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   Chapter 33 THE STORY OF HELENA VON RITZ

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 24567

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There is in every true woman's heart a spark of heavenly fire, which beams and blazes in the dark hours of adversity.-Washington Irving.

"But Madam; but Madam-" I tried to begin. At last, after moments which seemed to me ages long, I broke out: "But once, at least, you promised to tell me who and what you are. Will you do that now?"

"Yes! yes!" she said. "Now I shall finish the clearing of my soul. You, after all, shall be my confessor."

We heard again a faltering footfall in the hallway. I raised an eyebrow in query.

"It is my father. Yes, but let him come. He also must hear. He is indeed the author of my story, such as it is.

"Father," she added, "come, sit you here. I have something to say to Mr. Trist."

She seated herself now on one of the low couches, her hands clasped across its arm, her eyes looking far away out of the little window, beyond which could be seen the hills across the wide Potomac.

"We are foreigners," she went on, "as you can tell. I speak your language better than my father does, because I was younger when I learned. It is quite true he is my father. He is an Austrian nobleman, of one of the old families. He was educated in Germany, and of late has lived there."

"I could have told most of that of you both," I said.

She bowed and resumed:

"My father was always a student. As a young man in the university, he was devoted to certain theories of his own. N'est-ce pas vrai, mon dr?le?" she asked, turning to put her arm on her father's shoulder as he dropped weakly on the couch beside her.

He nodded. "Yes, I wass student," he said. "I wass not content with the ways of my people."

"So, my father, you will see," said she, smiling at him, "being much determined on anything which he attempted, decided, with five others, to make a certain experiment. It was the strangest experiment, I presume, ever made in the interest of what is called science. It was wholly the most curious and the most cruel thing ever done."

She hesitated now. All I could do was to look from one to the other, wonderingly.

"This dear old dreamer, my father, then, and five others-"

"I name them!" he interrupted. "There were Karl von Goertz, Albrecht Hardman, Adolph zu Sternbern, Karl von Starnack, and Rudolph von Wardberg. We were all friends-"

"Yes," she said softly, "all friends, and all fools. Sometimes I think of my mother."

"My dear, your mother!"

"But I must tell this as it was! Then, sir, these six, all Heidelberg men, all well born, men of fortune, all men devoted to science, and interested in the study of the hopelessness of the average human being in Central Europe-these fools, or heroes, I say not which-they decided to do something in the interest of science. They were of the belief that human beings were becoming poor in type. So they determined to marry-"

"Naturally," said I, seeking to relieve a delicate situation-"they scorned the marriage of convenience-they came to our American way of thinking, that they would marry for love."

"You do them too much credit!" said she slowly. "That would have meant no sacrifice on either side. They married in the interest of science! They married with the deliberate intention of improving individuals of the human species! Father, is it not so?"

Some speech stumbled on his tongue; but she raised her hand. "Listen to me. I will be fair to you, fairer than you were either to yourself or to my mother.

"Yes, these six concluded to improve the grade of human animals! They resolved to marry among the peasantry-because thus they could select finer specimens of womankind, younger, stronger, more fit to bring children into the world. Is not that the truth, my father?"

"It wass the way we thought," he whispered. "It wass the way we thought wass wise."

"And perhaps it was wise. It was selection. So now they selected. Two of them married German working girls, and those two are dead, but there is no child of them alive. Two married in Austria, and of these one died, and the other is in a mad house. One married a young Galician girl, and so fond of her did he become that she took him down from his station to hers, and he was lost. The other-"

"Yes; it was my father," she said, at length. "There he sits, my father. Yes, I love him. I would forfeit my life for him now-I would lay it down gladly for him. Better had I done so. But in my time I have hated him.

"He, the last one, searched long for this fitting animal to lead to the altar. He was tall and young and handsome and rich, do you see? He could have chosen among his own people any woman he liked. Instead, he searched among the Galicians, the lower Austrians, the Prussians. He examined Bavaria and Saxony. Many he found, but still none to suit his scientific ideas. He bethought him then of searching among the Hungarians, where, it is said, the most beautiful women of the world are found. So at last he found her, that peasant, my mother!"

