« AnteriorContinuar »
noble a husband! a man of whom any woman (so we all averred) might well be proud! How had it been possible for that woman to watch with an eye so callous, and a countenance of such avowed and heartless unconcern, the noble conduct of the count, when, at the imminent risk of his life, he swam to the rescue of the drowning child? As you may well conceive, all the women vehemently condemned the countess, and loudly extolled the count.
In particular, the sentimental young lady of the waxen-flaxen charms, who that morning had so warmly defended the cause of the imaginary Loreley, and elaborately extolled the poetry and sublimity of the various misdeeds attributed to that duly-patented and well-established witch, was now emphatic, not to say hysterical, in the expression of her indignation at the heartless affectation of the countess.
I may mention by the way that this young lady, at the moment of the recent catastrophe, had been duly careful not to let slip so favorable and appropriate an occasion for a little shrieking and fainting, which, on the whole, had been tolerably successful. The Prussian sub-lieutenant, for his part, declared that the count had shown great incompetence, and was quite undeserving of the ignorant applause which had been lavished upon his supposed skill and coolness. He assured us that, but for the respect he paid to his uniform, and if he had not had straps to his trowsers— (for indeed he might say, for the first time in his life, he had positively envied the gentleman on the Civil List) he would have shown us all the proper way of saving a drowning person. That the child had
been actually saved was, he assured us, entirely due to the merest chance in the world; or rather, indeed, if the truth must be told, to his own perspicuity and energy, since he it was that had given express orders to send a boat to the swimmer, whereby the child had been taken up, though out of vanity, as every body could see, the count had refused for himself the proffered assistance. In all such cases it was absolutely necessary to follow a quite different method from that which had been adopted in the present instance. It was a mercy that the result had not been fatal. He had himself studied the true principles of natation at the Schwimm-Schule at Potsdam. For the practice of these principles, however, it was necessary to have a special costume properly adapted for the purpose.
These views were opposed by a merchant from Hamburg, who observed that the chief danger to be apprehended in all attempts to rescue a drowning person exists in the frantic efforts made by the drowning man to save himself, or in the involuntary cramps and convulsions which, so long as consciousness lasts, not unfrequently impede the efforts of the rescuing hand, and are known to have often proved fatal to both parties. The merit of the count was in the calm and composure which he had had the presence of mind to preserve. Every body could see that he might have hastened his speed, and that it would have been easy for him to have reached the child before it sank. But he rightly waited till the little limbs were exhausted; and so accurately calculated his distance, that the body must have reached him under the water in an exact line with the point at which he dived to
secure it. This explanation was received as so satisfactory, that the Prussian sub-lieutenant, twisting his mustaches, growled out something about Bürger Philister, and stalked away with a loud clanking of spurs and sabre.
The countess, however, was not without her defenders among the men, who, on the strength of the opinion offered by the Hamburg merchant, readily adopted the assumption that the count was no doubt so admirable and experienced a swimmer that his wife need have been under no reasonable apprehension for his safety.
At this point in the discussion, one of my fellowtravelers, who till then had not joined in the conversation, informed us that some years ago he had had occasion to visit Heligoland, and that he had there heard the name of Count R- frequently mentioned as that of a most intrepid and unrivaled swimmer. The feats attributed to the count by the fishermen along that coast appeared indeed almost incredible. One of his exploits in particular was much talked of at the time.
One dark and tempestuous night a fishing-boat was wrecked within sight of land, and the alarm was given along the coast that all souls on board were in imminent danger. The boldest fisherman, however, did not dare to brave the breakers that night, and no man could be found who was willing in such a storm to expose his life to the hazard of an enterprise so absolutely desperate. Suddenly a mysterious stranger appeared among the terrified crowd. He said nothing, he betrayed no emotion, but every body seemed to
feel the presence of a superior will, and silently made way for him. He quietly picked up five of the great cables which had been hopelessly flung by in the conviction of the impossibility of attempting a rescue. With the same composure and undisturbed precision, he firmly bound together with a small cord the ends of the five ropes, and, taking the cord in his left hand, he silently plunged into the sea. In this way he succeeded in saving the five souls that were on board the sinking craft. That stranger was Count Edmond R. And as, by a sort of instantaneous tacit instinct, we had all of us this morning given to the mys terious count the somewhat sinister title of "the Gentleman in Black," so the poor fisherfolk of Heligoland, ever after the event of that night, distinguished the heroic stranger by the more grateful appellation of "Newfoundland.”
Hence, no doubt, the indifference evinced by the countess on the present occasion.
We all very cheerfully accepted this explanation of the lady's conduct, till, to our no small astonishment, a certain very portly Königlich-PreussischerWirklicher-Geheimer - Ober-Bau-Rath declared that the whole of Silesia knew perfectly well that the countess was touched in her mind.
This mental affection, he presumed, must be incurable, as he had never heard that any sort of treatment had been tried for it. The Count and Countess R lived in extreme seclusion all the year round at the count's majorat about ten miles from Breslau. They saw nobody; nobody ever saw them. There was no direct heir to the estate, which would lapse, at the
death of the count, to the collateral branch; and, therefore, nobody in Silesia was at all concerned about their affairs.
This strange and unlooked-for announcement silenced all farther conversation upon the subject. The little group of talkers soon afterward broke up and dispersed, for we were approaching the end of our journey, and every body except myself seemed satisfied to dismiss the matter from their minds.
What were precisely my own feelings as I walked musingly back to the bows of the boat, and leaned over the yellowing waters, it would be hard to say.
Deep under the death-white shroud of a profound and settled melancholy, which seemed to have permanently swathed in its cold and colorless beauty the faultless features of the countess, my heart had detected the buried presence of an unutterable sorrow. One moment of luminous agony had revealed to me in the dark eye of the count the torture of a soul surely smitten by no earthly hand. "No," I said to myself. "Of the secret of these two souls, whatever that may be, I have at least seen enough to feel sure that it involves them both in the anguish of an irreconcilable destiny."
The accident of the day now nearly closed had so long delayed the course of our little steamer, that the sunset was far spent when we passed slowly under the darkening walls of the old imperial city of Cologne. The evening was hushed and sleepy. Dreamlike we seemed to glide into the shadow of the ancient town. Above the deep and drowsy orange light that was now burning low down in the wasting west, rose, dark