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Frau von Sigmundskron was too conscientious a person to omit a mental review of what had passed. She knew, indeed, that she had acted kindly and generously, if not wisely, and she believed that in some cases kindness might be better than wisdom. She was struck by one point in Greif's language. He assumed as a certainty that old Greifenstein had killed Clara, whereas the baroness had been inclined to attribute the crime to Rieseneck alone. At first she did not understand Greif's readiness to believe that this evil deed had been his father's, but presently, as she thought over the whole matter, it struck her that she had no reason for acquitting the one rather than the other, so far as evidence was concerned, but that she had wished Greif's father innocent for Greif's own sake. The good lady was much disturbed on finding that her wishes had been strong enough to bias her mental view without her knowledge, and she grew more and more satisfied with the course she had pursued after Greif had spoken. She saw clearly, now, that Greif was indispensable to her for Hilda's happiness, and she comprehended that he was worthy of the girl.
In the wicked world which surrounded the Black Forest on all sides, persons would have been found malicious enough to suspect that Greif really wished to be free from his engagement with Hilda. He himself, had he been less excited, would have hesitated before speaking as he had done, lest such a motive should be attributed to him. He would have acted and talked with more diplomacy and less outward energy, though with the same inward conviction, and it is by no means impossible that Frau von Sigmundskron's first intention might in such a case have remained unchanged, and that she would have gently acquiesced in Greif's proposal to give up the marriage. But there was no guile in the baroness, and but little in Greif himself. He had been carried away in his speech by the sincerity of what he felt, the more easily because his whole nature was unstrung by grief; and Hilda's mother had seen in him only the hero, ready to sacrifice everything for her he loved, and womanlike, she had felt irresistibly impelled to reward him on the spot by a generous sacrifice of those convictions which his real or fancied eloquence had already destroyed. So simple was she, that it did not strike her that Greif's own position was changed, that he was all at once his own master, possessed of a large fortune and perhaps of tastes which he had concealed during his father's life. If the aforesaid wicked world had been acquainted with the circumstances, it would assuredly have taken this view into consideration. But that portion of mankind in which are included so many of our acquaintance, but in whose numbers we ourselves are never found, were very far from Greifenstein, and the Lady of Sigmundskron knew little of their modes of thought. She saw that Greif was honest and she sought no malicious explanation of his intentions. On the contrary, the longer she reflected upon the interview, the more she admired him, and strange to say, the nearer she came to accepting his opinion of his father's guilt.
She had meant to see Rex, and she had not been altogether decided to wait and allow the natural course of events to bring her the information she desired about his letter. She remembered with some surprise that her decision in the matter of the marriage was to have depended upon the knowledge of old Greifenstein's culpability or innocence which she had hoped to gain from Rex. It was evident that her mind was tired, and she resolved at last to rest. It was her duty, however, to see Rex before sleeping, if only to inquire about his state. She would certainly not ask him any questions.
She found him reading still, or pretending to read, by the light of a shaded student's lamp. Upon another table there was a tray with a couple of covered dishes upon it. His older and tougher nature showed itself there, she thought, for he must have given the order himself. He rose politely as she entered, and offered her a chair. His manner contrasted so strongly with Greif's, as to make her wonder whether he were in reality much affected or not.
'I will not stay,' she said. 'I only came to see how you were, and whether I could do anything for you.'
'You are very kind. I have all I need, and more. Have you seen Greif?'
'Yes. He has slept and I think he is safe. At first I feared lest his mind should be affected. He is younger than you, Herr von--Herr Rex-- and perhaps he is more sensitive.'
'Perhaps,' replied Rex thoughtfully. 'Would he care to see me?'
'I have no doubt--that is--he may possibly be tired--' she hesitated.
Rex's stony eyes examined her face attentively.
'You have had an interview with him,' he said in a tone of conviction, 'and you have talked about this dreadful matter. I have a communication to make to you, Frau von Sigmundskron. It will not take long.'
The baroness started and looked at him earnestly.
'What is it? she asked.
'You gave me a letter this morning. I will tell you frankly that you ought to have given it to the representatives of the law, for in such cases the law has a right to all letters of the deceased and can even cause them to be intercepted in the post-office.'
'I did not know,' she replied, in some perturbation.
'I did, but as no one asked me for the letter, I did not offer it. I cannot tell you all it contained, nor shall I tell Greif. But this I will tell you. My father arrived here last night, and almost immediately afterwards he and Herr von Greifenstein, jointly, killed Frau von Greifenstein, and then committed suicide.'
