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Greif was not able to throw off the memories of his vacation so easily as he had at first imagined. The busy week that followed his return to Schwarzburg furnished enough excitement to divert his thoughts for a time into a more cheerful channel, and he was further reassured by the fact that his father's letter contained nothing that could alarm him. Everything was going on at Greifenstein as usual. Hilda and her mother had returned to Sigmundskron. The shooting was particularly good. A postscript informed Greif that nothing had been heard from a certain person, who was not named. The young man thought his father's handwriting was growing larger and more angular than ever, and that instead of becoming less steady with advancing years, the letters looked as though they were cut into the paper with the point of a sharp knife. Some days passed quickly by, and he began to think that he had disturbed himself foolishly, and had suffered his judgment to be unbalanced by the impulsive speeches of Hilda and of his own mother. Then, all at once, as he sat one morning at his accustomed place in one of the lecture-rooms, noting in a blank book the wisdom that fell from the lips of a shrivelled professor, his thoughts wandered and the vision of Hilda rose before his eyes, with the expression she had worn when she had spoken of that terrible catastrophe which was in store for him. He could not imagine why he should have thought of the matter so suddenly, nor why it seemed so much more important than before. It required a strong effort to concentrate his mind once more upon what he was doing, and when he succeeded, he was aware that the point of the professor's argument had escaped him. Mechanically he looked at his neighbour to see whether he had been making notes. The latter was a man much older than himself, and was busily writing upon loose sheets. He did not look up, but he seemed to understand what Greif wanted, for he handed him, or tossed him, the piece of paper on which he was scribbling, numbered the blank page beneath it, and went on quickly without even turning his eyes. Greif thanked him, and in the next pause of the lecture copied the notes into his own book. At the end of the hour Greif returned the sheet and repeated his thanks. He did not know the man, even by sight, a fact which surprised him, as the stranger was rather a striking personage.
'I am very much obliged,' he said. 'I was absent-minded--thinking of something else.'
'That is always rash,' replied the other. 'I am very glad to have been of service to you.'
Although Greif was not fond of making acquaintances among students who wore no colours, he could not refrain from continuing the conversation. The two were the last to leave the hall and went down the broad staircase together.
'You have not been long in the University,' he observed.
'I have only just arrived. I have migrated from Heidelberg. Permit me to introduce myself,' he added according to German custom. 'My name is Rex.'
'My name is von Greifenstein. Most happy.'
Both bowed, stopping for the purpose upon the landing, and then looking into each other's eyes. Rex was a man of rather more than medium height, thin, but broad-shouldered and gracefully built. He might have been of any age, but he looked as though he were about thirty years old. It would not have surprised any one to hear that he was much older, or much younger. Thick brown hair was carefully brushed and smoothed all over his head, and he wore his beard, which was of the same colour, carefully trimmed, full and square. A soft and clear complexion, a little less than fair but very far from dark, showed at first sight that Rex rejoiced in perfect health. The straight nose was very classic in outline, the brow and forehead evenly developed, the modelling about the eyes and temples very smooth and delicate. But the eyes themselves destroyed at once the harmony of the whole face and gave it a very uncommon expression. This was due entirely to their colour and not at all to their shape. The iris was very large, so that little of the surrounding white was visible, and its hue was that of the palest blue china, while the pupil was so extremely small as to be scarcely noticeable. The apparent absence of that shining black aperture in the centre, made the eyes look like glass marbles, and rendered their glance indescribably stony. Greif almost started when he saw them. 'You preferred Schwarzburg to Heidelberg, then,' he remarked, by way of continuing the conversation.
'For my especial branch I think it is superior.'
'Philosophy?' asked Greif, thinking of the lecture they had just attended.
'No. That is a pastime with me. I am interested in astronomy and in some branches connected with that science. You have a celebrated specialist here.'
'Yes, old Uncle Sternkitzler,' answered Greif irreverently.
'Exactly,' assented Rex. 'He is a shining light, a star of the first magnitude. If there is anything to discover, he will discover it. If not, he will explain the reason why there is nothing. He is a great man. He knows what nothing is, for there is nothing he does not know. I am delighted with him. You do not care for astronomy, Herr von Greifenstein?'
