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'Oh! Is it not too delightful to see my dear, dear cousins!' screamed Frau von Greifenstein, throwing herself into the arms of the pale and quiet baroness. 'And dear Hilda, too! Ach, ist es nicht herzig! Is it not too sweet!'
She was wonderfully arrayed in an exceedingly youthful costume, short enough to display her thin, elderly ankles, and adorned with many flying ribbands and furbelows. An impossibly high garden hat crowned her faded head, allowing certain rather unattached-looking ringlets of colourless blonde hair to stray about her cheeks. She made one think of a butterfly, no longer young, but attempting to keep up the illusions of spring. Hilda and her mother smiled and returned the salutation in their quiet way.
'And how have you been at Sigmundskron?' continued the sprightly lady. 'Do you know? It would be my dream to live at Sigmundskron! So romantic, so solitary, so deliciously poetic! It is no wonder that you look like Cinderella and the fairy godmother! I am sure they both lived at Sigmundskron--and Greif will be the Prince Charmant with his Puss in Boots--quite a Lohengrin in fact--dear me! I am afraid I am mixing them up--those old German myths are so confusing, and I am quite beside myself with the joy of seeing you!'
Greifenstein stood looking on, not a muscle of his face betraying the slightest emotion at his wife's incoherent speech. But Greif had turned away and appeared to be examining one of the guns that stood in a rack against the wall. The meeting had taken place in the great hall, and he was glad that there was something to look at, for he did not know whether he was most amused by his mother's chatter, or ashamed of the ridiculous figure she made. The impression was certainly a painful one, and he had not attained to his father's grim indifference, for he was not obliged to assist daily at such scenes. He could not help comparing Hilda's mother with his own, and he inwardly determined that when he was married he would take up his abode at Sigmundskron during the greater part of the year.
Hilda looked at her hostess and wondered whether all women of the world were like Frau von Greifenstein. The situation did not last long, however, and half an hour later she found herself sitting beside Greif on a block of stone by the ruined Hunger-Thurm.
'At last!' exclaimed Greif, with a sigh of satisfaction. 'Is there anything so tiresome as the sight of affectionate greetings?'
'Greif--' Hilda paused, as though reconsidering the question she was about to ask.
'Yes--what is it, sweetheart?'
'When we are married, I must love your mother, must I not?'
'Oh yes--no doubt,' answered the young man with a puzzled expression. 'At least, I suppose you must try.'
'But I mean, if I do not love her as much as my own mother, will it be very wrong?'
'No, not so much, of course.'
'Do you love her, Greif?'
'Oh yes,' replied Greif cheerfully. 'Not as I love you--'
'Or your father?'
'That is different, a man feels more sympathy for his father, because he is a man.'
'But I am not a man--'
'No, and you are not my mother either. That is again different, you see.'
'Greif--you do not love your mother at all!' exclaimed Hilda, turning her bright eyes to his. But he looked away and his face grew grave.
'Please do not say that to me, dear,' he answered quietly. 'Let us talk of other things.'
'Does it pain you? I am sorry. I asked you because--well, I wanted to know if it was exactly my duty--because--you see, I do not think I ever could, quite, as I ought to. You are not angry?'
'No, darling. I quite understand. It will be enough if you behave to her as you do now. Besides, I was going to propose something, if your mother will agree to it. When we are married, we might live at Sigmundskron.'
'Oh! Greif, are you in earnest?'
'Yes. Why not?'
'You do not know what a place it is!' exclaimed Hilda with an uneasy laugh. She had visions of her husband discovering the utter desolation of the old castle, but at the same time she felt a sudden wild desire to see it all restored and furnished and kept up as it should be.
'Yes, I know. But there are many reasons why I should like it. Of course it has gone to ruin, more or less, and there would be something to be done.'
'Something!' cried Hilda. 'Everything! The great rooms are perfectly desolate, no furniture, hardly any glass in the windows. We are so poor, Greif!'
'But I can put panes into the frames and get some furniture. We need not have so much at first.'
'But you will have to get everything, everything. You are used to so much here.'
'I should not need much if I had you,' answered Greif looking at her, as the colour rose in his own face.
'I do not know. Perhaps not.'
'I should be happy with you in a woodman's hut,' said Greif earnestly.
'Perhaps,' replied Hilda a little doubtfully.
'There is no "perhaps." I am quite sure of it.'
