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CHAPTER XXI.


ON THE ART OF FALLING SOFT.


The economy of belief which wisdom practices forbids us to embrace fanciful theories where commonly observed facts will serve our turn. They talk now about strange communications of mind to mind, my thought speaking to yours a thousand miles away. Perhaps; or perhaps there is a new fashion in ghost stories. In any case there was no need of these speculations to account for Wetter being near me at the very time when I was longing for his presence. From the moment I read his speech I knew that he was thinking of me; that my doings were stuff for his meditations; that his mind entered into mine, read its secrets, and was audience to all its scenes. Is not the desire to meet, at least to see, the natural sequence of such an interest and such a preoccupation? Given the wish, what was simpler than its gratification? He need ask no leave from me, and need run no risk of my rebuff or of Princess Heinrich's stiffness. He knew all the world of Forstadt. From favour or fear every door opened when he knocked at it. He knew, among the rest, Victoria's Baron over at Waldenweiter. From no place could he better observe the King. Nowhere else was it so easy for a man to meet the King. He came to Waldenweiter; I jumped to the conclusion that to be near me was his only object. By a stableman's chance remark, overheard as I was looking at my horses, I learned of his presence on the morning of the day when Varvilliers was to arrive at Artenberg. We were coming together again, we three who had met last for pistol practice in the Garden Pavilion.

About two o'clock I went out alone and got into my canoe. It was a beautiful day; no excuse was needed for a lounge on the water. I paddled up and down leisurely, wondering how soon the decoy would bring my bird. A quarter of an hour proved enough. I saw him saunter down to the water's edge. He perceived me, lifted his soft hat, and bowed. I shot across the space between, and brought the canoe up to the edge of the level lawn that bordered on the river.

"Why, what brings you here?" I cried.

His lips curved in a smile, as he replaced his hat in obedience to a sign from me.

"A passion for the Baroness, sire," said he.

"Ah, that's only a virtuous pretence," I laughed. "You've a less creditable motive?"

"Why, possibly; but who tells his less creditable motives?"

I looked at him curiously and attentively. He had grown older, the hair by his ears was gray, and life had ploughed furrows on his face.

"Well," said I, "a man might do even that who talks romance to the Chamber."

He gave a short laugh as he lit his cigarette.

"Your Majesty has done me the honour of reading what I said?"

"I am told that I suggested it. So runs the gossip in town, doesn't it?"

"And your opinion on it?"

 
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Why, what brings you here?" I cried.

 
"I think I won't expose myself to your fire again," said I. "It was careless last time; it would be downright folly now."

"Then we are to say no more about it?" he asked gravely.

"Not a word. Tell me, how came you to know that Coralie loves her impresario? You told Varvilliers so."

His lips twitched for a moment, but he answered, smiling:

"Because she has married him."

"I heard something of ambition in the case, of her career demanding the sacrifice."

"A slander, sire, depend on it. It is said in envy of her good fortune."

"Come, come, you love the Baroness so much, that you must have all the world in love."

"Indeed I can think of nobody more in love than I am."

"Think of me, Wetter."

"As though your Majesty could ever be absent from my thoughts," said he with a bow, a wave of his cigarette, and a smile.

I laughed outright in sheer enjoyment of his sword-play.

"And since we parted where have you been?" I asked.

"I have walked through hell, in such company as the place afforded," he answered, with a shrug that spoke ill for hell's resources.

"And you've come out the other side?"

"Is there another side?"

"Then you're still there?"

"Upon my word I don't know. It's so like other places except that I picked up money there."

"I heard that."

"My resurrection made it obvious."

A silence fell on both of us; then our eyes met, and he smiled kindly.

"I knew you meant the speech for me," I said.

"I was not entitled to congratulate you officially."

"You have raised a mountain of misconception about me in Forstadt," I complained.

"A mountain-top is a suitable regal seat, and perhaps the only safe one."

"Won't you speak plainly to me?"

"Yes, if it's your pleasure."

"I have least of it of any pleasure in the world."

"Well, then, the Countess von Sempach grows no younger."

"No?"

"And Coralie Mansoni has married her impresario."

"I know it."

"And my hair is gray, and your eyes are open."

We both laughed and fell again to smoking in silence. At last I spoke.

"Her hair is golden and her eyes are shut," said I. "Why did you try to open them?"

