Many a time have I wondered at the unworthy ways of Fate, at the pettiness of the pleasure it takes in frustrating plans that are small and innocent, at its entire want of dignity, at its singular spitefulness, at the resemblance of its manners to those of an evilly-disposed kitchen-maid; but never have I wondered more than I did that night at Thiessow.
We had been for a walk after tea through the beechwood, up a hill behind it to the signal station, along a footpath on the edge of the cliff with blue gleams of sea on one side through a waving fringe of blue and purple flowers, and the ryefields on the other. We had stood looking down at the village of Thiessow far below us, a cluster of picturesque roofs surrounded on three sides by sunlit water; had gazed across the vast plain to the distant hill and village of Gross Zickow; watched the shadows passing over meadows miles away; seen how the sea to the west had the calm colours of a pearl; how the sea beneath us through the parting stalks of scabious and harebells was quiet but very blue; and how behind us, over the beech-tops, there was the eastern sea where the wind was, as brilliant and busy and foam-flecked as before. It was all very wide, and open, and roomy. It was a place to bless God in and cease from vain words. And when the stars came out we went down into the plain, and wandered out across the dewy grass in the gathering night, our faces towards the red strip of sky where the sun had set.
Charlotte had not been silent all this time; she had been, on the contrary, passionately explanatory. She had passionately explained the intolerableness of her life with the famous Nieberlein; she had passionately justified her action in cutting it short. And listening in silence, I had soon located the real wound, the place she did not mention where all the bruises were; for talk and explain as she might it was clear that her chief grievance was that the great man had never taken her seriously. To be strenuous, to hold intense views on questions that seem to you to burn, and to be treated as an airy nothing, a charming nothing perhaps, but still a nothing, must be, on the whole, disconcerting. I do not know that I should call it more than disconcerting. You need not, after all, let your vision be blocked entirely by the person with whom you chance to live; however vast his intellectual bulk may be, you can look round him and see that the stars and the sky are still there, and you need not run away from him to do that. If the great Nieberlein had not taken Charlotte sufficiently seriously, she had manifestly taken him much too seriously. It is better to laugh at one's Nieberlein than to be angry with him, and it is infinitely more personally soothing. And presently you find you have grown old together, and that your Nieberlein has become unaccountably precious, and that you do not want to laugh at all,—or if you do, it is a very tender laughter, tender almost to tears.
And then, as we walked on over the wonderful starlit plain in the huge hush of the brooding night, the air, heavy with dew and the smell of grass cut that afternoon in distant meadows, so sweet and soft that it seemed as if it must smooth away every line of midday eagerness from our tired faces, Charlotte paused; and before I had done praising Providence for this refreshment, she not yet having paused at all, she began again in a new key of briskness, and said, 'By the way, I may as well come with you when you leave this. I have nothing particular to do. I came down here for a day or two to get away from some English people I was with at Binz who had rather got on to my nerves. And I have so much to say to you, and it will be a good opportunity. We can talk all day, while we are driving.'
Talk all day while we were driving! If Hazlitt saw no wit in talking and walking, I see less than none in talking and driving. It was this speech of Charlotte's that set me marvelling anew at the maliciousness of Fate. Here was I, the most harmless of women, engaged in the most harmless of little expeditions, asking and wanting nothing but to be left alone; a person so obscure as to be, one would think, altogether out of the reach of the blind Fury with the accursèd shears; a person with a plan so mild and humble that I was ashamed of the childishness of the Fate that could waste its energies spoiling it. Yet before the end of the fourth day I was confronted with the old familiar inexorableness, taking its stand this time on the impossibility of refusing the company of a cousin whom you have not seen for ten years.
'Oh Charlotte,' I cried, seized her arm convulsively, struggling in the very clutches of Fate, 'what—what a good idea! And what a thousand pities that it can't be managed! You see it is a victoria, and there are only two places because of all the luggage, so that we can't use the little seat, or Gertrud might have sat on that——'
'Gertrud? Send her home. What do you want with Gertrud if I am with you?'
I stared dismayed through the dusk at Charlotte's determined face. 'But she—packs,' I said.
'Don't be so helpless. As though two healthy women couldn't wrap up their own hair-brushes.'
'Oh it isn't only hair-brushes,' I went on, still struggling, 'it's everything. You can't think how much I loathe buttoning boots—I know I never would button them, but go about with them undone, and then I'd disgrace you, and I don't want to do that. But that isn't it really either,' I went on hurriedly, for Charlotte had opened her mouth to tell me, I felt certain, that she would button them for me, 'my husband never will let me go anywhere without Gertrud. You see she looked after his mother too, and he thinks awful things would happen if I hadn't got her. I'm very sorry, Charlotte. It is most unfortunate. I wish—I wish I had thought of bringing the omnibus.'
'But is your husband such an absurd tyrant?' asked Charlotte, a robust scorn for my flabby obedience in her voice.
'Oh—tyrant!' I ejaculated, casting up my eyes to the stars, and mentally begging the unconscious innocent's pardon.
'Well, then, we must get a luggage cart and put the things into that.'
'Oh,' I cried, seizing her arm again, my thoughts whirling round in search of a loophole of escape, 'what—what another good idea!'
'And Gertrud can go in the cart too.'
'So she can. What—what a trilogy of good ideas! Have you got any more, Charlotte? What a resourceful woman you are. I believe you like fighting and getting over difficulties.'
'I believe I do,' said Charlotte complacently.
