It was in Vienna, in the Ring-Strasse, at the house of Frau Von —- I forget her name, but they used to call her “Madame Necker,” because she was married to a banker, thought a great deal of her manners, had a weakness for celebrities, and two jours fixes every week. Wednesday was for the gens d’esprit, and Friday was for the gens bêtes.
It was Wednesday evening, and the salon of “Madame Necker” was almost empty. Excepting her husband, who, to provide against possible misunderstandings, always showed himself there on the clever peoples’ day, there was no one present but a celebrated poet, a celebrated poetess, a celebrated orientalist, and a harmless little freethinking idealist, not at all celebrated but much in fashion.
The conversation turned on social prejudices, and the hostess, whose fad for the moment was for belles-lettres pure and simple, and who took no account of aristocracy, could not think of enough scornful words for a certain Frau von Sterzl, who was spending her life in the vain effort to balance a seven-pointed coronet, to which she had no right, on her worried head.
The orientalist looked thoughtful. He was a retired cavalry officer. Some years before he had accompanied a friend to Cairo, and on the strength of that, had sent some articles about the Museum of Bulac to an illustrated journal.
“Not to come of a good family,” said he, “is no misfortune and yet, under certain circumstances, it can cause a social discomfort, which those who suffer from, deny, and for which not one of them is consoled.”
“This discomfort is shared with so many famous men that I should be inclined to regard it as a distinction,” cried the young idealist, with much ardor and little logic, as usual.
“That’s as much as to say you would like to be descended from a tailor because Goethe was,” said the general, dryly. Not thinking of any answer to this, the young man said “Hem!” and pulled his moustache. “And you would like to wear a hump, because Æsop did,” smiled the general.
“My dear general,” put in the poet, “what has a hump to do with low birth?”
“Nothing intrinsically, and yet these two things do meet at one point. The first is an imaginary evil, while the other is a positive one; but they are alike in the bad influence which they may exert on the character.”
“Oh, general!” laughed the hostess.
“With your permission,” he went on, “I will tell you a story to illustrate my paradox, which I see you don’t accept at present: a very simple story, of something which I witnessed myself.”
“We are all ears,” simpered the host, and passed a fat hand over the two pomaded cupid’s wings, which stuck up on either side his head. “Very interesting, I am sure,” said the hostess, in the politely condescending manner of her great prototype. The poet and the poetess made satirical faces, the idealist craned his neck forward, eager to listen.
The general gazed thoughtfully before him for a while, then he began, speaking slowly:
“He went by the name of Zwilk: by rights it was Zwilch; but after he was promoted for some brilliant deed of arms or other, he never called himself anything but Zwilk von Zwilneck. He liked the title so much that he wrote it on all his books, and bought books that he never read, in order to write it on them.
“No one knew anything about his origin. Sometimes he passed for the son of a crowned head and a dancer. I think he set this story going himself. Sometimes he passed for the son of a sacristan in Reichenhall. He never mentioned his family; he never went home; he received no letters, excepting those which came from comrades in the regiment. Only once did a letter arrive for him, which was plainly not from a brother officer. It was a narrow, greenish, forlorn-looking missive, with the address written zigzag, and the sealing wax spattered all over the cover. They brought it to him in the coffeehouse, and he turned quite red when the waiter presented it ‘Ah, yes,’ he said, stiffly, through his nose. ‘A letter from my old nurse.’ Heaven knows why we didn’t believe much in that old nurse.
“Whatever Zwilk’s origin might have been, his tastes were severely aristocratic. He never would let himself be introduced to a woman unless she belonged in ‘Society.’
“Others of the corps recognized his exclusiveness by nicknaming him the ‘Countess’s Zwilk,’ ‘the Nobl’ Zwilk,’ and ‘Batiste.’ These were not very good jokes, but they never lost their charm for us, and we laughed at them just as much the hundredth time as the first. Zwilk laughed with us: his laugh used to make me nervous; it sounded like a bleat, and seemed to come out of his nose and ears. He was undeniably a handsome man, tall, blonde, broad-shouldered, stiff and slender, with a regular profile and a thick blonde beard.
