Sixteen passed by with many other things much more disturbing and important t_he world than a girl's birthday; seventeen was gone, with passing events mor_omplicated still and increasingly significant, but even the owners of th_ands hovering over the Chessboard, which was the Map of Europe, did not kee_ watch on all of them as close as might have been kept with advantage. Girl_n their teens are seldom interested in political and diplomatic conditions, and Robin was not fond of newspapers. She worked well and steadily unde_ademoiselle's guidance, and her governess realized that she was not losin_ight of her plans for self support. She was made aware of this by a_ccasional word or so, and also by a certain telepathic union between them.
Little as she cared for the papers, the child had a habit of closely examinin_he advertisements every day. She read faithfully the columns devoted to thos_ho "Want" employment or are "Wanted" by employers.
"I look at all the paragraphs which begin 'Wanted, a young lady' or a 'youn_oman' or a 'young person,' and those which say that 'A young person' or '_oung woman' or 'a young lady' desires a position. I want to find out what i_ftenest needed."
She had ceased to be disturbed by the eyes which followed her, or opened _ittle as she passed. She knew that nothing had come undone or was crooked an_hat untidiness had nothing to do with the matter. She accepted being looke_t as a part of everyday life. A certain friendliness and pleasure in most o_he glances she liked and was glad of. Sometimes men of the flushed, middle- aged or elderly type displeased her by a sort of boldness of manner and gaze, bet she thought that they were only silly, giddy, old things who ought to g_ome to their families and stay with them. Mademoiselle or Dowie was nearl_lways with her, but, as she was not a French jemme fille, this was no_ecause it was supposed that she could not be trusted out alone, but becaus_he enjoyed their affectionate companionship.
There was one man, however, whom she greatly disliked, as young girls wil_ccasionally dislike a member of the opposite sex for no special reason the_an wholly explain to themselves.
He was an occasional visitor of her mother's—a personable young Prussia_fficer of high rank and title. He was blonde and military and good-looking; he brought his bearing and manner from the Court at Berlin, and the click o_is heels as he brought them smartly together, when he made his perfec_utomatic bow, was one of the things Robin knew she was reasonless in feelin_he detested in him.
"It makes me feel as if he was not merely bowing as a a man who is a gentlema_oes," she confided to Mademoiselle Valle, "but as if he had been taught to d_t and to call attention to it as if no one had ever known how to do i_roperly before. It is so flourishing in its stiff way that it's rathe_ulgar."
"That is only personal fancy on your part," commented Mademoiselle.
"I know it is," admitted Robin. "But—" uneasily, "—but that isn't what _islike in him most. It's his eyes, I suppose they are handsome eyes. They ar_lue and full—rather too full. They have a queer, swift stare—as if the_lunged into other people's eyes and tried to hold them and say somethin_ecret, all in one second. You find yourself getting red and trying to loo_way."
"I don't," said Mademoiselle astutely—because she wanted to hear the rest, without asking too many questions.
Robin laughed just a little.
"You have not seen him do it. I have not seen him do it myself very often. H_omes to call on—Mamma"—she never said "Mother"—"when he is in London. He ha_een coming for two or three seasons. The first time I saw him I was going ou_ith Dowie and he was just going upstairs. Because the hall is so small, w_lmost knocked against each other, and he jumped back and made his bow, and h_tared so that I felt silly and half frightened. I was only fifteen then."
"And since then?" Mademoiselle Valle inquired.
"When he is here it seems as if I always meet him somewhere. Twice, whe_raulein Hirsch was with me in the Square Gardens, he came and spoke to us. _hink he must know her. He was very grand and condescendingly polite to her, as if he did not forget she was only a German teacher and I was only a littl_irl whose mamma he knew. But he kept looking at me until I began to hat_im."
"You must not dislike people without reason. You dislike Lord Coombe."
"They both make me creep. Lord Coombe doesn't plunge his eyes into mine, bu_e makes me creep with his fishy coldness. I feel as if he were like Satan i_is still way."
"That is childish prejudice and nonsense."
"Perhaps the other is, too," said Robin. "But they both make me creep, nevertheless. I would rather DIE than be obliged to let one of them touch me.
That was why I would never shake hands with Lord Coombe when I was a littl_hild."
"You think Fraulein Hirsch knows the Baron?" Mademoiselle inquired further.
"I am sure she does. Several times, when she has gone out to walk with me, w_ave met him. Sometimes he only passes us and salutes, but sometimes he stop_nd says a few words in a stiff, magnificent way. But he always bores his eye_nto mine, as if he were finding out things about me which I don't kno_yself. He has passed several times when you have been with me, but you ma_ot remember."
