F. MARION CRAWFORD
Frau von Sigmundskron was not really much past middle age, though the people in the village generally called her the old baroness. Her hair was very white and she was thin and pale; her bold features, almost emaciated, displayed the framework of departed beauty, and if her high white forehead and waxen face were free from lines and wrinkles, it must have been because time and grief could find no plastic material there in which to trace their story. She was a very tall woman, too, and carried her head erect and high, walking with a firmness and elasticity of step such as would not have been expected in one whose outward appearance conveyed so little impression of strength. It is true that she had never been ill in her life and that her leanness was due to the most natural of all causes; but these facts were not patent to the observer, and for reasons which will presently appear she herself would have been the last to mention them. There was something, too, in the look of her blue eyes, shaded by long brown lashes which had retained their colour, that forbade any expression of sympathy. The least experienced of mankind would have seen at a glance that she was the proudest of women, and would have guessed that she must be one of the most reticent. She moved and spoke as though Sigmundskron were still what it had been in former days, and she had brought up her only child to be as much like herself, as it was possible that anything so young and fair could resemble what was already a type of age and gravity.
Poverty is too insignificant a word to describe the state in which the mother and daughter lived, and had lived for many years. They had no means of subsistence whatever beyond the pension accorded to the widow of Lieutenant von Sigmundskron, 'fallen on the field of honour,' as the official report had expressed it, in the murderous war with France. He had been the last of his name and at the time of his death had no relations living; two years earlier he had married a girl as penniless and as noble as himself, and had lived to see a daughter born, destined to inherit his nobility, his penury, and the bare walls of his ancestral home.
Sigmundskron had been a very grand castle in its day, and the half- ruined walls of the old stronghold still rose majestically from the summit of the crag. Indeed the ruin was more apparent than real as yet, and a few thousands judiciously expended upon the masonry would have sufficed to restore the buildings to their original completeness. Many a newly enriched merchant or banker would have paid a handsome price for the place, though the land was gone and the government owned the forest up to the very foot of the rock. But the Lady of Sigmundskron would rather have starved to death in her vaulted chamber than have taken half the gold in Swabia to sign away her dead husband's home. Moreover, there was Greif, and Greif was to marry Hilda, after which all would be well again. Greif, with his money, would build and restore and furnish the old castle, and bring back the breath of life into the ancient halls and corridors. But in order that Greif might marry Hilda, it was necessary that Hilda should grow up beautiful, and to grow up at all, it was necessary that Hilda should be fed.
It had come to that, to the very question of food, of mere bread to eat. There was not enough for two, but Hilda must not starve. That was the secret which no one, not even Hilda herself must ever understand. During the first years, it had not been so hard to live. There had been a few poor jewels to sell, a few odds and ends that had brought a little money. While Hilda was a little child it had been easier, for she had needed but few clothes and, being little, had needed to eat less. But at last there had come a day when Frau von Sigmundskron, not so thin nor so pale as now, had seen a hungry look stealing into the eyes of the fair-haired girl. It was little enough that they had between them, but the mother said to herself that she could keep alive with less. The careful economy which bought nothing not capable of sustaining life and strength could go no further. There were but so many pence a day for food, and to expend more to-day was to starve tomorrow. From that moment Frau von Sigmundskron began to complain of headache, and especially of loss of appetite. She could not eat, she said. She did not think there was anything the matter, and she would doubtless be better in a few days. But the days ran on to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months to years, and Hilda grew tall and fair, unconsciously eating her mother's portion of the daily bread. No hermit ever lived upon so little as sufficed for the baroness; no perishing, shipwrecked wretch ever measured out so carefully the ounce of biscuit that must maintain life from day to day; no martyr ever submitted more patiently and silently to his sufferings. But Hilda grew, and the years sped on, and Greif would come in time.
Greif, upon whom such great hopes were centred, was a distant cousin as well as a neighbour. The relationship was on the side of Hilda's mother, whose grandfather had been a Greifenstein, and who might have been expected to accept some assistance from her rich connexions, especially as she was quite willing that her daughter should marry their only son. But the baroness was a woman whose pride forbade her to accept under the pressure of necessity what had not been offered freely in other times. It must be admitted also that the Greifensteins, though well aware that the Sigmundskrons were extremely poor, were far from suspecting that they were in need of bread. They knew that the castle was still the unhampered property of the two ladies, and they supposed that if things were really in a bad state, the baroness would raise money upon it. She never alluded to her affairs when she was with her relations, and excused herself from asking them to stay with her, on the ground of her poor health. On rare occasions Greifenstein and his wife drove over to the castle, and were invariably admitted by the same soberly-dressed, middle-aged woman, who showed them into the same old- fashioned room, whence, having made their visit, they returned to the outer gate by the way they had come. That is all they ever saw of Sigmundskron. Twice in the year, also, Hilda and her mother were invited to stay a fortnight at Greifenstein, but no one would have supposed from their behaviour that the luxury of the latter place surprised them, or seemed in any way preferable to what they enjoyed at home. Hilda's education had not been neglected. Among her earliest recollections was her mother's constant injunction never to make remarks upon what she saw in other houses. The child was not long in learning what the warning meant, and as she had inherited a plentiful share of her mother's pride she almost unconsciously imitated her mother's behaviour. Greif himself was the only person who might have known something of the true state of the case; but as he had been accustomed to be in love with his cousin ever since they had been children he would have feared to hurt her feelings by asking questions. For Hilda was reticent even with him, not from any shame at the idea of being thought poor, but because she was too proud to have it thought that either she or her mother could ever need the help of the Greifensteins.
Furthermore, if the baroness's reluctance to ask for assistance has not been sufficiently explained, there is one more consideration which might alone have sufficed to account for her conduct. Between her and Greif's mother there existed a great and wholly insurmountable antipathy. She could not understand how Greifenstein could have married such a woman. There was a mystery about it which she had never fathomed. Greifenstein himself was a stern, silent man of military appearance, a mighty hunter in the depths of the forest, a sort of grizzled monument of aristocratic strength, tough as leather, courteous in his manner, with that stiff courtesy that never changes under any circumstances, rigid in his views, religious, loyal, full of the prejudices that make the best subjects in a kingdom and the bitterest opponents of all change.
In appearance and manner Frau von Greifenstein presented the most complete contrast to her husband. She had been pretty, fair and sprightly in her youth, she was now a faded blonde, full of strange affectations and stilted sentiments. Possessing but indifferent taste, she nevertheless devoted much time to the adornment of her person. She was small of stature, but delicately made, and if her nervous desire to please had granted to her outward personality a moment's repose during the day, she might still have passed muster as a fairly good-looking woman. Unfortunately she was animated by an unceasing activity in trivial matters, and was rarely silent. Some women make one think of a printed page in which there are too many italics, and too many useless marks of exclamation. At first, their constant cries of admiration and outbursts of enthusiasm produce a vague sense of uneasiness in the listener, which soon develops to a feeling of positive distress and generally ends in a real and deep-rooted dislike. At the beginning one looks about anxiously for the object which could produce so grotesque a smile. There is nothing, for the conversation has been as lead, but the smile does not subside; it only passes through the endless variations that succeed each other from the inane grin to the affected simper which is meant to be tender. The whole face moves perpetually, as the facial muscles of a corpse, excited by an electric current, seem to parody all the expression of living human sentiment.
But Frau von Greifenstein was not in reality so foolish as might have been thought. Her silliness was superficial. One part of her life had been full of strange circumstances, and if the whole truth were told it would appear that she had known how to extract a large amount of personal advantage from situations which to many persons would have seemed hopeless. She and her husband rarely left their castle in the Black Forest, and it might naturally be supposed that their life there was exceedingly dull and monotonous. In her own heart Clara von Greifenstein recognised that her present luxurious retirement was a paradise compared with the existence she must have led if she had not known how to help herself at the right moment. During the earlier years of her marriage, the recollection of her antecedents had been so painful as to cause her constant anxiety, and at one time she had even gone so far as to keep a sum of money about her, as though expecting to make a sudden and unexpected journey. But five and twenty years and more had passed, without bringing any untoward incident, and she felt herself very secure in her position. Moreover a son had been born to her and was growing up to be very like his father. Without Greif there is no knowing what turn affairs might have taken, for although Clara's husband maintained towards her the same stiffly considerate behaviour which had always characterised him in their relations to each other, he certainly admitted to himself that she was not growing old gracefully; and it is even possible that, in some remote glen of the forest, his grave features may have occasionally allowed themselves a look of sorrowful regret, or even of actual repugnance, when he thought of his wife's spasmodic smiles and foolish talk. Possibly, too, he may have sometimes speculated upon her probable condition before she had married her first husband, for he himself had found her a widow of apparently little more than five and twenty years of age. But if any suggestion at all derogatory to Greifenstein had presented itself to his mind, his pride would assuredly have lost no time in smothering the thought. Was she not the mother of Greif? And besides, if all were to be told, was there not an unpleasantly dark spot in his own family, in the shape of his half-brother, Kuno von Rieseneck? Indeed the existence of Kuno von Rieseneck, concerning whom Clara knew nothing, was the reason why Greifenstein had lived for so many years in the country, only travelling outside of Germany when he travelled at all. He wondered that his wife, being ignorant of the story, should be willing to share the solitude of the Black Forest without a murmur, and her submission in itself suggested that she, too, might have some good cause for preferring a retired life. But if he had been satisfied with what he knew of her five and twenty years ago, he was not the man to allow himself any dissatisfaction now that Clara was the mother of that stalwart young fellow who was heir to all the Greifenstein property.