The silence in the room was broken at last by her low, even, hopeless voice as she went on.

"Now the Hungarians are slaves to Austria. They do as they are bid, those who live on the great estates. They have no hope. If they rebel, they are cut down. They are not a people. They belong to no one, not even to themselves."

"My God!" said I, a sigh breaking from me in spite of myself. I raised my hand as though to beseech her not to go on. But she persisted.

"Yes, we, too, called upon our gods! So, now, my father came among that people and found there a young girl, one much younger than himself. She was the most beautiful, so they say, of all those people, many of whom are very beautiful."

"Yes-proof of that!" said I. She knew I meant no idle flattery.

"Yes, she was beautiful. But at first she did not fancy to marry this Austrian student nobleman. She said no to him, even when she found who he was and what was his station-even when she found that he meant her no dishonor. But our ruler heard of it, and, being displeased at this mockery of the traditions of the court, and wishing in his sardonic mind to teach these fanatical young nobles to rue well their bargain, he sent word to the girl that she must marry this man-my father. It was made an imperial order!

"And so now, at last, since he was half crazed by her beauty, as men are sometimes by the beauty of women, and since at last this had its effect with her, as sometimes it does with women, and since it was perhaps death or some severe punishment if she did not obey, she married him-my father."

"And loved me all her life!" the old man broke out. "Nefer had man love like hers, I will haf it said. I will haf it said that she loved me, always and always; and I loved her always, with all my heart!"

"Yes," said Helena von Ritz, "they two loved each other, even as they were. So here am I, born of that love."

Now we all sat silent for a time. "That birth was at my father's estates," resumed the same even, merciless voice. "After some short time of travels, they returned to the estates; and, yes, there I was born, half noble, half peasant; and then there began the most cruel thing the world has ever known.

"The nobles of the court and of the country all around began to make existence hideous for my mother. The aristocracy, insulted by the republicanism of these young noblemen, made life a hell for the most gentle woman of Hungary. Ah, they found new ways to make her suffer. They allowed her to share in my father's estate, allowed her to appear with him when he could prevail upon her to do so. Then they twitted and taunted her and mocked her in all the devilish ways of their class. She was more beautiful than any court beauty of them all, and they hated her for that. She had a good mind, and they hated her for that. She had a faithful, loyal heart, and they hated her for that. And in ways more cruel than any man will ever know, women and men made her feel that hate, plainly and publicly, made her admit that she was chosen as breeding stock and nothing better. Ah, it was the jest of Europe, for a time. They insulted my mother, and that became the jest of the court, of all Vienna. She dared not go alone from the castle. She dared not travel alone."

"But your father resented this?"

She nodded. "Duel after duel he fought, man after man he killed, thanks to his love for her and his manhood. He would not release what he loved. He would not allow his class to separate him from his choice. But the women! Ah, he could not fight them! So I have hated women, and made war on them all my life. My father could not placate his Emperor. So, in short, that scientific experiment ended in misery-and me!"

The room had grown dimmer. The sun was sinking as she talked. There was silence, I know, for a long time before she spoke again.

"In time, then, my father left his estates and went out to a small place in the country; but my mother-her heart was broken. Malice pursued her. Those who were called her superiors would not let her alone. See, he weeps, my father, as he thinks of these things.

"There was cause, then, to weep. For two years, they tell me, my mother wept Then she died. She gave me, a baby, to her friend, a woman of her village-Threlka Mazoff. You have seen her. She has been my mother ever since. She has been the sole guardian I have known all my life. She has not been able to do with me as she would have liked."

"You did not live at your own home with your father?" I asked.

"For a time. I grew up. But my father, I think, was permanently shocked by the loss of the woman he had loved and whom he had brought into all this cruelty. She had been so lovable, so beautiful-she was so beautiful, my mother! So they sent me away to France, to the schools. I grew up, I presume, proof in part of the excellence of my father's theory. They told me that I was a beautiful animal!"