'I do not know anything about it, and I have no talent for mathematics,' answered Greif. 'You intend to make it a profession, I presume.'
'Yes, as far as it can be called a profession.'
'How far is that, if I may ask?'
'Just as far as it goes after it ceases to be an amusement,' answered Rex.
'That may be very far,' said Greif who was struck by the definition.
'Yes. If you call it a profession, it is one for which a lifetime of study is only an insignificant preparation. If you call it a study and not a profession, you make of it a mere amusement, like philosophy.'
'I do not find that very amusing,' said Greif, with a laugh.
'Nothing is amusing when you are obliged to do it,' answered the other. 'Duty is the hair shirt of the nineteenth century. A man who does his duty is just as uncomfortable while he is doing it as any Trappist who ever buckled on a spiked belt under his gown.'
'Afterwards? What is afterwards? It is nothing to you or me. Afterwards means the time when you and I are buried, and the next generation are writhing in hair shirts of their own making, and prickly girdles which they put on themselves.' Rex laughed oddly.
'I differ from you,' answered Greif.
'You are a Korps student, sir. Does that mean that you wish to quarrel with me?' 'Not unless you choose. I am not in search of a row this morning. I differed from you as to your view of duty. It seems to me contrary to German ideas.'
'Facts are generally contrary to all ideas,' answered Rex.
'Not in Germany--at least so far as duty is concerned. Besides, if science is true, facts must agree with it. Political ethics are a science, and duty is necessary to the system that science has created. What would become of our military supremacy if the belief in duty were suddenly destroyed?'
'I do not know. But I know that it will not make the smallest difference to us, what becomes of it, when we are dead and buried.'
'It would change the condition of our children for the worse.'
'You need not marry. No one obliges you or me to become the fathers of new specimens of our species.'
'And what becomes of love in your system?' inquired Greif, more and more surprised at his acquaintance's extraordinary conversation.
'What becomes of any thing when it has ceased to exist?' asked Rex.
'I do not know.'
'There is nothing to know in the case. The motion--you would call it force--the motion continues, but the particular thing in which it was manifested is no longer, and that particular thing never will exist again. Motion is imperishable, because it is immaterial. The innumerable milliards of vortices in which the material of your body moves at such an amazing rate will not stand still when you are dead, nor even when every visible atom of your body has vanished from sight in the course of ages. Every vortex is imperishable, eternal, of infinite duration. The vortex was the cause before the beginning and it will remain itself after the end of all things.'
'The prime cause,' mused Greif. 'And who made the vortex?'
'God,' answered Rex laconically.
'But then,' objected the younger student in some surprise, 'you believe in a future life, in the importance of this life, in duty, in all the rest of it.'
'I believe in the vortex,' replied the other, 'in its unity, individuality and eternity. Life is a matter of convenience, its importance is a question of opinion, its duties are ultimately considerations of taste. What are opinions, conveniences and tastes, compared with realities? The vortex is a fact, and it seems to me that it furnishes enough material for reflexion to satisfy a mind of ordinary activity.' 'You hold strange views,' said Greif thoughtfully.
'Oh no!' exclaimed Rex, with sudden animation. 'I am not at all different from any other peaceful student of astronomy, I can assure you. Neither the vortex nor any other fact ever prevents any man from doing what is individually agreeable to him, nor from enjoying everything that comes in his way, or calling it sinful, according to his convictions.'
'And are you a happy man, if the question is not indiscreet?'
'Ah, that is your favourite question among philosophers,' laughed Rex, 'and it shows what you really think of all your beliefs about duty and the rest of the virtues. You really care for nothing but happiness, if the truth be told. All your religions, your moralities, your laws, your customs, you regard as a means of obtaining ultimate enjoyment. There is little merit in being happy with so much artificial assistance. Real originality should show itself in surpassing your felicity without making use of your laborious methods in attaining to it. The trouble is that your political ethics, your recipes for making bliss in wholesale quantities, take no account of exceptional people. But why should we discuss the matter? What is happiness? Millions of volumes have been written about it, and no man has ever had the courage to own exactly what he believes would make him happy. You may add your name to the list, Herr von Greifenstein, if you please, and write the next ponderous work upon the subject. You would not be any happier afterwards and you would be very much older. If you really desire to be happy, I will tell you how it is possible. In the first place, are you happy now?'
