Chapter XX




Karl overtook Greif before the latter had walked half a mile. The rapid decision, the brisk walk and the biting air had contributed to alleviate the intolerable pain to which he had momentarily succumbed, and as he lay back among the furs he began to fancy that he should not be ill after all, and to regret the scarcely decent haste he had employed in making his escape. But when he tried to think over what had happened he found that his brain was confused and his memories indistinct. Of one thing only he was quite sure, that he had accomplished his intention and had renounced Hilda for ever. With the emotion caused by the thought the pain seized him again and he lay almost unconscious in his seat while Karl guided the horses carefully along the steep road. Before many miles were passed, Greif was aware of nothing but the indistinct shapes of trees and rocks that slipped in and out through the field of his aching vision. Everything else was a blank, and the least attempt at thought became agonising. At one time he could not remember whether he was going towards his home or away from it; at another, he was convinced that some one was in the carriage with him, either his father or Frau von Sigmundskron, and he tried vaguely to reconcile the fact of their presence with his inability to see their shapes.

At last he knew that he was being lifted from the carriage, and he made an effort to straighten himself and to walk upright. But strong arms were round him and bore him through bright halls where the low sun shot in level rays through stained windows, and along broad dim corridors that seemed as though they would never end, until at last he was laid upon a bed in a warm room. There, all at once, as in a dream, he recognised Rex, who was standing beside him and holding his hand.

'I must be ill, after all,' he said faintly.

'Very,' answered Rex. 'Do you know me? Can you tell me what has happened to you?'

Greif stared at him for a few seconds and then answered with an effort.

'I have done it,' he said, and closed his eyes.

After that, he was conscious of nothing more, neither of daylight nor of darkness, neither of solitude nor of the presence of Rex and of those who helped him in his incessant care. A day passed, and another, one physician came, then two, and then a great authority was summoned and installed himself in the castle, and visited the sick man six times during the day, and feasted royally in the meanwhile, after the manner of great authorities, who have an amazing discernment in regard to the good things of this life, as well as an astonishing capacity for enjoying them.

All manner of things were done to Greif of which he never knew anything. He had ice upon his head and burning leaves of mustard on his feet, he was fed with strange mixtures of wine and soup, of raw meat and preserves, all of which he swallowed unconsciously without getting any better. Still he tossed and raved, and moaned and laughed, and cried like a child and howled like a madman.

The great authority shook his head and pensively drank the old burgundy that was set before him, partaking of a delicate slice of game between one sip and another, and thoughtfully cropping the heads of the forced asparagus when he was tired of the venison. For a long time he and Rex said little to each other at their meals, and the physician was inclined to suppose that his companion was a man of merely ordinary intelligence. One day, however, as Greif grew no better, Rex determined to startle the good man, by ascertaining what he knew. In order to lead the conversation he threw out a careless remark about an unsettled question which he knew to be agitating the scientific world, and concerning which it was certain that the great doctor would have a firm opinion of his own. To the astonishment of the latter, Rex disputed the point, at first as though he cared little, but gradually and with matchless skill disclosing to his adversary a completeness of information and a keenness of judgment which fairly took away his breath.

'You almost convince me,' said the physician, who had quite forgotten to help himself a second time to green peas, though they were the first he had seen that year. 'Upon my word, Herr Rex, you almost convince me. And yet you are a very young man.'

'How old do you think I am?' inquired Rex with a faint smile.

The doctor examined his face attentively and then looked long at his hands. He became so much interested that he rose from his seat and came and scrutinised Rex's features as though he were studying the points of an animal.

'I am amazed,' he said, as he sat down again and adjusted his napkin upon his knees. 'I do not see anything to prove that you are more than two or three and thirty.'

'I was forty years old on my last birthday--and I was still a student at Schwarzburg,' replied Rex quietly.

'You have a very fine action of the heart,' observed the doctor, 'I would not have thought it, but your age heals the wound in my vanity.'

Now it is a very singular fact that from that hour the great physician should have paid more attention to Greif and less to the venison and asparagus, but it is certainly true that his manner changed, as well as his conversation, and that he bestowed more care upon his patient than he had ever given to any sick man since he had become celebrated. Ever afterwards, he told his learned acquaintances that the only man he had ever met who gave promise of greatness was a quiet person who lived in the Black Forest.

