It is a Christmas morning in Surrey—cold, still and gray, with a frail glimmer of sunshine coming through the bare trees to melt the hoar-frost on the lawn. The postman has just gone out, swinging the gate behind him. A fire burns brightly in the breakfast-room; and there is silence about the house, for the children have gone off to climb Box Hill before being marched to church.
The small and gentle lady who presides over the household walks sedately in, and lifts the solitary letter that is lying on her plate. About three seconds suffice to let her run through its contents, and then she suddenly cries:
“I knew it! I said it! I told you two months ago she was only flirting with him; and now she has rejected him. And oh! I am so glad of it! The poor boy!”
The other person in the room, who had been meekly waiting for his breakfast for half an hour, ventures to point out that there is nothing to rejoice over in the fact of a young man having been rejected by a young woman.
“If it were final, yes! If these two young folks were not certain to go and marry somebody else, you might congratulate them both. But you know they will. The poor boy will go courting again in three months’ time, and be vastly pleased with his condition.”
“Oh, never, never!” she says. “He has had such a lesson! You know I warned him. I knew she was only flirting with him. Poor Charlie! Now I hope he will get on with his profession, and leave such things out of his head. And as for that creature—”
“I will do you the justice to say,” observes her husband, who is still regarding the table with a longing eye, “that you did oppose this match, because you hadn’t the making of it. If you had brought these two together they would have been married ere this. Never mind; you can marry him to somebody of your own choosing now.”
“No,” she says, with much decision; “he must not think of marriage. He cannot think of it. It will take the poor lad a long time to get over this blow.”
“He will marry within a year.”
“I will bet you whatever you like that he doesn’t,” she says, triumphantly.
“Whatever I like! That is a big wager. If you lose, do you think you could pay? I should like, for example, to have my own way in my own house.”
“If I lose you shall,” says the generous creature; and the bargain is concluded.
Nothing further is said about this matter for the moment. The children return from Box Hill, and are rigged out for church. Two young people, friends of ours, and recently married, having no domestic circle of their own, and having promised to spend the whole Christmas Day with us, arrived. Then we set out, trying as much as possible to think that Christmas Day is different from any other day, and pleased to observe that the younger folk, at least, cherish the delusion.
But just before reaching the church I say to the small lady who got the letter in the morning, and whom we generally call Tita:
“When do you expect to see Charlie?”
“I don’t know,” she answers. “After this cruel affair he won’t like to go about much.”
“You remember that he promised to go with us to the Black Forest?”
“Yes; and I am sure it will be a pleasant trip for him.”
“Shall we go to Huferschingen?”
“I suppose so.”
“Franziska is a pretty girl.”
Now you would not think that any great mischief could be done by the mere remark that Franziska was a pretty girl. Anybody who had seen Franziska Fahler, niece of the proprietor of the “Goldenen Bock” in Huferschingen, would admit that in a moment. But this is nevertheless true, that our important but diminutive Queen Tita was very thoughtful during the rest of our walk to this little church; and in church, too, she was thinking so deeply that she almost forgot to look at the effect of the decorations she had nailed up the day before. Yet nothing could have offended in the bare observation that Franziska was a pretty girl.
At dinner in the evening we had our two guests and a few young fellows from London who did not happen to have their families or homes there. Curiously enough, there was a vast deal of talk about travelling, and also about Baden, and more particularly about the southern districts of Baden. Tita said the Black Forest was the most charming place in the world; and as it was Christmas Day, and as we had been listening to a sermon all about charity and kindness and consideration for others, nobody was rude enough to contradict her. But our forbearance was put to a severe test when, after dinner, she produced a photographic album and handed it round, and challenged everybody to say whether the young lady in the corner was not absolutely lovely. Most of them said that she was certainly very nice-looking; and Tita seemed a little disappointed.
I perceived that it would no longer do to say that Franziska was a pretty girl. We should henceforth have to swear by everything we held dear that she was absolutely lovely.
