THE NORTHERN LIGHT
From the German of E. WERNER
Author of "At a High Price," "His Word of Honor," etc.
Translated by MRS. D. M. LOWREY
The grey mist of an autumn morning lay upon forest and field. Through its shadowy vapors a swarm of birds were sweeping by, on their Southward way, now dipping low over the tops of the tall fir forest, as if giving a last greeting to their summer homes, and then rising high in the air; turning their flight due South, they disappeared slowly through the fog.
At the window of a large manor-house, which lay at the edge of the forest, two men stood, watching the course of the birds and conversing earnestly with each other. One was a tall, stalwart figure, whose firm and erect bearing betokened the soldier fully as much as the uniform he wore. He was blonde and blue-eyed, not handsome, but with a strong and speaking countenance; a typical German in form and feature. Yet something like a shadow lay upon the man's face, and there were, wrinkles, on his brow which surely were not the result of age, for he was yet in the prime of life.
"The birds have started already on their journey to the south," said he, after watching the flight attentively until they had finally disappeared in the cloud of mist. "The autumn has come to nature and to our lives as well."
"Not to yours yet," objected his companion. "You are just in the hey-day of life, in the full strength of your manhood."
"True enough, as to years, but I have a feeling that age will overtake me sooner than others. I often feel as if it were autumn with me now."
The other man, who might have been a few years the speaker's senior, was slender, and of middle height, and clad in civilian's dress. He shook his head impatiently at his companion's last observation. He appeared insignificant when compared with the strong, well-built officer near him; but his pale, sharply cut face wore a look of cold, superior repose, and the sarcastic expression around the thin lips, together with his aristocratic air and bearing, suggested a hidden strength behind a feeble exterior.
"You take life too hard, Falkenried," he said reprovingly. "You have changed strangely in the last few years. Who would recognize in you now, the gay young officer of other days? And what's the reason of it all? The shadow which once darkened your life has long since disappeared. You are a soldier, heart and soul, and have repeatedly distinguished yourself in your profession. A high position awaits you in the future, and the thing above all others is—you have your son."
Falkenried did not answer; he folded his arms and looked out again into the mist, while the other continued: "The boy has grown handsome as a god in the last few years. I was quite overcome with surprise when I saw him again, and you yourself, told me that he was unusually gifted and in many things showed great talent."
"I would that Hartmut had fewer talents and more character," said Falkenried, in an almost acrid tone. "He can make verses quick enough, and to learn a language is child's play to him, but as soon as he tries some earnest science, he's behind all the others, and in military tactics I can make nothing of him at all. You cannot comprehend, Wallmoden, what iron severity I am constantly compelled to employ."
"I fear you accomplish little by this same severity," interrupted Wallmoden. "You should take my advice and leave your son to his studies. He has not the qualifications for a soldier. You must see that for yourself by this time."
"He shall and must acquire those qualifications. It is the only possible career for such an intractable nature as his, which revolts at every restraint and to which every duty is a burden. The life of a student at the university would give him unrestrained liberty; only the iron dicipline of the service will force him to bend."
"The only question is, how long will you be able to force him to do your will? You should not deceive yourself; there are inherited tendencies which will not allow themselves to be repressed or eradicated. Hartmut, now, is in appearance the counterpart of his mother; he has her features and her eyes."
"Yes," assented Falkenried gloomily, "her dark, demoniacal, glowing eyes, which cast their spell upon all who knew her."
"And were your ruin," supplemented Wallmoden. "How often did I warn and advise you then; but you would not listen. Your passion had seized you like a fever and held you like chains. I declare I never have been able to understand it."
Falkenried's lips were drawn in with a bitter smile.
"I can readily believe that you, the cool, calculating diplomat, you, whose every word is weighed, are protected against all such witcheries."
"I should at least be cautious in my choice. Your marriage carried unhappiness on its face from the very beginning. A women of a foreign race, with strange blood in her veins and the wild, passionate Sclave nature, without character, without understanding of what we here call duty and morality; and you with your rigid principles, with your sensitive feeling of honor, it could ultimately lead to but one end. And I believe you loved her in spite of all, until your separation."
"No," said Falkenried, in a hard tone, "the fire burned out in the first year; I saw that only too clearly. But I shrank back from publishing to the world my household misery by a legal separation. So I bore it until no choice remained, until I was forced. But enough of this."
He turned abruptly on his heel and looked from the window again; but the quick movement betrayed rather than concealed the torture which he with difficulty repressed.
"Yes, it takes a great deal to tear up a nature like yours by the roots," said Wallmoden earnestly. "But the divorce freed you from the unhappy bond, and why should you not bury the memory as well?"
Falkenried shook his head and sighed heavily. "One cannot bury such memories; they are forever rising from their supposed sepulchres, and just now—" he broke off suddenly.
"Just now; what do you mean?"
"Nothing; let us speak of other things. You have been in Burgsdorf since day before yesterday; how long do you expect to remain?"
"About two weeks. I haven't much time at my disposal, and am for that matter only nominally Willibald's guardian, for my diplomatic position keeps me out of the country most of the time. The guardianship really rests in the hands of my sister, who rules over everything."
"Well, Regine is equal to the position. She governs the great estate and the numerous servants as though she were a man."
"And gives her orders like a cavalry officer from morning to night," put in her brother. "Recognizing all her excellent qualities, I, nevertheless, feel a slight creepy sensation whenever I am constrained to visit Burgsdorf, and I always leave the place with shattered nerves. They live in a most primitive fashion over yonder. Willibald is a perfect young bear, and of course at the same time the apple of his mother's eye, and she, by the way, is doing her best to bring him up as a bluff country squire. It's useless to enter any protest, and, for the matter of that, it seems just what the youngster's good for."
Their conversation was interrupted at this moment by a servant, who entered and handed his master a card. Falkenried glanced at it. "Counsellor Egern? I am glad of that. Tell the gentleman to come in."
"You have a business engagement I see," said Wallmoden rising. "Then I'll not disturb you."
"On the contrary I beg you to remain. I have had an intimation of this visit and its purpose, and know what will be the result of our conversation. The question is—" He did not finish, for the door opened and the lawyer entered. He seemed surprised not to find the officer alone, as he had fully expected, but Falkenried took no notice of his ill-concealed astonishment.
"Herr Counsellor Egern—Herr von Wallmoden, secretary of legation," said the host, presenting them. The man of law bowed with cool politeness as he took the seat offered him.
"I have the honor of being known to you, I believe, Herr Major," he began. "As your wife's attorney at the time the suit for divorce was in progress, I had the opportunity of making your acquaintance." He paused as if expecting an answer; but Major Falkenried gave no sign beyond an affirmative nod.
Wallmoden was all attention. He could understand now his friend's irritation on his arrival.
"I come to you to-day in the name of my former client," continued the counsellor. "She has authorized me—have I your permission to speak freely?"
He glanced at the diplomat, but Falkenried answered shortly: "Herr von Wallmoden is my friend, and knows all about this affair. So you may speak freely."
"Very well. The lady has, after an absence of many years, returned to Germany, and naturally enough wishes to see her son. She has already written you about the matter but has received no answer."
"I should think that was answer enough. I do not wish any such meeting, and I will not permit it."
"That sounds very blunt, Herr Major. Frau von Falkenried, in that case, has—"
"Say Frau Zalika Rojanow, if you please," interrupted the Major. "I believe she assumed her maiden name again when she returned to her own country."
"The name does not signify on this occasion," responded the lawyer composedly. "The question concerns only and alone a mother's natural desire, which the father neither can nor dare refuse, even though, as in this case, the son has been unconditionally adjudged to him."
"Dare not? But suppose he does dare?"
"In so doing he will overstep the limit of his rights. I beg you, Herr Major, to consider the matter quietly before giving so decided a no. A mother has rights of which no judicial decree can ever divest her, and one of those rights is the privilege of seeing her only child again. In this case my client has the law on her side, and she will appeal to it, too, if my demand meets with the same refusal as did her written request."
"Very well, she can make the attempt. I'll run the risk. My son does not know that his mother is living, and shall not learn it now. I will not have him see her or speak with her, and I will know how to prevent it, too. My no is absolute under all circumstances."
This declaration left nothing to be wished for as regarded energy; but Falkenried's face was deathly pale, and his voice had a hollow, menacing sound. One could see how fearfully the interview had excited him. He was scarcely able to preserve the semblance of outward composure.
The attorney seemed to see the uselessness of further endeavor, and only shrugged his shoulders.
"If this is your last word, then my errand is at an end, and we will determine hereafter what our next step will be. I regret having troubled you about the matter, Herr Major." He bowed himself out with the same cool, indifferent manner with which he had entered. As the door closed upon him, Falkenried sprang up and began pacing excitedly up and down the room; there were a few minutes of oppressive silence, then Wallmoden said, half aloud: "You should not have done that. Zalika will not resign herself readily to your no; she made a desperate struggle for her child in the beginning."
"But I obtained the victory. It is to be hoped she has not forgotten that."
"At that time the question concerned the possession of the child," objected the secretary. "Now the mother only asks permission to see him again, and you will not be able to refuse her that, if she demands it peremptorily."