I dropped her arm, ceased to struggle, walked on vanquished. Henceforth, if no more interesting difficulties presented themselves, Charlotte was going to spend her time overcoming me. And besides an eloquent Charlotte sitting next to me, there would be a cart rattling along behind me all day. I could have wept at the sudden end to the peace and perfect freedom of my journey. I went to bed, to a clean and pleasant bed that at another time would have pleased me, strongly of opinion that life was not worth while. Nor did it comfort me that from my pillow I looked out at the mysterious dark plain with its roof of stars and its faint red window in the north-west, because Charlotte had opened the door between our rooms and every now and then asked me if I were asleep. I lay making plans for the circumvention of Charlotte, and rejecting them one after the other as too uncousinly; and when I had made my head ache with the difficulty of uniting a becoming cousinliness with the cold-bloodedness necessary for shaking her off, I spent my time feebly deprecating the superabundance of cousins in the world. Surely there are too many? Surely almost everybody has more than he can manage comfortably? It must have been long after midnight that Charlotte, herself very restless, called out once more to know if I were asleep.
'Yes I am,' I answered; not quite kindly I fear, but indeed it is an irritating question.
We left Thiessow at ten the next morning under a grey sky, and drove, at the strong recommendation of the landlord, along the hard sands as far as a little fishing place called Lobberort, where we struck off to the left on to the plain again, and so came once more to Philippshagen and the high road that runs from there to Göhren, Baabe, and Sellin. I took the landlord's advice willingly, because I did not choose to drive on that grey morning in my altered circumstances over the plain along which I had walked so happily only the day before. The landlord, as obliging a person as his wife was a capable one, had provided a cart with two long-tailed, raw-boned horses who were to come with us as far as Binz, my next stopping-place. Gertrud sat next to the driver of this cart looking grim. Her prospects were gloomy, for the seat was hard, the driver was dirty, the cart had no springs, and she had had to pack Charlotte's clothes. She did not approve of the Frau Professor; how should she? Gertrud read her Kreuzzeitung as regularly as she did her Bible, and believed it as implicitly; she knew all about the pamphlets, and only from the Kreuzzeitung's point of view. And then Charlotte made the mistake clever people sometimes do of too readily supposing that others are stupid; and it did not need much shrewdness on Gertrud's part to see that the Frau Professor disliked the shape of her head.
The drive along the wet sands was uninteresting because of the prevailing greyness of sky and sea; but the waves made so much noise that Charlotte, unable to get anything out of me but head-shakings and pointings to my ears, gave up trying to talk and kept quiet. The luggage cart came on close behind, the lean horses showing an undesirable skittishness, and once, in an attempt to run away, swerved so close to the water that Gertrud's gloom became absolutely leaden. But we reached Lobberort safely, ploughed up through the deep sand on to the track again, and after Philippshagen the sky cleared, the sun came out, and the world began on a sudden to sparkle.
We did not see Göhren again. The road, very hilly just there, passes behind it between steep grassy banks blue with harebells and with a strip of brilliant sky above it between the tops of the beeches. But once more did I rattle over the stones of the Lonely One, pass the wooden inn where the same people seemed to be drinking the same beer and still waiting for the same train, and drive along the dull straight bit between Baabe and the first pines of Sellin. At Sellin we were going to lunch, rest the horses, and then, late in the afternoon, go on to Binz. Sellin from this side is a pine-forest with a very deep sandy road. Occasional villas appear between the trees, and becoming more frequent join into a string and form one side of the road. After passing them we came to a broad gravel road at right angles to the one we were on, with restaurants and villas on either side, trim rows of iron lamp-posts and stripling chestnut trees, and a wide gap at the end at the edge of the cliff below which lay the sea.
This was the real Sellin, this single wide hot road, with its glaring white houses, and at the back of them on either side the forest brushing against their windows. It was one o'clock. Dinner bells were ringing all down the street, visitors were streaming up from the sands into the different hotels, dishes clattered, and the air was full of food. On every balcony families were sitting round tables waiting for the servant who was fetching their dinner from a restaurant. Down at the foot of the cliff the sea lay in perfect quiet, a heavenly blue, out of reach in that bay of the wind that was blowing on Thiessow. There was no wind here, only intense heat and light and smells of cooking. 'Shall we leave August to put up, and get away into the forest and let Gertrud buy some lunch and bring it to us?' I asked Charlotte. 'Don't you think dinner in one of these places will be rather horrid?'
'What sort of lunch will Gertrud buy?' inquired Charlotte cautiously.
'Oh bread, and eggs, and fruit, and things. It is enough on a hot day like this.'
'My dear soul, it is not enough. Surely it is foolish to starve. I'll come with you if you like, of course, but I see no sense in not being properly nourished. And we don't know where and when we shall get another meal.'
So we drove on to the end hotel, from whose terrace we could look down at the deserted sands and the wonderful colour of the water. August and the driver of the luggage cart put up. Gertrud retired to a neighbouring cafe, and we sat and gasped under the glass roof of the verandah of the hotel while a hot waiter brought us boiling soup.
It is a barbarous custom, this of dining at one o'clock. Under the most favourable circumstances one o'clock is a difficult hour to manage profitably to the soul. There is something peculiarly base about it. It is the hour, I suppose, when the life of the spirit is at its lowest ebb, and one should be careful not to extinguish it altogether under the weight of a gigantic menu. I know my spirit fainted utterly away at the aspect of those plates of steaming soup and at the smell of all the other things we were going to be given after it. Charlotte ate her soup calmly and complacently. It did not seem to make her hotter. She also ate everything else with equal calmness, and remarked that full brains are never to be found united to an empty stomach.
'But a full stomach is often to be found united to empty brains,' I replied.
'No one asserted the contrary,' said Charlotte; and took some more Rinderbrust.
