Huntford's Fair Nihilist
BY HOWARD PYLE
THE romantic episode of the fair Nihilist occurred in that period of Huntford's life before he began painting great mural paintings and while he was as yet merely in repute as a clever painter of illustrations for the magazines of the day.
It was in the fall of '81, and at that time he occupied a rather large but dingy studio, with a bedroom adjoining, in a lean and ugly four-story brick building on Thirteenth Street, just off Broadway. He had come to New York from a provincial city two years before, with a great deal of talent and some excellent letters of introduction.
His talents found him plenty of work, his letters of introduction admitted him into pleasant homes, and his poverty spurred him on to those vehement efforts that were afterward crowned with so great a success.
Huntford used to breakfast and lunch at the old Budapest Bakery, where they had the best coffee and rolls in New York. He dined at a cellar restaurant on Broadway, just below Fortieth Street. It was a great resort, that cellar restaurant, where the younger artists of the day, and some of the older fellows also, used to dine. A long table was provided for the artist patrons, and anybody could sit where he pleased—only that old Bowles, the sculptor, always sat at one end, and McClafferty, the landscape-painter, at the other.
That was a democratic table where those young fellows sat and dined. They all talked Art; they argued with loud voices; they interrupted one another; they disputed and contradicted—sometimes with loud shoutings at one another. Each man was sure that his own opinions were perfectly correct, and that his neighbor was, to state it mildly, altogether mistaken in his views.
Such was the free-and-easy life that Huntford led in those green and salad days of his beginnings. It was upon this life that the personality of Fraülein Victoria, the fair Nihilist, was suddenly projected, changing the entire color and flavor of his after existence.
Huntford's studio was on the second floor of the building which he occupied, and just over the frame-maker's shop. On the third floor back was a smaller suite of rooms, consisting of a studio, a little reception-room, and a bedchamber; all of which overlooked the quadrangular well of a big brick building in the rear. Old Blount, the marine-painter, occupied those rooms when Huntford first came to New York, but in the fall of '81 he moved out. Shortly afterward the apartment was taken by an elderly German, and the words "Frederick Vollmer—Heraldic Designer" appeared upon the the sign tacked upon the door.
Herr Vollmer was established in his studio for nearly two weeks before Huntford became really acquainted with him. He used to hear the old fellow sometimes going down-stairs. This was always after dark—for he never came out of his room during the daytime. His step, though firm, was very light and soft, and he would always hesitate at the bottom landing for a moment or two before passing out into the lamplit street. No one ever entered his studio, and no one, so far as Huntford could learn, ever spoke to him. At intervals Huntford could hear the notes of a piano, beautifully played, sounding from his studio, but beyond these he made no other sign of life. The young fellow came to feel very sorry for the old German gentleman in his loneliness and solitude.
One evening, just after the dusk of twilight had fallen, Huntford left his studio with intent to take a little walk up-town before his dinner. He lingered for a while upon the landing and listened, for Herr Vollmer was playing Chopin very beautifully in his studio upon the floor above. A sudden resolution seized upon Huntford to call upon him. He ascended the stairs, instinctively walking upon tiptoe; he hesitated for a moment or two upon the landing before the door, and then tapped lightly upon the panel.
Instantly the music ceased, and there was a pause of dead silence. Huntford stood patiently in the lamplit dusk, and presently he heard Herr Vollmer moving softly within. Then the door was opened very slowly to the width of an inch or so, and one eye and a section of Herr Vollmer's face appeared at the narrow crack.
"I hope I don't intrude," said Huntford, "but it seemed to me that such near neighbors as we are ought to be better acquainted with each other. The fact is," he added, "I am ashamed of myself that I have not called upon you before."
"Ach, ja!" said Herr Vollmer. "Dot is so! Come in! Come in!" He stood aside and Huntford entered. Herr Vollmer motioned him to a sofa or lounge beneath the studio window, and as Huntford sat himself down upon the soft—the luxuriously soft—seat, he was impressed (although he could see but indistinctly in the rapidly gathering darkness) with the elegance, it may even be said with the sumptuousness, of Herr Vollmer's surroundings. The only signs of Herr Vollmer's particular craft was a partly finished heraldic design pinned to a drawing-table with thumb-tacks, and a large colored drawing of a coat of arms, finished, framed, and hung against the wall beside the floor.
"Do you speak German?" said Herr Vollmer, turning from the lamp which he had just lighted.
"No," said Huntford. "I wish I did."
"Do you speak French?" Herr Vollmer asked again.
"Not very well," Huntford acknowledged. "Indeed," he added, "I should make a poor fist at it if I tried."
"Ach, ja!" said Herr Yollmer. "Dot is a pity."
"You speak beautiful English, sir," said Huntford.
"You think so?" said Herr Vollmer, with a pleased smile.
Then there was a pause of silence, in which Herr Vollmer smoked contentedly, as though relegating it to Huntford to carry on the conversation.
"You were playing very beautifully upon the piano just now when I came in," said Huntford.
"Ah?" said Herr Vollmer. "You like my playing?"
"Indeed I did," said Huntford, and he added, crudely: "Chopin is my favorite. I wish you would play some more."