The Major stopped suddenly, and his voice was full of undisguised contempt as he answered:
"She will not venture to do that after all that has happened. Zalika learned to know me in the hour of our separation; she'll be cautious about driving me to extremes a second time."
"But perhaps she will seek to accomplish secretly what you have openly refused."
"That is impossible; the discipline of our institution is so severe there could be no intercourse here of which I should not learn at once."
Wallmoden did not seem to share his friend's confidence. He shook his head doubtfully.
"To speak openly, I regard it as a great mistake that you are obstinately silent toward your son concerning his mother and the fact that she is living. When he learns it from some other source, what then? And sometime you must tell him."
"Perhaps, in a couple of years, when he'll have to enter the world. Now he's only a student, a half-grown boy, and I cannot disclose to him the drama which was once played in his father's house—I cannot."
"So be it. You know the woman who was once your wife, and know what to expect from her. I fear there is nothing impossible for this woman to accomplish."
"Ah, I know her," said Falkenried with intense bitterness, "and because I know her I will protect my son from her at any price. He shall not breath the poisonous breath of her presence; no, not even for an hour. I do not under estimate the danger from Zalika's return, but as long as Hartmut remains at my side he is safe from her, for she will never come near me, I give you my word for that."
"We will hope so," answered Wallmoden, as he rose and reached out his hand at parting. "But do not forget that the greatest danger with which you have to contend lies in Hartmut himself; he is in every trait the son of his mother. You are coming over to Burgsdorf with him day after to-morrow, I hear?"
"Yes, he is to spend his short autumn vacation with Willibald. I shall be able to remain a day only, but I'll surely come for that time. Good-bye."
The secretary left the house, and Falkenried returned once more to the window, but he only gave a fleeting glance after his friend, who waved him a parting greeting, then returned gloomily to his own thoughts.
"The son of his mother." The words rang in his ears, but the thought was not new to him; he had known it a long time, and it was this knowledge which had furrowed his brow so deeply, and wrung from him many a deep sigh. He was a man who could brave any outward danger; but against this unfortunate heritage of blood in his only child he had battled with all his energy for years, but in vain.
* * * * *
"Now I tell you for the last time that all this noise and confusion must come to an end, for my patience is finally exhausted. Such goings on as we have had for the last three days are enough to make one think that all Burgsdorf is bewitched. That Hartmut is full of mad tricks from his head to his feet. When he once gets loose from the reins which his father holds tight enough, I'll admit that, there's no getting on with him, and of course you follow after him through thick and thin, and obey your lord and master's slightest behest. Oh, you are a fine pair."
This philippic, which was delivered in a loud tone, came from the lips of Frau von Eschenhagen of Burgsdorf, while sitting with her son and mother at breakfast. The great dining-room lay on the ground floor of the old mansion, and was an extremely simple room, with glass doors leading out upon a broad stone terrace, and to the garden beyond. On the brightly tinted walls hung a number of antlers, which bore witness to the sporting tastes of former possessors, but these were the only adornments of the room.
A dozen high-backed chairs, arranged stiffly in rows like grenadiers, a cumbrous dining-table and a couple of old-fashioned sideboards constituted the entire furniture of the room; and one could see at a glance that they had already done service for several generations. Such luxuries as wall-paper, paintings or carpet could not be found here. Evidently the occupants were contented to live on just as their ancestors had done, although Burgsdorf was one of the richest estates in the district.
The appearance of the mistress of the house was in keeping with her surroundings She was forty years old or there abouts, with a large, strong figure, cheeks glowing with health, and firm, solid features, which could never have been called beautiful, but denoted great energy. Very little escaped the sharp glance of her gray eye, her dark hair was brushed back smoothly, her gown was of coarse texture, simply made, and looking at her hands, you saw at once that they were made for work.
There was nothing attractive in her appearance, and her manner and bearing were thoroughly masculine.
The heir and future master of Burgsdorf, who had just been reprimanded so sharply, sat opposite his mother, listening, as in duty bound, while he helped himself liberally to ham and eggs. He was a handsome, fresh-looking youth, about seventeen years old, whose appearance indicated no great intellectual strength, but he seemed to beam with good nature. His sun-burned face was the picture of health, but otherwise he showed little resemblance to his mother. He lacked her energetic expression, and the blue eyes and blonde hair were not from her, but were an inheritance from his father. With his large, but very awkward limbs, he looked like a young giant, and formed a striking contrast to his more delicately formed, aristocratic looking uncle, Wallmoden, who sat next him, and who said now with a slight soupcon of irony in his tone: "You certainly cannot hold Willibald answerable for all these mad pranks; he certainly is a model son."
"I would advise him not to be anything else; who lives with me must obey orders," cried Frau von Eschenhagen, as she struck an emphatic blow upon the table, which made her brother wince.
"A man is bound to obey orders under your government," he answered. "At the same time I would advise you, dear Regine, to do something more for the intellectual development of your son. I have no doubt that under your guidance he will become, in time, a most excellent farmer, but to the education of a future landed proprietor, something more than that is needed. Willibald has outgrown home instructors and should be sent away now."
"Sent a—?" Frau Regine laid down knife and fork in unbounded astonishment. "Sent away," she exclaimed, greatly irritated, "and in the name of common sense, where?"
"Well, first to the university, and later to travel, that he may learn something of the world and of men."
"That he may be altogether ruined by this world and these men, and no comfort to me at all! No, Herbert, I'll never do that, and I tell you so now, once for all. I have educated my son to be honest and fear God, and do not think I shall turn him loose in your Sodom and Gomorrah which the dear Lord in his forbearance has yet spared from the fire and brimstone which it so richly deserves."
"You only know this Sodom and Gomorrah by hearsay, Regine," interrupted Herbert, sarcastically. "You have lived in Burgsdorf ever since your marriage; you must acknowledge that yourself!"
"I acknowledge nothing at all," declared Frau von Eschenhagen, obstinately. "Will shall become a capable farmer; he is qualified for that, and for that he needs no cramming at your universities. Or perhaps you'd like to educate him in your own school, and make a diplomatist of him? That would be too great an honor."
She began to laugh loudly, and Will, to whom the whole conversation had appeared very comical, joined in in the same key. Herr von Wallmoden took no part in this sudden explosion of gaiety; he only winced again, as though his nerves were affected, and shrugged his shoulders.
"No, I had not thought of that. I know full well I should have my trouble for my pains. But Willibald and I are the only representatives of our family, and if I should not marry—"
"Should not? You are not thinking of marrying in your old age?" interrupted his sister, sharply.
"I am in my forty-fifth year, dear Regine, and a man is not usually considered old at that age," said Wallmoden, somewhat vexed. "Above all things I consider marriages made late in life by far the happiest; one is not influenced then by passion, as Falkenried was, to his lasting wretchedness, but gives to reason the decisive word."
"The saints protect us! What if Willibald should wait to marry until he is fifty years old and gray-headed?" cried Frau von Eschenhagen, greatly vexed.
"As an only son and future heir he will have to consider such matters; as for the rest, the main point will be his own inclinations. What do you think, Willibald?"
The young heir, who had disposed of his ham and eggs by this time, and with undiminished appetite was now attacking the sausage, was evidently much astonished that his opinion had been asked. Such a thing had never happened before, and he was obliged to reflect deeply before he could answer at all.
At length he reached a conclusion. "Yes, of course I must marry some time, but mamma will choose a wife for me when the right time comes."
"She will indeed, my boy," assented his mother, warmly. "That is my affair, so you need not trouble your head about it, and until then you will remain here in Burgsdorf where I can have my eye upon you. As to the university and traveling, that matter is—settled."
She threw a defiant glance at her brother, but he was gazing with a look of horror at the enormous sausage to which his nephew and ward was helping himself for the second time.
"Have you always such a large appetite, Will?" he asked.
"Always," Will assured him complacently, as he helped himself to a large slice of bread and butter.
"No, we don't suffer thank God, with indigestion or any other stomach trouble," said the mistress of the house tartly, "but we earn our bread honestly here. First pray and work, then eat and drink, but what we do, we do thoroughly, and that keeps body and soul together. Just look at Will, now, and you will see that what I say is true." She gave her brother a friendly slap on the shoulder with her last words, but this token of her good will was so energetic that Wallmoden shrank back in his chair, and immediately moved it sidewise to be out of the reach of that muscular hand.
The expression of his face showed clearly that the "creepy sensation" was coming over him again. In the presence of these patriarchial conditions, he thought it best to forego any attempt to enforce his prerogative as guardian, an office, moreover, which, so far as he was concerned, had always been purely nominal. It was plain from Will's manner that his mother's praise was highly gratifying to the young man's feelings.
"And Hartmut is not here for breakfast again, this morning. He seems to think there is no necessity for being punctual at Burgsdorf, but I will enlighten the young gentleman when he comes and make it clear to him that—"
"There he is now," exclaimed Willibald. On the clear sunshine which flooded the room through the open windows, there fell a shadow, and a tall, slender figure appeared suddenly at the window and vaulted upon the high sill.
"Well, what kind of an imp are you anyway, that you can only come in through the window?" said Frau von Eschenhagen indignantly. "What are the doors for?"
"For Will and all other well-ordered human beings," laughed the new-comer good-naturedly. "I always take the nearest way, and that led this time through the window." So saying he gave one spring from the high seat into the middle of the room.
