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The next day Mr. Feuerstein returned from exile. It is always disillusioning to inspect the unheroic details of the life of that favorite figure with romancers--the soldier of fortune. Of Mr. Feuerstein's six weeks in Hoboken it is enough to say that they were weeks of storm and stress-- wretched lodgments in low boarding- houses, odd jobs at giving recitations in beer halls, undignified ejectments for drunkenness and failure to pay, borrowings which were removed from frank street-begging only in his imagination. He sank very low indeed, but it must be recorded to the credit of his consistency that he never even contemplated the idea of working for a living. And now here he was, back in New York, with Hoboken an exhausted field, with no resources, no hopes, no future that his brandy-soaked brain could discern.
His mane was still golden and bushy; but it was ragged and too long in front of the ears and also on his neck. His face still expressed insolence and vanity; but it had a certain tragic bitterness, as if it were trying to portray the emotions of a lofty spirit flinging defiance at destiny from a slough of despair. It was plain that he had been drinking heavily--the whites of his eyes were yellow and bloodshot, the muscles of his eyelids and mouth twitched disagreeably. His romantic hat and collar and graceful suit could endure with good countenance only the most casual glance of the eye.
Mr. Feuerstein had come to New York to perform a carefully-planned last act in his life-drama, one that would send the curtain down amid tears and plaudits for Mr. Feuerstein, the central figure, enwrapped in a somber and baleful blaze of glory. He had arranged everything except such details as must be left to the inspiration of the moment. He was impatient for the curtain to rise--besides, he had empty pockets and might be prevented from his climax by a vulgar arrest for vagrancy.
At one o'clock Hilda was in her father's shop alone. The rest of the family were at the midday dinner. As she bent over the counter, near the door, she was filling a sheet of wrapping paper with figures--calculations in connection with the new business. A shadow fell across her paper and she looked up. She shrank and clasped her hands tightly against her bosom. "Mr. Feuerstein!" she exclaimed in a low, agitated voice.
He stood silent, his face ghastly as if he were very ill. His eyes, sunk deep in blue-black sockets, burned into hers with an intensity that terrified her. She began slowly to retreat.
"Do not fly from me," he said in a hollow voice, leaning against the counter weakly. "I have come only for a moment. Then--you will see me never again!"
She paused and watched him. His expression, his tone, his words filled her with pity for him.
"You hate me," he went on. "You abhor me. It is just--just! Yet"--he looked at her with passionate sadness--"it was because I loved you that I deceived you. Because--I--loved you!"
"You must go away," said Hilda, pleading rather than commanding. "You've done me enough harm."
"I shall harm you no more." He drew himself up in gloomy majesty. "I have finished my life. I am bowing my farewell. Another instant, and I shall vanish into the everlasting night."
"That would be cowardly!" exclaimed Hilda. She was profoundly moved. "You have plenty to live for."
"Do you forgive me, Hilda?" He gave her one of his looks of tragic eloquence.
"Yes--I forgive you."
He misunderstood the gentleness of her voice. "She loves me still!" he said to himself. "We shall die together and our names will echo down the ages." He looked burningly at her and said: "I was mad--mad with love for you. And when I realized that I had lost you, I went down, down, down. God! What have I not suffered for your sake, Hilda!" As he talked he convinced himself, pictured himself to himself as having been drawn on by a passion such as had ruined many others of the great of earth.
"That's all past now." She spoke impatiently, irritated against herself because she was not hating him. "I don't care to hear any more of that kind of talk."
A customer came in, and while Hilda was busy Mr. Feuerstein went to the rear counter. On a chopping block lay a knife with a long, thin blade, ground to a fine edge and a sharp point. He began to play with it, and presently, with a sly, almost insane glance to assure himself that she was not seeing, slipped it into the right outside pocket of his coat. The customer left and he returned to the front of the shop and stood with just the breadth of the end of the narrow counter between him and her.
"It's all over for me," he began. "Your love has failed me. There is nothing left. I shall fling myself through the gates of death. I shall be forgotten. And you will live on and laugh and not remember that you ever had such love as mine."
