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- Greifenstein - 3/80 -
'I was not thinking of that. I have thought lately that, after all, I had better take active service. Would you object?'
Greifenstein was taken by surprise and would possibly have uttered a loud exclamation if he had not long ago schooled himself to be incapable of any such breach of gravity. But he did not answer the question.
'Father,' began Greif again after a pause, 'is it true that you ever had a brother?'
Greifenstein's tough face turned slowly grey.
'A half-brother,' he answered with an effort. 'My mother married again.'
Greif glanced sideways at his father and saw that he was oddly affected by the inquiry. But the young man had his own reasons for wishing to know the truth.
'Why have you never told me that I had an uncle?' he asked.
'He is no uncle of yours, my boy, nor brother of mine!' answered Greifenstein bitterly.
'I fought about him the other day. That is all,' said Greif.
'He is not worth fighting for.'
'Then the story is true?'
'What story?' Greifenstein stopped short in his walk and fixed his sharp eyes on his son's face. 'What story? What do you know?'
'A man told me that your brother had been discharged from the army with infamy--_infam cassirt_--and condemned to imprisonment, for betraying some arsenal or armoury into the hands of the rebels in 1848. I told him--well--that he lied. What else could I say? I had never heard of the scoundrel.'
'You were quite right,' answered Greifenstein, who was very pale. 'I never meant that you should know, any more than your mother. That is the reason why we live in the country all the year. But I thought it would come--I feared that some one would tell you!'
'I do not think that any one will repeat the experiment,' observed Greif, turning away and looking down at the torrent, which was visible between the trees. 'And what has become of this Herr von Rieseneck, if that was his name?'
'He is alive and well. Rich, for anything I know to the contrary. He escaped from the fortress where he was confined and made his way to South America. I had not seen him for some time before that disgraceful affair. We had quarrelled about other matters, and he had entered the Prussian service.' 'I wish you had told me about him before.'
'Why should I? Do you think it is a pleasant subject for conversation? As his name was not mine, thank God, there was a chance that you might never know nor hear of him.'
'I see why you do not wish me to enter the army.'
'Yes,' answered Greifenstein laconically, and he once more walked forward.
For some time neither spoke. Greifenstein's profound hatred of his dishonoured brother was too deeply stirred to allow of his continuing the conversation, and in a different way the younger man was quite as much affected as his father. When the student with whom he had fought had cast in his teeth the evil deeds of Kuno von Rieseneck, he had unhesitatingly denied the story, thinking it a merely gratuitous insult invented on the spur of the moment. No one present during the altercation had thought fit to confirm the tale, and Greif had wreaked his vengeance upon his enemy in the most approved fashion, in the presence of the assembled 'Korps.' But the words had taken effect and he had determined to learn from his father's lips whether they had any foundation in fact. Being satisfied of the truth of the story, however, his mood changed. No one who has not studied the character of the German gentleman--the old-fashioned Edelmann--will readily understand how directly he feels himself injured by the disgrace of a relative even very distantly removed. He has often little enough in the world but his name and his pride of caste, but as compared with the former he holds his life as of no value whatsoever, and where the latter is concerned he will suffer much rather than offend the exclusiveness of his class by derogating from the most insignificant of its prejudices. He is not afraid of poverty. No one can maintain the position of a gentleman with more exiguous resources than often fall to his share. Rather than leave the smallest debt of honour unpaid, he will unhesitatingly take his own life. That a man should suffer himself to live after doing such a deed as had broken Kuno von Rieseneck's career seems to him a crime against humanity. He is often called avaricious, because, like Frau von Sigmundskron, he is often very, very poor; but he has never been called a coward, nor a traitor, by any man, or class of men, who knew him. All gentlemen throughout the world are brothers, it is true, for to be a gentleman is to be brave, honest, courteous, and nothing more. But the gentlemen of different nations are like brothers brought up in different schools. An Englishman who should demand satisfaction by arms, of another Englishman, for a hasty word spoken in jest, would be considered a lunatic in the clubs, and if he carried his warlike intentions into effect with the consent of his adversary, and killed his man, the law would hang him without mercy as a common murderer. On the other hand, a German who should refuse a duel, or not demand one if insulted, would be dismissed from the army and made an outcast from society. And these things do not depend upon civilisation, since modern Germany is probably more civilised than modern England. They depend upon national character.
