If Youth But Knew/The Green Adventure
I.—THE GREEN ADVENTURE.
THE traveller sat upon the milestone just where the road, skirting the brow of the hill, branched off into the forest. At his feet lay the detached wheel; further away, in pathetic attitude, the remainder of the chaise itself. A stout bay, unconscious of as handsome a pair of broken knees as ever horse displayed, was tethered to a crooked stump of tree, browsing all the young grass and crinkled leaves within reach. The situation spoke for itself; and the young traveller's handsome face spoke for the situation, as eloquently as Nature, who had bestowed upon him a markedly disdainful and impassive set of features, would permit.
Behind him rose the cool gloom of the forest. Below lay the plain, gold-powdered by the level rays of a sinking sun. Between the edge of the road and the forest margin ran a noisy stream. A thrush sang on the topmost branch of a fir-tree. But he on the milestone was blind to the gold of the valley, deaf to the gold of the song. "Now here's a pretty kettle of fish!" was all his thought.
To have been stuck a whole hour upon a stone, with a postilion ranging the country on horseback in one direction, and a valet a-foot in the other, and no help as yet forthcoming, not to have had himself within hail, all those weary minutes, one single human being …! Between intervals of drowsiness he cursed the peaceful valley land, with its fair fields and orchards, as the most God-forsaken of countries.
Presently his moody eye quickened. On the road below, a moving object was approaching. 'Twas but a pedestrian, alas! Nevertheless he might prove of use for succour or advice.
But, as the oncomer drew nearer and began to foot the ascent, the glimmer of hope died in the discontented gentleman's heart. Here was no sturdy native, likely guide to smithy or village inn. 'Twas a mere ambulant musician, as strange, doubtless, to the country as himself. The sun-rays were even now glinting back, roseate, from the varnish of a fiddle. The traveller relapsed into moodiness.
At the steep curve of the hillside, man and fiddle vanished from view. Nevertheless, that he was still climbing, the advance, in interrupted measure, of a singular little tune, half sourdine, half pizzicato, soon proclaimed. It seemed at first so woven in with the babble of the brook, the deep choiring of the forest and the song of the thrush, that the young man on the milestone hardly realised its separate existence. But, as it hovered ever closer, he was forced to listen and even to follow. It was the very song of the rover—of the rover on foot, humble and yet proud, without a penny, without a bond, glad of the free water to drink and the hunk of bread by the roadside. A song of the nodding grass and the bird in the hedge, of the dancing leaf, the circling lark, the wide, kind skies. O, the road is full of gay things and tender things, of sweetness and refreshment, of wholesome fatigue and glorious sleep, for those that know its secrets!
"Good evening to you, young sir."
The little tune had stopped. A man's figure, exaggeratedly thin, black against the sunset, had suddenly emerged over the brow of the hill and, with a wide sweep, was saluting.
The gesture of the black silhouette seemed so courtly, the voice that came from it so refined, that the young gentleman almost rose to return the salutation; but in time he caught sight of the violin curves … Pooh, it was the fiddling vagabond! Ashamed of his impulse, he drew forth a florin and flung it.
The musician skipped nimbly on one side; the coin fell, flashing in the red sun-shafts. He looked from it to the imperious donor and smiled, and his teeth shone as white as a wolfs in the deep tan of his face. Then off went his battered hat again and out was stretched a sinewy leg, in dusty blue stocking; to accompany a bow such as twenty years ago might have raised the envy of your finest Versailles marquis.
"I greet you! I salute you, my young lord!" The fiddler rose from his inclination and burst out laughing. "Cease fondling those pistols in your pocket, worthy sir," cried he, "for by Calliope, 'tis not your money-bags I covet just now, but O, your golden youth!"
"The fellow has a wild eye," thought the gentleman. Now it is a question whether even a highway robber were not more agreeable to encounter on a lonely road than a madman.
"If it be madness to honour in you such a gift of the gods," said the singular vagrant, reading the thought, "then am I mad, sir—stark, staring."
He fell back on one foot and bent the other knee, tucked his instrument under his chin, where it settled like a bird to its nest, and drew his bow across the strings with a long plaint. "O youth!" he intoned between two sighs of the catgut. "O spring! O wings of the soul! O virginity of the heart, expectation, unknown mysteries of life! O wealth of strength and yearning! See, now, how you sit," he cried, dropping into speech again, "on the fringe of the forest, in a strange land, with the sunset valley at your feet and the stream running you know not where beside you, and the bird over your head singing the desires of your soul. Why, by Apollo, young man, here are you in your youth, in the spring of the world, in the very middle of an adventure——!"
Again his limber fingers moved along the strings; and, with a sense of wonder, the traveller, despite himself, felt within his being an answering outcry.
"Harkee, my man," said he, trying to frown, "I am in no mood for fooling. Take up your florin and begone—or, stay, earn another by telling me if you can where I am, and how far lies the nearest village?"
"Sir," replied the other urbanely, "fellow-travellers should assist each other without any sordid consideration. (Ah, had you offered me of your youth, now!) We are, an it please you, just between the border of that old, steady-going principality of Schwarzburg and the new-fangled, patchwork kingdom which appertaineth to His Majesty King Jerome—himself the crowning product of the Great Revolution!"
