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It is doubtful whether Greifenstein would have recognised his brother, if he had met him under any other circumstances. Forty years had passed since they had met, and both were old men. The difference between their ages was not great, for Greifenstein's father had died within the year of his son's birth, and his mother had married again three years later. In her turn she had died when both were young men, and from that time Greifenstein had seen little of his half-brother, who had been brought up by his own father in a different part of the country. Then young Rieseneck had entered the Prussian service, and a few years later had been ruined by the consequences of his evil.
Greifenstein saw before him a tall man, with abundant white hair and a snowy beard, of bronzed complexion, evidently strong in spite of his years, chiefly remarkable for the heavy black eyebrows that shaded his small grey eyes. The latter were placed too near together, and the eyelids slanted downwards at the outer side, which gave the face an expression of intelligence and great cunning. Deep lines furrowed the high forehead, and descended in broad curves from beneath the eyes till they lost themselves in the beard. Kuno von Rieseneck was evidently a man of strong feelings and passions, of energetic temperament, clever, unscrupulous, but liable to go astray after strange ideas, and possibly capable of something very like fanaticism. It was indeed not credible that he should have done the deeds which had wrecked his life, out of cold calculation, and yet it was impossible to believe that he could be wholly disinterested in anything he did. The whole effect of his personality was disquieting.
He entered the room with slow steps, keeping his eyes fixed upon his brother. The servant closed the door behind him, and the two men were alone. Rieseneck paused when he reached the middle of the apartment. For a moment his features moved a little uneasily, and then he spoke.
'Hugo, do you know me?' 'Yes,' answered Greifenstein, 'I know you very well.' He kept his hands behind him and did not change his position as he stood before the fire.
'You got my letter?' inquired the fugitive.
'Yes. I will do what you ask of me.'
The answers came in a hard, contemptuous voice, for Greifenstein was almost choking with rage at being thus forced to receive and protect a man whom he both despised and hated. But Rieseneck did not expect any very cordial welcome, and his expression did not vary. 'I thank you,' he answered. 'It is the only favour I ever asked of you, and I give you my word it shall be the last.'
Greifenstein's piercing eyes gleamed dangerously, and for an instant the anger that burned in him glowed visibly in his face.
'Your--' He would have said 'your word,' throwing into the two syllables all the contempt he felt, for one whose word had been so broken. But he checked himself gallantly. In spite of all, Rieseneck was his guest and had come to him for protection, and he would not insult him. 'You shall be safe to-morrow night,' he said, controlling his tongue.
But Rieseneck had heard the first word, and knew what should have followed it. He turned a little pale, bronzed though he was, and he let his hand rest upon the back of a chair beside him.
'I will not trouble you further,' he said. 'If you will show me a place where I can sleep, I will be ready in the morning.'
'No,' answered Greifenstein. 'That will not do. The servants know that a visitor is in the house. They will expect to see you at dinner. Besides, you are probably hungry.'
Perhaps he regretted having shown his brother, even by the suggestion of a phrase, what was really in his heart, and the feeling of the ancient guest-right made him relent a little.
'Sit down,' he added, as Rieseneck seemed to hesitate. 'It will be necessary that you dine with us and meet my wife. We must not excite suspicion.'
'You are married then?' said Rieseneck. It was more like a thoughtful reflexion than a question. Though he had written to his brother more than once, the latter's answers when he vouchsafed any, had been curt and businesslike in the extreme.
'I have been married five and twenty years,' Greifenstein replied. It was strange to be informing his brother of the fact. Rieseneck sat down upon a high chair and rested his elbow upon the table. Neither spoke for a long time, but Greifenstein resumed his seat, relighted his pipe, and placed his feet upon the fender, taking precisely the attitude in which he had been when his brother was announced. The situation was almost intolerable, but his habits helped him to bear it.
'I was also married,' said Rieseneck at last, in a low voice, as though speaking to himself. 'You never saw my wife?' he asked rather suddenly.
'She died,' continued the other. 'It was very long ago--more than thirty years.'
'Indeed,' said Greifenstein, as though he cared very little to hear more.
Again there was silence in the room, broken only by the crackling of the fir logs in the fire and by the ticking of the clock in its tall carved case in the corner. A full hour must elapse before the evening meal, and Greifenstein did not know what to do with his unwelcome guest. At last the latter took out a black South American cigar and lit it. For a few moments he smoked thoughtfully, and then, as though the fragrant fumes had the power to unloose his tongue, he again began to talk.
'She died,' he said. 'She ruined me. Yes, did you never hear how it was? And yet I loved her. She would not follow me. Then they sent me some of her hair and the boy. But for her, it might never have happened, and yet I forgive her. You never heard how it all happened?'