The contempt, the scorn, the pathos-the whole tragedy of her voice and bearing-were such as I can not set down on paper, and such as I scarce could endure to hear. Never in my life before have I felt such pity for a human being, never so much desire to do what I might in sheer compassion.

But now, how clear it all became to me! I could understand many strange things about the character of this singular woman, her whims, her unaccountable moods, her seeming carelessness, yet, withal, her dignity and sweetness and air of breeding-above all her mysteriousness. Let others judge her for themselves. There was only longing in my heart that I might find some word of comfort. What could comfort her? Was not life, indeed, for her to remain a perpetual tragedy?

"But, Madam," said I, at length, "you must not wrong your father and your mother and yourself. These two loved each other devotedly. Well, what more? You are the result of a happy marriage. You are beautiful, you are splendid, by that reason."

"Perhaps. Even when I was sixteen, I was beautiful," she mused. "I have heard rumors of that. But I say to you that then I was only a beautiful animal. Also, I was a vicious animal I had in my heart all the malice which my mother never spoke. I felt in my soul the wish to injure women, to punish men, to torment them, to make them pay! To set even those balances of torture!-ah, that was my ambition! I had not forgotten that, when I first met you, when I first heard of-her, the woman whom you love, whom already in your savage strong way you have wedded-the woman whose vows I spoke with her-I-I, Helena von Ritz, with history such as mine!

"Father, father,"-she turned to him swiftly; "rise-go! I can not now speak before you. Leave us alone until I call!"

Obedient as though he had been the child and she the parent, the old man rose and tottered feebly from the room.

"There are things a woman can not say in the presence of a parent," she said, turning to me. Her face twitched. "It takes all my bravery to talk to you."

"Why should you? There is not need. Do not!"

"Ah, I must, because it is fair," said she. "I have lost, lost! I told you I would pay my wager."

After a time she turned her face straight toward mine and went on with her old splendid bravery.

"So, now, you see, when I was young and beautiful I had rank and money.

I had brains. I had hatred of men. I had contempt for the aristocracy. My heart was peasant after all. My principles were those of the republican. Revolution was in my soul, I say. Thwarted, distorted, wretched, unscrupulous, I did what I could to make hell for those who had made hell for us. I have set dozens of men by the ears. I have been promised in marriage to I know not how many. A dozen men have fought to the death in duels over me. For each such death I had not even a thought. The more troubles I made, the happier I was. Oh, yes, in time I became known-I had a reputation; there is no doubt of that.

"But still the organized aristocracy had its revenge-it had its will of me, after all. There came to me, as there had to my mother, an imperial order. In punishment for my fancies and vagaries, I was condemned to marry a certain nobleman. That was the whim of the new emperor, Ferdinand, the degenerate. He took the throne when I was but sixteen years of age. He chose for me a degenerate mate from his own sort." She choked, now.

"You did marry him?"

She nodded. "Yes. Debauché, rake, monster, degenerate, product of that aristocracy which had oppressed us, I was obliged to marry him, a man three times my age! I pleaded. I begged. I was taken away by night. I was-I was-They say I was married to him. For myself, I did not know where I was or what happened. But after that they said that I was the wife of this man, a sot, a monster, the memory only of manhood. Now, indeed, the revenge of the aristocracy was complete!"

She went on at last in a voice icy cold. "I fled one night, back to Hungary. For a month they could not find me. I was still young. I saw my people then as I had not before. I saw also the monarchies of Europe. Ah, now I knew what oppression meant! Now I knew what class distinction and special privileges meant! I saw what ruin it was spelling for our country-what it will spell for your country, if they ever come to rule here. Ah, then that dream came to me which had come to my father, that beautiful dream which justified me in everything I did. My friend, can it-can it in part justify me-now?

"For the first time, then, I resolved to live! I have loved my father ever since that time. I pledged myself to continue that work which he had undertaken! I pledged myself to better the condition of humanity if I might.

"There was no hope for me. I was condemned and ruined as it was. My life was gone. Such as I had left, that I resolved to give to-what shall we call it?-the idée démocratique.

