“How the beautiful dress lies in the dust!”
Instead of the wedding feast there followed the funeral banquet, and in the place of the embroidered robe came the mourning garments.
Black! The color which makes rich and poor alike.
Athalie and Timéa were dressed alike in black. And if the mourning had consisted only in the wearing of its outward garb! But with the sudden death of Herr Athanas, all the birds of ill omen had collected, as the ravens come and sit in long lines on the roof before a great storm.
The first croak was, that the bridegroom sent back his engagement-ring. He did not appear at the funeral to lend his bride a supporting arm as she followed the coffin half fainting; for in this little town it was the custom that the mourners, whether gentle or simple, should follow their dead on foot and with bare heads to the burial-ground.
There were some who blamed this course of action in Katschuka, and did not consider it an excuse that, as Herr Brazovics had not kept to the condition of handing over the dowry beforehand, the bridegroom was justified in considering himself freed from his obligations. There are a few narrow-minded people who can find no excuse for such a withdrawal. Then came the ravens and sat on the roof. One creditor after another appeared and demanded his money. And then the whole house of cards collapsed.
The first who spoke of a suit at law blew the concern into the air. When once the avalanche begins to roll, it never stops till it gets to the foot of the hill.
It was soon ascertained that the fears of the bridegroom, who had got safely away, were only too well founded. In the affairs of Herr Brazovics there figured so many investments apparently sound but really unprofitable, such false calculations, unsecured debts, and imaginary securities, that when order was brought into this chaos, the whole property did not suffice to satisfy the creditors. Besides, it came to light that he had used moneys intrusted to his honor: orphans’ capital, church endowments, hospital funds, the deposits of his ship captains. The floods rose over the roof of the house, and these floods brought mire and dirt with them; and what they left behind was — shame.
Timéa too lost her whole property. The orphan’s trust-money had never been invested at all.
Every day lawyers, magistrates’ clerks, bailiffs, came to the house. They sealed each box and closet; they did not ask the ladies for permission to visit them; unannounced they bounced in at any hour of the day, ransacked the rooms, and gave vent to reproaches and curses on the dead man, so loud that the mourning women could not but hear them. All they found in the house was taken out in turn and appraised, down to the pictures, with and without their frames; even the wedding-dress, without a bride, did not escape this fate. And then they decided on the date, and had it posted on the door, on which everything was to be sold by auction — everything, not excepting the embroidered dress. The last lot would be the house itself; and when it was sold the former owners could go their way wheresoever they chose, and the beautiful Athalie might look up to Heaven and ask where she was henceforth to lay her haughty head. Where indeed? — she, the orphaned daughter of a fraudulent bankrupt, to whom not even her good name was left, whom no one wanted, not even herself. Of all the treasures she possessed, only two valuable souvenirs remained which she had hidden from the bailiffs — an onyx box and the returned engagement-ring. The box she had concealed in her pocket; and when alone at night, she drew it out and looked at its precious contents. There were all sorts of poison in it. By some odd freak, Athalie had bought it in one of her Italian journeys, and while it was in her possession she thought she could defy the world. She imagined herself able to destroy her own life at any moment, and this idea made her feel as a despot to her parents and her lover. If they do not do all she wishes, the box is there; she need only choose the swiftest poison, and in the morning they would find her a corpse. Now a great temptation assailed her; life lay before her as a desolate waste; the father had made his child a beggar, and the bridegroom had forsaken his bride.
Athalie rose from her bed: she looked into the open box, and sought among the various poisons.
Then she suddenly discovered that she was afraid of death! She had not strength to cast life away; she gazed at herself in the glass — was all that beauty to be annihilated?
