THE FIRST VIOLIN
BY JESSIE FOTHERGILL,
Author of "A March in the Ranks," Etc.
* * * * *
NEW YORK THE FEDERAL BOOK COMPANY PUBLISHERS
THE FIRST VIOLIN.
"Wonderful weather for April!" Yes, it certainty was wonderful. I fully agreed with the sentiment expressed at different periods of the day by different members of my family; but I did not follow their example and seek enjoyment out-of-doors—pleasure in that balmy spring air. Trouble—the first trouble of my life—had laid her hand heavily upon me. The world felt disjointed and all upside-down; I very helpless and lonely in it. I had two sisters, I had a father and a mother; but none the less was I unable to share my grief with any one of them; nay, it had been an absolute relief to me when first one and then another of them had left the house, on business or pleasure intent, and I, after watching my father go down the garden-walk, and seeing the gate close after him, knew that, save for Jane, our domestic, who was caroling lustily to herself in the kitchen regions, I was alone in the house.
I was in the drawing-room. Once secure of solitude, I put down the sewing with which I had been pretending to employ myself, and went to the window—a pleasant, sunny bay. In that window stood a small work-table, with a flower-pot upon it containing a lilac primula. I remember it distinctly to this day, and I am likely to carry the recollection with me so long as I live. I leaned my elbows upon this table, and gazed across the fields, green with spring grass, tenderly lighted by an April sun, to where the river—the Skern—shone with a pleasant, homely, silvery glitter, twining through the smiling meadows till he bent round the solemn overhanging cliff crowned with mournful firs, which went by the name of the Rifted or Riven Scaur.
In some such delightful mead might the white-armed Nausicaa have tossed her cowslip balls among the other maids; perhaps by some such river might Persephone have paused to gather the daffodil—"the fateful flower beside the rill." Light clouds flitted across the sky, a waft of wind danced in at the open window, ruffling my hair mockingly, and bearing with it the deep sound of a church clock striking four.
As if the striking of the hour had been a signal for the breaking of a spell, the silence that had prevailed came to an end. Wheels came rolling along the road up to the door, which, however, was at the other side of the house. "A visitor for my father, no doubt," I thought indifferently; "and he has gone out to read the funeral service for a dead parishioner. How strange! I wonder how clergymen and doctors can ever get accustomed to the grim contrasts amid which they live!"
I suffered my thoughts to wander off in some such track as this, but they were all through dominated by a heavy sense of oppression—the threatening hand of a calamity which I feared was about to overtake me, and I had again forgotten the outside world.
The door was opened. Jane held it open and said nothing (a trifling habit of hers, which used to cause me much annoyance), and a tall woman walked slowly into the room. I rose and looked earnestly at her, surprised and somewhat nervous when I saw who she was—Miss Hallam, of Hallam Grange, our near neighbor, but a great stranger to us, nevertheless, so far, that is, as personal intercourse went.
"Your servant told me that every one was out except Miss May," she remarked, in a harsh, decided voice, as she looked not so much at me as toward me, and I perceived that there was something strange about her eyes.
"Yes; I am sorry," I began, doubtfully.
She had sallow, strongly marked, but proud and aristocratic features, and a manner with more than a tinge of imperiousness. Her face, her figure, her voice were familiar, yet strange to me—familiar because I had heard of her, and been in the habit of occasionally seeing her from my very earliest childhood; strange, because she was reserved and not given to seeing her neighbors' houses for purposes either of gossip or hospitality. I was aware that about once in two years she made a call at our house, the vicarage, whether as a mark of politeness to us, or to show that, though she never entered a church, she still chose to lend her countenance and approval to the Establishment, or whether merely out of old use and habit, I knew not. I only knew that she came, and that until now it had never fallen to my lot to be present upon any of those momentous occasions.
Feeling it a little hard that my coveted solitude should thus be interrupted, and not quite knowing what to say to her, I sat down and there was a moment's pause.
"Is your mother well?" she inquired.
"Yes, thank you, very well. She has gone with my sister to Darton."
"He is well too, thank you. He has a funeral this afternoon."
"I think you have two sisters, have you not?"
"Yes; Adelaide and Stella."
"And which are you?"
"May; I am the second one."
All her questions were put in an almost severe tone, and not as if she took very much interest in me or mine. I felt my timidity increase, and yet—I liked her. Yes, I felt most distinctly that I liked her.
"May," she remarked, meditatively; "May Wedderburn. Are you aware that you have a very pretty north-country sounding name?"
"I have not thought about it."
"How old are you?"
"I am a little over seventeen."
"Ah! And what do you do all day?"
"Oh!" I began, doubtfully, "not much, I am afraid, that is useful or valuable."
"You are young enough yet. Don't begin to do things with a purpose for some time to come. Be happy while you can."
"I am not at all happy," I replied, not thinking of what I was saying, and then feeling that I could have bitten my tongue out with vexation. What could it possibly matter to Miss Hallam whether I were happy or not? She was asking me all these questions to pass the time, and in order to talk about something while she sat in our house.
"What makes you unhappy? Are your sisters disagreeable?"
"Are your parents unkind?"
"Unkind!" I echoed, thinking what a very extraordinary woman she was and wondering what kind of experience hers could have been in the past.
"Then I can not imagine what cause for unhappiness you can have," she said, composedly.
I made no answer. I repented me of having uttered the words, and Miss Hallam went on:
"I should advise you to forget that there is such a thing as unhappiness. You will soon succeed."
"Yes—I will try," said I, in a low voice, as the cause of my unhappiness rose up, gaunt, grim and forbidding, with thin lips curved in a mocking smile, and glittering, snake-like eyes fixed upon my face. I shivered faintly; and she, though looking quickly at me, seemed to think she had said enough about my unhappiness. Her next question surprised me much.
"Are you fair in complexion?" she inquired.
"Yes," said I. "I am very fair—fairer than either of my sisters. But are you near-sighted?"
"Near sightless," she replied, with a bitter little laugh. "Cataract. I have so many joys in my life that Providence has thought fit to temper the sunshine of my lot. I am to content myself with the store of pleasant remembrances with which my mind is crowded, when I can see nothing outside. A delightful arrangement. It is what pious people call a 'cross,' or a 'visitation,' or something of that kind. I am not pious, and I call it the destruction of what little happiness I had."
"Oh, I am very, very sorry for you," I answered, feeling what I spoke, for it had always been my idea of misery to be blind—shut away from the sunlight upon the fields, from the hue of the river, from all that "lust of the eye" which meets us on every side.
"But are you quite alone?" I continued. "Have you no one to—"
I stopped; I was about to add, "to be kind to you—to take care of you?" but I suddenly remembered that it would not do for me to ask such questions.
"No, I live quite alone," said she, abruptly. "Did you think of offering to relieve my solitude?"
I felt myself burning with a hot blush all over my face as I stammered out:
"I am sure I never thought of anything so impertinent, but—but—if there was anything I could do—read or—"
I stopped again. Never very confident in myself, I felt a miserable sense that I might have been going too far. I wished most ardently that my mother or Adelaide had been there to take the weight of such a conversation from my shoulders. What was my surprise to hear Miss Hallam say, in a tone quite smooth, polished, and polite:
"Come and drink tea with me to-morrow afternoon—afternoon tea I mean. You can go away again as soon as you like. Will you?"
"Oh, thank you. Yes, I will."
"Very well. I shall expect you between four and five. Good-afternoon."
"Let me come with you to your carriage," said I, hastily. "Jane—our servant is so clumsy."
I preceded her with care, saw her seated in her carriage and driven toward the Grange, which was but a few hundred yards from our own gates, and then I returned to the house. And as I went in again, my companion-shadow glided once more to my side with soft, insinuating, irresistible importunity, and I knew that it would be my faithful attendant for—who could say how long?
"Traversons gravement cette mechante mascarade qu'on appelle le monde"
The houses in Skernford—the houses of "the gentry," that is to say—lay almost all on one side an old-fashioned, sleepy-looking "green" toward which their entrances lay; but their real front, their pleasantest aspect, was on their other side, facing the river which ran below, and down to which their gardens sloped in terraces. Our house, the vicarage, lay nearest the church; Miss Hallam's house, the Grange, furthest from the church. Between these, larger and more imposing, in grounds beside which ours seemed to dwindle down to a few flower-beds, lay Deeplish Hall, whose owner, Sir Peter Le Marchant, had lately come to live there, at least for a time.
It was many years since Sir Peter Le Marchant, whose image at this time was fated to enter so largely and so much against my will into all my calculations, had lived at or even visited his estate at Skernford. He was a man of immense property, and report said that Deeplish Hall, which we innocent villagers looked upon as such an imposing mansion, was but one and not the grandest of his several country houses. All that I knew of his history—or rather, all that I had heard of it, whether truly or not, I was in no position to say—was but a vague and misty account; yet that little had given me a dislike to him before I ever met him.
