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Francis Marion Crawford was an American writer noted for his many novels, especially those set in Italy, and for his classic weird and fantastic stories. Collection of 45 Works of F. Marion Crawford________________________________________A Cigarette-Maker's RomanceA Lady of RomeA Roman SingerA Rose of YesterdayA Tale of a Lonely ParishAdam Johnstone's SonAn American PoliticianArethusaAve Roma Immortalis, Vol. 1Ave Roma Immortalis, Vol. 2Casa Braccio, Volumes 1 and 2CeciliaCorleoneDoctor ClaudiusDon OrsinoFair MargaretGreifensteinIn The Palace Of The KingKatherine LauderdaleKatherine Lauderdale; Vol. 2Khaled, A Tale of ArabiaMan Overboard!MariettaMarion DarcheMarzio's Crucifix and ZoroasterPaul PatoffPietro GhisleriSant' IlarioSaracinescaStradellaTaquisaraThe Children of the KingThe Diva's RubyThe Heart of Rome A Tale of the Lost WaterThe lock and key LibraryThe NovelThe PrimadonnaThe RalstonsThe Three FatesThe Upper BerthThe White SisterTo LeewardVia CrucisWandering GhostsWhosoever Shall Offend
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The Collected Complete Works of F. Marion Crawford
A Cigarette-Maker's Romance
A Lady of Rome
A Roman Singer
A Rose of Yesterday
A Tale of a Lonely Parish
Adam Johnstone's Son
An American Politician
Ave Roma Immortalis, Vol. 1
Ave Roma Immortalis, Vol. 2
Casa Braccio, Volumes 1 and 2
In The Palace Of The King
Katherine Lauderdale; Vol. 2
Khaled, A Tale of Arabia
Marzio's Crucifix and Zoroaster
The Children of the King
The Diva's Ruby
The Heart of Rome A Tale of the Lost Water
The lock and key Library
The Three Fates
The Upper Berth
The White Sister
Whosoever Shall OffendA CIGARETTE-MAKER'SROMANCEBYF. MARION CRAWFORDAUTHOR OF "MR. ISAACS," "DR. CLAUDIUS," "A ROMAN SINGER"ETC.
ContentsCHAPTER I.1CHAPTER II.25CHAPTER III.48CHAPTER IV.72CHAPTER V.96CHAPTER VI.121CHAPTER VII.145CHAPTER VIII.168CHAPTER IX.191CHAPTER X.214CHAPTER XI.240CHAPTER XII.264
A CIGARETTE-MAKER'S ROMANCE.
The inner room of a tobacconist's shop is not perhaps the spot which a writer of fiction would naturally choose as the theatre of his play, nor does the inventor of pleasant romances, of stirring incident, or moving love-tales feel himself instinctively inclined to turn to Munich as to the city of his dreams. On the other hand, it is by no means certain that, if the choice of a stage for our performance were offered to the most contented among us, we should be satisfied to speak our parts and go through our actor's business upon the boards of this world. Some would prefer to take their properties, their player's crowns and robes, their aspiring expressions and their finely expressed aspirations before the audience of a larger planet; others, perhaps the majority, would choose, with more humility as well as with more common sense, the shadowy scenery, the softer footlights and the less exigent[Pg 2] public of a modest asteroid, beyond the reach of our earthly haste, of our noisy and unclean high-roads to honour, of our furious chariot races round the goals of fame, and, especially, beyond the reach of competition. But we have no choice. We are in the world and, before we know where we are, we are on one of the paths which we must traverse in our few score years between birth and death. Moreover, each man's path leads up to the theatre on the one side and down from it on the other. The inexorable manager, Fate, requires that each should go through with his comedy or his drama, if he be judged worthy of a leading part, with his scene or his act in another man's piece, if he be fit only to play the walking gentleman, the dumb footman, or the mechanically trained supernumerary who does duty by turns as soldier, sailor, courtier, husbandman, conspirator or red-capped patriot. A few play well, many play badly, all must appear and the majority are feebly applauded and loudly hissed. He counts himself great who is received with such an uproar of clapping and shout of approval as may drown the voice of the discontented; he is called fortunate who, having missed his cue and broken down in his words, makes his exit in the triumphant train of the greater actor upon whom all eyes are turned; he[Pg 3] is deemed happy who, having offended no man, is allowed to depart in peace upon his downward road. Yet none of these players need pride themselves much upon their success nor take to heart their failure. Long before most of them have slipped into the grave which waits at the foot of the hill, and have been wrapped comfortably in the pleasant earth, their names are forgotten by those who screamed with pleasure or hooted in disgust at their performance, their faces are no longer remembered, their great drama is become an old-fashioned mummery of the past. Why should they care? Their work is done, they have been rewarded or punished, paid with praise and gold or mulcted in the sum of their reputation and estate. Famous or infamous, in honour or in disrepute, in riches or in poverty, they have reached the end of their time, they are worn out, the world will have no more of them, they are worthless in the price-scale of men, they must be buried out of sight and they will be forgotten out of mind. The beginning is the same for all, and the end also, and as for the future, who shall tell us upon what basis of higher intelligence our brief passage across the stage is to be judged? Why then should the present trouble our vanity so greatly? And if our play is of so little[Pg 4] importance, why should we care whether the scenery is romantic instead of commonplace, or why should we make furious efforts to shift a Gothic castle, a drawbridge, a moat and a waterfall into the slides occupied by the four walls of a Munich tobacconist's shop?
