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CHAPTER XXVIII.


AS BEDERHOF ARRANGED.


Of the next day I have three visions.

I see myself with Krak and Princess Heinrich. Pride illuminated their faces with a cold radiance, and their utterances were conceived in the spirit of a Nunc Dimittis. They congratulated the world on its Ruler, the kingdom on its King, themselves on my account, me on theirs. To Krak I was her achievement; to my mother the vindication of the support she had given to Krak, and the refutation of my own grumblings and rebellion. How could I not be reminded of my coronation day? How not smile when the Princess, after observing regretfully that the Baroness would not be able to educate my children, bade me inculcate her principles in the mind of their tutor or governess. She was afraid, she said, that dear Elsa might be a little lacking in firmness, a little prone to that indulgence which is no true kindness in the end. "The very reverse of it, madame," added Krak.

"It's quite time enough for them to begin to do as they like when they grow up," said the Princess Heinrich.

"By then, though," said Krak, "they will have learned, I hope, to do what they ought."

"I hope so with all my heart, Baroness," said I.

"Victoria is absurdly weak with her child," Princess Heinrich complained.

Krak smiled significantly. She had never expected much of Victoria; the repression of exuberant wickedness had been the bounds of her hope.

Krak left us. There must have been some noticeable expression on my face as I watched her go, for my mother said with a smile:

"I know you think she was severe. I used to think so too, now and then. But see how well you've turned out, Augustin!"

"Madame," said I, "my present excellence and my impending happiness reconcile me to everything."

"You had a very happy childhood," my mother observed. I bowed. "And now you are going to marry the girl I should choose for you above all others." Again I bowed. "And public affairs are quiet and satisfactory." A third time I bowed. "Kiss me, Augustin," said my mother.

This summary of my highly successful life and reign was delivered in Princess Heinrich's most conclusive manner. I had no thought of disputing it; I was almost surprised that the facts themselves did not suffer an immediate transformation to match the views she expressed. What matter that things were not so? They were to be deemed so and called so, so held and so proclaimed. My mother's courage touched my heart, and I kissed her with much affection. It is no inconsiderable achievement to be consistently superior to reality. I who fought desperate doubtful battles, crippled by a secret traitorous love of the enemy, could not but pay homage to Princess Heinrich's victorious front.

Next I see myself with Elsa, alone for a little while with Elsa exultant in her pomp, observed of all, the envy of all, the centre of the spectacle, frocked and jewelled beyond heart's desire, narcotized by fuss and finery, laughing and trembling. I had found her alone with difficulty, for she kept some woman by her almost all the day. She did not desire to be alone with me. That was to come to-morrow at Artenberg. Now was her moment, and she strove to think it eternal. It was not in her to face and conquer the great enemy after Princess Heinrich's heroic fashion; she could only turn and fly, hiding from herself how soon she must be overtaken. She chattered to me with nervous fluency, making haste always to choose the topic, leaving no gap for the entrance of what she feared. I saw in her eyes the apprehension that filled her. Once it had bred in me the most odious humiliation, an intense longing to go from her, a passionate loathing for the necessity of forcing myself on her. I was chastened now; I should not be in so bad a case as Struboff; there would be no question of a fresh slice of bread. But I tried to harden myself against her, declaring that, desiring the prize, she must pay the price, and deserved no pity on the score of a bargain that she herself had ratified. Alas, poor dear, she knew neither how small the prize was nor how great the price, and her eyes prayed me not to turn her fears to certainty. She would know soon enough.