'I never inquired,' answered Greifenstein. 'You say she ruined you. How do you mean?'
'She made me do it. She was an enthusiast for liberty and revolution. She filled my mind with ideas of the people's sovereignty. She talked of nothing else. She besought me on her knees to join her party, as she called it. She flattered me with dreams of greatness in a great republic, she illuminated crime in the light of heroism, she pushed me into secret societies, and laughed at me for my want of courage. I loved her, and she made a fool of me, worse than a fool, a traitor, worse than a traitor, a murderer, for she persuaded me to give the arms to the mob, she made me an outlaw, an exile, an object of hatred to my countrymen, a thing loathsome to all who knew me. And yet I loved her, even when it was all over, and I would have given my soul to have her with me.'
Greifenstein's face expressed unutterable contempt for this man, who in the strength and pride of youth had laid down his honour for a woman's word, not even for her love, since he had possessed that already.
'It seems to me,' he said, 'that there was one very simple remedy for you.'
'A little lead in the right place. I know. And yet I lived, and I live still. Why? I do not know. I believed in the revolution, though she had forced the belief upon me, and I continued to believe in it until long after I went to South America. And when I had ceased to believe in it, no one cared whether I lived or died. Then came this hope, and this blow. I could almost do it now.'
Greifenstein looked at him curiously for a moment, and then rose from his place and went deliberately to a huge, dark piece of furniture that stood between the windows. He brought back a polished mahogany case, unlocked it and set it beside his brother upon the table, under the light of the lamp.
Rieseneck knew what he meant well enough, but he did not wince. On the contrary he opened the case and looked at the beautiful weapon, as it lay all loaded and ready for use in its bed of green baize cloth. Then he laid it on the table again, and pushed it a little away from him.
'Not now,' he said quietly. 'I am in your house. You would have to declare my identity. It would make a scandal. I will not do it.'
'You had better put it into your pocket,' answered Greifenstein grimly, but without a trace of unkindness in his voice. 'You may like to have it about you, you know.'
Rieseneck looked at his brother in silence for a few seconds, and then took the thing once more in his hands.
'Do you mean it as a gift?' he asked. 'You might not care to claim it afterwards.'
'I thank you.' He took the revolver from the case, examined it attentively and then slipped it into his breast-pocket. 'I thank you,' he repeated. 'I do not possess one.'
Greifenstein wondered whether Rieseneck would have the courage to act upon the suggestion. To him there was nothing horrible in the idea. He was merely offering this despicable creature the means of escape from the world's contempt. He himself, in such a case, would have taken his own life long ago, and he could not understand that any man should hesitate when the proper course lay so very clear before him. He went back to his seat as if nothing unusual had happened. Then, as though to turn the conversation, he began to speak of the plans for the morrow. He did not really believe in his brother's intentions, but as an honourable man, according to his lights, he considered that he had done his duty in giving the weapon.
'We can ride a long distance,' he said, 'and then we can walk. When you are once at the lake, you can find a boat which will take you over. I warn you that it is far.'
'It will be enough if you show me the way,' answered Rieseneck absently. 'You are very kind.'
'It is my interest,' said Greifenstein, unwilling that his feelings should be misinterpreted. Then he relapsed into silence.
Of the two, Rieseneck was the more at his ease. Possibly he did not realise how his brother despised him. Moreover, he had associated during many years with people of many nations, and he did not feel at once that his brother was so very different from these, or so very differently situated towards him. His mind, too, was somewhat unbalanced by the shock he had lately received, and his attention was concentrated upon himself rather than upon the things and persons he saw. During the greater part of his life he had made use of his acute intelligence in his dealings with the world, and under any other circumstances he would in all likelihood have made a determined effort to gain his brother's sympathy. But in the refusal of his application for a pardon he had believed certain, he had suffered a severe blow. Deep in his tortuous nature there existed at least one sincere and good quality, which was his passionate love for his native country. It had been distorted indeed, through the influence of another strong affection, the love for his wife while she had lived, and, being misdirected by her agency, the very strength of his patriotism had been the chief cause of his ruin. Now, however, forty years of exile had effaced all belief in parties or in the efficacy of revolutionary change, and had left him nothing but the original love of his native land, for itself, as it was, or as it might be, were it empire, kingdom, or republic. What did it matter, whether Germany were subject to one form of government or to another? Time had softened his hatreds and had spread its dim mantle over his own disgrace, while it had exalted his beloved nation among all the nations of the earth. Germany's victories, Germany's unity, the glory of her imperial race, the pride of her iron statesmen, the untold possibilities of her future existence, all were his, as they belonged to every born German by right, to share in and to rejoice over with all his heart. For forty years he had dreamed of returning, if it were only to live under an unknown name in some quiet hamlet, if it were merely for the sake of feeling that he was like a nameless drop of the blood that flowed in his country's veins. He asked nothing but the permission to end his life upon the soil whereon he had been born. Few years remained to him, and he could have done no harm, even had he wished it. His request had been refused, as Greifenstein had foreseen that it must be, on the ground that he was not a political delinquent, but a military criminal, on the plea that the forgiveness of such a misdeed would be contrary to all precedent, and would constitute a very bad example. Those unbending principles by which Germany had risen to her high place would not yield a hair's-breadth for all the supplications of a man who had betrayed his trust, though he were old and broken down, harmless, and even, perhaps, somewhat to be pitied. The law was not made for the young rather than for the aged; it was the same for all, unchangingly just and pitilessly conscientious.
