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- Greifenstein - 40/80 -
rested upon his son, and would brand the lives of his son's sons after him. Hilda loved Greif, and Greif loved Hilda, but that was no argument. Better that Hilda should drag out a solitary and childless existence than be happy under such a name; far better that Greif should submit to half a century of lonely and loveless years, than get children whose names should perpetuate the remembrance of a monstrous crime. Hilda would suffer, but suffering was the lot of mankind. The baroness wondered sadly whether her daughter's disappointment could possibly equal what she herself had borne on that day when her gallant soldier-husband had been shot down in battle. Could Hilda's sorrow be like her own? Even if it were, Hilda must bear it rather than take such a name--unless, indeed, old Greifenstein had been innocent of his wife's death. No one could know that except Rex, and would he answer her question? In her horror of the whole situation she wished that she might go back to Sigmundskron and end her life in barely decent poverty with Hilda, and never again think of the marriage. But her rigid sense of duty reproached her for such a thought, which made her feel as though she were trying to lay down the responsibility that had fallen to her lot. Her untiring conscience took up the burden again, to bear it as it might.
Rex must answer her, and upon his answer would depend everything. It was not an easy matter to question him, however, and for the present it was wholly impossible. She must meet Hilda while she herself was yet undecided, so that it seemed simplest to be roughly frank with the girl, to tell her plainly what had happened, what was known and the extent of what no one knew, showing her clearly that if old Greifenstein should turn out to have been guilty, she must give up all thought of Greif and submit to her poor lot with the best grace she could. Greif would go away and travel, perhaps for several years. He would find interests at last, which might help him to forget his darkened youth. Hilda and her mother would live as they could, and when the mother died Sigmundskron must go to the hammer. At all events it was not encumbered with debts, and its sale would leave the child a pittance to save her from starvation; possibly she would have more than before, but Frau von Sigmundskron could not judge of that. Possibly, too, Hilda's sixty-four quarterings would help her to gain admittance as a lady-canoness in one of those semi-religious foundations, reserved exclusively for the old nobility, of which several exist in Germany.
The short winter's day was over when Frau von Sigmundskron reached this stage in her meditations. Lights were brought to the room where she was, and a servant came to ask her what she would eat. She scarcely knew what she answered, but she remembered that some hours had passed since she had been to see Greif or Rex and she roused herself to go upon the errand of inquiry. In the corridor she was met by another person who came to ask about the dispositions for the morrow, an ominous creature in black, the sight of whom recalled at once the hideous realities of the day, from which her mind had wandered in her anxiety for Hilda's welfare. She gave the necessary directions and continued upon her way.
'Come in,' said Greif's voice as she knocked cautiously at the door.
As soon as she entered she saw that his state had been improved by the rest he had taken. His eyes were quiet, his colour pale but natural, his manner mournfully calm. In the morning she had feared he might fall into a delirious fever.
Frau von Sigmundskron came and stood beside him. He was comforted by her presence, though he had not always been sure that he liked her. At present, he knew what good cause he had to be grateful to her for what she had done, and he felt that she was his only relation in the world, the only woman alive who could in any way take the place of what he had lost. If he had not been very fond of her before, it was because he had not understood her, and because in his eyes her personality was entirely eclipsed by Hilda's. He put out his hand and took hers, and pressed it gently.
'You are very good,' he said. 'I am glad you have come.'
She sat down beside his easy-chair and gazed into the fire. There was no light in the room save that of the pine logs, blazing in the great chimney. Her reflexions of ten minutes earlier seemed very far away, for the sight of him and the sound of his voice had suddenly recalled those hopes for Hilda from which she had got so much happiness.
'You have slept,' she said. 'I am glad, for you needed rest.'
She did not know what to say, and there was a pause before she spoke again, during which Greif did not move. Unconsciously he had taken the manner of one ill, and lay back in his seat, his eyes half closed, his hands resting upon the arms of the chair, making no effort and only hoping that none would be required of him.
'Dear Greif,' said the baroness at last, 'you will go away, will you not?'
He started a little and his expression changed, as though the question pained him.