There is not even anything especial in the appearance of the place to recommend it to the ready pen of the word-painter. It is an establishment of very modest pretensions situated in one of the side streets leading to a great thoroughfare. As we are in Munich, however, the side street is broad and clean, the pavement is well swept and the adjoining houses have an air of solid respectability and wealth. At the point where the street widens to an irregular shape on the downward slope there is a neat little iron kiosque completely covered with brilliant advertisements, printed in black Gothic letters upon red and yellow paper. The point of vivid colour is not disagreeable, for it relieves the neutral tints of brick and brown stone, and arrests the eye, long wearied with the respectable parade of buildings. The tobacconist's shop is, indeed, the most shabby, or, to speak more correctly, the least smartly new among its fellow-shops, wherein dwell, in consecutive order, a barber, a watchmaker,[Pg 5] a pastry-cook, a shoemaker and a colour-man. In spite of its unattractive exterior, however, the establishment of "Christian Fischelowitz, from South Russia," enjoys a very considerable reputation. Within the high, narrow shop there is good store of rare tobaccos, from the mild Kir to the Imperial Samson, the aromatic Dubec and the pungent Swary. The dusty window beside the narrow door exhibits, it is true, only a couple of tall, dried tobacco plants set in flower-pots, a carelessly arranged collection of cedar and pasteboard boxes for cigars and cigarettes, and a fantastically constructed Swiss cottage, built entirely of cigarettes and fine cut yellow leaf, with little pieces of glass set in for windows. This effort of architecture is in a decidedly ruinous condition, the little stuffed paper cylinders are ragged and torn, some of them show signs of detaching themselves from the cardboard frame upon which they are pasted, and the dust of years has accumulated upon the bit of painted board which serves as a foundation for the chalet. In one corner of the window an object more gaudy but not more useful attracts the eye. It is the popular doll figure commonly known in Germany as the "Wiener Gigerl" or "Vienna fop." It is doubtful whether any person could appear in[Pg 6] the public places of Vienna in such a costume without being stoned or otherwise painfully put to a shameful death. The doll is arrayed in black shorts and silk stockings, a wide white waistcoat, a scarlet evening coat, an enormous collar and a white tall hat with a broad brim. He stands upon one foot, raising the other as though in the act of beginning a minuet; he holds in one hand a stick and in the other a cigarette, a relatively monstrous eye-glass magnifies one of his painted eyes and upon his face is such an expression of combined insolence, vulgarity, dishonesty and conceit as would insure his being shot at sight in any Western American village making the least pretence to self-respect. On high days and holidays Christian Fischelowitz inserts a key into the square black pedestal whereon the doll has its being, and the thing lives and moves, turns about and cocks its impertinent head at the passers-by, while a feeble tune of uncertain rhythm is heard grating itself out upon the teeth of the metal comb in the concealed mechanism. Fischelowitz delights in this monstrosity, and is never weary of watching its detestable antics. It is doubtful whether in the simplicity of his good-natured heart he does not really believe that the Wiener Gigerl may attract[Pg 7] a stray customer to his counter and, in the long-run, pay for itself. For it cost him money, and in itself, as a thing of beauty, it hardly covers the bad debt contracted with him by a poor fellow-countryman to whom he kindly lent fifty marks last year. He accepted the doll without a murmur, however, in full discharge of the obligation, and with an odd philosophy peculiar to himself, he does his best to get what amusement he can out of the little red-coated figure without complaining and without bitterness.
Christian's wife, his larger if not his better half, is less complacent. In the publicity of the shop her small black eyes cast glances full of hate upon the innocent Gigerl, her full flat face reddens with anger when she remembers the money, and her fat hands would dash the insolent little figure into the street, if her mercantile understanding did not suggest the possibility of ultimately selling it for something. In view of such a fortunate contingency, and whenever she is alone, she carefully dusts the thing and puts it away in the cupboard in the corner, well knowing that Fischelowitz will return in an hour, will take it out, set it in its place, wind it up and watch its performance with his everlasting, good-humoured, satisfied smile. In[Pg 8] public she ventures only to abuse the doll. In the silent watches of the night she directs her sharp speeches at Christian himself. Not that she is altogether miserly, nor by any means an ill-disposed person. Had she been of such a disposition her husband would not have married her, for he is a very good man of business and a keen judge of other wares besides tobacco. She is a good mother and a good housewife, energetic, thrifty, and of fairly even temper; but that particular piece of generosity which resulted in the acquisition of a red-coated puppet in exchange for fifty marks fills her heart with anger and her plump brown fingers with an itching desire to scratch and tear something or somebody as a means of satisfying her vengeance. For the poor fellow-countryman was one of the Count's friends, and Akulina Fischelowitz abhors the Count and loathes him, and the Wiener Gigerl was the beginning of the end.
While Christian is watching his doll, and Akulina is seated behind the counter, her hands folded upon her lap, and her eyes darting unquiet glances at her husband, the Count is busily occupied in making cigarettes in the dingy back shop among a group of persons, both young and old, all similarly occupied. It is not to be expected that the[Pg 9] workroom should be cleaner or more tastefully decorated than the counting-house, and in such a business as the manufacture of cigarettes by hand litter of all sorts accumulates rapidly. The "Famous Cigarette Manufactory of Christian Fischelowitz from South Russia" is about as dingy, as unhealthy, as untidy, as dusty a place as can be found within the limits of tidy, well-to-do Munich. The room is lighted by a window and a half-glazed door, both opening upon a dark court. The walls, originally whitewashed, are of a deep rich brown, attributable partly to the constant fumes and exhalations of tobacco, partly to the fine brown dust of the dried refuse cuttings, and partly to the admirable smoke-giving qualities of the rickety iron stove which stands in one corner, and in which a fire is daily attempted during more than half the year. There are many shelves upon the walls too, and the white wood of these has also received into itself the warm, deep colour. Upon two of these shelves there are accumulations of useless articles, a cracked glass vase, once the pride of the show window, when it was filled to overflowing with fine cut leaf, a broken-down samovar which has seen tea-service in many cities, from Kiew to Moscow, from Moscow to Vilna, from Vilna to Berlin, from Berlin to[Pg 10] Munich; there are fragments of Russian lacquered wooden bowls, wrecked cigar-boxes, piles of dingy handbills left over from the last half-yearly advertisement, a crazy Turkish narghile, the broken stem of a chibouque, an old hat and an odd boot, besides irregularly shaped parcels, wrapped in crumpled brown paper and half buried in dust. Upon the other shelves are arranged more neatly rows of tin boxes with locks, and reams of still uncut cigarette paper, some white, some straw-coloured.
