The King's Mirror/Chapter 19
I should be doing injustice to my manners and (a more serious offence) distorting truth, if I represented myself as a shy gaby, afraid or ashamed to make love because people knew the business on which I was engaged. Holding a position like mine has at least the virtue of curing a man of such folly; I had been accustomed to be looked at from the day I put on breeches, and, thanks to unfamiliarity with privacy, had come not to expect and hardly to miss it. The trouble was unhappily of a deeper and more obstinate sort, rooted in my own mind and not due to the covert stares or open good-natured interest of those who surrounded me. There is a quality which is the sign and soul of high and genuine pleasure, whether of mind or body, of sight, feeling, or imagination; I mean spontaneity. This characteristic, with its included incidents of unexpectedness, of suddenness, often of unwisdom and too entire absorption in the moment, comes, I take it, from a natural agreement of what you are with what you do, not planned or made, but revealed all at once and full-grown; when the heart finds it, it knows that it is satisfied. The action fits the agent—the exercise matches the faculty. Thenceforward what you are about does itself without your aid, but pours into your hand the treasure that rewards success, the very blossom of life. There may be bitterness, reproaches, stings of conscience, or remorse. These things are due to other claims and obligations, artificial, perhaps, in origin, although now of binding force. Beneath and beyond them is the self-inspired harmony of your nature with your act, sometimes proud enough to claim for itself a justification from the mere fact of existence, oftener content to give that question the go-by, whispering softly, "What matters that? I am."
By some such explanation as this, possibly not altogether wide of the mark, I sought to account for my disposition in the days that followed Elsa's arrival. I was conscious of an extreme reluctance to set about my task. I have used the right word there; a task it seemed to me. The trail of business and arrangement was over it; it was defaced by an intolerable propriety, ungraced by a scrap of uncertainty; its stages had been marked, numbered, and catalogued beforehand. Bederhof knew the wedding-day to within a fortnight, the settlement to within a shilling, the addresses of congratulation to a syllable. To this knowledge we were all privy. God save us, how we played the hypocrite!
I am fully aware that there are men to whom these feelings would not have occurred. There are probably women in regard to whom nobody would have experienced them in a very keen form. Insensibility is infectious. We have few scruples in regard to the unscrupulous. We feel that the exact shade of colour is immaterial when we present a new coat to a blind man. Had Hammerfeldt left as his legacy the union with some rude healthy creature, to follow his desire might have been an easy thing—one which, on a broad view of my life, would have been relatively insignificant. I should have disliked my duty and done it, as I did a thousand things I disliked. But I should not have been afflicted with the sense that where I endured ten lashes another endured a thousand; that, being a fellow-sufferer, I seemed the executioner; that, myself yearning to be free, I was busied in forging chains. It was in this light that Elsa made me regard myself, so that every word to her from my lips seemed a threat, every approach an impertinence, every hour of company I asked a forecast of the lifelong bondage that I prepared for her. This was my unhappy mood, while Victoria laughed, jested, and spurred me on; while William Adolphus opined that Elsa must get used to me; while Cousin Elizabeth smiled open motherly encouragement; while Princess Heinrich moved through the appropriate figures as though she graced a stately minuet. I had come to look for little love in the world; I was afflicted with the new terror that I must be hated.
Yet she did not hate me; or, at least, our natures were not such as to hate one another or to be repugnant naturally. Nay, I believe that we were born to be good and appreciative friends. Sometimes in those early days we found a sympathy of thought that made us for the moment intimate and easy, forgetful of our obligation, and frankly pleased with the society which we afforded one another. Soon I came to enjoy these intervals, to look and to plan for them. In them I seemed to get glimpses of what my young cousin ought to be always; but they were brief and fleeting. An intrusion ended them; or, more often, they were doomed to perish at my hands or at hers. A troubled shyness would suddenly eclipse her mirth; or I would be seized with a sense that my cheating of fate was useless, and served only to make the fate more bitter. She seemed to dread any growth of friendship, and to pull herself up abruptly when she felt in danger of being carried away into a genuine comradeship. I was swiftly responsive to such an attitude; again we drew apart. Here is an extract from a letter which I wrote to Varvilliers:
I did not tell Varvilliers everything. Had I allowed myself complete unreserve I must have added that she charmed me, and that the very charm I found in her made my work harder. There was a dainty delicacy about her, the freshness of a flower whose velvet bloom no finger-touch has rubbed. This I was to destroy.
