A True Story
BY F. MARION CRAWFORD
Author OF "MR. ISAACS"
MACMILLAN AND CO.
MY DEAR FRIENDS
THE COUNTESS MARGARET AND
"I believe I am old," said the Doctor, pushing his straight-backed wooden chair from the table, and turning from his books to look out of his small window. "Yes, I am certainly very old," he said again, rapping absently on the arm of the chair with the pen he held. But the fingers that held the instrument were neither thin nor withered, and there was no trembling in the careless motion of the hand. The flaxen hair, long and tangled, was thick on the massive head, and the broad shoulders were flat and square across. Whatever Dr. Claudius might say of himself, he certainly did not look old.
And yet he said to himself that he was, and he probably knew. He said to himself, as he had said every day for many long months, that this was the secret of the difference he felt between his life and the life of his companions—such companions as he had, between his thoughts and their thoughts, between his ways and their ways. Of late the fancy had gained a stronger hold on his imagination, excited by solitude and an undue consumption of the midnight oil, and as he turned his face to the evening light, an observer, had there been one, might have felt half inclined to agree with him. His face was pale, and the high aquiline nose looked drawn. Moreover, the tangled hair and beard contrasted strangely with his broad, spotless collar, and his dressing-gown of sober black. The long habit of neatness in dress survived any small vanity of personal looks.
He rose, and throwing the pen impatiently on the table, went to the little window and looked out. His shoulders overlapped the opening on both sides as he thrust his yellow head out into the evening sunshine, and Master Simpelmayer, the shoemaker down in the street, glanced up, and seeing that the Herr Doctor was taking his evening sniff of the Neckar breeze, laid down his awl and went to "vespers,"—a "maas" of cool beer and a "pretzel." For the Herr Doctor was a regular man, and always appeared at his window at the same hour, rain or shine. And when Simpelmayer mended the well-worn shoes that came to him periodically from across the way, he was sure that the flaxen-haired student would not call over to know if they were finished until the sun was well down and the day far spent. On this particular evening, however, there was no mending in hand for the Herr Doctor, and so the crooked little shoemaker filled himself a pipe, and twisted his apron round his waist, and stumped leisurely down the street to the beer-shop at the corner, where he and his fellows took their pots and their pipes, undisturbed by the playful pranks of the students.
But the Doctor remained at his window, and neither vouchsafed look nor greeting to Master Simpelmayer. He was not thinking of shoes or shoemakers just then, though, to judge by his face, he was thinking very intently of something. And well he might, for he had been reading serious stuff. The walls of his little chamber were lined with books, and there was a small sliding-rack on the table, presumably for those volumes he immediately required for his work. A rare copy of Sextus Empiricus, with the Greek and Latin side by side, lay open on an inclined desk at one end, and the table was strewn with papers, on which were roughly drawn a variety of mathematical figures, margined all around with odd-looking equations and algebraically-expressed formulae. Well-thumbed volumes of mathematical works in English, German, and French, lay about, opened in various places, and there was a cracked old plate, half full of tobacco ashes and the ends of cigarettes. The remaining furniture of the room was simple and poor: a neat camp bedstead, a boot-jack, and a round mirror, not more than four inches in diameter; a tin tub and an iron washing-stand; a much battered old "schlaeger," with the colours at the hilt all in rags, hung over the iron stove; and that was all the room contained besides books and the working-table and chair. It would be impossible to live more simply, and yet everything was neat and clean, and stamped, too, with a certain cachet of individuality. There were probably hundreds of student-rooms in the town of Heidelberg which boasted no more adornment or luxury than this, and yet there was not one that looked like it. A student's room, as he grows up, is a reflection of himself; it is a kind of dissolving view, in which the one set of objects and books fades gradually away as his opinions form themselves, and as he collects about him the works that are really of interest to him, as distinguished from those with which he has been obliged to occupy himself prior to taking his academic steps. Then, as in the human frame every particle of bone and sinew is said to change in seven years, the student one day looks about him and recognises that hardly a book or a paper is there of all the store over which he was busied in those months before he took his degree, or sustained his disputation. When a man has entered on his career, if he enters on it with a will, he soon finds that all books and objects not essential as tools for his work creep stealthily into the dusty corner, or to the inaccessible top shelf of the bookcase,—or if he is very poor, to the second-hand bookshop. He cannot afford to be hampered by any dead weight.
Now Dr. Claudius had gone through many changes of thought and habit since he came to Heidelberg ten years ago. But he had never changed his quarters; for he loved the garret window and the isolation from visits and companions that he gained by his three flights of stairs. The camp-bed in the corner was the same whereon he had lain after his first duel, with a bag of ice on his head and his bosom friend by his side, with a long pipe. At that very table he had drawn his first caricature of Herr Professor Winkelnase, which had been framed and hung up in the "Kneipe"—the drinking-hall of his corps; at the same board he had written his thesis for his doctorate, and here again he had penned the notes for his first lecture. Professor Winkelnase was dead; not one of his old corps-brothers remained in Heidelberg, but still he clung to the old room. The learned doctors with whom he drank his wine or his beer of an evening, when he sallied forth from his solitude, wondered at his way of living; for Dr. Claudius was not poor, as incomes go in South Germany. He had a modest competence of his own to begin with, and his lectures brought him in something, so that he might have had a couple of rooms "parterre"—as the Germans call the rez-de-chaussee—and could have been as comfortable as he pleased. But no one ever attempted to account for Dr. Claudius at all. He was a credit to the University, where first-rate men are scarce,—for Heidelberg is not a seat of very great learning; and no one troubled to inquire why he did not return to his native country when he had obtained his "Phil.D." Only, if he meant to spend the rest of his life in Heidelberg, it was high time he married and settled down to genuine "Philisterleben"—at least so Dr. Wiener had said to Dr. Wurst over the second "schoppen" every night for a year past.
But Claudius did not marry, nor did he even allow his blue eyes to rest contemplatively on black-eyed Fraeulein Wiener, or red-cheeked Fraeulein Wurst. He would indeed occasionally accept an invitation to drink coffee at his colleagues' houses, but his talk was little and his manner a placid blank. He had been wild enough ten years before, when his yellow hair and tall straight presence were the admiration of every burgher's daughter in the Hirschgasse or the Langestrasse; but years and study had brought out the broad traits of his character, his uniformly quiet manner, his habits of regularity, and a certain deliberateness of gait and gesture which well became his towering figure and massive strength. He was utterly independent in all his ways, without the least trace of the arrogance that hangs about people whose independence is put on, and constantly asserted, in order to be beforehand with the expected opposition of their fellow-men.
Dr. Claudius was a Swede by birth and early education, and finding himself at twenty free to go where he would, he had wandered to Heidelberg in pursuit of the ideal student-life he had read so much of in his Northern home. Full of talent, independent and young, he cared little for the national enmities of Scandinavians and Germans, and, like all foreigners who behave sensibly, he was received with open arms by the enthusiastic students, who looked upon him as a sort of typical Goth, the prototype of the Teutonic races. And when they found how readily he learned to handle schlaeger and sabre, and that, like a true son of Odin, he could drain the great horn of brown ale at a draught, and laugh through the foam on his yellow beard, he became to them the embodiment of the student as he should be. But there was little of all that left now, and though the stalwart frame was stronger and tougher in its manly proportions, and the yellow beard grown long and curly, and the hair as thick as ever, the flush of youth was gone; and Dr. Claudius leaned out of his high window and smelled the river breeze, and said to himself it was not so sweet as it used to be, and that, for all he only had thirty summers behind him, he was growing old—very old; and that was why he did not care to spend more than half-an-hour of an evening with Dr. Wiener and Dr. Wurst.
In truth it was an unnatural life for a man just reaching his prime, and full of imagination and talent and love for the beautiful. But he had fallen into the philosophical groove of study which sooner or later seems to absorb so many gifted minds, only to lay them waste in nine cases out of ten. A brilliant mathematician, he had taken his doctorate without difficulty, and his thesis had even attracted some attention. From the higher speculations of modern mathematics to the study of philosophy is but a step, and Claudius had plunged into the vast sea of Kant, Spinoza, and Hegel, without, perhaps, having any very definite idea of what he was doing, until he found himself forced to go forward or to acknowledge himself baffled and beaten. This he was not willing to do, and so he had gone on and on, until one day, some six months ago, he had asked himself what it all led to? why he had laboured so hard for years over such things? whether the old free life and ready enjoyment were not better than this midnight prowling among other people's thoughts, which, whatever they might have been when spoken, never seemed quite clear on paper? Or would it not be better to leave the whole thing and go back to his Northern home? He might find plenty of adventure there, and breathe in fresh youth and vitality in the cold bright life of the Norwegian fisheries or of some outlying Swedish farm. And yet he could not make up his mind to move, or to acknowledge that he had laboured in vain. It was in vain, though, he said, as he looked out at the flowing river. Had he gained a single advantage either for his thoughts or his deeds by all his study of philosophy? In his weariness he said to himself that he had not; that he had been far better able to deal with questions of life, so long as he had only handled the exact sciences, than he was now, through all this uncertain saturation of foggy visions and contradictory speculations. Questions of life—but did questions of life ever arise for him? He had reduced it all to its simplest expression. His little store of money was safely invested, and he drew the income four times a year. He possessed no goods or chattels not stowed away in his garret chamber. He owed no man anything; he was not even a regular professor, tied to his University by a fixed engagement. In a word, he was perfectly free and untrammelled. To what end? He worked on from force of habit; but work had long ceased to amuse him. When had he laughed last? Probably not since his trip on foot to the Bavarian Highlands, where he had met a witty journalist from Berlin, with whom he had walked for a couple of days.