'Is there no doubt!' asked the baroness nervously. She turned white at the thought of the scene his words recalled.
'The last confessions of men about to die are generally trustworthy,' remarked Rex rather drily.
'Of course--of course.' She wondered what other communication the letter had contained. 'Exactly, and you may rely upon the exactness of what I tell you. My poor father had no reason for deceiving me, nor was he a man to deceive any one. He had been a fanatic and an enthusiast in his youth, and if his fanaticism led him too far, he paid the penalty in forty years of exile.'
'But what could have induced him--or Greifenstein--'
'Madam,' said Rex courteously, but firmly, 'I regret my inability to answer your question. It must be supposed that two such men had some cause for acting as they did, which seemed to them sufficient.'
'Forgive me!' exclaimed the baroness. 'I did not mean to ask you. I thank you for having told me what you have. Am I to tell Greif? I think--indeed I know that what he believes coincides with your account.'
'Then you had better say nothing. I could not show him the letter, and if he knew that there was one, he might naturally enough reproach me with a want of confidence in him. I should be sorry to be placed in such a position, at such a time.'
For a few moments neither spoke. The baroness was formulating another question, which must be put to her companion.
'Herr Rex,' she said at last, 'it is necessary that the last act of this tragedy should be completed to-morrow. You have a voice in the matter--' she hesitated.
'Whatever you do will be well done,' answered Rex. He seemed to think the question over quickly. 'If you have any objections to his resting here,' he said presently, 'I will take him away. Do not let any feeling of delicacy prevent you from being frank.'
'Let them lie together,' replied Frau von Sigmundskron. 'It would be Greif's wish. You are very thoughtful, Herr Rex, but you must not think that any such unkind feeling can exist any longer now. Though there is no real tie of blood, you are one of us. You and Greif should be as brothers.'
A momentary light flashed in Rex's impenetrable eyes.
'I will be a brother to him, if he will let me,' he answered steadily. 'I thank you very much for what you have done and for what you say.'
Frau von Sigmundskron bade him good-night and went away. She was a woman, and her curiosity was strong, though her conscience was stronger. She felt that she was in the presence of some extraordinary mystery, and that Rex himself was a somewhat mysterious personage. His eyes haunted her and disturbed her peace, and yet she could not deny that she was attracted by him. His quiet dignity pleased her, as well as the tone of his voice. She liked his face and its expression, and her deep-rooted prejudices of caste were satisfied, for she recognised in him a man essentially of her own class. There was something very manly, too, about his bearing, which could not fail to impress a womanly woman, no matter of what age. But his eyes followed her and seemed to stare stonily at her out of the dark corners of the room. She was too much exhausted, however, to resist very long the oppression of sleep that came over her, and she was far too tired to dream, or at least to be conscious of dreaming.
With the following morning came the last trial of her strength, and those who saw her wondered how a thin, pale woman, whose hair was already white could show such constant energy, forethought and endurance. She had led a hard life, however, harder than any one there suspected, and she could have borne even more than was thrust upon her, without flinching or bending under the burden. On foot she walked in the mournful procession through the snow and the bitter wind, leaning but lightly on Greif's arm, and sometimes feeling that she was helping him rather than accepting his assistance. It was nearly a quarter of a mile from the castle to the spot where the burial-place of the Greifensteins was built in the depth of the forest, and the road was bad in many parts, though an attempt had been made to clear it, and the footsteps of those who bore the dead smoothed the path for the living who came after.
At last it was over. The last short prayer was said. The great stone slab, green with the mould of centuries, was raised by twenty strong arms and was made to slide back into its place above the yawning steps that led down into the earth, the heavy doors of the mausoleum swung slowly upon their hinges, the huge, rusty lock was secured and the unwieldy key was solemnly placed in the hands of the new master of Greifenstein. With slow steps, two and two together, all went back through the dim shadows of the trees, while the icy wind whistled and roared upon them from every giant stem, and the trodden snow creaked beneath their feet. Two and two they re-entered the low gateway of the castle, till the iron-studded oak clanged behind the last pair, sending rolling echoes along the dark, vaulted way.
An hour later Greif and Rex sat together in sad silence before the big blazing logs in Greif's room, faintly conscious of the comforting warmth, looking at each other from time to time without speaking, each absorbed by the pain of his own thoughts. It seemed as though several hours had passed in this way when Greif at last broke the silence.
'I will ride to Sigmundskron to-morrow,' he said, 'and then we will go away.'