But at last from fear, not of the gardener's smiles, but of my own ridicule, I made my start, and, as I foreshadowed to Varvilliers, it was as we walked in the woods that I began.
"What of that grenadier?" I asked her—she was sitting on a seat, while I leaned against a tree-trunk—"the grenadier you were in love with when I was at Bartenstein. You remember? You described him to me."
She blushed and laughed a little.
"He married a maid of my mother's, and became one of the hall-porters. He's grown so fat."
"The dream is ended then?"
"Yes, if it ever began," she answered. "How amused at me you must have been!"
Suddenly she perceived my gaze on her, and her eyes fell.
"He was Romance, Elsa," said I. "He has married and grown fat. His business now is to shut doors; he has shut the door on himself."
"Yes," she answered, half-puzzled, half-embarrassed.
"He had an unsuccessful rival," said I. "Do you recollect him? A lanky boy whom nobody cared much about. Elsa, the grenadier is out of the question."
Now she was agitated; but she sat still and silent. I moved and stood before her. My whole desire was to mitigate her fear and shrinking. She looked up at me gravely and steadily. It went to my heart that the grenadier was out of the question. Her lips quivered, but she maintained a tolerable composure.
"You should not say that about—about the lanky boy, Augustin," said she. "We all liked him. I liked him."
"Well, he deserved it a little better then than now. Yet perhaps, since the grenadier——"
"I don't understand what you mean about the grenadier."
"Yes, don't you?" I asked with a smile. "No dreams, Elsa, that you told to nobody?"
She flushed for a moment, then she smiled. Her smiling heartened me, and I went on in lighter vein.
"One can never be sure of being miserable," I said.
"No," she murmured softly, raising her eyes a moment to mine. The glance was brief, but hinted a coquetry whose natural play would have delighted—well, the grenadier.
She seemed very pretty, sitting there in the half-shade, with the sun catching her fair hair. I stood looking down on her; presently her eyes rose to mine.
"Not of being absolutely miserable," said I.
"You wouldn't make anybody miserable. You're kind. Aren't you kind?"
She grew grave as she put her question. I made her no answer in words; I bent down, took her hand, and kissed it. I held it, and she did not draw it away. I looked in her eyes; there I saw the alarm and the shrinking that I had expected. But to my wonder I seemed to see something else. There was excitement, a sparkle witnessed to it; I should scarcely be wrong if I called it triumph. I was suddenly struck with the idea that I had read my feelings into her too completely. It might be an exaggeration to say that she wished to marry me, but was there not something in her that found satisfaction in the thought of marrying me? I remembered with a new clearness how the little girl who rolled down the hill had thought that she would like to be a queen. At that moment this new idea of her brought me pure relief. I suppose there were obvious moralizings to be done; it was also possible to take the matter to heart, as a tribute to my position at the cost of myself. I felt no soreness, and I did no moralizing. I was honestly and fully glad that for any reason under heaven she wished to marry me.
Moreover this touch of a not repulsive worldliness in her sapped some of my scruples. What I was doing no longer seemed sacrilege. She had one foot on earth already then, this pretty Elsa, lightly poised perhaps, and quite ethereal, yet in the end resting on this common earth of ours. She would get used to me, as William Adolphus put it, all the sooner. I took courage. The spirit of the scene gained some hold on me. I grew less repressed in manner, more ardent in looks. I lost my old desire not to magnify what I felt. The coquetry in her waged now an equal battle with her timidity.
