The Art of Growing Old Max Nordau
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Justice or Revenge
Prince and Peasant
The Art of Growing Old
How Women Love
A Midsummer Night's Dream
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|The Art Of Growing Old
Baron Robert von Linden was standing between the panels of his triple mirror. The sunlight of a bright May morning was streaming upon him through the lofty window so brilliantly that it made the places which it illumined almost transparent. He put his face very close to the crystal surface, so that it nearly touched and he was obliged to hold his breath in order not to dim it, examining his reflected image a long time, with a scrutiny which at once seeks and fears discoveries, looked at himself in front, then from the side, changed the light, sometimes bringing his face under the full radiance of the sunshine, sometimes receiving it at different angles or shading himself slightly with his hand. At last, sighing heavily, he stepped back, laid the tortoise-shell comb and ivory brush on the marble washstand, sank into the arm-chair standing in the corner, and bowed his head on his breast, while his arms hung at full length as if nerveless.
Alas! the hour when he made his morning toilet was no longer a happy one for Baron Robert. He dreaded the inexorable mirror, and yet self-torturing curiosity impelled him to inspect his face with the keen observation of a Holbein. Not even the least deterioration in his appearance escaped his search and scrutiny. He perceived and examined all the ravages which life had made in his exterior: the lines crossing the brow, the little wrinkles extending from the corners of the eyes toward the temples, the deep ones, as well as those which seemed, as it were, lightly sketched with a faint stroke to be more strongly marked later, and which were now visible only in a side-light, the creased appearance of the lower eyelids and the space between the inner corners of the eyes and the bridge of the nose, the granulated condition of the smoothly shaven cheeks, which resembled the peel of ripe oranges or fine Morocco leather; the flabbiness of the narrow strip of skin between the edge of the beard and the ears, which looked as if it had been lightly powdered with greyish-yellow dust; the pallor near the cheek-bone, which was as colourless and withered as a dead tea-rose leaf. He counted the white hairs already visible on the temples he pulled out the ones in the moustache let the sunbeams play over his hair and, turning and bending his head, saw that it was growing thinner and, from the brow to the crown, showed the smooth scalp shining through. The investigation lasted a long while, he performed it with cruel thoroughness, locking himself into his room meanwhile, since he would not allow even his valet to be a witness of the painful discoveries of which he believed that he alone was aware.
Perhaps he was not mistaken in this comforting supposition. His appearance as a whole was still handsome and stately. Time had not marred the lines of his slender figure, no increase of flesh enlarged his girth, no weakness made his shoulders droop and rounded his back, and when dressed with exquisite taste, and carrying his head proudly erect, he walked with a light, elastic step through the streets or across the carpet of a drawing-room, he would have been taken at a distance, or if one was a little near-sighted, not only for a handsome man, but even for one still young.
He said this to himself when, after a few minutes of discouragement, he rose from the arm-chair, hastily completed his toilet, and again looked at the whole effect in the mirror, this time not close at hand, but from a distance of several paces.
Some one knocked at the door. "The doctor," said the servant's voice.
"I'm coming," replied Baron Robert, hastening to open the door and enter the adjoining drawing-room, where Dr. Thiel was awaiting him. He came regularly one morning every week to see the baron before the latter went out; for Baron Robert was a little anxious about his health, and liked to be told by the physician, who was also his friend, that certain trifling symptoms great thirst on a hot day, slight fatigue after a ball, a little heaviness in his limbs after a long walk, were of no importance.
"Well, how are you to-day?" cried Dr. Thiel, rising to meet him.
"Fairly well," replied Linden, clasping both his hands.
"Yet, surely you look rather downcast?" asked the physician.
"For good reasons," answered Linden sighing.
"What is the matter now? Have you no appetite after eating? Do you feel more tired at midnight than in the morning?"
"Don't ridicule me. You don't know what day this is."
Thiel looked at him inquiringly.
"My birthday," said Linden mournfully.
"Why, to be sure," cried Thiel, "let me see, what one is it?"
"No number," interrupted Linden quickly, covering his friend's mouth with his hand.
"You're worse than a coquette," remarked Thiel, pushing his hand away. He had had "an old coquette" on the tip of his tongue, but suppressed the adjective. "A man can speak of his age without regret, when he is only in the mid-forties."
"Not yet the middle, I beg of you," Linden eagerly protested, "I am forty-four years old to-day."
Thiel smiled. "Well, I wish you many happy "
Linden did not let him finish. "Happiness! Happiness! Is there any happiness after youth is over?"
"Everything depends upon what is meant by happiness."
Linden did not seem to hear what Thiel was saying, but pursued his own train of thought. "How futile your science is! You find a bacillus here, a ptomain there. What use is that to me? None! Teach me how to keep young forever, then I shall have some respect for your staring into your beloved microscope. The ancients alone were right in that, as in everything else. To die young. In undiminished vigour. The gods can bestow no greater happiness. What is there to seek in life when youth has fled?"
