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CHAPTER VIII.


DESTINY IN A PINAFORE.


The foreign tour I undertook in my eighteenth year has been sufficiently, or even more than sufficiently, described by the accomplished and courtly pen of Vohrenlorf's secretary. I travelled as the Count of Artenberg under my Governor's guidance, and saw in some ways more, in some respects less, than most young men on their travels are likely to see. Old Hammerfeldt recommended for my reading the English letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son, and I studied them with some profit, much amusement, and an occasional burst of impatience; I believe that in the Prince's opinion I, like Mr. Stanhope, had hitherto attached too little importance to, and not attained enough proficiency in, "the graces"; concealment was the life's breath of his statescraft, and "the graces" help a man to hide everything—ideals, emotions, passions, his very soul. It must have been an immense satisfaction to the Prince, on leaving the world at a ripe age, to feel that nobody had ever been sure that they understood him; except, of course, the fools who think that they understood everybody.


As far as my private life is concerned, one incident only on this expedition is of moment. We paid a visit to my father's cousins, the Bartensteins, who possessed a singularly charming place in Tirol. The Duke was moderately rich, very able, and very indolent. He was a connoisseur in music and the arts. His wife, my Cousin Elizabeth, was a very good-natured woman of seven or eight and thirty, noted for her dairy and fond of out-of-door pursuits; her devotion to these last had resulted in her complexion being rather reddened and weather-beaten. We were to stay a week, an unusually long halt; and even before we arrived I detected a simple slyness in my good Vohrenlorf's demeanour. When a secret was afoot, Vohrenlorf's first apparent effort was to draw everybody's attention to the fact of its existence. Out of perversity I asked no questions, and left him to seethe in his over-boiling mystery. I knew that I should be enlightened soon enough. I was quite right; before I had been a day with my relatives it became obvious that Elsa was the mystery. I suppose that it is not altogether a common thing for a youth of eighteen, feeling himself a man, trying to think himself one, just become fully conscious of the power and attraction of the women he meets, to be shown a child of twelve, and given to understand that in six years' time she will be ready to become his wife. The position, even if not as uncommon as I suppose, is curious enough to justify a few words of description.

I saw Elsa first as she was rolling down a hill, with a scandalized governess in full chase. Elsa rolled quickly, marking her progress by triumphant cries. She "brought up" at the foot of the slope in an excessively crumpled state; her short skirts were being smoothed down when her mother and I arrived. She was a pretty, fair, blue-eyed child, with a natural merriment about her attractive enough. She was well made, having escaped the square solidity of figure that characterized Cousin Elizabeth. Her features were still in an undeveloped condition, and her hair, brushed smooth and plastered down on her forehead, was tormented into ringlets behind. She looked at my lanky form with some apprehension.

"Was it a good roll, Elsa?" I asked.

"Splendid!" she answered.

"You didn't know Cousin Augustin was looking on, did you?" asked her mother.

"No, I didn't." But it was plain that she did not care either.

I felt that Cousin Elizabeth's honest eyes were searching my face.

"Give me a kiss, won't you, Elsa?" I asked.

Elsa turned her chubby cheek up to me in a perfection of indifference. In fact, both Elsa and I were performing family duties. Thus we kissed for the first time.

"Now go and let nurse put on a clean frock for you," said Cousin Elizabeth. "You're to come downstairs to-day, and you're not fit to be seen. Don't roll any more when you've changed your frock."

Elsa smiled, shook her head, and ran off. I gathered the impression that even in the clean frock she would roll again if she chanced to be disposed to that exercise. The air of Bartenstein was not the air of Artenberg. A milder climate reigned. There was no Styrian discipline for Elsa. I believe that in all her life she did at her parents' instance only one thing that she seriously disliked. Cousin Elizabeth and I walked on.

"She's a baby still," said Cousin Elizabeth presently, "but I assure you that she has begun to develop."

"There's no hurry, is there?"

"No. You know, I think you're too old for your age, Augustin. I suppose it was inevitable."

I felt much younger in many ways than I had at fifteen; the gates of the world were opening, and showing me prospects unknown to the lonely boy at Artenberg.

"And she has the sweetest disposition. So loving!" said Cousin Elizabeth.

I did not find anything appropriate to answer. The next day found me fully, although delicately, apprised of the situation. It seemed to me a strange one. The Duke was guarded in his hints, and profuse of declarations that it was too soon to think of anything. Good Cousin Elizabeth strove to conceal her eagerness and repress the haste born of it by similar but more clumsy speeches. I spoke openly on the subject to Vohrenlorf.

"Ah, well, even if it should be so, you have six years," he reminded me in good-natured consolation. "And she will grow up."

"She won't roll down hills always, of course," I answered rather peevishly.