But Rieseneck had suffered in the one tender spot that remained in his heart, and the wound had deadened his sensibilities in all other respects, while it had slightly disturbed the balance of his faculties. It is hard to believe that he would have spoken of his dead wife as he did, if he had realised exactly what Greifenstein felt towards him. The sufferings of the last week had revived in him the memories of long ago, and he had talked almost against his will of what was in his mind.
He sat silently by the table, and finished his cigar. As he threw away the stump that remained, Greifenstein looked at the clock and laid down his pipe.
'We dine in a quarter of an hour,' he observed, rising to his feet. Rieseneck rose, too, and spread his broad thin hands to the blaze of the fire.
'There is a room here which is conveniently situated for you,' said Greifenstein opening a door, and then striking a match to show the way. He lighted the candles upon the dressing-table and turned to his brother. Rieseneck was looking at him with a singularly disagreeable expression, which Greifenstein could not understand.
The simple action had roused the exile's hatred and jealousy. During the last hour he had thought little of where he was; now he suddenly realised the extent of what he had forfeited. There was nothing especial, in the simply furnished bedroom, to account for his feelings. The thought that hurt him embraced far more than that. He saw his brother rich, honourable, respected, living in his ancestral home, in his own country and possessing a full right to all he enjoyed. He did not know that there were rarely guests in Greifenstein; he only saw how natural it was that they should come, and he hated his brother for his power to live as his fathers had lived before him, and to entertain whom he pleased under his own roof. He thought bitterly of his own beautiful home in Chili, for his affairs had prospered in his exile, and he had lived in a princely fashion. He had lacked nothing for many a long year, saving only the right to build his home upon an acre of German ground. But that he could not have, and that he envied his brother with all his heart. Greifenstein, however, paid no attention to the angry light in Rieseneck's eyes.
'You will find the room convenient,' he said. 'You can lock your door, and if there should be any pursuit and the police should come here you have only to go through that press. There is a door in the back of it. Look.'
He opened the panel and held the light forward into the dark way beyond.
'Where does that lead to?' inquired Rieseneck.
'To a small room in the thickness of the main wall. Thence a winding stair descends to a passage. Follow that and you will come out in the Hunger-Thurm.'
Such devices are common in buildings of the old time in Germany, and Rieseneck manifested no surprise. He only nodded gravely. Greifenstein closed the panel and then left him alone. Rieseneck, however, determined that before going to rest he would follow the passage to the end and ascertain whether it really afforded a means of escape, or whether his brother had contrived a trap for him. In the meanwhile the ordeal of dinner was before him, and it was necessary that he should assume the part of the visitor, lest Greifenstein's wife should suspect anything. He wondered vaguely what sort of woman she was and whether she knew of his existence.
Greifenstein took the precaution of sending word to his wife that there was a visitor in the castle. In her nervous state he feared lest the sudden appearance of a stranger might agitate her, and although he had long abandoned the idea that she knew anything of Rieseneck, his cautious mind admitted the pure possibility of their having been previously acquainted. Even in that extreme case, however, he could not believe a recognition probable, for he himself would certainly not have known Rieseneck, nor admitted that the bearded old man was the person from whom he had parted forty years before. Greifenstein's chief thought was to get the man away and out of the country without any unpleasant incident, and in order to accomplish his purpose he forced himself to behave in his usual manner. After all, twenty-four hours would settle the matter, and the first of the twenty-four was already passed.
