HE was an artist--such things
as happened to him happen sometimes to artists.
He was a German--such things as happened to him happen
sometimes to Germans.
He was young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical,
reckless, unbelieving, heartless.
And being young, handsome and eloquent, he was beloved.
He was an orphan, under the guardianship of his dead father's
brother, his uncle Wilhelm, in whose house he had been brought up from
a little child; and she who loved him was his cousin--his cousin Gertrude,
whom he swore he loved in return.
Did he love her? Yes, when he first swore it. It soon
wore out, this passionate love; how threadbare and wretched a sentiment
it became at last in the selfish heart of the student! But in its golden
dawn, when he was only nineteen, and had just returned from his apprenticeship
to a great painter at Antwerp, and they wandered together in the most romantic
outskirts of the city at rosy sunset, by holy moonlight, or bright and
joyous morning, how beautiful a dream!
They keep it a secret from Wilhelm, as he has the father's
ambition of a wealthy suitor for his only child--a cold and dreary vision
beside the lover's dream.
So they are betrothed; and standing side by side when
the dying sun and the pale rising moon divide the heavens, he puts the
betrothal ring upon her finger, the white and taper finger whose slender
shape he knows so well. This ring is a peculiar one, a massive golden serpent,
its tail in its mouth, the symbol of eternity; it had been his mother's,
and he would know it amongst a thousand. If he were to become blind tomorrow,
he could select it from amongst a thousand by the touch alone.
He places it on her finger, and they swear to be true
to each other for ever and ever--through trouble and danger--sorrow and
change--in wealth or poverty. Her father must needs be won to consent to
their union by and by, for they were now betrothed, and death alone could
But the young student, the scoffer at revelation, yet
the enthusiastic adorer of the mystical, asks:
"Can death part us? I would return to you from the grave,
Gertrude. My soul would come back to be near my love. And you--you, if
you died before me--the cold earth would not hold you from me; if you loved
me, you would return, and again these fair arms would be clasped round
my neck as they are now."
But she told him, with a holier light in her deep-blue
eyes than had ever shone in his--she told him that the dead who die at
peace with God are happy in heaven, and cannot return to the troubled earth;
and that it is only the suicide--the lost wretch on whom sorrowful angels
shut the door of Paradise--whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps of
The first year of their betrothal is passed, and she is
alone, for he has gone to Italy, on a commission for some rich man, to
copy Raphaels, Titians, Guidos, in a gallery at Florence. He has gone to
win fame, perhaps; but it is not the less bitter--he is gone!
Of course her father misses his young nephew, who has
been as a son to him; and he thinks his daughter's sadness no more than
a cousin should feel for a cousin's absence.
In the meantime, the weeks and months pass. The lover
writes--often at first, then seldom--at last, not at all.
How many excuses she invents for him! How many times she
goes to the distant little post-office, to which he is to address his letters!
How many times she hopes, only to be disappointed! How many times she despairs,
only to hope again!
But real despair comes at last, and will not be put off
any more. The rich suitor appears on the scene, and her father is determined.
She is to marry at once. The wedding-day is fixed--the fifteenth of June.
The date seems to burn into her brain.
The date, written in fire, dances for ever before her
The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds continually in
But there is time yet--it is the middle of May--there
is time for a letter to reach him at Florence; there is time for him to
come to Brunswick, to take her away and marry her, in spite of her father--in
spite of the whole world.
But the days and the weeks fly by, and he does not write--he
does not come. This is indeed despair which usurps her heart, and will
not be put away.
It is the fourteenth of June. For the last time she goes
to the little post-office; for the last time she asked the old question,
and they give her for the last time the dreary answer, "No; no letter."
For the last time--for tomorrow is the day appointed for
the bridal. Her father will hear no entreaties; her rich suitor will not
listen to her prayers. They will not be put off a day--an hour; to-night
alone is hers--this night, which she may employ as she will.
She takes another path than that which leads home; she
hurries through some by-streets of the city, out on to a lonely bridge,
where he and she had stood so often in the sunset, watching the rose-coloured
light glow, fade, and die upon the river.
