Travelling in Germany on one occasion, I passed the evening at a small inn among some mountains with a middle-aged man whom I soon discovered to have been an actor. In the course of the evening he told me the outlines of the following story, together with much interesting detail relating to an actor's life. I have endeavoured to work into the story what I could recollect of his observations, but not being able to take notes at the time, and having little intimate knowledge of German life, I have lost much of the local colouring and graphic detail which interested me so much at the time. This short introduction will suffice.
In a considerable town in Germany (said the actor) there have been for several generations a succession of dukes who have patronised the German theatre and devoted the principal part of their revenue to its support. In this city I was born. My grandfather had been an actor of some repute, whose acting in some of his principal characters Schiller is said greatly to have admired. His son, however, did not follow in his father's art, but degenerated, as most would call it, into a stage-carpenter and inferior scene-painter. He was, however, a man of considerable reading, and of a certain humour, which mostly took the form of bitter sarcasm and dislike of the theatrical profession. From my birth he formed a determination to bring me up as a printer, for besides that his fondness for reading naturally caused him to admire the art by which books are produced, he believed that education would make gigantic steps within a few years, and that in consequence printers would never want for occupation. In this expectation, at any rate in one respect, he was mistaken.
Upon the production of a new piece which the reigning Duke had himself written, the juvenile actor who was to have taken a boy's part sickened and died, and the company did not at the moment possess any child who was fitted to take his place. My father was requested, or rather commanded, to allow me to learn the few words attached to the part. He was extremely averse to the proposal, but was compelled to consent, the matter appearing so trifling. The play was very successful. The applause was unanimous, and indeed was so enthusiastic that, not satisfied with lauding the talent of the noble author and with praising the intelligence of the chief actors who had so readily grasped the intentions of genius, it had some encomiums left for the child actor, and discovered a profound meaning in the few words the Duke had put into my mouth, which it asserted I had clearly and intelligently rendered. The Duke, pleased at finding himself so much cleverer than even he had ever suspected, joined in the applause. He never failed to testify his approbation at the way in which I piped out the very ordinary words of my single line, and finally, when the play was withdrawn for a time, he sent an order to my father to repair one summer afternoon to the ducal Schloss which overlooked the town. I have since sometimes thought that it was curious that this play, so full of genius and of humour, was not re-acted even on this partial stage oftener than it was, and that, in all the theatres of Germany where I have played my part, I never once saw it performed, nor even so much as heard it mentioned ; so difficult of recognition is merit in my profession.
The ducal Schloss rose directly above the tall houses of the superior quarter of the town, the backs of which looked out upon forest trees which had been planted, and had grown to great size, upon the steep mountain slope upon which the Schloss was built. My father, taking me by the hand, led me up the winding road, defended at the angles by neglected towers, which led to the castle gardens. On the way he never ceased to impress upon me the misery of an actor's life.
'The poorest handicraft,' he said, 'by which a man can earn his crust of bread in quiet is preferable to this gaudy imposture which fools think so attractive. In other trades a man is very often his own master, in this he has so many that he does not even know which to obey. In other trades a man has some inducement to do his best, in this to excel is in most cases to starve. The moment an actor ceases to assist the self-love of his fellow-actor, or to minister to the worst passions of his auditors, he is hated or despised. He works harder than the simplest journeyman for poorer pay, he is exposed to greater risk of accident, and the necessities of his part require such a delicacy of organisation that the least accident ruins it.' The great trunks of the trees were throwing a fitful shadow over the steep walks as my father, still holding me by the hand, poured these dolorous opinions into my ears, and we reached the long terraces of the ducal gardens.
We were passed on from one gorgeous domestic to another until at last we found ourselves before the chasseur, a magnificent man of gigantic height, but with an expression of face perfectly gentle and beautiful. I had often noticed this man in the theatre, and had always thought that he would be admirably fitted to represent St. Christopher, a picture of whom hung in my mother's room. He surveyed us courteously and kindly, and informed us that the Duke was taking his wine with a friend on one of the terraces on the farther side of the hill. Thither he led us, and we found the Duke seated at a small table in front of a stone alcove ornamented with theatrical carvings in bas-relief. The view on this side avoided the smoke of the town and commanded a magnificent prospect of wood and plain crossed by water, and intersected by low ranges of hills. The afternoon sun was gilding the tree-tops and the roofs and turrets of the Schloss behind us.
The gigantic chasseur introduced us to the Duke, who sat at his wine, together with a gentleman of lofty and kindly expression, whom I never saw before or since. On the table were wine and dried fruits. I remember the scene as though it had occurred only yesterday.
'Ah, my good Hans,' said the Duke--he prided himself on his accurate acquaintance with every one attached to the theatre, and my father's name was Karl--'ah, my good Hans, I have sent for you because I have taken an interest in this little fellow, and I wish to make his fortune. I will take his future into my hands and overlook his education in his noble profession of player.'
My father looked very uncomfortable.
'Pardon, your highness!' he said, 'I do not design him for a player. I wish him to be a printer.'
The Duke raised his hand with a magnificent gesture as of a man who waives all discussion.
'My good fellow,' he said, 'that is all past. This boy has developed a talent for the highest of all possible professions. He has shown himself unconsciously appreciative of genius, and able to express it. His future is mine.'
My father looked very downcast, and the gentleman who sat by the Duke, with a kindliness of demeanour which has endeared him to me for ever, said--
'But this good man seems to have decided views about his own son.'
'My dear Ernest,' said the Duke, 'on every other subject I am most willing to listen to, and to follow, your excellent advice, but on this one topic I think you will admit that I have some right to be heard. We have here,' he continued, leaning back in his chair, and waving his two hands before him, so that the fingers crossed and interlaced each other, as his discourse went on, with a continuous movement which fascinated my eyes, 'we have here the commencement of an actor's life. We look forward into the future and we see the possibility of an existence than which nothing more attractive presents itself to the cultured mind. What to other men is luxury is the actor's everyday life. His ordinary business is to make himself familiar with the highest efforts of the intellect of his day, but this even is not all; every movement of his life is given to the same fascinating pursuit; whenever he walks the street he is adding to his store; the most trifling incident--a passing beggar, a city crowd--presents to him invaluable hints; his very dreams assist him; he lives in a constant drama of enthralling interest; the greater stage without is reflected on the lesser stage of the theatre; his own petty individuality is the glass in which the universal intellect and consciousness mirrors itself. It is given to him of all men to collect in his puny grasp all the fine threads of human existence, and to present them evening after evening for the delight, the instruction, and the elevation of his fellow-men. We have before us an individual, small, it is true, and at present undeveloped, before whom this future lies assured. Shall we hesitate for a moment? This worthy man, looking at things in a miserable detail, sees nothing but some few inconveniences which beset this, as every other, walk in life. It is fortunate that his child's future is not at his control.'
My father said nothing more; but as he was shown off the final terrace by the least gorgeous of the domestics, he muttered to himself so low that I could only just hear him, 'We shall see what the mother will say.'
But--when we reached our house, which was a lofty gabled dwelling in the poorer part of the town, but which had belonged to my grandfather and to his father before him, and had once been a residence of importance; when we climbed to the upper story and found ourselves in the large kitchen and dwelling-room which commanded views both ways, into the street and to the ramparts at the back--he got no help from his wife.
My mother did not like reading, and even thought in her secret mind, though she did not say it aloud, that her husband would be much better occupied in working for his family than in puzzling his brains over the pages of Kant. She had, therefore, no great admiration for the great printers of the day, nor was Johann Gutenberg likely to replace St. Christopher over her bedside. She knew nothing of the vast stride that education was about to make, nor of the consequent wealth that awaited the printer's craft, but she did know the theatre and she knew the Duke. That the Duke had promised to make her son's fortune was not denied; surely there was little left to desire. It was decided that night that I should be an actor.