Round about the room are the seats of the workers. One man alone is standing at his task, a man with a dark, Cossack face, high cheek-bones, honest, gleaming black eyes, straggling hair and ragged beard. In his shirt-sleeves, his arms bare to the elbow, he handles the heavy swivel knife, pressing the package of carefully arranged leaves forward and under the blade by almost imperceptible degrees. It is one of the most delicate operations in the art, and the man has an especial gift for the work. So sensitive is his strong right hand that as the knife cuts through the thick pile he can detect the presence of a scrap of thin paper amongst the tobacco, and not a bit of hardened stem or a twisted leaf escapes him. It is very hard work, even for a strong man, and the moisture stands in[Pg 11] great drops on his dark forehead as he carefully presses the sharp instrument through the resisting substance, quickly lifts it up again and pushes on the package for the next cut.
At a small black table near by sits a Polish girl, poorly dressed, her heavy red-brown hair braided in one long neat tress, her face deadly white, her blue eyes lustreless and sunken, her thin fingers actively rolling bits of paper round a glass tube, drawing them off as the edges are gummed together, and laying them in a prettily arranged pile before her. She is Vjera, the shell-maker, invariably spoken of as "poor Vjera." Vjera, being interpreted from the Russian, means "Faith." There is an odd and pathetic irony in the name borne by the sickly girl. Faith—faith in what? In shell-making? In Christian Fischelowitz? In Johann Schmidt, the Cossack tobacco-cutter, whose real name is lost in the gloom of many dim wanderings? In life? In death? Who knows? In God, at least, poor child—and in her wretched existence there is little else left for her to believe in. If you ask her whether she believes in the Count, she will turn away rather hastily, but in that case the wish to believe is there.
Beside Vjera sits another girl, less pale perhaps,[Pg 12] but more insignificant in feature, and similarly occupied, with this slight difference that the little cylinders she makes are straw-coloured when Vjera is making white ones, and white when her companion is using straw-coloured paper. On the opposite side of the room, also before small black tables, sit two men, to wit, Victor Ivanowitch Dumnoff and the Count. It is their business to shape the tobacco and to insert it into the shells, a process performed by rolling the cut leaf into a cylinder in a tongue-shaped piece of parchment, which, when ready, has the form of a pencil, and is slipped into the shell. The parchment is then withdrawn, and the tobacco remains behind in its place; the little bunch of threads which protrudes at each end is cut off with sharp scissors and the cigarette is finished.
The Count, on the afternoon of the day on which this story opens, was sitting before his little black table in his usual attitude, his head stooping slightly forward, his elbows supported on each side of him, his long fingers moving quickly and skilfully, his greyish blue eyes fixed intently on his work. At five o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, the sixth of May, in the present year of grace one thousand eight hundred and ninety, the Count was rapidly approaching the two-thousandth cigarette[Pg 13] of that day's work. Two thousand in a day was his limit; and though he boasted that he could make three thousand between dawn and midnight, if absolutely necessary, yet he confessed that among the last five hundred a few might be found in which the leaves would be too tightly rolled or too loosely packed. Up to his limit, however, he was to be relied upon, and not one of his hundred score of cigarettes would be found to differ in weight from another by a single grain.
It is perhaps time to describe the outward appearance of the busy worker, out of whose life the events of some six-and-thirty hours furnish the subject of this little tale. The Count is thirty years old, but might be thought older, for there are grey streaks in his smooth black hair, and there is a grey tone in the complexion of his tired face. In figure he is thin, broad shouldered, sinewy, well made and graceful. He moves easily and with a certain elegance. His arms and legs are long in proportion to his body. His head is well shaped, bony, full of energy—his nose is finely modelled and sharply aquiline; a short, dark moustache does not quite hide the firm, well-chiselled lips, and the clean-cut chin is prominent and of the martial type. From under his rather heavy eyebrows a[Pg 14] pair of keen eyes, full of changing light and expression, look somewhat contemptuously on the world and its inhabitants. On the whole, the Count is a handsome man and looks a gentleman, in spite of his occupation and in spite of his clothes, which are in the fashion of twenty years ago, but are carefully brushed and all but spotless. There are poor men who can wear a coat as a red Indian will ride a mustang which a white man has left for dead, beyond the period predetermined by the nature of tailoring as the natural term of existence allotted to earthly garments. We look upon a centenarian as a miracle of longevity, and he is careful to tell us his age if he have not lost the power of speech; but if the coats of poor men could speak, how much more marvellous in our eyes would their powers of life appear! A stranger would have taken the Count for a half-pay officer of good birth in straitened circumstances. The expression of his face at the time in question was grave and thoughtful, as though he were thinking of matters weightier to his happiness, if not more necessary to his material welfare than his work. He saw his fingers moving, he watched each honey-coloured bundle of cut leaf as it was rolled in the parchment tongue, and with unswerving regularity[Pg 15] he made the motions required to slip the tobacco into the shell. But, while seeing all that he did, and seeing consciously, he looked as though he saw also through the familiar materials shaped under his fingers, into a dim distance full of a larger life and wider interests.
The five occupants of the workshop had been working in silence for nearly half an hour. The two girls on the one side and the two men on the other kept their eyes bent down upon their fingers, while Johann Schmidt, the Cossack, plied his guillotine-like knife in the corner. This same Johann Schmidt, whose real name, to judge from his appearance, might have been Tarass Bulba or Danjelo Buralbash, and was probably of a similar sound, was at once the wit, the spendthrift and the humanitarian of the Fischelowitz manufactory, possessing a number of good qualities in such abundant measure as to make him a total failure in everything except the cutting of tobacco. Like many witty, generous and kind-hearted persons in a much higher rank of existence, he was cursed with a total want of tact. On the present occasion, having sliced through an unusually long package of leaves and having encountered an exceptional number of obstacles in doing so, he thought fit to pause, draw a[Pg 16] long breath and wipe the perspiration from his sallow forehead with a pocket-handkerchief in which the neutral tints predominated. This operation, preparatory to a rest of ten minutes, having been successfully accomplished, Tarass Bulba Schmidt picked up a tiny oblong bit of paper which had found its way to his feet from one of the girls' tables, took a pinch of the freshly cut tobacco beside him and rolled a cigarette in his palm with one hand while he felt in his pocket for a match with the other. Then, in the midst of a great cloud of fragrant smoke, he sat down upon the edge of his cutting-block and looked at his companions. After a few moments of deep thought he gave expression to his meditations in bad German. It is curious to see how readily the Slavs in Germany fall into the habit of using the language of the country when conversing together.
