasch, returning to the kitchen, where he resumed his seat on a chair by the open door. He scratched his head and appeared to lapse into thought. But his brain was slow as were his movements. He had been drinking to the health of the bride. He thumped himself on the brow with his closed fist.
"Sacred-name-of-a-thunderstorm," he said. "Where have I seen that face before?"
Sebastian went out by the Frauenthor to the quay. Although it was dusk, the granaries were still at work. The river was full of craft and the roadway choked by rows and rows of carts, all of one pattern, too big and too heavy for roads that are laid across a marsh.
He turned to the right, but found his way blocked at the corner of the Langenmarkt, where the road narrows to pass under the Grunes Thor. Here the idlers of the evening hour were collected in a crowd, peering over each other's shoulders towards the roadway and the bridge. Sebastian was a tall man, and had no need to stand on tip-toe in order to see the straight rows of bayonets swinging past, and the line of shakos rising and falling in unison with the beat of a thousand feet on the hollow woodwork of the drawbridge.
The troops had been passing out of the city all the afternoon on the road to Elbing and Konigsberg.
"It is the same," said a man standing near to Sebastian, "at the Hohes Thor, where they are marching out by the road leading to Konigsberg by way of Dessau."
"It is farther than Konigsberg that they are going," was the significant answer of a white-haired veteran who had probably been at Eylau, for he had a crushed look.
"But war is not declared," said the first speaker.
"Does that matter?"
And both turned towards Sebastian with the challenging air that invites opinion or calls for admiration of uncommon shrewdness. He was better clad than they. He must know more than they did. But Sebastian looked over their heads and did not seem to have heard their conversation.
He turned back and went another way, by side streets and the little narrow alleys that nearly always encircle a cathedral, and are still to be found on all sides of the Marienkirche. At last he came to the Portchaisengasse, which was quiet enough in the twilight, though he could hear the tramp of soldiers along the Langgasse and the rumble of the guns.
There were only two lamps in the Portchaisengasse, swinging on wrought-iron gibbets at each end of the street. These were not yet alight, though the day was fading fast, and the western light could scarcely find its way between the high gables which hung over the road and seemed to lean confidentially towards each other.
Sebastian was going towards the door of the Weissen Ross'l when some one came out of the hostelry, as if he had been awaiting him within the porch.
The new-comer, who was a fat man with baggy cheeks and odd, light blue eyes—the eyes of an enthusiast, one would say—passed Sebastian, making a little gesture which at once recommended silence, and bade him turn and follow. At the entrance to a little alley leading down towards the Marienkirche the fat man awaited Sebastian, whose pace had not quickened, nor had his walk lost any of its dignity.
"Not there to-night," said the man, holding up a thick forefinger and shaking it sideways.
"Nowhere to-night," was the answer. "He has come—you know that?"
"Yes," answered Sebastian slowly, "for I saw him."
"He is at supper now with Rapp and the others. The town is full of his people. His spies are everywhere. There are two in the Weissen Ross'l who pretend to be Bavarians. See! There is another—just there."
He pointed the thick forefinger down the Portchaisengasse where it widens to meet the Langgasse, where the last remains of daylight, reflected to and fro between the houses, found freer play than in the narrow alley where they stood.
Sebastian looked in the direction indicated. An officer was walking away from them. A quick observer would have noticed that his spurs made no noise, and that he carried his sword instead of allowing it to clatter after him. It was not clear whence he had come. It must have been from a doorway nearly opposite to the Weissen Ross'l.
"I know that man," said Sebastian.
"So do I," was the reply. "It is Colonel de Casimir."
With a little nod the fat man went out again into the Portchaisengasse in the direction of the inn, as if he were keeping watch there.
CHAPTER VI. THE SHOEMAKER OF KONIGSBERG.
Chacun ne comprend que ce qu'il trouve en soi.
Nearly two years had passed since the death of Queen Luisa of Prussia. And she from her grave yet spake to her people—as sixty years later she was destined to speak to another King of Prussia, who said a prayer by her tomb before departing on a journey that was to end in Fontainebleau with an imperial crown and the reckoning for all time of the seven years of woe that followed Tilsit and killed a queen.
Two years earlier than that, in 1808, while Luisa yet lived, a few scientists and professors of Konigsberg had formed a sort of Union—vague enough and visionary—to encourage virtue and discipline and patriotism. And now, in 1812, four years later, the memory of Luisa still lingered in those narrow streets that run by the banks of the Pregel beneath the great castle of Konigsberg, while the Tugendbund, like a seed that has been crushed beneath an iron heel, had spread its roots underground.
From Dantzig, the commercial, to Konigsberg, the kingly and the learned, the tide of war rolled steadily onwards. It is a tide that carries before it a certain flotsam of quick and active men, keen-eyed, restless, rising—men who speak with a sharp authority and pay from a bottomless purse. The arrival of Napoleon in Dantzig swept the first of the tide on to Konigsberg.
