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Chapter 14

THE GRANDMOTHER


For a few moments Frederic left the lovers to themselves and their happiness. Then, as both raised their eyes to his, as if enquiring what next should be done:

"The little sister," said he, "must go and tell all this to her big sister, the big sister will relate it to the grandmother, and the grandmother, who believes in me, will come and talk it over and we will arrange things together."

"And when must I go and tell all this to the big sister?" enquired Helen.

"At once, if you will."

"I will go now! You will wait for me, Karl?"

Karl's smile and gesture answered her. Helen glided out of his embrace and vanished like a bird.

"Now for our own affairs!" said Frederic.

"How! what affairs?"

"I have something to tell you."

"Anything important?"

"Very serious."

"Anything about our marriage? You alarm me!"

"Suppose this morning when you doubted the possibility of Helen's love I had answered, 'Do not be afraid, Helen loves and will marry you, but there is an obstacle, and the marriage cannot possibly take place in less than a year?'"

"What would you have? I should have been in despair at the delay, but transported by the news."

"Well, my friend, I tell you now what I should have told you this morning. Helen loves you. She did not ask me to tell you this; she has told it herself, but at this moment there is an insurmountable obstacle."

"At least you will explain what the obstacle is?"

"I am going to tell you what is yet a secret, Karl. In a week, or at most, a fortnight, Prussia will declare war against Austria."

"Ah! I feared it. Bismarck is Germany's evil genius."

"Well, now you will understand. As friends we can serve on opposite sides, that happens every day. But—as brothers-in-law—we could not. You can hardly become my brother-in-law at the very moment of unsheathing your sword against me."

"You are quite sure of your information?"

"Most certainly I am. Bismarck now occupies such a position in regard to the Chambers, and has forced the king into such a position with regard to the other German princes, that, either he must embroil Germany from Berlin to Pest and even to Innspruck, or he will be tried for high treason, and end his days in a fortress! Now, Bismarck is a power—a power of darkness if you will—he will not be tried for high treason, and he will embroil Germany—for this reason: Prussia has nothing to gain by upsetting him, whereas by upsetting Germany she can annex two or three little kingdoms or duchies, which will round off her borders very comfortably."

"But the Confederation will be against him."

"Little will he care for that, so long as he himself remains indispensable. And, listen to what I tell you; the more enemies Prussia has, the more she will beat them. Our army is organized as no other European army is organized—at the present moment."

"You say our army, then you have become a Prussian. I thought you were a German."

"I am a Silesian, Prussian since the days of Frederic II. All I have I owe to King William, and I would willingly die for him, while regretting it should be in a bad cause."

"What do you advise in my case?"

"You are a Styrian, therefore an Austrian. Eight for your emperor like a lion, and if by ill luck we meet in a cavalry charge you turn your horse to the right, I also turn mine; we salute and pass on. Don't yourself get lulled, that is all, and we will sign the marriage contract the day peace is declared."

"Unhappily, I see no other way out of it, unless by good luck we could both remain at Frankfort, a free and neutral town. I have no wish to fight with Germans. It will be an iniquitous war. If it had been Turks, French, or Russians, it would be all right, but between children of the same country, speaking the same language! My patriotism ends there, I confess."

That last hope must be given up. I myself brought orders to the Prussian general here to be ready to leave, Austria will certainly withdraw her troops also. Frankfort may have a Bavarian garrison or be left with one of her own, but most certainly we, to the last man, shall have to rejoin the army."

"Poor dear Helen! What are we to say when she comes back?"

"We will say the marriage is decided on, that the betrothal will take place; but the marriage must be delayed for a year. If, in spite of my prophecy, war should not be declared, you can marry at once. If this war does take place, it is not a war which will last. It will be a tempest, a hurricane, passing over and destroying everything, then it will be peace. If I fix a date, it is because I am sure not to have to ask for further delay. Helen is eighteen, she will then be nineteen, you are now twenty-six, you will then be twenty-seven. This delay is not caused by circumstances of our making. Circumstances impose it on us. We must give way to them."

"You will promise not to let anything change your opinion of me, and that from to-day, June 12th, you count yourself my brother-in-law—on parole?"

"The honour is too dear for me ever to think of repudiating it. From to-day, June 12th, I am your brother-in-law—on parole."

"Madame von Beling!"

This exclamation was drawn from Karl by the unexpected appearance of an elderly lady dressed entirely in black. She had splendid hair, white as snow, and must in youth have been very beautiful. Her whole appearance betokened distinction and benevolence.

