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Chapter 22

THE FREE MEAL


The burgomaster was uneasy, and did not try to hide it. The Prussians had marched on Frankfort by way of Vogeberg: a combat was bound to take place on the frontiers of Bavaria, and, if the Allies' army was beaten, the Prussians would occupy Frankfort on the following day. Orders had been given of which no one knew, but which could not be kept from him, as burgomaster. On July 14th, that is to say on the third day, the Federated Assembly, the Military Commission, and the Chancellor's Office, had received orders to go to Augsburg, a proof that Frankfort was not sure of being able to preserve her neutrality. The conviction, held by every one in Frankfort, that this was the moment of supreme crisis, had raised the sympathy of the inhabitants for the defenders of the cause dear to all, that is to say the cause of Austria, to the highest pitch. So, when the dinner hour came, the great houses of Frankfort invited the officers, while the bourgeois and working people invited the privates. Some took dinner to them, others laid tables before their doors.

Hermann Mumm, the famous wine merchant, had invited a hundred privates, corporals, and sergeants, and had laid an immense table before his door, where each man had his bottle of wine.

Burgomaster Fellner, his brother-in-law, Doctor Kugler, and the other inhabitants of the road abutting on the railway station, took care of Karl's hundred men. He himself dined with Madame von Beling and Count Monte Nuovo. Benedict, whom good Madame Fellner would not suffer to depart, could not refuse her invitation. They had invited Senators von Bernus and Speltz, but they had each their own guests, and only M. Fischer, the journalist, who lived a bachelor life, could come. Prince Alexander of Hesse dined with the Austrian consul.

The diners in the street formed strange contrasts with those inside. The soldiers, drinking together, careless of the morrow, looked for nothing but death; but death to a soldier is only a vivandière in black, who pours him the last glass of brandy at the end of the last day. The soldier only fears to lose his life, because in losing his life, he loses all with it, and at one blow; while the merchant, the banker, even the bourgeois, before losing life, may lose fortune, credit, and position. He may see his coffers pillaged, his house ransacked, his wife and daughters dishonoured, his children calling him, impotent to help them. He may be tortured through his family, his money, his flesh, and his honour. It was of these things that the citizens of the free town of Frankfort thought, and these things prevented them from being as gay as they would have wished with their guests.

As for Karl and Helen, they thought of nothing but their happiness. For them, the present was everything. They wished to forget: and, by force not of wishing, but of love, they did forget.

But the saddest of these gatherings, despite Benedict's efforts, was certainly that which took place at the burgomaster's. Herr Fellner was, in his administrative capacity, one of the most intelligent burgomasters that Frankfort had ever possessed. Furthermore, he was an excellent father to his family, adoring his children, and adored by them. During fourteen years of married life not the smallest cloud had passed across his union. During the whole dinner, in spite of the weighty political preoccupation which absorbed him, he attempted, with the help of his brother-in-law the councillor, and his friend Fischer, to throw a little gaiety over the solemnity of the conversation. At dessert a servant entered and informed Benedict that his travelling companion, Lenhart, asked leave to offer him his services again. The burgomaster enquired who Lenhart was, and, at the moment when Benedict smilingly asked permission to go and shake his hand in the vestibule, the ex-livery stable keeper slapped the servant on the shoulder to make him give way, and came in saying:

"Don't give yourself the trouble, M. Benedict; I'll come right into his worship the burgomaster's dining-room. I am not proud. Good day, your worship, and ladies and gentlemen."

"Ah!" said the burgomaster, recognizing the old Saxon accent, "you are from Sachsenhausen?"

"Yes, and my name is Lenhart, at your service; I am brother to Hans, who is in service with Madame von Beling."

"Well then, my friend," said the burgomaster, "drink a glass of wine to the health of M. Benedict, whom you wish to see."

"Two, if you like; he well deserves them! Ah! there's no stand-offishness with regard to the Prussians about him. Thunder and lightning! how he went at them at the battle of Langensalza!"

"What! you were there?" asked the burgomaster of Lenhart.

"On! yes, that I was, and now mad I was at not getting a slap at those cuckoos myself!"

"Why do you call them cuckoos?" asked the journalist.

"Because they take other people's nests to lay their eggs in."

"But how did you know I was here?" asked Benedict, a little embarrassed by this unceremonious visit.