She shut the box and put it away. Then she brought out the other jewel, the ring. There is a poison in that too, and of a yet more deadly sort, for it kills the soul. But she has the courage to swallow it — to intoxicate herself with it. She had loved the man who gave her this ring — not only so, but she was still madly in love with him. The poison-box gives bad advice — the ring even worse. Athalie begins to dress; there is no one to help her — the servants have all left the house, Frau Sophie and Timéa are sleeping in the maids’ room; the official seal has been attached to the doors of the public apartments. Athalie does not wake the sleepers, but dresses alone. How far the night has passed she can not tell; no one winds up the splendid clocks, now that they are to pass under the hammer. One points to eight o’clock, another to three, but it does not matter. Athalie finds the key of the street-door, and creeps out, leaving all open behind her. Who is likely to be robbed? and besides, who would, like her, venture alone in the dark streets?
At that time the streets of Komorn were decidedly dark at night. One lamp at the Trinity pillar, one at the town-hall, and a third at the main guard — no others anywhere. Athalie takes the road to the Promenade, the so-called Anglia. It is a region of evil reputation. A dark lane between the town and the fort, in which at night fallen women with painted faces and disheveled hair loiter, when they are driven from their haunts on the “little square.” Athalie is sure to meet such creatures if she goes by the Anglia. But she is not afraid. The poison she sucked out of the golden ring has taken away from her fear of these impure forms. One only shrinks from the gutter as long as one has kept clear of it.
At the corner stands a sentry: she must try to creep past him without being seen and challenged.
The corner house has a colonnade leading to the square. Here in the day-time the bread-sellers have their stand. Athalie chooses her path through this arcade, as it hides her from the sentry’s eyes.
In walking quickly she stumbled over something. It was a ragged woman, quite drunk, lying across the threshold. The half-human creature whom her foot touched gave vent to filthy curses. Athalie took no notice, but stepped aside from the obstacle; she felt easier when she turned the corner toward the Promenade. The light of the main-guard lamp had now disappeared, and she found herself under the gloom of the trees. Through the juniper-bushes shone a ray from a lighted window. Athalie followed that guiding star. There lay the dwelling of the engineer officer. She seized the lion-headed knocker at the little door, over which was painted the double eagle; her hand trembled as she raised it in order to knock gently, and at the sound the soldier-servant came out and opened to her.
“Is the captain in?” asked Athalie.
The fellow nodded, grinning. Yes — he was at home. He had often seen Athalie, and many a pretty bright coin had rolled into his hand from her delicate fingers, when he carried the beautiful lady flowers or choice fruit from his master.
The captain was up and at work; his room was simply furnished, without any luxury. On the walls hung maps and surveying instruments; the strictest military simplicity surprise the incomer, as well as a penetrating smell of tobacco, which adhered to the books and furniture, and was perceptible even when no one was smoking. Athalie had never seen the captain’s room. The house to which he was to have taken her on their marriage-day was very different, but it had been taken possession of by the creditors with all its contents on that very morning. She had only looked in at the window when she walked with her mother on the Promenade in the afternoon to hear the band play.
Herr Katschuka started up in alarm. He was not prepared for a lady’s visit; the three top buttons of his violet tunic were unbuttoned, contrary to regulations, and he had laid aside his horsehair cravat. Athalie remained standing at the door with hanging arms and her head down: the captain hastened to her.
“In God’s name, fraülein, what are you doing here? What are you here for?” She could not speak — she sunk on his breast and sobbed wildly. He did not embrace her. “Sit down, fraülein,” said he, leading her to the plain leather sofa, and then his first care was to put on his cravat again. He drew a chair near the divan and sat down opposite Athalie. “What do you want, fraülein?”
She dried her tears and looked with her radiant eyes long at the captain, as if thus to tell him why she came. Will he not understand?
No, he understood nothing. When she was obliged to break silence, she began to tremble as if with ague.
“Sir,” she said, with a quivering voice, “as long as I was prosperous, you were very devoted to me. Is nothing left of that affection?”
“Fraülein,” answered Katschuka, with cold politeness, “I shall always be your devoted friend. The blow which fell on you struck me too — we have both lost our all. I am in despair, for I see no means of resuscitating my hopes reduced to ashes. My profession imposes conditions on me which I can not fulfill: it is not allowed to those of us who have no private means to marry.”
