THE INDIAN LILY
AND OTHER STORIES
LUDWIG LEWISOHN, M.A.
THE INDIAN LILY
THE SONG OF DEATH
THE INDIAN LILY
It was seven o'clock in the morning when Herr von Niebeldingk opened the iron gate and stepped into the front garden whose wall of blossoming bushes separated the house from the street.
The sun of a May morning tinted the greyish walls with gold, and caused the open window-panes to flash with flame.
The master directed a brief glance at the second story whence floated the dull sound of the carpet-beater. He thrust the key rapidly into the keyhole for a desire stirred in him to slip past the porter's lodge unobserved.
"I seem almost to be—ashamed!" he murmured with a smile of self-derision as a similar impulse overcame him in front of the house door.
But John, his man—a dignified person of fifty—had observed his approach and stood in the opening door. The servant's mutton-chop whiskers and admirably silvered front-lock contrasted with a repressed reproach that hovered between his brows. He bowed deeply.
"I was delayed," said Herr von Niebeldingk, in order to say something and was vexed because this sentence sounded almost like an excuse.
"Do you desire to go to bed, captain, or would you prefer a bath?"
"A bath," the master responded. "I have slept elsewhere."
That sounded almost like another excuse.
"I'm obviously out of practice," he reflected as he entered the breakfast-room where the silver samovar steamed among the dishes of old Sevres.
He stepped in front of the mirror and regarded himself—not with the forbearance of a friend but the keen scrutiny of a critic.
"Yellow, yellow...." He shook his head. "I must apply a curb to my feelings."
Upon the whole, however, he had reason to be fairly satisfied with himself. His figure, despite the approach of his fortieth year, had remained slender and elastic. The sternly chiselled face, surrounded by a short, half-pointed beard, showed neither flabbiness nor bloat. It was only around the dark, weary eyes that the experiences of the past night had laid a net-work of wrinkles and shadows. Ten years ago pleasure had driven the hair from his temples, but it grew energetically upon his crown and rose, above his forehead, in a Mephistophelian curve.
The civilian's costume which often lends retired officers a guise of excessive spick-and-spanness had gradually combined with an easier bearing to give his figure a natural elegance. To be sure, six years had passed since, displeased by a nagging major, he had definitely hung up the dragoon's coat of blue.
He was wealthy enough to have been able to indulge in the luxury of that displeasure. In addition his estates demanded more rigorous management.... From Christmas to late spring he lived in Berlin, where his older brother occupied one of those positions at court that mean little enough either to superior or inferior ranks, but which, in a certain social set dependent upon the court, have an influence of inestimable value. Without assuming the part of either a social lion or a patron, he used this influence with sufficient thoroughness to be popular, even, in certain cases, to be feared, and belonged to that class of men to whom one always confides one's difficulties, never one's wife.
John came to announce to his master that the bath was ready. And while Niebeldingk stretched himself lazily in the tepid water he let his reflections glide serenely about the delightful occurrence of the past night.
That occurrence had been due for six months, but opportunity had been lacking. "I am closely watched and well-known," she had told him, "and dare not go on secret errands." ... Now at last their chance had come and had been used with clever circumspectness.... Somewhere on the Polish boundary lived one of her cousins to whose wedding she was permitted to travel alone.... She had planned to arrive in Berlin unannounced and, instead of taking the morning train from Eydtkuhnen, to take the train of the previous evening. Thus a night was gained whose history had no necessary place in any family chronicle and the memories of which could, if need were, be obliterated from one's own consciousness.... Her arrival and departure had caused a few moments of really needless anxiety. That was all. No acquaintance had run into them, no waiter had intimated any suspicion, the very cabby who drove them through the dawn had preserved his stupid lack of expression when Niebeldingk suddenly sprang from the vehicle and permitted the lady to be driven on alone....
Before his eyes stood her picture—as he had seen her lying during the night in his arms, fevered with anxiety and rapture ... Ordinarily her eyes were large and serene, almost drowsy.... The night had proven to him what a glow could be kindled in them. Whether her broad brows, growing together over the nose, could be regarded as a beautiful feature—that was an open question. He liked them—so much was certain.
"Thank heaven," he thought. "At last, once more—a woman."
And he thought of another who for three years had been allied to him by bonds of the tenderest intimacy and whom he had this night betrayed.
"Between us," he consoled himself, "things will remain as they have been, and I can enjoy my liberty."
He sprayed his body with the icy water of the douche and rang for John who stood outside of the door with a bath-robe.
When, ten minutes later, shivering comfortably, he entered the breakfast-room, he found beside his cup a little heap of letters which the morning post had brought. There were two letters that gripped his attention.
"Berlin N., Philippstrasse 10 a.
DEAR HERR VON NIEBELDINGK:—
For the past week I have been in Berlin studying agriculture, since, as you know, I am to take charge of the estate. Papa made me promise faithfully to look you up immediately after my arrival. It is merely due to the respect I owe you that I haven't kept my promise. As I know that you won't tell Papa I might as well confess to you that I've scarcely been sober the whole week.—Oh, Berlin is a deuce of a place!
If you don't object I will drop in at noon to-morrow and convey Papa's greetings to you. Papa is again afflicted with the gout.
With warm regards,
Your very faithful
FRITZ VON EHRENBERG."
The other letter was from ... her—clear, serene, full of such literary reminiscences as always dwelt in her busy little head.
I wouldn't ask you: Why do I not see you?—you have not called for five days—I would wait quietly till your steps led you hither without persuasion or compulsion; but 'every animal loves itself' as the old gossip Cicero says, and I feel a desire to chat with you.
I have never believed, to be sure, that we would remain indispensable to each other. 'Racine passera comme le cafe,' Mme. de Sevigne says somewhere, but I would never have dreamed that we would see so little of each other before the inevitable end of all things.
You know the proverb: even old iron hates to rust, and I'm only twenty-five.
Come once again, dear Master, if you care to. I have an excellent cigarette for you—Blum Pasha. I smoke a little myself now and then, but c'est plus fort que moi and ends in head-ache.
Joko has at last learned to say 'Richard.' He trills the r cunningly. He knows that he has little need to be jealous.
He laughed and brought forth her picture which stood, framed and glazed, upon his desk. A delicate, slender figure—"blonde comme les bles"—with bluish grey, eager eyes and a mocking expression of the lips—it was she herself, she who had made the last years of his life truly livable and whose fate he administered rather than ruled.
She was the wife of a wealthy mine-owner whose estates abutted on his and with whom an old friendship, founded on common sports, connected him.
One day, suspecting nothing, Niebeldingk entered the man's house and found him dragging his young wife from room to room by the hair.... Niebeldingk interfered and felt, in return, the lash of a whip.... Time and place had been decided upon when the man's physician forbade the duel.... He had been long suspected, but no certain symptoms had been alleged, since the brave little woman revealed nothing of the frightful inwardness of her married life.... Three days later he was definitely sent to a sanitarium. But between Niebeldingk and Alice the memory of that last hour of suffering soon wove a thousand threads of helplessness and pity into the web of love.
As she had long lost her parents and as she was quite defenceless against her husband's hostile guardians, the care of her interests devolved naturally upon him.... He released her from troublesome obligations and directed her demands toward a safe goal.... Then, very tenderly, he lifted her with all the roots of her being from the old, poverty-stricken soil of her earlier years and transplanted her to Berlin where, by the help of his brother's wife—still gently pressing on and smoothing the way himself—he created a new way of life for her.
In a villa, hidden by foliage from Lake Constance, her husband slowly drowsed toward dissolution. She herself ripened in the sharp air of the capital and grew almost into another woman in this banal, disillusioned world, sober even in its intoxication.
Of society, from whose official section her fate as well as her commoner's name separated her, she saw just enough to feel the influence of the essential conceptions that governed it.
She lost diffidence and awkwardness, she became a woman of the world and a connoisseur of life. She learned to condemn one day what she forgave the next, she learned to laugh over nothing and to grieve over nothing and to be indignant over nothing.
But what surprised Niebeldingk more than these small adaptations to the omnipotent spirit of her new environment, was the deep revolution experienced by her innermost being.
She had been a clinging, self-effacing, timid soul. Within three years she became a determined and calculating little person who lacked nothing but a certain fixedness to be a complete character.
A strange coldness of the heart now emanated from her and this was strengthened by precipitate and often unkindly judgment, supported in its turn by a desire to catch her own reflection in all things and to adopt witty points of view.
Nor was this all. She acquired a desire to learn, which at first stimulated and amused Niebeldingk, but which had long grown to be something of a nuisance.
He himself was held, and rightly held, to be a man of intellect, less by virtue of rapid perception and flexible thought, than by virtue of a coolly observant vision of the world, incapable of being confused—a certain healthy cynicism which, though it never lost an element of good nature, might yet abash and even chill the souls of men.