I thought that dinner would never be done. The hotel was full, and the big dining-room was crowded, as well as the verandah where we were. Everybody talked at once, and the noise was like the noise of the parrot house at the Zoological Gardens. It looked as if it were an expensive place; it had parquet floors and flowers on the tables and various other things I had not yet come across in Rügen; and when the bill came I found that it not only looked so but was so. All the more, then, was I astonished at the numbers of families with many children and the necessary Fräulein staying in it. How did they manage it? There was a visitors' list on the table, and turning it over I found that none of them, in the nature of things, could be well off. They all gave their occupations, and the majority were Apotheker and Photographen. There were two Herren Pianofabrikanten, several Lehrer, a Herr Geheimcalculator whatever that is, many Bankbeamten or clerks, and one surely who must have found the place beyond his means, a Herr Schriftsteller. All these had wives and children with them, 'I can't make it out,' I said to Charlotte.
'What can't you make out?'
'How these people contrive to stay weeks in a dear hotel like this.'
'Oh, it is quite simple. The Badereise is the great event of the year. They save up for it all the rest of the year. They live at home as frugally as possible so that for one magnificent month they can pretend to waiters and chambermaids and the other visitors that they are richer than they are. It is very foolish, sadly foolish. It is one of the things I am trying to persuade women to give up.'
'But you are doing it yourself.'
'But surely there is a difference in the method. Besides, I was run down.'
'Well, so I should think were the poor mothers of families by the time they have kept house frugally for a year. And if it makes them happy, why not?'
'Just that is another of the things I am working to persuade them to give up.'
'What, being happy?'
'No, being mothers of families.'
'My dear Charlotte,' I murmured; and mused in silence on the six Bernhards.
'Of unwieldily big ones, of course I mean.'
'And what do you understand by unwieldily big ones?' I asked, still musing on the Bernhards.
'Any number above three. And for most of these women even three is excessive.'
The images of the six Bernhards troubled me so much that I could not speak.
'Look,' said Charlotte, 'at the women here. All of them, or any of them. The one at the opposite table, for instance. Do you see the bulk of the poor soul? Do you see how difficult existence must be made for her by that circumstance alone? How life can be nothing to her but uninterrupted panting?'
'Perhaps she doesn't walk enough,' I suggested. 'She ought to walk round Rügen once a year instead of casting anchor in the flesh-pots of Sellin.'
'She looks fifty,' continued Charlotte. 'And why does she look fifty?'
'Perhaps because she is fifty.'
'Nonsense. She is quite young. But those four awful children are hers, and no doubt there is a baby, or perhaps two babies, upstairs, and they have finished her. How is such a woman to realise herself? How can she work out her own salvation? What energies she has must be spent on her children. And if ever she tries to think, she must fall asleep from sheer torpor of brain. Now why should she be deprived of the use of her soul?'
'Charlotte, are you not obscure? Here, take my pudding. I don't like it.'
I hoped the pudding would stem the stream of her eloquence. I feared an impending lecture. She had resumed the pamphlet manner of the previous afternoon, and I felt very helpless. She took the pudding, and I was dismayed, to find that though she ate it it had no effect whatever. She did not even seem to know she was eating it, and continued to address me with rapidly-increasing vehemence on the proper treatment of female souls. Now why could she not talk on this subject without being vehement? There is something about vehemence that freezes responsiveness out of me; I suppose it is what Charlotte would call the oyster characteristics coming out. Anyhow, by the time the waiter brought cheese and woolly radishes and those wicked black slabs of leather called Pumpernickel, I was sitting quite silent, and Charlotte was leaning across the little table hurling fiery words at me. And as for the stout lady who had set her ablaze, she ate almonds and raisins with a sublime placidity, throwing the almonds down on to the stone floor, cracking them with the heel of her boot, and exhibiting an unexpected nimbleness in picking them up again.
'Do you suppose that if she hadn't had those four children and heaven knows how many besides she wouldn't be different from what she is now?' asked Charlotte, leaning her elbows on the table and fixing me with eyes whose brightness dazzled me, 'As different as day is from night? As health from disease? As briskness from torpor? She'd have looked and felt ten years younger. She'd have had all her energies unimpaired. She'd have had the use of her soul, her time, her individuality. Now it is too late. All that has been choked out of her by the miserable daily drudgery. What would the man, her smug husband there, say if he were made to help in the soul-killing work a woman is expected to do as a matter of course? Yet why shouldn't he help her bear her burdens? Why shouldn't he take them on his stronger shoulders? Don't give me the trite answer that it is because he has his own work to do—we know his work, the man's work, at its hardest full of satisfactions and pleasures, and hopes and ambitions, besides coming to an end every day at a certain hour, while she grows old in hopeless, hideous, never-ending drudgery. There is a difference between the two that makes my blood boil.'
'Oh don't let it boil,' I cried, alarmed. 'We're so hot as it is.'
'I tell you I think that woman over there as tragic a spectacle as it would be possible to find. I could cry over her—poor dumb, half-conscious remnant of what was meant to be the image of God.'
'My dear Charlotte,' I murmured uneasily. There were actual tears in Charlotte's eyes. Where I saw only an ample lady serenely cracking almonds in a way condemned by the polite, Charlotte's earnest glance pierced the veil of flesh to the withered, stunted soul of her. And Charlotte was so sincere, was so honestly grieved by the hopeless dulness of the fulfilment of what had once been the blithe promise of young girlhood, that I began to feel distressed too, and cast glances of respectful sympathy at the poor lady. Very little more would have made me cry, but I was saved by something unexpected; for the waiter came round with newly-arrived letters for the visitors, and laying two by the almond-eating lady's plate he said quite distinctly, and we both heard him distinctly, Zwei für Fräulein Schmidt; and the eldest of the four children, a pert little girl with a pig-tail, cried out, Ei, ei, hast Du heute Glück, Tante Marie; and having finished our dinner we got up and went on our way in silence; and when we were at the door, I said with a suavity of voice and manner meant to be healing, 'Shall we go into the woods, Charlotte? There are a few remarks I should like to offer you on the Souls of Maiden Aunts;' and Charlotte said, with some petulance, that the principle was the same, and that her head ached, and would I mind being quiet.