"To be sure! To be sure!" said the old gentleman. He instantly arose and went to the piano and began playing. Huntford knew but little of music, but he was conscious that Herr Vollmer indeed played very remarkably. He sat partly listening, partly thinking—speculating and guessing—about the old gentleman and his surroundings: Who and what was he? Whence did he come? Why did he live so luxuriously in so poor a neighborhood? He could then evolve no theory to fit the facts as they appeared before him.
Such was the beginning of an acquaintance which, if it may be said to have matured, did so entirely through Huntford's own efforts. For Herr Vollmer, though he was always pleased, kind, cordial, made no advances upon his own part. Nevertheless he accepted all Huntford's civilities with an urbane and very gentlemanly good-humor.
Huntford was often in his room, and was always welcomed, and two or three times (always upon Huntford's invitation) Herr Vollmer visited the young fellow's studio, where He looked curiously at his pictures and with great apparent interest, but without any professional comment whatsoever. Upon Huntford's invitation he went with him several times to dinner at Muldoon's, the cellar restaurant where the fellows dined, and on these occasions the old gentleman would eat his dinner almost in silence, smiling pleasantly, answering to all that was said with great civility, but always remotely individual and apart from the others. The young fellows called him "Count Vollmer," and he accepted the title smilingly, without comment or remark.
This phase of Huntford's acquaintance with Herr Vollmer continued for two or three weeks. Then came a very memorable evening, when the old German was suddenly presented to his consideration in an altogether different light.
It was after a dinner at Muldoon's—the last dinner that Herr Vollmer ever ate in the cellar restaurant. Huntford and he had finished, and were upon their way back to Herr Vollmer's room. Huntford was speaking about some German illustrations, and he was so busy talking and so interested in what he was saying that he did not notice that Herr Vollmer was unusually silent and unresponsive.
As they drew near to Thirteenth Street, Herr Vollmer suddenly slipped his arm within Huntford's. "My friend," he said, cutting in upon Huntford's talk, "do not turn at Thirteenth Street; we are being followed."
Huntford was struck silent in an instant. "Followed!" he repeated, blankly.
"Ja," said Herr Vollmer; "do not turn your head, but walk as though you did not know."
Huntford's mind was instantly flung into a tumult. Followed! What did it mean? Why were they being followed? Who was following them? It required almost a physical effort upon his part to prevent himself from turning his head. Meantime Herr Vollmer said nothing, being busied, apparently, with his own thoughts. He still kept his arm linked within Huntford's, and so they walked quietly up Broadway, around the corner of Fourteenth Street, and toward the cab-stand opposite the old Rialto in front of the Union Square Theatre. As they approached the stand, Herr Vollmer said, speaking very quietly:
"We shall take a cab, and then I will leave you. When you get to the end of your ride pay the cabman and let him go; I will pay you again when you return."
Huntford, astounded and silent, followed his companion across the dim, lamplit street. Herr Vollmer chose a cab with some particularity.
"Drive us," he said to the cabman, speaking in a clear and distinct voice—"drive us to four hundred and fifty-two Fifth Avenue."
He opened the door and entered the cab, Huntford following him, still silent and bewildered.
The cabman climbed to his seat and folded his blanket carefully about his legs. As he gathered up his reins, Herr Vollmer quickly and quietly opened the door near to him and stepped out into the street upon the side away from the side-walk. As he did so the cab drove off, and Huntford, after a moment or two of paralysis, closed the door which his companion in his sudden flight had left open.
Huntford's thoughts as he traveled up Fifth Avenue were, as may be supposed, both tumultuous and confused. He was thrilled with a not unpleasurable excitement. What did it all mean? He felt like a man in a story, and he could hardly believe that these things were really happening to him. Hardly for a moment did he entertain the thought that Herr Vollmer was a mere vulgar criminal escaping from justice; but a thousand surmises flew through his mind as to why the old gentleman should be escaping a pursuer, and as to why it had been necessary for him to escape by a cunning trick like the clever rogue in a detective story.
At last the cab drew up to the curb, and Huntford leaped out and handed the man his fare. The fellow was evidently greatly astonished to see only one gentleman get out of the carriage wherein two had entered, but he made no comment. He gathered up his reins and drove slowly away up the lamplit street.
Ere the cab disappeared, another drove rapidly up, and even before it had stopped the door was flung violently open and a stout, burly little man, with, black mustaches waxed and turned up at the point, hopped out upon the pavement. He ran to Huntford and, catching him violently by the arm, poured out upon him a torrent of excited German words.
"I don't understand you," said Huntford. "I don't speak German."
"Ach!" cried the other, with an oath. "Dot man who vas mit you come, vere is he alretty?"
"You're mistaken," said Huntford. "Nobody was with me; I came alone."
The little German cried out aloud in his own language. He paused—he smote his fist violently against his forehead. "Ach!" he cried to the cabman. "Follow dot cabriolet und catch it ven it stops, und I gif you five taller!" He leaped in even as he spoke, banged to the door, and the cab went off with a whirl.
