Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The steady students

THE STEADY STUDENTS.

While residing in the old town of Luneburg, I got acquainted with a German doctor of philosophy. To my knowledge he never did anything but smoke, compare the different systems of metaphysics, and collect curious tales; but an honester or more truthful man I never knew: and one evening, as we sat together in his summer-house, he told me the following story:

I got my education at the university, or more properly speaking, the College of Brunswick. My father sent me there because somebody had told him the students’ morals were better looked after, and also because we had a second cousin who held the office of notary to the Ducal Court. My father was also notary public to the town council of Luneburg. He owned a considerable property in the town, which may have helped to make him careful of my principles, for I was his only son and heir.

Like most people of property at the time—it was a few years after the general peace—my father was ultra-loyal to the powers that were, and had a bad opinion of student-life, as a school where not only loose practices, but revolutionary opinions might be learned. I know not which was considered the greater evil; but to Brunswick I was sent, placed under the surveillance of my courtly cousin, and appointed to lodge with Frau Subert, a clergyman’s widow, famous for early hours, strict accounts, and all sorts of sober housekeeping. Frau Subert’s dwelling stood in a quarter which had been built when Brunswick was one of the free cities of Germany, and was now decidedly unfashionable, owing to its distance from the court end. Quiet respectable burghers lived there, and carried on business in old-fashioned shops overhung by the first floors. The houses had that antiquated yet substantial look common to the most ancient quarters of our German towns. Many of them had been occupied by the same families for five or six generations, and that was the case with Frau Subert’s. It had a verse from Luther’s bible cut in stone above the front-door; by the way it was in the gable, an outside stair; narrow and pointed windows, and some remains of fortification with which one of her ancestors had strengthened it in the thirty years’ war. There the Frau dwelt with her son and daughter, and regularly let three apartments,—one on the first, one on the second, and one on the third floor. The two upper-rooms were occupied before my arrival; the first floor one being the most genteel and expensive, suited a young man who was heir to property in Luneburg, and had a relation at court; there accordingly my cousin established me, saw that I matriculated properly—advised me to make no acquaintances without consulting him—gave me a solemn invitation to dine at his house on the first Sunday of every month, and left me, as he said, to pursue the path of knowledge. I had a great veneration for rank in those days, and some idea of attaining it by holding on to my cousin’s skirts. His advice was therefore followed to the letter. I attended strictly to lectures and classes—eschewed all intimacy with my fellow-students, and magnified myself on the once a month dinner, which came off in the fourth floor of one of the large houses in the court end, where the ducal notary lived with the help of his old and careful housekeeper, for he had steered clear of the rocks and shoals of matrimony—received his noble clients—awaited the grand duke’s commands, and reckoned his own weekly expenses every Saturday night. My entertainment on those great occasions consisted of the pedigrees, connections, and quarterings of the illustrious families whose marriage contracts and settlements he had drawn up, together with such shreds of court-gossip as my prudent cousin thought suitable for my age and position, which I heard with profound attention and treasured up for writing to Caroline. You perceive I had left my heart in Luneburg with a town-counsellor’s eldest daughter. The honest man was blessed with seven girls, but Caroline was the prettiest. We were not yet betrothed, but the affair had been in progress for some six months, partly winked at and partly encouraged by my father, because the town-counsellor had a respectable dowry for each of the seven, and Caroline’s godmother had left her a stock of plate and linen besides. Of course we had parted, with vows of eternal constancy, and a surprising number of letters passed between us, but one cannot live on letter-writing and dinners once a month. As I was allowed to make no acquaintances, and go seldom to public amusements, my mind naturally turned to taking notes of Frau Subert’s house and its inhabitants.