II—ZUM “GOLDENEN BOCK”
We felt some pity for the lad when we took him abroad with us; but it must be confessed that at first he was not a very desirable travelling companion. There was a gloom about him. Despite the eight months that had elapsed, he professed that his old wound was still open. Tita treated him with the kindest maternal solicitude, which was a great mistake; tonics, not sweets, are required in such cases. Yet he was very grateful, and he said, with a blush, that, in any case, he would not rail against all women because of the badness of one. Indeed, you would not have fancied he had any great grudge against womankind. There were a great many English abroad that autumn, and we met whole batches of pretty girls at every station and at every table d’hote on our route. Did he avoid them, or glare at them savagely, or say hard things of them? Oh no! quite the reverse. He was a little shy at first; and when he saw a party of distressed damsels in a station, with their bewildered father in vain attempting to make himself understood to a porter, he would assist them in a brief and businesslike manner as if it were a duty, lift his cap, and then march off relieved. But by-and-by he began to make acquaintances in the hotel; and as he was a handsome, English-looking lad, who bore a certificate of honesty in his clear gray eyes and easy gait, he was rather made much of. Nor could any fault be decently found with his appetite.
So we passed on from Konigswinter to Coblenz, and from Coblenz to Heidelberg, and from Heidelberg south to Freiburg, where we bade adieu to the last of the towns, and laid hold of a trap with a pair of ancient and angular horses, and plunged into the Hollenthal, the first great gorge of the Black Forest mountains. From one point to another we slowly urged our devious course, walking the most of the day, indeed, and putting the trap and ourselves up for the night at some quaint roadside hostelry, where we ate of roe-deer and drank of Affenthaler, and endeavoured to speak German with a pure Waldshut accent. And then, one evening, when the last rays of the sun were shining along the hills and touching the stems of the tall pines, we drove into a narrow valley and caught sight of a large brown building of wood, with projecting eaves and quaint windows, that stood close by the forest.
“Here is my dear inn!” cried Tita, with a great glow of delight and affection in her face. “Here is mein gutes Thal! Ich gruss’ dich ein tausend Mal! And here is old Peter come out to see us; and there is Franziska!”
“Oh, this is Franziska, is it?” said Charlie.
Yes, this was Franziska. She was a well-built, handsome girl of nineteen or twenty, with a healthy, sunburnt complexion, and dark hair plaited into two long tails, which were taken up and twisted into a knot behind. That you could see from a distance. But on nearer approach you found that Franziska had really fine and intelligent features, and a pair of frank, clear, big brown eyes that had a very straight look about them. They were something of the eyes of a deer, indeed; wide apart, soft, and apprehensive, yet looking with a certain directness and unconsciousness that overcame her natural girlish timidity. Tita simply flew at her and kissed her heartily and asked her twenty questions at once. Franziska answered in very fair English, a little slow and formal, but quite grammatical. Then she was introduced to Charlie, and she shook hands with him in a simple and unembarrassed way; and then she turned to one of the servants and gave some directions about the luggage. Finally she begged Tita to go indoors and get off her travelling attire, which was done, leaving us two outside.
“She’s a very pretty girl,” Charlie said, carelessly. “I suppose she’s sort of head cook and kitchen-maid here.”
The impudence of these young men is something extraordinary.
“If you wish to have your head in your hands,” I remarked to him, “just you repeat that remark at dinner. Why, Franziska is no end of a swell. She has two thousand pounds and the half of a mill. She has a sister married to the Geheimer-Ober-Hofbaurath of Hesse-Cassel. She had visited both Paris and Munich, and she has her dresses made in Freiburg.”
“But why does such an illustrious creature bury herself in this valley, and in an old inn, and go about bareheaded?”
“Because there are folks in the world without ambition, who like to live a quiet, decent, homely life. Every girl can’t marry a Geheimer-Ober-Hofbaurath. Ziska, now, is much more likely to marry the young doctor here.”
“Oh, indeed! and live here all her days. She couldn’t do better. Happy Franziska!”
We went indoors. It was a low, large, rambling place, with one immense room all hung round with roe-deers’ horns, and with one lesser room fitted up with a billiard-table. The inn lay a couple of hundred yards back from Huferschingen; but it had been made the headquarters of the keepers, and just outside this room there were a number of pegs for them to sling their guns and bags on when they came in of an evening to have a pipe and a chopin of white wine. Ziska’s uncle and aunt were both large, stout, and somnolent people, very good-natured and kind, but a trifle dull. Ziska really had the management of the place, and she was not slow to lend a hand if the servants were remiss in waiting on us. But that, it was understood, was done out of compliment to our small Queen Tita.
