The King's Mirror/Chapter 27

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CHAPTER XXVII.


OF GRAZES ON THE KNEE.


There was no doubt that they practised the marriage-song. Coralie's voice echoed through the house as we entered. For a moment we paused in the hall to listen. Then Wetter dashed up the stairs, crying, "Good God! Wooden, wooden, wooden!" We followed him at a run; he flung the door open and rushed in. Coralie broke off her singing and came to greet me with a little cry of pleased surprise. Struboff sat at the piano, looking rather bewildered. Supper was spread on a table at the other end of the room. When Struboff tried to rise, Wetter thrust him back into his seat. "No, no, the King doesn't want to talk to you," he said. "He wants to hear madame sing, to hear you play. Coralie, come and sing again, and, for God's sake sing it as if it meant something, dear Coralie."

"It's such nonsense," said Coralie, with a pouting smile.

"Nonsense? Then it needs all your efforts. As if—as if, I say—it meant something."

Varvilliers, laughing, flung himself on a sofa, I stood at the end of the piano, Wetter was gesticulating and muttering on the hearthrug. Struboff put his fingers on the keys again and began to play; after a sigh of weariness Coralie uplifted her voice. It came fresh and full; the weariness was of the spirit only. The piece was good, nay, very good; there were feeling and passion in the music. I looked at Struboff. His fingers moved tenderly, tears stood in his little eyes. Coralie shouted perfect notes in perfect heartlessness.

"My God!" muttered Wetter from the hearth-rug, and bounded across to her. He caught her by the arm.

"Feel, feel, feel!" he cried angrily.

"Don't be so stupid," said Coralie.

"She can't feel it," said Struboff, taking his handkerchief and wiping brow and eyes.

"She's a fortunate woman," remarked Varvilliers from his sofa".

"You'd think she could," said Wetter, taking both her hands and surveying her from top to toe. "You'd think she could understand. Look at her eyes, her brows, her lips. You'd think she could understand. Look at her hands, her waist, her neck. It's a little strange, isn't it? See, she smiles at me. She has an adorably good temper. She doesn't mind me in the least. It's just that she happens not to be able to feel."

During all this outburst Struboff played softly and tenderly; a large tear formed now in each of his eyes, and presently trickled over the swelling hillocks underneath his cheek bones. Coralie was smiling placidly at Wetter, thinking him mad enough, but in no way put out by his criticism.

"I can feel it," said Wetter, in a whimsically puzzled tone. "Why should I feel it? I'm not young or beautiful, and my voice is the worse for wear, because I've had to denounce the King so much. Nevertheless I can feel it."

"You can make a big fool of yourself," observed Coralie, breaking into a laugh and snatching her hands away from him.

"Yes, yes, yes, I should hope so," he cried. "She catches the point! Is there hope? No, she won't make a fool of herself. There's no hope." He sank into a chair with every appearance of dejection.

"I think it's supper-time," she said, moving toward the table. "What are you still playing for?" she called to Struboff.

"Let him play," said I. "Perhaps he would rather play than sup."

"It's very likely," Coralie admitted with, a shrug. Struboff looked at me for a moment, and nodded solemnly. He was playing low now, giving a plaintive turn to the music that had been joyful.

"No, you shall try it once again," cried Wetter, leaping up. "Once again! A verse of it! I'll stand opposite to you. See, like this; and I'll look at you. Now try!"

She was very good-natured with him, and did as he bade her. He took his stand just by her, behind Struboff, and gazed into her face. I could see him; his lips twitched, and his eyes were set on her in an ardour of passion.

"Look in my eyes and sing!" he commanded.

"Ah, you're silly," she murmured in her pleasant lazy drawl. She threw out her chest, and filled the room with healthy tuneful sound.

"Stop!" he cried. "Stop! I can endure no more of it. Can you eat? Yes, you can eat. In God's name, come and eat, dear Coralie."

Coralie appealed to me.

"Don't you think I sing it very well?" she asked. "I can fill the Grand Opera House quite easily."

"You sing it to perfection," said I. "There's nothing wrong, nothing at all. Wetter here is mad."

"Wetter is certainly mad," echoed Varvilliers, rising from the sofa.

"Wetter is damned mad," said Wetter.

"Wetter is right—ah, so right," came in a despairing grumble from poor Struboff, who still played away.

"To supper, to supper!" cried Wetter. "You're right, all of you. And I'm right. And I'm mad. To supper! No, let Struboff play. Struboff, you want to play. Play on."