"Now, may God rest my mother's soul, and mine also, so that some time I may see her in another world-I pray I may be good enough for that some time. I have not been sweet and sinless as was my mother. Fate laid a heavier burden upon me. But what remained with me throughout was the idea which my father had bequeathed me-"

"Ah, but also that beauty and sweetness and loyalty which came to you from your mother," I insisted.

She shook her head. "Wait!" she said. "Now they pursued me as though I had been a criminal, and they took me back-horsemen about me who did as they liked. I was, I say, a sacrifice. News of this came to that man who was my husband. They shamed him into fighting. He had not the courage of the nobles left. But he heard of one nobleman against whom he had a special grudge; and him one night, foully and unfairly, he murdered.

"News of that came to the Emperor. My husband was tried, and, the case being well known to the public, it was necessary to convict him for the sake of example. Then, on the day set for his beheading, the Emperor reprieved him. The hour for the execution passed, and, being now free for the time, he fled the country. He went to Africa, and there he so disgraced the state that bore him that of late times I hear he has been sent for to come back to Austria. Even yet the Emperor may suspend the reprieve and send him to the block for his ancient crime. If he had a thousand heads, he could not atone for the worse crimes he has done!

"But of him, and of his end, I know nothing. So, now, you see, I was and am wed, and yet am not wed, and never was. I do not know what I am, nor who I am. After all, I can not tell you who I am, or what I am, because I myself do not know.

"It was now no longer safe for me in my own country. They would not let me go to my father any more. As for him, he went on with his studies, some part of his mind being bright and clear. They did not wish him about the court now. All these matters were to be hushed up. The court of England began to take cognizance of these things. Our government was scandalized. They sent my father, on pretext of scientific errands, into one country and another-to Sweden, to England, to Africa, at last to America. Thus it happened that you met him. You must both have been very near to meeting me in Montreal. It was fate, as we of Hungary would say.

"As for me, I was no mere hare-brained radical. I did not go to Russia, did not join the revolutionary circles of Paris, did not yet seek out Prussia. That is folly. My father was right. It must be the years, it must be the good heritage, it must be the good environment, it must be even opportunity for all, which alone can produce good human beings! In short, believe me, a victim, the hope of the world is in a real democracy. Slowly, gradually, I was coming to believe that."

She paused a moment. "Then, one time, Monsieur,-I met you, here in this very room! God pity me! You were the first man I had ever seen. God pity me!-I believe I-loved you-that night, that very first night! We are friends. We are brave. You are man and gentleman, so I may say that, now. I am no longer woman. I am but sacrifice.

"Opportunity must exist, open and free for all the world," she went on, not looking at me more than I could now at her. "I have set my life to prove this thing. When I came here to this America-out of pique, out of a love of adventure, out of sheer daring and exultation in imposture-then I saw why I was born, for what purpose! It was to do such work as I might to prove the theory of my father, and to justify the life of my mother. For that thing I was born. For that thing I have been damned on this earth; I may be damned in the life to come, unless I can make some great atonement. For these I suffer and shall always suffer. But what of that? There must always be a sacrifice."

The unspeakable tragedy of her voice cut to my soul. "But listen!" I broke out. "You are young. You are free. All the world is before you. You can have anything you like-"

"Ah, do not talk to me of that," she exclaimed imperiously. "Do not tempt me to attempt the deceit of myself! I made myself as I am, long ago. I did not love. I did not know it. As to marriage, I did not need it. I had abundant means without. I was in the upper ranks of society. I was there; I was classified; I lived with them. But always I had my purposes, my plans. For them I paid, paid, paid, as a woman must, with-what a woman has.

"But now, I am far ahead of my story. Let me bring it on. I went to Paris. I have sown some seeds of venom, some seeds of revolution, in one place or another in Europe in my time. Ah, it works; it will go! Here and there I have cost a human life. Here and there work was to be done which I disliked; but I did it. Misguided, uncared for, mishandled as I had been-well, as I said, I went to Paris.

"Ah, sir, will you not, too, leave the room, and let me tell on this story to myself, to my own soul? It is fitter for my confessor than for you."

