Maria Felicia/Chapter 4
FANNED by a gust of cold wind, the lamp crackled as the harper passed over the doorstep of Hlohov. Cautiously he protected the flame with his hand, and stopping, raised the light over his head. His eyes measured the height of the arch under which he found himself. His sight could not reach the ceilings, which were lost in darkness, but he dimly discerned a wide double stairway in the back of the hall winding upward.
“Ah, yes, this is Hlohov—at last!” the young man exclaimed with enthusiasm, proceeding through the cold, dark space like a spirit in the lower regions. “Different the breeze that cools my forehead here, different the echo which my footsteps make. All is entirely different from there below; all is strong, mighty, proud, reaching to heights—oh, how I love it! These pillars are as if reaching to the heavens, that ceiling hastening to become a support of the cupola. Who was it that built thee, proud Hlohov? Art thou a reflection of the mind and nature of thy builder? If so, surely then the men born half a thousand years ago were very different from those of to-day.”
Walking up to the second story, the harper found himself in a long, winding corridor, in which heavy doors, sheathed with iron, formed two black rows. He thoughtfully examined one after another, and remained standing before the last.
Opening it with no small difficulty, he entered a large hall, where he could see by the dusky light of his lamp bloody helmets, spears, coats of mail, and shields, hanging on the walls and piled up in the corners. Large, worn-out flags and banners shaded the old weapons, and in the cold breeze from the door they waved as if the hands of spirits had touched them.
The harper looked about him in the ancient armory of the Castle.
“Do you wave me a greeting, or a menace?” he asked. “Do you greet, or threaten the disturber of your peace? I wonder what mottoes were written on you when you waved over thousands of beating hearts? Did lust command then? Did slaves unfurl you? Did a slave carry you in front of a crowd of slaves, who were driven like a flock of sheep to the shambles, who fought to gain one more gold ring for him who was already exercising despotic power? Oh, people, have you never bowed to anything else than material strength and brutal aggressiveness? Will you bow to nothing else? Is it only for these that you are capable of subduing your selfishness and willing to shed your blood? When Frederick of Prussia, craving the Bohemian crown, led his army into this country, and they perished here by thousands, not a voice was raised against him; and for that exploit his nation calls him great. But now when Joseph wants to deliver the nation from superstition, liberate the minds of his subjects, educate and elevate them, a blind opposition meets him everywhere. Even here in this forgotten old nest an ugly owl flutters her feathers against him.”
Just then a noise reverberated through the hall. The open door had slammed, and a weapon had fallen from the wall.
The harper looked around. “Did you aim at my head for my blasphemy?” he said, lifting the old mace from the floor and examining it? “Did you want to see how hard it was? Oh believe, old fellow, it would be a task to break it; it is well forged. But I see I should not rest well here among you, old weapons; it is not best to accept hospitality where a man is thus greeted. I will move on to see where I can make my headquarters for to-night.”
And the harper stepped to the next door.
Opening it, he saw before him a great hall which, judging from the furniture there arranged, had formerly served for dining and reception hall. Hanging on iron hooks that were fastened in the walls were broad boards, which, when supported by the legs that were hinged to their other ends, were formerly used as tables; and after meals, or when room for other things was needed, they were quickly and easily removed by being hung on these hooks. A large fireplace filled with ashes occupied the center of the main wall. Three-legged chairs were arranged around the room in several rows, proving that in the olden time the assemblages in this hall were very large.
The harper scornfully glanced around the room. “Did the ancient masters of this Castle and their friends rival one another here in drinking? Was it then, as now, considered heroic to be the first to drown the intellect in wine? Does this unpleasant odor arise from wine spilled by the trembling hands of drunkards? Do echoes of drunkards’ songs and sayings, babbled with heavy tongues, still tremble here? Oh, away, away even from here; there, close by, is the smell of blood, and here—of dirt.”
And the harper violently pushing open the opposite door, stopped on the doorstep and uttered an unconscious exclamation of surprise and joy.
He saw before him a circular room which the moon, rising over the opposite forest, lighted up. The room was wainscoted with dark wood, and in the rear a curtain of delicate red skin, now faded and striped with gold somewhat tarnished, concealed an alcove from whose ceiling hung a many-branched chandelier over a wide bed. On the sides of the bed were carvings illustrating events from the life of Joseph in Egypt. At the head hung a cross without Christ, and beneath it were evident traces of the chalice. The chalice was probably gold, and had attracted some avaricious servant, or perhaps, for some other reason than avarice, it had been snatched from its place so roughly that the wood was badly damaged. Curtains similar to those at the alcove hung from the windows, whose sills were so wide that each one formed a little alcove by itself, and in the recesses stood chests covered with leather cushions.
Walking to the wall, the harper again gave an exclamation of joy, for he saw that it was a bay-window projecting over water. As in some charming yacht he stood there between the peaceful, starry heavens and the misty, rumbling gulf. The moon lighted at the window of the castle a hundred fluttering sparks, and they poured into the room like a shower of brilliants, strayed over the opposite forest like fairies hastening to meet their elves, and glimmered through the mist to the surface of the water. Higher up the hill the stream dashed wildly over the dumb, immovable rocks, rose between the black cliffs, and passionately strove to widen its narrow banks by gnawing at the solid walls. In despair at the fruitless task, it showered over them great foaming tears of anger and pain.
“Oh, my beloved Hlohov, praised be the shade of your forests, the coolness of your nights, the freedom of your breezes!” exclaimed the young man, with enthusiasm, bending far out of the window and eagerly drinking in the scene. “Blessings on you, Maria Felicia, for discovering this place of refuge. Here my mind will become composed, my heart comforted, my thoughts clear, my blood will circulate once more; here I shall recover. Do you know. O river, that the longer I watch you the more distinctly do I see my own trouble mirrored in you; the longer I listen to your passionate weeping, the more loudly do I hear the pulsations of my own heart? Yes, you are the emblem of my life; just as you gnaw your stone fetters, so the harper gnawed his chains; just as you struggle within bonds arbitrarily imposed on you, so he struggled against barriers standing in the way of his liberty. But you are happier than he. You know whither so resistlessly you speed; the ocean is waiting for you, the sunny ocean, adorned with islands of coral and pearl, waiting to take you into its lulling arms. You will become a part of the vast azure sea, in which the vault of heaven will be reflected. And what will be my fate? Whither do I speed so passionately, so hurriedly? Dark and doubtful is my way. The current belief about this life and the hereafter seems to me a fable, invented to satisfy the minds of large children who are afraid to walk alone over dizzy paths of thought. Were you right, Count Felsenburk, in teaching your daughter, both by precept and example, that position and wealth are the end and aim of life? Were you right in calling every other end and aim only folly? Were you right in teaching that the earth is nothing more than a combination of matter and force, moving and changing in space where the two law-makers, chance and necessity, continually struggle for supremacy, while under their despotic rule human souls rise and fall like bubbles? Every one who has troubled his head to discover something more hopeful and better you have called a lunatic. Is all beyond this life mere emptiness, absolute nothingness? Has mind no other dwelling-place than the human head? If such is the case, how deceptive is this gift that nature has bestowed upon man, for he has not a moment in this life when he may escape the feeling of his misery and insignificance!”
