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- The Burgomaster's Wife, Volume 2. - 5/12 -
On the evening of the third day after Wilhelm's interview with Henrica, his way led him through Nobelstrasse past the Hoogstraten mansion.
Ere reaching it, he saw two gentlemen, preceded by a servant carrying a lantern, cross the causeway towards it.
Wilhelm's attention was attracted. The servant now seized the knocker, and the light of his lantern fell on the men's faces. Neither was unfamiliar to him.
The small, delicate old man, with the peaked hat and short black velvet cloak, was Abbe Picard, a gay Parisian, who had come to Leyden ten years before and gave French lessons in the wealthy families of the city. He had been Wilhelm's teacher too, but the musician's father, the Receiver- General, would have nothing to do with the witty abbe; for he was said to have left his beloved France on account of some questionable transactions, and Herr Cornelius scented in him a Spanish spy. The other gentleman, a grey-haired, unusually stout man, of middle height, who required a great deal of cloth for his fur-bordered cloak, was Signor Lamperi, the representative of the great Italian mercantile house of Bonvisi in Antwerp, who was in the habit of annually coming to Leyden on business for a few weeks with the storks and swallows, and was a welcome guest in every tap-room as the inexhaustible narrator of funny stories. Before these two men entered the house, they were joined by a third, preceded by two servants carrying lanterns. A wide cloak enveloped his tall figure; he too stood on the threshold of old age and was no stranger to Wilhelm, for the Catholic Monseigneur Gloria, who often came to Leyden from Haarlem, was a patron of the noble art of music, and when the young man set out on his journey to Italy had provided him, spite of his heretical faith, with valuable letters of introduction.
Wilhelm, as the door closed behind the three gentlemen, continued his way. Belotti had told him the day before that the young lady seemed very ill, but since her aunt was receiving guests, Henrica was doubtless better.
The first story in the Hoogstraten mansion was brightly lighted, but in the second a faint, steady glow streamed into Nobelstrasse from a single window, while she for whom the lamp burned sat beside a table, her eyes sparkling with a feverish glitter, as she pressed her forehead against the marble top. Henrica was entirely alone in the wide, lofty room her aunt had assigned her. Behind curtains of thick faded brocade was her bedstead, a heavy structure of enormous width. The other articles of furniture were large and shabby, but had once been splendid. Every chair, every table looked as if it had been taken from some deserted banqueting-hall. Nothing really necessary was lacking in the apartment, but it was anything but home-like and cosey, and no one would ever have supposed a young girl occupied it, had it not been for a large gilt harp that leaned against the long, hard couch beside the fireplace.
Henrica's head was burning but, though she had wrapped a shawl around her lower limbs, her feet were freezing on the uncarpeted stone floor.
A short time after the three gentlemen had entered her aunt's house, a woman's figure ascended the stairs leading from the first to the second story. Henrica's over-excited senses perceived the light tread of the satin shoes and the rustle of the silk train, long before the approaching form had reached the room, and with quickened breathing, she sat erect.
A thin hand, without any preliminary knock, now opened the door and old Fraulein Van Hoogstraten walked up to her niece.
The elderly dame had once been beautiful, now and at this hour she presented a strange, unpleasing appearance.
The thin, bent figure was attired in a long trailing robe of heavy pink silk. The little head almost disappeared in the ruff, a large structure of immense height and width. Long chains of pearls and glittering gems hung on the sallow skin displayed by the open neck of her dress, and on the false, reddish-yellow curls rested a roll of light-blue velvet decked with ostrich plumes. A strong odor of various fragrant essences preceded her. She herself probably found them somewhat overpowering, for her large glittering fan was in constant motion and fluttered violently, when in answer to her curt: "Quick, quick," Henrica returned a resolute "no, 'ma tante.'"
The old lady, however, was not at all disconcerted by the refusal, but merely repeated her "Quick, quick," more positively, adding as an important reason:
"Monseigneur has come and wants to hear you."
"He does me great honor," replied the young girl, "great honor, but how often must I repeat: I will not come."
"Is it allowable to ask why not, my fair one?" said the old lady.
"Because I am not fit for your society," cried Henrica vehemently, "because my head aches and my eyes burn, because I can't sing to-day, and because--because--because--I entreat you, leave me in peace."
Old Fraulein Van Hoogstraten let her fan sink by her side, and said coolly:
"Were you singing two hours ago--yes or no?"
"Then your headache can't be so very bad, and Denise will dress you."