By-and-by we sat down to dinner, and Franziska came to see that everything was going on straight. It was a dinner “with scenery.” You forgot to be particular about the soup, the venison, and the Affenthaler when from the window at your elbow you could look across the narrow valley and behold a long stretch of the Black Forest shining in the red glow of the sunset. The lower the sun sank the more intense became the crimson light on the tall stems of the pines; and then you could see the line of shadow slowly rising up the side of the opposite hill until only the topmost trees were touched with fire. Then these too lost it, and all the forest around us seemed to have a pale-blue mist stealing over it as the night fell and the twilight faded out of the sky overhead. Presently the long undulations of fir grew black, the stars came out, and the sound of the stream could be heard distantly in the hollow; and then, at Tita’s wish, we went off for a last stroll in among the soft moss and under the darkness of the pines, now and again starting some great capercailzie, and sending it flying and whirring down the glades.
When we returned from that prowl into the forest, we found the inn dark. Such people as may have called in had gone home; but we suspected that Franziska had given the neighbours a hint not to overwhelm us on our first arrival. When we entered the big room, Franziska came in with candles; then she brought some matches, and also put on the table an odd little pack of cards, and went out. Her uncle and aunt had, even before we went out, come and bade us good-night formally, and shaken hands all round. They are early folk in the Black Forest.
“Where has that girl gone now?” says Charlie. “Into that lonely billiard-room! Couldn’t you ask her to come in here? Or shall we go and play billiards?”
Tita stares, and then demurely smiles; but it is with an assumed severity that she rebukes him for such a wicked proposal, and reminds him that he must start early next morning. He groans assent. Then she takes her leave.
The big young man was silent for a moment or two, with his hands in his pockets and his legs stretched out. I begin to think I am in for it—the old story of blighted hopes and angry denunciation and hypocritical joy, and all the rest of it. But suddenly Charlie looks up with a businesslike air and says:
“Who is that doctor fellow you were speaking about! Shall we see him to-morrow?”
“You saw him to-night. It was he who passed us on the road with the two beagles.”
“What! that little fellow with the bandy legs and the spectacles?” he cries, with a great laugh.
“That little fellow,” I observe to him, “is a person of some importance, I can tell you. He—”
“I suppose his sister married a Geheimer-Ober-under—what the dickens is it?” says this disrespectful young man.
“Dr. Krumm has got the Iron Cross.”
“That won’t make his legs any the straighter.”
“He was at Weissenburg.”
“I suppose he got that cast in the eye there.”
“He can play the zither in a way that would astonish you. He has got a little money. Franziska and he would be able to live very comfortably together.”
“Franziska and that fellow?” says Charlie; and then he rises with a sulky air, and proposes we should take our candles with us.
But he is not sulky very long; for Ziska, hearing our footsteps, comes to the passage and bids us a friendly good-night.
“Good-night, Miss Fahler!” he says, in rather a shamefaced way; “and I am so awfully sorry we have kept you up so late. We sha’n’t do it again.”
You would have thought by his manner that it was two o’clock, whereas it was only half-past eleven!
There was no particular reason why Dr. Krumm should marry Franziska Fahler, except that he was the most important young man in Huferschingen, and she was the most important young woman. People therefore thought they would make a good match, although Franziska certainly had the most to give in the way of good looks. Dr. Krumm was a short, bandy-legged, sturdy young man, with long, fair hair, a tanned complexion, light-blue eyes not quite looking the same way, spectacles, and a general air of industrious common sense about him, if one may use such a phrase. There was certainly little of the lover in his manner toward Ziska, and as little in hers toward him. They were very good friends, though, and he called her Ziska, while she gave him his nickname of Fidelio, his real name being Fidele.
Now on this, the first morning of our stay in Huferschingen, all the population had turned out at an early hour to see us start for the forest; and as the Ober-Forster had gone away to visit his parents in Bavaria, Dr. Krumm was appointed to superintend the operations of the day. And when everybody was busy renewing acquaintance with us, gathering the straying dogs, examining guns and cartridge-belts, and generally aiding in the profound commotion of our setting out, Dr. Krumm was found to be talking in a very friendly and familiar manner with our pretty Franziska. Charlie eyed them askance. He began to say disrespectful things of Krumm: he thought Krumm a plain person. And then, when the bandy-legged doctor had got all the dogs, keepers, and beaters together, we set off along the road, and presently plunged into the cool shade of the forest, where the thick moss suddenly silenced our footsteps, and where there was a moist and resinous smell in the air.