Miss Hallam, our neighbor, who lived in such solitude and retirement, was credited with having a history—if report had only been able to fix upon what it was. She was popularly supposed to be of a grim and decidedly eccentric disposition. Eccentric she was, as I afterward found—as I thought when I first saw her. She seldom appeared either in church or upon any other public occasion, and was said to be the deadly enemy of Sir Peter Le Marchant and all pertaining to him. There was some old, far-back romance connected with it—a romance which I did not understand, for up to now I had never known either her or Sir Peter sufficiently to take any interest in the story, but the report ran that in days gone by—how far gone by, too, they must have been!—Miss Hallam, a young and handsome heiress, loved very devotedly her one sister, and that sister—so much was known as a fact—had become Lady Le Marchant: was not her monument in the church between the Deeplish Hall and the Hallam Grange pews? Was not the tale of her virtues and her years—seven-and-twenty only did she count of the latter—there recorded? That Barbara Hallam had been married to Sir Peter was matter of history: what was not matter of history, but of tradition which was believed in quite as firmly, was that the baronet had ill-treated his wife—in what way was not distinctly specified, but I have since learned that it was true; she was a gentle creature, and he made her life miserable unto her. She was idolized by her elder sister, who, burning with indignation at the treatment to which her darling had been subjected, had become, even in disposition, an altered woman. From a cheerful, open-hearted, generous, somewhat brusque young person, she had grown into a prematurely old, soured, revengeful woman. It was to her that the weak and injured sister had fled; it was in her arms that she had died. Since her sister's death, Miss Hallam had withdrawn entirely from society, cherishing a perpetual grudge against Sir Peter Le Marchant. Whether she had relations or none, friends or acquaintance outside the small village in which she lived, none knew. If so, they limited their intercourse with her to correspondence, for no visitor ever penetrated to her damp old Grange, nor had she ever been known to leave it with the purpose of making any journey abroad. If perfect silence and perfect retirement could hush the tongues of tradition and report, then Miss Hallam's story should have been forgotten. But it was not forgotten. Such things never do become forgotten.
It was only since Sir Peter had appeared suddenly some six weeks ago at Deeplish Hall, that these dry bones of tradition had for me quickened into something like life, and had acquired a kind of interest for me.
Our father, as vicar of the parish, had naturally called upon Sir Peter, and as naturally invited him to his house. His visits had begun by his coming to lunch one day, and we had speculated about him a little in advance, half jestingly, raking up old stories, and attributing to him various evil qualities of a hard and loveless old age. But after he had gone, the verdict of Stella and myself was, "Much worse than we expected." He was different from what we had expected. Perhaps that annoyed us. Instead of being able to laugh at him, we found something oppressive, chilling, to me frightful, in the cold, sneering smile which seemed perpetually hovering about his thin lips—in the fixed, snaky glitter of his still, intent gray eyes. His face was pale, his manners were polished, but to meet his eye was a thing I hated, and the touch of his hand made me shudder. While speaking in the politest possible manner, he had eyed over Adelaide and me in a manner which I do not think either of us had ever experienced before. I hated him from the moment in which I saw him looking at me with expression of approval. To be approved by Sir Peter Le Marchant, could fate devise anything more horrible? Yes, I knew now that it could; one might have to submit to the approval, to live in the approval. I had expressed my opinion on the subject with freedom to Adelaide, who to my surprise had not agreed with me, and had told me coldly that I had no business to speak disrespectfully of my father's visitors. I was silenced, but unhappy. From the first moment of seeing Sir Peter, I had felt an uncomfortable, uneasy feeling, which, had I been sentimental, I might have called a presentiment, but I was not sentimental. I was a healthy young girl of seventeen, believing in true love, and goodness, and gentleness very earnestly; "fancy free," having read few novels, and heard no gossip—a very baby in many respects. Our home might be a quiet one, a poor one, a dull one—our circle of acquaintance small, our distractions of the most limited description imaginable, but at least we knew no evil, and—I speak for Stella and myself—thought none. Our father and mother were persons with nothing whatever remarkable about them. Both had been handsome. My mother was pretty, my father good-looking yet. I loved them both dearly. It had never entered my head to do otherwise than love them, but the love which made the star and the poetry of my quiet and unromantic life was that I bore to Adelaide, my eldest sister. I believed in her devotedly, and accepted her judgment, given in her own peculiar proud, decided way, upon every topic on which she chose to express it. She was one-and-twenty, and I used to think I could lay down my life for her.
It was consequently a shock to me to hear her speak in praise—yes, in praise of Sir Peter Le Marchant. My first impulse was to distrust my own judgment, but no; I could not long do so. He was repulsive; he was stealthy, hard, cruel, in appearance. I could not account for Adelaide's perversity in liking him, and passed puzzled days and racked my brain in conjecture as to why when Sir Peter came Adelaide should be always at home, always neat and fresh—not like me. Why was Adelaide, who found it too much trouble to join Stella and me in our homely concerts, always ready to indulge Sir Peter's taste for music, to entertain him with conversation?—and she could talk. She was unlike me in that respect. I never had a brilliant gift of conversation. She was witty about the things she did know, and never committed the fatal mistake of pretending to be up in the things she did not know. These gifts of mind, these social powers, were always ready for the edification of Sir Peter. By degrees the truth forced itself upon me. Some one said—I overheard it—that "that handsome Miss Wedderburn was undoubtedly setting her cap at Sir Peter Le Marchant." Never shall I forget the fury which at first possessed me, the conviction which gradually stole over me that it was true. My sister Adelaide, beautiful, proud, clever—and, I had always thought, good,—had distinctly in view the purpose of becoming Lady Le Marchant. I shed countless tears over the miserable discovery, and dared not speak to her of it. But that was not the worst. My horizon darkened. One horrible day I discovered that it was I, and not Adelaide, who had attracted Sir Peter's attentions. It was not a scene, not a set declaration. It was a word in that smooth voice, a glance from that hated and chilling eye, which suddenly aroused me to the truth.
Shuddering, dismayed, I locked the matter up within my own breast, and wished with a longing that sometimes made me quite wretched that I could quit Skernford, my home, my life, which had lost zest for me, and was become a burden to me. The knowledge that Sir Peter admired me absolutely degraded me in my own eyes. I felt as if I could not hold up my head. I had spoken to no one of what had passed within me, and I trusted it had not been noticed; but all my joy was gone. It was as if I stood helpless while a noisome reptile coiled its folds around me.
To-day, after Miss Hallam's departure, I dropped into my now chronic state of listlessness and sadness. They all came back; my father from the church; my mother and Adelaide from Darton, whither they had been on a shopping expedition; Stella from a stroll by the river. We had tea, and they dispersed quite cheerfully to their various occupations. I, seeing the gloaming gently and dim falling over the earth, walked out of the house into the garden, and took my way toward the river. I passed an arbor in which Stella and I had loved to sit and watch the stream, and talk and read Miss Austen's novels. Stella was there now, with a well-thumbed copy of "Pride and Prejudice" in her hand.
"Come and sit down, May," she apostrophized me. "Do listen to this about Bingley and Wickham."
"No, thank you," said I, abstractedly, and feeling that Stella was not the person to whom I could confide my woe. Indeed, on scanning mentally the list of my acquaintance, I found that there was not one in whom I could confide. It gave me a strange sense of loneliness and aloofness, and hardened me more than the reading of a hundred satires on the meannesses of society.
I went along the terrace by the river-side, and looked up to the left—traces of Sir Peter again. There was the terrace of Deeplish Hall, which stood on a height just above a bend in the river. It was a fine old place. The sheen of the glass houses caught the rays of the sun and glanced in them. It looked rich, old, and peaceful. I had been many a time through its gardens, and thought them beautiful, and wished they belonged to me. Now I felt that they lay in a manner at my feet, and my strongest feeling respecting them was an earnest wish that I might never see them again.
Thus agreeably meditating, I insensibly left our own garden and wandered on in the now quickly falling twilight into a narrow path leading across a sort of No-Man's-Land into the demesne of Sir Peter Le Marchant. In my trouble I scarcely remarked where I was going, and with my eyes cast upon the ground was wishing that I could feel again as I once had felt, when
"I nothing had, and yet enough;"
and was sadly wondering what I could do to escape from the net in which I felt myself caught, when a shadow darkened the twilight in which I stood, and looking up I saw Sir Peter, and heard these words:
"Good-evening, Miss Wedderburn. Are you enjoying a little stroll?"
By, as it seemed to me, some strange miracle all my inward fears and tremblings vanished. I did not feel afraid of Sir Peter in the least. I felt that here was a crisis. This meeting would show me whether my fears had been groundless, and my own vanity and self-consciousness of unparalleled proportions, or whether I had judged truly, and had good reason for my qualms and anticipations.
It came. The alarm had not been a false one. Sir Peter, after conversing with me for a short time, did, in clear and unmistakable terms, inform me that he loved me, and asked me to marry him.