Rex looked at him, nodded gravely and answered nothing.
'We must go together, Rex,' said Greif after another long pause. 'Will you come?'
'I will go with you wherever you will. If we part it shall not be my fault.'
The great logs crackled and blazed, sending up leaping flames and showers of sparks into the wide chimney and reflecting a warm red glare which contrasted oddly with the cold and sunless light of the winter's afternoon. The sound and the sight of the fire supplied the place of conversation and animated the stillness.
'Rex, did you know that I was to have been married next month?' Greif asked the question suddenly, as though he had come to an unexpected decision.
'I thought it possible that you would marry soon,' answered his companion.
'I was to have been married to my cousin Hilda in January. How far away that seems!'
'The daughter of Frau von Sigmundskron?'
'Yes. We have been engaged for years.'
'And you are going to Sigmundskron to see her--to tell her--'
'That it is all over.' Greif completed the sentence.
Rex rested his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, staring at the fire. He knew what Greif meant without any further explanation, and he realised how much more his cousin would stand in need of comfort than before. But his active and far-sighted intelligence did not accept the necessity of breaking off the marriage. He approved of Greif's wish to do so, and admired his courage, but at the same time he saw the utter desolation and gloominess of the life in store for him if he persisted in his intention. He held his peace, however.
'You see that I could not do otherwise,' Greif said at last. Still Rex answered nothing, and stared persistently into the flames, though his cousin was looking at him.
'Would you,' continued Greif, 'if you were in my place, have the courage to offer such a name as mine to an innocent girl?'
'You are as innocent as she,' observed Rex.
'Personally, but that is not the question. Would you bring her here to live in this house, to be a part of all the evil that has befallen me and mine?'
'You can live where you please,' said Rex philosophically.
'And besides, by a very simple process of law you can call yourself by another name. Do away with the name and live in another place, and you are simply Greif and she is simply Hilda. There could be no question of doing her an injury. Names are foolish distinctions at best, and when there is anything wrong with them it is foolish not to get rid of them at once. Do you think that I would not marry as plain Herr Rex, though I am in reality the high and well-born Horst von Rieseneck? I have but to make application for a legal change, pay the costs and the thing is done.'
'Outwardly, it is true. But the fact would remain. You are Rieseneck and I am Greifenstein, for all our lives, and our children will be Riesenecks and Greifensteins after us, if we marry. I would not lay such a curse upon any woman, much less upon one I love.'
'A curse is a purely conventional term, having no real meaning in life,' replied Rex. 'The reality is you yourself, your love and her love, whether you be the Emperor or Herr Schmidt. At least that is all the reality which can ever affect either of you, so far as marriage is concerned. I do not say that your name, or mine, would not be a disadvantage if we were ambitious men and if we wanted to be statesmen or officers. But I do assert that no sensible person will blame you or me for marrying happily if we have the opportunity, merely because our fathers did evil in their day.'
Greif listened attentively, but shook his head.
'It is strange that you should not think as I do about this,' he answered. 'We think alike about most things. But you need not try to persuade me against my will. I will not yield.'
'Will you take my advice about a smaller matter?'
'If I can.'
'Then listen to me. Do not be hasty. If you must see Fraulein von Sigmundskron to-morrow, do not let your parting be final. You may regret it all your life.'
'What would my regret be, compared with hers, if in the course of time she realised that she had done wrong in taking my name?'
'Are there any men of her family alive?' asked Rex. 'Is there any other branch?'
'No--if there were, they would never allow the marriage, even if I wished it.'
'I did not ask for that reason. If she is alone in the world, take her name. Call yourself Greif von Sigmundskron, and revive an ancient race without letting your own die out.'
Greif was silent. It had not struck him that such an arrangement might be possible, but he saw at a glance that Rex had dealt a telling blow against his resolution. To have married Hilda as Greifenstein would have always remained out of the question, to have chosen a common and meaningless appellation would have seemed an insult to her, but the idea suggested by Rex was alluring in the extreme. He knew how bitterly both Hilda and her mother regretted the extinction of their family and how gladly they would welcome such a proposal. By one stroke of the pen Greifenstein and its memories would be detached from his future life, and there would be something in their place, a name to make honourable, a home in which to plant new associations--above all there would be the love, the pride, the happiness of Hilda herself. He felt that his determination was weakened, and he made a final effort not to yield, scarcely knowing why he resisted any longer, since the possibilities of the future had grown so suddenly bright. Rex saw at a glance that he had made a deep impression upon his cousin, and wisely left the remedy he had administered to take its effect gradually. He knew human nature too well to fear that Greif could ever shut his eyes to the prospect unveiled to him. Time must pass, and in passing must heal the gaping wound that was yet fresh. Every month would take the ghastly tragedy further away and bring more clearly to Greif's mind the hope of happiness. As for the rest, it was buried in Rex's heart and no power would ever draw from him the secret of his brother's birth. Rightly or wrongly, he swore to hold his tongue. He did not know to whom the great Greifenstein property would go if he told the world that Greif was a nameless orphan with no more claim to his father's wealth than Rex himself. It seemed strange to be suggesting to Greif the means of discarding a name that never was his, but which must in all probability belong to some one who coveted it in spite of the associations it would soon have for all who heard the tale.
