MoboReader > Literature > Withered Leaves. Vol. III.(of III)

   Chapter 6 A SLEIGHING PARTY.

Withered Leaves. Vol. III.(of III) By Rudolf von Gottschall Characters: 25438

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A cold East Prussian winter's day--crisp snow upon the roads--the broad fields sleep beneath their white cover. Ashen grey clouds in the sky, but the snow flakes seem to be frozen, and cannot loosen themselves; only now and again one little atom flutters down, or has the icy north wind, which here and there sweeps up a looser snow field, wafted it down from the roofs? It is that spiteful cold which seems to be more fitted for Laplanders than for civilised mortals. The air cuts as if with knives, and the breath of life freezes on men's lips. But this very scorn of Nature who has retired to her ice palace and surrounded herself unapproachably, as if with a threefold shield, calls forth man's defiance.

Nature must be enjoyed at any price!

The inhabitants of the town, clad in thickly furs, amuse themselves upon the Pregel. Upon the smooth even course that leads inland the chair sleighs fly forward in long rows, the skaters rush in the direction of the north wind which brings them the icy cold greeting from the Baltic Sea, lying beneath the spell of winter, others make circles upon the surface, and display their art which even a great poet has immortalised.

One of the most successful is the gallant skater who makes use of his skates as buskins for the higher flight of love. With what gladsomeness he pushes the sleigh before him; within it sits, buried beneath furs, shawls, rugs, veils, what appears to be a formless mass, and yet!--he is proud to drive a beautiful woman.

This same emotion of pride fills Wegen's breast so far as anything is to be seen of his face, which is concealed under the fur cap and warm ear-covers; it beams with pleasure. His eyes, it is true, weep, but only because of the north wind, but if they were a couple of tears of joy which he shed he should not be surprised! Olga had never been more affable towards him than to-day, and when he dared to speak of the sleighing privileges, she smiled. No, it is no smile which refuses--he understands it well! The first kiss in prospect,--this point he had never attained with C?cilie! Hah! how his sleigh flew on in advance of all towards the beautiful goal, and if the ice did not shed sparks from beneath steel shoes, it was not his fault, for he was fire and flame, a Hecla in the midst of rigid frost.

Wegen had been in the Province for some time, and Olga, despite the monotony of a winter season in the country, had visited the same relatives as those with whom C?cilie had formerly stayed. Olga had made a much more favourable impression in Masuren than C?cilie; she was not so superior, so clever: she talked with zest of everything that can interest a country young lady and a country "Junker"--and above all, she was beautiful, with that stately vigorous beauty that country squires love, because it gains such prizes as can be obtained by understanding the art of feeding the lower creatures of the animal kingdom.

The rumour of her intimacy with Dr. Kuhl only arose in a very pale form, and was hardly noticed. Wegen visited Olga as frequently as his time permitted him, which it did every day. Olga was always friendly and accessible, not so distant, so enigmatic, so evasive as C?cilie. Besides, even before others, she showed how much she favoured Wegen, and he was very happy that he should be envied. Such a thing had never befallen him before, it was quite a novel sensation for him. Milbe declared that every ombre player might wish for such a spadille, and Oberamtmann Werner held a conversation with her about his different varieties of wool causing him to entertain deep respect for her intellectual faculties. Even the women and girls were taken with her. She held the most sensible views upon preserving fruit, she knew the family tree of all the families of Masuren, and even the collateral branches did not disturb her self-possession. Happy Wegen! Never had a winter painted more beautiful flowers upon his window panes!

Blanden's wound had re-called Wegen to the capital; he took his turn with Giulia and Kuhl in nursing his friend. Olga, meanwhile, had also returned to the town, Wegen appeared frequently in Frau von Dornau's modest dwelling, and was always received, even by C?cilie, who had now transformed herself into a well-meaning friend, with special distinction.

Still, however, he had not yet made up his mind to propose! It seemed so humiliating to appear with the same big bouquet of flowers, in the same little room, and once more before the same faded sofa to pour forth his homage and courtship, while the whole furniture merely displayed the one, but very important, difference that Olga was seated upon the sofa instead of C?cilie. The recollection of the figure in the cotillon, changez les dames, could not be got rid of in those apartments in which he had first avancé to C?cilie's hand. No, even if he were firmly resolved to propose for Olga it could not be done in that place which was full of mocking, giggling recollections! He cherished bold plans, which at other times were foreign to his mind--he thought of a sudden surprise.