'My son,' said my father, some time afterwards, as he took me to the lodgings of an actor who had promised to teach me to repeat some famous parts, 'my son, I have not been able to train thee to the occupation which I should have desired. I pray God to assist thee in that which fate has selected. I have one piece of advice which I will give thee now, though I hope I shall be able to repeat it often. Never aspire to excellence; select the secondary parts, and any fine strokes of acting which you may acquire throw into these parts. In this way you will escape the vindictive jealousy of your fellows; but if unavoidably you should attract such ill-feeling, leave the theatre at once, travel is much as possible, act on as many boards as you can. You will achieve in this way the character of a useful player who is never in the way. In this way, and in this only, you probably will never want bread; more than this I cannot hope for.'
I shall not weary you by relating the story of my education as an actor; it will suffice to say that I found neither my father's estimate of the profession, nor that of the Duke, to be precisely correct. If on the one hand I have found littleness and jealousy to exist among players, on the other I have seen numberless acts of unpretending and self-denying kindness. It must be remembered fiat the actor's life is a most exciting and wearing one, and most certain to affect the nerves and make a man irritable and suspicious. His reputation and his means of existence are dependent upon the voice of popular applause--an applause which may be affected by the slightest misunderstanding or error. It is no wonder, therefore, that he is apt to take alarm at trifles, or to resent with too much quickness what seems to be a slight or an unfairness. With regard to the Duke's ideal view of the profession, I did not find this even altogether without foundation in fact. I found, amidst all its trivialities and vexations, the player's training to give an insight into human life in all its forms, and to encourage the study and observation of the varieties of city existence more than perhaps any other training does. I studied the works of the great dramatists and novelists with attention, not only for my own parts, but that I might understand the parts of others. I followed my father's advice throughout my life. I confined myself systematically to secondary parts, but I watched carefully the acting of the great players, and endeavoured to lead up to their best effects, and to respond to the emotions they sought to awaken. By this means I became a great favourite among the best players, for it is surprising what an assistance the responsive action of a fellow-actor is in obtaining an effect, while on the other hand it is very unlikely that the attention of the audience should be diverted from the principal actor by what tends indeed to increase the impression he makes. Several of the greatest actors then in Germany often refused parts unless I played the secondary character. I was not particular. I would take any part, however unimportant, provided my salary was not reduced in consequence, and I endeavoured to throw all my knowledge and training into any part I undertook. By this means I became a great favourite with authors, who, if they are worth anything, endeavour to distribute their genius equally among their characters, and whom nothing irritates so much as to see everything sacrificed to promote the applause and vainglory of a single performer. I grew up, much to the surprise of all who knew me, a very handsome young man; and I generally took the parts of lovers, when these were not of the first importance, such, for instance, as the part of Romeo, which, true to the rule I had adopted, I never attempted. In this way I had visited most of the cities of Germany, and was well known in all of them, when, at the request of one of the chief actors of the day, who studied the parts of the great tragedies which he undertook with the most conscientious care, I accepted an engagement at the theatre of one of the great cities of the empire, to which he had also engaged himself for a considerable time.
The theatre was a large one, and the company numerous and varied. I might occupy you for a long time with divers descriptions of character and with the relation of many curious and moving incidents, but I do not wish to make this a long story, and I will therefore confine myself to the chief events.
The German stage, as you are aware, is different from your own in England, in that it does not present such marked contrasts. There is a great gulf, as I understand, between your highest actors and your pantomime players; but this is not the case in Germany. As far as I can understand, we have nothing resembling your pure pantomime, and what we have which resembles it is introduced in interludes and after-pieces, and is taken part in, to a considerable extent, by the same actors who perform in the more serious pieces. There was, for instance, in the theatre to which I was attached, an old actor named Apel, who would take the part of grave-digger in Hamlet, and the same evening, in the after-piece, act the part of what you call the clown. This part on any stage is the one most liable to accidents, and this man, in the course of a long professional career, had met with several, in falling through trap-doors open through the carelessness of carpenters, or stumbling over unforeseen obstacles. These accidents had seriously affected his physical system, and he was rapidly becoming a helpless cripple. He had one child, a daughter, who danced, for a German, with remarkable grace and agility, and sang with a rich and touching voice. Of all the avocations which necessity has forced the unhappy daughters of man to adopt--
'The narrow avenue of daily toil,
For daily bread,'
that of a pantomime dancer, who has a song, is the hardest. I have stood upon the stage by such a girl as this, and marked the panting exhaustion with which she completed her dance, and the stupendous effort with which she commenced her song. Even without the exertion of the dance, I know of few things more touching than to see a girl labouring conscientiously through a long, and possibly an unattractive song, before a wearied and unsympathising audience who reck nothing of the labour, the pains, and the care which the performance involves. The girl of whom I speak, whose name was Liese, had her share, and perhaps more than her share, in this hard lot. She was a fine German girl of no particular talent, but perfectly trained; she came of a family of actors, and displayed a kindliness of disposition and a devotion which were truly German. As her father's incapacity increased, her exertions redoubled. While they both were able to take their full part, the income of the pair was comparatively ample; but as he was obliged to relinquish part after part of his accustomed performance, she redoubled her exertions, and took every trifling part which was in kindliness offered her by the management. I acted with her in. innumerable parts of light comedy as lover and sweetheart, as brother and sister, as betrayer and victim, and, in turn, as jilted and deceived. I have never been able to this day to decide whether I was really in love with her or not, but I rather think my feelings were those of a devoted and affectionate brother, and I am certain of this, that no man ever reverenced a woman more than I did this girl. At last the old man's paralysis became so confirmed that he could scarcely stand; he had to be carried to the side scenes, and went through hours of agony when his short part was over.
One afternoon, about this time, after rehearsal, at which neither father nor daughter had been present, and whose fines for non-attendance I paid, a proceeding which, as I was known to be so intimate, passed as a mere matter of arrangement between ourselves, I went, at the request of the manager, to inquire whether either would be present at the evening performance.
Herr Apel had been obliged to leave his former lodgings owing to the reduction of his earnings, and I had not far to go to the dreary, shabby street near the theatre, where he occupied two rooms on the first floor. Liese received me in one of the lower rooms, and I noticed a strange expression in her face which I had never seen before.
'We could not come to the rehearsal,' she said; 'we have been rubbing him all day, and he has been in such pain! I do not think that even he can possibly play to-night. We have our fines ready.'
'There is no question of fines,' I said, 'with you. You do not think so badly of Herr Wilhelm as that, I hope.'
She looked at me curiously, but made no remark. After a pause she said--
'I sometimes think that nursing him and seeing him suffer affects me too. I feel at times a strange numbness and pain stealing over me. What would become of us if I became like him!'
'You must not think of such things,' I said; 'you have plenty of friends who will help you in every way. Let us go up to him.'
We went together upstairs into a little room where the old clown lay. He had the expression of an idiot, and seemed absolutely crippled and helpless; but I was not surprised at this, for I had seen him even worse before, and known him act the same evening with much of his old genius and fire. It was a most extraordinary fact that this man, helpless and idiotic to the last inch of the side scenes, regained, the moment the footlights flashed in his face and he saw the crowded theatre before him, all his strength, recollection, and humour, and went through his part apparently without an effort, only to collapse the moment he tottered behind the scenes.
He was whining and moaning as I sat down beside him on the sofa.