'How can you be sure?' asked the young girl turning suddenly and laying her hands upon his arm. 'Did not your father say the same--no, forgive me! I will not speak of that. Oh Greif! What is love--really--the meaning of it, the true spirit of it? Why does it sometimes last and sometimes--not? Are all men so different one from another, and women too? Is it not like religion, that when you once believe you always believe? I have thought about it so much, and I cannot understand it. And yet I know I love you. Why can I not understand what I feel? Is it very foolish of me? Am I less clever than other girls?'
'No, indeed!' Greif drew her to him, and kissed her cheek. Her colour never changed. With innocent simplicity she turned her face and kissed him in return.
'Then why is it?' she asked. 'And none of my books tell me what it means, though I have read them all. Can you not tell me, you who know so much? What is the use of all your studies and your universities, if you cannot tell me what it is I feel, what love is?'
'Does love need explanation? What does the meaning matter, when one has it?'
'Ah, you may say that of anything. Would the air be sweeter, if I knew what it was? Would the storm be louder, or grander, or more angry, if I knew what made it? And besides, I do know, for I have learned about storms in my books. But it is not the same thing. Love is not part of nature, I am sure. It is a part of the soul. But then, why should it sometimes change? The soul does not change, for it is eternal.'
'But true love does not change either--'
'And yet people seem to think it is true, until it changes,' argued Hilda. 'There must be something by which one can tell whether it is true or not.'
'One must not be too logical with love, any more than with religion.'
'Religion? Why, that is the most logical thing we know anything about!'
'And yet people have differed very much in their opinions of it,' said Greif with a smile.
'Is it not logical that good people should go to heaven and bad people to hell?' inquired Hilda calmly. 'Religion would be illogical if it taught that sinners should all be saved and saints burnt in everlasting fire. How can you say it is not logical?'
'It certainly cannot be said if one takes your view,' Greif answered, laughing. 'But then, if you look at love in the same way, you get the same result. People who love each other are happy and people who quarrel are not.'
'Yes; but then, love does not only consist in not quarrelling.'
'Nor religion in not being a sinner--but I am not sure--' Greif interrupted himself. 'Perhaps that is just what religion means.'
'Then why cannot love mean something quite as simple?'
'It seems simple enough to me. So long as we are everything to each other we shall understand it quite enough.'
'Just so long--'
'And that means for ever.'
'How do you know, unless you have some knowledge by which you can tell whether your love is true or not?'
'Why not yours, sweetheart?'
'Oh! I know myself well enough. I shall never change. But you--you might--'
'Do you not believe me?'
'Yes, I suppose so. But it always comes to that in the end, whenever we talk about it, and I am never any nearer to knowing what love is, after all!'
The young girl rested her chin upon her hand and looked wistfully through the trees, as though she wished and half expected that some wise fairy would come flitting through the shadow and the patches of sunshine to tell her the meaning of her love, of her life, of all she felt, of all she did not feel. She read in books that maidens blushed when the man they loved spoke to them, that their hearts beat fast and that their hands grew cold--simple expressions out of simple and almost childish tales. But none of these things happened to her. Why should they? Had she not expected to meet Greif that day? Why should she feel surprise, or fear, or whatever it was, that made the hearts of maidens in fiction behave so oddly? He was very handsome, as he sat there glancing sideways at her, and she could see him distinctly, though she seemed to be looking at the trees. But that was no reason why she should turn red and pale, and tremble as though she had done something very wrong. It was all quite right, and quite sanctioned. She had nothing to say to Greif, nothing to think about him, that her mother might not have heard or known.
'I am no nearer to knowing,' she repeated after a long interval of silence.
'And I am no nearer to the wish to know,' answered Greif, clasping his brown hands over his knee and gazing at her from under the brim of his straw hat. 'You are a strange girl, Hilda,' he added presently, and something in his face showed that her singularity pleased him and satisfied his pride.
'Am I? Then why do you like me? Or do you like me because I am strange?'
'I wish I were a poet,' observed Greif instead of answering her. 'I would write such things about you as have never been written about any woman. However, I suppose you would never read my verses.'
'Oh yes!' laughed Hilda. 'Especially if mamma told me that they belonged to the "best German epoch." But I should not like them--'
'You do not like poetry in general, I believe.'