"Let me, then, be your confessor!" said I. "Forget! Forget! You have not been this which you say. Do I not know?"

"No, you do not know. Well, let be. Let me go on! I say I went to Paris. I was close to the throne of France. That little Duke of Orleans, son of Louis Philippe, was a puppet in my hands. Oh, I do not doubt I did mischief in that court, or at least if I failed it was through no lack of effort! I was called there 'America Vespucci.' They thought me Italian! At last they came to know who I was. They dared not make open rupture in the face of the courts of Europe. Certain of their high officials came to me and my young Duke of Orleans. They asked me to leave Paris. They did not command it-the Duke of Orleans cared for that part of it. But they requested me outside-not in his presence. They offered me a price, a bribe-such an offering as would, I fancied, leave me free to pursue my own ideas in my own fashion and in any corner of the world. You have perhaps seen some of my little fancies. I imagined that love and happiness were never for me-only ambition and unrest. With these goes luxury, sometimes. At least this sort of personal liberty was offered me-the price of leaving Paris, and leaving the son of Louis Philippe to his own devices. I did so."

"And so, then you came to Washington? That must have been some years ago."

"Yes; some five years ago. I still was young. I told you that you must have known me, and so, no doubt, you did. Did you ever hear of 'America Vespucci'?"

A smile came to my face at the suggestion of that celebrated adventuress and mysterious impostress who had figured in the annals of Washington-a fair Italian, so the rumor ran, who had come to this country to set up a claim, upon our credulity at least, as to being the descendant of none less than Amerigo Vespucci himself! This supposititious Italian had indeed gone so far as to secure the introduction of a bill in Congress granting to her certain Lands. The fate of that bill even then hung in the balance. I had no reason to put anything beyond the audacity of this woman with whom I spoke! My smile was simply that which marked the eventual voting down of this once celebrated measure, as merry and as bold a jest as ever was offered the credulity of a nation-one conceivable only in the mad and bitter wit of Helena von Ritz!

"Yes, Madam," I said, "I have heard of 'America Vespucci.' I presume that you are now about to repeat that you are she!"

She nodded, the mischievous enjoyment of her colossal jest showing in her eyes, in spite of all. "Yes," said she, "among other things, I have been 'America Vespucci'! There seemed little to do here in intrigue, and that was my first endeavor to amuse myself. Then I found other employment. England needed a skilful secret agent. Why should I be faithful to England? At least, why should I not also enjoy intrigue with yonder government of Mexico at the same time? There came also Mr. Van Zandt of this Republic of Texas. Yes, it is true, I have seen some sport here in Washington! But all the time as I played in my own little game-with no one to enjoy it save myself-I saw myself begin to lose. This country-this great splendid country of savages-began to take me by the hands, began to look me in the eyes, and to ask me, 'Helena von Ritz, what are you? What might you have been?'

"So now," she concluded, "you asked me, asked me what I was, and I have told you. I ask you myself, what am I, what am I to be; and I say, I am unclean. But, being as I am, I have done what I have done. It was for a principle-or it was-for you! I do not know."

"There are those who can be nothing else but clean," I broke out. "I shall not endure to hear you speak thus of yourself. You-you, what have you not done for us? Was not your mother clean in her heart? Sins such as you mention were never those of scarlet. If you have sinned, your sins are white as snow. I at least am confessor enough to tell you that."

"Ah, my confessor!" She reached out her hands to me, her eyes swimming wet. Then she pushed me back suddenly, beating with her little hands upon my breast as though I were an enemy. "Do not!" she said. "Go!"

My eye caught sight of the great key, Pakenham's key, lying there on the table. Maddened, I caught it up, and, with a quick wrench of my naked hands, broke it in two, and threw the halves on the floor to join the torn scroll of England's pledge.

I divided Oregon at the forty-ninth parallel, and not at fifty-four forty, when I broke Pakenham's key. But you shall see why I have never regretted that.

"Ask Sir Richard Pakenham if he wants his key now!" I said.

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