Rex had satisfied himself, however, that the doctor knew a great deal, though he had not a high opinion of medical science in general, and almost said so. Greif, nevertheless, continued to be very ill indeed, and his state seemed to go from bad to worse. Rex was anxious, and watched him and nursed him with unfailing care. He knew well enough what Grief had meant by the few words he had spoken after he was brought home, and he knew all that his cousin's action involved. His reflexions were not pleasant.

It seemed to him as though fate were about to solve the difficulty by cutting all the knots at once. If this terrible fever made an end of Greif, there would be an end also of the house of Greifenstein by the extinction of the last male descendant. Greif, the penniless and nameless orphan, would lie beside his father as Greif von Greifenstein, and the fortune would go in the ordinary course of the law to the Sigmundskrons, to whom it really belonged. But if Greif recovered and persisted in refusing to marry Hilda, the greatest injustice would be done to the widow and her daughter. Rex's views of right would not be satisfied if the Sigmundskrons received only a part of the fortune which was legitimately theirs, and Rex thought with horror of the moment when he might be obliged to go to Greif and disclose the truth. He was a man of very strong principles, which were detached from any sort of moral belief, but it seemed as though his intelligence were conscious of its failing, in spite of all his reasoning, and were always trying to supply the lacuna by binding itself to its own rules, to which its faith had been transferred. He knew perfectly well that if Greif could not be persuaded that he was acting foolishly it would be necessary to reveal the secret. Rather than that Greif himself should be made to suffer what such a revelation implied, it would be almost better that he should die in his unconscious delirium. Human life, in Rex's opinion, was not worth much, unless it afforded a fair share of happiness, and he knew well enough that Greif could never recover from such a blow. The loss of fortune would be nothing in comparison with the loss of name, and with the dishonour to his dead mother's memory. Rex knew what that meant, though even he had not been made to bear all that was in store for Greif in such a case.

In the dim room he looked at his brother's face. He had grown so much accustomed to the droning sound of his ceaseless ravings, as hardly to notice it when he was in the room, though it pursued him whenever he was alone. He watched Greif's pale features, and wondered what the result would be. If Greif died, the lonely man had nothing left to live for. Greif had come into his life, just when he was beginning to feel with advancing years that neither fortune nor science can fill the place of the human affections. As for the love of woman, Rex had never understood what it meant. He had entangled himself in more than one affair of little importance, partly from curiosity, partly out of vanity, but in his experience he had never found a companion in any woman, nor had he ever known one whom he would not have left at a moment's notice for the sake of any one out of half a dozen occupations and amusements which pleased him better than lovemaking. To this singular absence of emotions he perhaps owed his youthful looks, at an age when many men are growing grey and most show signs of stress of weather. He had never cared for his father's society, first, because he had lacked all the early associations of childhood on which alone such affection is often based, and, secondly, because he had differed from him in all his ideas and tastes as soon as he had been able to think for himself. Their relations had always been amicable, for Rex was not a man, even when young, to quarrel easily over small matters, and old Rieseneck had sent him at an early age to Germany, supplying him very bountifully with money, in the belief that he ought to atone in every way for the injury done to his son by his own disgrace. Beyond a regular correspondence, which had never savoured much of ardent affection, there had been nothing to unite the two during many years past. Then Rex had taken the trouble to find out his cousin, had liked him more and more, and had at last learned that he was not his cousin but his brother. Now, as he saw him lying there between life and death, he admitted to himself that he loved him, and that he took the trouble to remain alive merely for his sake. But for Greif, that fatal letter would have been enough to make him give it up.

In truth, the life which Rex had condescended to leave in himself did not promise well. The physician did his best, which was as good as any man's when he chose that it should be, but Greif was daily losing strength, and the inflammation of the brain showed no signs of disappearing. It is probable that if he had been thrown with any other companion than Rex, the great doctor would have shaken his head and would have announced that there was very little hope. But Rex acted upon him as a stimulant, and his impenetrable, stony eyes made the physician feel as though his whole reputation were at stake. The latter even went to the length of sitting up all night when the patient was at his worst, a thing he had not done for many a long year, and probably never did again during his comfortable existence.

