The King's Mirror/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV.


A SMACK OF REPETITION.


The contrast of outer and inner, of the world's myself and my own myself, of others as they seem to me and to themselves (of the reality they may be, through inattention or dulness, as ignorant as I), which is the most permanent and the dominant impression that life has stamped on my mind, was never more powerfully brought home to me than in the days which preceded my marriage to my cousin Elsa. As I have said, they had begun to decorate the streets; let me summarize all the rest by repeating that they decorated the streets, and went on decorating them. The decorative atmosphere enveloped all external objects, and wrapped even the members of my own family in its spangled cloud. Victoria blossomed in diamonds, William Adolphus sprouted in plumes; my mother embodied the stately, Cousin Elizabeth a gorgeous heartiness; the Duke's eyes wore a bored look, but the remainder of his person was fittingly resplendent. Bederhof was Bumble in Olympus; beyond these came a sea of smiles, bows, silks, and uniforms. Really I believe that the whole thing was done as handsomely as possible, and the proceedings are duly recorded in a book of red leather, clasped in gold and embellished with many pictures, which the Municipality of Forstadt presented to Elsa in remembrance of the auspicious event. It lies now under a class case, and, I understand, excites much interest among ladies who come to see my house.

Elsa was a puzzle no longer; I should have welcomed more complexity of feeling. The month which had passed since we parted had brought to her many reflections, no doubt, and as a presumable result of them a fixed attitude of mind. William Adolphus would have said (and very likely did say to Victoria) that she had got used to me; but this mode of putting the matter suffers from my brother-in-law's bluntness. She had not defied Clotho, but neither had she altogether given herself up to Clotho. She had compromised with the Formidable Lady, and, although by no means enraptured, seemed to be conscious that she might have come off worse. What was distasteful in Clotho's terms Elsa attempted to reduce to insignificance by a disciplined arrangement of her thoughts and emotions. Much can be done if one will be firm with would-be vagrants of the mind. The pleasant may be given prominence; the disagreeable relegated to obscurity; the attractive installed in the living apartments; the repellant locked in a distant cellar, whence their ill-conditioned cries are audible occasionally only and in the distance. What might have been is sternly transformed from a beautiful vision into a revolting peril, and in this new shape is invoked to applaud the actual and vilify what is impossible. This attitude of mind is thought so commendable as to have won for itself in popular speech the name of philosophy so even with words Clotho works her will. Elsa, then, in this peculiar sense of the term was philosophical about the business. She was balanced in her attitude, and, left to herself, would maintain equilibrium.

"She's growing fonder and fonder of you every day," Cousin Elizabeth whispered in my ear.

"I hope," said I, with a reminiscence, "that I am not absolutely repulsive to her." And in order not to puzzle Cousin Elizabeth with any glimmer of truth I smiled.

"My dearest Augustin" (that she seemed to say "Struboff" was a childish trick of my imagination), "what an idea!" ("What a question, my dear M. Struboff!")

I played too much, perhaps, with my parallel, but I was not its slave. I knew myself to be unlike Struboff (in my case Coralie scouted the idea of a fresh slice of bread). I knew Elsa to be of very different temperament from Coralie's. These variances did not invalidate the family likeness; a son may be very like his father, though the nose of one turns up and the other's nose turns down. We were, after making all allowances for superficial differences—we were both careers, Struboff and I. I need none to point out to me my blunder; none to say that I was really fortunate and cried for the moon. It is admitted. I was offered a charming friendship; it was not enough. I could give a tender friendship; I knew that it was not enough.

And there was that other thing which went to my heart, that possibility which must ever be denied realization, that beginning doomed to be thwarted. As we were talking once of all who were to come on the great day, I saw suddenly a little flush on Elsa's cheek. She did not look away or stammer, or make any other obvious concession to her embarrassment, but the blush could not be denied access to her face and came eloquent with its hint.

"And M. de Varvilliers—he will be there, I suppose?" she asked.

"I hope so; I have given directions that he shall be invited. You like him, Elsa?"