Well, the incidents of the forenoon’s shooting, picturesque as they were, and full of novelty to Tita’s protege, need not be described. At the end of the fourth drive, when we had got on nearly to luncheon-time, it appeared that Charlie had killed a handsome buck, and he was so pleased with this performance that he grew friendly with Dr. Krumm, who had, indeed, given him the haupt-stelle. But when, as we sat down to our sausages and bread and red wine, Charlie incidentally informed our commander-in-chief that, during one of the drives, a splendid yellow fox had come out of the underwood and stood and stared at him for three or four seconds, the doctor uttered a cry of despair.
“I should have told you that,” he said, in English that was not quite so good as Ziska’s, “if I had remembered, yes! The English will not shoot the foxes; but they are very bad for us; they kill the young deer. We are glad to shoot them; and Franziska she told me she wanted a yellow fox for the skin to make something.”
Charlie got very red in the face. He had missed a chance. If he had known that Franziska wanted a yellow fox, all the instinctive veneration for that animal that was in him would have gone clean out, and the fate of the animal—for Charlie was a smart shot—would have been definitely sealed.
“Are there many of them?” said he, gloomily.
“No; not many. But where there is one there are generally four or five. In the next drive we may come on them, yes! I will put you in a good place, sir, and you must not think of letting him go away; for Franziska, who has waited two, three weeks, and not one yellow fox not anywhere, and it is for the variety of the skin in a—a—I do not know what you call it.”
“A rug, I suppose,” said Charlie.
I subsequently heard that Charlie went to his post with a fixed determination to shoot anything of yellow colour that came near him. His station was next to that of Dr. Krumm; but of course they were invisible to each other. The horns of the beaters sounded a warning; the gunners cocked their guns and stood on the alert; in the perfect silence each one waited for the first glimmer of a brown hide down the long green glades of young fir. Then, according to Charlie’s account, by went two or three deer like lightning—all of them does. A buck came last, but swerved just as he came in sight, and backed and made straight for the line of beaters. Two more does, and then an absolute blank. One or two shots had been heard at a distance; either some of the more distant stations had been more fortunate, or one or other of the beaters had tried his luck. Suddenly there was a shot fired close to Charlie; he knew it must have been the doctor. In about a minute afterward he saw some pale-yellow object slowly worming its way through the ferns; and here, at length, he made sure he was going to get his yellow fox. But just as the animal came within fair distance, it turned over, made a struggle or two, and lay still. Charlie rushed along to the spot: it was, indeed, a yellow fox, shot in the head, and now as dead as a door-nail.
What was he to do? Let Dr. Krumm take home this prize to Franziska, after he had had such a chance in the afternoon? Never! Charlie fired a barrel into the air, and then calmly awaited the coming up of the beaters and the drawing together of the sportsmen.
Dr. Krumm, being at the next station, was the first to arrive. He found Charlie standing by the side of the slain fox.
“Ha!” he said, his spectacles fairly gleaming with delight, “you have shotted him! You have killed him! That is very good—that is excellent! Now you will present the skin to Miss Franziska, if you do not wish to take it to England.”
“Oh no!” said Charlie, with a lordly indifference. “I don’t care about it. Franziska may have it.”
Charlie pulled me aside, and said, with a solemn wink:
“Can you keep a secret?”
“My wife and I can keep a secret. I am not allowed to have any for myself.”
“Listen,” said the unabashed young man; “Krumm shot that fox. Mind you don’t say a word. I must have the skin to present to Franziska.”
I stared at him; I had never known him guilty of a dishonest action. But when you do get a decent young English fellow condescending to do anything shabby, be sure it is a girl who is the cause. I said nothing, of course; and in the evening a trap came for us, and we drove back to Huferschingen.
Tita clapped her hands with delight; for Charlie was a favourite of hers, and now he was returning like a hero, with a sprig of fir in his cap to show that he had killed a buck.
“And here, Miss Franziska,” he said, quite gaily, “here is a yellow fox for you. I was told that you wanted the skin of one.”
Franziska fairly blushed for pleasure; not that the skin of a fox was very valuable for her, but that the compliment was so open and marked. She came forward, in German fashion, and rather shyly shook hands with him in token of her thanks.