Struboff nodded again and played on. His notes, now plaintive, now triumphant, were the accompaniment to our meal, filling the pauses, enriching, as it seemed, the talk. But Coralie was deep in foie gras, and paid no heed to them. Wetter engaged in some vehement discussion with Varvilliers, who met him with good-humoured pertinacity. I had dropped out of the talk, and sat listening dreamily to Struboff's music. Suddenly Coralie laid down her knife and turned to me.

"Wouldn't it be nice if I were going to be married to you?" she asked.

"Charming," said I. "But what of our dear M. Struboff? And what of my Cousin Elsa?"

"We wouldn't trouble about them." She was looking at me with a shrewd gaze. "No," she said, "you wouldn't like it. Shall we try another arrangement?" She leaned toward me and laid her pretty hand on my arm. "Wetter and I—I am not very well placed, but let it pass—Wetter and I, Varvilliers and the Princess, you and the Countess."

I made no sign of appreciating this rather penetrating suggestion.

"You're more capricious than fortune, more arbitrary than fate, madame," said I. "Moreover, you have again forgotten to provide for M. Struboff."

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

"No," she said meditatively. "I don't like that after all. It might do for M. de Varvilliers, but the Countess is too old, and Wetter there would cut my throat. We can't sacrifice everything to give Varvilliers a Princess." She appeared to reflect for a few seconds. "I don't know how to arrange it."

"Positively I should be at a loss myself if I were called upon to govern the world at short notice."

"I think I must let it alone. I don't see how to make it better."

"Thank you. For my own part I have the good luck to be in love with my cousin."

Coralie lifted her eyes to mine. "Oh, no!" she drawled quietly. Then she added with a laugh, "Do you remember when you fought Wetter?"

"Heavens! yes; fools that we were! Not a word of it! Nobody knows."

"Well, at that time you were in love with me."

"Madame, I will have the honour of mentioning a much more remarkable thing to you."

"If you please, sire," she said, taking a bunch of grapes and beginning to eat them.

"You were all but in love with me."

"That's not remarkable. You're too humble. I was; ah, yes, I was. I was very afraid for you. Mon ami, don't you wish that, instead of being King here, you were the Sultan?"

I laughed at this abrupt and somewhat unceremonious question.

"In fact, Coralie," said I, "there are only two really satisfactory things to be in this life; all else is miserable compromise."

"Tell them to me."

"A Sultan or a monk. And—pardon me—give me the latter."

"Well, I once knew a monk very well, and——" began Coralie in a tone of meditative reminiscence. But, rather to my vexation, Wetter spoiled the story by asking what we were talking about with our heads so close together.

"We were correcting Fate and re-arranging Destiny," I explained.

"Pooh, pooh!" he cried. "You'd not get rid of the tragedy, and only spoil the comedy. Let it alone, my children."

We let it alone, and began to chatter honest nonsense. This had been going on for a few minutes, when I became aware suddenly that Struboff had ceased playing my wedding-song. I looked round; he sat on the piano-stool, his broad back like a tree-trunk bent to a bow, and his head settled on his shoulders till a red bulge over his collar was all that survived of his neck. I rose softly, signing to the others not to interrupt their conversation, and stole up to him. He did not move; his hands were clasped on his stomach. I peered round into his face; its lines were set in a grotesque heavy melancholy. At first I felt very sorry for him; but as I went on looking at him something of Coralie's feeling came over me, and I grew angry. That he was doubtless very miserable ceased to plead for him, nay, it aggravated his offence. What the deuce right had this fellow to make misery repulsive? And it was over my wedding song that he had tortured himself into this ludicrous condition! Yet again it was a pleasant paradox of Nature's to dower this carcass with the sensibility which might have given a crowning charm to the beauty of Coralie. In him it could attract no love, to him it could bring no happiness. Probably it caused him to play the piano better; if this justifies Nature, she is welcome to the plea. For my part, I felt that it was monstrously bad taste in him to come and be miserable here and now in Forstadt. But he overshot his mark.

"Good God, my dear Struboff!" I cried in extreme annoyance, "think how little it matters, how little any of us care, even, if you like, how little you ought to care yourself! You've tumbled down on the gravel; very well! Stop crying, and don't, for Heaven's sake, keep showing me the graze on your knee. We all, I suppose, have grazes on our knees. Get your mother to put you into stockings, and nobody will see it. I've been in stockings for years." I burst into a laugh.

He did not understand what I would be at; that, perhaps, was hardly wonderful.

"The music has affected me," he mumbled.

"Then come and let some champagne affect you," I advised him irritably. "What, are you to spoil a pleasant evening?"

He looked at me with ponderous sorrowful reproach.

"A pleasant evening!" he groaned, as he blew his nose.