And the harper suddenly straightening himself before the window, looked up with a questioning and reproachful eye, as if he wanted to penetrate the depths of heaven and see what they concealed. In that movement he touched an object near by which gave out a sound something like a human sigh. He looked around. An ancient lute, with broken strings, hung in the window by his side. Thinking of the warning of the old stewardess, he anxiously reached for it, but quickly dropped his hand.
“Art thou the lute on which the Hlohov lady plays her death songs? But whether thou art or not, thou needst not fear me; I will not disturb thy repose. Thou shalt remain hanging by that faded cord as thou wast placed by a hand of which I know nothing more than that it has been mouldering perhaps a century. I will only give thee a companion. My own harp I will hang by thy side.”
And the young man walked toward the door for his harp, where, under the excitement of the moment, he had left it. Taking the instrument in his hands, he unconsciously pressed it to his breast, as if it were a friend whom he had not embraced for a long time. With a dreamy fondness he began to run his hand along its strings and listen to the sweet sounds as they rose and fell in the vaulted room. Soon the single tones, under the trained fingers, joined into soft chords, and the song, sweet and sad, flowed forth like a gentle stream.
The harper, dreaming over his beloved instrument, would probably have thus accompanied the surging of the river and his own thoughts, which he found so closely related, through the whole night, had not footsteps in the hall aroused him. Before he had turned to the door it opened wide, and suddenly the form of a man appeared. Wildly glancing about the room, the man fell at the harper’s feet and said excitedly:
“What does your song proclaim to-night, dear father? Oh! blessings on you if you are calling me from the sufferings of this world!”
The harper, seeing the unknown fainting away by his side, was startled, but not with fear. He was not boasting when he assured the stewardess that he was not cowardly. He gave a good proof of it now. He did not shrink from the unexpected visitor who had surprised him at such an hour, and in a place where he was far away from human help. Leaning toward him, he looked into his face.
No; this was not a rogue, as for a moment he had suspected. It was no villain that had sneaked up to him under some false pretense to frighten him away and get hold of his satchel, believing it to be filled with money. The light of the moon, mingling with the dim light of the lamp which the harper had left near the door, fell on a youthful face, pale and sad with care and suffering; and the harper watched that face with interest. It seemed to him that he never had seen features so perfect, so beautiful, a forehead so proud and noble, or a contrast more striking than that between the stranger and his clothes. A coarse jacket thrown over an unbleached muslin shirt indicated that he belonged to the lowest class of servants.
At last the stranger opened his tearful eyes and, mute with astonishment, gazed at the harper as if he could not believe his eyes. But as the form leaning over him remained motionless, mistrust and anger appeared on his face. Suddenly a light flashed upon the harper, who had begun to connect the story of the stewardess with the stranger’s question. Smiling, he said:
“Ah, you came to see your lady, the lutanist, and you are disappointed because instead of her you found only a harper?”
The young man jumped up as if wounded.
“Who are you? How came you here? What are you saying?” he exclaimed, looking confusedly about the room. He placed his trembling hand on his perspiring forehead, and tried to collect his scattered thoughts, while with the other hand he felt around for a support.
“I am only a poor harper, formerly a teacher of the present mistress of Hlohov, who allowed me to come here to recover my health. I came to this castle only a few hours ago.”
“When and where, then, did you hear about the lutanist?”
“The stewardess threatened me with her visit when I told her I wouldn’t live in that smothery box which they call the Palace, and started to come here.”
“And you came here in spite of that warning?”
“Yes. But you are asking me many questions without telling me who you are. By what right came you here? And is not your behavior since you entered this room rather strange?”
Again the young man wiped his forehead and felt around for a support before he answered.
“Not long ago my loving father died. Since his death I have not slept; this evening, overcome by weakness, for the first time I fell into a feverish sleep, most likely just before you stepped in, for I did not see you coming. In that restless slumber, feeling my loss more bitterly than when awake and thinking about it, suddenly some heavenly sounds touched my sad soul. Then these sounds were transformed into a beautiful rainbow, and I dreamed that my father was descending over it and calling me to him. Under the influence of that feverish dream I jumped out of my bed, followed the sounds and came here. Pardon me, if in that vision, startled by seeing a person where no one has ventured for whole decades, I addressed you somewhat strangely. An intruder, as you suspect, I am not. It is only my duty to listen to every sound in this Castle. I am the son of the deceased porter. Andrew is my name.”
The harper listening with surprise to the young man’s fluency of speech, which was another incongruity with his position, unconsciously drew back, and shyly asked:
“You come from the family of the Hlohov porter whose relative was burned?”
Andrew’s face flushed. He straightened himself in pride and scorn before the harper.
“O noble protégé of the new mistress, how quickly you have picked up gossip in the servants’ hall! How will you impart your stories to the lady? Will you measure them out by the bushel or count them by the score?”
Now the harper blushed.
“If you yourself had not confessed only a little while ago that you were not the master of your thoughts, I should answer you differently,” he exclaimed, looking at Andrew as proudly and scornfully as Andrew had looked at him. “Little, indeed, do I care for people’s stories, here or elsewhere hatched. It was to escape idle gossip that I came to this lonely place.”
“Such things are not discussed among strangers who have just met,” Andrew sternly replied.
