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- Greifenstein - 30/80 -
effort to amuse her by reading aloud. For a few hours at least she was to hear the sound of an unfamiliar voice, to enjoy the refreshing effect of a slight motion in the stagnant pool of worn-out ideas that surrounded her little island of life.
She drew herself up and walked delicately, as she went into the drawing-room. She had judged that her entrance would be effective, and had timed her coming so as to be sure that her husband and Herr Brandt should be there before her. The room looked just as it usually did; it was luxurious, large, warm and softly lighted. Clara almost forgot her age so far as to wish that there had been more lamps, though the shade was undeniably advantageous to her looks. She came forward, and saw that the two men were standing together before the fire. The door had moved noiselessly on its hinges, but the rustle of the silk gown made Greifenstein and Rieseneck turn their heads simultaneously. Clara's eyes rested on the stranger with some curiosity, and she noticed with satisfaction that his gaze fixed itself upon her own face. He was evidently impressed by her appearance, and her vain old heart fluttered pleasantly.
'Permit me to present Herr Brandt,' said Greifenstein, making a step forward.
Clara inclined her head with an expression that was intended to be affable, and Rieseneck bowed gravely. She sank into a chair and looking up, saw that he was watching her with evident interest. It struck her that he was a very pale man, and though she had at first been pleased by his stare, she began to feel uncomfortable, as it continued.
'You are old friends, I suppose,' she remarked, glancing at her husband with a smile.
Both men bent their heads in assent.
'I had the honour of knowing Herr von Greifenstein when we were both very young,' said Rieseneck after a pause that had threatened to be awkward.
'Indeed? And you have not met for a long time! How very strange! But life is full of such things, you know!' She laughed nervously.
While she was speaking, the intonations of Rieseneck's voice seemed to be still ringing in her ears, and the vibrations touched a chord of her memory very painfully, so that she forgot what she was saying and hid her confusion in a laugh. Greifenstein was staring at the ceiling and did not see his brother start and steady himself against the chimney- piece.
At that moment dinner was announced. Clara rose with an effort from her seat, and stood still. She supposed that Herr Brandt would offer her his arm, but he did not move from his place. Greifenstein said nothing. A violent conflict arose in his mind and made him hesitate. He could not bear the idea of seeing his wife touch even the sleeve of the man he so despised, and yet he dreaded lest any exhibition of his feelings should make Clara suspicious. The last consideration outweighed everything else.
'Will you give my wife your arm?' he said, addressing Rieseneck very coldly.
There was no choice, and the tall old man went to Clara's side, and led her out of the room, while Greifenstein followed alone. They sat down to the round table, which was laden with heavy plate and curious pieces of old German silver, and was illuminated by a hanging lamp. A hundred persons might have dined in the room, and the shadows made the panelled walls seem even further from the centre than they really were. Vast trophies of skulls and antlers and boars' heads loomed up in the distance, indistinctly visible through the dim shade, but lighted up occasionally by the sudden flare of the logs from the wide hearth. The flashes of flame made the stags' skulls seem to grin horribly and gleamed strangely upon the white tusks that protruded from the black boars' heads, and reflected a deep red glare from their artificial eyes of coloured glass. The servants stepped noiselessly upon the dark carpet, while the three persons who shared the solemn banquet sat silently in their places, pretending to partake of the food that was placed before them.
The meal was a horrible farce. There was something sombrely contemptible to each one in the idea of being forced into the pretence of eating, for the sake of the hired attendants who carried the dishes. For the first time in his life Greifenstein's hardy nature was disgusted by the sight of food. Rieseneck sat erect in his chair, from time to time swallowing a glass of strong wine, and looking from Clara's face to the fork he held in his hand. She herself exercised a woman's privilege and refused everything, staring consistently at the monumental silver ornament in the midst of the table. When she looked up, Rieseneck's white face scared her. She had no need to see it now, for she knew who he was better than any one, better than Greifenstein himself. That power whose presence she had once felt, when alone with her husband, was not with her now. A deadly fear overcame every other instinct save that of self-preservation. She struggled to maintain her place at the table, to control the shriek of horror that was on her lips, as she had struggled to produce that feigned laugh ten days ago, with all her might. But the protracted strain was almost more than she could bear, and she felt that her exhausted nerves might leave her helpless at any moment. She had read in books vivid descriptions of the agony of death, but she had never fancied that it could be so horrible as this, so long drawn out, so overwhelmingly bitter.