“I know it,” said Athalie, “and it was not that which I wished to suggest to you. We are now very poor, but there may be some favorable turn in our lot. My father has a rich uncle in Belgrade whose heirs we are; at his death we shall be rich again. I will wait for you — do you wait for me. Take back your ring — take me to your mother, and let me stay with her as your betrothed. I will wait for you till you fetch me away, and will be a good daughter to your mother.”
Herr Katschuka sighed so deeply that he nearly blew out the light which stood before him. “Alas, fraülein,” said he, taking up the golden circle from the table, “that is, unhappily, quite impossible. You little know my mother. She is an ambitious woman — an inaccessible nature. She lives on a small pension, and loves no one. You have no idea what struggles I have had with my mother about my affaires du cœur. She is a baroness by birth, and has never consented to this union. She would not come to our marriage. I could not take you to her, fraülein — on your account I have quarreled with her.”
Athalie’s breast heaved feverishly, her face glowed; she seized with both her hands that of her faithless bridegroom, on which the ring was wanting, and whispered, while tears ran down her cheeks, so low that even the deaf walls could not hear, “You — you have braved your mother for me: I will defy the whole world for you!”
Katschuka dared not meet the speaking eyes of the lovely woman. He drew geometrical figures on the table with the golden circle he still held, as if he would decipher from their angles of incidence the difference between love and madness.
The girl continued in a whisper, “I am already so deeply humiliated that no shame can bring me lower; I have no more to lose in this world. If you were not here, I should have already killed myself. I belong not to myself, but to you — say, what shall I be to you? I have lost my senses, and all is the same to me; kill me, if you choose — I will not stir.”
Herr Katschuka, during this passionate speech, had worked out the problem of what he was to answer. “Fraülein Athalie, I will speak frankly — you know I am an honest man.”
Athalie had not asked him about that.
“An honest and chivalrous man would be ashamed to take advantage of the misfortune of a woman for the satisfaction of his lowest passions. I will give you good advice as a well-meaning friend, as one who has a boundless respect for you. You tell me you have an uncle in Belgrade: go to him. He is your blood relation, and must receive you in a friendly way. I give you my word of honor that I will not marry, and if we meet again I shall always bring you the same feelings which for years I have experienced toward you.”
He told no lie when he gave this promise. But from what his face showed at this moment, Athalie could read what he did not say — that the captain neither now nor for years past had loved her, that he loved another, and if this other was poor and made a beggar, he had good reason to promise on his word of honor that he would not marry. This it was which Athalie read in the cool expressions of her faithless bridegroom. And then something flashed through her brain like lightning. Her eyes flashed too.
“Will you come tomorrow,” she asked him, “to escort me to my uncle in Belgrade?”
“I will come,” Katschuka hastened to reply. “But now go home. Did any one come with you?”
“I came quite alone.”
“What imprudence! Who is to take you back?”
“You need not,” she said, bitterly. “If at this hour any one saw us together, what a scandal it would be-for you. I can walk alone. I am not afraid. I have no longer anything worth stealing.”
“My servant shall follow you.”
“He shall do nothing of the sort. The patrol might arrest the poor devil. After the last post he must not be seen in the streets. I will find my way alone. So then — tomorrow —”
“I will be with you by eight o’clock.”
Athalie wrapped herself in her black cloak, and hurried away before Katschuka had time to open the door for her. It seemed to her as if the captain was putting on his sword almost before she had left his door. Is he perhaps going to follow her in the distance?
She stopped at the corner of the Anglia, but no one was following. She ran home in the darkness, and as she hastened through the deep night she concocted a plan in her head. If only the captain once sits by her in the carriage, if he goes with her to Belgrade, he will see that no power on earth can deliver him from her. As she passed through the long market-hall, she stumbled again over the same female figure as it lay on the stones. This time it did not awake nor curse her. What sound sleep these wretches enjoy! But when Athalie got to the door of her home, a thought sunk like lead into her mind. What if the captain was only so ready with his promise of escorting her to Belgrade in order to get rid of her? What if he does not come tomorrow, either at eight or later? A torturing jealousy excited her nerves. When she reached the anteroom, she felt about on the table for the candle and matches she had left there. Instead of these her hand touched a knife — a sharp cook’s knife with a heavy handle. This also sheds light on darkness. She grasped the knife and walked up and down. Her teeth chattered: the thought was working in her, how if she were to drive this knife into the heart of that girl with the white face, who sleeps beside her? That would be an end of them both. They would convict her of the murder, and so she would get out of the world.
