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CHAPTER V.


SOMETHING ABOUT VICTORIA.


I feel that I give involuntarily a darker colour to my life than the truth warrants. When we sit down and reflect we are apt to become the prey of a curious delusion; pain seems to us the only reality, pleasure a phantasm or a dream. Yet such reality as pain has pleasure shares, and we are in no closer touch with eternal truth when we have headaches (or heartaches) than when we are free from these afflictions. I wonder sometimes whether a false idea of dignity does not mislead us. Would we all pose as martyrs? It is nonsense; for most of us life is a tolerable enough business—if we would not think too much about it. We need not pride ourselves on our griefs; it seems as though joy were the higher state because it is the less self-conscious and rests in fuller harmony with the great order that encircles us.

As I grew older I gained a new and abiding source of pleasure in the contemplation and study of my sister Victoria. I have anticipated matters a little in telling of my tutor's departure; I must hark back and pick up the thread of Victoria's history from the time when I was hard on thirteen and she near fifteen the time when she had implored me to rid her of Krak. I had hated Krak with that healthy full-blooded antipathy whose faculty one seems to lose in later years. It is a tiresome thing to be driven by experience to the discovery of some good in everybody; your fine black fades to neutral gray; often 1 regret the delightfully partial views of earlier days. And so many people succeed in preserving them to a green and untutored old age! They are Popes always to their heretics. Such was and is Victoria; she never changed in her views of other people. In contrast she was, as regards herself, of a temperament so elastic that impressions endured hardly a moment beyond the blow, and pleasures passed without depositing any residuum which might form a store against evil days. If Krak had cut her arm off, its perpetual absence might have made Victoria remember the fault which was paid for by amputation; the moral effect of rapid knuckles disappeared with the comfort that came from sucking them. Perhaps her disposition was a happy chance for her; since the Styrian discipline (although not, of course, in this blankly physical form later on) persisted for her long after it had been softened for me. I touch again perhaps on a point which has caught my attention before; undoubtedly my mother kept the status of childhood imposed on Victoria fully as long as nature countenanced the measures. Krak did not go; a laugh greeted my hint. Krak stayed till Victoria was sixteen. For my part, since it was inevitable that Krak should discipline somebody, I think heaven was mild in setting her on Victoria. Had I stayed under her sway I should have run mad. Victoria laughed, cried, joked, dared, submitted, offended, defied, suffered, wept, and laughed again all in a winter's afternoon. She was by way of putting on the dignity of an elder with me and shutting off from my gaze her trials and reverses. But there was no one else to tell the joke to, and I had it all each night before I slept.

But now Victoria was sixteen; and Krak, elderly, pensioned, but unbroken, was gone. She went back to Styria to chasten and ultimately to enrich (I would not for the world have been privy to their prayers) some nephews and nieces. It seemed strange, but Krak was homesick for Styria. She went; Victoria gave her the tribute of a tear, surprised out of her before she remembered her causes for exultation. Then came their memory, and she was outrageously triumphant. A new era began; the buffer was gone; my mother and Victoria were face and face. And in a year as Victoria said, in two or three as my mother allowed, Victoria would be grown up.

I was myself, most unwillingly, a cause of annoyance to Victoria, and a pretext for her repression. Importance flowed in on me unasked, unearned. To speak in homely fashion, she was always "a bad second," and none save herself attributed to her the normal status of privileges of an elder sister. Her wrath was not visited on me, but on those who exalted me so unduly; even while she resented my position she was not, as I have shown, above using it for her own ends; this adaptability was not due to guile; she forgot one mood when another came, and compromised her pretensions in the effort to compass her desires. Princess Heinrich seized on the inconsistency, and pointed it out to her daughter with an exasperating lucidity.

"You are ready enough to remember that Augustin is king when you want anything from him," she would observe. "You forget it only when you are asked to give way to him."

Victoria would make no reply—the Krak traditions endured to prevent an answer to rebukes but when we were alone she used to remark, "I should think an iceberg's rather like a mother. Only one needn't live with icebergs."