Huntford went straight back to Thirteenth Street and to Herr Vollmer's studio. He was so consumed with curiosity to know what the late adventure portended that he ran up the stairs two or three steps at a time and smote his knuckles very sharply upon Herr Vollmer's door.
"Come in," Herr Vollmer called, and Huntford entered. Herr Vollmer was placidly reading a German newspaper and smoking his great meerschaum pipe. He looked up over his eye-glasses at Huntford. "Ah," he said, "you have returned? That is good! Now I will play for you Beethoven, or Mozart, or Chopin, or what you like!"
Only once did Herr Vollmer again refer to the episode. As Huntford was going he said, "How much did you pay the cabriolet?"
"I gave him a dollar," said Huntford.
"That was a great deal," remarked the old gentleman. He took out a pocket-book that was apparently well filled and gave Huntford a crisp, new note. He never afterward spoke of the affair. It was shortly after this that the mystery that surrounded Herr Vollmer was further complicated by the appearance of the fair Nihilist upon the scene.
A day or two after the incident of the cab ride, Huntford returned from lunch at the Budapest Bakery and saw an exceedingly neat but very plain coupé, with a driver and a footman clad in plain livery, waiting in front of the entrance of the studio building. He wondered to whom the outfit could belong, and as he stood speculating for a moment with his foot upon the step the postman came. Huntford asked if there were any letters, and the postman gave him three.
"Here's one for Mr. Frederick Vollmer," the man said.
"All right! Give it to me," said Huntford, "and I'll take it up to him myself."
He went straight up to Herr Vollmer's studio and rapped upon the door, and he was surprised, almost startled, to hear a clear, high, feminine voice from within call out, "Entrez!" and then, "Come in!"
He was so taken aback that he hesitated a moment, with his hand touching the knob. Then the voice called out a little louder and a little higher than before, "Come in!" and thereupon Huntford opened the door.
A young lady was sitting under the studio window. The light from above and behind fell upon a soft mass of exceedingly fair hair, and seemed to surround her head as with an aureole of brightness. This same light was reflected back into her face and illuminated it with a clear and pearly luster. She was faultlessly dressed, but with almost an exuberant taste. A cloak trimmed with fur, a great black hat with a mass of curling ostrich feathers, and a pair of slim, gray gauntlets lay upon the couch beside her.
Huntford, holding the door partly open as in preparation for an immediate withdrawal, said, "I beg your pardon. I didn't know that Herr Vollmer had a visitor. I only came up to bring him a letter that the postman left with me at the door."
He was very much embarrassed, and was conscious that his excuse had been clumsily framed. She looked coolly and steadily at him for a moment or two, and then smiled, and said in a queer, lisping, accented, yet perfect English:
"You are Mr. Huntford?" Huntford bowed acknowledgment. "Herr Vollmer—my uncle Frederick," she said, "has often spoken of you to me."
At that instant Herr Vollmer himself entered the studio from a back room. He had a portfolio in his hand, and he appeared hurried and vexed.
Huntford again made his explanation with distressing embarrassment. He said that he did not know that Herr Vollmer had a visitor—that the postman had given him a letter, and that he had fetched it to save delay and by way of an accommodation—that he was very sorry indeed to have intruded.
Even before he had finished his lame and halting excuses, Herr Vollmer turned his back almost brusquely and laid down his portfolio with a smack upon the piano.
The young lady had watched first the one and then the other. Then, as the old gentleman smacked down his portfolio, she spoke, suddenly, sharply, and imperatively, in German. The effect was magical. Herr Vollmer instantly swung around and bowed to her almost submissively. She spoke again with equal sharpness and emphasis, and Herr Vollmer instantly clicked his heels together and delivered a deep and stately bow to Huntford, bending his body as by a hinge at the hips.
"Mr. Huntford," he said, "at her request I have the honor of presenting you to Fraülein Victoria—my niece, Fraülein Victoria Wittenheim." He spoke very precisely, as though choosing his words with elaboration, and he enunciated them with a more than usual foreign accent. Fraülein Victoria smiled very kindly upon Huntford as he bowed.
"Herr Vollmer," she said, "did not mean to be cross to you," (she spoke very quaintly), "but he is just now vexed. It happens that we have some important matters to be discussed, and so I know that you will not want to stay. But I hope soon—very soon—to have the pleasure of making your better acquaintance."
Then Huntford in some way got himself out of Herr Vollmer's room and went down-stairs to his own studio.
The next morning there was a knock at his door. He opened it, and was astonished to see Herr Vollmer. The old gentleman had never come uninvited before. He did not enter now, but, standing upon the landing, he delivered to Huntford a profound bow similar to that with which he had favored him the day before, when he introduced him to Fraülein Victoria Wittenheim—a very stiff, very formal bow—his heels close together, and his body bending hingelike in the middle.
"Mr. Huntford," he said, "the Fraülein Victoria, my niece, has commanded me to tell you that she will be pleased to have you dine with her in the evening."
Huntford was very much surprised. "Oh! Thank you," he said. "I shall be delighted. Won't you come in?"
"Thank you, no," said Herr Vollmer. "I have matters that need my attention. I will call for you at half -past seven."