His actual knowledge, however, had remained mere wretched patchwork, his logic came to an end wherever bold reliance upon the intuitive process was needed to supply missing links in the ratiocinative chain.
And so it came to pass that Alice, whom at first he had regarded as his scholar, his handiwork, his creature, had developed annoyingly beyond him.... Involuntarily and innocently she delivered the keenest thrusts. He had, actually, to be on guard.... In the irresponsible delight of intellectual crudity she solved the deepest problems of humanity; she repeated, full of faith, the judgments of the ephemeral rapid writer, instead of venturing upon the sources of knowledge. Yet even so she impressed him by her faculty of adaptation and her shining zeal. He was often silenced, for his slow moving mind could not follow the vagaries of that rapid little brain.
What would she be at again to-day? "The old gossip Cicero...." And, "Mme. de Sevigne remarks...." What a rattling and tinkling. It provoked him.
And her love! ... That was a bad business. What is one to do with a mistress who, before falling asleep, is capable of lecturing on Schopenhauer's metaphysics of sex, and will prove to you up to the hilt how unworthy it really is to permit oneself to be duped by nature if one does not share her aim for the generations to come?
The man is still to be born upon whom such wisdom, uttered at such an hour—by lips however sweet—does not cast a chill.
Since that philosophical night he had left untouched the little key that hung yonder over his desk and that give him, in her house, the sacred privileges of a husband. And so his life became once more a hunt after new women who filled his heart with unrest and with the foolish fires of youth.
But Alice had never been angry at him. Apparently she lacked nothing....
And his thoughts wandered from her to the woman who had lain against his breast to-night, shuddering in her stolen joy.
Heavens! He had almost forgotten one thing!
He summoned John and said:
"Go to the florist and order a bunch of Indian lilies. The man knows what I mean. If he hasn't any, let him procure some by noon."
John did not move a muscle, but heaven only knew whether he did not suspect the connection between the Indian lilies and the romance of the past night. It was in his power to adduce precedents.
It was an old custom of Niebeldingk's—a remnant of his half out-lived Don Juan years—to send a bunch of Indian lilies to those women who had granted him their supreme favours. He always sent the flowers next morning. Their symbolism was plain and delicate: In spite of what has taken place you are as lofty and as sacred in my eyes as these pallid, alien flowers whose home is beside the Ganges. Therefore have the kindness—not to annoy me with remorse.
It was a delicate action and—a cynical one.
At noon—Niebeldingk had just returned from his morning canter—the visitor, previously announced, was ushered in.
He was a robust young fellow, long of limb and broad of shoulder. His face was round and tanned, with hot, dark eyes. With merry boldness, yet not without diffidence, he sidled, in his blue cheviot suit, into the room.
"Morning, Herr von Niebeldingk."
Enviously and admiringly Niebeldingk surveyed the athletic figure which moved with springy grace.
"Morning, my boy ... sober?"
"In honour of the day, yes."
"Shall we breakfast?"
"Oh, with delight, Herr von Niebeldingk!"
They passed into the breakfast-room where two covers had already been laid, and while John served the caviare the flood of news burst which had mounted in their Franconian home during the past months.
Three betrothals, two important transfers of land, a wedding, Papa's gout, Mama's charities, Jenny's new target, Grete's flirtation with the American engineer. And, above all things, the examination!
"Dear Herr von Niebeldingk, it's a rotten farce. For nine years the gymnasium trains you and drills you, and in the end you don't get your trouble's worth! I'm sorry for every hour of cramming I did. They released me from the oral exam., simply sent me out like a monkey when I was just beginning to let my light shine! Did you ever hear of such a thing? Did you ever?"
"Well, and how about your university work, Fritz?"
That was a ticklish business, the youth averred. Law and political science was no use. Every ass took that up. And since it was after all only his purpose to pass a few years of his green youth profitably, why he thought he'd stick to his trade and find out how to plant cabbages properly.
"Have you started in anywhere yet?"
Oh, there was time enough. But he had been to some lectures—agronomy and inorganic chemistry.... You have to begin with inorganic chemistry if you want to go in for organic. And the latter was agricultural chemistry which was what concerned him.
He made these instructive remarks with a serious air and poured down glass after glass of Madeira. His cheeks began to glow, his heart expanded. "But that's all piffle, Herr von Niebeldingk, ... all this book-worm business can go to the devil.... Life—life—life—that's the main thing!"
"What do you call life, Fritz?"
With both hands he stroked the velvety surface of his close-cropped skull.
"Well, how am I to tell you? D'you know how I feel? As if I were standing in front of a great, closed garden ... and I know that all Paradise is inside ... and occasionally a strain of music floats out ... and occasionally a white garment glitters ... and I'd like to get in and I can't. That's life, you see. And I've got to stand miserably outside?"
"Well, you don't impress me as such a miserable creature?"
"No, no, in a way, not. On the coarser side, so to speak, I have a good deal of fun. Out there around Philippstrasse and Marienstrasse there are women enough—stylish and fine-looking and everything you want. And my friends are great fellows, too. Every one can stand his fifteen glasses ... I suppose I am an ass, and perhaps it's only moral katzenjammer on account of this past week. But when I walk the streets and see the tall, distinguished houses and think of all those people and their lives, yonder a millionaire, here a minister of state, and think that, once upon a time, they were all crude boys like myself—well, then I have the feeling as if I'd never attain anything, but always remain what I am."
"Well, my dear Fritz, the only remedy for that lies in that 'book-worm business' as you call it. Sit down on your breeches and work!"
"No, Herr von Niebeldingk, it isn't that either ... let me tell you. Day before yesterday I was at the opera.... They sang the Goetterddmmerung.... You know, of course. There is Siegfried, a fellow like myself, ... not more than twenty ... I sat upstairs in the third row with two seamstresses. I'd picked them up in the Chausseestrasse—cute little beasts, too.... But when Brunhilde stretched out her wonderful, white arms to him and sang: 'On to new deeds, O hero!' why I felt like taking the two girls by the scruff of the neck and pitching them down into the pit, I was so ashamed. Because, you see, Siegfried had his Brunhilde who inspired him to do great deeds. And what have I? ... A couple of hard cases picked up in the street."
"Afterwards, I suppose, you felt more reconciled?"
"That shows how little you know me. I'd promised the girls supper. So I had to eat with them. But when that was over I let 'em slide. I ran about in the streets and just—howled!"
"Very well, but what exactly are you after?"
"That's what I don't know, Herr von Niebeldingk. Oh, if I knew! But it's something quite indefinite—hard to think, hard to comprehend. I'd like to howl with laughter and I don't know why ... to shriek, and I don't know what about."
"Blessed youth!" Niebeldingk thought, and looked at the enthusiastic boy full of emotion. ...
John, who was serving, announced that the florist's girl had come with the Indian lilies.
"Indian lilies, what sort of lilies are they?" asked Fritz overcome by a hesitant admiration.
"You'll see," Niebeldingk answered and ordered the girl to be admitted.
She struggled through the door, a half-grown thing with plump red cheeks and smooth yellow hair. Diffident and frightened, she nevertheless began to flirt with Fritz. In front of her she held the long stems of the exotic lilies whose blossoms, like gigantic narcissi, brooded in star-like rest over chaste and alien dreams. From the middle of each chalice came a sharp, green shimmer which faded gently along the petals of the flowers.
"Confound it, but they're beautiful!" cried Fritz. "Surely they have quite a peculiar significance."
Niebeldingk arose, wrote the address without permitting John, who stood in suspicious proximity, to throw a glance at it, handed cards and flowers to the girl, gave her a tip, and escorted her to the door himself.
"So they do mean something special?" Fritz asked eagerly. He couldn't get over his enthusiasm.
"Yes, my boy."
"And may one know...."
"Surely, one may know. I give these lilies to that lady whose lofty purity transcends all doubt—I give them as a symbol of my chaste and desireless admiration."
Fritz's eyes shone.
"Ah, but I'd like to know a lady like that—some day!" he cried and pressed his hands to his forehead.
"That will come! That will come!" Niebeldingk tapped the youth's shoulder calmingly.
"Will you have some salad?"
Around the hour of afternoon tea Niebeldingk, true to a dear, old habit, went to see his friend.
She inhabited a small second-floor apartment in the Regentenstrasse which he had himself selected for her when she came as a stranger to Berlin. With flowers and palms and oriental rugs she had moulded a delicious retreat, and before her bed-room windows the nightingales sang in the springtime.
She seemed to be expecting him. In the great, raised bay, separated from the rest of the drawing-room by a thicket of dark leaves, the stout tea-urn was already expectantly humming.