In the month of July Greif was to come home from the University, and immediately afterwards Hilda and her mother were to come over for their half-yearly visit. The ancient place where this family meeting was convened was so unlike most castles as to deserve a word of description.
The Swabian Black Forest is literally black, save when the winter snow is heavy on the branches of the huge trees and lies in drifts beneath them, covering the soft carpet of fir needles to the depth of many feet. The landscape is extremely melancholy and in many parts is absolutely monotonous. At intervals of several miles the rock juts suddenly out of the forest, generally at places where the Nagold, more a torrent than a river, makes a sharp bend. Many of these steep and stony promontories are crowned by ancient strongholds, chiefly in ruins, though a very few are still in repair and are inhabited by their owners. The name of Greifenstein will not be found on any map of the district, but those who know that wild and unfrequented country will recognise the spot. The tumbling stream turns upon itself at a sharp angle, swirling round the base of a precipitous and wedge-like cliff. So steep are the sides that they who chose the summit for a fortress saw no need of building any protection, save one gigantic wall which bestrides the wedge of rock, thus cutting off a triangular platform, between the massive bulwark and the two precipices that meet at the apex of the figure. This single fortification is a solid piece of masonry, enormously thick and of great height; its two extremities being surmounted by pointed towers, connected by a covered walk along the top of the wall, which, even at that height, is fully six feet wide and nearly a hundred in length. This was the rampart behind which the Greifensteins had dwelt in security through many generations, in the stormy days of the robber barons. So sure were they of their safety, that they had built their dwelling-place on the other side of the bulwark in a manner that offered no suggestion of war or danger. The house was Gothic in style, full of windows and ornamented with spacious balconies and much fine stonework. The three-cornered platform was converted into a flower-garden, surrounded by a parapet. Protected on the north side by the huge wall, and fully exposed to the southern sun, the plants throve in an almost artificial spring, and in the summer jets of water played in the marble basins and cooled the hot, pine-scented air.
One narrow gate, barely wide enough for two persons to pass abreast, gave access to this paradise through the grey, window-less mass of masonry by which it was separated from the melancholy forest without. One small building only was visible on the side of the woods, scarcely fifty yards from the gate. This was a small, square, stone tower, half overgrown with brush and creepers, and evidently abandoned to decay. It was known in the family and neighbourhood as the 'Hunger- Thurm,' or Hunger Tower, as having been used as a place for starving prisoners to death, in the fine old days when the lords of Greifenstein did as they judged good in their own eyes. Frau von Sigmundskron used to look curiously at the grey building when she was staying with her relations. She could have described the sufferings of the poor wretches who had perished there as well as any one of themselves or better. Not twenty miles from all the luxury that dwelt behind that lofty bulwark, she had been starving herself for years in order that her only child might live. And yet the well-fed woodmen touched their caps and their rosy wives and daughters curtsied to the 'Lady Baroness' who, as they told each other, spent her life in the towers of Sigmundskron hoarding untold wealth which would one day belong to the golden-haired Lady Hilda. They knew, for the knowledge could not be kept from them and their kind, how very few were the silver pieces which were ever seen in the hands of old Berbel, when she came down to the village market to buy food, and they naturally concluded that the baroness was a miser even like some of themselves, keeping her store of gold in a broken teapot somewhere among those turrets in a spot known only to the owls. It is also possible that Berbel—her name was Barbara—encouraged the idea, thinking it better that her beloved mistresses should be thought avaricious than poor. The burgomaster of the hamlet, who had to take off his coat in order to sign his name when that momentous operation was unavoidable, but who was supposed to know vastly more than the schoolmaster, used to talk about certain mines in Silesia, owned by the Sigmundskrons; and once or twice he went so far as to assure his hearers that gold and even diamonds were found there in solid blocks as big as his own Maass-Krug, that portentous jug from which he derived inspiring thoughts for conversation, or peaceful satisfaction in solitude, as the case might be. All, however, agreed in predicting that things would go much better when the young gentleman of Greifenstein was married to the young lady of Sigmundskron.
On that warm afternoon in July when Greif was expected, his father took his gun, though there was little to shoot at that season, and sallied forth on foot along the broad road that led to the distant railway station. The portly gatekeeper smiled pleasantly as he stood looking after his master. For many years, whenever the student was to come home, old Greifenstein had gone down that road, in the same way, without a word to any one, but having that same twinkle of happy anticipation in his eyes, which was never seen there at any other time. Very generally, too, the laden carriage came rumbling up to the gate with Greif's belongings, and an hour or two passed before father and son emerged on foot from the first trees of the forest. To-day also, the master had started betimes and it would be long before he heard the horses' bells below him in the valley. He walked quickly, as active men do when they are alone, and there is no one to hinder them, stopping now and then to see which way a hare sprang, or pausing to listen when his quick ear caught the distant tread of a buck. He knew that he might walk for miles without meeting a human being. The road was his, the land was his, the trees were his. There was no felling to be done in the neighbourhood, and no one but himself or his men had any right to be prowling about the woods. In the perfect solitude his features relaxed a little and their expression changed. The glad anticipation of the meeting with his son was still in his eyes, but in the rest of his face there was a weary look which those who knew him best would not have recognised. He was thinking how different life would seem if Greif and he were to be the only inhabitants of the old home during the next dozen years. Then he stiffened his neck suddenly and strode on.
At last the far off tinkling of bells came up to him from the depths of the forest, with the dull thud of horses' hoofs that echoed among the trees. He quickened his pace, knowing at how great a distance the sounds could be heard. Ten minutes elapsed before the carriage came in sight, and then almost instantly a loud shout rang through the woods, followed by an answer from old Greifenstein, deeper, but quite as strong.
Greif had leaped down from his place and was running up the hill at a pace that would have tried the horses. In a moment more the two tall men were in each other's arms, kissing each other on the cheek.
At three and twenty the student looked as much like his father as a young and fair man can look like an elderly dark one. Their features were the same, both had the same sinewy firmness of build and the same eyes; but Greif's close-cut golden hair and delicate moustache gave him a brilliancy his father had never possessed. He seemed to bring the light with him into the deep shade of the glen where they met. One looking at him would have felt instinctively that he was made to wear the gleaming uniform of a Prussian Lifeguard, rather than the sober garments of a civilian. As a matter of fact, he was dressed like an Englishman, and would probably have been taken for one, to his own intense disgust, in any European crowd.
'And how is the mother?' he asked in a somewhat formal tone, as soon as the first embrace was over. He had been brought up with dutiful ideas.
'Your mother is exceedingly well,' answered Greifenstein, whose manner also stiffened perceptibly. There was a moment's pause.
Perhaps it was in the hope of dissipating that awkward feeling which somehow or other always made itself apparent when the Lady of Greifenstein was mentioned, that her husband pulled out his case and offered Greif a cigar.
'I have brought you a pipe,' said the latter, and as the carriage came up to where they were standing he snatched his bag off the back seat. 'It will make you feel young again,' he laughed, as he took a paper parcel from the receptacle. 'It is a "Korps" pipe, colours and tassels and all.'
Greifenstein, one of whose favourite hobbies was the advantage of pipes in general, was as delighted as a boy with the little gift, and instantly produced a huge silver tobacco box out of the depths of his shooting coat, from which he began to fill the china bowl.
'Thank you, my boy,' he said as he drew the air through the unlighted pipe to assure himself that there was no obstruction.
Then he took out an old-fashioned flint and steel, lighted a bit of tinder with a practised hand and laid it upon the tobacco. He made a sign to the coachman, who urged his sturdy Mecklenburg horses up the hill and was soon out of sight. The two men walked slowly forwards and smoked in silence for a few minutes.
'When is Hilda coming?' asked Greif at last, when he thought he had allowed a decent interval to elapse before putting the question which chiefly interested him.
'She will come to-morrow, with her mother,' replied Greifenstein, not noticing, or pretending not to notice, the faint blush that rose in his son's face.
'I suppose we must wait another year,' remarked Greif with a sigh. 'It seems absurd that at my age I should not have finished my education.'
'You will be glad, when you are married, that you have your military service behind you.'
'I do not know,' answered the young man absently.
'You do not know!' exclaimed his father in surprise. 'Would you like to go and live with Hilda in a garrison town while you served your year as a volunteer?'