"Wasn't it to look on a fine sight?"

"But you knew that the sight wasn't there."

"She looked?"

"For an instant. Then they turned her head the other way."

"It was pure devilry in me. You should have seen the Chamber! Good God! Bederhof, now!"

His eyes twinkled merrily, and my laugh answered their mirth.

"One can always laugh," said I with a shrug.

"It was invented for the world before the Fall, and they forgot to take it away afterward," he said. "But you? You take things seriously?"

"What I have to do, yes."

"But what you have to feel?"

"In truth I am not even there a consistent laugher."

"Nor I, or we shouldn't talk so much about it. Look at Varvilliers. Does he laugh on a theory?"

"He's coming to Artenberg to-day. There at least he'll laugh without any effort. Are you staying here long?"

"No, sire. One scene of despair, and I depart."

"I should like to see you oftener."

"Why not? You are finally, and I for the time, respectable. Why not, while my money lasts?"

"I have money of yours."

"You have more than money of mine."

He looked me in the face and held out his hand. I grasped it firmly.

"Are you making a fool of this Baroness?" I asked.

"Don't be afraid. She's making one of me. She is very happy and content. I am born to make women happy."

I laughed again. He was whimsically resigned to his temperament, but the mischief had not touched his brain. Then the Baroness' hold on him was not like Coralie Mansoni's; he would fight no duel for her. He would only make a fool of the greatest man in Forstadt. That feat was always so easy to him.

"Well," he said, "I must return to my misery."

"And I to my happiness," said I. "But you'll come to Artenberg?"

"It's Princess Heinrich's house," he objected with a smile.

"For the time, yes. Then come to me at Forstadt"

"Yes; unless I have disappeared again."

He put his hand on the bows of my canoe and thrust me out into the stream. Then he stood baring his head and crumpling up the soft hat in his fist. I noticed now that his hair was gray all over his head. He resumed his hat, put his hands in his pockets, and waited without moving, till I turned my back to him. Having reached the opposite bank, I looked round. He was there still. I waved my hand to him; he returned the signal. Then we both began to climb the hill, I to Artenberg, he to Waldenweiter; he to his misery, I to my happiness. And—which is better, who knows? At any rate the Baroness was pleased.

I mounted through the woods slowly, although I had been detained longer than I expected, and was already too late to greet Varvilliers on his arrival. As I came near the terrace I heard the ring of merry voices. The ladies and gentlemen of the household were all there, making a brave and gay group. In the centre I saw my family and Elsa. Varvilliers himself was standing by Princess Heinrich's side, talking fast and with great animation. Bursts of glad laughter marked his points. There was not a hint of care nor a touch of bitterness. Here was no laughing on a theory, as Wetter called it, but a simple enjoyment, a whole-hearted acceptance of the world's good hours. Were they not nearer truth? Were they not, at least, nearer wisdom? A reaction came on me. In a sudden moment a new resolve entered my head; again Varvilliers roused the impulse that he had power to rouse in me. I would make trial of this mode of living and test this colour of mind. I had been thinking about life when I might have been exulting in it. I ran forward to the group, and, as they parted to let me through, I came quickly to Varvilliers with outstretched hands. He seemed to me a good genius. Even my mother looked smiling and happy. The faces of the rest were alight with gaiety. Victoria was in the full tide of a happy laugh, and did not interrupt it on account of my arrival. Elsa's lips were parted in a smile that was eager and wondering. Her eyes sparkled; she clasped her hands and nodded to me in a delicious surprised merriment. I caught Varvilliers by the arm and made him sit by me. A cry arose that he should repeat the last story for the King's benefit. He complied at once, and launched on some charming absurdity. Renewed applause greeted the story's point. A rivalry arose who should cap it with a better. The contact of brains struck sparks. Every man was wittier than his wont; every woman more radiant. What the plague had I and Wetter been grumbling and snarling at down there on the river?

The impulse lasted the evening out. After dinner we fell to dancing in the long room that faced the gardens. My mother and the Duchess retired early, but the rest of us set the hours at defiance and revelled far on into the night. It was as though a new spirit had come to Artenberg; the very servants wore broad grins as they bustled about, seeming to declare that here at last was something like what a youthful king's court should be. William Adolphus was boisterous, Victoria forgot that she was learned and a patroness of the arts, Elsa threw herself into the fun with the zest and abandonment of a child. I vied with Varvilliers himself, seeking to wrest from him the title of master of the revels. He could not stand against me. A madman may be stronger than the finest athlete. No native temper could vie with my foreign mood.