"Yes," she said, not looking at me now, but straight in front of her, as though he stood there in his easy heart-stealing grace. And for an instant longer the flush flew his flag on her cheek.

But Struboff had been so mad as to fall in love with Coralie, and to desire her love out of no compassion for her but sheerly for itself. Was I not spared this pang? I do not know whether my state were worse or better. For with him, even in direst misery, there would be love's own mad hope, that denial of impossibility, that dream of marvellous change which shoots across the darkest gloom of passion. Or at least he could imagine her loving as he loved, and thereby cheat the wretched thing that was. I could not. In dreary truth, I was toward her as she toward me, and before us both there stretched a lifetime. If an added sting were needed, I found it in a perfectly clear consciousness that a great many people would have been absolutely content, and, as onlookers of our case, would have wondered what all the trouble was about. There are those who from a fortunate want of perception are called sensible; just as Elsa by her resolute evasion of truth would be accorded the title of philosophical.

Victoria was the prophet of the actual, picking out with optimistic eye its singular abundance of blessedness. I do not think that she reminded me that Elsa might have had but one eye, one leg, or a crooked back, but her felicitations ran on this strain. Their obvious artificiality gave them the effect of sympathy, and Victoria would always sanction this interpretation by a kiss on departure. But she had her theory; it was that Elsa only needed to be wooed. The "only" amused me, but even with that point waived I questioned her position. It left out imagination, and it left out Varvilliers, who had become imagination's pet. Nevertheless, Victoria spoke out of experience; she did not blush at declaring herself "after all very comfortable" with William Adolphus. Granted the argument's sincerity, its force could not be denied with honesty.

"We're not romantic, and never have been, of course," she conceded.

"My dear Victoria, of course not," said I, laughing openly.

"We have had our quarrels."

"The quarrels wouldn't trouble me in the least."

"We don't expect too much of one another."

"I seem to be listening to the address on the wedding day."

"You're an exasperating creature!" and with that came the kiss.

Victoria's affection was always grateful to me, but in the absence of Wetter and Varvilliers, neither of whom had made any sign as yet, I was bereft of all intellectual sympathy. I had looked to find some in the Duke, and some, as I believe, there was; but its flow was checked and turned by what I must call a repressed resentment. His wife's blind heartiness was impossible to him, and he read with a clear eye the mind of a loved daughter. With him also I ranked as a necessity; so far as the necessity was distasteful to Elsa, it was unpalatable to him. Beneath his friendliness, and side by side with an unhesitating acceptance of the position, there lay this grudge, not acknowledged, bound to incur instant absurdity as the price of any open assertion of itself, but set in his mind and affecting his disposition toward me. He was not so foolish as to blame me; but I was to him the occasion of certain fears and shrinkings, possibly of some qualms as to his own part in the matter, and thus I became a less desired companion. There was something between us, a subject always present, never to be mentioned. As a result, there came constraint. My pride took alarm, and my polite distance answered in suitable terms to his reticent courtesy. I believe, however, that we found one common point in a ludicrous horror of Cousin Elizabeth's behaviour. Had she assumed the air she wore, she must have ranked as a diplomatist; having succeeded in the great task of convincing herself, she stands above those who can boast only of deceiving others. To Cousin Elizabeth the alliance was a love match; had she possessed the other qualities, her self-persuasion would have been enough to enable her to found a religious sect and believe that she was sent from heaven for its prophet.

Amid this group of faces, all turned toward the same object but with expressions subtly various, I spent my days, studying them all, and finding (here has been nature's consolation to me) relief from my own thoughts in an investigation of the mind of others. The portentous pretence on which we were engaged needed perhaps a god to laugh at it, but the smaller points were within the sphere of human ridicule; with them there was no danger of amusement suffering a sudden death, and a swift resurrection in the changed shape of indignation.

There was already much to laugh at, but now a new occasion came, taking its rise in a thing which seemed very distinct, and appertaining to moods and feelings long gone by, a plaything of memory destined (as it had appeared) to play no more part in actual life. The matter was simply this: Count Max von Sempach was on leave, and proposed with my permission to be in Forstadt for the wedding festivities.

