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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGreifenstein - Chapter 15
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Greifenstein - Chapter 15 Post by :jonnydd Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2790

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Greifenstein - Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

An hour later Rex was supporting Greif as he returned from the state bedchamber to his own room. Strong and determined to be calm as the young man was, the sight had been too much for him, and it was clear that unless he could obtain sleep his nerves must break down under the strain they suffered. He reeled in his walk like a man half asleep, his bright eyes were glassy and fixed, his relaxed fingers were incapable of grasping Rex's arm, and the latter held him upright upon his feet and almost carried him along the dim corridors.

Rex also had seen, but when he had once been face to face with that which had irresistibly drawn him to the room, he had felt no desire to look again. The drawn, white features of the dead lady recalled nothing to his mind out of the sweetness of the past, while their fixed expression of pain intensified the horror of the present until it grew unbearable. He had stayed long in the other chamber, where his father lay, and as he gazed upon the stern dark face his wrath rose, swelling tumultuously in his breast, as the tide of the sea, ebbing away as he thought of what was beyond and as he realised that all vengeance had been accomplished, and all justice done, so that no one remained alive against whom he could feel anger, no one upon whom his hand could fall. They had taken the law into their own hands and had executed its extreme sentence upon her who had wronged them, and they had expiated their deed in their own bodies. Never was tragedy so swift, so desperate and so complete.

And now the morning sun was high in the heavens, mocking the solemn darkness of men's hearts with his fierce brightness, shining upon the ancient walls of Greifenstein as coldly and clearly through the keen winter air as he had shone yesterday and as he would shine to-morrow. From eave and stringcourse and dripstone of the old castle the melting patches of dazzling snow sent down mimic showers of diamond drops, and the moisture thawed from them made dark stains upon the grey masonry. A redbreast skipped about the furrows made in the white carpet by the carriage wheels, paused, turned his tiny impertinent head, and glanced up at the ramparts with a squint, as though to tell the time of day by the sun and the shadows of the projecting eaves. From the paved court of the stables, where all had been hurry and confusion on the previous night, came the occasional noise of an impatient hoof stamping upon the stones, the even sound of brushes on smooth coats as the men leisurely groomed the horses, the tinkling of curb-chains polished and rubbed together by idle lads who were in no hurry, and occasionally the echo of a voice, instantly subdued to an undertone as the speaker remembered that this day was not to be like other days. At the door of the servants' hall the two comfortable policemen in their dark uniforms and shining buttons sunned their fair beards as they smoked their morning pipes, exchanging a remark in a low voice about once in five minutes, and never without previously looking round to see whether any one was listening to them, but chiefly occupied in watching an underkeeper who was feeding the big hounds in a sunny corner of the inner court.

Nature, in her pitiless irony, seemed more than usually mirthful on that clear morning. It was such a day as old Greifenstein who lay upstairs, dead beside his dead wife, would have chosen to tramp far into the forest, with his gun on his shoulder and his dogs at his heels. It was such a day as would have made poor Clara's lot seem easier, softening her tortured conscience in a thaw of passing satisfaction, pleasant while it lasted, transitory as the gleam of light and warmth in the dismal winter of the Black Forest. The forest itself alone was unchanged. The trees looked blacker than ever against the blue sky and under the violent light. Around the vast amphitheatre of the hills they stood motionless in their even rows, like a great assembly of dark-robed judges, judging the dead who lay in their midst, inquisitors whom no brightness could brighten, and in whose sombre countenances no smile was reflected from the glorious sky and dazzling light. Silent, grand, funereal, they stood in their places as they had stood a hundred years ago, before those lives began which had now suddenly gone out, as they would stand when those other lives were extinguished which now were young.

Neither Greif nor Rex were seen again that day. In the course of time the representatives of the law arrived, did their office, and were regaled with a collation by the butler, during which they sat upon the chairs which last night had been occupied by those whose end they had come to ascertain. The case was very plain and their duties were simple. They went away and took the two policemen with them. Frau von Sigmundskron moved noiselessly about the house, giving the necessary directions when there were any to be given, occasionally sitting down in a quiet corner to read a few pages of a devotional book she had found. More than once she went to the different rooms where Greif and Rex had withdrawn, to see whether she could be of any use. Greif was always in the same place, leaning back in a great easy-chair, pale and exhausted with grief, but evidently master of himself. At last she found him asleep, and she drew a long breath of relief, for she knew that the chief danger was past. When she went to Rex she found him reading, and he did not relinquish his occupation during the whole day, so far as she could ascertain. Whether he understood what he read, or not, was more than she could determine. The volume contained a part of Goethe's works, and when she glanced at the page she saw that the student had selected the second part of Wilhelm Meister for his reading. He always looked up quietly when she entered, thanked her, and said that he needed nothing.