Rex sat in silence thinking over the almost endless intricacies of the situation, and wondering what would have happened if that letter had fallen into the hands of the law, and what would have become of Greif. He would have been absolutely penniless. Not even his mother's heritage, if there were any, would have belonged to him, for Rex could have claimed it as his own. He looked at the handsome face of his cousin, and tried to imagine what its expression would have been, if all things had taken place legally, and if Greif had received only what was his due. The sensation of preserving so much to any one by merely keeping silence was strange to Rex. He did not know whether he himself might not be considered a party in a fraud if the matter were tried before a tribunal, though he had not spoken one untrue word in the whole affair. Verily, silence was gold. To Greif, Rex's silence was almost equivalent to life itself. One word could deprive him of everything, of Greifenstein, of his name, of every item and miserable object he possessed, as well as of the broad lands and the accumulated money. He would lose all, but in whose favour? Rex did not know. Perhaps the lawful heir of Greifenstein was a poor officer of foot in a third-rate garrison town, eking out his pay with the remains of a meagre inheritance, desperately poor, and as desperately honourable. Possibly there was a connexion with some great and powerful family, into his full hands everything would go, if the truth were known. Possibly--Rex stopped short in his train of thought, astonished that he should not have sooner hit upon the fact--possibly Frau von Sigmundskron and her daughter were the only living relations. It seemed almost certain that this must be the case, when he thought about it. And if so--if he held his peace, and if Greif persisted in not marrying Hilda--why then he, Rex, was keeping that gentle, half-saintly old lady out of her rights. The new confusion caused by the idea was so great that even Rex's tough brain was disturbed. His instinct told him that the Sigmundskrons were poor--perhaps they were in real want. If he said nothing, if Greif persisted, if in later years Greif married another wife, as was most likely and possible, what sufferings might the man who had brought this about be responsible for! And yet, what a prospect, if he should take his letter from his pocket-book and hand it to Greif, as they sat side by side in the quiet room before the open fire! He had meant to burn the scrap of paper. It would be easy to toss it into the flames before Greif's eyes. But if ever all those things should happen of which he had been thinking, what proof would remain that the baroness or her daughter had a right to what was theirs even now? If ever that time came, Greif would not believe a spoken word. Would it not have been best, after all, to give the writing to the men of the law, requesting their discretion? No, for all this might be spared, if only Greif married Hilda. Until he had realised what issues were at stake, Rex had been satisfied with the suggestion he had made to Greif, believing that it would ultimately bear fruit in the desired result. Now, however, it seemed insufficient and wholly inadequate to the importance of the case. Greif must marry Hilda, and the letter must not be destroyed, for it might prove a valuable instrument with which to hasten or direct the march of events. After all--were the Sigmundskrons the only relations?
The idea that they were the only heirs-at-law had presented itself so forcibly that the sudden doubt concerning the fact made Rex desperate. There was no difficulty, however, in ascertaining the truth from Greif himself and without rousing his suspicions. It was even natural that Rex should ask the question, considering what had gone before.
'Have you no other relations, besides the Sigmundskrons, Greif?' he asked.
'None but you yourself.'
'I am not counted, as the connexion is in the female line,' said Rex calmly. 'I mean, if you were to die, the Sigmundskrons would be the heirs, unless you married and had children, would they not?'
'Yes--I suppose they would. I had not thought of it.'
'It seems to me that this constitutes an additional argument in favour of the plan I suggested.'
Greif did not answer at once, for he felt the weight of Rex's words, though he did not understand the whole intention of his cousin.
'I cannot argue with you now,' he said at last, as though wishing to be left to his thoughts.