"Oh!" said Lenhart, "I was walking peacefully along the road, when a dog came and jumped at my neck. 'There,' I said, 'it is Frisk, M. Benedict's dog.' Your men looked at me as if I were a curiosity, because I mentioned your name. 'Is M. Benedict here?' I asked them. They answered me: 'Yes, he is there, he is dining with your burgomaster, Herr Fellner, a good man, who has good wine.' 'Herr Fellner's good health,' I said to myself: 'Here, it's true! he is my burgomaster, because ever since yesterday I've been established in Frankfort, and as he is my burgomaster, I can go in And call on him, to say good-morning to M. Benedict.'"

"Well now that you have said good-morning to me, my good Lenhart, and drunk the health of his worship the burgomaster," said Benedict—

"Yes, but I haven't drunk yours, my young master, my benefactor, my idol! for you are my idol, M. Benedict. When I speak of you, when I talk about your duel, where you overcame those two men, one with a sabre cut, and what a one it was! M. Frederic de ——, you know the one I mean, don't you? Another with a pistol shot, that was a journalist, a great tall, ungainly fellow, like you, Herr Fischer."

"Thanks, my friend."

"I haven't said any harm, I hope."

"No, but leave these gentlemen in peace," said Benedict.

"They are very peaceful, M. Benedict; look how they are listening."

"Let him go on," said the doctor.

"I'd go on all the same, even if you wouldn't let me. Ah! when I'm on the subject of M. Benedict, I never run dry. Don't shrug your shoulders, M. Benedict; if you'd wanted to kill the baron, you'd have killed him, and if you'd wanted to kill the journalist, you'd only yourself to please."

"As a matter of fact," said the burgomaster, "we have seen that story in the 'Kreuz Zeitung.' My word! I read it without ever thinking that it was to you it happened."

"And the pretty thing is that it was he who told it you!" continued Lenhart. "He is as learned as a sorcerer! Only glanced at the poor King of Hanover's hand, and he foretold everything that's happened to him. First, the victory, then the pill."

At the moment, when they were going from the dining-room to the drawing-room, the sound of trumpets and drums was heard; the trumpet sounded "to horse," the drum beat "the alert." Madame Fellner waited impatiently; but her husband, smiling, signed to her to be patient. For the moment, a more lively and more general preoccupation was started by the sound of the alarm.

"This tells me, madam," said Benedict, pointing towards the street, "I have only time to drink your husband's health, and to the long and happy life you and your beautiful family will have with him."

The toast was repeated by all, and even by Lenhart, who thus drank twice, as he had said, to the health of the burgomaster. After which, grasping the hands of Herr Fellner, his brother-in-law, and the journalist, and kissing that of Madame Fellner, Benedict ran downstairs and out, crying: "To arms!"

The same warlike sound had surprised Karl and Helen at the end of dinner. Karl felt a terrible blow at his heart. Helen grew pale, although she did not know the meaning of the beating of the drums nor of the sounding of the trumpets; yet she felt it to be sinister. Then, at the glance exchanged between Count Monte Nuovo and Karl, she understood that the moment of separation had come. The count had pity on the two young lovers, and, to give them a minute for their last adieux, he took leave of Madame von Beling, and said to his young friend:

"Karl, you have a quarter-of-an-hour."

Karl threw a rapid glance at the clock. It was half-past four.

"Thank you, general," he answered. "I will be at my post at the time you mention."

Madame von Beling had gone to see Count Monte Nuovo off, and in order to be alone, the young people went into the garden, where a thick arbour of vines hid their adieux. One might as well try to write down the melancholy song of the nightingale, which burst forth a few paces from them, as to describe the dialogue interspersed with sighs and tears, with vows, with sobs, with promises of love, with passionate outbursts, and with tender cries. What had they said at the end of a quarter-of-an-hour? Nothing, and everything. The parting was inevitable.

As on the first occasion, Karl's horse was waiting at the door. He dragged himself away, leading Helen with him, encircled by his arms, there he covered her face with a rain of kisses.

The door was open. The two Styrians beckoned him. A quarter to five was striking. He threw himself upon his horse, driving the spurs into him. The two Styrians ran beside him, following the galloping horse. The last words which Karl heard were these: "Thine, in this world or in the next!" and with the ardour of a lover and the faith of a Christian, he replied: "So be it."

Alexandre Dumas pere