"Faugh!" said the gentleman.
The fiddler's restless eye lighted.
"My lord is an Englishman? In verity and beyond doubt none but an Englishman could wear so lofty a front. I need scarce have asked."
The young traveller stared haughtily. The musician considered him awhile in silence and a sort of grave mockery, and pursued then reflectively:
"The English feeling, 'tis an excellent prescription for pride and disdain and such-like high essences. Only be careful, my brother-wayfarer, that you be not above your own fair youth, and contemn not its splendid opportunities.
"Singula de nobis anni praedantur euntes;
(O young man)
Eripuere jocos, Venerem, convivis, ludum——"
So saying, he shouldered his instrument, and with a valedictory wave of his bow seemed about to take his departure; but, as if upon a second thought, stood still and, once again, observed the traveller.
Now it began to strike the young gentleman that there was a dignity in the musician's gaze, a refinement about his person, which scarce accorded with the gipsy appearance, the shabby clothes; that it was not usual for beggars to quote Horace with delicate accents of culture; that his salutation had been a pattern of courtliness; above all, that he was not the least impressed by a young nobleman's most noble demeanour.
The latter personality, on his milestone, began to feel slightly foolish—an ingenuous blush crept to his cheeks.
The player hitched round his fiddle till it lay across his breast, and pinched a couple of strings as a man might pinch the cheek of the wench he loved. "Pardi," said he, speaking into its curved ear, "that flag of crimson would proclaim there's hope for the youth yet. Sir," said he then gaily, "I think I can be of use to you. I place myself at your service. May I crave to know whom I have the honour of addressing?"
"You address," responded the young man, "Steven Lee, Graf zu Waldorf-Kilmansegg, an Austrian gentleman (if you must know) travelling towards his estate in Carinthia." He had an irrepressible satisfaction in the recital.
"Austrian!" echoed the listener, with a cock of one of his expressive eyebrows. "'Tis a safer nationality to proclaim than the English for travellers in great Cæsar's dominions nowadays. O, you are right, quite right! 'twould be the height of rashness to proclaim even a drop of English blood where Monsieur Buonaparte rules!"
The taunt struck home. Red mantled on the gentleman's smooth cheek.
"Despite my Austrian father, I have by my dead mother enough English blood in these veins," cried he, "to hate the usurper and despise his upstart brothers, and I care not who knows it!"
The fiddler's smile grew broader. "Youth," whispered he to his violin, "may abjure itself, but it will out. The stripling has spirit, though it be but the spirit of scorn.. … But the ceremony is not complete," pursued he. "I have now to return your compliment. Above all, let us be polite. Here, then, comrade, you see before you an individual known all over the country as the Crazy Musician, sometimes more tersely as Geigel-Hans—in your English, Fiddle-John. Some call me the Scholar Vagabond, and some—the children, bless them!—Onkel. Like your own, my nationality is a matter of indecision. Some say I am French, some German; some, from over the Alps—take your choice; your choice, too, of my title: Geigel-Onkel or Fiddle-Hans—or you may dub me, if you please, the Singer of Youth."
"'I greet you! I salute you, my young lord!'"
But by this time, Steven Lee, Count Kilmansegg, was disgusted with himself for having betrayed so much of his feelings to a beggar vagrant. "Doubtless," remarked he with infinite arrogance, "it may prove more convenient for you, at times, to hide your name, good fellow. Reassure yourself, I have no curiosity to learn it."
Whereupon Fiddle-Hans gathered his brows into so deep a frown that the whole hillside seemed to grow black. He struck the strings of his instrument, and they called out as with anger.
"My name," he said under his breath, "my name, boy, is dead—as dead as my youth." Then he grew calm as suddenly as he had stormed. "Some happy ones there are who die and whose names live; I live—and my name is dead. Let that suffice to you. Why, see!" he cried next, with another swift change of tone, while Count Steven stared at him, his slow Austrian blood, his deliberate English wits, unable to keep pace with such vivacity of mood: "it is dark; the sun has dropped behind the valley line; the forest is full of night already. Do not the lights of unknown shelter beckon you—the chimney-corner, the strange hospitality? Why, Heaven knows what sweet hostess may not greet your youth to-night! And if your soul cries not out for fair adventure in forest depths, here is at least a poor dumb thing that craves stable and corn."
He stepped, as he spoke, nimbly to the injured horse and unhitched the reins from the tree. "You might have bathed those cut knees," he exclaimed, shooting a look of rebuke over the animal's meek head, "with the kindly brook running charity at your elbow!"
He led the creature to the stream, and after a pause again turned to his companion and said with a smile, which seemed to show knowledge of all the latter's vacillating thoughts of vexation and shame—
"Lend me a hand with the wheel, comrade, and let us see if we cannot improvise a linchpin. And then, if you push behind, this forgiving beast will do his best to draw your goods into safety."
But it was the musician who mended the wheel, while the traveller watched in wonder the work of the brown hands. And then, in the falling dusk, they set upon their slow way: Steven Lee, Count zu Waldorf-Kilmansegg, pushing at the wheel even as bid, the fiddler marching ahead with the reins slung over his arm and humming a chacone under his breath.