That evening the old gentleman called, as he had promised, promptly at half-past seven. "You will find a carriage at the door," he said. "If you will go down and take your seat in it, I will join you in a moment."
Huntford obeyed, somewhat astonished. The neat coupé which he had seen the day before was at the curb in front of the building, the footman standing beside it waiting, with his gloved hands folded in front of him. He opened the door the instant that Huntford appeared, and then held it ajar after he had seated himself. A moment later Herr Vollmer appeared at the door of the building. He paused within the portal for a moment, looking sharply up and down the street ere he came forth. Then he stepped quickly across the pavement and popped into the carriage beside Huntford. Instantly the door was shut, and at the same moment Herr Vollmer pulled down the curtain on his side, and almost immediately the carriage moved away at a rapid pace.
Huntford did not speak. He was struck with the obvious solicitude of the old gentleman to escape observation. He wondered why Herr Vollmer was so anxious not to be seen. Perhaps he feared lest the stout little gentleman with the black, waxed mustaches should be near by. Then he noticed that the coupé in which he rode was very luxurious. He wondered what it all meant! He wondered where he was being taken!
The coupé drove rapidly down to Fifth Avenue; down to Washington Square; around the square and up Fifth Avenue again, moving ever more and more swiftly. It whirled rapidly up Fifth Avenue to Twenty-third Street; across Madison Square; up Madison Avenue to Thirty-fifth Street, and then around the corner toward Park Avenue. Then it drew up sharply in front of one of those plain, narrow, typical houses of the genteel side streets of the day.
Even as the carriage stopped at the curb, the footman dropped from his seat and opened the door, and Herr Vollmer stepped out and hurried across the pavement to the house. The door was immediately opened to him, and as they passed within was immediately closed behind them.
There was a wonderful flavor of mystery about the entire affair—Huntford thrilled with the romance of it. The mysterious riding around and around ere the final and not distant destination was reached was startlingly suggestive of infinite precaution to escape pursuit. Who were these people with whom he was becoming acquainted? Why did they seek so obviously to escape notice?
Now that he stood in Fraülein Victoria's house he was amazed at the unexpected style and affluent taste of the establishment. Two silent men servants instantly appeared as if by magic and relieved him and Herr Vollmer of their hats and coats. There were rich, soft rugs upon the floor; there were pictures upon the walls; the furniture was ornate and heavy; a perfume of flowers filled the house.
They entered the drawing-room, and as they did so the Fraülein Victoria laid aside a book which she was indolently reading and arose to greet them. She was clad in an evening dress of soft, clinging white, simply but perfectly made, and fitting her slender figure with astonishing precision. Her long, slender, perfectly round white neck was encircled with a necklace of diamonds, and her fingers were brilliant—almost too brilliant—with a load of jeweled rings.
The little dinner for three was of the very best, and was served to perfection. Fraülein Victoria played the hostess with a certain easy dignity, which was only lessened in Huntford's eyes when, at the end of the dinner, with her coffee she lit a cigarette. It was in those days altogether unusual for ladies to smoke cigarettes after dinner. She perhaps read something of Huntford's surprise in his looks, for she said:
"Your American ladies do not smoke cigarettes? No? Try one of these and you will see what they miss. The Austrian Ambassador—"
Herr Vollmer interrupted her with a few words in German. She laughed, and gave a puff of her cigarette.
"True," she said. "I forgot. No matter about the Austrian Ambassador."
After dinner they ascended to the rooms above.
"And now," she said, "Herr Vollmer—my uncle Frederick—shall play us some Chopin, and we will sit in the next room and listen to him."
She did listen for a little while, fanning herself very slowly. Then presently she began to talk to Huntford about himself. The frankness of her questions concerning his most intimate affairs would have been impertinent had she not been so obviously and so innocently unconscious. She was very much interested in all that he told her about himself, and was evidently quite as much amused. She asked him about his people, his associates, the life he led in the studio, the life he led in society; about how long he worked every day, and how much he earned. She asked everything as though she had a perfect authority to do so, and Huntford, delighted with the drollery of it all, told her everything that she desired to know.
Then he began asking her about herself—it seemed to him to be only fair that he should be allowed to do so in return for his complaisance in submitting to her cross-examination. She was much amused that he should question her, but was apparently a little reluctant to answer him.
Huntford was more interested in her than he had ever been in any one in all of his life before. Her total lack of knowledge of social life, the perfect and unembarrassed freedom with which she asked him about himself and his most intimate affairs both amused and entertained him. He could in no wise reconcile her perfect ignorance of the social limitations in such a common matter as the ordinary limit to impertinent curiosity with the perfect ease and precision with which she had been able to play the grand hostess at her own table. Who was she, and what was she, he wondered—and it was just at this point in his thoughts that she told him that her people did not allow her to know society. "Who are your people?" he asked.
In an instant the smile faded from her face; she drew herself up and looked, or rather stared, coldly and haughtily at him. The next moment, however, she smiled. "N'importe. You should not ask me such questions," she said.
There was a moment's pause; Huntford felt that he had been distinctly rebuffed.