“He had great success with women: that is, with young widows and elderly pensioners, and the blowsy provincial beauties, to whom, as I said, he would never be presented, but with whom he danced, all the same, at balls in the early morning hours.
“You might think these ladies would consider his pompous impertinence an insult. On the contrary they were greatly impressed by his ‘exclusiveness,’ and when he waltzed with one of them she talked about it for a fortnight afterward.
“He wore his uniforms too tight, and his cuffs too long, and he used to pull the latter down over his knuckles. Those hands of his were incurably coarse, in spite of all the care they got, and he was always fussing with them. Sometimes he trimmed the flat, uneven nails in public; sometimes he crooked the little fingers with graceful ease. His manners were stiff, and his German was florid, but ungrammatical. He spoke like a dancing master, who, having ‘had a great deal to do with society,’ feels obliged, for that reason, to pronounce the most teutonic words with a French accent.
“He was at home in danger. Not only did he distinguish himself by reckless bravery in the field, but he showed in duels a cold indifference, which gave him great advantage over those of his opponents, who, though his equals in courage and his superiors in skill, were yet unable wholly to control a certain sentimental nervousness. The superior officers all praised him, for he was able, and he knew how to obey as well as to command. But he was very unpopular with his subordinates, to whom he showed himself extremely harsh, and with whom he never exchanged a joke, or a bit of friendly chat about their families, as the rest of us liked to do.
“As much audacity as he showed in great matters, just so little did he possess in small ones. Nothing could have induced him to tell a prince who said a horse had five legs, that it only had four.
“I am aware that this manner of judging him is retrospective. In those days, while we were in service together it hardly occurred to us, with our Austrian good humor, easy going, and perhaps a little bit superficial, to examine critically him or his failings. If we found him uncongenial, we hardly confessed it among ourselves, still less would we have acknowledged it to a civilian.
“He had one pronounced enemy in the corps, and that was little Toni Truyn, cousin of Count Erich Truyn, the Truyn von Rantschin. Poor Toni! He was the black sheep, the Karl Moor of his distinguished family, and if he never got so far as to turn incendiary and robber-chief, that was from lack of energy and of genius. The requisite number of paternal letters were not wanting.
“His family had a right to lecture Toni, for he had cruelly disappointed all their hopes. Destined from infancy to the Church, he suddenly, in his eighteenth year, developed religious scruples. His family regarded these as a symptom of nervous derangement, arising from too rapid growth, and they sent him to Rome to be scared back into an orthodox frame of mind by the hierarchy. To help matters, they provided him with an Abbé as a traveling companion.
“In less than a month, Toni, having quarreled with his Abbé, was going up and down in Rome, proclaiming his contempt for Popish superstitions, and raving about heathen gods and goddesses like a Renaissance Cardinal. He neither presented himself at the Austrian Embassy, nor sought the customary Papal blessing: he wandered about with mad artist-folk, ate in hostelries, danced extravagantly at models’ balls, where he gave the Italian females lessons in Austrian Choregraphy, which caused them to open their eyes, and ended by falling in love with a market-girl from the Trastevere. When he came home, he brought his Trasteverina along, with the naïve intention of marrying her. His father, not unnaturally declined this connection, Toni had still less mind to the Church, so they put him in the army.
“Found fault with by his superiors, idolized by his subordinates, cordially liked by the rest of us, he remained to the end, a middling officer and a splendid comrade. He rode round-shouldered and was incurably careless about his accoutrements, and because of his harmless cynicism, and his easy-going, half rustic unmannerliness, we christened him the Peasant Count and Farmer Toni.