From the stones and dust of the high-road he led the way along a wide path that seemed to cut the forest in two and run downhill into the horizon. Beneath their feet was now an elastic carpet of pine-needles; on each side of them the serried ranks of trees held the night already in a thousand arms and murmured to it with the voice of the sea; before them, at the end of the nave, set like a cathedral window, shone a span of sky, primrose and green, with one faint star. And presently Steven saw, to one side far ahead, an orange square of light, and knew it for the unknown forest-shelter beckoning to him.
"But what," cried he, struck by a sudden thought, "of my postilion and my valet?"
Fiddle-Hans looked back at him over his shoulder and grinned. He slid the reins above his elbow and grasped his violin.
"To the devil," it sang mockingly, through the glade, "to the devil with postilions and valets! to the devil with prudence and forethought! youth, enjoy your youth! youth, be young!"
"Heaven knows," had said the magician, "what sweet hostess may not be waiting for you!"
To their knock the door was opened by a slip of a peasant girl, and the light from within shone on her long, yellow plaits of hair and her small, brown face.
Steven was conscious of a distinct shock of disappointment. What folly had this fantastic chance companion fiddled into his mind that he should have found himself expecting something meet for his high-born fancy in this lonely forest-house?
"Geigel-Onkel!" cried the girl in surprise.
And "Gieigel-Onkel!" was echoed joyfully indoors. A fat old peasant woman came waddling forward, hands outstretched.
"Be kind to my comrade, forest-mother," said the player, "while I see to this brother-beast." He led the horse towards the back yard; and Steven stepped in to the great kitchen, glad, at least, of its prosaic aroma of pot-herbs, since romance had fallen silent with the fiddle.
It was a long room, panelled and floored in oak, which reflected the light of the hanging brass lamp and of the ruddy hearth in jonquil flamelets and poppy glow. A black, oaken table, running nearly from end to end, was covered half way with a snowy cloth, red-hemmed and flowered. There were presses, laden with blue-and-white crockery and pewter. There was a tall clock, with a merry, painted face and a solemn tick. There were stags' horns and grinning boars' heads above the presses. Not that Steven had any interest in these things: he was glad that the place was clean. He thought the oaken chair hard sitting for his noble person; but it was better than the milestone.
The forest-mother seemed a decent sort of body, with a due sense, too, of the quality of her guest. As for the peasant child, he did not notice her at all—not even the pretty little foot in sandal shoe and scarlet stocking, of which the short peasant skirt gave such a generous display.
Yet it was to her that Fiddle-Hans made his courtly bow as he entered in his turn.
"Miss Sidonia!" said he, his old hat clapped over his heart. She gave him a smile, half shy, half mischievous. And her teeth were as white as his own in her sun-burnt face—there was a whole host of dimples, too, which a young man might have remarked. But what mattered the dimples of a peasant girl …?
Then the fiddler took the old woman round the neck and kissed her plump, wholesome cheek with a smack.
"Supper, supper!" cried he. "And if it's good, you shall have such music that your hearts shall sing."
The girl laughed out loud and ran to the hearth, where she seized a pot.
"In Heaven's name," cried the woman, "leave that, child! 'Tis not fit for you."
"O, please," urged Sidonia of the yellow plaits, "please, little foster-mother!"
Forest-mother she was to the fiddler, foster-mother to the girl … Steven had supposed her grandmother, but—— Bah!—as if, indeed, it were worth a thought!
"Get the wine, then," said the matron, with a jolly, unctuous chuckle. And while—swinging long tails of hair, scarlet ankles flashing—the girl darted round the table, what must this fantastic fellow Fiddle-Hans do but introduce guest and hostess with one of his absurd flourishes:
"Here, dear comrade, is Mistress Friedel, mother of the great King Jerome's loyal Head Forester. And here, dame, is a most noble Austrian Count, whom the accidents of travel have forced to condescend to the shelter of your humble roof this evening."
Deep curtsied Mistress Friedel. Steven inclined his head and, feeling the fiddler mock him behind his back, grew red and angry.
"A glass in welcome," tittered Sidonia at his elbow. She was so close to him that his cheek was fanned by her breath of clover; and the fragrance of a little bunch of violets in her white kerchief rose to his nostrils. As she bent, offering him the goblet of wine, her heavy plait fell against his shoulder. He drew back haughtily.
"Diavolo!" cried Fiddle-Hans, "how my fingers itch for the strings! But, never mind—you shall lose nothing by waiting. Gemini! mother, as I live, venison stew! What feasts you make in your forest-house!
"My son is hungry when he comes home of nights—and so are his lads. My little love, will you sit and entertain the gentlemen?"
Sidonia, pouting, drew her chair with great clatter round by that of Geigel-Onkel, and turned a shoulder on the Count, who thus remained isolated—as became his rank. The fiddler drank to her; she filled his glass again. And, as she stretched across him to do so, the violets at her breast fell upon his hand.
"Violets!" cried he, and sat as if turned to stone. His brown face grew ashen. Then he pushed his plate away, took up the flowers and pressed them against his lips, inhaling the scent of them with long, deep breaths. And presently the tears ran down his cheeks: and at last his slow-drawn sighs were cut short by a sob.
