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Chapter 13

COUNT KARL VON FREYBERG


In the days of Charles V the Austrian Empire dominated for a period both Europe and America, both the East and the West Indies. From the summit of the Dalmatian mountains Austria beheld the rising of the sun, from the chain of the Andes she could watch his setting. When the last ray of sunset sank in the west, the first light of dawn was reappearing in the east. Her empire was greater than that of Alexander, of Augustus, of Charlemagne.

But this empire has been torn by the devouring hands of Time. And the champion by whom the armour of this colossus, piece by piece, has been rent away, is France.

France took—for herself—Flanders, the Duchy of Bar, Burgundy, Alsace, and Lorraine. For the grandson of Louis XIV she took Spain, the two Indies, and the islands. For the son of Philip V she took Naples and Sicily. She also took the Netherlands and made two separate kingdoms of them, Belgium and Holland, and, finally, she tore away Lombardy and Venetia, and gave them to Italy. And to-day the boundaries of this empire, upon which, three hundred years ago, the sun never set, are, in the west, Tyrol; in the east, Moldavia; to the north, Prussia; to the south, Turkey.

Every one knows that, strictly speaking, there is no Austria, properly so called, only a dukedom of Austria, with nine to ten millions of inhabitants, of which Vienna is the capital. And it was a duke of Austria who imprisoned Richard Coeur-de-Lion on his return from Palestine, and only released him on payment of a ransom of two hundred and fifty thousand gold crowns.

The map-space now occupied by Austria, outside the actual dukedom, its kernel, consists of Bohemia, Hungary, Illyria, the Tyrol, Moravia, Silesia, the Sclavonian district of Croatia, the Vaivody of Servia, the Banat, Transylvania, Galicia, Dalmatia, and Styria.

We do not count four to five millions of Roumanians scattered throughout Hungary, and on the banks of the Danube. Every one of the above districts has its own character, its own customs, language, costume, frontier. Especially the dwellers in Styria, composed of Norica and the ancient Pannonia, have retained their own language, costume, and primitive customs. Before it became included in Austria, Styria had its own separate history and nobility, dating from the time when it was known as the march of Styria, about 1030. And from that epoch Karl von Freyberg dated his ancestry, remaining a great noble at a time when great nobles are becoming rare.

He was a handsome young man of about twenty-seven, tall, straight, slight, flexible as a cane, and equally tough. His fine black hair was cut close, and he had beneath black eyebrows and eyelashes, those dark grey eyes which Homer attributes to Minerva and which shine like emeralds. His complexion was sunburnt, for he had hunted since childhood. He had small hands and feet, unwearied limbs, and prodigious strength. In his own mountains he had hunted bear, wild goat, and chamois. But he had never attacked the first of these animals with any weapon except lance or dagger.

He was now a captain in the Lichtenstein Hussars, and, even in barracks, was always followed by two Tyrolean chasseurs dressed in the national costume. While the one carried out an order the other remained at hand, so that there might be always some one to whom his master might say "Go and do this." Although they understood German he always spoke to them in their own tongue. They were serfs, understanding nothing about enfranchisement, who considered that he had absolute power of life and death over them, and although he had several times tried to explain matters, telling them they were free to go where they chose, they had simply refused either to believe or to listen.

Three years before, during a chamois hunt, one of his keepers lost his footing. He fell down a precipice, and was dashed to pieces. Karl ordered his steward to pay the widow an annuity. She thanked him, but was quite unable to understand that he owed her anything merely because her husband had been killed in his service.

When there was a hunt—and he who writes this had twice the honour to be of the party—whether in his own country or not, Karl always wore his national costume and very picturesque it was.

The count's two attendants never left him. They were loaders. When Karl had fired, he dropped his gun on the ground and another ready loaded was instantly slipped into his hand.

Whilst waiting for the beaters to be placed, which generally took half an hour, the two chasseurs drew from their game-bags small Tyrolean flutes made of reeds, on which they played, sometimes together, sometimes alone, but always joining again after a certain number of bars, Styrian airs, melancholy, but sweet and plaintive. This lasted some minutes, then, as if drawn by the music, the count in his turn produced a similar flute and put it to his lips. He now took up the melody, the others only played accompaniments, which I think must have been improvised—so original were they. It seemed as if the accompaniments pursued the air, overtook it, and then turned around it like creepers or tendrils. Then the air reappeared, charming, but always sad, and reaching notes so high that one would have thought only silver or glass could produce them. Then a gun was heard, that of the chief beater, announcing that all was ready. The three flutes vanished inside the game-bags, the musicians took their guns and again became hunters, ear and eye strained to the utmost.

Count Karl knocked at eleven o'clock at Baron von Bülow's door, having heard both of his return and his accident. Frederic received him with an unusually smiling countenance, but only offered his left hand.

"Ah! then, it is true, is it? I have just read the 'Kreuz Zeitung.'"

"What have you read, my dear Karl?"

"I read that you fought with a Frenchman and were wounded."

"Hush—not so loud. I am not wounded for the family, only dislocated."

"What does that mean?"

"It means, my dear fellow, that my wife won't think she need inspect a sprained arm, but she would positively insist on examining a wounded one. Now she would die of fright over this wound, while I believe you would rather like to have it. Have you seen many wounds a foot long? I can show you one if you like."

"How so? A skilled fencer like you, who uses his sabre as if he had invented it!"

"None the less, I found my master."

"A Frenchman?"

"A Frenchman."

"Well, instead of hunting wild boar in the Taunus to-morrow, as I intended, I should like to go and hunt your Frenchman, and bring back one of his paws to replace your wounded one."