'I was not thinking of that. I have thought lately that, after all, I had better take active service. Would you object?'
Greifenstein was taken by surprise and would possibly have uttered a loud exclamation if he had not long ago schooled himself to be incapable of any such breach of gravity. But he did not answer the question.
'Father,' began Greif again after a pause, 'is it true that you ever had a brother?'
Greifenstein's tough face turned slowly grey.
'A half-brother,' he answered with an effort. 'My mother married again.'
Greif glanced sideways at his father and saw that he was oddly affected by the inquiry. But the young man had his own reasons for wishing to know the truth.
'Why have you never told me that I had an uncle?' he asked.
'He is no uncle of yours, my boy, nor brother of mine!' answered Greifenstein bitterly.
'I fought about him the other day. That is all,' said Greif.
'He is not worth fighting for.'
'Then the story is true?'
'What story?' Greifenstein stopped short in his walk and fixed his sharp eyes on his son's face. 'What story? What do you know?'
'A man told me that your brother had been discharged from the army with infamy—infam cassirt—and condemned to imprisonment, for betraying some arsenal or armoury into the hands of the rebels in 1848. I told him—well—that he lied. What else could I say? I had never heard of the scoundrel.'
'You were quite right,' answered Greifenstein, who was very pale. 'I never meant that you should know, any more than your mother. That is the reason why we live in the country all the year. But I thought it would come—I feared that some one would tell you!'
'I do not think that any one will repeat the experiment,' observed Greif, turning away and looking down at the torrent, which was visible between the trees. 'And what has become of this Herr von Rieseneck, if that was his name?'
'He is alive and well. Rich, for anything I know to the contrary. He escaped from the fortress where he was confined and made his way to South America. I had not seen him for some time before that disgraceful affair. We had quarrelled about other matters, and he had entered the Prussian service.' 'I wish you had told me about him before.'
'Why should I? Do you think it is a pleasant subject for conversation? As his name was not mine, thank God, there was a chance that you might never know nor hear of him.'
'I see why you do not wish me to enter the army.'
'Yes,' answered Greifenstein laconically, and he once more walked forward.
For some time neither spoke. Greifenstein's profound hatred of his dishonoured brother was too deeply stirred to allow of his continuing the conversation, and in a different way the younger man was quite as much affected as his father. When the student with whom he had fought had cast in his teeth the evil deeds of Kuno von Rieseneck, he had unhesitatingly denied the story, thinking it a merely gratuitous insult invented on the spur of the moment. No one present during the altercation had thought fit to confirm the tale, and Greif had wreaked his vengeance upon his enemy in the most approved fashion, in the presence of the assembled 'Korps.' But the words had taken effect and he had determined to learn from his father's lips whether they had any foundation in fact. Being satisfied of the truth of the story, however, his mood changed. No one who has not studied the character of the German gentleman—the old-fashioned Edelmann—will readily understand how directly he feels himself injured by the disgrace of a relative even very distantly removed. He has often little enough in the world but his name and his pride of caste, but as compared with the former he holds his life as of no value whatsoever, and where the latter is concerned he will suffer much rather than offend the exclusiveness of his class by derogating from the most insignificant of its prejudices. He is not afraid of poverty. No one can maintain the position of a gentleman with more exiguous resources than often fall to his share. Rather than leave the smallest debt of honour unpaid, he will unhesitatingly take his own life. That a man should suffer himself to live after doing such a deed as had broken Kuno von Rieseneck's career seems to him a crime against humanity. He is often called avaricious, because, like Frau von Sigmundskron, he is often very, very poor; but he has never been called a coward, nor a traitor, by any man, or class of men, who knew him. All gentlemen throughout the world are brothers, it is true, for to be a gentleman is to be brave, honest, courteous, and nothing more. But the gentlemen of different nations are like brothers brought up in different schools. An Englishman who should demand satisfaction by arms, of another Englishman, for a hasty word spoken in jest, would be considered a lunatic in the clubs, and if he carried his warlike intentions into effect with the consent of his adversary, and killed his man, the law would hang him without mercy as a common murderer. On the other hand, a German who should refuse a duel, or not demand one if insulted, would be dismissed from the army and made an outcast from society. And these things do not depend upon civilisation, since modern Germany is probably more civilised than modern England. They depend upon national character.
When Greif heard of his uncle's existence, and, at the same time, of his disgrace, it seemed to him that a cloud had descended upon his own brilliant future. He had long nursed in secret his desire for a military life, and had often wondered at his father's unwillingness to discuss the matter. He now suddenly understood the true state of the case and realised, by the measure of his disappointment, the magnitude to which his hopes had grown. But there was something more than this in the despondency which seized upon him so quickly and would not be thrown off.
'Does Hilda know this?' he asked, at length giving expression to his thoughts.
Greifenstein did not answer at once.
'I do not think her mother would have told her,' he said after a time. 'But her mother knows.'
'And my mother does not?'
'No, nor never shall, if I can help it.'
If the two men spoke little on their homeward walk it was not for lack of sympathy between them. On the contrary, if anything could strengthen the strong bond that united them, it was the knowledge that they had a secret in common which they must keep together.
To suppose that Hilda, at eighteen years of age, was like the majority of young girls as old as she, would be to imagine that human character is not influenced by its surroundings. She was neither a village Gretchen, such as Faust loved and ruined, nor was she the omniscient damsel of modern society. During the greater part of her existence she had lived without any companions but her mother and the faithful Berbel. But she had grown up in a wild forest country, in a huge dismantled stronghold, of which the windows looked out over the tumbling torrent, and across endless thousands of giant trees, whose dark tops rose like sombre points of shadow out of the deeper shade below. Even the sky was not blue. Half a kingdom of firs and pines and hemlocks drank the colour from the air and left but a sober neutral tint behind. The sun does not give half the light in the Black Forest that he gives elsewhere. As Hilda had never, within her recollection, seen an open plain, much less a city, her idea of the world beyond those leagues of trees in which she lived was not a very accurate one. She could hardly guess what the streets of a great town were like, or what effect a crowd of civilised people would produce upon her sight. And yet she was far from ignorant. There were books enough left at Sigmundskron for her education, and the baroness had done what was in her power to impart such instruction as she could command. Hilda had probably read as many books as most girls of her age, and had read them more carefully, but she was very far from loving study for its own sake. Her time, too, was occupied in other ways, for she and her mother did most things for themselves, as was to be expected in a household where want reigned supreme over the hours of every day, from sunrise to sunset.
The necessity for maintaining appearances was small indeed, but such as it was, neither mother nor daughter could avoid it. No one could predict what day the Greifensteins would choose for one of their occasional visits, and in the time of the vacations no one could foresee when Greif might make his appearance, striding over the wooded hills with his gun and his dog to spend a quiet afternoon with Hilda in their favourite sunny corner at the foot of the dismantled tower. When poverty is to be concealed, his shadow must not be caught lurking at the door by chance visitors. Nor was it only out of fear of being surprised by her relations that the quiet baroness insisted that Hilda and even Berbel should always be presentable. Her pride was inseparably united with that rigid self-respect which, in the poor, alone saves pride from being ridiculous. It was indeed marvellous that she should succeed as she did in hiding the extremity of her need from the Greifensteins, but it must be remembered that she had never been rich, and had learned in early youth many a lesson, many a shift of economy which now stood her in good stead. The Germans have a right to be proud of having elevated thrift to a fine art. From the Emperor to the schoolmaster, from the administration of the greatest military force the world has ever seen to the housekeeping of the meanest peasant, a sober appreciation of the value of money is the prime rule by which everything is regulated. Frau von Sigmundskron had made a plan, had drawn up a tiny budget in exact proportion with the pension which was her only means of subsistence, and thanks to her unfailing health had never departed from it. The expenditure had indeed been so closely regulated from the first, that she had found it necessary to limit herself to what would barely support life, in order not to stint her child's allowance. Being by temperament a very religious woman, she attributed to Providence that success in rearing Hilda for which she might well have thanked her own iron determination and untiring efforts. If ever a woman deserved the help of Heaven in consideration of having bravely helped herself, the baroness had earned that assistance. So far as the ordinary observer could judge, however, she had obtained nothing from the world save a reputation for avarice. Hilda was too much accustomed to the state of things in which she had grown up, to appreciate her mother's sacrifices, or to feel towards her anything like warm gratitude. She herself did all she could, and that was not little, in the struggle for existence. It is even possible that she was more grateful to Berbel, than to the baroness herself. For Berbel voluntarily shared privations, to which the two ladies were obliged to submit. Berbel was faithful, devoted, uncomplaining, cheerful; and she was all this, not for the sake of a servant's pay, since her wages were infinitesimally small, but out of pure affection for her mistress.
Berbel had been the wife of Lieutenant von Sigmundskron's servant, who had fallen beside his master, rifle in hand, his face to the enemy. Mistress and maid were left alike widows on the same day, alike young and portionless, the only difference being that Frau von Sigmundskron had Hilda, while poor Berbel was childless. Then Berbel refused to go away, once and for ever, and the officer's widow accepted the lifelong devotion offered her, and the three cast in their lot together, to keep themselves alive as best they could beneath the only roof that was left to them.