The girl started to the old woman's side and stood, flushed and downcast, while the forest-mother beat her omelet with a grave countenance. Neither of them looked at the fiddler. Steven, who had stared, suddenly dropped his glance, too, ashamed and uncomfortable.
Fiddle-Hans got up from his seat: "I can eat no more to-night," he said in a broken voice. He walked over to the bench where ho had left his fiddle and, hugging it, went out into the forest.
"Have you ever seen him like that before?" whispered Sidonia of Mistress Friedel.
"Once," said she, "over the violet-bed in the garden. I doubt he has seen trouble, poor soul! Who has not?"
Sidonia returned to her seat, propped her chin on her hands, and fixed the young Count absently. Her eyes were not black, as he had thought; they were grey and green, green and golden brown—like the waters of the brook in the shadow of the trees.
"Heavens, how you stare!" she said after a while pettishly.
The young aristocrat raised his disdainful eyebrows. He, stare at a country wench? Then into their sullen silence Mistress Friedel exclaimed joyfully:
"Hark!" cried she; "here comes my son!"
From far away stole the faint blast of hunting-horns; a dog bayed answer from the kennels, and the call of the horns arose again in the whispering forest depths—closer and louder.
"Yes, yes, it's the Return-home they're winding," said the old lady, bending her ear.
Without, there was now a fine clamour—barking and yelping of hounds, tramping of horses, blasting of horns, cheerful shouting of men. The Head Forester shot half his stalwart figure in at the door and nodded to his mother. As much as could be seen of his green uniform was very grand indeed, with vast display of gilt buttons and royal crowns, frogs and braid. His square, freckled face, all made for jollity, was puckered into anxious lines; his eyes roamed uneasily from Sidonia to the stranger. He strode to his mother's side and whispered in her ear.
"Be good to us!" she ejaculated, clapping her hands in dismay.
"Hush, mother!" warned the forester, finger on lip, and turned towards the door.
Count Steven had finished his plate of venison stew and was condescendingly enjoying a crust of bread and a glass of the tart wine. A sense of expectation about him made him now likewise turn round in his chair—languidly, for the high-born are not curious.
Outside, in the night, against a background of flickering leaves, under the glare of a couple of torches, he saw a picturesque group—hounds and huntsmen; two of these last laden each with a murdered roebuck, whose pretty, innocent head hung trailing on the ground. Suddenly the scene dissolved. A man came from the midst of the foresters into the kitchen; the rest disappeared with their booty; hounds and horses were led away towards the distant kennel-premises; the woodland glade resumed its peace.
As the new-comer passed him, the Head Forester made a spasmodic movement of hand to forehead, arrested midway rigidly, with a starting eye. His mother swept a dignified curtsy. Sidonia, her hands clasped at the back of her neck, stared with frank curiosity, her mouth open so that all who cared to look might wonder upon the doubled splendour of her young teeth.
He stood and glanced round upon them all; a slight, young man of somewhat low stature and dark, fine-cut face, with hair cropped short at back and side, to come down in a curly wave in the middle of his forehead. He had large eyes under thick, straight eyebrows; and his forester's uniform, though ostensibly of the same cut as Friedel's, was of finer cloth and obviously brand new. The collar of the coat rose very high on each side of his chiselled chin, which in the centre rested on folds of delicate cambric.
"Positively," thought Steven Lee, Count zu Waldorf-Kilmansegg, etc., "a gentleman like myself!"
But the hunter's first word dispelled the illusion.
"My friend," said he to the old dame—he spoke German with a strong foreign accent—"my fellow-forester there, Friedel, has assured me, ma'am, that you would give his brother-woodsman hospitality to-night." Now, as he smiled, his handsome face assumed a trivial, almost inane expression, which destroyed its look of breeding and caused Count Steven to return to his bread and wine with a lift of his scornful eyebrow.
"Any friend of my son is welcome here," said the old lady with an embarrassed smile. Friedel himself grew suddenly scarlet, gulped, blinked, and looked as uncomfortable as any fish out of water.
"I see I must introduce myself," cried the little man, laughing heartily and clapping him on the shoulder. "Mr. Forester—ahem!—Meyer, at your service, madam."
"I wish," said Steven, "that you would shut the door behind my back, good people."
"Hey, la!" said Mr. Forester Meyer, with a sudden imperious note in his voice, "whom have we here?"
"A guest, sir, like yourself," said the hostess somewhat drily, hieing to her pans, while the young nobleman in question twisted round his heavy chair again to supplement her inadequate description.
"An Austrian gentleman, my man, if it imports you to know," said he. "You are yourself, perhaps," he went on with more friendliness, struck by an obvious explanation of certain signs about the new-comer that had puzzled him, "the Inspector of these forests, sir, on your rounds. I notice you speak with authority, and your accent is not of the country—a countryman of this King Jerome?"
Mr. Forester Meyer broke again into loud laughter.
"Hey—what perspicacity has the gentleman!" cried he jovially. ("Friend Friedel, shut the door!) Nay—truly, sir, you are perfectly right. I see it would be quite hopeless to maintain an incognito before you. It is true, sir, I do inspect for this King Jerome occasionally. Ha, ha!"