In a bright, girlish dress, devoid of coquetry or pouting, Alice came to meet him.
"I'm glad you're here again, Richard."
That was all.
He wanted to launch out into the tale which he had meant to tell her, but she cut him short.
"Since when do I demand excuses, Richard? You come and there you are. And if you don't come, I have to be content too." "You should really be a little less tolerant," he warned her.
"A blessed lot it would help me," she answered merrily.
Gently she took his arm and led him to his old place. Then silently, and with that restrained eagerness that characterised all her actions she busied herself with the tea-urn.
His critical and discriminating gaze followed her movements. With swift, delicate gestures she pushed forward the Chinese dish, shook the tea from the canister and poured the first drops of boiling water through a sieve.... Her quick, bird-like head moved hither and thither, and the bow of the orange-coloured ribbon which surrounded her over-delicate neck trembled a little with every motion.
"She really is the most charming of all," such was the end of his reflections, "if only she weren't so damnably sensible."
Silently she took her seat opposite him, folded her white hands in her lap, and looked into his eyes with such significant archness that he began to feel embarrassed.
Had she any suspicion of his infidelities?
Surely not. No jealous woman can look about her so calmly and serenely.
"What have you been doing all this time?" he asked.
"I? Good heavens! Look about you and you'll see."
She pointed to a heap of books which lay scattered over the window seat and sewing table.
There were Moltke's letters and the memoirs of von Schoen, and Max Mueller's Aryan studies. Nor was the inevitable Schopenhauer lacking.
"What are you after with all that learning?" he asked.
"Ah, dear friend, what is one to do? One can't always be going about in strange houses. Do you expect me to stand at the window and watch the clouds float over the old city-wall?"
He had the uncomfortable impression that she was quoting something again.
"My mood," she went on, "is in what Goethe calls the minor of the soul. It is the yearning that reaches out afar and yet restrains itself harmoniously within itself. Isn't that beautifully put?"
"It may be, but it's too high for me!" In laughing self-protection, he stretched out his arms toward her.
"Don't make fun of me," she said, slightly shamed, and arose.
"And what is the object of your yearning?" he asked in order to leave the realm of Goethe as swiftly as possible. "Not you, you horrible person," she answered and, for a moment, touched his hair with her lips.
"I know that, dearest," he said, "it's a long time since you've sent me two notes a day."
"And since you came to see me twice daily," she returned and gazed at the floor with a sad irony.
"We have both changed greatly, Alice."
"We have indeed, Richard."
A silence ensued.
His eyes wandered to the opposite wall.... His own picture, framed in silvery maple-wood, hung there.... Behind the frame appeared a bunch of blossoms, long faded and shrivelled to a brownish, indistinguishable heap.
These two alone knew the significance of the flowers....
"Were you at least happy in those days, Alice?"
"You know I am always happy, Richard."
"Oh yes, yes; I know your philosophy. But I meant happy with me, through me?"
She stroked her delicate nose thoughtfully. The mocking expression about the corners of her mouth became accentuated.
"I hardly think so, Richard," she said after an interval. "I was too much afraid of you ... I seemed so stupid in comparison to you and I feared that you would despise me." "That fear, at least, you have overcome very thoroughly?" he asked.
"Not wholly, Richard. Things have only shifted their basis. Just as, in those days, I felt ashamed of my ignorance, so now I feel ashamed—no, that isn't the right word.... But all this stuff that I store up in my head seems to weigh upon me in my relations with you. I seem to be a nuisance with it.... You men, especially mature men like yourself, seem to know all these things better, even when you don't know them.... The precise form in which a given thought is presented to us may be new to you, but the thought itself you have long digested. It's for this reason that I feel intimidated whenever I approach you with my pursuits. 'You might better have held your peace,' I say to myself. But what am I to do? I'm so profoundly interested!"
"So you really need the society of a rather stupid fellow, one to whom all this is new and who will furnish a grateful audience?"
"Stupid? No," she answered, "but he ought to be inexperienced. He ought himself to want to learn things.... He ought not to assume a compassionate expression as who should say: 'Ah, my dear child, if you knew what I know, and how indifferent all those things are to me!' ... For these things are not indifferent, Richard, not to me, at least.... And for the sake of the joy I take in them, you ..."
"Strange how she sees through me," he reflected, "I wonder she clings to me as she does."
And while he was trying to think of something that might help her, the dear boy came into his mind who had to-day divulged to him the sorrows of youth and whom the unconscious desire for a higher plane of life had driven weeping through the streets.
"I know of some one for you."
Her expression was serious.
"You know of some one for me," she repeated with painful deliberateness.
"Don't misunderstand me. It's a playfellow, a pupil—something in the nature of a pastime, anything you will."
He told her the story of Siegfried and the two seamstresses.
She laughed heartily.
"I was afraid you wanted to be rid of me," she said, laying her forehead for a few moments against his sleeve.
"Shame on you," he said, carelessly stroking her hair. "But what do you think? Shall I bring the young fellow?"
"You may very well bring him," she answered. There was a look of pain about her mouth. "Doesn't one even train young poodles?"
Three days later, at the same hour of the afternoon, the student, Fritz von Ehrenberg entered Niebeldingk's study.
"I have summoned you, dear friend, because I want to introduce you to a charming young woman," Niebeldingk said, arising from his desk.
"Now?" Fritz asked, sharply taken aback.
"Why, I'd have to get my—my afternoon coat first and fix myself up a bit. What is the lady to think of me?"
"I'll take care of that. Furthermore, you probably know her, at least by reputation."
He mentioned the name of her husband which was known far and wide in their native province.
Fritz knew the whole story.
"Poor lady!" he said. "Papa and Mama have often felt sorry for her. I suppose her husband is still living."
"People all said that you were going to marry her."
"Is that what people said?" "Yes, and Papa thought it would be a piece of great good fortune."
"I beg your pardon, I suppose that was tactless, Herr von Niebeldingk."
"It was, dear Fritz.—But don't worry about it, just come."
The introduction went smoothly. Fritz behaved as became the son of a good family, was respectful but not stiff, and answered her friendly questions briefly and to the point.
"He's no discredit to me," Niebeldingk thought.
As for Alice, she treated her young guest with a smiling, motherly care which was new in her and which filled Niebeldingk with quiet pleasure.... On other occasions she had assumed toward young men a tone of wise, faint interest which meant clearly: "I will exhaust your possibilities and then drop you." To-day she showed a genuine sympathy which, though its purpose may have been to test him the more sharply, seemed yet to bear witness to the pure and free humanity of her soul.
She asked him after his parental home and was charmed with his naive rapture at escaping the psychical atmosphere of the cradle-songs of his mother's house. She was also pleased with his attitude toward his younger brothers and sisters, equally devoid, as it was, of exaggeration or condescension. Everything about him seemed to her simple and sane and full of ardour after information and maturity.
Niebeldingk sat quietly in his corner ready, at need, to smooth over any outbreak of uncouth youthfulness. But there was no occasion. Fritz confined himself within the limits of modest liberty and used his mind vigorously but with devout respect and delighted obedience. Once only, when the question of the necessity of authority came up, did he go far.
"I don't give a hang for any authority," he said. "Even the mild compulsion of what are called high-bred manners may go to the deuce for me!"
Niebeldingk was about to interfere with some reconciling remark when he observed, to his astonishment, that Alice who, as a rule, was bitterly hostile to all strident unconventionality, had taken no offence.
"Let him be, Niebeldingk," she said. "As far as he is concerned he is, doubtless, in the right. And nothing would be more shameful than if society were already to begin to make a featureless model boy of him."
"That will never be, I swear to you, dear lady," cried Fritz all aglow and stretching out his hands to ward off imaginary chains. Niebeldingk smiled and thought: "So much the better for him." Then he lit a fresh cigarette.
The conversation turned to learned things. Fritz, paraphrasing Tacitus, vented his hatred of the Latin civilisations. Alice agreed with him and quoted Mme. de Stael. Niebeldingk arose, quietly meeting the reproachful glance of his beloved.
Fritz jumped up simultaneously, but Niebeldingk laughingly pushed him back into his seat.
"You just stay," he said, "our dear friend is only too eager to slaughter a few more peoples."
When he dropped in at Alice's a few days later he found her sitting, hot-cheeked and absorbed, over Strauss's Life of Jesus.
"Just fancy," she said, holding up her forehead for his kiss, "that young poodle of yours is making me take notice. He gives me intellectual nuts to crack. It's strange how this young generation—"
"I beg of you, Alice," he interrupted her, "you are only a very few years his senior."
"That may be so," she answered, "but the little education I have derives from another epoch.... I am, metaphysically, as unexacting as the people of your generation. A certain fogless freedom of thought seemed to me until to-day the highest point of human development."