Frau von Sigmundskron had been very much surprised when, on a sunny June morning, three years before the time of which I write, Greifenstein had appeared alone, arrayed in the most correct manner, instead of being clad in the shooting coat he usually wore. She had been still more astonished when he formally proposed to her an engagement by which Greif should marry Hilda so soon as he had finished his studies at the University. He told her frankly why he desired the alliance. She knew of Rieseneck's disgrace, and she would understand that the story was an injury to Greif. On the other hand he, Greif's father, had never done anything to be ashamed of, and the lad himself was growing up to be a very fine fellow and would be rich—Greifenstein did not state the amount of his fortune. He apprehended that his cousin would consider Greif a good match from a worldly point of view. Furthermore, though barely twenty, the young man was deeply attached to Hilda, who was just fifteen, The attachment was evidently likely to turn into love when both should be three or four years older. If Frau von Sigmundskron would consent, a preliminary, verbal agreement might be made, subject to the will of the two children when the right time should come, it being essentially necessary, as Greifenstein remarked in his stiffest manner, that two young people should love each other sincerely if they meant to marry.
The baroness opened her clear blue eyes very wide, as though she had seen a coach and four laden with sacks of gold driving through the old gates of the castle. But she was far too well bred to burst into tears, or to exhibit any embarrassment, or even an improper amount of satisfaction. She replied that she was much obliged; that she was poor, and that Hilda would inherit nothing whatsoever except Sigmundskron, a fact which her cousin must please to understand from the first; that, if the absence of any dower were not an obstacle, it was not for her to create difficulties; and, finally, that she believed Hilda to be quite as much attached to Greif, as Greif to her. Thereupon Berbel was sent to fetch a bottle of wine—there had been half a dozen bottles in the cellar thirteen years ago, and this was the first that had been opened— and Greifenstein refreshed himself therewith and departed, as stiffly, courteously and kindly as he had come.
Greif had come over as often as he pleased during his vacations, and had written whenever he liked during his terms. Never having seen any one at home or abroad whom he considered comparable with Hilda, he had grown up to love her as naturally as he loved the pine-scented air of his home, the warm soft sun, or the still beauty of the forest. Hilda was an essential part of his life and being, without which he could imagine no future. Year by year it grew harder to say good-bye, and the happiness of meeting grew deeper and more real. There was a pride in the knowledge that she was for him only, which played upon the unconscious selfishness of his young nature and gave him the most profound and exquisite delight. At three and twenty he was old enough to understand the world about him, he had accomplished his year of obligatory service in the army, and had come into contact with all sorts of men, things and ideas. He was himself a man, and had outgrown most boyish fallacies and illusions, but he had not outgrown Hilda. She was there, in the heart of the forest, in the towers of Sigmundskron, away from the world he had seen, and maidenly ignorant of all it contained, waiting for him, the incarnation of all that was lovely, and young, and fair, and spotless. He pitied his fellow-students, who loved vulgarly whatever came into their way. He could not imagine what life would be without Hilda. It was a strange sort of love, too, for there had been no wooing; they had grown up for each other as naturally as the song-bird for its mate. There had been no hindrances, no jealousies, no alternate hopes and fears, none of those vicissitudes to which love is heir. Nothing but the calamity of death could interfere with the fulfilment of their happiness, and perhaps no two beings ever loved each other from whom death seemed so far.
Hilda was happy, too, in her own way, for what she knew of the outer world was what she saw through Greif's eyes. To him the greatest of all blessings would be to come back to the forest and never to leave it again, and Hilda argued that the world could not be worth seeing, if the woods were so vastly preferable as he seemed to think. She felt herself to be what she was in his imagination, a part of the nature in which she had grown up, as much as the oldest and tallest fir tree on the hillside. People who spend all their lives in unfrequented regions, feel a sense of property in the air, the earth and the water, which city-bred folks cannot readily understand. They have such an intimate, unconscious knowledge of the seasons, the weather, the growth of plants and the habits of animals, that it seems to them as though their own hearts beat in every corner of the world around them, and as though all the changes they see from day to day were only manifestations of their own vitality. They may not see, or know that they see, beauties which amaze the wanderer who visits their wilderness, but they feel them as he never can, and feed on them as he cannot feed. Their senses, not dulled by daily close contact with thousands of indifferent and similar objects, nor by the ceaseless chatter of their fellow-beings, see sights and hear sounds altogether beyond the perceptions of gregarious man. The infinite variety of nature, as compared with the pitiful monotony of the works of humanity, produces in their minds an activity of an especial kind. They do not know what mental weariness means, nor the desire for nervous excitement. The succession of morning and evening does not bore them, for it is a part of themselves, like hunger and the satisfaction of appetite, thirst and the refreshing draught from the spring. They are good, though their virtues be negative, and they are happy, for they have never heard of unhappiness. Their existence is the very opposite of ours, full where ours is empty, empty where ours is crowded to overflowing. They are never alone, for the world is their companion, they are never hurried, for they move with time itself, whereas our existence is but one long effort to outrun the revolution of the hours. They do not dream of fame, for they feel the eternity of perpetually renewed life in all that surrounds them; they have never heard of competition, for their only rival is God Himself.
Hilda's earliest recollections did not go back beyond the time when she had been brought to the Black Forest, and the singular simplicity of her life made the past years seem strangely short. Children whose first remembrances are full of new impressions, grow old quickly, while those to whose perceptions little is offered grow up more slowly, and more naturally. Other conditions being the same, these latter will be calmer, healthier and more reasonable. The best horse is not the one which is made to do the most work as a colt, though performing dogs must learn their tricks as puppies if they are to learn them at all. Much in life depends upon the truth of our first impressions, and as this, in its turn, depends directly upon our ability to judge what we see and hear, it is clear that children may be injured permanently if too many things be brought within the sphere of their observation before they have learned the uses of hearing and sight.
The grand solitudes of the forest, the imposing calm of nature when at rest, the indescribable magnificence of the winter storms, had furnished Hilda with her first deep impressions. That death, of which her mother sometimes spoke, was the disappearance of all that lived beneath the soft, silent snow. That mysterious resurrection of the dead was nature's irresistible glad leap to meet the sun, as the noonday shadows shortened day by day; that happy life to come was the far-off summer, when the wind would sigh and whisper again among the branches he had so rudely handled in his wrath, when all the air would smell of the warm pines, when the mayflower would follow the hawthorn, and the purple gentian take the mayflower's place, when the wild pea-blossom would elbow the forest violet, and the clover and wild thyme and mint would spring up thick and crisp and sweet for the dainty roebuck and his doe. Hilda used to think that the souls of the blessed would at last take their bodies again, just as the wildflowers in the wood sprang up with their own shape and beauty, each according to the little seed that had lain dead and forgotten since autumn had sighed its dirge above their myriad tiny graves, burying the summer as sadly as men bury those they dearly love.
And yet Hilda never put any of those thoughts into words, though in her books she loved best those words that expressed her half-formulated feelings. Had she been removed to the noise and the whirl of city life, she would very probably have known how to define what she had lost, she might even have made others feel what she herself had so keenly felt. But in the silent towers of her home, or amidst that noiseless, ever- growing life that belongs to undisturbed nature, all she could have wished to express was expressed for her, in a grander language than that of man. She had no need of spending long hours in reverie and contemplation, as people do who are not used to their surroundings, or who compare their present with their past. Constant occupation had become a part of her being, and unceasing small activity in household matters the condition of her life. Heaven knows, there was enough to do between making and mending everything she wore, keeping in order even the small part of the gigantic building which she and her mother inhabited, cultivating as best she could the plot of ground in the castle yard which was all the land left to her, the last of her name, and, in the midst of all this manual labour, in maintaining that prescribed amount of appearance, from which she had never been allowed to deviate since she had been a little child. A spotless perfection of neatness was indeed the only luxury left within reach of the two ladies, and for that one available satisfaction there was no trouble they would not cheerfully undergo. But these manifold household labours did not vulgarise Hilda's character. If she enjoyed the luxury of Greifenstein during her half-yearly visits, it was not because she disliked or despised her own home life. She was too thoroughly conscious of the inevitable to groan over her lot, she was too strong in mind and body to desire luxurious idleness, and she never imagined that a woman could find occupation except in household duties. Her whole existence had made her so simple that she could never have comprehended that complicated state of mind which is so delightful to society.