Rex fixed his stony stare, that contrasted so strangely with his beautiful face, upon Greif's eyes. He saw there an uncertainty, a vague uneasiness, that answered his question well enough.
'Yes,' answered the younger man in a doubtful tone, 'I suppose I am.'
'I think your happiness is not complete,' said Rex, turning away. 'Perhaps my simple plan may help you. Interrogate yourself. What is it that you want? Find out what that something is--that is all.'
'And then? Why, take it, and be happy,' answered Rex with a careless smile, as though the rule were simple enough.
'That is soon said,' replied Greif in a grave tone. 'I want what no man can give me.'
'Nor woman either?'
'Nor woman either.' 'And something you could not take if it were before you, within reach?'
'No. I want nothing material. I want to know the future.'
'Surely that is not a very hard thing,' answered Rex, looking at his watch.
'It must be dinner-time,' said Greif politely, as he noticed the action. He had no wish to detain his new acquaintance.
'Indeed, it is just noon. I fear I have kept you from some engagement.'
'I assure you, it has given me the greatest pleasure to meet you,' answered Greif, holding out his hand.
'The pleasure has been quite upon my side,' returned Rex, bowing with alacrity.
And so they parted, Rex plunging into a shady side street, while Greif continued his walk towards the dining-place of his Korps, thinking as he went, of the queer person he had just seen for the first time. His name was strange, his conversation was unusual, his eyes were most disagreeable, and yet oddly fascinating. Greif thought about him and was not satisfied with his short interview. The man's remark about the future was either that of a visionary, or of an absent-minded person who did not always know what he was saying. Greif himself could hardly understand how he had been led, in a first meeting with one who was altogether a stranger, to speak so plainly of what disturbed him. It was not his custom to make acquaintances at a venture, or to refer to his own affairs with people he did not know. He reflected, however, that he had not committed himself in any way, while admitting that he might easily have been drawn on to do so if the interview had been prolonged.
At dinner he asked his friends whether any of them knew a student whose name was Rex. No one had heard of him, and on learning that he was a man older than the average, they murmured, and said one to another that Greif was beginning to cross the borders of Philistia. After the meal was over, Greif went to his lodgings and tried to work. The sudden anxiety that had seized him in the morning during the lecture grew stronger in solitude, until it was almost unbearable. He pushed aside his books and wrote to his father, inquiring whether anything had happened, in a way which would certainly have surprised old Greifenstein if he himself had been less nervous about the future than he actually was. It was a relief to have written, and Greif returned to his labours more quietly afterwards.
He did not see Rex again in the lecture-room, though his eye wandered along the rows of heads bent down over busy hands that wrote without ceasing. Rex was not among them. He had said that he considered philosophy an amusement, and he probably came to the hall where it was taught when the fancy seized him to divert himself. But the desire to talk with him again became stronger, until Greif actually determined to go in search of the man.
The sun had gone down, and he stood at his open window as he had done on the evening of his arrival, watching almost unconsciously for the first stars to shine out above the cathedral spire. The air was very quiet, disturbed by no sound but the swirl of the deep river against the stone piers of the bridge far down below the student's window. There was something melancholy in the ceaseless rush of the strong water, which reminded him of the sighing of the trees at home, on that last morning when he had sat with Hilda at the foot of the Hunger- Thurm. At such a time anything which recalled the circumstances of the vacation necessarily brought with it an increase in his anxiety. Greif thought of the evening that was before him if he joined his comrades at their usual place of meeting, and the prospect was distasteful. He would be glad to escape from the lights and the noise and the drinking and singing, even from his position of importance among his fellows, who made him their oracle upon all University matters. He would prefer to pass an hour or two in quiet conversation, in a quiet room, with Rex the student of astronomy and mathematics. He did not know where he lived, nor whether he would be at home at that hour, but it was easy to satisfy his curiosity upon both points.