'Yes,' he answered. 'I will go away--when it is over.'
'Shall it be to-morrow, then?' asked Frau von Sigmundskron very softly.
'Yes. To-morrow morning. I would it were to-night. And then--' he stopped and passed his hand wearily across his forehead, letting it drop nerveless by his side almost immediately.
'Then I must see Hilda before I go.' His eyelids quivered, and his lips shut themselves closely.
'Yes,' answered the baroness in a tone of hesitation.
'Yes, I must see Hilda,' Greif repeated. 'And when I am gone--then-- then--'
This time Frau von Sigmundskron said nothing, for she saw that he was suffering, though she dared not guess what was passing in his mind. He seemed to be trying to speak.
'When I am gone--' he began, but the words died on his lips. 'Do not talk of this now, dear Greif.'
He roused himself and sat straight in his chair. There was something of his father's look in his face, and his companion noticed that his fingers were strained as he grasped the carved wood in the effort to steady himself.
'I must say it now,' he answered firmly. 'To-morrow I shall not be able to talk much, and it may happen that we shall never have another opportunity.'
'Perhaps never. It is to be good-bye. You must find another husband for Hilda, for I may not come back. That is what I wanted to say.'
The baroness turned a startled look upon him and leant forwards toward him from her seat. She had not expected such a turn in the drama.
'You do not suppose that I, an honourable man, would expect you to give your daughter to the son of a murderer?'
The question was put so sharply and concisely that Frau von Sigmundskron was taken unawares. The thought had been painful enough when it had passed unspoken through the confusion of her reflexions, but Greif's statement gave it a new and horrible vividness. With a single sharp sob, she hid her face in her hands, and Greif saw that they trembled. His own heart was beating violently, for he had nerved himself to make the effort, but he had not anticipated the reaction that followed closely upon it. He felt as though, in pronouncing the detested word, he had struck his father's dead face with his hand.
'God knows how I loved him,' he said, under his breath. 'But he did the deed.'
Frau von Sigmundskron did not distinguish the words he spoke, but she felt that she must say something. Her hands dropped from her strained and tearless eyes and fell upon her knees.
'Oh, Greif! Greif!' she almost moaned, as she stared at the blazing logs.
'That is what it comes to in the end,' he answered, summoning all his courage. 'I cannot marry Hilda. It was bad enough to be half disgraced by my father's brother--you were kind enough to set that aside. It is worse now, for the stain is on the name itself. I cannot give it to Hilda. Would you have her called Greifenstein?'
The baroness could not speak. Half an hour earlier she would not have dared to hope that Greif would himself renounce her daughter, but it was different now. She could not look upon his agonised face, and listen to the tones that came from his tortured heart, as he gave up all he held dear for the sake of acting honourably, she could not see his suffering and hear his words, and yet brutally admit that he was right, and that his sacrifice was a necessity. And yet her own conscience told her that her first thought must be for her own child, and not for him. She stared at the fire and answered nothing.
'Would you have her write her name "Hilda von Greifenstein"?' he asked, forcing the words sternly from his lips. 'Would you have her angel purity darkened with the blood that is on my house?'
'But you, Greif--what will become of you?'
'It matters little enough, so that I do no harm to those I love,' he answered.
'It does matter,' said the baroness gently. 'It is not right or just that an innocent man should suffer for the deeds of others.'
'It is right that he should suffer anything, rather than injure those who are not only innocent but free from inherited reproach.'
There was a sudden energy in his manner which surprised his companion. His white face was illuminated by a sort of radiance from within, his voice was full and firm, the glance of his eyes piercing and determined.
'It is right,' he continued, 'and I will do it, come what may. Indeed I must, for in spite of your kind heart and words you would not give her to me. But even if you would, I would not take her, I would not make her the mother of more Greifensteins. Ay--you look at me--I love her too much. That is the reason. If I loved her less--oh, then, I would take her. I would take my beautiful Hilda for my own sake, and in her love I would try and forget the horrors of my younger years. I would forget, for my own sake, that my father was a murderer and a suicide,
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