Two months passed, and then came the great annual ball which the students give at the opening of the second semester. Ralph was a man of importance that evening; first, because he belonged to a great family; secondly, because he was the handsomest man of his year. He wore a large golden star on his breast (for his fellow-students had made him a Knight of the Golden Boar) and a badge of colored ribbons in his buttonhole.
The ball was a brilliant affair, and everybody was in excellent spirits, especially the ladies. Ralph danced incessantly, twirled his soft mustache, and uttered amiable platitudes. It was toward midnight, just as the company was moving out to supper, that he caught the glance of a pair of dark-blue eyes, which suddenly drove the blood to his cheeks and hastened the beating of his heart. But when he looked once more the dark-blue eyes were gone, and his unruly heart went on hammering against his side. He laid his hand on his breast and glanced furtively at his fair neighbor, but she looked happy and unconcerned, for the flavor of the ice cream was delicious. It seemed an endless meal, but, when it was done, Ralph rose, led his partner back to the ballroom, and hastily excused himself. His glance wandered round the wide hall, seeking the well-remembered eyes once more, and, at length, finding them in a remote corner, half hid behind a moving wall of promenaders. In another moment he was at Bertha’s side.
“You must have been purposely hiding yourself, Miss Bertha,” said he, when the usual greetings were exchanged. “I have not caught a glimpse of you all this evening, until a few moments ago.”
“But I have seen you all the while,” answered the girl, frankly. “I knew you at once as I entered the hall.”
“If I had but known that you were here,” resumed Ralph, as it were invisibly expanding with an agreeable sense of dignity, “I assure you you would have been the very first one I should have sought.”
She raised her large grave eyes to his, as if questioning his sincerity; but she made no answer.
“Good gracious!” thought Ralph. “She takes things terribly in earnest.”
“You look so serious, Miss Bertha,” said he, after a moment’s pause. “I remember you as a bright-eyed, flaxen-haired little girl, who threw her German exercise-book to me across the yard, and whose merry laughter still rings pleasantly in my memory, I confess I don’t find it quite easy to identify this grave young lady with my merry friend of three years ago.”
“In other words, you are disappointed at not finding me the same as I used to be.”
“No, not exactly that; but—”
Ralph paused and looked puzzled. There was something in the earnestness of her manner which made a facetious compliment seem grossly inappropriate, and in the moment no other escape suggested itself.
“But what?” demanded Bertha, mercilessly.
“Have you ever lost an old friend?” asked he, abruptly.
“Yes; how so?”
“Then,” answered he, while his features lighted up with a happy inspiration—“then you will appreciate my situation. I fondly cherished my old picture of you in my memory. Now I have lost it, and I can not help regretting the loss. I do not mean, however, to imply that this new acquaintance—this second edition of yourself, so to speak—will prove less interesting.”
She again sent him a grave, questioning look, and began to gaze intently upon the stone in her bracelet.
“I suppose you will laugh at me,” began she, while a sudden blush flitted over her countenance. “But this is my first ball, and I feel as if I had rushed into a whirlpool, from which I have, since the first rash plunge was made, been vainly trying to escape. I feel so dreadfully forlorn. I hardly know anybody here except my cousin, who invited me, and I hardly think I know him either.”
“Well, since you are irredeemably committed,” replied Ralph, as the music, after some prefatory flourishes, broke into the delicious rhythm of a Strauss waltz, “then it is no use struggling against fate. Come, let us make the plunge together. Misery loves company.”
He offered her his arm, and she rose, somewhat hesitatingly, and followed.
“I am afraid,” she whispered, as they fell into line with the procession that was moving down the long hall, “that you have asked me to dance merely because I said I felt forlorn. If that is the case, I should prefer to be led back to my seat.”
“What a base imputation!” cried Ralph.
There was something so charmingly naive in this self-depreciation—something so altogether novel in his experience, and, he could not help adding, just a little bit countrified. His spirits rose; he began to relish keenly his position as an experienced man of the world, and, in the agreeable glow of patronage and conscious superiority, chatted with hearty abandon with his little rustic beauty.
“If your dancing is as perfect as your German exercises were,” said she, laughing, as they swung out upon the floor, “then I promise myself a good deal of pleasure from our meeting.”
“Never fear,” answered he, quickly reversing his step, and whirling with many a capricious turn away among the thronging couples.
When Ralph drove home in his carriage toward morning he briefly summed up his impressions of Bertha in the following adjectives: intelligent, delightfully unsophisticated, a little bit verdant, but devilish pretty.