But Timéa is not sleeping there now.
Athalie only remembered when she had gone to the bed in which Timéa usually slept, that she was sleeping with Frau Sophie to-night. The knife fell from her hand, and then she was frightened. She began to feel how lonely she was, how dark was all around her, dark too in her own soul.
The roll of a drum awoke Athalie out of a distressing dream. She dreamed of a young lady who had murdered her rival, and was led to the place of execution. Already she knelt on the scaffold, the headsman with his naked sword stood behind her, the judge read the sentence and said, “With God there is pardon.” The drum beat, then Athalie awoke.
It was the auctioneer’s drum. The bidding had begun; but that drum is even more dreadful than the one which gives the signal of death. To listen, when the voice which penetrates even to the street calls out the well-known old favorite things which only yesterday were our own! “Once, twice; any advance?” and then “thrice!” and the drum rolls and the hammer falls. Then it begins again, “Once, twice; any advance?”
Athalie put on her mourning-dress, the only one left to her, and went to find some one. There were only her mother and Timéa to look for. They would probably be in the kitchen.
Both had long been up and dressed. Frau Sophie was as round as a tub. Knowing well enough that no one would search her, she had put on a dozen dresses one over the other, and hidden a few napkins and silver spoons in her pockets. She could hardly move. Timéa was in her simple black every-day dress, and was preparing warm milk and coffee. At the sight of Athalie, Frau Sophie broke into loud sobs, and hung on her neck. “Oh, my dear, darling, pretty daughter! What have we come to, and what will become of us? Oh, that we had not lived to see this day! This dreadful drum woke you, I suppose?”
“Is it not yet eight o’clock?” asked Athalie. The kitchen clock was still going.
“Not eight? Why, the auction began at nine. Can you not hear it?”
“Has no one been to see us?”
“Silly idea! Why, who should visit us at such a time?”
Athalie said no more, but sat down on the bench — the same little seat on which Frau Sophie had described to Timéa the splendid wedding ceremony.
Timéa prepared the breakfast, toasted the bread, and laid the kitchen table for the two ladies. Athalie did not heed the invitation, however much pressed by Frau Sophie. “Drink, my dear, my own pretty! Who knows where we shall get coffee tomorrow? The whole world is against us, and every one abuses and curses us. What will become of us?” But that did not hinder her from gulping down her cup of coffee. Athalie was thinking of the journey to Belgrade, and of her expected traveling companion.
Frau Sophie’s mind was much occupied with original notions on easy modes of death. “If there were only a pin in the coffee that it might stick in my throat and choke me.” Then the wish arose that the flat-iron would fall down from the shelf as she passed and crush her skull. She would be glad, too, if one of the earthquakes which occasionally occur in Komorn would happen now, and bury the house and all in it. As, however, none of these ways of dying came to pass, and Athalie would not speak, there was nothing left but to vent her wrath on Timéa. “She takes it easily, the ungrateful creature! She is not even crying; indeed it is easy for her to laugh — she can go to service, or work with a milliner and keep herself; she will be glad to be quit of us, and live on her own hook. You just wait, you will soon have to remember us. You’ll be sorry — before a year is over you’ll repent fast enough.” Timéa had done nothing to repent of, but Frau Sophie saw it in the future, and her anger was only surpassed by the grief she felt about Athalie. “What will become of you, you sweet and only darling? Who will take care of you? What will become of your pretty white hands?”
“There, go and leave me in peace,” said Athalie, shaking her lamenting mother off her neck. “Go and look out of the window and see if any one is coming up to us.”
“Nobody, nobody! — who should be coming?”