“The stewardess asked me if I had not met with any suspicious characters on my way through the woods, whereupon I mentioned an aged man whom I saw under an old larch tree, reading an old book. The story frightened her; she recognized in the old man a heretic, a descendant of those heretics on whom, as a warning to others, a severe punishment was inflicted in Bydžov. She began to tell the horrible story, but I would not hear it all. Stopping her, I said that the condemned were perhaps more innocent than their judges.”
“O young man, you have spoken the truth! In their innocence they passed into the other world—victims to human prejudice and malignity, martyrs to their holy faith,” exclaimed Andrew, and suspicion again flashed from his eyes at the harper. “Go!” he added; “go quickly and report what I have said; you need not go far; tell it to the stewardess, and she will see that investigation is made; and if the nephew is found to have adopted his aunt’s heresies, you may have the pleasure of adding a stick to his funeral-pyre.”
“It would not be suprising if I should wish to punish you,” the harper replied; “you are adding insult to insult.”
“Yes; I insult you, I pain, you, and I will hurt you still more, because I do not trust you,” Andrew frankly admitted. “Your sudden appearance in this forgotten castle, your choice of its most desolate corner, where no one can behold your secret doings, and, most of all, your conversation with the stewardess—all are witnesses against you. Oh, confess frankly, as I acknowledge my suspicion against you, that you have come here to see what sort of spirit prevails among the Bohemian peasants. And why not? If the nobility thought it necessary at other times to send out spies for that purpose, why should they not think it necessary now, when repeated failures in crops drive people to despair, and when services and taxes increase every year? Hunger has long been a dweller among our mountains; and his equally terrible brother, the plague, has now joined him. They both faithfully help the nobility. Oh, tell Miss Felsenburk to rejoice; tell all her friends to rejoice. Soon will their wish be realized; only a little while longer, and if a miracle do not come from above, the hated Bohemian race, which they say for ages has been filled with heresy and revolt, will perish. Crowds of people are dying of hunger while their masters’ granaries are overflowing. That longed-for moment when the nobility can fill our land with strangers is quickly coming. They will be less hated than we, for in them will not be that undying love for truth and liberty, that insuppressible desire for justice for which the Bohemians have for ages been universally hated.”
Andrew had now regained control of his mind, and he looked with flashing eyes on the harper, who listened with unfeigned surprise.
“You are again mistaken in suspecting the Countess and the nobility of such cruel designs.”
“Alas! I am not mistaken,” Andrew repeated, with profound grief. “The nobles greatly desire to exterminate our people, that strangers may be brought here, who will be satisfied with any kind of government and willingly lay their necks under any yoke so long as their bodies are cared for. This consummation has long been desired, and to its realization every generation comes a step nearer. Through oppression reduce the race to beggary, through beggary to despair, and through despair to death; such, and no other, is the motto of our nobility. To the most cruel ends they carry out their aims. You demand an example? And yet you know as well as I do that when crops are light, as they have been for several years in succession, the peasants are under obligation to take their whole year’s harvest to the nobility. The peasant is not allowed to sell his crop in the market, but is obliged to give it to his lord at his own price. What the lord thus buys for a little sum from his vassal, he takes to his storehouse, and when food becomes scarce he sells it back—again at his own price—to the poor man from whom he bought it. Oh, do not try to make me believe you do not know that during years of plenty just the opposite takes place—that the peasant must buy the grain that his master has left over and sell it with as little loss as he can. How could it be unknown to you that it is compulsory for a vassal to give his grown-up sons and daughters into his master’s service, although he may sorely need them at home, and that he himself must serve his lord personally, and leave his own farming to chance; that he is not safe under his own roof, that if he incur the dislike of any of his lord’s officials, even though it were the lowest clerk, without any ceremony whatever he is ordered to move out? He then must try to buy a part of some other estate, and move out without his grown-up children. He is allowed to take children under nine years of age; the rest he must leave to his lord. You will perhaps tell me that the peasants had one protector; that Leopold I, passed a law in which he forbade the nobles to deal severely with peasants who rebelled on account of oppression. To that I can only say that Leopold took the peasants under his protection only because under such oppression they were unable to pay the imperial taxes. But little cared the nobles for the Emperor’s command. They continued their oppression, and aimed in every possible way to get the peasants entirely under their control. They finally succeeded. They urged the father of Maria Theresa to annul all the contracts between the nobles and the peasants. The court announced that the contracts were to be sent up for examination; the peasants unsuspectingly sent them to the court. But when they afterwards asked for them, they were simply told that the contracts would not be returned; that they gave rise to continual disagreements, which must be stopped. Thus, the peasants, having lost the last vestige of independence, were thrown without mercy into the hands of the nobility.”
“That is not possible!” said the harper passionately, interrupting Andrew’s flood of bitter accusations. “That is not the way things are; it can’t be; justice could never have fallen so low in this world. Your charges are nothing more than the old jealousy of the poor against the rich.”
“Just ask your patroness about it. If you are her bosom friend, she will certainly confide to you that her grandfather increased his wealth through such schemes.”
“She does not know about that; she never heard about such things; she never cared to know them. I can swear to that.”
“If she has not cared to know them in the past, you may be certain that now, as a mistress and land-owner, she will study them all the more. Be sure that she will tax her brain to find out how to increase her estates. Nobly she will continue the work nobly begun by her forefathers.”
The harper turned pale as death.
“What do you deserve for this, the basest of all your accusations?” he hissed, trembling from head to foot.
Andrew watched his excitement with contempt, and replied:
“As I see, you are more hurt when I aim at the Countess than when I accuse you.”
“How could your remarks but hurt me, when I know how unjust they are? I have known Maria Felicia from her infancy, for I was brought up in her father’s palace. As her teacher, I have looked deeper into her heart than any one else,” replied the harper. “The Countess undoubtedly has her faults; but selfish and rapacious she is not. You have probably heard even here how the Count, shortly before his death, turned against her, threatened to put her in a convent, to disinherit her, and heartlessly imprisoned her in a chamber. He would have carried out his design, and instead of Maria Felicia, his nephew Hypolit would have been the master of this castle, had he not died so suddenly and unexpectedly. I may confide to you the fact that he became angry at his daughter because under no consideration would she yield to his ambitious and avaricious plans. But with your slanders you have so stirred my blood that for the first time to-day I feel what the bliss of revenge must be. Oh that I could punish you for your shameful words! If I thought that you could manage arms as skillfully as you do your tongue, we should have a duel at once.”