Hartmut Falkenried, like the young heir of Burgsdorf, stood upon the boundary line where boyhood and manhood meet, but it needed only a glance to recognize that he was his friend's superior in every respect. He wore a cadet's uniform which became him well, but yet there was something in his whole appearance which seemed to be at war with the military cut and fit. The tall, slender boy was a true picture of youth and beauty, yet there was something odd about this beauty, something wild in his motions and appearance, with absolutely nothing to remind one of the martial figure and earnest repose of his father. The luxuriant, curly locks which crowned the high forehead, were of a deep, blue black, and the warm, dark coloring of the skin betokened rather a son of the south than of German parentage. Neither did the eyes, which flashed in the youthful countenance, belong to the cool, earnest north; they were enigmatical eyes, dark as the night, and full of hot, passionate fire. Beautiful as they were, however, there was something uncanny hidden in their depths, and though the laughter which accompanied Hartmut's words was free and unrestrained, it was not a hearty, merry boy's laugh.
"You certainly conduct yourself in a very free and easy manner," said Wallmoden, sharply. "You evidently take advantage of the fact that the inmates of Burgsdorf think little of etiquette. I have no doubt, however, that your father would protest against such an entrance into the dining-room."
"He would not do it if his father were here," said Frau von Eschenhagen, who did not seem to notice the stab intended for herself in her brother's remark. "And so you have come to your breakfast at last, Hartmut. But laggards get nothing to eat; did you know that?"
"Yes, I know that," replied Hartmut, quite undisturbed, "so I got my breakfast some time ago from the housekeeper. You can't starve me, Aunt Regine. I stand on too good a footing with your people."
"And so you think you can do as you please and go unpunished," cried the irate lady. "Break all the rules of the house, leave no one and nothing in peace, and stand all Burgsdorf on its head; but I'll soon stop all this business, my lad. To-morrow I'll send a messenger over to your father requesting him to come and take home his son who knows neither punctuality nor obedience."
The threat had its effect. The youth was frightened, and thought it well to surrender at discretion.
"Oh, you are only jesting; shall I not enjoy my short vacation with—"
"With all manner of folly?" Frau von Eschenhagen added for him. "Will has not done so much mischief in all his life as you have accomplished in the last three days, and you'll spoil him with your bad example and lead him into all manner of misdoing."
"Oh, Will is not the kind to be spoiled. I could not do it if I tried," said Hartmut very warmly.
The young heir, who certainly did not look as if he could be led into any impropriety, ate on, untroubled by these personal allusions, until he had finished the last slice of bread on the table; but his mother was highly incensed at this remark.
"That must grieve you greatly," she retorted. "It is certainly not your fault, for you have tried hard enough to ruin him; but as I just said I will write to your father to-morrow."
"That he is to come and fetch me away? You won't do that Aunt Regine, you are far too good. You know how very strict papa is, how severely he can punish; you won't complain of me to him; you have never done it yet."
"Leave me alone, don't bother me with your flatteries." Frau Regine's face was as inflexible as ever, but her voice had a certain unsteadiness which made Hartmut feel he had won the day. He laid his arm upon her shoulder with the freedom of a child.
"I believe you do love me a little, Aunt Regine, and I—I have been happy for weeks over the thought of my visit to Burgsdorf. I have been sick with longing for woods and sea, for the green meadows and the far blue heavens. I have been so happy here; but of course, if you really do not want me, I'll go away from the place. I won't wait to have you send me."
His voice had sunk to a soft, seductive whisper, while his eyes spoke more eloquently than his tongue. They could plead more powerfully than the lips, and Frau von Eschenhagen, who yielded to no one, from her only son to the lowest tenant on the estate, permitted herself to be persuaded by them now.
"You are incorrigible, you merry-andrew" she said, brushing the curls from his forehead. "And as to sending you away, you know only too well that Will and all my people are always ready to make fools of themselves for you, and I, too, for that matter."
Hartmut laughed aloud at the last words, and kissed her hand with impetuous gratitude, then he turned to his friend, who, having finally ended his meal, was looking on in silent wonderment.
"Have you finished your breakfast at last, Will? Come, we'll go to the Burgsdorf fishing pond—don't be so vexatiously slow. Good-bye, Aunt Regine, I can see Uncle Wallmoden does not approve of your having pardoned me. Hurrah, now we're off for the woods." And away he rushed over the terrace and across the garden. There was something attractive in his exuberance and enthusiasm. The lad was all life and fire. Will trotted after him like a young deer, and in a few moments the two disappeared behind the trees.
"He comes and goes like a wind storm," said Frau von Eschenhagen, gazing after them. "That boy is not to be restrained once the reins are slackened."
"A dangerous youth," said Wallmoden. "He even understands how to manage you, who usually have all your commands obeyed. It is, within my knowledge, the first time you have ever forgiven disobedience and lack of punctuality."
"Yes, Hartmut has something about him which bewitches one," exclaimed Regine, half angry at her own irresolution. "If he did not look at me with those big black eyes of his while he begged and flattered, I might be able to resist him. You are right, he is a dangerous lad."
"Well, we've had enough of Hartmut for this morning. The question which interests me concerns the education of your own son. You have really decided—"
"To keep him here. Don't bother yourself about him, Herbert; you may be a great diplomatist, and have the politics of the whole country in your pocket, but I wont give my boy into your keeping; he belongs to me alone, and I intend to keep him, and—that's enough."
A sounding blow on the table accompanied the "that's enough." Then the ruling lady of Burgsdorf rose from her chair and left the room. Her brother shrugged his shoulders and said half aloud: "He can grow up an ignorant country squire for all of me—perhaps it's the best thing for him after all."
Hartmut and Willibald had, in the meantime, reached the tolerably extensive forest which belonged to the estate. The Burgsdorf fish pond, a lonely, reedy sheet of water in the middle of the wood, lay glittering in the sun in the still morning hours. Willibald had chosen for himself a shady place upon the bank, and gave himself up, with as much perseverance as comfort, to the delights of angling, while the impatient Hartmut wandered here and there, now scaring a bird, now breaking off a branch for the blossoms, and at last, after a series of gymnastic performances, seating himself on the trunk of an old tree which lay half in the water. "Can you never be quiet in any place? You frighten the fish away every time," exclaimed Will, out of humor. "I've caught nothing at all to-day!"
"How can you sit for hours on the one spot waiting for the stupid fish to bite?" retorted Hartmut. "Ah, you can spend the whole long year in the woods if you desire, you are free, free."
"Are you a prisoner, then?" asked his friend. "You and your comrades are out daily, are you not?"
"But never alone, never without supervision and control. We are always and eternally in the service, even in recreation hours. O how I hate it, this service, and the whole slavish life."
"But Hartmut, what if your father heard you?"
"Oh, then he would punish me again as he always does. He has nothing else for me but force and punishment, all for my own good—that goes without saying."
He threw himself full length on the grass, but hard as the words sounded, there was a tremor in his tone which told of pain and passion. The young heir only shook his head soberly while he put a new bait on his hook and for a few minutes there was perfect silence.
Then suddenly something black swooped down like a flash of lightning from the height above them into the water, and a second later rose again in the air with the slippery, glittering prey in its beak.
"Bravo, that was a good catch!" cried Hartmut, rising. But Will spoke angrily.
"The wretched robber robs our whole pond. I will speak to the forester and tell him to fill him full of lead."
"A robber?" repeated Hartmut, as his glance followed the heron who was just disappearing behind the high tree tops. "Yes, of course, but how fine it must be to live such a free robber's life up there in the air. To descend like a flash for your booty and be up and off again where no one can follow; that's a hunt that pays."
"Hartmut, I verily believe you'd take pleasure in such a wild, lawless life," said Willibald, with the repugnance of a well-trained boy for such sentiments.
His companion laughed, but it was the same bitter laugh without the joyousness of youth in its sound.
"Well, if I had any such desire, they'd take it out of me at the military academy. There obedience and discipline is the Alpha and Omega of all things. Will, have you never wished that you had wings?"
"I, wings?" asked Will, whose whole attention was again directed to his bait. "How ridiculous! Who would wish for impossibilities?"
"I only wish I had them," cried Hartmut excitedly. "I would I were one of the falcons from whom we take our name. Then I would mount higher and always higher in the blue sky towards the sun, and never come back again."
"I believe you're crazy," answered his listener good-naturedly. "Well, I wont catch anything, if I sit here all day, for the fish wont bite. I must move to another place."
With that he gathered up his fishing tackle and crossed to the other side of the pond, while Hartmut threw himself on the ground again.
It was one of those autumn days which during the midday hours recall thoughts of early spring. The sunshine was so golden, the air so mild, the woods so fresh and odorous. Upon the glistening little lake danced thousands of shining sparks, and the long grass whispered softly and mysteriously to itself whenever a breath of wind passed over it.
Hartmut lay stretched out motionless on the grass as if listening to the secrets it told to the autumnal wind. The wild passion and excitement which flashed from his eyes when he spoke of the bird of prey had all vanished. Now the eyes which looked into the heavens above were sad and dreamy, and there rested in them an expression of ardent longing.
A light step, almost unheard on the soft ground, approached, and the low bushes rustled as if against a silk garment. Then they parted and a woman's figure appeared and stood looking intently at the young dreamer.