Bederhof had heard legendary tales; his manner was dubious and solemn as he submitted the Count's proposal to me; Princess Heinrich's carelessness of reference would have stirred suspicion in the most guileless heart; William Adolphus broke into winks and threatened nudges; I invoked my dignity just in time. Victoria was rather excited, rather pleased, looking forward to an amusing spectacle. Evidently something had reached Cousin Elizabeth's ears, for she overflowed with unspoken assurances that the news was of absolutely no importance, that she took no notice of boyish follies, and did not for a moment doubt my whole-hearted devotion to Elsa. Elsa herself betrayed consciousness only by not catching my eye when the Sempachs' coming cropped up in conversation. For my own part I said that I should be very glad to see the Count and the Countess, and that they had a clear claim to their invitation. My mother's manner had shown that she felt herself in no position to raise objections; Bederhof took my commands with resigned deference. I was aware that his wife had ceased to call on the Countess some time before Count Max went Ambassador to Paris.

Max had done his work very well—his appointment has been quoted as an instance of my precocious insight into character—and his work did not appear to have done him any harm. When he called on me I found him the same sincere simple fellow that he had been always. By consent we talked of private affairs, rather than of business. He told me that Toté was growing into a tall girl, that his other children also shot up, but (he added proudly) his wife did not look a day older, and her appearance had, if anything, improved. She had been happy at Paris, he said, "but, to be sure, she'd be happy anywhere with the children and her home." The modesty of the last words did not conceal his joyous confidence. I felt very kindly toward him.

"Really you're an encouragement to me at this moment," I said. "You must take me to see the Countess."

"She will be most honoured, sire."

"I'd much rather she'd be a little pleased."

He laughed in evident gratification, assuring me that she would be very pleased. He answered for her emotions in the true style of the blessed partner; that is an incident of matrimony which I am content to have escaped. I doubted very much whether she were so eager for the renewal of my acquaintance as he declared. I recollected the doubts and fears that had beset her vision of that event long ago. But my part was plain—to go, and to go speedily.

"To the Countess'?" exclaimed Victoria, to whom I mentioned casually my plans for the afternoon. "You're in a great hurry, Augustin."

"It's no sign of hurry to go to a place at the right time," said I, with a smile.

"I don't call it quite proper."

"I go because it is proper."

"If you flirt with her again——"

"My dear Victoria, what things you suggest!"

Victoria returned to her point.

"I see no reason why you should rush off there all in a minute," she persisted.

Nevertheless I went, paying the tribute of a laugh to the picture of Victoria flying with the news to Princess Heinrich. But the Princess' eye could tell a real danger from an imaginary one; she would not mind my seeing the Countess now.

I went quite privately, without notice, and was not expected. Thus it happened that I was ushered into the drawing-room when the Countess was not there to receive me. There I found Toté undeniably long-legged and regrettably shy. The world had begun to set its mark on her, and she had discovered that she did not know how to behave to me. I was sorry not to be pleasant company for Toté; but, perceiving the fact too plainly to resist it I sent her off to hasten her mother. She had not been gone a moment before the Countess came in hurriedly with apologies on her lips.

Not a day older! O my dear Max! Shall we pray for this blindness, or shall we not? She was older than she had been, older than by now she should be. Yet her charm hung round her like a fine stuff that defies time, and a gentle kindness graced her manner. We began to talk about anything and nothing. She showed fretful dread of a pause; when she spoke she did not look me in the face. I could not avoid the idea that she did not want me, and would gladly see me take my leave. But such a feeling was, as it seemed to me, inhuman a falseness to our true selves, born of some convention, or of a scruple overstrained, or of a fear not warranted.

"Have you seen Elsa?" I asked presently, and perhaps rather abruptly.

"Yes," she said, "I was presented to her. She was very sweet and kind to me."

"She's that to me too," I said, rising and standing by her chair.

She hesitated a moment, then looked up at me; I saw emotion in her eyes.

"You'll be happy with her?" she asked.

"If she isn't very unhappy, I daresay I shan't be."