All at once, as if fatigued, he began to push the chair-sleigh more slowly. Dr. Kuhl rushed past him pushing C?cilie, as did Frau von Dornau, who had to content herself with a hired attendant.

Then Wegen guided her somewhat aside. A whole caravan of sleighs now passed them tumultuously, Lori in front with an embroidered rug, a present from the first-class! On Dr. Sperner's moustache, her cavalier, hung melancholy icicles, behind her came the slender girls of the first-class, mostly driven by cousins; only fat Iduna, deprived of her Theodor K?rner, had to be contented with the man servant from the school, who was accustomed to heavy loads.

Now Wegen broke completely out of the course like a shying sleigh horse, guided her sideways over lumpy hillocks of snow, which had been heaped up on the river, and then stopped suddenly in a defile between two large snowdrifts, which yielded him a welcome cover.

"For Heaven's sake, where are we?" said Olga's voice, suffocated by shawls and furs.

"The snow has dazzled me, I have lost my way," cried Wegen, having recourse to a daring falsehood.

Olga uttered a cry of alarm, but only raised herself up in the sleigh to see in what territory she had arrived.

There she stood like a czarina; winter seemed to have built his palace in her honour alone, only to do homage to her; the north wind kissed her fur sleeves, and even if the fur cap surrounded her face enviously, so that but little was to be seen of her red, glowing cheeks, yet her large eyes gazed majestically out of all her winter wraps.

Wegen shivered with the cold; standing still after the violent exercise made him uncomfortable, and the wind blew icily into his face. And yet his state of mind was that of Romeo, when he looked up in the Capulet's garden at the balcony where his Juliet, in a light ball dress, carried on a conversation with the moon and stars.

"What in the world, Herr von Wegen, are we doing?" cried Olga, to whom the adventure began to appear serious, because in his sound senses a sleigh conductor could hardly wander from the proper course. For a moment she actually looked searchingly at Wegen, whether the colour in his cheeks could be called forth honestly by the north wind, or if it owed its origin to a bottle of champagne.

"As chance has so ordained it, that we are alone, hear then, dear Olga, hear what it is that I have had so long at heart."

A turbulent gust of wind swept through the top loose piles of snow and whirled them about so that Romeo and Juliet must simultaneously wipe the snow out of their eyes.

"I love you, Olga!"

Olga started back in alarm, making the little bells on her fur rug tinkle; it is true it was sweet alarm, but she was not prepared for a declaration of love with the thermometer so low. Wegen waited for the result, while alternately stamping his feet and beating himself with his arms, so as to impart some warmth to his body.

"Yes, I have always loved you, that is to say," added he in his love of truth, "after C?cilie--but you know it? Why waste so many words? My breath freezes upon my lips, but my heart is all the warmer. Will you belong to me for ever?"

Olga drew one hand out of her muff and extended it as if in protestation:

"So suddenly, dear friend? And here in the snow?"

"Here we are undisturbed."

"Then it was base treachery?"

"Yes, I will confess it, my compass would not have failed me, but to be able to say to you at last what fills my whole--"

Wegen stopped, his teeth chattered, it was internal emotion mingled with a shiver, called forth by the low temperature of Boreas, who was blowing with inflated cheeks.

"It is indeed weather in which only the Lapland youth can stammer about love to a Lapland maiden," added Wegen dejectedly, "but the circumstances, the conditions--Olga, tell yourself that it is a favourable moment. I do not mean the weather, but that we are alone, quite alone. I will make you happy--we have little time, I do not mean for your happiness, for that we have our whole lives; but now to arrange matters. It is indeed barbarously cold. A glass of negus or mulled ale will do us good. But speak then, will you be mine?"

"I must consider it, weigh--"

"And the result you have seen in C?cilie's case. Those are words as cold as ice; it is enough to freeze one's soul. My Olga, dear sweet girl, you know my circumstances, they are affluent, my people approve of my choice. Your mamma had already given her consent when I proposed to C?cilie, and, of course, it is immaterial which of the two daughters--I mean--that is to say, immaterial to your mamma. And now once more may I claim my sleighing rights?"

Olga nodded pleasantly, and withdrew her other hand from her muff. Wegen pressed a glowing kiss upon her lips, the ice upon his fair beard melted in the fervour of his love.

