Madame Blumenthal seemed, for the time, to have abjured the Kursaal, and _ever caught a glimpse of her. Her young friend, apparently, was a_nteresting study, and the studious mind prefers seclusion.
She reappeared, however, at last, one evening at the opera, where from m_hair I perceived her in a box, looking extremely pretty. Adelina Patti wa_inging, and after the rising of the curtain I was occupied with the stage; but on looking round when it fell for the entr'acte, I saw that the authores_f "Cleopatra" had been joined by her young admirer. He was sitting a littl_ehind her, leaning forward, looking over her shoulder and listening, whil_he, slowly moving her fan to and fro and letting her eye wander over th_ouse, was apparently talking of this person and that. No doubt she was sayin_harp things; but Pickering was not laughing; his eyes were following he_overt indications; his mouth was half open, as it always was when he wa_nterested; he looked intensely serious. I was glad that, having her back t_im, she was unable to see how he looked. It seemed the proper moment t_resent myself and make her my bow; but just as I was about to leave my plac_ gentleman, whom in a moment I perceived to be an old acquaintance, came t_ccupy the next chair. Recognition and mutual greetings followed, and I wa_orced to postpone my visit to Madame Blumenthal. I was not sorry, for it ver_oon occurred to me that Niedermeyer would be just the man to give me a fai_rose version of Pickering's lyric tributes to his friend. He was an Austria_y birth, and had formerly lived about Europe a great deal in a series o_mall diplomatic posts. England especially he had often visited, and he spok_he language almost without accent. I had once spent three rainy days with hi_n the house of an English friend in the country. He was a sharp observer, an_ good deal of a gossip; he knew a little something about every one, and abou_ome people everything. His knowledge on social matters generally had th_uality of all German science; it was copious, minute, exhaustive.
"Do tell me," I said, as we stood looking round the house, "who and what i_he lady in white, with the young man sitting behind her."
"Who?" he answered, dropping his glass. "Madame Blumenthal! What! It woul_ake long to say. Be introduced; it's easily done; you will find her charming.
Then, after a week, you will tell me what she is."
"Perhaps I should not. My friend there has known her a week, and I don't thin_e is yet able to give a coherent account of her."
He raised his glass again, and after looking a while, "I am afraid your frien_s a little—what do you call it?—a little 'soft.' Poor fellow! he's not th_irst. I have never known this lady that she has not had some eligible yout_overing about in some such attitude as that, undergoing the softenin_rocess. She looks wonderfully well, from here. It's extraordinary how thos_omen last!"
"You don't mean, I take it, when you talk about 'those women,' that Madam_lumenthal is not embalmed, for duration, in a certain infusion o_espectability?"
"Yes and no. The atmosphere that surrounds her is entirely of her own making.
There is no reason in her antecedents that people should drop their voice whe_hey speak of her. But some women are never at their ease till they have give_ome damnable twist or other to their position before the world. The attitud_f upright virtue is unbecoming, like sitting too straight in a fauteuil.
Don't ask me for opinions, however; content yourself with a few facts and wit_n anecdote. Madame Blumenthal is Prussian, and very well born. I remember he_other, an old Westphalian Grafin, with principles marshalled out lik_rederick the Great's grenadiers. She was poor, however, and her principle_ere an insufficient dowry for Anastasia, who was married very young to _icious Jew, twice her own age. He was supposed to have money, but I am afrai_e had less than was nominated in the bond, or else that his pretty young wif_pent it very fast. She has been a widow these six or eight years, and ha_ived, I imagine, in rather a hand-to-mouth fashion. I suppose she is some si_r eight and thirty years of age. In winter one hears of her in Berlin, givin_ittle suppers to the artistic rabble there; in summer one often sees he_cross the green table at Ems and Wiesbaden. She's very clever, and he_leverness has spoiled her. A year after her marriage she published a novel, with her views on matrimony, in the George Sand manner—beating the drum t_adame Sand's trumpet. No doubt she was very unhappy; Blumenthal was an ol_east. Since then she has published a lot of literature—novels and poems an_amphlets on every conceivable theme, from the conversion of Lola Montez t_he Hegelian philosophy. Her talk is much better than her writing. He_onjugophobia—I can't call it by any other name—made people think lightly o_er at a time when her rebellion against marriage was probably only theoretic.
She had a taste for spinning fine phrases, she drove her shuttle, and when sh_ame to the end of her yarn she found that society had turned its back. Sh_ossed her head, declared that at last she could breathe the sacred air o_reedom, and formally announced that she had embraced an 'intellectual' life.
This meant unlimited camaraderie with scribblers and daubers, Hegelia_hilosophers and Hungarian pianists. But she has been admired also by a grea_any really clever men; there was a time, in fact, when she turned a head a_ell set on its shoulders as this one!" And Niedermeyer tapped his forehead.
"She has a great charm, and, literally, I know no harm of her. Yet for al_hat, I am not going to speak to her; I am not going near her box. I am goin_o leave her to say, if she does me the honour to observe the omission, that _oo have gone over to the Philistines. It's not that; it is that there i_omething sinister about the woman. I am too old for it to frighten me, but _m good-natured enough for it to pain me. Her quarrel with society has brough_er no happiness, and her outward charm is only the mask of a dangerou_iscontent. Her imagination is lodged where her heart should be! So long a_ou amuse it, well and good; she's radiant. But the moment you let it flag, she is capable of dropping you without a pang. If you land on your feet yo_re so much the wiser, simply; but there have been two or three, I believe, who have almost broken their necks in the fall."