"Ah!" she said with a sort of despairing sigh.

"But I don't suppose I should make anybody particularly happy."

"Yes, yes," she cried in low-voiced impetuosity. "Yes, if——" She stopped. Fear was in her eyes now, and she scanned my face with a close jealous intensity. I knew what her fear was, her own expression of it echoed back across the years. She feared that she had given me occasion to laugh at her. I bent down, took her hand, and kissed it lightly.

"Perhaps, had all the world been different," said I, with a smile.

"I'm terribly changed?"

"No; not terribly, and not much. How has it been with you?"

Her nervousness seemed to be passing off; she answered me in a sincere simplicity that would neither exaggerate nor hide.

"All that is good, short of the best," she said. "And with you?"

"Shall I say all that is bad, short of the worst?"

"We shouldn't mean very different things."

"No; not very. I've done many foolish things."

"Have you ? They all say that you fill your place well."

"I have paid high to do it."

"What you thought high when you paid," she said, smiling sadly.

I would not do her the wrong of any pretence; she was entitled to my honesty.

"I still think it high," I said, "but not too high."

"Nothing is too high?"

"But others must help to pay my score. You know that."

"Yes, I know it."

"And this girl will know it."

"She wouldn't have it otherwise."

"I know, I know, I know. She would not. It's strange to have you here now."

"Max would come. I didn't wish it. Yet—" She smiled for a moment and added: "Yet in a way I did wish it. I was drawn here. It seemed to concern me. Don't laugh. It seemed to be part of my story, too; I felt that I must be there to hear it. Are you laughing?"

"I've never laughed."

"You're good and kind and generous. No, I think you haven't. I'm glad of it, because——"

"Yes? Why?"

"Because even now I can't," she whispered. "No, don't think I mean—I mean a thing which would oblige you to laugh now. It's all over, all over. But that it should have been, Augustin?" My name slipped from unconscious lips. "That it should have been isn't bad to me; it's good. That's wicked? I can't help it. It's the thing—the thing of my life. I've no place like yours. I've nothing to make it come second. Ah, I'm forgetting again how old I am. How you always make me forget it! I mustn't talk like this."

"We shall never, I suppose, talk like this again. You go back to Paris?"

"Yes, soon. I'm glad."

"But it's not hard to you now?"

She seemed to reflect, as though she were anxious to give me an answer accurately true.

"Not very hard now," she said at last, looking full at me. "Not very hard, but very constant, always with me. I love them all, all my folk. But it's always there."

"You mean—What do you mean? The thought of me?"

"Yes, or the thought that somehow I have just missed. I'm not miserable. And I like to dream—to be gorgeous, splendid, wicked in dreams." She gave a laugh and pressed my hand for a moment. "Toté grows pretty," she said. "Don't you think so?"

"Toté was unhappy with me, and I let her go. Yes, she's pretty; she won't be like you, though."

"I'll appeal to you again in five, in ten years," said she, smiling, pleased with my covert praise. "Oh, it's pleasant to see you again," she went on a moment later. "I'm a bad penitent. I wish I could be with you always. No, I am not dreaming now. I mean, just in Forstadt and seeing you."

"A moment ago you were glad to go back to Paris."

"Ah, you assume more ignorance of us than you have. Mayn't I be glad of one thing and wish another?"

"True; and men can do that too."

I felt the old charm of the quick word coming from the beautiful lips, the twofold appeal. Though passion was gone, pleasure in her remained; my love was dead. As I sat there I wished it alive again; I longed to be back in the storm of it, even though I must battle the storm again.

"After all," she said, with a glance at me, "I have my share in you. You can't think of your life without thinking of me. I'm something to you. I'm one among the many foolish things—You don't hate the foolish things?"

"On my soul, I believe not one of them; and if you're one, I love one of them."

"I like you to say that."

A long silence fell on us. The thing had not come in either of the fashions in which I had pictured it, neither in weariness nor in excitement. It came full with emotions, but emotions that were subdued shadows of themselves, of a mournful sweetness, bewailing their lost strength, yet shrinking from remembrance of it. Would we have gone back if we could? Now I could not answer the question. Yet we could weep, because to go back was impossible. But it was with a slight laugh that at last I rose to my feet to say good-bye.

