BABES IN THE WOOD
While the feet of the Prince continued to run swiftly, his heart, which had at first by far outstripped his running, soon began to linger and hang back. Not that he ceased to pity the misfortune or to yearn for the sight of Seraphina; but the memory of her obdurate coldness awoke within him, and woke in turn his own habitual diffidence of self. Had Sir John been given time to tell him all, had he even known that she was speeding to the Felsenburg, he would have gone to her with ardour. As it was, he began to see himself once more intruding, profiting, perhaps, by her misfortune, and now that she was fallen, proffering unloved caresses to the wife who had spurned him in prosperity. The sore spots upon his vanity began to burn; once more, his anger assumed the carriage of a hostile generosity; he would utterly forgive indeed; he would help, save, and comfort his unloving wife; but all with distant self-denial, imposing silence on his heart, respecting Seraphina's disaffection as he would the innocence of a child. So, when at length he turned a corner and beheld the Princess, it was his first thought to reassure her of the purity of his respect, and he at once ceased running and stood still. She, upon her part, began to run to him with a little cry; then, seeing him pause, she paused also, smitten with remorse; and at length, with the most guilty timidity, walked nearly up to where he stood.
'Otto,' she said, 'I have ruined all!'
'Seraphina!' he cried with a sob, but did not move, partly withheld by his resolutions, partly struck stupid at the sight of her weariness and disorder. Had she stood silent, they had soon been locked in an embrace. But she too had prepared herself against the interview, and must spoil the golden hour with protestations.
'All!' she went on, 'I have ruined all! But, Otto, in kindness you must hear me--not justify, but own, my faults. I have been taught so cruelly; I have had such time for thought, and see the world so changed. I have been blind, stone-blind; I have let all true good go by me, and lived on shadows. But when this dream fell, and I had betrayed you, and thought I had killed--' She paused. 'I thought I had killed Gondremark,' she said with a deep flush, 'and I found myself alone, as you said.'
The mention of the name of Gondremark pricked the Princes generosity like a spur. 'Well,' he cried, 'and whose fault was it but mine? It was my duty to be beside you, loved or not. But I was a skulker in the grain, and found it easier to desert than to oppose you. I could never learn that better part of love, to fight love's battles. But yet the love was there. And now when this toy kingdom of ours has fallen, first of all by my demerits, and next by your inexperience, and we are here alone together, as poor as Job and merely a man and a woman--let me conjure you to forgive the weakness and to repose in the love. Do not mistake me!' he cried, seeing her about to speak, and imposing silence with uplifted hand. 'My love is changed; it is purged of any conjugal pretension; it does not ask, does not hope, does not wish for a return in kind. You may forget for ever that part in which you found me so distasteful, and accept without embarrassment the affection of a brother.'
'You are too generous, Otto,' she said. 'I know that I have forfeited your love. I cannot take this sacrifice. You had far better leave me. O, go away, and leave me to my fate!'
'O no!' said Otto; 'we must first of all escape out of this hornet's nest, to which I led you. My honour is engaged. I said but now we were as poor as Job; and behold! not many miles from here I have a house of my own to which I will conduct you. Otto the Prince being down, we must try what luck remains to Otto the Hunter. Come, Seraphina; show that you forgive me, and let us set about this business of escape in the best spirits possible. You used to say, my dear, that, except as a husband and a prince, I was a pleasant fellow. I am neither now, and you may like my company without remorse. Come, then; it were idle to be captured. Can you still walk? Forth, then,' said he, and he began to lead the way.
A little below where they stood, a good-sized brook passed below the road, which overleapt it in a single arch. On one bank of that loquacious water a foot-path descended a green dell. Here it was rocky and stony, and lay on the steep scarps of the ravine; here it was choked with brambles; and there, in fairy haughs, it lay for a few paces evenly on the green turf. Like a sponge, the hillside oozed with well-water. The burn kept growing both in force and volume; at every leap it fell with heavier plunges and span more widely in the pool. Great had been the labours of that stream, and great and agreeable the changes it had wrought. It had cut through dykes of stubborn rock, and now, like a blowing dolphin, spouted through the orifice; along all its humble coasts, it had undermined and rafted-down the goodlier timber of the forest; and on these rough clearings it now set and tended primrose gardens, and planted woods of willow, and made a favourite of the silver birch. Through all these friendly features the path, its human acolyte, conducted our two wanderers downward,--Otto before, still pausing at the more difficult passages to lend assistance; the Princess following. From time to time, when he turned to help her, her face would lighten upon his--her eyes, half desperately, woo him. He saw, but dared not understand. 'She does not love me,' he told himself, with magnanimity. 'This is remorse or gratitude; I were no gentleman, no, nor yet a man, if I presumed upon these pitiful concessions.'
Some way down the glen, the stream, already grown to a good bulk of water, was rudely dammed across, and about a third of it abducted in a wooden trough. Gaily the pure water, air's first cousin, fleeted along the rude aqueduct, whose sides and floor it had made green with grasses. The path, bearing it close company, threaded a wilderness of briar and wild-rose. And presently, a little in front, the brown top of a mill and the tall mill-wheel, spraying diamonds, arose in the narrows of the glen; at the same time the snoring music of the saws broke the silence.
The miller, hearing steps, came forth to his door, and both he and Otto started.
'Good-morning, miller,' said the Prince. 'You were right, it seems, and I was wrong. I give you the news, and bid you to Mittwalden. My throne has fallen--great was the fall of it!--and your good friends of the Phoenix bear the rule.'
The red-faced miller looked supreme astonishment. 'And your Highness?' he gasped.
'My Highness is running away,' replied Otto, 'straight for the frontier.'
'Leaving Grunewald?' cried the man. 'Your father's son? It's not to be permitted!'