Suppose a being who should be neither man nor woman, a creature wholly removed from the temptations that beset either sex, a person who could look on with absolute indifference at all our various ways of wasting life, untouched by the ambitions of man, and unstirred by the longings of woman, what would such a being think of the popular notion against which other uneasy women besides Charlotte raise their voices, that the man should never be bothered by the cares of the house and the babies, but rather go his daily round of business or pleasure precisely as he did before he had his house and his babies? I love to have the details of life arranged with fastidious justice, all its little burdens distributed with an exact fairness among those who have to carry them; and I imagine that this being, who should be rather more than man and less than god, who should understand everything and care nothing, would call it wrong to allot a double weight to the strong merely because he is strong, and would call it right that he should have his exact share, and use the strength he has left over not in carrying the burden of some weak friend who, burdenless, is still of no account in life, but in praising God, going first, and showing the others the way.
Thus did I meditate, walking in silence by Charlotte's side in the beech forest of Sellin. Not for anything would I have put my meditations into words, well aware that though they might be nourishing to me they would poison Charlotte. The maiden aunt and the dinner together had given Charlotte a headache, which I respected by keeping silent; and for two hours we wandered and sat about among the beeches, sometimes on the grassy edge of the cliffs, our backs against tree trunks, looking out over the brilliant blue water with its brilliant green shallows, or lying in the grass watching the fine weather clouds floating past between the shining beech-leaves.
Those were glorious hours, for Charlotte dozed most of the time, and it was almost as quiet as though she had not been there at all. No bath-guests parted the branches to stare at us; they were sleeping till the cool of the day. No pedestrians with field-glasses came to look at the view and ask each other, with one attentive eye on us, if it were not colossal. No warm students walked along wiping their foreheads as they sang of love and beer. Nothing that had dined at a table d'hôte could possibly move in such heat.
And so it came about that Charlotte and I shared the forest only with birds and squirrels.
This forest is extremely beautiful. It stretches for miles along the coast, and is full of paths and roads that lead you to unexpected lovelinesses—sudden glimpses of the sea between huge beech trunks on grassy plateaus; deep ravines, their sides clothed with moss, with water trickling down over green stones to the sea out in the sun at the bottom; silent glades of bracken, silvery in the afternoon light, where fallow deer examine you for one brief moment of curiosity before they spring away, panic-stricken, into the deeper shadows of the beeches. In that sun-flecked place, so exquisite whichever way I looked, so spacious, and so quiet, how could I be seriously interested in stuffy indoor questions such as the equality of the sexes, in anything but the beauty of the world and the joy of living in it? I was not seriously interested; I doubt if I have ever been. Destiny having decided that I shall walk through life petticoated, weighed down by the entire range of disabilities connected with German petticoats, I will waste no time arguing. There it is, the inexorable fact, and there it will remain; and one gets used to the disabilities, and finds, on looking at them closer, that they exclude nothing that is really worth having.
I glanced at the dozing Charlotte, half inclined to wake her up to tell her this, and exhort her to do as the dragons in the glorious verse of Doctor Watts, who
Changed their fierce hissings into joyful songs.
And praised their Maker with their forked tongues.
But I was afraid to stir her up lest her tongue should be too forked and split my arguments to pieces. So she dozed on undisturbed, and I enjoyed myself in silence, repeating gems from the pages of the immortal doctor, echoes of the days when I lisped in numbers that were not only infant but English at the knee of a pious nurse from the land of fogs.
At five o'clock, when I felt that a gentle shaking of Charlotte was no longer avoidable if we were to reach Binz that evening, and was preparing to apply it with cousinly gingerliness, an obliging bumble-bee who had been swinging deliciously for some minutes past in the purple flower of a foxglove on the very edge of the cliff, backed out of it and blundered so near Charlotte's face that he brushed it with his wings. Charlotte instantly sat up, opened her eyes, and stared hard at me. Such is the suspiciousness of cousins that though I was lying half a dozen yards away she was manifestly of opinion that I had tickled her. This annoyed me, for Charlotte was the last person in the world I would think of tickling. There was something about her that would make it impossible, however sportively disposed I might be; and besides, you must be very great friends before you begin to tickle. Charlotte and I were cousins, but we were as yet nowhere near being very great friends. I got up, put on my hat, and said rather stiffly, for she still sat staring, that it was time to go. We walked back in silence, each feeling resentful, and keeping along the cliff passed, just before we came to Sellin, a little restaurant of coloured glass, a round building of an atrocious ugliness, which we discovered was one of the prides of Sellin; for afterwards, driving through the forest to Binz, all the sign-posts had fingers pointing in its direction, and bore the inscription Glas Pavilion, schönste Aussicht Sellins. The schöne Aussicht was indisputable, but to choose the loveliest spot and blot its beauty with a coloured glass restaurant so close to a place full of restaurants is surely unusually profane. There it is, however, and all day long it industriously scents the forest round it with the smell of soup. People were beginning to gather about its tables, the people we had seen dining and who had slept since, and some of them were already drinking coffee and eating slabs of cherry cake with a pile of whipped cream on each slab, for all the world as though they had had nothing since breakfast. Conspicuous at one table sat the maiden aunt, still rosy from her sleep. She too had ordered cherry cake, and the waiter put it down before her as we came by, and she sat for a moment fondly regarding it, turning the plate round and round so as to take in all its beauties, and if ever a woman looked happy it was that one. 'Poor dumb, half-conscious remnant'—I murmured under my breath. Charlotte seemed to read my thoughts, for she turned her head impatiently away from the cake and the lady, and said once again and defiantly, 'The principle is the same, of course.'