"And Fritz von Ehrenberg, student of agriculture, has converted you to a kind of thoughtful religiosity?" he asked, smiling good-naturedly.
In her zeal she wasn't even aware of his irony.
"We're not going to give in so easily.... But it is strange what an impression is made on one by a current of strong and natural feeling.... This young fellow comes to me and says: 'There is a God, for I feel Him and I need Him. Prove the contrary if you can.' ... Well, so I set about proving the contrary to him. But our poor negations have become so glib that one has forgotten the reasons for them. Finally he defeated me along the whole line ... so I sat down at once and began to study up ... just as one would polish rusty weapons ... Bible criticism and DuBois-Reymond and 'Force and Matter' and all the things that are traditionally irrefutable."
"And that amuses you?" he asked compassionately.
A theoretical indignation took hold of her that always amused him greatly.
"Does it amuse me? Are such things proper subjects for amusement? Surely you must use other expressions, Richard, when one is concerned for the most sacred goods of humanity...."
"Forgive me," he said, "I didn't mean to touch those things irreverently."
She stroked his arm softly, thus dumbly asking forgiveness in her turn.
"But now," she continued, "I am equipped once more, and when he comes to-morrow—"
"So he's coming to-morrow?"
"Naturally, ... then you will see how I'll send him home sorely whipped ... I can defeat him with Kant's antinomies alone.... And when it comes to what people call 'revelation,' well! ... But I assure you, my dear one, I'm not very happy defending this icy, nagging criticism.... To be quite sincere, I would far rather be on his side. Warmth is there and feeling and something positive to support one. Would you like some tea?"
"Thanks, no, but some brandy."
Rapidly brushing the waves of hair from her drawn forehead she ran into the next room and returned with the bottle bearing three stars on its label from which she herself took a tiny drop occasionally—"when my mind loses tone for study" as she was wont to say in self-justification.
A crimson afterglow, reflected from the walls of the houses opposite, filled the little drawing-room in which the mass of feminine ornaments glimmered and glittered.
"I've really become quite a stranger here," he thought, regarding all these things with the curiosity of one who has come after an absence. From each object hung, like a dewdrop, the memory of some exquisite hour.
"You look about you so," Alice said with an undertone of anxiety in her voice, "don't you like it here any longer?"
"What are you thinking of," he exclaimed, "I like it better daily." She was about to reply but fell silent and looked into space with a smile of wistful irony.
"If I except the Life of Jesus and the Kantian—what do you call the things?"
"Aha—anti and nomos—I understand—well, if I except these dusty superfluities, I may say that your furnishings are really faultless. The quotations from Goethe are really more appropriate, although I could do without them."
"I'll have them swept out," she said in playful submission.
"You are a dear girl," he said playfully and passed his hand caressingly over her severely combed hair.
She grasped his arm with both hands and remained motionless for a moment during which her eyes fastened themselves upon his with a strangely rigid gleam.
"What evil have I done?" he asked. "Do you remember our childhood's verse: 'I am small, my heart is pure?' Have mercy on me."
"I was only playing at passion," she said with the old half-wistful, half-mocking smile, "in order that our relations may not lose solid ground utterly."
"What do you mean?" he asked, pretending astonishment. "And do you really think, Richard, that between us, things, being as they are—are right?"
"I can't imagine any change that could take place at present."
She hid a hot flush of shame. She was obviously of the opinion that he had interpreted her meaning in the light of a desire for marriage. All earthly possibilities had been discussed between them: this one alone had been sedulously avoided in all their conversations.
"Don't misunderstand me," he continued, determined to skirt the dangerous subject with grace and ease, "there's no question here of anything external, of any change of front with reference to the world. It's far too late for that. ... Let us remain—if I may so put it—in our spiritual four walls. Given our characters or, I had better say, given your character I see no other relation between us that promises any permanence.... If I were to pursue you with a kind of infatuation, or you me with jealousy—it would be insupportable to us both."
She did not reply but gently rolled and unrolled the narrow, blue silk scarf of her gown.
"As it is, we live happily and at peace," he went on, "Each of us has liberty and an individual existence and yet we know how deeply rooted our hearts are in each other."
She heaved a sigh of painful oppression. "Aren't you content?" he asked,
"For heaven's sake! Surely!" Her voice was frightened, "No one could be more content than I. If only——"
"If only it weren't for the lonely evenings!"
A silence ensued. This was a sore point and had always been. He knew it well. But he had to have his evenings to himself. There was nothing to be done about that.
"You musn't think me immodest in my demands," she went on in hasty exculpation. "I'm not even aiming my remarks at you ... I'm only thinking aloud.... But you see, I can't get any real foothold in society until—until my affairs are more clarified.... To run about the drawing-rooms as an example of frivolous heedlessness—that's not my way.... I can always hear them whisper behind me: 'She doesn't take it much to heart, that shows ...' No, I'd rather stay at home. I have no friends either and what chance had I to make them? You were always my one and only friend.... My books remain. And that's very well by day ... but when the lamps are lit I begin to throb and ache and run about ... and I listen for the trill of the door-bell. But no one comes, nothing—except the evening paper. And that's only in winter. Now it's brought before dusk. And in the end there's nothing worth while in it.... And so life goes day after day. At last one creeps into bed at half-past nine and, of course, has a wretched night."
"Well, but how am I to help you, dear child?" he asked thoughtfully. He was touched by her quiet, almost serene complaint. "If we took to passing our evenings together, scandal would soon have us by the throat, and then—woe to you!"
Her eager eyes gazed bravely at him.
"Well," she said at last, "suppose——"
"Never mind. I don't want you to think me unwomanly. And what I've been describing to you is, after all, only a symptom. There's a kind of restlessness in me that I can't explain.... If I were of a less active temper, things would be better.... It sounds paradoxical, but just because I have so much activity in me, do I weary so quickly. Goethe said once——"
He raised his hands in laughing protest.
She was really frightened.
"Ah, yes, forgive me," she cried. "All that was to be swept out.... How forgetful one can be...."
Smiling, she leaned her head against his shoulder and was not to be persuaded from her silence.
"There are delicate boundaries within the realm of the eternal womanly,"—thus Niebeldingk reflected next day,—"in which one is sorely puzzled as to what one had better put into an envelope: a poem or a cheque."
His latest adventure—the cause of these reflections—had blossomed, the evening before, like the traditional rose on the dungheap.
One of his friends who had travelled about the world a good deal and who now assumed the part of the full-blown Parisian, had issued invitations to a house-warming in his new bachelor-apartment. He had invited a number of his gayer friends and ladies exclusively from so-called artistic circles. So far all was quite Parisian. Only the journalists who might, next morning, have proclaimed the glory of the festivity to the world—these were excluded. Berlin, for various reasons, did not seem an appropriate place for that.
It was a rather dreary sham orgy. Even chaperones were present. Several ladies had carefully brought them and they could scarcely be put out. Other ladies even thought it incumbent upon them to ask after the wives of the gentlemen present and to turn up their noses when it appeared that these were conspicuous by their absence. It was upon this occasion, however, that some beneficent chance assigned to Niebeldingk a sighing blonde who remained at his side all evening.
Her name was Meta, she belonged to one of the "best families" of Posen, she lived in Berlin with her mother who kept a boarding house for ladies of the theatre. She herself nursed the ardent desire to dedicate herself to art, for "the ideal" had always been the guiding star of her existence.
At the beginning of supper she expressed herself with a fine indignation concerning the ladies present into whose midst—she assured him eagerly—she had fallen through sheer accident. Later she thawed out, assumed a friendly companionableness to these despised individuals and, in order to raise Niebeldingk's delight to the highest point, admitted with maidenly frankness the indescribable and mysterious attraction toward him which she had felt at the first glance.
Of course, her principles were impregnable. He mustn't doubt that. She would rather seek a moist death in the waves than.... and so forth. Although she made this solemn proclamation over the dessert, the consequence of it all was an intimate visit to Niebeldingk's dwelling which came to a bitter sweet end at three o'clock in the morning with gentle tears concerning the wickedness of men in general and of himself in particular....
An attack of katzenjammer—such as is scarcely ever spared worldly people of forty—threw a sobering shadow upon this event. The shadow crept forward too, and presaged annoyance.
He was such an old hand now, and didn't even know into what category she really fitted. Was it, after all, impossible that behind all this frivolity the desire to take up the struggle for existence on cleanly terms stuck in her little head?
At all events he determined to spare the possible wounding of outraged womanliness and to wait before putting any final stamp upon the nature of their relations. Hence he set out to play the tender lover by means of the well-tried device of a bunch of Indian lilies.
When he was about to give the order for the flowers to John who always, upon these occasions, assumed a conscientiously stupid expression, a new doubt overcame him.