"That was the sleighing privilege, and now--shall we glide together over the mirror-like surface of life, as we do over the ice? I promise to avoid every uneven course. The sleighing right for life?"

"Yes," whispered Olga, out of her fur hood, into which she had again relapsed.

Then Wegen pressed the betrothal kiss upon her lips, her arms encircled and folded him to herself, and heart would have beaten glowingly against heart if the thick fur trimmings had not been an insurmountable obstacle.

Soon the sleigh stumbled over the snow hillocks once more into the smooth course, and now they went impetuously towards the inn near the Haff, where a numerous circle of people was assembled.

Wegen led Olga to Frau von Dornau, and as he could not shout the glad tidings out aloud, sought by means of speaking pantomime to make her understand that he was engaged to Olga. A mother always understands such things, even although the where and how may remain a riddle to her, and while the waiter brought the negus ordered by Wegen and all fell to gallantly, Frau von Dornau spoke words of consent, and after having refreshed herself with a glass of the fiery drink, imparted her blessing in a voice full of emotion.

C?cilie triumphed when she heard the news from Olga. "She is the right one, now at last you have found her," said she, as she shook Wegen's hand heartily. The intelligence spread rapidly, like quicksilver, amongst those present. A betrothed! Fr?ulein Baute's entire school becomes excited. A lover--for the first-class in a girl's school, that is the loftiest position upon earth to which a man can attain. Every eve of St. Sylvester they cast him in lead, and yet nothing can be done with such a leaden lover, a lover of the future.

Iduna, with her companions, one after another, glided past the chair in order to get a closer view of the marvel.

"It is, indeed, remarkable," said Lori to Dr. Sperner, who sat beside her and drank to her in a glass of mulled ale; "in Neukuhren people believed that he was as good as engaged to C?cilie, he accompanied her upon the piano--and that is always the beginning. But he appears to have made a mistake then; this Olga is the right major chord. Upon the whole, I consider such feeling about rather tactless. Herr von Wegen is no Don Juan by profession like the other. I believe he allows himself to be married, and C?cilie, who holds the first mortgage upon him, has given him notice, because he--did not offer sufficiently good security."

At the same time Lori made a gesture of explanation. Dr. Sperner knew how, by ringing laughter, to do honour to the schoolmistress' hint. What an amount of genius she concealed in her little head!

"But the other?" asked the Docto

r, as he stroked his moustache complacently, "where is her first mortgage now?"

"On a spot, which alas! is even more insecure! If a suit be opened upon Dr. Kuhl's heart, then every unhappy creditor, or much rather female creditor, will have to content herself with very little payment."

"But I do not understand how a young lady can be so thoughtless."

"They should be cut, propriety requires it, nothing else is left for us."

At that moment C?cilie passed by; she greeted them pleasantly, but her bow was scarcely returned by Lori, while Doctor Sperner looked defiantly at her, a bold smile upon his lips, and only nodded his head slightly.

Her sister's engagement cast her far into the shade, people gave her to understand that her free behaviour would no longer be tolerated in society. Major Bern's wife did not press her to sit down, although Banquo's ghost might have been obliged to sit either on the right or left hand, and the Frau Kanzleir?thin wrapped herself disapprovingly in her red shawl when C?cilie addressed her, and was so chary of her words, that her friends looked anxiously at her as if she had been suddenly taken ill, because only shortly before she had gathered together the sluices of her eloquence, to pour out an overwhelming flood of language. Even Minna, who was still unmarried, and in spite of that fact had forfeited none of her good nature--fat Minna, who had already in all dancing parties long since belonged to the female land-sturm, and was only called out when no one else could be mobilised--did not talk to C?cilie without a certain timidity, as if contact with so adventuresome a beauty might injure her good character, and frighten away some wooer, although for years already none had appeared on her horizon.

C?cilie seemed to challenge danger with a certain amount of defiance, the tokens of contempt increased at table after table, where she greeted old acquaintances. Not more cheering was the familiar and impudent greeting of gifted Salomon, who, seated with a few friends over a large bowl of negus, pledged a glass to the lady passing by, and invited her to sit down at their table while he recited in a half intoxicated voice--

"With brunettes I now have finished,

And this year am once more fond

Of the eyes whose hue is azure

Of the hair whose colour's blonde."

C?cilie found it difficult to defend herself from these importunate invitations.