"You must not be cross," she said. "There are things that are forbidden for me to talk about to any one. Herr Vollmer—my uncle Frederick," she continued, changing the subject—"says that your friends with whom he sometimes dines call him 'Count.' "
"Yes," said Huntford, "they do. He has rather a distinguished, aristocratic air. You may have observed it yourself."
She laughed very heartily. "Poor Uncle Frederick," she said.
"I feel very sorry for him," said Huntford. "He must be under considerable expense, and I don't think he has had a single order for heraldic designs since he set up his studio."
Again she laughed joyously. "Oh, Mr. Huntford," she said, "that is very droll! Mais n'importe; I see to it that poor Uncle Frederick has all that he needs."
Huntford was suddenly enlightened upon one point. That explained why the poor old gentleman lived so luxuriously, and why he was so in awe of his niece. She was wealthy and she was supporting him. Huntford had almost forgotten the music; now he suddenly began listening to it again. Poor old Herr Vollmer! He was playing so patiently and so beautifully in the adjoining room. He doubtless had to play when she bade him, and to cease when she told him to stop. The pathos of his servile position struck Huntford with a pang of pity. "It is a sad thing," he said, "for a man to be dependent upon another for his support."
She smiled with perfect indifference. "Ah," she said, "you mean Herr Vollmer? He does not mind; he has been dependent upon my family as long as I can remember."
Again Huntford wondered who her family could be, but this time he did not venture to question her.
Suddenly, as he sat thinking, she turned toward him. "And now, Mr. Huntford," she said, very calmly, "I am going to venture to ask you to go. The evening has been very pleasant to me, and I hope that you will call upon me soon again, for I like you very much." She smiled up at him very kindly, but did not arise.
As Huntford walked home that night his brain was in a whirl. What did it all mean? Who were these strange people? Who was she? Then suddenly, in a flash, the secret stood revealed. A short time before, the Czar of Russia had been assassinated, and people still talked much about it. These people were Nihilists! They had escaped from Europe and were hiding here in New York! In an instant he saw it all as plain as day.
Huntford began calling at the little house in Thirty-fifth Street once or twice a week, and ended by calling every day. He frequently dined at the house, and was always treated as an intimate and privileged visitor.
Of course he fell in love—ardently, deeply, profoundly, passionately in love; how could it be otherwise? Her beauty; the charm of her alternating moods of condescending, amused familiarity and sudden hauteur; the singular mystery that surrounded her; all so attracted him and so appealed to his imagination that his passion, when it became kindled, did not quit him day or night. It became with him so that he could not chain his attention to his work because of the divine restlessness that haunted him.
For a while he struggled against his fate. He knew how impossible hope was for him. She was a woman with untenable secrets buried in her life. Her existence was separated from his by an impassable gulf. And yet in his love dreams it seemed to him that by some chance of fate the impossible might become the possible.
And then came the end.
He had called upon her in the afternoon. She sat upon a sofa and he upon a soft, deep chair facing her. He gazed at her, and his love was so vivid that it seemed to struggle like a live thing within him. His heart thrilled and his every nerve tingled. Suddenly she looked steadily at him.
"Mr. Huntford," she said, quite coolly, "surely you are not going to make love to me."
He sat stunned. Had she dealt him a blow he could not have been more overwhelmed. It seemed to him for a moment that he had not power to move. He heard, as remotely, the blood surging in his ears. At last he found speech. "Why should I not?" he said, in a hoarse and panting voice.
She raised her brows ever so little. "Why should you not?" she repeated. "Well, there are many reasons why you should not—but I cannot tell them to you. But this I will say: if you knew who I am, and what I am, and why I live in your ugly city of New York as I do, you would no more think of making love to me than you would to a woman in another world. Cela suffit."
"I do not care who you are or what you are!" cried Huntford, in a voice smothered with passion. "I do know that you and your uncle are hiding here in New York from the police of your own country, but I do not care for that! I do know that you are—that you are—"
"That we are what?" said she, in a very quiet voice.
"That you are Nihilists, and that you have probably escaped from Russia. But I do not care for that either!"
She looked at him very steadily for a few seconds. "Well," she said, "and now that you have discovered my secret, what do you propose?"
"Nothing but to tell you that I love you and that I would give my life to save you from a misfortune that I am sure will sometime befall you."
"I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Huntford," said she, "but I do not need a protector as yet. I am sorry that you should have spoken as you have, for I like you more than you can guess. But I have no heart to give you. So now I will not say to you 'Good afternoon,' but 'Adieu,' for you must never come back here again."
For two days Huntford's life was a joyless thing. He ate his food, but it was as without salt. He lived his life, but it also was without its salt. Then, upon the third day, there befell an incident that directed his thoughts away from his own hurt.
He had gone out for a long walk in the damp chill of the November night. The direction of his walk, twisted by his strong desire, led him to Thirty-fifth Street, and he stood under the lamp-post opposite to Fraülein Victoria's house, looking at the shaded windows and wondering what they were doing behind those curtains.
