xxFROM THE COUNT TO THE COUNTESS VON JAROMAR.
|A Fellowe and his Wife||
COULD I hope to find anything here for which you still retain the faintest interest, dear Ilse, I would gladly write about it, but if you were in the planet Mars, there would hardly be less sympathy between us. We seem to breathe different atmospheres, speak different tongues, and, worst of all, think different thoughts. This is not complaint or reproach, but merely a temperate statement of facts. Your letters from the Villa Mallerini have come, and have produced, believe me, sufficient effect. I did not attempt to answer promptly, and I refrain now from superfluous and unwelcome comment, for I confess I don't understand your movements. I don't know what you are doing, what you want of those people, what you really think of them, what you perceive, or what you choose not to perceive. I have already given my views succinctly, and if they did not convince you, reiteration certainly will not. I may be in a bemuddled condition --- groping in a dense fog, but I cannot think it. So I suppose I shall have to wait till you run your course, and stop of your own accord ; and, meanwhile, general topics are safest.Schloss Jaromar,
Our Christmas festivities have given most of us, I trust, bright and happy days. Margot's amazement was boundless, as she had never even imagined a German Christmas, and was whirled breathlessly from one tree to another: ours on Christmas Eve; your mamma's at Ilsenstein, Christmas night ; the school-children's, the twenty-sixth; the Club's, the twenty -seventh ; Baroness Freolin's, the twenty-eighth ; Parson Hiller's, the twenty-ninth; and several small ones where we looked in for half an hour or so.
Batheldis von Freolin and Margot have become close friends. Batheldis comes here constantly, and they drive, ride, read, sing, and take long walks together. The baroness, being in the main, a sensible, liberal woman, is pleased, as she ought to be, that her daughter has found so lovable a companion. But whether, in case her son and idol should seriously attempt to secure the lovable companion for himself, she would be equally free from social prejudice, I am by no means sure. So I keep Freolin out of Margot's way, and experience all the anxiety of a prudent mamma, who spies an ineligible youth looming signifcantly upon her horizon. Freolin's phenomenal silence gives rise to the novel apprehension that he may actually be thinking. He's a good fellow, and I am as fond of him as if he were my brother, but he has been, so far, awfully gay -- like most of us, I suppose --- and Margot is so young. Why should she begin to have heartaches ? Besides, I am in no haste to part with her. Later---who knows ? Of course, I am not really attempting to regulate other people's heart affairs, but I am convinced merry, wholesome Batheldis is a better influence than her brother just at present for Margot, whose sorrow is still fresh and keen. Of this I am sure, Freolin will not advance a step in her direction without first talking with me. He cannot help his eloquent eyes, poor fellow, but she seems utterly unconscious of them thus far, and sees them rarely, I flatter myself.
Christmas Eve I missed her, and found her alone, out on the terrace in the moonlight.
"What are you doing out here in the cold, Margot ? " I asked. "It is better sport to be moonstruck in June."
" I 'm only listening to the waves," she replied quite brightly ; but as we passed into my study it seemed to me there were tears in her eyes.
"Child, child, you must not be sad on Christmas Eve," I said; "that is forbidden by Act of Parliament."
"I 'm not ; at least, I am only happy-sad." "
"Because it is all so beautiful, and every-body is so kind to me, and my heart is so full, I had to run away and talk to --- them."
I said nothing. Presently she went on.
"It is strange the waves took them from me, yet I always feel nearer them when the breakers fall loudest. But now I will go back to the others and be bright."
She smiled bravely and suddenly added:
"I ?" I returned, honestly surprised. "I flattered myself I had been conspicuously jolly."
She shook her head.
" Oh, no," she said, simply.
I stared at her in silence. What, indeed, could I say ?
She turned quickly, holding out both hands to me with a warm and lovely impulse.
"You ought to be happy, you do so much good, you make so many people happier than they possibly could be without you. Then to-night, can you not be glad thinking how beautiful it will be next Christmas when Countess Ilse is here ? She is far away, but it is not as if she were in another world, not as if she were never coming home and you could never hear her voice again. Can you not be a little glad, Count Odo ? " she pleaded.