Already every house was full. The high-gabled warehouses on the riverside could not be used for barracks, for they too had been crammed from floor to roof with stores and arms. So the soldiers slept where they could. They bivouacked in the timber-yards by the riverside. The country-women found the Neuer Markt transformed into a camp when they brought their baskets in the early morning, but they met with eager buyers, who haggled laughingly in half a dozen different tongues. There was no lack of money, however.
Cartloads of it were on the road.
The Neuer Markt in Konigsberg is a square, of which the lower side is a quay on the Pregel. The river is narrow here. Across it the country is open. The houses surrounding the quadrangle are all alike—two-storied buildings with dormer windows in the roof. There are trees in front. In front of that which is now Number Thirteen, at the right-hand corner, facing west, sideways to the river, the trees grow quite close to the windows, so that an active man or a boy might without great risk leap from the eaves below the dormer window into the topmost branches of the linden, which here grows strong and tough, as it surely should do in the fatherland.
A young soldier, seeking lodgings, who happened to knock at the door of Number Thirteen less than thirty hours after the arrival of Napoleon at Dantzig, looked upward through the shady boughs, and noted their growth with the light of interest in his eye. It would almost seem that the house had been described to him as that one in the Neuer Markt against which the lindens grew. For he had walked all round the square between the trees and houses before knocking at this door, which bore no number then, as it does to-day.
His tired horse had followed him meditatively, and now stood with drooping head in the shade. The man himself wore a dark uniform, white with dust. His hair was dusty and rather lank. He was not a very tidy soldier.
He stood looking at the sign which swung from the doorpost, a relic of the Polish days. It bore the painted semblance of a boot. For in Poland—a frontier country, as in frontier cities where many tongues are heard—it is the custom to paint a picture rather than write a word. So that every house bears the sign of its inmate's craft, legible alike to Lithuanian or Ruthenian, Swede or Cossack of the Don.
He knocked again, and at last the door was opened by a thickly-built man, who looked, not at his face, but at his boots. As these wanted no repair he half closed the door again and looked at the newcomer's face.
"What do you want?" he asked.
The door was almost closed, when the soldier made an odd and, as it would seem, tentative gesture with his left hand. All the fingers were clenched, and with his extended thumb he scratched his chin slowly from side to side.
"I have no lodging to let," said the bootmaker. But he did not shut the door.
"I can pay," said the other, with his thumb still at his chin. He had quick, blue eyes beneath the shaggy hair that wanted cutting. "I am very tired—it is only for one night."
"Who are you?" asked the bootmaker.
The soldier was a dull and slow man. He leant against the doorpost with tired gestures before replying.
"Sergeant in a Schleswig regiment, in charge of spare horses."
"And you have come far?"
"From Dantzig without a halt."
The shoemaker looked him up and down with a doubting eye, as if there were something about him that was not quite clear and above-board. The dust and fatigue were, however, unmistakable.
"Who sent you to me, anyway?" he grumbled.
"Oh, I do not know," was the half-impatient answer; "the man I lodged with in Dantzig or another, I forget. It was Koch the locksmith in the Schmiedegasse. See, I have money. I tell you it is for one night. Say yes or no. I want to get to bed and to sleep."
"How much do you pay?"
"A thaler—if you like. Among friends, one is willing to pay."
After a short minute of hesitation the shoemaker opened the door wider and came out.
"And there will be another thaler for the horse, which I shall have to take to the stable of the wood-merchant at the corner. Go into the workshop and sit down till I come."
He stood in the doorway and watched the soldier seat himself wearily on a bench in the workshop among the ancient boots, past repair, one would think, and lean his head against the wall.
He was half asleep already, and the bootmaker, who was lame, shrugged his shoulders as he led away the tired horse, with a gesture half of pity, half of doubting suspicion. Had it suggested itself to his mind, and had it been within the power of one so halt and heavy-footed to turn back noiselessly, he would have found his visitor wide-awake enough, hurriedly opening every drawer and peering under the twine and needles, lifting every bale of leather, shaking out the very boots awaiting repair.
When the dweller in Number Thirteen returned, the soldier was asleep, and had to be shaken before he would open his eyes.
"Will you eat before you go to bed?" asked the bootmaker not unkindly.
"I ate as I came along the street," was the reply. "No, I will go to bed. What time is it?"
"It is only seven o'clock—but no matter."
"No, it is no matter. To-morrow I must be astir by five."
"Good," said the shoemaker. "But you will get your money's worth. The bed is a good one. It is my son's. He is away, and I am alone in the house."
He led the way upstairs as he spoke, going heavily one step at a time, so that the whole house seemed to shake beneath his tread. The room was that attic in the roof which has a dormer window overhanging the linden tree. It was small and not too clean; for Konigsberg was once a Polish city, and is not far from the Russian frontier.
The soldier hardly noticed his surroundings, but sat down instantly, with the abandonment of a shepherd's dog at the day's end.
"I will put a stitch in your boots for you while you sleep," said the host casually. "The thread is rotten, I can see. Look here—and here!"