'It always seems to me a very unnatural way of expressing oneself,' answered Hilda thoughtfully. 'Why should a man go out of his way to put what he wants to say into a certain shape? What necessity is there for putting in a word more than is needed, or for pinching oneself so as to cut one out that would be useful for the sense, just because by doing that you can make everything fit a certain mould and sound mechanical-- ta ra tatatata ta tum tum! "Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten" and all the rest of it. There is something wrong. That poem is very sad and romantic in idea, and yet you always sing it when you are particularly happy.'
'Most people do,' said Greif, smiling at the truth of the observation.
'Then what is there in poetry? Does "I love you" sound sweeter if it is followed by a mechanical "ta ra ta ra ta tum" of words quite unnecessary to the thought, and which you only hear because they jingle after you, as your spurs do, when you have been riding and are on foot, at every step you take?'
'Schlagend!' laughed Greif. 'An annihilating argument! I will never think of writing verses any more, I promise you.'
'No. Don't,' answered Hilda emphatically. 'Unless you feel that you cannot love me in plain language--in prose,' she added, with a glance of her sparkling eyes.
'Verse would be better than nothing, then?'
'Than nothing--anything would be better than that.'
Greif fell to wondering whether her serious tone meant all that he understood by it, and he asked himself whether her calm, passionless affection were really what he in his heart called love. She felt no emotion, like his own. She could pronounce the words 'I love' again and again without a tremor of the voice or a change in the even shading of her radiant colour. It was possible that she only thought of him as a brother, as a part of the world she lived in, as something dearer than her mother because nearer to her own age. It was possible that if she had been in the world she might have seen some man whose mere presence could make her feel all she had never felt. It was conceivable that she should have fallen into this sisterly sort of affection in the absence of any person who might have awakened her real sensibilities. Greif's masculine nature was not satisfied, for it craved a more active response, as a lad watches for the widening ripples when he has dropped a pebble into a placid pool. An irresistible desire to know the truth overcame Greif.
'Are you quite sure of yourself, sweetheart?' he asked softly.
'That you really love me. Do you know--'
Before he could finish the question Hilda was looking into his face, with an expression he had never seen before. He stopped short, surprised at the effect of his own words. Hilda was very angry, perhaps for the first time in her whole life. The brightness of her eyes almost startled him, and there was a slight contraction of the brows that gave her features a look of amazing power. Greif even fancied that, for once, her cheek was a shade paler than usual.
'You do not know what you say,' she answered very slowly.
'Darling--you have misunderstood me!' exclaimed Greif in distress. 'I did not mean to say--'
'You asked me if I were sure that I really loved you,' said Hilda very gravely. 'You must be mad, but those were your words.'
'Hear me, sweetheart! I only asked because--you see, you are so different from other women! How can I explain!'
'So you have had experience of others!' She spoke coldly and her voice had an incisive ring in it that wounded him as a knife. He was too inexperienced to know what to do, and he instinctively assumed that look of injured superiority which it is the peculiar privilege of women to wear in such cases, and which, in a man, exasperates them beyond measure.
'My dear,' said Greif, 'you have quite misunderstood me. I will explain the situation.'
'It is necessary,' answered Hilda, looking at the trees.
'In the first place, you must remember what we were saying, or rather what you were saying a little while ago. You wanted an explanation of the nature of love. Now that made me think that you had never felt what I feel--'
'I have not had your experience,' observed Hilda.
'But I have not had any experience either!' exclaimed Greif, suddenly breaking down in his dissertation.
'Then how do you know that I am so different from other women?' was the inexorable retort.
'I have seen other women, and talked with them--'
'No--about the weather,' answered Greif, annoyed at her persistence.
'And were their views about the weather so very different from mine?' inquired the young girl, pushing him to the end of the situation.
'You do not seem sure. I wish you would explain yourself, as you promised to do!'
'Then you must not interrupt me at every word.'
'Was I interrupting? I thought my questions might help you. Go on.'
'I only mean to say that I never heard of a woman who wanted an explanation of her feelings when she was in love. And then I wondered whether your love was like mine, and as I am very sure, I supposed that if you felt differently you could not be so sure as I. That is all. Why are you so angry?'
'You know very well why I am angry. That is only an excuse.'
'If you are going to argue in that way--' Greif shrugged his shoulders and said nothing more. Hilda seemed to be collecting her thoughts.
'You evidently doubt me,' she said at last, speaking quietly. 'It is the first time. You have tried to defend your question, and you have not succeeded. All that you can tell me is that I am different from other women with whom you have talked. I know that as well as you do, though I have never seen them. It is quite possible that the difference may come from my education, or want of education. In that case, if you are going to be ashamed of me, when I am your wife, because I know less than the girls you have seen in towns and such places--why then, go away and marry one of them. She will feel as you expect her to feel, and you will be satisfied.'