"Ha, ha!" echoed Sidonia, catching the infection of mirth, as a child will, without reason.
"Hey, la! And whom have we here?"
Mr. Forest-Inspector repeated the phrase in very different tones. There came a curious flicker into his eye as he ran it up and down her figure, from crown of yellow head to scarlet ankle and back again, with appreciative pauses on the way. "Eh, eh!" said Mr. Inspector. He took her chin between his finger and thumb and chuckled as he raised the crimsoning face to the light.
"We do not hold with French ways here," said dame Friedel rebukingly, over her pan; and Steven, catching the gesture of warning which her son instantly addressed to her, felt a vast contempt for the fellow's slavish fear of his little superior.
The wine, thin and fragrant, must have gone somewhat fantastically to the young nobleman's brain. He began to feel defiant, in a humorous sort of way—to wish the fiddler back with his music. With a tune to marry with the amber drink, it seemed as if that youthship of his, on which yonder rogue laid such stress, might find some zest in a quarrel with Master Forester Meyer—whose eyes flickered so unpleasantly as they looked at the peasant child; who had so irritating a French shrug and so mean a smile.
But if he had an eye to a pretty girl, the Inspector seemed to have also an ear for a poacher. The distant crack of some shots, reverberating from the forest, now made him start and listen acutely. But as Friedel, with a frowning countenance, made a lurch for his gun in the corner, Mr. Meyer smiled and restrained him. Then he himself went to the door, set it ajar and hearkened. His smile widened as he closed it again and returned to the table.
"Doubtless he has plans of his own for trapping the poor wretches," thought Steven. It was the obvious explanation, and yet he felt a kind of mystery brooding around him, almost as if that adventure which the fiddler's music had boded were about to take place.
And, in the long silence which succeeded, the impression deepened. The Frenchman seemed overcome by an uncontrollable restlessness. He paraded the room from end to end, compared the merry-faced clock with his watch, stared out of the window and drummed on the pane. He was evidently keenly on the alert for something; and, as Steven vainly cudgelled his not very quick wits to conjecture—behold, it was at hand!
Shouts without, steps … a tremendous rat-tat at the door! …
"'Tis not possible," cried Mother Friedel, "that Heaven has sent us more guests!"
This was, in truth, precisely what Heaven was doing—if, indeed, it were fair to hold Heaven responsible. Two new visitors walked into the forest-house without so much as a word of parley—a hulking man in forester's uniform ("By Saint Hubert!" said Steven Lee to himself, "His Westphalian Majesty's rangers seem thick as leaves hereabouts!") and a lady, clinging to his arm. … Yes, a lady—and a fair one! Steven rose to his feet.
The Inspector and the burly new-comer interchanged a rapid glance. Then, cracking the whip he held in his hand, the latter burst into the most execrable German, interspersed by volleys of French oaths. It was evident that King Jerome held to servants of his own nationality.
Parbleu! quoth he, a mercy to see decent shelter I Devil take all, he had thought that he and the lady would have had to spend the night in the forest!
Here the lady, in spite of very pink cheeks and bright eyes, became so faint that she had to be assisted to a chair by dame Friedel and her foster-child. Steven darted to present a glass of water, but was arrogantly forestalled by Mr. Meyer.
"Such a little way between his bent head and her upturned face. ...!"
"Such a scandal on His Majesty's high-road," went on he of the whip: "this lady's coach attacked by ruffians!"
"His Majesty will be exceedingly displeased," said the Inspector gravely, sitting down by the side of the distressed one and stripping off her glove to consult a delicate wrist.
"Her escort shot at—— By all the devils!"
"Monstrous," quoth the Inspector in quiet indignation. "A little wine, madam?"
"The escort—sacred swine, confound them!—took flight and basely abandoned their charge."
"Shocking!" said Mr. Meyer, relinquishing one pretty hand to receive the empty glass from the other.
"If I had not happened to hear the shots and rush to the spot—what might not have happened?"
"It makes me shiver to contemplate," asserted the Inspector.
"My brave deliverer!" murmured the lady in a dulcet voice. "Single-handed, he——"
She suddenly buried her face in her hands and quivered from head to foot.
The Inspector looked up at Mistress Friedel with an air of grave compassion. "Hysterical," said he. "And no wonder!"
Mistress Friedel began to loosen the lady's handsome, claret-coloured travelling-mantle, whilst Sidonia drew the velvet, white-plumed hat from the loveliest, dark, curling head in all the world.
"Well … ah!—Schmidt," said Inspector Meyer, "His Majesty will hear of your conduct."
"Thank you, Mr.—ah!—Meyer," rejoined the burly Schmidt, with an unaccountably waggish grin.
"Ah, ha, ha!" cried the lady. She flung back her head and flung down her hands, the tears were streaming upon her uncovered cheeks. It might be hysterics, but Steven thought it was the most becoming combination of emotions he had ever beheld.
She wiped her eyes and sprang up as lightly as a bird. Emerging from the folds of her cloak, she displayed a clinging robe of pale blue, fastened under the bust by a belt of amethysts set in gold. She had an exquisite roundness of form, an open, smiling mouth. Her eyes were innocent and dark and deep. She was (Steven felt) a revelation. And withal, what a great lady! What an air of breeding! what elegance! An Austrian gentleman knows the value of jewels—Heavens, what rings on her fingers! what pearls in her ears!