* . * . * . * . * . *
He returns from Florence. He had received her letter.
That letter, blotted with tears, entreating, despairing--he had received
it, but he loved her no longer. A young Florentine, who has sat to him
for a model, had bewitched his fancy--that fancy which with him stood in
place of a heart--and Gertrude had been half-forgotten. If she had a rich
suitor, good; let her marry him; better for her, better far for himself.
He had no wish to fetter himself with a wife. Had he not his art always?--his
eternal bride, his unchanging mistress.
Thus he thought it wiser to delay his journey to Brunswick,
so that he should arrive when the wedding was over--arrive in time to salute
And the vows--the mystical fancies--the belief in his
return, even after death, to the embrace of his beloved? O, gone out of
his life; melted away for ever, those foolish dreams of his boyhood.
So on the fifteenth of June he enters Brunswick, by that
very bridge on which she stood, the stars looking down on her, the night
before. He strolls across the bridge and down by the water's edge, a great
rough dog at his heels, and the smoke from his short meerschaum-pipe curling
in blue wreaths fantastically in the pure morning air. He has his sketch-book
under his arm, and attracted now and then by some object that catches his
artist's eye, stops to draw: a few weeds and pebbles on the river's brink--a
crag on the opposite shore--a group of pollard willows in the distance.
When he has done, he admires his drawing, shuts his sketch-book, empties
the ashes from his pipe, refills from his tobacco-pouch, sings the refrain
of a gay drinking-song, calls to his dog, smokes again, and walks on. Suddenly
he opens his sketch-book again; this time that which attracts him is a
group of figures: but what is it?
It is not a funeral, for there are no mourners.
It is not a funeral, but a corpse lying on a rude bier,
covered with an old sail, carried between two bearers.
It is not a funeral, for the bearers are fishermen--fishermen
in their everyday garb.
About a hundred yards from him they rest their burden
on a bank--one stands at the head of the bier, the other throws himself
down at the foot of it.
And thus they form the perfect group; he walks back two
or three paces, selects his point of sight, and begins to sketch a hurried
outline. He has finished it before they move; he hears their voices, though
he cannot hear their words, and wonders what they can be talking of. Presently
he walks on and joins them.
"You have a corpse there, my friends?" he says.
"Yes; a corpse washed ashore an hour ago."
"Yes, drowned. A young girl, very handsome."
"Suicides are always handsome," says the painter; and
then he stands for a little while idly smoking and meditating, looking
at the sharp outline of the corpse and the stiff folds of the rough canvas
Life is such a golden holiday for him--young, ambitious,
clever--that it seems as though sorrow and death could have no part in
At last he says that, as this poor suicide is so handsome,
he should like to make a sketch of her.
He gives the fishermen some money, and they offer to remove
the sailcloth that covers her features.
No; he will do it himself. He lifts the rough, coarse,
wet canvas from her face. What face?
The face that shone on the dreams of his foolish boyhood;
the face which once was the light of his uncle's home. His cousin Gertrude--his
He sees, as in one glance, while he draws one breath,
the rigid features--the marble arms--the hands crossed on the cold bosom;
and, on the third finger of the left hand, the ring which had been his
mother's--the golden serpent; the ring which, if he were to become blind,
he could select from a thousand others by the touch alone.
But he is a genius and a metaphysician--grief, true grief,
is not for such as he. His first thought is flight--flight anywhere out
of that accursed city--anywhere far from the brink of that hideous river--anywhere
away from remorse--anywhere to forget.
* . * . * . * . * . * He is miles on the road that leads
away from Brunswick before he knows that he has walked a step.
It is only when his dog lies down panting at his feet
that he feels how exhausted he is himself, and sits down upon a bank to
rest. How the landscape spins round and round before his dazzled eyes,
while his morning's sketch of the two fishermen and the canvas-covered
bier glares redly at him out of the twilight.
