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   Chapter 35 THE CURSE.

Old Fritz and the New Era By L. Muhlbach Characters: 17817

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


The evening of the soiree had arrived. In quick succession drove the carriages up the broad entrance to the mansion of Herr Ebenstreit, The curious street public pressed in compact masses near the gate to peep in, or at least catch a fugitive glance of the ladies alighting from their carriages, who were received by the butler at the foot of the carpeted steps. A host of gold-bespangled footmen lined the entrance upon each side, which was ornamented with the most exquisite hot-house plants, filling the air with perfume.

Two tall, stately footmen, with broad gold shoulder-bands and large gilt batons, stood at the door of the anteroom, which was brilliantly illuminated with chandeliers and side-lights, reflected in the numerous mirrors. The anteroom led into the reception-room by wide folding-doors, where the names were given to the usher, who announced them in a stentorian voice in the drawing-room. There stood the Baron von Ebenstreit to receive the guests, all smiles, and with bustling assiduity accompany them to the adjoining drawing-room to present them to the baroness.

Among the select company were conspicuous the most distinguished names of the aristocracy. Generals and staff-officers, countesses and baronesses were crowded together, with the ladies of the financial world, near ministers and counsellors in this gorgeous saloon, which was the delight and admiration of the envious, and excited the tongues of the slanderous. Those acquainted gathered in the window-niches and cosy corners, maliciously criticising the motley crowd, and eminently consoled with the sure prospect of the ruin of the late banker, surrounding himself with such unbecoming splendor and luxury, the bad taste of his arrogant, overdressed, and extravagant wife.

"Have you noticed her parure of diamonds?" whispered the Countess Moltke to Fran von Morien. "If they are real, then she wears an estate upon her shoulders."

"The family estate of Von Leuthen," laughingly replied Frau von Morien. "You know, I suppose, that the father of General von Leuthen was a brick-burner, and he may have succeeded in changing a few bricks into diamonds."

"You are wicked, sweet one," replied the countess, smiling. "One must acknowledge that her toilet is charming. I have never seen its equal. The gold lace over the rose-colored satin is superb."

"Yes, and the mingling of straw feathers, diamonds, flowers, lace, and birds is truly ridiculous in her head-dress."

"It must have been copied exactly from the one which the Queen Marie Antoinette wore at the ball at Versailles a fortnight since. The baroness was present at this court ball with her greyhound of a husband, and created quite a sensation with her costly recherchee toilet, as the French ambassador told us yesterday."

"Certainly not by her manner," said Frau von Morien. "She is insupportably arrogant and self-sufficient. What do you think of this pretentious manner of announcing our names as if we were at an auction where they sold titles?"

"It is a very good French custom," remarked the countess. "But it does not become a lady of doubtful nobility and uncertain position, to introduce foreign customs here. She should leave this to others, and modestly accept those already in use by us."

"One remarks the puffed-up parvenue," whispered Frau von Morien. "Every thing smells of the varnish upon the newly-painted coat-of-arms."

"Hush, my friend! I there comes the baroness leaning upon the arm of the French ambassador. She is indeed imposing in appearance, and one could mistake her for a queen."

"Could any one ever suppose that this queen once made flowers to sell? Come, countess, I have just thought of a charming scene to revenge myself upon this arrogant personage."

Giving her arm to the countess, she approached her hostess leaning upon the arm of the Marquis de Treves, the French ambassador, as they were standing beneath the immense chandelier of rock crystal, which sparkled above them like a crown of stars, causing her diamonds to look as if in one blaze of different hues.

"Oh, permit us to sun ourselves in your rays, ma toute belle," said the Countess Moltke. "One could well fancy themselves in a fairy palace, so enchanting is everything here."

"And the baroness's appearance confirms this impression," remarked the gallant Frenchman. "Fancy could not well paint a more lovely fairy in one's happiest dreams."

"Yes, truly I wander around as if in an enchanted scene. I feel as if I must seize myself by the head and be well shaken, to convince myself that I am really awake and not dreaming a chapter from Aladdin. I made the effort, but felt the wreath of roses in my hair, and-"

"And that convinced you of your wakefulness," said the baroness, a little haughtily. Turning to the ambassador, she added: "Do you observe, monsieur le marquis, what a delicate attention this lady shows me in wearing a wreath of flowers which I manufactured?"

"Comment! The baroness is truly a fairy! She causes flowers to grow at her pleasure, and vies with Nature. It seems impossible. I can scarcely believe it."

"And yet it is true," said Frau von Morien. "The baroness, indeed, fabricated these roses three years since, when she had the kindness to work for me. You will acknowledge that I have kept them well?"

"It was no kindness of mine, but a necessity," said the baroness, "and I must confess that I would not have undertaken so troublesome a piece of work from pure goodness or pleasure. You will remember that I was very poor before my marriage, and as Frau von Morien was one of my customers, it is very natural that she possesses my flowers. She gave me many orders, and paid me a very small price, for she is very practical and prudent, and understands bargaining and cheapening, and when one is poor they are obliged to yield to the shameless parsimony of the rich. I thank you, my dear benefactress, for the honor you have shown me in wearing my flowers, for it has been a pleasant occasion to explain ourselves and recognize each other. Have the kindness to recall other remembrances of the past."

