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Greif recovered quickly. In due time the celebrated physician departed in great peace, hoping that chance might soon send such another case into his way. Greif and Rex lived together in Greifenstein, and Hilda and her mother were at Sigmundskron. But the distance between the two places had grown very short of late, and scarcely a day passed on which Hilda and Greif did not meet.
He was not quite as strong yet as he had been before his illness, but the time was not far distant when he would be able again to get into the saddle and make short work of the twenty miles that separated him from Hilda. There had never been so many horses in the Greifenstein stables as now, for the work was hard and continuous and the roads bad. To make matters easier, Greif had sent a strong pair to Sigmundskron, so that the two ladies might drive over whenever they were inclined to do so.
On a sunny day in April the two men were walking together in the garden, backwards and forwards from the parapet that followed the edge of the precipice to the porch of the house. Greif rested his hand on Rex's arm, more out of habit now than because he needed support, and as they paced the smooth path the two talked in a desultory way upon whatever was uppermost in their thoughts.
'It seems as though my illness had lasted a year,' Greif said. 'I have even got so far that I do not care to leave this place, after all.'
'Why should you?' Rex asked.
'It would be natural,' answered Greif rather gravely. 'I should have expected to prefer any spot of the world to this.'
'Man is the world, and all that therein is, and the earth he stands on, is no more to him than the clothes he wears. If a thought is in your heart, can you get rid of it by changing your coat? And besides, in the long run a man prefers his own coat and his own patch of earth--both are sure to fit him better than those of other people.'
'I think you are right. Rex, did I act like a madman before I was taken ill?' He asked the question rather suddenly. Hitherto Rex had avoided mentioning what was past as well as he could.
'Yes--you were quite mad,' he answered. 'You fought windmills. That is always a bad sign.'
'It is fortunate that I broke down just then. Suppose that I had held out long enough to go away and that I had fallen ill in some distant place, and that Hilda had not come--I should not have had much chance.'
'No. I was very jealous of her, I remember.'
'Because she saved you, and I could not,' answered Rex. 'Because it is disagreeable for a selfish man to feel that a woman's eyes are better than his skill or strength.'
Greif looked at his companion as though he did not quite understand, but the smile upon the latter's face made matters somewhat clearer. He would not have liked to think that Rex was quite in earnest.
'But for you,' he answered, 'I should have died long before Hilda came.'
'Not at all. If you had shown signs of giving up the ghost earlier, I would have sent sooner. But it was a narrow escape. Another minute would have done it, as I have often told you.'
'Do you know that I have not yet spoken to them about the marriage?'
'Then there is no need of saying anything. They understand as well as you. You need only fix the wedding-day.'
'Not yet,' answered Greif. 'It is too soon.'
'Is it ever too soon to be happy?'
'Sometimes--but I will go to Sigmundskron to-morrow and talk about it.'
'In that case you will be married in three months,' observed Rex with a laugh.
'Not so soon--we must let the year pass first. It would not be decent.'
'Decency is that mode of demeanour in ourselves which satisfies the traditional likes or dislikes of others. There is nothing else in it.'
'If you are going to begin a discussion about comparative right, I will say nothing more. I have lost my taste for argument, and I never had much skill in it.'
'We will not discuss the matter,' replied Rex. 'You will be married in August.'
'I think not.'
'We shall see.'
'Will you go with me to-morrow?' asked Greif, relinquishing the contest.
'You had better go alone, and I shall be best here, with my books. You will not need me to help you to settle matters.'
'Why do you so rarely go with me?'
'Why should I?'
'To keep me company. It is a long drive.'
'The entertainment, so far as I am concerned, is not of a wildly exciting character, when you are talking to Fraulein von Sigmundskron, and her mother is doing needlework, and I am thrown upon my own resources. Whereas if I stay at home and read, I have the pleasure of hearing your very good description of all that I should have been entitled to see and hear had I been present myself. The description occupies five minutes; the expedition takes a whole day. I will stay at home, thank you.'
'But it gives them pleasure to see you,' objected Greif.
'Does your cousin regret my absence from the sitting-room when she is walking with you upon the sunny side of the ramparts?'
'How did you know that we walked there?' asked Greif with a laugh.