Frau von Sigmundskron could not rest. The sense of responsibility which she felt might alone have sufficed to sustain her energy, but her mind was disturbed by a matter even weightier in her eyes. The tremendous difficulties of the future presented themselves very clearly to her mental view, and she knew that before long they would not be mere shadows of things to come, but actual problems with which she must grapple, and upon the solution of which she must concentrate all her strength. Tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, the earth would close for ever over what remained of those poor beings whose departure from life had saddened her own and made it seem so hard to understand. But when the three were buried, she could no longer remain at Greifenstein. There would be no reason for prolonging her stay, even had she wished to do so, and indeed her wishes would lead her homewards as soon as her duties were all fulfilled. She had never before been separated even for a day from her child, and though she was strong and sensible in mind and knew that Hilda was safe with old Berbel, she was conscious that it was painful to be away from her. She would therefore return to Sigmundskron. From that moment her trouble would begin. It was not conceivable that Greif should go away without seeing Hilda, and yet there were many reasons why it would be better that the two should not meet.

She had foreseen the struggle during the hours of the night, but it had not then appeared so formidable as now. She had then thought more of Greif, and it had not seemed impossible to tell him frankly what she felt. As she reflected upon what must be done, she saw that Hilda was the principal figure in the situation, and she realised that Hilda's happiness was infinitely more dear to her than anything else in the world. She hesitated, and for some time she told herself that the marriage must take place, come what might.

To her, all that had happened since the previous evening was shrouded in an impenetrable mystery. Her imagination failed utterly to account for the desperate doings of which the horrible result was before her. She could have understood that the two brothers might have quarrelled on meeting after so many years, and that in a moment of reckless anger they should have shot each other. Clara might have perished in the struggle, while endeavouring to part them. But there was a dreadful appearance of deliberate intention in the whole tragedy which made such a hypothesis untenable. That Clara had been intentionally murdered, she could not doubt. Greifenstein might have slain her in a fit of passion and might have taken his own life afterwards, but this could not account for Rieseneck's suicide. She could have believed that for some unknown reason Rieseneck had killed his brother and Clara, and after disposing their bodies as they were found, had shot himself. But the examination proved the contrary. It was plainly evident that both men had died in their chairs by the weapons found in their own hands. Rieseneck had written to his son, but Greifenstein had not, or, at least, if he had written anything it had not been discovered. Rex alone could know the secret, therefore, if it had been revealed at all. She was ignorant that in Germany, when a suicide has been committed, the law has a right to see whatever letters were last written by the deceased. The stamped letter, addressed to Rex, had attracted her attention, and she had taken it from the table with the intention of posting it the next day, not meaning to conceal it, but, on the contrary, to send it without delay to its destination. The legal gentlemen, courteous to the good lady, had not pressed her with any questions, taking it for granted that if she had found any letter or any clue to an explanation she would naturally offer it at once. And so it chanced that Rex alone could know the truth if any one knew it. That he had been terribly moved by what he had read, she had seen for herself, but whether the letter had contained a full explanation of the circumstances, it was not possible to judge. If so, it was more than probable, she thought, that Rex would show it to Greif in due time, and that when the first shock was over the contents would be communicated to herself. The question was whether this would happen before Greif saw Hilda. In spite of her natural repugnance to such a plan, she almost resolved to ask Rex directly whether what he had received threw any light upon the situation. If she could know why those three persons were dead she could better guide her course in the future.