"You are reversing your promise," I said, "and giving me an opinion, but no_n anecdote."
"This is my anecdote. A year ago a friend of mine made her acquaintance i_erlin, and though he was no longer a young man, and had never been what i_alled a susceptible one, he took a great fancy to Madame Blumenthal. He's _ajor in the Prussian artillery— grizzled, grave, a trifle severe, a man ever_ay firm in the faith of his fathers. It's a proof of Anastasia's charm tha_uch a man should have got into the habit of going to see her every day of hi_ife. But the major was in love, or next door to it! Every day that he calle_e found her scribbling away at a little ormolu table on a lot of half-sheet_f note-paper. She used to bid him sit down and hold his tongue for a quarte_f an hour, till she had finished her chapter; she was writing a novel, and i_as promised to a publisher. Clorinda, she confided to him, was the name o_he injured heroine. The major, I imagine, had never read a work of fiction i_is life, but he knew by hearsay that Madame Blumenthal's literature, when pu_orth in pink covers, was subversive of several respectable institutions.
Besides, he didn't believe in women knowing how to write at all, and i_rritated him to see this inky goddess correcting proof-sheets under hi_ose—irritated him the more that, as I say, he was in love with her and tha_e ventured to believe she had a kindness for his years and his honours. An_et she was not such a woman as he could easily ask to marry him. The resul_f all this was that he fell into the way of railing at her intellectua_ursuits and saying he should like to run his sword through her pile o_apers. A woman was clever enough when she could guess her husband's wishes, and learned enough when she could read him the newspapers. At last, one day, Madame Blumenthal flung down her pen and announced in triumph that she ha_inished her novel. Clorinda had expired in the arms of—some one else than he_usband. The major, by way of congratulating her, declared that her novel wa_mmoral rubbish, and that her love of vicious paradoxes was only a peculiarl_epraved form of coquetry. He added, however, that he loved her in spite o_er follies, and that if she would formally abjure them he would as formall_ffer her his hand. They say that women like to be snubbed by military men. _on't know, I'm sure; I don't know how much pleasure, on this occasion, wa_ingled with Anastasia's wrath. But her wrath was very quiet, and the majo_ssured me it made her look uncommonly pretty. 'I have told you before,' sh_ays, 'that I write from an inner need. I write to unburden my heart, t_atisfy my conscience. You call my poor efforts coquetry, vanity, the desir_o produce a sensation. I can prove to you that it is the quiet labour itsel_ care for, and not the world's more or less flattering attention to it!' An_eizing the history of Clorinda she thrust it into the fire. The major stand_taring, and the first thing he knows she is sweeping him a great curtsey an_idding him farewell for ever. Left alone and recovering his wits, he fishe_ut Clorinda from the embers, and then proceeds to thump vigorously at th_ady's door. But it never opened, and from that day to the day three month_go when he told me the tale, he had not beheld her again."
"By Jove, it's a striking story," I said. "But the question is, what does i_rove?"
"Several things. First (what I was careful not to tell my friend), that Madam_lumenthal cared for him a trifle more than he supposed; second, that he care_or her more than ever; third, that the performance was a master-stroke, an_hat her allowing him to force an interview upon her again is only a questio_f time."
"And last?" I asked.
"This is another anecdote. The other day, Unter den Linden, I saw on _ookseller's counter a little pink-covered romance—'Sophronia,' by Madam_lumenthal. Glancing through it, I observed an extraordinary abuse o_sterisks; every two or three pages the narrative was adorned with _ortentous blank, crossed with a row of stars."
"Well, but poor Clorinda?" I objected, as Niedermeyer paused.
"Sophronia, my dear fellow, is simply Clorinda renamed by the baptism of fire.
The fair author came back, of course, and found Clorinda tumbled upon th_loor, a good deal scorched, but, on the whole, more frightened than hurt. Sh_icks her up, brushes her off, and sends her to the printer. Wherever th_lames had burnt a hole she swings a constellation! But if the major i_repared to drop a penitent tear over the ashes of Clorinda, I shall no_hisper to him that the urn is empty."
Even Adelina Patti's singing, for the next half-hour, but half availed t_ivert me from my quickened curiosity to behold Madame Blumenthal face t_ace. As soon as the curtain had fallen again I repaired to her box and wa_shered in by Pickering with zealous hospitality. His glowing smile seemed t_ay to me, "Ay, look for yourself, and adore!" Nothing could have been mor_racious than the lady's greeting, and I found, somewhat to my surprise, tha_er prettiness lost nothing on a nearer view. Her eyes indeed were the fines_ have ever seen—the softest, the deepest, the most intensely responsive. I_pite of something faded and jaded in her physiognomy, her movements, he_mile, and the tone of her voice, especially when she laughed, had an almos_irlish frankness and spontaneity. She looked at you very hard with he_adiant gray eyes, and she indulged while she talked in a superabundance o_estless, rather affected little gestures, as if to make you take her meanin_n a certain very particular and superfine sense. I wondered whether after _hile this might not fatigue one's attention; then meeting her charming eyes, I said, Not for a long time. She was very clever, and, as Pickering had said, she spoke English admirably. I told her, as I took my seat beside her, of th_ine things I had heard about her from my friend, and she listened, letting m_o on some time, and exaggerate a little, with her fine eyes fixed full upo_e. "Really?" she suddenly said, turning short round upon Pickering, who stoo_ehind us, and looking at him in the same way. "Is that the way you talk abou_e?"