Was he not desecrating the gift which had brought consolation and absolution to many a remorseful heart, by sending it to a girl who, for all he knew, played a sentimental part only as a matter of decent form? ... Wasn't there grave danger of her assuming an undue self-importance when she felt that she was taken tragically?
"Well, what did it matter? ... A few flowers! ..."
Early on the evening of the next day Meta reappeared. She was dressed in sombre black. She wept persistently and made preparations to stay.
Niebeldingk gave her to understand that, in the first place, he had no more time for her that evening, and that, in the second place, she would do well to go home at a proper hour and spare herself the reproaches of her mother.
"Oh, my little mother, my little mother," she wailed. "How shall I ever present myself to her sight again? Keep me, my beloved! I can never approach my, mother again."
He rang for his hat and gloves.
When she saw that he was serious she wept a few more perfunctory tears and went.
Her visits repeated themselves and didn't become any more delightful. On the contrary ... the heart-broken maiden gave him to understand that her lost honour could be restored only by the means of a speedy marriage. This exhausted his patience. He saw that he had been thoroughly taken in and so, observing all necessary considerateness, he sent her definitely about her business.
Next day the "little mother" appeared on the scene. She was a dignified woman of fifty, equipped as the Genius of Vengeance, exceedingly glib of tongue and by no means sentimental.
As she belonged to one of the first families of Posen, it was her duty to lay particular stress upon the honour of her daughter whom he had lured to his house and there wickedly seduced. ... She was prepared to repel any overtures toward a compromise. She belonged to one of the best families of Posen and was not prepared to sell her daughter's virtue. The only possible way of adjusting the matter was an immediate marriage.
Thereupon she began to scream and scold and John, who acted as master of ceremonies, escorted her with a patronising smile to the door....
Next came the visits of an old gentleman in a Prince Albert and the ribbon of some decoration in his button-hole.—John had strict orders to admit no strangers. But the old gentleman was undaunted. He came morning, noon and night and finally settled down on the stairs where Niebeldingk could not avoid meeting him. He was the uncle of Miss Meta, a former servant of the government and a knight of several honourable orders. As such it was his duty to demand the immediate restitution of his niece's honour, else—Niebeldingk simply turned his back and the knight of several honourable orders trotted, grumbling, down the stairs.
Up to this point Niebeldingk had striven to regard the whole business in a humorous light. It now began It now began to promise serious annoyance. He told the story at his club and the men laughed boisterously, but no one knew anything to the detriment of Miss Meta. She had been introduced by a lady who played small parts at a large theatre and important parts at a small one. The lady was called to account for her protegee. She refused to speak.
"It's all the fault of those accursed Indian lilies," Niebeldingk grumbled one afternoon at his window as he watched the knight of various honourable orders parade the street as undaunted as ever. "Had I treated her with less delicacy, she would never have risked playing the part of an innocent victim."
At that moment John announced Fritz von Ehrenberg.
The boy came in dressed in an admirably fitting summer suit. He was radiant with youth and strength, victory gleamed in his eye; a hymn of victory seemed silently singing on his lips.
"Well Fritz, you seem merry," said Niebeldingk and patted the boy's shoulder. He could not suppress a smile of sad envy.
"Don't ask me! Why shouldn't I be happy? Life is so beautiful, yes, beautiful. Only you musn't have any dealings with women. That plays the deuce with one."
"You don't know yourself how right you are," Niebeldingk sighed, looking out of the corner of an eye at the knight of several honourable orders who had now taken up his station in the shelter of the house opposite.
"Oh, but I do know it," Fritz answered. "If I could describe to you the contempt with which I regard my former mode of life ... everything is different ... different ... so much purer ... nobler ... I'm absolutely a stoic now.... And that gives one a feeling of such peace, such serenity! And I have you to thank for it, Herr von Niebeldingk."
"I don't understand that. To teach in the stoa is a new employment for me."
"Well, didn't you introduce me to that noble lady? Wasn't it you?"
"Aha," said Niebeldingk. The image of Alice, smiling a gentle reproach, arose before him.
In the midst of this silly and sordid business that had overtaken him, he had almost lost sight of her. More than a week had passed since he had crossed her threshold.
"How is the dear lady?" he asked.
"Oh, splendid," Fritz said, "just splendid."
"Have you seen her often?"
"Certainly," Fritz replied, "we're reading Marcus Aurelius together now."
"Thank heaven," Niebeldingk laughed, "I see that she's well taken care of."
He made up his mind to see her within the next hour.
Fritz who had only come because he needed to overflow to some one with the joy of life that was in him, soon started to go.
At the door he turned and said timidly and with downcast eyes.
"I have one request to make——"
"Fire away, Fritz! How much?"
"Oh, I don't need money ... I'd like to have the address of your florist ...I'd like to send to the dear lady a bunch of the ... the Indian lilies."
"What? Are you mad?" Niebeldingk cried.
"Why do you ask that?" Fritz was hurt. "May I not also send that symbol to a lady whose purity and loftiness of soul I reverence. I suppose I'm old enough!"
"I see. You're quite right. Forgive me." Niebeldingk bit his lips and gave the lad the address.
Fritz thanked him and went.
Niebeldingk gave way to his mirth and called for his hat. He wanted to go to her at once. But—for better or worse—he changed his mind, for yonder in the gateway, unabashed, stood the knight of several honourable orders.
To be sure, one can't stand eternally in a gateway. Finally the knight deserted his post and vanished into a sausage shop. The hour had come when even the most glowing passion of revenge fades gently into a passion for supper.
Niebeldingk who had waited behind his curtain, half-amused, half-bored—for in the silent, distinguished street where everyone knew him a scandal was to be avoided at any cost—Niebeldingk hastened to make up for his neglect at once.
The dark fell. Here and there the street-lamps flickered through the purple air of the summer dusk....
The maid who opened the door looked at him with cool astonishment as though he were half a stranger who had the audacity to pay a call at this intimate hour.
"That means a scolding," he thought.
But he was mistaken.
Smiling quietly, Alice arose from the couch where she had been sitting by the light of a shaded lamp and stretched out her hand with all her old kindliness. The absence of the otherwise inevitable book was the only change that struck him.
"We haven't seen each other for a long time," he said, making a wretched attempt at an explanation.
"Is it so long?" she asked frankly.
"Thank you for your gentle punishment." He kissed her hand. Then he chatted, more or less at random, of disagreeable business matters, of preparations for a journey, and so forth.
"So you are going away?" she asked tensely.
The word had escaped him, he scarcely knew how. Now that he had uttered it, however, he saw very clearly that nothing better remained for him to do than to carry the casual thought into action.... Here he passed a fruitless, enervating life, slothful, restless and humiliating; at home there awaited him light, useful work, dreamless sleep, and the tonic sense of being the master.
All that, in other days, held him in Berlin, namely, this modest, clever, flexible woman had almost passed from his life. Steady neglect had done its work. If he went now, scarcely the smallest gap would be torn into the fabric of his life.
Or did it only seem so? Was she more deeply rooted in his heart than he had ever confessed even to himself? They were both silent. She stood very near him and sought to read the answer to her question in his eyes. A kind of anxious joy appeared upon her slightly worn features.
"I'm needed at home," he said at last. "It is high time for me. If you desire I'll look after your affairs too."
"Well, I thought we were neighbours there—more than here. Or have you forgotten the estate?"
"Let us leave aside the matter of being neighbours," she answered, "and I don't suppose that I have much voice in the management of the estate as long as—he lives. The guardians will see to that."
"But you could run down there once in a while ... in the summer for instance. Your place is always ready for you. I saw to that."
"Ah, yes, you saw to that." The wistful irony that he had so often noted was visible again.
For the first time he understood its meaning.
"She has made things too easy for me," he reflected. "I should have felt my chains. Then, too, I would have realised what I possessed in her."
But did he not still possess her? What, after all, had changed since those days of quiet companionship? Why should he think of her as lost to him?
He could not answer this question. But he felt a dull restlessness. A sense of estrangement told him: All is not here as it was.
"Since when do you live in dreams, Alice?" he asked, surveying the empty table by which he had found her.
His question had been innocent, but it seemed to carry a sting. She blushed and looked past him.
"How do you mean?"
"Good heavens, to sit all evening without books and let the light burn in vain—that was not your wont heretofore."
"Oh, that's it. Ah well, one can't be poking in books all the time. And for the past few days my eyes have been aching."
"With secret tears?" he teased.
She gave him a wide, serious look.
"With secret tears," she repeated.
"Ah perfido!" he trilled, in order to avoid the scene which he feared ... But he was on the wrong scent. She herself interrupted him with the question whether he would stay to supper.
He was curious to find the causes of the changes that he felt here. For that reason and also because he was not without compunction, he consented to stay.