Another customer entered. Mr. Feuerstein again went to the rear of the space outside the counters. "She loves me. She will gladly die with me," he muttered. "First into her heart, then into mine, and we shall be at peace, dead, as lovers and heroes die!"
When they were again alone, he advanced and began to edge round the end of the counter. She was no longer looking at him, did not note his excitement, was thinking only of how to induce him to go. "Hilda," he said, "I have one last request--a dying man's request--"
The counter was no longer between them. He was within three feet of her. His right hand was in his coat pocket, grasping the knife. His eyes began to blaze and he nerved himself to seize her--
Both heard her father's voice in the hall leading to the sitting-room. "You must go," she cried, hastily retreating.
"Hilda," he pleaded rapidly, "there is something I must say to you. I can not say it here. Come over to Meinert's as soon as you can. I shall be in the sitting-room. Just for a moment, Hilda. It might save my life. If not that, it certainly would make my death happier."
Brauner was advancing into the shop and his lowering face warned Mr. Feuerstein not to linger. With a last, appealing look at Hilda he departed.
"What was he doing here?" growled Brauner.
"He'd just come in," answered Hilda absently. "He won't bother us any more."
"If he comes again, don't speak to him," said Brauner in the commanding voice that sounded so fierce and meant so little. "Just call me or August."
Hilda could not thrust him out of her mind. His looks, his tones, his dramatic melancholy saddened her; and his last words rang in her ears. She no longer loved him; but she had loved him. She could not think of him as a stranger and an enemy--there might be truth in his plea that he had in some mysterious way fallen through love for her. She might be able to save him.
Almost mechanically she left the shop, went to Sixth Street and to the "family entrance" of Meinert's beer-garden. She went into the little anteroom and, with her hand on the swinging door leading to the sitting-room, paused like one waking from a dream.
"I must be crazy," she said half aloud. "He's a scoundrel and no good can come of my seeing him. What would Otto think of me? What am I doing here?" And she hastened away, hoping that no one had seen her.
Mr. Feuerstein was seated at a table a few feet from where she had paused and turned back. He had come in half an hour before and had ordered and drunk three glasses of cheap, fiery brandy. As the moments passed his mood grew wilder and more somber. "She has failed me!" he exclaimed. He called for pen, ink and paper. He wrote rapidly and, when he had finished, declaimed his production, punctuating the sentences with looks and gestures. His voice gradually broke, and he uttered the last words with sobs and with the tears streaming down his cheeks. He signed his name with a flourish, added a postscript. He took a stamped envelope from his pocket, sealed the letter, addressed it and laid it before him on the table. "The presence of death inspired me," he said, looking at his production with tragic pride. And he called for another drink.
When the waiter brought it, he lifted it high and, standing up, bowed as if some one were opposite him at the table. "I drink to you, Death!" he said. The waiter stared in open-mouthed astonishment, and with a muttered, "He's luny!" backed from the room.
He sat again and drew the knife from his pocket and slid his finger along the edge. "The key to my sleeping-room," he muttered, half imagining that a vast audience was watching with bated breath.
The waiter entered and he hid the knife.
"Away!" he exclaimed, frowning heavily. "I wish to be alone."
"Mr. Meinert says you must pay," said the waiter. "Four drinks--sixty cents."
Mr. Feuerstein laughed sardonically.
"Pay! Ha--ha! Always pay! Another drink, wretch, and I shall pay for all--for all!" He laughed, with much shaking of the shoulders and rolling of the eyes.
When the waiter had disappeared he muttered: "I can wait no longer." He took the knife, held it at arm's length, blade down. He turned his head to the left and closed his eyes. Then with a sudden tremendous drive he sent the long, narrow blade deep into his neck. The blood spurted out, his breath escaped from between his lips with long, shuddering, subsiding hisses. His body stiffened, collapsed, rolled to the floor.
Mr. Feuerstein was dead--with empty pockets and the drinks unpaid for.
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