"I thank you," said I, mastering my impulse to cover my face with my hands, and run shuddering away from him. "I thank you for the honor you offer me, and beg to decline it."
He looked surprised, and still continued to urge me in a manner which roused a deep inner feeling of indignation within me, for it seemed to say that he understood me to be overwhelmed with the honor he proposed to confer upon me, and humored my timidity about accepting it. There was no doubt in his manner; not the shadow of a suspicion that I could be in earnest. There was something that turned my heart cold within me—a cool, sneering tone, which not all his professions of affection could disguise. Since that time I have heard Sir Peter explicitly state his conception of the sphere of woman in the world; it was not an exalted one. He could not even now quite conceal that while he told me he wished to make me his wife and the partner of his heart and possessions, yet he knew that such professions were but words—that he did not sue for my love (poor Sir Peter! I doubt if ever in his long life he was blessed with even a momentary glimpse of the divine countenance of pure Love), but offered to buy my youth, and such poor beauty as I might have, with his money and his other worldly advantages.
Sir Peter was a blank, utter skeptic with regard to the worth of woman. He did not believe in their virtue nor their self-respect; he believed them to be clever actresses, and, taken all in all, the best kind of amusement to be had for money. The kind of opinion was then new to me; the effect of it upon my mind such as might be expected. I was seventeen, and an ardent believer in all things pure and of good report.
Nevertheless, I remained composed, sedate, even courteous to the last—till I had fairly made Sir Peter understand that no earthly power should induce me to marry him; till I had let him see that I fully comprehended the advantages of the position he offered me, and declined them.
"Miss Wedderburn," said he, at last—and his voice was as unruffled as my own; had it been more angry I should have feared it less—"do you fear opposition? I do not think your parents would refuse their consent to our union."
I closed my eyes for a moment, and a hand seemed to tighten about my heart. Then I said:
"I speak without reference to my parents. In such a matter I judge for myself."
"Always the same answer?"
"Always the same, Sir Peter."
"It would be most ungentlemanly to press the subject any further." His eyes were fixed upon me with the same cold, snake-like smile. "I will not be guilty of such a solecism. Your family affections, my dear young lady, are strong, I should suppose. Which—whom do you love best?"
Surprised at the blunt straightforwardness of the question, as coming from him, I replied thoughtlessly, "Oh, my sister Adelaide."
"Indeed! I should imagine she was in every way worthy the esteem of so disinterested a person as yourself. A different disposition, though—quite. Will you allow me to touch your hand before I retire?"
Trembling with uneasy forebodings roused by his continual sneering smile, and the peculiar evil light in his eyes, I yet went through with my duty to the end. He took the hand I extended, and raised it to his lips with a low bow.
"Good-evening, Miss Wedderburn."
Faintly returning his valediction, I saw him go away, and then in a dream, a maze, a bewilderment, I too turned slowly away and walked to the house again. I felt, I knew I had behaved well and discreetly, but I had no confidence whatever that the matter was at an end.
"Lucifer, Star of the Morning! How art thou fallen!"
I found myself, without having met any one of my family, in my own room, in the semi-darkness, seated on a chair by my bedside, unnerved, faint, miserable with a misery such as I had never felt before. The window was open, and there came up a faint scent of sweetbrier and wall-flowers in soft, balmy gusts, driven into the room by the April night wind. There rose a moon and flooded the earth with radiance. Then came a sound of footsteps; the door of the next room, that belonging to Adelaide, was opened. I heard her come in, strike a match, and light her candle; the click of the catch as the blind rolled down. There was a door between her room and mine, and presently she passed it, and bearing a candle in her hand, stood in my presence. My sister was very beautiful, very proud. She was cleverer, stronger, more decided than I, or rather, while she had those qualities very strongly developed, I was almost without them. She always held her head up, and had one of those majestic figures which require no back-boards to teach them uprightness, no master of deportment to instill grace into their movements. Her toilet and mine were not, as may be supposed, of very rich materials or varied character; but while my things always looked as bad of their kind as they could—fitted badly, sat badly, were creased and crumpled—hers always had a look of freshness; she wore the merest old black merino as if it were velvet, and a muslin frill like a point-lace collar. There are such people in the world. I have always admired them, envied them, wondered at them from afar; it has never been my fate in the smallest degree to approach or emulate them.
Her pale face, with its perfect outlines, was just illumined by the candle she held, and the light also caught the crown of massive plaits which she wore around her head. She set the candle down. I sat still and looked at her.
"You are there, May," she remarked.
"Yes," was my subdued response.
"Where have you been all evening?"
"It does not matter to any one."
"Indeed it does. You were talking to Sir Peter Le Marchant. I saw you meet him from my bedroom window."
"Did he propose to you?" she inquired, with a composure which seemed to me frightful. "Worldly," I thought, was a weak word to apply to her, and I was suffering acutely.
"Well, I suppose it would be a little difficult to accept him."
"I did not accept him."
"What?" she inquired, as if she had not quite caught what I said.
"I refused him," said I, slightly raising my voice.
"What are you telling me?"
"Sir Peter has fif—"
"Don't mention Sir Peter to me again," said I, nervously, and feeling as if my heart would break. I had never quarreled with Adelaide before. No reconciliation afterward could ever make up for the anguish which I was going through now.
"Just listen to me," she said, bending over me, her lips drawn together. "I ought to have spoken to you before. I don't know whether you have ever given any thought to our position and circumstances. If not, it would be as well that you should do so now. Papa is fifty-five years old, and has three hundred a year. In the course of time he will die, and as his life is not insured, and he has regularly spent every penny of his income—naturally it would have been strange if he hadn't—what is to become of us when he is dead?"
"We can work."
"Work!" said she, with inexpressible scorn. "Work! Pray what can we do in the way of work? What kind of education have we had? The village school-mistress could make us look very small in the matter of geography and history. We have not been trained to work, and, let me tell you, May, unskilled labor does not pay in these days."
"I am sure you can do anything, Adelaide, and I will teach singing. I can sing."
"Pooh! Do you suppose that because you can take C in alt. you are competent to teach singing? You don't know how to sing yourself yet. Your face is your fortune. So is mine my fortune. So is Stella's her fortune. You have enjoyed yourself all your life; you have had seventeen years of play and amusement, and now you behave like a baby. You refuse to endure a little discomfort, as the price of placing yourself and your family forever out of the reach of trouble and trial. Why, if you were Sir Peter's wife, you could do what you liked with him. I don't say anything about myself; but oh! May, I am ashamed of you, I am ashamed of you! I thought you had more in you. Is it possible that you are nothing but a romp—nothing but a vulgar tomboy? Good Heaven! If the chance had been mine!"
"What would you have done?" I whispered, subdued for the moment, but obstinate in my heart as ever.
"I am nobody now; no one knows me. But if I had had the chance that you have had to-night, in another year I would have been known and envied by half the women in England. Bah! Circumstances are too disgusting, too unkind!"
"Oh! Adelaide, nothing could have made up for being tied to that man," said I, in a small voice; "and I am not ambitious."
"Ambitious! You are selfish—downright, grossly, inordinately selfish. Do you suppose no one else ever had to do what they did not like? Why did you not stop to think instead of rushing away from the thing like some unreasoning animal?"
"Adelaide! Sir Peter! To marry him?" I implored in tears. "How could I? I should die of shame at the very thought. Who could help seeing that I had sold myself to him?"
"And who would think any the worse of you? And what if they did? With fifteen thousand a year you may defy public opinion."
"Oh, don't! don't!" I cried, covering my face with my hands. "Adelaide, you will break my heart!"
Burying my face in the bed-quilt, I sobbed irrepressibly. Adelaide's apparent unconsciousness of, or callousness to, the stabs she was giving me, and the anguish they caused me, almost distracted me.
She loosed my arm, remarking, with bitter vexation:
"I feel as if I could shake you!"
She left the room. I was left to my meditations. My head—my heart too—ached distractingly; my arm was sore where Adelaide had grasped it; I felt as if she had taken my mind by the shoulders and shaken it roughly. I fastened both doors of my room, resolving that neither she nor any one else should penetrate to my presence again that night.
What was I to do? Where to turn? I began now to realize that the Res dom, which had always seemed to me so abundant for all occasions, were really Res Angusta, and that circumstances might occur in which they would be miserably inadequate.
"Zu Rathe gehen, und vom Rath zur That." Briefe BEETHOVEN'S.
There was surely not much in Miss Hallam to encourage confidences; yet within half an hour of the time of entering her house I had told her all that oppressed my heart, and had gained a feeling of greater security than I had yet felt. I was sure that she would befriend me. True, she did not say so. When I told her about Sir Peter Le Marchant's proposal to me, about Adelaide's behavior; when, in halting and stammering tones, and interrupted by tears, I confessed that I had not spoken to my father or mother upon the subject, and that I was not quite sure of their approval of what I had done, she even laughed a little, but not in what could be called an amused manner. When I had finished my tale, she said:
"If I understand you, the case stands thus: You have refused Sir Peter Le Marchant, but you do not feel at all sure that he will not propose to you again. Is it not so?"