This evening he was more weary than usual. He almost thought he would go away if he could think of any place to go to where life might be more interesting. He had no relations excepting an uncle, who had emigrated to America when Claudius was a baby, and who wrote twice a year, with that regular determination to keep up his family ties which characterises the true Northman. To this uncle he also wrote regularly at stated intervals, telling of his quiet student-life. He knew that this solitary relation was in business in New York, and he inferred from the regular offers of assistance which came in every letter that he was in good circumstances,—but that was all. This evening he fell to thinking about him. The firm was "Barker and Lindstrand," he remembered. He wondered what Mr. Barker was like. By the by it would soon be midsummer, and he might expect the half-yearly letter at any time. Not that it would interest him in the least when it came, but yet he liked to feel that he was not utterly alone in the world. There was the postman coming down the street in his leisurely, old-fashioned way, chatting with the host at the corner and with the tinman two doors off, and then—yes, he was stopping at Dr. Claudius's door.
The messenger looked up, and, seeing the Doctor at his window, held out a large envelope.
"A letter for you, Herr Doctor," he cried, and his red nose gleamed in the evening glow, strongly foreshortened to the Doctor's eye.
"Gleich," replied Claudius, and the yellow head disappeared from the window, its owner descending to open the door.
As he mounted the dingy staircase Claudius turned the great sealed envelope over and over in his hand, wondering what could be the contents. It was postmarked "New York," but the hand was large and round and flourished, not in the least like his uncle's sexagenarian crabbedness of hieroglyphic. In the corner was the name of a firm he did not know, and the top of the letter was covered with a long row of stamps, for it was very thick and heavy. So he went into his room, and sat down on the window-sill to see what Messrs. Screw and Scratch of Pine Street, New York, could possibly want of Claudius, Phil.D. of Heidelberg.
His curiosity soon gave way to very considerable surprise. The first part of the letter contained the formal announcement of the sudden decease of Gustavus Lindstrand, of the firm of Barker and Lindstrand of New York. Claudius laid down the letter and sighed. His one relation had not been much to him. He had no recollection even of the old gentleman's appearance, but the regular correspondence had given him a feeling of reliance, a sensation of not being absolutely alone. He was alone now. Not a relation of any description in the world. Well, he would read the remainder of the letter. He turned over the page.
"We enclose a copy of the will," the lawyer continued, "for your inspection. You will see that Mr. Screw of our firm is appointed joint executor with Mr. Silas B. Barker, and we await your further instructions. In view of the large fortune you inherit," . . .
Claudius looked up suddenly and gazed blankly out of the window; then he went on—
. . . "by the aforesaid will of your uncle, the late Mr. Gustavus Lindstrand, it might be well if, at your convenience, you could pay a visit to this country."
Here Claudius thought it was time to look at the will itself. Unfolding the document, which was very short, he acquainted himself with the contents. There were a few legacies to old servants, and one or two to persons who were probably friends. Everything else was devised and bequeathed "to my nephew, the son of my sister, Claudius, privat-docent in the University of Heidelberg, Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany." And it appeared that the surplus, after deducting all legacies and debts, amounted to about one million and a half of dollars.
Claudius carefully reread the papers without betraying the smallest emotion. He then put them back in the envelope, and opening a small iron cash-box, which stood on a shelf of the book-case, locked up will, letter, power of attorney, and all. Then he shook his long limbs, with a sigh, and having rolled a thick cigarette, lighted it, and sat down in his chair to think. The shadows were deepening, and the smoke of his tobacco showed white against the gloom in the room. The news he had just received would have driven some men crazy, and certainly most people would experience some kind of vivid sensation at finding themselves suddenly endowed with immense wealth from a quarter where they did not even suspect it existed. Moreover, old Lindstrand's will was perfectly unequivocal, and contained none of those ill-natured restrictions about marrying or not marrying, or assuming the testator's name, or anything which could put the legatee to the slightest inconvenience. But Claudius experienced no sensation of pleasure at finding himself sole master of a million and a half.
It was not that he was foolish enough to despise money, or even to pretend to, as some people do. He would have felt keenly the loss of his own little store, and would have hated to work for money instead of working for work's sake. But he had enough, and had always had enough, for his small wants. He loved beautiful things intensely, but he had no desire to possess them; it was enough that he might see them, and carry away the remembrance. He loved books, but he cared not a jot for rare editions, so long as there were cheap ones published in Leipzic. That old copy of Sextus Empiricus, on the desk there, he had bought because he could not get an ordinary edition; and now that he had read it he did not care to keep it. Of course it contained a great deal that was good, but he had extracted the best of it, and meant to sell the volume to the first bidder—not that he wanted the money, but because it was in the way; if he allowed things to accumulate, there would be no turning round in his little den. So he leaned back in his straight-backed chair and wondered what in the world he should do with "all that money." He might travel. Yes, but he preferred to travel with a view of seeing things, rather than of reaching places. He would rather walk most of the way. The only way in which he could possibly live up to such an income must be by changing his entire mode of life—a house, somewhere in a great city, horses, servants, and even a wife—Claudius laughed for the first time in many months, a deep Homeric laugh—they would all help him to get rid of his money. But then, a life like that—pshaw! impossible. He was sick of it before beginning, then what would he feel after a month of it?
The problem faced him in the dark, like an unsolved equation, staring out black and white before his eyes, or like an unfinished game of chess when one goes to bed after five or six hours' play. Something he must decide, because it was his nature to decide always, before he left a subject, on some course of thought. Meanwhile he had been so little disturbed by the whole business that, in spite of his uncle's death, and a million and a half of money, he was hungry and thirsty. So he struck a match and lit his study-lamp, and found his coat and hat and stick. Then he paused. He did not want to meet Dr. Wiener and Dr. Wurst that evening; he would fetch himself something to eat and drink, and be quiet. So he slung a heavy stone jug on his arm, and, turning his lamp down to save the oil, trudged down the stairs and out into the street. He made for the little inn at the corner, and while the fat old landlord filled his jug with the best Markgraefler, he himself picked out a couple of smoked sausages from the great pile on the counter, and wrapping them up with half a dozen pretzels, transferred the package to his capacious pocket. Then he took the jug from the innkeeper, and having paid half a gulden for the whole supply of eatables and wine, he departed to consume them in solitude. It was his usual supper. He had done the same thing for ten years, off and on, whenever he was not inclined for company.
"But I suppose it is incongruous," he soliloquised, "that, being a millionaire, I should fetch my own supper." Once more he laughed aloud in the crowded street, for it was warm and the people were sitting in front of their houses, Simpelmayer the shoemaker, and Blech the tinman, and all the rest, each with his children and his pot of beer. As the Doctor laughed, the little boys laughed too, and Blech remarked to Simpelmayer that the Herr Doctor must have won the great prize in the Hamburg lottery, for he had not heard him laugh like that in three years.
"Freilich," returned the crooked shoemaker, "but he was used to laugh loud enough ten years ago. I can remember when he first moved in there, and his corps-fellows locked him in his room for a jest, and stood mocking in the street. And he climbed right down the woodwork and stepped on the signboard of the baker and jumped into the street, laughing all the while, though they were holding in their breath for fear he should break his neck. Ja, he was a right student; but he is changed now—the much reading, lieber Blech, the much reading." And the old fellow looked after Claudius as he disappeared into the dark doorway.
The Doctor mounted his three flights with even tread, and, turning up his light, proceeded leisurely to eat his twisted rolls and sausages. When he had done that, he took the great stone jug in his hand, as if it had been a wine-glass, and set it to his lips and drank a long draught.
The result of his cogitations, assisted by the soothing influence of supper, was to be foreseen. In the first place, he reflected that the problem was itself a myth. No one could require of him that he should use his money unless he liked. He might let it accumulate without any trouble to himself; and then, why should he tell any one of his inheritance? Surely he might go on living as he was living now for an indefinite period, and nobody would be the wiser. Besides, it would be a novel sensation to feel that while living like a simple student he possessed a great power, put away, as it were, on the shelf, whereby he could, if he liked, at any moment astonish the whole country. Very novel, indeed, and considering the importance of the question of the disposal of his income, he could well afford to give it six months' consideration. And he might move undisturbed about the University and eat his supper with Dr. Wiener and Dr. Wurst without being the object of general interest, which he would at once become if it were known that he, a simple privat-docent, with his decent black coat and his twice-mended shoes, was the richest man in the Grand Duchy of Baden.
These reflections of Dr. Claudius, strange as they must seem in the eyes of men of the world, were only what were to be expected from a man of his education and character. He had travelled after a fashion, it is true, and had frequented society when he was younger; for the Heidelberg student is a lover of the dance, and many of the wild young burschen become the brilliant officers of the crack regiments of the first army in the world. He had been in Paris and Vienna and Rome for a few weeks, and, being of a good family in the North, had received introductions through the diplomatic representatives of his country. His striking personality had always attracted attention, and he might have gone everywhere had he chosen. But he had only cared enough for society and its life to wish to see it now and then, and he fancied that he understood it at a glance—that it was all a sham and a glamour and vanity of vanities. There was, of course, a potent reason for all this. In his short peregrinations into the world of decorations and blue ribbons and cosmopolitan uniforms he had never come across a woman that interested him. He had a holy reverence for woman in the abstract, but he had not met one to whom he could do homage as the type of the ideal womanhood he worshipped. Perhaps he expected too much, or perhaps he judged too much by small and really insignificant signs. As no man living or dead has ever understood any woman for five minutes at a time, he was not to be blamed. Women are very like religion—we must take them on faith, or go without.