'Of course,' said I.
The drive from Sellin to Binz was by far the most beautiful I had had. Up to that point no drive had been uninterruptedly beautiful, but this one was lovely from end to end. It took about an hour and a half, and we were the whole time in the glorious mixed forest belonging to Prince Putbus and called the Granitz. As we neared Binz the road runs down close to the sea, and through the overhanging branches we could see that we had rounded another headland and were in another bay. Also, after having met nothing but shy troops of deer, we began to pass increasing numbers of bath-guests, walking slowly, taking the gentlest of exercise before their evening meal. Charlotte had been fairly quiet. Her head, apparently, still ached; but suddenly she started and exclaimed 'There are the Harvey-Brownes.'
'And who, pray, are the Harvey-Brownes?' I inquired, following the direction of her eyes.
It was easy enough to see which of the groups of tourists were the Harvey-Brownes. They were going in the same direction as ourselves, a tall couple in clothes of surpassing simplicity and excellence. Immediately afterwards we drove past them; Charlotte bowed coldly; the Harvey-Brownes bowed cordially, and I saw that the young man was my philosophic friend of the afternoon at Vilm.
'And who, pray, are the Harvey-Brownes?' I asked again.
'The English people I told you about who had got on to my nerves. I thought they'd have left by now.'
'And why were they on your nerves?'
'Oh she's a bishop's wife, and is about the narrowest person I have met, so we're not likely to be anywhere but on each other's nerves. But she adores that son of hers and would do anything in the world that pleases him, and he pursues me.'
'Pursues you?' I cried, with an incredulousness that I immediately perceived was rude. I hastened to correct it by shaking my head in gentle reproof and saying: 'Dear me, Charlotte—dear, dear me.' Simultaneously I was conscious of feeling disappointed in young Harvey-Browne.
'What do you suppose he pursues me for?' Charlotte asked, turning her head and looking at me.
'I can't think,' I was going to say, but stopped in time.
'The most absurd reason. He torments me with attentions because I am Bernhard's wife. He is a hero-worshipper, and he says Bernhard is the greatest man living.'
'Well, but isn't he?'
'He can't get hold of him, so he hovers round me, and talks Bernhard to me for hours together. That's why I went to Thiessow. He was sending me mad.'
'He hasn't an idea, poor innocent, that you don't—that you no longer——'
'I have as much courage as other people, but I don't think there's enough of it for explaining things to the mother. You see, she's the wife of a bishop.'
Not being so well acquainted as Charlotte with the characteristics of the wives of bishops I did not see; but she seemed to think it explained everything.
'Doesn't she know about your writings?' I inquired.
'Oh yes, and she came to a lecture I gave at Oxford—the boy is at Balliol—and she read some of the pamphlets. He made her.'
'Oh she made a few conventional remarks that showed me her limitations, and then she began about Bernhard. To these people I have no individuality, no separate existence, no brains of my own, no opinions worth listening to—I am solely of interest as the wife of Bernhard. Oh, it's maddening! The boy has put I don't know what ideas into his mother's head. She has actually tried to read one of Bernhard's works, and she pretends she thought it sublime. She quotes it. I won't stay at Binz. Let us go on somewhere else to-morrow.'
'But I think Binz looks as if it were a lovely place, and the Harvey-Brownes look very nice. I am not at all sure that I want to go on somewhere else to-morrow.'
'Then I'll go on alone, and wait for you at Sassnitz.'
'Oh, don't wait. I mightn't come to Sassnitz.'
'Oh well, I'll be sure to pick you up again somewhere. It isn't a very big island, and you are a conspicuous object, driving round it.'
This was true. So long as I was on that island I could not hope to escape Charlotte. I entered Binz in a state of moody acquiescence.
Every hotel was full, and every room in the villas was taken. It was the Göhren experience over again. At last we found shelter by the merest chance in the prettiest house in the place—we had not dared inquire there, certain that its rooms would be taken first of all—a little house on the sands, overhung at the back by beechwoods, its windows garnished with bright yellow damask curtains, its roof very red, and its walls very white. A most cheerful, trim little house, with a nice tiled path up to the door, and pots of geraniums on its sills. A cleanly person of the usual decent widow type welcomed us with a cordiality contrasting pleasantly with the indifference of those widows whose rooms had been all engaged. The entire lower floor, she said, was at our disposal. We each had a bedroom opening on to a verandah that seemed to hang right over the sea; and there was a dining-room, and a beautiful blue-and-white kitchen if we wanted to cook, and a spacious chamber for Gertrud. The price was low. Even when I said that we should probably only stay one or two nights it did not go up. The widow explained that the rooms were engaged for the entire season, but that the Berlin gentleman who had taken them was unavoidably prevented coming, which was the reason why we might have them, for it was not her habit to take in the passing stranger.
I asked whether it were likely that the Berlin gentleman might yet appear and turn us out. She stared at me a moment as though struck by my question, and then shook her head. 'No, no,' she said decidedly; 'he will not appear.'
A very pretty little maidservant who was bringing in our luggage was so much perturbed by my innocent inquiry that she let the things drop.
'Hedwig, do not be a fool,' said the widow sternly. 'The gentleman,' she went on, turning to me, 'cannot come, because he is dead.'
'Oh,' I said, silenced by the excellence of the reason.
Charlotte, being readier of speech, said 'Indeed.'