He blushed to his eyes, and I repented. She suddenly began to laugh; it wa_hen I observed how sweet her voice was in laughter. We talked after this o_arious matters, and in a little while I complimented her on her excellen_nglish, and asked if she had learnt it in England.
"Heaven forbid!" she cried. "I have never been there and wish never to go. _hould never get on with the—" I wondered what she was going to say; the fogs, the smoke, or whist with sixpenny stakes?—"I should never get on," she said,
"with the aristocracy! I am a fierce democrat—I am not ashamed of it. I hol_pinions which would make my ancestors turn in their graves. I was born in th_ap of feudalism. I am a daughter of the crusaders. But I am a revolutionist!
I have a passion for freedom—my idea of happiness is to die on a grea_arricade! It's to your great country I should like to go. I should like t_ee the wonderful spectacle of a great people free to do everything i_hooses, and yet never doing anything wrong!"
I replied, modestly, that, after all, both our freedom and our good conduc_ad their limits, and she turned quickly about and shook her fan with _ramatic gesture at Pickering. "No matter, no matter!" she cried; "I shoul_ike to see the country which produced that wonderful young man. I think of i_s a sort of Arcadia—a land of the golden age. He's so delightfully innocent!
In this stupid old Germany, if a young man is innocent he's a fool; he has n_rains; he's not a bit interesting. But Mr. Pickering says the freshes_hings, and after I have laughed five minutes at their freshness it suddenl_ccurs to me that they are very wise, and I think them over for a week.
"True!" she went on, nodding at him. "I call them inspired solecisms, and _reasure them up. Remember that when I next laugh at you!"
Glancing at Pickering, I was prompted to believe that he was in a state o_eatific exaltation which weighed Madame Blumenthal's smiles and frowns in a_qual balance. They were equally hers; they were links alike in the golde_hain. He looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, "Did you ever hear suc_it? Did you ever see such grace?" It seemed to me that he was but vaguel_onscious of the meaning of her words; her gestures, her voice and glance, made an absorbing harmony. There is something painful in the spectacle o_bsolute enthralment, even to an excellent cause. I gave no response t_ickering's challenge, but made some remark upon the charm of Adelina Patti'_inging. Madame Blumenthal, as became a "revolutionist," was obliged t_onfess that she could see no charm in it; it was meagre, it was trivial, i_acked soul. "You must know that in music, too," she said, "I think fo_yself!" And she began with a great many flourishes of her fan to explain wha_t was she thought. Remarkable things, doubtless; but I cannot answer for it, for in the midst of the explanation the curtain rose again. "You can't be _reat artist without a great passion!" Madame Blumenthal was affirming. Befor_ had time to assent Madame Patti's voice rose wheeling like a skylark, an_ained down its silver notes. "Ah, give me that art," I whispered, "and I wil_eave you your passion!" And I departed for my own place in the orchestra. _ondered afterwards whether the speech had seemed rude, and inferred that i_ad not on receiving a friendly nod from the lady, in the lobby, as th_heatre was emptying itself. She was on Pickering's arm, and he was taking he_o her carriage. Distances are short in Homburg, but the night was rainy, an_adame Blumenthal exhibited a very pretty satin-shod foot as a reason why, though but a penniless widow, she should not walk home. Pickering left u_ogether a moment while he went to hail the vehicle, and my companion seize_he opportunity, as she said, to beg me to be so very kind as to come and se_er. It was for a particular reason! It was reason enough for me, of course, _nswered, that she had given me leave. She looked at me a moment with tha_xtraordinary gaze of hers which seemed so absolutely audacious in it_andour, and rejoined that I paid more compliments than our young frien_here, but that she was sure I was not half so sincere. "But it's about him _ant to talk," she said. "I want to ask you many things; I want you to tell m_ll about him. He interests me; but you see my sympathies are so intense, m_magination is so lively, that I don't trust my own impressions. They hav_isled me more than once!" And she gave a little tragic shudder.
I promised to come and compare notes with her, and we bade her farewell at he_arriage door. Pickering and I remained a while, walking up and down the lon_lazed gallery of the Kursaal. I had not taken many steps before I becam_ware that I was beside a man in the very extremity of love. "Isn't sh_onderful?" he asked, with an implicit confidence in my sympathy which it cos_e some ingenuity to elude. If he were really in love, well and good! Fo_lthough, now that I had seen her, I stood ready to confess to larg_ossibilities of fascination on Madame Blumenthal's part, and even to certai_ossibilities of sincerity of which my appreciation was vague, yet it seeme_o me less ominous that he should be simply smitten than that his admiratio_hould pique itself on being discriminating. It was on his fundamenta_implicity that I counted for a happy termination of his experiment, and th_ormer of these alternatives seemed to me the simpler. I resolved to hold m_ongue and let him run his course. He had a great deal to say about hi_appiness, about the days passing like hours, the hours like minutes, an_bout Madame Blumenthal being a "revelation." "She was nothing to-night," h_aid; "nothing to what she sometimes is in the way of brilliancy—in the way o_epartee. If you could only hear her when she tells her adventures!"
"Adventures?" I inquired. "Has she had adventures?"
"Of the most wonderful sort!" cried Pickering, with rapture. "She hasn'_egetated, like me! She has lived in the tumult of life. When I listen to he_eminiscences, it's like hearing the opening tumult of one of Beethoven'_ymphonies as it loses itself in a triumphant harmony of beauty and faith!"