Moreover, Dr. Claudius had but an indifferent appreciation of the value of money; partly because he had never cared for what it would buy, and had therefore never examined its purchasing power, and partly because he had never lived intimately with people who spent a great deal. He knew nothing of business, and had never gambled, and he did not conceive that the combination of the two could be of any interest. Compared with the questions that had occupied his mind of late, it seemed to make no more difference whether a man were rich or poor than whether he had light hair or dark. And if he had seriously asked himself whether even those great problems which had occupied the minds of the mightiest thinkers led to any result of importance, it was not likely that he would bestow a thought on such a trivial matter as the question of pounds, shillings, and pence.
So, before he went to bed, he took out a sheet of paper and an envelope—he never bought but one package of envelopes a year, when he sent his New Year's card to the other doctors of the University—and wrote a short letter to Messrs. Screw and Scratch of Pine Street, New York. He acknowledged the receipt of their communication, deplored the death of his only relation, and requested that they would look after his money for him, as he had no use whatever for it at present. He objected, he said, to signing a power of attorney as yet, for as there was no hurry they might consult him by letter or telegraph as often as they liked. When Messrs. Screw and Scratch read this epistle they opened their eyes wide, wondering what manner of man Claudius, Phil.D., might be. And it took them some time to find out. But Claudius put out his light when he had signed and sealed the missive, and slept the sleep of the strong and the just, undisturbed by the possession of a fortune or by any more doubts as to the future.
Before receiving this letter he had thought seriously of going away. Now that a move was almost thrust upon him, he found that he did not want to make it. A professor he would live and die. What could be more contemptible, he reflected, than to give up the march of thought and the struggle for knowledge, in order to sit at ease, devising means of getting rid of so much cash? And he straightened his great limbs along the narrow camp-bed and was asleep in five minutes.
When Claudius awoke at daybreak he had a strong impression that he had been dreaming. His first action was to open his iron box and read the will over again. That being done, he reflected that his determination to keep his fortune a secret was a wise one, and that for the present he would abide by it. So he went out and got a notary to attest his signature to the letter, and posted it to Messrs. Screw and Scratch, and returned to his books. But the weather was intensely hot, and the sun beat down fiercely on the roof over his head, so that after two or three hours he gave it up and sallied forth to seek coolness abroad. His steps turned naturally upwards towards the overhanging castle where he was sure of a breeze and plenty of shade; and as he passed the famous old "Wirthshaus zum faulen Pelz" on the ascent, he turned in and took a drink of the cool clear ale and a pretzel, an operation termed in Germany the "Fruehschoppen," or "early glass," and as universal a practice as the early tea in the tropics before the sun is up, or the "vermouth" of the Italian before the evening meal. Having offered this customary libation to the summer deities, the Doctor leisurely climbed the hill and entered the precincts of the Schloss. Sure enough, there was a breeze here among the ruins, and shade in abundance wherein to lie and read all through the summer day, with an occasional shift of position as the sun rose and sank in the blazing sky.
Claudius stretched himself out near the great ruined tower under a bit of wall, and, pulling out a book, began to read. But the book did not interest him, and before long he let it drop and fell to thinking. The light wind stirred the broad green foliage over him, and the sun struck fiercely down beyond the border of shade; but then, again, beyond there were more trees and more shade. The nameless little crickets and flies and all manner of humming things panted musically in the warm air; the small birds chirped lazily now and then in desultory conversation, too hot to hop or fly; and a small lizard lay along the wall dazed and stupid in the noontide heat. The genius loci was doubtless cooling himself in the retirement of some luxurious hole among the ruins, and the dwarf Perkeo, famous in song and toast, had the best of it that day down in the cellar by the great tun.
But Claudius was of a tough nature, and minded neither heat nor cold; only when a large bluebottle fly buzzed round his nose he whisked his broad hat to drive the tormentor away, and said to himself that summer had its drawbacks even in Germany, though there were certainly more flies and mosquitoes and evil beasts on the wing in Sweden during the two months' heat there. On the whole, he was pretty comfortable among the ruins on this June day, though he ought to begin considering where his summer foot tour was to take him this year. It might be as well, certainly. Where could he go? There was the Black Forest, but he knew that thoroughly; Bohemia—he had been there; Switzerland; the Engadine—yes, he would go back to Pontresina and see what it had grown into since he was there six years ago. It used to be a delightful place then, as different from St. Moritz as anything could well be. Only students and artists and an occasional sturdy English climber used to go to Pontresina, while all Europe congregated at St. Moritz half a dozen miles away. He would go there as he went everywhere, with a knapsack and a thick stick and a few guldens in his pocket, and be happy, if so be that he had any capacity for enjoyment left in him.
"It is absurd," said Claudius to himself, argumentatively. "I am barely thirty years old, as strong as an ox, and I have just inherited more money than I know what to do with, and I feel like an old cripple of ninety, who has nothing left to live for. It must be morbid imagination or liver complaint, or something."
But it was neither liver nor imagination, for it was perfectly genuine. Tired of writing, tired of reading, of seeing, of hearing, and speaking; and yet blessed with a constitution that bid fair to carry him through another sixty years of life. He tried to argue about it. Was it possible that it came of living in a foreign country with whose people he had but a fancied sympathy? There are no folk like our own folk, after all; and there is truly a great gulf between Scandinavians and every other kind of people. But it seemed to Claudius that he loved the Germans and their ways—and indeed he did; but does not everyday experience show that the people we admire, and even love, the most are not necessarily those with whom we are most in sympathy or with whom it is best for us to live? He would have been better among his own Northern people; but that did not strike him, and he determined he would go to the Engadine to-morrow or next day.
The Doctor, having made up his mind, shifted his position and sat up, pulling a pipe from his pocket, which he proceeded to fill and to light. The flame of the match was white and transparent in the mid-day glare, and the smoke hung lazily about as he puffed at the ungainly instrument of enjoyment.
Before he had half finished his pipe he heard footsteps on the path. He looked up idly and saw a lady—two ladies—coming leisurely towards him. Beyond the fact that it was an unusual hour for strangers to visit the Schloss—and they evidently were strangers—there was nothing unusual in the apparition; and Claudius merely rose to his feet and moved slowly on, not from any desire to get out of the way, but merely because he was too well bred to remain seated by the path while a lady passed, and having risen, he could not very well stand still. So he moved on till he stood by the broken tower, and seeing that by climbing down he could reach a more secure resting-place, with the advantage of a view, he let himself drop easily on to a projecting ledge of masonry and resumed his pipe with philosophic indifference. Before long he heard voices above him, or more properly a voice, for one of the parties confined her conversation strictly to yea and nay, while the other spoke enthusiastically, and almost as if soliloquising, about the scene.
It was a deep-strung voice, that would have been masculine if it had been the least harsh; but it was not—it was only strong and large and smooth, a woman's voice with the gift of resonance that lends interest where there might otherwise seem to be none. There is a certain kind of voice in woman that seems to vibrate in a way especially its own. Whether it be that under certain conditions of the vocal organs harmonic sounds are produced as they may be upon a stringed instrument or upon an organ pipe; or whether, again, the secret lies deeper, depending on the subtile folding and unfolding of new-shaped waves of sound to which our ordinary ears are not used—who can tell? And yet there are voices that from the first produce upon us a strange impression unlike anything else in the world. Not that we necessarily become interested in the possessor of the voice, who may remain for ever utterly indifferent to us, for the magic lies in the tone merely, which seems to have a power of perpetuating itself and rebounding among the echoes of our recollections. Barely, very rarely, singers possess it, and even though their powers be limited there comes a strange thrill into their singing which fixes it indelibly on the memory.
Such a voice it was that Claudius heard as he lay on his ledge of masonry some ten feet below, and listened to the poetic flow of the strange lady's thoughts on Heidelberg and the scene at her feet. He did not move, for he was sure she had not seen him; and he supposed she would go away in a few minutes. He was destined to be seen, however. She stopped talking, and was apparently lost in thought; but in a moment there was a small cry.
"O mon Dieu!" and a dainty lace-covered parasol fell over the edge, and, striking the platform where Claudius was lying, went straight to the bottom of the ruin, some twenty feet farther.
"What a nuisance," said the thrilling voice from above, "I can never get it back now; and there are no gardeners or people about."
"Permit me, Madam," said Claudius, stepping as far out as he dared, and looking up to catch a glimpse of a beautiful woman in black and white staring down at the unlucky parasol in a rather helpless fashion. "Do not be disturbed, Madam; I will get it for you in a moment." And he began to descend.
The fair unknown protested—Monsieur must not trouble himself; Monsieur would certainly break his neck—enfin, it was very obliging on the part of Monsieur to risk himself in such a terrible gulf, etc. etc. But "Monsieur," when once he had caught sight of those dark eyes, climbed steadily down to the bottom, and had reached the lost parasol before the string of polite protestations had ceased. The ascent was quickly accomplished, and he stood at the summit, hat in hand, to return the object of his search to its rightful owner. There was not a trace of embarrassment on his face; and he looked the foreign lady boldly in the eyes as he bowed. She could not express her thanks sufficiently, and would probably have wished to continue expressing them for some time longer to the handsome and herculean young man, who had apparently started out of space to her assistance; but when Claudius had taken a good look he simply answered—
"Il n'y a pas de quoi, Madame," and bowing low walked off. Perhaps the least contraction of curiosity was in his eyes; and he would have liked to know who the lady was who had the crown and the large M carved in the ivory of her parasol stick. But, after all, he came to the conclusion that he did not care, and so went strolling down the path, wondering where he could hide himself if visitors were to infest the Schloss at this time of year, and in the hottest hours of the day.