“Quietly leave your sword in its sheath, if you have one,” Andrew coldly replied. “Since you have such kind feelings toward me, you may know to your satisfaction that Maria Felicia is avenged on me already, and that through her father. The Count wounded me more deeply and painfully than you could with the sharpest weapon. It is a wound so deep that it can never heal; to my dying day it will fester in my bosom.”
“What offense did he commit against you?”
“My mind hoped to soar; my ability entitled me to believe that sometime I should be a benefactor to my people; ambition woke within me. I wanted to become a fearless proclaimer and defender of truth, not human, but God’s truth; but Count Felsenburk, taking advantage of his power over me as my master, condemned me to sweep his yards until my death. With that sentence he crushed my heart, deprived me of all the hope and happiness of life. More wretched than I am I could not be, unless I should burden my conscience with some crime.”
“God’s truth?” the harper repeated, with such emphasis that it was evident that the two words had drowned all the rest in his mind. “You wanted to become a proclaimer of God’s truth, and not of human truth? You talk as if God had made you the guardian of His truth and trusted the keys to it to you alone.”
“He trusted the keys to His truth not only to me, but to every one who seeks His truth with a pious soul, a pure heart, and an intelligent mind,” replied Andrew, firmly, while the harper watched him curiously.
“Where I come from they deny His existence, and you hold conversations with Him. I am really beginning to value our acquaintance; I see it will enrich me with rare knowledge. You are probably able to describe His appearance to me.”
The sneer behind which his agitation was poorly concealed did not disturb Andrew.
“First explain to me the appearance of your soul, and then I can probably explain to you His appearance.”
The harper bent far over his harp, and remained silent and thoughtful.
“You do not see your soul,” Andrew continued, “and yet you never doubt its existence; you feel that it is stronger than your hands and feet, that it controls your body, that without it your body would be a stiff, lifeless carcass. You know that your mental eyesight is nobler than your bodily eyesight; that with your thoughts you behold a hundred times more than with your eyes; that their invisible wings can take you to the dawn of the past and the darkness of the future; that in a few moments you can fly around the whole world, and even to the stars, and scan their mysterious faces. Now, what the mind is in the human body. God is in nature.”
Andrew’s face, until then so gloomy and so furrowed with grief, began to brighten, and the longer he spoke the more noble was its expression. To the harper, watching him with feverish eyes, it seemed that a brilliant light was beaming on his forehead.
“Count Felsenburk has really sinned in preventing you from becoming a priest,” he muttered, with an effort to smile. The smile, however, was not successful, for it failed to conceal his agitation as he had intended it should. Andrew did not hear; he had turned his eyes to that infinite space into whose depths the harper only a few moments before had been sending such mournful, longing sighs. He was burying himself in his thoughts and clothing them with words as he had always done in his solitude.
“Before time began to be measured in this world, a spirit, as has been recorded, hovered over the dark waters. To him the darkness was pitiful and sad, and he said: ‘Be light, as I am.’ The words fell into the bosom of the inanimate deep like a drop of life, a germ of will, a spark of knowledge; the lifeless matter began to move, the elements to divide; and again they sought each other, combined, coalesced, formed bodies; and then, consolidated, they began to travel through boundless space in the forms of sun, moon and stars; each in its orbit, according to its purpose, moved and worked to scatter chaos and diffuse light. Among them our earth began her mysterious formation and revolution; for thousands of years she has been revolving and developing, constantly producing more noble and beautiful forms. A beautiful stage she has thus prepared for her last child, that he might consciously complete what was begun in unconsciousness. Man is to learn and advance in this world; he is to subdue all the earthly forces, become their master. Man is to grow and improve spiritually; he is to diffuse light and sweetness, and elevate this world to perfection. Light, light, everywhere! That will lead to the salvation prophesied by the Son of God, that will lead to the heavenly kingdom; based on justice and love it will conquer Satan, who is nothing more than sin; sin is no more than untruth, and untruth no more than darkness in the human mind. Such is the task of man in this world; for such victory immortality is promised to the diffuser of light.”
Grief and bitterness flitted across the harper’s face as he said:
“O glorious immortal, born of the dust, and soon to turn again to dust!”
“What he has done endures forever,” Andrew continued. “Yes, his deeds live and continue to bear fruit; and he, either in their good or their evil, lives forever in this world.”
“What is such immortality to us if we are not conscious of it in our graves?” again the harper sadly asked.
“Do you know what is taking place at this moment in Prague, or in this castle? You do not, and yet you do not complain; indeed, you do not want to know. Only a little while ago you assured me that on account of stories and gossip you fled to this solitude. Now, what more is death than a similar flight of a soul weary of life’s activity? Oh, believe me, death will be sweeter to you than your evening dream here at this window—sweeter than the song of your harp; then the cares and the turmoil of this life will seem to you more trifling than the buzzing of a fly seems now. By death you will escape this tumult, and beyond this life you certainly will not long to participate in it. Do you now long for the playthings which in your childhood you loved so much that you would have wept had they been taken away from you?”
“But after childhood comes youth.”
“We know not what was our condition before this life; we know not what we shall be hereafter—it is a secret, because man should not look backward or forward, but perform his duty well while he is here. So far as we can investigate, we find that the laws governing man in this world are the same as those governing every drop of water, every leaf, every particle of matter. What often seems to us caprice or cruelty in nature is only that which destroys our hobby or interferes with our comfort. And this dissatisfaction with life’s experiences is felt even by the lower animals. Does not a worm struggle if you shake him off a rosebud into the grass? Does he not become angry because you did not leave him on his soft-scented cushion? Nature is equally kind to all her creatures; she has no special favors for the large, the rich, the great. Every task is of equal importance to her, whether performed by the butterfly or the sun; she has justice for all. She leads everything by the same laws to decay and death; but only to decompose, change and combine it with other matter and again awaken it to new life in a grander, nobler form.”
The harper, deeply moved, watched with unfeigned wonder the porter’s son, whose eyes were again turned to heaven. Andrew was serene; he did not question, doubt, fluctuate as the harper did; he was blessed with that full assurance of faith which gives strength and dignity. By his side the harper felt more immature and insignificant than he had ever felt before. At last, with trembling voice, he said:
“My meeting with the heretic is to mea sign, I believe, that I shall be delivered from my own heresies.”
That confession was undoubtedly a great blow to his pride.