'On the same principle which teaches me that a dog will walk on the sunny side of the street--because you would not be likely to walk in the shade at this time of year. Did you say that Fraulein von Sigmundskron regretted my absence on such occasions?'
'She always asks after you when you do not come. Why do you call her by such long names? "Cousin Hilda" is quite enough.'
'It is not a cousinship she could be very proud of. I prefer not to force it upon her. She could not call me "Cousin Horst."'
'She will have as much cause to be proud of your cousinship as of having me for a husband,' said Greif, stopping in his walk and looking at Rex. 'Whatever you say of yourself applies equally well to me in this matter.'
Rex said nothing, but he thought of all the truth there was in the words which Greif did not know, and never must know. He had not told all his reasons for not going to Sigmundskron, either, and if he had told them, they might not have been altogether pleasing to Greif. He was ashamed of them, even before himself, and thought of them as little as possible. Hilda's presence affected him unpleasantly. What he felt, when he was with her, strongly resembled an unconquerable dislike, which was at the same time wholly inexplicable to himself. He could appreciate her beauty only when he was at a distance from her, and then the memory of it attracted rather than repelled him. When she spoke, he had an instinctive longing to give her a sharp answer, which was smothered in a phrase of meaningless politeness; but he afterwards took delight in fancying what her expression would have been if he had really said what had suggested itself to him. He could not explain the intense antagonism he sometimes felt against her by any theory or experience of psychology with which he was acquainted. Her look annoyed him, her slightest gesture irritated him, the sound of her voice distressed his ear. Even her grace of motion jarred upon him, and he wished she could be clumsy and slow instead of swift and sure. He had disliked women before, but never in the peculiar way he disliked Hilda. Everything she did looked wrong, though he knew it was right; every word she uttered sounded false to him, though he was well aware that she was one of the most truthful and true-hearted persons he had ever known.
He supposed that what he felt had taken its origin in a ridiculous jealousy, on that day when her appearance had revived Greif at the last moment, and he recurred to the scene constantly and tried to magnify his first impression in order to make his present state of mind seem a little more reasonable. He only half succeeded, however, though he kept what he thought to be his own folly clearly before him at their next meeting and forced his manner and his voice to obey his common sense.
The result of all this was that Rex was once more growing dissatisfied with his life. Had he felt sure of Greif's future he would have gone away and would not have returned until a long lapse of time, and a constant change of scene, had obliterated what was so disagreeable to himself. His prudence warned him, however, that he should stay until all was settled, and Greif was married to Hilda. After that, it mattered little what became of him. He reflected with satisfaction that he was over forty years of age, and that, even if he chose to live out his life, he was not likely to survive his brother. Whether he should not one day find himself so weary of it all as to anticipate his end by a score of years, was a point about which he thought much. Such tragedies as had darkened Greifenstein rarely take place where there is not a fatal tendency to suicide in the blood. Death had never seemed horrible to Rex in any shape; on the contrary, he took pleasure in speculating upon its possibilities and in dreaming of the sensations which the supreme moment would evoke. To a mind altogether destitute of any transcendental belief whatsoever, death appears to be merely the end of life, to be made as little disagreeable as possible and encountered with such equanimity as a philosopher can command. To such men as Rex, the idea that there is any obligation to live if one prefers to die, does not present itself, and when they inherit from their fathers an indifference to life, the danger that they may part with it too readily is seldom far distant. The thought of Greif had prevented Rex from stepping over the limit, and his affection for him would probably have kept off such gloomy thoughts altogether for a long time, if Greif had depended upon his companionship. But as Greif recovered and this dependence grew less and less a matter of necessity Rex grew weary again. If he had not felt as he did in regard to Hilda, the two would have been more together than they actually were, and Greif would not so often have driven twice in a day alone over the twenty miles that separated his house from Sigmundskron. Rex saw this, and saw that Hilda was taking his place, and he became disgusted with himself and the existence he was leading. Nevertheless, his naturally firm character made his outward demeanour even and unchangeable. He was determined that if he must be ridiculous in his own eyes, he would not appear to be so in the eyes of others. For the present he could not leave Greifenstein, for he could be of use to Greif, who would sooner or later be obliged to put his affairs in order, and examine the papers left by his father. Rex feared indeed, lest among these should be discovered some letter from the dead man, explaining to his son what had been so clearly told to Rex himself. A superficial search had discovered nothing, but he reflected that at such a moment a man might well put what he had written in a place where he was in the habit of concealing precious documents, instead of laying it upon the table. Rex was determined to have the chief hand in the examination of what was found, and to abstract and destroy unopened anything which looked like a letter to Greif. He cared little for any justification in pursuing such a course; from what he had learned of old Greifenstein he believed that he would have been capable of telling the plain truth to his son and of enjoining upon him to give up his name, and to hand over his whole fortune to the Sigmundskrons. He had been a stern man with fearfully rigid traditions of honour, incapable, Rex thought, of allowing Greif to practise an unconscious deception, willing that he should come to a miserable end rather than seem, even for a moment, to be what he was not. It was almost inconceivable to Rex that he should have died without writing a few words to his son, and if he had done so, Rex had little doubt as to what the letter would contain. Should it be found, he intended to do his utmost to destroy it, unknown to Greif, and in the meanwhile, he did all in his power to hasten the marriage and to put off the evil day when the papers must be examined.