"If she comes, I'll send her away. When I just took the harp, I did so to sing the pain away. It was relieved for a few minutes, but now my temples are throbbing with twofold violence."
"Believe what you choose. Besides--even if I felt better at this moment than a squirrel in the woods. I wouldn't go down to see the gentlemen. I shall stay here. I have given my word, and I am a Hoogstraten as well as you."
Henrica had risen, and her eyes flashed with a gloomy fire at her oppressor. The old lady waved her fan faster, and her projecting chin trembled. Then she said curtly:
"Your word of honor! So you won't! You won't!"
"Certainly not," cried the young girl with undutiful positiveness.
"Everybody must have his way," replied the old lady, turning towards the door. "What is too wilful is too wilful. Your father won't thank you for this." With these words Fraulein Van Hoogstraten raised her long train and approached the door. There she paused, and again glanced enquiringly at Henrica. The latter doubtless noticed her aunt's hesitation, but without heeding the implied threat intentionally turned her back.
As soon as the door closed, the young girl sank back into her chair, pressed her forehead against the marble slab and let it remain there a long time. Then she rose as suddenly and hastily as if obeying some urgent summons, raised the lid of her trunk, tossed the stockings, bodices and shoes, that came into her way, out on the floor, and did not rise until she had found a few sheets of writing-paper which she had laid, before leaving her father's castle, among the rest of her property.
As she rose from her kneeling posture, she was seized with giddiness, but still kept her feet, carried to the table first the white sheets and a portfolio, then the large inkstand that had already stood several days in her room, and seated herself beside it.
Leaning far back in her chair, she began to write. The book that served as a desk lay on her knee, the paper on the book. Creaking and pausing, the goosequill made large, stiff letters on the white surface. Henrica was not skilled in writing, but to-day it must have been unspeakably difficult for her; her high forehead became covered with perspiration, her mouth was distorted by pain, and whenever she had finished a few lines, she closed her eyes or drank greedily from the water-pitcher that stood beside her.
The large room was perfectly still, but the peace that surrounded her was often disturbed by strange noises and tones, that rose from the dining- hall directly under her chamber. The clinking of glasses, shrill tittering, loud, deep laughter, single bars of a dissolute love-song, cheers, and then the sharp rattle of a shattered wine glass reached her in mingled sounds. She did not wish to hear it, but could not escape and clenched her white teeth indignantly. Yet meantime the pen did not wholly stop.
She wrote in broken, or long, disconnected sentences, almost incoherently involved. Sometimes there were gaps, sometimes the same word was twice or thrice repeated. The whole resembled a letter written by a lunatic, yet every line, every stroke of the pen, expressed the same desire uttered with passionate longing: "Take me away from here! Take me away from this woman and this house!"
The epistle was addressed to her father. She implored him to rescue her from this place, come or send for her. "Her uncle, Matanesse Van Wibisma," she said, "seemed to be a sluggish messenger; he had probably enjoyed the evenings at her aunt's, which filled her, Henrica, with loathing. She would go out into the world after her sister, if her father compelled her to stay here." Then she began a description of her aunt and her life. The picture of the days and nights she had now spent for weeks with the old lady, presented in vivid characters a mixture of great and petty troubles, external and mental humiliations.
Only too often the same drinking and carousing had gone on below as to-day-Henrica had always been compelled to join her aunt's guests, elderly dissolute men of French or Italian origin and easy morals. While describing these conventicles, the blood crimsoned her flushed cheeks still more deeply, and the long strokes of the pen grew heavier and heavier. What the abbe related and her aunt laughed at, what the Italian screamed and Monseigneur smilingly condemned with a slight shake of the head, was so shamelessly bold that she would have been defiled by repeating the words. Was she a respectable girl or not? She would rather hunger and thirst, than be present at such a banquet again. If the dining-room was empty, other unprecedented demands were made upon Henrica, for then her aunt, who could not endure to be alone a moment, was sick and miserable, and she was obliged to nurse her. That she gladly and readily served the suffering, she wrote, she had sufficiently proved by her attendance on the village children when they had the smallpox, but if her aunt could not sleep she was compelled to watch beside her, hold her hand, and listen until morning as she moaned, whined and prayed, sometimes cursing herself and sometimes the treacherous world. She, Henrica, had come to the house strong and well, but so much disgust and anger, such constant struggling to control herself had robbed her of her health.
The young girl had written until midnight. The letters became more and more irregular and indistinct, the lines more crooked, and with the last
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