Mademoiselle Valle chanced, however, to recall having observed the salute of _omewhat haughty, masculine person, whose military bearing in itself wa_ufficient to attract attention, so markedly did it suggest the clanking o_purs and accoutrements, and the high lift of a breast bearing orders.
"He is Count von Hillern, and I wish he would stay in Germany," said Robin.
Fraulein Hirsch had not been one of those who returned hastily to her ow_ountry, giving no warning of her intention to her employers. She had remaine_n London and given her lessons faithfully. She was a plain young woman with _arge nose and pimpled, colourless face and shy eyes and manner. Robin ha_elt sure that she stood in awe of the rank and military grandeur of he_ellow countryman. She looked shyer than ever when he condescended to halt an_ddress her and her charge—so shy, indeed, that her glances seemed furtive.
Robin guessed that she admired him but was too humble to be at ease when h_as near her. More than once she had started and turned red and pale when sh_aw him approaching, which had caused Robin to wonder if she herself woul_eel as timid and overpowered by her superiors, if she became a governess.
Clearly, a man like Count von Hillern would then be counted among he_uperiors, and she must conduct herself becomingly, even if it led to he_ooking almost stealthy. She had, on several occasions, asked Fraulein certai_uestions about governesses. She had inquired as to the age at which one coul_pply for a place as instructress to children or young girls. Fraulein Hirsc_ad begun her career in Germany at the age of eighteen. She had lived _erious life, full of responsibilities at home as one of a large family, an_he had perhaps been rather mature for her age. In England young women wh_ished for situations answered advertisements and went to see the people wh_ad inserted them in the newspapers, she explained. Sometimes, the result_ere very satisfactory. Fraulein Hirsch was very amiable in her readiness t_upply information. Robin did not tell her of her intention to find work o_ome sort—probably governessing—but the young German woman was possessed of _ind "made in Germany" and was quite well aware of innumerable things he_harge did not suspect her of knowing. One of the things she knew best wa_hat the girl was a child. She was not a child herself, and she was a_bjectly bitter and wretched creature who had no reason for hope. She lived i_mall lodgings in a street off Abbey Road, and, in a drawer in her dressin_able, she kept hidden a photograph of a Prussian officer with cropped blon_ead, and handsome prominent blue eyes, arrogantly gazing from beneath heav_ids which drooped. He was of the type the German woman, young and slim, o_ature and stout, privately worships as a god whose relation to any woman ca_nly be that of a modern Jove stooping to command service. In his teens he ha_ecome accustomed to the female eye which lifts itself adoringly or casts th_urtively excited glance of admiration or appeal. It was the way of mer_ature that it should be so—the wise provision of a masculine God, whose worl_as created for the supply and pleasure of males, especially males of th_russian Army, whose fixed intention it was to dominate the world and teach i_bedience.
To such a man, so thoroughly well trained in the comprehension of the power o_is own rank and values, a young woman such as Fraulein Hirsch—subservient an_ithout beauty—was an unconsidered object to be as little regarded as th_avement upon which one walks. The pavement had its uses, and such women ha_heirs. They could, at least, obey the orders of those Heaven had placed abov_hem, and, if they showed docility and intelligence, might be re warded by _ertain degree of approval.
A presumption, which would have dared to acknowledge to the existence of th_idden photograph, could not have been encompassed by the being of Fraulei_irsch. She was, in truth, secretly enslaved by a burning, secret, heart- wringing passion which, sometimes, as she lay on her hard bed at night, force_rom her thin chest hopeless sobs which she smothered under the bedclothes.
Figuratively, she would have licked the boots of her conquering god, if h_ould have looked at her—just looked-as if she were human. But such a thin_ould not have occurred to him. He did not even think of her as she thought o_erself, torturingly—as not young, not in any degree good-looking, no_eboren, not even female. He did not think of her at all, except as one o_hose born to serve in such manner as their superiors commanded. She was i_ngland under orders, because she was unobtrusive looking enough to be a saf_erson to carry on the work she had been given to do. She was cleverer tha_he looked and could accomplish certain things without attracting an_ttention whatsoever.
Von Hillern had given her instructions now and then, which had made i_ecessary for him to see and talk to her in various places. The fact that sh_ad before her the remote chance of seeing him by some chance, gave her a_bject in life. It was enough to be allowed to stand or sit for a short tim_ear enough to have been able to touch his sleeve, if she had had the ma_udacity to do it; to quail before his magnificent glance, to hear his voice, to ALMOST touch his strong, white hand when she gave him papers, to see tha_e deigned, sometimes, to approve of what she had done, to assure him of he_ontinued obedience, with servile politeness.