If Greifenstein had been a murderer, as well as a suicide, his son could not have Hilda for his wife. It was Greif's misfortune, and the baroness gave him all the pity she could spare from her own child, but the point could not be yielded. She closed her eyes and tried to think it over. She thought of Hilda, married and leaving Sigmundskron to live under the very roof where such deeds had been done, and the mere idea was painful and repugnant. Greif was wholly innocent of all that had happened, but the stain was upon his name, and the blood of his father was in his veins. Hilda's children would be the grandchildren of a murderer. Old Greifenstein had not ended his days in a shameful prison, merely because he had found courage to take his own life quickly. But if he had done the deed he was a common murderer, and the moral result was the same, whether he were alive or dead; the indelible disgrace rested upon his son, and would brand the lives of his son's sons after him. Hilda loved Greif, and Greif loved Hilda, but that was no argument. Better that Hilda should drag out a solitary and childless existence than be happy under such a name; far better that Greif should submit to half a century of lonely and loveless years, than get children whose names should perpetuate the remembrance of a monstrous crime. Hilda would suffer, but suffering was the lot of mankind. The baroness wondered sadly whether her daughter's disappointment could possibly equal what she herself had borne on that day when her gallant soldier-husband had been shot down in battle. Could Hilda's sorrow be like her own? Even if it were, Hilda must bear it rather than take such a name--unless, indeed, old Greifenstein had been innocent of his wife's death. No one could know that except Rex, and would he answer her question? In her horror of the whole situation she wished that she might go back to Sigmundskron and end her life in barely decent poverty with Hilda, and never again think of the marriage. But her rigid sense of duty reproached her for such a thought, which made her feel as though she were trying to lay down the responsibility that had fallen to her lot. Her untiring conscience took up the burden again, to bear it as it might.

Rex must answer her, and upon his answer would depend everything. It was not an easy matter to question him, however, and for the present it was wholly impossible. She must meet Hilda while she herself was yet undecided, so that it seemed simplest to be roughly frank with the girl, to tell her plainly what had happened, what was known and the extent of what no one knew, showing her clearly that if old Greifenstein should turn out to have been guilty, she must give up all thought of Greif and submit to her poor lot with the best grace she could. Greif would go away and travel, perhaps for several years. He would find interests at last, which might help him to forget his darkened youth. Hilda and her mother would live as they could, and when the mother died Sigmundskron must go to the hammer. At all events it was not encumbered with debts, and its sale would leave the child a pittance to save her from starvation; possibly she would have more than before, but Frau von Sigmundskron could not judge of that. Possibly, too, Hilda's sixty-four quarterings would help her to gain admittance as a lady-canoness in one of those semi-religious foundations, reserved exclusively for the old nobility, of which several exist in Germany.

The short winter's day was over when Frau von Sigmundskron reached this stage in her meditations. Lights were brought to the room where she was, and a servant came to ask her what she would eat. She scarcely knew what she answered, but she remembered that some hours had passed since she had been to see Greif or Rex and she roused herself to go upon the errand of inquiry. In the corridor she was met by another person who came to ask about the dispositions for the morrow, an ominous creature in black, the sight of whom recalled at once the hideous realities of the day, from which her mind had wandered in her anxiety for Hilda's welfare. She gave the necessary directions and continued upon her way.

'Come in,' said Greif's voice as she knocked cautiously at the door.

As soon as she entered she saw that his state had been improved by the rest he had taken. His eyes were quiet, his colour pale but natural, his manner mournfully calm. In the morning she had feared he might fall into a delirious fever.

Frau von Sigmundskron came and stood beside him. He was comforted by her presence, though he had not always been sure that he liked her. At present, he knew what good cause he had to be grateful to her for what she had done, and he felt that she was his only relation in the world, the only woman alive who could in any way take the place of what he had lost. If he had not been very fond of her before, it was because he had not understood her, and because in his eyes her personality was entirely eclipsed by Hilda's. He put out his hand and took hers, and pressed it gently.

'You are very good,' he said. 'I am glad you have come.'

She sat down beside his easy-chair and gazed into the fire. There was no light in the room save that of the pine logs, blazing in the great chimney. Her reflexions of ten minutes earlier seemed very far away, for the sight of him and the sound of his voice had suddenly recalled those hopes for Hilda from which she had got so much happiness.

'You have slept,' she said. 'I am glad, for you needed rest.'

She did not know what to say, and there was a pause before she spoke again, during which Greif did not move. Unconsciously he had taken the manner of one ill, and lay back in his seat, his eyes half closed, his hands resting upon the arms of the chair, making no effort and only hoping that none would be required of him.

'Dear Greif,' said the baroness at last, 'you will go away, will you not?'

He started a little and his expression changed, as though the question pained him.

'Yes,' he answered. 'I will go away--when it is over.'

'Shall it be to-morrow, then?' asked Frau von Sigmundskron very softly.

'Yes. To-morrow morning. I would it were to-night. And then--' he stopped and passed his hand wearily across his forehead, letting it drop nerveless by his side almost immediately.

'And then?'