"Yes," I admitted.
"And you dread and shrink from the idea of a repetition of this business?"
"I feel as if it would kill me."
"It would not kill you. People are not so easily killed as all that; but it is highly unfit that you should be subjected to a recurrence of it. I will think about it. Will you have the goodness to read me a page of this book?"
Much surprised at this very abrupt change of the subject, but not daring to make any observation upon it, I took the book—the current number of a magazine—and read a page to her.
"That will do," said she. "Now, will you read this letter, also aloud?"
She put a letter into my hand, and I read:
"DEAR MADAME,—In answer to your letter of last week, I write to say that I could find the rooms you require, and that by me you will have many good agreements which would make your stay in Germany pleasanter. My house is a large one in the Alleestrasse. Dr. Mittendorf, the oculist, lives not far from here, and the Staedtische Augenklinik—that is, the eye hospital—is quite near. The rooms you would have are upstairs—suite of salon and two bedrooms, with room for your maid in another part of the house. I have other boarders here at the time, but you would do as you pleased about mixing with them.
"With all highest esteem, "Your devoted, "'CLARA STEINMANN.'"
"You don't understand it all, I suppose?" said she, when I had finished.
"That lady writes from Elberthal. You have heard of Elberthal on the Rhine, I presume?"
"Oh, yes! A large town. There used to be a fine picture-gallery there; but in the war between the—"
"There, thank you! I studied Guy's geography myself in my youth. I see you know the place I mean. There is an eye hospital there, and a celebrated oculist—Mittendorf. I am going there. I don't suppose it will be of the least use; but I am going. Drowning men catch at straws. Well, what else can you do? You don't read badly."
"I can sing—not very well, but I can sing."
"You can sing," said she, reflectively. "Just go to the piano and let me hear a specimen. I was once a judge in these matters."
I opened the piano and sung, as well as I could, an English version of "Die Lotus-blume."
My performance was greeted with silence, which Miss Hallam at length broke, remarking:
"I suppose you have not had much training?"
"Humph! Well, it is to be had, even if not in Skernford. Would you like some lessons?"
"I should like a good many things that I am not likely ever to have."
"At Elberthal there are all kinds of advantages with regard to those things—music and singing, and so on. Will you come there with me as my companion?"
I heard, but did not fairly understand. My head was in a whirl. Go to Germany with Miss Hallam; leave Skernford, Sir Peter, all that had grown so weary to me; see new places, live with new people; learn something! No, I did not grasp it in the least. I made no reply, but sat breathlessly staring.
"But I shall expect you to make yourself useful to me in many ways," proceeded Miss Hallam.
At this touch of reality I began to waken up again.
"Oh, Miss Hallam, is it really true? Do you think they will let me go?"
"You haven't answered me yet."
"About being useful? I would do anything you like—anything in the world."
"Do not suppose your life will be all roses, or you will be woefully disappointed. I do not go out at all; my health is bad—so is my temper very often. I am what people who never had any trouble are fond of calling peculiar. Still, if you are in earnest, and not merely sentimentalizing, you will take your courage in your hands and come with me."
"Miss Hallam," said I, with tragic earnestness, as I took her hand, "I will come. I see you half mistrust me; but if I had to go to Siberia to get out of Sir Peter's way, I would go gladly and stay there. I hope I shall not be very clumsy. They say at home that I am, very, but I will do my best."
"They call you clumsy at home, do they?"
"Yes. My sisters are so much cleverer than I, and can do everything so much better than I can. I am rather stupid, I know."
"Very well, if you like to call yourself so, do. It is decided that you come with me. I will see your father about it to-morrow. I always get my own way when I wish it. I leave in about a week."
I sat with clasped hands, my heart so full that I could not speak. Sadness and gladness struggled hard within me. The idea of getting away from Skernford was almost too delightful; the remembrance of Adelaide made my heart ache.
"Ade nun ihr Berge, ihr vaeterlich Haus! Es treibt in die Ferne mich maechtig hinaus." VOLKSLIED.
Consent was given. Sir Peter was not mentioned to me by my parents, or by Adelaide. The days of that week flew rapidly by.
I was almost afraid to mention my prospects to Adelaide. I feared she would resent my good fortune in going abroad, and that her anger at having spoiled those other prospects would remain unabated. Moreover, a deeper feeling separated me from her now—the knowledge that there lay a great gulf of feeling, sentiment, opinion between us, which nothing could bridge over or do away with. Outwardly we might be amiable and friendly to each other, but confidence, union, was fled over. Once again in the future, I was destined, when our respective principles had been tried to the utmost, to have her confidence—to see her heart of hearts; but for the present we were effectually divided. I had mortally offended her, and it was not a case in which I could with decency even humble myself to her. Once, however, she mentioned the future.
When the day of our departure had been fixed, and was only two days distant; when I was breathless with hurried repairing of old clothes, and the equally hurried laying in of a small stock of new ones; while I was contemplating with awe the prospect of a first journey to London, to Ostend, to Brussels, she said to me, as I sat feverishly hemming a frill:
"So you are going to Germany?"
"What are you going to do there?"
"My duty, I hope."
"Charity, my dear, and duty too, begins at home. I should say you were going away leaving your duty undone."
I was silent, and she went on:
"I suppose you wish to go abroad, May?"
"You know I have always wished to go."
"So do I."
"I wish you were going too," said I, timidly.
"Thank you. My views upon the subject are quite different. When I go abroad I shall go in a different capacity to that you are going to assume. I will let you know all about it in due time."
"Very well," said I, almost inaudibly, having a vague idea as to what she meant, but determined not to speak about it.
* * * * *
The following day the curtain rose upon the first act of the play—call it drama, comedy, tragedy, what you will—which was to be played in my absence. I had been up the village to the post-office, and was returning, when I saw advancing toward me two figures which I had cause to remember—my sister's queenly height, her white hat over her eyes, and her sunshade in her hand, and beside her the pale face, with its ragged eyebrows and hateful sneer, of Sir Peter Le Marchant.
Adelaide, not at all embarrassed by his company, was smiling slightly, and her eyes with drooped lids glanced downward toward the baronet. I shrunk into a cottage to avoid them as they came past, and waited. Adelaide was saying:
"Proud—yes, I am proud, I suppose. Too proud, at least, to—"
There! Out of hearing. They had passed. I hurried out of the cottage, and home.
The next day I met Miss Hallam and her maid (we three traveled alone) at the station, and soon we were whirling smoothly along our southward way—to York first, then to London, and so out into the world, thought I.
"Ein Held aus der Fremde, gar kuehn."
We had left Brussels and Belgium behind, had departed from the regions of Chemins de fer, and entered those of Eisenbahnen. We were at Cologne, where we had to change and wait half an hour before we could go on to Elberthal. We sat in the wartesaal, and I had committed to my charge two bundles, with strict injunctions not to lose them.
Then the doors were opened, and the people made a mad rush to a train standing somewhere in the dim distance. Merrick, Miss Hallam's maid, had to give her whole attention to her mistress. I followed close in their wake, until, as we had almost come to the train, I cast my eyes downward and perceived that there was missing from my arm a gray shawl of Miss Hallam's, which had been committed to my charge, and upon which she set a fidgety kind of value, as being particularly warm or particularly soft.
Dismayed, I neither hesitated nor thought, but turned, fought my way through the throng of people to the waiting-room again, hunted every corner, but in vain, for the shawl. Either it was completely lost, or Merrick had, without my observing it, taken it under her own protection. It was not in the waiting-room. Giving up the search I hurried to the door: it was fast. No one more, it would seem, was to be let out that way; I must go round, through the passages into the open hall of the station, and so on to the platform again. More easily said than done. Always, from my earliest youth up, I have had a peculiar fancy for losing myself. On this eventful day I lost myself. I ran through the passages, came into the great open place surrounded on every side by doors leading to the platforms, offices, or booking offices. Glancing hastily round, I selected the door which appeared to my imperfectly developed "locality" to promise egress upon the platform, pushed it open, and going along a covered passage, and through another door, found myself, after the loss of a good five minutes, in a lofty deserted wing of the station, gazing wildly at an empty platform, and feverishly scanning all the long row of doors to my right, in a mad effort to guess which would take me from this delightful terra incognito back to my friends.