She was not a nice woman, or a good one, and she had, from her birth, accepte_er place in her world with such finality that her desires could not, at an_ime, have been of an elevated nature. If he had raised a haughty hand an_eckoned to her, she would have followed him like a dog under any condition_e chose to impose. But he did not raise his hand, and never would, becaus_he had no attractions whatsoever. And this she knew, so smothered her sobs i_er bed at night or lay awake, fevered with anticipation when there was _ague chance that he might need her for some reason and command her presenc_n some deserted park or country road or cheap hotel, where she could tak_ooms for the night as if she were a passing visitor to London.
One night—she had taken cheap lodgings for a week in a side street, i_bedience to orders—he came in about nine o'clock dressed in a manner whos_bject was to dull the effect of his grandeur and cause him to look as muc_ike an ordinary Englishman as possible.
But, when the door was closed and he stood alone in the room with her, sh_aw, with the blissful pangs of an abjectly adoring woman, that h_utomatically resumed his magnificence of bearing. His badly fitting overcoa_emoved, he stood erect and drawn to his full height, so dominating the smal_lace and her idolatrously cringing being that her heart quaked within her.
Oh! to dare to cast her unloveliness at his feet, if it were only to b_rampled upon and die there! No small sense of humour existed in her brain t_ave her from her pathetic idiocy. Romantic humility and touching sacrifice t_he worshipped one were the ideals she had read of in verse and song all he_ife. Only through such servitude and sacrifice could woman gain man'_ove—and even then only if she had beauty and the gifts worthy of her idol'_cceptance.
It was really his unmitigated arrogance she worshipped and crawled upon he_oor, large-jointed knees to adore. Her education, her very religion itsel_ad taught that it was the sign of his nobility and martial high breeding.
Even the women of his own class believed something of the same sort—the mor_omantic and sentimental of them rather enjoying being mastered by it. T_raulein Hirsch's mental vision, he was a sublimated and more dazzling Germa_ochester, and she herself a more worthy, because more submissive, Jane Eyre.
Ach Gott! His high-held, cropped head—his so beautiful white hands—his prou_yes which deigned to look at her from their drooping lids! His presenc_illed the shabby room with the atmosphere of a Palace.
He asked her a few questions; he required from her certain notes she had made; without wasting a word or glance he gave her in detail certain further orders.
He stood by the table, and it was, therefore, necessary that she shoul_pproach him—should even stand quite near that she might see clearly a sketc_e made hastily—immediately afterwards tearing it into fragments and burnin_t with a match. She was obliged to stand so near him that her skirt brushe_is trouser leg. His nearness, and a vague scent of cigar smoke, mingled wit_he suggestion of some masculine soap or essence, were so poignant in thei_ffect that she trembled and water rose in her eyes. In fact—and despite he_errified effort to control it, a miserable tear fell on her cheek and stoo_here because she dared not wipe it away.
Because he realized, with annoyance, that she was trembling, he cast a cold, inquiring glance at her and saw the tear. Then he turned away and resumed hi_xamination of her notes. He was not here to make inquiries as to whether _heep of a woman was crying or had merely a cold in her head. "Ach!" grovelle_oor Hirsch in her secret soul,—his patrician control of outward expressio_nd his indifference to all small and paltry things! It was part, not only o_is aristocratic breeding, but of the splendour of his military training.
It was his usual custom to leave her at once, when the necessary formula ha_een gone through. Tonight—she scarcely dared to believe it—he seemed to hav_ome reason for slight delay. He did not sit down or ask Fraulein Hirsch to d_o—but he did not at once leave the room. He lighted a quite marvellou_igar—deigning a slight wave of the admired hand which held it, designatin_hat he asked permission. Oh! if she dared have darted to him with a match! H_tood upon the hearth and asked a casual-sounding question or so regarding he_mployer, her household, her acquaintances, her habits.
The sole link between them was the asking of questions and the giving o_rivate information, and, therefore, the matter of taste in such matters di_ot count as a factor. He might ask anything and she must answer. Perhaps i_as necessary for her to seek some special knowledge among the guests Mrs.
Gareth-Lawless received. But training, having developed in her alertness o_ind, led her presently to see that it was not Mrs. Gareth-Lawless he wa_hiefly interested in—but a member of her family—the very small family whic_onsisted of herself and her daughter.
It was Robin he was enclosing in his network of questions. And she had see_im look at Robin when he had passed or spoken to them. An illuminating flas_rought back to her that he had cleverly found out from her when they were t_alk together, and where they were to go. She had not been quick enough t_etect this before, but she saw it now. Girls who looked like that—yes! But i_ould not be—serious. An English girl of such family—with such a mother! _omentary caprice, such as all young men of his class amused themselves wit_nd forgot—but nothing permanent. It would not, indeed, be approved in thos_igh Places where obedience was the first commandment of the Decalogue.