"I do not remember possessing any other souvenirs," replied the countess, confused.

"Have you forgotten that I gave French lessons to your niece, the present Frau von Hohenthal? She came to me three times weekly, because the lessons were a few groschen cheaper at the house."

At this instant the usher announced in a loud voice, "Professor Philip Moritz."

A gentleman of slight proportions, in an elegant fashionable dress, appeared and remained standing in the doorway, his large black eyes wandering searchingly through the drawing-room. Herr von Ebenstreit approached, extending him his hand, uttering a few unintelligible words, which his guest appeared not to notice, but, slightly inclining, asked if he would present him to the lady of the house.

"Have the kindness to follow me," said Ebenstreit, leading Moritz through the circle of jesting, slandering ladies and gentlemen, to the centre of the room, where Marie was still standing with the French ambassador and the two ladies.

"My dear," said her husband, "I have brought you an old acquaintance, Professor Moritz."

As Ebenstreit would retreat, Moritz commanded him to remain, placing his white-gloved hand upon his arm, and holding him fast. "I would ask you one question before I speak with the baroness."

Moritz spoke so loud, and in such a strange, harsh, and repulsive manner, that every one turned astonished, asking himself what it meant. Conversation was hushed, and the curious pressed toward the peculiar group in the centre to the baroness, who regarded her husband perfectly composed, and the pale man, with the flashing eyes, the glance of which pierced her like daggers.

A breathless silence reigned, broken only by Ebenstreit's trembling voice. "What is it, professor? How can I serve you?"

"Tell me who you are?" replied Moritz, with a gruff laugh.

"I am the Baron Ebenstreit von Leuthen!"

"And the scar which you bear upon your face, is it not the mark of a whip, with which I lashed a certain Herr Ebenstreit three years since, who prevented my eloping with my betrothed? I challenged him to fight a duel, but the coward refused me satisfaction, and then I struck him in the face, causing the blood to flow. Answer me-are you this gentleman?"

Not a sound interrupted the fearfully long pause which followed. Every one turned astonished to Ebenstreit, who, pale as death, was powerless to utter a word, but stood staring at his opponent.

"Why do you not answer me?" cried Moritz, stamping his foot. "Are you the coward? Was this red scar caused by the whip-lash?"

Another long pause ensued, and a distinctly audible voice was heard, saying, "Yes, it is he!"

"Who replied to me?" asked Moritz, turning his angry glance away from Ebenstreit.

"I,"

said Marie. "I reply for my husband!"

"You? Are you the wife of this man?" thundered Moritz.

"I am," Marie answered.

"Is this invitation directed to me from you?" he continued, drawing a paper from his pocket. "Did you permit yourself to invite me to your house?"

"Yes, I did," she calmly answered.

"And by what right, madame? This is the question I wish answered, and I came here for that purpose."

"I invited you because I desired to see you."

"Shameless one!" cried Moritz, furious.

"Sir," cried the ambassador, placing himself before Moritz, defying his anger, "you forget that you are speaking to a lady. As her husband is silent, I declare myself her knight, and I will not suffer her to be injured by word or look.

"How can you hinder me?" cried Moritz, with scorn. "What will you do if I dash this paper at her feet, and forbid her to ever write my name again?" Making a ball of it, he suited the action to the word, casting a defiant look at the marquis.

"I shall order the footmen to thrust you out of the house. Here, servants, remove this man; he is an escaped lunatic, undoubtedly."

Two footmen pressed forward through the circle which crowded around Moritz.

"Whoever touches me, death to him!" thundered Moritz, laying his hand upon a small sword at his side.

"Let no one dare lay a hand on this gentleman," cried Marie, with a commanding wave of her hand to the lackeys. "I beseech you, marquis, and you, honored guests, to quietly await the conclusion of this scene, and to permit Herr Moritz to finish speaking."

"Do you mean to defy me, madame?" muttered Moritz, gnashing his teeth. "You perhaps count upon my magnanimity to keep silent, and not disclose the secrets of the past to this aristocratic assembly. I stand here as its accusing spirit, and condemn you as a shameless perjurer.-I will ask you who are here rendering homage to this woman, if you know who she is, and of what she has been guilty? As a young girl she was as sweet and innocent as an angel, and seemed more like a divine revelation. To think of her, inspired and elevated one's thoughts, and heaven was mirrored in her eyes. She was poor, and yet so infinitely rich, that if a king had laid all his treasures at her feet, as the gift of his love, he would receive more than he gave, for in her heart reposed the wealth of the whole human race. Oh! I could weep tears of blood in reflecting upon what she was, and what she has become. Smile and mock, ladies and gentlemen; my brain is crazed, and I weep for my lost angel."

Moritz dashed his hands to his face, and stood swaying backward and forward, sobbing.

Sighs and regrets were heard in the room. The ladies pressed their handkerchiefs to their eyes; others regarded with lively sympathy the handsome young man, who deeply interested them, and gazed reproachfully at the young baroness, expecting her to be crushed with these reproaches and tears, but who, on the contrary, stood with proud composure, her face beaming with joy, gazing at Moritz.