When Tita was getting ready for dinner I told her about the yellow fox. A married man must have no secrets.
“He is not capable of such a thing,” she says, with a grand air.
“But he did it,” I point out. “What is more, he glories in it. What did he say when I remonstrated with him on the way home! ‘Why,’ says he, ‘I will put an end to Krumm! I will abolish Krumm! I will extinguish Krumm!’ Now, madame, who is responsible for this? Who had been praising Franziska night and day as the sweetest, gentlest, cleverest girl in the world, until this young man determines to have a flirtation with her and astonish you?”
“A flirtation!” says Tita, faintly. “Oh no! Oh, I never meant that.”
“Ask him just now, and he will tell you that women deserve no better. They have no hearts; they are treacherous. They have beautiful eyes, but no conscience. And so he means to take them as they are, and have his measure of amusement.”
“Oh, I am sure he never said anything so abominably wicked,” cried Tita, laying down the rose that Franziska had given her for her hair. “I know he could not say such things. But if he is so wicked—if he has said them—it is not too late to interfere. I will see about it.”
She drew herself up as if Jupiter had suddenly armed her with his thunderbolts. If Charlie had seen her at this moment he would have quailed. He might by chance have told the truth, and confessed that all the wicked things he had been saying about woman’s affection were only a sort of rhetoric, and that he had no sort of intention to flirt with poor Franziska, nor yet to extinguish and annihilate Dr. Krumm.
The heartbroken boy was in very good spirits at dinner. He was inclined to wink. Tita, on the contrary, maintained an impressive dignity of demeanour; and when Franziska’s name happened to be mentioned she spoke of the young girl as her very particular friend, as though she would dare Charlie to attempt a flirtation with one who held that honour. But the young man was either blind or reckless, or acting a part for mere mischief. He pointed the finger of scorn at Dr. Krumm. He asked Tita if he should bring her a yellow fox next day. He declared he wished he could spend the remainder of his life in a Black Forest Inn, with a napkin over his arm, serving chopins. He said he would brave the wrath of the Furst by shooting a capercailzie on the very first opportunity, to bring the shining feathers home to Franziska.
When Tita and I went upstairs at night the small and gentle creature was grievously perplexed.
“I cannot make it out,” she said. “He is quite changed. What is the matter with him?”
“You behold, madam, in that young man the moral effects of vulpicide. A demon has entered into him. You remember, in ‘Der Freischutz,’ how—”
“Did you say vulpicide?” she asks, with a sweet smile. “I understood that Charlie’s crime was that he did not kill the fox.”
I allow her the momentary triumph. Who would grudge to a woman a little verbal victory of that sort? And, indeed, Tita’s satisfaction did not last long. Her perplexity became visible on her face once more.
“We are to be here three weeks,” she said, almost to herself, “and he talks of flirting with poor Franziska. Oh, I never meant that!”
“But what did you mean?” I ask her, with innocent wonder.
Tita hangs down her head, and there is an end to that conversation; but one of us, at least, has some recollection of a Christmas wager.
Charlie was not in such good spirits next morning. He was standing outside the inn, in the sweet, resinous-scented air, watching Franziska coming and going, with her bright face touched by the early sunlight, and her frank and honest eyes lit up by a kindly look when she passed us. His conscience began to smite him for claiming that fox.
We spent the day in fishing a stream some few miles distant from Huferschingen, and Franziska accompanied us. What need to tell of our success with the trout and the grayling, or of the beautiful weather, or of the attentive and humble manner in which the unfortunate youth addressed Franziska from time to time?
In the evening we drove back to Huferschingen. It was a still and beautiful evening, with the silence of the twilight falling over the lonely valleys and the miles upon miles of darkening pines. Charlie has not much of a voice, but he made an effort to sing with Tita:
“The winds whistle cold and the stars glimmer red,
The sheep are in fold and the cattle in shed;”
and the fine old glee sounded fairly well as we drove through the gathering gloom of the forest. But Tita sang, in her low, sweet fashion, that Swedish bridal song that begins:
“Oh, welcome her so fair, with bright and flowing hair;
May Fate through life befriend her, love and smiles attend her;”
and though she sang quietly, just as if she were singing to herself, we all listened with great attention, and with great gratitude too. When we got out of Huferschingen, the stars were out over the dark stretches of forest, and the windows of the quaint old inn were burning brightly.