Gepaeck-Expedition, I read, and thought it did not sound promising. Telegraphs bureau. Impossible! Ausgang. There was the magic word, and I, not knowing it, stared at it and was none the wiser for its friendly sign. I heard a hollow whistle in the distance. No doubt it was the Elberthal train going away, and my heart sunk deep, deep within my breast. I knew no German word. All I could say was "Elberthal;" and my nearest approach to "first-class" was to point to the carriage doors and say "Ein," which might or might not be understood—probably not, when the universal stupidity of the German railway official is taken into consideration, together with his chronic state of gratuitous suspicion that a bad motive lurks under every question which is put to him. I heard a subdued bustle coming from the right hand in the distance, and I ran hastily to the other end of the great empty place, seeing, as I thought, an opening. Vain delusion! Deceptive dream of the fancy! There was a glass window through which I looked and saw a street thronged with passengers and vehicles. I hurried back again to find my way to the entrance of the station and there try another door, when I heard a bell ring violently—a loud groaning and shrieking, and then the sound, as it were, of a train departing. A porter—at least a person in uniform, appeared in a door-way. How I rushed up to him! How I seized his arm, and dropping my rugs gesticulated excitedly and panted forth the word "Elberthal!"
"Elberthal?" said he in a guttural bass; "Wollt ihr nach Elberthal, fraeuleinchen!"
There was an impudent twinkle in his eye, as it were impertinence trying to get the better of beer, and I reiterated "Elberthal," growing very red, and cursing all foreign speeches by my gods—a process often employed, I believe, by cleverer persons than I, with reference to things they do not understand.
"Schon fort, Fraeulein," he continued, with a grin.
He was about to make some further reply, when, turning, he seemed to see some one, and assumed a more respectful demeanor. I too turned, and saw at some little distance from us a gentleman sauntering along, who, though coming toward us, did not seem to observe us. Would he understand me if I spoke to him? Desperate as I was, I felt some timidity about trying it. Never had I felt so miserable, so helpless, so utterly ashamed as I did then. My lips trembled as the new-comer drew nearer, and the porter, taking the opportunity of quitting a scene which began to bore him, slipped away. I was left alone on the platform, nervously snatching short glances at the person slowly, very slowly approaching me. He did not look up as if he beheld me or in any way remarked my presence. His eyes were bent toward the ground: his fingers drummed a tune upon his chest. As he approached, I heard that he was humming something. I even heard the air; it has been impressed upon my memory firmly enough since, though I did not know it then—the air of the march from Raff's Fifth Symphonie, the "Lenore." I heard the tune softly hummed in a mellow voice, as with face burning and glowing, I placed myself before him. Then he looked suddenly up as if startled, fixed upon me a pair of eyes which gave me a kind of shock; so keen, so commanding were they, with a kind of tameless freedom in their glance such as I had never seen before.
Arrested (no doubt by my wild and excited appearance), he stood still and looked at me, and as he looked a slight smile began to dawn upon his lips. Not an Englishman. I should have known him for an outlander anywhere. I remarked no details of his appearance; only that he was tall and had, as it seemed to me, a commanding bearing. I stood hesitating and blushing. (To this very day the blood comes to my face as I think of my agony of blushes in that immemorial moment.) I saw a handsome—a very handsome face, quite different from any I had ever seen before: the startling eyes before spoken of, and which surveyed me with a look so keen, so cool, and so bright, which seemed to penetrate through and through me; while a slight smile curled the light mustache upward—a general aspect which gave me the impression that he was not only a personage, but a very great personage—with a flavor of something else permeating it all which puzzled me and made me feel embarrassed as to how to address him. While I stood inanely trying to gather my senses together, he took off the little cloth cap he wore, and bowing, asked:
"Mein Fraeulein, in what can I assist you?"
His English was excellent—his bow like nothing I had seen before. Convinced that I had met a genuine, thorough fine gentleman (in which I was right for once in my life), I began:
"I have lost my way," and my voice trembled in spite of all my efforts to steady it. "In a crowd I lost my friends, and—I was going to Elberthal, and I turned the wrong way—and—"
"Have come to destruction, nicht wahr?" He looked at his watch, raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. "The Elberthal train is already away."
"Gone!" I dropped my rugs and began a tremulous search for my pocket-handkerchief. "What shall I do?"
"There is another—let me see—in one hour—two—will 'mal nachsehen. Will you come with me, Fraeulein, and we will see about the trains."
"If you would show me the platform," said I. "Perhaps some of them may still be there. Oh, what will they think of me?"
"We must go to the wartesaal," said he. "Then you can look out and see if you see any of them."
I had no choice but to comply.
My benefactor picked up my two bundles, and, in spite of my expostulations, carried them with him. He took me through the door inscribed Ausgang, and the whole thing seemed so extremely simple now, that my astonishment as to how I could have lost myself increased every minute. He went before me to the waiting-room, put my bundles upon one of the sofas, and we went to the door. The platform was almost as empty as the one we had left.
I looked round, and though it was only what I had expected, yet my face fell when I saw how utterly and entirely my party had disappeared.
"You see them not?" he inquired.
"No—they are gone," said I, turning away from the window and choking down a sob, not very effectually. Turning my damp and sorrowful eyes to my companion, I found that he was still smiling to himself as if quietly amused at the whole adventure.
"I will go and see at what time the trains go to Elberthal. Suppose you sit down—yes?"
Passively obeying, I sat down and turned my situation over in my mind, in which kind of agreeable mental legerdemain I was still occupied when he returned.
"It is now half past three, and there is a train to Elberthal at seven."
"Seven: a very pleasant time to travel, nicht wahr? Then it is still quite light."
"So long! Three hours and a half," I murmured, dejectedly, and bit my lips and hung my head. Then I said, "I am sure I am much obliged to you. If I might ask you a favor?"
"Bitte, mein Fraeulein!"
"If you could show me exactly where the train starts from, and—could I get a ticket now, do you think?"
"I'm afraid not, so long before," he answered, twisting his mustache, as I could not help seeing, to hide a smile.
"Then," said I, with stoic calmness, "I shall never get to Elberthal—never, for I don't know a word of German, not one," I sat more firmly down upon the sofa, and tried to contemplate the future with fortitude.
"I can tell you what to say," said he, removing with great deliberation the bundles which divided us, and sitting down beside me. He leaned his chin upon his hand and looked at me, ever, as it seemed to me, with amusement tempered with kindness, and I felt like a very little girl indeed.
"You are exceedingly good," I replied, "but it would be of no use. I am so frightened of those men in blue coats and big mustaches. I should not be able to say a word to any of them."
"German is sometimes not unlike English."
"It is like nothing to me, except a great mystery."
"Billet, is 'ticket,'" said he persuasively.
"Oh, is it?" said I, with a gleam of hope. "Perhaps I could remember that. Billet," I repeated reflectively.
"Billet," he amended; "not Billit."
"Bill-yet—Bill-yet," I repeated.
"And 'to Elberthal' may be said in one word, 'Elberthal.' 'Ein Billet—Elberthal—erster Classe.'"
"Ein Bill-yet," I repeated, automatically, for my thoughts were dwelling more upon the charming quandary in which I found myself than upon his half-good-natured half-mocking instructions: "Ein Bill-yet, firste—erste—it is of no use. I can't say it. But"—here a brilliant idea struck me—"if you could write it out for me on a paper, and then I could give it to the man: he would surely know what it meant."
"A very interesting idea, but a viva voce interview is so much better."
"I wonder how long it takes to walk to Elberthal!" I suggested darkly.
"Oh, a mere trifle of a walk. You might do it in four or five hours, I dare say."
I bit my lips, trying not to cry.
"Perhaps we might make some other arrangement," he remarked. "I am going to Elberthal too."
"You! Thank Heaven!" was my first remark. Then as a doubt came over me: "Then why—why—"
Here I stuck fast, unable to ask why he had said so many tormenting things to me, pretended to teach me German phrases, and so on. The words would not come out. Meanwhile he, without apparently feeling it necessary to explain himself upon these points, went on:
"Yes. I have been at a probe" (not having the faintest idea as to what a probe might be, and not liking to ask, I held my peace and bowed assentingly). He went on, "And I was delayed a little. I had intended to go by the train you have lost, so if you are not afraid to trust yourself to my care we can travel together."
"You—you are very kind."
"Then you are not afraid?"
"I—oh, no! I should like it very much. I mean I am sure it would be very nice."
Feeling that my social powers were as yet in a very undeveloped condition, I subsided into silence, as he went on:
"I hope your friends will not be very uneasy?"
"Oh, dear no!" I assured him, with a pious conviction that I was speaking the truth.
"We shall arrive at Elberthal about half past eight."
I scarcely heard. I had plunged my hand into my pocket, and found—a hideous conviction crossed my mind—I had no money! I had until this moment totally forgotten having given my purse to Merrick to keep; and she, as pioneer of the party, naturally had all our tickets under her charge. My heart almost stopped beating. It was unheard of, horrible, this possibility of falling into the power of a total, utter stranger—a foreigner—a—Heaven only knew what! Engrossed with this painful and distressing problem, I sat silent, and with eyes gloomily cast down.
"One thing is certain," he remarked. "We do not want to spend three hours and a half in the station. I want some dinner. A four hours' probe is apt to make one a little hungry. Come, we will go and have something to eat."
The idea had evidently come to him as a species of inspiration, and he openly rejoiced in it.
"I am not hungry," said I; but I was, very. I knew it now that the idea "dinner" had made itself conspicuous in my consciousness.