"Nothing, of course, if, like a drone, we have but a single task in existence: to live. A drone must die, when it has performed its mission. I am not at all blind to the beauty of the butterfly, which lets its magnificent velvet wings glisten in the sunshine throughout a long summer day, and has no organs for receiving nourishment, but does nothing except hover around flowers and the females of his species, wooing and loving, and dies in the evening without ever waking from his ecstasy of delight. It is the same thing with the flower. It blooms, exhales its fragrance, displays beautiful forms and colours merely for the purpose of propagation, withering quickly when that purpose is attained. The butterfly and the flower are both beautiful. Yet, after all, they are inferior forms of life, and man is higher, though he does not exhale fragrance and usually possesses no velvet wings."
"Is it so absolutely certain that man is superior? For my part I envy the butterfly and the flower, which perish in the full glory of youth, beauty, and love. That is the way I have always imagined an existence worth living. A dazzling display of fireworks. A sudden flashing, flaming, crackling, and detonating amid the darkness. A triumphant ascent of glittering balls and serpents, before whose splendid hues the stars of heaven pale. At every rain of fire and explosion, a rapturous, ah! and a thunder of applause from the gaping Philistines, who are in a tumult of ecstasy at the sight, and thus, without cessation, have flash follow flash, and report report, in a continual increase of magnificence, until the closing piece on whose marvellous splendour darkness must fall with no transition. That is life. That is happiness. But the rockets must always be fully charged. Otherwise they will not fly upward amid universal admiration to the stars, but fizz a little, hop up with ridiculous effort, fall plump, and go out pitifully in a malodorous smoke. A dismal end."
Robert was silent a moment, evidently pursuing his picture in his mind.
Then, as if it were the final result of his train of thought, he added:
"Yes, Doctor, if you could only put a fresh charge into a half-exploded rocket."
The doctor smiled.
"To remain always young, we need only do at every age what harmonises with it."
Linden looked disappointed. But Thiel, without allowing himself to be disturbed by it, continued:
"Are you not young at twenty? Well, play with a humming-top in the streets at that age, and every one who passes will exclaim: 'What an old clown! Aren't you ashamed of yourself?' At fifty you consider yourself old. If, at fifty, you are a commander-in-chief or a chancellor, everybody will say: 'So young a general; a minister so young!'"
Linden rose and went to the window. Thiel followed, laid his hand on his shoulder, looked him directly in the eye, and said very earnestly:
"Believe me, dear Baron Linden, that is the secret of perpetual youth there is no other. A man in the forties is not old unless he cannot resolve to give up the conceits of a page."
"Always the same song!" Linden impatiently exclaimed. "Must I renounce love?"
"Yes," replied Thiel firmly.
"I must voluntarily renounce happiness?"
"In your case love is not always synonymous with happiness," said Thiel with a significant smile.
"You are particularly agreeable to-day," remarked Linden sullenly.
"I owe you the truth. It is a professional and, at the same time, a friendly duty," said Thiel, rising to go. Linden parted from him with a silent clasp of the hand.
"Renounce love! No. That he really could not do. Love was the sole purpose of his life which, without it, would seem as cold and gloomy as a grave."
He was a chosen vessel of pleasure, and apparently destined by nature to be borne through life in arms, handsome, captivating, a flash of passion in his tender eyes, his lips yearning for kisses, regarded by the men with wrath and envy, by the women with glowing cheeks and bewildered hearts. When barely a youth, a page of the Grand Duchess, his attractive person and winning grace turned the heads of all the ladies of the court, and it was rumoured that a princess had been his first teacher in the arts of love and, even after decades had passed, still grieved over their memory. As the Hereditary Grand Duke's adjutant, he had scarcely anything to do except to continue to compose his long love-poem, and add verse after verse. At thirty he resigned from active service, which had never been active for him, and became manager of the court stage. His brief love-conflicts and easy victories now had another scene for display. After the society of the court the dramatic arts: dancing, singing, acting without choice, or rather with the choice indued by the desire for beauty, and change. The years elapsed like a series of pictures from the fairy-tale of Prince Charming. They formed a frieze of bewitching groups in all the attitudes which express wooing and granting, languishing and triumphing. Each year was a Decameron, each month a sensuous Florentine tale, with a woman's name for title and contents. What a retrospect! His past life resembled a dream whose details blended indistinctly with one another, leaving only a confused recollection of sighs, kisses, and tears, melting eyes, half-parted lips, and loosened tresses, a memory as deliciously soft as a warm, perfumed bath, in whose caressing waters, in a chamber lit by a rose-hued lamp, one almost dissolves, and yields with thoughts half merging into slumber.