I could only lift my eyebrows, but I desired to know before we separated wha_e had done with that troublesome conscience of his. "I suppose you know, m_ear fellow," I said, "that you are simply in love. That's what they happen t_all your state of mind."
He replied with a brightening eye, as if he were delighted to hear it—"S_adame Blumenthal told me only this morning!" And seeing, I suppose, that _as slightly puzzled, " I went to drive with her," he continued; "we drove t_onigstein, to see the old castle. We scrambled up into the heart of the rui_nd sat for an hour in one of the crumbling old courts. Something in th_olemn stillness of the place unloosed my tongue; and while she sat on a_vied stone, on the edge of the plunging wall, I stood there and made _peech. She listened to me, looking at me, breaking off little bits of ston_nd letting them drop down into the valley. At last she got up and nodded a_e two or three times silently, with a smile, as if she were applauding me fo_ solo on the violin. 'You are in love,' she said. 'It's a perfect case!' An_or some time she said nothing more. But before we left the place she told m_hat she owed me an answer to my speech. She thanked me heartily, but she wa_fraid that if she took me at my word she would be taking advantage of m_nexperience. I had known few women; I was too easily pleased; I thought he_etter than she really was. She had great faults; I must know her longer an_ind them out; I must compare her with other women—women younger, simpler, more innocent, more ignorant; and then if I still did her the honour to thin_ell of her, she would listen to me again. I told her that I was not afraid o_referring any woman in the world to her, and then she repeated, 'Happy man, happy man! you are in love, you are in love!'"
I called upon Madame Blumenthal a couple of days later, in some agitation o_hought. It has been proved that there are, here and there, in the world, suc_eople as sincere impostors; certain characters who cultivate fictitiou_motions in perfect good faith. Even if this clever lady enjoyed poo_ickering's bedazzlement, it was conceivable that, taking vanity and charit_ogether, she should care more for his welfare than for her own entertainment; and her offer to abide by the result of hazardous comparison with other wome_as a finer stroke than her reputation had led me to expect. She received m_n a shabby little sitting-room littered with uncut books and newspapers, man_f which I saw at a glance were French. One side of it was occupied by an ope_iano, surmounted by a jar full of white roses. They perfumed the air; the_eemed to me to exhale the pure aroma of Pickering's devotion. Buried in a_rm-chair, the object of this devotion was reading the Revue des Deux Mondes.
The purpose of my visit was not to admire Madame Blumenthal on my own account, but to ascertain how far I might safely leave her to work her will upon m_riend. She had impugned my sincerity the evening of the opera, and I wa_areful on this occasion to abstain from compliments, and not to place her o_er guard against my penetration. It is needless to narrate our interview i_etail; indeed, to tell the perfect truth, I was punished for my rash attemp_o surprise her by a temporary eclipse of my own perspicacity. She sat ther_o questioning, so perceptive, so genial, so generous, and so pretty withal, that I was quite ready at the end of half an hour to subscribe to the mos_omprehensive of Pickering's rhapsodies. She was certainly a wonderful woman.
I have never liked to linger, in memory, on that half-hour. The result of i_as to prove that there were many more things in the composition of a woma_ho, as Niedermeyer said, had lodged her imagination in the place of her hear_han were dreamt of in my philosophy. Yet, as I sat there stroking my hat an_alancing the account between nature and art in my affable hostess, I fel_ike a very competent philosopher. She had said she wished me to tell he_verything about our friend, and she questioned me as to his family, hi_ortune, his antecedents, and his character. All this was natural in a woma_ho had received a passionate declaration of love, and it was expressed wit_n air of charmed solicitude, a radiant confidence that there was really n_istake about his being a most distinguished young man, and that if I chose t_e explicit, I might deepen her conviction to disinterested ecstasy, whic_ight have almost provoked me to invent a good opinion, if I had not had on_eady made. I told her that she really knew Pickering better than I did, an_hat until we met at Homburg I had not seen him since he was a boy.
"But he talks to you freely," she answered; "I know you are his confidant. H_as told me certainly a great many things, but I always feel as if he wer_eeping something back; as if he were holding something behind him, an_howing me only one hand at once. He seems often to be hovering on the edge o_ secret. I have had several friendships in my life—thank Heaven! but I hav_ad none more dear to me than this one. Yet in the midst of it I have th_ainful sense of my friend being half afraid of me; of his thinking m_errible, strange, perhaps a trifle out of my wits. Poor me! If he only kne_hat a plain good soul I am, and how I only want to know him and befrien_im!"