"Yes," I cried loudly. "A damnably pleasant evening, M. Struboff," and I caught him by the arm, dragged him from his stool, and carried him off to the table with me. Here I set him down between Varvilliers and myself; Wetter and Coralie, deep in low-voiced conversation, paid no heed to him. He began to eat and drink eagerly and with appetite.

"You perceive, Struboff," said I persuasively, "that while we have stomachs—and none, my friend, can deny that you have one—the world is not empty of delight. You and I may have our grazes—Varvilliers, have you a graze on the knee by chance?—but consider, I pray you, the case of the man who has no dinner."

"It would be very bad to have no dinner," said Struboff, in full-mouthed meditation.

"Besides that," said I lightly—I grew better tempered every moment—"what are these fine-spun miseries with which we afflict ourselves? To be empty, to be thirsty, to be cold—these are evils. Was ever any man, well-fed, well-drunk, and well-warmed, really miserable? Reflect before you answer, Struboff."

He drained a glass of champagne, and, I suppose, reflected.

"If he had his piano also——" he began.

"Great Heavens!" I interrupted with a laugh.

Coralie turned from Wetter and fixed her eyes on her husband. He perceived her glance directly; his appetite appeared to become enfeebled, and he drank his wine with apologetic slowness. She went on looking at him with a merciless amusement; his whole manner became expressive of a wish to be elsewhere. I saw Varvilliers smothering a smile; he sacrificed much to good manners. I myself laughed gently. Suddenly, to my surprise, Wetter caught Coralie by the wrist.

"You see that man?" he asked, smiling and fixing his eyes on her.

"Oh, yes, I see my husband," said she.

"Your husband, yes. Shall I tell you something? You remember what I've been saying to you?"

"Very well; you've repeated it often. Are you going to repeat it now out loud?"

"Where's the use? Everybody here knows. I'll tell you another thing." He leaned forward, still holding her wrist tightly. "Look at Struboff," he said. "Look well at him."

"I am giving myself the pleasure of looking at M. Struboff," said Coralie.

"Very well. When you die—because you'll grow old, and you'll grow ugly, and at last, after you have become very ugly, you'll die."

Coralie looked rather vexed, a little perturbed and protesting. Wetter had touched the one point on which she had troubled herself to criticise the order of the universe.

"When, I say, you die," pursued Wetter, "when, after growing extremely ugly, you die, you will be sent to hell because you have not appreciated the virtues or repaid the devotion of my good friend M. Struboff. And, sire" (he turned to me), "when one considers that, it appears unreasonable to imagine that eternity will be in any degree less peculiar than this present life of ours."

"That's all very well," said Coralie, "but after having grown ugly I don't think I should mind anything else."

I clapped my hands.

"I think," said I, "if M. Struboff will pardon the supposition, that madame will be allowed to escape perdition. For, see, she will stand up and she will say quite calmly, with that adorable smile of hers——"

"They don't mind smiles there, sire," put in Varvilliers.

"She'll smile not to please them, but because she's amused," said I. "She'll say with her adorable smile, 'This and that I have done, this and that I have not done. Perhaps I did wrong, I have not studied your rules. But you can't send me to hell.'"

They all appeared to be listening with attentive ears.

"Here's a good advocate," said Wetter. "Let us hear the plea."

"'You can't send me to hell because I have not pretended. I have been myself, and I didn't make myself. I can't go to hell with the pretenders.'"

"But to heaven with the kings?" asked Varvilliers.

"With the kings who have not also been pretenders," said I.

"Nom de Dieu," said she, "I believe that I shall escape, after all. So you and I will be separated, Wetter."

"No, no," he protested. "Unless you're there the place won't be itself to me."

We all laughed—Struboff not in appreciation, but with a nervous desire to make himself agreeable—and I rose from my seat. It was three o'clock in the morning. Struboff yawned mightily as he drank a final glass and patted his stomach. I think that we were all happier than when we sat down.

"And after the occasion, whither?" I asked them.

"I back to France," answered Varvilliers.

"We to Munich," said Coralie, with a shrug.

"I the deuce knows where," laughed Wetter.

"I also the deuce knows where. Come, then, to our next merry supper!" I poured out a glass of wine. They all followed my example, and we drank.

"But we shall have no more," said Wetter.

A moment's silence fell on us all. Then Wetter spoke again. He turned to them and indicated me with a gesture.

"He's a good fellow, our Augustin."

"Yes, a good fellow," said Varvilliers.

"A very good fellow," muttered Struboff, who was more than a little gone in liquor.

"A good fellow," said Coralie. Then she stepped up to me, put her hands on my shoulders, and kissed me on both cheeks. "A good fellow, our little Augustin," said she.

