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CHAPTER XXVI.


THE SECRET OF THE COUNTESS.


Princess Heinrich held a reception of all sorts and conditions of those in Forstadt who were receivable. So comprehensive was the party that to be included conveyed no compliment, to be left out meant a slap in the face. But the scene was gorgeous, and the Princess presided over it with fitting dignity. Elsa and I stood by her for a while, all in our buckram, living monuments of bliss and exaltedness. It was like a prolonged interview with the photographer. Then I slipped away and paid marked and honorific courtesy to Bederhof's wife and Bederhof's daughters, tall girls, not over-quick to be married, somehow quite inevitable if one considered Bederhof himself. Rising from my plunge, I looked round for Elsa. She had left my mother and taken a seat in a recess by the window. There she sat, looking, poor soul, rather weary, speaking now and then to those who, in passing by, paused to make their respects and compliments to her. She wore my diamonds; all eyes were for her; the streets were splendidly decorated. Was she content? With all my heart I hoped that she was.

People came and buzzed about me, and I buzzed back to them. I had learned to buzz, I believe, with some grace and facility, certainly with an almost entire detachment of my inner mind; it would be intolerable for the real man to be engrossed in such performances. Looking over the head of the President of the Court of Appeal (he was much shorter than his speeches), I saw Elsa suddenly lean forward and sign with her fan to a lady who passed by. The lady stopped; she sat down by Elsa; they entered into conversation. For a while I went on buzzing and being buzzed to, but presently curiosity conquered me.

"In the pleasure of your conversation I mustn't forget what is my first duty just now, gentlemen," I said with a smile.

They dissolved from in front of me with discreet smiles. I sauntered toward the recess where Elsa sat. Glancing at Princess Heinrich, I saw her watching all that went forward, but she was hemmed in by eminent persons. And why should she interpose, if Elsa desired to talk to the Countess von Sempach?

I leaned over the arm of my betrothed's chair. They were talking of common affairs. From where I was I could not see Elsa's face, so I moved and stood leaning on a third chair between them. The Countess was gay and brilliant; kind also, with a tenderness that seemed to throw out feelers for friendship. To me she spoke only when I addressed her directly; her attention was all for Elsa. In Elsa's eyes, not skilled to conceal her heart, there was, overpowering all other expression, a curiosity, a study of something that interested and puzzled her, a desire to understand the woman who talked to her. For Elsa had heard something; not all, but something. She was not hostile or disturbed; she was gracious and eager to please; but she was inquiring and searching. At her heart's bidding her wits were the move. I knew the maze that they explored. She was asking for the Countess' secret. But which secret? For to her it might well seem that there were two. Rumour said that I had loved the Countess. It would be in the way of the natural woman for Elsa to desire to find out why, the trick of the charm that a predecessor (let the word pass) had wielded. But rumour said also that the Countess had loved me. Was this the deeper harder secret that Elsa sought to probe, this the puzzle to which she asked an answer? Perhaps, could she find an answer that satisfied, there would be new heaven and new earth for her. Here seemed to me the truth, the reason of the longing question in her eyes. Jealousy could not inspire that; certainly not a jealousy of what was long gone by, of a woman who to Elsa's fresh girlhood must be faded and almost sunk to middle age. "How did you contrive to love him?" That was Elsa's question, asked beneath my understanding gaze.

There was a little stir by the door, and a man came through the group that loitered round it, hastily shaking hands here, nodding there, as he steered his course toward Princess Heinrich. I knew that Varvilliers would come to the wedding, but had not been aware that he was already in Forstadt. My companions did not notice him, but I watched his interview with my mother. Even she unbent to him, disarmed by a courtesy that overcame the protest of her judgment; she detained him in conversation nearly ten minutes, and then pointed to where we were, directing him to join us.

"Ah, here comes Varvilliers," said I. "I'm delighted to have him back. You've met him, Countess?"

"Oh, yes, sire, in Paris," she answered.

For a few moments I kept my eyes from Elsa's face and looked toward Varvilliers, smiling and beckoning. When I turned toward her she was bright and composed. He joined us, and she welcomed him with cordiality. He launched on an account of his doings; then came to our affairs, commiserating us on the trial of our ceremonies. For a while we talked all to all; then I began to tell the Countess a little story. Varvilliers and Elsa fell into a conversation apart. She had made him sit by her. I bent down over my chair back, to converse more easily with my Countess. All this was right enough, unless the talk were to continue general.