Last comes the vision of the theatre, of the gala performance, where Elsa and I sat side by side, ringed about with great folk, enveloped in splendour, making a spectacle for all the city, a sight that men now remember and recall. There through the piece we sat, and my mind was at work. It seemed to me that all my life was pictured there; I had but to look this way or that, and dead things rose from the grave and were for me alive again. There was Krak's hard face, there my mother's unconquerable smile; a glance at them brought back childhood with its rigours, its pleasures snatched in fearfulness, its strange ignorance and stranger passing gleams of insight. Victoria's hand, ringed, and gloved, and braceleted, held her fan; I remembered the little girl's bare, red, rapped knuckles. Away in a box to the right, close by the stage, was the Countess with her husband; my eyes turned often toward her and always found hers on mine. Again as a child I ran to her, asking to be loved; again as a boy I loved her and wrung from her reluctant love; again in the first vigour and unsparing pride of my manhood I sacrificed her heart and my delight. Below her, standing near the orchestra, was Wetter; through my glass I could see the smile that never left his face as he scanned the bedizened row in which I sat. There with him, looking on, jesting, scoffing at the parade, there was Nature's place for me, not here playing chief part in the comedy. What talks and what nights had we had together; how together had we fallen from heaven and ruefully prayed for that trick of falling soft! See, he smiles more broadly! What is it? Struboff has stolen in and dropped heavily into a seat. Wetter waved a hand to him and laughed. Laugh, laugh, Wetter! It is your only gospel and therefore must be pardoned its inevitable defects. Laugh even at poor Struboff whose stomach is so gross, whose feelings so fine, who may not give his wife a piece of bread, and would ask no greater joy than to kiss her feet. And laugh at Varvilliers too, who, although he sits where he has a good view of us, never turns his eyes toward the lady by my side, but is most courteously unobservant of her alone among all the throng. Did she look at him? Yes, for he will not look toward her. Why, we are all here, all except Hammerfeldt, who looks down from heaven, and Coralie who is coming presently to sing us the wedding-song. Even Victoria's Baron is here, and Victoria's sobs of terror are in my ears again. Bederhof and his fellows are behind me. The real and the unreal, the dummies and the men, they are all here, each in his place in the tableau. When Coralie comes, we shall be complete.

The opera ended and the curtain fell. There was a buzz of talk.

"Our anthem comes now, Elsa," said I.

"Yes," she whispered, crushing the bizarre satin rag of a programme that they had given her. "I have never heard Madame Mansoni," she added. I glanced at her; there was a blush on her cheek. She had heard of Madame Mansoni, although she had not heard her sing.

I put up my glass again and looked at Wetter. He nodded slightly but unmistakably, then flung his head back and laughed again. Now we waited only for Coralie. With her coming we should be complete.

The music began. By arrangement or impulse, I knew not which, everybody rose to their feet. Only Elsa and I sat still. The curtain rose and Coralie was revealed in her rare beauty and her matchless calm. A moment later the great full feelingless voice filled the theatre; she had had no doubt that she could fill the theatre. I saw Struboff leaning back in his chair, his shoulders eloquent of despair; I saw Wetter with straining eyes and curling lips, Varvilliers smiling in mischievous remembrance of our rehearsal. By my side Elsa was breathing quick and fast. I turned to her; her eyes were sparkling in triumph and excitement. It was a grand moment. She felt my glance; her cheek reddened, her eyes dropped, her lip quivered; the swiftest covert glance flew toward where Varvilliers was. I turned away with a sort of sickness on me.

Coralie's voice rose and fell, chanting out her words. The deadness of her singing seemed subtle mockery, as though she would not degrade true passion to the service of this sham, as though the words were enough for such a marriage, and the spirit scorned to sanction it. Elsa's eyes were on her now, and the Countess leaned forward, gazing at her. The last verse came, and Coralie, with a low bow and a smile, sang it direct to me—to me across all the theatre, so plainly that now all heads were turned from her, the people facing round and looking all at me and at Elsa by my side. Every eye was on us. The song ended. A storm of cheers burst out. A short gasp or sob came from Elsa. The cheers swelled and swelled, handkerchiefs waved in the air. I rose to my feet, gave Elsa my hand, and helped her to rise. Then together we took a step forward and bowed to all. Silence fell. Coralie's voice rose again, repeating the last verse. Now all the chorus joined in. We stood till the song ended again, and through the tempest of cheers. There had been no such enthusiasm in Forstadt within the memory of man. The heart of the people went forth to us; it was a triumph, a triumph, a triumph!

The next day we were married, and in the evening my wife and I set out together for Artenberg. This was what Bederhof had arranged.


THE END.