Quite suddenly, as it seemed, it occurred to Victoria that she was pretty. She lost no time in advertising the discovery through the medium of a thousand new tricks and graces; a determined assault on the affections of all the men about us, from the lords-in-waiting down to the stablemen—an assault that ignored existing domestic ties or pre-arranged affections—was the next move in her campaign. When she was extremely angry with her mother she would say, "How odious it must be not to be young any more!" I thought that there was sometimes a wistful look in my mother's eyes; was she thinking of Krak, Krak in far-off Styria? Perhaps for once, when Victoria was hitting covertly at Krak, my mother remarked in a very cold voice:

"You remember your punishments, you don't remember your offences, Victoria."

I could linger long on these small matters, for I find more interest and incitement to analysis in the attitude of women toward women than in their more obvious relations with men; but I must pass over a year of veiled conflict, and come to that incident which is the salient point in Victoria's girlish history. It coincided almost exactly in time with the dismissal of Geoffrey Owen, and my pre-occupation with that event diverted my attention from the earlier stages of Victoria's affair. She was just seventeen, grown up in her own esteem (and she adduced many precedents to fortify her contention), but in my mother's eyes still wanting a year of quiet home life before she should be launched into society. Victoria acquiesced perforce, but turned the flank of the decree by ensuring that the home life should be by no means quiet. She set to work to prepare for us a play; comedy or tragedy I knew not then, and am not now quite clear. Our nearest neighbour at Artenberg dwelt across the river in the picturesque old castle of Waldenweiter; he was a young man of twenty-two at this time, handsome, pleasant, and ready for amusement. His father being dead, Frederick was his own master—that is to say, he had no master. Victoria fell in love with him. The Baron, it seemed, was not disinclined for a romance with a pretty princess; perhaps he thought that nothing serious would come of it, and that it was a pleasant way enough of passing a summer; or, perhaps, being but twenty-two, he did not think at all, unless to muse on the depth of the blue in Victoria's eyes, and the comely lines of her figure as she rowed on the river. To say truth, Victoria gave him small time for reflection.

As I am convinced, before he had well considered the situation he had fallen into the habit of attending a rendezvous in a backwater of the stream about a mile above Artenberg. Victoria never went out unaccompanied, and never came back unaccompanied; it was discovered afterward that the trusted old boatman could be bought off with the price of beer, and used to disembark and seek an ale house so soon as the backwater was reached. The meeting over, Victoria would return in high spirits and displaying an unusual affection toward my mother, either as a blind, or through remorse, or (as I incline to think) through an amiability born of triumph; there was at times even a touch of commiseration in her manner, and more than once she spoke to me, in a tone of philosophical speculation, on the uselessness of endeavouring to repress natural feelings and the futility of treating as children persons who were already grown up. This mood lasted some time, so long, I suppose, as the stolen delight of doing the thing was more prominent than the delight in the thing itself. A month passed and brought a change. Now she was silent, absent, pensive, very kind to me, more genuinely submissive and dutiful to her mother. The first force of my blow had left me, for Owen had been gone now some months; I began to observe my sister carefully. To my amazement she, formerly the most heedless of creatures, knew in an instant that she was watched. She drew off from me, setting a distance between us; my answer was to withdraw my companionship, since only thus could I convince her that I had no desire to spy. I had not guessed the truth, and my mother had no inkling of it. Princess Heinrich's ignorance may seem strange, but I have often observed that persons of a masterful temper are rather easy to delude; they have such difficulty in conceiving that they can be disobeyed as to become ready subjects for hoodwinking; I recollect old Hammerfeldt saying to me, "In public affairs, sire, always expect disobedience, but be chary of rewarding obedience." My mother adopted the second half of the maxim but disregarded the first. She always expected obedience; Victoria knew it and built on her knowledge a confident hope of impunity in deceit.

Now on what harsh word have I stumbled? For deceit savours of meanness. Let me amend and seek the charity, the neutral tolerance, of some such word as concealment. For things good and things bad may be concealed, things that people should know and things that concern them not, great secrets of State and the flutterings of hearts. Victoria practised concealment.