Suddenly I knew that I could do to-night what I had vainly tried to do; that to-night, for to-night at least, I felt something of what I desired to feel. The blood ran free in my veins; if I did not love her, yet I loved love, and for love's sake would love Elsa. If to-night the barrier between us could be broken down, it need never rise again; the vision, so impossible a few hours before, seemed now a faint reflection of what must soon be reality. I looked round for her, but I could not see her. I started to walk across the room, threading my way through the merry company, who danced no longer, but stood about in groups, bandying chaff and compliments. Engrossed with one another, they hardly remembered to give me passage. Presently I came on William Adolphus, making himself very agreeable to one of his wife's ladies.

"Have you seen Elsa?" I asked him.

"What, you've remembered your duty at last, have you?" he cried, with a burst of laughter.

"No; I believe I've forgotten it at last," I answered. "Where is she?"

"I saw her with Varvilliers on the steps outside the window."

I turned in the direction which he indicated, and stepped out through the open window. Day was dawning; I could make out the gray shape of Waldenweiter. Was the scene of despair played there yet? I gave but a passing thought to old Wetter, his mad doings and wry reflections. I was hot on another matter, and, raising my voice, I called, "Varvilliers! Where are you, Varvilliers?"

"I am not Varvilliers, but here I am," came in answer from across the terrace.

"Wetter!" I whispered, running down the steps and over to where he stood. "What brings you here?"

"I couldn't sleep. I saw your lights and I rowed across. I've been here for an hour."

"You should have come in."

"No. I have been very well here, in the fringe of the trees."

"You have had your scene?"

"No; he would not sleep after dinner. Early to-morrow! And then I go. Enough of that. I have seen your Princess."

"You have? Wetter, I am in love with her. Tell me where she went. She has suddenly become all that I want. I have suddenly become all that I ought to be. Tell me where she is, Wetter!"

"It is not your Princess; it is the dance, the wine, the night."

"By God, I don't care what it is."

"Well, then, she's with Varvilliers, at the end of the terrace, I imagine; for they passed by here as I lay in my hole watching."

"But he would have heard my cry."

"It depends upon what other sounds were in his ears. They seemed very happy together."

I saw that he rallied me. I smiled, answering:

"I'm not in the mood for another duel."

He shrugged his shoulders, and then caught me by the hand.

"Come, let's slink along," he said. "We may get a sight of them."

"I can't do that."

"No? Perhaps you can't. Walk up to them, send him away, and make your love to her. I'll wait for you here. You'll like to see me before the night's out."

I looked at him for a moment.

"Shall I like to see you?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered. "The olive after the sweets." He laughed, not bitterly, I thought, but ruefully.

"So be it," I said. "Stay here."

I started off, but he had laid a cold hand on my heart. I was to want him; then I should be no lover, for a lover wants but one. Yet I nerved myself and cried again loudly, "Varvilliers!" This time I was answered. I saw him and Elsa coming toward me; his voice sounded merry and careless as he shouted, "Here I am, sire"; a moment later they stood before me. No, there was no ground for Wetter's hint, and could be none. Both were merely happy and gay, both utterly unembarrassed.

"Somebody wants you inside, Varvilliers," said I, with a nod.

He laughed, bowed gracefully to Elsa, and ran off. He took his dismissal without a sign of grudge. I turned to her.

"Oh, dear," she said with a little yawn, "I'm tired. It must be very late."

I caught her by both hands.

"Late!" I cried. "Not too late, Elsa!" I bent down and kissed both her hands. "Why did you run away?" I asked.

"I didn't know you wanted me," she said in a sort of wonder.

I looked full in her eyes, and I knew that there was in mine the look that declares love and asks for it. If her eyes answered, the vision might be reality. I pressed her hands hard. She gave a little cry, the sparkle vanished from her eyes, and their lids drooped. Yet a little colour came in her cheeks and the gray dawn showed it me. I hailed it with eagerness and with misgiving. I thought of Wetter waiting there among the trees, waiting till the moment when I wanted him.

"Do you love me, Elsa?" I asked.