Andrew was troubled. For a while he hesitated, watched the harper, but seeing deep earnestness in his face he gave his thoughts free expression.
“You do not suspect and perhaps will not believe,” he said, “that what I have just told you is a part of the teachings of those hated heretics who were persecuted and burned for their pernicious religion. Their religion, first of all, taught that by continual upward progress they got nearer to God. And one of their foremost principles was toleration of other religions. They were not allowed to censure people of different faith; but all that others believed was to be conscientiously examined, and if some parts of it were found useful, these were adopted by the whole community.”
“A more just and prudent rule was never made,” exclaimed the harper, his eyes beaming with enthusiasm. “Why should man be gifted with reason if not that he might use it? Why should he believe blindly what others choose to propagate as truth? Andrew, can it be that the heretics, and the people of whom you speak and of whom the stewardess told me, are the same? Is it possible that men of such pure and liberal faith have been so heartlessly treated? It seems to me, judging from their practice, that every one might have seen that their aims were of the very best kind.”
“What was Miss Felsenburk guilty of that her own father imprisoned her?” Andrew asked, unconsciously gaining more confidence in the stranger, who was moving nearer to him. They were now sitting close together in the bay-window, watching with interest each other’s beautiful face; no longer as enemies, but as dear friends. “Those who do not know their family affairs as you do will condemn her, believing that the loving father would not have turned against her for a small offense or a difference of opinion; they will believe that some impropriety on her part changed him. Who will believe that he dealt so with her because she opposed his selfish, ambitious plans? Who will think that she deserved praise for her behavior rather than punishment? As with her, so it was with a little band of people who, disgusted with the avarice and corruption of this world, turned away from the rest of the people and established a settlement by themselves, where they served God according to their belief. ‘The Bohemian-Moravian Union of Brethren and Sisters,’ they called their society. Like a sacred ark it floated above the filth and immorality of those times. In it were saved and preserved for us stores of invaluable principles, which otherwise would have been drowned in the filthy, bloody waves of immorality. The Brethren watched over them like heroic guardians, being ever ready to lay down their lives rather than to give up their sacred doctrines. And for that very noble devotion, for that intense virtue, and not because they had transgressed, they were hated, persecuted and burned. By their humbleness they excited the proud against themselves, by their temperance the extravagant, by their philanthropy the avaricious. Had their teachings spread as rapidly until now as they did in the beginning when people from the whole country flocked to them; had the Brethren not been exterminated by sword and fire, there would perhaps have been perfect equality among us; there would have been no poor, no forsaken, no wretched; we should have all been brothers and sisters.”
“If your former words were lightning that at once rent asunder a cloud beyond which a harmonious, ideal scene dawned upon me, your words now resemble the aurora which is to me an omen of everlasting light. I have never begged for anything yet, but I beg you now not to stop until you have told me all about the Brethren. Some other time, in return, I will tell you what I suffered, what distressed me, what drove me to this wilderness. Because you have led me to the sacred gates of an ideal world which I had never imagined, and yet the lack of which, I know now, made me grieve, I forgive you the false suspicions and accusations you cast at me, and offer you true, undying friendship. The longer I listen to you, the more clearly I see that I cannot become a heretic—for a heretic I was born.”
The last shadow of suspicion fled from Andrew’s noble heart when the young man stretched both his hands toward him, and tears gushed from his eyes. Andrew’s eyes also became dim, and his heart quivered with joyous emotion never felt before, when he firmly pressed the harper’s soft, white hand and vowed friendship. He would have thought it a sin when he looked into the beautiful enthusiastic face, to think longer that the harper concealed a traitorous purpose. He now believed that the harper’s soul was thirsting for the faith which alone gives heavenly peace, and gladly he proceeded to grant his wish to tell him all about the principles of the Bohemian Brethren, which he knew would fill his soul with light. The harper grew breathless as he listened.
“Those who became members of the Union were not allowed to take part in any earthly authority whatever, to serve in public offices, such as that of judges or councilmen. They were forbidden to inflict capital punishment, to appeal to law courts, to take oaths; a spoken promise was to be binding. They had no legal officers; for the most part in matters of importance they were only advised by a body of the oldest members, who were selected every third year. As they rejected earthly power, so they renounced the sword; they were forbidden to go to war, and they abjured the shedding of blood. They were also forbidden to sell liquors and to trade, on the ground that a man in business is liable to become dishonest or knavish; they lived only from the work of their hands and minds. As they, above all, disliked one person to have authority over another, they did not want aristocrats and nobles in their Union; and when later they were persecuted and needed protection and felt obliged to accept members of the nobility who had long wished to join them, the nobles had, at the meetings of the Union, to renounce all their claims to titles, and place themselves on a level with the Brethren. The rich were also excluded from their Union, because, said the Brethren, wealth ruins the mind; wealth makes a man proud, lazy, avaricious; abundance makes a man willful; wealth makes a man covetous, and a desire for possessions is the cause of all evil deeds; and besides, it was considered inappropriate for a thing so transient and insignificant as earthly possessions to dominate over human intellect and soul. The Brethren held no personal property; the lands of the members were one common possession, to which from time to time were added new estates as new members joined the society and transferred their property to the Union; and the whole was divided for cultivation and use among families according to the number of heads. The more heads, the more wants, but at the same time there were more hands to work. By this arrangement the Brethren avoided servitude; the children of large, poor families were not obliged to look for work elsewhere, and childless families had not to hire hosts of servants. Childless widows, widowers and persons who for their love of God remained single, took care of orphans and hospitals. The most enlightened and noble members were selected as Brother-assistants. Their duty was to travel once in every three months from one settlement to another, to investigate and discover if their assistance or their counsel was needed, either in material or spiritual things. If at any time a member of the Union wished to take along journey, he had to announce it to some older member, that he might be warned of danger possibly threatening his body or soul and that his absence might be accounted for; the safety of all the members was thus provided for, and an end was put to loafing.
“Among the Brethren were many skillful painters, composers and writers, against whom even their enemies had nothing to say except that their works were too elaborately composed, as if works dealing with the loftiest subjects deserved less care than those in which the common necessities of life were discussed. As their foremost teachers they honored John Hus, Peter Čelčicky, John Milič, and Matthew of Janov. Brother Gregory they respected as the founder of their Union; Brother Lukáš and Blahoslav they classed among their greatest scholars; John August, their first bishop, they highly regarded for his inflexible and virtuous principles, and John Amos Komensky (Comenius), their last bishop, became renowned as a teacher not only among them, but among the foremost masters of the world.