When Clara heard that there was to be a guest at dinner, her first sensation was one of extreme terror, but she was reassured by the information her maid gave concerning the general appearance of Herr Brandt. The woman had not seen him, but had of course heard at once a full description of his personality. He was described as a tall old gentleman, exceedingly well dressed, though he had arrived on foot and without luggage. The maid supposed that his effects would follow him, since he had chosen to walk. Beyond that, Clara could ascertain nothing, but it was clear that she did not consider the details she learned as descriptive of the person whose coming she feared. On the contrary, the prospect of a little change from the usual monotony of the evening had the effect of exhilarating her spirits, and she bestowed even more attention than usual upon the adornment of her thin person. The nature of the woman could not die. Her natural vanity was so extraordinary that it might have been expected to survive death itself. She belonged to that strange class of people who foresee even the effect they will produce when they are dead, who leave elaborate directions for the disposal of their bodies in the most becoming manner, and who build for themselves appropriate tombs while they are alive, decorated in a style agreeable to their tastes. Clara arrayed herself in all her glory for the feast; she twisted the ringlets of her abundant faded hair, until each covered at least one obnoxious line of forehead and temples; she laid the delicate colour upon her sunken cheeks with amazing precision, and shaded it artistically with the soft hare's foot, till it was blended with the whiteness of the adjacent pearl powder; she touched the colourless eyebrows with the pointed black stick of cosmetic that lay ready to her hand in its small silver case, and made her yellow nails shine with pink paste and doeskin rubbers till they reflected the candlelight like polished horn. With the utmost care she adjusted the rare old lace to hide the sinewy lines of her emaciated throat, and then, observing the effect as her maid held a second mirror beside her face, she hastened to touch the shrivelled lobes of her ears with a delicate rose colour that set off the brilliancy of the single diamonds she wore as earrings. She opened and shut her eyelids quickly to make her eyes brighter, and held up her hands so that the blood should leave the raised network of the purple veins less swollen and apparent. The patient tire-woman gave one last scrutinising glance and adjusted the rich folds of the silk gown with considerable art, although such taste as she possessed was outraged at the effect of the pale straw colour when worn by such an aged beauty. Another look into the tall mirror, and Clara von Greifenstein was satisfied. She had done what she could do to beautify herself, to revive in her own eyes some faint memory of that prettiness she had once seen reflected in her glass, and she believed that she had not altogether failed. She even smiled contentedly at her maid, before she left the chamber to go to the drawing-room. It was a satisfaction to show herself to some one, it was a relief from the thoughts that had tormented her so long, it was a respite from her husband's perpetual effort to amuse her by reading aloud. For a few hours at least she was to hear the sound of an unfamiliar voice, to enjoy the refreshing effect of a slight motion in the stagnant pool of worn-out ideas that surrounded her little island of life.
She drew herself up and walked delicately, as she went into the drawing-room. She had judged that her entrance would be effective, and had timed her coming so as to be sure that her husband and Herr Brandt should be there before her. The room looked just as it usually did; it was luxurious, large, warm and softly lighted. Clara almost forgot her age so far as to wish that there had been more lamps, though the shade was undeniably advantageous to her looks. She came forward, and saw that the two men were standing together before the fire. The door had moved noiselessly on its hinges, but the rustle of the silk gown made Greifenstein and Rieseneck turn their heads simultaneously. Clara's eyes rested on the stranger with some curiosity, and she noticed with satisfaction that his gaze fixed itself upon her own face. He was evidently impressed by her appearance, and her vain old heart fluttered pleasantly.
'Permit me to present Herr Brandt,' said Greifenstein, making a step forward.
Clara inclined her head with an expression that was intended to be affable, and Rieseneck bowed gravely. She sank into a chair and looking up, saw that he was watching her with evident interest. It struck her that he was a very pale man, and though she had at first been pleased by his stare, she began to feel uncomfortable, as it continued.
'You are old friends, I suppose,' she remarked, glancing at her husband with a smile.
Both men bent their heads in assent.
'I had the honour of knowing Herr von Greifenstein when we were both very young,' said Rieseneck after a pause that had threatened to be awkward.
'Indeed? And you have not met for a long time! How very strange! But life is full of such things, you know!' She laughed nervously.
While she was speaking, the intonations of Rieseneck's voice seemed to be still ringing in her ears, and the vibrations touched a chord of her memory very painfully, so that she forgot what she was saying and hid her confusion in a laugh. Greifenstein was staring at the ceiling and did not see his brother start and steady himself against the chimney- piece.
At that moment dinner was announced. Clara rose with an effort from her seat, and stood still. She supposed that Herr Brandt would offer her his arm, but he did not move from his place. Greifenstein said nothing. A violent conflict arose in his mind and made him hesitate. He could not bear the idea of seeing his wife touch even the sleeve of the man he so despised, and yet he dreaded lest any exhibition of his feelings should make Clara suspicious. The last consideration outweighed everything else.