The Frau herself was a large grey-haired woman, with a face which might have been carved out of Baltic timber, it looked so solid and immoveable. Her daughter was her counterpart, some twenty years younger; her son was a masculine edition of them both, and served in a neighbouring shop, while they conducted domestic affairs. The nearest of my fellow-lodgers was a tall stooping man whom I never saw in any costume but a dressing gown and slippers. He had been a physician in high fashion when Brunswick formed part of the kingdom of Westphalia; but having come out strong for King Jerome and French domination, he lost place and practice when the province changed hands; lived quietly to escape police notice on a very small income saved out of the wreck of his good fortune, and being naturally an easy, intelligent man, I found him a pleasant, chatty companion. He was not in the list of proscribed acquaintances. Having taken the precaution to change his name, the doctor’s antecedents were matters unknown to my courtly cousin; he and I equally wanted somebody to converse with, and from our first meeting on the stair we became familiar friends. It was the doctor who first interested me in the lodgers above. They were two young students of my college. Collegium Carolinum is the proper name of the institution in which I matriculated. I had noticed them in the class-room, for both were singularly handsome, though of such different types that one could scarcely believe they were brothers, which they had stated they were. The eldest was a tall, powerful man—moulded like the Greek Hercules—with jet black hair, a beard to match, and a brave high spirit flashing at times from his eyes. The other was a slender youth, tall in proportion, but many an inch below his brother. His face and figure were cast in a mould too fine to be manly; he had a fair and delicate complexion, soft blue eyes, and hair the colour of the ripe corn.

There must have been six or seven years between their ages, yet the eldest did not look more than twenty-three, which is reckoned young in our northern Germany. They appeared in the college-roll as Henry and Hubert Hessing, natives of Hanover, but their accent was not of it or the adjoining provinces. Early in the preceding year they had come strangers to the city and matriculated. From that time their conduct had been so orderly and blameless—their application so steady and untiring—as to gain the special notice and praise of all the professors. They were advanced students, and both had taken honours, but in different departments. The eldest excelled in logic and mathematics,—the youngest in history and belles lettres; but my cousin might have set them before me as examples of avoiding acquaintances. Their fellow-students knew as little of them now as when they first came to college. They gave no offence, but declined all advances; even the Professors’ invitations—given by way of reward and encouragement—were modestly but decidedly refused. They were evidently satisfied with each other’s company, for no one ever saw them separate. In club, ball-room, or theatre, they were never seen, and seemed to have no amusement but taking long walks into the country and reading old books, for which they ransacked all the libraries in town.

There was something about the Hessings which kept impertinence at a distance. Sensible people concluded that such resolute reserve could spring only from pride, and left them to their chosen solitude. The doctor and I were solitary, too, but not from choice; the hum of talk or reading—the low laughter which came from their room as we sat by our evening fires, made us wish to know more of them. The doctor thought Frau Subert did—he had seen her show them extraordinary deference for lodgers in the third floor—and heard her speak in an earnest confidential tone to the eldest, but could never catch a word. One might as well hope to get intelligence out of the Holstein cheese she brought up every morning, as from Frau Subert. There was no getting the woman into a chat, beyond the state of the weather and the arrangements for breakfast and dinner, she had no coversation, and her daughter was, if possible, less communicative.

Nevertheless, we were to be acquainted. I had shown the Hessings’ sundry small civilities on the way to and from college, yet so as to let them see I did not mean to intrude; when, returning home one evening in the twilight, I heard somebody slip on the stair, and was just in time to stop the youngest of the steady students in a descent more rapid than safe. His brother was on the spot in a moment,—both thanked me, and I pressed them into my room to see if the boy was hurt. To my great surprise and pleasure they accepted the invitation. Hubert had got a slight scratch by coming in contact with one of the steps. It was a great opportunity for the doctor, he had a supply of court plaster—in short, from that hour, we and the Hessings became friendly—spent our evenings in each other’s rooms—exchanged books and sometimes arguments. They were agreeable companions, silent on no subject but their own history, of which we never heard a syllable, thoroughly good-natured and perfectly well-bred. There was a remarkable similarity of tastes and opinions between them; though more than liberal on all points, they seemed to regard life only with the scholar’s eyes in which to gather knowledge and live quietly is the sum of good. Their attachment appeared to us both strong and strange. It did not proclaim itself in overt words and actions, but the whole tenor of their lives proved that they loved, and could not live without each other.