He found the address he wanted at the Beadle's office. Rex lived in a dark street near the cathedral. Greif climbed many flights of steps, finding his way by striking one match after another. At the top there was but one door. He knocked twice and waited. There was no answer, and he knocked again. He was sure that he could hear some one moving inside the apartment, but the door remained closed. Annoyed at being kept waiting he pounded loudly with the piece of iron and called on Rex by name. He was rewarded at last by hearing footsteps within.
'Who are you?' asked an angry voice. 'And why are you making such a hideous noise?'
'My name is von Greifenstein,' replied Greif, 'and I want to see Herr Rex.'
He was preparing for a disagreeable encounter with some unknown person, when the door opened quickly and he found himself face to face with Rex himself. His expression was bland in the extreme as he held up the light he carried and greeted his guest.
'I beg your pardon,' he said in tones very unlike those Greif had just heard. 'I had no idea that it was you. Pray come in.'
'I am afraid I am disturbing you,' answered Greif, hesitating as though he had forgotten the tremendous energy he had put into his knocking.
'Not at all, not at all,' repeated Rex, carefully fastening the door when Greif had entered. 'You see I am a newcomer and have no friends here,' he continued apologetically, 'and I did not imagine that you knew my address.'
After passing through a narrow passage, Greif found himself in a large room with three windows. It was evident that Herr Rex lived more luxuriously than most students, for there was no bed in the place, and an open door showed that there was at least one other apartment beyond. A couple of bookcases were well filled with volumes, and there was a great heap of others upon the floor in the corner. Two large easy- chairs stood on opposite sides of the porcelain stove, which at that season was of course not in use. A broad table in the centre was covered with books, many of them new, and papers covered with notes or figures were strewn amongst them in the greatest disorder. Near one of the windows Greif noticed a writing-desk, upon which lay a few drawing and writing materials and a large sheet of paper. It was clear that Rex had been at work here, for a bright lamp stood upon the desk and its strong light fell from beneath the green shade upon the mathematical figure that had absorbed the student's attention.
'It is a very quiet lodging,' remarked Rex, drawing forward one of the arm-chairs and then seating himself in the other. 'It is just what I wanted. I do not like noise when I am reading.'
Greif did not exactly know what to say. To visit a student in his rooms when he had only met him once, was a new experience, and Rex's stony blue eyes seemed to ask the object of his coming. It was evident that Rex only spoke of his habitation in order to break a silence which might have been awkward.
'The fact is,' said Greif, as though answering a direct question, 'I have been thinking of what you said the other day.'
'You do my remarks an honour which I believe they have never received before,' replied Rex, bending his handsome head and smiling in his brown beard.
'Do you remember? I said that I needed only one thing to make me happy. I wanted to know the future. You answered that it must be easy to get my wish. Were you in earnest, or did you speak thoughtlessly? That is what I came to ask you.'
'Indeed?' Rex laughed. 'You said to yourself that your acquaintance was either a fool or an absent-minded person, did you not?'
'Well--' Greif hesitated and smiled. 'Either visionary or absent- minded,' he admitted. 'Yes, I could not explain your remark in any other way.'
'Of course you could not, unless you suspected that I might be a charlatan.'
'That did not occur to me--'
'It might have occurred to you, considering what I had said. It might occur to you now, if I answered your question. But on the other hand it is of no importance whether it does or not. My reply will contribute to your peace of mind by helping you to catalogue a man you do not know among the fools and charlatans of whom you have heard. Would you like to know the future? I can tell it to you, if you please.'
'The vortex, I suppose,' answered Greif rather scornfully.
'Yes. I can tell you the direction of the vortices of which you are composed, for a time, while they are on their way to join other vortices in the dance of death. The vortices do nothing but dance, spin and whirl for ever through life, the farce; through death, the tragedy and through all the eternity of the epilogue. What do you wish to know?'
'You are jesting!' exclaimed Greif moodily. 'I wish you would be in earnest.'