'Do you arrest us, friend?' asked Otto, smiling.
'Arrest you? I?' exclaimed the man. 'For what does your Highness take me? Why, sir, I make sure there is not a man in Grunewald would lay hands upon you.'
'O, many, many,' said the Prince; 'but from you, who were bold with me in my greatness, I should even look for aid in my distress.'
The miller became the colour of beetroot. 'You may say so indeed,' said he. 'And meanwhile, will you and your lady step into my house.'
'We have not time for that,' replied the Prince; 'but if you would oblige us with a cup of wine without here, you will give a pleasure and a service, both in one.'
The miller once more coloured to the nape. He hastened to bring forth wine in a pitcher and three bright crystal tumblers. 'Your Highness must not suppose,' he said, as he filled them, 'that I am an habitual drinker. The time when I had the misfortune to encounter you, I was a trifle overtaken, I allow; but a more sober man than I am in my ordinary, I do not know where you are to look for; and even this glass that I drink to you (and to the lady) is quite an unusual recreation.'
The wine was drunk with due rustic courtesies; and then, refusing further hospitality, Otto and Seraphina once more proceeded to descend the glen, which now began to open and to be invaded by the taller trees.
'I owed that man a reparation,' said the Prince; 'for when we met I was in the wrong and put a sore affront upon him. I judge by myself, perhaps; but I begin to think that no one is the better for a humiliation.'
'But some have to be taught so,' she replied.
'Well, well,' he said, with a painful embarrassment. 'Well, well. But let us think of safety. My miller is all very good, but I do not pin my faith to him. To follow down this stream will bring us, but after innumerable windings, to my house. Here, up this glade, there lies a cross-cut--the world's end for solitude--the very deer scarce visit it. Are you too tired, or could you pass that way?'
'Choose the path, Otto. I will follow you,' she said.
'No,' he replied, with a singular imbecility of manner and appearance, 'but I meant the path was rough. It lies, all the way, by glade and dingle, and the dingles are both deep and thorny.'
'Lead on,' she said. 'Are you not Otto the Hunter?'
They had now burst across a veil of underwood, and were come into a lawn among the forest, very green and innocent, and solemnly surrounded by trees. Otto paused on the margin, looking about him with delight; then his glance returned to Seraphina, as she stood framed in that silvan pleasantness and looking at her husband with undecipherable eyes. A weakness both of the body and mind fell on him like the beginnings of sleep; the cords of his activity were relaxed, his eyes clung to her. 'Let us rest,' he said; and he made her sit down, and himself sat down beside her on the slope of an inconsiderable mound.
She sat with her eyes downcast, her slim hand dabbling in grass, like a maid waiting for love's summons. The sound of the wind in the forest swelled and sank, and drew near them with a running rush, and died away and away in the distance into fainting whispers. Nearer hand, a bird out of the deep covert uttered broken and anxious notes. All this seemed but a halting prelude to speech. To Otto it seemed as if the whole frame of nature were waiting for his words; and yet his pride kept him silent. The longer he watched that slender and pale hand plucking at the grasses, the harder and rougher grew the fight between pride and its kindly adversary.
'Seraphina,' he said at last, 'it is right you should know one thing: I never . . .' He was about to say 'doubted you,' but was that true? And, if true, was it generous to speak of it? Silence succeeded.
'I pray you, tell it me,' she said; 'tell it me, in pity.'
'I mean only this,' he resumed, 'that I understand all, and do not blame you. I understand how the brave woman must look down on the weak man. I think you were wrong in some things; but I have tried to understand it, and I do. I do not need to forget or to forgive, Seraphina, for I have understood.'
'I know what I have done,' she said. 'I am not so weak that I can be deceived with kind speeches. I know what I have been--I see myself. I am not worth your anger, how much less to be forgiven! In all this downfall and misery, I see only me and you: you, as you have been always; me, as I was--me, above all! O yes, I see myself: and what can I think?'
'Ah, then, let us reverse the parts!' said Otto. 'It is ourselves we cannot forgive, when we deny forgiveness to another--so a friend told me last night. On these terms, Seraphina, you see how generously I have forgiven myself. But am not I to be forgiven? Come, then, forgive yourself--and me.'
She did not answer in words, but reached out her hand to him quickly. He took it; and as the smooth fingers settled and nestled in his, love ran to and fro between them in tender and transforming currents.
'Seraphina,' he cried, 'O, forget the past! Let me serve and help you; let me be your servant; it is enough for me to serve you and to be near you; let me be near you, dear--do not send me away.' He hurried his pleading like the speech of a frightened child. 'It is not love,' he went on; 'I do not ask for love; my love is enough . . .'
'Otto!' she said, as if in pain.
He looked up into her face. It was wrung with the very ecstasy of tenderness and anguish; on her features, and most of all in her changed eyes, there shone the very light of love.
'Seraphina?' he cried aloud, and with a sudden, tuneless voice, 'Seraphina?'
'Look round you at this glade,' she cried, 'and where the leaves are coming on young trees, and the flowers begin to blossom. This is where we meet, meet for the first time; it is so much better to forget and to be born again. O what a pit there is for sins--God's mercy, man's oblivion!'
'Seraphina,' he said, 'let it be so, indeed; let all that was be merely the abuse of dreaming; let me begin again, a stranger. I have dreamed, in a long dream, that I adored a girl unkind and beautiful; in all things my superior, but still cold, like ice. And again I dreamed, and thought she changed and melted, glowed and turned to me. And I--who had no merit but a love, slavish and unerect--lay close, and durst not move for fear of waking.'
'Lie close,' she said, with a deep thrill of speech.
So they spake in the spring woods; and meanwhile, in Mittwalden Rath-haus, the Republic was declared.
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