Knowing that the court notary had ways and means of making out my doings, and also that my new acquaintances neither sang songs nor made speeches about Fatherland, I thought proper to mention them at the most convenient of the monthly dinners. It was seldom that any guest but myself partook of those entertainments; but, on this occasion, there was a Russian gentleman who spoke German well, and took such an agreeable interest in the account of my fellow-lodgers, that he drew me out considerably, and I think contributed to my cousin’s approval of the intimacy, his remarks having uncommon weight, for he was private secretary to the Princess Woriskow.

Her excellency was related to the Imperial family of Russia, and in great friendship with the reigning Madame Krudener. She was also connected with most of the German courts, and now on a tour of visits among them, some said doing a little diplomatic business on the hints which Kotzebue and Co. had forwarded to the Winter Palace. The exertions of those gentlemen, seconded by our native princes, were then bringing Germany, as near as possible, to the state of a Russian province, and all Brunswick felt sure that the Princess Woriskow was doing her share of the work at the Ducal court.

The private secretary had been twenty years in her service. His name was Karlowitz—a regular Russian—with the Tartar face, small cunning eyes and powerful frame, a great amount of external polish, and an ability to become anything which the time, the company, or the business required. The experience I have since gathered convinces me that he had picked up acquaintance with the notary to get some knowledge of his courtly transactions, and my respected cousin was so flattered by the attentions, and so proud of having a princess’s private secretary at his table, that Karlowitz was always there when not in better society, and to my own glorification, I began to be more frequently invited, too. It was first every second, and then every Sunday. I knew my promotion was owing to the Russian,—he had evidently raised me many degrees in my cousin’s esteem, and he now took me into his friendship, professed a great regard for me, and generally walked with me part of the way home. I could not help noticing in these solitary walks, that his conversation invariably turned on the princess the moment we got into the street. He told me what large estates she had in Courland—what magnificent diamonds she possessed—what royal and imperial connections she could reckon, and what immense patronage was at her command.

“She saw you last night at the theatre,” he said, with a very knowing look, as we reached our usual parting-place one Sunday evening.

“Well, some young men are lucky if they can only be wise. Be at the opera to-morrow evening—wear this in your button-hole, on the left remember, and keep your own counsel.”

Before I had recovered from my astonishment far enough to speak, Karlowitz was gone, leaving in my fingers a small bouquet of artificial snowdrops, so perfectly finished that any one would have taken them for natural, though the flowers had not yet come, for it was December, and Brunswick was busy with its Christmas balls and plays.

The Princess Woriskow concerning whose doings and diamonds all Brunswick was talking, in whose honour fêtes and dinners abounding in etiquette had been given at the palace, and the stiffest of court-operas was about to be performed at the theatre, taking such an extraordinary interest in me. It was enough to turn the head of a more experienced student. I went to bed that night without writing to Caroline. All through my dreams and through the next day’s classes, “be at the opera to-morrow evening” sounded in my ears, and the artificial snowdrops danced before my eyes. Well, I went to the opera in my best attire and airs, not forgetting the said snowdrops. There was a blaze of fashion, if not of beauty—courts seldom turn out much of that article—but I looked only at the ducal-box. There sat the princess superbly clothed in velvet, lace, and diamonds; placed between their serene highnesses the grand duke and duchess, but remarkably like her secretary, with the variation of blacker hair—by-the-by, they said it was a wig—and paint both red and white laid on with no sparing hand. Yet my heart beat quickly when—their serene highnesses being occupied with the piece—her glass was directed right upon me, and the princess smiled most graciously. At safe intervals, throughout the performance, I never could recollect what opera it was, the glance and smile were bestowed. Karlowitz gave me a look of mingled congratulation and warning as the cortège withdrew. The castle in Courland and the town-house in Petersburg, which he had so fully described, appeared to be places within the probable bounds of my travels, and I went home with the feelings of the shepherd who had slept on the hill-side and awoke in fairy-land.