"It is my opinion," he said at last, "that the most objectless existences are those which most exactly accomplish the object set before them."
Having given vent to this bit of paradox, Johann inhaled as much smoke as his leathery lungs could contain and relapsed into silence. Vjera, the Polish girl, glanced at the tobacco-cutter and went on with her work. The insignificant girl beside her giggled[Pg 17] vacantly. Dumnoff did not seem to have heard the remark.
"Nineteen hundred and twenty-three," muttered the Count between his teeth and in Russian, as the nineteenth hundred and twenty-third cigarette rolled from his fingers, and he took up the parchment tongue for the nineteenth hundred and twenty-fourth time that day.
"I do not exactly understand you, Herr Schmidt," said Vjera without looking up again. "An objectless life has no object. How then—"
"There is nothing to understand," growled Dumnoff, who never counted his own work, and always enjoyed a bit of conversation, provided he could abuse something or somebody. "There is nothing in it, and Herr Schmidt is a Landau moss-head."
It would be curious to ascertain why the wiseacres of eastern Bavaria are held throughout South Germany in such contempt as to be a byword for dulness and stupidity. The Cossack's dark eyes shot a quick glance at the Russian, but he took no notice of the remark.
"I mean," he said, after a pause, "exactly what I say. I am an honest fellow, and I always mean what I say, and no offence to anybody. Do we not all of us, here with Fischelowitz, exactly fulfil the[Pg 18] object set before us, I would like to ask? Do we not make cigarettes from morning till night with horrible exactness and regularity? Very well. Do we not, at the same time, lead an atrociously objectless existence?"
"The object of existence is to live," remarked Dumnoff, who was fond of cabbage and strong spirits, and of little else in the world. The Cossack laughed.
"Do you call this living?" he asked contemptuously. Then the good-humoured tone returned to his voice, and he shrugged his bony shoulders as he crossed one leg over the other and took another puff.
"Nineteen hundred and twenty-nine," said the Count.
"Do you call that a life for a Christian man?" asked Schmidt again, looking at him and waving towards him the lighted cigarette he held. "Is that a life for a gentleman, for a real Count, for a noble, for an educated aristocrat, for a man born to be the heir of millions?"
"Thirty," said the Count. "No, it is not. But there is no reason why you should remind us of the fact, that I know of. It is bad enough to be obliged to do the thing, without being made to talk about it. Not that it matters to me so much to-day as[Pg 19] it did a year ago, as you may imagine. Thirty-one. It will soon be over for me, at least. In fact I only finish these two thousand out of kindness to Fischelowitz, because I know he has a large order to deliver on the day after to-morrow. And, besides, a gentleman must keep his word even—thirty-two—in the matter of making cigarettes for other people. But the work on this batch shall be a parting gift of my goodwill to Fischelowitz, who is an honest fellow and has understood my painful situation all along. To-morrow at this time, I shall be far away. Thirty-three."
The Count drew a long breath of relief in the anticipation of his release from captivity and hard labour. Vjera dropped her glass tube and her little pieces of paper and looked sadly at him, while he was speaking.
"By the by," observed the Cossack, "to-day is Tuesday. I had quite forgotten. So you really leave us to-morrow."
"Yes. It is all settled at last, and I have had letters. It is to-morrow—and this is my last hundred."
"At what time?" inquired Dumnoff, with a rough laugh. "Is it to be in the morning or in the afternoon?"[Pg 20]
"I do not know," answered the Count, quietly and with an air of conviction. "It will certainly be before night."
"Provided you get the news in time to ask us to the feast," jeered the other, "we shall all be as happy as you yourself."
"Thirty-four," said the Count, who had rolled the last cigarette very slowly and thoughtfully.
Vjera cast an imploring look on Dumnoff, as though beseeching him not to continue his jesting. The rough man, who might have sat for the type of the Russian mujik, noticed the glance and was silent.
"Who is incredulous enough to disbelieve this time?" asked the Cossack, gravely. "Besides, the Count says that he has had letters, so it is certain, at last."
"Love-letters, he means," giggled the insignificant girl, who rejoiced in the name of Anna Schmigjelskova. Then she looked at Vjera as though afraid of her displeasure.
But Vjera took no notice of the silly speech and sat idle for some minutes, gazing at the Count with an expression in which love, admiration and pity were very oddly mingled. Pale and ill as she looked, there was a ray of light and a movement of[Pg 21] life in her face during those few moments. Then she took again her glass tube and her bits of paper and resumed her task of making shells, with a little heave of her thin chest that betrayed the suppression of a sigh.
The Count finished his second thousand, and arranged the last hundreds neatly with the others, laying them in little heaps and patting the ends with his fingers so that they should present an absolutely symmetrical appearance. Dumnoff plodded on, in his peculiar way, doing the work well and then carelessly tossing it into a basket by his side. He was capable of working fourteen hours at a stretch when there was a prospect of cabbage soup and liquor in the evening. The Cossack cleaned his cutting-block and his broad swivel knife and emptied the cut tobacco into a clean tin box. It was clear that the day's work was almost at an end for all present. At that moment Fischelowitz entered with jaunty step and smiling face, jingling a quantity of loose silver in his hand. He is a little man, rotund and cheerful, quiet of speech and sunny in manner, with a brown beard and waving dark hair, arranged in the manner dear to barbers' apprentices. He has very soft brown eyes, a healthy complexion and[Pg 22] a nose the inverse of aquiline, for it curves upwards to its sharp point, as though perpetually snuffing after the pleasant fragrance of his favourite "Dubec otborny."