"Perhaps you think not; but you are, all the same," he said. "Come with me, Fraeulein. You have put yourself into my hands; you must do what I tell you."
I followed him mechanically out of the station and down the street, and I tried to realize that instead of being with Miss Hallam and Merrick, my natural and respectable protectors, safely and conventionally plodding the slow way in the slow continental train to the slow continental town, I was parading about the streets of Koeln with a man of whose very existence I had half an hour ago been ignorant; I was dependent, too, upon him, and him alone, for my safe arrival at Elberthal. And I followed him unquestioningly, now and then telling myself, by way of feeble consolation, that he was a gentleman—he certainly was a gentleman—and wishing now and then, or trying to wish, with my usual proper feeling, that it had been some nice old lady with whom I had fallen in: it would have made the whole adventure blameless, and, comparatively speaking, agreeable.
We went along a street and came to a hotel, a large building, into which my conductor walked, spoke to a waiter, and we were shown into the restaurant, full of round tables, and containing some half dozen parties of people. I followed with stony resignation. It was the severest trial of all, this coming to a hotel alone with a gentleman in broad daylight. I caught sight of a reflection in a mirror of a tall, pale girl, with heavy, tumbled auburn hair, a brown hat which suited her, and a severely simple traveling-dress. I did not realize until I had gone past that it was my own reflection which I had seen.
"Suppose we sit here," said he, going to a table in a comparatively secluded window recess, partially overhung with curtains.
"How very kind and considerate of him!" thought I.
"Would you rather have wine or coffee, Fraeulein?"
Pulled up from the impulse to satisfy my really keen hunger by the recollection of my "lack of gold," I answered hastily.
"Nothing, thank you—really nothing."
"O doch! You must have something," said he, smiling. "I will order something. Don't trouble about it."
"Don't order anything for me," said I, my cheeks burning. "I shall not eat anything."
"If you do not eat, you will be ill. Remember, we do not get to Elberthal before eight," said he. "Is it perhaps disagreeable to you to eat in the saal? If you like we can have a private room."
"It is not that at all," I replied; and seeing that he looked surprised, I blurted out the truth. "I have no money. I gave my purse to Miss Hallam's maid to keep and she has taken it with her."
With a laugh, in which, infectious though it was, I was too wretched to join:
"Is that all? Kellner!" cried he.
An obsequious waiter came up, smiled sweetly and meaningly at us, received some orders from my companion, and disappeared.
He seated himself beside me at the little round table.
"He will bring something at once," said he, smiling.
I sat still. I was not happy, and yet I could not feel all the unhappiness which I considered appropriate to the circumstances.
My companion took up a "Koelnische Zeitung," and glanced over the advertisements, while I looked a little stealthily at him, and for the first time took in more exactly what he was like, and grew more puzzled with him each moment. As he leaned upon the table, one slight, long, brown hand propping his head, and half lost in the thick, fine brown hair which waved in large, ample waves over his head, there was an indescribable grace, ease, and negligent beauty in the attitude. Move as he would, let him assume any possible or impossible attitude, there was still in the same grace, half careless, yet very dignified in the position he took.
All his lines were lines of beauty, but beauty which had power and much masculine strength; nowhere did it degenerate into flaccidity, nowhere lose strength in grace. His hair was long, and I wondered at it. My small experience in our delightful home and village circle had not acquainted me with that flowing style; the young men of my acquaintance cropped their hair close to the scalp, and called it the modern style of hair-dressing. It had always looked to me more like hair-undressing. This hair fell in a heavy wave over his forehead, and he had the habit, common to people whose hair does so, of lifting his head suddenly and shaking back the offending lock. His forehead was broad, open, pleasant, yet grave. Eyes, as I had seen, very dark, and with lashes and brows which enhanced the contrast to a complexion at once fair and pale. A light mustache, curving almost straight across the face, gave a smiling expression to lips which were otherwise grave, calm, almost sad. In fact, looking nearer, I thought he did look sad; and though when he looked at me his eyes were so piercing, yet in repose they had a certain distant, abstracted expression not far removed from absolute mournfulness. Broad-shouldered, long-armed, with a physique in every respect splendid, he was yet very distinctly removed from the mere handsome animal which I believe enjoys a distinguished popularity in the latter-day romance.
Now, as his eyes were cast upon the paper, I perceived lines upon his forehead, signs about the mouth and eyes telling of a firm, not to say imperious, disposition; a certain curve of the lips, and of the full, yet delicate nostril, told of pride both strong and high. He was older than I had thought, his face sparer; there were certain hollows in the cheeks, two lines between the eyebrows, a sharpness, or rather somewhat worn appearance of the features, which told of a mental life, keen and consuming. Altogether, an older, more intellectual, more imposing face than I had at first thought; less that of a young and handsome man, more that of a thinker and student. Lastly, a cool ease, deliberation, and leisureliness about all he said and did, hinted at his being a person in authority, accustomed to give orders and see them obeyed without question. I decided that he was, in our graceful home phrase, "master in his own house."
His clothing was unremarkable—gray summer clothes, such as any gentleman or any shop-keeper might wear; only in scanning him no thought of shop-keeper came into my mind. His cap lay upon the table beside us, one of the little gray Studentenmutzen with which Elberthal soon made me familiar, but which struck me then as odd and outlandish. I grew every moment more interested in my scrutiny of this, to me, fascinating and remarkable face, and had forgotten to try to look as if I were not looking, when he looked up suddenly, without warning, with those bright, formidable eyes, which had already made me feel somewhat shy as I caught them fixed upon me.
"Nun, have you decided?" he asked, with a humorous look in his eyes, which he was too polite to allow to develop itself into a smile.
"I—oh, I beg your pardon!"
"You do not want to," he answered, in imperfect idiom. "But have you decided?"
"Whether I am to be trusted?"
"I have not been thinking about that," I said, uncomfortably, when to my relief the appearance of the waiter with preparations for a meal saved me further reply.
"What shall we call this meal?" he asked, as the waiter disappeared to bring the repast to the table. "It is too late for the Mittagessen, and too early for the Abendbrod. Can you suggest a name?"
"At home it would be just the time for afternoon tea."
"Ah, yes! Your English afternoon tea is very—" He stopped suddenly.
"Have you been in England?"
"This is just the time at which we drink our afternoon coffee in Germany," said he, looking at me with his impenetrably bright eyes, just as if he had never heard me. "When the ladies all meet together to talk scan—O, behuete! What am I saying?—to consult seriously upon important topics, you know. There are some low-minded persons who call the whole ceremony a Klatsch—Kaffeeklatsch. I am sure you and I shall talk seriously upon important subjects, so suppose we call this our Kaffeeklatsch, although we have no coffee to it."
"Oh, yes, if you like."
He put a piece of cutlet upon my plate, and poured yellow wine into my glass. Endeavoring to conduct myself with the dignity of a grown-up person and to show that I did know something, I inquired if the wine were hock.
He smiled. "It is not Hochheimer—not Rheinwein at all—he—no, it, you say—it is Moselle wine—'Doctor.'"
"Doctorberger; I do not know why so called. And a very good fellow too—so say all his friends, of whom I am a warm one. Try him."
I complied with the admonition, and was able to say that I liked Doctorberger. We ate and drank in silence for some little time, and I found that I was very hungry. I also found that I could not conjure up any real feeling of discomfort or uneasiness, and that the prospective scolding from Miss Hallam had no terrors in it for me. Never had I felt so serene in mind, never more at ease in every way, than now. I felt that this was wrong—bohemian, irregular, and not respectable, and tried to get up a little unhappiness about something. The only thing that I could think of was:
"I am afraid I am taking up your time. Perhaps you had some business which you were going to when you met me."
"My business, when I met you, was to catch the train to Elberthal, which was already gone, as you know. I shall not be able to fulfill my engagements for to-night, so it really does not matter. I am enjoying myself very much."
"I am very glad I did meet you," said I, growing more reassured as I found that my companion, though exceedingly polite and attentive to me, did not ask a question as to my business, my traveling companions, my intended stay or object in Elberthal—that he behaved as a perfect gentleman—one who is a gentleman throughout, in thought as well as in deed. He did not even ask me how it was that my friends had not waited a little for me, though he must have wondered why two people left a young girl, moneyless and ignorant, to find her way after them as well as she could. He took me as he found me, and treated me as if I had been the most distinguished and important of persons. But at my last remark he said, with the same odd smile which took me by surprise every time I saw it:
"The pleasure is certainly not all on your side, mein Fraeulein. I suppose from that you have decided that I am to be trusted?"
