A. L. G. Bosboom-Toussaint
Author of "The English in Rome," etc.
Translated from the Dutch
T Fisher Unwin
26 Paternoster Square
A Letter from Sir Leopold van Zonshoven to Mr. William Verheyst at A——.
The Hague, March, 1865.
Dear Friend,—If you are not too deeply absorbed in some lawsuit or other, come to me by the first express you can catch from your little provincial town. Something wonderful has happened, and I have great need of a friend to whom I can confide my secret. Imagine Leopold van Zonshoven, who seemed destined from his infancy to figure in this world as a poor gentleman—imagine your friend Leopold suddenly come into an immense fortune.
An old aunt of my mother's, of whom I had never heard, and who it seems had quarrelled with all her relations, has hit upon the sublime idea of playing the "Fairy Godmother" to me. By her will I am made sole heir to all the property she died possessed of. I, who with the strictest economy and self-control have barely managed to keep out of debt; I, who have never given way to youthful follies or run into excess, now see a million thrown at my head. This is contrary to the ideas of the romancing novelist, who as a rule reforms and rewards the wildest youth. I almost knocked over the lamp on opening the letter which contained this incredible news; fortunately my landlady caught it, for she was waiting for the eighteenpence which the messenger demanded for his services, and she has since confessed to me she thought that it was a case of "baliffs." I got rid of her as quickly as possible and bolted the door behind her. I felt an irresistible desire to be alone, and to convince myself that the news was real, and not a page out of the "Arabian Nights."
After having satisfied myself of the reality of the affair, I was assailed by an indescribable confusion of ideas and impressions. My heart beat as if it would burst; I felt a rising in my throat as if I should choke; and the first profit which I derived from my new fortune was a severe headache. I am not a stoic, and I have never attempted to appear in that character. Lately all my thoughts have been fixed on some method of changing the miserable position in which I have thus far vegetated, and there seemed but one hope left me: a reconciliation with my uncle, the Cabinet Minister, who could get me an appointment as attache to one of the embassies. But this would be a difficult task, for his Excellency has forbidden me his house because of some articles that I wrote in an opposition paper. How I regretted not having been able to complete my studies and take a degree, the lack of which has shut me out from so many posts open to my fellow-students.
At the age of twenty-nine it is a losing game to compete with younger men in possession of a degree; and whilst I sat brooding over my misfortunes, suddenly the news reaches me that I am a rich landed proprietor. I ask you, cool-headed man of the law as you are, whether that is not enough to turn the brain of a simple mortal like myself? Do come, then, as soon as possible to talk the matter over with me, especially as there is one point on which I must have your advice before entering into possession of my estates. Possibly your judicial eye will make light of it, but for me it is a conscientious question, or at least a question of delicacy, which may cause my mountain of gold to crumble to dust. I will decide nothing before consulting you. In the meantime I have given my lawyer power of attorney under reserve. Here I have many acquaintances, but not one trusted friend to whom I can reveal the secrets of my bosom without the fear of being misunderstood or made ridiculous.
And now farewell till we meet. With or without the fortune, believe me to be ever yours sincerely,
Leopold van Zonshoven.
Mr. William Verheyst receives an Anonymous Letter.
By the same post the barrister, William Verheyst, received the following letter without a signature.
Sir,—We think it probable that Sir Leopold van Zonshoven will consult you on an affair of great importance to himself. May we take the liberty of begging that you will kindly assist him in any difficulties that may stand in the way of his taking possession of a certain heritage left to him, and also use your influence to persuade him not to decline any proposition which may be made him. The writer of this letter is perfectly acquainted with the intentions of the worthy testatrix, and wishes the young man joy of his fortune.
"Oh dear!" exclaimed the good-natured William, crumpling the anonymous letter in his fingers, "I fear this looks bad for Leopold. It will be hard lines if he has to forego the fortune which is thus dangled before his eyes like a bait on who knows what unreasonable conditions. I don't like this attempt on the part of some unknown persons to bribe his adviser. However, they shall find I am not to be caught in the snare. If there be any clause in the will inconsistent with law and honesty or with honour, I'll show them I have not been called to the bar to no purpose. Poor fellow, he little knows how difficult it is for me to leave home at present. Still, as I must go to the Hague before my departure to Java, I will set off early to-morrow."
William Verheyst did as he said. He proved himself a true friend and no loiterer; caught his train, and five minutes after his arrival in the Hague was knocking at his friend's door.
Leopold van Zonshoven occupied a single large front room in a quiet part of the town. He was too poor to live in a more fashionable quarter, and too honest to attempt living above his means. And yet there was an air of elegance about the room which marked it as that of a young man of refined tastes, and proved him to be a lover of home comforts rather than the pleasures of club life. To the ordinary furniture to be found in lodgings he had superadded a good writing-table, an easy-chair, an antique, carved book-case, and several small objects of art, which stood out in bold relief against the shabby wallpaper. This, however, he had tried to hide as much as possible by hanging the family portraits all round the room, some of them in solid ebony, others in gilt frames rather characteristic of this cheap, showy age. Even the space between the larger pictures he had tried to cover with small miniatures on ivory, and photographs. The young man had evidently done his best to surround himself by the portraits of his numerous family.
He was busily engaged at his writing-table when Verheyst knocked at his door.
"I was expecting you," he said. "I knew you would come to help your friend in need. What a strange letter I wrote you! But now I have recovered my senses again."
Then turning to his writing-table, he said—
"Look here, here's a bundle of papers soaked with ink. Though my landlady, Mrs. Joosting, saved the lamp from falling on that memorable evening, she did not notice the ink-bottle. Three articles neatly copied, numbered and ready for the press, are utterly spoiled. Nothing for it but to copy them again. Pleasant work this for a millionaire! But I have almost finished now, and the work has done me good; we shall have the whole evening to talk matters over."
Leopold lived, in fact, by his pen, contributing to several papers, and making translations for the publishers who patronized him. Though he had not kept his terms at the university, he had talent and style, and his writings had been very successful.
"Here are the documents: the lawyer's letter, a copy of the will, the inventory of all effects, both personal and real estate; and all, so far as I can judge, in perfect order."
After a minute examination, piece by piece, Verheyst answered that he was of the same opinion.
"But," he said, "I cannot find the fatal clause you mentioned, anywhere."
"In truth, there is no such clause expressed; nor is there even a condition set down. But there is a desire, a hope expressed in this letter from my aunt; and you must read it before giving your opinion. It seems to me I must renounce the inheritance if I cannot give effect to the wish you will find set down here."
"Is it, then, such a difficult matter?" inquired Verheyst, before opening the letter.
"Oh, that depends! My aunt wishes me to marry."
"No unfair request, since she puts you in a position to maintain a wife."
"I agree; but she has gone further and chosen a wife for me."
"The deuce! that's the worst part of the business."
"Certainly; for she does not seem to have been acquainted with the young lady herself, who seems to be a granddaughter of a certain General von Zwenken, who married my aunt's eldest sister. The young lady is at present living with her grandfather; and it would seem that my shrewd old aunt, to be revenged on the General, has hit upon this means of leaving her fortune to her niece and shutting out the rest of the family from any share in it. Consequently I am made use of, and the fortune is placed in my hands with instructions to hasten to lay it at the feet of this 'fair lady.' Nothing seems easier or more natural. But suppose the 'fair lady' should be ugly, hunchbacked, a shrew, or a troublesome coquette. In this case, you know, with my ideas about women and marriage, I should feel myself bound to refuse the fortune."
"Refuse! refuse!—at the worst you can propose to divide it between you."
"Now that would be acting in direct opposition to the express and formal wish of the testatrix. Read the letter and you will see."
The Honourable Miss Sophia Roselaer de Werve's Letter to her Grand-nephew.
My very worthy Nephew,—Though I am unknown to you, you are not unknown to me. I don't know you personally; but I am pretty well informed as to what you are, and what you are not. Thanks to all sorts of quarrels in our family, and the inconsistent conduct of my eldest sister, I have been forced to live estranged (and shall die so) from all my relations. My nearest relations, it is true, died years ago; the others are scattered over the world, and scarcely remember their relationship to me. Their ancestors, who have done their utmost to embitter my life, seem to have left it as a legacy to their children to forget me, and to trouble themselves as little about old Aunt Roselaer as if she had never existed. But man must think of his end. I am in my seventy-fifth year, and a recent attack of apoplexy has warned me to put my affairs in order, if I would prevent all disputes about the possession of my property, and, above all, save it from falling into the hands of those who have done so much to embitter my life. I will not suffer it to fall into the hands of a host of nephews and nieces, who would attack it like sharks, and divide and crumble into pieces what I and my forefathers have accumulated with so much care and economy. It is for this reason I have decided to appoint one of my relatives my sole heir, and you are the one I have chosen: first, because your mother's mother is the one of my sisters who has caused me the least grief. She married a man of her own rank, in a good position, with the full consent of her parents; and she could not help his falling a victim to the horrible Belgian revolution, in which he lost his life and fortune, leaving her with seven daughters, one of whom was your mother, who, I must say, troubled herself as little as any of the other nieces about Aunt Sophia. I can pardon her, however, because when she returned from Belgium to Holland an occurrence in our unfortunate family affairs had decided me to break off all intercourse with my relations. The second reason, and the chief one, why I have distinguished you above all the rest is this: I have a good opinion of your disposition and self-command. I have, several times and in divers ways, made inquiries about you, both of friends and strangers, and the information I have received has always been such as to lead me to believe you the most fitting person to carry out one wish which I urgently request you to fulfil, if it be at all possible; namely, to marry the only grandchild of my eldest sister, and in this way put her in possession of that part of my fortune which the unpleasant divisions in our family cause me to withhold. I wished to adopt the girl in her early youth, give her a good education, and save her from the miserable garrison life she has led: but my request was bluntly refused; and General von Zwenken, her grandfather, has recklessly sacrificed the fortune of his granddaughter for the pleasure of being revenged on me. Consequently my will is made with the fixed purpose of preventing his ever enjoying a penny that has belonged to me. On reflection, however, I have come to the conclusion that it would be wrong to punish the granddaughter for the sins of her grandparents. After my death, on the contrary, I should like her to confess that old Aunt Roselaer, whose name she will only have heard mentioned with anger and disdain, was not so very wicked after all, seeing that she has ever had the welfare of her niece at heart. If I were to leave her my fortune, I should only be playing into the hands of her grandfather, who would doubtless spend every penny of it in the same way he spent that of my sister. And so it has occurred to me, Leopold, to single you out and make you the sole possessor of all my wealth, with the request that you will make good the wrong which I have been forced to do. The question now is, whether you will be able to accomplish my desire. Difficulties may be placed in your way by the very person most interested in adopting the means I have thought out: in this case, I beseech you to persevere as long as there remains a hope of success. If, on the other hand, you raise obstacles, if you find it insupportable to have a wife imposed on you by a troublesome old aunt, a wife you cannot love, then I release you from this condition, for I wish at least one member of the family to think of me without abhorrence. Should the worst happen, you must consult lawyer Van Beek, who knows my intentions, if you do not wish to lose my fortune altogether. I expect better things of you, not to mention that I count upon your good heart being moved towards a young lady who has been deprived of her rights and the advantages of her birth from infancy through the ill-will of her relations. These rights and advantages a loving old aunt wishes you both to enjoy.
Sophia Roselaer de Werve.
P.S.—That I must sign myself simply Roselaer de Werve, and not Baroness de Werve, is the fault of the General; but his obstinacy and folly shall cost him dear.
"Now, what do you say to this?" asked Leopold, as Verheyst folded up the letter with a thoughtful face.
"What do I say to it? Well, that it is a real woman's letter; the most important point being contained in the post-scriptum."
"Ahem! you may be right; how is it possible that a Christian woman, with one foot in the grave, can be inspired with such bitter hatred of this family, and probably for what is the merest trifle."
"What shall I say?—From the merest trifles some of the longest and most difficult lawsuits have arisen. But, for your sake, Leopold, I could wish that this lady had been possessed of better feelings towards her relations; it would render the whole business simpler. If the young lady pleases you, marry her; if not, then propose to divide the fortune between you. You will both be independent, and one can live pretty comfortably on half a million."
"Would to heaven she had left me thirty thousand guilders without conditions," sighed Leopold; "then I should have none of this bother."
"That certainly would have been pleasanter for you," replied Verheyst, smiling, "but we get nothing for nothing; and if the old lady has chosen you to be her instrument of revenge, why you cannot do less than accept the encumbrance."
"I don't see it."
"I feel sure that on her death-bed she chuckled at the idea of leaving a champion of her griefs behind."
"That may be so; but if she imagined that for the sake of her money I should so far demean myself as to serve her evil designs, then either she was greatly mistaken in my character, or she received erroneous information about me."
"At present, you don't even know whether anything inconsistent with your character is demanded of you. Let me remind you that the depositions of the dead are not to be discussed, but as far as possible carried out. If after due inquiry you find yourself unable to fulfil the conditions of this will, it will still be possible for you to stop further proceedings."
"I have written to the lawyer in that sense. I feel it my duty to see first whether a marriage be possible. This I am bound to do for the young lady's sake; but I should like you to pay a visit to the Von Zwenkens, and bring me word what you think of the young lady, before I make my appearance."
"How you do give yourself the airs of a millionaire already!" answered Verheyst—"opening the preliminaries of your marriage by an ambassador. I am sorry to say I cannot accept your commission, worthy patron."
There was a mingling of irony and offended pride in the tone of this answer, which caused Leopold to start up in surprise.
"You do not mean me to take this reproach seriously?" he asked, feeling somewhat touched by his friend's words. "You know well enough I only asked a friendly service of one whose clear judgment I prize above my own, blinded as I now am by a confusion of contending passions."
"Of course. I quite understand your meaning. It was only my chaff; but, unfortunately, it is only too true that I am prevented from obliging you. To-morrow I stay here in the Hague to look after my own affairs, and then I shall have not a day, nor even an hour, to lose in making my preparations for a long voyage."
"What long voyage are you alluding to?"
"Ah! that's true; we have had so much to say about the change in your life, that I have forgotten to tell you about the change in my own. You are not the only person on whom fortune smiles. I have been offered and have accepted the post of private secretary to the newly appointed Governor-General of our Indian possessions. Besides the high salary, and the excellent opportunity of travelling to Java in such a comfortable way, my future prospects are so promising that I could not for a moment resist the temptation to go. It is much more agreeable to me than vegetating in a provincial town, on the look-out for ill-paid lawsuits or some legal appointment. I expatriate myself for a year or two, to return with all the importance of an Eastern nabob," continued Verheyst, with a faint attempt at a jest which evidently did not come from the heart, as no pleasant smile lit up his face.
"I cannot say you are wrong, and yet I am sorry," replied Leopold, with an effort to be cheerful; "all my plans for the future enjoyment of my fortune were bound up with you—we were to shoot, hunt, and travel together."
"What about your wife?" asked William.
"My first condition would have been that she must treat my friend kindly."
"It is all the better; you should not be under the necessity of making any such conditions. Possibly you may have difficulties enough to overcome, without my standing in the way."
"Really, William, I feel inclined to refuse the fortune, and go to Java with you."
"Nonsense, man, pluck up your courage, and trust to those feelings of honour and delicacy of which your present scruples only afford me a new proof. She may turn out to be a pearl of a wife, this young lady whom you are requested to enchase in gold. By the way, do you know her name, or where you are to go in order to make her acquaintance?"
"I have this morning received a letter from the lawyer in Utrecht, requesting me to pay him a visit as soon as possible, when he will give me all necessary information about General von Zwenken and his granddaughter Francis Mordaunt."
"Mordaunt! Is her name Francis Mordaunt?" exclaimed Verheyst, in a tone of surprise and disappointment.
"Yes, don't you like the name? or have you heard it before?" asked Leopold, all in a breath, for the serious looks of his friend alarmed him.
"Heard it before! Well, yes—indeed, often, as that of an English officer on half-pay who some years ago lived in my province; a man against whose character, so far as I know, nothing can be said."
"Yes, but I am speaking about the daughter. Do you know her?"
"Not personally, and it is a dangerous thing to form an opinion from gossiping reports. What I have heard may not be correct; but if it be so, I cannot hide from you what it would only disturb your peace of mind to know. Therefore, I say, make your own inquiries, seek information from people you can trust, and trust only your own observations and experience."
"Is she deformed? Is she a fright?" asked Leopold, growing uneasy.
"No, nothing of that sort; in fact, I believe she is rather good-looking—at least, enough so to attract admirers, but——"
"Come now, never falter, man! Give me the coup de grace at once. Is she a coquette?"
Verheyst shrugged his shoulders. "I have never heard it said she was; at least, it must be a strange sort of coquetry she's accused of."
"Don't keep me on the rack any longer; but tell me at once the worst you know of her."
"Oh, there's nothing that one can really call bad; yet in your eyes it may appear sinister enough. What I have heard is, that an acquaintance of ours, a friend of my youngest brother, was madly in love with her, and she refused his offer in a manner little encouraging for you. According to his account she must be a regular shrew, who declines to marry on the grounds that she will acknowledge no man to be her lord and master. She so ill-treated this poor Charles Felters, the best-natured old sheep that ever went on two legs, that he has taken fright and run away—gone off to Africa, as if afraid of meeting her again in Europe. He is not only a good fellow in every respect, but what we call in common parlance a 'catch,' his father being the richest banker in our part of the country. I don't wish to frighten you, but——"
"Well, I see nothing in all this to be frightened about," said Leopold, calmly. "That she has refused a booby who runs away for fear of a woman, only proves her to be a girl of character. I begin to think there will be something piquant in this adventure, and I prefer a lively young lady to a wearisome, insignificant girl."
"I am glad to hear you take up the subject so pleasantly. I, for my part, should not like to be engaged in such a contest, but you are morally obliged——"
"In fact, without the obligation, your account has so excited my curiosity that I should feel tempted to undertake this conquest. Do you see this portrait of the fifteenth century? It is that of one of my ancestors who, for the honour of his lady, suffered his left hand to be cut off. He was very ugly, and whenever I was naughty or in a temper my good mother would lead me up to this portrait and say, 'Fie! Leopold, you are like the Templar,' for he was a knight of that order. She said I had the same fierce glance of the eyes when I was naughty, and I have since been convinced that she was right. The resemblance struck me in a private interview I once had with my uncle, the Cabinet Minister. I was accidentally standing before a glass, when he upbraided the memory of my dead father, saying he had married a wife without fortune, instead of following his (my uncle's) example—using his title as a bait with which to catch an heiress. His Excellency saw the likeness, too; for he politely turned the conversation, and led me to his antechamber, where I am sure he gave his footman orders to say 'Not at home' in future, if ever I should trouble to call again. But tell me more, all you know, about my future wife."
"Well, she has had no education. Her manners are rude——"
"That I have gathered from my aunt's letter; but it is not her fault, poor girl. I must try to improve her, and be both lover and schoolmaster to my wife. Who knows—perhaps I must also teach her music and dancing!"
"At any rate, you will not have to teach her fencing, for she's already an adept at that—at least, according to Charles Felters' report."
"The deuce she is!" exclaimed Leopold, laughing; "that's almost enough to frighten one."
"Charles was really frightened. At that time she was a very young girl, yet she was already generally known in the little garrison-town where she lived by the nickname of Major Frank."
"The nickname does not sound flattering, I must confess; however, I will see if there is not some way of enrolling this major under my colours, and then she shall retire from military life to settle down as a civilian."
"It does me good to see you treat the matter so lightly, for there is nothing for it but your making the attempt."
"It has always been my maxim to take a cheerful view of things," said Leopold, with a touch of melancholy in his tone; "and, alas! I have been forced to do so under adverse circumstances hitherto. And now, my good fellow, let us go and look out for some dinner. I can recommend Pyl's Restaurant."
"Why not at the Club?" asked Verheyst; "there we shall meet many friends whom I wish to see before my departure."
"I am no longer a member, my dear fellow. After my father's death I was obliged to cut down all unnecessary expenses, as my mother had but a small pension, and I could bear retrenchment better than a person of her age. It is not the subscription, it is the company one meets which leads to extravagance, and those quiet little supper parties, the invitations to which it is impossible to refuse."
At dinner, over a good bottle of wine, William made Leopold promise to write a full account of all that should take place during his absence in Java, and send to him by mail from time to time. We can only hope that this story will prove no less interesting to our readers than it did to William Verheyst.
Leopold van Zonshoven to Mr. William Verheyst.
My dear Friend,—Whilst you are sailing down the Red Sea, I am entrusting to paper what I would not confide to any living mortal but yourself.
My fortune still hangs in the balance. Without doubt the worthy testatrix has done everything possible to insure her heritage to me; but there are moments when I feel so great a repugnance to it as to make me question whether it were not better to renounce it than to become the instrument of Miss Roselaer de Werve's vengeance on this side the grave. The idea of having to drive a grey-headed old man from his manor-house, and to render a poor young lady, who has a family claim on her aunt's inheritance, houseless, is too much for me, though a whimsical old woman and the law have done their utmost to set my conscience at ease.
But to commence my story. The day after you left me, I went over to Utrecht to call on the lawyer, Van Beek. Perhaps in the hurry of our parting I forgot to tell you this was my intention. At such times a man often forgets the most important things he has to say.
The worthy functionary is a short, thin personage, with a tuft of hair hanging over his forehead, sharp eyes, a long, thin nose, and thin lips always closed; in fact, a perfect type of the shrewd, clever, but inexorable lawyer.
He received me seated in an armchair, clad in a grey office coat, and with a solemn white neckcloth fastened round his neck so tightly that I really was afraid it would choke him.
When I entered the room he rose to salute me with a polite bow, and only when he had learnt my name and my resolve to carry out the intentions of the testatrix did a fine smile play about his mouth—a smile which seemed to say: "You've come round, then, at last, though you appeared to hesitate at first."
After a few words as to the sudden death of his client, and her express wish to be buried as quietly as possible, without the attendance of any of her relations, he told me he had been the confidential adviser of Lady Roselaer for the last thirty years, and was consequently able to give me all necessary information with regard to her dealings with General von Zwenken, and her intentions in respect of his granddaughter.
I should only weary you if I attempted to relate all the pitiful stories of mischief-making and counter-mischief-making with which, long before the birth of Francis, the General and Aunt Sophia endeavoured to render each other's life miserable. I now comprehend that she neither could nor would leave her fortune to such a man, and I approve of the course she has taken for Francis' sake, who would have been the greatest sufferer if her aunt had not acted with so much foresight and prudence. The General is a spendthrift, or, to put it in the mildest terms, a bad financier. His affairs, the lawyer says—and the lawyer evidently knows more about them than the General does himself—are in such a state that, to use an expression of Macaulay's, "the whole wealth of the East would not suffice to put them in order and keep them so."
Still, does this justify my aunt's inexorable hatred? I am sure, if you saw her portrait, you would scarcely believe her capable of it: a stately dame in a rich black silk gown, with silvery grey hair under a black lace cap, and a string of priceless pearls round her neck—so she appears in a painting done in the last year of her life. And this she has bequeathed to her legal adviser, because she believed none of her relations would be able to look upon it with pleasure. On this point, I fancy, she was not far deceived. I myself, her favoured heir, honestly confess that much must happen, much be cleared up, before I can regard it with any degree of cheerfulness and gratitude, seeing I know what a Shylock-spirit once breathed in that thin, slender figure of a woman. The lawyer bore testimony to her kindness to the poor, but said she was very singular in her ways of life and thought. Being strictly orthodox himself, he accounts for all her singularities by saying they are the outcome of her great admiration of the ideas prevalent in the eighteenth century; she was an admirer of Rousseau, and actually adorned her room with a statuette of Voltaire. In fact, she had herself painted holding a volume of Voltaire's Correspondence in her hand, though she knew this would not be particularly pleasing to the future possessor of that portrait.
"Well, well, Jonker," he continued, "since you ask me for the truth about the life and actions of your deceased aunt, I must tell you she seldom went to church, and when she did it was to the French church, though she was not a member of it.  She gave large sums every year to all sorts of institutions; subscribed liberally to any fund for the benefit of the lower classes; but would never give a penny to the Church. If I sometimes tried to change her views on this point, she cut me short by saying it was a matter of conscience with her not to contribute to the increase of a race of hypocrites. You will understand that in my position I could not insist further on this subject. Besides, she did not make use of her riches for herself, except with the greatest economy. She occupied a small villa just outside the town of Utrecht, and her beautiful country-seat in Gelderland, as well as her magnificent house in town, were both let to strangers. She kept but one man-servant, an aged waiting-woman, and a cook. The gardener who rented her kitchen-garden supplied her with vegetables, and kept her flowers in order. She had no carriage, and sometimes did not go out for weeks together. Neither did she receive company, denying herself to all visitors except Dr. D., her old friend, who made a professional visit every day, and came regularly two evenings a week with his married sister to play cards. I saw her as often as business affairs rendered it necessary, and once a month she invited me, my wife and daughter, to dinner. On these occasions Dr. D. and his sister were also invited; but I never remember to have met any one else, except the painter who did this portrait, and to whom she has left a nice little legacy. He was a young man with roguish eyes, and beautiful mustachios; and I suspect he made love to her a la Voltaire, for she bought drawings of him which she never even looked at. He was, otherwise, a good young fellow, with a widowed mother to maintain; and the capital she has left is large enough to permit of such a freak of fancy——"
"Oh, certainly!" I interrupted, "I am glad that the latter days of her monotonous life were cheered by anybody. But what you have told me of her views with regard to the Church leads me to doubt whether I ought to accept her heritage, since, once in possession of it, I shall feel it my duty to make use of her money for purposes directly contrary to her wishes."
"I don't think you need have any scruples; for she was very well acquainted with the character of Jonker van Zonshoven, and what might be expected of him in such matters. Yet you see this did not deter her from entrusting her fortune to you. Besides, she was liberal enough with regard to the views of other people. Her maid is strictly orthodox, and yet every Sunday a carriage was placed at her service to convey her to church; and she is left well provided for during the rest of her life. It is probable Lady Roselaer considered you the person likely to make good what she had left undone either from false shame or obstinacy. Had this not been her intention, she was a woman who would have taken measures to prevent her will being ignored, even after her death."
With regard to the Castle de Werve, I have found out that it is situated on the borders of Gelderland and Overyssel, and is surrounded by extensive woods, moors, and arable land. It is at present occupied by General von Zwenken, and formerly was in the possession of Aunt Sophia's parents. To its possession is attached the title of Baron, with seignorial rights—rights which in our time are little more than nominal, yet to which old Aunt Sophia seems to have attached immense value. Her father, old Baron Roselaer van de Werve, had no son (a great trial for him, as you may suppose), but three daughters, of whom Aunt Sophia was the second, and my mother's mother the youngest. The eldest, Lady Mary Ann, became, on the death of her father, the rightful heir to the Castle de Werve and the estates attached to it. This arrangement was exceedingly offensive to Aunt Sophia, who had expected her father to leave the castle to her, and at one time she had good reasons for fostering such expectations.
Her eldest sister had been the source of much grief and sorrow to the old people. She had secretly entered into a romantic love-engagement with a young Swiss officer—then Captain von Zwenken—and considering it impossible to obtain the consent of her parents to such a marriage, she eloped with Von Zwenken, who took her to Switzerland, where they were married. This union, according to Dutch law, and in the opinion of Aunt Sophia, was illegal. The weak parents (as Sophia called them), however, at length became reconciled to their son-in-law, and when the lost child returned to her old home in reduced circumstances, her parents received her with open arms.
In this family scene of reconciliation, Aunt Sophia imitated the eldest son in the parable. She had never been on good terms with her romantic sister; she persisted in regarding her brother-in-law as an abductor and a deceiver, who had obtruded himself on the family; charged her parents with blameworthy infirmity of purpose, and, in short, declined all reconciliation.
The stay of the young people under the parental roof was brief; but even these few days were stormy, and sufficed to divide the family connexions into two parties, for and against the Von Zwenkens. Aunt Sophia's strong point was the irregularity of the marriage, solemnized in a foreign country. Those who disagreed with her and recognized the Swiss captain as a relation, she looked upon as deadly enemies; while those who took her side in the contest were received by Baron and Baroness Roselaer with freezing coolness. In a word, it was the history of the Montagues and the Capulets re-enacted on a small scale in the eighteenth century on Dutch territory. They did not attack each other with dagger and poison, but used the tongue for weapon. They annoyed, they insulted each other, whenever and wherever they found an opportunity; there were hair-splitting disputes, and retaliation without truce or pity; and lawsuits followed which swallowed large sums of money. A good business for the lawyers, who only made "confusion worse confounded."
When old Baroness Roselaer—who always pleaded for peace and forgiveness—shortly afterwards died, Sophia thought she would be able to exert unlimited influence over her father, as she now became the recognized mistress of the house. She even took advantage of her position, during the stay of her brother-in-law for the funeral, to make him so uncomfortable, that on leaving the house he told the old Baron he would never enter it again. Sophia was in triumph. She thought she had banished Von Zwenken from the house; but she forgot her sister's children, and the joy and pride the old Baron was likely to take in a grandson and future heir to his title and estates. Though he never talked to Sophia on the subject, he was secretly embittered against her as being the cause of this new estrangement, and his great pleasure was to visit his grandchildren; and what is more surprising, Sophia never suspected these visits.
Try, then, to imagine the effect produced upon her when her father's will was read, and she found that the Castle de Werve, with its seignorial rights, descended to Madame von Zwenken and her children.
It is true she inherited a just share of the property; but the very part she loved best, the home of her childhood, where she had been brought up, and which she never willingly would have quitted, was taken from her and given to the man whom she considered so unworthy of it, and so little capable of appreciating the advantages attached to its possession. She felt herself slighted, and to this slight is to be attributed the restless hatred and unrelenting bitterness with which she pursued the General during the rest of her life. She declared her brother and sister had worked upon her father's feelings by cunning and intrigue; and she would never believe that the old Baron had left them the property of his own free-will, or for the sake of his grandchildren.
It being now the Captain's opportunity, he ordered her to leave the house with all possible speed; and this was the more galling, as he did not himself retire from active service and occupy the castle as the old Baron had desired him to do. He was changed about from one garrison town to another, daily expecting to be ordered on foreign service, and therefore unable to derive much enjoyment from his possessions. His wife and children would sometimes stay a few weeks at the castle in the summer; but the former did not long survive her father. The children stayed with Von Zwenken in the garrison, until the daughter was old enough to go to a boarding-school in Switzerland, and the son to be placed under a tutor, who was to coach him for the university.
I agree with Aunt Sophia in her assertion that Von Zwenken was not the "right man in the right place." He made no good use of his possessions; and the house was entrusted to a care-keeper, who was as incompetent as he afterwards proved himself dishonest. The old steward, who had been dismissed to make room for this stranger, was immediately engaged by Aunt Sophia to stay in the neighbourhood and keep her informed of all that happened at the castle. For though she had removed to another province in which her own estates were situated, she could neither separate her affections nor her thoughts from her old home.
Sometimes the Captain, who had now obtained the rank of Major, would come with a party of friends for the shooting, but he never seemed to observe that the whole place was going to rack and ruin. Further, he was always in want of money; and when his daughter married an English officer, Sir John Mordaunt, he was obliged to sell a considerable part of his estates, so as to be able to give her the portion of the fortune left her by her mother.
He had already several mortgages on the property, and as his son led a wild life at college these went on increasing from year to year; until, when at last on obtaining his colonel's pension and the honorary rank of general he was able to retire to the Castle de Werve, all he could call his own was the house, garden, and surrounding grounds.
Aunt Sophia, on the contrary, whom it must be confessed was a sharp, clever woman, had in the meantime doubled her fortune, besides inheriting largely from a rich cousin who had taken her part in the family quarrel.
As the proverb says, "hatred has four eyes," and so she, making use of the information obtained from the old steward, appointed a lawyer to buy up on her behalf all the land sold by the General. This lawyer had further instructions to advance money on the mortgages, and to exact the interest with the greatest promptitude. In this way my aunt became so well acquainted with Von Zwenken's money difficulties, that she could calculate the day, nay, even the hour, when he would be at her mercy.
At last, imagining the favourable moment had arrived, she sent a lawyer to offer him a much larger sum for the castle and the seignorial rights than any one else would be likely to give, seeing that she was secretly in possession of the surrounding estates.
The General's answer was to this effect: "He would not sell the seignorial rights at any price; and as for the castle, he had promised his deceased wife to keep her sister out of it at all costs, and he would rather see it fall about his ears than that Miss Sophia Roselaer should ever set foot inside it again."
Poor man, he little knew how much she had him in her power, and all the precautions she had taken. Otherwise he would have reflected twice before sending such an answer. Something suddenly occurred which obliged him to mortgage even the house itself—the cause is a mystery—and now Aunt Sophia might have been revenged; but for some inexplicable reason she countermanded her orders to Van Beek, who does not himself know why. Just before her death she sent for him to change her will, and it was on this occasion she made me her sole heir.
I was invited to stay to luncheon by my lawyer, and I accepted the invitation.
In the course of the conversation Van Beek said—
"The country seat, Runenburg, will be at your disposal on the 31st of October next; but the house in town is let till the May following, and the tenants would like to stay on, if it be agreeable to you. They are very respectable people. How am I to act in the matter?"
I stared at him in surprise and perplexity. Such a strange feeling came over me. I who have never possessed a stick or a stone in my life (in fact, I always felt it a relief when the quarter's lodging bill was paid), now I had to decide about a house in town and a country seat.
"I think, Mr. Van Beek, everything had better remain as it is until the question of my marriage with Miss Mordaunt is settled."
"The Jonker forgets that that condition is not binding."
"I look upon it as binding, though such may not be the legal interpretation of the will."
"Would you not like to see the house whilst you are in Utrecht? It is beautifully situated, and well worth a visit, I can assure you."
"No, thank you, sir; but I should like to see the house in which my aunt lived: from its surroundings I may be able to obtain a better idea of her character."
"Oh, with pleasure, Jonker! I thought I had already told you," began Van Beek, somewhat embarrassed, "that the old lady had bequeathed it to me, on condition her maid should occupy it as long as she lives. It is a splendid legacy; that I do not deny. But consider, I have served her thirty years in all kinds of business, some of which cost me much trouble and loss of time. And I may remind you that there is no extra money set aside for my expenses as executor, whilst I am recommended to assist the heir in every way, and to serve him to the best of my ability by my counsel."
"My dear sir," I rejoined, "it was to be expected that aunt would treat you generously. It is not my intention to dispute any of her bequests. It will be a sort of pilgrimage for me."
"We will drive there at once after luncheon. It is only half an hour's distance from the town."
I must confess the interior of my aunt's dwelling did not enable me to gather any new ideas of the strange personage who once occupied it. The old waiting-woman received us with coolness, and chanted the praises of her late mistress in pious terms. The young cook shed a torrent of tears, and was evidently astonished not to see me do the same; whilst the man-servant eyed me askance, as if he feared I had come there to cut off his legacy. The house was furnished in a moderately comfortable style, most of the furniture being of the good solid sort common in the reign of King William I., though there had been an attempt to imitate the style of the First French Empire. There was only one sofa in the house, and one armchair a la Voltaire, in which Miss Roselaer reposed herself for just one hour after dinner every day. She must have been a clever, active woman up to the very last.
"She was always making up her accounts or writing," said her maid, "when she was not either reading or knitting."
"And what did she read?" I asked.
"Mostly 'unbelieving books'—those in the bookcase there; sometimes, but very seldom, the Bible."
The "unbelieving books" were French, German, and English classics. I pointed out to Van Beek that I should like to possess this small but well-selected library. All the books are beautifully though not showily bound, and they bear marks of assiduous reading. Among the "unbelieving books" are the works of Fenelon, Bossuet, and Pascal, peacefully assorted with those of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, whilst Lavater, Gellert, Lessing, and Klopstock find a place by the side of Goethe and Schiller, and the plays of Iffland and Kotzebue.
This was the first moment of unalloyed pleasure I have felt since I came into my fortune, when I once more cast my eyes over the library and beheld it with all the pride of ownership. I involuntarily put forth my hand to snatch up one of the volumes, as if I thereby wished to signify I was taking possession. Van Beek smiled and twinkled his cunning little eyes; but the maid, who was standing by, looked at me as though I had committed a sacrilege.
"I should rather have thought the Jonker would have preferred my lady's Bible," she said.
"I should certainly like the Bible as well as the other books, Mrs. Jones—that is to say, unless you wish to keep it yourself as a memento."
"Oh no, Jonker! such a worldly, new-fashioned book I would not have in my possession. I can't look upon it as God's word; and I could never understand how my lady found edification in it."
"What's the matter with the Bible?" I asked Van Beek as we left the house.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing. It is an ordinary States-Bible, only not printed in the old-fashioned German type." 
Upon my word, I thought aunt must indeed have been pretty liberal-minded to have put up with so bigoted a servant for so many years.
The next day I set out for the small town of Zutphen, which is within an easy drive of the Castle de Werve.
Castle de Werve, April, 1861.
You see, my dear William, I have entered the fortress.
But to resume my narrative. Van Beek gave me a letter of introduction to his friend Overberg, a lawyer in Zutphen, and I called upon this worthy man of the law as soon as I arrived in the town. This Overberg was the agent of my old Aunt Roselaer in these quarters, and it was through his good management of her affairs that she gradually obtained possession of Von Zwenken's property, as the General usually borrowed money of Overberg. After all, the General was more fortunate than if he had fallen into the hands of usurers, who, speculating on his weakness, would have ruined him in a much shorter time. Overberg had advised the General to accept the offer of his sister-in-law—with what result you already know. For this reason he recommended me, if I wished to obtain a kindly reception at the Castle, not to present myself there as the heir to Miss Roselaer's property; such an introduction being calculated to raise a prejudice against me from the first. Therefore I decided to present myself as a relation anxious to make the acquaintance of the family.
Seizing the opportunity, I began to question Overberg about Miss Mordaunt.
"I have only spoken to her once," he said; "the General always comes to see me in person. She is never seen in the town now. Once, indeed, whilst the General was still commandant of the garrison here, she came to consult me on a matter personal to herself, but that is a long time ago."
The good-natured lawyer, though ignorant of my matrimonial plans, doubtless read disappointment in my face, for he resumed, as if to excuse the meagreness of his information—
"You see, sir, the General then lived in grand style; and a wide distinction was also made in society between the military and the bourgeoisie. I was a widower, my time fully occupied, and I seldom went into society. Since my second marriage, however, we have parties and dinners enough—and that reminds me my wife has a soiree this evening; several young ladies who know Miss Mordaunt are invited. Will you spend the evening with us? You can leave tomorrow early for the Werve. I will introduce you to the company as a gentleman looking out for a villa in our neighbourhood; for as you know, in a small town like ours, it is necessary to give a reason for your appearance among us, otherwise one will be invented—and such inventions are not always of a flattering kind. I can easily give the conversation a turn so as to cause it to fall on the family Von Zwenken, and you need only keep your ears open."
This idea took my fancy; I accepted the invitation with pleasure, for a little society would help me to pass the evening more agreeably than I could spend it at my hotel.
We dined quietly en famille, and Overberg and his wife—hospitable, jovial people—seemed to me to belie the French verse—
"De petits avocats, Qui se sont fait des sous, En rognant des ducats."
Mr. Overberg is a shrewd, clever lawyer, who perfectly understands his business and the way to treat his clients politely and persuasively; he always discourages lawsuits, recommends delay and an attempt at an arrangement, and thus quietly brings about the desired result without, as it were, seeming to interfere. Aunt Sophia respected him highly for his discretion and foresight, though she took care never to let him see through her intentions, since he was not the man to take sharp and decisive measures. For any such business she employed Van Beek, who is a man to carry out the law to the letter, without feeling any pity for the sufferer.
It was therefore in keeping with Overberg's character that he recommended me to temporize with the General, to give him time to pay his debts, and not to drive such an old man to despair, though he was a foreigner. The good man little knew he was preaching to one who already shared his views, and whose inmost wish was to deal as gently as possible with Von Zwenken.
I must acknowledge that what I heard at the soiree did not make a favourable impression on me. The past life of the young lady must have been a singular one, if there be any truth in the gossip I heard about her. I know much must be set down to slander in a small town, where people are at a loss what to talk about when not criticising their neighbours.
But, however, you must judge for yourself from what follows.
Among the ladies to whom I was introduced was a charming young widow with jet-black eyes and lively features; she is a niece of the Roselaers, I am told, and at first I felt very sorry her name was not Francis Mordaunt, the niece-elect of Aunt Sophia. However, when Overberg had drawn her out a little on the subject of the Von Zwenkens, I felt exceedingly glad to think our acquaintance would not extend beyond the present evening.
I began to feel a most intense hatred against her, so unmercifully did she attack poor Francis.
"Yes, they had been well acquainted when her grandfather was commandant of the garrison, and she herself had visited at the house of the Colonel. But no, friendship had never existed between her and the young lady; she was too eccentric and ill-mannered. Just imagine, Jonker, she came to our house one evening when she knew there was to be dancing and music. Yes, she dropped in, as nonchalant as possible, in a dark merino dress, fastened up to the neck, with a turn-down collar and a silk neckerchief—just for all the world like a boy. And her boots—they might have belonged to some plough-boy. Upon my word, I believe there were nails in the soles; a non-commissioned officer would not have been so rude as to enter a salon in them."
"Perhaps she had made a mistake about the evening," I said, by way of excuse.
"Certainly not! She received her invitation a week beforehand. Surely that was time enough to get a ball-dress made. And it was not because she hadn't got any other dresses; for two days afterwards she came to a house where we were invited to spend a quiet evening, en grande toilette, a low dress (as if she expected to be invited to dance), and resplendent with jewellery and diamonds. Now I ask you if that was not done to annoy us and to wound our feelings?"
"It seems to me she took more trouble to do honour to the ladies than she had taken to please the gentlemen."
"The truth is, she was not at all complimentary to the gentlemen," rejoined a thin, elderly-looking spinster of an uncertain age, dressed in an old-fashioned style, who I should have thought would have been the last person to come to the defence of a sex that had so clearly neglected her.
"And the gentlemen—no doubt they reciprocated her nonchalance?" I asked. "It is very probable she was left in the company of the elderly ladies all the evening to increase the number of 'wall flowers.'"
"Yes! but it was because she wished it," replied the widow. "She would be sure of partners, though she were never such a fright. All the young officers are, as a matter of course, obliged 'to do the amiable' to the granddaughter of their colonel. Moreover, Francis Mordaunt is mistress of the art of attracting or repelling as it pleases her. Notwithstanding all her strange whims and caprices, she is never at a loss for a partner, and the moment she enters any ball-room she becomes the observed of all observers. The gentlemen flock round her; she is flattered, flirted with——"
"Yes, flirted with, I grant you; but not respected, I'm sure," interrupted the elderly spinster. "It is chiefly done to draw out her smart repartees, and the unladylike answers which have made her so famous (or rather infamous)."
"In fact everybody is amused at her scathing replies."
"Which the ladies are afraid of," said a gentleman, half jestingly, half reproachfully, "for as a rule they are as true as they are sharp."
"As a rule she makes the gentlemen the butt of her raillery."
"How strange then, indeed, that the ladies take her part so little!" I could not help remarking.
"That is not strange, Jonker! The peculiar manner she has adopted to render herself noticeable is just the one our sex cannot suffer. In all her victories we saw a defeat; the good tone was lost."
"And how did the party pass off for Miss Mordaunt in that curious dress?" I inquired, for I had less interest in carrying on a combat d'esprit with the vicious little widow than in drawing out a more complete sketch of Francis' character, though it might be coloured by slander.
"Just as she wished it, I believe. In the early part of the evening she was somewhat neglected, and this was evidently her wish, for she did nothing to prevent it; on the contrary, she had told the hostess that she had resolved not to dance, in such a loud and decided tone, that it would have been absurd for any one to invite her afterwards."
"She's cunning enough," put in the elderly spinster. "She only said that lest afterwards she should feel ashamed of herself at the close of the party, in case no one invited her to dance."
"In fact, it requires more moral courage than the gentlemen in these parts as a rule possess to lead out a lady dressed as she was," interposed the widow again.
"It appears that the custom of not sparing us gentlemen is catching," whispered an officer, who had been introduced as Captain Sanders.
I silently bowed, for I wished to listen to Mrs. X., who continued—
"Finally, however, when the cotillon was called, she must join, and the unfortunate leader of the dance had to sacrifice himself. Lieutenant Wilibald, her grandfather's adjutant, was obliged to take her in tow, mustering up all his courage. After showing a good deal of resistance, which appeared seriously meant, she allowed herself to be led out, but did nothing to lighten her partner's unpleasant task. On the contrary, she was so recalcitrant, so inattentive and so awkward, that she often caused confusion, and her partner had the greatest difficulty to rectify her mistakes. Indeed, the polite young officer was pitied by the whole company, and the more so because it was known that he was sacrificing himself to a sense of duty; for he was engaged to a charming young lady who had been prevented from attending the ball by a recent death in the family."
"Pardon, madame; permit me to say that your representation of the facts is not quite correct," interrupted Captain Sanders, in whose favour I immediately became prepossessed on account of his serious and earnest look. "Allow me to set you right as to facts, for I am a friend of Lieutenant Wilibald's, and I know he would be sorry if what you have said should go forth to the world as truth. It was by no means a disagreeable task for him to lead out Miss Mordaunt in any dress she chose to appear in, for he was too much in love with her to notice such small matters as dress. Yes, I venture to say, if it had depended on him alone he would not have married the woman he has; but he was forced by circumstances, and Miss Mordaunt did her utmost to promote the marriage and to put him in possession of a fortune."
I inwardly thanked the Captain for his chivalrous defence of the absent, and I would gladly have taken him by the hand and done so publicly, but that this would have prevented my hearing more on the subject of Francis.
"And has Miss Mordaunt been married since?" I asked, trying to put the question as disinterestedly as possible.
"Why, no!" cried the elderly spinster with a triumphant smile. "So far as we know (and we know pretty well everything that happens in our circle), she has never had an offer."
"Ah! that is very strange; a young lady who seems to be possessed of so many attractions," I observed.
"That's not at all strange," interrupted the little widow, in a coquettish, sentimental tone. "It was never difficult for her to attract admirers and flatterers for the moment, but it is only by the heart that a woman wins true affection and esteem; and, with the Captain's permission, no one could ever believe Francis Mordaunt to be in earnest, for she has no heart—she never cared for anything but horses and dogs."
"You forget her grandfather!" pleaded the Captain.
"Well, yes, she has been his idol; but this very fact has turned out her ruin."
"How are we to understand that remark, madame?" asked Overberg, whose jovial face grew serious.
"That he has left the girl far too much to her own whims and fancies."
"What shall I say, chere amie? He was afraid of her." (It was the elderly spinster who again began the attack.) "He could roar at his officers, but he was afraid of a scene with Francis."
"Excuse me for once more contradicting you, miss. Colonel von Zwenken never roared at his officers—this I know by experience; but it is true he was conspicuous by his absence when Francis Mordaunt went into society. He suffered her to go out when she liked, and with whom she liked. Alas! he sat at the card table in his club whilst Francis by her thoughtlessness and certain peculiarities in her character, was rendering herself a victim to calumny and envious tongues."
"Bravo, Captain! it's noble of you to defend the absent."
"I am only sorry I cannot do so without blaming another absent person; but what I say is known, and well known, in this circle."
"As well known as the eccentricities of Major Frank. Whatever Captain Sanders may say, we are not making her conduct appear worse than it is; we are only speaking of it as it struck us at the time."
"That everybody must acknowledge," said an old lady, who had thus far listened with sparkling eyes. "Only remember what talk her conduct gave rise to when she met the stranger staying at the 'Golden Salmon,' by appointment, unknown to the Colonel, who had forbidden the man his house! Did she not set all our ideas of good breeding at defiance by walking in the plantation in open daylight with a perfect stranger."
"In fact, I am assured she pawned her diamonds to pay his hotel bill. She even wished to sell them, for she asked a friend of mine to buy them."
Overberg's healthy, blooming face turned pale; but he said nothing. The Captain, however, spoke again—
"It is only too true she would risk all to attain her ends, if she had once set her mind on a thing."
"And that for a person who went to a third-rate hotel—did not even give his own name, as it was said afterwards; and who certainly was a sharper or a coiner."
"If such had been the case, the police would have looked after him sharp," interposed Overberg.
"That is my opinion also," said the Captain; "and I think Wilibald Smeekens was right. He said it was some one who had formerly committed a breach of military discipline, and whom she out of pity wished to assist in getting out of the country."
"Ahem! out of pity," said the old lady. "Young ladies should be careful how they show such pity—carrying on an intrigue. I can assure you that at the time it was a question whether we ought not to banish her from our society."
"But no one dared to pronounce the sentence of banishment," said the Captain, "for fear of the Colonel, who had it in his power to refuse the military music for the balls and open-air concerts in summer. And this he certainly would have done if he had known what was hatching against his granddaughter. But the ladies were more prudent; they pulled poor Francis to pieces behind her back."
"With this result," added the elderly spinster, "that of her own accord she almost entirely withdrew from our society."
"No, there is another reason," said the widow, with a significant shake of the head; "it was not our treatment, but her own conscience which pricked her after that affair with her coachman."
"Yes, you are quite right; that was a sad affair," assented the Captain, to my painful surprise.
The honourable man, who had evidently combatted calumny and slander, was now silenced. I wished to ask what had happened, but the words stuck in my throat; I felt as if they would choke me. The postmaster, however, who had just entered the room, put the question, which the tongues of the ladies were quivering with impatience to answer.
"Unfortunately, no one knows the exact particulars," began the elderly spinster, whose shrill, sharp voice made itself heard above the rest; "but it is generally believed she wished to make her coachman elope with her. Possibly she might have succeeded, but the man was already married, and when that became known——"
"She pitched him off the box whilst the horses were going at a furious rate," put in the old lady, with a demoniacal smile of pleasure.
"Others who are supposed to know, say she struck him dead with the whip," added the little widow, who must have her say. "Horrible! most horrible!" she continued, turning up her eyes with mock sentimentality.
Yes, horrible indeed, thought I, when both young ladies and old vie with each other in a wicked desire to give the coup de grace to one of their own sex who has erred, or, may be, only taken one false step in life.
"I have been told," murmured another voice, "that she fought with him; and the horses taking fright, he fell from the box under their feet."
"However it happened, the truth will never be known, for he now lies in the churchyard."
"Yes, now you've got the truth without any figures of speech," jested the widow; "and with him the crime is buried, and hushed up for ever."
"With your permission, ladies, had there been a question of anything of that sort, the law would have taken its course," observed Overberg; "and I know for certain it was never brought before a court."
"That I can believe," answered the widow. "The magistrate is a great friend of the Colonel's, plays cards with him every evening, and to palliate the affair, and silence public indignation, he made an official visit to the commandant's house. Francis Mordaunt was examined, and, as might be expected beforehand, came out of the affair snow-white—at least, according to the magistrate's report," added the widow, with a satirical shrug of the shoulders.
"But, madame," interposed Overberg, evidently growing angry, "do you mean to say you suspect the impartiality of the magistrate?"
"I suspect no one; I only tell you how the affair ended—namely, that it was hushed up, and the relations of the coachman bribed to keep quiet. Such people are easily frightened. One thing, however, is certain, and that is, Major Frank has not dared to show her face in our circle since; and besides this, it seems to have been the cause of her grandfather retiring from the service."
"He had attained the age to be put on the retired list," said the Captain; "and with his pension he obtained the honorary rank of General."
"Be that as it may, the General retired from the world to Castle de Werve," observed the old lady.
"Where, now, Major Frank has the command," put in the spinster.
"And spends her time in riding and shooting," added the little widow, turning up her nose superciliously.
"I venture to contradict the latter part of the assertion with regard to the shooting," said Overberg; "for the General has not renewed his shooting license and has leased the shooting over his own estates to a client of mine, who, however, leaves the hares and partridges in perfect peace."
This latter remark led to a long conversation amongst the gentlemen about the shooting and fishing in the neighbourhood, whilst the ladies set to work to sharpen their tongues on other absent victims.
Notwithstanding all my efforts to appear calm and unconcerned, Overberg observed that the hard judgment passed on Francis had made a deep impression on my mind. Taking me aside, he whispered in my ear—
"We will talk this subject over to-morrow morning before your departure; in the meantime don't let it trouble you. You know the proverb: 'The devil's not so black as he is painted.'"
It was easy for him to talk; but, alas! he knew not yet the reasons I had for being so deeply interested in this young lady.
I passed a restless night. In the morning, when the carriage I had ordered over-night drove up to the door, I was still debating in my own mind whether I should go to the Werve, or tell my driver to take me to the nearest station and return to the Hague. After a few minutes, however, Overberg made his appearance, and accosted me in the following words—
"I believe I have guessed your noble intention, which is to make the acquaintance of Miss Mordaunt, and, if she please you, to remove all difficulties in the most amiable manner possible. I cannot tell you how praiseworthy, how wise and sensible, your plan seems to me; but what surprises me is that the testatrix never suggested it to you, she being a woman of such clear and sound judgment in matters of this sort."
"She has given me such a hint—I will no longer try to conceal it from you—and it was my intention to follow her advice. But what I heard last night has quite changed my mind on that point."
"Nonsense! Never let gossip have any influence over you. Remember that people living in a small town are possessed by the evil spirit of slander, and furthermore, that they express their opinions in a very crude manner."
"That's all well and good; but in a small town where every one is known by his neighbour, people would not dare to calumniate and slander each other without grounds."
"I will not attempt to contradict your statement; but let me remind you that certain uncommon occurrences and eccentric acts on the part of a young lady may be explained in different ways, and why should you believe the worse account of them, coloured as it certainly is by envy, hatred, and malice. I willingly confess I could not contradict all that was said about Miss Mordaunt last night; my business has always been with her grandfather, who speaks of her in the highest terms. For this reason I could not foresee that the ladies would be so severe on her conduct. Otherwise I should have avoided the subject, and made inquiries for you of people less prejudiced and more trustworthy."
"Do you know any such people here?"
"Such people can be found. Why, in my professional career, I have so often seen the most wicked accusations burst like a soap-bubble when submitted to the touchstone of cross-examination, that now I believe nothing which I have not seen with my own eyes, or for which I have not proofs equal to the same."
"Then with regard to the diamonds, you have some certain proofs?" I asked.
"You are right; I was engaged in that business. The young lady required more money than the goldsmith was willing to advance on them; and they were never offered for sale unless he took such a liberty during the hour he had them in his possession. In her difficulties she came to me, her grandfather's lawyer. I obtained the money from Miss Roselaer, as I always did for the General, and she refused either to take the diamonds or accept the interest on the money she lent; consequently the diamonds are still in my possession."
"And do you know for what purpose this money was required?"
"It was to assist a person who dared not apply to the General (and, between you and me, the General had not a penny to assist any one with). What the relationship between them was I am unable to say. The stranger only stayed four days in the village, and I did not see him myself. Of course I have heard the flying reports. Some people say he was dressed like a gentleman, and had a gentleman's manners; others, on the contrary, describe him as a rogue and a vagabond, who got drunk in the lowest public-houses in the place. This latter account may also be true, for, as you know, a woman's sympathy is often bestowed on the most undeserving creatures."
"With regard to the coachman, you must allow her womanly sympathy does not show itself in a favourable light," I interposed, with a certain bitterness in my tone.
"I am unacquainted with the facts of that case. Still, I fancy it is far from such a bad case as the amiable ladies made it out to be; and in your place I should not suffer it to interfere with my projected visit to the Werve. Miss Mordaunt has been accused, in my presence, of brusque manners, imprudent behaviour, and so forth; but she is renowned for her plain and straightforward dealing, which has brought her into disrepute with her female friends, they preferring to say the most impertinent things in the blandest tone possible. I am sure you will find out the truth if you ask her a plain question. Besides, a single visit will not commit you to anything, and an interview with the General to arrange matters will be absolutely necessary."
There was no refuting Overberg's line of argument. I confessed to myself that it would be unfair on my part to form an opinion until after a personal interview and further inquiries. So, accepting his advice, I stepped into the carriage, and ordered the driver to take the road to the Castle de Werve.
The morning was raw and cold, without sun, and the air was so heavy that I did not know whether to expect snow or hail. At the toll-bar my driver made inquiries about a short cut through a lane planted with poplars, which would bring us out near the "fir wood."
As the country was very monotonous, and there was nothing to attract my attention, I sank into deep thought, and began arranging a plan for my conduct on first meeting with my cousin, a little speech to be made when I was presented to her, and so forth. But then it occurred to me that our best-laid schemes are generally thrown into confusion by the circumstances of the event: how much more likely was this to be the case in dealing with such a whimsical person as Francis? Accordingly, I gave up all such ideas as preparing myself for the occasion, resolving only to keep cool and act according to circumstances.
In the midst of these thoughts the carriage suddenly came to a standstill, and the driver pointed out to me that the lane terminated in a half-circle—he had taken the lane on the wrong side of the wood. Whilst speaking we heard a horse galloping behind us, and in another moment it shot past us like lightning.
"That's Major Frank!" said the driver.
"Major Frank," I repeated, in a tone of anger and surprise. "Whom do you mean by that?"
"Why, the young lady of the Castle. They call her so in our village, when she comes to see the boy."
Cutting short the conversation, I ordered him to find his way to the Castle as soon as possible. A few minutes later, however, he had got his carriage on such marshy ground that he was obliged to request me to walk until he could lead his horse on to a firmer place.
Once on my legs I took a view of the surrounding country. We were on the outskirts of the wood, and separated from the ploughed cornfields by a half-dry ditch, luxuriantly overgrown with all kinds of marsh plants. On our right was a heath; on the left potato fields. There was not a soul to be seen, and on consulting my watch I found it was just twelve o'clock. Consequently all the farm labourers had gone home to their midday meal.
Suddenly we heard a peal of resounding laughter quite close at hand, only the sound seemed to come somewhat from above us. I looked up in the direction of the undulating heath; and on the top of a sand-hill, overgrown with grass, stood the person who was enjoying our perplexity.
"Major Frank!" exclaimed the driver in his shrill tone of voice, his astonishment and annoyance causing him to show little respect.
It was indeed Francis Mordaunt herself who was mocking us. Really, I could never have anticipated such a reception.
As she stood there, some feet above me but still pretty near, I had a good view of her; and I cannot say that this first sight reconciled me to the person who had already caused me so many disagreeable emotions. Perhaps it was not her fault; but she was dressed in such a strange manner that at first sight I was doubtful whether a man or a woman stood before me. She had gathered up her riding-habit in a way that reminded me of Zouave trousers, and she had, besides, put on a wide cloak made of some long-haired material—which was doubtless very useful this sharp, cold spring day, but which, buttoned up to her throat, was not adapted to show off the beauty of her form if she was really well-shaped. Her head-gear consisted of a gray billy-cock hat with a soft, downward-bent brim, ornamented with a bunch of cock's feathers negligently fastened with a green ribbon—just as if she really wished to imitate the wild huntsman of the fairy tale. And then, because it was rather windy, she had tied a red silk handkerchief over her hat and fastened it under her chin. She wore no veil. As far as I could judge of her appearance, she seemed to be rather delicately built and slim, with a fine Roman nose. Still, I was not in the humour to be agreeably impressed by a face convulsed with laughter, and bandaged up as if she had the toothache. Her laugh sounded to my ears like a provocation, and rendered me little inclined to be courteous to a woman who had so evidently forgotten all feminine self-respect.
"Listen," I cried—"listen for a moment, you who are rejoicing so much at your neighbour's distress. You would do better to direct us on our way."
"There is no way. I should have thought you could see that. Any one who enters this wood except with the purpose of driving round it, does a very stupid thing."
"I?" she laughed again. "I jumped my horse over the dry ditch yonder. Imitate me if you feel inclined, though I fear with your horse and carriage it will not be quite so easy. But where are you going to?"
"To the Castle de Werve."
"To the Werve!" she repeated, descending the hill and approaching me as nearly as she could on the opposite side of the ditch. "What is your business at the Castle, sir?" she inquired, in quite another tone, no longer speaking like a "somebody" to a "nobody."
"To pay a visit to General von Zwenken, and his granddaughter, Freule Mordaunt."
"The General no longer receives visitors, and what you have to say to his granddaughter you can address to me. I am Freule Mordaunt."
"I can scarcely believe it; but, if so, may I request Freule Mordaunt to appoint a more suitable place than this. What I have got to say cannot be shouted across a ditch in the presence of a third person."
"Then you must drive back to the toll-bar. There they will direct you to the village, from which you can easily reach the Castle, if your visit is so very urgent."
"In order to give you time to get home and deny yourself to all visitors, my little Major," I thought to myself. "But now's my opportunity, and I will not let it slip me."
So, giving orders to the driver to go on to the village and wait for me there, I took my stout walking-stick, fixed it as firmly as I could in the muddy bottom of the ditch, and reached the opposite side I scarcely know how.
"Bravo! well done!" cried Francis, clapping her hands with delight.
As I approached I raised my hat, and she saluted with her riding-whip.
"This is an amusing adventure, sir," she said, again laughing; "if you still wish to go to Werve you must cross the heath."
"Is it a long walk?"
"No, it is much shorter than by the high-road, but as you don't know the way, you run the risk of getting lost again."
"You forget that I have a claim on your company for the rest of the way."
"A claim! how do you make that out?"
"Miss Mordaunt promised me an interview; is it strange that I should seize the first occasion that offers?"
"I don't even know the way myself. My horse has lost a shoe, and I have left him at the game-keeper's, so I shall have to get home as well as I can without assistance. Have you really business at the Castle? I can assure you the General has an aversion to visitors!"
"I wish to make his acquaintance and yours, as I am staying in the neighbourhood, and I, remember, I am related to the family Von Zwenken by my mother's side."
"So much the worse for you. At the Castle relationship is a bad recommendation."
"That I have already heard; but I am not a Roselaer, I am a Van Zonshoven, Freule—Leopold van Zonshoven," I said, introducing myself.
"I have never heard the name before. However, as you are not a Roselaer you perhaps stand a better chance of a kind reception. But is it quite certain you do not come to trouble the General about business?"
"In that case I should have sent a lawyer, with orders not to inconvenience Miss Mordaunt."
"Then you would have done wrong," she rejoined, becoming serious. "The General is over seventy, and has had a life full of trouble; and I will not try to conceal from you that he has many cares and difficulties to contend with even now. It is for this reason I desire you to tell me without reserve the object of your visit. Perhaps I can find some means——"
"I protest to you that my greatest desire is to assist you in sparing your grandfather all annoyance."
"The sentiment does you honour, but it leads me to doubt your relationship, for it is contrary to all our family traditions."
"There are exceptions to every rule, as you know, and I hope to prove myself an exception in your family traditions."
"Then you shall be welcome at the Werve also by exception, for as a rule we admit no new faces."
"That's a pity; for I cannot think it is your wish to live in such isolation."
"Quite my wish!" she interposed, with a certain haughtiness. "I have had sufficient experience of mankind to make me care little for their society."
"So young, and already such a misanthrope—afraid of the world!" I observed.
"I am not so very young—I am turned twenty-six; and the campaign years, as grandfather calls them, count double. You may speak to me as though I were a woman of forty. I have quite as much experience of life."
"Ladies talk like that when they wish to be contradicted."
"Ladies!" she cried, with ineffable contempt. "I very earnestly request you not to include me in the category of beings commonly denominated ladies."
"In which category must I put you? For, to tell the truth, at first sight I did not know what to call you."
"I believe you," she said, with a little laugh; "for to any one who does not know me I must appear very odd. But, tell me, what did you take me for at first sight—for an apparition of the wild huntsman?"
"An apparition! Certainly not; that's too ethereal. I took you for a sad reality—a gamekeeper suffering from toothache."
She seemed piqued for a moment, her cheeks coloured, and she bit her lips.
"That's rude," she said at last, and glanced at me with scintillating eyes.
"You asked for the truth," I rejoined.
"So I did; and you shall find I can endure the truth. Give me your hand, cousin; I think we shall become good friends."
"I hope so, cousin. But don't be generous by halves: let me touch your hand, and not that rough riding-glove."
"You are a fastidious fellow," she said, shaking her head; "but you shall have your way. There."
And a beautiful white hand lay in mine, which I held a minute longer than was absolutely necessary. She did not seem to perceive it.
"But call me Francis; I shall call you Leo. The endless repetition of cousin is so wearisome," she said frankly.
"Most willingly;" and I pressed her hand again.
"Your driver will have told you he recognized Major Frank."
"That's but too true; and don't you, Francis, consider it a great insult that people dare to call you by such a name?"
"Oh, I don't mind it in the least! I know they have given me this nickname. I am neither better nor worse for it. I know, also, that I am pointed at as a Cossack or a cavalry officer by the people round, and am stared at because I dress to suit my own convenience, and not according to the latest fashions."
"But a woman should try to please others in her way of dressing. In my opinion, a woman's first duty is to make herself agreeable. Can we not show our good taste even in the simplest and plainest attire?"
She coloured a little.
"Do you imagine, then, that I have no taste at all, because I have put on this shaggy cloak to protect me from the east winds?" she demanded sharply.
"I do not judge from that single article of dress; I am referring to the ensemble, and one gets a bad opinion of a young lady's taste when she wraps up her face in an unsightly red handkerchief."
"Which gives her the appearance of a gamekeeper with the toothache," she interposed, with a quick, bold air. "Well now, that's easily remedied, if the wind will respect my billycock;" and hereupon she untied the handkerchief and unpinned her riding-habit.