But the dream seemed to be drawing to a close. Of late a cold hand had touched Baron Robert, at first considerately, then more and more imperiously, to rouse him. He could no longer shut his eyes and ears to the signs and warnings: for they daily became plainer and more frequent, not merely in his mirror, but also in the unintentionally cruel words of the world, that other still more inconsiderate mirror. The pretty ingenue of his theatre, one of his last conquests, had recently after a private supper, while sitting on his knee and stroking his face, said to him with overflowing tenderness:
"What a wonderfully handsome man you must have been!"
He had thrust her from him like a viper with so hasty a movement that the poor girl hardly knew what had happened. She did not suspect that she had thrust a dagger into the heart of the man she loved. At balls, young girls now, after a rapid waltz, whispered, blush ing: "I am afraid you are tired," and in the German other partners, who were neither so handsome nor so elegant as he, but young and lively, attracted more attention from the ladies and obtained more favours. And had not a young attaché a short time ago, in reply to the remark that he preferred a sensible conversation with experienced men to any other social pleasure, said with thoughtless impertinence; "Of course, at your age " He would have boxed his ears, if any lady had been within hearing.
Such frank expressions, which even sensitive people did not avoid, because they did not yet deem him in need of forbearance, caused a degree of depression which, on some days, became actual melancholy. Then he sought a consoling self-deception in memory, and lost himself in dreams of the past, as a proud, brave nation, which has suffered defeat, takes refuge in the history of its former victories, to sustain itself. Shut into his study for hours he again lived over his triumphs, surrounded by their testimonials. He placed before him pictures of himself, taken at different ages. This bewitching page with his smooth, merry face, clad in dainty knee-breeches with bows and a silk doublet, this handsome lieutenant with the downy moustache and the bold, laughing glance, were images of him; he had looked thus, perhaps even better; for he remembered that the likeness, when taken, did not satisfy him, and that everybody thought he was really far handsomer. He opened secret drawers, which exhaled an ungodly perfume, very faint, almost imperceptible, like a faded, ghostly odour, yet which excited the nerves in a peculiar way, and somewhat quickened the pulsation of the heart. These were the archives of the history of his own heart. There lay in piles packages of letters, methodically tied with coloured ribbons, withered flowers, whose leaves fell from the corona if touched ever so lightly, faded bows, torn laces, which still seemed to palpitate under the rude grasp of a hand rummaging among them, paper German favours, from which the gloss and gilding had peeled, other shapeless, disconnected bits of tinsel which were incomprehensible unless one knew the memory associated with them, and among the strange, motley chaos, the most personal mementoes: hair smooth, curled, braided, long, and short, arranged by a true eye, with scandalously cool composure, upon a pale lilac varnished board, in a wonderful scale of colours, from the highest pitch, the fair locks of the Englishwoman, resembling a delicate halo, through almost imperceptible gradations to the deep, shining blue-black of the Sicilian, and portraits in every form which fashion has devised during the last twenty-five years, and from which the eternal feminine looked, lured, and smiled in a hundred charming embodiments. A circle of spectres rose from these drawers and whirled around him, stretching white arms toward him and fixing upon him tearful or glowing eyes. All these cheeks had flush ed beneath his kisses, all these bosoms had been pressed to his own, all these tresses his trembling fingers had smoothed, surely he might call himself happier than most mortals, since so much of love's bliss had filled all the hours of his existence.
Doubtless he did say this to himself after such revelling in the past, but in his inmost heart he did not believe it. Don Juan does not peruse the list of the thousand and three himself. He leaves it to Leporello while he, without a glance at the older names, increases the succession. The day when the cavalier begins to study his list, his wisest course would be to burn it, for then it will no longer be a triumph, but a humiliation.
Robert von Linden felt this, but he would not admit it. On the contrary, he intentionally endeavoured to deceive himself. He who had been a Grand Seigneur of love, became a snob of love. He sank to the level of the irresistible travelling salesman who tells the tale of his successes in foreign taverns. He had always left drawing-room gossip to spread his reputation with its thousand tongues and, by the mere mention of his name, fill maids and matrons with an exciting mixture of timid fear and eager yearning, indignant pride and tender pity. Now a torturing anxiety beset him lest his great deeds might be forgotten, and he humbled himself to the character of bard of his own epic poem. He told his last conquests who, naturally, with self-torturing curiosity inquired about it, chapter after chapter of the romance of his heart, half-opened his famous drawers and permitted them to catch a glimpse of letters, likenesses, and locks of hair; he strove to soothe his self-esteem by showing what passions he had inspired, at the risk of having his fair listener, with a secret smile, imagine exaggeration where, in reality, he was merely boasting.
Such was his mental condition at this time. He had toilsomely erected a sort of sham paradise of stage scenery, in which he continued to play the character of the youthful lover, which he was scarcely entitled to continue in life, and now this luckless doctor, with a careless movement, had thrown down all the painted canvasses with their artificial scenes.
Thiel's brutal remark: "You must renounce love," was still echoing painfully in his soul when he entered the home of Frau von der Lehde, with whom according to old habit, he dined once a week.