I stammered out something to the effect that "I should be very ungrateful were I not satisfied with—with such a—" I stopped, looking at him in some confusion. I saw a sudden look flash into his eyes and over his face. It was gone again in a moment—so fleeting that I had scarce time to mark it, but it opened up a crowd of strange new impressions to me, and while I could no more have said what it was like the moment it was gone, yet it left two desires almost equally strong in me—I wished in one and the same moment that I had for my own peace of mind never seen him—and that I might never lose sight of him again: to fly from that look, to remain and encounter it. The tell-tale mirror in the corner caught my eye. At home they used sometimes to call me, partly in mockery, partly in earnest, "Bonny May." The sobriquet had hitherto been a mere shadow, a meaningless thing, to me. I liked to hear it, but had never paused to consider whether it were appropriate or not. In my brief intercourse with my venerable suitor, Sir Peter, I had come a little nearer to being actively aware that I was good-looking, only to anathematize the fact. Now, catching sight of my reflection in the mirror, I wondered eagerly whether I really were fair, and wished I had some higher authority to think so than the casual jokes of my sisters. It did not add to my presence of mind to find that my involuntary glance to the mirror had been intercepted—perhaps even my motive guessed at—he appeared to have a frightfully keen instinct.
"Have you seen the Dom?" was all he said; but it seemed somehow to give a point to what had passed.
"The Dom—what is the Dom?"
"The Koelner Dom; the cathedral."
"Oh, no! Oh, should we have time to see it?" I exclaimed. "How I should like it!"
"Certainly. It is close at hand. Suppose we go now."
Gladly I rose, as he did. One of my most ardent desires was about to be fulfilled—not so properly and correctly as might have been desired, but—yes, certainly more pleasantly than under the escort of Miss Hallam, grumbling at every groschen she had to unearth in payment.
Before we could leave our seclusion there came up to us a young man who had looked at us through the door and paused. I had seen him; had seen how he said something to a companion, and how the companion shook his head dissentingly. The first speaker came up to us, eyed me with a look of curiosity, and turning to my protector with a benevolent smile, said:
"Eugen Courvoisier! Also hatte ich doch Recht!"
I caught the name. The rest was of course lost upon me. Eugen Courvoisier? I liked it, as I liked him, and in my young enthusiasm decided that it was a very good name. The new-comer, who seemed as if much pleased with some discovery, and entertained at the same time, addressed some questions to Courvoisier, who answered him tranquilly but in a tone of voice which was very freezing; and then the other, with a few words and an unbelieving kind of laugh, said something about a schoene Geschichte, and, with another look at me, went out of the coffee-room again.
We went out of the hotel, up the street to the cathedral. It was the first cathedral I had ever been in. The shock and the wonder of its grandeur took my breath away. When I had found courage to look round, and up at those awful vaults the roofs, I could not help crying a little. The vastness, coolness, stillness, and splendor crushed me—the great solemn rays of sunlight coming in slanting glory through the windows—the huge height—the impression it gave of greatness, and of a religious devotion to which we shall never again attain; of pure, noble hearts, and patient, skillful hands, toiling, but in a spirit that made the toil a holy prayer—carrying out the builder's thought—great thought greatly executed—all was too much for me, the more so in that while I felt it all I could not analyze it. It was a dim, indefinite wonder. I tried stealthily and in shame to conceal my tears, looking surreptitiously at him in fear lest he should be laughing at me again. But he was not. He held his cap in his hand—was looking with those strange, brilliant eyes fixedly toward the high altar, and there was some expression upon his face which I could not analyze—not the expression of a person for whom such a scene has grown or can grow common by custom—not the expression of a sight-seer who feels that he must admire; not my own first astonishment. At least he felt it—the whole grand scene, and I instinctively and instantly felt more at home with him than I had done before.
"Oh!" said I, at last, "if one could stay here forever, what would one grow to?"
He smiled a little.
"You find it beautiful?"
"It is the first I have seen. It is much more than beautiful."
"The first you have seen? Ah, well, I might have guessed that."
"Why? Do I look so countrified?" I inquired, with real interest, as I let him lead me to a little side bench, and place himself beside me. I asked in all good faith. About him there seemed such a cosmopolitan ease, that I felt sure he could tell me correctly how I struck other people—if he would.
"Countrified—what is that?"
"Oh, we say it when people are like me—have never seen anything but their own little village, and never had any adventures, and—"
"Get lost at railway stations, und so weiter. I don't know enough of the meaning of 'countrified' to be able to say if you are so, but it is easy to see that you—have not had much contention with the powers that be."
"Oh, I shall not be stupid long," said I, comfortably. "I am not going back home again."
"So!" He did not ask more, but I saw that he listened, and proceeded communicatively:
"Never. I have—not quarreled with them exactly, but had a disagreement, because—because—"
"They wanted me to—I mean, an old gentleman—no, I mean—"
"An old gentleman wanted you to marry him, and you would not," said he, with an odd twinkle in his eyes.
"Why, how can you know?"
"I think, because you told me. But I will forget it if you wish."
"Oh, no! It is quite true. Perhaps I ought to have married him."
"Ought!" He looked startled.
"Yes. Adelaide—my eldest sister—said so. But it was no use. I was very unhappy, and Miss Hallam, who is Sir Peter's deadly enemy—he is the old gentleman, you know—was very kind to me. She invited me to come with her to Germany, and promised to let me have singing lessons."
I nodded. "Yes; and then when I know a good deal more about singing, I shall go back again and give lessons. I shall support myself, and then no one will have the right to want to make me marry Sir Peter."
"Du lieber Himmel!" he ejaculated, half to himself. "Are you very musical, then?"
"I can sing," said I. "Only I want some more training."
"And you will go back all alone and try to give lessons?"
"I shall not only try, I shall do it," I corrected him.
"And do you like the prospect?"
"If I can get enough money to live upon, I shall like it very much. It will be better than living at home and being bothered."
"I will tell you what you should do before you begin your career," said he, looking at me with an expression half wondering, half pitying.
"What? If you could tell me anything."
"Preserve your voice, by all means, and get as much instruction as you can; but change all that waving hair, and make it into unobjectionable smooth bands of no particular color. Get a mask to wear over your face, which is too expressive; do something to your eyes to alter their—"
The expression then visible in the said eyes seemed to strike him, for he suddenly stopped, and with a slight laugh, said:
"Ach, was rede ich fuer dummes Zeug! Excuse me, mein Fraeulein."
"But," I interrupted, earnestly, "what do you mean? Do you think my appearance will be a disadvantage to me?"
Scarcely had I said the words than I knew how intensely stupid they were, how very much they must appear as if I were openly and impudently fishing for compliments. How grateful I felt when he answered, with a grave directness, which had nothing but the highest compliment in it—that of crediting me with right motives:
"Mein Fraeulein, how can I tell? It is only that I knew some one, rather older than you, and very beautiful, who had such a pursuit. Her name was Corona Heidelberger, and her story was a sad one."
"Tell it me," I besought.
"Well, no, I think not. But—sometimes I have a little gift of foresight, and that tells me that you will not become what you at present think. You will be much happier and more fortunate."
"I wonder if it would be nice to be a great operatic singer," I speculated.
"O, behuete! don't think of it!" he exclaimed, starting up and moving restlessly. "You do not know—you an opera singer—"
He was interrupted. There suddenly filled the air a sound of deep, heavenly melody, which swept solemnly adown the aisles, and filled with its melodious thunder every corner of the great building. I listened with my face upraised, my lips parted. It was the organ, and presently, after a wonderful melody, which set my heart beating—a melody full of the most witchingly sweet high notes, and a breadth and grandeur of low ones such as only two composers have ever attained to, a voice—a single woman's voice—was upraised. She was invisible, and she sung till the very sunshine seemed turned to melody, and all the world was music—the greatest, most glorious of earthly things.
"Blute nur, liebes Herz! Ach, ein Kind das du erzogen, Das an deiner Brust gesogen, Drohet den Pfleger zu ermorden Denn es ist zur Schlange worden."
"What is it?" I asked below my breath, as it ceased.
He had shaded his face with his hand, but turned to me as I spoke, a certain half-suppressed enthusiasm in his eyes.
"Be thankful for your first introduction to German music," said he, "and that it was grand old Johann Sebastian Bach whom you heard. That is one of the soprano solos in the Passions-musik—that is music."
There was more music. A tenor voice was singing a recitative now, and that exquisite accompaniment, with a sort of joyful solemnity, still continued. Every now and then, shrill, high, and clear, penetrated a chorus of boys' voices. I, outer barbarian that I was, barely knew the name of Bach and his "Matthaus Passion," so in the pauses my companion told me by snatches what it was about. There was not much of it. After a few solos and recitatives, they tried one or two of the choruses. I sat in silence, feeling a new world breaking in glory around me, till that tremendous chorus came; the organ notes swelled out, the tenor voice sung "Whom will ye that I give unto you?" and the answer came, crashing down in one tremendous clap, "Barrabam!" And such music was in the world, had been sung for years, and I had not heard it. Verily, there may be revelations and things new under the sun every day.
I had forgotten everything outside the cathedral—every person but the one at my side. It was he who roused first, looking at his watch and exclaiming.
"Herrgott! We must go to the station, Fraeulein, if we wish to catch the train."