“And have you enjoyed the amusement of the day?” says Miss Fahler, rather shyly, to a certain young man who is emptying his creel of fish. He drops the basket to turn round and look at her face and say earnestly:
“I have never spent so delightful a day; but it wasn’t the fishing.”
Things were becoming serious.
And next morning Charlie got hold of Tita, and said to her, in rather a shamefaced way:
“What am I to do about that fox? It was only a joke, you know; but if Miss Fahler gets to hear of it, she’ll think it was rather shabby.”
It was always Miss Fahler now; a couple of days before it was Franziska.
“For my part,” says Tita, “I can’t understand why you did it. What honour is there in shooting a fox?”
“But I wanted to give the skin to her.”
It was “her” by this time.
“Well, I think the best thing you can do is to go and tell her all about it; and also to go and apologise to Dr. Krumm.”
“I will go and tell her, certainly; but as for apologising to Krumm, that is absurd!”
“As you please,” says Tita.
By-and-by Franziska—or rather Miss Fahler—came out of the small garden and round by the front of the house.
“O Miss Fahler,” says Charlie, suddenly,—and with that she stops and blushes slightly,—“I’ve got something to say to you. I am going to make a confession. Don’t be frightened; it’s only about a fox—the fox that was brought home the day before yesterday; Dr. Krumm shot that.”
“Indeed,” says Franziska, quite innocently, “I thought you shot it.”
“Well, I let them imagine so. It was only a joke.”
“But it is of no matter; there are many yellow foxes. Dr. Krumm can shoot them at another time; he is always here. Perhaps you will shoot one before you go.”
With that Franziska passed into the house, carrying her fruit with her. Charlie was left to revolve her words in his mind. Dr. Krumm could shoot foxes when he chose; he was always here. He, Charlie, on the contrary, had to go away in little more than a fortnight. There was no Franziska in England; no pleasant driving through great pine woods in the gathering twilight; no shooting of yellow foxes, to be brought home in triumph and presented to a beautiful and grateful young woman. Charlie walked along the white road and overtook Tita, who had just sat down on a little camp-stool, and got out the materials for taking a water-colour sketch of the Huferschingen Valley. He sat down at her feet on the warm grass.
“I suppose I sha’n’t interrupt your painting by talking to you?” he says.
“Oh dear, no,” is the reply; and then he begins, in a somewhat hesitating way, to ask indirect questions and drop hints and fish for answers, just as if this small creature, who was busy with her sepias and olive greens, did not see through all this transparent cunning.
At last she said to him, frankly:
“You want me to tell you whether Franziska would make a good wife for you. She would make a good wife for any man. But then you seem to think that I should intermeddle and negotiate and become a go-between. How can I do that? My husband is always accusing me of trying to make up matches; and you know that isn’t true.”
“I know it isn’t true,” says the hypocrite; “but you might only this once. I believe all you say about this girl; I can see it for myself; and when shall I ever have such a chance again?”
“But dear me!” says Tita, putting down the white palette for a moment, “how can I believe you are in earnest? You have only known her three days.”
“And that is quite enough,” says Charlie, boldly, “to let you find out all you want to know about a girl if she is of the right sort. If she isn’t you won’t find out in three years. Now look at Franziska; look at the fine, intelligent face and the honest eyes; you can have no doubt about her; and then I have all the guarantee of your long acquaintance with her.”
“Oh,” says Tita, “that is all very well. Franziska is an excellent girl, as I have told you often—frank, kind, well educated, and unselfish. But you cannot have fallen in love with her in three days?”
“Why not?” says this blunt-spoken young man.
“Because it is ridiculous. If I meddle in the affair I should probably find you had given up the fancy in other three days; or if you did marry her and took her to England you would get to hate me because I alone should know that you had married the niece of an innkeeper.”
“Well, I like that!” says he, with a flush in his face. “Do you think I should care two straws whether my friends knew I had married the niece of an innkeeper? I should show them Franziska. Wouldn’t that be enough? An innkeeper’s niece! I wish the world had more of ‘em, if they’re like Franziska.”
“And besides,” says Tita, “have you any notion as to how Franziska herself would probably take this mad proposal?”