Rex was too wise to be annoyed, for he saw that Greif's refusal to discuss the matter any further was the result of his inclination to yield, rather than of a hardening determination. The only point immediately important to Rex was that the marriage should not be broken off abruptly at once. He did not know what Hilda's nature might be, and this was an uncertain element in his calculations. It was certainly most probable that if she loved Greif sincerely she would not part with him easily, nor suffer him to sacrifice himself without making a desperate effort to hold him back. On the other hand, and for all Rex knew, Hilda might be a foolishly sentimental, half-frivolous nonentity, who would take offence at the first word which spoke of parting and consider herself insulted by Greif's chivalrous determination. She might be a suspicious girl, who would immediately be attacked with jealousy and would imagine that Greif loved another and wished to be free from herself. On the whole, Rex, in his worldly wisdom, thought it improbable that Hilda would turn out to be sincere, simple and loving, whereas for her own interest it was important that she should possess these qualifications. Lastly, Rex reflected that Hilda might very well be a selfish, reticent, scheming young woman, who would know how to manage Greif as though he were a child. He almost wished that she might have enough worldly guile to cling to Greif for his fortune as well as for his love--anything, rather than that the marriage should be broken off.
If that disaster occurred, if by Greif's impatient desire to be generous to the extreme limit of what honour could demand, or by Hilda von Sigmundskron's possible lack of affection or of wisdom, the two were to be permanently separated, Rex confessed that he should not know what to do. His own position would in that case be very far from enviable, for he would certainly have been a party in a fraud, of which the practical result had been that the Sigmundskrons were kept out of their property. The moral point presented to his conscience was an extremely delicate one to decide. His nature, as well as his education, impelled him to tell the truth regardless of all consequences, for its own sake; but the question arose, whether he was bound to tell what he knew, when no one asked him for the information. When the consequences might be so tremendous, and when the least effect that could be anticipated must be the immediate ruin of his brother, he believed that he should be justified in his silence, provided that those who would legitimately profit by the secret he withheld should receive all the advantages to which they were entitled. It seemed to him a case in which his conscience must gamble upon the probabilities. If it turned out well, he might congratulate himself upon having produced much happiness; if he lost the game, he must endure the humiliation of being obliged to communicate the truth to both parties. It would have been far easier, if he had been called upon to induce Greif to make an apparent sacrifice for the sake of a good he could not understand. The young man's noble disposition was more easily led in the direction of chivalrous self-renunciation, than towards an end involving personal advantage. Indeed Greif would almost invariably have chosen to give rather than to receive. The present difficulty consisted in making him take Hilda, in order that he might unconsciously give her what was hers. At first Rex had considered only Greif's happiness; now, he must think before all things of Hilda's fortune. He knew Greif well enough to be sure that if the marriage were broken off, he would certainly bestow a considerable portion upon the Sigmundskrons if they were really poor, but this could not be enough. Either Hilda must have all that was hers, by marrying Greif, or Rex must tell the story and precipitate the catastrophe. The only condition of his concealing what he knew, was that every one except himself should gain by his reticence. If this could not be accomplished justice must be done in spite of the consequences.
Though Rex's blood was German, his character had suffered a certain modification by the manner of his bringing up. His mode of thought certainly differed from Greif's to an extent which could not be accounted for upon the ground of temperament alone. Brave, manly and sufficiently generous though he was, Rex undeniably had a preference for accomplishing his ends mysteriously and by diplomatic means, a characteristic more southern than northern, and assuredly not German. He was a man well able to sustain whatever part he chose to play, and it was at least to his credit that he never employed his remarkable powers of concealment to a bad purpose. In his place, Greif would have told everything, and would then have offered everything he possessed to compensate the mischief done by the truth; he would not have been able to hide what he knew for a week, in such a case, for his extreme love of frankness would have tortured him until it was out, but if there were no justice to be accomplished, he could have held his peace as well as another. Rex saw far and clearly before him. His sceptical mind could not accept the conventional traditions of truthfulness at any price, of honourable sentiment exaggerated to Quixotism. He felt the necessity of weighing results before acting, rather than of following moral precepts and letting the results take care of themselves. To him ultimate good was everything, and religious morality was an empty bubble, unless it could be made to contribute directly and clearly to a good result. With Greif's more simple and straightforward nature, truthfulness, and such virtues as go with it, were invested with all the superior importance which religion gives to each present act of life, and so far as the future was concerned, a semi-conscious faith in the efficacy of principle supplied the place of Rex's well thought-out combinations and philosophical disquisitions about relative right and wrong.
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