“There was a legend that his Majesty, one day at a hunt or a race, or some one of those occasions that serve to bring the monarch a little nearer to his subjects, condescended to ask Toni’s father, old Count Hugo, ‘How is your family, and what are your sons doing?’ ‘The eldest,’ said Count Truyn, ‘is serving your Majesty in the Foreign Office, and the second is in the army.’ ‘He is here,’ added the count, looking about for Toni. He discovered him not far off, leaning against a tree, whistling, his hands in his pockets, his cap dragged down over his ears, oblivious of kaisers.
“The old count was so upset by this sight, that he pointed out another man, in a great hurry, and that man happened to be Zwilk. The kaiser asked no more questions, and nothing came of it, but when the peasant-count told us this story afterward, amid shouts of laughter, he added, ‘Now you know why I can’t bear Zwilk. I envy him his distinction.’
“One hot summer day,–it was in Vienna, and we were riding home from the manœuvres, through a suburb,–in a deserted street, full of sweepings and gamins, smelling of soap boiling and leather curing, Farmer Toni’s eyes fell on the dirty sign of a miserable little shop, ‘Anton Zwilch, Tin-man.’ Resting one hand on his horse’s croup, Toni leaned over, and said with that soft, winning voice of his, which was in such true aristocratic contrast to his rough-and-ready manners, ‘Batiste, is that your cousin?’ And Zwilk replied with a forced smile, through his nose, ‘Non, mon cher, that must be another line. We write our name with a k: Zwilk von Zwilnek.’
“Next day in Café Daum, the farmer-count perfidiously seized on a general lull in the conversation, and called across several tables to his particular friend. First Lieutenant Schmied.
“‘Du, Schmied! Is the brewer at Hitzing, a relative of yours?’ And the other called back affectedly, ‘Non, mon cher, that must be another line, we spell ourselves with an ie.’
“This feeble joke was repeated at intervals after that, to the edification of Toni and his friend, and the great embarrassment of all the rest. Zwilk pretended not to hear it.
“About this time our corps was enriched by the arrival of Count Erich Truyn, Toni’s cousin. He had got himself exchanged from the Cuirassiers because of some love affair or other. He was blonde, handsome as a picture, chivalrous, aristocrat through and through. Like all the Truyns, excepting Toni, Erich was conservative, even reactionary. Nevertheless, perhaps exactly for that reason, he was most considerate toward people who were less well born than himself. When Toni and Schmied served up their stale joke about ‘the other line,’ Count Erich always grew restless, and at last, one day when I was present, he remonstrated with his cousin. ‘You are really too unfeeling, Toni,’ he said. ‘How is it possible for you to jeer at a poor devil who can’t help his extraction, and no doubt has to suffer enough from it. Look here–I–Hm–it would annoy me very much to have this go any further, but I have heard that poor Zwilk was once a waiter at Lamm.’
“‘Whatever he was would make no difference if he were a decent man now, but he isn’t!’ broke out Toni. ‘He’s a low fellow; heartless canaille!’
“‘You ought not to speak that way of a comrade,’ said Count Erich, much shocked, ‘of a man with whom you stand on terms of Du and Du.’
“‘I say Du to his uniform, not to him,’ muttered Toni. Count Erich burst out laughing,–‘And I took you for a Red!’ he cried.
“Soon after this we were sent to Salzburg; there Zwilk saw his best days. He became the intimate friend of Prince Bonbon Liscat, a very limited person, between ourselves, whom they had shoved into the army to keep him occupied, until they could arrange a marriage for him, to provide his line with heirs.
“Spoiled by priests and women, like so many scions of our highest nobility, wrapped in cotton from his birth, nurtured in arrogance, Prince Liscat as a child could never endure the equally pampered arrogance of his young peers, and always chose his playmates from among the toadies and fags. Now, true to this taste of his youth, he liked no company so well as that of Zwilk. Zwilk must dine with him, must drive with him, Zwilk must accompany him on the piano while he poured forth elegies on the French horn,–on the tortoise-shell comb, for anything I know.