"Well, my children," he said, with a slight stammer that somehow lent an additional kindliness to his tone, "what has the day's work been? You first, Herr Graf," he added, turning to the Count. "I suppose that you have made a thousand at least?"
Fischelowitz possessed in abundance the tact which was lacking in Johann Schmidt, the Cossack. He well knew that the Count had made double the quantity, but he also knew that the latter enjoyed the small triumph of producing twice what seemed to be expected of him.
"Two thousand, Herr Fischelowitz," he said, proudly. Then seeing that his employer was counting out the sum of six marks, he made a deprecating gesture, as though refusing all payment.
"No," he said, with great dignity, and rising from his seat. "No. You must allow me, on this occasion, to refuse the honorarium usual under the circumstances."
"And why, my dear Count?" inquired Fischelowitz, shaking the six marks in one hand and the[Pg 23] remainder of his money in the other, as though weighing the silver. "And why will you refuse me the honour—"
The other working people exchanged glances of amusement, as though they knew what was coming. Vjera hid her face in her hands as she rested her elbows on the table before her.
"I must indeed explain," answered the Count. "To-morrow, I shall be obliged to leave you, not to return to the occupation which has so long been a necessity to me in my troubles. Fortune at last returns to me and I am free. I think I have spoken to you in confidence of my situation, once at least, if not more often. My difficulties are at an end. I have received letters announcing that to-morrow I shall be reinstated in my possessions. You have shown me kindness—kindness, Herr Fischelowitz, and, what has been more than kindness to me, you have shown me great courtesy. Every one has not treated the poor gentleman with the same forbearance. But let bygones be bygones. On the occasion of my return to prosperity, permit me to offer you, as the only gift as yet within my means, the result of my last day's work within these walls. You have been very kind, and I thank you very sincerely."[Pg 24]
There was a tremor in the Count's voice, and a moisture in his eyes, as he drew himself up in his threadbare decent frock-coat and held out his sinewy hand, stained with the long handling of tobacco in his daily labour. Fischelowitz smiled with uncommon cheerfulness as he grasped the bony fingers heartily.
"Thank you," he said. "I accept. I esteem it an honour to have been of any assistance to you in your temporary annoyances."
Vjera still hid her face. The Cossack watched what was happening with an expression half sad, half curious, and Dumnoff displayed a set of ferocious white teeth as he stupidly grinned from ear to ear.
Fischelowitz paid each worker for the day's work, in his quick, cheerful way, and each, being paid, passed out through the front shop into the street. Five minutes later the Count was strolling along the Maximilians-strasse in the direction of the royal palace. As he walked he drew himself up to the full height of his military figure and looked into the faces of the passers in the way with grave dignity. At that hour there were many people abroad, slim lieutenants in the green uniforms of the Uhlans and in the blue coats and crimson facings of the heavy cavalry, superior officers with silver or gold plated epaulettes, slim maidens and plump matrons, beardless students in bright, coloured caps, and solemn, elderly civilians with great beards and greater spectacles, great Munich burghers and little Munich nobles, gaily dressed children of all ages, dogs of every breed from the Saint Bernard to the crooked-jointed Dachs, perambulators not a few and legions of nursery-maids. Most of the people who passed[Pg 26] cast a glance at the thoroughbred-looking man in the threadbare frock-coat who looked at them all with such an air of quiet superiority, carrying his head so high and putting down his feet with such a firm tread. There were doubtless those among the crowd who saw in the tired face the indications of a life-story not without interest, for the crowd was not, nor ever is, in Munich, lacking in intelligent and observant persons. But in all the multitude there was not one man or woman who knew the name of the individual to whom the face belonged, and there were few who would have risked the respectability of their social position by making the acquaintance of a man so evidently poor, even if the occasion had presented itself.
But presently a figure was seen moving swiftly through the throng in the direction already taken by the Count, a figure of a type much more familiar to the sight of the Munich stroller, for it was that of a poorly dressed girl with a long plait of red-brown hair, carrying a covered brown straw basket upon one arm and hurrying along with the noiseless tread possible only in the extreme old age of shoes that were never strong. Poor Vjera had been sent by Fischelowitz with a thousand cigarettes to be delivered at one of the hotels. She was generally[Pg 27] employed upon like errands, because she was the poorest in the establishment, and those who received the wares gave her a few pence for her trouble. She sped quickly onward, until she suddenly found herself close behind the Count. Then she slackened her pace and crept along as noiselessly as possible, her eyes fixed upon him as she walked and evidently doing her best not to overtake him nor to be seen by him. As luck would have it, however, the Count suddenly stood still before the show window of a picture-dealer's shop. A clever painting of a solitary Cossack riding along a stony mountain road, by Josef Brandt, had attracted his attention. Then as he realised that he had looked at the picture a dozen times during the previous week, his eye wandered, and in the reflection of the plate-glass window he caught sight of Vjera's slight form at no great distance from him. He turned sharply upon his heels and met her eyes, taking off his limp hat with a courteous gesture.
"Permit me," he said, laying his hand upon the basket and trying to take it from her.
Poor Vjera's face flushed suddenly, and her grip tightened upon the straw handle and she refused to let it go.
"No, you shall never do that again," she said, quickly, trying to draw back from him.[Pg 28]
"And why not? Why should I not do you a service?"
"The other day you took it—the people stared at you—they never stare at me, for I am only a poor girl—"
"And what are the people or what is their staring to me?" asked the Count, quietly. "I am not afraid of being taken for a servant or a porter, because I carry a lady's parcel. Pray give me the basket."
"Oh no, pray let it be," cried Vjera, in great earnest. "I cannot bear to see you with such a thing in your hand."
They were still standing before the picture-dealer's window, while many people passed along the pavement. In trying to draw away, Vjera found herself suddenly in the stream, and just then a broad-shouldered officer who chanced to be looking the other way came into collision with her, so roughly that she was forced almost into the Count's arms. The latter made a step forward.
"Is it your habit to jostle ladies in that way?" he asked in a sharp tone, addressing the stout lieutenant.