There was nothing much in this; casual phrases of goodwill, spoken at a moment of conviviality, the outcome of genuine but perhaps not very deep feeling, except for that trifle of the kisses almost an ordinary accompaniment or conclusion of an evening's entertainment. I was a good fellow; the light praise had been lightly won. Yet even now as I write, looking back over the years, I can not, when I accuse myself of mawkishness, be altogether convinced by the self-denunciation. For what it was worth, the thing came home to me; for a moment it overleaped the barriers that were round me, the differences that made a hedge between me and them; for a moment they had forgotten that I was not merely their good comrade. I would not have people forget often what I am; but now and then it is pleasant to be no more than what I myself am. And the two there, Wetter and Varvilliers, were the nearest to friends that I have known. One went back to his country, the other the deuce knew where. I should be alone.

Alone I made my way back from Welter's house, alone and on foot. I had a fancy to walk thus through the decorated streets; alone to pause an instant before the Countess' door, recollecting many things; alone to tell myself that the stocking must be kept over the graze, and that the asking of sympathy was the betrayal of my soul's confidence to me; alone to be weak, alone to be strong; alone to determine to do my work with my own life, alone to hope that I must not render too wretched the life of another. I had good from that walk of mine. For you see, when a man is alone, above all, I think, when he is alone in the truce of night, one day's fight done and the new morning's battle not yet joined, he can pause and stand and think. He can be still; then his worst and his best steal out, like mice from their holes (the cat of convention is asleep), and play their gambols and antics before his eyes: he knows them and himself, and reaches forth to know the world and his work in it, his life and the end of it, the difference, if any, that he has made by spending so much pains on living.

It was four o'clock when a sleepy night-porter let me in. My servants had orders never to wait beyond two, and in my rooms all was dark and quiet. But when I lit a candle from the little lamp by the door, I saw somebody lying on the sofa in my dressing-room, a woman's figure stretched in the luxury of quiet sleep. Victoria this must be and none else. I was glad to see her there and to catch her drowsy smile as her eyes opened under the glare of my candle.

"What in the world are you doing here, my dear?" said I, setting down the candle and putting my hands in my pockets.

She sat up, whisking her skirts round with one hand and rubbing her eyes with the other.

"I came to tell you about Krak—Krak's come. But you weren't here. So I lay down, and I suppose I went to sleep."

"I suppose you did. And how's Krak?"

"Just the same as ever!"

"Brought a birch with her, in case I should rebel at the last?"

Victoria laughed.

"Oh, well, you'll see her to-morrow," she remarked. "She's just the same. I'm rather glad, you know, that Krak hasn't been softened by age. It would have been commonplace."

"Besides, one doesn't want to exaggerate the power of advancing years. You didn't come for anything except to tell me about Krak?"

Victoria got up, came to me, and kissed me.

"No, nothing else," she said. She stopped a moment, and then remarked abruptly, "You're not a bit like William Adolphus."

"No?" said I, divining in a flash her thought and her purpose. "Still—have you been with Elsa to-night?"

"Yes; after Cousin Elizabeth and mother left her. You—you'll be kind to her? I told her that she was very silly, and that I wished I was going to marry you."

"Oh, you did? But she wishes to marry me?"

"She means to, of course."

"Exactly. My dear, you've waited a long while to tell me something I knew very well."

"I thought perhaps you'd be glad to see me," she said, with a little laugh. "Where have you been? Not to the Countess'?"

"Indeed, no. To Wetter's."

"Ah! The singer?"

"The singer of my marriage-song, Victoria."

Victoria looked at me in a rather despairing fashion.

"Her singing of it," I added, "will be the most perfect and appropriate thing in the world. You'll be delighted when you hear it. For the rest, my dear sister, Hammerfeldt looks down from heaven and is well pleased."

Victoria sat on the sofa again. I went to the window, unfastened the shutters, and pulled up the blinds. A single star shone yet in the gray sky. I stood looking at it for a few minutes, then lit a cigarette, and turned round. Victoria was on the sofa still; she was crying in a quiet matter-of-fact way, not passionately, but with a rather methodical air. She glanced at me for a moment, but said nothing. Neither did I speak. I leaned against the wall and smoked my cigarette. For five minutes, I should suppose, this state of things went on. Then I flung away the cigarette, Victoria stopped crying, wiped her eyes, and got up.

"I rather wish we'd been born in the gutter," said she. "Good-night, dear."

She kissed me, and I bade her good-night.

"I must get some sleep, or I shall look frightful. I hope William Adolphus won't be snoring very loud, I hear him so plainly through the wall," she said as she started for the door.