I found her crying once, crying alone in a corner of the terrace under "a ludicrous old statue of Mercury. I was amazed; I had not seen her cry so heartily since Krak had last ill-treated her. I put it to her that some such affliction must be responsible for her despair.

"I wish it was only that," she answered. "Do go away, Augustin."

"I don't want to stay," said I. "Only if you want anything——"

"I wonder if you could!" she said with a sudden flush. "No, it's no use," she went on. "And it's nothing. Augustin, if you tell mother you found me crying, I'll never——"

"You know quite well that I never tell anybody anything," said I, rather offended.

"Then go away, dear," urged Victoria.

I went away. I had been feeling very lonely myself, and had sought out Victoria for company's sake. However, I went and walked alone down to the edge of the river. It was clear that Victoria did not want me, and apparently I could do nothing for her. I have never found myself able to do very much for people, except those who did not deserve to have anything done for them. Perhaps poor Victoria didn't, but I was not aware of her demerits then. I repeated to the river my old reflection: "I don't see that it's much use being king, you know," said I as I flung a pebble and looked across at the towers of Waldenweiter. "That fellow's better off than I am," said I; and I wished again that Victoria had not sent me away. There is a period of life during which one is always being sent away, and it is not quite over for me yet in spite of my dignity.

At last came the crash. A little carelessness born of habit and impunity, the treachery of the old boatman under the temptation of a gold piece, the girl's lack of savoir faire when charged with the offence—here was enough, and more than enough. I recollect being summoned to my mother's room late one evening, just about my bedtime. I went and found her alone with Victoria. The Princess sat in her great arm-chair; Victoria was leaning against the wall when I entered; her handkerchief was crushed in one hand, the other hand clenched by her side.

"Augustin," said the Princess, "Victoria and I go to Biarritz to-morrow."

Victoria's quick breathing was her only comment. My mother told me in brief, curt, offensive phrases that Victoria had been carrying on a flirtation with our opposite neighbour. I have no doubt that I looked surprised.

"You may well wonder!" cried my mother. "If she could not remember what she was herself, she might have remembered that the King was her brother."

"I've done nothing——" Victoria began.

"Hold your tongue," said my mother. "If you were in Styria, instead of here, you'd be locked up in your own room for a month on bread and water; yes, you may think yourself lucky that I only take you to Biarritz."

"Styria!" said Victoria with a very bitter smile. "If I were in Styria I should be beheaded, I daresay, or—or knouted, or something. Oh, I know what Styria means! Krak taught me that."

"I wish the Baroness was here," observed the Princess.

"You'd tell her to beat me, I suppose?" flashed out my sister.

"If you were three years younger——" began my mother with perfect outward composure. Victoria interrupted her passionately.

"Oh, never mind my age. I'm a child still. Come and beat me!" she cried, assuming the air of an Iphigenia.

To this day I am of opinion that she ran a risk in giving this invitation; it was well on the cards that the Princess might have accepted it. Indeed had it been Styria—but it was not Styria. My mother turned to me with a cold smile.

"You perceive," said she, "the spirit in which your sister meets me because I object to her compromising herself with this wretched baron. She accuses me of persecution, and talks as though I were an executioner."

I had been looking very curiously at Victoria. She was in a dressing-gown, having been called, apparently, from her bedroom; her hair was over her shoulders. She looked most prettily woe-begone—like Juliet before her angry father, or, as I say, Iphigenia before the knife. In a moment she broke out again.

"Nobody feels for me," she complained. "What can Augustin know of it?"

"I know," observed my mother. "But although I know——"

"Oh, you've forgotten," cried Victoria scornfully.

For a moment my mother flushed. I was glad on all accounts that Victoria did not repeat her previous invitation now. On the contrary, when she had looked at Princess Heinrich, she gave a sudden frightened sob, rushed across the room, and flung herself on her knees at my feet.

"You're the king!" she cried. "Protect me, protect me!"

Throughout all this very painful interview I seemed to hear as it were echoes of the romances which I had read on Victoria's recommendation; the reminiscence was particularly strong in this last exclamation. However, it is not safe to conclude that feelings are not sincere because they are expressed in conventional phrases. These formulas are moulds into which our words run easily; though the moulds be hollow, the stuff that fills them may be solid enough.