Caroline wrote rather pettishly in the course of that week to know why she had not a letter, but my reply was a note of hurried grandeur. Christmas Eve was kept as a sort of Carnival by the young and gay portion of the Brunswickers—it fell on the Saturday after my opera night, and when leaving college on the preceding evening a link-boy handed me a billet which I read at the nearest street lamp, and it ran thus:

Some men are lucky if they can be wise. Be at the Winter Garden at seven to-morrow evening, in a black mask and domino, look out for a Russian officer of Hussars, and believe in your good fortune.

I did believe, as what man at twenty would not. Our winter garden was a greenhouse on a large scale, with the plants arranged so as to form parterres and alleys; there was a salon attached, where balls and concerts were held, and a number of retired pavilions where friends had talk and refreshments. I was there in mask and domino half an hour before the time. There were many in similar guises straying about the flowers and arbours, but at length I saw the Russian officer beckoning to me from the entrance of one of the most shaded bowers. I still believe, though I cannot prove it to myself, that the hussar was none other than the princess. The disguise was perfect; there was no mask worn, but a red beard which would have done honour to the taste of any Cossack; the black wig had been exchanged for a crop of the same colour cut in the most approved style of the north.

“Come in,” he said: the voice was scarcely deep enough for a hussar, but had that hard metallic ring which I have never heard from good or honest people. “Come in; I want to hear your opinion of my uniform. How does it fit?—should you like to wear it? But I suppose you could not leave Fatherland, or trust yourself in Russia; yet who knows what promotion a clever young man might come to there.”

“I don’t understand you,” said I, taking the seat to which he directed me by his side.

“Of course you don’t; but I understand you. You are a steady student who mind your studies, keep out of clubs and mischief, and have such a nice circle of your own in Frau Subert’s rooms, with that sensible old doctor and those clever young men in the third floor. Well, there are people in palaces who envy those snug social evenings of yours,” and the Russian sighed like the wind through an old house. “If one of them stole in some night, would you let him warm himself at your fire?”

The Steady Students - A Russian Hussar.png

“A stranger should always get the best seat,” said I.

Sensibly spoken; but would the stranger get it?” And my new friend proceeded in the same half-bantering, half-serious strain, showing a surprising knowledge of my life and society at Frau Subert’s, and drawing out further information by well-directed questions. I observed, not at the time, but afterwards, that he made many sidelong inquiries regarding the young men in the third floor; and when, in answer to some of them, I mentioned that we had arranged to spend New Year’s Eve together in my room, he promptly responded.

“I’ll put your hospitality to the test that night. Your landlady is, doubtless, too prudent to admit strangers without question, but you will wear this,” and he drew from his waistcoat a magnificent diamond pin. “And when a stranger comes inquiring how it suits you, have him shown in at once.”

I protested against accepting such a costly present, but he rose, saying:

“Nonsense, you’ll wear it for my sake; but don’t follow me.”

His command was obeyed, the pin went home with me, yet somehow I felt uncomfortable in the prospect of his visit. If it really were her Excellency, she had taken a strange fancy for seeing me at home, which, flattering as it was, I could have dispensed with. My friends were to be kept in the dark, of that I had been warned more than was necessary, for the secret involved a princess, and who that has lived under the small German courts does not know the danger of discovering such tales; but they would be present, and must get some explanation. So I wore the diamond-pin, and manufactured a story about winning it by a wager with a masker in the winter garden on Christmas Eve.

Before they were done admiring my jewel, the last night of the year arrived. I believe my arrangements for the supper rather astonished Frau Subert; but she set all down to the luxury and extravagance which we Hanoverians are supposed to have learned by our connection with England. We were all assembled, the Doctor, the two Hessings, and myself—a small but cheerful company. I had kept back every appearance of expectation, and the supper was progressing, when about the time that the select dinner-party given that evening at the palace might have terminated, there was a ring at the door-bell, and the Frau’s daughter came up with the fact, that a gentleman had called to know how the pin suited me.