When Greif heard of his uncle's existence, and, at the same time, of his disgrace, it seemed to him that a cloud had descended upon his own brilliant future. He had long nursed in secret his desire for a military life, and had often wondered at his father's unwillingness to discuss the matter. He now suddenly understood the true state of the case and realised, by the measure of his disappointment, the magnitude to which his hopes had grown. But there was something more than this in the despondency which seized upon him so quickly and would not be thrown off.
'Does Hilda know this?' he asked, at length giving expression to his thoughts.
Greifenstein did not answer at once.
'I do not think her mother would have told her,' he said after a time. 'But her mother knows.'
'And my mother does not?'
'No, nor never shall, if I can help it.'
If the two men spoke little on their homeward walk it was not for lack of sympathy between them. On the contrary, if anything could strengthen the strong bond that united them, it was the knowledge that they had a secret in common which they must keep together.
To suppose that Hilda, at eighteen years of age, was like the majority of young girls as old as she, would be to imagine that human character is not influenced by its surroundings. She was neither a village Gretchen, such as Faust loved and ruined, nor was she the omniscient damsel of modern society. During the greater part of her existence she had lived without any companions but her mother and the faithful Berbel. But she had grown up in a wild forest country, in a huge dismantled stronghold, of which the windows looked out over the tumbling torrent, and across endless thousands of giant trees, whose dark tops rose like sombre points of shadow out of the deeper shade below. Even the sky was not blue. Half a kingdom of firs and pines and hemlocks drank the colour from the air and left but a sober neutral tint behind. The sun does not give half the light in the Black Forest that he gives elsewhere. As Hilda had never, within her recollection, seen an open plain, much less a city, her idea of the world beyond those leagues of trees in which she lived was not a very accurate one. She could hardly guess what the streets of a great town were like, or what effect a crowd of civilised people would produce upon her sight. And yet she was far from ignorant. There were books enough left at Sigmundskron for her education, and the baroness had done what was in her power to impart such instruction as she could command. Hilda had probably read as many books as most girls of her age, and had read them more carefully, but she was very far from loving study for its own sake. Her time, too, was occupied in other ways, for she and her mother did most things for themselves, as was to be expected in a household where want reigned supreme over the hours of every day, from sunrise to sunset.
The necessity for maintaining appearances was small indeed, but such as it was, neither mother nor daughter could avoid it. No one could predict what day the Greifensteins would choose for one of their occasional visits, and in the time of the vacations no one could foresee when Greif might make his appearance, striding over the wooded hills with his gun and his dog to spend a quiet afternoon with Hilda in their favourite sunny corner at the foot of the dismantled tower. When poverty is to be concealed, his shadow must not be caught lurking at the door by chance visitors. Nor was it only out of fear of being surprised by her relations that the quiet baroness insisted that Hilda and even Berbel should always be presentable. Her pride was inseparably united with that rigid self-respect which, in the poor, alone saves pride from being ridiculous. It was indeed marvellous that she should succeed as she did in hiding the extremity of her need from the Greifensteins, but it must be remembered that she had never been rich, and had learned in early youth many a lesson, many a shift of economy which now stood her in good stead. The Germans have a right to be proud of having elevated thrift to a fine art. From the Emperor to the schoolmaster, from the administration of the greatest military force the world has ever seen to the housekeeping of the meanest peasant, a sober appreciation of the value of money is the prime rule by which everything is regulated. Frau von Sigmundskron had made a plan, had drawn up a tiny budget in exact proportion with the pension which was her only means of subsistence, and thanks to her unfailing health had never departed from it. The expenditure had indeed been so closely regulated from the first, that she had found it necessary to limit herself to what would barely support life, in order not to stint her child's allowance. Being by temperament a very religious woman, she attributed to Providence that success in rearing Hilda for which she might well have thanked her own iron determination and untiring efforts. If ever a woman deserved the help of Heaven in consideration of having bravely helped herself, the baroness had earned that
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