English Literature

At The Councillor’s or, A Nameless History by E. Marlitt

At The Councillor's or, A Nameless History by E. Marlitt.jpg

CHAPTER I.

The rays of a December sun shone dimly into a room in the large castle mill, calling forth feeble sparks of light from the strange objects lying on the broad stone window-sill, and then vanishing in a bank of snow-clouds that were rising slowly but steadily in the west. The objects sparkling so strangely on the window-sill were some portion of a surgeon’s apparatus; those instruments the cold, steely glitter of which startles the eye and sends a shudder through the nerves of many a brave man. A huge bedstead, the head and footboard clumsily painted with gaudy roses and carnations, and piled with feather-beds and patchwork quilts, stood directly in the broad light from the window, and upon this bed lay the castle miller. The skilful hand of the physician had just relieved him of a tumour in the throat that had several times threatened his life with suffocation. It had been a perilous undertaking, but the young man who now pulled down the window-shade and began to put up his instruments looked entirely satisfied,—the operation had succeeded.

The invalid, who shortly before, when only partly under the influence of chloroform, had pushed away the hand of the physician, abusing him in a hoarse voice as a robber and murderer, now lay quiet and exhausted among the pillows. He had been forbidden to talk,—surely an unnecessary prohibition, for it would have been difficult to find a face bearing so unmistakable an impress of dull taciturnity as did this square, clumsy countenance, which had but one beauty to boast of,—the thick, silvery hair that enclosed it as in a frame.

“Are you satisfied, Bruck?”[#] asked a gentleman, who now approached the physician from the foot of the bed, where he had been standing. His handsome features wore an expression of keen anxiety.

[#] Pronounced Brook.

The doctor nodded. “All right so far; the patient’s strong constitution will stand him in stead now,” he said, quietly, glancing towards the old man. “At present all depends upon the nursing; I must leave. For some time he must not stir from his present position. There must be no hemorrhage from the wound——”

“I will see to that,” the other interrupted him, eagerly; “I will stay as long as careful watching is needed. Will you not leave word at the villa that I shall not come back to tea?”

A slight flush mounted to the physician’s cheek, and there was some embarrassment in the tone of his reply: “I cannot go round through the park. I must get to town as quickly as possible——”

“You have not seen Flora to-day, doctor——”

“I know that well enough. I——” He paused, compressed his lips, and took up his case of instruments. “I have some patients very ill,” he went on, calmly: “the little Lenz girl will die before to-morrow morning. I cannot save the child, but the parents, who are utterly exhausted with nursing and anxiety, are counting the moments while I am away from them; the mother will eat only when I insist upon it.”

Ho approached the bed, where the sick man raised his eyes to him with a look of perfect consciousness; there was even a glimmer of gratitude in them for the sudden and unspeakable relief he had experienced. He would have taken his benefactor’s hand, but the latter imposed quiet with his own, as he reiterated the necessity for avoiding all motion whatever. “The councillor will remain here, Herr Sommer,” he added, “and see that my injunctions are strictly obeyed.”

This seemed to content the old man; he looked towards the councillor, who confirmed by a nod the physician’s words, and then he closed his eyes as if to try to sleep. Doctor Bruck took his hat, gave his hand to the councillor, and left the room.

To an anxious wife seated by the bedside of the patient his departure would have been the signal for a weary sense of forlornness,—the opposite of the fresh courage with which his coming inspired the poor mother who took needful nourishment only at his request. But no such loving anxiety watched by this man’s couch. The old housekeeper, who came into the room to put it in order after the doctor’s visit, looked coldly indifferent; she flitted about like a bat, and seemed much more distressed by a few drops of water that marred the polish upon one of her tables than by the danger that had threatened her master’s life.

“Pray let that be for the present, Susie,” the councillor said, in his most courteous tone. “Your rubbing that table makes a noise very irritating to the nerves; Doctor Bruck prescribes absolute repose for Papa.”

Susie hastily picked up housecloth and broom, and betook herself to her neat and shining kitchen, there to forget the stains upon the table. As perfect quiet as was possible in the mill reigned in the room she had left; up through the floor came the continuous, measured beat of machinery; the water tumbling over the weir outside sang its perpetual refrain, and now and then the doves fluttered against the window-pane, or cooed in the branches of the ancient chestnuts, through which the western light faintly illumined the room. These mingled noises did not exist as such for the sick man, however: they were as much part and parcel of his existence as the beating of his heart.