The boy started and sprang up instantly. He knew neither the voice nor the apparition which stood before him, but saw it was a lady, and he made her one of his courtly bows.
A slender, trembling hand was laid quickly and restrainingly on his arm.
"Be quiet, not so loud; your companion might hear us, and I want to speak to you, and to you alone, Hartmut."
She stepped back again into the thicket and motioned him to follow. Hartmut hesitated a moment. How came this heavily-veiled and richly-attired stranger into the lonely wood, and why did she speak so familiarly to him whom she had never seen before? But the mysteriousness of her behavior beginning to charm him, he followed.
She stood now in the shadow of the low trees, where she could not be seen from the lake, and slowly threw back her veil. She was not very young, a woman of more than thirty, but her face with its great burning eyes, possessed an indefinable witchery, and a certain charm lay in her voice, which, though she talked in whispers, had a soft, deep tone, and an odd intonation, as though the German which she spoke so fluently was not her mother tongue.
"Hartmut, look at me. Do you really not know me any more? Does no memory of your childhood come back to you, to tell you who I am?"
The young man shook his head slowly, and yet some dreamy and obscure memory did come to his recollection, of having heard this voice before, and of this face which had looked into his at some far distant period. Half shy, half fascinated, he stood looking at this stranger, who suddenly threw her arms around him.
"My son, my only child! Do you not know your own mother?"
"My mother is dead," he answered, half aloud.
The stranger laughed bitterly, shrilly, and her laugh seemed but an echo of the hard, joyless sounds which had come from Hartmut's lips a few moments since.
"So that's how it is. They would even say I was dead and not leave you the memory of a mother. It is not true, Hartmut. I live, I stand before you; look at me, look at my features, are they not your very own? That at least they could not take from you. Child of my heart, do you not feel that you belong to me?"
Still Hartmut stood motionless, looking into that face in which his own was so faithfully mirrored. He saw the same lines, the same luxuriant, blue-black hair, the same dark, flashing eyes; and the same demoniacal expression which was a flame in the eye of the mother, was a spark in the eye of the son. Their close resemblance to one another was witness enough that they were of one blood. The young man felt the influence of the mysterious tie.
He demanded no explanation, no proof; the dreamy, confused recollections of his childhood were suddenly clear, and after a second's hesitation he threw himself into the arms which were stretched out to him.
In this cry lay the whole fervid intensity of the boy, who had never known what it was to have a mother, and who had longed for one with all the passion of his nature. His mother! And now he lay in her arms, now she covered him with warm kisses, and called him by sweet, tender names, which had been strangers to his ear until that moment—everything else seemed forgotten by him in this flood of stormy ecstasy.
After a few minutes Hartmut loosed himself from the arms which still enfolded him.
"Why have you never been with me, mamma?" he asked vehemently. "Why have I always been told that you were dead?"
Zalika stepped back, and in an instant all tenderness had died out of her eyes, and in its place was a wild, deadly hate, as the answer came like a hiss from between her set lips.
"Because your father hates me, my son—and because he wishes to deny me the love of my only child since he thrust me from him."
Hartmut was silent. He knew well enough that the name of his mother dare not be mentioned in his father's presence, and that he had been sharply reproved once for doing so, but he had been too much a child at the time to ask "why." Zalika gave him no time to do so now. She brushed the thick locks back from his brow and a shadow crossed her face.
"You get your forehead from him," she said slowly. "But that is the only thing that reminds me of him, all the rest belongs to me and me alone. Every feature tells that you are mine—I always knew that."
She suddenly clasped him in her arms again with unspeakable tenderness, and Hartmut returned the embrace with ardor. It seemed to him like the fairy tales which he had so often dreamed, and he gave himself up unresistingly to the spell of happiness which some wonderful magic had cast over him.
Just at that moment, Will called loudly to his friend from the opposite shore to come on, that it was time to go home. Zalika spoke at once.
"We must part now. Nobody must learn that I have seen and spoken with you; above all things your father must not know it. When do you return to him?"
"In eight days."
"Not for eight days?" The words sounded almost triumphant.
"Until then I can see you daily. Be here by the pond to-morrow at this same hour; make some pretext for leaving your friend behind, so that we may be undisturbed. You will come, Hartmut?"
"Certainly, mother, but—"
She gave him no time for any objection, but continued in a passionate whisper:
"Above all things maintain absolute silence toward every one. Do not forget that. Good-bye, my child, my own dear son, good-bye."
Another kiss and she had retreated in the woods as noiselessly as she had come. It was high time, for Willibald appeared at this moment, though not noiselessly by any means, for he broke the twigs with many a crackle as he stepped heavily on them.
"Why didn't you answer me?" he asked. "I called you three times. You have been asleep; you look as if you were dreaming."
Hartmut did have a dazed look as he stood gazing at the trees behind which his mother had disappeared. Now he straightened himself and drew his hand across his forehead.
"Yes, I have been dreaming. A very strange, marvelous dream," he said slowly.
"You had better have been fishing," returned Will. "See what a fine catch I have made. A man should never dream in daylight—that's the time to be at something serious—mother says."
The Falkenried and Wallmoden families had been on friendly terms for years. Living upon adjoining estates, their intercourse was frequent, and their children grew up together, while many common interests united the bonds of friendship still more closely. Neither of the families were wealthy, and the sons, after completing their education, always had to make their own way in the world, and this in their turn Major Hartmut von Falkenried and Herbert von Wallmoden had done.
They had played together in their youth, and as men had remained true to their boyhood's friendship. At one time it looked as if they would be more closely allied, for their parents had planned a marriage between Lieutenant Falkenried, as he was then, and Regine Wallmoden. The young couple seemed to understand one another fully, and everything stood on the happiest footing, when an event occurred which put an abrupt termination to all their plans.
A cousin of the Wallmoden family, an incorrigible idler and spendthrift, who had made his longer residence at home an impossibility by his wild conduct, had gone out into the world years before, and after much wandering, and an adventurous career, had finally turned his steps in the direction of Roumania, where he obtained the management of a wealthy Bojar's estate. After the Bojar's death he succeeded in winning the widow's hand, and once more regained the position among the nobility which he had lost earlier in life, through his own folly. And now, after an absence of more than ten years, he returned with his wife to make a long visit to his kinsfolk.
Frau von Wallmoden was by no means a youthful bride. She had long since reached maturity, but she was accompanied by her daughter by her first marriage, Zalika Rojanow; and this young Sclave, scarcely seventeen years old, turned the heads of the simple country gentry, who after all had seen but little of the world, by her grace and strange beauty, and the fascination of her warm southern temperament. She was a strange enough figure in this little circle, whose forms and customs she set aside with such sovereign indifference. But there was many an earnest shake of the head, many a word of blame, which was not outspoken, because they only considered the girl a fleeting guest; she would vanish again as suddenly as she had appeared on their little horizon.
Then Hartmut Falkenried came home from his garrison on leave, and met the new family in the house of his friends. He saw Zalika, and his life's destiny was sealed. It was a sudden and blinding passion, for which one too often pays with the peace of a whole life.
He forgot the wishes of his parents, their plans for his future, and his quiet, warm attachment for his youth's playfellow, Regine. He had eyes no longer for the simple woodland flower, which yet bloomed young and fresh for him; but, inhaling the fragrance of the strange and beautiful exotic, all else sank into insignificance. In an unguarded hour he threw himself at her feet, and told her of his love.
Strangely enough, Zalika returned his affection. Perhaps it was according to the old adage of extremes meeting, for this man was, in every particular, her opposite; perhaps it flattered her to see that a word, a glance from her, could so powerfully effect this earnest, quiet officer, who, even then, had a touch of melancholy in his disposition. Enough, she accepted him, and with joy he clasped his affianced bride in his arms.
The news of their betrothal aroused a storm in the family circle. From all sides came objections and warnings. Zalika's mother and step-father were sorely opposed to it, but resistance only increased the ardor of the young lovers. The engagement, in spite of kinsfolk, was soon an established fact, and six months later Falkenried took his young bride to his own house.
But the voices which had foretold unhappiness from this marriage were prophetic.
It was not long before the brief intoxication of joy was followed by bitter disenchantment. It had been a fatal error to believe a woman like Zalika Rojanow, who had grown up in the unrestrained freedom of a disorderly, extravagant Bojar family, could accommodate herself to the rules and restrictions of a settled German household.
The only life she had ever known, and the only life which suited her temper, was one of excitement and outward splendor. A house full of guests, horses, cards, hunting, racing, and the utmost liberty of conversation with the men of her acquaintance; this was the life she had led in her Roumanian home.
She had no notion of duty and no understanding for the obligations and requirements of her new position. And this was the wife who must adapt herself to the narrow life of a little German garrison town, and direct the household of a young officer with but limited means at his command. That it was impossible for her to do so, was shown within the first few weeks. Zalika began at once; regardless of all prudent considerations, to order her house after the same fashion as her father's, and squandered her large marriage portion right and left.
In vain her husband pleaded with and admonished her; she paid no heed to him. She had nothing but jeers for forms and ceremonies which were sacred to him, only a shrug of the shoulders for his strict ideas of honor and propriety. Soon there were violent quarrels, and Falkenried recognized, too late, what his precipitancy had done for him.