The reason was a good one; but when I heard it it seemed as if the pleasant rooms with the beds all ready and everything set out for the expected one took on a look of awfulness. It is true it was now past eight o'clock, and the sun had gone, and across the bay the dusk was creeping. I went out through the long windows to the little verandah. It had white pillars of great apparent massiveness, which looked as though they were meant to support vast weights of masonry; and through them I watched the water rippling in slow, steely ripples along the sand just beneath me, and the ripples had the peculiar lonely sound that slight waves have in the evening when they lick a deserted shore.
'When was he expected?' I heard Charlotte, within the room, ask in a depressed voice.
'To-day,' said the widow.
'To-day?' echoed Charlotte.
'That is why the beds are made. It is lucky for you ladies.'
'Very,' agreed Charlotte; and her voice was hollow.
'He died yesterday—an accident. I received the telegram only this morning. It is a great misfortune for me. Will the ladies sup? I have some provisions in the house sent on by the gentleman for his supper to-night. He, poor soul, will never sup again.'
The widow, more moved by this last reflection than she had yet been, sighed heavily. She then made the observation usual on such occasions that it is a strange world, and that one is here to-day and gone to-morrow—or rather, correcting herself, here yesterday and gone to-day—and that the one thing certain was the schönes Essen at that moment on the shelves of the larder. Would the ladies not seize the splendid opportunity and sup?
'No, no, we will not sup,' Charlotte cried with great decision. 'You won't eat here to-night, will you?' she asked through the yellow window-curtains, which made her look very pale. 'It is always horrid in lodgings. Shall we go to that nice red-brick hotel we passed, where the people were sitting under the big tree looking so happy?'
We went in silence to the red-brick hotel; and threading our way among the crowded tables set out under a huge beech tree a few yards from the water to the only empty one, we found ourselves sitting next to the Harvey-Brownes.
'Dear Frau Nieberlein, how delightful to have you here again!' cried the bishop's wife in tones of utmost cordiality, leaning across the little space between the tables to press Charlotte's hand. 'Brosy has been scouring the country on his bicycle trying to discover your retreat, and was quite disconsolate at not finding you.'
Scouring the country in search of Charlotte! Heavens. And I who had dropped straight on top of her in the waters of Thiessow without any effort at all! Thus does Fortune withhold blessings from those who clamour, and piles them unasked on the shrinking heads of the meek.
Brosy Harvey-Browne meanwhile, like a polite young man acquainted with German customs, had got out of his chair and was waiting for Charlotte to present him to me. 'Oh yes, my young philosopher,' I thought, not without a faint regret, 'you are now to find out that your promising and intellectual Fräulein isn't anything of the sort.'
'Pray present me,' said Brosy.
'Pray present me,' I said in my turn, bowing in the direction of the bishop's wife.
At this ceremony the bishop's wife's face took on the look of one who thinks there is really no need to make fresh acquaintances in breathless hurries. It also wore the look of one who, while admitting a Nieberlein within the range of her cordiality on account of the prestige of that Nieberlein's famous husband, does not see why the Nieberlein's obscure female relatives should be admitted too. So I was not admitted; and I sat outside and studied the menu.
'How very strange,' observed Brosy in his beautifully correct German as he dropped into a vacant chair at our table, 'that you should be related to the Nieberleins.'
'One is always related to somebody,' I replied; and marvelled at my own intelligence.
'And how odd that we should meet again here.'
'One is always meeting again on an island if it is small enough.'
This is a sample of my conversation with Brosy, weighty on my part with solid truths, while our supper was being prepared and while Charlotte answered his mother's questions as to where she had been, where she had met me, how we were related, and who my husband was.
'Her husband is a farmer,' I heard Charlotte say in the dreary voice of hopeless boredom.
'Oh, really. How interesting,' said Mrs. Harvey-Browne; and immediately ceased to be interested.
The lights of Sassnitz twinkled on the other side of the bay. A steamer came across the calm grey water, gaily decked out in coloured lights, the throbbing of her paddle-wheels heard almost from the time she left Sassnitz in the still evening air. Up and down the road between our tables and the sea groups of bath-guests strolled—artless family groups, papa and mamma arm in arm, and in front the daughter and the admirer; knots of girls in the backfisch stage, tittering and pushing each other about; quiet maiden-ladies, placid after their supper, gently praising, as they passed, the delights of a few weeks spent in the very bosom of Nature, expatiating on her peace, her restfulness, and the freshness of her vegetables. And with us, while the stars flashed through the stirring beech leaves, Mrs. Harvey-Browne rhapsodised about the great Nieberlein to the blank Charlotte, and Brosy tried to carry on a reasonable conversation about things like souls with a woman who was eating an omelette.
I was in an entirely different mood from the one of the afternoon at Vilm, and it was a mood in which I like to be left alone. When it is on me not all the beautiful young men in the world, looking like archangels and wearing the loveliest linen, would be able to shake me out of it. Brosy was apparently in exactly the same mood as he had been then. Was it his perennially? Did he always want to talk about the Unknowable, and the Unthinkable, and the Unspeakable? I am positive I did not look intelligent this time, not only because I did not try to, but because I was feeling profoundly stupid. And still he went on. There was only one thing I really wanted to know, and that was why he was called Brosy. While I ate my supper, and he talked, and his mother listened during the pauses of her fitful conversation with Charlotte, I turned this over in my mind. Why Brosy? His mother kept on saying it. To Charlotte her talk, having done with Nieberlein, was all of Brosy. Was it in itself a perfect name, or was it the short of something long, or did it come under the heading Pet? Was he perhaps a twin, and his twin sister was Rosy? In which case, if his parents were lovers of the neat, his own name would be almost inevitable.