Greif was going to die. The doctor had very little doubt of it. In all his experience he had never known such an obstinate case of meningitis in a man so young and so strong. The grey morning dawned and found him and Rex standing upon each side of the bed that looked unnaturally white in the gloom. Still, Greif was alive, though his moaning had grown very faint, and his strength was almost gone. Rex held his breath every now and then, as the sound ceased, fearing lest every moment should be the last. The doctor tried to make out the time without carrying his watch to the night-light, failed and returned it to his pocket with a half-suppressed sigh. He had done all that he could, and yet Rex's stony eyes were fixed on him in the early twilight, and his reputation was at stake. He knew that the thread might break at any moment, but he believed that if Greif lived until sunrise he would live until noon, and die about three o'clock in the day.

'Herr Rex,' he said quietly, 'I think you had better send for Frau von Sigmundskron, if she would wish to see him. You told me he had no other relation near.'

Rex's head fell forward upon his breast as though he had received a blow, though he had known all through the night that this morning might be the last, and the doctor had told him nothing unexpected. A moment later he left the room quietly. He was met by a servant before he had gone far.

'Tell Karl to put in the Trachener stallions and drive to Sigmundskron as fast as they can go. He must bring back the baroness before noon. Your master is dying.'

He would have turned away, but the man detained him with a question he did not hear at first.

'What did you say?' he asked.

'A messenger has just come from Sigmundskron to inquire,' the servant said.

'I will see him. Give the order to Karl quickly,' said Rex.

In the hall a queer-looking man was brought to him. He was one of those thin, wiry, dark and straight-haired men of the Forest who seem to belong to a race not German, whatever it may be. He wore patched leather breeches, from the side pocket of which protruded the horn handle of his long knife. His legs were bare, his shirt open at the neck, his waistcoat with silver buttons was flung carelessly over one shoulder, and a small fur cap was thrust back from his forehead, upon which a few drops of perspiration were visible. His small and piercing eyes met Rex's boldly.

'The baroness sent me to know how the young gentleman was,' he said, speaking in the Swabian dialect.

'Herr von Greifenstein is dying,' answered Rex gravely.

'Then I had better go and tell her so,' said the man, calmly, though his face fell at the bad news. He was already turning away when Rex stopped him.

'Have you come on foot?' he asked, looking curiously at a fellow who could run over from Sigmundskron and go back almost without taking breath.

'Of course,' was the answer.

'Then you can go home in the carriage. I have just ordered it. Give him something to eat quickly,' he added, turning to the servant, 'before Karl is ready.'

'I shall be there before your carriage,' observed the man carelessly. 'Especially if you will give me a drink of cherry spirits.'

'Before the carriage?'

'Not if I stay here,' said the other. 'But I can beat your horses by half an hour at least.'

'What is your name?' asked Rex while the servant was gone for the drink.

'Wastei.'

'Sebastian, I suppose?'

The man shrugged his shoulders, as though to say that he did not care for such a civilised appellation. Rex took out his purse and gave him a gold piece, a generosity elicited by his admiration for the fellow's powers.

'Take that, Wastei, and here is your liquor.'

Wastei nodded carelessly, slipped the money into his waistcoat pocket, drank a quarter of the bottle of cherry spirits at a draught, and touching his cap was out of the door before Rex could speak again.

'Did you ever see that fellow before?' Rex asked of the servant.

'No, sir,' the man answered rather stiffly. 'I am not from these parts.'

Rex returned to Greif's room with a heavy heart, and found the physician standing where he had left him, waiting for the sunrise. They both sat down in silence, watching the face of the dying man, and listening to his breathing. There was nothing to be done, save to try and make him swallow some nourishment once in a quarter of an hour.

The dawn brightened slowly, until a soft pink light was reflected from the snow outside upon the ceiling of the room. It was mid-winter still and the nights were long and the days short, the sun rising almost as late as possible and setting suddenly again when the day seemed only half over. When at last the level eastern rays shot into the chamber, Rex and the doctor rose and looked at their patient. He was breathing still, very faintly, and apparently without pain.

'There is a possibility still,' said Rex in a low voice.

The physician glanced at him, and suppressed a professional shrug of the shoulders.

'We shall see what happens at noon,' he answered, but the tone of his voice was sceptical.

To tell the truth he believed that there was no longer any hope whatever, and so far as any such chance was concerned he would almost have risked going home at once. Nevertheless he determined to stay to the very last, partly because his reputation was at stake, partly out of curiosity to watch Rex at the supreme moment. He suspected that the latter was in some way profoundly interested in the question of Greif's life, though he found it quite impossible to make sure whether his anxiety proceeded from affection or from some more selfish motive. For the present, however, he left Rex to himself and went to his own room to rest an hour or two.

