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Imaginary portraits, p.18

Imaginary Portraits, page 18

 

Imaginary Portraits
 


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prolonging their days by an unexpected [134] revival ofinterest in their too well-worn function) at the search for someobscure rivulet of Greek descent--later Byzantine Greek, perhaps,--inthe Rosenmold genealogy. No! with a hundred quarterings, they were asindigenous, incorruptible heraldry reasserted, as the old yew-treesasquat on the heath.

  And meantime those dreams of remote and probably adventurous travellent the youth, still so healthy of body, a wing for more distantexpeditions than he had ever yet inclined to, among his own wholesomeGerman woodlands. In long rambles, afoot or on horseback, by day andnight, he flung himself, for the resettling of his sanity, on thecheerful influences of their simple imagery; the hawks, as if asleep onthe air below him; the bleached crags, evoked by late sunset among thedark oaks; the water-wheels, with their pleasant murmur, in thefoldings of the hillside.

  Clouds came across his heaven, little sudden clouds, like those whichin this northern latitude, where summer is at best but a flightyvisitor, chill out the heart, though but for a few minutes at a time,of the warmest afternoon. He had fits of the gloom of otherpeople--their dull passage through and exit from the world, thethreadbare incidents of their lives, their dismal funerals--which,unless he drove them away immediately by strenuous exercise, settledinto a gloom more properly his own. Yet at such times [135] outwardthings also would seem to concur unkindly in deepening the mentalshadow about him, almost as if there were indeed animation in thenatural world, elfin spirits in those inaccessible hillsides and darkravines, as old German poetry pretended, cheerfully assistantsometimes, but for the most part troublesome, to their human kindred.Of late these fits had come somewhat more frequently, and hadcontinued. Often it was a weary, deflowered face that his favouritemirrors reflected. Yes! people were prosaic, and their livesthreadbare:--all but himself and organist Max, perhaps, and Fritz thetreble-singer. In return, the people in actual contact with himthought him a little mad, though still ready to flatter his madness, ashe could detect. Alone with the doating old grandfather in theirstiff, distant, alien world of etiquette, he felt surrounded byflatterers, and would fain have tested the sincerity even of Max, andFritz who said, echoing the words of the other, "Yourself, Sire, arethe Apollo of Germany!"

  It was his desire to test the sincerity of the people about him, andunveil flatterers, which in the first instance suggested a trick heplayed upon the court, upon all Europe. In that complex but whollyTeutonic genealogy lately under research, lay a much-prized thread ofdescent from the fifth Emperor Charles, and Carl, under direction, readwith much readiness to be impressed [136] all that was attainableconcerning the great ancestor, finding there in truth little enough toreward his pains. One hint he took, however. He determined to assistat his own obsequies.

  That he might in this way facilitate that much-desired journey occurredto him almost at once as an accessory motive, and in a little whiledefinite motives were engrossed in the dramatic interest, the pleasinggloom, the curiosity, of the thing itself. Certainly, amid the livingworld in Germany, especially in old, sleepy Rosenmold, death made greatparade of itself. Youth even, in its sentimental mood, was ready toindulge in the luxury of decay, and amuse itself with fancies of thetomb; as in periods of decadence or suspended progress, when the worldseems to nap for a time, artifices for the arrest or disguise of oldage are adopted as a fashion, and become the fopperies of the young.The whole body of Carl's relations, saving the drowsy old grandfather,already lay buried beneath their expansive heraldries: at times thewhole world almost seemed buried thus--made and re-made of thedead--its entire fabric of politics, of art, of custom, beingessentially heraldic "achievements," dead men's mementoes such asthose. You see he was a sceptical young man, and his kinsmen dead andgone had passed certainly, in his imaginations of them, into no otherworld, save, perhaps, into some stiffer, slower, sleepier, [137] andmore pompous phase of ceremony--the last degree of court etiquette--asthey lay there in the great, low-pitched, grand-ducal vault, in theircoffins, dusted once a year for All Souls' Day, when the courtofficials descended thither, and Mass for the dead was sung, amid anarray of dropping crape and cobwebs. The lad, with his full red lipsand open blue eyes, coming as with a great cup in his hands to life'sfeast, revolted from the like of that, as from suffocation. And stillthe suggestion of it was everywhere. In the garish afternoon, up tothe wholesome heights of the Heiligenberg suddenly from one of thevillages of the plain came the grinding death-knell. It seemed to comeout of the ugly grave itself, and enjoyment was dead. On his wayhomeward sadly, an hour later, he enters by chance the open door of avillage church, half buried in the tangle of its churchyard. The rudecoffin is lying there of a labourer who had but a hovel to live in.The enemy dogged one's footsteps! The young Carl seemed to be flying,not from death simply, but from assassination.