“The list of their martyrs is long; the Bydžovs were the last of them. At the beginning, the world ridiculed their Union, as it ridicules all things that are noble; but as the Union grew and prospered wonderfully, it soon began to be feared. The officer feared the loss of his occupation; the soldier of promotion; the capitalist of his power—if the rules by which the Union was controlled should be generally adopted. The lewd, the lawless, the idle, and all those who encouraged themselves with the hope of gaining honor and distinction without effort, either through wealth or family connection, made great threats against it. Rumors were circulated that the Brethren formed intrigues against the government; that they were dangerous knaves; and on the ground of these accusations they were persecuted, tormented and martyred. But they did not give up their faith; as true martyrs they preferred “the rack for breakfast and the stake for dinner.” Seeing at last that their destruction and the extinction of their religion was desired, they arose to defend their faith, and were defeated, partly because of their inefficiency as soldiers and partly because of the treason of those whom they trusted as leaders. Then followed a great religious war which lasted for centuries; and on account of this unyielding adherence of the Bohemians to their faith there was stirred up the most cruel hatred and opposition against everything Bohemian.
The meeting-houses in the settlements were destroyed; the Brethren were driven into other churches; their books were taken and burned; their children were seized and placed in convents for their education; the ministrations of the clergy were refused to the dying; the most noted members were beheaded, the rest exiled; and on their estates were settled people that other countries had expelled as refuse.
“The Brethren were scattered over strange countries, and paid for their hospitality by sowing the golden seeds of learning, which, when fully matured, other nations claimed as their own.
“The few that remained in Bohemia resembled a flock without a shepherd. They pretended to have given up their faith, that they might remain in their mother-country, for they could not but hope that better times would come; that they should live to see the day of liberty and general rejoicing, the day when publicly and honorably they could acknowledge their religion, the day when Bohemia would resume her place among the nations of the world.”
“They did not hope in vain; the dawn of that day will soon come,” exclaimed the harper, hopefully. “Joseph II. will be just to the Bohemians; he is the warmest and the most vigilant friend of his people, and desires their progress.”
Andrew sadly shook his head.
“You look so bright, and yet you think, compare and judge so obtusely,” he said, with reproach. “You come from Prague, and yet you do not seem to know that Vienna, day by day, is gaining ground; that Vienna will soon have the entire control of our country. Joseph’s Bohemia is no longer an independent kingdom as it was when the Bohemians called to their throne his predecessors, who swore to preserve her rights and privileges; she is now only a part of the Austrian Empire. After the coronation of Maria Theresa the crown of Bohemia was taken to the treasury of Vienna, and Joseph II. has declared that it will remain there forever as a relic. It will not glitter on his head as the emblem of our national existence, for Joseph will never stain himself with a falsehood. The Bohemian courts are already abolished; if a Bohemian wishes to appeal to justice, he must travel to Vienna to do so. The old coins, weights and measures of our country have been abolished, that in all things we should be Austrian. Some years ago only members of the old Bohemian nobility were chosen as district captains, but now Germans are placed in those positions. Joseph will permit no Bohemian legislature to convene; and he is preparing to sell, after the death of the Empress, all the costly collections and relics of the former Bohemian kings. He will even destroy the old churches, sell them or rent them for secular uses.”
The harper interrupted Andrew.
“You are wronging Joseph; you are accusing him as unjustly as you were Maria Felicia a while ago. Maria Felicia——”
“Why do you drag Maria Felicia’s name into our conversation again?” Andrew asked impatiently. “Her name is always on your tongue. The first time you spoke of her to me I knew that a tenderer tie than the mere fondness of a teacher for a gifted pupil bound you to her. But take care, my friend; you remind me of a fly circling round a flame. Do not smile so carelessly and contentedly! If you feel that you are inclined to love her, I advise you as a brother to be planning how to part with her as soon as possible, even though you were sure that she would return your love.”
“Why do you not want me to taste the sweet fruit?”
“Unmerciful is the Felsenburk race, even in love.”
“What do you know about the loves of the Felsenburks?” the harper quickly asked. “I want to know if you have a right to warn me,” he added, trying to appear calm.
“Look at the fate of the deceased Count’s wife, whom he put away; think how he loved as a father. They are all alike at heart, and have always been——”
“Yes; always. Passion, jealousy, deceit, revenge—such is their love.”
The harper, yet mischievously smiling, now became thoughtful.
“Do you know more about the domestic affairs of that family than that the deceased Count put away his wife?”
Andrew did not answer.
“Tell me what you know,” the harper added.
“I know nothing—almost nothing—except some old rumors. Why should I speak of them? Let us spend the night in more useful and congenial conversation—the night that for the first time has brought us together and caused us to form a friendship which I hope will never be broken.”
“Such is also my sincere wish, but—tell me what you know; it is your duty to tell me as a warning. You have guessed—the Countess is not indifferent to me, and I know that I am not indifferent to her,” the young man confessed, trying again the mischievous smile; but shy and frightened was the look that he cast at Andrew’s face, which again was very gloomy. Was he to hear something more dreadful than he had already heard? Since he stepped over the threshold of Hlohov he had encountered a flood of terrible stories.
“You are right,” Andrew finally said. “It is my duty to warn you; for your protection I will dive into the bloody pool of the past of Hlohov. It would be my duty to warn you if you were traveling a road full of unknown pitfalls, and I would not hesitate to make every effort to save you. In the nature of the woman about whom we have been speaking there is undoubtedly, as in her forefathers, a perfect hell of wickedness.”
The harper listened breathlessly.
“What did Miss Felsenburk tell you about this Castle before she sent you here?”
“That it was a lonely place, as if it had been created for people weary of life’s troubles,” the harper replied, but his voice was losing its force, as his cheeks were losing their color.
“I do not mean how she described it. I mean what she told you about how it came into the possession of her family.”
“The Castle was given to them about a century and a half ago by the Emperor of Austria.”
“As a reward for military services.”
Andrew laughed wildly.
The harper, deeply flushed, watched him keenly.
“Surely your hatred toward that family does not go so far that you would deny its valor.”