She rang and ordered a second cover to be laid.
Louise looked at her mistress with a disapproving glance and went.
"Dear me," he laughed, "the servants are against me ... I am lost."
"You have taken to noticing such things very recently." She gave a perceptible shrug.
"When a wife tells a husband of his newly acquired habits, he is doubly lost," he answered and gave her his arm.
The silver gleamed on the table ... the tea-kettle puffed out delicate clouds ... exquisitely tinted apples, firm as in Autumn, smiled at him.
A word of admiration escaped him. And then, once more, he saw that tragic smile on her lips—sad, wistful, almost compassionate.
"My darling," he said with sudden tenderness and caressed her shoulder.
She nodded and smiled. That was all.
At table her mood was an habitual one. Perhaps she was a trifle gentler. He attributed that to his approaching departure.
She drank a glass of Madeira at the beginning of the meal, the light Rhine wine she took in long, thirsty draughts, she even touched the brandy at the meal's end.
An inner fire flared in her. He suspected that, he felt it. She had touched no food. But she permitted nothing to appear on the surface. On the contrary, the emotional warmth that she had shown earlier disappeared. The play of her thoughts grew cooler, clearer, more cutting, the longer she talked.
Twice or thrice quotations from Goethe were about to escape her, but she did not utter them. Smiling she tapped her own lips.
When he observed that she was really restraining a genuine impulse he begged her to consider the protest he had once uttered as merely a jest, perhaps even an ill-considered one. But she said: "Let be, it is as well."
They conversed, as they had often done, of the perished days of their old love. They spoke like two beings who have long conquered all the struggles of the heart and who, in the calm harbour of friendship, regard with equanimity the storms which they have weathered.
This way of speaking had gradually, and with a kind of jocular moroseness, crept into their intercourse. The exciting thing about it was the silent reservation felt by both: We know how different things could be, so soon as we desired. To-day, for the first time, this game at renunciation seemed to become serious.
"How strange!" he thought. "Here we sit who are dearest to each other in all the world and a kind of futile arrogance drives us farther and farther apart."
He kissed her, as was his wont, upon hand and forehead and noted how she turned aside with a slight shiver. Then suddenly she took his head in both her hands and kissed him full on the lips with a kind of desperate eagerness.
"Ah," he cried, "what is that? It's more than I have a right to expect."
"Forgive me," she said, withdrawing herself at once. "We're poverty stricken folk and haven't much to give each other."
"After what I have just experienced, I'm inclined to believe the contrary."
But she seemed little inclined to draw the logical consequences of her action. Quietly she gave him his wonted cigarette, lit her own, and sat down in her old place. With rounded lips she blew little clouds of smoke against the table-cover.
"Whenever I regard you in this manner," he said, carefully feeling his way, "it always seems to me that you have some silent reservation, as though you were waiting for something." "It may be," she answered, blushing anew, "I sit by the way-side, like the man in the story, and think of the coming of my fate."
"Fate? What fate?"
"Ah, who can tell, dear friend? That which one foresees is no longer one's fate!"
"Perhaps it's just the other way."
She drew back sharply and looked past him in tense thoughtfulness. "Perhaps you are right," she said, with a little mysterious sigh. "It may be as you say."
He was no wiser than he had been. But since he held it beneath his dignity to assume the part of the jealous master, he abandoned the search for her secrets with a shrug. The secrets could be of no great importance. No one knew better than himself the moderateness of her desires, no lover, in calm possession of his beloved, had so little to fear as he....
They discussed their plans for the Summer. He intended to go to the North Sea in Autumn, an old affection attracted her to Thuringia. The possibility of their meeting was touched only in so far as courtesy demanded it.
And once more silence fell upon the little drawing-room. Through the twilight an old, phantastic Empire clock announced the hurrying minutes with a hoarse tick.
In other days a magical mood had often filled this room—the presage of an exquisite flame and its happy death. All that had vibrated here. Nothing remained. They had little to say to each other. That was what time had left.
He played thoughtfully with his cigarette. She stared into nothingness with great, dreamy eyes.
And suddenly she began to weep ...
He almost doubted his own perception, but the great glittering tears ran softly down her smiling face.
But he was satiated with women's tears. In the fleeting amatory adventures of the past weeks and months, he had seen so many—some genuine, some sham, all superfluous. And so instead of consoling her, he conceived a feeling of sarcasm and nausea: "Now even she carries on!"....
The idea did indeed flash into his mind that this moment might be decisive and pregnant with the fate of the future, but his horror of scenes and explanations restrained him.
Wearily he assumed the attitude of one above the storms of the soul and sought a jest with which to recall her to herself. But before he found it she pressed her handkerchief to her eyes and slipped from the room.
"So much the better," he thought and lit a fresh cigarette, "If she lets her passion spend itself in silence it will pass the more swiftly."
Walking up and down he indulged in philosophic reflections concerning the useless emotionality of woman, and the duty of man not to be infected by it ... He grew quite warm in the proud consciousness of his heart's coldness.
Then suddenly—from the depth of the silence that was about him—resounded in a long-drawn, shrill, whirring voice that he had never heard—his own name.
"Rrricharrd!" it shrilled, stern and hard as the command of some paternal martinet. The voice seemed to come from subterranean depths.
He shivered and looked about. Nothing moved. There was no living soul in the next room.
"Richard!" the voice sounded a second time. This time the sound seemed but a few paces from him, but it arose from the ground as though a teasing goblin lay under his chair.
He bent over and peered into dark corners.
The mystery was solved: Joko, Alice's parrot, having secretly stolen from his quarters, sat on the rung of a chair and played the evil conscience of the house.
The tame animal stepped with dignity upon his outstretched hand and permitted itself to be lifted into the light.... Its glittering neck-feathers stood up, and while it whetted its beak on Niebeldingk's cuff-links, it repeated in a most subterranean voice: "Richard!"
And suddenly the dear feeling of belonging here, of being at home came over Niebeldingk. He had all but lost it. But its gentle power drew him on and refreshed him.
It was his right and his duty to be at home here where a dear woman lived so exclusively for him that the voice of her yearning sounded even from the tongue of the brute beast that she possessed! There was no possibility of feeling free and alien here.
"I must find her!" he thought quickly, "I musn't leave her alone another second."
He set Joko carefully on the table and sought to reach her bed-room which he had never entered by this approach.
In the door that led to the rear hall she met him. Her demeanour had its accustomed calm, her eyes were clear and dry.
"My poor, dear darling!" he cried and wanted to take her in his arms.
A strange, repelling glance met him and interrupted his beautiful emotion. Something hardened in him and he felt a new inclination to sarcasm.
"Forgive me for leaving you," she said, "one must have patience with the folly of my sex. You know that well."
And she preceded him to his old place.
Screaming with pleasure Joko flew forward to meet her, and Niebeldingk remained standing to take his leave.
She did not hold him back.
Outside it occurred to him that he hadn't told her the anecdote of Fritz and the Indian lilies.
"It's a pity," he thought, "it might have cheered her." ...
Next morning Niebeldingk sat at his desk and reflected with considerable discomfort on the experience of the previous evening. Suddenly he observed, across the street, restlessly waiting in the same doorway—the avenging spirit!
It was an opportune moment. It would distract him to make an example of the fellow. Nothing better could have happened.
He rang for John and ordered him to bring up the wretched fellow and, furthermore, to hold himself in readiness for an act of vigorous expulsion.
Five minutes passed. Then the door opened and, diffidently, but with a kind of professional dignity, the knight of several honourable orders entered the room.
Niebeldingk made rapid observations: A beardless, weatherworn old face with pointed, stiff, white brows. The little, watery eyes knew how to hide their cunning, for nothing was visible in them save an expression of wonder and consternation. The black frock coat was threadbare but clean, his linen was spotless. He wore a stock which had been the last word of fashion at the time of the July revolution.
"A sharper of the most sophisticated sort," Niebeldingk concluded.
"Before any discussion takes place," he said sharply. "I must know with whom I am dealing."
The old man drew off with considerable difficulty his torn, gray, funereal gloves and, from the depths of a greasy pocket-book, produced a card which had, evidently, passed through a good many hands.
"A sharper," Niebeldingk repeated to himself, "but on a pretty low plane." He read the card: "Kohleman, retired clerk of court." And below was printed the addition: "Knight of several orders."
"What decorations have you?" he asked.
"I have been very graciously granted the Order of the Crown, fourth class, and the general order for good behaviour."
"Sit down," Niebeldingk replied, impelled by a slight instinctive respect.
"Thank you, I'll take the liberty," the old gentleman answered and sat down on the extreme edge of a chair.