“No,” says the young man, humbly. “I wanted you to try and find out what she thought about me; and if, in time something were said about this proposal, you might put in a word or two, you know, just to—to give her an idea, you know, that you don’t think it quite so mad, don’t you know?”
“Give me your hand, Charlie,” says Tita, with a sudden burst of kindness. “I’ll do what I can for you; for I know she’s a good girl, and she will make a good wife to the man who marries her.”
You will observe that this promise was given by a lady who never, in any circumstances whatsoever, seeks to make up matches, who never speculates on possible combinations when she invites young people to her house in Surrey, and who is profoundly indignant, indeed, when such a charge is preferred against her. Had she not, on that former Christmas morning, repudiated with scorn the suggestion that Charlie might marry before another year had passed? Had she not, in her wild confidence, staked on a wager that assumption of authority in her household and out of it without which life would be a burden to her? Yet no sooner was the name of Franziska mentioned, and no sooner had she been reminded that Charlie was going with us to Huferschingen, than the nimble little brain set to work. Oftentimes it has occurred to one dispassionate spectator of her ways that this same Tita resembled the small object which, thrown into a dish of some liquid chemical substance, suddenly produces a mass of crystals. The constituents of those beautiful combinations, you see, were there; but they wanted some little shock to hasten the slow process of crystallisation. Now in our social circle we have continually observed groups of young people floating about in an amorphous and chaotic fashion—good for nothing but dawdling through dances, and flirting, and carelessly separating again; but when you dropped Tita among them, then you would see how rapidly this jellyfish sort of existence was abolished—how the groups got broken up, and how the sharp, businesslike relations of marriage were precipitated and made permanent. But would she own to it? Never! She once went and married her dearest friend to a Prussian officer; and now she declares he was a selfish fellow to carry off the girl in that way, and rates him soundly because he won’t bring her to stay with us more than three months out of the twelve. There are some of us get quite enough of this Prussian occupation of our territory.
“Well,” says Tita to this long English lad, who is lying sprawling on the grass, “I can safely tell you this, that Franziska likes you very well.”
He suddenly jumps up, and there is a great blush on his face.
“Has she said so?” he asks, eagerly.
“Oh yes! in a way. She thinks you are good-natured. She likes the English generally. She asked me if that ring you wear was an engaged ring.”
These disconnected sentences were dropped with a tantalising slowness into Charlie’s eager ears.
“I must go and tell her directly that it is not,” said he; and he might probably have gone off at once had not Tita restrained him.
“You must be a great deal more cautious than that if you wish to carry off Franziska some day or other. If you were to ask her to marry you now she would flatly refuse you, and very properly; for how could a girl believe you were in earnest? But if you like, Charlie, I will say something to her that will give her a hint; and if she cares for you at all before you go away she won’t forget you. I wish I was as sure of you as I am of her.”
“Oh I can answer for myself,” says the young man, with a becoming bashfulness.
Tita was very happy and pleased all that day. There was an air of mystery and importance about her. I knew what it meant; I had seen it before.
Alas! poor Charlie!
V—“GAB MIR EIN’ RING DABEI”
Under the friendly instructions of Dr. Krumm, whom he no longer regarded as a possible rival, Charlie became a mighty hunter; and you may be sure that he returned of an evening with sprigs of fir in his cap for the bucks he had slain, Franziska was not the last to come forward and shake hands with him and congratulate him, as is the custom in these primitive parts. And then she was quite made one of the family when we sat down to dinner in the long, low-roofed room; and nearly every evening, indeed, Tita would have her to dine with us and play cards with us.
You may suppose, if these two young folk had any regard for each other, those evenings in the inn must have been a pleasant time for them. There were never two partners at whist who were so courteous to each other, so charitable to each other’s blunders. Indeed, neither would ever admit that the other blundered. Charlie used to make some frightful mistakes occasionally that would have driven any other player mad; but you should have seen the manner in which Franziska would explain that he had no alternative but to take her king with his ace, that he could not know this, and was right in chancing that. We played three-penny points, and Charlie paid for himself and his partner, in spite of her entreaties. Two of us found the game of whist a profitable thing.
One day a registered letter came for Charlie. He seized it, carried it to a window, and then called Tita to him. Why need he have any secret about it? It was nothing but a ring—a plain hoop with a row of rubies.
“Do you think she would take this thing?” he said, in a low voice.
“How can I tell?”