And yet I did not think he seemed very eager to catch it, as we went through the busy streets in the warmth of the evening, for it was hot, as it sometimes is in pleasant April, before the withering east winds of the "merry month" have come to devastate the land and sweep sickly people off the face of the earth. We went slowly through the moving crowds to the station, into the wartesaal, where he left me while he went to take my ticket. I sat in the same corner of the same sofa as before, and to this day I could enumerate every object in that wartesaal.
It was after seven o'clock. The outside sky was still bright, but it was dusk in the waiting-room and under the shadow of the station. When "Eugen Courvoisier" came in again, I did not see his features so distinctly as lately in the cathedral. Again he sat down beside me, silently this time. I glanced at his face, and a strange, sharp, pungent thrill shot through me. The companion of a few hours—was he only that?
"Are you very tired?" he asked, gently, after a long pause. "I think the train will not be very long now."
Even as he spoke, clang, clang, went the bell, and for the second time that day I went toward the train for Elberthal. This time no wrong turning, no mistake. Courvoisier put me into an empty compartment, and followed me, said something to a guard who went past, of which I could only distinguish the word allein; but as no one disturbed our privacy, I concluded that German railway guards, like English ones, are mortal.
After debating within myself for some time, I screwed up my courage and began:
"Mr. Courvoisier—your name is Courvoisier, is it not?"
"Will you please tell me how much money you have spent for me to-day?"
"How much money?" he asked, looking at me with a provoking smile.
The train was rumbling slowly along, the night darkening down. We sat by an open window, and I looked through it at the gray, Dutch-like landscape, the falling dusk, the poplars that seemed sedately marching along with us.
"Why do you want to know how much?" he demanded.
"Because I shall want to pay you, of course, when I get my purse," said I. "And if you will kindly tell me your address, too—but how much money did you spend?"
He looked at me, seemed about to laugh off the question, and then said:
"I believe it was about three thalers ten groschen, but I am not at all sure. I can not tell till I do my accounts."
"Oh, dear!" said I.
"Suppose I let you know how much it was," he went on, with a gravity which forced conviction upon me.
"Perhaps that would be the best," I agreed. "But I hope you will make out your accounts soon."
"Oh, very soon. And where shall I send my bill to?"
Feeling as if there were something not quite as it should be in the whole proceeding, I looked very earnestly at him, but could find nothing but the most perfect gravity in his expression. I repeated my address and name slowly and distinctly, as befitted so business-like a transaction, and he wrote them down in a little book.
"And you will not forget," said I, "to give me your address when you let me know what I owe you."
"Certainly—when I let you know what you owe me," he replied, putting the little book into his pocket again.
"I wonder if any one will come to meet me," I speculated, my mind more at ease in consequence of the business-like demeanor of my companion.
"Possibly," said he, with an ambiguous half smile, which I did not understand.
"Miss Hallam—the lady I came with—is almost blind. Her maid had to look after her, and I suppose that is why they did not wait for me," said I.
"It must have been a very strong reason, at any rate," he said, gravely.
Now the train rolled into the Elberthal station. There were lights, movement, a storm of people all gabbling away in a foreign tongue. I looked out. No face of any one I knew. Courvoisier sprung down and helped me out.
"Now I will put you into a drosky," said he, leading the way to where they stood outside the station.
"Alleestrasse, thirty-nine," he said to the man.
"Stop one moment," cried I, leaning eagerly out. At that moment a tall, dark girl passed us, going slowly toward the gates. She almost paused as she saw us. She was looking at my companion; I did not see her face, and was only conscious of her as coming between me and him, and so annoying me.
"Please let me thank you," I continued. "You have been so kind, so very kind—"
"O, bitte sehr! It was so kind in you to get lost exactly when and where you did," said he, smiling. "Adieu, mein Fraeulein," he added, making a sign to the coachman, who drove off.
I saw him no more. "Eugen Courvoisier"—I kept repeating the name to myself, as if I were in the very least danger of forgetting it—"Eugen Courvoisier." Now that I had parted from him I was quite clear as to my own feelings. I would have given all I was worth—not much, truly—to see him for one moment again.
Along a lighted street with houses on one side, a gleaming shine of water on the other, and trees on both, down a cross-way, then into another street, very wide, and gayly lighted, in the midst of which was an avenue.
We stopped with a rattle before a house door, and I read, by the light of the lamp that hung over it, "39."
I was expected. That was very evident. An excited-looking Dienstmaedchen opened the door, and on seeing me, greeted me as if I had been an old friend. I was presently rescued by Merrick, also looking agitated.
"Ho, Miss Wedderburn, at last you are here! How Miss Hallam has worried, to be sure."
"I could not help it, I'm very sorry," said I, following her upstairs—up a great many flights of stairs, as it seemed to me, till she ushered me into a sitting-room where I found Miss Hallam.
"Thank Heaven, child! you are here at last. I was beginning to think that if you did not come by this train, I must send some one to Koeln to look after you."
"By this train!" I repeated, blankly. "Miss Hallam—what—do you mean? There has been no other train."
"Two; there was one at four and one at six. I can not tell you how uneasy I have been at your non-appearance."
"Then—then—" I stammered, growing hot all over. "Oh, how horrible!"
"What is horrible?" she demanded. "And you must be starving. Merrick, go and see about something to eat for Miss Wedderburn. Now," she added, as her maid left the room, "tell me what you have been doing."
I told her everything, concealing nothing.
"Most annoying!" she remarked. "A gentleman, you say. My dear child, no gentleman would have done anything of the kind. I am very sorry for it all."
"Miss Hallam," I implored, almost in tears, "please do not tell any one what has happened to me. I will never be such a fool again. I know now—and you may trust me. But do not let any one know how—stupid I have been. I told you I was stupid—I told you several times. I am sure you must remember."
"Oh, yes, I remember. We will say no more about it."
"And the gray shawl," said I.
"Merrick had it."
I lifted my hands and shrugged my shoulders. "Just my luck," I murmured, resignedly, as Merrick came in with a tray.
Miss Hallam, I noticed, continued to regard me now and then as I ate with but small appetite. I was too excited by what had passed, and by what I had just heard, to be hungry. I thought it kind, merciful, humane in her to promise to keep my secret and not expose my ignorance and stupidity to strangers.
"It is evident," she remarked, "that you must at once begin to learn German, and then if you do get lost at a railway station again, you will be able to ask your way."
Merrick shook her head with an inexpressibly bitter smile.
"I'd defy any one to learn this 'ere language, ma'am. They call an accident a Unglueck; if any one could tell me what that means, I'd thank them, that's all."
"Don't express your opinions, Merrick, unless you wish to seem deficient in understanding; but go and see that Miss Wedderburn has everything she wants—or rather everything that can be got—in her room. She is tired, and shall go to bed."
I was only too glad to comply with this mandate, but it was long ere I slept. I kept hearing the organ in the cathedral, and that voice of the invisible singer—seeing the face beside me, and hearing the words, "Then you have decided that I am to be trusted?"
"And he was deceiving me all the time!" I thought, mournfully.
I breakfasted by myself the following morning, in a room called the speisesaal. I found I was late. When I came into the room, about nine o'clock, there was no one but myself to be seen. There was a long table with a white cloth upon it, and rows of the thickest cups and saucers it had ever been my fate to see, with distinct evidences that the chief part of the company had already breakfasted. Baskets full of Broedchen and pots of butter, a long India-rubber pipe coming from the gas to light a theemaschine—lots of cane-bottomed chairs, an open piano, two cages with canaries in them; the kettle gently simmering above the gas-flame; for the rest, silence and solitude.
I sat down, having found a clean cup and plate, and glanced timidly at the theemaschine, not daring to cope with its mysteries, until my doubts were relieved by the entrance of a young person with a trim little figure, a coquettishly cut and elaborately braided apron, and a white frilled morgenhaube upon her hair, surmounting her round, heavenward-aspiring visage.
"Guten morgen, Fraeulein," she said, as she marched up to the darkly mysterious theemaschine and began deftly to prepare coffee for me, and to push the Broedchen toward me. She began to talk to me in broken English, which was very pretty, and while I ate and drank, she industriously scraped little white roots at the same table. She told me she was Clara, the niece of Frau Steinmann, and that she was very glad to see me, but was very sorry I had had so long to wait in Koeln yesterday. She liked my dress, and was it echt Englisch—also, how much did it cost?
She was a cheery little person, and I liked her. She seemed to like me too, and repeatedly said she was glad I had come. She liked dancing she said. Did I? And she had lately danced at a ball with some one who danced so well—aber, quite indescribably well. His name was Karl Linders, and he was, ach! really a remarkable person. A bright blush, and a little sigh accompanied the remark. Our eyes met, and from that moment Clara and I were very good friends.
I went upstairs again, and found that Miss Hallam proposed, during the forenoon, to go and find the Eye Hospital, where she was to see the oculist, and arrange for him to visit her, and shortly after eleven we set out.