At last, after sitting a long time by the roadside, idly
playing with his dog, idly smoking, idly lounging, looking as any idle,
light-hearted travelling student might look, yet all the while acting over
that morning's scene in his burning brain a hundred times a minute; at
last he grows a little more composed, and tries presently to think of himself
as he is, apart from his cousin's suicide. Apart from that, he was no worse
off than he was yesterday. His genius was not gone; the money he had earned
at Florence still lined his pocket-book; he was his own master, free to
go whither he would.
And while he sits on the roadside, trying to separate
himself from the scene of that morning--trying to put away the image of
the corpse covered with the damp canvas sail--trying to think of what he
should do next, where he should go, to be farthest away from Brunswick
and remorse, the old diligence coming rumbling and jingling along. He remembers
it; it goes from Brunswick to Aix-la-Chapelle.
He whistles to the dog, shouts to the postillion to stop,
and springs into the coupe.
During the whole evening, through the long night, though
he does not once close his eyes, he never speaks a word; but when morning
dawns, and the other passengers awake and begin to talk to each other,
he joins in the conversation. He tells them that he is an artist, that
he is going to Cologne and to Antwerp to copy Rubenses, and the great picture
by Quentin Matsys, in the museum. He remembered afterwards that he talked
and laughed boisterously, and that when he was talking and laughing loudest,
a passenger, older and graver than the rest, opened the window near him,
and told him to put his head out. He remembered the fresh air blowing in
his face, the singing of the birds in his ears, and the flat fields and
roadside reeling before his eyes. He remembered this, and then falling
in a lifeless heap on the floor of the diligence.
It is a fever that keeps him for six long weeks on a bed
at a hotel in Aix-la-Chapelle.
He gets well, and, accompanied by his dog, starts on foot
for Cologne. By this time he is his former self once more. Again the blue
smoke from his short meerschaum curls upwards in the morning air--again
he sings some old university drinking song--again stops here and there,
meditating and sketching.
He is happy, and has forgotten his cousin--and so on to
It is by the great cathedral he is standing, with his
dog at his side. It is night, the bells have just chimed the hour, and
the clocks are striking eleven; the moonlight shines full upon the magnificent
pile, over which the artist's eye wanders, absorbed in the beauty of form.
He is not thinking of his drowned cousin, for he has forgotten
her and is happy.
Suddenly some one, something from behind him, puts two
cold arms round his neck, and clasps its hands on his breast.
And yet there is no one behind him, for on the flags bathed
in the broad moonlight there are only two shadows, his own and his dog's.
He turns quickly round--there is no one--nothing to be seen in the broad
square but himself and his dog; and though he feels, he cannot see the
cold arms clasped round his neck.
It is not ghostly, this embrace, for it is palpable to
the touch--it cannot be real, for it is invisible.
He tries to throw off the cold caress. He clasps the hands
in his own to tear them asunder, and to cast them off his neck. He can
feel the long delicate fingers cold and wet beneath his touch, and on the
third finger of the left hand he can feel the ring which was his mother's--the
golden serpent--the ring which he has always said he would know among a
thousand by the touch alone. He knows it now!
His dead cousin's cold arms are round his neck--his dead
cousin's wet hands are clasped upon his breast. He asks himself if he is
mad. "Up, Leo!" he shouts. "Up, up, boy!" and the Newfoundland leaps to
his shoulders--the dog's paws are on the dead hands, and the animal utters
a terrific howl, and springs away from his master.
The student stands in the moonlight, the dead arms around
his neck, and the dog at a little distance moaning piteously.
Presently a watchman, alarmed by the howling of the dog,
comes into the square to see what is wrong.
In a breath the cold arms are gone.
He takes the watchman home to the hotel with him and gives
him money; in his gratitude he could have given the man half his little
Will it ever come to him again, this embrace of the dead?
He tries never to be alone; he makes a hundred acquaintances,
and shares the chamber of another student. He starts up if he is left by
himself in the public room of the inn where he is staying, and runs into
the street. People notice his strange actions, and begin to think that
he is mad.