The latter muttered something which might be taken for an apology and passed on, having no[Pg 29] intention of being drawn into a street quarrel with an odd-looking individual who, from his accent, was evidently a foreigner. The Count's eyes darted an angry glance after the offender, and then he looked again at Vjera. In the little accident he had got possession of the basket. Thereupon he passed it to his left hand and offered Vjera his right arm.
"Did the insolent fellow hurt you?" he asked anxiously, in Polish.
"Oh no—only give me my basket!" Vjera's face was painfully flushed.
"No, my dear child," said the Count, gravely. "You will not deny me the pleasure of accompanying you and of carrying your burden. Afterwards, if you will, we can take a little walk together, before I see you to your home."
"You are always so kind to me," answered the girl, bending her head, as though to hide her burning cheeks, but submitting at last to his will.
For some minutes they walked on in silence. Then Vjera showed by a gesture that she wished to cross the street, on the other side of which was situated one of the principal hotels of the city. In front of the entrance Vjera put out her hand entreatingly towards her basket, but the Count took no[Pg 30] notice of the attempt and resolutely ascended the steps of the porch by her side. Behind the swinging glass door stood the huge porter amply endowed with that military appearance so characteristic of all men in Germany who wear anything of the nature of an official costume.
"The lady has a package for some one here," said the Count, holding out the basket.
"For the head waiter," said Vjera, timidly.
The porter took the basket, set it down, touched the button of an electric bell and silently looked at the pair with the malignant scrutiny which is the prerogative of servants in their manner with those whom they are privileged to consider as their inferiors. Presently, however, meeting the Count's cold stare, he turned away and strolled up the vestibule. A moment later the head waiter appeared, glorious in a perfectly new evening coat and a phenomenal shirt front.
"Ah, my cigarettes!" he exclaimed briskly, and the Count heard the chink of the nickel pence, as the head waiter inserted two fat white fingers into the pocket of his exceedingly fashionable waistcoat.
The sight which must follow was one which the Count was anxious not to see. He therefore turned his back and pretended to brush from his sleeve a[Pg 31] speck of dust revealed to his searching eye in the strong afternoon light which streamed through the open door. Then Vjera's low-spoken word of thanks and her light tread made him aware that she had received her little gratuity; he stood politely aside while she passed out, and then went down the half-dozen steps with her. As they began to move up the street, he did not offer her his arm again.
"You are so kind, so kind to me," said poor Vjera. "How can I ever thank you!"
"Between you and me there is no question of thanks," answered her companion. "Or if there is to be such a question it should arise in another way. It is for me to thank you."
"For many things, all of which have proceeded from your kindness of heart and have resulted in making my life bearable during the past months—or years. I keep little account of time. How long is it since I have been making cigarettes for Fischelowitz, at the rate of three marks a thousand?"
"Ever since I can remember," answered Vjera. "It is six years since I came to work there as a little girl."
"Six years? That is not possible! You must be mistaken, it cannot be so long."[Pg 32]
Vjera said nothing, but turned her face away with an expression of pain.
"Yes, it is a long time, since all that happened," said the Count, thoughtfully. "I was a young man then, I am old now."
"Old! How can you say anything so untrue!" Vjera exclaimed with considerable indignation.
"Yes, I am old. It is no wonder. We say at home that 'strange earth dies without wind.' A foreign land will make old bones of a man without the help of years. That is what Germany has done for me. And yet, how much older I should be but for you, dear Vjera! Shall we sit down here, in this quiet place, under the trees? You know it is all over to-morrow, and I am free at last. I would like to tell you my story."
Vjera, who was tired of the close atmosphere of the workroom and whose strength was not enough to let her walk far with pleasure, sat down upon the green bench willingly enough, but the nervous look of pain had not disappeared from her face.
"Is it of any use to tell it to me again?" she asked, sadly, as she leaned against the painted backboard.
The Count produced a cigarette and gravely lighted it, before he answered her, and when he[Pg 33] spoke he seemed to attach little or no importance to her question.
"You see," he said, "it is all different now, and I can look at it from a different point of view. Formerly when I spoke of it, I am afraid that I spoke bitterly, for, of course, I could not foresee that it could all come right again so soon, so very soon. And now that this weary time is over I can look back upon it with some pride, if with little pleasure—save for the part you have played in my life, and—may I say it?—saving the part I have played in yours."
He put out his hand gently and tenderly touched hers, and there was something in the meeting of those two thin, yellow hands, stained with the same daily labour and not meeting for the first time thus, that sent a thrill to the two hearts and that might have brought a look of thoughtful interest into eyes dulled and wearied by the ordinary sights of this world. Vjera did not resent the innocent caress, but the colour that came into her face was not of the same hue as that which had burned there when he had insisted upon carrying her basket. This time the blush was not painful to see, but rather shed a faint light of beauty over the plain, pale features. Poor Vjera was happy for a moment.[Pg 34]
"I am very glad if I have been anything to you," she said. "I would I might have been more."
"More? I do not see—you have been gentle, forbearing, respecting my misfortunes and trying to make others respect them. What more could you have done, or what more could you have been?"
Vjera was silent, but she softly withdrew her hand from his and gazed at the people in the distance. The Count smoked without speaking, for several minutes, closing his eyes as though revolving a great problem in his mind, then glancing sidelong at his companion's face, hesitating as though about to speak, checking himself and shutting his eyes again in meditation. Holding his cigarette between his teeth he clasped his fingers together tightly, unclasped them again and let his arms fall on each side of him. At last he turned sharply, as though resolved what to do.
He believed that he was on the very eve of recovering a vast fortune and of resuming a high position in the world. It was no wonder that there was a struggle in his soul, when at that moment a new complication seemed to present itself. He was indeed sure that he did not love Vjera, and in the brilliant dreams which floated before his half-closed eyes, visions of beautiful and high-born women[Pg 35] dazzled him with their smiles and enchanted him by the perfect grace of their movements. To-morrow he might choose his wife among such as they. But to-day Vjera was by his side, poor Vjera, who alone of those he had known during the years of his captivity had stood by him, had felt for him, had given him a sense of reliance in her perfect sincerity and honest affection. And her affection had grown into something more; it had developed into love during the last months. He had seen it, had known it and had done nothing to arrest the growth. Nay, he had done worse. Only a moment ago he had taken her hand in a way which might well mislead an innocent girl. The Count, according to his lights, was the very incarnation of the theory, honour, in the practice, honesty. His path was clear. If he had deceived Vjera in the very smallest accent of word or detail of deed he must make instant reparation. This was the reason why he turned sharply in his seat and looked at her with a look which was certainly kind, but which was, perhaps, more full of determination than of lover-like tenderness.