'No one pays any attention, no one takes any care of me,' he said; 'I am a poor old man. I have entertained people in my day--thousands and thousands; no one does anything for me. My daughter, even, does nothing; she might do much, but she does nothing; she is only thinking of herself and her own gains.'
She stood leaning on the end of the couch, looking me full in the face with a sad, but not unhappy, look in her eyes. I could return her glance freely. The old man's state was so evident, it did not embarrass any one whatever he said. She leaned over her father.
'Shall you play to-night, papa?' she said: we used many French words in the theatre.
A contortion of pain passed over the old man.
It was a curious thing, but as I half rose, involuntarily, to help, I saw the same spasm of pain pass over the daughter's form, and she seemed bent down for a moment by it; then she stood upright, and looked at me with a wistful, earnest, inquiring gaze.
It is just possible--at this hour I do not think that I should--but still it is just possible that I might have asked what she had in her thoughts, when the door opened, and a female servant announced--
'The Count von Roseneau.'
I rose in my seat as a very handsome young man, of some two and twenty years of age, came into the room. He was well known to us all as a constant frequenter of the green-room, as you call it in England. He spoke kindly to the old man, who seemed to brighten at his presence, nodded to me, but took little notice of Liese. I know not what prompted me, but I stood for a moment silent, comparing myself with him. He was handsome, though of a more boyish style of beauty than mine; he was noble, though said not to be rich. He was far from clever, and of very moderate education. I was handsomer than he, trained in every art that makes the possessor attractive--elocution, gesture, demeanour; my mind stored by the intelligent familiarity with the highest efforts of human genius; yet it never occurred to me to put myself for a moment into competition with him. After a few ordinary phrases, I took my leave.
From this day it seemed to me that Liese was more distant and reserved with me; she seemed, too, to act with indifference and even carelessly, and to be often distraite and forgetful. Her father grew worse and worse. He crept through his part, the mere shadow of his former self. At last the manager informed his daughter that it was impossible to allow him to appear any longer upon the stage.
'We will give him a benefit,' he said, 'in a week or two, at which all the strength of the theatre will assist. He shall be brought on in a chair, and shall sing his popular song. That must be the finale.'
In about a month's time the benefit took place. The theatre was crowded, everything being done to make the entertainment attractive. Several actors came from distant cities to take part in the performance, for the old clown was one of the best-known men in the profession, and was associated with pleasant recollections in the memory of most players. Two favourite pieces were given with great applause, and in the interval Herr Apel was brought in in a chair, which was placed in front of the footlights, and sang his song.
To the last moment, and even as he was carried across the stage, he seemed almost insensible of what was passing, but once in front of the lights, and of the great theatre rising tier over tier before him, every one upon his feet, with waving of handkerchiefs and fans, and a tumult of applause and of encouraging cries, he raised himself in the chair, his ace assumed the old inimitable comic expression, and amid the delighted excitement of the vast crowd, he gave his song with as much power and wit as he had ever done in the course of his long career. Nor was this all, for the song being over, and the last two verses given twice, in response to the repeated encore, the long applause having a little subsided, the old man rose, and, without help, tottered forwards towards the lights, and amid the breathless silence of the house, and with a simple dignity which contrasted touchingly with his feebleness and his grotesque dress, spoke a few words of natural regret, of farewell, and of gratitude for the favours of a lifetime. He even, in the concluding sentence, turned slightly to the stage, which was crowded, and included his fellow-actors in the expression of kindly reminiscence and thanks. The excitement was intense. Men wept like children, not only in the theatre but on the stage; many women fainted, and it was some time before the curtain could rise again for the second piece. Herr Apel was taken home in a comatose state, and scarcely moved or spoke again during the remainder of his life.
Two days after this performance, as I was leaving the theatre after the morning rehearsal, I was accosted by a tall chasseur, who reminded me instantly of my old friend, St. Christopher, in the ducal court.
'Sir,' he said, with great deference, 'the Baroness Helena von Saarfeld wishes to speak with you in her carriage, which is close by.'
I followed the man to a handsome carriage which was standing a few doors from the stage entrance, a little way down the street. There, as I stood bareheaded at the open door, I saw for the first time the most beautiful woman, without exception, that I have ever seen.
Helena von Saarfeld was the only child of the late Baron, who was enormously wealthy and possessed of vast ancestral estates. He was a man of great intellect and of superior attainments, and he undertook the entire education of his only child and heiress. Helena was taught everything that a man would know, and her father discussed all social and religious questions with her. He held very singular opinions upon social problems, and in religion he was much attached to the mystical doctrines of the Count Von Zinzendorff. At a very early period he had contracted his daughter in marriage to the young Count von Roseneau, to whose father he had been much attached; but as the boy grew up, having been deprived early, by death, of his father's care, the Baron became dissatisfied with the young man, and it was well known that at his death, which had taken place about two years before I saw his daughter, he had left a codicil to his will entirely exonerating her from any obligation to the young Count, and leaving her future destiny in her own hands, expressing every confidence in her judgment and discretion. All these facts were known to me as I approached the carriage.
The Baroness was at this time between two and three and twenty, in the full possession of her youth. She was of a perfect height, with brown hair, lighter than her eyes, and beautifully cut features; her mouth was perhaps rather large, but this only increased the wonderful effect of her smile, which was the most bewitching ever seen. She spoke with animation, and her smile was so constant that the most wonderful thing about it was that its charm never flagged. This was the woman who was presented to my gaze as I stood in the sunshine bareheaded by the carriage-door.
'I have wished to speak to you, Herr Richter,' she said, throwing a world of fascination into her face and manner is she spoke; 'will you oblige me by driving a short distance with me in the carriage? I will not take you far out of town.'
I entered the carriage, and the coachman having orders to drive slowly, we passed through the crowded streets.
'I was at the theatre the other night,' the Baroness said, 'and I was extremely touched, as, indeed, we all were, at the sight of that poor old man; though I do not know that I should call him poor who all through his life has contributed to the gaiety and innocent enjoyment of the world, and could at his last breath speak words so touching and so noble as he did. May I ask of you, Herr Richter, what will become of him--I am so ignorant of these things--and whether it were possible for one like I am to help him in any way?'
'I shall be very glad, Madame la Baronne,' I said, 'to undertake to apply any help you may be most kindly disposed to afford. I am very intimate with Herr Apel, and can easily find ways of doing so; and I fear, from what I know of his circumstances, that any aid will be most welcome.'
'That was what I feared,' she said; 'and it seems to me so sad that such should be the end of a life of toil like his!'
I saw at once that the Baroness was saying these last words by way of introduction to something else, and I did not reply. Probably she noticed this, for she said without the slightest hesitation--
'He has a daughter, I believe.'
'He has,' I replied.
'She is a very clever actress, I am told.'
'She is a very conscientious, hard-working artiste,' I replied, 'and has, for a German, remarkable grace, and she sings charmingly.'
'And she is a very good girl.'
'She is one of the best girls I ever knew. She is devoted to her father, and, I fear, is injuring herself by her exertions to make up the deficiency which is involved in his failing health. She is a thoroughly true and excellent girl.'
The Baroness looked at me for a moment before she replied; then she said--
'You speak, Herr Richter, as I was given to expect. Fräulein Apel is fortunate in having so true a friend.'
There was a pause. I knew something was coming, but I did not know what. Then she said, still without the slightest hesitation--
'The life of an actress is a difficult and exposed one, Herr Richter?'
'It is, Madame la Baronne; but like all other ideas, this one has been exaggerated. A girl in this, as in other walks, has ample means of protection, and I have never heard that Fräulein Apel has even needed such.'