"You are a good girl, Margot," I exclaimed, and we are stanch friends, are we not ? Now, since we have so many invulnerable reasons for being happy, let us go back and enjoy ourselves as hard as we can, and don't trouble your little head about me ---I'm all right." But it touched me nevertheless ---the child's generous thought of me, even in her tender communion with her lost ones.
If her attempt at consolation was childlike, it was by no means ineffectual. I felt grateful for her goodness, her girlish frankness, and the hopefulness in her fresh voice. It did me a world of good to hear her speak your name freely and naturally, and allude to your return as a positive certainty. I was hungering for this, yet it is my own fault that nobody mentions you now. I have persistently discouraged all allusions to you, innocent and friendly ones as well as malicious. The truth is, some-times I cannot speak of you, sometimes I will not, sometimes I could shout "Ilse" from the cliffs, and bless any wanderer on the road if he would let me buttonhole him and talk about you for hours. And then I am furious with my fellow-creatures for not detecting and adjusting, themselves nicely to my conflicting moods. I certainly do not hang my head and wear a rueful countenance; still Margot is not dull; she felt my loneliness, and was good enough to care, and ut this is distinctly not a general topic.
The Club Christmas tree was an ingratiating way of opening our new Club House, since our people are best reached through their children. I concluded to call it "Club" because the name is harmless and social, and conceals no philanthropic sting, whereas our stiff-necked villagers could never be inveigled into a "Home" of any kind, or even a "People's Pavilion." It is a very good building, simple, solid, spacious, warm, and light, with a reading-room, sitting-rooms, directors' and committee rooms, study and play rooms for the children, a supper-room, and a hall for music, lectures, and assemblies of all kinds. It has not grown by magic, but has cost me much time, money, annoyance, and perplexity; the latter chiefly because the feeling in the village has been sullenly inimical to the undertaking from the first. However, I think I've got the thing in running order now. After the gifts had been distributed, the children's songs sung, and coffee, cake, and sandwiches offered, it seemed to me the chilling reserve of the village fathers ought to be somewhat melted and therefore the fatal moment was come. I mounted the platform, feeling like a malefactor ascending the scaffold, for there is nothing more embarrassing than a good deed that won't strike fire. I simply said that I had for a long time desired to make some return for kindness which I had received from them, for much helpfulness, and countless proofs of confidence and attachment, and that I begged them to accept the Club House as my Christmas gift to them, their wives, and children. At this point my oration came to an abrupt close. I had planned various edifying things to say, but, confronted by that row of men's faces as expressionless as a stone wall, I stopped short. Responding to a toast at a Kaiser banquet has never been difficult for me, but before these imperturbable old sea-dogs, I began to suspect what stage-fright means. They stared at me as uncompromisingly.as if I were insulting them, and I, for an instant, wished that the earth would open and swallow my Club House and all my ill-judged under-takings. Then occurred one of those portentous trifles which decide the fate of battles and innovations. A five-year-old Kruse boy, ecstatic possessor of a toy donkey, shouted one shrill "Hurrah !" whether dedicated to me or to his long-eared friend I have no means of determining, but privately suspect it was exclusively the latter which roused his enthusiasm. At any rate, that child saved the Club House and me. There was laughter, a stir, a mumnur, and presently the Kruse men gave three cheers. The favor of this powerful faction secured, there was nothing more to fear. But what if it had been but a Miller or Mayer boy's donkey which elicited that first rapturous shout Kruse senior, with incomparable dignity, thanked me in the name of the village. Thus encouraged, I ventured to lead the way to the reading-room. Margot and Batheldis had dressed two children as much like their own venerable grandfather and, grandmother as possible, and there the little things sat side by side at the long table covered with books and papers, in the middle of the large bright room. Bewigged, be-spectacled, she with her cap and knitting, be with pipe, mug, and a long white beard, both peering demurely at newspapers, they made a droll and charming picture. Presently the people, in the best possible humor, were examining bookshelves and engravings, and some seated themselves gravely and read a while, to show that they were accustomed to this sort of thing. Over the door is "Reading-Room for Men and Women." To accentuate the latter significant word, we had arrayed the little grandmother. To a good supper in the dining-room they needed no seductions, but fell to most graciously. By nine o'clock the children were sent home, and we had a business meeting, about which I will tell you later. I had no little trouble in inducingthem to elect a few women on various committees. But I insidiously suggested the Club was a family affair, also that Richard Kruse's wife had more sense than most of the men, which greatly pleased the old fellow. He took it, of course, as a tribute to himself. Finally I begged them as a favor to try it for a year, knowing very well that if the women are once in, they will stay. At half-past ten we adjourned, and I felt relieved that the opening was not the fiasco it had threatened to be. I heartily hope the thing is going to be profitable to them ; but I so often blunder when I think I'm doing something clever, and my clever strokes are so often purely by accident, that sometimes I am tempted to let people alone.