"Vjera," he said, slowly, pausing on every syllable of his speech, "will you be my wife?"
Vjera looked at him long and shook her head in[Pg 36] silence. Instead of blushing, she turned pale, changing colour with that suddenness which belongs to delicate or exhausted organisations. The Count did not heed the plain though unspoken negation and continued to speak very slowly and earnestly, choosing his words and rounding his expressions as though he were making a declaration to a young princess instead of asking a poor Polish girl to marry him. He even drew himself together, as it were, with the movement of dignity which was habitual with him, straightening his back, squaring his shoulders and leaning slightly forward in his seat. As he began to speak again, Vjera clasped her hands upon her knees and looked down at the gravel of the public path.
"I am in earnest," he said. "To-morrow, all those rights to which I was born will be restored to me, and I shall enjoy what the world calls a great position. Am I so deeply indebted to the world that I must submit to all its prejudices and traditions? Has the world given me anything, in exchange for which it becomes my duty to consult its caprices, or its social superstitions? Surely not. To whom am I most indebted, to the world which has turned its back on me during a temporary embarrassment and loss of fortune, or to my friend[Pg 37] Vjera who has been faithfully kind all along? The question itself is foolish. I owe everything to Vjera, and nothing to the world. The case is simple, the argument is short and the verdict is plain. I will not take the riches and the dignities which will be mine by this time to-morrow to the feet of some high-born lady who, to-day, would look coldly on me because I am not—not quite in the fashion, so far as outward appearance is concerned. But I will and I do offer all, wealth, title, dignity, everything to Vjera. And she shakes her head, and with a single gesture refuses it all. Why? Has she a reason to give? An argument to set up? A sensible ground for her decision? No, certainly not."
As he looked gravely towards her averted face, Vjera again shook her head, slowly and thoughtfully, with an air of unalterable determination. He seemed surprised at her obstinacy and watched her in silence for a few moments.
"I see," he said at last, very sadly. "You think that I do not love you." Vjera made no sign, and a long pause followed during which the Count's features expressed great perplexity.
The day was drawing to its close and the low sun shot level rays through the trees of the Hofgarten,[Pg 38] far above the heads of the laughing children, the gossiping nurses and the slowly moving crowd that filled the pavement along the drive in front of the palace. Vjera and the Count were seated on a bench which was now already in the shade. The air was beginning to grow chilly, but neither of them heeded the change.
"You think that I do not love you," said the Count again. "You are mistaken, deeply mistaken, Vjera."
The faint, soft colour rose in the poor girl's waxen cheeks, and there was an unaccustomed light in her weary blue eyes as they met his.
"I do not say," continued her companion, "that I love you as boys love at twenty. I am past that. I am not a young man any more, and I have had misfortunes such as would have broken the hearts of most men, and of the kind that do not dispose to great love-passion. If my troubles had come to me through the love of a woman—it might have been otherwise. As it is—do you think that I have no love for you, Vjera? Do not think that, dear—do not let me see that you think it, for it would hurt me. There is much for you, much, very much."
"To-day," answered Vjera, sadly, "but not to-morrow."[Pg 39]
"You are cruel, without meaning to be even unkind," said the Count in an unsteady voice. This time it was Vjera who took his hand in hers and pressed it.
"God forbid that I should have an unkind thought for you," she said, very tenderly.
The Count turned to her again and there was a moisture in his eyes of which he was unconscious.
"Then believe that I do truly love you, Vjera," he answered. "Believe that all that there is to give you, I give, and that my all is not a little. I love you, child, in a way—ah, well, you have your girlish dreams of love, and it is right that you should have them and it would be very wrong to destroy them. But they shall not be destroyed by me, and surely not by any other man, while I live. I shall grow young again, I will grow young for you, for, in years at least, I am not old. I will be a boy for you, Vjera, and I will love as boys love, but with the strength of a man who has known sorrow and overlived it. You shall not feel that in taking me you are taking a father, a protector, a man to whom your youth seems childhood, and your youthfulness childish folly. No, no—I will be more than that to you, I will be all to you that you are to me, and more, and more, each day, till love[Pg 40] has made us of one age, of one mind, of one heart. Do you not believe that all this shall be? Speak, dear. What is there yet behind in your thoughts?"
"I cannot tell. I wish I knew." Vjera's answer was scarcely audible and she turned her face from him.
"And yet, there is something, you are keeping something from me, when I have kept nothing from you. Why is it? Why do you not quite trust me and believe in me? I can make you happy, now. Yesterday it was different and so it was in all the yesterdays of yesterdays. I had nothing to offer you but myself."
"It were best so," said Vjera in a low voice.
The Count was silent. There was something in her manner which he could not understand, or rather, as he fancied, there was something in his own brain which prevented him from understanding a very simple matter, and he grew impatient with himself. At the same time he felt more and more strongly drawn to the young girl at his side. As the sun went down and the evening shadows deepened, he saw more in her face than he had been accustomed to see there. Every line of the pale features so familiar to his sight in his everyday life, reminded him of moments in the recent past when[Pg 41] he had been wretchedly unhappy, and when the kindly look in Vjera's face had comforted him and made life seem less unbearable. In his dreary world she alone had shown that she cared whether he lived or died, were insulted or respected, were treated like a dog or like a Christian man. The kindness of his employer was indeed undeniable, but it was of the sort which grated upon the sensitive nature of the unfortunate cigarette-maker, for it was in itself vulgarly cheerful, assuming that, after all, the Count should be contented with his lot. But Vjera had always seemed to understand him, to feel for him, to foresee his sensibilities as it were, and to be prepared for them. In a measure appreciable to himself she admired him, and admiration alone can make pity palatable to the proud. In her eyes his constancy under misfortune was as admirable as his misfortunes themselves were worthy of commiseration. In her eyes he was a gentleman, and one who had a right to hold his head high among the best. When he was poorest, he had felt himself to be in her eyes a hero. Are there many men who can resist the charm of the one woman who believes them to be heroic? Are not most men, too, really better for the trust and faith that is placed in them by others, as the earthen vessel, valueless in itself,[Pg 42] becomes a thing of prize and beauty under the loving hand of the artist who draws graceful figures upon it and colours it skilfully, and handles it tenderly?