These words were full of a plaintive magnanimity which made mistrust see_ruel. How much better I might play providence over Pickering's experiment_ith life if I could engage the fine instincts of this charming woman on th_rovidential side! Pickering's secret was, of course, his engagement to Mis_ernor; it was natural enough that he should have been unable to bring himsel_o talk of it to Madame Blumenthal. The simple sweetness of this young girl'_ace had not faded from my memory; I could not rid myself of the suspicio_hat in going further Pickering might fare much worse. Madame Blumenthal'_rofessions seemed a virtual promise to agree with me, and, after som_esitation, I said that my friend had, in fact, a substantial secret, and tha_erhaps I might do him a good turn by putting her in possession of it. In a_ew words as possible I told her that Pickering stood pledged by filial piet_o marry a young lady at Smyrna. She listened intently to my story; when I ha_inished it there was a faint flush of excitement in each of her cheeks. Sh_roke out into a dozen exclamations of admiration and compassion. "What _onderful tale—what a romantic situation! No wonder poor Mr. Pickering seeme_estless and unsatisfied; no wonder he wished to put off the day o_ubmission. And the poor little girl at Smyrna, waiting there for the youn_estern prince like the heroine of an Eastern tale! She would give the worl_o see her photograph; did I think Mr. Pickering would show it to her? Bu_ever fear; she would ask nothing indiscreet! Yes, it was a marvellous story, and if she had invented it herself, people would have said it was absurdl_mprobable." She left her seat and took several turns about the room, smilin_o herself, and uttering little German cries of wonderment. Suddenly sh_topped before the piano and broke into a little laugh; the next moment sh_uried her face in the great bouquet of roses. It was time I should go, but _as indisposed to leave her without obtaining some definite assurance that, a_ar as pity was concerned, she pitied the young girl at Smyrna more than th_oung man at Homburg.
"Of course you know what I wished in telling you this," I said, rising. "Sh_s evidently a charming creature, and the best thing he can do is to marr_er. I wished to interest you in that view of it."
She had taken one of the roses from the vase and was arranging it in the fron_f her dress. Suddenly, looking up, "Leave it to me, leave it to me!" sh_ried. "I am interested!" And with her little blue- gemmed hand she tapped he_orehead. "I am deeply interested!"
And with this I had to content myself. But more than once the next day _epented of my zeal, and wondered whether a providence with a white rose i_er bosom might not turn out a trifle too human. In the evening, at th_ursaal, I looked for Pickering, but he was not visible, and I reflected tha_y revelation had not as yet, at any rate, seemed to Madame Blumenthal _eason for prescribing a cooling- term to his passion. Very late, as I wa_urning away, I saw him arrive—with no small satisfaction, for I ha_etermined to let him know immediately in what way I had attempted to serv_im. But he straightway passed his arm through my own and led me off toward_he gardens. I saw that he was too excited to allow me to speak first.
"I have burnt my ships!" he cried, when we were out of earshot of the crowd.
"I have told her everything. I have insisted that it's simple torture for m_o wait with this idle view of loving her less. It's well enough for her t_sk it, but I feel strong enough now to override her reluctance. I have cas_ff the millstone from round my neck. I care for nothing, I know nothing, bu_hat I love her with every pulse of my being—and that everything else has bee_ hideous dream, from which she may wake me into blissful morning with _ingle word!"
I held him off at arm's-length and looked at him gravely. "You have told her, you mean, of your engagement to Miss Vernor?"
"The whole story! I have given it up—I have thrown it to the winds. I hav_roken utterly with the past. It may rise in its grave and give me its curse, but it can't frighten me now. I have a right to be happy, I have a right to b_ree, I have a right not to bury myself alive. It was not I who promised—I wa_ot born then. I myself, my soul, my mind, my option—all this is but a mont_ld! Ah," he went on, "if you knew the difference it makes—this having chose_nd broken and spoken! I am twice the man I was yesterday! Yesterday I wa_fraid of her; there was a kind of mocking mystery of knowledge and clevernes_bout her, which oppressed me in the midst of my love. But now I am afraid o_othing but of being too happy!"
I stood silent, to let him spend his eloquence. But he paused a moment, an_ook off his hat and fanned himself. "Let me perfectly understand," I said a_ast. "You have asked Madame Blumenthal to be your wife?"
"The wife of my intelligent choice!"
"And does she consent?"
"She asks three days to decide."
"Call it four! She has known your secret since this morning. I am bound to le_ou know I told her."
"So much the better!" cried Pickering, without apparent resentment o_urprise. "It's not a brilliant offer for such a woman, and in spite of what _ave at stake, I feel that it would be brutal to press her."
"What does she say to your breaking your promise?" I asked in a moment.
Pickering was too much in love for false shame. "She tells me that she love_e too much to find courage to condemn me. She agrees with me that I have _ight to be happy. I ask no exemption from the common law. What I claim i_imply freedom to try to be!"
Of course I was puzzled; it was not in that fashion that I had expected Madam_lumenthal to make use of my information. But the matter now was quite out o_y hands, and all I could do was to bid my companion not work himself into _ever over either fortune.
The next day I had a visit from Niedermeyer, on whom, after our talk at th_pera, I had left a card. We gossiped a while, and at last he said suddenly,
"By the way, I have a sequel to the history of Clorinda. The major is a_omburg!"
"Indeed!" said I. "Since when?"
"These three days."
"And what is he doing?"
"He seems," said Niedermeyer, with a laugh, "to be chiefly occupied in sendin_lowers to Madame Blumenthal. That is, I went with him the morning of hi_rrival to choose a nosegay, and nothing would suit him but a small haystac_f white roses. I hope it was received."
"I can assure you it was," I cried. "I saw the lady fairly nestling her hea_n it. But I advise the major not to build upon that. He has a rival."
"Do you mean the soft young man of the other night?"
"Pickering is soft, if you will, but his softness seems to have served him. H_as offered her everything, and she has not yet refused it." I had handed m_isitor a cigar, and he was puffing it in silence. At last he abruptly aske_f I had been introduced to Madame Blumenthal, and, on my affirmative, inquired what I thought of her. "I will not tell you," I said, "or you'll cal_E soft."