“As for Zwilk, he existed for Bonbon: he bathed in aromatic vinegar like Bonbon: he went to confession; he abused the liberal journals; he raved about Salvioni’s legs, all like Bonbon. He acquired a complete aristocratic jargon, talking of ‘Bougays,’ ‘Table do,’ and ‘Orschestre.’ Prince Liscat was the last to correct him. It would have been quite too revolutionary for Zwilk to pronounce French as well as he did himself.
“Zwilk’s Bonbon had an ancient uncle, Prince Schirmberg, who lived in a curious old rococo Chateau, about an hour out of Salzburg. He was a bachelor, once very gay, now very pious; the first in accordance with family tradition, the latter from fear of future punishment. He suffered from spinal complaint, and, being paralyzed in both legs, he spent his time between a rolling chair and a landau. Before the latter walked four large cream-colored steeds, in slow solemnity, as if it was a funeral.
“All the cab drivers and private coachmen reined in as soon as they overtook the serene equipage, and fell behind, the whole cavalcade then proceeding at a snail’s pace. It would never do to pass the prince, and it would never do to stir up the princely cream colors by a too lively example, lest evil befall the princely spinal column.
“Only Toni Truyn wickedly rushed past now and then, at the full speed of his thoroughbreds. Then the big cream colors before the old-fashioned landau would give an excited jump or two, and poor Prince Schirmberg would call out, ‘Damn that Truyn!’
“His serene highness certainly hated Toni, who returned it with good-natured contempt and a number of bad jokes. Some one came and told Prince Schirmberg that Toni had said he was nothing but a bundle of prejudices done up in old parchment. This the prince took very ill, without in the least understanding it. ‘Prejudice,’ he knew, from reading the ‘Neue Freie Presse’ was the liberal word for principles: and ‘Parchment’ was simply an aristocratic kind of leather.
“The prince had a sister, Auguste. All the little girl babies in Salzburg were named after her. We used to call her the May-Beetle, because she had a little head and a broad, round back, and always dressed in a black cap and a frock of Carmelite brown.
“She occupied herself with heraldry and charity. That is, she painted the Schirmberg coat-of-arms on every object that would hold it, and she engaged all their evening visitors, who were not playing whist with her brother, in cutting little strips of paper to stuff hospital pillows. For their reward she used to have them served at ten o’clock with weak tea and hard biscuits, but, as even the best families in Salzburg still keep up the barbarous custom of dining at one o’clock, the guests found their supper rather meagre.
“When she wanted to give them a special treat, she read to them in a thin voice out of an old Chronicle about the deeds of the Schrimbergs.
“She had a marked weakness for Zwilk. He cut papers with enthusiasm: he listened to the Chronicles with ecstasy: he fell on one knee to kiss her hand when she graciously extended it at leave-taking.
“It was Sylvester Day, in the yard of the Riding School. The cold winter sun fell dazzlingly on the hard, white snow. Long, strangely twisted icicles hung from the snow-covered roofs, against the gloomy sides of the buildings which surrounded the court.
“We had given our recruits a good dressing down in the Riding School, and now we were standing about in little groups chatting, cheerful and hungry, in the cold court. I heard Erich Truyn behind me, speaking in that polite, pleasant tone which he kept especially for poor country priests, and scared women of the lower classes. He was saying, ‘I’m sorry, but First Lieutenant Zwilch is engaged at present. Shall I send for him?’ I turned round. There in the old, grey archway stood handsome Truyn, blonde, slender, careless, easy, correct without pedantry; from head to foot what a cavalier ought to be. Beside him, square, clumsy, tufts of grey hair over his ears, a grey beard under his chin, face mottled red and blue from the cold, mouth and eyes surrounded by fine wrinkles, cheeks rough and seamed like the shell of an English walnut,–an old man, a stranger.