Something of nature's own freshness, too, had been infused into the young girl's veins, refreshing and renewing the life in that old blood of which she was the last descendant. Blue eyes are rarely very bright. Hilda's seemed to have a special vitality of their own, which gave the impression that they must shine in the dark as some crystals do for a few seconds when they have been long exposed to the sun. They were of that rare type which appear to sparkle even when not seen directly, not merely reflecting the light as a placid pool reflects it, but making it dance and change as sunshine does in falling water. Hilda's hair was yellow, and yellow hair is often lustreless as the pine dust in the woods; but hers glowed, as it were by its own colour, without reflection, out of the very abundance of vitality. Her features were delicate and aquiline, but were saved from any look of deficient strength by that perfection of evenly-distributed colour which comes only from matchless health and untainted blood, combined with a rare strength in the action of the heart. Hilda possessed one of those highly-favoured organisations which nature occasionally produces as normal types of what humanity should be. Such people bring with them a radiance that nothing can extinguish, not even extreme old age. Their beauty may not be of the highest type, but their vitality is irresistibly attractive, and spreads to their surroundings, undiminished by any effort they make.
When Hilda was told that if she and Greif loved each other they should marry, she was far less surprised than her mother had been when old Greifenstein had made his proposal. It seemed strange to the baroness that her daughter should not even blush a little on learning the news. But Hilda saw no reason for blushing and did not feel in the least disconcerted. To her it all seemed perfectly natural. She had always loved Greif, ever since she could remember anything. Why should he not love her? And if they loved each other, they would of course be married in due time. It was but the fulfilment of her life, after all. There was surely nothing in the idea to cause her any emotion. Did not Heaven dispose everything in the best possible way, and was not this the best possible thing that could happen? Did the hawk mate with the wren, or the wild boar with the doe? But the baroness did not understand. She asked Hilda if she should be very unhappy if Greif died, or if he married some one else.
'God will not be so unkind,' answered the young girl simply.
Frau von Sigmundskron was silent. It was clear that Hilda, in her innocence, had never expected anything else, but her mother trembled to think of what might happen if that simple faith were rudely disappointed. It was characteristic of the devoted mother that she thought of her child's heart, and not of the worldly difference to Hilda between single life at Sigmundskron and wedded life at Greifenstein, between starvation and plenty, extreme poverty and the state of enjoying all that money could give. It was long before she could comprehend what had passed in Hilda's mind, or the process of reasoning by which the young girl had reached such a calm certainty of anticipation. When she at last saw that it was an extremely simple matter, she realised how completely her daughter had been shut off from the world since her birth. At first she had doubted the reality of the girl's quiet manner in the circumstances, but she soon discovered that Hilda behaved during Greif's visits exactly as she had always done, meeting him gladly, parting from him regretfully, speaking with him as though there were no difference in their relations in the present, nor were to be in the future, excepting that Greif would always be present, instead of only coming from time to time. She knew that Greif himself was far from looking at the matter with such supreme calm. She saw the colour come and go in his fair face in a way that showed a constant emotion, and she feared lest such a very susceptible young man as he appeared to be should be entrapped, when away from home, by the designing mother, of whom every other mother sees the type in the background of her thoughts.
But Greif did not fall a victim to any such schemes. If Hilda had at all resembled most girls of her age, he could have compared her with them, and the comparison would not have been to her advantage. She could not have possessed their cheap accomplishments, their knowledge of waltzing, or their intimate acquaintance with their neighbours' affairs. She could not have put on their sentimentality with men, nor their cynicism with each other. She could not imitate their glances and she did not imitate their dress. She was a creature apart from them all. Deeply imbued as he was with all the prejudices of an exclusive caste, Greif could not have looked upon Hilda as he did, if she had been a peasant's child, even though she had been herself in all other respects. There was that in her position which appealed to the romanticism of his nature. The noble but unfortunate maiden, the last of an ancient race, dwelling in dignified retirement in her half-ruined ancestral home, was vastly more interesting than any equally well-born girl could have been, who chanced to be rich enough to be marched into society as a matrimonial investment for young men of her station. But it was precisely because Hilda possessed that one point in common with all such eligible young ladies that Greif regarded her with a romantic devotion he could never have felt for a village Gretchen. His pride in her nobility was indeed far less than his love for herself, but it made for that love a rampart against love's deadliest enemy, which is ridicule. He certainly did not tell himself so. He would have thought it an insult to Hilda to worship her for anything but her own self; but he was none the less aware that the pedestal upon which his idol stood was strong enough to withstand any assault. This being certain, it was the very impossibility of any further comparison that attracted him most. She was unlike any one whom he met, or was ever likely to meet, and his imagination invested her with many exceptional attributes, most of which she undoubtedly possessed in one degree or another.
Each time he returned and left the noisy train and the smart modern railway station behind him, to plunge into the silent forest, he felt more strongly that his real sympathies all lay between Greifenstein and Sigmundskron, and that his visits to the world were only disturbing dreams. They must be renewed from time to time, at ever-increasing intervals, but the real peace of his life awaited him in his home. He, too, like Hilda, was a child of the woods, and felt that the trees, the foaming streams and the changeless crags were all parts of himself, to lose which would be like forfeiting a limb of his body or a sense of his intelligence. The baroness need not have been afraid lest he should wander about the world to forget Sigmundskron or Hilda. Nature had made him constant, and circumstances had made him happy in his own place.
And so for years the lives of all these persons had run on, until the time was approaching when Greif and Hilda were to be married, and great changes were to be made at Sigmundskron. Greif had come home for the last time but one, and his next return would be final. During months and years the baroness and her daughter had been slowly preparing for the great event. The most unheard-of economies had been imagined and carried out in the attempt to give Hilda a little outfit for her wedding, just enough to hide the desperate poverty in which they had lived. Many a long winter's evening had the two ladies spun the fine flax by the smouldering fire; many a long day had Hilda and Berbel spent at the primitive loom in the sunny room of the south tower; through many a summer's noon had the long breadths of fine linen lain bleaching on the clean grey stone of the ramparts, watered by the faithful servant's careful hand. Endless had been the thought expended before cutting into each piece of the precious material; endless the labour lavished upon the fine embroideries by Hilda herself, upon the minute stitching by her brave-hearted mother. But the work had progressed well, and the finished garments that lay amidst bundles of sweet-smelling dried herbs in the great old press would have done credit to the spinning and weaving and handiwork of skilled craftsmen. It was fortunate that there had been time for it all, else Hilda would have made but a poor figure on the great day.
As for Berbel she believed that the forest itself had helped them, when she saw all that had been accomplished and remembered how she had bought the flax pound by pound at the market. Though a great share in the joint success was due to her own patient industry, the result seemed so fine as compared with the humble beginnings that she was much inclined to thank the Heinzelmannchen and their 'brownies' for the most part of it all. The baroness thanked Providence, and Hilda thought it was all due to her love for Greif. Perhaps they were all three right, and possibly each shared in some measure the views of the other two. At least so far as the gnomes are concerned, most people who have lived long in forests and solitary places have discovered that their work, if they like it, is performed with a rapidity and skill which is marvellous in their own eyes, and if you do not call the little gentleman who comes at night and helps you by the name of Rubezahl, you may call him the Spirit of Peace. But as long as you receive him kindly and give him his due it matters very little how you christen him, for he is an affectionate spirit and loves those who love him for himself, and does their work for them, or makes them think he does, which, in fact, is just the same.
Unfortunately there are other spirits as busy as he in the world, and he has a way of taking himself off at the slightest alarm, which is often very distressing to those who love him; and some of those other spirits had chosen for their abode the Castle of Greifenstein and for their companions the persons who dwelt there. The unforeseen plays a very great part in our lives; for if it did not, we should most of us know exactly what to do at the right moment, and should consequently approach perfection at an unnatural rate. While Greif and his father were slowly ascending the hill towards their home, while Frau von Greifenstein was looking at herself in her mirror and wondering whether she had not thrown away her youth after all, while Berbel was weaving and Hilda embroidering and the old baroness stitching steadily along the folded linen—while all these people were thus quietly and peaceably engaged, an event was brewing which was destined to produce some very remarkable results. And lest the justification of ordinary possibility should be required by the sceptical hereafter, I will at once state that the greater part of what follows is a matter of history, well known to many living persons; and that in writing it down I wish it to be understood that I am submitting to the judgment of humanity a strange case which actually occurred within this century, rather than constructing from my own imagination a mere romance for the delectation of such as will take the trouble to read it.
'Oh! Is it not too delightful to see my dear, dear cousins!' screamed Frau von Greifenstein, throwing herself into the arms of the pale and quiet baroness. 'And dear Hilda, too! Ach, ist es nicht herzig! Is it not too sweet!'
She was wonderfully arrayed in an exceedingly youthful costume, short enough to display her thin, elderly ankles, and adorned with many flying ribbands and furbelows. An impossibly high garden hat crowned her faded head, allowing certain rather unattached-looking ringlets of colourless blonde hair to stray about her cheeks. She made one think of a butterfly, no longer young, but attempting to keep up the illusions of spring. Hilda and her mother smiled and returned the salutation in their quiet way.