Else von der Lehde was a year or two older than he. She had been maid of honor to the princess, when Robert was a page. She had loved him deeply, fervently, and received a little responsive affection in return. But that was already so far back in the past. It was a distant memory, suffused with the rosy light of dawn, associated with all the new, fresh feelings of her life, youth, the awakening of her heart, first love, jealousy, and torment. The little idyl, in its day, was noticed by every one, but people were disposed to regard it as harmless, and Else herself afterward strove to see it in the same light, though she was well aware of its real condition. Still, a beardless boy of eighteen could not seriously compromise a young lady of twenty, who had been in society three winters. He was so far from doing so, that the whispers and smiles of this society did not prevent her becoming the wife of President von der Lehde who, after fifteen years of wedded life, left her a childless widow in the most pleasant circumstances. Else had never ceased to be completely enthralled by Robert. During her husband's life-time, she had imagined that it was friendship, sisterly, almost maternal friendship. When Herr von der Lehde died, she no longer had any motive for playing a farce with her own conscience, and she told Robert plainly that she expected him now to marry her. He was very much surprised and even slightly amused. Thirty-three years old, at the zenith of his success, living actually in the midst of a flickering blaze of ardent love, he had the feeling that it was a very comical idea for a woman who was his elder, with whom for a decade and a half he had lived on terms of wholly unobjectionable friendship, and whom he had often unhesitatingly made the confidante of his love-affairs, suddenly to wish him to marry her. To return after the lapse of fifteen years to a dish which he had once tasted with the eagerness of a greedy boy! This was not to be expected. Love permits no Rip van Winkle adventures. It cannot be taken up where it was interrupted a generation before. Its drama, whether it is to close as comedy or tragedy, must be played without long intermissions in a continuous performance to the end, in order not to become intolerably tiresome and foolish.
Robert did not conceal this from Else, though he endeavoured to find softening expressions. But oratorical caution does not deceive a woman who is in love. Else was very unhappy over the rebuff. Her passion, however, was stronger than her pride, and she humbled herself to entreaties, persuasions, persistent pleading. Robert, to whom the situation was becoming extremely uncomfortable, ceased to call upon the irritated and excited woman and, as Mahomet showed himself unhesitatingly ready to come to the mountain when the mountain did not come to Mahomet, Robert refused to see his persecutor. For a time Frau von der Lehde was filled with the most bitter resentment against the man who disdained her. She had worked herself up into the idea that he owed her expiation, if not before the world, surely before her own conscience, and it seemed to her dishonourable that he should evade his duty. But her indignation did not last. She could no longer live without Robert, and as he quietly left her to sulk and did not make the slightest attempt to conciliate her, after several sleepless nights she one day wrote a little note in which she gently reproached him for so culpably neglecting her, and expressed the hope that he would dine with her the next day, and by his own observation, convince himself that her grief for his long absence was really injuring her looks. How wearily she had striven to prevent letting a tear fall upon the tinted paper, what heroic courage she had expended in finding sportive turns of speech, subdued, even mirthful expressions, could not be perceived in the little missive. Robert read it with distrust, but, in spite of the most cautious scrutiny, he did not find a single word whose vehemence could disquiet him, not a single letter which was nervously emphasized or written, or betrayed a trembling hand, so he accepted the invitation.
Frau von der Lehde made no mistake. Her self-control did not desert her a moment. She received Robert calmly and affectionately, as though nothing had occurred between them, the dinner passed delightfully in easy, gay conversation about all sorts of indifferent matters, and when he was leaving she held out both hands and said, looking directly into his eyes:
"Tuesday, at least, shall again be mine in future, shall it not?"
He kissed her hand, touched by such unselfish, faithful devotion.
It was a strange relation which, from that time, existed unshadowed between these two for more than a decade. Else surrounded Robert with an atmosphere of warm, unvarying tenderness which, though perhaps only from habit, she understood how to render a necessity of his life. She insisted upon being the confidant of all his feelings; no outburst of anger ever betrayed what she experienced during his confessions, not even a sorrowful quiver of the features ever reminded him to be on his guard; she possessed inexhaustible indulgence for his frivolities, earnest sympathy for his fleeting love-sorrows, hateful or ridiculous as they usually appeared to an uninterested witness, counsel and comfort when an adventure took an unpleasant turn, and she was satisfied if, in an ebullition of gratitude, he then pressed her to his heart, kissed her hands and her cheeks, and assured her that she was the dearest, noblest, and most lovable woman whom he had ever known. But when she played this rôle of a feminine providence, who was apparently free from the ordinary weaknesses of her sex, when she carefully repressed every emotion of jealousy at the sight of his inconstancy, she was not free from a selfish motive. She still hoped that some day he would grow weary of pursuing the blue will-o'-the-wisps of fleeting sham loves; he would at last long to escape from the marsh into which for decades these capricious, alluring, fleeting flames had deluded him, and would then unresistingly allow himself to be led by her hand to the firm ground of a tried affection, in order, even though not until the evening twilight of his days, to rest with her, at last her own Robert, whom she need share with no one.