She looked at me again for a moment. I began to think that she was the most lovely creature that ever walked the earth.
'But gentlemen and nobles court their acquaintance a good deal, do they not? This must be a great temptation in their sphere of life.'
'Some gentlemen frequent the greenroom,' I replied, 'and are fond of talking to the actresses. In some theatres it is forbidden.'
'Has Fräulein Apel any friends of this kind?' said the Baroness; and now for the first time I detected a slight hesitation in her manner; but it was so trifling that no one but an actor would, I think, have perceived it. 'The Count von Roseneau, for instance.'
'The Count is a frequenter of the theatre,' I said, 'and I have seen him speaking to Liese--to Fräulein Apel--in fact, I have met him at her house.'
The Baroness was looking straight before her now. She said without hesitation, but still seriously--
'I fear that any acquaintance between them will not be for good.'
There was a pause. I scarcely knew what to say. It was the Baroness who broke it
'I will not take you farther out of your way,' she said. 'I do not ask you to understand me, or not to misinterpret anything that I have said, for it is notorious that Herr Richter can do nothing but what the noblest gentleman might think. I hope I may see you again.'
It is impossible to describe the superb courtesy with which she said this. The carriage was stopped, and I alighted, and made my adieux.
As I walked back into the city, pondering over this strange interview, I made up my mind decisively that, in spite of any obstacle and misunderstanding, the Baroness was deeply attached to the Count von Roseneau. You will have an opportunity of judging for yourself whether this was the fact or not, but I ask you to remember that this was the impression upon my mind, because it probably influenced my after conduct in an important crisis.
After this, matters went on for some time much as usual. The Baroness sent me several sums of money, which I tried to appropriate to the wants of Herr Apel and his daughter, but I found more difficulty in doing this than I expected. Liese showed a shyness and reserve towards me which I had never seen before. Once or twice I thought I noticed the same wistful glance that I had noticed before, but there was no reason why I should inquire into her thoughts, and I did not do so. I adopted the simple plan of placing the money in comparatively small sums in the old man's hand, and I have reason to know that he immediately gave them to his daughter. Matters went on in this way for some time.
At last one evening there was a second piece at the theatre which somewhat resembled the first part of you pantomimes. There was a kind of love-story running through it, but broken in upon by every kind of absurdity. We had played Hamlet for the first piece, considerably cut down, in which I took the part of Horatio. The actor who played Hamlet said courteously to me amid the applause that closed the play--
'Half of this, Richter, belongs to you,' and insisted on taking me by the arm as he went before the curtain.
I played the lover in the second piece. I had noticed during the evening that the manner of Liese was unusually excited; she spoke much, and to every one; she was unusually friendly with me, and when the piece came on she took every opportunity of clinging to me, and playing her part in the most lively and charming way. I never saw her look more attractive. Towards the end of the piece, when the climax of absurdity was nearly reached, there was a scene in which the King, the Lord Chancellor in his robes, and the two lovers meet in conclave to consult partly over state affairs, and partly over the fate of the two latter. Towards the end of the consultation, apparently as a relief to more serious business, it occurs to the Chancellor to sing a song and dance a hornpipe. After performing his part to admiration, and careering round the stage several times, he disappeared through the side scenes, and the King, inspired apparently by his example, waved his ball and sceptre, advanced to the footlights, and, singing his song, also danced round the stage, his robes greatly encumbering him, and, finishing up with a pirouette, which under the circumstances was highly creditable, also vanished from the scene. It then came to my turn, and leaving the side of Liese, by whom I had stood hitherto, I also sang two verses of a popular melody, and finished by a dance; as I came back, amid applause, Liese regarded me with a glance full of kindliness and congratulation, and glided forward to the footlights with the most graceful motion, to sing her song. I did not leave the stage, but stood watching her. She wore the dress of a Swiss country girl, and I some picturesque lover's costume. I noticed an unusual stillness in the crowded theatre, and fancied something uncommon in the rich tones of her voice. She was encored, and repeated the last verse; then she commenced her dance, coming round the stage three times. Each time that she passed me she made a graceful motion of her hand, to which I replied by kissing the tips of my fingers in an attitude of extreme devotion, which indeed was little exaggeration of what I really felt. After the third time she came forward to the footlights, and made her pirouette higher than usual, amid a thunder of applause. Then she fell, flat and motionless, upon the boards.
I had her in my arms in a moment. There was a rush of actors upon the stage, and the curtain fell with a crashing sound. We could hear the excitement and confusion amid the audience without. The manager went before the curtain in response to repeated calls, and said that an unfortunate accident had happened to Mademoiselle Liese. Except as far as she was concerned the piece would go on. He begged the forbearance of the audience for a few minutes.
Meanwhile I had carried Liese to a couch. She was quite conscious and spoke, but she could not move a limb. She never moved again.
Amid the crowd around her, some one at last forced his way. I turned and recognised Von Roseneau.
'Richter,' he said, 'my carriage is close at hand; we will take her home.'
His manner was so wild and excited that I turned and looked at him. He was not in his evening dress, but appeared dressed for a journey.
'You do not generally have your carriage here, Count,' I said.
'No,' he replied distractedly; 'but for this accursed accident she would have been mine to-night.'
I looked at him for a moment.
'The paralysis is, then, only half to blame, Count von Roseneau,' I said.
We saw no more of the Count, and learnt that he had left the city. It appeared that he was deeply in debt, and, though he evidently had considerable sums of money at his control, that his person was not safe from arrest. The family estates had been heavily encumbered even in his father's time, though had he lived he would probably have succeeded in freeing them from debt. The Count had deposited a sum of money with an agent to be applied to the support of Herr Apel. Some days afterwards the agent called upon me and informed me that this sum was still at our disposal. I declined to receive it.
It seemed that, uncertain of my feelings towards her, haunted by a terrible dread of approaching paralysis, and overwhelmed with the charge and burden of her father's state, Liese had yielded to the proposals of the Count, which promised ease and luxury to them all. If I could have made up my mind sooner, had I spoken to her more openly and freely, and endeavoured to win her confidence, it might have been different. Poor Liese!
I will tell you what we must do, Liese,' I said as cheerfully as I could two days after the accident, as I was sitting by her bed. She had recovered so far as to be able to move one arm a little. 'I will tell you what we must do. You must marry me. We will then live all together and take care of the old man as long as he lives. Then when you have rested a long time and got quite well, we shall be as happy as the day is long.'
And so--I am telling a long story--we settled it. The Baroness came to see Liese several times. We were married in her room by a priest--most of us actors profess to be Catholics--and the Baroness was present at the ceremony. We moved to an old house in a better part of the town, where we had a large room with a long low window at either end commanding cheerful views, the one into a market place, the other over the distant country with mills and a stream. Here Liese lay in a clean, white bed, with the old man seated beside her; he became much quieter and gentler after he had given up acting; and in the same room we had our meals, and lived. We were rather straitened for money, for now that I was bound to the city and theatre by my wife's state, some little advantage was taken, and I was told the theatre could not afford so high a salary. It is the way of the world. Indeed we should have been very poorly off, more than once, but for the Baroness, who sent me money openly from time to time. I took it without hesitation. One day she came to see us when I was at home, and remarked how comfortable we were in our large room, and the cheerful picturesque view at the back, like a landscape by an old master, and how happy the old man seemed. When she went down to her carriage, and I was handing her in, she said, looking straight before her, and with a kind of strange scorn in her voice--
'There is some difference, Herr Richter, between a noble of the empire and you!'