"Ah Dio mio!" she cried, "but I am hungry!"
Italian, then. 'Twas a strange meeting of nationalities in the German forest-corner.
The fixity of the young man's gaze suddenly drew her attention. She looked at him: surprise, interest, then an adorable smile appeared on her countenance. 'Twas almost an invitation; besides, was it not meet that the only gentleman of the party should entertain the only lady? With his heart beating in his throat, he took two steps forward.
The three foresters had drawn apart and were whispering together with furtive glances at the stranger. It was not likely he should notice this, with her lovely eyes upon him. She dropped her handkerchief. He rushed to pick it up; as she took it from his finders, he gave them ever so slight a pressure.
O Geigel-Onkel, Singer of Youth, hadst thou foreseen this rapturous moment?
"A thousand graces," murmured she. … The graces!—they were all her own.
"Permit me to introduce myself," he stammered.
But the Inspector cut him short with a strident voice.
"The gentleman must be fatigued," he cried.
Steven started angrily. To one side of him stood Forester Schmidt; to the other, Forester Friedel.
"I will show the gracious gentleman the way to his repose," said the latter, with subdued, yet warning tone, in his ear.
"And I will give you my help to the door, tonnerre de Dieu!" exclaimed the other, and caught the Count's arm under his with a grip of iron.
Steven wrenched himself free. Yet a man has not sober English blood for nothing. Humiliating as was the position, a moment's reflection convinced him that resistance would but render him more ridiculous still, and that in the light of those dark eyes.
"Lead, then, fellow," said he to Friedel, and, after bowing low to the lady, followed his escort with what dignity he could muster towards the door opening on the forest.
There was such a seething of rage in his brain, such an itching in his palm to feel it against yonder insolent Schmidt's full cheek, that it was not till he found himself on the threshold of a dimly lighted wooden building, gazing blankly in upon heaps of straw, that he realised that a barn was considered good enough for the night's lodging of a Count Waldorf-Kilmansegg.
"May you rest sweetly, sir!" said Friedel, and tramped away.
Turning round with a start, Steven beheld the crazy musician at his elbow.
"Comrades on the straw—eh! What a bed for his Lordship! Misérables! They have no idea of the importance of rank, these benighted forest-folk. Yet give me the clean, yellow straw, smelling of the sunshine in the dark, and whispering of the fields, rather than your stuffy mountains of feathers."
"Geigel-Onkel!" came a shrill cry into the night.
The fiddler turned with a bound and ran into the middle of the moon-lit yard, staring up at the outline of the house against the pale sky. From some distant regions, where Friedel's underlings kennelled near their hounds, rose shouts of boorish laughter and the chorus of a drinking song.
A yellow tongue of flame appeared in a wooden balcony, hanging under the roof. Sidonia bent over, shielding her candle from the forest airs.
"Are you there, Geigel-Onkel?"
"O, I am glad! … Geigel-Onkel"—she leaned over still further. Her tresses hung down, and one shone ruddy with the candle-gleam, and one silver in the moonlight. Her voice was broken with angry tremors—"he tried to kiss me!"
"The big man with the whip. He caught me by the waist. I had nothing to hit him with but my plaits. I lashed him in the face. They caught him across the eyes——"
"Caught him across the eyes," cried the fiddler, clapping his hands. "Ah, brava, little mamzell!"
"They whistled like a rope"—the girl was laughing and crying together—"I think I have half blinded him. Mayn't I come down to you, Onkel? I want to talk … and I want music."
"Better not," said Fiddle-Hans, and then from the shadow Steven stepped out beside him. It was terrible to think of the dark-eyed lady in the company of such ruffians! Sidonia drew back at sight of him with a cry.
"Na, na; don't be afraid of him. It's only my comrade. As for the others—go in, child; bolt your door," said the fiddler, "go to bed and sleep in peace. I shall watch."
"But you will play for me?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Presently," said he: "such a tune, little mamzell, that will make some people dance! But to you it shall give sweet sleep."
As the girl disappeared, Fiddle-Hans turned upon Steven. He laughed as he addressed the youth, but his eves were fierce as some wild beast's in the dim light. "Did you hear?" said he. "The maid struck him; but you—O you!—you let yourself be turned out! O, to see you come away like a lamb! Steven Lee, Graf zu Waldorf-Kilmansegg, turned out of doors by two low-bred foresters! What, then, runs in your veins? What turnip-juice instead of blood? The fellow, Schmidt so called, laid hands on you, did he not? and you a youth! By the blood of my fathers! had he touched me, old man as I am, he had felt the weight of his own whip! But the fellow has muscles-nay, you were right, sir, right. Let us be prudent, by all means. Only that mask of yours lies, that smooth cheek, that crisp curl. Young, yes, only your heart is not young. 'Tis like the kernel of a blind nut—dry dust; while I—there is more of God's youth left in my worn and waning body——"
"Confusion!" interrupted Steven, trembling in every limb, hurt to the marrow of his pride, "'twas before the lady."