In truth the thing would not assume an appearance of reality for me; it was too utterly opposed to the current of my thoughts and dreams. A boy of my age will readily contemplate marriage with a woman ten years his senior; in regard to a child six years younger than himself the idea seems absurd. Yet I did not put it from me; I had been well tutored in the strength of family arrangements, and the force of destiny had been brought home to me on several occasions. I had no doubt at all that my visit to Bartenstein was part of a deliberate plan. The person who contrived my meeting with Elsa had a shrewd knowledge of my character; he knew that ideas long present in my mind became as it were domiciled there, and were hard to expel. I discovered afterward without surprise that the stay with my relatives was added to my tour at Prince von Hammerfeldt's suggestion.

Many men, or youths bordering on manhood, have seen their future brides in short frocks and unmitigated childhood, but they have not been aware of what was before them. I was at once amused and distressed; my humour was touched, but life's avenue seemed shortened. Even if it were not Elsa it would be some other little girl, now playing with her toys and rolling down banks. Imagination was not elastic enough to leap over the years and behold the child transformed. I stuck in the present, and was whimsically apprehensive of a child seen through a magnifying glass, larger, but unchanged in form, air, and raiment. Was this my fate? And for it I must wait till the perfected beauties who had smiled on me passed on to other men, and with them grew old—aye, as it seemed, quite old. I felt myself ludicrously reduced to Elsa's status; a long boy, who had outgrown his clothes, and yet was .no nearer to a man.

My trouble was, perhaps unreasonably, aggravated by the fact that Elsa did not take to me. I did my best to be pleasant; I made her several gifts. She accepted my offerings, but was not bought by them; myself she considered dull. I had not the flow of animal spirits that appeals so strongly to children. I played with her, but her young keenness detected the cloven hoof of duty. She told me I need not play unless I liked. Cousin Elizabeth apologized for me; Elsa was gentle, but did not change her opinion. The passage of years, I reflected, would increase in me all that the child found least to her taste. I was, as I have said, unable to picture her with tastes changed. But a failure of imagination may occasionally issue in paradoxical Tightness, for the imagination relies on the common run of events which the peculiar case may chance to contradict. As a fact, I do not think that Elsa ever did change greatly. I began to be sorry for her as well as for myself. Considered as an outlook in life, as the governing factor in a human being's existence, I did not seem to myself brilliant or even satisfactory. I had at this time remarkable forecasts of feelings that were in later years to be my almost daily companions.

"And what shall your husband be like, Elsa?" asked the Duke, as his little daughter sat on his knee and he played with her ringlets.

I was sitting by, and the Duke's eyes twinkled discreetly. The child looked across to me and studied my appearance for some few moments. Then she gave us a simple but completely lucid description of a gentleman differing from myself in all outward characteristics, and in all such inward traits as Elsa's experience and vocabulary enabled her to touch upon. I learned later that she took hints from a tall grenadier who sometimes stood sentry at the castle. At the moment it seemed as though her ideal were well enough delineated by the picture of my opposite. The Duke laughed, and I laughed also; Elsa was very grave and business-like in defining her requirements. Her inclinations have never been obscure to her. Even then she knew perfectly well what she wanted, and I was not that.

By the indiscretion of somebody (the Duke said his wife, his wife said the governess, the governess said the nurse) on the day before I went, Elsa got a hint of her suggested future. Indeed it was more than a hint; it was enough to entangle her in excitement, interest, and, I must add, dismay. Children play with the words "wife" and "husband" in a happy ignorance; their fairy tales give and restrict their knowledge. Cousin Elizabeth came to me in something of a stir; she was afraid that I should be annoyed, should suspect, perhaps, a forcing of my hand, or some such manœuvre. But I was not annoyed; I was interested to learn what effect the prospect had upon my little cousin. I was so different from the Grenadier, so irreconcilable with Elsa's fancy portrait.

"I'm very terribly vexed!" cried Cousin Elizabeth. "When it's all so—all no more than an idea!"

"She's so young she'll forget all about it," said I soothingly.

"You're not angry?"

"Oh, no. I was only afflicted with a sense of absurdity."

Chance threw me in Elsa's way that afternoon. She was with her nurse in the gardens. She ran up to me at once, but stopped about a yard from the seat on which I was sitting. I became the victim of a grave, searching, and long inspection. There was a roundness of surprise in her baby blue eyes. Embarrassed and amused (I am inclined sometimes to think that more than half my life has been a mixture of these not implacable enemies), I took the bull by the horns.

"I'm thin, and sallow, and hook-nosed, and I can't sing, and I don't laugh in a jolly way, and I can't fly kites," said I, having the description of her ideal in my mind. "You wouldn't like me to be your husband, would you?"

Elsa, unlike myself, was neither embarrassed nor amused. The mild and interested gravity of her face persisted unchanged.

"I don't know," she said meditatively.

With most of the faults that can beset one of my station, I do not plead guilty to any excessive degree of vainglory. I was flattered that the child hesitated.

"Then you like me rather?" I asked.

"Yes—rather." She paused, and then added: "If I married you I should be queen, shouldn't I, Cousin Augustin?"

"Yes," I assured her.

"I should think that's rather nice, isn't it?"