We went on in this way for more than a year. I was content enough; indeed, I should have been a wretch to have been impatient, for I knew it could not last very long. The doctors went on giving us hopes and expectations, but I knew better. I could see that the malady was gradually stealing over Liese's faculties and consuming her life. She had lost the use of both arms, and would lie for hours without the least sign of life, and she took nothing but a little broth. The old man died first: he went away very peacefully in his chair in the evening sunlight, saying that it was time to dress. Some two months after his death, I was sitting by Liese in the afternoon, learning my part. It was autumn, and the room was full of a soft light; opposite to the bed was an old clock, upon the dial of which was an accidental mark. I had noticed that if I left when the minute hand reached this mark, I could reach the theatre easily without hurry. I sat watching the hand slowly approaching the spot. The room was perfectly still, nothing but the loud ticking of the clock being heard. The hand was within three minutes of the mark when Liese, who had lain motionless and unconscious for hours, suddenly stirred. I turned towards her in surprise; she looked up full in my face and smiled, and at the same moment she raised her right arm, which had never moved since the fatal night, and held out her hand to me. I grasped it in mine, and the next moment she was gone.
I acted that night as usual, for the public must not be disappointed. But I took a holiday soon after, and went a tour through the mountains. Not that I wish you to suppose that I was overwhelmed with grief; on the contrary, now that I have no temptation that way, I am ashamed to remember that I felt a sense of relief. Were the temptation to occur again, no doubt I should feel the same.
When I returned from my little tour I found myself courted. Now that I was free to go where I liked, the management suddenly found that I was very useful, and offered me a considerable increase of salary to remain. Indeed, I was so flattered and courted that I became somewhat vain and light-headed. I dressed finely, and went much into society, for I was invited to some of the best houses in the city as an agreeable and entertaining guest. I saw the Baroness frequently, and was always invited to her garden-parties, which she received at a small but beautiful château, a mile or two from the city, by the stream which flowed before poor Liese's room. Indeed, I was quite at home at the château, and the servants treated me almost as an inmate.
At the conclusion of one of these parties, about two years after Liese's death, the Baroness took an opportunity, as she passed, to say to me--
'I am going to-morrow to spend a few days at Saarfeld, which I think you have never seen. It is a strange, old, romantic place among the Bavarian Alps, and I think would please you. I wish you would arrange to come over and stay a night or two. I shall be quite alone, as I go on business of the estate.'
I promised to go.
As the travelling chaise wound up from the valleys by long and gradual ascents, and the beauties of the mountain forests revealed themselves one by one, I seemed to be entering an enchanted land of romance and witchery. Light mists hovered below the lofty summits, and over the thick foliage of the oaks and beech-trees. They were illumined with prismatic colours by the slanting sunbeams which shot in strange and mystic rays through mountain crag and forest glade, throwing up portions in wild relief and depressing others into distant shade. The huts of hunters and woodmen, and the wreaths of smoke from the charcoal burners, were the only signs of life in this wild land of forest and hill. The lofty woods of black pine climbing the higher summits shut in the view on every side.
At last I reached the château, which stood high up in the forest, commanding an extensive and surprising view.
It was indeed a strange, wild old place of immense size, with long rows of turrets and windows, and massive towers of vast antiquity. We entered a court-yard, surrounded by lofty walls, so completely covered with ivy that the windows could scarcely be seen. It seemed as though the real and living world were entirely shut out and lost sight of. The whole place, however, was in perfect repair, and was richly furnished. The staff of servants was ample. The majordomo, who always accompanied his mistress, welcomed me with great kindness. The Baroness, he said, was at that moment engaged with the steward; if I would take some slight refreshment after my journey, she would receive me presently in the grand salon. I was shown into a dining-room, where a slight repast was awaiting me.
The rooms were hung with portraits of the old barons of Saarfeld, with tapestry of strange device, and with still stranger pictures of the old German and Italian masters, and were furnished with cabinets and sideboards, evidently of extreme antiquity. The sense of glamour and of mystery increased upon me at every step; I seemed to be acting in a wild and improbable piece.
When I had taken what refreshment I wanted, I asked to be shown my room that I might arrange my dress before seeking the Baroness. I had scarcely finished before the major-domo again appeared, and informed me that his mistress was waiting for me in the grand salon. I found this to be a magnificent apartment, with a long row of lofty windows in deep recesses overlooking the wild forest. Tall portraits of more than life-size hung upon the walls, and a massive stone chimney-piece, the height of the room, and carved with innumerable devices, fronted the windows. The polished oak floor would have been dangerous to walk on, but an actor is always equal to such feats.
The Baroness was standing in the centre of the vast room, which was clear of furniture. I seemed to see her at last in her full perfection, as though such a lovely creature required such a setting as this before she could be fully and perfectly seen. She was easy and composed, and began to speak at once.
'I wish to tell you, my dear friend,' she said, why I have asked you to come here, because it is only fair to you that you should know it at once.'
She paused for a moment, and I could only look at her in silent admiration. I had not the remotest idea what she was going to say, but it seemed to me more and more that I was acting a strange and unnatural part.
'You are aware, my dear friend,' she repeated, 'that my father had some thought of marrying me, had he lived, to the Count von Roseneau, but long before his death he saw in that unhappy young man what made him change his intention. He spoke to me often with great freedom on this as on every other subject; it was the wonderful privilege which I enjoyed with such a father. He spoke to me much of the relationship between man and wife, of the peculiar duties and trials of each, and of the necessity of long and careful thought and of seeking for the best guidance in such a matter. He impressed upon me the value of eternal principles rather than of accidental forms; and though he insisted continually on the necessary observance of outward forms and decencies, yet he pointed out to me that circumstances might arise where all the necessary principles and qualities which alone give forms any value could exist, though some of the form itself might appear wanting. Finally, in the most solemn manner he assured me, and confirmed it in his will, that he was perfectly satisfied to leave the matter in my hands, convinced that I should follow out the great principles upon which his life had been based, and show myself worthy of the confidence and education he had bestowed upon me. I believe that I am about to act in a manner that would meet his full approval. I believe that those circumstances have actually arrived which he foresaw, and that I have found the man whom he would welcome as a son. I offer you my hand.'
She pronounced these words, even to the last, without any hurry of manner or the slightest sign of excitement beyond the charming animation with which she always spoke. You will naturally suppose that their effect upon me was overwhelming, but if so you are mistaken. It has been a matter of profound astonishment to me, in every succeeding moment of my life, that I acted as I did. Afterwards, of course, reasons appeared which justified, and even approved in the highest degree, my conduct; but that, at the instant, when in another moment I might have had this glorious creature in my arms, I should have remained unmoved, has never ceased to fill me with astonishment. I can only account for it by one wild and seemingly improbable supposition. You will not believe it, but I am firmly convinced that during the whole interview I thought that I was on the stage, I thought that I had a part given me, and that I spoke words which I had already carefully conned. I am the more convinced that this was the case because I made no longer pause than would have been proper could you conceive such a scene to be enacted upon the stage.
'Baroness,' I said, and I see the words now before me as plainly as if I read them from a play-book, 'Baroness, it cannot be necessary to say that the offer you have made overwhelms me to the earth. I do not use such phrases as gratitude, and favour, and condescension; words at any time are unequal to the task of expression, and to use them now would only be an insult to your heart and mine. But I should be utterly unworthy of the amazing regard which you have shown to me, and of the undeserved approbation with which your own goodness has led you to regard me, were I to hesitate fir a moment to urge you to reflect before you commit yourself to such a step. You have yourself allowed that your father insisted on the necessity of submission to the forms and decencies of outward life. Think or a moment of the consequences to yourself of such a step as you now, with the sublime unconsciousness of the highest natures, propose to me. You have created out of your own nobleness an image which you call by my name, but you will find the reality an idol and a delusion, and you will find the world's verdict, on the whole, to be right. I entreat you to pause.'