He had had great faith in the power of love, notwithstanding all the warnings he had received about Zalika's foreign birth, and the seal which her erratic education had stamped upon her character. But he had now to learn that she had never loved him; that it was the whim of the hour, or, more probably, the fleeting passion of a moment, which had made her throw herself into his arms. And she saw in him only an uncomfortable companion, who spoiled all her pleasure in life with his foolish pendantries and his laughable notions of honor with which he wished to bind her hand and foot. But with it all, she feared this man, who, in his energy and force, was striving to bend her characterless nature to his will.
The birth of little Hartmut did nothing to relieve the strain of this unhappy marriage, but it was a tie which, outwardly at least, still bound them together. Zalika loved her child passionately, and she knew her husband well enough to recognize fully, that if it ever came to a separation between them, he would demand the boy. That thought alone kept her by his side, while Falkenried suffered intensely, hid his misery in his own breast, and gave a brave front to the world.
But, in spite of all, the world knew the truth; it knew things of which the husband had never dreamed, and was only silent out of compassion for him. But at last there came a day when his eyes were opened, and what had been so long an open secret to all his little world excepting himself, was known to him.
The immediate consequence of this knowledge was a duel, in which Falkenried's antagonist fell.
Falkenried was sentenced to a long imprisonment, but very soon released, for every one recognized that he had only fought to vindicate his wounded honor.
In the meantime the suit for divorce had been begun, and a decree obtained; Zalika made no contest, nor did she venture to approach her husband again.
Since the last terrible hour when he had called her to account, she trembled at the thought of him. She made desperate efforts however to secure possession of her son, but all in vain.
Hartmut was given to the father unconditionally, and Falkenried barred the mother's every effort with iron inexorableness. Zalika made many attempts to see her son once more, but to no purpose, and fully convinced at last, that she could accomplish nothing, she returned to her own country and her mother's house.
For years her husband had heard nothing from her, until now when she suddenly and unexpectedly appeared in the neighborhood of the German capital, where Major von Falkenried had assumed control of a large military school.
It was the eighth day since Hartmut's arrival at Burgsdorf. Frau von Eschenhagen was in her sitting-room, and opposite her sat the Major, who had arrived but fifteen minutes before.
Her conversation must have been as disagreeable as it was earnest, for Falkenried listened with a face which grew darker at every word, as she went on with her account.
"Hartmut seemed to me greatly altered after the third or fourth day he was here. The first few days nothing could check his overflow of spirits, and indeed one morning I had to threaten to send him home. But, all of a sudden, he became silent and quite downcast. He attempted no more of his mad pranks, spent hours by himself in wandering through our woods, and when he returned from his solitary rambles, just sat and dreamed with open eyes, so that we often had to arouse him as if from a sound slumber. 'He's beginning to think of the future,' Herbert said, but I said: 'There's something more than that wrong; there's something back of all this.' So I took Will to task and questioned him closely; he astonished me with what I extorted from him. He was in the conspiracy. He had surprised the mother and the son one day at their tryst, and Hartmut had pledged him to secrecy, and my boy had really kept silence towards me, me, his own mother! He finally confessed the little he knew, after I had talked to him seriously. Well, it won't happen a second time. I'll look after my Will more sharply for the future."
"And Hartmut, what does he say?" interrupted the father hastily.
"Nothing at all, for I haven't spoken a syllable to him on the subject. He would probably have asked why he had never been allowed to see, or speak to his mother, and that question can only be answered—by his father."
"He has heard it all from the other side, by this time," answered the father bitterly. "Though, of course, he has not heard the truth."
"That is what I feared, so I didn't lose a moment in communicating with you after I discovered the thing. And what will you do?"
"I'll have to think that over," responded the Major with enforced quiet. "I thank you, Regine. I suspected mischief when your letter came urging me to come over at once. Herbert was right, I should not have allowed Hartmut to leave my side for an hour, under any circumstances. But I believed him to be so safe from every approach here at Burgsdorf. And he was so rejoiced at the thought of spending his little vacation here, had so set his heart upon it, that I had not the strength to refuse him;—and then he is seldom happy except when away from me."
A hidden pain lay in the last words, but his listener only shrugged his shoulders.
"That's not altogether the boy's fault," she answered, outspokenly. "I keep my Will under pretty sharp discipline, but he knows well enough, in spite of all that, that he lives in his mother's heart. Hartmut has never learned as much of his father; he only knows his severe, unapproachable side. If he imagined that you almost adored—"'
"He would at once misuse the knowledge and leave me weaponless with his flattery and caresses. He'd rule over me as he does over every one else who comes near him. His comrades follow him blindly, and are as often punished as he for his misdoings. He has your Willibald completely under his control, and his teachers treat him with especial indulgence. I am the only one whom he fears, and, as a natural consequence, the only one whom he respects."
"And you believe fear to be the only weapon to use against him? just now, too, when his mother is, without doubt, overwhelming him with lavish caresses? Do not turn away, old friend, you know I have never mentioned that name before you, but now that it is brought unavoidably to the front again I must speak plainly. I must admit we could expect nothing less from Frau Zalika, than that she would appear again. Nothing would have been gained even if you had not allowed him to leave your side, for you could not guard a lad of seventeen like a little child. The mother would have found some way to see her child, and that is her right—I should do the same."
"Her right?" interrupted the Major violently. "And you say that to me, Regine?"
"I say it, because I know what it is to have an only son. It was right for you to take your child, for such a mother was not fit to educate him; but that you should refuse to let her see her son again, after an absence of twelve years, is a hardness and cruelty which can only be prompted by hate. No matter how great her guilt may have been—the punishment is too hard."
Falkenried looked gloomily on the ground; he knew there was truth in her words; at last he said slowly:
"I should never have believed you would espouse Zalika's cause. Once I injured you deeply for her sake. I tore asunder a bond—"
"Which never had been united," broke in Frau von Eschenhagen, anxious to avoid the subject. "It was only a plan of our parents, nothing more."
"But the thought was a familiar and cherished one in our childhood's years. Do not seek to shield me, Regine, I know only too well how I treated you then—and myself too."
Regine looked straight at him with her clear, gray eyes, but there was something like moisture in them as she answered:
"Well, well, Hartmut, it's all over now, so many years that I do not hesitate to admit that I would have had you then, willingly enough, and perhaps you would have been able to make something more out of me than I have become. I was always a headstrong creature, you know, and not easily ruled, but I should have obeyed you, perhaps you alone, of all the world. But when Willibald Eschenhagen led me to the altar three months after your own marriage, the situation was reversed, and I took the reins in my own hands and began to govern, and have had plenty of practice since then. But let's not talk of that time so long gone by. I never have borne any grudge against you, you know that; we have always been friends in spite of everything, and if you want my assistance or advice now—here I am."
She held out her hand and he placed his own in it.
"I know it, Regine, but in this matter I can only help and advise myself. If you will send Hartmut to me now, I'll speak with him."
Frau von Eschenhagen arose at once to fulfil his wish, but as she left the room she murmured half aloud:
"If it be not already too late. She blinded the father and made him almost insane once; she has surely done as much for the son by this time."
In about ten minutes Hartmut entered; he closed the door behind him, but remained standing near it. Falkenried turned to him. "Come near, Hartmut, I wish to speak with you."
His son obeyed, but reluctantly. He knew already that Willibald had confessed, and that Regine had summoned his father at once, but, united to the shyness with which he always approached his father, there was to-day an obvious defiance, which did not escape the Major. He gave his handsome young son a long, gloomy look.
"My sudden arrival does not appear to surprise you. Perhaps you know why I am come!"
"Yes father, I imagine why!"
"That is well; then we need waste no time with explanatory words. You have learned that your mother still lives, she has seen you and spoken with you. I know that already. When did you see her first?"
"Five days ago."
"And have you seen her daily since then?"
"Yes, at the Burgsdorf fish pond?"
Questions and answers were alike short and precise. Hartmut was accustomed to the abrupt, military manner of his father, for in all his intercourse with him, no superfluous word, no hesitancy or evasion of an answer, was permitted.
To-day Falkenried was especially abrupt, in order that he might conceal his intense excitement from his son's unpracticed eye. But Hartmut saw only the earnest, unmoved countenance, and heard only the cold, severe accents as his father continued:
"I have nothing for which to reprove you, for in this matter I have given you no commands and no word has ever been spoken on the subject between us. But now I am forced to break the silence. You have always believed your mother dead, and I have tacitly encouraged this belief, for I have wished to protect you from recollections which poisoned my life. Your youth at least should be free, I said. But I have not been able to carry out that plan, I see, so now you must learn the truth."
The father paused a moment. To a man of his sensitive feelings it was torture to discuss this subject with his son, but there was no option now, he must speak farther.
"When I was a young man I loved your mother devotedly, and married her against the wishes of my parents, who saw only unhappiness for me in a union with a woman from a foreign land. They were right, the marriage was a most unhappy one, and was finally dissolved by my desire. My son was awarded to me unconditionally, for it was my absolute right. More I will not tell you, for I cannot denounce a mother to her own son, so let that be enough for you."
Short and bitter as this declaration was, it made a singular impression upon Hartmut. His father would not denounce his mother to him, to him, who heard daily the bitterest accusations and invectives against his father from her lips.