'And how have you been at Sigmundskron?' continued the sprightly lady. 'Do you know? It would be my dream to live at Sigmundskron! So romantic, so solitary, so deliciously poetic! It is no wonder that you look like Cinderella and the fairy godmother! I am sure they both lived at Sigmundskron—and Greif will be the Prince Charmant with his Puss in Boots—quite a Lohengrin in fact—dear me! I am afraid I am mixing them up—those old German myths are so confusing, and I am quite beside myself with the joy of seeing you!'
Greifenstein stood looking on, not a muscle of his face betraying the slightest emotion at his wife's incoherent speech. But Greif had turned away and appeared to be examining one of the guns that stood in a rack against the wall. The meeting had taken place in the great hall, and he was glad that there was something to look at, for he did not know whether he was most amused by his mother's chatter, or ashamed of the ridiculous figure she made. The impression was certainly a painful one, and he had not attained to his father's grim indifference, for he was not obliged to assist daily at such scenes. He could not help comparing Hilda's mother with his own, and he inwardly determined that when he was married he would take up his abode at Sigmundskron during the greater part of the year.
Hilda looked at her hostess and wondered whether all women of the world were like Frau von Greifenstein. The situation did not last long, however, and half an hour later she found herself sitting beside Greif on a block of stone by the ruined Hunger-Thurm.
'At last!' exclaimed Greif, with a sigh of satisfaction. 'Is there anything so tiresome as the sight of affectionate greetings?'
'Greif—' Hilda paused, as though reconsidering the question she was about to ask.
'Yes—what is it, sweetheart?'
'When we are married, I must love your mother, must I not?'
'Oh yes—no doubt,' answered the young man with a puzzled expression. 'At least, I suppose you must try.'
'But I mean, if I do not love her as much as my own mother, will it be very wrong?'
'No, not so much, of course.'
'Do you love her, Greif?'
'Oh yes,' replied Greif cheerfully. 'Not as I love you—'
'Or your father?'
'That is different, a man feels more sympathy for his father, because he is a man.'
'But I am not a man—'
'No, and you are not my mother either. That is again different, you see.'
'Greif—you do not love your mother at all!' exclaimed Hilda, turning her bright eyes to his. But he looked away and his face grew grave.
'Please do not say that to me, dear,' he answered quietly. 'Let us talk of other things.'
'Does it pain you? I am sorry. I asked you because—well, I wanted to know if it was exactly my duty—because—you see, I do not think I ever could, quite, as I ought to. You are not angry?'
'No, darling. I quite understand. It will be enough if you behave to her as you do now. Besides, I was going to propose something, if your mother will agree to it. When we are married, we might live at Sigmundskron.'
'Oh! Greif, are you in earnest?'
'Yes. Why not?'
'You do not know what a place it is!' exclaimed Hilda with an uneasy laugh. She had visions of her husband discovering the utter desolation of the old castle, but at the same time she felt a sudden wild desire to see it all restored and furnished and kept up as it should be.
'Yes, I know. But there are many reasons why I should like it. Of course it has gone to ruin, more or less, and there would be something to be done.'
'Something!' cried Hilda. 'Everything! The great rooms are perfectly desolate, no furniture, hardly any glass in the windows. We are so poor, Greif!'
'But I can put panes into the frames and get some furniture. We need not have so much at first.'
'But you will have to get everything, everything. You are used to so much here.'
'I should not need much if I had you,' answered Greif looking at her, as the colour rose in his own face.
'I do not know. Perhaps not.'
'I should be happy with you in a woodman's hut,' said Greif earnestly.
'Perhaps,' replied Hilda a little doubtfully.
'There is no "perhaps." I am quite sure of it.'
'How can you be sure?' asked the young girl turning suddenly and laying her hands upon his arm. 'Did not your father say the same—no, forgive me! I will not speak of that. Oh Greif! What is love—really—the meaning of it, the true spirit of it? Why does it sometimes last and sometimes—not? Are all men so different one from another, and women too? Is it not like religion, that when you once believe you always believe? I have thought about it so much, and I cannot understand it. And yet I know I love you. Why can I not understand what I feel? Is it very foolish of me? Am I less clever than other girls?'
'No, indeed!' Greif drew her to him, and kissed her cheek. Her colour never changed. With innocent simplicity she turned her face and kissed him in return.
'Then why is it?' she asked. 'And none of my books tell me what it means, though I have read them all. Can you not tell me, you who know so much? What is the use of all your studies and your universities, if you cannot tell me what it is I feel, what love is?'
'Does love need explanation? What does the meaning matter, when one has it?'
'Ah, you may say that of anything. Would the air be sweeter, if I knew what it was? Would the storm be louder, or grander, or more angry, if I knew what made it? And besides, I do know, for I have learned about storms in my books. But it is not the same thing. Love is not part of nature, I am sure. It is a part of the soul. But then, why should it sometimes change? The soul does not change, for it is eternal.'
'But true love does not change either—'
'And yet people seem to think it is true, until it changes,' argued Hilda. 'There must be something by which one can tell whether it is true or not.'
'One must not be too logical with love, any more than with religion.'
'Religion? Why, that is the most logical thing we know anything about!'
'And yet people have differed very much in their opinions of it,' said Greif with a smile.
'Is it not logical that good people should go to heaven and bad people to hell?' inquired Hilda calmly. 'Religion would be illogical if it taught that sinners should all be saved and saints burnt in everlasting fire. How can you say it is not logical?'
'It certainly cannot be said if one takes your view,' Greif answered, laughing. 'But then, if you look at love in the same way, you get the same result. People who love each other are happy and people who quarrel are not.'
'Yes; but then, love does not only consist in not quarrelling.'
'Nor religion in not being a sinner—but I am not sure—' Greif interrupted himself. 'Perhaps that is just what religion means.'
'Then why cannot love mean something quite as simple?'
'It seems simple enough to me. So long as we are everything to each other we shall understand it quite enough.'
'Just so long—'
'And that means for ever.'
'How do you know, unless you have some knowledge by which you can tell whether your love is true or not?'
'Why not yours, sweetheart?'
'Oh! I know myself well enough. I shall never change. But you—you might—'
'Do you not believe me?'
'Yes, I suppose so. But it always comes to that in the end, whenever we talk about it, and I am never any nearer to knowing what love is, after all!'
The young girl rested her chin upon her hand and looked wistfully through the trees, as though she wished and half expected that some wise fairy would come flitting through the shadow and the patches of sunshine to tell her the meaning of her love, of her life, of all she felt, of all she did not feel. She read in books that maidens blushed when the man they loved spoke to them, that their hearts beat fast and that their hands grew cold—simple expressions out of simple and almost childish tales. But none of these things happened to her. Why should they? Had she not expected to meet Greif that day? Why should she feel surprise, or fear, or whatever it was, that made the hearts of maidens in fiction behave so oddly? He was very handsome, as he sat there glancing sideways at her, and she could see him distinctly, though she seemed to be looking at the trees. But that was no reason why she should turn red and pale, and tremble as though she had done something very wrong. It was all quite right, and quite sanctioned. She had nothing to say to Greif, nothing to think about him, that her mother might not have heard or known.
'I am no nearer to knowing,' she repeated after a long interval of silence.
'And I am no nearer to the wish to know,' answered Greif, clasping his brown hands over his knee and gazing at her from under the brim of his straw hat. 'You are a strange girl, Hilda,' he added presently, and something in his face showed that her singularity pleased him and satisfied his pride.
'Am I? Then why do you like me? Or do you like me because I am strange?'
'I wish I were a poet,' observed Greif instead of answering her. 'I would write such things about you as have never been written about any woman. However, I suppose you would never read my verses.'
'Oh yes!' laughed Hilda. 'Especially if mamma told me that they belonged to the "best German epoch." But I should not like them—'
'You do not like poetry in general, I believe.'
'It always seems to me a very unnatural way of expressing oneself,' answered Hilda thoughtfully. 'Why should a man go out of his way to put what he wants to say into a certain shape? What necessity is there for putting in a word more than is needed, or for pinching oneself so as to cut one out that would be useful for the sense, just because by doing that you can make everything fit a certain mould and sound mechanical— ta ra tatatata ta tum tum! "Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten" and all the rest of it. There is something wrong. That poem is very sad and romantic in idea, and yet you always sing it when you are particularly happy.'
'Most people do,' said Greif, smiling at the truth of the observation.
'Then what is there in poetry? Does "I love you" sound sweeter if it is followed by a mechanical "ta ra ta ra ta tum" of words quite unnecessary to the thought, and which you only hear because they jingle after you, as your spurs do, when you have been riding and are on foot, at every step you take?'
'Schlagend!' laughed Greif. 'An annihilating argument! I will never think of writing verses any more, I promise you.'
'No. Don't,' answered Hilda emphatically. 'Unless you feel that you cannot love me in plain language—in prose,' she added, with a glance of her sparkling eyes.
'Verse would be better than nothing, then?'
'Than nothing—anything would be better than that.'