Time went on; drum and bid succeeded each other; whenever the kitchen clock struck, Athalie started up, and then let her head fall into her hands again and stared before her. The roses on her cheeks took a violet shade, her lips were blue, an olive shadow darkened her exquisite face; her staring eyes, with deep marks below them, her swollen lips, her painfully contracted eyebrows, turned the ideal beauty into an image of horror. She sat like a fallen angel driven from heaven. It was already noon, and he for whom she waited never came. The noise of the sale came nearer and nearer. The auctioneer went from room to room; they had begun in the outer rooms, now they were coming to the reception-rooms, at whose far end was the kitchen.
Frau Sophie, in spite of her despair, had her senses about her enough to notice that the bidding was very quick. Hardly was anything put up before the drum beat, and “any advance?” was cried. The buyers standing in groups complained, “No one has a chance — the man is mad. Who can this fool be?”
Now only the kitchen department is left, but no one enters it. Outside, the drum is heard, “No one will give more?” It has been bought as a whole, unseen — by some fool.
It struck Frau Sophie, too, that people did not hasten to fetch the lots they bought out of the rooms, as usual at an auction; here nothing is touched. Now comes the principal lot, and every one goes down to the yard, for the house itself is being put up. The buyers press round the table of the official auctioneer; the upset price is named. Then some one makes an offer in a low voice. Among the crowd arises a confused noise, tones of astonishment, laughter, hissing; the people scatter, and again one hears, “He must be a fool.” Grumbling and angry, all go away. “Once, twice, thrice!” the hammer falls. The house has found a purchaser.
“Now it’s time to go, my sweet darling daughter. We will look out for the last time. If only the tower of St. John’s Church would fall and crush us all together!” But Athalie sat on the bench, waiting and waiting, and looking at the clock. It points to two. One little ray of hope still shone through the Egyptian darkness — perhaps it was the dread of pushing through the crowd of bidders which had kept the captain from coming; perhaps he will appear as soon as the yard is clear.
“Don’t you hear some one coming?”
“No, my beauty, I hear nothing.”
“Yes, mother, I hear some one creeping upstairs gently, on tiptoe.”
In truth soft steps approach. Some one knocks at the kitchen door, like a polite visitor who begs permission to enter, and waits till it is given him; and then the door opens gently, and in comes, with hat off, and courteous bow — Michael Timar Levetinczy. He remained standing near the door after saluting the ladies. Athalie rose with an expression of disappointment and hatred; Frau Sophie wrung her hands, and looked up with a mixture of hope and fear; Timéa met his gaze with gentle calmness.
“I,” began Timar, sending his “I” in advance like a pope in his bull —“I have had this house and all its saleable contents knocked down to me at the auction. I did not buy it for myself, but for the one person in it who is not to be bought, and yet is the only treasure on earth in my sight. . . . Fraülein Timéa, from this day forward you are the mistress of this house. Everything in it belongs to you — the clothes, the jewels in the wardrobes, the horses in the stable, the securities in the safe — all is inscribed in your name, and the creditors are satisfied. You are the owner of the house — accept it from me; and if there is a corner in it where there is room for a quiet fellow who would only impose on you his respect and admiration, and if this corner could be given to me — if there was a little shelter for me in your heart, and you did not refuse my hand — then I should be only too happy, and would swear that the whole aim of my life would be to make you as happy as you made me.”
Timéa’s face beamed at these words with maidenly pride. A mixture of inexpressible pain, noble gratitude, and holy sacrifice lighted up her countenance. “Thrice, thrice,” her lips stammered, but without a sound, only her sympathetic nerves heard what she wanted to utter. This man had so often saved her; he was always so good to her; he had never made sport of her, nor flattered her, and now he gives her all her heart could desire. All? No, all but one thing, and that is gone; it belongs to another.
Timar waited quietly for an answer. Timéa remained silent.
“Do not answer hastily, Fraülein Timéa,” he said. “I will await your decision. I will come tomorrow, or in a week, or whenever you like to give me an answer. You are mistress of all I have handed over to you; I attach no conditions to it; it is all registered in your name. If you do not wish to see me here again, it only costs you one word; take a week or a month or a year to consider what you will answer.”