Zalika had, as might be supposed, cast all the blame of the separation upon her husband and his countless tyrannies, and her son, who had suffered so much from his father's austerity, gave a willing ear to all her tirades. And yet these few short, earnest words had more effect than all Zalika's passionate outbreaks. Hartmut felt instinctively on which side the truth lay.
"And now, to the main point," Falkenried went on. "What was the tenor of your daily interviews?"
Perhaps Hartmut had not expected this question; a deep red overspread his face, he was silent and cast his eyes on the ground.
"Ah, you do not care to repeat it. I desire to know it. I command you to answer me!"
But Hartmut was still silent; he only pressed his lips closer together, and looked defiantly at his father, who had come close to him now.
"You will not speak? Perhaps a command from the other side keeps you silent? No matter, your silence tells me more than any words. I see how much you are estranged from me already; a little longer with such influences, and you would be lost to me forever. These meetings with your mother are now at an end. I forbid you to see her again. You will go home with me to-day and remain under my protection. Whether that appears cruel to you or not, it must be, and you must obey."
But the Major erred when he believed his son would, as formerly, bow to his stern decree. Hartmut had been for the past few days in a school where all the antagonism of his nature had been aroused against his father.
"Father, you cannot, you dare not order me thus," he cried out now in great excitement. "It is my own mother whom I have found at last, the only one in the whole world who loves me. I will not be separated from her again as I once was. I will not be forced to hate her; threaten, punish me, do what you will with me, but I will not obey this time, I will not obey!"
All the ungovernable passion of his nature broke out in these words; an unearthly fire gleamed in his eyes, and his hands were clenched; every fiber quivered in wild revolt; he was resolved to fight out this battle with his father to the bitter end.
But the burst of anger which he expected did not come. Falkenried looked silently at him, but with a glance of earnest, sad reproof.
"The only one in the whole world who loves you," he repeated slowly. "You seem to forget that you have a father."
"Who has never loved me," cried Hartmut with excessive bitterness. "Since I have found my mother, I have learned for the first time what love is."
The boy seemed almost staggered by this strange tone, vibrating with pain, which he had never heard in all his life before, and the defiance which was about to break forth anew, died on his lips.
"Because I have had no flattering words and caresses for you, because I have been strict and severe in my training, have you doubted my love?" said Falkenried, even in that same strange tone. "Do you know what that severity has cost me against my only, my dearly loved child?"
"Father!" The word had a shy, hesitating sound, but it was not the old shyness and fear; there lay in it a joyful, almost incredulous astonishment, and Hartmut gazed on his father's face as if he could never take his eyes from it. Falkenried put his hand on his son's arm and drew him nearer, while he continued:
"Once I was ambitious, had proud hopes of life, great plans and projects, but I received a blow from which I could never recover. If I strive and struggle now, Hartmut, the only spur I have in life, besides my sense of duty, is you, my son. All my ambitions are centered in you. I strive for nought else on earth but to make your future great and happy; and you can become great my boy, for your talents are unusual, and your mind is as capable for good as for evil. But there is something more, there are dangerous elements in your nature which are less your fault than your fate, and which must be curbed in time, before they obtain a mastery over you, and plunge you into misery. I have been severe with you in order to expel the germs, but it has not been easy for me."
The youth's countenance was in a glow, he hung with bated breath upon his father's every word, and now he said in a whisper, behind which he could scarcely conceal his joy:
"I never dared to think you loved me, you were always so inflexible, so unapproachable—" he broke off and looked up at his father, who put his arm around him and drew him closer to himself. Their eyes met in a long, tender gaze, and the iron man's voice broke as he said softly:
"You are my only child, Hartmut, all that remains to me of a dream of happiness which vanished, leaving only bitterness and disenchantment in its wake. I lost much and bore it;—but if I were to lose you, you,—I could not bear it."
He held his son close in his arms, and the boy threw himself sobbing on his breast, and in this passionate embrace all else seemed to sink from view. They had both forgotten the threatening shadow from the past which was forcing itself between them.
In the meantime Frau von Eschenhagen was harangueing Will in the dining-room. She had already performed that duty once this morning, but she thought the occasion required a second portion. The young heir looked sorely disturbed, he felt himself in a false position both as regarded his mother and his friend, and yet he was quite innocent in the matter. As a dutiful son he listened patiently to the tirade, and only threw a wistful glance now and then toward the table upon which the evening meal was already spread, and of which his mother took not the slightest notice.
"This is what comes of it, when a boy has secrets behind his parents' back," she said in conclusion. "Hartmut will be well watched now, and the Major won't deal any too gently with him, either, and you, I think, will refrain from assisting in any more plots, if I have anything to say."
"I had nothing to do with it," said Will, defending himself. "I only promised to be silent, and I had to keep my word."
"You should never keep silence toward your mother. She is always and ever an exception," said Frau Regine, decidedly.
"Yes, mamma, that was probably what Hartmut thought; that's how he acted toward his mother," said Willibald, and the remark was so just that nothing could be said in contradiction; it provoked Frau von Jischenhagen none the less, on that account.
"That's something different, something quite different," she answered shortly. But her son asked obstinately:
"Why is it something different here, then?"
"Do not bother me any more with your talk and your questions," his mother went on angrily. "That is a thing which you do not understand, and about which you have no business to trouble your head. It's bad enough that Hartmut has brought you into the affair at all. Now be quiet, and don't trouble me any more about it. Do you understand?"
Will was silent as requested. It was the first time in his life that he had been catechised so sharply and had received so severe a lecture. At this moment his uncle Wallmoden, just back from a walk, entered the room.
"I hear Falkenried has come already?" he said to his sister.
"Yes," she answered. "He came immediately upon receipt of my letter."
"And how did he take the news?"
"Quietly enough, outwardly; but I saw only too well that he was moved to his very soul. He is alone with Hartmut now, and the pent-up storm will burst."
"How unfortunate. But I warned him of all this as soon as I heard of Zalika's return. He should have spoken to his son at once. Now I fear he is adding a second blunder to the first in seeking, with commands and force, to prevent further meetings. That fatal stubbornness of his, which knows no alternative, is terribly out of place now."
"Yes, and their talk has lasted a long time already. I'll just go and see how they're getting on, and whether the Major is too severe or not. You remain here, Herbert. I'll be back immediately."
She left the room, and while Wallmoden paced the floor dejectedly, his nephew sat alone at the supper-table, which no one but himself seemed to notice. He did not venture to eat his supper, for his mother was in anything but a pleasant humor to-day, and he felt no liberties were to be taken. Fortunately she came back in a short time with a gleam of bright sunshine across her face.
"It's all right," she said shortly and concisely. "He has the boy in his arms and Hartmut is clinging to him. They can do as they please now. God be praised! Now you can eat your supper, Will; the confusion that the house has been in all day is over at last."
Will didn't wait to be told twice, but began his meal at the word. Wallmoden shook his head and said half aloud:
"If it only really is over at last!"
Neither Falkenried nor his son perceived that the door had been softly opened and closed again.
Hartmut still clung to his father. He seemed to have lost all shyness and reserve in his newly found happiness. He was so tender, so caressing, that perhaps the Major was not far wrong in saying he would be left defenseless when his son learned of his great love for him. He said little; but pressed his lips again and again to his boy's forehead, and his eyes never left his son's glowing face, which was so near his own. At last Hartmut said softly:
"And my mother?"
A shadow darkened Falkenried's face, but he did not unclasp the arms which held his son.
"Your mother will leave Germany as soon as she learns that she must keep aloof from you," he said, this time without harshness, but most decisively. "You may write her that I will allow you to correspond with her under certain conditions, but I cannot nor dare not allow any personal intercourse."
"I cannot, Hartmut, it is impossible!"
"Do you hate her so much, then?" asked the boy reprovingly. "It was you that sought the divorce, not my mother; she told me so herself."
Falkenried's lips trembled, and bitter words were on them; he felt like telling his son, once for all, that his honor had demanded the separation; but he looked in his child's dark, questioning eyes, and the words died on his lips. He could not betray the mother to her son.
"Let that question rest," he said gloomily. "Perhaps later, you may learn to appreciate my reasons. Now I cannot spare you the bitter alternative; you can only belong to one of us, and must shun the other; you must accept that as your fate."
Hartmut bowed his head; he felt that nothing more was to be said. That all meetings with his mother must cease when he was again under the rigid discipline of the institute, he knew full well; now he was at least permitted to write to her, which was more than he had ventured to hope.
"Well, I will tell my mother," he said, dejectedly. "Now that you know all, you will not oppose my seeing her again?"
The Major was startled; he had not thought of such a possibility.
"When were you to see her again?" he asked.
"To-day, at this hour, at the lake in the wood. She is already waiting for me there."
Falkenried had a fierce battle with himself; a voice within him warned him not to permit this meeting, but he felt that it would seem cruel for him to refuse.
"Will you be back in two hours?" he asked at last.
"Certainly father, or sooner, if you desire it."
"Well, go," said the Major with a deep sigh. It was only his sense of justice which forced the permission from his lips. "As soon as you come back, we will go home. It is nearly the end of your vacation anyway."