When Linden, on this Tuesday, appeared at Frau von der Lehde's, she of course instantly noticed his depression, and with her usual sympathy and gentle tenderness, asked:
"Why are you so melancholy, Robert? What has happened?"
"Melancholy?" forcing himself to a wan smile. "I feel nothing of the sort."
"Yes, Robert; do you suppose that I do not know the meaning of these lines on the forehead and between the eyes?"
Oh, those lines! Surely he knew them, too, he had studied them this very morning with painful attention, but why need she obtrude them upon him? This was unkind, almost malicious. He released her hand, which he had held in his own since his entrance, and silently went to an arm-chair. She followed, took a seat on a stool at his feet, and said caressingly:
"How long has Robert had secrets from Else? May I not know everything? Has one of my sex again proved faithless? Ah, dearest Robert, so few of us are worth having people trouble themselves about us."
"That isn't it at all," Robert answered curtly.
"What is it, then?"
Robert remained silent a short time, then, averting his eyes from her questioning gaze, said:
"This is my birthday."
"You don't suppose that I could forget it? But certainly you do not wish to be congratulated upon it, to have it mentioned?"
Robert laid his hand upon her lips, murmuring:
"Yet I cannot forget your thinking of it, as I see."
A pause ensued, and he had the unpleasant feeling that his ostrich method of shunning the sight of a disagreeable fact, must appear very ridiculous.
"Well, and why does your birthday make you melancholy?" asked Else, kissing his hand as she removed it from her mouth.
"A woman ought to feel that, without any explanation from me."
"It isn't the same thing, dear Robert. But I don't philosophize about the distinction. At any rate a woman dreads her birthday only because she is afraid of growing old, and there can be no question of that with you. At your age a man is not old."
She smiled so strangely, as she said this. Or did it merely seem so to
"Well, in any case Doctor Thiel is not of your opinion. He was as disagreeable as a scrubbing-brush to-day. He gave me a serious moral lecture with firstly, secondly, thirdly, and closed with an admonition that I must play the dare-devil no longer, or to be more explicit, must renounce love. That seemed to me very much wanting in taste."
"Indeed, Thiel told you that?" She had suddenly become extremely earnest and attentive.
"Yes. And I consider that he entirely mistakes his vocation. When I want preaching I'll apply to the theological faculty. From the medical profession I expect strengthening. Thiel seems to confound salve with sanctity. That is not treatment."
The servant announced dinner, and both went to the table. Else almost always arranged to be alone with Robert on Tuesday.
"I think," she said, when they were seated opposite to each other, "that you ought not to take Thiel's words lightly. He is your friend. And," she added hesitatingly, as Robert did not answer, "he is right."
"You say that, too?" he exclaimed, indignantly.
"Yes, dear, dear Robert, yes. I should not have ventured to say it first and alone. You might have considered it rude and selfish. You cannot think so in Thiel. When he says to you: Stop! it is not obtrusive. Since I am merely repeating his view, I have the courage to confess that it has been for a long time my own opinion."
"A long time! That is more and more pleasing."
Frau von der Lehde hesitated a moment. The phrase was really not well chosen. But the words could not be recalled, so she bravely continued, growing warmer, more urgent, the longer she spoke.
"Robert, I repeat, Thiel is right. It is time for you to think of your own happiness. You have bestowed much joy in your life, and, it is true, also caused much sorrow, probably far more sorrow than joy, but you have not been happy yourself. No, no, do not try to impose upon me. You have not been happy. You might have been so, you have come near happiness countless times, but you have always passed it by. You have lived in a constant state of intoxication, and intoxication is always followed by illness, to escape which you have sought intoxication anew. Robert, you must feel a loathing of such a life. Women admire or fear you, men envy or abhor you, but how does it aid you? It cannot make you happier. You possess great talents. I, who know you as you perhaps do not know yourself, am conscious of it, and can prove it. You had the capacity for everything. You only needed to choose, and you might have been a great poet, a great musician, a great artist, a great statesman. And what have you done with all your brilliant gifts? Used them as men use mirrors to catch larks, to dazzle silly women."
Robert had listened silently and looked out of the window. Here he interrupted her. "To shape one's own life harmoniously is also an art, perhaps the greatest. Whoever makes his life a work of art needs to create nothing else, and has rightly used his talents."