The lives of the two were made somewhat irregular by Greif's constant visits to Sigmundskron, and occasionally by the coming of the baroness and Hilda. The good lady thought that there was little dignity in bringing her daughter to Greifenstein, but she was quite unable to oppose Hilda's determination. So long as Greif had been only in the convalescent stage it had seemed proper enough that the baroness should occasionally come in person to make inquiries, the more so as Greif had placed a pair of horses at her disposal for this very purpose as soon as he could give an order of any sort. Now that he was perfectly well, however, she felt that in spite of the relationship it was strangely contrary to custom for two ladies to visit a young man who lived alone. She would not have been a German of her class if she had not felt this, but she would not have been herself if she had allowed a scruple of etiquette to stand in the way of Hilda's happiness.
There was still an element of uncertainty in the situation which caused her some anxious moments. Since his recovery Greif had never approached the question of marriage. It was indeed early yet, but the opportunities had already been numerous, and he had not taken advantage of any. The only point which favoured the impression that he had changed his mind, was his frank and easy manner together with his evident desire to see as much of Hilda as possible. But he had not spoken. The baroness was keen enough to fancy that he was prevented from referring to the subject by the painful reminiscence of his last interview at Sigmundskron, and by a natural feeling of shame at the thought of retracting what he had once taken such infinite pains to say. She was determined that the matter should be put upon a sound basis as soon as possible, and she promised herself to lead the conversation to the marriage whenever she had a chance.
Unfortunately for her intentions the chance did not present itself, for Greif spent the time of his visits with Hilda, and talked as little as possible to her mother. The latter could almost have found courage to come alone to Greifenstein, but Hilda would not have allowed her to do so, for she would not have been willing to miss an opportunity of a meeting. In this way matters had continued for some time after Greif had been well enough to decide finally upon his own future as well as upon Hilda's, until he himself felt that he must soon speak his mind, or be very much ashamed of himself for his hesitation.
Of all concerned, Hilda was the one whose character had changed the most since the events of the winter. It seemed as though she had never before realised what she was, nor what she was able to accomplish in the world. From the day of Greif's refusal to marry her at Sigmundskron she had developed suddenly, from a simple girl into a strong and dominant woman. After Greif had left her on that day she had still felt as certain of marrying him as though they were already going to the altar. When she had known that he was really ill she had felt an inward conviction that he would recover quickly. When she had found him dying she had known that she could save his life. She had acquired a sense of certainty which nothing could disturb, and which had developed simultaneously with a moral energy no one had before suspected that she possessed. If there had ever been any resistance on either side the baroness would not have felt as though her daughter had suddenly taken the mastery over her, but there had been none. Never, in their peaceful lives, had they experienced opposite desires or incompatible impulses. It had never seemed as though Hilda were submitting to her mother, even when she was a child, because their wishes appeared to be always exactly the same, so that Hilda would have done of her own freewill, and if left to herself, precisely what her mother desired her to do. The consequence was that since Hilda had found that she had a will of her own, she had imposed it upon her mother with the greatest ease; for the latter was so much taken by surprise at Hilda's initiative, as to take refuge in believing that the girl must really want what she herself wanted, and that it was only the appearance which made the result look different. It was only a half belief, after all, for she could not help seeing that circumstances had singularly developed the girl's character, and that they had been of a nature to do so, exceptional, startling and trying in every way. Frau von Sigmundskron liked to fancy that she could still control every impulse Hilda showed, as well as formerly, but she could not help being proud of her daughter's strength, for Hilda was like her father, a man who, with the sweetest temper imaginable, had dared anything that a man may dare.