He knocked away his ashes, eyeing me askance. "I have noticed your frien_bout," he said, "and even if you had not told me, I should have known he wa_n love. After he has left his adored, his face wears for the rest of the da_he expression with which he has risen from her feet, and more than once _ave felt like touching his elbow, as you would that of a man who ha_nadvertently come into a drawing-room in his overshoes. You say he ha_ffered our friend everything; but, my dear fellow, he has not everything t_ffer her. He evidently is as amiable as the morning, but the lady has n_aste for daylight."
"I assure you Pickering is a very interesting fellow," I said.
"Ah, there it is! Has he not some story or other? Isn't he an orphan, or _atural child, or consumptive, or contingent heir to great estates? She wil_ead his little story to the end, and close the book very tenderly and smoot_own the cover; and then, when he least expects it, she will toss it into th_usty limbo of her other romances. She will let him dangle, but she will le_im drop!"
"Upon my word," I cried, with heat, "if she does, she will be a ver_nprincipled little creature!"
Niedermeyer shrugged his shoulders. "I never said she was a saint!"
Shrewd as I felt Niedermeyer to be, I was not prepared to take his simple wor_or this event, and in the evening I received a communication which fortifie_y doubts. It was a note from Pickering, and it ran as follows:-
"My Dear Friend—I have every hope of being happy, but I am to go to Wiesbade_o learn my fate. Madame Blumenthal goes thither this afternoon to spend a fe_ays, and she allows me to accompany her. Give me your good wishes; you shal_ear of the result. E. P."
One of the diversions of Homburg for new-comers is to dine in rotation at th_ifferent tables d'hote. It so happened that, a couple of days later, Niedermeyer took pot-luck at my hotel, and secured a seat beside my own. As w_ook our places I found a letter on my plate, and, as it was postmarke_iesbaden, I lost no time in opening it. It contained but three lines—"I a_appy—I am accepted—an hour ago. I can hardly believe it's your poor friend
I placed the note before Niedermeyer; not exactly in triumph, but with th_lacrity of all felicitous confutation. He looked at it much longer than wa_eedful to read it, stroking down his beard gravely, and I felt it was not s_asy to confute a pupil of the school of Metternich. At last, folding the not_nd handing it back, "Has your friend mentioned Madame Blumenthal's errand a_iesbaden?" he asked.
"You look very wise. I give it up!" said I.
"She is gone there to make the major follow her. He went by the next train."
"And has the major, on his side, dropped you a line?"
"He is not a letter-writer."
"Well," said I, pocketing my letter, "with this document in my hand I am boun_o reserve my judgment. We will have a bottle of Johannisberg, and drink t_he triumph of virtue."
For a whole week more I heard nothing from Pickering—somewhat to my surprise, and, as the days went by, not a little to my discomposure. I had expected tha_is bliss would continue to overflow in brief bulletins, and his silence wa_ossibly an indication that it had been clouded. At last I wrote to his hote_t Wiesbaden, but received no answer; whereupon, as my next resource, _epaired to his former lodging at Homburg, where I thought it possible he ha_eft property which he would sooner or later send for. There I learned that h_ad indeed just telegraphed from Cologne for his luggage. To Cologne _mmediately despatched a line of inquiry as to his prosperity and the cause o_is silence. The next day I received three words in answer—a simpl_ncommented request that I would come to him. I lost no time, and reached hi_n the course of a few hours. It was dark when I arrived, and the city wa_heeted in a cold autumnal rain. Pickering had stumbled, with an indifferenc_hich was itself a symptom of distress, on a certain musty old Mainzerhof, an_ found him sitting over a smouldering fire in a vast dingy chamber whic_ooked as if it had grown gray with watching the ennui of ten generations o_ravellers. Looking at him, as he rose on my entrance, I saw that he was i_xtreme tribulation. He was pale and haggard; his face was five years older.
Now, at least, in all conscience, he had tasted of the cup of life! I wa_nxious to know what had turned it so suddenly to bitterness; but I spared hi_ll importunate curiosity, and let him take his time. I accepted tacitly hi_acit confession of distress, and we made for a while a feeble effort t_iscuss the picturesqueness of Cologne. At last he rose and stood a long tim_ooking into the fire, while I slowly paced the length of the dusky room.
"Well!" he said, as I came back; "I wanted knowledge, and I certainly kno_omething I didn't a month ago." And herewith, calmly and succinctly enough, as if dismay had worn itself out, he related the history of the foregoin_ays. He touched lightly on details; he evidently never was to gush as freel_gain as he had done during the prosperity of his suit. He had been accepte_ne evening, as explicitly as his imagination could desire, and had gone fort_n his rapture and roamed about till nearly morning in the gardens of th_onversation-house, taking the stars and the perfumes of the summer night int_is confidence. "It is worth it all, almost," he said, "to have been wound u_or an hour to that celestial pitch. No man, I am sure, can ever know it bu_nce." The next morning he had repaired to Madame Blumenthal's lodging and ha_een met, to his amazement, by a naked refusal to see him. He had strode abou_or a couple of hours—in another mood—and then had returned to the charge. Th_ervant handed him a three-cornered note; it contained these words: "Leave m_lone to-day; I will give you ten minutes to- morrow evening." Of the nex_hirty-six hours he could give no coherent account, but at the appointed tim_adame Blumenthal had received him. Almost before she spoke there had come t_im a sense of the depth of his folly in supposing he knew her. "One has hear_ll one's days," he said, "of people removing the mask; it's one of the stoc_hrases of romance. Well, there she stood with her mask in her hand. He_ace," he went on gravely, after a pause—"her face was horrible!" … "I giv_ou ten minutes," she had said, pointing to the clock. "Make your scene, tea_our hair, brandish your dagger!" And she had sat down and folded her arms.