"But that is exactly what I do not see," cried Else, "the art-production of your life. Where is the climax, where the harmonious close? Is it aesthetic, is it dignified to pay court to frivolous actresses and ballet-dancers, and treat the cheap triumph, before and after, as though it were something important? Does not this humiliate a man of intellect in his own eyes? And even if "
She suppressed what she was going to say, and with a sudden digression, continued:
"Robert, understand at last that happiness is repose. You have had passion and excitement enough. It is time for you to know something else; deep and equable as a clear summer evening, without storm and tempest. And you know where to find such love. Ah, Robert, no one on earth ever loved you as I have, not one of the women on whom you have squandered your heart, your intellect, your health. As a girl I sacrificed for you my pride and my celebrated beauty. You were my first passion, and you have remained the sun of my existence. As a young widow I threw myself at your head. You would not accept me. Perhaps to your detriment. But that is no consolation. I have forced myself to be your sister, in order to possess you a little, ah so little. Let me at last be more to you, Robert. Thiel tells you that you must love no longer. But you may still allow yourself to be loved. Robert, suffer yourself to be loved. That is all I ask. Let me be your wife, let me prepare a home for you. I shall be envied, I shall be proud of you, and repay you with a fidelity and tenderness which no woman can now give you. Consider, Robert, to me you are still the young Greek god of eighteen, whom I loved a generation ago so that it nearly cost my life. Is there any other woman who sees you with such eyes? Speak, Robert."
Robert did speak. He spoke with quiet friendliness. He was certainly very grateful to her for her feelings. He returned them with all his heart, as she knew. But why change a relation in which both had been so comfortable for a generation. It was a delightful emotion to know that, while outwardly free, they were secretly united by warm friendship. This bond would not oppress. The fetters of a regular Philistine marriage would probably burden them, and, after all, it would not be morally so beautiful and so strong as a daily desired and renewed companionship. He, for his part, at any rate, would desire nothing better than the endless continuance of their present relations.
Else was not satisfied. She continued to try to persuade and convince him. She became excited, Robert remained calm. She entreated, he grew morose and taciturn. Scarcely waiting for the coffee, which he swallowed as swiftly as the warmth of the fragrant beverage permitted, he left Else immediately on some slight pretext.
Far from softening him, Else's eager words had made him indignant, almost incensed. This was certainly an attempt to take him by surprise. For a moment the suspicion even awoke that Thiel was in league with Frau von der Lehde, his warning, her demand were arranged, a preconcerted attack had been executed on both sides. True, he did not dwell long upon this thought, whose improbability he himself soon perceived, but he mentally repeated Frau von der Lehde's words again and again. No other woman saw him with eyes like hers! How did she know that? No woman on earth loved him as she did? What if he should show her the contrary? He must no longer love, only permit himself to be loved! This advice did not displease him. In fact perhaps it was sensible to direct a wild life full of adventures which, in reality, were meaningless, monotonous, and profoundly unsatisfying, into the channels of a regulation domestic existence. But if he himself decided to bring it to a close, it should not be the end which Else wished to force upon him.
The more deeply he entered into the idea of the late marriage with Else, the more angry it made him. What presumption in this woman, who was years his senior! Did she really believe that he, according to her own estimation a man in the prime of life, had no other claims upon existence than to possess a home, in other words to have a housekeeper, who would make him soups, and a nurse who would wrap his rheumatic limbs in cotton wool. Deuce take it, he was by no means such an invalid. He was still sailing erect, before the wind, with swelling canvas and fluttering streamers. He was no hulk of which wreckers might take possession. If he no longer desired to remain on the high seas, at least he could freely choose the harbour where he preferred to cast anchor.
He mentally reviewed the images of the women who had recently made an impression upon him, or on whom he was sure that he had produced an impression, and asked himself with which of them he could probably spend a life of constant intercourse. Always is a long time, and he knew that a woman must possess remarkable qualities not to repel him in the long run. He had a peculiar method of testing whether a woman was suited to be his companion for life, and whether he could endure to have her continually with him. He imagined that he was taking a wedding journey with a wife through Italy, was alone with her six weeks, without any other society, with no stimulus except her presence, and he pictured these days in every detail. Several apparently thoroughly charming women were in this way instantly rejected. One was beautiful and desirable, but stupid as a pike, and he could not help laughing when, in fancy, he saw himself standing with her before the works of art in Florence and heard her remarks about paintings and statues. Another was clever, but she talked too much. One could spend an hour with her pleasantly, but a whole day, a whole week brrr!
This one, after a few days, would long to return to her circle of admirers and rivals, and under the dome of St. Peter's dream of the court entertainments, adorers, and society gossip; that one, with her prosaic nature, would transform the blue grotto of Capri into the office of a chief auditor. Others stood the test better, but even with them doubts arose, which grew stronger the more he thought of them. Perhaps he could endure a week, a fortnight, with them. But six weeks, two months? No. By that time they would surely have become indifferent, perhaps intolerable. They would certainly have nothing more to offer him, he nothing more to say to them.