Since Christmas the Club is in full blast, the reading-room much frequented, and we have had an excellent concert by a Swedish singer, and a young violinist, who, at my request, came over from Copenhagen; a lecture Professor Schultz, of Berlin, on Ships, whose seafaring audience sauntered in with a superior air, but speedily was listening to him with breathless interest, and unconsciously swallowed good doses of history interlarded in his tales of canoes, rafts, barges, and galleys. A red-hot social democrat orator has also favored us. This is a returned sailor ---Horst --- who has been in many ports, and picked up scraps of wit and wisdom, which he flings about right valiantly. He delights to waylay me and argue, but as I am a busy man and he is not, I cannot always gratify him. He was chagrined to discover that I was not wholly ignorant of modern movements ; that I had frequently attended social democrat meetings in Berlin ; that I fully agreed with many of his premises, when not with all his deductions; and that I was a socialist myself with certain the existing evils reservations. I told him were apparent to all thoughtful men, but men differed radically, and had a right to differ, as his he denies, as to the method of cure. This he denies, of course, allowing no Gedanken-Freiheit whatever. Revolutionists never realize that they themselves are the worst possible despots. He asked me recently if I would dare to let him make a speech at the Club. I replied that so far as I was concerned it would give me pleasure to hear him, but I had no more authority than the other directors. If he wished to speak, he must send in his request properly, and must also agree to listen civilly in case some one should choose to reply. Fritz Kruse volunteered to meet him. The debate came off before a crowded house. Knowing tolerably well what Horst would say, I primed Fritz a bit ---not his sentiments, but his parliamentary tactics. I had half a mind not to go down that evening, for while Horst is not overburdened with delicacy, I fancied my presence might dampen his eloquence more or less, and I wanted to leave him free to paint me in the blackest colors. However, I finally went, which as things turned out was lucky.
When Horst approached the bloated capitalist business and the criminal landowner, there was a burst of rather offensive laughter, for everybody knows that there is not one of my laborers over thirty who does not own his cottage and bit of land, and that each has his share of my profits, ---if profits there be, ---and that since the day when my father's death called me suddenly to the management of the estate, I have been steadily working in these directions. So Horst's shots fell a trifle wide of the mark at first. Irritated by this, and by their not precisely solto voce jeers, he went further, and attacked me personally, denouncing me for being what he called an aristocrat and the son of my father. This terrible impeachment made a tremendous uproar. Old Malte got up in a fine fury, and roared at him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and better go about his business, instead of standing there jawing and lying and abusing his betters. Then followed a minute and merciless record of all Horst's youthful peccadilloes from the time he was in petticoats. You may imagine my amusement at this grotesque intermezzo. The Kruse men applauded and yelled, of course --- Malte's wife being a Kruse--- and made such a pandemonium, poor Horst could not go on. There he stood, frantically gesticulating, and young Kruse beside him, likewise brandishing his arms. It was a price-less moment, and I wished it were not my duty to interfere. When the people saw me on the platform they became tolerably quiet, and let me speak.