Hartmut, who was on the point of starting, turned back suddenly. The words brought forcibly to his mind, what he had forgotten in the last hour, the compulsion and severity of the hated regimen he would again have to endure. He had never ventured openly to avow his aversion for the army, but this hour, which took from him all shyness towards his father, also removed the seal from his lips. After a moment's hesitation he returned to his father, and putting his arm around his neck, said:
"I have a request, a most earnest request to make of you, which I know you will grant, as a proof of your love for me."
The Major's brows contracted as he asked, reprovingly:
"Do you need any proof? Well, let's hear it."
Hartmut clung still closer to him and his voice assumed its sweetest and most flattering tones, and the dark eyes were almost irresistible in their look of entreaty, as he said beseechingly:
"Do not let me become a soldier, father. I do not like the profession you have chosen for me, and I shall never learn to like it. If I have until now, bowed to your will, it has been with repugnance and secret hatred, for I have been wretchedly unhappy; but I have never dared until now, to tell you of it."
The frown on Falkenried's brow deepened, and he unfolded his son's arms from his neck.
"In other words you will not obey," he said in a bitter tone, "and for you obedience is more necessary than anything else."
"I cannot endure force and compulsion," Hartmut broke out passionately. "And the service is nothing else but force and slavery. Always and eternally, obedience; never to have your own way, but ever, day after day, to bow to an iron discipline. Always the same still, cold forms, with your own feelings never allowed to come to the surface—I cannot bear it longer! Everything within me strives for freedom, for light and life. Let me leave it, father; do not confine me longer in such chains. I shall die, I shall suffocate!"
He could not have chosen more ill-advised words with which to plead his cause, to a man who was heart and soul a soldier. They sounded passionate and bitter, yet his arm was still on his father's shoulder; but the Major pushed him back now.
"I had thought the service an honor, and no slavery," he said cuttingly. "It is pretty bad when my own son is the first one to bring it to my notice. Freedom, light and life! Perhaps you think when one reaches his seventeenth year he has acquired the right to plunge into life without any further care or guidance. For you, freedom from restraint would mean destruction."
"And if it did?" cried Hartmut, quite beside himself. "Rather destruction with freedom, than longer life with such restraint. For me the army means bondage and slavery—"
"Silence! Not a word more," ordered Falkenried, so threateningly that the youth, in spite of his fearful passion, was awed. "You have now no choice, and woe to you if you forget your duty. First you must become an officer and do your duty as such to the full, like your comrades; then, if you are still of the same mind and I have no power to prevent it, you can leave, but if I am alive then, I will receive my death blow when my only son—runs away from the service."
"Father, do you take me for a coward?" interrupted Hartmut. "If there were only a war and I could stand in battle—"
"Yes, you would plunge madly and blindly into danger, and, with that very self-will which knows no discipline, rush on to destruction. I know, only too well, this wild, measureless desire for freedom from every restraint, which knows no limits, recognizes no duties; I know from whom you have inherited it, and to what it will eventually lead. But as long as you are under my jurisdiction I will hold you fast to that 'slavery' whether you hate it or not. You shall obey and learn to yield while there is yet time; and you shall learn it. I give you my word for that."
His voice had again the old harsh sound to which his son was so well accustomed, and every vestige of tenderness had died out of his face. Hartmut knew that prayers or defiance were alike useless now. He uttered no syllable, but the old demon-like gleam in his eyes, which robbed him of all his beauty, was again manifest land on the lips so tightly pressed together lay a strange, evil expression as he turned silently to leave the room. His father followed him with his eyes, again he heard the warning voice which came to him as a presentiment of coming evil, and he called his son back.
"Hartmut, you'll be back in two hours? You give me your word for it?"
"Yes, father." The answer sounded angry, but steadfast.
"Very well, then I will treat you as a man. You have pledged your word and may go in peace; be punctual."
The young man had only been gone a few minutes when Wallmoden entered.
"I knew you were alone," he said. "I would not have disturbed you, but I saw Hartmut hasten across the garden just now. Where is he going so late?"
"To his mother, to take leave of her."
The diplomatist looked up startled at this unexpected intelligence.
"With your consent?" he said surprised.
"Certainly, I gave him permission."
"How unwise. I thought you would have seen to it that Zalika did not accomplish her ends; and now, whether it's right or wrong, you are sending your son to her."
"Only for an hour, and only for a farewell, which I could not refuse. What are you afraid of now? Not that there will be any foul play? Hartmut is no baby to be carried off in a carriage in spite of himself."
"But if he were willing it would be a different matter."
"I have his word that he'll be back in a couple of hours," said the Major with emphasis.
Wallmoden shrugged his shoulders: "The word of a boy of seventeen!"
"Who has had a soldier's education and knows the significance of his word of honor. That gives me no anxiety; my fears are in another direction."
"Regine told me you and he understood one another at last," remarked Wallmoden, with a glance at his friend's dark, gloomy face.
"For a few minutes; then I had to be the stern, hard father again, and this last hour has shown me how hard a task it will be to conquer and direct this unruly, undisciplined nature, but for all that, I must and will subdue it."
His friend stepped to the window and looked out upon the garden.
"It is twilight already and the Burgsdorf fish-pond is half an hour's walk from here," he said, half aloud. "You could have this last meeting held in your presence if you saw fit."
"And see Zalika again? Impossible! I could and would not do that."
"If this farewell does not end as you anticipate—if Hartmut does not come back?"
"Then he would be beneath contempt, a liar," said Falkenried, "a deserter too, for he already carries arms at his side. But do not insult me with such thoughts, Herbert. It is my son of whom you speak."
"He is Zalika's son also. But we won't discuss it any more. They are waiting for you in the dining-room; you will not go to-night?"
"Yes, in two hours," answered the Major, steadily and quietly. "Hartmut will be back by then—I'll answer for it."
The gray shadows of evening already lay on field and meadow, and they grew each moment thicker and darker. The short hazy autumn day was at an end, and the clouded sky brought the night down more quickly than usual. A woman's figure could be seen pacing impatiently up and down on the shore of the little lake. She had a dark mantle drawn closely around her shoulders, but she paid little heed to the frosty evening air which was blowing about her; she was feverish with expectation, and her ear was strained to catch the first echo of approaching footsteps.
Since the first day on which Willibald had surprised them both, and they had been forced to take him into their confidence, Zalika had chosen a late hour in the afternoon, and a lonely place in the wood for her meetings with her son. She was accustomed to meet him before the twilight began, in order that he might not attract attention by returning late to Burgsdorf. He had always been punctual, but to-day his mother had waited already an hour, in vain. What accident had detained him, or had their secret been disclosed? Since a third knew it, she was prepared for such a contingency.
All was so silent in the wood that the rustle of her gown and her light footsteps as she walked to and fro, were the only sounds which greeted her ear.
Beneath the tall trees lay long nocturnal shadows; over the pond where there was more light, being free from shade, hung a faint vapory cloud, and over yonder in the meadows, where a pool of water, concealed by the mossy moorland, had formed, the mists had gathered still more thickly and hung like a gray-white veil over all the heath. The air from the meadows was blowing damp and chill.
At last there was a light step, faint and uncertain—then, as it came on quickly in the direction of the pond, firmer and more resolute. Now a slender figure came in view, scarcely recognizable in the gathering darkness, and Zalika flew to meet her son, who, in the next minute lay in her arms.
"What has happened?" she asked amidst the wonted stormy caresses. "Why are you so late? I had begun to despair of seeing you to-day. What detained you?"
"I could not come sooner," Hartmut explained, still breathless, after his long run. "I come from my father."
Zalika drew back.
"From your father? And he knows—?"
"So he is at Burgsdorf? Since when? who told him?"
The young man related in a few words all that had happened, but he had not finished when a bitter laugh from his mother interrupted him.
"Of course, they are all in the plot together to keep me from my child. And your father? He has threatened and punished you again as if you were a criminal, because you have been in your mother's arms?"
Hartmut shook his head. The memory of the moment when his father drew him to his breast was yet before him, despite all the bitterness with which the scene had ended.
"No," he said sadly, "but he has forbidden me to see you again, and sternly commanded me to part from you."
"And in spite of all, you are here? O, I knew it!"
Her words had a joyful sound.
"Do not triumph too soon, mamma," her son answered her bitterly. "I only came to say good-bye."
"Father has given me permission to see you this time, and then—"
"Then he will take you away again, and you will be forever lost to me. Is that it?"
Hartmut did not answer, he only threw himself upon his mother's breast with a wild, passionate sob, which had as much anger and bitterness in it, as pain.
It had now grown quite dark and the night was upon them, a cold, misty, autumn night, without moon or starlight, and over in the meadows, where the vapor was so dense, a light rain had just begun to fall, and through the rain and the mist a blue shimmering light appeared, now faint and dull, now with a clear, bright gleam like a flame.
It disappeared, then started forth again a second and a third time—the will-o'-the-wisp had begun its unearthly, spectral dance.
"You are crying!" said Zalika holding her son fast in her arms. "I have long foreseen this day, and if young Eschenhagen had not surprised us the other morning. I should before this have given you the choice between returning to your father and forming some other plan."
"What other plan? What do you mean?" asked Hartmut, perplexed.
Zalika bent over him and although they were alone, her voice sank into a whisper.