"It's not a joke," she cried, "it's dead earnest; let us have it over. You ar_ismissed—have you nothing to say?" He had stammered some frantic demand fo_n explanation; and she had risen and come near him, looking at him from hea_o feet, very pale, and evidently more excited than she wished him to see. "_ave done with you!" she said, with a smile; "you ought to have done with me!
It has all been delightful, but there are excellent reasons why it should com_o an end." "You have been playing a part, then," he had gasped out; "yo_ever cared for me?" "Yes; till I knew you; till I saw how far you would go.
But now the story's finished; we have reached the denoument. We will close th_ook and be good friends." "To see how far I would go?" he had repeated. "Yo_ed me on, meaning all the while to do THIS!" "I led you on, if you will. _eceived your visits, in season and out! Sometimes they were ver_ntertaining; sometimes they bored me fearfully. But you were such a ver_urious case of—what shall I call it?—of sincerity, that I determined to tak_ood and bad together. I wanted to make you commit yourself unmistakably. _hould have preferred not to bring you to this place; but that too wa_ecessary. Of course I can't marry you; I can do better. So can you, for tha_atter; thank your fate for it. You have thought wonders of me for a month, but your good-humour wouldn't last. I am too old and too wise; you are to_oung and too foolish. It seems to me that I have been very good to you; _ave entertained you to the top of your bent, and, except perhaps that I am _ittle brusque just now, you have nothing to complain of. I would have let yo_own more gently if I could have taken another month to it; but circumstance_ave forced my hand. Abuse me, curse me, if you like. I will make ever_llowance!" Pickering listened to all this intently enough to perceive that, as if by some sudden natural cataclysm, the ground had broken away at hi_eet, and that he must recoil. He turned away in dumb amazement. "I don't kno_ow I seemed to be taking it," he said, "but she seemed really to desire- -_on't know why—something in the way of reproach and vituperation. But _ouldn't, in that way, have uttered a syllable. I was sickened; I wanted t_et away into the air—to shake her off and come to my senses. 'Have yo_othing, nothing, nothing to say?' she cried, as if she were disappointed, while I stood with my hand on the door. 'Haven't I treated you to tal_nough?' I believed I answered. 'You will write to me then, when you ge_ome?' 'I think not,' said I. 'Six months hence, I fancy, you will come an_ee me!' 'Never!' said I. 'That's a confession of stupidity,' she answered.
'It means that, even on reflection, you will never understand the philosoph_f my conduct.' The word 'philosophy' seemed so strange that I verily believ_ smiled. 'I have given you all that you gave me,' she went on. 'Your passio_as an affair of the head.' 'I only wish you had told me sooner that yo_onsidered it so!' I exclaimed. And I went my way. The next day I came dow_he Rhine. I sat all day on the boat, not knowing where I was going, where t_et off. I was in a kind of ague of terror; it seemed to me I had see_omething infernal. At last I saw the cathedral towers here looming over th_ity. They seemed to say something to me, and when the boat stopped, I cam_shore. I have been here a week. I have not slept at night— and yet it ha_een a week of rest!"
It seemed to me that he was in a fair way to recover, and that his ow_hilosophy, if left to take its time, was adequate to the occasion. After hi_tory was once told I referred to his grievance but once—that evening, later, as we were about to separate for the night. "Suffer me to say that there wa_ome truth in HER account of your relations," I said. "You were using he_ntellectually, and all the while, without your knowing it, she was using you.
It was diamond cut diamond. Her needs were the more superficial, and she go_ired of the game first." He frowned and turned uneasily away, but withou_ontradicting me. I waited a few moments, to see if he would remember, befor_e parted, that he had a claim to make upon me. But he seemed to hav_orgotten it.
The next day we strolled about the picturesque old city, and of course, befor_ong, went into the cathedral. Pickering said little; he seemed intent upo_is own thoughts. He sat down beside a pillar near a chapel, in front of _orgeous window, and, leaving him to his meditations, I wandered through th_hurch. When I came back I saw he had something to say. But before he ha_poken I laid my hand on his shoulder and looked at him with a significan_mile. He slowly bent his head and dropped his eyes, with a mixture of assen_nd humility. I drew forth from where it had lain untouched for a month th_etter he had given me to keep, placed it silently on his knee, and left hi_o deal with it alone.
Half an hour later I returned to the same place, but he had gone, and one o_he sacristans, hovering about and seeing me looking for Pickering, said h_hought he had left the church. I found him in his gloomy chamber at the inn, pacing slowly up and down. I should doubtless have been at a loss to say jus_hat effect I expected the letter from Smyrna to produce; but his actua_spect surprised me. He was flushed, excited, a trifle irritated.
"Evidently," I said, "you have read your letter."
"It is proper I should tell you what is in it," he answered. "When I gave i_o you a month ago, I did my friends injustice."
"You called it a 'summons,' I remember."
"I was a great fool! It's a release!"
"From your engagement?"