But, in spite of all, he is alone once more; for one night
the public room being empty for a moment, when on some idle pretence he
strolls into the street, the street is empty too, and for the second time
he feels the cold arms round his neck, and for the second time, when he
calls his dog, the animal shrinks away from him with a piteous howl.
After this he leaves Cologne, still travelling on foot--of
necessity now, for his money is getting low. He joins travelling hawkers,
he walks side by side with labourers, he talks to every foot-passenger
he falls in with, and tries from morning till night to get company on the
At night he sleeps by the fire in the kitchen of the inn
at which he stops; but do what he will, he is often alone, and it is now
a common thing for him to feel the cold arms around his neck.
Many months have passed since his cousin's death--autumn,
winter, early spring. His money is nearly gone, his health is utterly broken,
he is the shadow of his former self, and he is getting near to Paris. He
will reach that city at the time of the Carnival. To this he looks forward.
In Paris, in Carnival time, he need never, surely, be alone, never feel
that deadly caress; he may even recover his lost gaiety, his lost health,
once more resume his profession, once more earn fame and money by his art.
How hard he tries to get over the distance that divides
him from Paris, while day by day he grows weaker, and his step slower and
But there is an end at last; the long dreary roads are
passed. This is Paris, which he enters for the first time--Paris, of which
he has dreamed so much--Paris, whose million voices are to exorcise his
To him to-night Paris seems one vast chaos of lights,
music, and confusion--lights which dance before his eyes and will not be
still--music that rings in his ears and deafens him--confusion which makes
his head whirl round and round.
But, in spite of all, he finds the opera-house, where
there is a masked ball. He has enough money left to buy a ticket of admission,
and to hire a domino to throw over his shabby dress. It seems only a moment
after his entering the gates of Paris that he is in the very midst of all
the wild gaiety of the opera-house ball.
No more darkness, no more loneliness, but a mad crowd,
shouting and dancing, and a lovely Debardeuse hanging on his arm.
The boisterous gaiety he feels surely is his old light-heartedness
come back. He hears the people round him talking of the outrageous conduct
of some drunken student, and it is to him they point when they say this--to
him, who has not moistened his lips since yesterday at noon, for even now
he will not drink; though his lips are parched, and his throat burning,
he cannot drink. His voice is thick and hoarse, and his utterance indistinct;
but still this must be his old light-heartedness come back that makes him
so wildly gay.
The little Debardeuse is wearied out--her arm rests on
his shoulder heavier than lead--the other dancers one by one drop off.
The lights in the chandeliers one by one die out.
The decorations look pale and shadowy in that dim light
which is neither night nor day.
A faint glimmer from the dying lamps, a pale streak of
cold grey light from the new-born day, creeping in through half-opened
And by this light the bright-eyed Debardeuse fades sadly.
He looks her in the face. How the brightness of her eyes dies out! Again
he looks her in the face. How white that face has grown! Again--and now
it is the shadow of a face alone that looks in his.
Again--and they are gone--the bright eyes, the face, the
shadow of the face. He is alone; alone in that vast saloon.
Alone, and, in the terrible silence, he hears the echoes
of his own footsteps in that dismal dance which has no music.
No music but the beating of his breast. The the cold arms
are round his neck--they whirl him round, they will not be flung off, or
cast away; he can no more escape from their icy grasp than he can escape
from death. He looks behind him--there is nothing but himself in the great
empty salle; but he can feel--cold, deathlike, but O, how palpable!--the
long slender fingers, and the ring which was his mother's.
He tries to shout, but he has no power in his burning
throat. The silence of the place is only broken by the echoes of his own
footsteps in the dance from which he cannot extricate himself. Who says
he has no partner? The cold hands are clasped on his breast, and now he
does not shun their caress. No! One more polka, if he drops down dead.
The lights are all out, and, half an hour after, the gendarmes
come in with a lantern to see that the house is empty; they are followed
by a great dog that they have found seated howling on the steps of the
theatre. Near the principal entrance they stumble over--
The body of a student, who has died from want of food,
exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood-vessel.