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Sister Madeline was as regular in her attendance upon prayers as Paulina. There, if nowhere else, they were sure of meeting; and in no long time it became evident that the younger lady was an object of particular interest to the elder. When the sublime fugues of the old composers for the organ swelled upon the air, and filled the vast aisles of the chapel with their floating labyrinths of sound, attention to the offices of the church service being suspended for the time, the Sister Madeline spent the interval in watching the countenance of Paulina. Invariably at this period her eyes settled upon the young countess, and appeared to court some return of attention, by the tender sympathy which her own features expressed with the grief too legibly inscribed upon Paulina's. For some time Paulina, absorbed by her own thoughts, failed to notice this very particular expression of attention and interest. Accustomed to the gaze of crowds, as well on account of her beauty as her connection with the imperial house, she found nothing new or distressing in this attention to herself. After some time, however, observing herself still haunted by the sister's furtive glances, she found her own curiosity somewhat awakened in return. The manners of Sister Madeline were too dignified, and her face expressed too much of profound feeling, and traces too inextinguishable of the trials through which she had pa.s.sed, to allow room for any belief that she was under the influence of an ordinary curiosity. Paulina was struck with a confused feeling, that she looked upon features which had already been familiar to her heart, though disguised in Sister Madeline by age, by s.e.x, and by the ravages of grief. She had the appearance of having pa.s.sed her fiftieth year; but it was probable that, spite of a brilliant complexion, secret sorrow had worked a natural effect in giving to her the appearance of age more advanced by seven or eight years than she had really attained. Time, at all events, if it had carried off forever her youthful graces, neither had nor seemed likely to destroy the impression of majestic beauty under eclipse and wane. No one could fail to read the signs by which the finger of nature announces a great destiny, and a mind born to command.
Insensibly the two ladies had established a sort of intercourse by looks; and at length, upon finding that the Sister Madeline mixed no more than herself in the general society of Klosterheim, Paulina had resolved to seek the acquaintance of a lady whose deportment announced that she would prove an interesting acquaintance, whilst her melancholy story and the expression of her looks were a sort of pledges that she would be found a sympathizing friend.
She had already taken some steps towards the attainment of her wishes, when, unexpectedly, on coming out from the vesper service, the Sister Madeline placed herself by the side of Paulina, and they walked down one of the long side-aisles together. The saintly memorials about them, the records of everlasting peace which lay sculptured at their feet, and the strains which still ascended to heaven from the organ and the white-robed choir,--all speaking of a rest from trouble so little to be found on earth, and so powerfully contrasting with the desolations of poor, hara.s.sed Germany,--affected them deeply, and both burst into tears. At length the elder lady spoke.
"Daughter, you keep your faith piously with him whom you suppose dead."
Paulina started. The other continued--
"Honor to young hearts that are knit together by ties so firm that even death has no power to dissolve them! Honor to the love which can breed so deep a sorrow! Yet, even in this world, the good are not _always_ the unhappy. I doubt not that, even now at vespers, you forgot not to pray for him that would willingly have died for you."
"0, gracious lady! when--when have I forgot that? What other prayer, what other image, is ever at my heart?"
"Daughter, I could not doubt it; and Heaven sometimes sends answers to prayers when they are least expected; and to yours it sends this through me."
With these words she stretched out a letter to Paulina, who fainted with sudden surprise and delight, on recognizing the hand of Maximilian.
It was, indeed, the handwriting of her lover; and the first words of the letter, which bore a recent date, announced his safety and his recovered health. A rapid sketch of all which had befallen him since they had last parted informed her that he had been severely wounded in the action with Holkerstein's people, and probably to that misfortune had been indebted for his life; since the difficulty of transporting him on horseback, when unable to sit upright, had compelled the party charged with his care to leave him for the night at Waldenhausen. From that place he had been carried off in the night-time to a small imperial garrison in the neighborhood by the care of two faithful servants, who had found little difficulty in first intoxicating, and then overpowering, the small guard judged sufficient for a prisoner so completely disabled by his wounds. In this garrison he had recovered; had corresponded with Vienna; had concerted measures with the emperor; and was now on the point of giving full effect to their plans, at the moment when certain circ.u.mstances should arise to favor the scheme.
What these were, he forbore designedly to say in a letter which ran some risk of falling into the enemy's hands; but he bade Paulina speedily to expect a great change for the better, which would put it in their power to meet without restraint or fear; and concluded by giving utterance in the fondest terms to a lover's hopes and tenderest anxieties.
Paulina had scarcely recovered from the tumultuous sensations of pleasure, and sudden restoration to hope, when she received a shock in the opposite direction, from a summons to attend the Landgrave. The language of the message was imperative, and more peremptory than had ever before been addressed to herself, a lady of the imperial family.
She knew the Landgrave's character and his present position; both these alarmed her, when connected with the style and language of his summons.