It was indeed a repulsive face which the elegant figure at the bedside watched, according to his promise, so carefully. Its coarseness, the hard lines of low vulgarity about the pendulous nether lip, had never so impressed and disgusted him as now, when sleep or exhaustion had robbed it of force and revealed all its original characteristics. Yes, the old man had begun life low enough in the scale, as a hard-worked mill-servant, but he was now the owner of untold wealth; trade had made a money-monarch of the invalid upon the clumsy old bedstead; and this fact, doubtless, had something to do with the familiar epithet of “Papa” bestowed upon him by the councillor, who was not bound to him by any tie of blood. The councillor had married the daughter of the deceased banker Mangold by his first wife. For his second, Mangold had wooed and won the daughter of the old miller. This was all the relationship that existed between the miller and his nurse.

The councillor arose and stepped softly to the window. He was a man of vivacious temperament, and sitting still in this way made him nervous; he could not bear the constant gazing upon that unsympathetic face, those coarse, sinewy fists, now buried in the down coverlet, which had once wielded the whip above the mill-horses. The chestnuts before the window had long since shed their last leaf; every opening left in the tracery of their boughs formed a rural landscape picture, each lovelier than the other, although for the moment the dark December sky dimmed the lustre that was reflected from the little lake, and veiled in misty gloom the hazy purple of the distant mountain-tops.

There, on the right, the river, after turning the wheels of the castle mill, made a sudden bend; a frame-work of boughs on that side enclosed a strip of its shining course, and a structure the purposes of which it was made to serve, a huge, square, unornamented stone building, with rows of windows enhancing its naked ugliness. This was the councillor’s factory. He too was a rich man; he employed hundreds of weavers at clattering looms, and this property of his placed him in a kind of dependent position with regard to the castle miller. The mill, built hundreds of years before by a lord of the land, had been endowed with immense prerogatives, which, still in force, controlled a considerable stretch of the river, and were irritating enough to the dwellers upon its banks. Upon these prerogatives the burly master of the castle mill took his stand, and showed his teeth to any one who dared to lay a finger upon his rights. Once only a tenant of the mill, he had slowly but surely stretched forth the arms of his growing wealth, until not only the mill was his own, but also the baronial estate to which it had originally belonged. This he had accomplished shortly before the marriage of his only child to the respectable banker Mangold. The extensive forests and farm-land upon the estate were all that the miller cared for; the magnificent villa in the midst of its stately park had always been an eye-sore to him; nevertheless, he had kept the “costly toy” in perfect repair, for the pleasure of seeing his daughter rule as mistress where the former haughty lord had always disdained even to answer his salute. The councillor now rented the villa; there was every reason, therefore, that he should be upon the best terms with his landlord, and one who possessed such control of the river. And this was the case: the councillor was as a docile son to the surly old man.

Four o’clock struck from the factory tower, and the gas instantly lit up the counting-room windows. Twilight came on early indeed on this afternoon: the air was filled with that moisture that brings snow; the smoke from city chimneys hung low over the earth, while the slate roof of the factory and every stone door-step were glassy with intense damp; the doves, until now huddled together upon the bare chestnut-boughs, suddenly left them and flew to the warm, dry dove-cote. The councillor looked back into the room with a shiver. By contrast it looked almost comfortable and cosy to the man to whose refined taste it was usually so repulsive, with its constant smell of cooking, its smoky ceiling, and the coarse prints here and there upon the walls; but Susie had just replenished the fire in the stove with pine wood, the old-fashioned sofa against the wall looked inviting with its huge soft cushions, and upon the bright panes of glass in the recess-door the last gleams of daylight were reflected. Ah, behind that door stood the iron safe: had he remembered to take out the key?