'Herr Richter,' she said, looking me full in the face, and no language can express the beauty of her confiding glance, 'every word you say only confirms my choice. I offer you my hand.'
This second trial was very hard.
'My conscience is not at rest,' I said. 'I entreat you to reflect.'
A very slight shade passed over the beautiful face, and a look of something like incredulity came into the wonderful eyes.
'You refuse my offer?' she said.
'I entreat you to weigh well what I have said.
'I might well say, Herr Richter,' she said, 'that there is some difference between you and other men.'
There was a pause. The interview became embarrassing. I turned slightly towards the window, and it occurred to me to walk into the embrasure and look out. When I turned round, after a minute or two, I found that the Baroness had taken advantage of my action and had left the room.
I went out into the park. The moment I was alone a host of reasons rushed into my mind, all of them insisting with one voice on the propriety of the course I had, as it were involuntarily, taken. I was firmly convinced that whether she knew it or not the Baroness was attached with all the tenacity of her girlhood's recollections to the Count von Roseneau. Supposing this to be the case, I could well see that the position, when novelty had played its part, of the player-husband would not be a dignified or enviable one. I knew, none better, the effect of the overpowering sympathies of rank and class, and of the revulsion which inevitably follows action, which is the result of excited feeling. I knew the ultimate irresistible power of the world's verdict. Of course some demon might have suggested that I should take the temporary wealth of delight which was offered to me, and, when the inevitable catastrophe came, go my quiet way unharmed, but I should hope that there are few men who would desire a temporary pleasure at so stupendous a cost.
I wandered in the park and forest for a couple of hours. Then I came back to the château. I was uncertain what to do, but I did not like to leave without seeing the Baroness again. I went to my room. Here I found one of the valets arranging my toilette for the evening. I had not been in the room many minutes before the majordomo entered. His manner was even more urbane and polite than in the morning.
The Baroness, he said, earnestly hoped that I would favour her with my company at dinner; the meal would be served in less than an hour.
The man's manner was so marked that I could not help looking at him. Was it possible that the household could have any idea of what had taken place?
I found the Baroness in an antechamber which opened upon one of the lesser dining-rooms. There were several servants standing about between the two rooms, but she seemed utterly indifferent to their presence. Her manner was perfectly unembarrassed, and she came forward to greet me, holding out her beautiful hand.
'My dear friend,' see said, 'I feared you had left Saarfeld in displeasure. I hope you will not deprive me of what I value so highly. I have quite recovered from the little natural vexation I felt at your refusal of my offer. I will not offend again. Let us go to dinner.'
'On one condition, Baroness,' I said, as I gave her my arm, 'that you are not too fascinating. I might take you at your word.'
'Your chance is gone by, sir,' she said, with a delightful moue. 'The ivory gates are closed.'
I still felt as though I were performing in a play. I never exerted myself to please as I did that night. When the evening was over, I said, 'I fear I shall not see you in the morning. I must be at the theatre to-morrow night.'
'I shall not stay here many days,' said the Baroness. 'You must call on me the moment I return, my friend.'
I raised the hand she gave me, and kissed the tips of her fingers, but I did not press her hand. When a man is walking in slippery places he is wary of his steps.
I visited the Baroness immediately on her return, and found her as friendly and unembarrassed as ever. The months glided by with great quietude. The theatre was under good management; it was prosperous, and the best actors frequently visited it. It was one of those halcyon periods which visit all theatres at times. My popularity increased, and I could have demanded almost any salary. I was invited to other cities, but these visits I made very sparingly. What, however, might perhaps have been expected occurred, and caused me great annoyance. A report spread through the city that I was about to be married to the Baroness. It was universally believed.
'Have you heard the news?' men said one to another. 'The beautiful Helena von Saarfeld, for whom princes were not high enough, or cultured, or religious enough, who was almost too good to walk the earth, is going to marry Richter the player! What do you think of that?'
'Have you heard the news, Herr Richter?' said the Baroness one afternoon as I entered her drawing-room.
'Yes,' I said. 'It has annoyed me beyond expression. Who could have originated such a report?'
'Oh,' she said, with a bewitching under-glance of her eyes, 'such things cannot be hidden. It is not my fault that it is not true.'
'That is all very well, my pretty friend,' I thought to myself, 'while the Count is away and out of mind, but what will happen should he return?'
I was congratulated on all hands, and could only deny that there was a word of truth in the report.
'It is most annoying to me,' I said. 'I shall have to give up visiting the Baroness.' My friend would not hear of this, however, and seemed to take every opportunity of appearing with me in public. This had very much the desired effect, for when people saw we had nothing to conceal, they grew wearied of talking about us, and the matter pretty much dropped.
One evening as I was dressing in the theatre I received a note from the Baroness, asking me to come to her château the next day at one o'clock, without fail. I was true to the time, and found her in a little morning-room where she transacted business. She seemed excited beyond her wont.
'My dear friend,' she said, 'I have sent for you because I want your advice and protection. I have good reason to know that I am safer in your care than I am in my own. There was a man here yesterday, a kind of Jew lawyer, who made an excuse to see me, though his business might well have been settled with the agent. When he had said what he had to say, however, he became very mysterious, and said that he had lately seen the Count von Roseneau, and that he had something to communicate which it very much concerned me to hear. His face wore a low, cunning expression as he said this, which disgusted me, and I told him that I had nothing to say on such subjects to him, and that if he had anything to communicate it must come through my agent. He told me he could tell it to no one but myself. I thought immediately of you; and told him that if he liked to call here to-morrow at this time I would ask a gentleman, a very intimate friend, to be present, and then he could say what he wished. He hesitated at this, but I turned my back upon him, and left the room.'
'Do you know any evil of the man?' I asked.
'I know nothing of such people,' she said scornfully. 'I know no more evil of him than I do of a toad, but I shudder at both.'
The man was speedily announced. He was evidently of the lowest type of his profession, and had a mean and hang-dog look. I do not know whether he knew me or not, but he took little notice of any but the Baroness.
He began his tale at once.
He had lived in Berlin, where the Count von Roseneau was, and had been engaged in some inferior business connected with the mortgage on the Count's estates.
'The Count's affairs,' he said, 'were getting more and more involved; he was deeply in debt, was very short of money, and indeed had been more than once under arrest. The mortgages were foreclosed on all his estates, and the estates themselves offered for sale, when one day, going over some deeds in the office of the lawyer who was engaged in managing what little remained to do on his behalf, I discovered a most important memorandum, signed by the Count himself. It is not necessary to explain before the Baroness,' he continued, turning to me, 'the exact nature of the complicated business, but you will understand that the paper had been given in lieu of deeds which never seem afterwards to have been executed, and was the sole evidence which decided the possession of the estates, or, at least, of the most considerable one. It had been inclosed by mistake in a parcel of copies that had been returned to the Count. I found him alone, and placed the paper in his hands. It was some time before he understood its character, but when at last he was convinced that its possession restored him to wealth and honour, a singular expression came into his face.
'"This is a nice homily, my good fellow," he said, "on you men of business, with all your chicanery of deeds, and evidences, and papers, and signing, and counter-signing, and all the rest of the devil's game. What do you want for this paper? You did not bring it for nothing, I presume."
'"Well, I said, "a thousand marks would not seem too much for such a service."
'"A thousand marks," said the Count, rising, "is all I have in the world; nevertheless I will give it for this paper."