I do not know how long we went on thus; some time I know it was. At last it chanced that the Countess made no answer to what I said, and leaned back in her chair with a thoughtful smile. I sighed, raised my head, and looked across the room. I heard the other two in animated talk and their gay laughter; for the moment my mind was not on them. Suddenly Wetter passed in front of me; he had once been President of the Chamber, and Princess Heinrich knew her duty. He was with William Adolphus, who seemed in extremely good spirits. Wetter paused opposite to me and bowed. I returned his salutation, but did not invite him to join us; I hoped to speak to him later. Thus it was for a bare instant that he halted. But what matters time? Its only true measure lies in what a man does in it. Wetter's momentary halt was long enough for one of those glances of his to play over the group we made. From face to face it ran, a change of expression marking every stage. It rested at last on me. I turned my head sharply toward Elsa; her cheek was flushed; her eyes glistened; her body was bent forward in an eagerness of attention, as though she would not lose a word. Varvilliers was given over to the spirit of his talk, but he watched the sparks that he struck from her eyes. I glanced again at Wetter; William Adolphus had seized his arm and urged him forward. For a second still he stood; he tossed his hair back, laughed, and turned away. Why should he stay? He had said all that the situation suggested to him, and said it with his own merciless lucidity.

I echoed his laugh. Mine was an interruption to their talk. Elsa started and looked up; Varvilliers' face turned to me. He looked at me for a moment, then a strange and most unusual air of embarrassment spread over him. The Countess did not speak, and her eyes were downcast. Varvilliers was himself again directly; he began to speak of indifferent matters; he was not so awkward as to let this incident be the occasion of his leave-taking. A minute or two passed. I looked at him and held out my hand. At the same instant the Countess asked a signal from Elsa, and it was given. We all stood together for a moment, then they left us, she accepting his arm to cross the room. Elsa sat down again and did not speak. I found no words either, but leaned again over my chair, regarding the scene in absent moodiness. I was thinking how odd a thing it was, and how perfect, that absolute contentment of the one with the other, that mutual sufficiency, that fitting in of each to each, that ultimate oneness of soul which is the block from which is hewn love's image. And the block is there, though by fate's caprice it lie unshaped. The thing had been between the Countess and myself; its virtue had availed to abolish difference of years, to rout absurdity, to threaten the strongest resolution of my mind. It was between Elsa and Varvilliers. In none other had I found it for myself; in none other would Elsa find it. It was not for her in me. Then in vain had been the questioning of her eyes, in vain the eager longing of her parted lips. She had not ears to hear the secret of the Countess. At this moment I forgot again that my, or even her, happiness was not a relevant consideration in forming a judgment of the universe. It is, in fact, a difficult thing to remember. My pride was ablaze with hatred of being taken because I could not be refused. I was carried away by a sudden impulse. I threw myself into the chair by Elsa, saying:

"How it would surprise and scatter all these good people if you suddenly announced that you'd changed your mind, Elsa! What a rout! what a scurry! What a putting out of lights, and a pulling down of poles, and a furling up of flags, and a countermanding of orders to the butcher and the baker! Good heavens! Think of my mother's face, or, indeed, of your mother's face! Think of Bederhof's face, of everybody's face!" And I fell to laughing.

Elsa also laughed, but with a nervous discomfort. Her glance at me was short; her eyes dropped again.

"What made you think of such a thing?" she asked in a hesitating tone.

"I don't know," said I. Then I turned and asked, "Have you never thought of it?"

"Never," she said. "Indeed, never. How could I?"

It was impossible to doubt the sincerity of her disclaimer. She seemed really shocked and amazed at the notion.

"And now! To do it now! When everything is ready!" She gave a pretty little gasp. "And go back with mother to Bartenstein!" she went on, shaking her head in horror. "How could you imagine it? Fancy Bartenstein again!"

Evidently I was preferable to Bartenstein again, to the narrow humdrum life there. No poles, no flags, no illuminations, no cheers, no dignity! Diamonds even scarce and rare! I tried to take heart. It was something to be better than Bartenstein again.

"And what would they think of me? Oh, it's too absurd! But of course you were joking?"

"Oh, not more than usual, Elsa. You might have found me even more tiresome than Bartenstein."

"Nonsense! It would always be better here than at Bartenstein."

Clearly there was no question in her mind on this point. Forstadt and I—let me share, since I may not engross the credit—were much better than going back to Bartenstein.

She was looking at me with an uneasy, almost suspicious air.

"What made you ask that question?" she said abruptly.

I looked round the room. Among the many groups in talk there were faces turned toward us, regarding us with a discreet good-humoured amusement. The King forgot his duties and talked with his lady-love. Every moment buttressed the reputation of our love match. Let it be so; it was best. Yet the sham was curiously unpleasant to me.

"Why did you ask me that question, Augustin? You had a reason?"

"No, none; except that in forty-eight hours it will be too late to ask it."

She leaned toward me in agitated pleading.

"I do love you, Augustin. I love nobody so much as you—you and father."

I and father! Poor girl, how she admitted while she thought to deny! But I was full of a pity and a tenderness for her, and forgot my own pride.