Dr. Kuhl stood beside the stove, and warmed himself with his hands behind him, but nothing of that which befell C?cilie escaped him. It filled him with extreme dissatisfaction, it was as if his beloved were running the gauntlet, and with such irritating composure. He had caught himself in the act of pulling up his coat sleeves in rage, ready to knock down all who insulted her.

"Dear Paul," said C?cilie, "I have something to tell you."

"I do not understand," replied Paul, angrily, "how you can court all these people; they are the most worn out coinage which can have no circulation amongst us. Let us sit down here at this table behind the stove, there we shall at least not see these bald heads, which only by an oversight, or by the magic wand of some mischievous Demiurgos, were thrown amongst human beings. Well your communication--"

"It could be foreseen, Olga has engaged herself to Herr von Wegen."

Kuhl struck the table with his hand.

"Then may the weather--that Wegen! I always had an antipathy for the man; he belongs to those who would play with dice, and cannot count, and with the most innocent face he gets up one affair after another. First he proposes to you, then to Olga--I feel as if I saw my face in a distorting mirror, like a ridiculous caricature."

"No one will blame his conduct!"

"That is it! People may dare much for love! Only a little time must elapse between--time! That is the meaning of all wisdom, and yet that old maid who paints our wrinkles upon us makes everything worse! Whether to-day I love two girls at once, or to-day the one, and to-morrow the other, is really no very great difference! And yet the first is accounted a sin, and the other is most correct. Always the goose-step in life and love, and so one walks most comfortably through the world."

"You see, though, how kindly they greet Olga and thrust me aside."

"Olga--she has put a crown upon her faithlessness to our alliance, now it is broken! I did not think her so calculating."

"Calculating? She loves Wegen!"

"It is not possible!"

"Why? He is honest, and a gentleman!"

"Did you perhaps love him too?"

"And if I had done so? bountiful natures must find an outlet!"

"You are making fun of me! Verily any one who will uphold a sensible principle in a ridiculous world, must at least appear like a Don Quixote, even to himself; at least, they all look upon his helmet as a barber's goblet. I am weary of carrying on this impossible struggle with want of sense."

C?cilie did not interrupt the monologue, but beat upon the table with her fingers, and looked inquiringly at his face with her cunning sparkling eyes.

"I took Olga's to be a nature," continued Kuhl, "which, following an unknown impulse, grasps the right one. We need such natures which do not trouble themselves at all about the rules of society, which pass no sleepless nights in consequence. For me she was refreshing, because for the mentally intoxicated, and those who are tired of roving, who wander through heaven and earth, there is no better refreshment than a richly endowed material nature; for me she was a triumph because she showed me that not natural feeling, but only the falsity of society demanded exclusive possession."

C?cilie cast down her eyes and said timidly, "I did not know that Olga was so much to you!

"Not she alone, you both together, you complete one another in a harmonious picture of perfect womanhood."

"And what are we, then, separately, each by herself? Melancholy, imperfect work! And yet, dear Paul, if I ask my heart--is it rich enough in ardent passion to satisfy one whole life, I hear the reply and repeat it with pride. I alone will have you, for I feel the power within me quite alone to make you happy; for every effort, every action of your mind, an echo lives in my breast; for the glow and impetuosity of your love a corresponding fire; for immeasurable will, immeasurable devotion."

"C?cilie," cried Kuhl warmly, stirred by the beautiful enthusiasm of an usually cold nature.

"My heart would tell me this, my proud heart! But love which can do all things, can also be resolute. I do not suffice you--well then! I did not only do violence to my own feelings, but in full consciousness I took martyrdom upon me, I bore the contempt of the world, not from the conviction that your audacious opinion was right, but with self-sacrificing courage of love I rejected Wegen's offer, as the world rejects me. You must be all to me, and I am not even to possess the comfort of being all to you."

Sinister clouds gathered on Kuhl's brow, he struggled with a resolution.

"Oh! do not think that it is so easy to stand alone and bear contempt. It wounds one's heart--and many scalding tears have I shed, and even now they come again into my eyes, although I may bear the humiliation with a smiling countenance."

C?cilie began to sob, and with clenched hands Kuhl sprang up from the table, as though he would call an opponent out to battle.