'Will you give my wife your arm?' he said, addressing Rieseneck very coldly.
There was no choice, and the tall old man went to Clara's side, and led her out of the room, while Greifenstein followed alone. They sat down to the round table, which was laden with heavy plate and curious pieces of old German silver, and was illuminated by a hanging lamp. A hundred persons might have dined in the room, and the shadows made the panelled walls seem even further from the centre than they really were. Vast trophies of skulls and antlers and boars' heads loomed up in the distance, indistinctly visible through the dim shade, but lighted up occasionally by the sudden flare of the logs from the wide hearth. The flashes of flame made the stags' skulls seem to grin horribly and gleamed strangely upon the white tusks that protruded from the black boars' heads, and reflected a deep red glare from their artificial eyes of coloured glass. The servants stepped noiselessly upon the dark carpet, while the three persons who shared the solemn banquet sat silently in their places, pretending to partake of the food that was placed before them.
The meal was a horrible farce. There was something sombrely contemptible to each one in the idea of being forced into the pretence of eating, for the sake of the hired attendants who carried the dishes. For the first time in his life Greifenstein's hardy nature was disgusted by the sight of food. Rieseneck sat erect in his chair, from time to time swallowing a glass of strong wine, and looking from Clara's face to the fork he held in his hand. She herself exercised a woman's privilege and refused everything, staring consistently at the monumental silver ornament in the midst of the table. When she looked up, Rieseneck's white face scared her. She had no need to see it now, for she knew who he was better than any one, better than Greifenstein himself. That power whose presence she had once felt, when alone with her husband, was not with her now. A deadly fear overcame every other instinct save that of self-preservation. She struggled to maintain her place at the table, to control the shriek of horror that was on her lips, as she had struggled to produce that feigned laugh ten days ago, with all her might. But the protracted strain was almost more than she could bear, and she felt that her exhausted nerves might leave her helpless at any moment. She had read in books vivid descriptions of the agony of death, but she had never fancied that it could be so horrible as this, so long drawn out, so overwhelmingly bitter.
In truth, a more fearful ordeal could not be imagined, than was imposed by a relentless destiny upon this miserable, painted, curled and jewelled old woman as she sat at the head of her own table. It would have been easier for her, had she known that she was to meet him. It would have been far less hard, if she had lived her life in the whirl of the world, where we are daily forced to look our misdeeds in the face and to meet with smiling indifference those who know our past and have themselves been a part of it. Even a quarter of an hour for preparation would have been better than this gradual recognition, in which each minute made certainty more positive. There was but one ray of consolation or hope for her, and she tried to make the most of it. He had come because he had failed to obtain his pardon, and his brother was helping him to leave the country quietly. She was as sure of it, as though she had been acquainted with all the details. To-morrow he would be gone, and once gone he would never return, and her last years would be free from fear. The fact that he came under a false name showed that she was right. In an hour she could excuse herself and go to her room, never to see his face again. Her hands grasped and crushed the damask of the cloth beneath the table, as she tried to steady her nerves by contemplating her near deliverance from torture.
Greifenstein was the bravest of the three,--as he had also the least cause for anxiety. He saw that it was impossible to continue the meal in total silence, and he made a tremendous effort to produce a show of conversation.
'There has been much snow this year, Herr Brandt,' he said, raising his head and addressing his brother. Rieseneck did not understand, but he heard Greifenstein's voice, and slowly turned his ghastly face towards him.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I did not quite hear.'
'There has been much snow this year,' Greifenstein repeated with forcible distinctness.
'Yes,' replied his brother, 'it seems so.'
'After all, it is nearly Christmas,' said Clara, trembling in every limb at the sound of her own voice.
Only an hour more to bear, and she would be safe for ever. Only another effort and Greifenstein would suspect nothing. Rieseneck looked mechanically at his brother, as though he were trying to find something to say. In reality he was almost insensible, and he hardly knew why he did not fall from his chair.
A servant brought another dish and Clara helped herself unconsciously. The man went on to Rieseneck, and waited patiently until the latter should turn his head and see what was offered to him.
Clara saw an opportunity of speaking again. She could call his attention by addressing him. One, two, three seconds passed, and then she spoke. It would be enough to utter his name, so that he should look round and see the attendant at his elbow. 'Herr Brandt'--the two syllables were short and simple enough.
'Herr von Rieseneck,' she said quietly.
In the extremity of her nervousness, her brain had become suddenly confused and she was lost.
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