“That, I swear before God, I could not do, if I wished a thousand times to deprive them of that honor,” and Andrew laughed more wildly than before. “To see ten, twenty, thirty heads roll off a block into sand saturated with human blood, in one half day; to see ten, twenty and twice that number of bodies tortured in a thousand different ways by the headsman—and those the bodies of their own former friends, fellow-believers and blood relations—that was valor so rare, so magnificent, so immortal, that it was rewarded, not only with one estate and castle, but with whole cities, manors and princely domains; and even yet the stars of honor and glory are showered upon that heroic family.”
The harper, stiff as a post, was not able to say a word.
“Ah, it seems that you are trembling, and I have hardly begun,” Andrew unmercifully added. “Will you regain your common sense and rid yourself of Countess Felsenburk after knowing that love, unreciprocated love, led to this bloody crime? The master of this castle, Hlohovsky, who was the foremost defender of the Brethren’s Union and also the most sincere professor of their faith, had a bosom friend with whom he shared everything, cup, bed and arms. He was of the family of the Skalnickys, and grew up as a page on the manor of Hlohovsky’s father. They spent their young days happily together, and were inseparable.
“One day, during a tournament, they met a young lady with whom they both fell passionately in love. She was known far and wide as a charming lutanist. She favored Hlohovsky, and became his wife. Skalnicky became so angry that he swore vengeance on her and on all her descendants. He not only turned his heart against his friend and forgot the gratitude he owed him, but began to persecute and hate what had once been dear to him. Until then he had believed with the Brethren, and protected them; but now he joined the Popish party and persecuted the Brethren. He became friendly with the enemies of Bohemia; he planned a hundred intrigues against his countrymen, and all this he did to bring complete destruction on his rival. Strange to say, his burning desire for revenge was soon realized. The master of Hlohov led an army against the enemies of his country, and being wounded in the battle of White Mountain, was dragged unconscious into a prison. His wife was not admitted to see him, and so she grieved alone in Hlohov, lulling her little son to sleep with mournful airs on her lute. One summer forenoon, burdened with terrible forebodings, for she had heard that a dangerous man was seated among her husband’s judges, she leaned over her lute more sadly than ever before. Suddenly the strings trembled mournfully, and the mistress of Hlohov fell to the floor unconscious. A few days later news reached the Castle that at the same moment the master of Hlohov had been executed on the Prague market place, his escutcheon broken and buried under the gallows, his family banner suspended on the pillory; and that at the same time the hangman proclaimed that the Hlohovskys were deprived of their title and of the right of holding their estates. His wealth was transferred to his former friend, who had denounced Hlovovsky as the greatest rebel, and had insisted on his execution.”
A deep sigh escaped the harper’s breast; Andrew did not heed it.
“Everything now belonged to Skalnicky, who was elevated to the honor of Count Felsenburk; his rival’s wife, estates and child were all in his hands. He could have had the former mistress of Hlohov driven out of the Castle by his hounds, for she was outlawed; he, however, planned a different scheme. After the bloody crime on the market place of Prague was completed, he started for Hlohov in grand style, with the expectation that, as soon as he approached the Castle, she who had dared to scorn his love would be coming to meet him; that, barefooted, with loosely flying hair covered with ashes, dressed in a horse-hair garb, kneeling before him in the dust, with tears in her eyes, she would beg for his mercy. He intended to enjoy for a while her humiliation and then change her weeping to joy; he intended to raise the penitent from the ground, place her by his side, and make of her Countess Felsenburk, for his wild passion was not yet tamed. But as an avenger he was more fortunate than as a lover; the news of her sudden death struck him a terrible blow. The sweetest fruit of his vengeance being gone, he then raged so desperately that the loss of his mind was feared. For many weeks his servants watched him as a lunatic. But no sooner had he recovered than a new thirst for vengeance seized him; he searched wildly for his rival’s son, intending to place him in a seminary and have him educated as a Catholic, to the disgrace of his father’s memory. The son, however, was not to be found; he had disappeared, and with him the chest containing all the documents which proved Hlohovsky’s right to his title. He searched for the boy all his life, for afterward, by the special favor of the Emperor, he married a wealthy lady, and had sons of his own. No trace of the son was ever found, although he was being brought up in Hlohov in the family of one of his own servants, who, in the confusion, had succeeded in taking and concealing the child and later claimed him as his own. The servant, a porter, was a devoted Brother; he imbued the child with love for the truth, his father’s faith and his country. Not until the porter was dying did he trust the secret of the boy’s birth to him, give him the documents, and console him with hope that the condition of our country would sometime change. But it has not changed. The descendant of the Hlohovskys bequeathed no more to his son than the right to sweep yards, which he had inherited from the supposed father.”
“And—you—are the grandson of that son?” the harper faintly whispered. “Do not deny it; as soon as I saw you I could not believe that you had come from the blood of common servants.”
“Does it seem more grand to you to come from the blood of robbers, traitors, murderers?”
The harper fell on his knees with a cry of despair. Andrew, trembling with sympathy, leaned over him; tried to raise him from the floor, but in vain. The harper rolled at his feet, moaning in agony.
“I did not mean to wound you; I wanted to save you. I am sorry for your tears; your grief pains me. What can I do to soothe your heart? I suspected that you loved Miss Felsenburk, but I did not think that your love for her was so ardent that an old tradition about the evil deeds of one of her forefathers would pain you so desperately. Do not weep; that bloody deed has been drowned in the depths of forgetfulness. No one in this world but you and I knows anything about it; it will never reach the Countess. Let her enjoy her wealth and glory in peace; no one denies her the right to them; no one envies her position; no one will trouble her with these ancient stories.”
But the harper seemed to take no heed of the consoling words, abandoning himself to the wildest despair. At last, with a deep sigh, he rose to his feet, and faintly said:
“I thank you for what I have just heard more than for all the preceding; it is possible to expiate the old crime. The Countess must know this, that she may reconcile the——”
“What? And why?”
“Surely, you will not refuse to forgive, if you are asked to become reconciled?”
“I have nothing to forgive in the matter you are thinking of.'"
“Do not put on a mask of deception; you cannot deceive me. Maria Felicia will not offer you charity nor a gift, for she never would accept one herself. A different reward she will have for you, a reward more worthy of her and of you—her hand.”
And again the harper despairingly covered his face.