For _that_ announced distinctly enough that his resolution had been now taken to commit himself to a bold course; no longer to hang doubtfully between two policies, but openly to throw himself into the arms of the emperor's enemies. In one view, Paulina found a benefit to her spirits from this haughtiness of the Landgrave's message. She was neither proud, nor apt to take offence. On the contrary, she was gentle and meek; for the impulses of youth and elevated birth had in her been chastened by her early acquaintance with great national calamities, and the enlarged sympathy which that had bred with her fellow-creatures of every rank. But she felt that, in this superfluous expression of authority, the Landgrave was at the same time infringing the rights of hospitality, and her own privileges of s.e.x. Indignation at his unmanly conduct gave her spirits to face him, though she apprehended a scene of violence, and had the more reason to feel the trepidations of uncertainty, because she very imperfectly comprehended his purposes as respected herself.
These were not easily explained. She found the Landgrave pacing the room with violence. His back was turned towards her as she entered; but, as the usher announced loudly, on her entrance, "The Countess Paulina of Hohenhelder," he turned impetuously, and advanced to meet her. With the Landgrave, however irritated, the first impulse was to comply with the ceremonious observances that belonged to his rank. He made a cold obeisance, whilst an attendant placed a seat; and then motioning to all present to withdraw, began to unfold the causes which had called for Lady Paulina's presence.
So much art was mingled with so much violence, that for some time Paulina gathered nothing of his real purposes. Resolved, however, to do justice to her own insulted dignity, she took the first opening which offered, to remonstrate with the Landgrave on the needless violence of his summons. His serene highness wielded the sword in Klosterheim, and could have no reason for antic.i.p.ating resistance to his commands.
"The Lady Paulina, then, distinguishes between the power and the right?
I expected as much."
"By no means; she knew nothing of the claimants to either. She was a stranger, seeking only hospitality in Klosterheim, which apparently was violated by unprovoked exertions of authority."
"But the laws of hospitality," replied the Landgrave, "press equally on the guest and the host. Each has his separate duties. And the Lady Paulina, in the character of guest, violated hers from the moment when she formed cabals in Klosterheim, and ministered to the fury of conspirators."
"Your ear, sir, is abused; I have not so much as stepped beyond the precincts of the convent in which I reside, until this day in paying obedience to your highness' mandate."
"That may be; and that may argue only the more caution and subtlety.
The personal presence of a lady, so distinguished in her appearance as the Lady Paulina, at any resort of conspirators or intriguers, would have published too much the suspicions to which such a countenance would be liable. But in writing have you dispersed nothing calculated to alienate the attachment of my subjects?"
The Lady Paulina shook her head; she knew not even in what direction the Landgrave's suspicions pointed.
"As, for example, this--does the Lady Paulina recognize this particular paper?"
Saying this, he drew forth from a portfolio a letter or paper of instructions, consisting of several sheets, to which a large official seal was attached. The countess glanced her eye over it attentively; in one or two places the words _Maximilian_ and _Klosterheim_ attracted her attention; but she felt satisfied at once that she now saw it for the first time.
"Of this paper," she said, at length, in a determined tone, "I know nothing. The handwriting I believe I may have seen before. It resembles that of one of the emperor's secretaries. Beyond that, I have no means of even conjecturing its origin."
"Beware, madam, beware how far you commit yourself. Suppose now this paper were actually brought in one of your ladyship's mails, amongst your own private property."
"That may very well be," said Lady Paulina, "and yet imply no falsehood on my part. Falsehood! I disdain such an insinuation; your highness has been the first person who ever dared to make it." At that moment she called to mind the robbery of her carriage at Waldenhausen. Coloring deeply with indignation, she added, "Even in the case, sir, which you have supposed, as unconscious bearer of this or any other paper, I am still innocent of the intentions which such an act might argue in some people. I am as incapable of offending in that way, as I shall always be of disavowing any of my own acts, according to your ungenerous insinuation. But now, sir, tell me how far those may be innocent who have possessed themselves of a paper carried, as your highness alleges, among my private baggage. Was it for a prince to countenance a robbery of that nature, or to appropriate its spoils?"
The blood rushed to the Landgrave's temples. "In these times, young lady, petty rights of individuals give way to state necessities.
Neither are there any such rights of individuals in bar of such an inquisition. They are forfeited, as I told you before, when the guest forgets his duties. But (and here he frowned), it seems to me, countess, that you are now forgetting your situation; not I, remember, but yourself, are now placed on trial."
"Indeed!" said the countess, "of that I was certainly not aware. Who, then, is my accuser, who my judge? Or is it in your serene highness that I see both?"
"Your accuser, Lady Paulina, is the paper I have shown you, a treasonable paper. Perhaps I have others to bring forward of the same bearing. Perhaps this is sufficient."
The Lady Paulina grew suddenly sad and thoughtful. Here was a tyrant, with matter against her, which, even to an unprejudiced judge, might really wear some face of plausibility. The paper had perhaps really been one of those plundered from her carriage. It might really contain matter fitted to excite disaffection against the Landgrave's government. Her own innocence of all partic.i.p.ation in the designs which it purposed to abet might find no credit; or might avail her not at all in a situation so far removed from the imperial protection. She had in fact unadvisedly entered a city, which, at the time of her entrance, might be looked upon as neutral, but since then had been forced into the ranks of the emperor's enemies, too abruptly to allow of warning or retreat. This was her exact situation. She saw her danger; and again apprehended that, at the very moment of recovering her lover from the midst of perils besetting _his_ situation, she might lose him by the perils of her own.