"I should think so," I said. "A thousand marks are not much for estates and wealth."
'The Count went to his secrétaire, took out a rouleau of gold, and handed it to me.
Then he sat down again, and looked at the paper steadily for some time.
'"Neat," he said to himself more than to me: "pretty, very pretty, but not my style; never was the Von Roseneau style, that I ever heard."
'Then he bowed me politely out of the room. What happened I heard from his valet. As soon as I had left the Count sat down at the secrétaire, wrote some lines in an envelope, fastened up the paper in it, directed it, and called the servant.
'"You will take this to the address," he said, "and give it to the principal. If he is out, wait for him, though it be all day. You will give it into no hands but his. Tell me when it is done."
'The Count is now,' continued the Jew, 'in absolute penury. He has applied for a commission in the Bavarian Infantry, which he is certain to receive. The miserable pay will be all he will have to live on. He has business in this city which requires his presence. I expect him here, for a few hours, in a day or two.'
The Baroness rose from her chair, and I could see that she was pale.
'You will settle with this--this gentleman,' she said to me, and left the room.
'Well,' I said to the man. 'You want something for the communication, I suppose?'
I saw that he did not know who I was, for his manner was deferential, as to a gentleman of rank.
He said he left it to the Baroness.
I gave him a heap of notes, as I knew it would be the Baroness's wish, and he left well satisfied.
I went into the drawing-room to the Baroness.
She was standing in the window, looking at the gorgeous flowers that were heaped together in profusion--a soft and pensive light in her eyes. She was evidently thinking of the Count, and of their early days.
Her attitude and expression were so lovely that I stopped involuntarily to gaze. She looked up, and saw, I suppose, something in my look which she had not seen before, for she flushed all over, and said, with a softened, pleased expression, which was bewitching to see--
'You are a strange man, Richter; I know you love me.'
'Yes, I love you, Baroness,' I said, 'better than I love myself.'
'That is nothing,' she said, flushing again. 'Do you think I did not know that? Do you think I should have acted as I have done had I not doubted whether in all Germany, nay, in Europe itself, there could be found a man so good as you !'
'Let us hope, Baroness, for the sake of Europe, there may be a few.'
'Well,' she said, sitting down, 'I want you to do something for me. A very little thing this time. I want you to find out when the Count comes, to go to him, and to get him to come over to Saarfeld to me.'
'What are you going to say to him?' I said.
She looked up suddenly, as in anger, but the next instant a touching look of humility came over her face, and she said--
'I am going to make him the same offer that I did to you, sir!'
I shook my head. 'Do you know so little of your own people--of your own order--as that,' I said. ' He will refuse.'
'I am not only a noble,' she said, almost pitifully, 'I am a woman too.'
There was a pause. Then she said, 'Why do you say that he will refuse?'
'He has the distinguishing vice of his order,' I said, 'insolent, selfish pride. It is notorious that he took great umbrage at what he considered interference in his affairs by your father and yourself, and at the blame which the breaking off of the match implied. He will think that you make him the offer now out of pity. H is pride of race will rebel, and he will refuse a future, however splendid, marked by favours received and restrained by gratitude, and, he may even think, by compulsion. I have a better plan. I will seek him out; and it I find that he does not refuse to talk with me, and I do not see why he should, I will let him understand that you are kindly disposed towards him. I will recall his early days, and I will endeavour to make him believe that he is performing a chivalrous action, and forgiving injuries, and is conferring rather than receiving a favour. I hope to succeed. You said to me this morning that you were safer in my keeping than in your own. Trust to me now, though God knows I only do it to please you I am not responsible for the result.'
'No,' said the Baroness, getting up from her seat. 'I am a woman, and I will go my own way. I will have him at Saarfeld, where we were so happy as children. I will tell him all myself.'
'She trusts to her charms,' I said as I left the house. 'It cannot be wondered at. Come what may, I will not marry her. The world shall never say that this divine creature married Richter the player.'
Some few days afterwards I learnt that the Count had arrived. In the interval I had urged the Baroness to dispense with my advocacy altogether, and simply to send a message; but this she refused to do. I had nothing left but to do my best.
I called at the hotel at which the Count was staying, and sent in my name. I was immediately shown up to a private room.
'I see you are surprised to see me, Count von Roseneau,' I said, 'but I am not come to revive any reminiscences of the past. I simply bring you a message from the Baroness Helena, who asked me to tell you that she wished to see you at Saarfeld.'
'If I showed any wonder, Herr Richter,' said the Count, 'it was simply that I was surprised that you should condescend to call upon me. As you have mentioned the Baroness, I am glad of the opportunity of saying that I am convinced that she can have no truer friend than yourself.'
'The Baroness,' I said, 'is of the opinion that I might become the best means of telling you that she still cherishes the recollections of her early childhood. If I might venture to say anything, I would say that we do not war against women, and that though doubtless many things may have happened founded upon exaggerated reports, yet the Count von Roseneau will not cherish such paltry recollections in such a moment as this.'
'The Baroness,' said the Count, 'has chosen well, though I fancy I can see that she has acted against the advice of her best friend. I will go to Saarfeld at any moment she may appoint, and anything that is within my power, and which is consistent with the honour of my family, I will do; the more willingly because by doing so I know I shall oblige you.'
This was all very well, and I did not see what else I could say. There was a polished coldness about the Count's manner which seemed to imply that the Baroness and he moved in a charmed circle within which it was intrusion for any one to venture. I had delivered my message, to the words of which the Baroness had almost limited me, and I rose to take my leave; but I was not prepared for what ensued.
The Count followed me to the door.
'Herr Richter,' he said, speaking in a very different tone from that which he had hitherto used, 'I wish to say something else. I wish, if I can possibly say it, to say something which will cause you to think less hardly of me with regard to one who is dead; which will offer you some thanks, though thanks from such a source must be utterly worthless--for--but there are no words which can express what I mean--if you do not see it, there is no help.'
I stood looking at him across the threshold for a moment.
'In the matter of which you speak, Count von Roseneau, if I understand you, and I think I do, I also was to blame. It is not for me to judge another. If you owe me thanks for anything that is past, let me entreat you to weigh well every word you say at Saarfeld.'
'I promise you,' said the Count.
With regard to the interview at Saarfeld, I only know what the Baroness told me. I believe that she told me every word that fell from the Count, but her own words and manner I had to collect as best I could. It was evident that she adopted a very different method from that which she had done toward myself. She received the Count indifferently, and put off the important moment as long as possible. No doubt she brought to play the whole fascination of her manner and person, but she selected the great salon as the scene of her final effort. In what way she introduced the subject I do not know, but she told me that she was standing in one of the embrasures of the windows when the Count replied--
'Helena, I am unworthy of you, but I am grateful all the same. I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself simply out of pity to me. I am a ruined man--ruined in purse and reputation. The auguries which influenced your opinion of me when we were younger are fulfilled--more than fulfilled. What would the world say if, when the fear alone of possible consequences rendered your union with me unsuitable; I were to avail myself of such a union when all these dreary predictions have been verified? Let the world say what it will, the Von Roseneaus are proud; that which was denied me because I was unworthy I cannot accept because I am poor. Besides, I cannot forget one who is dead.'
The Baroness was standing against the embrasure of the window which was lined with tapestry. She was evidently anxious to retain her perfect composure, but as the Count continued speaking with a manly openness of purpose, her calmness was sorely tried. The last words came to her help. She grew composed instantly, and her face darkened with displeasure.
'You should take lessons from the stage, Count,' she said, somewhat bitterly. 'The actor declines a supreme favour with better grace than you.'