"You're sure you like me?" she asked.
"Is it incredible? Have they never told you how pretty you are?"
She laughed nervously, but with evident pleasure. Her eyes were bright with excitement. I held out my hands, and she put hers into them. I drew her to me and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She shrank suddenly away from me.
"Don't be frightened," I said, smiling.
"I am frightened," she answered, with a look that seemed almost like defiance.
"Shall we say nothing about it for a little while?"
This proposal did not seem to attract her, or to touch the root of the trouble, if trouble there were.
"I must tell mother," she said.
"Then we'll tell everybody." I saw her looking at me with earnest anxiety. "My dear," said I, "I'll do what I can to make you happy."
We began to walk back through the wood side by side. Less on my guard than I ought to have been, I allowed myself to fall into a reverie. My thoughts fled back to previous love-makings, and, having travelled through these, fixed themselves on Varvilliers. It was but two days since I sent him a letter almost asserting that the task was impossible to achieve. He would laugh when he heard of its so speedy accomplishment. I began in my own mind to tell him about it, for I had come to like telling him my states of feeling, and no doubt often bored him with them; but he seemed to understand them, and in his constant minimizing of their importance I found a comfort. I had indeed almost followed the advice he would have given me—almost taken her up and kissed her, and there ended the matter. A low laugh escaped from me.
"Why are you laughing?" Elsa asked, turning to me with a puzzled look.
"I've been so very much afraid of you," I answered.
"You afraid of me!" she cried. "Oh, if you only knew how terrified I've been!" She seemed to be seized with an impulse to confidence. "It was terrible coming here to see whether I should do, you know."
"You knew you'd do!"
"Oh, no. Mother always told me I mightn't. She said you were—were rather peculiar."
"I don't know enough about other people to be able to say whether I'm peculiar."
She laughed, but not as though she saw any point in my observation (I daresay there was none), and walked on a few yards, smiling still. Then she said:
"Father will be pleased."
"I hope everybody will be pleased. When you go to Forstadt the whole town will run mad over you."
"What will they do?"
"Oh, what won't they do? Crowds, cheers, flowers, fireworks, all the rest of it. And your picture everywhere!"
She drew in her breath in a long sigh. I looked at her and she blushed.
"You'll like that?" I asked with a laugh.
She did not speak, but nodded her head twice. Her eyes laughed in triumph. She seemed happy now. My pestilent perversity gave me a shock of pain for her.
When we came near the house she asked me to let her go alone and tell her mother. I had no objection to offer. Indeed I was glad to escape a hand-in-hand appearance, rather recalling the footlights. She started off, and I fell into a slower walk. She almost ran with a rare buoyancy of movement. Once she turned her head and waved her hand to me merrily. I waited a little while at the end of the terrace, and then effected an entry into my room unperceived. The women would lose no time in telling one another; then there would be a bustle. I had now a quiet half-hour. By a movement that seemed inevitable I sat down at my writing-table and took up a pen. For several minutes I sat twirling the quill between my fingers. Then I began to write:
"Your faithful friend,
I had just finished this letter when Baptiste rushed in, exclaiming that the Duchess had come, and that he could by no means prevent her entry. The truth of what he said was evident; Cousin Elizabeth herself was hard on his heels. She almost ran in, and made at me with wide-opened arms. Her honest face beamed with delight as she folded me in an enthusiastic embrace. Looking over her shoulder, I observed Baptiste standing in a respectful attitude, but struggling with a smile.
"You can go, Baptiste," said I, and he withdrew, smiling still.
"My dearest Augustin," panted Cousin Elizabeth, "you have made us all very, very happy. It has been the dream of my life."