'I mean what I say. But there may be something else. The difference may be there because I have not learned the same outward manners as the city people, because I do not laugh when they would laugh, cry when they would cry, act as they would act. I do not know half the things they like, or do, or say, but from what I have read I fancy that they are not at all simple, nor straightforward in their likings and dislikes, nor in their speech either. I do not even know whether I look like them, nor whether if I went to their places they would not take me for some strange wild animal. I make my own clothes. I have heard that they spend for one bit of dress as much as my mother and I spend in a whole year upon everything. I suppose they do, for your mother must wear what people wear in towns, and her things must cost a great deal. I think I should feel uncomfortable in them, but if we are married I will wear what you please--'
'How can you say such things--'
'I am only going over the points in which I am different from other women. That is one of them. Then I believe they learn all sorts of tricks--they can play on the piano--I have never seen one, for it is the only thing you have not got at Greifenstein,--they draw and paint, they talk in more than one language, whereas I only know what little French my mother could teach me, they sing from written music--for that matter, I can sing without, which I suppose ought to be harder. But they can do all those little things, which I suppose amuse you, and of which I cannot do one. Perhaps those accomplishments, or tricks, change them so that they feel more than I do. But I do not believe it. If I had the chance of learning them I would do it, to please you. It would not make me love you any more. I believe that we, who think of few people because we know few, think of them more and more lovingly. But if I took trouble to please you, it would show you how much I love you. Perhaps--perhaps that is what you really want, that I should say more, act more, make a greater show. Is that it, after all?'
Her mood had changed while she was speaking, perhaps by the enumeration of her points of inferiority. She turned her bright eyes towards Greif with a look of curiosity, as though wondering whether she had hit the mark, as indeed she had, by a pure accident.
'It cannot be that--I cannot be such a fool!' Greif exclaimed with all the resentment of a man who has been found out in his selfishness.
'I should not think any the worse of you,' said Hilda. 'It is I who have been foolish not to guess it before. How should you understand that I love you, merely because I say good morning and kiss you, and good evening and kiss you, and talk about the weather and your mother's ribbands! There must be something more. And yet I feel that if you married some one else, I should be very unhappy and should perhaps die. Why not? There would not be anything to live for. Why can I not find some way of letting you know how I love you? There must be ways of showing it--but I have thought of everything I can do for you, and it is so little, for you have everything. Only--Greif, you must not doubt that I love you because I have no way of showing it--or if you do--'
'Forgive me, Hilda--I never doubted--'
'Oh, but you did, you did,' answered Hilda with great emphasis, and in a tone which showed how deeply the words had wounded her. 'It is natural, I suppose, and then, is it not better that I should know it? It is of no use to hide such things. I should have felt it, if you had not told me.'
It was not in Hilda's nature to shed tears easily, for she had been exposed to so few emotions in her life that she had never acquired the habit of weeping. But there was something in her expression that moved Greif more than a fit of sobbing could have done. There was an evident strength in her resentment, even though it showed itself in temperate words, which indicated a greater solidity of character than the young man had given her credit for. He had not realised that a love developed by natural and slow degrees, without a shadow of opposition, could be deeper and more enduring than the spasmodic passion that springs up amidst the unstable surroundings of the world, ill nourished by an uncertain alternation of hope and fear, and prone to consume itself in the heat of its own expression. The one is about as different from the other as the slowly moving glacier of the Alps is from the gaudily decorated and artificially frozen concoction of the ice-cream vendor.
'I am very sorry I said it,' returned Greif penitently. He took her passive hand in his, hoping to make the peace as quickly as he had broken it, but she did not return the pressure of his fingers.
'So am I,' she answered thoughtfully. 'I was angry at first. I do not think I am angry any more, but I cannot forget it, because, in some way or other, it must be my fault. Forgive you? There is nothing to forgive, dear. Why should one not speak out what is in one's heart? It would be a sort of lie, if one did not. I would tell you at once, if I thought you did not love me--'
'Ah Hilda! Since we have been sitting here, you have told me you thought I might change--do you not remember? Was what I said so much worse than that?'
'Of course it was,' she answered. 'Ever so much worse.'