In the proportion in which other images faded and vanished, one stood forth more and more clearly, and finally filled his whole mental field of vision. Fräulein von Markwald yes, with her the adventure might be risked. She was as beautiful as any fair one whose likeness he had kept in his love archives; a tall, proud figure, large dark-blue eyes which evidently dreamed of love behind their long, shading lashes, and often seemed to wake from this ardent trance of bliss with a sudden upward glance, blooming lips for which many a godly man would have relinquished his soul's salvation without hesitation, an unusually fair complexion with satiny reflections, and a really regal coronal of rich golden hair all in all a magnificent creature, such as Nature does not often create. This was a prize for which the best man might strive. That he would ever weary of her, Linden could not now imagine. When he fancied that she was leaning on his arm, walking with the light, floating step peculiar to her along the Chiaja, or the Lung Arno, or that he was sitting with her on the shore of Viarreggio and she leaned her head upon his breast, it seemed as if palaces, sky, and sea would shine brighter than of yore as it were in vivified colours. True, Fräulein von Markwald was not yet twenty, and he might be her father. But need he hesitate on that score? At the utmost the difference in age could only disturb her, and it did not. To him her nineteen years were but one charm; the more perhaps the most powerful of her attractions. In her radiant, vigorous youth, he might hope to rejuvenate himself. How had he been so blind as not to perceive it weeks ago! How could he have waited until Thiel's harsh warning and Else's importunity thrust him into the right path?
Of course it had not escaped the notice of an old practitioner like him that he had made an impression upon Fräulein von Markwald. The blood which mounted into her cheeks when he approached and spoke to her, the unconsciously seeking glance with which she followed him when he went away, the tone of assumed jest, but genuine reproach, with which she asked if he had selected another poor victim, when he had talked with another lady somewhat longer or somewhat more earnestly than usual, were traitors which but too officiously revealed the secret of her heart. She did not even defend herself. She had been too short a time at court and in society to be versed in the strategic arts of love or coquetry. Almost in their first conversation she had confessed, with charming frankness, that everybody was warning her against him, she had been told that he was an extremely dangerous man, she was really a little afraid of him; but a certain slight shiver in the presence of a handsome monster was a new and strangely delightful feeling. There was no doubt that his legendary adventures had exerted the customary bewitching influence upon her imagination. The daughter of Eve felt the irresistible hereditary attraction toward the serpent which had already talked so many feebly resisting hands into plucking the fatal apple. Hitherto, Robert had not wished to avail himself of his advantage. He had been content with the pleasantly piquant consciousness that his presence made her heart throb faster, and did not pursue the dawning romance farther, for Fräulein von Markwald belonged to one of the best families in the country, and he now thought of the respect due to the unsullied reputation of a young girl he was somewhat less reckless than ten years ago. But now there should be a change. Since he had serious intentions he need not shrink from using all means to complete the conquest of this fortress, which, moreover, was already on the point of raising the white flag.
He did not lose a moment. All the evening he was seen in the little court box, devoting himself most assiduously to Fräulein von Markwald, and this was afterward repeated at every performance. Whenever the princess gave an evening reception, he seemed to care only for the beautiful girl, and was always behind or beside her, serving her, talking with her, offering her his arm, tenderly solicitous about her on her arrival and departure. The whole court began to watch and to whisper, and Linden's love-making became so apparent, that the princess thought it necessary to warn Käthe against the tempter and his wiles. Fräulein Markwald answered blush ing, but in a steady voice:
"I thank you, Your Highness, I know that your advice is kindly meant, but I also know that Baron von Linden is a man of honour, and that I have given him no reason, to think meanly of me."
This answer seemed to the princess wholly unsatisfactory, and as she believed it her duty to take special care of Käthe, an orphan, she did not delay in cautiously calling Robert himself to account. What he said to her the princess kept to herself for a time, but two days later people learned that Käthe's brother, an energetic cavalry officer, attached to a regiment of Hussars in the Rhine country, had suddenly arrived in the capital from his garrison, and on the following day, which was Whitsuntide, the "Morning Journal" announced the betrothal of Herr Robert, Baron von Linden, to Fräulein Käthe von Markwald.
The effect of the news on society was like the bursting of a dynamite cartridge before every individual. Linden capitulated! Linden married! It was incredible. And to whom had he struck the bold corsair flag which had so long been the terror of husbands? To Käthe von Markwald, in whom nothing piquant could be discovered which would be likely specially to attract a blasé man of the world! She was beautiful, certainly, but he had passed by many handsomer women. She was not stupid, but how many cleverer fair ones, with all their craft, had been unable to hold him in their nets! The event was and remained incomprehensible, it might be
Frau von der Lehde had sent for Dr. Thiel on Whitsuntide morning, and when he entered, silently held out the newspaper.
"I know it already," he answered smiling.
"Do you believe that it is true?"
"Of course it is true. The announcement is signed by the betrothed pair.
Besides, Linden told me the news himself."
"Did he ask your advice?"