"You're so good to me; and there's no reason why you should like me."

"Like?" said I. "A gentleman must pretend sometimes, or so it's thought."

"Yes. What do you mean?" Pleased coquetry gleamed for a moment in her eyes. "Do you mean—love me?"

"It is impossible, is it?" I asked, and I looked into her eyes as though I desired her love. Well, I did, that she might have peace.

She blushed, and suddenly, as it were by an uncontrollable immediate impulse, glanced round. Whose face did she seek? Was it not his who last had looked at her in that fashion? He was not in sight. Her gaze fell downward. Ah, that you had been a better diplomatist, Elsa. For though a man may know the truth, he loves sometimes one who will deny it to him pleasantly. He gains thereby a respite and an intermission, the convict's repose between his turns on the treadmill or the hour's flouting of hard life that good wine brings. But it was impossible to rear on stable foundations a Pleasure House of Pretence. With every honest revelation of her heart Elsa shattered it. I can not blame her. I myself was at my analytic undermining.

"You'll go on then?" I asked, with a laugh.

She laughed for answer. The question seemed to her to need no answer. What, would she go back to Bartenstein—to insignificance, to dulness, and to tutelage? Surely not!

"But I'm not very like the grenadier," I said.

She understood me and flushed, relapsing into uneasiness. I saw that I had touched some chord in her, and I would willingly have had my words unsaid. Presently she turned to me, and forgetting the gazers round held out her hands to mine. Her eyes seemed dim.

"I'll try—I'll try to make you happy," she said.

And she said well. Letting all think what they would, I rose to my feet and bowed low over the hand that I kissed. Then I gave her my arm, and walked with her through the lane that they made for us. Surely we pretended well, for somehow, from somewhere, a cheer arose, and they cheered us as we walked through. Elsa's face was in an instant bright again. She pressed my arm in a spasm of pleasure. We proceeded in triumph to where Princess Heinrich sat; away behind her in the foremost row of a group of men stood Wetter—Wetter leading the cheers, waving his handkerchief, grinning in charmingly diabolical fashion. The suitability of Princess Heinrich's reception of us I must leave to be imagined; it was among her triumphs.

I fell at once into the clutches of Cousin Elizabeth, my regard for whom was tempered by a preference for more restraint in the display of emotion.

"My dearest boy," she said, pulling me into a seat by her, "I saw you. It makes me so happy."

A thing, without being exactly good in itself, may of course have incidental advantages.

"It was sure to happen. You were made for one another. Dear Elsa is young and shy, and—and she
 
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"I'll try—I'll try to make you happy."

 
didn't quite understand." Cousin Elizabeth looked almost sly. "But now the weight is quite off my mind. Because Elsa doesn't change."

"Doesn't she?" I asked.

"No, she's constancy itself. Once she takes up a point of view, you know, or an impression of a person, nothing alters it. Dear me, we used to think her obstinate. Only everybody gave way to her. That was her father's fault. He never would have her thwarted. But she's turned out very well, hasn't she? So I can't blame him. I know your mother thought us rather lax."

"Ah, my mother was not lax."

"It only shows there's room for both ways, doesn't it? What was I saying?"

I knew what she had been saying, but not which part of it she desired to repeat. However she found it for herself in a moment.

"Oh, yes! No, she never changes. Just what she is to you now she'll be all her life. I never knew her to change. She just loves you or she doesn't, and there it rests. You may feel quite safe."

"How very satisfactory all this is, Cousin Elizabeth!"

"Satisfactory?" she exclaimed, with a momentary surprise at my epithet. But her theory came to the rescue. "Oh, I know you always talk like that. Well, I don't expect you to talk like a lover to me. It's quite enough if you do it to Elsa. Yes, it is satisfactory, isn't it?" The good creature laughed heartily and squeezed my hand. "She'll never change," she repeated once again in an ample, comfortable contentment. "And you don't mind showing what you feel, do you?"

Cousin Elizabeth was chaffing me.

"On my word, I forgot how public we were," said I. "My feelings ran away with me."

"Oh, why should you be ashamed? They might laugh, but I'm sure they envied you."

It was strange enough, but it is very likely that they did. For my own part, I have learned not to envy people without knowing a good deal about them and their affairs.

"Because," pursued Cousin Elizabeth, "I have always in my heart hated merely arranged marriages. They're not right, you know, Augustin. They may be necessary, but they're not right."

"Very necessary, but quite wrong," I agreed.

"And at one time I was the least bit afraid—However I was a silly old woman. Do look at her talking to your mother. Oh, of course, you were looking at her already. You weren't listening to my chatter."

But I had listened to Cousin Elizabeth's chatter. She had told me something of interest. Elsa would never change; she took a view and a relation toward a person and maintained them. What she was to me now she would be always.