Greif fell to wondering whether her serious tone meant all that he understood by it, and he asked himself whether her calm, passionless affection were really what he in his heart called love. She felt no emotion, like his own. She could pronounce the words 'I love' again and again without a tremor of the voice or a change in the even shading of her radiant colour. It was possible that she only thought of him as a brother, as a part of the world she lived in, as something dearer than her mother because nearer to her own age. It was possible that if she had been in the world she might have seen some man whose mere presence could make her feel all she had never felt. It was conceivable that she should have fallen into this sisterly sort of affection in the absence of any person who might have awakened her real sensibilities. Greif's masculine nature was not satisfied, for it craved a more active response, as a lad watches for the widening ripples when he has dropped a pebble into a placid pool. An irresistible desire to know the truth overcame Greif.
'Are you quite sure of yourself, sweetheart?' he asked softly.
'That you really love me. Do you know—'
Before he could finish the question Hilda was looking into his face, with an expression he had never seen before. He stopped short, surprised at the effect of his own words. Hilda was very angry, perhaps for the first time in her whole life. The brightness of her eyes almost startled him, and there was a slight contraction of the brows that gave her features a look of amazing power. Greif even fancied that, for once, her cheek was a shade paler than usual.
'You do not know what you say,' she answered very slowly.
'Darling—you have misunderstood me!' exclaimed Greif in distress. 'I did not mean to say—'
'You asked me if I were sure that I really loved you,' said Hilda very gravely. 'You must be mad, but those were your words.'
'Hear me, sweetheart! I only asked because—you see, you are so different from other women! How can I explain!'
'So you have had experience of others!' She spoke coldly and her voice had an incisive ring in it that wounded him as a knife. He was too inexperienced to know what to do, and he instinctively assumed that look of injured superiority which it is the peculiar privilege of women to wear in such cases, and which, in a man, exasperates them beyond measure.
'My dear,' said Greif, 'you have quite misunderstood me. I will explain the situation.'
'It is necessary,' answered Hilda, looking at the trees.
'In the first place, you must remember what we were saying, or rather what you were saying a little while ago. You wanted an explanation of the nature of love. Now that made me think that you had never felt what I feel—'
'I have not had your experience,' observed Hilda.
'But I have not had any experience either!' exclaimed Greif, suddenly breaking down in his dissertation.
'Then how do you know that I am so different from other women?' was the inexorable retort.
'I have seen other women, and talked with them—'
'No—about the weather,' answered Greif, annoyed at her persistence.
'And were their views about the weather so very different from mine?' inquired the young girl, pushing him to the end of the situation.
'You do not seem sure. I wish you would explain yourself, as you promised to do!'
'Then you must not interrupt me at every word.'
'Was I interrupting? I thought my questions might help you. Go on.'
'I only mean to say that I never heard of a woman who wanted an explanation of her feelings when she was in love. And then I wondered whether your love was like mine, and as I am very sure, I supposed that if you felt differently you could not be so sure as I. That is all. Why are you so angry?'
'You know very well why I am angry. That is only an excuse.'
'If you are going to argue in that way—' Greif shrugged his shoulders and said nothing more. Hilda seemed to be collecting her thoughts.
'You evidently doubt me,' she said at last, speaking quietly. 'It is the first time. You have tried to defend your question, and you have not succeeded. All that you can tell me is that I am different from other women with whom you have talked. I know that as well as you do, though I have never seen them. It is quite possible that the difference may come from my education, or want of education. In that case, if you are going to be ashamed of me, when I am your wife, because I know less than the girls you have seen in towns and such places—why then, go away and marry one of them. She will feel as you expect her to feel, and you will be satisfied.'
'I mean what I say. But there may be something else. The difference may be there because I have not learned the same outward manners as the city people, because I do not laugh when they would laugh, cry when they would cry, act as they would act. I do not know half the things they like, or do, or say, but from what I have read I fancy that they are not at all simple, nor straightforward in their likings and dislikes, nor in their speech either. I do not even know whether I look like them, nor whether if I went to their places they would not take me for some strange wild animal. I make my own clothes. I have heard that they spend for one bit of dress as much as my mother and I spend in a whole year upon everything. I suppose they do, for your mother must wear what people wear in towns, and her things must cost a great deal. I think I should feel uncomfortable in them, but if we are married I will wear what you please—'
'How can you say such things—'
'I am only going over the points in which I am different from other women. That is one of them. Then I believe they learn all sorts of tricks—they can play on the piano—I have never seen one, for it is the only thing you have not got at Greifenstein,—they draw and paint, they talk in more than one language, whereas I only know what little French my mother could teach me, they sing from written music—for that matter, I can sing without, which I suppose ought to be harder. But they can do all those little things, which I suppose amuse you, and of which I cannot do one. Perhaps those accomplishments, or tricks, change them so that they feel more than I do. But I do not believe it. If I had the chance of learning them I would do it, to please you. It would not make me love you any more. I believe that we, who think of few people because we know few, think of them more and more lovingly. But if I took trouble to please you, it would show you how much I love you. Perhaps—perhaps that is what you really want, that I should say more, act more, make a greater show. Is that it, after all?'
Her mood had changed while she was speaking, perhaps by the enumeration of her points of inferiority. She turned her bright eyes towards Greif with a look of curiosity, as though wondering whether she had hit the mark, as indeed she had, by a pure accident.
'It cannot be that—I cannot be such a fool!' Greif exclaimed with all the resentment of a man who has been found out in his selfishness.
'I should not think any the worse of you,' said Hilda. 'It is I who have been foolish not to guess it before. How should you understand that I love you, merely because I say good morning and kiss you, and good evening and kiss you, and talk about the weather and your mother's ribbands! There must be something more. And yet I feel that if you married some one else, I should be very unhappy and should perhaps die. Why not? There would not be anything to live for. Why can I not find some way of letting you know how I love you? There must be ways of showing it—but I have thought of everything I can do for you, and it is so little, for you have everything. Only—Greif, you must not doubt that I love you because I have no way of showing it—or if you do—'
'Forgive me, Hilda—I never doubted—'
'Oh, but you did, you did,' answered Hilda with great emphasis, and in a tone which showed how deeply the words had wounded her. 'It is natural, I suppose, and then, is it not better that I should know it? It is of no use to hide such things. I should have felt it, if you had not told me.'
It was not in Hilda's nature to shed tears easily, for she had been exposed to so few emotions in her life that she had never acquired the habit of weeping. But there was something in her expression that moved Greif more than a fit of sobbing could have done. There was an evident strength in her resentment, even though it showed itself in temperate words, which indicated a greater solidity of character than the young man had given her credit for. He had not realised that a love developed by natural and slow degrees, without a shadow of opposition, could be deeper and more enduring than the spasmodic passion that springs up amidst the unstable surroundings of the world, ill nourished by an uncertain alternation of hope and fear, and prone to consume itself in the heat of its own expression. The one is about as different from the other as the slowly moving glacier of the Alps is from the gaudily decorated and artificially frozen concoction of the ice-cream vendor.
'I am very sorry I said it,' returned Greif penitently. He took her passive hand in his, hoping to make the peace as quickly as he had broken it, but she did not return the pressure of his fingers.
'So am I,' she answered thoughtfully. 'I was angry at first. I do not think I am angry any more, but I cannot forget it, because, in some way or other, it must be my fault. Forgive you? There is nothing to forgive, dear. Why should one not speak out what is in one's heart? It would be a sort of lie, if one did not. I would tell you at once, if I thought you did not love me—'
'Ah Hilda! Since we have been sitting here, you have told me you thought I might change—do you not remember? Was what I said so much worse than that?'
'Of course it was,' she answered. 'Ever so much worse.'
Thereupon Greif meditated for some moments upon the nature of woman, and to tell the truth he was not so far advanced as to have no need for such study. Finding no suitable answer to what she had said, he could think of nothing better than to press her hand gently and stroke her long straight fingers. Presently, the pressure was returned and Greif congratulated himself, with some reason, upon having discovered the only plausible argument within his reach. But his wisdom did not go so far as to keep him silent.
'I think I understand you better than I did,' he said.
Hilda did not withdraw her hand, but it became again quite passive in his, and she once more seemed deeply interested in the trees.
'Do you?' she asked indifferently after a pause.
'Perhaps I should rather say myself,' said Greif, finding that he had made a mistake. 'And that is quite another matter.'
'Yes—it is. Which do you mean?' Hilda laughed a little.
'Whichever you like best,' answered Greif, who was at his wit's end.
'Whichever I like?' she looked at him long, and then her face softened wonderfully. 'Let it be neither, dear,' she said. 'Let us not try to understand, but only love, love, love for ever! Love is so much better than any discussion about it, so much sweeter than anything that you or I can say in its favour, so much more real and lasting than the meanings of words. If you could describe it, it would be like anything else, and if you tried, and could not, you might think there was no such thing at all, and that would not be true.'
'You talk better than I do, sweetheart. Where did you learn to say such things?'
'I never learned, but I think sometimes that the heart talks better than the head, because the heart feels what it is talking about, and the head only thinks it feels. Do you see? You have learnt so much, that your head will not let your heart speak in plain German.'
Greif smiled at the phrase, which indeed contained a vast amount of truth.
'If you could make the professors of philosophy understand that,' he answered, 'you would simplify my education very much.'
'I do not know what philosophy is, dear, but if there were a professor here, I would try and persuade him, if it would do you any good. I know I am right.'
'Of course you are. You always will be—you represent what Plato hankered after and never found.'
'What was that?'
'Oh! nothing—only perfection,' laughed Greif.
'Nonsense! If I am perfection, what must you be? Plato himself? I do not know much about him, but I have read that he was a good man. Perhaps you are like him.'
'The resemblance cannot be very striking, for no one has noticed it, not even the professors themselves, who ought to know.'
'Must you go back to Schwarzburg?' Hilda asked, suddenly growing serious.
'Yes, but it is the last time. It will not seem long—there is so much to be done.'
'No. It will not seem long,' answered Hilda, thinking of all that she and her mother must do before the wedding. 'But the long times are not always the sad times,' she added sorrowfully.
'I shall be here for Christmas,' said Greif. 'And in the new year we will be married, and then—we must think of what we will do.'
'We will live at Sigmundskron, as you said, shall we not?'
'Yes. But before that we will go away for a while.' 'Away? Why?'
'People always do when they are married. We will go to Italy, if you like, or anywhere else.'
'But why must we go away?' asked Hilda anxiously. 'Do you think we shall not be as happy here as anywhere else? Oh, I could not live out of the dear forest!'
'But, sweetheart, you have never seen a town, nor anything of the world. Would you not care to know what it is all like beyond the trees?'
'By and by—yes, I would like to see it all. But I would like poor old Sigmundskron to see how happy we shall be. I think the grey towers will almost seem to laugh on that day, and the big firs—they saw my great- grandfather's wedding, Greif! I would rather stay in the old place, for a little while. And, after all, you have travelled so much, that you can tell me about Italy by the fire in the long evenings, and I shall enjoy it quite as much because you will be always with me.'
'Thank you, darling,' said Greif tenderly, as he drew her cheek to his, and he said no more about the wedding trip on that afternoon.
The shadows were beginning to lengthen and the cool breeze was beginning to float down the valley, towards the heated plain far away, when Hilda and Greif rose from their seat under the shadow of the Hunger-Thurm, and strolled slowly along the broad road that led into the forest beyond. Whatever feeling of unpleasantness had been roused by Greif's unlucky speech, had entirely disappeared, but the discussion had left its impress far in the depths of Hilda's heart. It had never occurred to her in her whole life before that any one, and especially Greif, could doubt the reality or the strength of her love. What had now passed between them had left her with a new aspiration of which she had not hitherto been conscious. She felt that hereafter she must find some means of making Greif understand her. When he had said that he understood her better, she had very nearly been offended again, for she saw how very far he was from knowing what was in her heart. She longed, as many have longed before, for some opportunity of sacrifice, of heroic devotion, which might show him in one moment the whole depth and breadth and loyalty of her love.
While Hilda and Greif were talking together the three older members of the family party had established themselves in a shady arbour of the garden, close to the low parapet, whence one could look down the sheer precipice to the leaping stream and watch the dark swallows shooting through the shadow and the sunshine, or the yellow butterflies and moths fluttering from one resting-place to another, drawn irresistibly to the gleaming water, out of which their wet wings would never bear them up again to the flower-garden of the castle above.
Frau von Greifenstein had seated herself in a straw chair with her parasol, her fan and her lap-dog, a little toy terrier which was always suffering from some new and unheard-of nervous complaint, and on which the sensitive lady lavished all the care she could spare from herself. The miserable little creature shivered all summer, and lay during most of the winter half paralysed with cold in a wadded basket before the fire. It snapped with pettish impotence at every one who approached it, including its mistress, and the house was frequently convulsed because there was too much salt in its soup or too little sugar in its tea. Greifenstein's pointers generally regarded it with silent scorn, but occasionally, when it was being petted with more than usual fondness, they would sit up before it, thrust out their long tongues and shake their intelligent heads, with a grin that reached to their ears, and which was not unlike the derisively laughing grimace of a street-boy. Greifenstein never took any notice of the little animal, but on the other hand he was exceedingly careful not to disturb it. He probably considered it as a sort of familiar spirit attached to his wife's being. Had he been an ancient Egyptian instead of a modern German, he would doubtless have performed a weekly sacrifice to it, with the same stiff but ready outward courtesy, and prompted by the same inward adherence to the principles of household peace, which so pre-eminently characterised him.
The Lady of Sigmundskron had neither parasol, nor lap-dog, nor fan. Her plain grey dress, made almost as simply as a nun's, contrasted oddly with the profusion of expensive bad taste displayed in her hostess's attire, as her serious white face and quiet noble eyes were strangely unlike Frau von Greifenstein's simpering, nervous countenance. The latter lady would certainly have been taken at first sight for the younger of the two, though she was in reality considerably older, but a closer examination showed an infinite number of minute lines, about the eyes, about the mouth, and even on her cheeks, not to mention that tell-tale wrinkle, the sign manual of advancing years, which begins just in front of the lobe of the ear and cuts its way downwards and backwards, round the angle of the jaw. There was a disquieting air of improbability, too, about some of the colouring in her face, though it was far from apparent that she was painted. Her hair, at all events, was her own and was not dyed. And yet, though she possessed an abundance of it, such as many a girl might have envied, it remained utterly uninteresting and commonplace, for its faded straw-like colour was not attractive to the eye, and it grew so awkwardly and so straight as to put its possessor to much trouble in the arrangement of the youthful ringlets she thought so becoming to her style. These, however, she never relinquished under any circumstances whatever. Nevertheless, at a certain distance and in a favourable light, the whole effect was youngish, though one could not call it youthful, the more so as Frau von Sigmundskron who sat beside her was, at little over forty, usually taken for an old lady.
For some moments after they had all sat down, no one spoke. Then Greifenstein suddenly straightened himself, as though an idea had occurred to him, and bending stiffly forward in his seat, addressed his cousin.
'It gives us the greatest pleasure to see you once more in our circle,' he said emphatically.
Frau von Sigmundskron looked up from her fine needlework, and gracefully inclined her head.
'You are very kind,' she answered. 'You know how happy we are to be with you.'
'Ah, it is too, too delightful!' cried Frau von Greifenstein, with sudden enthusiasm, covering the toy terrier with her hand at the same time, as though anticipating some nervous movement on his part at the sound of her voice. The dog stirred uneasily and uttered a feeble little growl, turned round on her lap, bit his tail, and then settled himself to rest again. The lady watched all these movements with anxious interest, smoothing the folds of her dress at the spot on which the beast was about to lay his head.
'Ah! my beloved, my treasure!' she murmured in a strident whisper. 'Did I wake you! Dear, dear Pretzel! Do go to sleep! I call him Pretzel,' she added, looking up with a wild smile, 'because when he is curled up, with his little legs together, on his side, he is just the shape of those little twisted rolls my husband likes with his beer. It is a vulgar name, yes—but this is a vulgar age, dear cousin, you know, and we must not be behind our times!'
'Is it?' asked Frau von Sigmundskron without taking her eyes from her work.
'Oh, dreadfully so! Is it not, Hugo? I am sure I have heard you say so.'
'Without doubt, the times are changed,' replied Greifenstein. 'But I suppose that what is modern will always seem vulgar to old-fashioned people.'
'Ah, you do not call me old-fashioned, dear husband? Do you? Really, if I am old-fashioned, the times must have advanced very, very quickly! Eh? Dearest cousin, he calls us old-fashioned! You and me! Aber nein! How is it possible!'
A fit of spasmodic, unnatural laughter shook her from the tip of her lace parasol to the toes of her small slippers, causing such a convulsion in the lap-dog's mind that he sat up on her knees and joined his cries with hers, until he had succeeded in attracting her attention, when he was instantly caressed and kissed and petted, with expressions of the greatest anxiety for his comfort. In about thirty seconds, however, the noises suddenly ceased, Pretzel went to sleep again and his mistress sat looking at the swallows and the flitting butterflies, her weary features expressing nothing that could be connected with mirth, any more than if she had not laughed for years. The repose could not last long, but Greifenstein felt that it was refreshing. In five and twenty years of married life, by dint of never exhibiting any annoyance at his wife's way of expressing herself, he had grown hardened against the disturbing effect of her smile and voice until he was really very little affected by either. So far as her conduct was concerned, he had never had anything to complain of, and since he had chosen her of his own free will, he considered that one part of his duty consisted in suffering her eccentricities with patience and calm. The idea that a German who called himself a gentleman should not do his duty never entered his mind. On the other hand, his imperturbable manner sometimes irritated his wife, and in justice to her it must be allowed that his conversation in her presence was often very constrained.