"It's like you always to laugh at the end," she said, a little in reproach, but more, I think, in the pleasure of recognising what was part of her idea of me. "You used often to do it, even when you were—even before. You remember the first time of all—when we smiled at one another behind your mother's back? That oldest memory comforts me. Do you know why? I was never so many centuries older than you again. I'm not so many even now. You look old, I think, and seem old; if we're nearer together, it's your fault, not my merit. Well, you must go. Ah, how you fill time! How you could have filled a woman's life!"

"Could have? Your mood is right."

"Surely she'll be happy with you? If you could love her?"

"Not even then. I'm not to her measure."

"Are you unhappy?"

"It's better than the worst, a great deal better. Good-bye."

I pressed her hand and kissed it. With a sudden seeming formality she curtseyed and kissed mine.

"I don't forget what you are," she said, "because I have fancied you as something besides. Good-bye, sire. Good-bye, Augustin."

"There's a name wanting."

"Ah, to Cæsar I said good-bye five years ago." The tears were in her eyes as I turned away and left her.

I had a fancy to walk back alone, as I had walked alone from her house on the day when I cut the bond between us that same five years ago. Having dismissed my carriage, I set out in the cool of the autumn evening as dusk had just fallen, and took my way through the decorated streets. Only three days more lay between the decorations and the occasion they were meant to grace. There was a hum of gaiety through all the town; they had begun their holiday-making, and the shops did splendid trade. They in Forstadt would have liked to marry me every year. Why not? I was to them a sign, a symbol, something they saw and spoke of, but not a man. I reviewed the troops every year. Why should I not be married every year? It would be but the smallest extension of my functions, and all on the lines of logic. I could imagine Princess Heinrich according amplest approval to the scheme.

Suddenly, as I passed in meditation through a quiet street, a hand was laid on my shoulder. I knew only one man who would stop me in that way. Was he here again, risen again, in Forstadt again, for work, or mirth, or mischief? He came in fitting with the visit I had paid. I turned and found his odd, wry smile on me, the knit brows and twinkling eyes. He lifted his hat and tossed back the iron-gray hair.

"I am come to the wedding, sire," said he, bowing.

"It would be incomplete without you, Wetter."

"And for another thing—for a treat, for a spectacle. They've written an epithalamium, haven't they?"

"Yes, some fool, according to his folly."

"It is to be sung at the opera the night before? At the gala performance!"

"You're as well up in the arrangements as Bederhof himself."

"I have cause. Whence come you, sire?"

"From paying a visit to the Countess von Sempach."

He burst into a laugh, but the look in his eyes forbade me to be offended.

"That's very whimsical too," he observed. "There's a smack of repetition about this. Is fate hard-up for new effects?"

"There's variety enough here for me. There were no decorations in the streets when I left her before."

"True, true; and—for I must return to my tidings—I bring you something new." He paused and enjoyed his smile at me. "Who sings the marriage song?" he asked.

"Heavens, man, I don't know! I'm not the manager. What is it to me who sings the song?"

"You would like it sung in tune?"

"Oh, unquestionably."

"Ah, well, she sings in tune," he said, nodding his head with an air of satisfaction. "She is not emotional, but she sings in tune."

"Does she, Wetter? Who is she?"

He stood looking at me for a moment, then broke into another laugh. I caught him by the arm; now I laughed myself.

"No, no?" I cried. "Fate doesn't joke, Wetter?"

"Fate jokes," said he. "It is Coralie who will sing your song. To-morrow they reach here, she and Struboff. Yes, sire, Coralie is to sing your song."

We stood looking at one another; we both were laughing. "It's a great chance in her career," he said.

"It's rather a curious chance in mine," said I.

"She sings it, she sings it," he cried, and with a last laugh turned and fairly ran away down the street, like a mischievous boy who has thrown his squib and flies from the scene in mirthful fear.

When Fortune jested she found in him quick-witted loving audience.