"O, the lady …!" echoed the other with a mocking trail of laughter.
During the vehemence of his speech the musician had advanced on the lad, who had unconsciously drawn back until he stood against the wall of the house. Now a window close to him was unlatched, and the sound of a sigh, rather than a voice, was breathed forth into the night.
"Your cue," mocked the fiddler into his ear, and melted away into the darkness.
The window was that of a room on the ground floor; the lady leaned out, her elbows on the sill; her face caught a slanting ray of moonlight. Was it possible to be so beautiful?
"Madam!" cried Steven, and that heart of his which was supposed to be but dry dust began to thump in hitherto unknown fashion.
"Hush, hush!" she whispered, a taper finger on her lip. "Ah! is it you, sir?"
He advanced into the ray that held her; he was not aware that he also looked very goodly and romantic.
Somewhere, in the darkness close by, the fiddler's bow crept over the strings. It was a sound so attenuated that it seemed to have no more substance than the light of the moon itself; it stole upon their ears so gently that it was as if they heard it not. His hand met her warm fingers—the fragrance from her curls mounted to his nostrils; she looked up at him and her eyes glistened.
O fiddler, what bewitching music is this? What sweetness does it insinuate, what mysterious audacity counsel? There were those parted lips of hers, with white teeth gleaming through, and here was this youth who had never touched a woman's lips in love. Such a little way between his bent head and her upturned face …!
A door crashed behind her. She started from his timid hand. The thread of the music was broken like a floating gossamer.
Steven thought that the fiddler laughed. There was a faint exclamation … Heavens! did she also laugh? He saw—yes, he saw the Inspector's hated outline over hers. She was drawn from the window by the shoulders, the shutters were clapped to in his face and bolted noisily. The yard billowed under his feet. All went red before his eyes. That was her room, and the man had followed her to it! Had he no youth in him, no blood in his veins? … Why, he could taste it on his tongue! He pivoted round upon himself, made a blind rush for the entrance-door, and dashed headlong against Ranger Schmidt's broad chest.
A French oath rang out; then the broken German: "Can he not see where he is going?" Then, in the dark, the fiddler laughed again—or was it his music? or were there lurking devils, taunting, jeering, inciting? The young man never knew exactly what happened, till a crack like a pistol-shot sprang upon the night, and he realised that his hand had found the broad, insolent face at last. The sound of that slap cleared the confusion in his own brain, as a puff of wind clears a hanging mist. Schmidt roared like a furious bull, but Steven met the onslaught of the uplifted whip with the science learned in London of Gentleman Jackson. And there was a grip on either side which began for him in glorious defiance and ended in a struggle of life and death.
And the fiddler worked his bow like one possessed. It was the fiercest song of fight that now rose, ever shriller, louder and faster, up towards the placid sky. The air was thick with the curses, blue with the profanity, of Forester Schmidt. But Steven wrestled like a gentleman, in silence. To his dying day he maintained that he was getting the better of the hulking bully, when his heel caught in an upstanding root and he fell with a crash, his opponent on top of him. There was a moment's agony of suffocation—the gleam before his eyes of a bared blade, gilt-blue in the moonlight—two echoing shouts, a woman's scream. And then Count Waldorf-Kilmansegg lost consciousness, his wits marching away at double-quick time to the lilt of an extraordinarily joyous little tune.
Steven opened heavy eyes and stared vacantly at the creeping light, indigo between the wisps of yellow straw; at the large square of shimmering mists and flickering leaves where the barn-door stood open to the dawn. He turned his head and found that it lay on a fragrant linen pillow; and also that it ached vaguely in spite of this luxury.
A vulgar, cheery, absurd tune was dancing in his brain. Then he found within his range of vision the figure of a man sitting cross-legged, putting a fresh string to a fiddle. And memory came back slowly.
"It was the fault of the music, you know," he said.
Fiddle-Hans shot a look at him from under his quizzical eyebrows.
"You never got that kiss, after all."
"Ah, but I got my slap in!"
The young man sat up, quite inspirited by the recollection, and found that, with the exception of a slight dizziness and stiffness, there was nothing much amiss with him.
"But someone very nearly got his knife into you," said Fiddle-Hans drily; "and there would have been an end of learning to be young. Nevertheless, you have capabilities—yes, some capabilities," he wound up his string, twanged it, and nodded over it.
A cock crew in the forest farmyard. A thrush was singing somewhere amid a babel of chirping birds. The breeze, balsam-scented, flew straight in from the pines and fanned Steven's head and throat. He lifted his hand to his open shirt and looked inquiringly at the musician. The latter nodded again.
"'You never got that kiss, after all.'"
"You were stunned by the fall," said he, "with that brute on the top of you. 'Twas fortunate for you that I caught hie hand at the right moment. And thereupon the little man ran out, screaming: 'No bloodshed, d'Albignac!' 'Tis his one good point—he is merciful of life."
"The little man?. … d'Albignac?" Steven echoed the words in wonder.
"You measured his cheek charmingly; I mean d'Albignac's," said the fiddler. "We two might do great things together yet. Aye, that was the d'Albignac, Chouan renegade; now Grand-Veneur—and Great Pandar—to His Majesty of Westphalia."
"Majesty? … King Jerome?"