The time passed very slowly. Rex's nerves were as firm as the rest of his singularly well-knit constitution, and he was never weary of fulfilling the mechanical duties of a nurse, which he had refused to relinquish, during twelve hours at least of each day, though he was obliged to give his place to an assistant during the remainder of the time.

In order not to be idle as he sat beside the bed, Rex drew figures and made calculations in his pocket-book. He seemed to derive considerable satisfaction from his occupation, for he looked more hopefully at Greif each time he raised his head, though the latter's condition showed no apparent change. His consolation was in reality only transitory, for when the clock at last struck twelve and he laid his work definitely aside, it seemed to him that he had been dreaming and that the case was more desperate than ever. The physician returned and stood beside him, but he looked at Rex more often than at Greif. At last he laid his hand upon the younger man's arm and led him away from the bedside, towards the open window.

'Herr Rex, I would say a word to you. I firmly believe that your cousin will die in a few minutes.' He spoke in a whisper, and Rex bent his head, for he thought his companion was right.

'I have a theory,' continued the doctor, 'that people who are dying are far more conscious of what passes around them than is commonly supposed. It may be true or it may not. Let us at all events be careful of what we say to each other.'

Rex nodded gravely, and they returned to the side of the dying man. It was just mid-day, and Greif was lying on his back, with his eyes open. The physician bent down and laid his ear to the heart. When he raised his head again, he looked about the room, somewhat nervously avoiding Rex's eyes. All at once his attention was arrested by the sound of running feet outside, and he glanced quickly at his companion, who had also heard the noise.

It was the supreme moment, for Greif's consciousness had returned. As often happens at the moment of death a violent physical struggle began. The light returned to his eyes, and the strength to his limbs. He raised himself upon his hands, and sat up, while the doctor supported him with one arm, and with a quick movement put brandy to his lips. It was the work of an instant, and it all happened while Rex was crossing the room. Suddenly, as the doctor watched him, his eyes fixed themselves. In the next instant, he thought, their light would break; and the body he supported would collapse and fall back for ever. It was the last gasp. Then a ringing voice broke the silence, just as Rex had his hand upon the latch. 'I will, I tell you--he is mine!'

The door was flung wide open, and a woman entered the room. Rex had a strange impression of golden hair and gleaming eyes passing him like a flash, like the leap of a lioness springing to defend her young.

The doctor looked up in astonishment. Before he could help himself he was thrust ruthlessly aside, and Greif was in other arms than his. Hilda bent down as she held him. The fixed stare changed, while the doctor was craning his neck to see what would happen, but the light did not go out, nor did the pupils turn white and dead.

'Hilda! Hilda! Hilda!' His voice was faint but clear. One moment longer he gazed into her face and then sank quietly back upon her arm, with a smile upon his parted lips, his fingers seeking her hand until they lay quite still in hers. He was so quiet that Hilda was terrified. With a low and piteous moan she sank upon her knees beside the bed. It was a cry like nothing those present had ever heard. The physician understood, and bent down to her.

'I think we had better be very quiet,' he said. 'You will frighten him.'

Hilda stared wildly into his face, and saw there an expression that transfixed her with astonishment. Slowly, as though not daring to face the sight, she turned her eyes towards Greif. There was a faint colour in his sunken cheeks, and he was breathing regularly. Hilda pressed her hands to her breast with all her might to smother the cry of joy that almost broke her heart.

The baroness was standing at the foot of the bed with Rex, unconscious of the tears that streamed from her eyes, her hands clasped before her as though in prayer. She looked like the figure of a sainted woman of old. As for Rex himself, he was trembling a little and was conscious that if he had attempted to speak he would not have heard his own voice. But otherwise his outward demeanour betrayed nothing of what was passing within him. He knew as well as the physician that Greif had survived the most dangerous moment and that he would in all probability recover, and he knew that if Hilda's sudden entrance had not given a new impulse to the ebbing life, all would have been over by that time. For a few seconds he was scarcely conscious, though he looked calmer and colder than the doctor himself. He saw nothing but Greif, and his impression of Hilda's appearance was no clearer than it had been when she had rushed past him at the door with a gleam like a meteor.

Half an hour later, Greif was asleep. If all went well he might remain in this state for any length of time from twelve to twenty-four hours. Hilda had been prevailed upon to leave the room with her mother. The assistant took his place by the bedside, and Rex was with the doctor in the adjoining apartment.