"From everything! The letter, of course, is from Mr. Vernor. He desires to le_e know at the earliest moment that his daughter, informed for the first tim_ week before of what had been expected of her, positively refuses to be boun_y the contract or to assent to my being bound. She had been given a week t_eflect, and had spent it in inconsolable tears. She had resisted every for_f persuasion! from compulsion, writes Mr. Vernor, he naturally shrinks. Th_oung lady considers the arrangement 'horrible.' After accepting her dutie_ut and dried all her life, she pretends at last to have a taste of her own. _onfess I am surprised; I had been given to believe that she was stupidl_ubmissive, and would remain so to the end of the chapter. Not a bit of it.
She has insisted on my being formally dismissed, and her father intimates tha_n case of non- compliance she threatens him with an attack of brain fever.
Mr. Vernor condoles with me handsomely, and lets me know that the young lady'_ttitude has been a great shock to his nerves. He adds that he will no_ggravate such regret as I may do him the honour to entertain, by an_llusions to his daughter's charms and to the magnitude of my loss, and h_oncludes with the hope that, for the comfort of all concerned, I may alread_ave amused my fancy with other 'views.' He reminds me in a postscript that, in spite of this painful occurrence, the son of his most valued friend wil_lways be a welcome visitor at his house. I am free, he observes; I have m_ife before me; he recommends an extensive course of travel. Should m_anderings lead me to the East, he hopes that no false embarrassment wil_eter me from presenting myself at Smyrna. He can promise me at least _riendly reception. It's a very polite letter."
Polite as the letter was, Pickering seemed to find no great exhilaration i_aving this famous burden so handsomely lifted from his spirit. He began t_rood over his liberation in a manner which you might have deemed proper to _enewed sense of bondage. "Bad news," he had called his letter originally; an_et, now that its contents proved to be in flat contradiction to hi_oreboding, there was no impulsive voice to reverse the formula and declar_he news was good. The wings of impulse in the poor fellow had of late bee_erribly clipped. It was an obvious reflection, of course, that if he had no_een so stiffly certain of the matter a month before, and had gone through th_orm of breaking Mr. Vernor's seal, he might have escaped the purgatory o_adame Blumenthal's sub-acid blandishments. But I left him to moralise i_rivate; I had no desire, as the phrase is, to rub it in. My thoughts, moreover, were following another train; I was saying to myself that if t_hose gentle graces of which her young visage had offered to my fancy th_looming promise, Miss Vernor added in this striking measure the capacity fo_agnanimous action, the amendment to my friend's career had been less happ_han the rough draught. Presently, turning about, I saw him looking at th_oung lady's photograph. "Of course, now," he said, "I have no right to kee_t!" And before I could ask for another glimpse of it, he had thrust it int_he fire.
"I am sorry to be saying it just now," I observed after a while, "but _houldn't wonder if Miss Vernor were a charming creature."
"Go and find out," he answered, gloomily. "The coast is clear. My part is t_orget her," he presently added. "It ought not to be hard. But don't yo_hink," he went on suddenly, "that for a poor fellow who asked nothing o_ortune but leave to sit down in a quiet corner, it has been rather a crue_ushing about?"
Cruel indeed, I declared, and he certainly had the right to demand a clea_age on the book of fate and a fresh start. Mr. Vernor's advice was sound; h_hould amuse himself with a long journey. If it would be any comfort to him, _ould go with him on his way. Pickering assented without enthusiasm; he ha_he embarrassed look of a man who, having gone to some cost to make a goo_ppearance in a drawing-room, should find the door suddenly slammed in hi_ace. We started on our journey, however, and little by little his enthusias_eturned. He was too capable of enjoying fine things to remain permanentl_rresponsive, and after a fortnight spent among pictures and monuments an_ntiquities, I felt that I was seeing him for the first time in his best an_ealthiest mood. He had had a fever, and then he had had a chill; the pendulu_ad swung right and left in a manner rather trying to the machine; but now, a_ast, it was working back to an even, natural beat. He recovered in a measur_he generous eloquence with which he had fanned his flame at Homburg, an_alked about things with something of the same passionate freshness. One da_hen I was laid up at the inn at Bruges with a lame foot, he came home an_reated me to a rhapsody about a certain meek-faced virgin of Hans Memling, which seemed to me sounder sense than his compliments to Madame Blumenthal. H_ad his dull days and his sombre moods—hours of irresistible retrospect; but _et them come and go without remonstrance, because I fancied they always lef_im a trifle more alert and resolute. One evening, however, he sat hanging hi_ead in so doleful a fashion that I took the bull by the horns and told him h_ad by this time surely paid his debt to penitence, and that he owed it t_imself to banish that woman for ever from his thoughts.
He looked up, staring; and then with a deep blush—"That woman?" he said. "_as not thinking of Madame Blumenthal!"
After this I gave another construction to his melancholy. Taking him with hi_opes and fears, at the end of six weeks of active observation and kee_ensation, Pickering was as fine a fellow as need be. We made our way down t_taly and spent a fortnight at Venice. There something happened which I ha_een confidently expecting; I had said to myself that it was merely a questio_f time. We had passed the day at Torcello, and came floating back in the glo_f the sunset, with measured oar-strokes. "I am well on the way," Pickerin_aid; "I think I will go!"
We had not spoken for an hour, and I naturally asked him, Where? His answe_as delayed by our getting into the Piazzetta. I stepped ashore first and the_urned to help him. As he took my hand he met my eyes, consciously, and i_ame. "To Smyrna!"
A couple of days later he started. I had risked the conjecture that Mis_ernor was a charming creature, and six months afterwards he wrote me that _as right.