I forget altogether what my answer was, but her words struck sharp and clear on my mind. That phrase pursued me. It had been the dream of Max von Sempach's life to be Ambassador. There had been a dream in his wife's life. It was the dream of Coralie's life to be a great singer; hence came the impresario with his large locket and the rest. And now, quaintly enough, I was fulfilling somebody else's dream of life—Cousin Elizabeth's! Perhaps I was fulfilling my own; but my dream of life was a queer vision.
"So happy! So happy!" murmured Cousin Elizabeth, seeking for her pocket-handkerchief. At the moment came another flurried entry of Baptiste. He was followed by my mother. Cousin Elizabeth disengaged herself from me. Princess Heinrich came to me with great dignity. I kissed her hand; she kissed my forehead.
"Augustin," she said, "you have made us all very happy."
The same note was struck in my mother's stately acknowledgment and in Cousin Elizabeth's gushing joy. I chimed in, declaring that the happiness I gave was as nothing to what I received. My mother appeared to consider this speech proper and adequate, Cousin Elizabeth was almost overcome by it. The letter which lay on the table, addressed to Varvilliers, was fortunately not endowed with speech. It would have jarred our harmony.
Later in the day Victoria came to see me. I was sitting in the window, looking down on the river and across to the woods of Waldenweiter. She sat down near me and smiled at me. Victoria carried with her an atmosphere of reality; she neither harboured the sincere delusions of Cousin Elizabeth nor (save in public) sacrificed with my mother on the shrine of propriety. She sat there and smiled at me.
"My dear Victoria," said I, "I know all that as well as you do. Didn't we go through it all before, when you married William Adolphus?"
"I've just left Elsa," my sister announced. "The child's really half off her head; she can't grasp it yet."
"She is excited, I suppose."
"It seems that Cousin Elizabeth never let her count upon it."
"I saw that she was pleased. It surprised me rather."
"Don't be a goose, Augustin," said Victoria very crossly. "Of course she's pleased."
"But I don't think she cares for me in the very least," said I gravely.
For a moment Victoria stared. Then she observed with a perfunctory politeness:
"Oh, you mustn't say that. I'm sure she does." She paused and added: "Of course it's great promotion for her."
Great promotion! I liked Victoria's phrase very much. Of course it was great promotion for Elsa. No wonder she was pleased and danced in her walk; no wonder her eyes sparkled. Nay, it was small wonder that she felt a kindliness for the hand whence came this great promotion.
"Yes, I suppose it is—what did you say? Oh, yes—great promotion," said I to Victoria.
"Immense! She was really a nobody before."
A hint of jealousy lurked in Victoria's tones. Perhaps she did not like the prospect of being no longer at the head of Forstadt society.
"There's nobody in Europe who would have refused you, I suppose," she pursued. "Yes, she's lucky with a vengeance."
I began to laugh. Victoria frowned a little, as though my laughter annoyed her. However I had my laugh out; the picture of my position, sketched by Victoria, deserved that. Then I lit a cigarette and stood looking out of the window.
"Poor child!" said I. "How long will it last?"
Victoria made no answer. She sat where she was for a few moments; then she got up, flung an arm round my neck, and gave me a brief business-like kiss.
"I never knew anybody quite so good as you at being miserable," she said.
But I was not miserable. I was, on the whole, very considerably relieved. It would have been much worse had Elsa really manifested an absolute absorption in the tragic aspect. It was much better that her thoughts should be filled by her great promotion.
I heard suddenly the sound of feet on the terrace. A moment later loud cheers rang out. I looked down from the window. There was a throng of the household, stable, and garden servants gathered in front of the window of my mother's room. On the steps before the window stood Elsa's slim graceful figure. The throng cheered; Elsa bowed, waved, and kissed her hand to them. They cried out good wishes and called blessings on her. Again she kissed her hand to them with pretty dignity. A pace behind her on either side stood Princess Heinrich and Cousin Elizabeth. Elsa held the central place, and her little head was erect and proud.
Poor dear child! The great promotion had begun.