And now the poor man was puzzled and made anxious by the girl's obstinate rejection of his offer. A chilly thought took shape in his mind and pained him exceedingly.
"Vjera," he said at last, "I see how it is. You have never loved me. You have only pitied me. You are good and kind, Vjera, but I wish it had been otherwise."
He spoke very quietly, in a subdued tone, and the moisture which had been more than once in his eyes since he had sat down beside the young girl, now almost took the shape of a tear. He was wounded in his innocent vanity, in the last stronghold of his fast-fading individuality. But Vjera turned quickly at the words and a momentary fire illuminated her pale blue eyes and dispelled the misty veil that seemed to dull them.
"Whatever you say, do not say that!" she exclaimed. "I love you with all my heart—I—ah, if you only understood, if you only knew, if you only guessed!"
"That is it," answered the Count. "If I only[Pg 43] could—but there is something that passes my understanding."
The look of pain faded from his face and gave way to a bright smile, so bright, so rare, that it restored in the magic of an instant the freshness of early youth to the weary mask of sorrow. Then he covered his eyes with his hands as though searching his memory for something he could not find.
"What is it?" he asked, after a short pause and looking suddenly at Vjera. "It is something I ought to remember and yet something I have quite forgotten. Help me, Vjera, tell me what you are thinking of, and I will explain it all."
"I was thinking of this day a week ago," said Vjera, and a little sob escaped her as she quickly looked away.
"A week ago? Let me see—what happened a week ago? But why should I ask? Nothing ever happens to me, nothing until now! And now, oh Vjera, it is you who do not understand, it is you who do not know, who cannot guess."
As if he had forgotten everything else in the sudden realisation of his return to liberty and fortune, he began to speak quickly and excitedly in a tone louder and clearer than that of his ordinary voice.
"No," he cried, "you can never guess what this[Pg 44] change is to me. You can never know what I enjoy in the thought of being myself again, you cannot understand what it is to have been rich and great, and to be poor and wretched and to regain wealth and dignity again by the stroke of a pen in the vibration of a second. And yet it is true, all true, I tell you, to-day, at last, after so much waiting. To-morrow they will come to my lodging to fetch me—a court carriage or two, and many officials who will treat me with the old respect I was used to long ago. They will come up my little staircase, bringing money, immense quantities of money, and the papers and the parchments and the seals. How they will stare at my poor lodging, for they have never known that I have been so wretched. Yes, one will bring money in a black leathern case—I know just how it will look—and another will have with him a box full of documents—all lawfully mine—and a third will bring my orders, that I once wore, and with them the order of Saint Alexander Nevsky and a letter on broad heavy paper, signed Alexander Alexandrovitch, signed by the Tsar himself, Vjera. And I shall go with them to be received in audience by the Prince Regent here, before I leave for Petersburg. And then, after dinner, in the evening, I will get into[Pg 45] my special carriage in the express train and my servants will make me comfortable and then away, away, a night, and a day and another night and perhaps a few hours more and I shall be at home at last, in my own great, beautiful home, far out in the glorious country among the woods and the streams and the birds; and I shall be driven in an open carriage with four horses up from the village through the great avenue of poplars to the grand old house. But before I go in I will go to the tomb—yes, I will go to the tomb among the trees, and I will say a prayer for my father and—"
"Your father?" Vjera started slightly. She had listened to the long catalogue of the poor man's anticipations with a sad, unchanging face, as though she had heard it all before. But at the mention of his father's death she seemed surprised.
"Yes. He is dead at last, and my brother died on the same day. I have had letters. There was a disease abroad in the village. They caught it and they died. And now everything is mine, everything, the lands and the houses and the money, all, all mine. But I will say a prayer for them, now that they are dead and I shall never see them again. God knows, they treated me ill when they were alive, but death has them at last."[Pg 46]
The Count's eyes grew suddenly cold and hard, so that Vjera shuddered as she caught the look of hatred in them.
"Death, death, death!" he cried. "Death the judge, the gaoler, the executioner! He has done justice on them for me, and they will not break loose from the house he has made for them to lie in and to sleep in for ever. And now, friend Death, I am master in their stead, and you must give me time to enjoy the mastership before you serve me likewise. Oh Vjera, the joy, the delight, the ecstasy, the glory of it all!"
He struck the palms of his lean hands together with the gesture of a boy, and laughed aloud in the sheer overflowing of his heart. But Vjera sat still, silent and thoughtful, beside him, watching him rather anxiously as though she feared lest the excess of his happiness might do him an injury.
"You do not say anything, Vjera. You do not seem glad," he said, suddenly noticing her expression.
"I am very glad, indeed I am," she answered, smiling with a great effort. "Who would not be glad at the thought of seeing you enjoy your own again?"
"It is not for the money, Vjera!" he exclaimed[Pg 47] in a lower and more concentrated tone. "It is not really for the money nor for the lands, nor even for the position or the dignity. Do you know what it is that makes me so happy? I have got the best of it. That is it. It has been a long struggle and a weary one, but I knew I should win, though I never saw how it was to be. When they turned me away from them like a dog, my father and my brother, I faced them on the threshold for the last time and I said to them, 'Look you, you have made an outcast of me, and yet I am your son, my father, and your brother, my brother, and you know it. And yet I tell you that when we meet again, I shall be master here, and not you.' And so it has turned out, Vjera, for they shall meet me—
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