As he stood so, leaning against the lamp-post, he was aware that a short, stout gentleman was walking briskly down the street. He passed Huntford, and then, after going a few steps beyond, he turned and came back again. As he re-entered the circle of the lamplight, Huntford saw that it was the little German with the black, waxed mustache turned up at the ends from whom Herr Vollmer had escaped by means of the cab.
"Ach!" said the German, " 'tis mein American friendt, after all. Vas you vaiting for Herr Yollmer or for de laty?"
Huntford looked him up and down. "I don't know what you mean," he said, and then he turned on his heel and walked away. Poor girl, were the beagles so close upon her heels as that? What could he do to help her? Nothing! He must suffer events to take their course.
The next morning as he ate his breakfast at the Budapest Bakery, with his newspaper propped up against the carafe before him, the head-lines of an important paragraph caught his eyes. "Assassination of the Grand Duke of Hesse-Gruenstadt. Nihilists throw a bomb beneath the Grand Duke's carriage as he returns from the opera, and he is instantly killed." The paragraph fitted so perfectly into his thoughts that it struck him almost as with a physical shock. Could Fraülein Victoria be concerned with this? He drank his coffee off at a draught, and then, without finishing his egg and roll, he hurried around to the studio building. He ran up the steps two at a time to the third story and knocked sharply upon Herr Vollmer's door.
The old gentleman came in his dressing-gown and opened it. A distinct look of displeasure passed across his blond countenance as he saw Huntford, and he made as though to close the door.
"Don't shut the door, please, Herr Vollmer," Huntford said. "Have you seen the morning paper yet?"
"No," said Herr Vollmer. "Why do you ask me?"
"There is news in it that I thought perhaps might interest you."
"News! What news?" said Herr Vollmer, and as he spoke he opened the door wide.
"I've brought the paper with me," said Huntford. "There is a heading in it that says that the Grand Duke of Hesse-Gruenstadt was assassinated by Nihilists as he left the opera-house last night."
Never before had Huntford beheld a human countenance so smitten as by some stupendous emotion. The face of the old man went as white as ashes. His eyes looked at Huntford as though seeing, yet not seeing him.
"Herr Vollmer!" cried Huntford, "are you ill?"
The old man put the question by. "It cannot be true!" he cried, in a shrill, piping voice. "It cannot be true!"
"Here is the cable account in this morning's paper," said Himtford. "You may read it for yourself."
The old man fairly snatched the paper out of Huntford's hands. He gave no word of thanks or acknowledgment, but banged the door in his visitor's face. Huntford stood for a while on the landing. He heard the inmate of the room moving tumultuously about; he heard him talking excitedly to himself in German; then by and by he himself went down-stairs to his own studio.
About fifteen minutes later he heard Herr Vollmer's door flung violently open, and then his footsteps running furiously down the stairs. Huntford came to his own studio door and called after him, but the old man paid no heed to the voice, but ran on down the stairs and out into the street without using any of the precaution he had observed of late to see that no one was following him. Then Huntford closed his door and sat down to think about it all.
About an hour later he heard footsteps running as violently up the stairs. He thought at first that it might be Herr Vollmer returning, but a moment afterwards he heard some one beating upon the heraldic artist's door. He went to his own door and looked up the stairs. It was the little German with the black, waxed mustache whom he had seen twice before. "If you're looking for Herr Vollmer," Huntford said, taking his pipe out of his mouth, "he's been gone a long time."
The little man cried out violently in German, and thereupon, turning, he raced down the stairs with such precipitation that Huntford expected to see him fall headlong. He passed Huntford without speech or acknowledgment of any kind and, rushing down the lower flight of steps, disappeared out into the street.
That evening Huntford went around to the little house on Thirty-fifth Street and rang at the door. It was opened by the well-known man in the plain dress coat. He did not smile at Huntford this time, but informed him very civilly that the young lady had gone away with her uncle. No; he could not say where they had gone. No; she had left New York for good, and did not expect ever to return again. Huntford could see through the open door that the house was being dismantled, and he could hear the distant noise of hammering.
For a few weeks—for a month or more perhaps—his tragedy hung like a cloud above his head. Then by little and little the sun began to shine forth again, and by and by his habits had resumed their normal course. His old interest in his growing success became reawakened; the world was bright once more, and he took joy in the congratulations of his friends upon his first splendid success.
Old Eleazar Walton, president of one of the great banks of the day, was a connection of Huntford's. Mrs. Walton was first cousin to Huntford's mother, and Huntford always called her "Cousin Henrietta." She was very kind to Huntford when he first came to New York; she received him familiarly, called him "dear Jack," and often asked him to Sunday dinner.
Mrs. Walton had been socially ambitious, and her ambitions had been fully realized. Her husband, through good investments in the later seventies, when the condition of panic of the earlier years of the decade were passing away and values were increasing, had been very fortunate, and he was now recognized as one of the multimillionaires of New York. The Waltons lived in a gloomy brownstone house on Fifth Avenue, and they were now within the very heart of social life. Mrs. Walton thought highly of her position.
Huntford liked her and was amused at her simple-minded snobbery.