"Once on the stairs you—" he was about to say "attacked me," but he repressed the words. "I know," he began, "what your business is. And now tell me frankly: Do you think any man in the world such a fool as to contemplate marriage because a frivolous young thing whose acquaintance he made at a supper given to 'cocottes' accompanies him, in the middle of the night, to his bachelor quarters? Do you think that a reasonable proposition?"
"No," the old gentleman answered with touching honesty. "But you know it's pretty discouraging to have Meta get into that kind of a mess. I've had my suspicions for some time that that baggage is a keener, and I've often said to my sister: 'Look here, these theatrical women are no proper company for a girl—'"
"Well then," Niebeldingk exclaimed, overcome with astonishment, "if that's the case, what are you after?"
"I?" the old gentleman quavered and pointed a funereal glove at his breast, "I? Oh, dear sakes alive! I'm not after anything. Do you imagine, my dear sir, that I get any fun out of tramping up and down in front of your house on my old legs? I'd rather sit in a corner and leave strange people to their own business. But what can I do? I live in my sister's house, and I do pay her a little board, for I'd never take a present, not a penny—that was never my way. But what I pay isn't much, you know, and so I have to make myself a bit useful in the boarding-house. The ladies have little errands, you know. And they're quite nice, too, except that they get as nasty as can be if their rooms aren't promptly cleaned in the morning, and so I help with the dusting, too ... If only it weren't for my asthma ... I tell, you, asthma, my dear sir—"
He stopped for an attack of coughing choked him.
With a sudden kindly emotion Niebeldingk regarded the terrible avenger in horror of whom he had lived four mortal days. He told him to stretch his poor old legs and asked him whether he'd like a glass of Madeira.
The old gentleman's face brightened. If it would surely give no trouble he would take the liberty of accepting.
Niebeldingk rang and John entered with a grand inquisitorial air. He recoiled when he saw the monster so comfortable and, for the first time in his service, permitted himself a gentle shake of the head.
The old gentleman emptied his glass in one gulp and wiped his mouth with a brownish cotton handkerchief. Fragments of tobacco flew about. He looked so tenderly at the destroyer of his family as though he had a sneaking desire to join the enemy.
"Well, well," he began again. "What's to be done? If my sister takes something into her head.... And anyhow, I'll tell you in confidence, she is a devil. Oh deary me, what I have to put up with from her! It's no good getting into trouble with her! ... If you want to avoid any unpleasantness, I can only advise you to consent right away.... You can back out later.... But that would be the easiest way."
Niebeldingk laughed heartily.
"Yes, you can laugh," the old gentleman said sadly, "that's because you don't know my sister."
"But you know her, my dear man. And do you suppose that she may have other, that is to say, financial aims, while she——"
The old gentleman looked at him with great scared eyes.
"How do you mean?" he said and crushed the brown handkerchief in his hollow hand.
"Well, well, well," Niebeldingk quieted him and poured a reconciling second glass of wine.
But he wasn't to be bribed.
"Permit me, my dear sir," he said, "but you misunderstand me entirely.... Even if I do help my sister in the house, and even if I do go on errands, I would never have consented to go on such an one.... I said to my sister: It's marriage or nothing.... We don't go in for blackmail, of that you may be sure." "Well, my dear man," Niebeldingk laughed, "If that's the alternative, then—nothing!"
The old gentleman grew quite peaceable again.
"Goodness knows, you're quite right. But you will have unpleasantnesses, mark my word. ... And if she has to appeal to the Emperor, my sister said. And my sister—I mention it quite in confidence—my sister—"
"Is a devil, I understand."
He laughed slyly as one who is getting even with an old enemy and drank, with every evidence of delight, the second glassful of wine.
Niebeldingk considered. Whether unfathomable stupidity or equally unfathomable sophistication lay at the bottom of all this—the business was a wretched one. It was just such an affair as would be dragged through every scandal mongering paper in the city, thoroughly equipped, of course, with the necessary moral decoration. He could almost see the heavy headlines: Rascality of a Nobleman.
"Yes, yes, my dear fellow," he said, and patted the terrible enemy's shoulder, "I tell you it's a dog's life. If you can avoid it any way—never go in for fast living."
The old gentleman shook his gray head sadly.
"That's all over," he declared, "but twenty years ago—" Niebeldingk cut short the approaching confidences.
"Well, what's going to happen now?" he asked. "And what will your sister do when you come home and announce my refusal?"
"I'll tell you, Baron. In fact, my sister required that I should tell you, because that is to—" he giggled—"that is to have a profound effect. We've got a nephew, I must tell you, who's a lieutenant in the army. Well, he is to come at once and challenge you to a duel.... Well, now, a duel is always a pretty nasty piece of business. First, there's the scandal, and then, one might get hurt. And so my sister thought that you'd rather——"
"Hold on, my excellent friend," said Niebeldingk and a great weight rolled from his heart. "You have an officer in your family? That's splendid ... I couldn't ask anything better ... You wire him at once and tell him that I'll be at home three days running and ready to give him the desired explanations. I'm sorry for the poor fellow for being mixed up in such a stupid mess, but I can't help him."
"Why do you feel sorry for him?" the old gentleman asked. "He's as good a marksman as you are."
"Assuredly," Niebeldingk returned. "Assuredly a better one.... Only it won't come to that."
He conducted his visitor with great ceremony into the outer hall.
The latter remained standing for a moment in the door. He grasped Niebeldingk's hand with overflowing friendliness.
"My dear baron, you have been so nice to me and so courteous. Permit me, in return, to offer you an old man's counsel: Be more careful about flowers!"
"Well, you sent a great, costly bunch of them. That's what first attracted my sister's attention. And when my sister gets on the track of anything, well!" ...
He shook with pleasure at the sly blow he had thus delivered, drew those funereal gloves of his from the crown of his hat and took his leave.
"So it was the fault of the Indian lilies," Niebeldingk thought, looking after the queer old knight with an amused imprecation. That gentleman, enlivened by the wine he had taken, pranced with a new flexibility along the side-walk. "Like the count in Don Juan," Niebeldingk thought, "only newly equipped and modernised."
The intervention of the young officer placed the whole affair upon an intelligible basis. It remained only to treat it with entire seriousness. Niebeldingk, according to his promise, remained at home until sunset for three boresome days. On the morning of the fourth he wrote a letter to the excellent old gentleman telling him that he was tired of waiting and requesting an immediate settlement of the business in question. Thereupon he received the following answer:
In the name of my family I declare to you herewith that I give you over to the well-deserved contempt of your fellowmen. A man who can hesitate to restore the honour of a loving and yielding girl is not worthy of an alliance with our family. Hence we now sever any further connection with you.
With that measure of esteem which you deserve,
KOHLEMAN, Retired Clerk of Court.
Best regards. Don't mind all that talk. The duel came to nothing. Our little lieutenant besought us not to ruin him and asked that his name be not mentioned. He has left town."
Breathing a deep sigh of relief, Niebeldingk threw the letter aside.
Now that the affair was about to float into oblivion, he became aware of the fact that it had weighed most heavily upon him.
And he began to feel ashamed.
He, a man who, by virtue of his name and of his wealth and, if he would be bold, by virtue of his intellect, was able to live in some noble and distinguished way—he passed his time with banalities that were half sordid and half humorous. These things had their place. Youth might find them not unfruitful of experience. They degraded a man of forty.
If these things filled his life to-day, then the years of training and slow maturing had surely gone for nothing. And what would become of him if he carried these interests into his old age? His schoolmates were masters of the great sciences, distinguished servants of the government, influential politicians. They toiled in the sweat of their brows and harvested the fruits of their youth's sowing.
He strove to master these discomforting thoughts, but every moment found him more defenceless against them.
And shame changed into disgust.
To divert himself he went out into the streets and landed, finally, in the rooms of his club. Here he was asked concerning his latest adventure. Only a certain respect which his personality inspired saved him from unworthy jests. And in this poverty-stricken world, where the very lees of experience amounted to a sensation—here he wasted his days.
It must not last another week, not another day. So much suddenly grew clear to him.
He hurried away. Upon the streets brooded the heat of early summer. Masses of human beings, hot but happy, passed him in silent activity.
What was he to do?
He must marry: that admitted of no doubt. In the glow of his own hearth he must begin a new and more tonic life.
Marry? But whom? A worn out heart can no longer be made to beat more swiftly at the sight of some slim maiden. The senses might yet be stirred, but that is all.
Was he to haunt watering-places and pay court to mothers on the man-hunt in order to find favour in their daughters' eyes? Was he to travel from estate to estate and alienate the affection of young chatelaines from their favourite lieutenants?
He went home hopelessly enough and drowsed away the hours of the afternoon behind drawn blinds on a hot couch.
Toward evening the postman brought a letter—in Alice's hand. Alice! How could he have forgotten her! His first duty should have been to see her.