The colour deepened on her cheeks. I waited to see whether her eyes would rise again to mine; they remained immovable.

"You know I'm very fond of you," she murmured.

"But do you love me?"

"Yes, of course I love you. Please let my hands go, Augustin."

If Wetter were listening, he must have smiled at the peal of laughter that rang out from me over the terrace. I could not help it. Elsa started violently as I loosed her hands; now she looked up at me with frightened eyes that swam in tears. Her lips moved; she tried to speak to me. I was full of brutal things and had a horrible longing to say them to her. There was a specious justice in them veneering their cruelty; I am glad to say that I gave utterance to none of them. We were both in the affair, and he is a poor sort of villain who comforts himself by abusing his accomplice.

"You're tired?" I asked gently.

"Very. But it has been delightful. M. de Varvilliers has been so kind."

"He's a delightful fellow, Varvilliers. Come, let me take you in, and we'll send these madcaps to bed."

She put her hand on my arm in a friendly trustful fashion, and I found her eyes fixed on mine with a puzzled regretful look. We walked most of the way along the terrace before she spoke.

"You're not angry with me, Augustin?"

"Good heavens, no, my dear," said I.

"I'm very fond of you," she said again as we reached the window.

At last they were ready for bed—all save myself. I watched them as they trooped away, Elsa on Victoria's arm. Varvilliers came up to me, smiling in the intervals that he snatched from a series of yawns.

"A splendid evening!" he said. "You surpassed yourself, sire."

"I believe I did," said I. "Go to bed, my friend."

"And you?"

"Presently. I'm not sleepy yet."

"Marvellous!" said he, with a last laugh and a last yawn.

For a few moments I stood alone in the room. There were no servants about; they had given up waiting for us, and the lights were to burn at Artenberg till the hour of rising. I lit a cigarette and went out on the terrace again. I had no doubt that Wetter would keep his tryst. I was right; he was there.

"Well, how did you speed?" he asked with a smile.

"Marvellously well," said I.

He took hold of the lapels of my coat and looked at me curiously.

"Your love scene was short," he said.

"Perhaps. It was long enough."

"To do what?"

"To define the situation."

"Did it need definition?"

"I thought so half an hour ago."

"Ah, well, the evening has been a strange one, hasn't it?"

"Let's walk down to the river through the woods," said I. "I'll put you across to Waldenweiter."

He acquiesced, and I put my arm through his. Presently he said in a low voice:

"The dance, the wine, the night."

"Yes, yes, I know," I cried. "My God, I knew even when I spoke to her. She saw that a brute asked her, not a man."

"Perhaps, perhaps not; they don't see everything. She shrank from you?"

"The tears were very ready."

"Ah, those tears! Heavens, why have we no such appeals? What matter, though? You don't love her."

"Do you want me to call myself a brute again? Wetter, any other girl would have been free to tell me that I was a brute."

"Why, no. No man is free even to tell you that you're a fool, sire. The divinity hedges you."

I laughed shortly and bitterly. What he said was true enough.

"There is, however, nothing to prevent you from seeing these things for yourself, just as though you were one of the rest of us," he pursued. "Ah, here's the river. You'll row me across?"

"Yes. Get into the boat there."

We got in, and I pulled out into mid-stream. It was almost daylight now, but there was still a grayness in the atmosphere that exactly matched the tint of Welter's face. Noticing this suddenly I pointed it out to him, laughing violently.

"You are Lucifer, Son of the Morning," I cried. "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, Son of Morning!"

"I wouldn't care for that if I had the trick of falling soft," said he. "Learn it, O King, learn it! On what padded bed falls William Adolphus!"

My laugh broke again through the morning loud and harsh. Then I laid myself to the oars, and we shot across to the bank of Waldenweiter. He shook my hand and sprang out lightly.

"I must change my clothes and have my scene, and then to Forstadt," said he. "Good-day to you, sire. Yet remember the lesson of the moralist. Learn to fall soft, learn to fall soft." With a smile he turned away, and again I watched him mount the slope of Waldenweiter.

In such manner, on that night at Artenberg, did I, having no wings to soar to heaven and no key wherewith to open the door of it, make to myself, out of dance, wine, night, and what not, a ladder, mount thereby, and twist the door-handle. But the door was locked, the ladder broke, and I fell headlong. Nor do I doubt that many men are my masters in that art of falling soft.