Thereupon Greif meditated for some moments upon the nature of woman, and to tell the truth he was not so far advanced as to have no need for such study. Finding no suitable answer to what she had said, he could think of nothing better than to press her hand gently and stroke her long straight fingers. Presently, the pressure was returned and Greif congratulated himself, with some reason, upon having discovered the only plausible argument within his reach. But his wisdom did not go so far as to keep him silent.
'I think I understand you better than I did,' he said.
Hilda did not withdraw her hand, but it became again quite passive in his, and she once more seemed deeply interested in the trees.
'Do you?' she asked indifferently after a pause.
'Perhaps I should rather say myself,' said Greif, finding that he had made a mistake. 'And that is quite another matter.'
'Yes--it is. Which do you mean?' Hilda laughed a little.
'Whichever you like best,' answered Greif, who was at his wit's end.
'Whichever I like?' she looked at him long, and then her face softened wonderfully. 'Let it be neither, dear,' she said. 'Let us not try to understand, but only love, love, love for ever! Love is so much better than any discussion about it, so much sweeter than anything that you or I can say in its favour, so much more real and lasting than the meanings of words. If you could describe it, it would be like anything else, and if you tried, and could not, you might think there was no such thing at all, and that would not be true.'
'You talk better than I do, sweetheart. Where did you learn to say such things?'
'I never learned, but I think sometimes that the heart talks better than the head, because the heart feels what it is talking about, and the head only thinks it feels. Do you see? You have learnt so much, that your head will not let your heart speak in plain German.'
Greif smiled at the phrase, which indeed contained a vast amount of truth.
'If you could make the professors of philosophy understand that,' he answered, 'you would simplify my education very much.'
'I do not know what philosophy is, dear, but if there were a professor here, I would try and persuade him, if it would do you any good. I know I am right.'
'Of course you are. You always will be--you represent what Plato hankered after and never found.'
'What was that?'
'Oh! nothing--only perfection,' laughed Greif.
'Nonsense! If I am perfection, what must you be? Plato himself? I do not know much about him, but I have read that he was a good man. Perhaps you are like him.'
'The resemblance cannot be very striking, for no one has noticed it, not even the professors themselves, who ought to know.'
'Must you go back to Schwarzburg?' Hilda asked, suddenly growing serious.
'Yes, but it is the last time. It will not seem long--there is so much to be done.'
'No. It will not seem long,' answered Hilda, thinking of all that she and her mother must do before the wedding. 'But the long times are not always the sad times,' she added sorrowfully.
'I shall be here for Christmas,' said Greif. 'And in the new year we will be married, and then--we must think of what we will do.'
'We will live at Sigmundskron, as you said, shall we not?'
'Yes. But before that we will go away for a while.' 'Away? Why?'
'People always do when they are married. We will go to Italy, if you like, or anywhere else.'
'But why must we go away?' asked Hilda anxiously. 'Do you think we shall not be as happy here as anywhere else? Oh, I could not live out of the dear forest!'
'But, sweetheart, you have never seen a town, nor anything of the world. Would you not care to know what it is all like beyond the trees?'
'By and by--yes, I would like to see it all. But I would like poor old Sigmundskron to see how happy we shall be. I think the grey towers will almost seem to laugh on that day, and the big firs--they saw my great- grandfather's wedding, Greif! I would rather stay in the old place, for a little while. And, after all, you have travelled so much, that you can tell me about Italy by the fire in the long evenings, and I shall enjoy it quite as much because you will be always with me.'
'Thank you, darling,' said Greif tenderly, as he drew her cheek to his, and he said no more about the wedding trip on that afternoon.
The shadows were beginning to lengthen and the cool breeze was beginning to float down the valley, towards the heated plain far away, when Hilda and Greif rose from their seat under the shadow of the Hunger-Thurm, and strolled slowly along the broad road that led into the forest beyond. Whatever feeling of unpleasantness had been roused by Greif's unlucky speech, had entirely disappeared, but the discussion had left its impress far in the depths of Hilda's heart. It had never occurred to her in her whole life before that any one, and especially Greif, could doubt the reality or the strength of her love. What had now passed between them had left her with a new aspiration of which she had not hitherto been conscious. She felt that hereafter she must find some means of making Greif understand her. When he had said that he understood her better, she had very nearly been offended again, for she saw how very far he was from knowing what was in her heart. She longed, as many have longed before, for some opportunity of sacrifice, of heroic devotion, which might show him in one moment the whole depth and breadth and loyalty of her love.
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