"I will leave here to-morrow," he said, "and see if I cannot be more comfortable in Pontresina." He reached another part of the Schloss, and sitting down resumed his pipe, which seemed destined to interruptions.
The lady of the parasol had made an impression on Dr. Claudius, for all his apparent indifference. It was rarely, indeed, nowadays that he looked at a woman at all; and to-day he had not only looked, but he owned to himself, now it was past, that he would like to look again. If he had had any principle in avoiding women during the last few years, he would not have admitted now that he would like to see her again—just for one moment. But he had no principle in the matter. It was choice, and there it ended; and whenever he should take it into his head to associate with the fair sex again, he would consider it a sign that his youth had returned, and he would yield without the smallest struggle. But in this ease—"Pshaw!" thought the humble privat-docent, "she is some great lady, I suppose. How should I make her acquaintance? Oh! I forgot—I am a millionaire to-day; I have only to ask and it shall be opened." He smiled to himself, and, with the returning sense of the power to do what he pleased, the little undefined longing for another glimpse of the fair stranger subsided for a time.
Then he regretted it. He was sorry it was gone; for while it had been there he had felt a something telling him he was not old after all, but only very young—so young that he had never been in love. As a consequence of his wishing his little rag of sentiment back again, it came; but artificially this time, and as if expecting to be criticised. He would contemplate for a space the fair picture that had the power to rouse his weary soul, even for an instant, from the sea of indifference in which it was plunged.
Claudius lay back in the grass and crossed one leg over the other. Then he tried to recall the features of the woman who had begun to occupy his thoughts. She was certainly very beautiful. He could remember one or two points. Her skin was olive-tinted and dark about the eyes, and the eyes themselves were like soft burning amber, and her hair was very black. That was all he could recollect of her—saving her voice. Ah yes! he had seen beautiful women enough, even in his quiet life, but he had never heard anything exactly like this woman's tones. There are some sounds one never forgets. For instance, the glorious cry of the trumpeter swans in Iceland when they pass in full flight overhead in the early morning; or the sweet musical ring of the fresh black ice on the river as it clangs again to sweep of the steel skate. Claudius tried to compare the sound of that voice to something he had heard, but with little success.
Southern and Eastern born races fall in love at first sight in a way that the soberer Northener cannot understand. A face in a crowd, a glance, a droop of the lashes, and all is said. The seed of passion is sown and will grow in a day to all destroying proportions. But the Northern heart is a very different affair. It will play with its affections as a cat plays with a mouse; only the difference is, that the mouse grows larger and more formidable, like the one in the story of the Eastern sage, which successively changed its shape until it became a tiger, and the wise man was driven to take precautions for his own safety. There is never the least doubt in the mind of an Italian or an Oriental when he is in love; but an Englishman will associate with a woman for ten years, and one day will wake up to the fact that he loves her, and has loved her probably for some time past. And then his whole manner changes immediately, and he is apt to make himself very disagreeable unless indeed the lady loves him—and women are rarely in doubt in their inmost hearts as to whether they love or not.
The heart of the cold northern-born man is a strange puzzle. It can only be compared in its first awakening to a very backward spring. In the first place, the previous absence of anything like love has bred a rough and somewhat coarse scepticism about the existence of passion at all. Young Boreas scoffs at the mere mention of a serious affection, and turns up his nose at a love-match. He thinks young women no end of fun; his vanity makes him fancy himself the heartless hero of many an adventure, and if, as frequently happens, he is but an imperfect gentleman, he will not scruple to devise, imagine, and recount (to his bosom friend, of course, in strictest secrecy) some hairbreadth escape from an irate husband or an avenging father, where he has nearly lost his life, he says, in the pursuit of some woman, generally a lady of spotless reputation whom he barely knows. But put him in her society for an hour, with every opportunity of pressing his suit, and the veriest lambkin could not be more harmless. He has not yet tasted blood, though he will often smack his lips and talk as if he had.
It is generally chance that makes him fall in love the first time. He is thrown together with his fate—tall or short, dark or fair, it makes no difference—in some country house or on some journey. For a long time her society only amuses him and helps to pass the hours, for Boreas is easily bored and finds time a terrible adversary. Gradually he understands that she is a necessity to his comfort, and there is nothing he will not do to secure her on every possible opportunity for himself. Then perhaps he allows to himself that he really does care a little, and he loses some of his incrustation of vanity. He feels less sure of himself, and his companions observe that he ceases to talk of his alleged good fortunes. Very, very slowly his real heart wakes up, and whatever is manly and serious and gentle in his nature comes unconsciously to the surface. Henceforth he knows he loves, and because his love has been slow to develop itself it is not necessarily sluggish or deficient when once it is come. But Englishmen are rarely heroic lovers except in their novels. There is generally a little bypath of caution, a postern gate of mercantile foresight, by which they can slip quietly out at the right moment and forget all about the whole thing.
Claudius was not an Englishman, but a Scandinavian, and he differed from the imaginary young man described above in that he had a great broad reverence of woman and for woman's love. But it was all a theory, of which the practice to him was as yet unknown. He had soon wearied of the class of women he had met in his student-life—chiefly the daughters of respectable Heidelberg Philistines, of various degrees of south Teutonic prettiness; and the beautiful women of the world, of whom he had caught a glimpse in his travels had never seemed real enough to him to be in any way approached. He never had realised that his own personality, combined with his faultless manners, would have soon made him a favourite in what is called society, had he chosen to court it.
After all, it was very vague this passing fancy for the dark-eyed woman of the Schloss. Perhaps Dr. Claudius watched his symptoms too narrowly, and was overmuch pleased at finding that something could still rouse a youthful thrill in him, after the sensation of old age that had of late oppressed him. A man, he said to himself, is not old so long as he can love—and be loved—well, so long as he can love, say, and let the rest take care of itself. And by and by the sun went westering down the hill, and he shook himself out of his dreams, and pocketed his book and turned homeward. His day, he thought, had not amounted to much after all, and he would spend the evening in sober study, and not dream any more until bedtime. But he would be sociable this evening and eat his supper—now he thought about it, it would be dinner and supper combined—in the company of his colleagues at their favourite haunt. And he would go to-morrow, he would certainly go to the Engadine.
But to-morrow came, and the Herr Doctor looked out of his window as usual, and he did not go to Pontresina or anywhere else, nor the next day, nor the day after. Only up to the Schloss every day through the hot week, with his book and his pipe, and there he would lie and read and smoke, and say to himself, "To-morrow I will certainly go." There was something almost pathetic in Claudius, thus day after day revisiting the scene where he had experienced a momentary sensation of youth and vitality, where he had discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that he was still alive and full of strength and sanguine hope, when he thought himself so old. And lying among the ruins he called up the scene again and again, and the strange woman gradually got possession of his mind, as a cunning enchantress might, and she moulded his thoughts about her till they clung to her and burned. He did not seriously think to meet her again in the Schloss, if he thought of it at all, for he knew of course that she must have been a bird of passage, only pausing an instant on that hot day to visit some scene long familiar to her memory. And of course, like a true philosophical student, he did not attempt to explain to himself his own conduct, nor to catalogue the reasons for and against a daily visit to the old castle.
So the week passed, and another after it, and one day, late in the afternoon, Claudius descended the hill and went up as usual to his chamber above the river, to spend an hour indoors before going to supper. It was a beautiful evening, and he left his door partly open on to the landing that the breeze might blow through the room as he sat by the window. A book was in his hand before he had sat many moments, from sheer force of habit; but he did not read. The sounds of the street rose pleasantly to his ear as the little boys and girls played together across each other's doorsteps. To tell the truth, it all seemed very far off, much farther than three flights of steps from the little crowd below to the solitary nest of learning aloft where he sat; and Dr. Claudius was, in his thoughts, incalculably far away from the shoemaker's Hans and the tinman's Gretel and their eight-year-old flirtation. Claudius was flirting with his fancies, and drawing pretty pictures in the smoke, with dark eyes and masses of black hair; and then he moved uneasily, and came back to his threadbare proposition that he was old, and that it was absurd that he should be.
"Ah! what would I not give to enjoy it all—to feel I could wish one moment to remain!" He sighed and leaned back in the straight-backed chair. The door creaked slightly, he thought it was the evening wind. It creaked again; he turned his head, and his gaze remained riveted on the opening. A beautiful pair of dark eyes were fixed on him, deep and searching, and on meeting his, a great silky black head was pushed forward into the room, and a magnificent black hound stalked slowly across the floor and laid his head on the Doctor's knee with a look of evident inquiry.
Claudius was fond of animals, and caressed the friendly beast, wondering to whom he might belong, and speculating whether the appearance of the dog heralded the approach of a visitor. But the dog was not one of those that he knew by sight in the streets of Heidelberg—one of those superb favourites of the students who are as well known as the professors themselves to every inhabitant of a university town in Germany. And the Doctor stroked the beautiful head and listened for steps upon the stairs. Before long he heard an ominous stumbling, as of some one unfamiliar with the dark and narrow way, and in a moment more a young man stood in the doorway, dazzled by the flood of the evening sunshine that faced him.