In truth, a more fearful ordeal could not be imagined, than was imposed by a relentless destiny upon this miserable, painted, curled and jewelled old woman as she sat at the head of her own table. It would have been easier for her, had she known that she was to meet him. It would have been far less hard, if she had lived her life in the whirl of the world, where we are daily forced to look our misdeeds in the face and to meet with smiling indifference those who know our past and have themselves been a part of it. Even a quarter of an hour for preparation would have been better than this gradual recognition, in which each minute made certainty more positive. There was but one ray of consolation or hope for her, and she tried to make the most of it. He had come because he had failed to obtain his pardon, and his brother was helping him to leave the country quietly. She was as sure of it, as though she had been acquainted with all the details. To-morrow he would be gone, and once gone he would never return, and her last years would be free from fear. The fact that he came under a false name showed that she was right. In an hour she could excuse herself and go to her room, never to see his face again. Her hands grasped and crushed the damask of the cloth beneath the table, as she tried to steady her nerves by contemplating her near deliverance from torture.
Greifenstein was the bravest of the three,--as he had also the least cause for anxiety. He saw that it was impossible to continue the meal in total silence, and he made a tremendous effort to produce a show of conversation.
'There has been much snow this year, Herr Brandt,' he said, raising his head and addressing his brother. Rieseneck did not understand, but he heard Greifenstein's voice, and slowly turned his ghastly face towards him.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I did not quite hear.'
'There has been much snow this year,' Greifenstein repeated with forcible distinctness.
'Yes,' replied his brother, 'it seems so.'
'After all, it is nearly Christmas,' said Clara, trembling in every limb at the sound of her own voice.
Only an hour more to bear, and she would be safe for ever. Only another effort and Greifenstein would suspect nothing. Rieseneck looked mechanically at his brother, as though he were trying to find something to say. In reality he was almost insensible, and he hardly knew why he did not fall from his chair.
A servant brought another dish and Clara helped herself unconsciously. The man went on to Rieseneck, and waited patiently until the latter should turn his head and see what was offered to him.
Clara saw an opportunity of speaking again. She could call his attention by addressing him. One, two, three seconds passed, and then she spoke. It would be enough to utter his name, so that he should look round and see the attendant at his elbow. 'Herr Brandt'--the two syllables were short and simple enough.
'Herr von Rieseneck,' she said quietly.
In the extremity of her nervousness, her brain had become suddenly confused and she was lost.
As the words escaped Clara's lips, Greifenstein started violently and made as though he would rise, laying his hands on the edge of the table and leaning forward towards his wife. The echo of Rieseneck's name had not died away when the unhappy woman realised what she had done. Rieseneck himself turned suddenly towards her and the blood rushed to his pale face. Clara's head fell forward and she covered her eyes with her hands, uttering a short, sharp cry like that of an animal mortally wounded. The servant stood still at Rieseneck's side, staring stupidly from one to the other. Fully ten seconds elapsed before Greifenstein recovered his presence of mind.
'You are ill, Clara,' he said in a choking voice. 'I will take you to your room.'
He did not understand the situation, and he could not guess how his wife had learned that the visitor was not Herr Brandt but Kuno von Rieseneck. But he was horrified by the thought that she should have made the discovery, and his first idea was to get her away as soon as possible. He came to her side, and saw that she was helpless, if not insensible. Then he lifted her from her chair and carried her through the wide door and the small apartment beyond into the drawing-room. Rieseneck followed at a distance.
'You can go,' said Greifenstein to the servant. 'We shall not want any more dinner to-night.'
The man went out and left the three together. Clara lay upon a great divan, her husband standing at her side, and Rieseneck at her feet. Her eyes were open, but they were glassy with terror, though she was quite conscious.
'Clara--are you better?' asked Greifenstein anxiously.
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