He opened the envelope, warmly grateful for her mere existence.
As you will probably not find time before you leave the city to bid me farewell in person. I beg you to return to me a certain key which I gave into your keeping some years ago. You have no need of it and it worries me to have it lying about.
Don't think that I am at all angry. My friendship and my gratitude are yours, however far and long we may be separated. When, some day, we meet again, we will both have become different beings. With many blessings upon your way,
He struck his forehead like a man who awakens from an obscene dream.
Where was his mind? He was about to go in search of that which was so close at hand, so richly his own!
Where else in all the world could he find a woman so exquisitely tempered to his needs, so intimately responsive to his desires, one who would lead him into the darker land of matrimony through meadows of laughing flowers?
To be sure, there was her coolness of temper, her learning, her strange restlessness. But was not all that undergoing a change? Had he not found her sunk in dreams? And her tears? And her kiss?
Ungrateful wretch that he was!
He had sought a home and not thought of the parrot who screamed out his name in her dear dwelling. There was a parrot like that in the world—and he wandered foolishly abroad. What madness! What baseness!
He would go to her at once.
But no! A merry thought struck him and a healing one.
He took the key from the wall and put it into his pocket.
He would go to her—at midnight.
He had definitely abandoned his club, the theatres were closed, the restaurants were deserted, his brother's family was in the country. It was not easy to pass the evening with that great resolve in his heart and that small key in his pocket.
Until ten he drifted about under the foliage of the Tiergarten. He listened to the murmur of couples who thronged the dark benches, regarded those who were quietly walking in the alleys and found himself, presently, in that stream of humanity which is drawn irresistibly toward the brightly illuminated pleasure resorts.
He was moved and happy at once. For the first time in years he felt himself to be a member of the family of man, a humbly serving brother in the commonweal of social purpose.
His time of proud, individualistic morality was over: the ever-blessing institution of the family was about to gather him to its hospitable bosom.
To be sure, his wonted scepticism was not utterly silenced. But he drove it away with a feeling of delighted comfort. He could have shouted a blessing to the married couples in search of air, he could have given a word of fatherly advice to the couples on the benches: "Children, commit no indiscretions—marry!"
And when he thought of her! A mild and peaceable tenderness of which he had never thought himself capable welled up from his and heart.... Wide gardens of Paradise seemed to open, gardens with secret grottos and shady corners. And upon one of the palm-trees there sat Joko—amiable beast—and said: "Rrricharrrd!"
He went over the coming scene in his imagination again and again: Her little cry of panic when he would enter the dark room and then his whispered reassurance: "It is I, my darling. I have come back to stay for ever and ever."
And then happiness, gentle and heart-felt.
If a divorce was necessary, the relatives of her husband would probably succeed in divesting her of most of the property. What did it matter to either of them? Was he not rich and was she not sure of him? If need were, he could, with one stroke of the pen, repay her threefold all that she might lose. But, indeed, these reflections were quite futile. For when two people are so welded together in their souls, their earthly possessions need no separation. From ten until half past eleven he sat in a corner of the Cafe Bauer and read the paper of his native province which, usually, he never looked at. With childlike delight he read into the local notices and advertisements things pertinent to his future life.
Bremsel, the delicatessen man in a neighbouring town advertised fresh crabs. And Alice liked them. "Splendid," he thought "we won't have to bring them from far." And suddenly he himself felt an appetite for the shell-fish, so thoroughly had he lived himself into his vision of domestic felicity.
At twenty-five minutes of twelve he paid for his chartreuse and set out on foot. He had time to spare and he did not want to cause the unavoidable disturbance of a cab's stopping at her door.
The house, according to his hope, was dark and silent.
With beating heart he drew forth the key which consisted of two collapsible parts. One part was for the house door, the other for a door in her bed-room that led to a separate entrance. He had himself chosen the apartment with this advantage in view.
He passed the lower hall unmolested and reached the creaking stairs which he had always hated. And as he mounted he registered an oath to pass this way no more. He would not thus jeopardise the fair fame of his betrothed.
It would be bad enough if he had to rap, in case the night latch was drawn....
The outer door, at least, offered no difficulty. He touched it and it swung loose on its hinges.
For a moment the mad idea came into his head that—in answer to her letter—Alice might have foreseen the possibility of his coming.... He was just about to test, by a light pressure, the knob of the inner door when, coming from the bed-room, a muffled sound of speech reached his ear.
One voice was Alice's: the other—his breath stopped. It was not the maid's. He knew it well. It was the voice of Fritz von Ehrenberg.
It was over then—for him.... And again and again he murmured: "It's all over."
He leaned weakly against the wall.
Then he listened.
This woman who could not yield with sufficient fervour to the abandon of passionate speech and action—this was Alice, his Alice, with her fine sobriety, her philosophic clearness of mind.
And that young fool whose mouth she closed with long kisses of gratitude for his folly—did he realise the blessedness which had fallen to the lot of his crude youth? It was over ... all over.
And he was so worn, so passionless, so autumnal of soul, that he could smile wearily in the midst of his pain.
Very carefully he descended the creaking stairs, locked the door of the house and stood on the street—still smiling.
It was over ... all over.
Her future was trodden into the mire, hers and his own.
And in this supreme moment he grew cruelly aware of his crimes against her.
All her love, all her being during these years had been but one secret prayer: "Hold me, do not break me, do not desert me!"
He had been deaf. He had given her a stone for bread, irony for love, cold doubt for warm, human trust! And in the end he had even despised her because she had striven, with touching faith, to form herself according to his example.
It was all fatally clear—now.
Her contradictions, her lack of feeling, her haughty scepticism—all that had chilled and estranged him had been but a dutiful reflection of his own being.
Need he be surprised that the last remnant of her lost and corrupted youth rose in impassioned rebellion against him and, thinking to save itself, hurled itself to destruction?
He gave one farewell glance to the dark, silent house—the grave of the fairest hopes of all his life. Then he set out upon long, dreary, aimless wandering through the endless, nocturnal streets.
Like shadows the shapes of night glided by him.
Shy harlots—loud roysterers—benzin flames—more harlots—and here and there one lost in thought even as he.
An evil odour, as of singed horses' hoofs, floated over the city..... The dust whirled under the street-cleaning machines.
The world grew silent. He was left almost alone.....
Then the life of the awakening day began to stir. A sleepy dawn crept over the roofs....
It was the next morning.
There would be no "next mornings" for him. That was over.
Let others send Indian lilies!
It was a blazing afternoon, late in July. The Cheruskan fraternity entered Ellerntal in celebration of their mid-summer festivity. They had let the great wagon stand at the outskirts of the village and now marched up its street in well-formed procession, proud and vain as a company of Schuetzen before whom all the world bows down once a year.
First came the regimental band of the nearest garrison, dressed in civilian's clothes—then, under the vigilance of two brightly attired freshmen, the blue, white and golden banner of the fraternity, next the officers accompanied by other freshmen, and finally the active members in whom the dignity, decency and fighting strength of the fraternity were embodied. A gay little crowd of elderly gentlemen, ladies and guests followed in less rigid order. Last came, as always and everywhere, the barefoot children of the village. The procession came to a halt in front of the Prussian Eagle, a long-drawn single story structure of frame. The newly added dance hall with its three great windows protruded loftily above the house.
The banner was lowered, the horns of the band gave wild, sharp signals to which no one attended, and Pastor Rhode, a sedate man of fifty dressed in the scarf and slashed cap of the order, stepped from the inn door to pronounce the address of welcome. At this moment it happened that one of the two banner bearers who had stood at the right and left of the flag with naked foils, rigid as statues, slowly tilted over forward and buried his face in the green sward.
This event naturally put an immediate end to the ceremony. Everybody, men and women, thronged around the fallen youth and were quickly pushed back by the medical fraternity men who were present in various stages of professional development.
The medical wisdom of this many-headed council culminated in the cry: "A glass of water!"
Immediately a young girl—hot-eyed and loose-haired, exquisite in the roundedness of half maturity—rushed out of the door and handed a glass to the gentlemen who had turned the fainting lad on his back and were loosening scarf and collar.
He lay there, in the traditional garb of the fraternity, like a young cavalry man of the time of the Great Elector—with his blue, gold-braided doublet, close-fitting breeches of white leather and mighty boots whose flapping tops swelled out over his firm thighs. He couldn't be above eighteen or nineteen, long and broad though he was, with his cheeks of milk and blood, that showed no sign of down, no duelling scar. You would have thought him some mother's pet, had there not been a sharp line of care that ran mournfully from the half-open lips to the chin.
The cold water did its duty. Sighing, the lad opened his eyes—two pretty blue boy's eyes, long lashed and yet a little empty of expression as though life had delayed giving them the harder glow of maturity.