"Did you think," said Fiddle-Hans compassionately, "that Meyer and Schmidt were usual names for Frenchmen? Why, the incognito would not have deceived a cat."
The dawn was growing softly outside, but there was sudden vivid light in Steven's brain.
"Then, then," he stammered, struggling to his feet, "the lady——"
"The lady, my poor young friend, is naught but a little dancing-girl from Genoa, whom that wise and great man, the Emperor Napoleon, sent two emissaries to remove from her charming apartments in 'Napoleon's Höhe,' where her presence conduced neither to the King's dignity—nor to the Queen's. The great Napoleon is mighty particular about Her Westphalian Majesty's dignity. Our ardent little sovereign, however, determined to snatch a last meeting."
"O Lord!" said Steven, and passed his hand across his mouth, as if the shadow of the yearned-for kiss polluted it.
"And so that Meyer fellow is——"
"Our little Brother Jerome … yes."
The fiddler lifted a sweet, worn voice, while his bow danced lightly on the strings and chanted to the absurd lilt—
"Nous allons chercher un royaume cbrrehcr im mvaimic
Pour not' p'tit frère Jérome. …
"'Twas the song of the soldiers before Jena," he explained. "Sapristi! a taking ragamuffin tune! When our friends last night heard it, comrade, they took to their heels."
And as Steven stared with ever-increased wonder, Fiddle-Hans proceeded in his mocking voice:
"The wicked flee when none pursueth. If there is one person the little King is frightened of, 'tis the great Emperor. Big Brother keeps an eye on him from the midst of victory—many eyes on him, indeed. And little Brother has taken into his head that your humble servant is the most cunning of Napoleon's eyes. I had but to play such a simple air, you see, and His Majesty of Westphalia … his choice circle …" He made a wide gesture and a sound mimicking a flutter of wings: "Phew …! Gone, scared, like frightened sparrows!"
"Gone?" said Steven; and though she was but a dancing-girl from Genoa, and a baggage at that, his heart sank.
"Gone," said the fiddler, "gone before the dawn. So is Sidonia. Aha, Sir Count, short skirts, it seems to you, make the peasant, and fine jewels the great lady! Ha, ha! to see your Lordship draw away from the touch of her tresses! She brought you her own pillow last night, and wept over you and thought you were dead—till I bid her put her hand over your heart and feel its solid beating. 'Tis a noble child … and a greater race you will not meet in your travels. Why, 'tis the Heiress of the country. O, there were no lies about her! The girl visits her foster-mother for a freak and a treat now and then—you never looked at her foot or her delicate eyebrow; she was but a peasant girl, pardi! But Jerome——"
"Jerome!" echoed Steven, and he knew not why, the fiercest spasm of anger he had yet felt seized him then.
"Jerome pinched her chin, as you saw," said the fiddler, "and, therefore, back we packed her, Friedel and I, to her own castle, for safety. … Meanwhile you slept. Come, come, never look so downcast," he went on with a sudden change of tone. "Is it not instructive to know how the King of Westphalia passes his time while all the manhood of his country is warring for the Empire—burnt in Spain, frozen in Russia? … And, at any rate, have you not had a night you will remember out of all your dull, regulated youth? Come forth and I will show you something I warrant me you have never seen before: sunrise in the forest."
The yard seemed very silent and empty. They were all gone indeed, gone like a dream!
"Come," said the musician, "look up. Have you ever seen so limpid a blue? Look at the trees enveloped in mystery; see the silver shine of the dew over every blade; hark to it as it drips from leaf to leaf. 'Tis every day a new creation! O, I could make you Dawn-music, if there were not such music already for you to hear! Hark, what a whispering, what a lisping, what murmurs! Do you hear the birds—that is your last night's thrush at the top of the larch-tree; he is singing under his breath now, watching the horizon; he will shout when the sun leaps up. Do you hear the humming of the bees?—there is thyme in mother Friedel's garden—and that is the sharp tinkle of the brook over the stones—eh, my soul, what a symphony! … The breath of the forest, do you feel it, cool and living? The savour of the crushed, dew-drenched moss under your feet, do you taste it? and the smell of the young beech-buds and the incense of the pines? And now watch, behold how the forest is lit up as with inner green fire! Dark and colourless stand the trees nearest to us. Look within, how the flame grows, how it spreads, live gold, live emerald! And see there—O, the scarlet on those fir trunks! The sun has risen! …"
The fiddler stopped speaking. Looking back upon it, Steven afterwards wondered if he had spoken at all, or had only made his thoughts felt. But here certainly his strange companion came to a standstill in their slow wandering and took off his battered old hat and waved it.
"Farewell!" said he. "Mother Friedel will give you breakfast, and son Friedel is already on the look-out for your lost retinue. Farewell, noble Count! remember to be young!"
"Shall I never meet you again?" cried Steven. His heart sank unaccountably and he added hesitatingly: "Comrade?"
Fiddle-Hans, moving away into the forest with light, fantastic step, paused wistfully.
"Who knows?" said he over his shoulder. "If you know how to seek … why … who knows?"
He plunged down an opening in the trees, where the sun made a golden path before him, and the budding larches on either side were on fire with green flame.