“He wore very poor clothes, half town, half country make, a short sheepskin, high boots, from which green worsted stockings protruded, a long faded scarf with a grey fringe twisted round his neck. He had a little bundle tied up in a red handkerchief squeezed under one arm, and he was kneading nervously in his two hands a shabby old fur cap, as he looked up with an expression half frightened, half confiding to Count Erich.
“That usually so self-possessed young gentleman was much embarrassed, and was making visible efforts to hide it, while he strove at the same time to encourage the old stranger.
“‘Shall I send for him?’ he asked a second time. ‘Oh! please, I can wait, please,’–stammered the old man in his gemüthlich Upper-Austrian dialect.
“I took him for a small mechanic; he was too diffident for a peasant, and not shabby enough for a day laborer.
“‘I can wait,’ he repeated. ‘Have already waited, long, very long, Herr Lieutenant.’
“‘As you will, but won’t you sit down?’ said Erich, hesitating, divided between fear of giving the old man a cold, and fear of not showing him proper attention.
“Right and left of me our comrades were chatting. ‘Sylvester,’ cried Schmied, ‘it’s the stupidest day of the year. It makes me think of punch, and cakes, and cousins.’
“‘It makes me think of my tailor and my governor,’ laughed Farmer Toni.
“The peasant-count was sitting on a bale of hay: Schmied stood over against him, leaning on the side of a forage wagon. Toni wore a short white riding coat; his chin was in his hands, his elbows were on his knees.
“‘To the first I owe a bill,’ he went on, ‘And to the latter I owe congratulations. Schmied, do you think he’d be satisfied with “Best Wishes for the New Year,” on a card?’
‘”Are you going to Schirmberg’s to-night?’ asked another officer coming up.
“‘Must,’ said Toni, laconically. ‘And you?’
“‘I don’t know. Perhaps I can plead another engagement. It will be deadly dull at Schirmberg’s.’
“‘I hear they are going to serve champagne and a prince of the blood,’ said Schmied.
“‘Hello! What’s old Gusti up to?’ laughed Toni: ‘Big soirées are not in her line.’
“‘It’s all for Zwilk,’ answered Schmied. ‘You know he is going to be made adjutant to Prince Schirmberg.’
“‘Adjutant to a prince!’ It was the old stranger who cried out, proud, excited, turning his head from one to the other.
“Erich had continued to do the honors with all the courtesy of your true aristocrat to the plebeian who has not as yet stretched out a hand toward any of his prerogatives. The little old man had grown quite confiding: he looked up now in Erich’s face and asked, ‘You know him well?’
“‘He is my comrade,’ answered Truyn. ‘I wish I could call myself as admirable an officer as he is. He is one of the best in the service, and he has a brilliant career before him.’
“Truyn liked Zwilk as little as the rest of us, but he wanted to give the old man pleasure, and that he could do without falsehood.
“The stranger stripped off his mittens, and put his knuckles to his wet eyes.
“‘I thank you, I thank you,’ he sobbed like a child. ‘He’s my son. I wanted to see him, long, long, but he was so far away and he never could come home,–but he wrote,–such beautiful letters. The priest, himself, couldn’t beat them; and,–and–now, I was going to surprise him, but–will he–will he like it, Herr Lieutenant, after all? Look you,–I’m afraid,–he such a grand gentleman, and I’–
“Zwilk’s voice sounded from within, hard and merciless, rating a common soldier: then he walked into the yard.
“Arm in arm with Prince Liscat, varnished, laced, buckled, strapped, affected and arrogant, one hand on his moustache, he simpered through his teeth:
“‘You’re much too good, Bonbon. You don’t know how to treat the canaille. The Pleb must be trodden on, else he will grow up over our heads.’
“Then his eyes met those of the old stranger. He turned deathly pale; the old man shook in every limb. Handsome Truyn, very red in the face, stammered:
“‘Your father has come to see you: it gives me much pleasure to make his acquaintance,’ or some well-meant awkwardness of that kind.
“But Zwilk smiled, his upper lip drawing tight under his nose, showing his teeth, large, square and white, like piano keys.