'Then I must see Hilda before I go.' His eyelids quivered, and his lips shut themselves closely.

'Yes,' answered the baroness in a tone of hesitation.

'Yes, I must see Hilda,' Greif repeated. 'And when I am gone--then-- then--'

This time Frau von Sigmundskron said nothing, for she saw that he was suffering, though she dared not guess what was passing in his mind. He seemed to be trying to speak.

'When I am gone--' he began, but the words died on his lips. 'Do not talk of this now, dear Greif.'

He roused himself and sat straight in his chair. There was something of his father's look in his face, and his companion noticed that his fingers were strained as he grasped the carved wood in the effort to steady himself.

'I must say it now,' he answered firmly. 'To-morrow I shall not be able to talk much, and it may happen that we shall never have another opportunity.'

'Never?'

'Perhaps never. It is to be good-bye. You must find another husband for Hilda, for I may not come back. That is what I wanted to say.'

The baroness turned a startled look upon him and leant forwards toward him from her seat. She had not expected such a turn in the drama.

'You do not suppose that I, an honourable man, would expect you to give your daughter to the son of a murderer?'

The question was put so sharply and concisely that Frau von Sigmundskron was taken unawares. The thought had been painful enough when it had passed unspoken through the confusion of her reflexions, but Greif's statement gave it a new and horrible vividness. With a single sharp sob, she hid her face in her hands, and Greif saw that they trembled. His own heart was beating violently, for he had nerved himself to make the effort, but he had not anticipated the reaction that followed closely upon it. He felt as though, in pronouncing the detested word, he had struck his father's dead face with his hand.

'God knows how I loved him,' he said, under his breath. 'But he did the deed.'

Frau von Sigmundskron did not distinguish the words he spoke, but she felt that she must say something. Her hands dropped from her strained and tearless eyes and fell upon her knees.

'Oh, Greif! Greif!' she almost moaned, as she stared at the blazing logs.

'That is what it comes to in the end,' he answered, summoning all his courage. 'I cannot marry Hilda. It was bad enough to be half disgraced by my father's brother--you were kind enough to set that aside. It is worse now, for the stain is on the name itself. I cannot give it to Hilda. Would you have her called Greifenstein?'

The baroness could not speak. Half an hour earlier she would not have dared to hope that Greif would himself renounce her daughter, but it was different now. She could not look upon his agonised face, and listen to the tones that came from his tortured heart, as he gave up all he held dear for the sake of acting honourably, she could not see his suffering and hear his words, and yet brutally admit that he was right, and that his sacrifice was a necessity. And yet her own conscience told her that her first thought must be for her own child, and not for him. She stared at the fire and answered nothing.

'Would you have her write her name "Hilda von Greifenstein"?' he asked, forcing the words sternly from his lips. 'Would you have her angel purity darkened with the blood that is on my house?'

'But you, Greif--what will become of you?'

'It matters little enough, so that I do no harm to those I love,' he answered.

'It does matter,' said the baroness gently. 'It is not right or just that an innocent man should suffer for the deeds of others.'

'It is right that he should suffer anything, rather than injure those who are not only innocent but free from inherited reproach.'

There was a sudden energy in his manner which surprised his companion. His white face was illuminated by a sort of radiance from within, his voice was full and firm, the glance of his eyes piercing and determined.

'It is right,' he continued, 'and I will do it, come what may. Indeed I must, for in spite of your kind heart and words you would not give her to me. But even if you would, I would not take her, I would not make her the mother of more Greifensteins. Ay--you look at me--I love her too much. That is the reason. If I loved her less--oh, then, I would take her. I would take my beautiful Hilda for my own sake, and in her love I would try and forget the horrors of my younger years. I would forget, for my own sake, that my father was a murderer and a suicide, my father's brother a shameful traitor, myself a man clothed in the infamy of others, until the world can hardly distinguish between my innocence and their guilt. I could live with Hilda, somewhere in this lonely forest, and with her I might bury memory and talk lightly of love beside its very grave. And Hilda would be willing, too, and if I did not love her as I do, I would take her--whether you would let her go or not--no, forgive me--I should not speak so to you, who are the best of women--but you would consent, for you are so kind. But the thing is impossible. She would remember, and I should remember also, when our sons grew up and had to meet the world with the brand of our name upon their faces. Look at Rex. He is my best friend. Yesterday I learnt that he is my cousin. Even he has hidden his father's deeds under a common, meaningless name. How much more should I hide my head! How much less right have I, than he had yesterday, to make an innocent girl, or any woman, the wife of a Greifenstein! No--go to Hilda, tell her the truth, let me see her once, and I will rid you of myself when I have said good-bye. You are her mother, and you alone can tell her all-- all except the last word, and when I have spoken that word, I will go away, Rex and I together, and you will not hear of me any more.'

