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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nameless Castle - Part 8. Katharina Or Themire? - Chapter 1
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The Nameless Castle - Part 8. Katharina Or Themire? - Chapter 1 Post by :alfiee Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :2045

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The Nameless Castle - Part 8. Katharina Or Themire? - Chapter 1

PART VIII. KATHARINA OR THEMIRE?
CHAPTER I

It was a delightful May evening. Marie was practising diligently her piano lesson, in order to surprise Ludwig with her progress when he should return from the war. That he would return Marie was quite certain.

Katharina had gone into the park for a solitary promenade. She had complained all day of a headache--a headache that began to trouble her after she had read the letter she had received that morning from the Marquis de Fervlans. She held the letter in her hand now, and read it again for the hundredth time.

Yes, she had accomplished her mission successfully; the fugitive maid and the important documents were in her possession; and yet her trembling hand refused to grasp the promised reward. A fortune awaited her for the comedy she had played with such success--a comedy in which she had acted the part of the charitable lady of the manor.

And what if there had been something of reality in the farce? Suppose her heart had learned to thrill with emotions hitherto unknown to it? Suppose it had learned to know the true meaning of gratitude--of love?

But five millions of francs!

If she were alone in the world! But there was Amelie, her dear little daughter, who was now almost fifteen years old--almost a young lady. Should she leave Amelie in her present disagreeable position, a member of "Cythera's Brigade," or should she send for her, and confess to the man whose respect she desired to retain that the child was her daughter, and that she was a widow? Could she tell him what she had once been? Would he continue to respect, to love her?

Five millions of francs!

It was an enormous sum, and would become hers if she should order the carriage, and, taking Marie and the casket with her, drive leisurely along the highway until stopped by a troop of soldiers that would suddenly surround the carriage. A politely smiling face would then appear at the window of the carriage, and a courteous voice would say:

"Don't be alarmed, ladies. You are with friends. We are Frenchmen."

But to renounce the love and respect so hardly won! Ah, how very dearly she loved the man to whom she had betrothed herself in jest! In jest? No, no; it was not a jest!

But five millions of francs!

Would all the millions in the world buy one faithful heart?

Katharina was suffering for her transgressions. She had intended to play with the heart of another, and had lost her own. Besides, she could not bear to think of betraying the innocent girl who loved and trusted her and called her "mother."

But time pressed. Three times already Jocrisse had interrupted her meditations to inquire if her answer to the marquis's letter was ready. And still she struggled with herself. When Jocrisse appeared again, she said to him:

"My letter is of such importance that I cannot think of intrusting it to the hands of a stranger. You yourself, Jocrisse, must take it to the marquis."

"I am ready to depart at once, madame."

Katharina wrote her reply, sealed it carefully, and gave it to Jocrisse, who set out at once on his errand.

In the letter he carried were but three words:

"_Io non posso_" ("I cannot").


Katharina locked herself in the pavilion in the park, and gave orders to the servants not to admit any visitors, whether acquaintances or strangers.

An hour or more had passed when she heard a timid knock at the door, and an apologetic voice said:

"A strange gentleman is here. I told him your ladyship would see no one; then he bade me give your ladyship this, which he said he had brought from Paris."

Katharina opened the door wide enough to receive the object. It was a small ivory locket, yellow with age. Katharina's hand shook violently as she pressed the spring to open it. She cast a hasty glance at the miniature,--the likeness of her daughter Amelie,--then said in a faltering voice: "You may tell the gentleman I will see him."

In a few minutes the visitor entered the pavilion.

"M. Cambray!" exclaimed the baroness.

"Yes, madame; I am Cambray, with my other name, Marquis Richard d'Avoncourt. I am he to whom you once said: 'I shall be grateful to you so long as I live.'"

"How--how came you here?" gasped the baroness.

"I managed to escape from my prison at Ham, went to Paris, where I saw your daughter--"

"You saw my daughter?" interrupted the baroness, excitedly. "Did you speak to her? Oh, tell me--tell me what you know about her."

"You shall hear all directly, madame. I told the countess that I intended to search for her mother, and asked if she had any message to send to her."

"Did she send a letter with you?" again interrupted the baroness.

"She did, madame. But before I give it to you I should like to have a shovel of hot coals and a bit of camphor."

"But why--why?" demanded the baroness.

"I will tell you. Do you know what Napoleon brought home with him from the bloody battle of Eilau?"

"I have not heard."