"My dear Jack," she would say, "I wish you were something else than an artist. Everybody's talking about your picture—the painting of the old Puritan and his daughter, you know—and I would so like to introduce you into real society, but—" and she left the rest of her speech unfinished. Huntford laughed.
"Never mind, Cousin Henrietta," he said. "I'm not ambitious for the unattainable." And so he was asked to their family Sunday dinners and now and then to a week-day dinner.
This was all very well, and Huntford, who had made a success of his own and who knew a number of very nice people, could afford to treat lightly the fact that he was not one belonging to the inner life of the exclusive set. But in the spring Evelina Walton returned from Europe—beautiful, polished, perfectly mannered, perfectly dressed, and very much a woman of the world. Then Huntford felt indeed the loss of not being admitted into that inner circle where she belonged, for with her advent came the real love of his life—not a violent and consuming passion like that which he had felt for poor Fraülein Victoria, but the deep, the profound, the sincere yet quiet love of a man for the woman who is the choice not only of his heart but of his intelligence.
Then it was that Huntford did indeed regret that he stood upon the outside of that charmed circle. For he knew that Evelina Walton was destined for marriage with great wealth, and he recognized what it was to be nothing but an artist—even though he were a successful artist.
Meantime, as his love waxed warmer and warmer, Cousin Henrietta's cordiality grew proportionately colder and colder. At last she did not even ask him to those Sunday dinners, and he saw less and less of the girl he loved.
One evening Huntford met Evelina Walton at the Van Altons' dance. She sat through a quadrille with him, and she told him that she was going abroad with her father and mother in about four weeks.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I believe," she answered, "we are going first of all to Hesse-Gruenstadt. You know it? A little grand duchy in North Germany."
Know it! What memories did the name of Hesse-Gruenstadt call up before Huntford's mind! It was the Grand Duke of Hesse-Gruenstadt who had been assassinated when coming home from the opera, and Huntford immediately thought of the beautiful but unfortunate Fraülein Victoria—his fair Nihilist—who had been somehow connected with that tragedy. He was silent for a few seconds. He was looking at the beautiful girl beside him and wondering at his infatuation for that pale-faced adventuress who was maintained by the Nihilists and who smoked cigarettes after a French-cooked dinner. Only six months had passed, but it seemed as though it had been years since that episode had happened.
"What are you going to do in Hesse-Gruenstadt?" he said.
"Oh, the Kinsboroughs are going," she said. "They were there last summer, and are wild about the place. Mr. Kinsborough is, you know, papa's particular friend."
Huntford's heart fell like a lump of lead. He had heard the talk about Evelina Walton and Tom Kinsborough. He was silent for a while, and her color deepened at his silence. She knew that he was thinking of Tom Kinsborough and of her.
"I think I shall go to Hesse-Gruenstadt too," he said at last.
"You!" she exclaimed. "Why should you go to Hesse-Gruenstadt?"
"Well," he said, "for the same reason that your father is going. Two cousins of mine are going and are taking their daughter with them, so I shall go too. Is there any law in the closed circles of New York that prohibits a poor devil of an artist going to Hesse-Gruenstadt?"
"Oh, Jack," she said, "why do you talk so?"
"Oh, Evelina," he said, "can you not guess?"
So Huntford went to Europe upon the same steamer with the Waltons, and Cousin Henrietta was hardly civil to him.
Cousin Henrietta was still more offended when she found that Huntford was going on to Hesse-Gruenstadt with them, and she was very cross with her husband when he expressed his hearty pleasure at the prospect of having the young artist in their party.
When they came to Hesse-Gruenstadt they found that the Kinsboroughs were not there, for Mr. Kinsborough was still in Baden-Baden taking the waters. Cousin Henrietta was for leaving immediately, but her friend the United States consul persuaded her to remain until the following week. The Princess Sophia was to be married in the early fall to the Prince Maurice of Saxe-Hittingen. On Thursday the old custom of a Hesse-Gruenstadt betrothal was to be celebrated. Prince Maurice would come upon Tuesday, and it was part of the local custom of betrothal that the future bride and her father should go to meet the accepted lover. It would be a pretty sight, the consul said, to see the entrance of Prince Maurice into the town. And so the Waltons stayed.
Mr. Walton secured a balcony in an advantageous situation, and in the fullness of his heart he asked Huntford to join them. Huntford accepted joyously, and again Cousin Henrietta was extremely cross.
It was a perfect day. If Prince Maurice had chosen it himself, it could not have been more auspicious. The sun shone with a wonderful brightness and the sky was perfectly blue and full of great white floating clouds. As the American party sat in their balcony, they could look directly down the quaint vista of the stone-paved street, the red houses with their steep roofs, their gables, and their quaint leaded windows shining in the springtide day. Below, the street was alive upon either side with people, many in the quaint costume of Hesse-Gruenstadt. A vast babble of voices filled the soft, warm air, mellow with the fullness of springtime. There was a military lane cleared in the middle of the street below, and the people crowded good-naturedly up and down the sidewalks.
At about ten o'clock the procession suddenly appeared at the far-away distant end of the street, glittering in the sun as it turned into the main thoroughfare at the junction of Heinrich Strasse and Wilhelm Strasse on its way from the railroad station.