"It is past-my last tear is shed, and my last wail has been uttered," cried Philip, uncovering his face. "My angel has changed into a despicable woman. I loved her as the wretched, disconsolate being adores the one who reveals paradise to him; and she fooled me into the belief that she loved me. We exchanged vows of eternal constancy and affection, and promised each other to bear joyfully every ill in life, and never separate until death. I should have doubted myself, rather than she who stood above me, like a divine revelation. I wished to win her by toil and industry, by my intellect, and the fame by which I could render my name illustrious. It was, indeed, nothing in the eyes of her grasping parents; they repulsed me with scorn and pride, but Marie encouraged me to perfect confidence in her affection. Whilst I wandered on foot to Silesia, like a poor pilgrim toward happiness, to humble myself before the king, to beg and combat for my angel, there came temptation, sin, and vulgarity, in the form of this pale, cowed-down man, who stands beside my betrothed gasping with rage. The temptation of riches changed my angel into a demon, a miserable woman bartered for gold! She betrayed her love, yielding it up for filthy lucre, crushing her nobler nature in the dust, and driving over it, as did Tullia the dead body of her father. She sold herself for riches, before which you all kneel, as if worshipping the golden calf! After selling her soul to a man whom she despised, even if he were not rich, she has had the boldness to summon me, the down-trodden and half-crazed victim, to her gilded palace, as if I were a slave to be attached to her triumphal car. I am a free man, and have come here only to hurl contempt in her face, to brand her before you all as a perjurer and a traitress, whom I never will pardon, but will curse with my latest breath! Now I have relieved my heart of its burden, I command this woman to deny what I have said, if she can."

With a dictatorial wave of the hand, he pointed excitedly Marie. A deathlike stillness reigned. Even the lights seemed to grow dim, and every one was oppressed as if by excessive sultriness.

Again Moritz commanded Marie to acknowledge the truth of his accusations before the honored assembly.

She encountered his angry glance with calmness, and a smile was perceptible upon her lip. "Yes, said she, I acknowledge that I am a perjurer and a traitor. I have sold myself for riches, and yielded my peace of soul and my love for mammon. I might justify myself, but I refrain from it, and will only say that you have told the truth! One day you will cease to curse me, and, perhaps a tear of pity will glisten in the eye now flashing with scorn and anger. The poor wife who lies in the dust implores for the last blessing of your love!"

"Marie!" he cried, with heart-rending anguish, "oh, Marie!" and rushed toward her, kneeling before her, and clinging to her, pressing a kiss upon her hand and weeping aloud. Only for a moment did he give way, and then sprang up wildly, rushing through the crowd, out of the room.

A fearful silence ensued. No one had the courage to break it. Every one hoped that Marie, through a simulated fainting, would end the painful scene, and give the guests an opportunity to withdraw. No such thoughtfulness for her friends occurred to her.

She turned to the Marquis de Treves, who stood pale and deeply agitated behind her, and burst into a loud laugh.

"How pale you are! Have you taken this comedy for truth? Did you think this theatrical performance was a reality? You have forgotten what I told you a month since in Paris, that I had a native talent for acting. You would contest the matter with me, and I bet you that I could introduce an impromptu scene in my house, with such artistic skill, that you would be quite deceived."

"Indeed I do recall it; how could I have forgotten it?" replied the marquis, with the ready tact of the diplomat.

"Have I won?" asked Marie, smiling.

"You have played your role, baroness, like an artiste of consummate talent, and to-morrow I shall have the honor to cancel the debt in your favor."

"Now, then, give me your arm, marquis, and conduct me to the dancing-room, and you, worthy guests, follow us," said. Marie, leading the way.

The merry music even was not sufficient to dissipate the awkward oppression, and by midnight the guests had taken leave, and Marie stood under the chandelier, pale and rigid, opposite her husband. He had summoned courage to bewail the terrible scene, weeping and mourning over her cruelty and his shame. Marie, with chilling indifference, regarded him without one visible trace of pity.

"You realized what you were doing when you imposed the scorn of this marriage upon me," she said. "I have never deceived you with vain hopes! You have sown dragons' teeth, and warriors have sprung up to revenge me upon you. Serve yourself of your riches to fight the combatants. See if you can bargain for a quiet conscience as easily as you purchased me! My soul is free though, and it hovers over you as the spirit of revenge.-Beware!"

She slowly turned and quitted the room. Her diamonds sparkled and blazed in the myriads of lights. The large mirrors reflected the image of a haughty woman, who swept proudly past like a goddess of revenge!

Ebenstreit stood gazing after her. He had a horror of the lonely still room, so gorgeous and brilliantly illuminated-a shudder crept over him, and he sank, weeping bitterly.

In the little room, the buried happiness of the past, Marie knelt, with outstretched arms, imploring heaven for mercy. "I thank Thee, Heavenly Father, that I have been permitted to see him again! My sacrifice was not in vain-he lives! He is free, and his mind is clear and bright. I thank Thee that he still loves me. His anger is but love!"

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