Greif carried out his intention of going to Sigmundskron on the day after his conversation with Rex. During the drive he thought of what was before him, as he had thought three months earlier, when the prospect had been very different.
At present he felt that it would be impossible to delay his retractation any longer. So far as his happiness was concerned, the situation might last until the eve of the wedding-day, but there were other considerations to be thought of, which he could not disregard. Hilda and he understood each other without words, but Hilda's mother could not be expected to understand without a formal explanation. She had a right to it. Greif's last act before his illness had been to refuse the marriage; the baroness was entitled not only to know from his own lips that he had changed his mind, but also to be consulted in the matter, as a question of courtesy. Greif did not know exactly how to manage it. To his mind there would be something inexpressibly ridiculous in asking an interview with Frau von Sigmundskron, for the purpose of formally requesting, a second time, the honour of her daughter's hand. And yet he assuredly could not go to her and say bluntly that he had changed his mind and intended to take Hilda after all. Anything between the two must necessarily take the shape of an apology of some sort and of a retractation, though Greif felt that he had done nothing needing an apology. He could not ask the baroness's forgiveness for having been stubbornly determined to sacrifice his whole life rather than injure her daughter by giving her his name. It was true that he now saw the matter differently, perceiving that he had done all that a man of the most quixotic chivalry could do to prove the case against himself, and that his judges refused wholly to be convinced. He did not regret what he had done, though he was willing to believe that he had gone too far in the right direction. He had offended no one, for his whole conduct had been guided by the consideration of others. He had therefore nothing to be forgiven him, and no shadow of a reason for putting himself in the position of a penitent. To say that he had been mistaken, and to try and shift the responsibility of his action upon his illness, was not to his taste either. He had not refused to marry Hilda because he had been ill at the time, but because he had been convinced that he ought to do so. At present he was grateful both to her and to her mother for their readiness to oppose his self-sacrifice. That at least he could say; but after that it would be necessary in common courtesy to put to the baroness the question old Greifenstein had asked long ago, in other words, to renew the formal proposition of marriage. As a man of honour it was indispensable that he should clearly define his position without further delay, and he could see no other way of defining it, satisfactory to himself and to the exigencies of his courteous rule of life.
There was still another matter to be decided, and which did not tend to make the coming interview seem easier. The origin of the whole difficulty had not been removed, and although Greif had made up his mind to submit to the happiness which was thrust upon him, he still felt that to marry Hilda under his own name would be out of the question. He was even more sure of this than before, for he had learned during his convalescence that the tragedy of Greifenstein had been described in every paper of the empire, and he knew that it must be the common topic of conversation. His old comrades at Schwarzburg had read the story and had written, some offering condolences, some refusing to believe the tale at all. The professors of the University whose lectures Greif had chiefly attended, had written in various manners, and the Magnificus himself had deigned to offer his sympathy in a singularly human manner. Most of these communications had been answered by Rex, who explained that Greif had been seriously ill, and Greif himself replied to the more important ones. The horror of the story was known through the length and breadth of the land, and wherever Greif might go for years to come, his name would instantly recall the terrible details of the triple crime. All the arguments Greif had formerly used with so much force remained unshaken, and he felt that there could be but one way of placing himself and Hilda beyond their reach. Had Hilda never existed, he would have determined to live in retirement, and to allow his race to be extinguished in his own person, rather than perpetuate the memory of such deeds. As it was, he had given up the thought, for the love of her, and he knew that there was happiness in store for him. In order to accept it, however, he must be no longer Greifenstein.
It was strange that each of the three in turn, Rex, the baroness, and lastly, Hilda herself, should have suggested the advisability of his taking the name of Sigmundskron in place of his own. Clearly, it was the only course open to him, but it was a curious coincidence that they should all have had the same thought. On the whole he was ready to follow their advice, but as he drew near to his destination he realised that it must be the first point settled. He did not exactly know how to formulate his request, for he had never known anybody who had asked another for his name. He almost wished that Hilda could manage it for him, which was a proof that he had not yet altogether recovered his strength.