“‘Der papa?’ he simpered, elegantly, looking all over the court, as if searching for him; then, as the old man, stretching out his trembling hands, ‘Loisl!’ Zwilk fixed him with a cold stare and said, ‘I don’t know the man; he must be crazy.’
“Ashamed, confused, the stranger let fall his hands; he caught his breath, then looking anxiously from one to the other of us, he stammered:
“‘It is not my son. I was mistaken: a very grand gentleman. Not my son.’
“‘Never mind,’ strutted Zwilk, and clapped him jovially on the shoulder. ‘There, drink my health,’ and he reached him a silver gulden.
“The old man took it with an indescribable, hesitating gesture; looked again in a scared way around on us all, lifted his eyes sadly, as if begging forgiveness, to the face of the Nobl’ Zwilk, and turned away, repeating, ‘Not my son!’
“He was blind with grief. He struck against the sharp corner of the stone gatepost, recoiled, felt about with his hands for support, and disappeared.
“We were dumb. There came the ring of a coin on the pavement without, a half-choked sob, then nothing more.
“‘Dost thou dine at the Austrian Court to-day?’ inquired Zwilk, with cheerful effrontery of his friend Bonbon, whose arm he took.
“Farmer Toni hawked and spat slowly and deliberately at Zwilk’s feet, but Zwilk had the presence of mind not to see it, and left the place on Liscat’s arm, still smiling.
“We looked at each other. Count Erich’s eyes were full of tears. Schmied’s fists were clenched, and his lip trembled. All of us felt a tightness in our throat. We longed to rush after the disowned man; to surround him with respectful attentions; to pour out kind words and consolation,–if we could have found consolation. But it was one of those moments when fine feeling lays a restraining hand on sympathy, and we pass the sufferer blindly by, not daring even to uncover our heads.
“In the square before the barracks, a silver gulden sparkled on the pavement in the cold winter sun.
* * * * *
“New Year had come in when the party broke up at Prince Schirmberg’s, and we rode homeward by a narrow, snow-covered path across the fields, a short cut, by which the heavy equipages of the other guests could not follow us.
“The soirée had been a great success. The prince of the blood had shown himself, as usual, all affability, and Zwilk, warmly recommended to favor, had been graciously distinguished by His Royal Highness.
“The slightly faded Countess Schnick had looked very pretty. Zwilk had been courting her since autumn, and to-night she had been very encouraging to the future adjutant of Prince Schirmberg. And Zwilk, after the departure of His Royal Highness, had beamed and twinkled, and shone as if varnished all over with good fortune, patronizing everybody, even his friend Bonbon. Now he rode, sunk in pleasant reveries, a little apart from us, at the head of our cavalcade.
“The moon shone clear. Sown with countless stars, the sky blue and cloudless arched above an endless expanse of snow. Everything around us was of a blinding whiteness, an unearthly purity, and still as death. Only now and again, at long intervals, a light shudder trembled through the silence, a swift rushing, a deep sigh,–then once more silence.
“‘It is a parting soul,’ said Erich Truyn, listening, much moved. Erich was a little superstitious.
“‘Nonsense,’ grumbled Schmied, ‘it is a tree letting fall its burden of snow.’
“‘Everything is so strangely pure, one is afraid of meeting an angel,’ said Toni.
“‘Yes, it makes one ashamed of being a man,’ muttered Schmied. Then we all ceased talking. We thought of home. The New Year’s night, so still and peaceful, brought us all memories of long-forgotten childhood. Presently Schmied spoke out in his deep bass voice, to Toni.
“‘I must see if I can’t get leave and give my old governor a surprise for Twelfth Night. He’s awfully pleased when Hopeful turns up.’
“‘Wish I could say the same of my Herr Papa,’ sighed Toni. ‘But it’s all up in that quarter. I’m simply a lightning rod for him. When his steward bothers him, he sits down and writes me an abusive letter. But it’s partly my own fault,’ he added, regretfully.