"No; he merely told me the accomplished fact."
Frau von der Lehde crushed the paper and flung it into the corner.
"But what can have so suddenly led him to this step?"
Thiel shrugged his shoulders. "The resolutions of men are sometimes as incalculable as those of women."
"He cannot possibly have to atone for a sin."
"Fräulein von Markwald is above suspicion," said Thiel sternly, interrupting her.
"Linden may be still more so, but the world, which does not know him so well as I and you, will probably think something of the sort."
"Certainly. Evil tongues have already begun their work. The newspaper containing the announcement is still damp, and I have even now heard the conjecture expressed that the baron was marrying Fräulein von Markwald because he had been forced to do so by her brother, who thought that Linden had compromised her by his attentions."
"Forced Linden! He who has killed two opponents in a duel! A Hussar officer will not frighten him. That's nonsense."
"Of course it is nonsense. Only I don't see why people need go so far to seek an explanation. Linden marries because he thinks he has found a suitable life-companion. He really isn't too young for it."
"No," remarked Frau von der Lehde, "but I fear: too old."
"I don't know that," observed Thiel.
"Doctor, you are not in earnest. Linden might still marry a quiet, sensible woman of mature years, but a young girl who might be his daughter he must have lost his senses."
"Madame, that is still far from being manifest to me, marriage often has a rejuvenating influence."
"Marriage with a girl like Käthe Markwald? If I were Linden, I should fear eyes like hers. She belongs to the species of sleeping monsters. Woe betide the man who wakes and is not strong enough to conquer them."
Thiel could not help smiling. "I repeat, marriage often works marvels of resurrection. And in the worst case the matter need not yet be taken tragically."
Frau von der Lehde could not console herself for the final loss of Linden, but she understood that she could do nothing more to hold him or to win him back. In the first place because he could not be reached. Contrary to universal expectation, he soon tore himself away from his charming fiancée and set off on his summer travels much earlier than in former years. He extended them full three months, which he spent at various sea-shore watering-places. He was sometimes seen here, sometimes there, first at Rägen, then at Sylt, lastly at Heligoland, where the surf is most powerful. The marriage took place early in September. Every one admired the bridal pair. Käthe was fresh and blooming as a newly opened Marshal Niel rose, Robert as handsome and elegant as in his best days. The difference in age was scarcely apparent. Only a close observer could have noticed a certain nervous anxiety in Robert's face which, though bronzed by the sun and the salt air of the sea-shore, was visibly pale. He did not look as happy by the side of his radiant bride as might have been expected. Stings of conscience, said many women who had once been on familiar terms with him and had now had the self-control to come to the church, which was crowded to suffocation. Frau von der Lehde was not among them.
Robert von Linden now realized the dream of the last few months; he took his bewitching young wife, his proudest and, as he faithfully resolved, his last conquest, to Italy. But, according to all that was learned afterward, it was a strange wedding journey. The couple appeared in all the larger cities of Upper, Middle and Lower Italy, but the newly-wedded pair seemed unable to remain anywhere more than two or three days. The bride looked depressed and dissatisfied, the bridegroom haggard and unhappy. About three weeks after the marriage, Lieutenant von Markwald received a letter from his sister which induced him to write at once to Doctor Thiel and ask him confidentially what he thought of Baron von Linden's health, his brother-in-law evidently considered himself very ill; for since his departure he had consulted several physicians at every place where they stopped, even for a day, he appeared to be in very low spirits, and utterly neglected his sister, who was so anxious about him that she entreated her brother to come to her assistance. Dr. Thiel hastened to answer the lieutenant that he need not be uneasy, it was probably only an attack of hypochondria. At the same time he asked for his brother-in-law's address, as he intended to write to him at once.
About a week after news reached the capital which spread with the rapidity of a conflagration. Baron Robert von Linden had died suddenly at Ischia. This was the version which reached the newspapers and the public. But, in the court circle, it was known that the unfortunate man had committed suicide. Frau von der Lehde had instantly suspected it, she obtained certainty from the lips of the princess, to whom Käthe had telegraphed the terrible tidings at the same time she sent the message to her brother. She hastened to Thiel, who was crushed by the event, for he was not merely an affectionate physician to Linden, but also a loyal friend.
"It is horrible," cried the agitated woman, as she let herself fall into an arm-chair.
He answered only by a sorrowful gesture of the hand.
"Do you know the particulars?"
"A bullet through the head. The night of day before yesterday. In the dressing-room beside the chamber where his wife was lying."
A pause ensued. Then Else, raising her tearful eyes to the doctor, said:
"You see, you see, this marriage was his destruction. He would be alive and happy to-day, if he had had me at his side."
"Or me," said Thiel.
Else shook her head. "No, no. He wanted this last romance too late."
"Or despaired too soon," replied Thiel, gazing thoughtfully at the bronze statuette of Asclepius, which stood on the writing-desk before him.
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