"Will you allow this tyranny to go on, will you permit yourself to be separated from your mother and our holy love trodden under foot, without asserting yourself, or protecting our joint right? If you do permit it, you are no son of mine, and my blood does not flow in your veins. He sent you to bid me farewell, and you take his word as final. Do you really come to take leave of me, for long years, in all probability?"
"I must do it," her son broke out despairingly. "You know my father. Against his iron will there is no appeal."
"If you return to him—no! But who will force you to return?"
"Mamma. Do not tempt me, for the love of heaven!" he cried trying to free himself from the arms which held him so fast, but the passionate voice still whispered in his ear:
"What alarms you in the thought? You but go with your mother, who loves you with a boundless love and will live only for you. You have often complained to me that you hate the service into which you are forced. Have you forgotten your longing for freedom? If you go back you have no option, for your father will bind you fast in the chains, and he will but shorten the links, when he sees you are intolerant of them."
She had no need to tell her son this, for he knew it all better than she could tell him. Scarcely an hour since, had he not heard the words: "You shall obey and learn to yield while yet there is time."
His voice was full of bitterness as he replied.
"In any case, I must go back. I have given my word to be at Burgsdorf again in two hours."
"Really?" asked Zalika, sharply and scornfully. "I thought as much. I see he treats you like a child, marks out your every step for you and gives you your allotted time, as if you had no judgment or mind of your own; but the time has gone by to treat you thus, you are old enough to assume the prerogatives of a man. The day has come when you must show that you are a man in action as well as word. A promise wrung from one is valueless; tear asunder this invisible chain by which you are held, and set yourself free."
"No—no," murmured Hartmut, with another effort to free himself, but his mother held him fast in her arms. He turned his face away and looked with hot eyes into the dark night, upon the desolate blackness of the wood and across at the will-o'-the-wisp, still pursuing its erratic course, now rising with convulsive, trembling flame, now sinking into the ground beneath, only to come up again quivering and glimmering. There was something ghostly and horrible, and withal strangely fascinating in the ceaseless dance of this imp of night.
"Come with me, my son," Zalika begged, in those dulcet tones which were hers, as well as her son's. "I have long since prepared all for your coming; I knew of a certainty that this day would surely come. My carriage is waiting a short distance from here. We can soon reach the railway station and will be far on our way before they are any the wiser at Burgsdorf. With me lies freedom, life, happiness! I will take you away and show you the great world, and when you are once in it, you will learn to breathe freely and enjoy life, as one redeemed from slavery. I know what it is to be liberated from slavery. I, too, wore the chains which, in an hour of foolish fascination, I forged for myself, but I should have torn them apart in the first year had it not been for my unborn child. O, freedom is sweet, as you will soon learn."
She knew only too well the words to choose to accomplish her purpose. Freedom, life, happiness. They signified so much. They echoed and re-echoed in the heart of the boy, whose longing for freedom had always been repressed by a powerful hand. Now like a picture from a magician's hand, the fairy-like visions of promised liberty stood before him. He need but stretch out his hand and it was his own.
"My word," he murmured with a last feeble attempt to rescue himself. "My father will despise me—"
"When you have attained to a great, proud future," Zalika interrupted him excitedly, "then go to your father and ask him if he dares to despise you; he would bind you to the earth, but you have wings to fly above it. He does not understand a nature like yours, and never will. Will you destroy yourself for the sake of a mere word and be a slave forever? Come with me, Hartmut, with me to whom you are all the world."
She led him slowly away, and he did not tear himself from her, but, as she caressed him and called him fond names she felt that his going was under protest, and that she had needed all her wiles to accomplish it. A few minutes later the pond was deserted, mother and son had disappeared, and even the sound of their retiring footsteps had died out in the night air. Over the moor moved only that weird, spectral life. The flashing lights appeared and sank again in restless play,—mysterious breaths of flame from the deep.
It was autumn again, and the warm, golden light of a September day lay upon the woodland, which stretched away like a green ocean as far as eye could reach.
Hill and valley alternated with each other, all forest clad, and many a mighty and moss-grown trunk in that great wilderness told of the forest primeval which in the early days had covered all this part of South Germany. Elsewhere in the land, railways had been built, until there was scarcely a hamlet whose slumbers were undisturbed by the shrill scream of the locomotive—but "the forest," as the people called it, remained apart, cut off from the world, a vast territory many miles in width, like a great, green island, unmoved by the waves of commotion and progress from without.
Here and there amid the forest green a little village peeped out, or an old castle reared its gray and weather-beaten battlements on high, as if protesting against its impending decay. There was but one building in the whole region which yet stood strong, intact and massive, notwithstanding it was gray with age.
It was called Fuerstenstein, and was originally built as a hunting box, for the use of the sovereign. The duke's head forester occupied it all the year round; and during the hunting season some members of the ducal family always held court there for several weeks. It had been built in the early part of the last century, with the lavish waste of room which marked the style of that period. Standing on a high elevation, it commanded a superb view over the surrounding country.
The approach to the castle allowed no view of its proportions, for woods covered the hill upon which it stood, and in places tall fir trees threw their shadows on tower and turret, so that one scarcely realized the immensity of the building until he stood quite at the entrance gate. There were also a number of little structures clustering around the main edifice, which had been added at different periods. Time was not allowed to make inroads here; everything was in perfect order and repair, and the countless rooms on the second floor were always kept ready for the prince, who took possession of them at any time.
The head forester, von Schoenau, had occupied the immense ground floor for years, and between filling his house with guests, and making frequent visits to his neighbors, managed to have a very agreeable time, notwithstanding the lonely situation.
He had visitors now; his sister-in-law, Frau Regine von Eschenhagen had arrived yesterday, and her son was expected soon. The two daughters of the Wallmoden family had made good marriages; while the elder married the heir to Burgsdorf, the younger had wedded Herr von Schoenau, the son of a wealthy landed gentleman of a noble South German family.
The sisters, in spite of the distance which separated them, had always maintained a close and affectionate intercourse, and since Frau von Schoenau's death, which occurred a few years after her marriage, Frau Regine had kept up the intimacy with her brother-in-law.
It was a singular enough friendship which existed between these two, for they always met, armed cap-a-pie, for battle. They were both strong, inconsiderate natures, and every time they saw one another they quarrelled, and as regularly made their peace again, always promising there should be no further strife between them, which promise was kept until their next dispute, for which some opportunity would give rise, sometimes within an hour after their reconciliation, when another pitched battle would begin, as passionate and wordy as the last.
At the present moment there seemed a truce between them as they sat on the terrace in front of the reception room. The head forester, in spite of his advancing years, was an erect, stately man, with strong, sunburnt features; his hair and beard were slightly gray, but still luxuriant. Now he leaned back in his chair listening to his sister-in-law, who generally did most of the talking. Frau Regine was now in her fiftieth year, but the last ten years had not changed her much; her life ran on so smoothly and evenly.
A wrinkle was to be found here and there in her face, and silver threads were weaving their way into her dark hair, but the gray eyes had lost nothing of their clearness and sharpness, the voice was as full and resolute as ever, and her bearing as erect and energetic as formerly.
"Willibald will be here in eight days," she was saying. "The harvesting was not quite done; but everything will be finished within the week, and then he can come to meet his bride. The matter has been settled between us for a long time, but I was resolved to postpone it for some time, for what did a young thing of sixteen or seventeen, with childish notions still in her head know about the orderly direction of a household? Now that Toni is twenty years old, and Will twenty-seven, it is all right. Are you still perfectly satisfied that this betrothal is the best thing for our children's future?"
"Perfectly satisfied," assented the head forester. "I think everything is as it should be. One half my fortune will go, some day, to my son, the other half to my daughter, and I think you may be well content with the portion I have set aside as Toni's wedding gift."
"Yes, you have been very liberal. As to Will, he came into possession of Burgsdorf three years ago; the remainder of the fortune remains, by the will, in my hands, and at my death goes, of course, to him. But I've seen to it that the young people won't suffer. I have made ample provision for them."
"No need for haste. We are only going to celebrate the betrothal now; the marriage won't be until next spring."
And now the first cloud appeared on the clear heaven of their perfect harmony. Frau von Eschenhagen shook her head and said dictatorially:
"We won't postpone it any longer now. The wedding must take place this winter. Willibald has no time to get married in the spring."
"Nonsense, a man always has time to get married," declared Schoenau, just as dictatorially.
"Not in the country," asserted Frau Regine. "There something else must be considered; first work, then pleasure. That's always been the rule with us, and that's what I've taught Will."
"I trust he'd make an exception as regards his young wife; otherwise he's little better than a milksop," cried the forester, angrily. "Above all, Regine, you must remember my stipulation. My Toni has not seen your son for two years. If he does not please her—she has free choice, you understand."
His speech touched his sister-in-law on her most sensitive point; her motherly pride was outraged.
"My dear Moritz, I have more confidence than you, apparently, in your daughter's good taste. As for the rest, I hold to the good old custom that children should marry whom their parents select. It was that way in our day, and we have found no cause of complaint. What do young people know of such serious matters any way? But you have let your children have their own way from the very start; any one could soon tell that there was no mother in this house."
"Well, was that my fault?" asked Schoenau, incensed. "Perhaps, I ought to have given them a step-mother. I suggested it to you once, but you wouldn't hear of it, Regine."