“Show him in,” said I. “Now you’ll see a regular Russian.”

Before my companions had time to ask a question on the subject, the officer of hussars was in the room, looking exactly as I saw him in the winter garden, and with a general bow to the company, and acknowledgment of my flurried welcome, he took his seat among us, made a few polite observations on the contrast between the frosty night without and our warm cheerful room, which seemed to set everybody at his ease except Hubert Hessing, and I could not help noticing the look of terrible recollection which passed over the boy’s face as he spoke. The Russian noticed nothing, looked at nobody, but addressing himself to me, said he happened to be in my part of the town, and could not resist the temptation of calling to see me and my friends, talked of our meeting in the garden in such a vague and easy manner, that my company could make nothing of it, but declined to join us at supper, saying he had agreed to meet a party in the theatre; gave me a grim smile at the door, to which I accompanied him, and walked away with a servant wonderfully like Karlowitz. My company were informed that was the gentleman from whom I won the diamond-pin, and that I believed he was an officer in the Duke’s Guard, who chose to masquerade in the Russian uniform. This satisfied them all, and the rest of the evening passed merrily. Hubert recovered from that sudden attack of memory, and seemed more light of heart than I had ever seen the grave and gentle boy before. We sat to see the New Year in, drank his welcome, and parted in high spirits and friendship.

Early next morning I had a note from my cousin inviting not only myself but the doctor to dinner, which the prudent notary explained by informing me that the princess’s secretary had taken a great interest in my friend, and was to meet him that day at his house. The doctor had not many invitations. He accepted at once, and we went; but no secretary appeared till the dinner was almost spoiled, and then the notary received a message to the effect that her Excellency was indisposed, and he was obliged to remain in attendance. When we returned home in the evening, Frau Subert met us with a face of despair; the commissary of police had sent a company of his familiars to her house an hour after our departure, who arrested the two Hessings with all their goods and papers, and carried them off to the police office. The honest woman said she knew not why or wherefore; but all our endeavours to comfort or quiet her were fruitless: she went about the house wringing her hands and crying, so unlike her usual composed ways, that we felt sure she had some part or lot in that matter. Still it was not possible that the Hessings could have been guilty of any crime. I hurried to the office of the commissary to do a friend’s part, as the doctor did not care for venturing into that locality. The only answer I could obtain was, that I must return on the following day, for business was not to be talked of on Sunday, and on applying next morning, I was told that the Hessings were Russian subjects, and had been arrested on a serious accusation; that they were now in the hands of the Russian authorities, and my most prudent course was to keep clear of the business. Nevertheless, in my folly and friendship I thought of the princess. Might not her Excellency be induced to use her powerful influence in behalf of the friends she had seen with me at supper, and talked of in the winter garden. I forthwith despatched a most moving petition, together with a letter to Karlowitz, to secure his good offices, but both were returned to me unopened the same evening, and the Brunswick papers announced that her Excellency and suite had left the palace en route for St. Petersburg.

It was now clear even to myself that I had been flattered and duped for some purpose involving the poor Hessings. The doctor never got the whole story out of me, though he often returned to the charge concerning the pin and the hussar. I believe it was those inexplicable circumstances which made him withdraw from my society, and Frau Subert gave me to understand that she would prefer another lodger. The whole business was disagreeable. I changed my quarters, and in the following season my college too, having got my father’s leave to study at Gottingen—but that was not all. As my visions of the palace in Petersburg and the castle in Courland melted away, Caroline resumed her empire over my heart, but in answer to my returning homage, she sent me a brief note to request back her letters, and assure me that we were not suited to each other. She married the town clerk of Luneburg in the course of the following summer, and my heart did not break, but I’m a bachelor as you see, and have been a great enemy to princesses and all belonging to them ever since.