“Count Erich, who had lost his father shortly before, looked straight ahead, his brows meeting, his eyes winking unsteadily.
“Proudly the Nobl’ Zwilk rode at the head of our little troop, rocking himself in dreams of gratified vanity. All at once his horse reared, so violently and unexpectedly that he was thrown. He kept hold of the bridle, and was back in the saddle next moment, punishing his horse furiously, and cursing so loud that Schmied, who rode nearest him, called out ‘Restrain yourself’: and pointed to a small wayside shrine, on the edge of the path. It held an image of the Virgin, and a half extinguished lamp, burning dimly before it, sent a red ray into the blue white of the moonbeams.
“Then, on the spot where Zwilk’s horse had shied, Schmied’s Gaudeamus began to back and tremble, to our amazement, for Schmied’s horses were reputed as phlegmatic as their master. Next Truyn’s Coquette jumped to one side, and Toni’s Lucretia began swinging herself backward and forward like a wooden rocking horse.
“‘I think the brutes have entered into a conspiracy to make us stop here and say our prayers,’ said Toni. But Schmied sprang down.
“‘What is it?’ we called. ‘Some one frozen,’ he answered. ‘Perhaps some one drunk,’ lisped Prince Liscat. Erich and his cousin with the rest of us were already dismounted. Two sleepy grooms held our horses.
“There on the chapel steps, crouched a human form, in the attitude of one who has fled to God with a great burden.
“We stretched him out on the snow. His limbs cracked gruesomely. His hands were hard as stone: he must have been dead for hours. The cold moon shone on his face. It was old and wrinkled, the frost of frozen tears glimmered on his cheeks and around his mouth. The dead drawn mouth kept the expression of weeping.
“‘It’s the poor devil who came to us yesterday morning in the Riding-School,’ said Erich, and bowed his head reverently.
“‘Better so,’ muttered Schmied, in a shaky voice. ‘Better for him.’ The little peasant-count kneeled in the snow, rubbing the stiff hands and sobbing.
“‘We had better take ourselves off. We can’t do any good here, and there will be trouble with the police.’
“It was Zwilk who spoke, standing by with white, strangely smiling face: his voice was hoarse and hurried.
“Then Toni sprang to his feet. ‘You hound!’ he cried, and struck him across the face with a riding-whip.”
The speaker paused a few seconds, then went on quietly.
“Of course Zwilch left the army. He and Toni fought with pistols. Zwilch came off extremely well, and Toni extremely ill, being badly wounded in the hip. He lay in bed six months, but during that time he was reconciled to his family, and shortly after he got well he married a pretty little cousin. He lives in the country, overseeing an estate of his father’s. He has grown steady, has a great many children and preserves the most touching affection for his old comrades.
“We gave the poor old stranger a grand funeral, which the whole officer’s corps attended. We buried him in St. Peter’s Churchyard, and put him up a fine monument.
“The Nobl’ Zwilk vanished utterly. For a long time I expected to see him turn up as a fencingmaster somewhere. But far from it: I ran across him lately in Venice, married to a rich widow from Odessa. His servants call him Eccelenza; things prosper with him.”
The old general paused, and looked about him. He had told his story in a voice of much feeling, and now he evidently looked for some signs of sympathy.
The celebrated poet remarked, with a grin, that the story would make a good subject for a comedy, if you changed the ending a little. The celebrated poetess said she didn’t feel much interest in stories that hadn’t any love in them. The hostess inquired if the widow whom Zwilch married was a person of good reputation. The host remarked that that was what came of letting the rabble into the same regiment with respectable people.
Only the youthful idealist had been so much moved that he was afraid to speak for fear of showing it. But at last he pulled himself together and broke out with these enigmatical words–
“After all, it’s our own fault.”
“How do you mean?” asked the hostess.
He blushed and stammered. “I mean, that if there were no Prince Liscat, there would be no Nobl’ Zwilk.”