  And as these thoughts sent him back in the rebounding power of youth,with renewed appetite, to life and sense, so, grown at last familiar,they gave additional purpose to his fantastic experiment. Had it notbeen said by a wise man that after all the offence of death was in itstrappings? Well! he would, as far as might be, try the thing, while,presumably, a [138] large reversionary interest in life was still his.He would purchase his freedom, at least of those gloomy "trappings,"and listen while he was spoken of as dead. The mere preparations gavepleasant proof of the devotion to him of a certain number, who enteredwithout question into his plans. It is not difficult to mislead theworld concerning what happens to these who live at the artificialdistance from it of a court, with its high wall of etiquette. Howeverthe matter was managed, no one doubted, when, with a blazon ofceremonious words, the court news went forth that, after a briefillness, according to the way of his race, the hereditary Grand-dukewas deceased. In momentary regret, bethinking them of the lad's tastefor splendour, those to whom the arrangement of such matters belonged(the grandfather now sinking deeper into bare quiescence) backed by thepopular wish, determined to give him a funeral with even more thangrand-ducal measure of lugubrious magnificence. The place of hisrepose was marked out for him as officiously as if it had been thedelimitation of a kingdom, in the ducal burial vault, through thecobwebbed windows of which, from the garden where he played as a child,the young Duke had often peered at the faded glories of the immensecoroneted coffins, the oldest shedding their velvet tatters aroundthem. Surrounded by the whole official world of Rosenmold, arrayed forthe occasion in almost [139] forgotten dresses of ceremony as if for amasquerade, the new coffin glided from the fragrant chapel where theRequiem was sung, down the broad staircase lined with peach-colour andyellow marble, into the shadows below. Carl himself, disguised as astrolling musician, had followed it across the square through adrenching rain, on which circumstance he overheard the old peoplecongratulate the "blessed" dead within, had listened to a dirge of hisown composing brought out on the great organ with much bravura by hisfriend, the new court organist, who was in the secret, and that nightturned the key of the garden entrance to the vault, and peeped in uponthe sleepy, painted, and bewigged young pages whose duty it would befor a certain number of days to come to watch beside their latemaster's couch.

  And a certain number of weeks afterwards it was known that "the madDuke" had reappeared, to the dismay of court marshals. Things mighthave gone hard with the youth had the strange news, at first asfantastic rumour, then as matter of solemn enquiry, lastly asascertained fact, pleasing or otherwise, been less welcome than it wasto the grandfather, too old, indeed, to sorrow deeply, but grown sodecrepit as to propose that ministers should possess themselves of theperson of the young Duke, proclaim him of age and regent. From thosedim travels, presenting themselves to the old man, who had never been[140] fifty miles away from home, as almost lunar in their audacity, hewould come back--come back "in time," he murmured faintly, eager tofeel that youthful, animating life on the stir about him once more.

  Carl himself, now the thing was over, greatly relishing its satiricelements, must be forgiven the trick of the burial and his stillgreater enormity in
coming to life again. And then, duke or no duke,it was understood that he willed that things should in no case beprecisely as they had been. He would never again be quite so nearpeople's lives as in the past--a fitful, intermittent visitor--almostas if he had been properly dead; the empty coffin remaining as a kindof symbolical "coronation incident," setting forth his future relationsto his subjects. Of all those who believed him dead one human creatureonly, save the grandfather, had sincerely sorrowed for him; a woman, intears as the funeral train passed by, with whom he had sympatheticallydiscussed his own merits. Till then he had forgotten the incidentwhich had exhibited him to her as the very genius of goodness andstrength; how, one day, driving with her country produce into themarket, and, embarrassed by the crowd, she had broken one of a hundredlittle police rules, whereupon the officers were about to carry
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