Years passed. My father died and left me his property. I had travelled in Europe, and Asia, met with some adventures, made many acquaintances, but never got news or explanation regarding my lost friends. At last I settled in the capital of Hanover for some time, and at a coffee house there, chanced to meet a French physician in considerable repute among the rich and idle inhabitants of that particularly dull town. He had been with his country’s army in the Russian campaign, escaped the frost by falling into the hands of the enemy, made himself professionally useful, and was detained in Russia for years. What reason he had for keeping out of the territories of the restored Bourbon I never learned; but he spoke German better than most of his countrymen ever can. He was solitary, and so was I; our acquaintance ripened rapidly, and in the course of it, I discovered that part of his Russian experience had been acquired in the service of the Princess Woriskow, to whom he had been handed over by one of her noble relations, who happened to be a general officer, as her Excellency’s physician. My friend had resided in the castle of my early dreams, knew Karlowitz well; and one evening when we were particularly confidential over some capital Moselle, I took courage to tell him my story in hopes of some light on the Hessings’ share of it. The doctor listened with a series of silent gesticulations, as if to give his feelings vent.

“Oh! you German goose,” said he, when I had finished; “Monsieur will excuse the familiarity of a friend. Did you not see that the Princess and her secretary were making an instrument of you to identify and secure those unfortunate young people? Listen; when I lived at her Excellency’s castle, in Courland, she had in her guardianship a boy and girl, whose parentage was kept a profound secret. Some said they were the last descendants of the Jagellons; some, that they were the grandchildren of the second Duke de Biren, which account was favoured by the fact that they bore his family name. All parties agreed in the statement that they were heirs to a duchy, though it could not be settled whether the rightful inheritance was Courland or Lithuania; and that the Russian Government had sound reasons for keeping fast hold of them. The Princess had got them into her keeping; why, I cannot tell; except that her family had got a large share of the ducal lands in both provinces, and she stood in high favour with the keeper of the imperial conscience, Madame Krudener. Wherever the Princess went, the boy and girl went with her. It was said, she never lost sight of them for twenty-four hours together. As became their descent, both were beautiful; but the boy was evidently imbecile, while the girl had fine intellects, and a remarkable bent to learning. Her Excellency, doubtless for some politic reason, did not think proper to notice this difference in her wards. She was in the habit of boasting that they received a superior education under her management, and for that purpose there was kept among her retinue a young German, named Henrich Von Eslar. I know not how he came into the service, but being a well-bred, handsome young man, with a good deal of scholarship, and some accomplishments, he acted as teacher to both boy and girl; for the Princess never would employ a governess, it being a maxim with her, that such women were always prying. Von Eslar was civil to me, though I could not speak German then; what I know of the language was picked up in Courland, where it is the aristocratic tongue. All I ever learned of his antecedents was, that he belonged to a reduced family, and had been brought up by an uncle, who was a Lutheran clergyman, somewhere in the north of Germany. At all events, the young gentleman seemed on the high road to fortune, if he had been wise enough to keep it. It was whispered that her Excellency had a more than commendable partiality for the instructor of her wards, but unluckily his fancy went another way. One morning, neither he nor Mademoiselle de Biren could be found; and though the Princess spared neither time nor money upon it, her search failed to discover the place of their retreat. One thing, however, was ascertained, though not for her consolation. In the register of the poorest church of Liebau, the marriage of the pair was duly recorded as having been celebrated three days after their flight; but, fortunately for himself, the clergyman who performed the ceremony was quietly sleeping in the churchyard, and the clerk had run away to Sweden, before that entry was discovered. Yet she made them out, my friend, through your little adventure in Brunswick. The stars were not propitious when they directed you to lodge with the young man’s relation, as I hold Frau Subert was; to mention your fellow lodgers before Karlowitz; and to receive that keen eyed visitor in the hussar’s uniform, determined to identify her prey. What will not a woman do for jealousy and revenge? Their mode of concealment was unique and clever, but neither you nor I will ever learn their fate, and that pin is paste,” said the doctor, twirling round the evidence of my folly in his fingers; to which I can add only that his verdict was confirmed by a jeweller next day, and his prediction has been fulfilled to the letter, for I have never since obtained trace or intelligence of The Steady Students.