"Mr. Claudius live here?" interrogated the stranger in a high and metallic, but gentlemanly voice.
"I am Dr. Claudius," said the tenant of the old chair, rising politely. "Pray be seated, sir," and he offered his one seat to his visitor, who advanced into the middle of the room.
He was a young man, dressed in the extreme of the English fashion. He was probably excessively thin, to judge by his face and neck and hands, but he was made up admirably. He removed his hat and showed a forehead of mediocre proportions, over which his dark hair was conscientiously parted in the middle. Though not in appearance robust, he wore a moustache that would not have disgraced a Cossack, his eyes were small, gray, and near together, and his complexion was bad. His feet were minute, and his hands bony.
He took the offered chair, and Claudius sat down upon the bed, which was by no means so far removed in the little room as to make conversation at that distance difficult.
"Dr. Claudius?" the stranger repeated, and the Doctor nodded gravely. "Dr. Claudius, the nephew of the late Mr. Gustavus Lindstrand of New York?"
"The same, sir. May I inquire to what good fortune I am indebted—"
"Oh! of course," interrupted the other, "I am Mr. Barker—Silas B. Barker junior of New York, and my father was your uncle's partner."
"Indeed," said Claudius, rising and coming forward, "then we must shake hands again," and his face wore a pleasant expression. He thought nothing of first impressions, and was prepared to offer a hearty welcome to any friend of his uncle, even of the most unprepossessing type. Mr. Barker was not exactly unprepossessing; he was certainly not handsome, but there was a look of action about him that was not unpleasing. Claudius felt at once, however, that the American belonged to a type of humanity of which he knew nothing as yet. But they shook hands cordially, and the Doctor resumed his seat.
"And is it long since you received the news, Professor?" inquired Mr. Barker, with the ready Transatlantic use of titles.
"I heard of my uncle's death about three weeks ago—rather less."
"Ah yes! And the news about the will—did you hear that?"
"Certainly," said the Doctor; "I received the intelligence simultaneously."
"Well," said the American, "do you propose to continue living here?"
Claudius looked at his visitor. He was as yet unfamiliar with New World curiosity, and thought the question a rather strange one. However, he reflected that Mr. Barker's father might have some moral claim to know what his old partner's heir meant to do with his money; so he answered the question categorically.
"I was, as perhaps you may imagine, greatly surprised at the intelligence that I had inherited a great fortune. But you will hardly understand, with your tastes,"—the Doctor glanced at Mr. Barker's faultless costume,—"that such abundant and unexpected wealth may not be to me a wholly unalloyed blessing." Claudius proceeded to explain how little he cared for the things that his money might bring him, and announced his intention of continuing his present mode of life some time longer. Mr. Silas B. Barker junior of New York opened his small eyes wider and wider, as his host set forth his views.
"I should think you would be bored to death!" he said simply.
"Ennui, in the ordinary sense, does not exist for a man whose life is devoted to study. What corresponds to it is a very different thing. I sometimes feel oppressed with a sense of profound dissatisfaction with what I am doing—"
"I should think so," remarked Mr. Barker. Then, checking himself, he added, "I beg your pardon, don't misunderstand me. I can hardly conceive of leading such a life as yours. I could never be a professor."
Claudius judged the statement to be strictly true. Mr. Barker did not look like a professor in the least. However, the Doctor wanted to be civil.
"Have you just arrived? Have you seen our sights?"
"Came last night from Baden-Baden. I have been here before. You had better come around to my hotel, and take dinner with me. But first we will drive somewhere and get cool."
Claudius put on his best coat and combed his hair, apologising to Mr. Barker for the informality. Mr. Barker watched him, and thought he would make a sensation in New York.
"We might go up to the castle," said the American, when they were seated in the carriage. So to the castle they went, and, leaving their carriage at the entrance, strolled slowly through the grounds till they reached the broken tower.
"If they had used dynamite," said Mr. Barker, "they would have sent the whole thing flying across the river."
"It would have been less picturesque afterwards," said Claudius.
"It would have been more effective at the time."
Claudius was thinking of the dark woman and her parasol, and how he had climbed down there a few weeks before. To show to himself that he did not care, he told his companion the incident as graphically as he could. His description of the lady was so graphic that Mr. Barker screwed up his eyes and put out his jaw, so that two great lines circled on his sallow face from just above the nostril, under his heavy moustache to his chin.
"I could almost fancy I had seen her somewhere," said he.
"Where?" asked Claudius eagerly.
"I thought he would give himself away," was the American's terse inward reflection; but he answered coolly—
"I don't know, I am sure. Very likely I am mistaken. It was pretty romantic though. Ask me to the wedding, Professor."
"Why, when you marry the fascinating creature with the parasol."
Claudius looked at Mr. Barker with some astonishment.
"Do you generally manage things so quickly in your country?"
"Oh, I was only joking," returned the American. "But, of course, you can marry anybody you like, and why not the dark lady? On the whole, though, if I were you, I would like to astonish the natives before I left. Now, you might buy the castle here and turn it into a hotel."
"Horrible!" ejaculated Claudius.
"No worse than making a hotel of Switzerland, which is an older and more interesting monument than the castle of Heidelberg."
"Epigrammatic, but fallacious, Mr. Barker."
"Epigrams and proverbs are generally that."
"I think," said Claudius, "that proverbs are only fallacious when they are carelessly applied."
"Very likely. Life is too short to waste time over weapons that will only go off in some singular and old-fashioned way. When I start out to do any shooting, I want to hit."
So they went to dinner. Claudius found himself becoming gayer in the society of his new acquaintance than he had been for some time past. He could not have said whether he liked him or thought him interesting, but he had a strong impression that there was something somewhere, he could not tell what, which Mr. Barker understood thoroughly, and in which he might show to great advantage. He felt that however superficial and unartistic the American might be, he was nevertheless no fool. There was something keen and sharp-edged about him that proclaimed a character capable of influencing men, and accustomed to deal boldly and daringly with life.
They dined as well as could be expected in a country which is not gastronomic, and Mr. Barker produced a rare brand of cigars, without which, he informed his guest, he never travelled. They were fat brown Havanas, and Claudius enjoyed them.
"Let us go to Baden-Baden," said Barker, sucking at his weed, which protruded from his immense moustache like a gun under the raised port-hole of an old-fashioned man-of-war.
"If I were seeking innocent recreation from my labours, that is not exactly the spot I would choose to disport myself in," replied Claudius. "The scenery is good, but the people are detestable."
"I agree with you; but it is a nice place for all that. You can always gamble to pass the time."
"I never play games of chance, and there is no play in Baden now."
"Principle or taste, Professor?"
"I suppose I must allow that it is principle. I used to play a little when I was a student; but I do not believe in leaving anything to fortune. I would not do it in anything else."
"Well, I suppose you are right; but you miss a great deal of healthy excitement. You have never known the joys of being short of a thousand N.P. or Wabash on a rising market."
"I fear I do not understand the illustration, Mr. Barker."
"No? Well, it is not to be wondered at. Perhaps if you ever come to New York you will take an interest in the stock market."
"Ah—you were referring to stocks? Yes, I have read a little about your methods of business, but that kind of study is not much in my line. Why do you say Baden, though, instead of some quiet place?"
"I suppose I like a crowd. Besides, there are some people I know there. But I want you to go with me, and if you would rather not go to Baden-Baden, we can go somewhere else. I really think we ought to become better acquainted, and I may prevail on you to go with me to New York."
Claudius was silent, and he blew a great cloud of smoke. What sort of a travelling companion would Mr. Barker be for him? Could there be a greater contrast to his own nature? And yet he felt that he would like to observe Mr. Barker. He felt drawn to him without knowing why, and he had a presentiment that the American would drag him out of his quiet life into a very different existence. Mr. Barker, on the other hand, possessed the showman's instinct. He had found a creature who, he was sure, had the elements of a tremendous lion about town; and having found him, he meant to capture him and exhibit him in society, and take to himself ever after the credit of having unearthed the handsome, rich, and talented Dr. Claudius from a garret in Heidelberg. What a story that would be to tell next year, when Claudius, clothed and clipped, should be marrying the girl of the season, or tooling his coach down the Newport avenue, or doing any of the other fashionable and merry things that Americans love to do in spring and summer!
So Mr. Barker insisted on driving Claudius back to his lodging, though it was only five minutes' walk, and exacted a promise that the Doctor should take him on the morrow to a real German breakfast at the Fauler Pelz, and that they would "start off somewhere" in the afternoon.
Claudius said he had enjoyed a very pleasant evening, and went up to his room, where he read an elaborate article on the vortex theory by Professor Helmholtz, with which, having dipped into transcendental geometry, he was inclined to find fault; and then he went calmly to bed.
Claudius told his old landlord—his philister, as he would have called him—that he was going away on his customary foot tour for a month or so. He packed a book and a few things in his knapsack and joined Mr. Barker. To Claudius in his simplicity there was nothing incongruous in his travelling as a plain student in the company of the exquisitely-arrayed New Yorker, and the latter was far too much a man of the world to care what his companion wore. He intended that the Doctor should be introduced to the affectionate skill of a London tailor before he was much older, and he registered a vow that the long yellow hair should be cut. But these details were the result of his showman's intuition; personally, he would as readily have travelled with Claudius had he affected the costume of a shoeblack. He knew that the man was very rich, and he respected his eccentricity for the present. To accomplish the transformation of exterior which he contemplated, from the professional and semi-cynic garb to the splendour of a swell of the period, Mr. Barker counted on some more potent influence than his own. The only point on which his mind was made up was that Claudius must accompany him to America and create a great sensation.