The Count said nothing; he was probably not displeased at the loss of temper which would bring the interview to a close.
'Then you refuse my offer?' she said at last.
'I cannot accept.'
'Mine is a strange fate, Count von Roseneau,' she said. 'In this hall, beneath the portraits of my ancestors, I have, in violation of all the customs of my sex, offered my hand to two men, one an actor and one a noble, and have been rejected by both.'
'The actor, madam,' said the Count, stepping back, 'you may well regret; the noble is not worth a thought.'
The Baroness did not bear her second disappointment so well as the first. She looked sad, though the smile lost nothing of its sweetness, nor her manner of its vivacity. She had a wistful look in her eyes sometimes when they met mine, which, it might be thought, must have made my resolution hard to keep. If you like you may call my determination a selfish fancy which my vanity alone enabled me to maintain. The Baroness spoke a great deal of the Count, and talked to me much of her early days, and of the confusions and ill-feeling when the young Count's conduct first began to arouse the fears of her father.
'I get very old and prosy, my friend,' she said--she grew lovelier every day--'and I fatigue you with this talk; but I have no friend but you to whom I can speak of these things.' She devoted herself to charity and good works; she visited the hospitals, and her carriage was to be seen in the worst purlieus of the city.
One day she told me she had received an invitation to travel in Italy with some cousins of her mother's, the head of the party being a superb old gentleman whom I had often met, and who reminded me of Don Quixote. This old gentleman had at first been very cold and haughty, but after some time his manner changed suddenly, the cause of which alteration the Baroness explained to me.
'The old gentleman,' she said, 'took me to task very severely upon the danger of my intercourse with you, and gave himself much trouble in repeating at great length the most wise maxims. I let him run on till he was quite out of breath, and then I said: "My dear cousin, all that you have said is quite true, and shows your deep knowledge of the world. There has been the greatest danger of what you dread taking place. I offered my hand to Herr Richter years ago, and any time within the last five years, excepting one short week, I would have married him if he would have had me." I saw that the old Baron was very polite the next time you met.'
The Baroness wanted me to accompany her to Italy, and offered to settle a large sum of money on me absolutely, so that I might give up my profession.
'No, Baroness,' I said, 'let us go on as we have begun. We have had a fair friendship, for which I do not say how much I thank you, and which no breath of calumny has ever stained; do not let us spoil it at last.'
So we parted, but only for a time.
When the party had left for Italy I felt less tied to the city, and accepted engagements elsewhere. I acted in Berlin, and so far departed from my rule as to take one or two principal parts with more success than I had expected. This was chiefly owing to the fact that in Germany the new reading of any part is welcomed with enthusiasm, and a host of critics immediately discover numberless excellences in it, chiefly to show off their own cleverness. Many of these gentlemen were kind enough to point out many beauties in my acting of which I was entirely unconscious. This led to my receiving invitations to other cities, which I accepted. In the course of my wanderings I arrived at a city on the French frontier, where I accepted an engagement for several nights to play Max Piccolomini. In the midst of this engagement the war between Germany and France suddenly broke out, and before we were aware we found ourselves involved in the marches and counter-marches of armies. The theatre was closed and the company dispersed. I attempted to return into Saxony, but the advancing armies so blocked the roads that I was compelled to turn back. The French were advancing with equal rapidity, and I found myself shut in between the opposing troops. The campaign was so complicated that what was the rear one day became the advanced guard the next. The utmost confusion seemed to prevail.
At last I found myself in a little suburb of some large town devoted to Lusthauses and gardens of pleasure ; pretty little cottages appeared on every side surrounded by gardens and grass-plots dotted with alcoves and sheltered by lofty trees. The French made a sudden advance, and held the adjoining slope, but did not come into the suburb. A small detachment of German Uhlans had halted in the village, and were watching the French.
I was standing in the door of one of the cottages with the officer of the little troop, when the chasseur of the Baroness, whom I knew so well, rode up. I sprang forward to meet him, and learnt that a skirmish had taken place outside the town, and that the wounded men were being brought from the front in charge of an ambulance corps to which the Baroness had attached herself.
A few minutes afterwards the corps arrived, bringing with them several wounded men. I shall never forget the look of glad surprise in the face of the Baroness when she saw me. It is the most cherished recollection of my life,
'You come, as always, in the right time, my friend,' she said. 'In a few minutes we shall be in the thick of the battle. Whenever I want help and protection, you appear. How did you learn that I was here?"
'I did not know you were in Germany, Baroness,' I said. ' It is the will of God that we should meet; something is going to happen which concerns us both.'
She wore the ambulance dress, with the white cross upon her arm, and looked more lovely than ever.
We had not stood above five minutes before we heard firing to the right and left; and the Uhlans mounted and rode off, advising us to retire into the cottages with the wounded. It was too late, they said, for the ambulance corps to retire further into the rear.
Having deposited the wounded as best we could, the Baroness and I went into an upper room which looked out to the side over a small grass-plot flanked by a low wall and a plantation of willows. The firing came nearer and nearer, and all along the slope on our left we could see the French lines and the artillery officers riding up and down. We did not know what was going on.
Suddenly a roar like hell itself shook the earth from end to end; the cannon balls came crashing through the branches of the trees, and a hail of lead swept off the leaves, tore up the grass in faint lines, and shook the wall of the cottage with their dull thud. We could see a strange commotion among the plantations on our right, and the next moment a form which we both knew too well vaulted over the low wall and came across the grass. A second after him other officers leaped the wall, and without waiting to see if their men followed, hurried across the lawn, and up the slope. They had no need to pause. The next moment the Bavarian infantry, the men falling at every step, cleared the fence, and in spite of the torrent of fire which seemed to burn the earth before it, crossed the garden, and ascended in almost unbroken line the hill beyond, half concealed by the shattered trees. Other regiments followed, equally steady, and equally exposed to the never-ceasing storm, and in about eight minutes the firing lulled ; the French had fallen back.
We went out of the cottage. Never in the wildest stage effect could such a transformation be beheld as this village scene presented. Eight minutes ago, smiling in the sunshine, peaceful, bright with flowers, and green grass and trees--now shattered, mangled, trodden down, the houses in ruins and in flames, the trees broken and leafless, the ground strewn with the dying and the dead. The ambulance was already at work, but the Baroness did not stop.
'Let us go to the front, my dear friend,' she said.
I knew what she meant. The chasseur, who kept close to his mistress, followed us, and we went forward up the slope, picking our way among the fallen men, and now and then stopping while the Baroness gave some poor fellow a drink of water, and assured him that the ambulance corps would be up immediately. As we ascended the slope and looked back for a moment, we could see that the village and the whole line of country was occupied by the main body of the German troops--a magnificent sight.
At last, near the top of the slope, we met two Bavarians who were carrying an officer between them. The Baroness knelt down, and, without hesitation, the men laid their burden before her, in her arms.
'We do not think he is dead, lady,' said one of them, the tears streaming down his face. 'He moved once as we came along.'
He lay perfectly still, to all appearance lifeless, his eyes closed.
'Speak to him,' I said; 'perchance he may hear you.'
'Von Roseneau,' cried the Baroness, in a tone I never wish to hear again, 'Von Roseneau, will you marry me now?'
The despairing tremor of her voice seemed to recall the departed spirit already wandering in other lands. The dying man opened his eyes, a brilliant smile lighted his face, his gaze met that of the Baroness, and he held out his hand, but he could not speak The next moment he fell back dead within her arms.
'And what became of the Baroness?' I asked, for the actor paused.
'She became a canoness, and devoted herself entirely to the mystical religion of the Count von Zinzendorff.'