Greif ceased speaking. He had risen from his chair to pace the room while he spoke and he now stood with folded arms before the baroness, his eyes fixed on hers as though waiting for her answer. He was very young, and it was perhaps the first time in his life that he had spoken out before any one. He was too much excited to think whether his speech would sound theatrical and exaggerated or not. He meant every word of what he had said, and that was enough for him. He meant to do what was right and honourable, and that is enough for any man.

Frau von Sigmundskron's gentle eyes fell before his fixed gaze. Feeling as she did, and remembering what she had felt when she had come to him, she was ashamed to meet his earnest glance. There were few better women in the world, few whose goodness showed itself so clearly both in deeds and intentions, and yet she was conscious, rightly or wrongly, that Greif was outdoing her in generosity. To her the words he had spoken had a ring of heroism in them, and he himself seemed to grow in dignity and strength as he stood before her. She hesitated, the speech came to her lips, failed, took courage and came again. Once more she raised her head and looked into his eyes.

'Greif--you are a brave man, and you will understand me,' she said. 'When I came here, I felt all that you have said. I felt it in the long night, before you were in the house. I meant to tell you what you have told me, as kindly as I could, not now, but later. It would have been hard, for I am more than fond of you.'

'It would have been your duty, and it would have been right,' answered Greif calmly.

The baroness laid her hand upon his folded arms.

'It would not have been right, Greif,' she said in a low voice that trembled a little. 'It might have seemed so, for I did not know you as I know you now. You have done all that a man can do, more, perhaps, than almost any man would have done. I did not wrong you in what I felt, nor in what I meant to say, but I could never say it now. Take Hilda, and call yourself as you will, for you are worthy of her and neither you nor she will ever regret it.'

Greif looked at her for a moment, and then knelt beside her and kissed her hands.

'You will,' she said, and there were tears in her eyes.

'I cannot,' he answered, in heartbroken accents. Then, rising, he stood and leaned against the chimney-piece and bowed his head against the carved wood.

He could not feel as she did, and his nature was incapable of such a sudden revulsion as had taken place in her heart. He knew how bravely generous she had been, but her kindness changed nothing in the situation, beyond awakening in him a sense of heartfelt gratitude for which he had expected no such cause as she had given. The fear of doing an injury to Hilda was still foremost in his mind. He had said that even if her mother would consent, he would not take her, and what he felt when that consent was so unexpectedly thrust upon him was a measure of his earnestness.

'Nothing is spared me,' he said, almost under his breath. 'Not even your generosity!'

His action was to depend wholly upon his own free will, and he knew that it would have been far easier to renounce his love if Hilda's mother had helped him with her opposition. There she sat, offering him what he must not take, thrusting upon him that which his whole nature craved, and which his honour alone bid him refuse. Her sweet voice sounded like the soft music of temptation.

'Do not say so, Greif,' she said. 'Remember that you are wholly innocent, and that Hilda loves you with all her heart and soul. Why must you force yourself to do what will make her and me so unspeakably wretched? After all--I take the most worldly argument--it is for her and for me to decide. You have concealed nothing, and I know all, and if I say that your goodness and your heroism outweigh the rest, should you not be satisfied? And besides, you are young. You do not know how very quickly the world forgets. A score of years hence, who will remember the evil deeds of last night? They were not even done in a city, those who did them had hardly any acquaintances, and perhaps no friends. You yourself are not old enough to be known to many, and you can live here until your children are grown up. It seems to me that I was wrong even to have thought of separating you two, wholly wrong and mistaken and that I ought to ask your forgiveness for my intention.' Thus she pleaded the cause of his own heart, giving many and good reasons why he should yield, while he stood struggling with himself and wishing that he could stop his ears against her persuasion. To him the horror was more vivid than to her, and she could not understand his dread of associating Hilda with the curse that had fallen upon his house.

'I cannot,' he said firmly, when she had ceased speaking.

She rose and stood beside him.

'Think of it, Greif,' she answered. 'You must not break her heart for a scruple of honour.'

Then she went out softly, wondering at herself, but sure that she had done the best.

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