I told them that they had misunderstood Horst ; that he had nothing against me personally, but only against the class to which I belonged, and I should be obliged if they would listen to him attentively, for he had had permission to speak, and the Club could not give and retract its word in this fashion ; that Horst had a right to his opinions ---every man had; that he had traveled, and could tell us much that was interesting; and that I felt sure Fritz Kruse would be a match for him, if only they would have patience and give both men a fair chance.
The audience reluctantly concluded to sit down and behave itself. Horst made some good points, which I alone applauded. Kruse, who had been waiting like a hound in the leash, spoke well for a maiden effort. He was less sharp and adroit than Horst, but clear, sensible, and zealous. Besides what he had prepared, he took me under his wing very neatly, and of his own inspiration. However, if he had spouted arrant nonsense, he would have had the sympathy of that crowd; for in the first place, he was a Kruse, and then they are so unenlightened, so feudal; they had no notion of sitting still and bearing me insulted. As to social democracy, it has scarcely penetrated here. You know well the contracted sphere and the tenacity of attachment of our islanders. It is incredible, how exclusive, how conservative, how apathetic toward the world at large they are ; how they all regard their little home-spot of earth as the chief spot---in fact, the only spot of importance in the universe ; how they cling to the old and familiar, and want no improvement, not a utensil or machine which their grandfathers did not know ; how totally without interest and comprehension they are, not only for the outer world, but one county, one hamlet, for another, the Mönchgut men for the Jasmund men ---everywhere stolidity, or jealousy and contempt. Ignorant, superstitious, obstinate race ! Yet hard-working, patient, full of endurance and fortitude, and loyal men, stubborn in their virtues as in their faults.
Knowing them and loving them well, I see much work before me. You know I am not a pessimist, not a bit fin de siècle. I could n't be if I would, and wouldn't if I could, I think it is good to live precisely now, at the end of the nineteenth century ---in these pulsating, electric, prescient days. I am not so optimistic as to expect that a new heaven and a new earth can ever be suddenly created, or that any one system is faultless, and will miraculously produce universal happiness. But with quiet, continued, resolute effort, much may be attained and I have the conviction that I am "called" to work for the enlightenment and rights of the people among whom I was born, and whom I understand, at least as well as any other man may hope to understand them. Sometimes, in certain black moods, I have asked myself what I should do if I should ever lose you, Ilse, by death, or any mischance ---which latter diplomatic phrase means, in more fearless language, if you should love some other man, if you should never return to me. I have often thought I would go to Africa, and none here should ever hear of me again ; but I would do no such thing. I would simply stay here and fight it out, blundering on as best I could. There is work enough for a better man than I at my own door. I have no need to help colonization in Africa, or Australia, or the western United States. My life-work lies clearly before me, whatever comes, and I shall try to do it, with you or without you --- but that is a weary, horrible thought, a ghastly thought. Let me rather be "a little glad," as Margot says, reminding myself that the New Year has come, the year which will bring you home.
Ilse, I have two commissions for you. I want a copy, the best you can obtain, of Murillo's St. Anthony of Padua --- the one in Berlin; not the angels, only the central figure with the child in his arms. This is for my own personal gratification. And then I---even I ---want a statue. I see it plainly, the thing I want. It is the spirit of Light, with hopeful eyes, an uplifted torch, and striding swiftly on. She must be beautiful and bold, for whoever fights the powers of darkness needs courage. Make her strong and fearless enough to face an angry mob. You will doubtless be surprised at my temerity in approaching you on your own ground, yet I'm not an out-and-out Vandal, after all. It seems to me I have a vague suspicion of the meaning of such a life as Albrecht Dürer's, or Michel Angelo's, or Velasquez's, or Millet's, or many I could name. It is the earnestness, the profound conviction, that I revere in art as in other things, but ---there, I am at it again, and I presume to call the Kruses stubborn!
And so our little world revolves far, very far from you. Do you need me? Do you want me ? Are you really happy down there, Ilchen ? Are you getting what you want ?
One word about Light. It is for the Club lecture-room. It is not in your line, I presume. Order it where you please, and make what terms you think right. You will know better than I what I want. I make no condition, except one---I don't want Herweoh to have anything to do with it.