'In earnest!' cried Rex contemptuously. 'What is earnestness?'
He rose and went to the desk upon which the lamp was burning, opened it and took a fresh sheet of paper from within. Greif watched him with considerable indifference. He had not found what he had sought and he already meditated a retreat. Rex paid no attention to him, but rapidly described a circle upon the paper and divided it into twelve parts with a ruler.
'Do you remember the date of the day we met?' he asked, looking up.
'It was a Monday,' replied Greif, wondering what his companion was doing.
'That will do. I have a calendar,' said Rex.
He consulted an almanac which he drew from his pocket, made a few short calculations, and jotted down certain signs and figures in various parts of the divided circle. When he had finished he looked attentively at what he had done. The whole operation had occupied about a quarter of an hour.
'I do not wonder that you are anxious,' he remarked, as he resumed his seat in the easy-chair, still holding the sheet of paper in his hand.
'What have you discovered?' inquired Greif, with an incredulous smile.
'You are threatened by a great calamity, you and all who belong to you,' replied Rex. 'I suppose you know it, and that is the reason why you want to know the future.'
Greif's cheek turned slowly pale, not at the announcement, but at the thought that this chance student perhaps knew of Rieseneck's existence, and of all that his return might involve.
'Herr Rex,' he said sternly, 'be good enough to tell me what you know of me and my family from other sources than that bit of paper.'
'Not much,' answered the other with a dry laugh. 'I barely knew of your existence until I met you the other day, and I have not mentioned you nor heard your name spoken since.'
'Why then, you can know nothing, and your figures cannot tell you,' said Greif, not yet certain whether to feel relief at the protestation of ignorance, or to doubt its veracity.
'Shall I tell you what I see here?'
'Tell me the nature of the calamity.'
'Its nature, or the cause of it?' inquired Rex, scrutinising the sheet of paper.
'I suppose that they must be closely connected. Let me know the cause first--it will be the surest test.'
Rex laid the paper upon his knee, and folded his hands, looking his guest in the face.
'Herr von Greifenstein, this is a very serious matter,' he said, 'If I tell you what I have just discovered, you will certainly believe that I knew it all before, and that I am acting a comedy. You must either bind yourself to put faith in my innocence, or we must drop this affair and talk of something else.'
Greif was silent for some moments. To refuse was to insult a man of whom he had gratuitously asked a question. To promise with the intention of keeping his word was impossible. He found himself in an awkward dilemma. Rex helped him out of it with his usual skill.
'I will tell you what is passing in your mind, and why you are silent,' he said. 'You feel that you cannot believe me. I do not blame you. You will not give your word in such a case, because you must break it. You are quite right. You are full of curiosity to learn how much I know about you. It is very natural. The wisest thing to be done, is to sacrifice your curiosity and I will tear up this piece of paper.'
'No--wait a moment!' cried Greif anxiously, putting out his hand to prevent the act.
'I do not see any other way out of the difficulty,' observed Rex, leaning back in his chair and looking at the stove. 'You may do this, however. You may think what you please of me, provided you do not express your disbelief. I am the most pacific of men, and I have a strong dislike to fighting at my age. Moreover, you asked me the question which led to all this. Even if I answer it, am I bound to explain the reasons for my reply? I believe the code of honour does not require that, and if there is nothing offensive to you in my predictions, I do not see why we need quarrel after all, nor what it matters how I obtained my information. I will promise, too, not to impart it to any one else. Of course, the simplest way of ending the matter would be to say no more about it.'
Somehow Rex's words seemed to change the position. Greif was inwardly conscious that he would not leave the house without discovering how much his companion knew, and if this submission to his own curiosity was little flattering to his pride, it was at least certain that he could obtain what he wanted without derogating from his dignity if he would follow the advice Rex gave him.
'The compact is to be this, I understand,' he answered at length. 'You will tell me what you know, and I will express no opinion as to the way in which you arrived at the information. Is that what you desire?'
'It is what I suggest,' answered Rex. 'And I bind myself voluntarily to silence.'
'Very good. Will you continue your predictions? Will you tell me the cause of the danger?'