'Science is a very pretty plaything,' said the great authority, stroking his grey beard thoughtfully. 'You know so much, Herr Rex, that you and I can afford to look at each other like the augurs and laugh, for we certainly know nothing at all. I would have wagered my reputation against a hospital assistant's pay, that our friend had not sixty seconds of life in him, when that young lady appeared, like a fiery whirlwind, and caught him back to earth in the nick of time.'

'Science unfortunately does not dispose of such young ladies,' answered Rex with a smile. 'They are not in the pharmacopoeia.'

'She is the most extraordinary one I ever saw,' observed the doctor. 'There is a vitality in her presence that affected me like electricity in a water bath. She has eyes like Sigmund the Volsung--perhaps he was her ancestor, since her name is Sigmundskron.'

'He is said to have been,' laughed Rex.

'I can quite believe it. Now I assure you that I thought it was all over. His heart has been very badly strained, and recently, and such a case of meningitis I have rarely seen. Of course he had the advantage of careful treatment; but you may treat and treat as you like, if the heart is weak and nervous and strained, it may stop while the rest of the body has strength enough left to go on for weeks. I suppose they are engaged to be married?'

'Of course.'

'Did you hear her cry out that she would come in? Her mother's excellent propriety would have kept her out. But the young lady knew better than any of us how to save his life.'

Rex did not answer at once, and when he did, he turned the subject. Soon afterwards he went away, for he felt that he must be alone in order to think over what had happened and to regain his natural equanimity.

He had not the slightest doubt but that Greif would now recover quickly, and it seemed very probable that in that case he would no longer hesitate to marry Hilda. At the thought of her, Rex experienced a disagreeable sensation which even he could not understand at first. Hitherto, his chief preoccupation had been the marriage, and scarcely an hour had passed, so long as he had hoped that Greif would live, in which he had not contrasted the happiness in store for his brother, if he took Hilda, with the misery he would have to encounter if he persisted in his quixotic determination.

And now that Rex had seen this girl, of whom he had heard and thought so much during the last ten days, he wished it were possible that Greif might remain Greif without her love. The thought was so selfish and seemed so unworthy in his own eyes that Rex concentrated his mind in an attempt to explain it.

In the first place, he felt a curious disappointment in the midst of his rejoicing over Greif's improvement. He himself had been untiring, faithful, by day and night, in watching over and taking care of the only human being he loved in the world. He wanted no man's gratitude, but he had longed earnestly for the satisfaction of saving Greif himself, of feeling that his first attempt at living for another, instead of for his own individual advantage, had been crowned with success. He had spared no fatigue, and he had suffered every varying torture of anxiety and doubtful hope to the end. And yet, when the end was reached, Greif was dying. Neither Rex's care nor Rex's devotion could have kept him from slipping over the boundary. Then the door had opened, a woman had entered, and Greif had revived at the very moment of extinction. A bright-haired girl, with gleaming eyes, had done in one second what neither the physician's science nor Rex's loving watchfulness could have hoped to do. To a man who has cared little for women and has thought much of himself, it is humiliating to see a girl accomplish by her mere presence what all his intelligence and energy and forethought have failed to bring about.

Then again, Rex saw that in the future there was nothing for Greif but Hilda. Rex might be swept out of existence, but so long as Hilda remained, Greif would merely feel a passing regret for the man he believed to be his cousin, a regret which Hilda's love would help him to outlive in a few weeks, or months, at the most. He hated himself for his selfishness, and realised that a new phase of his life had begun that day.

The impulses and impressions that beset him were only transitory and not likely to affect his conduct. His fondness for Greif was such that he would certainly rejoice honestly over his marriage and feel the most genuine hopes for his happiness. The only trace the passing hour would leave with him would be an unexpressed antipathy for Hilda. He knew, or he thought that he knew, how easily his systematic habits of thought could conquer such a tendency and reason it away into emptiness, and he went downstairs to make the acquaintance of his brother's future wife with the fullest determination to like her for Greif's sake, and never again to submit to a frame of mind which was contemptible if it was not utterly base. Could anything be more inconsistent than to let his joy at the prospect of his brother's recovery be clouded, because the result was not wholly due to himself? Could anything be more absurdly foolish than to conceive a dislike for a woman whom Greif must marry to be saved from ruin and shame?



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