"The 'influenza.' I dare say you have never even heard the name; but you will very soon hear it often enough! It is a pestilential disease that is rather harmless where it originated, but when it takes hold of a strange region it becomes a deadly pestilence--as in Paris, where a special hospital has been established for patients with the disease. It was in this hospital I found your daughter as a nurse."

"_Jesu Maria!_" shrieked the mother, in a tone of agony. "A nurse in that pest-house?"

"Yes," nodded the marquis. Then he took from his pocket a letter, and added: "She wrote this to you from there."

The baroness eagerly extended her hand to take the letter.

"Would it not be better to fumigate it first?" said the marquis.

"No, no; I am not afraid! Give it to me, I beg of you!"

She caught the letter from his hand, tore it open, and read:

"DEAR LITTLE MAMA: What sort of a life are you leading out yonder in that strange land? Do you never get weary or feel bored? Have you anything to amuse you? _I have become satiated with my life--lying, cheating, deceiving every day in order to live! While I was a little girl I was proud of the praises heaped upon me for my cleverness. But a day came when everything disgusted me. It is an infamous trade, this of ours, little mama, and I have given it up. I have begun to lead a different life--one with which I am satisfied; and if you will take the advice of one who wishes you well, you, too, will quit the old ways. You can embroider beautifully and play the piano like a master. You could earn a livelihood giving lessons in either. Do not trouble any further about me, for I can take care of myself. If only you knew how much happier I am now, you would rejoice, I know! Let me beg you to become honest and truthful, and think often of your old friend and little daughter,

"AMELIE (now SOEUER AGNES)."


Katharina's nerveless hands dropped to her lap. This sharp rebuke from her only child was deserved.

Then she sprang suddenly toward her visitor, grasped his arm, and cried:

"Tell me--tell me about my daughter, my little Amelie! How does she look now? Is she much changed? Has she grown? Oh, M. Cambray! in pity tell me--tell me about her!"

"I have brought you a portrait of her as she looked when I saw her last."

He drew from his pocket a small case, and, opening it, disclosed a pallid face with closed eyes. A wreath of myrtle encircled the head, which rested on the pillow of a coffin.

"She is dead!" screamed the horror-stricken mother, staring with wild eyes at the sorrowful picture.

"Yes, madame, she is dead," assented the marquis. "This portrait is sent by your daughter as a remembrance to the mother who exposed her on the streets, one stormy winter night, in order that she might spy upon another little child--a persecuted and homeless little child."

The baroness cowered beneath the merciless words as beneath a stinging lash: but the man knew no pity; he would not spare the heartbroken woman.

"And now, madame," he continued in a sharp tone, "you can go back to your home and take possession of your reward. You have worked hard to earn the blood-money."

Here the baroness sat suddenly upright, tore from her bosom a small gold note-case, in which was the order for the five millions of francs. She opened the case, took out the order, and tore it into tiny bits. Then she flung them from her, crying savagely:

"Curse him who brought me to this! God's curse be upon him who brought this on me!"

"Madame," calmly interposed the marquis, "you have not yet completed the task you were set to do."

"No, no; I have not--I have not," was the excited response, "and I never will. Come--come with me! The maid and what belongs to her are here--safe, unharmed. Take her--fly with her and hers whithersoever you choose to go; I shall not hinder you."

"That I cannot do, madame. I am a stranger in a strange land. I know not who is my friend or who is my foe. _You must save the maid. If atonement is possible for you, that is the way you may win it. You know best where the maid will be safe from her persecutors. Save her, and atone for your transgression against her. Ludwig Vavel gave you his love and, more than that, his respect. Would you retain both, or will you tear them to tatters, as you have the order for the five million francs? Will you let me advise you?" he asked, suddenly.

"Advise me, and I will follow it to the letter!"

"Then disguise yourself as a peasant, hide the steel casket in a hamper, and take it to Ludwig Vavel, wherever he may be."

"And Marie?"

"You cannot with safety take her with you. The maid and the casket must not remain together. You must conceal Marie somewhere until you return from the camp."

"Will you not stay here and keep watch over her until I return?"

"I thank you, madame, for your hospitality, but I must not accept it. I come direct from the influenza hospital. I feel that the disease has laid hold of me. I have comfortable quarters at the Nameless Castle, where my old friend Lisette will take care of me. Don't let Marie come to see me; and if I should not recover from this illness, which I feel will be a severe one, let me be buried down yonder on the shore of the lake."

When the Marquis d'Avoncourt left the pavilion he was shaking with a violent chill, and as he took his way with tottering steps toward the Nameless Castle, Katharina, broken-hearted and filled with anguish, wept out her heart in bitter tears.

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