"It isn't any particular fun being king," said I in a burst of confidence.

"Isn't it?" she asked, her eyes growing rounder. "Still, I think I should like it." Her tone was quite confident; even at that age, as I have observed, she knew very well what she liked. For my part I remembered so vividly my own early dreams and later awakenings that I would not cut short her guileless visions; moreover, to generalize from one's self is the most fatal foolishness, even while it is the most inevitable.

During the remaining hours of my visit Elsa treated me, I must not say with more affection, but certainly with more attention. She was interested in me; I had become to her a source of possibilities, dim to vision but gorgeous to imagination. I knew so well the images that floated before a childish mind, able to gape at them, only half able to grasp them. I had been through this stage. It is odd to reflect that I was in an unlike but almost equally great delusion myself. I had ceased to expect immoderate enjoyment from my position, but I had conceived an exaggerated idea of its power and influence on the world and mankind. Of this mistake I was then unconscious; I smiled to think that Elsa could play at being a queen, the doll, the bolster, the dog, or whatever else might chance to come handy acting the regal rôle in my place. I do not now altogether quarrel with my substitutes.

The hour of departure came. I have a vivid recollection of Cousin Elizabeth's overwhelming tact; she was so anxious that I should not exaggerate the meaning or importance of the suggestion which had been made, that she succeeded in filling my mind with it, to the exclusion of everything else. The Duke, having tried in vain to stop her, fell into silence, cigarettes, and drolly resigned glances. But he caught me alone for a few moments, and gave me his word of advice.

"Think no more about this nonsense for six years," said he. "The women will match-make, you know."

I promised, with a laugh, not to anticipate troubles. He smiled at my phrase, but did not dispute its justice. I think he shared the sort of regret which I felt, that such things should be so much as talked about in connection with Elsa. A man keeps that feeling about his daughter long after her mother has marked a husband and chosen a priest.

My visit to my cousins was the last stage of my journey. From their house Vohrenlorf and I travelled through to Forstadt. I was received at the railway station by a large and distinguished company. My mother was at Artenberg, where I was to join her that evening, but Hammerfeldt awaited me, and some of the gentlemen attached to the Court. I was too much given to introspection and self-appraisement not to be aware that my experiences had given me a lift toward manhood; my shyness was smothered, though not killed, by a kind of mechanical ease born of practice. After greeting Hammerfeldt I received the welcome of the company with a composed courtesy of. which the Prince's approval was very manifest. Ceremonial occasions such as these are worthy of record and meditation only when they surround, and, as it were, frame some incident really material. Such an incident occurred now. My inner mind was still full of my sojourn with the Bartensteins, of the pathetic, whimsical, hypothetical connection between little Elsa and myself, and of the chains that seemed to bind my life in bonds not of my making. These reflections went on in an undercurrent while I was bowing, saluting, grasping hands, listening and responding to appropriate observations. Suddenly I found the Count von Sempach before me. His name brought back my mind in an instant from its wanderings. The Countess was recalled very vividly to my recollection; I asked after her; Sempach, much gratified, pointed to a row of ladies who (the occasion being official) stood somewhat in the back-ground. There she was, now in the maturity of her remarkable beauty, seeming to me the embodiment of perfect accomplishment. I saluted her with marked graciousness; fifty heads turned instantly from me toward her. She blushed very slightly and curtseyed very low. Sempach murmured gratification; Hammerfeldt smiled. I was vaguely conscious of a subdued sensation running all through the company, but my mind was occupied with the contrast between this finished woman and the little girl I had left behind. From feeling old, too old, sad, and knowing for poor little Elsa, I was suddenly transported into an oppressive consciousness of youth and rawness. Involuntarily I drew myself up to my full height and assumed the best air of dignity that was at my command. So posed, I crossed the station to my carriage between Hammerfeldt and Vohrenlorf.

"Your time has not been wasted," old Hammerfeldt whispered to me. "You are ready now to take up what I am more than ready to lay down."

I started slightly; I had for the moment forgotten that the Council of Regency was now discharged of its office, and that I was to assume the full burden of my responsibilities. I had looked forward to this time with eagerness and ambition. But a man's emotions at a given moment are very seldom what he has expected them to be. Some foreign thought intrudes and predominates; something accidental supplants what has seemed so appropriate and certain. While I travelled down to Artenberg that evening, with Vohrenlorf opposite to me (Vohrenlorf who himself was about to lay down his functions), the assumption of full power was not what occupied my mind. I was engrossed with thoughts of Elsa, with fancies about my Countess, with strange dim speculations that touched me—the young man, not the king about whom all the coil was. Had I been called upon to condense those vague meditations and emotions into a sentence, I would have borrowed what Vohrenlorf had said to me when we were with the Bartensteins. He did not often hit the nail exactly on the head, but just now I could give no better summary of all I felt than his soberly optimistic reminder: "Ah, well, even if it should be so, you have six years!"

The thought that I treasured on the way to Artenberg that evening was the thought of my six years.