"I wonder if we shall meet her," remarked Mr. Barker reflectively, when they were seated in the train.
"Whom?" asked Claudius, who did not intend to understand his companion's chaff.
But Mr. Barker had shot his arrow, and started cleverly as he answered—
"Did I say anything? I must have been talking to myself."
Claudius was not so sure. However, the hint had produced its effect, falling, as it did, into the vague current of his thoughts and giving them direction. He began to wonder whether there was any likelihood of his meeting the woman of whom he had thought so much, and before long he found himself constructing a conversation, supposed to take place on their first encounter, overleaping such trifles as probability, the question of an introduction, and other formalities with the ready agility of a mind accustomed to speculation.
"The scenery is fine, is it not?" remarked Claudius tritely as they neared Baden.
"Oh yes, for Europe. We manage our landscapes better in America."
"Swivels. You can turn the rocks around and see the other side."
Claudius laughed a little, but Barker did not smile. He was apparently occupied in inventing a patent transformation landscape on wheels. In reality, he was thinking out a menu for dinner whereby he might feed his friend without starving himself. For Mr. Barker was particular about his meals, and accustomed to fare sumptuously every day, whereas he had observed that the Doctor was fond of sausages and decayed cabbage. But he knew such depraved tastes could not long withstand the blandishments and caressing hypersensualism of Delmonico, if he ever got the Doctor so far.
Having successfully accomplished the business of dining, Mr. Barker promised to return in an hour, and sallied out to find the British aristocracy, whom he knew. The British aristocracy was taking his coffee in solitude at the principal cafe, and hailed Mr. Barker's advent with considerable interest, for they had tastes in common.
"How are you, Duke?"
"Pretty fit, thanks. Where have you been?"
"Oh, all over. I was just looking for you."
"Yes?" said the aristocracy interrogatively.
"Yes. I want you to introduce me to somebody you know."
"She has black eyes and dark hair, very dark complexion, middling height, fine figure; carries an ivory-handled parasol with a big M and a crown." Mr. Barker paused for a look of intelligence on the Englishman's face.
"Sure she's here?" inquired the latter.
"I won't swear. She was seen in Heidelberg, admiring views and dropping her parasol about, something like three weeks ago."
"Oh! ah, yes. Come on." And the British aristocracy settled the rose in his button-hole and led the way. He moved strongly with long steps, but Mr. Barker walked delicately like Agag.
"By the by, Barker, she is a countrywoman of yours. She married a Russian, and her name is Margaret."
"Was it a happy marriage?" asked the American, taking his cigar from his mouth.
"Exceedingly. Husband killed at Plevna. Left her lots of tin."
They reached their destination. The Countess was at home. The Countess was enchanted to make the acquaintance of Monsieur, and on learning that he was an American and a compatriot, was delighted to see him. They conversed pleasantly. In the course of twenty minutes the aristocracy discovered he had an engagement and departed, but Mr. Barker remained. It was rather stretching his advantage, but he did not lack confidence.
"So you, too, Countess, have been in Heidelberg this summer?"
"About three weeks ago. I am very fond of the old place."
"Lovely, indeed," said Barker. "The castle, the old tower half blown away in that slovenly war—"
"Oh, such a funny thing happened to me there," exclaimed the Countess Margaret, innocently falling into the trap. "I was standing just at the edge with Miss Skeat—she is my companion, you know—and I dropped my parasol, and it fell rattling to the bottom, and suddenly there started, apparently out of space—"
"A German professor, seven or eight feet high, who bounded after the sunshade, and bounded back and bowed and left you to your astonishment. Is not that what you were going to say, Countess?"
"I believe you are a medium," said the Countess, looking at Barker in astonishment. "But perhaps you only guessed it. Can you tell me what he was like, this German professor?"
"Certainly. He had long yellow hair, and a beard like Rip van Winkle's, and large white hands; and he was altogether one of the most striking individuals you ever saw."
"It is evident that you know him, Mr. Barker, and that he has told you the story. Though how you should have known it was I—"
"Guess-work and my friend's description."
"But how do you come to be intimate with German professors, Mr. Barker? Are you learned, and that sort of thing?"
"He was a German professor once. He is now an eccentricity without a purpose. Worth millions, and living in a Heidelberg garret, wishing he were poor again."
"What an interesting creature! Tell me more, please."
Barker told as much of Claudius's history as he knew.
"Too delightful!" ejaculated the Countess Margaret, looking out of the window rather pensively.
"Countess," said the American, "if I had enjoyed the advantage of your acquaintance even twenty-four hours I would venture to ask leave to present my friend to you. As it is—" Mr. Barker paused.
"As it is I will grant you the permission unasked," said the Countess quietly, still looking out of the window. "I am enough of an American still to know that your name is a guarantee for any one you introduce."
"You are very kind," said Mr. Barker modestly. Indeed the name of Barker had long been honourably known in connection with New York enterprise. The Barkers were not Dutch, it is true, but they had the next highest title to consideration in that their progenitor had dwelt in Salem, Massachusetts.
"Bring him in the morning," said the Countess, after a moment's thought.
"Oh no! At eleven or so. I am a very early person. I get up at the screech of dawn."
"Permit me to thank you on behalf of my friend as well as for myself," said Mr. Barker, bending low over the dark lady's hand as he took his departure.
"So glad to have seen you. It is pleasant to meet a civilised countryman in these days."
"It can be nothing to the pleasure of meeting a charming countrywoman," replied Mr. Barker, and he glided from the room.
The dark lady stood for a moment looking at the door through which her visitor had departed. It was almost nine o'clock by this time, and she rang for lights, subsiding into a low chair while the servant brought them. The candles flickered in the light breeze that fanned fitfully through the room, and, finding it difficult to read, the Countess sent for Miss Skeat.
"What a tiny little world it is!" said Margaret, by way of opening the conversation.
Miss Skeat sat down by the table. She was thin and yellow, and her bones were on the outside. She wore gold-rimmed eyeglasses, and was well dressed, in plain black, with a single white ruffle about her long and sinewy neck. She was hideous, but she had a certain touch of dignified elegance, and her face looked trustworthy and not unkind.
"Apropos of anything especial?" asked she, seeing that the Countess expected her to say something.
"Do you remember when I dropped my parasol at Heidelberg?"
"Perfectly," replied Miss Skeat.
"And the man who picked it up, and who looked like Niemann in Lohengrin?"
"Yes, and who must have been a professor. I remember very well."
"A friend of mine brought a friend of his to see me this afternoon, and the man himself is coming to-morrow."
"What is his name?" asked the lady-companion.
"I am sure I don't know, but Mr. Barker says he is very eccentric. He is very rich, and yet he lives in a garret in Heidelberg and wishes he were poor."
"Are you quite sure he is in his right mind, dear Countess?"
Margaret looked kindly at Miss Skeat. Poor lady! she had been rich once, and had not lived in a garret. Money to her meant freedom and independence. Not that she was unhappy with Margaret, who was always thoughtful and considerate, and valued her companion as a friend; but she would rather have lived with Margaret feeling it was a matter of choice and not of necessity, for she came of good Scottish blood, and was very proud.
"Oh yes!" answered the younger lady; "he is very learned and philosophical, and I am sure you will like him. If he is at all civilised we will have him to dinner."
"By all means," said Miss Skeat with alacrity. She liked intelligent society, and the Countess had of late indulged in a rather prolonged fit of solitude. Miss Skeat took the last novel—one of Tourgueneff's—from the table and, armed with a paper-cutter, began to read to her ladyship.
It was late when Mr. Barker found Claudius scribbling equations on a sheet of the hotel letter-paper. The Doctor looked up pleasantly at his friend. He could almost fancy he had missed his society a little; but the sensation was too novel a one to be believed genuine.
"Did you find your friends?" he inquired.
"Yes, by some good luck. It is apt to be the other people one finds, as a rule."
"Cynicism is not appropriate to your character, Mr. Barker."
"No. I hate cynical men. It is generally affectation, and it is always nonsense. But I think the wrong people have a way of turning up at the wrong moment." After a pause, during which Mr. Barker lighted a cigar and extended his thin legs and trim little feet on a chair in front of him, he continued:
"Professor, have you a very strong and rooted dislike to the society of women?"
Assailed by this point-blank question, the Doctor put his bit of paper inside his book, and drumming on the table with his pencil, considered a moment. Mr. Barker puffed at his cigar with great regularity.
"No," said Claudius at last, "certainly not. To woman man owes his life, and to woman he ought to owe his happiness. Without woman civilisation would be impossible, and society would fall to pieces."
"Oh!" ejaculated Mr. Barker.
"I worship woman in the abstract and in the concrete. I reverence her mission, and I honour the gifts of Heaven which fit her to fulfil it."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Barker.
"I think there is nothing made in creation that can be compared with woman, not even man. I am enthusiastic, of course, you will say, but I believe that homage and devotion to woman is the first duty of man, after homage and devotion to the Supreme Being whom all different races unite in describing as God."
"That will do, thank you," said Mr. Barker, "I am quite satisfied of your adoration, and I will not ask her name."