It was when our supper had been cleared away and he was remarking for the second time—the first time he remarked it I had said 'What?',—that ultimate religious ideas are merely symbols of the actual, not cognitions of it, and his mother not well knowing what he meant but afraid it must be something a bishop's son ought not to mean said with gentle reproach, 'My dear Brosy,' that I took courage to inquire of him 'Why Brosy?'
'It is short for Ambrose,' he answered.
'He was christened after Ambrose,' said his mother,—' one of the Early Fathers, as no doubt you know.'
But I did not know, because she spoke in German, for the sake, I suppose, of making things easier for me, and she called the Early Fathers frühzeitige Väter, so how could I know?
'Frühzeitige Väter?' I repeated dully; 'Who are they?'
The bishop's wife took the kindest view of it. 'Perhaps you do not have them in the Lutheran Church,' she said; but she did not speak to me again at all, turning her back on me quite this time, and wholly concentrating her attention on the monosyllabic Charlotte.
'My mother,' Ambrose explained in subdued tones, 'meant to say Kirchenväter.'
'I am sorry,' said I politely, 'that I was so dull.'
And then he went on with the paragraph—for to me it seemed as though he spoke always in entire paragraphs instead of sentences—he had been engaged upon when I interrupted him; and, for my refreshment, I caught fragments of Mrs. Harvey-Browne's conversation in between.
'I have a message for you, dear Frau Nieberlein,' I heard her say,—'a message from the bishop.'
'Yes?' said Charlotte, without warmth.
'We had letters from home to-day, and in his he mentions you.'
'Yes?' said Charlotte, ungratefully cold.
'"Tell her," he writes,—"tell her I have been reading her pamphlets."'
'Indeed?' said Charlotte, beginning to warm.
'It is not often that the bishop has time for reading, and it is quite unusual for him to look at anything written by a woman, so that it is really an honour he has paid you.'
'Of course it is,' said Charlotte, quite warmly.
'And he is an old man, dear Frau Nieberlein, of ripe experience, and admirable wisdom, as no doubt you have heard, and I am sure you will take what he says in good part.'
This sounded ominous, so Charlotte said nothing.
'"Tell her," he writes,—"tell her that I grieve for her."'
There was a pause. Then Charlotte said loftily, 'It is very good of him.'
'And I can assure you the bishop never grieves without reason, or else in such a large diocese he would always be doing it.'
Charlotte was silent.
'He begged me to tell you that he will pray for you.'
There was another pause. Then Charlotte said, 'Thank you.'
What else was she to say? What does one say in such a case? Our governesses teach us how pleasant and amiable an adornment is politeness, but not one of mine ever told me what I was to say when confronted by an announcement that I was to be included in somebody's prayers. If Charlotte, anxious to be polite, had said, 'Oh, please don't let him trouble,' the bishop's wife would have been shocked. If she had said what she felt, and wholly declined to be prayed for at all by strange bishops, Mrs. Harvey-Browne would have been horrified. It is a nice question; and it preoccupied me for the rest of the time we sat there, and we sat there a very long time; for although Charlotte was manifestly sorely tried by Mrs. Harvey-Browne I had great difficulty in getting her away. Each time I suggested going back to our lodgings to bed she made some excuse for staying where she was. Everybody else seemed to have gone to bed, and even Ambrose, who had been bicycling all day, had begun visibly to droop before I could persuade her to come home. Slowly she walked along the silent sands, slowly she went into the house, still more slowly into her bedroom; and then, just as Gertrud had blessed me and blown out my candle in one breath, in she came with a light, and remarking that she did not feel sleepy sat down on the foot of my bed and began to talk.
She had on a white dressing-gown, and her hair fell loose about her face, and she was very pale.
'I can't talk; I am much too sleepy,' I said, 'and you look dreadfully tired.'
'My soul is tired—tired out utterly by that woman. I wanted to ask you if you won't come away with me to-morrow.'
'I can't go away till I have explored these heavenly forests.'
'I can't stay here if I am to spend my time with that woman.'
'That woman? Oh Charlotte, don't call her such awful names. Try and imagine her sensations if she heard you.'
'Why, I shouldn't care.'
'Oh hush,' I whispered, 'the windows are open—she might be just outside on the beach. It gives me shivers only to think of it. Don't say it again. Don't be such an audacious German. Think of Oxford—think of venerable things like cathedral closes and bishops' palaces. Think of the dignity and deference that surround Mrs. Harvey-Browne at home. And won't you go to bed? You can't think how sleepy I am.'
'Will you come away with me to-morrow?'
'We'll talk it over in the morning. I'm not nearly awake enough now.'
Charlotte got up reluctantly and went to the door leading into her bedroom. Then she came back and crossed over to the windows and peeped out between the yellow curtains. 'It's bright moonlight,' she said, 'and so quiet. The sea is like a pond. How clear the Sassnitz lights are.'
'Are they?' I murmured drowsily.
'Are you really going to leave your windows open? Any one can get in. We are almost on a level with the beach.'
To this I made no answer; and my little travelling-clock on the table gave point to my silence by chiming twelve.
Charlotte went away slowly, candle in hand. At her door she stopped and looked back. 'It seems,' she said, 'that I have got that unfortunate man's bed.'
So it was the Berlin gentleman who was making her restless.
'And you,' she went on, 'have got the one his daughter was to have had.'
'Is she alive?' I asked sleepily.
'Oh yes, she's alive.'
'Well, that was nice, anyway.'
'I believe you are frightened,' I murmured, as she still lingered.
'Frightened? What of?'
'The Berlin gentleman.'
'Absurd,' said Charlotte, and went away.