Just before the operation, the miller had made his will; as Doctor Bruck and the councillor entered the room, they met the lawyers and witnesses leaving it. Although outwardly composed, the patient must have gone through much agitation of mind: his hand had evidently been uncertain, for in putting away his papers he had left one of them lying upon the table. Noticing this omission, after the doctor’s arrival he had requested the councillor to lock it up in the safe. A second door led from the recess where the safe was placed into an antechamber, and there were all sorts of people continually coming and going in the mill. The councillor had put away the paper, but left the door of the safe unlocked,—an inexcusable neglect,—and he hastily went to the little room. What would the old man, who guarded this precious place of deposit like a dragon, have said at seeing his money thus exposed! No one could possibly have entered the room, the councillor consoled himself by thinking; the slightest noise could not have escaped him; but he would make sure that everything was in order.

He opened the iron folding-doors as noiselessly as possible; there were the money-bags untouched, and before the packets of valuable papers were ranged columns of glittering gold pieces. He glanced rapidly over the paper, which in his former natural haste and agitation he had put carelessly into one of the neatly-arranged pigeon-holes: it was an inventory of the miller’s entire possessions. What enormous sums those rows of figures represented! He carefully put it where it belonged, and in doing so he accidentally overthrew one of the columns of gold pieces: a number of napoleons fell noisily upon the floor. What an ugly sound they made! He had touched money belonging to another! A mixture of terror and uncalled-for shame sent the colour to his cheeks; he stooped in haste to pick up the money. As he did so, a heavy body fell upon him from behind, and hard, coarse fingers clutched his throat.

“You scoundrel, I am not dead yet!” the miller hissed in his ear, in a strange, muffled tone. There was a momentary struggle; all the councillor’s strength and vigor were necessary to shake off the old man, who clung to him like a panther, grasping his throat so tightly that a shower of sparks seemed to flash before his eyes; he seized with both hands the mass that weighed him down, gave one strong thrust and push, and he was on his feet and free, while the miller staggered against the wall.

“Are you mad, Papa?” he gasped, breathlessly. “What vile suspicions!——” He paused in horror: the bandage beneath the old man’s whitening face suddenly became crimson, and the dreadful colour crept rapidly downward over his white night-dress. This was the hemorrhage that was to have been so carefully guarded against.

The councillor’s teeth chattered as in a fever-fit. Was this misfortune his fault? “No, no,” he said to himself instantly, as he put his arm around the invalid to support him to his bed; but the old man thrust him away angrily, and pointed to the scattered gold; each piece had to be carefully picked up and arranged in place; in care for his money he either forgot or ignored the danger that threatened him. Not until the councillor had locked the safe and put the key into his hand did he totter back into his bedroom, there to fall helpless upon the bed; and when at last, summoned by the councillor’s repeated cries for help, two mill-servants and Susie rushed into the room, there lay the castle miller on his back, his glazing eyes, from which all consciousness seemed to have departed, staring downward at the crimson dye which the welling life-stream was so rabidly spreading on every side.

A servant was dispatched to town to summon Doctor Bruck, while the housekeeper hurriedly brought water and linen. They were of no avail. The councillor anxiously applied cloth after cloth to the wound,—the stream would not be stayed. There was no doubt of it, an artery had burst. How had it happened? Was the old man’s mental and physical excitement alone to blame, or—his heart seemed to stop beating at the thought—had he in defending himself struck and mortally aggravated the wound in the throat? How can there be any exact memory of the moment of defence against a furious assault? Who could tell whether, with murderous fingers clutching his throat, and his overcharged brain kindling thousands of fires in the air, he had seized shoulder or throat of his assailant? Why imagine so ghastly a possibility? Was not the spring out of bed, the excess of rage, quite enough to bring on the disaster which the physician had predicted would be the result of any sudden movement? No, no, his conscience was clear; he had nothing to reproach himself with, whatever might have been the cause of this terrible event. He had gone to the safe solely in the old man’s interest; there had not been in his mind even a fleeting desire to possess any of that wealth; this he was sure of. How could he help the low suspicions of the miserable old corn-dealer, who saw a possible robber in every man, no matter what his position and culture? Anxiety and horror gave place to indignation in the councillor’s mind. This came of his amiability, the innate courtesy for which his friends declared he was distinguished; it had often induced him to take upon himself responsibilities which had involved him disagreeably. Had he but stayed at home,—in his comfortable library, at the whist-table, or smoking a cigar in peace! His evil genius had prompted him to play the part of self-sacrificing nurse, and here he was in this terrible situation, shuddering with horror and disgust, his hands moistened with the blood of the wretch who would have strangled him.