"She has no name, and she has all names," continued Claudius seriously. "She is an ideal."
"Yes, my feeble intelligence grasps that she cannot be anything else. But I did not want a confession of faith. I only asked if you disliked ladies' society, because I was going to propose to introduce you to some friends of mine here."
"Oh!" said Claudius, and he leaned back in his chair and stared at the lamp. Barker was silent.
The Doctor was puzzled. He thought it would be very rude of him to refuse Mr. Barker's offer. On the other hand, in spite of his protestations of devotion to the sex, he knew that the exalted opinion he held of woman in general had gained upon him of late years, since he had associated less with them. It was with him a beautiful theory, the outcome of a knightly nature thrown back on itself, but as yet not fixed or clearly defined by any intimate knowledge of woman's character, still less by any profound personal experience of love. Courtesy was uppermost as he answered.
"Really," he said at last, "if you are very desirous of presenting me to your friends, of course I—"
"Oh, only if it is agreeable to you, of course. If it it is in any way the reverse—" protested the polite Mr. Barker.
"Not that—not exactly disagreeable. Only it is some time since I have enjoyed the advantage of an hour's conversation with ladies; and besides, since it comes to that, I am here as a pedestrian, and I do not present a very civilised appearance."
"Don't let that disturb you. Since you consent," went on Mr. Barker, briskly taking everything for granted, "I may tell you that the lady in question has expressed a wish to have you presented, and that I could not do less than promise to bring you if possible. As for your personal appearance, it is not of the least consequence. Perhaps, if you don't mind a great deal, you might have your hair cut. Don't be offended, Professor, but nothing produces an appearance of being dressed so infallibly as a neatly-trimmed head."
"Oh, certainly, if you think it best, I will have my hair cut. It will soon grow again."
Mr. Barker smiled under the lambrikin of his moustache. "Yes," thought he, "but it sha'n't."
"Then," he said aloud, "we will go about eleven."
Claudius sat wondering who the lady could be who wanted to have him presented. But he was afraid to ask; Barker would immediately suppose he imagined it to be the dark lady. However, his thoughts took it as a certainty that it must be she, and went on building castles in the air and conversations in the clouds. Barker watched him and probably guessed what he was thinking of; but he did not want to spoil the surprise he had arranged, and fearing lest Claudius might ask some awkward question, he went to bed, leaving the Doctor to his cogitations.
In the morning he lay in wait for his friend, who had gone off for an early walk in the woods. He expected that a renewal of the attack would be necessary before the sacrifice of the yellow locks could be accomplished, and he stood on the steps of the hotel, clad in the most exquisite of grays, tapering down to the most brilliant of boots. He had a white rose in his buttonhole, and his great black dog was lying at his feet, having for a wonder found his master, for the beast was given to roaming, or to the plebeian society of Barker's servant. The American's careful attire contrasted rather oddly with his sallow face, and with the bony hand that rested against the column. He was a young man, but he looked any age that morning. Before long his eye twinkled and he changed his position expectantly, for he saw the tall figure of Claudius striding up the street, a head and shoulders above the strolling crowd; and, wonderful to relate, the hair was gone, the long beard was carefully clipped and trimmed, and the Doctor wore a new gray hat!
"If he will black his boots and put a rose in his coat, he will do. What a tearing swell he will be when he is dressed," thought Mr. Barker, as he looked at his friend.
"You see I have followed your advice," said Claudius, holding out his hand.
"Always do that, and you will yet taste greatness," said the other cheerfully. "You look like a crown prince like that. Perfectly immense."
"I suppose I am rather big," said Claudius apologetically, not catching the American idiom. Mr. Barker, however, did not explain himself, for he was thinking of other things.
"We will go very soon. Excuse the liberty, Professor, but you might have your boots blacked. There is a little cad down the backstairs who does it."
"Of course," answered Claudius, and disappeared within. A small man who was coming out paused and turned to look after him, putting up his eyeglass. Then he took off his hat to Mr. Barker.
"Pardon, Monsieur," he began, "if I take the liberty of making an inquiry, but could you inform me of the name of that gentleman, whose appearance fills me with astonishment, and whose vast dimensions obscure the landscape of Baden?"
Mr. Barker looked at the small man for a moment very gravely.
"Yes," said he pensively, "his royal highness is a large man certainly." And while his interlocutor was recovering enough to formulate another question, Mr. Barker moved gently away to a flowerstand.
When Claudius returned his friend was waiting for him, and himself pinned a large and expensive rose in the Doctor's buttonhole. Mr. Barker surveyed his work—the clipped head, the new hat, the shiny boots and the rose—with a satisfied air, such as Mr. Barnum may have worn when he landed Jumbo on the New York pier. Then he called a cab, and they drove away.
The summer breath of the roses blew sweetly in through the long windows of the Countess's morning-room from the little garden outside as Barker and Claudius entered. There was an air of inhabited luxury which was evidently congenial to the American, for he rubbed his hands softly together and touched one or two objects caressingly while waiting for the lady of the house. Claudius glanced at the table and took up a book, with that singular student habit that is never lost. It was a volume of English verse, and in a moment he was reading, just as he stood, with his hat caught between the fingers that held the book, oblivious of countesses and visits and formalities. There was a rustle and a step on the garden walk, and both men turned towards the open glass door. Claudius almost dropped the vellum-covered poet, and was very perceptibly startled as he recognised the lady of his Heidelberg adventure—the woman who had got, as by magic, a hold over his thoughts, so that he dreamed of her and wondered about her, sleeping and waking.
Dark-eyed Countess Margaret, all clad in pure white, the smallest of lace fichus just dropped over her heavy hair, moved smoothly up the steps and into the room.
"Good morning, Mr. Barker, I am so glad you have come," said she, graciously extending her hand in the cordial Transatlantic fashion.
"Permit me to present my friend, Professor Claudius," said Barker. Claudius bowed very low. The plunge was over, and he recovered his outward calm, whatever he might feel.
"Mr. Barker flatters me, Madam," he said quietly. "I am not a professor, but only a private lecturer."
"I am too far removed from anything learned to make such distinctions," said the Countess. "But since good fortune has brought you into the circle of my ignorance, let me renew my thanks for the service you did me in Heidelberg the other day."
Claudius bowed and murmured something inaudible.
"Or had you not realised that I was the heroine of the parasol at the broken tower?" asked Margaret smiling, as she seated herself in a low chair and motioned to her guests to follow her example. Barker selected a comfortable seat, and arranged the cushion to suit him before he subsided into repose, but the Doctor laid hands on a stern and solid-looking piece of carving, and sat upright facing the Countess.
"Pardon me," said he, "I had. But it is always startling to realise a dream." The Countess looked at Claudius rather inquiringly; perhaps she had not expected he was the sort of man to begin an acquaintance by making compliments. However, she said nothing, and he continued, "Do you not always find it so?"
"The bearded hermit is no duffer," thought Mr. Barker. "He will say grace over the whole barrel of pork."
"Ah! I have few dreams," replied the Countess, "and when I do have any, I never realise them. I am a very matter-of-fact person."
"What matters the fact when you are the person, Madam?" retorted Claudius, fencing for a discussion of some kind.
"Immense," thought Mr. Barker, changing one leg over the other and becoming interested.
"Does that mean anything, or is it only a pretty paradox?" asked the lady, observing that Claudius had thrown himself boldly into a crucial position. Upon his answer would probably depend her opinion of him as being either intelligent or banal It is an easy matter to frame paradoxical questions implying a compliment, but it is no light task to be obliged to answer them oneself. Claudius was not thinking of producing an effect, for the fascination of the dark woman was upon him, and the low, strange voice bewitched him, so he said what came uppermost.
"Yes," said he, "there are persons whose lives may indeed be matters of fact to themselves—who shall say?—but who are always dreams in the lives of others."
"Charming," laughed the Countess, "do you always talk like that, Professor Claudius?"
"I have always thought," Mr. Barker remarked in his high-set voice, "that I would like to be the dream of somebody's life. But somehow things have gone against me."
The other two laughed. He did not strike one as the sort of individual who would haunt the love-sick dreams of a confiding heart.
"I would rather it were the other way," said Claudius thoughtfully.
"And I," rejoined the American, "would drink perdition to the unattainable."
"Either I do not agree with you, Mr. Barker," said the Countess, "or else I believe nothing is unattainable."
"I implore you to be kind, and believe the latter," he answered courteously.
"Come, I will show you my garden," said Margaret rising. "It is pleasanter in the open air." She led the way out through the glass door, the men walking on her right and left.
"I am very fond of my garden," she said, "and I take great care of it when I am here." She stopped and pulled two or three dead leaves off a rosebush to illustrate her profession of industry.
"And do you generally live here?" asked Claudius, who was as yet in complete ignorance of the Countess's name, title, nationality, and mode of life, for Mr. Barker had, for some occult reason, left him in the dark.
Perhaps the Countess guessed as much, for she briefly imparted a good deal of information.
"When Count Alexis, my husband, was alive, we lived a great deal in Russia. But I am an American like Mr. Barker, and I occasionally make a trip to my native country. However, I love this place in summer, and I always try to be here. That is my friend, Miss Skeat, who lives with me."