The young man blushed and stammered, and said:
“I don’t want you to ask her to take the ring, but to get to know whether she would accept any present from me. And I would ask her myself plainly, only you have been frightening me so much about being in a hurry. And what am I to do? Three days hence we start.”
Tita looked down with a smile and said, rather timidly:
“I think if I were you I would speak to her myself—but very gently.”
We were going off that morning to a little lake some dozen miles off to try for a jack or two. Franziska was coming with us. She was, indeed, already outside, superintending the placing in the trap of our rods and bags. When Charlie went out she said that everything was ready; and presently our peasant driver cracked his whip, and away we went.
Charlie was a little grave, and could only reply to Tita’s fun with an effort. Franziska was mostly anxious about the fishing, and hoped that we might not go so far to find nothing.
We found few fish anyhow. The water was as still as glass, and as clear; the pike that would have taken our spinning bits of metal must have been very dull-eyed pike indeed. Tita sat at the bow of the long punt reading, while our boatman steadily and slowly plied his single oar. Franziska was for a time eagerly engaged in watching the progress of our fishing, until even she got tired of the excitement of rolling in an immense length of cord, only to find that our spinning bait had hooked a bit of floating wood or weed. At length Charlie proposed that he should go ashore and look out for a picturesque site for our picnic, and he hinted that perhaps Miss Franziska might also like a short walk to relieve the monotony of the sailing. Miss Franziska said she would be very pleased to do that. We ran them in among the rushes, and put them ashore, and then once more started on our laborious career.
Tita laid down her book. She was a little anxious. Sometimes you could see Charlie and Franziska on the path by the side of the lake; at other times the thick trees by the water’s side hid them.
The solitary oar dipped in the lake; the boat glided along the shores. Tita took up her book again. The space of time that passed may be inferred from the fact that, merely as an incident to it, we managed to catch a chub of four pounds. When the excitement over this event had passed, Tita said:
“We must go back to them. What do they mean by not coming on and telling us? It is most silly of them.”
We went back by the same side of the lake, and we found both Franziska and her companion seated on the bank at the precise spot where we had left them. They said it was the best place for the picnic. They asked for the hamper in a businesslike way. They pretended they had searched the shores of the lake for miles.
And while Tita and Franziska are unpacking the things, and laying the white cloth smoothly on the grass, and pulling out the bottles for Charlie to cool in the lake, I observe that the younger of the two ladies rather endeavours to keep her left hand out of sight. It is a paltry piece of deception. Are we moles, and blinder than moles, that we should continually be made the dupes of these women? I say to her:
“Franziska, what is the matter with your left hand?”
“Leave Franziska’s left hand alone,” says Tita, severely.
“My dear,” I reply, humbly, “I am afraid Franziska has hurt her left hand.”
At this moment Charlie, having stuck the bottles among the reeds, comes back, and, hearing our talk, he says, in a loud and audacious way:
“Oh, do you mean the ring? It’s a pretty little thing I had about me, and Franziska has been good enough to accept it. You can show it to them, Franziska.”
Of course he had it about him. Young men always do carry a stock of ruby rings with them when they go fishing, to put in the noses of the fish. I have observed it frequently.
Franziska looks timidly at Tita, and then she raises her hand, that trembles a little. She is about to take the ring off to show it to us when Charlie interposes:
“You needn’t take it off, Franziska.”
And with that, somehow, the girl slips away from among us, and Tita is with her, and we don’t get a glimpse of either of them until the solitude resounds with our cries for luncheon.
In due time Charlie returned to London, and to Surrey with us in very good spirits. He used to come down very often to see us; and one evening at dinner he disclosed the fact that he was going over to the Black Forest in the following week, although the November nights were chill just then.
“And how long do you remain?”
“A month,” he says.
“Madam,” I say to the small lady at the other end of the table, “a month from now will bring us to the 4th of December. You have lost the bet you made last Christmas morning; when will it please you to resign your authority?”
“Oh, bother the bet,” says this unscrupulous person.
“But what do you mean?” says Charlie.
“Why,” I say to him, “she laid a wager last Christmas Day that you would not be married within a year. And now you say you mean to bring Franziska over on the 4th of December next. Isn’t it so?”
“Oh, no!” he says; “we don’t get married till the spring.”
You should have heard the burst of low, delightful laughter with which Queen Tita welcomed this announcement. She had won her wager.