The Landgrave watched the changes of her countenance, and read her thoughts.
"Yes," he said, at length, "your situation is one of peril. But take courage. Confess freely, and you have everything to hope for from my clemency."
"Such clemency," said a deep voice, from some remote quarter of the room, "as the wolf shows to the lamb."
Paulina started, and the Landgrave looked angry and perplexed. "Within, there!" he cried loudly to the attendants in the next room. "I will no more endure these insults," he exclaimed. "Go instantly, take a file of soldiers; place them at all the outlets, and search the rooms adjoining--above, and below. Such mummery is insufferable."
The voice replied again, "Landgrave, you search in vain. Look to yourself! young Max is upon you!"
"This babbler," said the Landgrave, making an effort to recover his coolness, "reminds me well; that adventurer, young Maximilian--who is he? whence comes he? by whom authorized?"
Paulina blushed; but, roused by the Landgrave's contumelious expressions applied to her lover, she replied, "He is no adventurer; nor was ever in that cla.s.s; the emperor's favor is not bestowed upon such."
"Then, what brings him to Klosterheim? For what is it that he would trouble the repose of this city?"
Before Paulina could speak in rejoinder, the voice, from a little further distance, replied, audibly, "For his rights! See that you, Landgrave, make no resistance."
The prince arose in fury; his eyes flashed fire, he clenched his hands in impotent determination. The same voice had annoyed him on former occasions, but never under circ.u.mstances which mortified him so deeply.
Ashamed that the youthful countess should be a witness of the insults put upon him, and seeing that it was in vain to pursue his conversation with her further in a situation which exposed him to the sarcasms of a third person, under no restraint of fear or partiality, he adjourned the further prosecution of his inquiry to another opportunity, and for the present gave her leave to depart; a license which she gladly availed herself of, and retired in fear and perplexity.
It was dark as Paulina returned to her convent. Two servants of the Landgrave's preceded her with torches to the great gates of St. Agnes, which was at a very short distance. At that point she entered within the shelter of the convent gates, and the prince's servants left her at her own request. No person was now within call but a little page of her own, and perhaps the porter at the convent. But after the first turn in the garden of St. Agnes, she might almost consider herself as left to her own guardianship; for the little boy, who followed her, was too young to afford her any effectual help. She felt sorry, as she surveyed the long avenue of ancient trees, which was yet to be traversed before she entered upon the cloisters, that she should have dismissed the servants of the Landgrave. These gardens were easily scaled from the outside, and a ready communication existed between the remotest parts of this very avenue and some of the least reputable parts of Klosterheim. The city now overflowed with people of every rank; and amongst them were continually recognized, and occasionally challenged, some of the vilest deserters from the imperial camps. Wallenstein himself, and other imperial commanders, but, above all, Holk, had attracted to their standards the very refuse of the German jails; and, allowing an unlimited license of plunder during some periods of their career, had themselves evoked a fiendish spirit of lawless aggression and spoliation, which afterwards they had found it impossible to exorcise within its former limits. People were everywhere obliged to be on their guard, not alone (as heretofore) against the military tyrant or freebooter, but also against the private servants whom they hired into their service. For some time back, suspicious persons had been seen strolling at dusk in the gardens of St. Agnes, or even intruding into the cloisters. Then the recollection of The Masque, now in the very height of his mysterious career, flashed upon Paulina's thoughts.
Who knew his motives, or the principle of his mysterious warfare-- which, at any rate, in its mode had latterly been marked by bloodshed?
As these things came rapidly into her mind, she trembled more from fear than from the wintry wind, which now blew keenly and gustily through the avenue.
The gardens of St. Agnes were extensive, and Paulina yet wanted two hundred yards of reaching the cloisters, when she observed a dusky object stealing along the margin of a little pool, which in parts lay open to the walk, whilst in others, where the walk receded from the water, the banks were studded with thickets of tall shrubs. Paulina stopped and observed the figure, which she was soon satisfied must be that of a man. At times he rose to his full height; at times he cowered downwards amongst the bushes. That he was not merely seeking a retreat became evident from this, that the best road for such a purpose lay open to him in the opposite direction; that he was watching herself, also, became probable from the way in which he seemed to regulate his own motions by hers. At length, whilst Paulina hesitated, in some perplexity whether to go forward or to retreat towards the porter's lodge, he suddenly plunged into the thickest belt of shrubs, and left the road clear. Paulina seized the moment, and, with a palpitating heart, quickened her steps towards the cloister.
She had cleared about one half of the way without obstruction, when suddenly a powerful grasp seized her by the shoulder.
"Stop, lady!" said a deep, coa.r.s.e voice; "stop! I mean no harm. Perhaps I bring your ladyship what will be welcome news."