Timéa stepped forward with decision from behind the stove where the other two women had pushed her, and approached Michael.
In her manner lay a precocious gravity, which lent to her face a womanly dignity. Since that eventful wedding-day she had ceased to be a child; she had become serious and silent. She looked calmly into Michael’s face, and said, “I have already decided.”
Frau Sophie listened with envious malice for Timéa’s answer. If only she would say to Timar, “I don’t want you — go away!” Anything is possible from such an idiot of a girl, who has had another man put in her head. And if Timar, just to revenge himself, were to say, “Well then, stay as you are; you shall have neither the house nor my hand, I will offer both to Fraülein Athalie”— and if he were to marry Athalie! As if cases had not been heard of in which an honest lover was refused by some stuck-up girl, and then out of pique offered his hand to the governess, or proposed to the housemaid on the spot! This hope of Frau Sophie’s, however, was not destined to be fulfilled.
Timéa gave her hand to Timar, and said in a low but firm voice, “I accept you as my husband.”
Michael grasped the offered hand — not with the fire of a passionate lover, but with the homage of a man, and looked long into the unearthly beauty of the girl’s eyes.
And the girl allowed him to read her soul. She repeated her words: “I accept you as my husband, and will be a faithful and obedient wife; I only ask one favor — you will not refuse me?”
Happiness made Michael forget that a merchant should never sign his name to a blank sheet of paper. “Oh, speak! what you desire is already done.”
“My request is,” said Timéa, “if you take me to wife, and this house becomes yours again, and I the mistress in your house, that you should allow my adopted mother who received me, an orphan, and my adopted sister with whom I have grown up, to remain here with me. Regard them as my mother and sister, and treat them as kindly.”
An involuntary tear fell from Timar’s eye. Timéa noticed it, seized his right hand with hers, and made a new attack on his heart. “You will, I know you will do as I ask you; and you will give back to Athalie all that was hers? — her nice clothes and jewels; and she will stay with us, and you will be the same to her as if she were my own sister; and you will treat Mamma Sophie as I do, and call her mother?”
Frau Sophie, hearing this, began to sob aloud. She sunk on her knees before Timéa, and covered her hands, her dress, even her feet with unceasing kisses, while she murmured broken and inaudible words.
In the next moment Timar was himself again, and the far-seeing vision came to his aid, which at any critical time raised him above his rivals. His quick invention whispered to him what must be done to provide against future complications. He took Timéa’s little hands in his. “You are a noble creature, Timéa. You will permit me henceforward to call you by your name? and I will not disgrace your good heart. Stand up, Mamma Sophie; do not cry; tell Athalie she might come nearer to me. I will do more than Timéa asked, for love of her, and for you two; I will provide for Athalie not only a place of refuge, but a happy home of her own; I will pay the deposit for her bridegroom, and give her the dowry which her father had promised to her. May they be happy together.”
Timar had foreseen things still below the horizon, and thought that no sacrifice would be too great to get the two women out of the house and away from Timéa, and to manage that the handsome captain should be married to the lovely Athalie.
But now it was his turn to be overwhelmed with kisses and gratitude by Frau Sophie. “Oh, Herr von Levetinczy! Oh, dear, generous Herr von Levetinczy! let me kiss your hand, your feet, your clever head.” And she did as set forth in her programme, and kissed besides his shoulders, coat-collar, and his back, at last embracing both Timar and Timéa in her arms, and bestowing her valuable blessing upon them. “Be happy together!”
It was impossible to help laughing at the way the poor woman expressed her joy. But Athalie poisoned all their pleasure.
Proud as a fallen angel who is asked to return, and who prefers damnation to humbling her pride, she turned away from Timar, and said in a voice choked with passion, “I thank you, sir. But I never wish to hear of Herr Katschuka again, either in this world or the next! I will never be his wife; I will remain here with Timéa — as her servant.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52