He was glad that Rex had not come, after all. It was one of those errands which he preferred to accomplish alone. Moreover, for some reason which he could not guess, Rex seemed to avoid the Sigmundskrons as much as he could. That he should never remain long in conversation with Hilda, Greif thought natural; his cousin's action might proceed from delicacy, of a curiously unusual kind, or it might be the result of Rex's constant wish to leave the two together as much as possible. In either case it was not altogether surprising. But Greif often wished that Rex would take the trouble to talk to the baroness, so that she might not be left so much alone. It would have completed the party and made every one feel more easy; after all, Rex was a man forty years of age, and might reasonably be expected to devote his attention with a good grace to a lady who was not much older than himself, though her white hair contrasted oddly with his uncommonly youthful appearance. But Rex hardly ever failed to find some excuse for staying at home when Greif went to Sigmundskron, and when the ladies came to Greifenstein he generally made his appearance as late as possible. Nevertheless Greif believed that his cousin did not dislike the Sigmundskrons, and it was certain that both mother and daughter thought extremely well of him. Greif could not explain Rex's coldness, and was obliged to ascribe it to some uncommon bias of a remarkable character which he had never wholly understood.
Being full of such thoughts, the time that had elapsed, between the present day and the memorable visit three months earlier, seemed to Greif to have dropped away with all it had contained. He felt as though he had refused the marriage but yesterday and were going to take back his refusal to-day. Only the weather had changed between then and now. On that morning the ground had been covered with snow, and a bitter wind that cut like a knife had been blowing across the road. It was even yet not spring, but the snow was all gone, and the frost was thawing out of the ground under the warm sun. In a few days the white thorn would begin to bud, and fresh green violet leaves would come out along the borders of the woods. A few birds were already circling in the air above the fir-tops as though expecting to find the flies there already. The warmth and the moisture of everything brought out the sweet smell of the forest and blew it into Greif's face at every turn of the drive.
For the twentieth time since he had been well enough to go out, he watched the sturdy horses' backs as they drew the light carriage up the last steep ascent. For the twentieth time he looked up as he reached the point whence the lower battlements of the half-ruined castle were visible. As often happened, he descried Hilda's tall figure against the sky, and then immediately the gleam of something white, waved high to welcome him. He wondered how she always knew when he was coming. But Hilda had found that when he came he naturally started always at the same hour, so that every morning she went up, and stood on the rampart for twenty minutes, scanning every bit of the winding road that was in sight. At the end of that time, if she had not seen the carriage, she knew that he was not coming, and descended again into the interior, her face less bright and her eyes less glad than when she had gone up the steps.
There she was to-day, in her accustomed place, and a moment later the sun caught the white handkerchief she waved. As he flourished his in return, Greif wondered how he could ever have come over that same road with the fixed purpose of bidding farewell for ever to her who awaited him, and he was amazed at his own courage in having executed his intention, for he felt that he could not do as much now. But there was little time left him for reflexion. Five minutes later the carriage rattled through the gate into the wide paved court, swung round upon its wheels and stopped before the hall door. Out of the dim shadow Hilda came quickly forward and took his hands, and they were together once more, as they had been so often during the last month and a half.
'I have not come to see you,' said Greif, with a laugh that only half concealed his embarrassment. 'I have to request the honour of an interview with your mother to-day.'
Hilda looked at him a moment and then laughed, too.
'Has it come to this, Greif!' she exclaimed.
'It has come to this,' he answered, his mirth subsiding at the prospect of what was before him.
'And what are you going to say?' she asked. 'That you have changed your mind? That you yield to pressure? That you are the lawful prey of one Hilda von Sigmundskron and cannot escape your fate? Or that you were very ill and never meant it, and are very sorry, and will never do so again? Why did you not bring Rex to talk to me while you are explaining everything to my mother?'
'Rex would not come to-day. He sends his homage--'
'He always does--I believe you invent it--the message I mean. Rex hates me, Greif. Do you know why? Because he is jealous. He thinks you do not care for his society any longer--'
'That is absurd--you must not say such foolish things!'
They reached the door of the sitting-room as he spoke. Greif entered and found himself with the baroness. Hilda closed the door when he had gone in and went away, leaving the two together.
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