I was having a most cheerful dream in which I tried hard to remember the exact words Herbert Spencer uses about effete beliefs that, in the stole, still cling about the necks of priests, and, in gaiters, linger round the legs of bishops, and was repeating the words about the bishops in a rapture of enjoyment—and indeed it is a lovely sentence—when a sudden pause of fear came into my dream, and I felt that some one beside myself was in the room.
The dark to me has always been full of terrors. I can look back through my memories and find past years studded with horrible black nights on which I woke up and was afraid. Till I have lit a candle, how can I remember that I do not believe in ghosts, and in nameless hideousnesses infinitely more frightful than ghosts? But what courage is needed to sit up in all the solid, pressing blackness, and stretch out one defenceless hand into it to feel about for the matches, appalled by the echoing noises the search produces, cold with fear that the hand may touch something unknown and terrible. And so at Binz, dragged out of my pleasant dream to night and loneliness, I could not move for a moment for sheer extremity of fright. When I did, when I did put out a shaking hand to feel for the matches, the dread of years became a reality—I touched another hand. Now I think it was very wonderful of me not to scream. I suppose I did not dare. I don't know how I managed it, petrified as I was with terror, but the next thing that happened was that I found myself under the bedclothes thinking things over. Whose hand had I touched? And what was it doing on my table? It was a nasty, cold hand, and it had clutched at mine as I tore it away. Oh—there it was, coming after me—it was feeling its way along the bedclothes—surely it was not real—it must be a nightmare—and that was why no sound came when I tried to shriek for Charlotte—but what a horrible nightmare—so very, very real—I could hear the hand sliding along the sheet to the corner where I was huddling—oh, why had I come to this frightful island? A gasp of helpless horror did get out, and instantly Charlotte's voice whispered, 'Be quiet. Don't make a sound. There's a man outside your window.'
At this my senses came back to me with a rush. 'You've nearly killed me,' I whispered, filling the whisper with as much hot indignation as it would hold. 'If my heart had had anything the matter with it I would have died. Let me go—I want to light the candle. What does a man, a real living man, matter?'
Charlotte held me tighter. 'Be quiet,' she whispered, in an agony, it seemed, of fear. 'Be quiet—he isn't—he doesn't look—I don't think he is alive.'
'What?' I whispered.
'Sh—sh—your window's open—he only need put his leg over the sill to get in.'
'But if he isn't alive he can't put his leg over sills,' I whispered back incredulously. 'He's some poor drowned sailor washed ashore.'
'Oh be quiet!' implored Charlotte, burying her face on my shoulder; and having got over my own fright I marvelled at the abjectness of hers.
'Let me go. I want to look at him,' I said, trying to get away.
'Sh—sh—don't move—he'd hear—he is just outside——' And she clung to me in terror.
'But how can he hear if he isn't alive? Let me go——'
'No—no—he's sitting there—just outside—he's been sitting there for hours—and never moves—oh, it's that man!—I know it is—I knew he'd come——'
'Oh the dreadful, dreadful Berlin man who died——'
'My dear Charlotte,' I expostulated, feeling now perfectly calm in the presence of such a collapse. 'Let me go. I'll look through the curtains so that he shall not see me, and I'll soon tell you if he's alive or not. Do you suppose I don't know a live man when I see one?'
I wriggled out of her arms and crept with bare, silent feet to the window, and cautiously moving the curtains a slit apart peeped through. There certainly was a man outside, sitting on a rock exactly in front of my window, with his face to the sea. Clouds were passing slowly across the moon, and I waited for them to pass to see him more clearly. He never moved. And when the light did fall on him it fell on a well-clothed back with two shining buttons on it,—not the back of a burglar, and surely not the back of a ghost. In all my varied imaginings I had never yet imagined a ghost in buttons, and I refused to believe that I saw one then.
Back I crept to the cowering Charlotte. 'It isn't anybody who's dead,' I whispered cheerfully, 'and I think he wants to paddle.'
'Paddle?' echoed Charlotte sitting up, the word seeming to restore her to her senses. 'Why should he want to paddle in the middle of the night?'
'Well, why not? It's the only thing I can think of that makes you sit on rocks.'
Charlotte was so much recovered and so much relieved at finding herself recovered, that she gave a hysterical giggle. Instantly there was a slight noise outside, and the shadow of a man appeared on the curtains. We clung to each other in consternation.
'Hedwig,' whispered the man, pushing the curtains a little aside, and peering into the darkness of the room; 'kleiner Schatz—endlich da? Lässt mich so lange warten——'
He waited, uncertain, trying to see in. Charlotte grasped the situation quickest. 'Hedwig is not here,' she said with immense dignity, 'and you should be ashamed of yourself, disturbing ladies in this manner. I must request you to go away at once, and to give me your name and address so that I may report you to the proper authorities. I shall not fail in my duty, which will be to make an example of you.'
'That was admirably put,' I remarked, going across to the window and shutting it, 'only he didn't stay to listen. Now we'll light the candle.'
And looking out as I drew the curtains I saw the moonlight flash on flying buttons.
'Who would have thought,' I observed to Charlotte, who was standing in the middle of the room shaking with indignation,—'who would have thought that that very demure little Hedwig would be the cause of a night of terror for us?'
'Who could have imagined her so depraved?' said Charlotte wrathfully.
'Well, we don't know that she is.'
'Doesn't it look like it?'
'Poor little thing.'
'Poor little thing! What drivel is this?'
'Oh I don't know—we all want forgiving very badly, it seems to me—Hedwig not more than you and I. And we want it so much more badly than we want punishing, yet we are always getting punished and hardly ever getting forgiven.'
'I don't know what you mean,' said Charlotte.
'It isn't very clear,' I admitted.