"My dear cousin, I have listened with keen interest to every word that you've said," I protested truthfully.

"That's your politeness. I know what lovers are," said Cousin Elizabeth.

I looked across to the Duke's passive tired face. The thought crossed my mind that Cousin Elizabeth must have depended on observation rather than on experience for the impressions to which she referred. However she afforded me an opportunity for escape, which I embraced with alacrity.

As I passed my mother, she beckoned to me. Elsa had left her, and she was alone for the moment. It seemed that she had a word to say to me, and on the subject concerning which I thought it likely enough that she would have something to say—the engagement of Coralie to sing at the gala performance.

"Was there not some unpleasant talk about this Madame Mansoni?" she asked.

"Well, there was talk," said I, smiling and allowing my eyes to rest on the figure of William Adolphus, visible in the distance. "It would have been better not to have her, perhaps. It can be altered, I suppose."

"Bederhof sanctioned it without referring to you or to me. It has become public now."

"Oh, I didn't know that."

"Yes; it's in the evening papers."

"Any—any remarks?"

"No, except that the Vorwärts calls it an extraordinarily suitable selection."

"The Vorwärts? Yes," said I thoughtfully. Wetter wrote for the Vorwärts. "Perhaps then to cancel it would make more talk than to let it stand. The whole story is very old."

Princess Heinrich permitted a smile to appear on her face as with a wave of her fan she relegated Coralie to a proper insignificance. She was smiling still as she added:

"There's another old acquaintance coming to assist at the wedding, Augustin. I telegraphed to ask her, and she has answered accepting the invitation in the warmest terms."

"Indeed! Who is that, pray?"

"The Baroness," said my mother.

I stared at her; then I cried with a laugh, "Krak? Not Krak?"

"Yes, Krak, as you naughty children used to call her."

"Good Heavens, does the world still hold Krak?"

"Of course. She's rather an old woman, though. You'll be kind to her, Augustin? She was always very fond of you."

"I will treat Krak," said I, "with all affection."

Surely I would, for Krak's coming put the crown of completeness on the occasion. But I was amazed; Krak was utterly stuff of the past.

My mother did not appear to desire my presence longer; I had to take up my own position and receive farewells.

A dreary half hour passed in this occupation; at last the throng grew thin. I broke away and sauntered off to a buffet for a sandwich and a glass of champagne. There I saw Wetter and Varvilliers standing together and refreshing their jaded bodies. I joined them at once, full of the news about Krak. It fell rather flat, I regret to say; Krak had not significance for them, and Wetter was full of wild brilliant talk. Varvilliers' manner, on the other hand, although displaying now no awkwardness or restraint, showed unusual gentleness and gravity with an added friendliness very welcome to me. I stood between my friends, sipping my wine and detaining them, although the room was nearly empty. I felt a reluctance to part and an invincible repugnance to my bed.

"Come to my quarters," I said, "and we'll have cigars."

Varvilliers bowed ready assent. Wetter's face twisted into a smile.

"I must plead excuse to the command," he said.

"Then you're a rascal, Wetter; I want you, man, and you ought not to be expected anywhere this time of night."

"Not at home, sire?"

"Home least of all," said Varvilliers, smiling.

"But I have guests at home," cried Wetter. "I've left them too long. But Her Royal Highness didn't invite them; besides it was necessary to practise the song."

"What? Are they with you?"

"Should I send them to a hotel, sire? My friends the Struboffs! No, no!"

Sipping my wine, I looked doubtfully from one to the other.

"The King," observed Wetter to Varvilliers, "would be interested in hearing a rehearsal of the song."

"But," said I, "Krak comes to-night, and I daren't look as if I'd sat up beyond my hour."

Wetter laid his ringer on my arm.

"One more night," he said. Varvilliers laughed. "I have the same old servant. He's very discreet!"

"But you'll put it in the Vorwärts!"

"No, no, not if the meeting-place is my own house."

"I'll do it!" I cried. "Come, let's have a carriage."

"Mine waits," said Varvilliers, "at your disposal. I'll see about it," and off he ran. Wetter turned to me.

"An interesting quartette there in the recess," said he.

"And an insolent fellow looking on at it," said I.

"I'll write an article on your impulsive love-making before all the world."

"Do; I can conceive nothing more politic."

"It shall teem with sincerity."

"Never a jest anywhere in it? Not one for me?"

"No. Jests are in place only when one tells the truth. A lie must be solemn, sire."

"True. Write it to your mood."

And to his mood he wrote it, eloquently, beautifully, charged with the passion of that joy which he realized in imagination, but could not find in his stormy life. I read it two or three days later at Artenberg.

"Hey for the wedding-song and one night more!" he cried.

We rolled off, we three, in Varvilliers' carriage.