"You cannot protect me as Blanden protected his beloved, with a pistol in his hand: outlaw and excommunication hover over me, but such things cannot be touched; they only keep watch in the air, they are only written on countenances, in gestures--and not men accustomed to battle are they who carry out this excommunication; they are women and girls, the guardians of propriety who only pierce a heart with pins."

"It shall be different," cried Kuhl now, with firm resolution. "Olga has left us, you have remained true to me, you shall not suffer for it. Verily, I am not Blanden's inferior in courage, and yet that duel has given me much to think about. He offered up his life for his beloved one's good name. I cannot, I must not, look on and see them insult you. Blanden has often already said so. I would not believe it; to-day I see it with my own eyes. No, no, no! He was right, ten times right! I may sacrifice myself to my convictions, but not a girl who loves me!"

C?cilie had also risen, and with clasped hands looked beseechingly at him.

"I can ascend the funereal pile, but must not permit them even to scorch the finger tips of my beloved. Hitherto, you have sacrificed much to me, your good name before the world; thus I will sacrifice much to you, everything, a portion of my better self, faith towards truth. Yes, at this moment I appear like a traitor in my own eyes, whose hand shall be cut off, but I am weak, I will be weak out of love for you. They shall not think lightly of you, they shall not, although I despise their opinion and can only compare them with the vapour that hovers over large towns, the pestilential air of a densely-packed crowd, but for your sake C?cilie--be it! I will take part in the same absurdity, and thus declare you to be my betrothed."

With a suppressed cry of gladness, C?cilie sank into his arms, the stove concealed the group from the eyes of the many.

"And even marriage I shall not mind, it is the fruit of this evil doing and so on. At this moment I appear contemptible to myself, small--no reformer's vein flows through me, it must say pereat mundus 'and live the new faith,' but a man can no longer stand upon the buskin when he stands beneath the slipper. But now they shall have it in black and white, lithographed, engraved!--what do I care? And in all newspapers it shall be stated, so that you shall be purified, my child, with printer's ink! Go, hasten, whisper it to your sister, cry it through the room, they shall respect you, it does not cost much, a small amount of lungs and a few letters, such as are before a menagerie; lion and lioness in one cage! Then they will be contented at once. I shall still remain here in my corner, I must first consider what kind of grimace I must make as a fiancé. I shall look odd."

C?cilie kissed his hands; drawing back, he said, "None of those slavish caresses, but go, go! There, I am, after all, caught in the purple silk, and the cursed song of the bridesmaids' wreath buzzes in my ears! By Jupiter! And Wegen, my brother-in-law! That is what reasoning animals call it! That is the most bitter pill!"

C?cilie hastened at once to her sister and mother to bring them the glad tidings. Frau von Dornau was too happy! Two daughters engaged on one day!

Olga congratulated her sister heartily. "Only think," added she, "we became engaged out in the snow and ice, with the thermometer twenty degrees below zero!"

"And we," said C?cilie smiling, "at about twenty degrees above zero, behind the blazing stove. It is a tale of extremes! It is to be hoped that the right temperature will be restored to us both in marriage."

Kuhl was brought out of his corner by both sisters to the family table; he wore the air of a culprit, who is led to execution. Wegen was brimming over with cordiality, Kuhl buttoned up his coat.

"It is better thus," said the Baron, "suum cuique! One must learn to control oneself."

"Well, I should think," replied Kuhl, "we have nothing to reproach ourselves with."

The news spread rapidly through the room and created the greatest sensation. Major Bern's wife appeared behind C?cilie's chair with the friendly words, "May we congratulate you, my dear Fr?ulein?" The Kanzleir?thin came in her red shawl with her fat daughter Minna; both were affected, as was natural, under the circumstances. Minna had already wished happiness to so many others with her tears--rain falling upon the bridal wreath brings happiness. Last of all Lori appeared also, and congratulated with all her heart. Kuhl was a good match.

"There you have the world," said the latter to C?cilie, "with what a fine thread these marionettes can be guided! It is worth while to act a comedy before such an audience."

But Lori said to Dr. Sperner, as he sat down beside her, "God have mercy on them! Courage is needed to marry Dr. Kuhl. Without barred windows and heavy iron, he will yet escape some day."

The moon shone brightly! The return journey was commenced in the most cheerful mood, which, however, soon ceased in the astonishing cold which meanwhile had set in.

"A bridal drive, such as the Esquimaux enjoy," said Kuhl, "but it is done more comfortably there with the dog-sleighs; here we must push our own goods home."

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