'You and your family are threatened with great misfortune through the return of an evil person--a relation, I should fancy--who has been absent many years.'
Greif started at the directness of the assertion, and an exclamation of something like anger rose to his lips. But he remembered the compact he had just made.
'Will he return?' he asked in a voice which showed Rex that he was not mistaken.
'Inevitably,' answered the latter. 'Therein consists the peculiarity of your situation. You are at the mercy of the inevitable. You cannot retard by one day the catastrophe, any more than you can prevent one of the planets from returning to a given point in its orbit. He will return--let me see--'
'Can you tell me when?' asked Greif, who for a moment had forgotten his scepticism.
Rex seemed to be making a calculation, and repeating it more than once in order to be sure of its accuracy.
'In three months, more or less. Probably before Christmas. He is now at a great distance, in the south-west--'
'It is impossible that you should guess so much!' exclaimed Greif, rising in great excitement.
'You were not to express an opinion, I believe,' observed Rex, looking coldly at the younger man.
'Can you describe him?' asked Greif, almost fiercely.
'Oh yes,' replied the other. 'He is elderly, almost old. Perhaps sixty years of age. He is violent, unreliable, generally unfortunate, probably disgraced. That is no doubt the reason why you dread his return--'
'Look here, Herr Rex!' cried Greif, interrupting him violently. 'I do not care a straw for our compact, as you call it--'
'You agreed to it. I did not desire to speak further in the matter.'
'Will you agree to forget that there was any compact?' asked Greif desperately.
'Oh no, certainly not,' answered his tormenter. 'And you will not forget it either. You are a man of your word, Herr von Greifenstein. All I can do is to hold my tongue and tell you nothing more.'
'That need not prevent my quarrelling with you about something else--'
'No, if you find it possible. It is not easy to quarrel with me.'
'But if I were to insult you--'
'You will not do so,' returned Rex very calmly and gravely. 'You are bound not to attack me about my predictions, and so far as any other cause of disagreement is concerned, I think you will find it hard to discover one, for you came here to make a friendly visit, without a thought of quarrelling. I think you must see that.'
Greif walked up and down the room in silence for some minutes. He felt the superiority of Rex's position, and would not stoop to force the situation by any brutal discourtesy. At the same time he was distracted by the idea that Rex had not yet told him half of what he knew.
'You are right,' he said at last. 'I am a fool!'
'No, you are an agglomeration of vortices,' answered Rex with a smile. 'Shall I tell you one fact more, one very curious fact?'
'Tell me all!' answered Greif with sudden energy.
'In the nature of things, you should have news of that person to-day. You have not heard from him before coming here?'
'No, and I think nothing could be more improbable than that I should have news of him at all, beyond what you tell me. Besides, I could prevent the possibility of such a thing.'
'How?' inquired Rex.
'By trespassing upon your hospitality until midnight,' answered Greif with a laugh, in which his natural good temper reappeared once more.
'Will you do so?' asked the student with the greatest readiness. 'Here is a test of my veracity. Whether you stay here, or go home, or wander out alone by the river, you will hear of that individual before midnight.'
'But nobody knows I am here.'
'The stars know,' answered Rex with a smile. 'Will you stay with me, or will you go home? It makes no difference, excepting that by staying you will give me the advantage of your company--'
'What is that?' asked Greif. There was a loud knocking at the outer door.
'Probably news from your uncle,' answered Rex imperturbably. 'Will you open the door? There can be no deception then.'
'Yes. I will open the door.'
A telegraph messenger was outside, and inquired if Herr von Greifenstein were in the lodging.
'How did you know where I was?' asked Greif.
'It was marked urgent and so I inquired at the Poodle's office,' answered the fellow with a grin as he signified the official by the students' slang appellation.
Greif hastened to the inner room and tore open the envelope, his face pale with excitement.
'My father telegraphs--"Your uncle has written his intention to return at once--" Good Heavens!'
He tossed the bit of paper to Rex and fell back in his chair overcome by something very like fear.
Rex glanced at the despatch and then returned to the study of his figure without betraying any surprise.
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