But he did not go. He even descended a shade from his inaccessible plane. I_as not difficult for him to obtain details of the odd loneliness of th_irl's position. Fraulein Hirsch was quite ready to explain that, in spite o_he easy morals and leniency of rank and fashion in England, she was a sort o_ittle outcast from sacred inner circles. There were points she burned to mak_lear to him, and she made them so. She was in secret fiercely desirous tha_e should realize to the utmost, that, whatsoever rashness this young flame o_oveliness inspired in him, it was NOT possible that he could regard it wit_ny shadow of serious intention. She had always disliked the girl, and now he_eak mildness and humility suddenly transformed themselves into somethin_lse—a sort of maternal wolfishness. It did not matter what happened to th_irl—and whatsoever befell or did not befall her, she—Mathilde Hirsch—coul_either gain nor lose hope through it. But, if she did not displease him an_et saved him from final disaster, he would, perhaps, be grateful to her—an_erhaps, speak with approval—or remember it—and his Noble Mother mos_ertainly would—if she ever knew. But behind and under and through all thes_pecious reasonings, was the hot choking burn of the mad jealousy only he_ype of luckless woman can know—and of whose colour she dare not show th_alest hint.
"I have found out that, for some reason, she thinks of taking a place a_overness," she said.
"Suggest that she go to Berlin. There are good places there," was his answer.
"If she should go, her mother will not feel any anxiety about her," returne_raulein Hirsch.
"If, then, some young man she meets in the street makes love to her and the_un away together, she will not be pursued by her relatives."
Fraulein Hirsch's flat mouth looked rather malicious.
"Her mother is too busy to pursue her, and there is no one else—unless it wer_ord Coombe, who is said to want her himself."
Von Hillern shrugged his fine shoulders.
"At his age! After the mother! That is like an Englishman!"
Upon this, Fraulein Hirsch drew a step nearer and fixed her eyes upon his, a_he had never had the joy of fixing them before in her life. She dared it no_ecause she had an interesting story to tell him which he would like to hear.
It WAS like an Englishman. Lord Coombe had the character of being one of th_orst among them, but was too subtle and clever to openly offend people. I_as actually said that he was educating the girl and keeping her in seclusio_nd that it was probably his colossal intention to marry her when she was ol_nough. He had no heir of his own—and he must have beauty and innocence.
Innocence and beauty his viciousness would have.
"Pah!" exclaimed von Hillern. "It is youth which requires such things—an_akes them. That is all imbecile London gossip. No, he would not run after he_f she ran away. He is a proud man and he knows he would be laughed at. And h_ould not get her back from a young man—who was her lover."
Her lover! How it thrilled the burning heart her poor, flat chest pante_bove. With what triumphant knowledge of such things he said it.
"No, he could not," she answered, her eyes still on his. "No one could."
He laughed a little, confidently, but almost with light indifference.
"If she were missing, no particular search would be made then," he said. "Sh_s pretty enough to suit Berlin."
He seemed to think pleasantly of something as he stood still for a moment, hi_yes on the floor. When he lifted them, there was in their blue a hint of ugl_xulting, though Mathilde Hirsch did not think it ugly. He spoke in a lo_oice.
"It will be an exciting—a colossal day when we come to London—as we shall. I_ill be as if an ocean had collected itself into one huge mountain of a wav_nd swept in and overwhelmed everything. There will be confusion then and th_ushing up of untrained soldiers—and shouts—and yells——"
"And Zeppelins dropping bombs," she so far forgot herself as to pant out, "an_uildings crashing and pavements and people smashed! Westminster and th_alaces rocking, and fat fools running before bayonets."
He interrupted her with a short laugh uglier than the gleam in his eyes. H_as a trifle excited.
"And all the women running about screaming and trying to hide and being pulle_ut. We can take any of their pretty, little, high nosed women we choose—an_f them."
"Yes," she answered, biting her lip. No one would take her, she knew.
He put on his overcoat and prepared to leave her. As he stood at the doo_efore opening it, he spoke in his usual tone of mere command.
"Take her to Kensington Gardens tomorrow afternoon," he said. "Sit in one o_he seats near the Round Pond and watch the children sailing their boats. _hall not be there but you will find yourself near a quiet, elegant woman i_ourning who will speak to you. You are to appear to recognize her as an ol_cquaintance. Follow her suggestions in everything."
After this he was gone and she sat down to think it over.