The procession came nearer and nearer. By and by it reached the stand where they sat. The cuirassiers rode crashing beneath them, and then, and in the midst of a tumult of shouts and huzzas, the victoria came full within their view.
The Princess Sophia, smiling, happy, and beautiful, sat beside her father, bowing to the people from side to side. Prince Maurice sat on the front seat, facing the Grand Duke and his daughter. Huntford as he looked down could see directly into her face, and he sat staring as though struck to stone. The Princess Sophia was none other than the Fraülein Victoria to whom he had made love in New York six months before.
He heard as though remotely the uproar of cheering in the street below. Ten thousand thoughts were whirling in a tempest through his brain: Who! What! How! He knew not what to think.
Suddenly she looked up and directly at him. She stared; for a moment her happy face turned blank. Then a brilliant and glorious smile of recognition irradiated her entire countenance. She made as though to rise in her seat, then she clutched the arm first of one and then of the other of the gentlemen in the carriage with her. They both turned and looked up at the balcony. The Princess Sophia pointed toward Huntford with her finger. The two gentlemen smiled to him and lifted their hats, and Huntford stood up and bowed.
Had the heavens fallen and shivered into fragments about her, Cousin Henrietta could not have been more astonished. She could neither move nor speak, but could only sit staring open-mouthed. Then the carriage passed beneath them, followed by the thunder of cheers, and only the crowd was left staring up at the balcony where sat the American gentleman to whom the Princess Sophia had spoken.
Cousin Henrietta found her voice. "John Huntford!" She nearly shrieked in her astonishment. "Do you know her?"
"Yes," said Huntford. "I met her last winter in New York. I know her very well. I used to go to dinner at her house, and I called frequently."
"You—knew—her—in—New York!" gasped Cousin Henrietta, "and you never told us a word about it!"
"She was living then incognito," said Huntford. "I should not have said anything about it even now if she hadn't spoken to me."
The whole party looked at Huntford as though he were some one else—as though he had been suddenly uplifted and exalted into another plane. None of them said anything for a long while. Then Cousin Henrietta spoke.
"You must come," she said, "and take lunch with us to-day and tell us all about it."
"I shall be delighted," said Huntford.
But he did not take lunch with the Waltons that day, for about eleven o'clock a young officer presented himself at the hotel with a note for Huntford. It was an invitation—or a summoning, rather—to lunch informally at the Schloss. Cousin Henrietta was almost ready to bow to the young artist as he made his excuses to her for withdrawing his acceptance to lunch.
Huntford went to the Schloss with some trepidation. But there was not the least occasion for anxiety. It was a strictly family lunch, and Huntford wondered if it had been made so informal upon his account. There were present the Grand Duke, a very kind and polite old gentleman; his sister, the Princess Frederica, a withered middle-aged German lady, who spoke very imperfect English; Prince Maurice, a fine, soldierly young fellow, of about Huntford's age; and the Princess Sophia herself. After luncheon, Prince Maurice and Huntford walked up and down the terrace of the Schloss and smoked their cigars. The Prince was evidently altogether prepossessed in Huntford's favor. He talked quite frankly, almost fraternally, about the Princess Sophia, telling Huntford how she happened to be in New York.
It was all very simple. The former Grand Duke, her uncle, had determined upon a political marriage for her—she was heart-broken—her father had sympathized with her and had connived at her escape. She had gone to America under an assumed name and in charge of General Count von Arnheim, whom Huntford had known as Herr Vollmer. The Grand Duke had thought she was in France, and had searched for her everywhere;—that was why she had gone to America—that he might be misled. Her whereabouts would never have been known had not Fritz Zeigler, of the secret service, got track of her escape by steamer. Fortunately, when he had finally located her whereabouts in New York, it was just too late, for the Grand Duke had been assassinated. Then there was nothing to prevent her immediate return to Hesse-Gruenstadt. The Prince said nothing as to his own part in the romance, but Huntford could give a shrewd guess at what it had been, for he remembered how Fraülein Victoria had told him that she had no heart to bestow.
That afternoon Count von Arnheim called upon Huntford at his hotel. The old gentleman was very heartily glad to see him again. He was exactly the Herr Vollmer that Huntford had known in New York, before he had grown displeased at Huntford's visits to the little house of Thirty-fifth Street; the same red face, the same white hair and mustache, the same military bearing, the same good-natured smile and kindly manners.
The Waltons remained in Hesse-Gruenstadt for nearly two weeks. They were invited to the ball at court. They attended a dinner at the Schloss, where Huntford and Evelina Walton were the recipients of particular civility. Huntford, and this time Miss Walton also, were bidden to another lunch, and altogether their visit was a crowning and glorious success. The hotel people were so civil that they were almost obsequious, and Huntford was the hero of the hour.
Of course he was asked to make one of that coaching trip through the Black Forest—Cousin Henrietta herself pressed him to join their party—and when they returned to America the two young people were engaged.
It is one thing to disapprove of the attentions to your daughter of a man who does nothing better than to paint pictures, but it is quite a different thing to welcome a son-in-law who is intimate with royalty.