"Why, you don't want to marry him?" I exclaimed, much embarrassed at being prematurely forced into functions of a père de famille.

"I'll never marry anybody else," moaned Victoria. My mother's face was the picture of disgust and scorn.

"That's another thing," said she. "At least the King would not hear of such a marriage as this."

"Do you want to marry him?" I asked Victoria, chiefly, I confess, in curiosity. I had risen—or fallen—in some degree to my position, and it seemed strange to me that my sister should wish to marry this Baron Fritz.

"I—I love him, Augustin," groaned Victoria.

"She knows it's impossible, as well as you do," said my mother. "She doesn't really want to do it."

Victoria cried quietly, but made no reply or protest. I was bewildered; I did not understand then how we may passionately desire a thing which we would not do, and may snatch at the opposition of others as an excuse alike for refusal and for tears. Looking back, I do not think had we set Victoria free in the boat, and put the sculls in her hands, that she would have rowed over to Waldenweiter. But did she, then, deserve no pity? Perhaps she deserved more; for not two weak creatures like the Princess (I crave her pardon) and myself stood between her and her wishes, but she herself—the being that she had been fashioned into, her whole life, her nature, and her heart, as our state had made them. If our soul be our prison, and ourself the jailer, in vain shall we plan escape or offer bribes for freedom; wheresoever we go we carry the walls with us, and if death, then death alone can unlock the gates.

The scene grew quieter. Victoria rose, and threw herself into a chair in a weary, puzzled desolation; my mother sat quite still, with eyes intent on the floor, and lips close shut. A sense of awkwardness grew strong on me; I wanted to get out of the room. They would not fight any more now; they would be very distant to one another; and, moreover, it seemed clear that Victoria did not propose to marry Baron Fritz. But what about poor Baron Fritz? I approached my mother, and whispered a question. She answered me aloud.

"I have written to Prince von Hammerfeldt. A letter from him will, I have no doubt, be enough to insure us against further impertinence."

Victoria dabbed her eyes, but no protest came from her.

"We shall start mid-day to-morrow," the Princess pursued, "unless, of course, Victoria refuses to accompany me." Her voice took a tinge of irony. "Possibly your wishes may persuade her, Augustin, if mine can not."

Victoria raised her head suddenly, and said very distinctly:

"I will do what Augustin tells me." The emphatic word in that sentence was "Augustin."

My mother smiled bitterly; she understood well enough the implicit declaration of war, the appeal from her to me, the shifting of allegiance. I daresay that she saw the absurdity of putting a boy not yet sixteen into such a position; but I know that I felt it much more strongly.

"Oh, you'd better go, hadn't you?" I asked uncomfortably. "You wouldn't be very jolly here, you know."

"I'll do as you tell me, Augustin."

"Yes, we are both at your orders," said my mother.

It crossed my mind that their journey would not be a very pleasant one, but I did not feel able to enter into that side of the question. I resented this reference to me, and desired to be rid of the affair.

"I should like you to do as mother suggests," said I.

"Very well, Augustin," said Victoria, and she rose to her feet. She was a tall, graceful girl, and looked very stately as she walked by her mother. The Princess made no movement or sign; the grim smile persisted on her lips. After a moment or two of wavering I followed my sister from the room. She was just ahead of me in the passage, moving toward her bedroom with a slow, listless tread. An impulse of sympathy came upon me; I ran after her, caught her by the arm, and kissed her.

"Cheer up," I said.

"Oh, it's all right, Augustin," said she, "I've only been a fool."

There seemed nothing else to do, so I kissed her again.

"Fancy, Biarritz with mother!" she moaned. Then she turned on me suddenly, almost fiercely. "But what's the good of asking anything of you? You're afraid of mother still."

I drew back as though she had struck me. A moment later her arms were round my neck.

"Oh, never mind, my dear," she sobbed. "Don't you see I'm miserable? Of course, I must go with her."

I had never supposed that any other course was practicable. The introduction of myself into the business had been but a move in the game. Nevertheless it marked the beginning of a new position for me, as rich in discomfort as, according to my experience, are most extensions of power.