He stooped, and with a quick turn of the awl which he carried in his belt he snapped the sewing at the join of the leg and the upper leather, bringing the frayed ends of the thread out to view.
Without answering, the soldier looked round for the boot-jack, lacking which, no German or Polish bedroom is complete.
When the bootmaker had gone, carrying the boots under his arm, the soldier, left to himself, made a grimace at the closed door. Without boots he was a prisoner in the house. He could hear his host at work already, downstairs in the shop, of which the door opened to the stairs and allowed passage to that smell of leather which breeds Radical convictions.
The regular "tap-tap" of the cobbler's hammer continued for an hour until dusk, and all the while the soldier lay dressed on his bed. Soon after, a creaking of the stairs told of the surreptitious approach of the unwilling host. He listened outside, and even tried the door, but found it bolted. The soldier, open-eyed on the bed, snored aloud. At the sound of the key on the outside of the door he made a grimace again. His features were very mobile, for Schleswig.
He heard the bootmaker descend the stairs again almost noiselessly, and, rising from the bed, he took his station at the window. All the Langgasse would seem to be eating-houses. The basement, which has a separate door, gives forth odours of simple Pomeranian meats, and every other house bears to this day the curt but comforting inscription, "Here one eats." It was only to be supposed that the bootmaker at the end of his day would repair for supper to some special haunt near by.
But the smell of cooking mingling with that of leather told that he was preparing his own evening meal. He was, it seemed, an unsociable man, who had but a son beneath his roof, and mostly lived alone.
Seated near the window, where the sunset light yet lingered, the Schleswiger opened his haversack, which was well supplied, and finding paper, pens and ink, fell to writing with one eye watchful of the window and both ears listening for any movement in the room below.
He wrote easily with a running pen, and sometimes he smiled as he wrote. More than once he paused and looked across the Neuer Markt above the trees and the roofs, towards the western sky, with a sudden grave wistfulness. He was thinking of some one in the west. It was assuredly not of war that this soldier wrote. Then, again, his attention would be attracted to some passer in the street below. He only gave half of his attention to his letter. He was, it seemed, a man who as yet touched life lightly; for he was quite young. But, nevertheless, his pen, urged by only half a mind that had all the energy of spring, flew over the paper. Sowing is so much easier than reaping.
Suddenly he threw his pen aside and moved quickly to the window which stood open. The shoemaker had gone out, closing the door softly behind him.
It was to be expected that he would turn to the left, upwards towards the town and the Langgasse, but it was in the direction of the river that his footsteps died away. There was no outlet on that side except by boat.
It was almost dark now, and the trees growing close to the window obscured the view. So eager was the lodger to follow the movements of his landlord that he crept in stocking-feet out on to the roof. By lying on his face below the window he could just distinguish the shadowy form of a lame man by the river edge. He was moving to and fro, unchaining a boat moored to the steps, which are more used in winter when the Pregel is a frozen roadway than in summer. There was no one else in the Neuer Markt, for it was the supper hour.
Out in the middle of the river a few ships were moored: high-prowed, square-sterned vessels of a Dutch build trading in the Frische Haaf and in the Baltic.
The soldier saw the boat steal out towards them. There was no other boat at the steps or in sight. He stood up on the edge of the roof, and after carefully measuring his distance, with quick eyes aglow with excitement, he leapt lightly across the leafy space into the topmost boughs, where he alighted in a forked branch almost without sound.
At dawn the next morning, while the shoemaker still slept, the soldier was astir again. He shivered as he rose, and went to the window, where his clothes were hanging from a rafter. The water was still dripping from them. Wrapt in a blanket he sat down by the open window to write while the morning air should dry his clothes.
That which he wrote was a long report—sheet after sheet closely written. And in the middle of his work he broke off to read again the letter that he had written the night before. With a quick, impulsive gesture he kissed the name it bore. Then he turned to his work again.
The sun was up before he folded the papers together. By way of a postscript he wrote a brief letter.
"DEAR C.—I have been fortunate, as you will see from the enclosed report. His Majesty cannot again say that I have been neglectful. I was quite right. It is Sebastian and only Sebastian that we need fear. Here they are clumsy conspirators compared to him. I have been in the river half the night listening at the open stern-window of a Reval pink to every word they said. His Majesty can safely come to Konigsberg. Indeed, he is better out of Dantzig. For the whole country is riddled with that which they call patriotism, and we treason. But I can only repeat what his Majesty disbelieved the day before yesterday—that the heart of the ill is Dantzig, and the venom of it Sebastian. Who he really is and what he is about you must find out how you can. I go forward to-day to Gumbinnen. The enclosed letter to its address, I beg of you, if only in acknowledgment of all that I have sacrificed."
The letter was unsigned, and bore the date, "Dawn, June 10." This and the report, and that other letter (carefully sealed with a wafer) which did not deal with war or its alarms, were all placed in one large envelope. He did not seal it, however, but sat thinking while the sun began to shine on the opposite houses. Then he withdrew the open letter, and added a postscript to it: