A Fellowe and his Wife
FROM THE COUNT TO THE COUNTESS VON JAROMAR.
YOUR letter from the Palazzo Malaspina, my Ilse, scarcely reached our northern shores before meeting with strange adventures on land and sea. Among its rude experiences, it has taken an involuntary and prolonged cold bath . . . and by the four heads of the great god Swantevit, it needed no reduction of temperature !
Poor little letter ! It is blotted and blurred as if by tears, a sorry plight for so light-hearted a thing. I have spread it out here before the fire, and smoothed it as well as I could, but its backbone is broken, and much of it is illegible ; that bit of Balzac in one of his aberrations of intellect for instance, and the close, with its undertone. Why were you restive, Ilchen ? What can I have said? Do I not know well that there is no conflict between your soul and mine as to what duty means, however we may differ in non-essentials, and if, where you lie prostrate before the shrine of art, I stand erect ---as a free man should ? So I do not mourn that I have unwittingly drowned Dupuy with his trite matrimonial saw, which, you must concede, applied to so unique a young couple, is ludicrously wide of the mark. Surely you have effectually guarded us from the insidious perils of proximity ; and since, whatever infelicities we may call our own, we are spared for the present the traditional dullness of daily intercourse, we ought by good rights to escape a lot of conventional rubbish, the advice and warning of elderly prigs and all threadbare epigrams on wedlock. Deign to leave me this compensation. The wise man, you remember, is thankful that " thorns have roses."
But how your letter got its extra chill ? In a man's breast pocket---in a lifeboat---in a storm. We were all drenched to the skin, but the poor child's long wet hair is, I think, what did the mischief, when I slipped my coat under her head on the sand. Captain Albrecht of the Nautilus, bound for Copenhagen, ran his ship on the Witch's Tooth, at nine o'clock, All Saints' Evc ---how, God knows, for the man does not drink a drop, and is as familiar with these waters as I with my own woods. It is one of those ghastly things that happen now and then to men responsible for human lives, and make them curse the day they were born and believe in the direct interposition of Satan. Albrecht has been here, helpless, broken, fairly writhing in agony, but what can I do? Five corpses lay on the shore ---the price of a moment's inattention, of a lifetime's trained, tense vigilance relaxed by a hair's breadth---one tardy vibration in his mental machinery, or ill-luck---call it what you will. They've cashiered him, of course. There's absolutely nothing else to do, but it's hard lines all the same, and I never again want to see a fine grayhaired fellow of fifty-seven sobbing like a woman in my study. His horror and remorse at the thought of the dead move him more than his own disgracer Poor devil ! I confess, as I looked at him and his stranded prospects, it seemed to me, for a moment, that the kindest thing I could do would be to offer him my revolver and a quiet nook in the park. But he has a wife and young children. She is good I am told, and brave. I hope, with her, there may be a chance for him yet. But for such misery there is no help on earth except from a loving woman. (You see, Ilse, we men are cynics not so much in our hearts as in our epigrams.) I have advised him to leave the country at once, and shall run over to Stralsund to look after them a little, after his wife knows all.
You should have seen our fishermen turn out that night. You know that when the Kruse brothers and cousins move in any course they are as one tranquil spirit, and if they are but getting in their rye and barley, it is a pleasure to watch them. But when with their quiet eyes and the gentle inflexibility of their mouths they face danger, they are superb. It was good to see the slumbering giant in them wake. It seemed impossible to launch the boats. We were lashed back again and again. Holzer jammed his right arm against the pier, so I slipped in at the last moment in his place. Luckily the steamer was near the shore, for it was altogether the toughest pull we ever had here, in the teeth of one of our stiff north-east gales.
Of sixty passengers, ten are unrecovered; we've buried five by the chapel on the hill; the others, warmed and fed, have gone their way, except the girl --- Margot is her name --- who at this moment is presumably continuing to do what she has done for three days, that is, lie on her back and stare at the ceiling with the largest, most touching eyes I ever saw. Her father and mother are drowned. We thought she was, and it's a pity she's not, poor little pale waif! Walpurga has put her in the tower-room, because it gets the sun on all sides. The child does not moan, or shed a tear, or speak, only looks unutterably forlorn and still. It is quite uncanny. If she'd wail and tear her hair, I should be greatly relieved, but this amount of repressed sorrow in a mere child --- she looks about fifteen ---is appalling. When I ask her if she's not feeling better, she answers, "Yes, thanks," in a weary little voice, and I haven't the heart to "rouse" her, as the doctor says, and make her talk. She does not care a straw where she is or what is to become of her. She only knows that she has lost her father, her mother, and her home. For my part, I intend to respect her silence and her grief. Child as she is, nobody shall intrude upon her sorrow in my house. She shall lie there and stare as long as she likes. Happily, the servants cannot annoy her, for she speaks only French. Her father was a German, Ernst Borike - we found cards in his pocket-book --- who apparently had lived in France and married a French-woman. But there will be time enough later to learn little Margot's story, and where her relatives are, and to whom I must send her, after she comes back to earth.
You will admit, Ilse, that a few things have happened; we have not been quite tame since you left us. The whole Jaromar clan, Schloss and village, have worked manfully, and old Malte and I have had our hands full enough, for some of the shipwrecked people lost their money and clothing, and some their wits --- less easy to supply. From the high palace windows where my lady leans gazing across Rome upon the Campagna ---that far-off seeking look in her eyes, and the corners of her mouth tipped up adorably --- and disdains Prime Ministers and all humdrum things, let no lofty commiseration descend upon her for-saken home. We do not deserve it, at least not yet. For had you seen the struggle, the still, dogged courage of our men, the dead on the beach, the desolate eyes of the orphan, and an honest man in disgrace so hopeless that death would be a boon to him, your heart would have throbbed almost as fast, perhaps, as when the sculptor-fellow praised your Diver. Don't frown, Ilse. It is indeed a pretty toy. I like the little beggar more, it may be, than you suspect. Yet there are better things. It is not all of life.
But this draws me temptingly near our old battle-ground, and you have most astutely bound me over to keep the peace, so far at least as the quarrelsome propensities of a notoriously turbulent race will permit. And for how long? That you forgot to stipulate, wise as you are. Till Christmas, say ? Before the old year dies, it is fitting that a man speak his mind to himself, his neighbor, the stranger within his gates, and the wife ---in Rome.
As for the turbulent race ---what evil-tempered rascals they were, my high-nosed ancestors! How horribly afraid of them I used to be when I was little, and Malte used to prime me with blood-curdling tales of the family murders and phantoms, as conscientiously as he taught me to ride and shoot. Since then my pedigree, considering that there is more than a thousand mouldy years of it, has certainly been a vastly light weight on my mind. Today, however, I am led to reflect upon the moody, scowling row in the gallery, because I have to pass them on my occasional journeys to and from the tower.
A pretty bad lot they must have been, every man of them gnawing his nether lip like Mephisto himself. If I gnaw mine less, it is no doubt due to the influences of a certain sunny but thorough-going tyranny to which I have been subjected as boy and man.
Perhaps, indeed, the old bandits are gnawing specially and offensively at me just now. They prefer feudal, not to say savage, matrimonial methods. They knew enough to seize the woman they wanted, lock her in a stout castle, and make mince-meat of any man that approached. Naturally, they disapprove of me, and there come moments when I disapprove of myself, and long, with a kind of Berserker rage, to revert to their uncompromising fashions. This, no doubt, is atavism. It passes, and I am again the modern man, Odo, your old playmate and life-long friend. Calling myself your husband is but a farce, which I play awkwardly enough. But your friend, that I am, first, last, always ; and your lover, when you will. Never believe me patient, yet never for an instant lose your trust in me. You are free as air until you voluntarily lay your hands in mine. Let the world wonder. You and I know what path we have chosen, and why. We are accountable only to our-selves. You shall have your free flight. Never mind my grumbling. What whim of yours did I ever fail to aid ? Not that this is a whim, dear. The word is ill-chosen. Forgive it.
You will not now call me constrained. It was this, unspoken, which you felt between the lines of my last letter. An idle jest opened the way today, yet it is well, for we had little time together at the last ; and there are things one cannot say between the oysters and salad, and a fringe of solicitous aunts and the thought of your absence lay like lead on my heart. In books, parting friends are eloquent; in life, they can find but commonplace, insignificant words. At all events, I stared, stammered ---and you were gone.
I am glad, too, that I can follow your course, tread Roman streets and see Roman sights with you. I wish you your heart's desire. Kind messages to friends who are kind to you. I thought you intended to avoid general society, and already you figure in the personal column of the Fanfulla ? Not that it matters much. Those newspaper cads clutch all things in heaven and earth now-adays.
Lebewohl. In your poor little mangled, desecrated letter a good angel has kept one precious place clear and unharmed for me---your remembrance of our day together in the Vilm forest. I have kissed it many times. I kiss and bless the hand that wrote it.