Miss Skeat was stranded under a tree with a newspaper and several books. Her polished cheekbones and knuckles glimmered yellow in the shade. By her side was a long cane chair, in which lay a white silk wrap and a bit of needlework, tumbled together as the Countess had left them when she went in to receive her visitors. Miss Skeat rose as the party approached. The Countess introduced the two men, who bowed low, and they all sat down, Mr. Barker on the bench by the ancient virgin, and Claudius on the grass at Margaret's feet. It was noonday, but there was a light breeze through, the flowers and grasses. The conversation soon fell into pairs as they sat.
"I should not have said, at first sight, that you were a very imaginative person, Dr. Claudius," said the Countess.
"I have been dreaming for years," he answered. "I am a mathematician, and of late I have become a philosopher in a small way, as far as that is possible from reading the subject. There are no two branches of learning that require more imagination than mathematics and philosophy."
"Philosophy, perhaps," she replied, "but mathematics—I thought that was an exact science, where everything was known, and there was no room for dreaming."
"I suppose that is the general impression. But do you think it requires no imagination to conceive a new application of knowledge, to invent new methods where old ones are inadequate, to lay out a route through the unknown land beyond the regions of the known?"
"Ordinary people, like me, associate mathematics with measurement and figures and angles."
"Yes," said Claudius, "but it is the same as though you confused religion with its practical results. If the religion is true at all, it would be just as true if man did not exist, and if it consequently had no application to life."
"I understand the truth of that, though we might differ about the word. So you have been dreaming for years—and what were your dreams like?" The Countess looked down earnestly at Claudius, who in his turn looked at her with a little smile. She thought he was different from other men, and he was wondering how much of his dreams he might tell her.
"Of all sorts," he answered, still looking up into her face. "Bitter and sweet. I have dreamed of the glory of life and of mind-power, of the accomplishment of the greatest good to the greatest number; I have believed the extension of science possible 'beyond the bounds of all imaginable experience' into the realms of the occult and hidden; I have wandered with Hermes by the banks of the Nile, with Gautama along the mud-flats of the Ganges. I have disgusted myself with the writings of those who would reduce all history and religion to solar myths, and I have striven to fathom the meaning of those whose thoughts are profound and their hearts noble, but their speech halting. I have dreamed many things, Countess, and the worst is that I have lived to weary of my dreams, and to say that all things are vanity—all save one," he added with hesitation. There was a momentary pause.
"Of course," Mr. Barker was saying to Miss Skeat, with a fascinating smile, "I have the greatest admiration for Scotch heroism. John Grahame of Claver-house. Who can read Macaulay's account—"
"Ah," interrupted the old gentlewoman, "if you knew how I feel about these odious calumnies!"
"I quite understand that," said Barker sympathetically. He had discovered Miss Skeat's especial enthusiasm.
Margaret turned again to the Doctor.
"And may I ask, without indiscretion, what the one dream may be that you have refused to relegate among the vanities?"
"Woman," answered Claudius, and was silent.
The Countess thought the Doctor spoke ironically, and she laughed aloud, half amused and half annoyed. "I am in earnest," said Claudius, plucking a blade of grass and twisting it round his finger.
"Truly?" asked she.
"Foi de gentilhomme!" he answered.
"But Mr. Barker told me you lived like a hermit."
"That is the reason it has been a dream," said he.
"You have not told me what the dream was like. What beautiful things have you fancied about us?"
"I have dreamed of woman's mission, and of woman's love. I have fancied that woman and woman's love represented the ruling spirit, as man and man's brain represent the moving agent, in the world. I have drawn pictures of an age in which real chivalry of word and thought and deed might be the only law necessary to control men's actions. Not the scenic and theatrical chivalry of the middle age, ready at any moment to break out into epidemic crime, but a true reverence and understanding of woman's supreme right to honour and consideration; an age wherein it should be no longer coarsely said that love is but an episode in the brutal life of man, while to woman it is life itself. I have dreamed that the eternal womanhood of the universe beckoned me to follow."
The Countess could not take her eyes off Claudius. She had never met a man like him; at least she had never met a man who plunged into this kind of talk after half an hour's acquaintance. There was a thrill of feeling in her smooth deep voice when she answered: "If all men thought as you think, the world would be a very different place."
"It would he a better place in more ways than one," he replied.
"And yet you yourself call it a dream," said Margaret, musing.
"It is only you, Countess, who say that dreams are never realised."
"And do you expect to realise yours?"
"Yes—I do." He looked at her with his bold blue eyes, and she thought they sparkled.
"Tell me," she asked, "are you going to preach a crusade for the liberation of our sex? Do you mean to bring about the great change in the social relations of the world? Is it you who will build up the pedestal which we are to mount and from which we shall survey countless ranks of adoring men?"
"Do you not see, as you look down on me from your throne, from this chair, that I have begun already?" answered Claudius, smiling, and making a pretence of folding his hands.
"No," said the Countess, overlooking his last speech; "if you had any convictions about it, as you pretend to have, you would begin at once and revolutionise the world in six months. What is the use of dreaming? It is not dreamers who make history."
"No, it is more often women. But tell me, Countess, do you approve of my crusade? Am I not right? Have I your sanction?"
Margaret was silent. Mr. Barker's voice was heard again, holding forth to Miss Skeat.
"In all ages," he said, with an air of conviction, "the aristocracy of a country have been in reality the leaders of its thought and science and enlightenment. Perhaps the form of aristocracy most worthy of admiration is that time-honoured institution of pre-eminent families, the Scottish clan, the Hebrew tribe—"
Claudius overheard and opened his eyes. It seemed to him that Barker was talking nonsense. Margaret smiled, for she knew her companion well, and understood in a moment that the American had discovered her hobby, and was either seeking to win her good graces, or endeavouring to amuse himself by inducing her to air her views. But Claudius returned to the charge.
"What is it to be, Countess?" he asked. "Am I to take up arms and sail out and conquer the universe, and bring it bound to your feet to do you homage; or shall I go back to my turret chamber in Heidelberg?"
"Your simile seems to me to be appropriate," said Margaret. "I am sure your forefathers must have been Vikings."
"They were," replied Claudius, "for I am a Scandinavian. Shall I go out and plunder the world for your benefit? Shall I make your universality, your general expression, woman, sovereign over my general expression, man?"
"Considering who is to be the gainer," she answered, laughing, "I cannot well withhold my consent. When will you begin?"
"How should I begin," said he, a smile on his face, and the light dancing in his eyes, "except by making myself the first convert?"
Margaret was used enough to pretty speeches, in earnest and in jest, but she thought she had never heard any one turn them more readily than the yellow-bearded student.
"And Mr. Barker," she asked, "will you convert him?"
"Can you look at him at this moment, Countess, and say you really think he needs it?"
She glanced at the pair on the bench, and laughed again, in the air, for it was apparent that Mr. Barker had made a complete conquest of Miss Skeat. He had led the conversation about tribes to the ancient practices of the North American Indians, and was detailing their customs with marvellous fluency. A scientific hearer might have detected some startling inaccuracies, but Miss Skeat listened with rapt attention. Who, indeed, should know more about Indians than a born American who had travelled in the West?
The Countess turned the conversation to other subjects, and talked intelligently about books. She evidently read a great deal, or rather she allowed Miss Skeat to read to her, and her memory was good. Claudius was not behind in sober criticism of current literature, though his reading had been chiefly of a tougher kind. Time flew by quickly, and when the two men rose to go their visit had lasted two hours.
"You will report the progress of your conquest?" said the Countess to Claudius as she gave him her hand, which he stooped to kiss in the good old German fashion.
"Whenever you will permit me, Countess," he said.
"I am always at home in the middle of the day. And you too, Mr. Barker, do not wait to be asked before you come again. You are absolutely the only civilised American I know here."
"Don't say that, Countess. There is the Duke, who came with me yesterday."
"But he is English."
"But he is also American. He owns mines and prairies, and he emigrates semi-annually. They all do now. You know rats leave a sinking ship, and they are going to have a commune in England."
"Oh, Mr. Barker, how can you!" exclaimed Miss Skeat.
"But I am only joking, of course," said he, and pacified her. So they parted.
Mr. Barker and Claudius stood on the front door-step, and the former lit a cigar while the carriage drove up.
"Doctor," said he, "I consider you the most remarkable man of my acquaintance."
"Why?" asked Claudius as he got into the carriage.
"Well, for several reasons. Chiefly because though you have lived in a 'three pair back' for years, and never seen so much as a woman's ear, by your own account, you nevertheless act as if you had never been out of a drawing-room during your life. You are the least shy man I ever saw."
"Shy?" exclaimed Claudius, "what a funny idea! Why should I be shy?"
"No reason in the world, I suppose, after all. But it is very odd." And Mr. Barker ruminated, rolling his cigar in his mouth. "Besides," he added, after a long pause, "you have made a conquest."
"Nonsense. Now, you have some right to flatter yourself on that score."
"Miss Skeat?" said Mr. Barker. "Sit still, my heart!"
They drove along in silence for some time. At last Mr. Barker began again,—
"Well, Professor, what are you going to do about it?"
"Why, about the conquest. Shall you go there again?"
"Very likely." Claudius was annoyed at his companion's tone of voice. He would have scoffed at the idea that he loved the Countess at first sight; but she nevertheless represented his ideal to him, and he could not bear to hear Mr. Barker's chaffing remarks. Of course Barker had taken him to the house, and had a right to ask if Claudius had found the visit interesting. But Claudius was determined to check any kind of levity from the first. He did not like it about women on any terms, but in connection with the Countess Margaret it was positively unbearable. So he answered curtly enough to show Mr. Barker he objected to it. The latter readily understood and drew his own inferences.