The minutes were surely weighted with lead! The miller now seemed aware of the peril he had brought upon himself; he did not stir, but his eyes turned anxiously towards the door whenever footsteps were heard without; his hopes for rescue lay in the physician. The councillor, dismayed, marked the change in his countenance. That ashen hue was the sure forerunner of death.

Susie brought in the lamp; she had been repeatedly to the door to look for Doctor Bruck, and she now stood at the side of the bed, shaking her head in mute horror at the sight that the faint lamp-light revealed. A few moments more, and the miller’s eyes closed. The key, until then clutched convulsively in his hand, fell upon the counterpane. Involuntarily the councillor extended his hand to put it away, but as he touched the bit of iron the thought suddenly struck him, like an unexpected blow, of the aspect this unfortunate accident might wear in the eyes of the world. He knew only too well what slander could do with its poisonous breath,—how it could glide through his halls and apartments, received by men as well as by women with malicious satisfaction, ambiguous smiles, and finger-pointings. If a single person should say, with a shrug, “Aha, what was Councillor Römer looking for in the miller’s safe?” it would be enough. Such words would not be spoken by one voice only. Like all fortunate men, he numbered many among his acquaintances who envied and disliked him; he knew that it would be everywhere told in town to-morrow how the operation had been quite successful, but that the irritation produced in the patient by seeing the man self-installed as nurse secretly visiting his safe had brought on a fatal hemorrhage. And there would be a stain upon the name of Römer, the envied favorite of fortune, which no legal investigation could remove, for there could be no friendly witnesses. Would not his previous honourable career be sufficient testimony in his favour? He laughed bitterly to himself as he wiped the drops of cold perspiration from his brow. No one knew better than he how ready the world is to stigmatize as mere sham any uprightness of character as soon as appearances are against it. He leaned over the unconscious man, whose temples Susie was bathing with spirits, and suddenly regarded him in a different light: should he never recover sufficient strength to tell of what had occurred, it would be buried with him: there were no other lips to speak of it.

At last the watch-dog barked outside; hasty steps crossed the court-yard and ascended the stairs. Doctor Bruck paused for a moment, as if petrified, at the door of the room, then silently laid his hat upon the table, and approached the bed. The solemn moment that ensued seemed to throb with expectation of the verdict about to be pronounced.

“If he would only come to himself again, Herr Doctor,” the housekeeper said, at last, in an anxious whisper.

“He will hardly do that,” Doctor Bruck replied, looking up from his investigation. All colour had fled from his face. “Be quiet,” he sternly ordered, as Susie was about to break out into loud lamentations, “and tell me why the patient left his bed!” He took the lamp from the table and pointed to the floor beside the bed: the planks were sprinkled with blood.

“That comes from the cloths we have been using,” the councillor explained, in a decided tone, although he had grown very pale; while the housekeeper affirmed by all that was holy that the castle miller was lying just as the doctor had left him when she entered the room.

Doctor Bruck shook his head. “This hemorrhage never came on without cause; it must have been produced by some violent agitation.”

“None that I know of; I assure you, none!” said the councillor, meeting the physician’s keen glance with tolerable firmness. “What do you mean by looking at me thus? I cannot see why I should conceal from you that the patient had sprung from his bed in an excess of fever, if such had been the case.” He would keep to the path he had chosen, although the last words seemed to stick in his throat. To save mere appearances he sacrificed his honour, he lied with a brazen brow; but then he had not been in fault with regard to what had occurred; his life had fairly been in peril. There was not a single consideration that could make an explanation of the real facts of the case necessary.

The physician turned silently away and busied himself with his patient. Once or twice the miller opened his eyes, but they gazed unmeaningly into space, and the effort to speak died away in a rattle in his throat.

A few hours afterwards, Councillor Römer left the castle mill. All was over. Across the doors of the recess broad strips of paper were already pasted. As soon as the miller breathed his last, the councillor advised the legal authorities of the fact, and, like a conscientious, prudent man, saw seals placed upon everything before he left the spot.

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