“Would your sublime mistress humble herself so greatly?” said Andrew, with a scornful laugh.
“I know her; she will certainly offer the sacrifice for the honor of her family—a double sacrifice it will be, for she intended to live a single life.”
“She need not violate her intention on account of me.”
“Do not behave so proudly,” the harper angrily said, and his grief changed to indignation at Andrew’s refusal.
“You do not know her; you do not know how beautiful she is. No man has ever yet resisted her beauty. Even kings long for her favors.”
“What attracts kings never has attracted a Hlohovsky. If, as you think, one of their descendants still lives, you may be certain that he will not worship any qualities in a woman except a heroic mind, a generous heart, and a noble conviction of faith for which she would not hesitate to give up her life. But how strangely you are behaving, comrade. You are, I think, the first lover who ever tried to persuade another to love his beloved. To be sure, the lover to whom you are offering her is only an illusion; otherwise such generosity would be matchless.”
“Your refusal is vain; your hypocrisy useless. It would be unworthy of you to refuse a reconciliation. This is possible only by marriage; marriage alone can end the feud. Bring me the documents that prove your origin, which, as you said, the faithful servant concealed with the child—and I will give you the engagement ring of Maria Felicia.”
“Enough of that empty, insolent pretense,” said Andrew, jumping up. “Do you not comprehend that if I were what you take me to be, her ring would inflame my finger and press on it the mark of disgrace? That touching the hand of the bride you are forcing upon me, I should continually be thinking of the hand that destroyed my race; and walking by her side, I should see a stream of blood rolling between us? That her words would recall to me those of the murdered ones and the lament of the widow; that they would turn my heart into ice? Even though it were possible, as you in your youthful inexperience believe, that the granddaughter of the assassin of my race would stoop to its last representative—then you may believe he would never, never lower himself to her, if he were to gain heaven by it!”
And Andrew left the room as suddenly as he had appeared.
The harper jumped up as if bitten by a scorpion; the look that he turned upon the porter’s son was almost enough to paralyze him.
What had he heard? Did this man really dare to disdain Countess Felsenburk—beautiful, charming Maria Felicia, to whom even the Emperor, the foremost man of his age, bowed? Did he dare to scorn a Countess to whom at court belonged the first place after the Archduchess? And who was this impudent darer? As he had said himself, the least in the lowest rank of her slaves, a descendant of executed traitors, a crazy heretic. He must be punished for his audacity; he must. The Countess must not keep him in her service, nor on her estates; she must discharge him—put him in the army for life. Even that would be a slight punishment for such a terrible, unheard-of crime; she must imprison him in one of the cellars of this castle, over which he claims to have more right than she, and leave him there five, ten years—yes, let him miserably perish and rot in the dungeon. No one can forbid her doing so; a mistress can punish her impudent servant as she pleases. She is his ruler, his judge; he is her property, with which she can do whatever she wishes, for which she is responsible to no one. With what delight she will see the punishment executed!
But no, impossible for any one to scorn Maria Felicia! The harper did not hear distinctly; he is mistaken. For such offense imprisonment would be a light punishment. Such a man would deserve to be put to death; yes; put to death. A vision of blood floated before the harper’s eyes. Oh, you first Felsenburk, the harper knows in this moment how you felt when the lutanist rejected you; how your head pulsed; how you saw blood, only blood; how everything noble within you suddenly died of that black venomous anger; how you had ears for nothing but for those thousand hissing voices in your head, your heart, and your every vein. Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance! Let those who have insulted me suffer! The harper sees how that terrible ruthlessness came to you; why you longed to be a judge, to pronounce the sentence of death. The harper sees the jailer and his terrible instruments, the gallows, the block; he sees the pool of blood; he sees a frightful ghost soaring over the scene. Oh, Andrew, beg, beg! otherwise a fate like your ancestor’s will seize you. You have thoughtlessly revealed your sympathy with the heretics. Have you forgotten the fate of your aunt? Oh, beg, beg, Andrew; humble yourself, promise devotion and gratitude to Maria Felicia, that you may be forgiven! But, first of all, promise love, proud Hlohovsky. Do you see the sword above your head? Do you see how it glitters, how heavy it is?
Oh, the Hlohovskys do not beg; and they prefer death to the hand of one whom Kings have favored, who herself was the queen of beauty and intellect, and as wealthy as those who wear crowns. Hlohovsky scorned Maria Felicia because she was of the blood of traitors and oppressors.
And the harper moaned as if the sword were on his own neck, at his own heart.
“Mercy, mercy, Maria Felicia!” he wildly exclaimed. “Do you not realize that the one you want to sacrifice to your revenge is the very one you idealized, when, being tired of the dandies surrounding you, you bitterly asked yourself: ‘Whither have those men vanished that do not worship beauty and wealth, those men that love truth, only truth?’ Does Andrew not rival Joseph II., who seems to you the greatest among men? Does he not, in his proud refusal, his virtue, his sublime enthusiasm, by far excel him? Yes; he is greater than Joseph. The Emperor knows that honor rewards his every deed, but who honors the deeds of a servant? Oh, he is right in rejecting you; does not the revengeful blood of your forefather still ferment within you? And is not Andrew’s mind, though burdened by misfortune, full of light? Oh, you are not worthy of your porter’s son. Countess Felsenburk—just admit it.” . . .
And again the harper writhed with pain, and called Andrew in accents full of hopeless yearning and despair. . . . O Love, amid what distresses you are born; how heedless of differences of rank you are; in what strange moments you overtake human hearts! . . .
The old bloody crime of the Felsenburks against the Hlohovskys was avenged that night. A sentence as severe as the one Skalnicky had procured for his former friend was declared against the assassin’s granddaughter by the grandson of the beheaded. He swore that her proud soul must bear the burden of the family crimes until death; that atonement for them was not possible; that, abounding in wealth stolen from him, she should suffer the stings of remorse until death. He declared that her beauty was nothing to him; that life by her side would be like infernal tortures.
When, the next day, after waiting long for her visitor, the stewardess, trembling in every limb with fear that she would find him slain by some night monster, ventured into the Castle in search of the harper, she found that the ancient chamber in which the lamp placed by him was still glimmering was empty; nor could any traces of the young man be found. Thinking that he had gone into the woods for a stroll she waited for him the whole day, but in vain; he had disappeared from the Castle like a shadow.