"Don't do anything of the kind, my dear friend, you might easily only bring back a nice little cut like this of mine. Besides, the Frenchman is now my friend, and I want him to be yours also."

"Never! A rascal who has cut your arm open—how far? A foot, did you say?"

"He might have killed me. He did not. He might have cut me in two, and he only gave me this wound. We embraced on the battlefield. Did you see the other details?"

"What other details?"

"Those concerning his other duel, with Herr George Kleist."

"Superficially. I don't know him, I only cared about you. I did see that your Frenchman had damaged the jaw of some man who writes articles in the 'Kreuz Zeitung.' He seems to have quarrelled with two professions, since he chooses to encounter an officer and a journalist on the same day."

"He did not choose us, we were foolish enough to choose him. We pursued him to Hanover, where he was very comfortable. Probably he was annoyed by being disturbed. So he sent me home with my arm in a sling, and dismissed Herr Kleist with a black eye."

"Is the fellow a Hercules?"

"Not at all, it is curious. He is a head shorter than you, but formed like Alfred de Musset's Hassan, whose mother made him small in order to turn him out perfect."

"And so you embraced on the battlefield?"

"Better still. I have an idea."

"What is it?"

"He is a Frenchman as you know."

"Of good family?"

"Dear friend, they are all of good family since the Revolution. But he is clever—very."

"As a fencing master?"

"Not at all, as an artist. Kaulbach says he is the hope of the present school. He is young."

"Young?"

"Yes, twenty-five or six at most, and handsome."

"Handsome as well?"

"Charming. An income of twelve thousand francs."

"A trifle."

"Not everybody has two hundred thousand, like you, my dear friend. Twelve thousand francs and a fine talent might mean fifty or sixty thousand."

"But why in the world do you consider all this?"

"I should like him to marry Helen."

The count nearly sprang out of his chair.

"What! Let him marry Helen! your sister-in-law! A Frenchman!"

"Well, is she not herself partly of French origin?"

"I am sure Mademoiselle Helen loves you too much to be willing to marry a man who has wounded you like this. I hope she refused?"

"She did."

The count breathed again.

"But what the deuce put such an idea into your head as to marry him to your sister?"

"She is only my sister-in-law."

"That does not matter. What an idea to think of marrying one's sister-in-law to the first person picked up on the high road!"

"I assure you this young man is not just—"

"Never mind! She refused, did she not? That is the chief thing."

"I hope to make her think better of it."

"You must be quite mad."

"But tell me, why should she refuse? Explain if you can! Unless, indeed, she cares for some one else."

The count blushed up to his eyes.

"Do you think that quite impossible?" he stammered.

"No, but then if she should love someone else, she must say so."

"Listen, Frederic, I cannot positively say that she loves some one else, but I can declare that some one else loves her."

"That is half the battle. Is it some one as good as my Frenchman?"

"Ah! Frederic, you are so prejudiced in favour of your Frenchman. I dare not say yes."

"Then tell me at once. You see what might have happened had my Frenchman been here, and I had made any promise to him."

"Well, at any rate, you won't turn me out for saying it. The some one is myself."

"Always modest, loyal, and true, dear Karl but—"

"But? I will have no 'buts.'"

"It is not a very terrible 'but,' as you will see. You are a great noble, Karl, compared to my little sister Helen."

"I am the last of my race, there is no one to make objections."

"And you are very rich for a dowry of two hundred thousand francs."

"I can dispose of my own fortune as I choose."

"These are observations I felt bound to make to you."

"Do you consider them really serious?"

"I acknowledge objections to them would be much more so."

"Is it of no consequence to ascertain whether Helen loves me or not?"

"That can be decided at once."

"How?"

"I will send for her, the shortest explanations are always the best."

The count became as pale as he had been red the moment before. In a trembling voice he exclaimed:

"Not now, for Heaven's sake! not now!"

"But, my dear Karl!"

"Frederic!"

"Do you believe I am your friend?"

"Good heavens! yes."

"Well, do you suppose I would subject you to an interview which could only make you unhappy?

"You mean—"

"I mean that I believe—"

"Believe what?"

"I believe that she loves you as much as you love her."

"My friend, you will kill me with joy."

"Well, since you are so afraid of an interview with Helen, go and do your hunting in the Taunus, kill your wild boar and come back again, the thing will be done."

"Done, how?"

"I will undertake it."

"No, Frederic, I will not go."

"What, you will not go? Only think of your men waiting there with their flutes."

"They may wait."

At this moment the door opened, and Helen appeared on the threshold.

"Helen!" exclaimed Karl.

"You will be careful—you must not be too long with my brother," she said, remaining at the door.

"He is waiting for you," observed Frederic.

"For me?"

"Yes, come here."

"But I don't understand in the least."

"Never mind! Come here."

Karl offered his hand to Helen.

"Oh, mademoiselle," he said, "do what your brother asks, I entreat you."

"Well," she said, "what shall I do?"

"You can lend your hand to Karl; he will return it."

Karl seized her hand and pressed it to his heart. Helen uttered a cry. Timid as a child, Karl released the hand.

"You did not hurt me," said Helen.

Karl promptly repossessed himself of the released hand.

"Brother," said Frederic, "did you not say you had a secret you wished to confide to Helen?"

"Oh yes, yes," cried Karl.

"All right, I am not listening."

Karl bent towards Helen's ear, and the sweet words "I love you" fell from his lips with a whisper as of a moth's wings, which flitting by your ear on a spring evening breathes the eternal secret of Nature.

"Oh! Frederic, Frederic!" cried Helen, hiding her forehead on his couch, "I was not mistaken!"

Then raising her head and languidly opening her beautiful eyes.

"And I," she said, "I love you."

Alexandre Dumas pere