"How is this, my dear Frederic?" said she, entering the room. "You have been here since five o'clock this morning and I only hear of your arrival from your wife at two in the afternoon; also, that you are in pain."

"Dear grandmamma," answered Frederic, "but do I not also know that you do not awake before eleven, and only rise at noon?"

"True, but they tell me you have a sprained arm. I have three excellent remedies for sprains, one, which is perfect, came from my old friend Goethe, one from another old friend, Madame Schroeder, and the third from Baron von Humboldt. You see the origin of all three is unimpeachable."

Turning to Karl, who, bowing, brought forward an armchair for her, she said:

"You, Herr von Freyberg, have evidently no sprains, for you are in hunting costume. Ah! you do not know how your Styrian dress recalls a happy memory of my youth. The first time I saw my husband, Herr von Beling it is now something like fifty-two years ago, for it was in 1814—at a carnival masked ball, he wore a similar costume to the one you are now wearing. He was about your age. In the middle of the ball—I remember as if it were yesterday—we heard of the landing of that accursed Napoleon. The dancers vowed that if he again ascended the throne they would go to fight him. The ladies each chose a cavalier, who should be entitled to wear her colours in the coming campaign. I did like the rest, and I chose Herr von Beling, although in my heart of hearts—for I have remained French in heart—I could not be very angry with the man who had made France so great.

"This fanciful nomination of Herr von Beling as a champion wearing my colours opened my parents' house to him. He could not, he said, be my knight without their permission. They gave their permission. Napoleon again became emperor. Herr von Beling rejoined his regiment, but he first asked my hand from my mother. My mother consulted me, I loved him. It was agreed that we should marry when the war was over. The campaign was not long, and when Herr von Beling returned we were married; I, at the bottom of my heart feeling a little vexed that he had contributed the three hundred millionth part towards the dethronement of my hero. But I never confessed this small infidelity of enthusiasm, and our life was no less happy on that account."

"Dear grandmamma," enquired Frederic, "did Herr von Beling—he must have been very handsome in Styrian garb, I have seen his portrait—did Herr von Beling kneel before you when he asked the favour of being your knight?"

"Certainly, and very gracefully he did it too," returned the old lady.

"Did he do it better than my friend Karl?"

"Better than your friend Karl? But is your friend Karl likely to kneel before me by any chance?"

"Just look at him."

Madame von Beling turned round and saw indeed Karl kneeling on the ground before her.

"Good gracious!" said she laughing, "have I suddenly grown fifty years younger?"

"My dear grandmother," said Frederic, while Karl took possession of the old lady's hand. "No, you have still your threescore and ten years, which become you so well that I will not let you off a single one of them; but here is Karl, who also is going to the war, and who asks to be called the knight of your granddaughter Helen."

"Really! and is my little granddaughter Helen actually old enough to have a knight of her very own?"

"She is eighteen, grandmother."

"Eighteen! My age when I married Herr von Beling! It is the age when leaves forsake the tree and are borne away by the wind. If Helen's hour has struck," she continued with a mournful smile, "she must go like the rest."

"Never, never, dear grandmother," cried the young girl who had entered unperceived, "never so far but that I can every day kiss the dear hand which gives life to all of us."

And she knelt down beside Karl and took the other hand.

"Ah!" said Madame von Beling, nodding her head, "so that is why I was invited to come upstairs. I was to be caught in a trap. Well, what am I to do now? How defend myself? To surrender at once is stupid; it is like a scene from Molière."

"Very well, grandmamma, don't surrender, or at least not without conditions."

"And what are they to be?"

"That these young people can be betrothed as soon as they like, but that the marriage, like your own, can only be celebrated when the war is over."

"What war?" asked Helen, in anxiety.

"We will tell you about it later. Meanwhile, if Karl is your knight, he must wear your colours. What are they?"

"I have only one," replied Helen. "It is green."

"Then he is wearing them now," said Frederic indicating his friend's coat with green facings, and the hat with its wide band of green velvet.

"And in honour of my lady love," said Karl, rising, "a hundred men shall also wear them, with me, and like me."

Everything was now settled, and the whole party, Frederic leading the way, Madame von Beling on Karl's arm, went downstairs to convey the good news to the dear invalid.

That same evening it was known that the Diet was convoked at Frankfort for June 15th.

Alexandre Dumas pere