Some weeks later Colonel Grim received an appointment at the fortress of Aggershuus, and immediately took up his residence in the capital. He saw that his son cut a fine figure in the highest circles of society, and expressed his gratification in the most emphatic terms. If he had known, however, that Ralph was in the habit of visiting, with alarming regularity, at the house of a plebeian merchant in a somewhat obscure street, he would, no doubt, have been more chary of his praise. But the Colonel suspected nothing, and it was well for the peace of the family that he did not. It may have been cowardice in Ralph that he never mentioned Bertha’s name to his family or to his aristocratic acquaintances; for, to be candid, he himself felt ashamed of the power she exerted over him, and by turns pitied and ridiculed himself for pursuing so inglorious a conquest. Nevertheless it wounded his egotism that she never showed any surprise at seeing him, that she received him with with a certain frank unceremoniousness, which, however, was very becoming to her; that she invariably went on with her work heedless of his presence, and in everything treated him as if she had been his equal. She persisted in talking with him in a half sisterly fashion about his studies and his future career, warned him with great solicitude against some of his reprobate friends, of whose merry adventures he had told her; and if he ventured to compliment her on her beauty or her accomplishments, she would look up gravely from her sewing, or answer him in a way which seemed to banish the idea of love-making into the land of the impossible. He was constantly tormented by the suspicion that she secretly disapproved of him, and that from a mere moral interest in his welfare she was conscientiously laboring to make him a better man. Day after day he parted from her feeling humiliated, faint-hearted, and secretly indignant both at himself and her, and day after day he returned only to renew the same experience. At last it became too intolerable, he could endure it no longer. Let it make or break, certainty, at all risks, was at least preferable to this sickening suspense. That he loved her, he could no longer doubt; let his parents foam and fret as much as they pleased; for once he was going to stand on his own legs. And in the end, he thought, they would have to yield, for they had no son but him.
Bertha was going to return to her home on the sea-coast in a week. Ralph stood in the little low-ceiled parlor, as she imagined, to bid her good-by. They had been speaking of her father, her brothers, and the farm, and she had expressed the wish that if he ever should come to that part of the country he might pay them a visit. Her words had kindled a vague hope in his breast, but in their very frankness and friendly regard there was something which slew the hope they had begotten. He held her hand in his, and her large confiding eyes shone with an emotion which was beautiful, but was yet not love.
“If you were but a peasant born like myself,” said she, in a voice which sounded almost tender, “then I should like to talk to you as I would to my own brother; but—”
“No, not brother, Bertha,” cried he, with sudden vehemence; “I love you better than I ever loved any earthly being, and if you knew how firmly this love has clutched at the roots of my heart, you would perhaps—you would at least not look so reproachfully at me.”
She dropped his hand, and stood for a moment silent.
“I am sorry that it should have come to this, Mr. Grim,” said she, visibly struggling for calmness. “And I am perhaps more to blame than you.”
“Blame,” muttered he, “why are you to blame?”
“Because I do not love you; although I sometimes feared that this might come. But then again I persuaded myself that it could not be so.”
He took a step toward the door, laid his hand on the knob, and gazed down before him.
“Bertha,” began he, slowly, raising his head, “you have always disapproved of me, you have despised me in your heart, but you thought you would be doing a good work if you succeeded in making a man of me.”
“You use strong language,” answered she, hesitatingly; “but there is truth in what you say.”
Again there was a long pause, in which the ticking of the old parlor clock grew louder and louder.
“Then,” he broke out at last, “tell me before we part if I can do nothing to gain—I will not say your love—but only your regard? What would you do if you were in my place?”
“My advice you will hardly heed, and I do not even know that it would be well if you did. But if I were a man in your position, I should break with my whole past, start out into the world where nobody knew me, and where I should be dependent only upon my own strength, and there I would conquer a place for myself, if it were only for the satisfaction of knowing that I was really a man. Here cushions are sewed under your arms, a hundred invisible threads bind you to a life of idleness and vanity, everybody is ready to carry you on his hands, the road is smoothed for you, every stone carefully moved out of your path, and you will probably go to your grave without having ever harbored one earnest thought, without having done one manly deed.”
Ralph stood transfixed, gazing at her with open mouth; he felt a kind of stupid fright, as if some one had suddenly seized him by the shoulders and shaken him violently. He tried vainly to remove his eyes from Bertha. She held him as by a powerful spell. He saw that her face was lighted with an altogether new beauty; he noticed the deep glow upon her cheek, the brilliancy of her eye, the slight quiver of her lip. But he saw all this as one sees things in a half-trance, without attempting to account for them; the door between his soul and his senses was closed.
“I know that I have been bold in speaking to you in this way,” she said at last, seating herself in a chair at the window. “But it was yourself who asked me. And I have felt all the time that I should have to tell you this before we parted.”
“And,” answered he, making a strong effort to appear calm, “if I follow your advice, will you allow me to see you once more before you go?”
“I shall remain here another week, and shall, during that time, always be ready to receive you.”
“Thank you. Good-by.”
Ralph carefully avoided all the fashionable thoroughfares; he felt degraded before himself, and he had an idea that every man could read his humiliation in his countenance. Now he walked on quickly, striking the sidewalk with his heels; now, again, he fell into an uneasy, reckless saunter, according as the changing moods in’ spired defiance of his sentence, or a qualified surrender. And, as he walked on, the bitterness grew within him, and he piteously reviled himself for having allowed himself to be made a fool of by “that little country goose,” when he was well aware that there were hundreds of women of the best families of the land who would feel honored at receiving his attentions. But this sort of reasoning he knew to be both weak and contemptible, and his better self soon rose in loud rebellion.
“After all,” he muttered, “in the main thing she was right. I am a miserable good-for-nothing, a hothouse plant, a poor stick, and if I were a woman myself, I don’t think I should waste my affections on a man of that calibre.”
Then he unconsciously fell to analyzing Bertha’s character, wondering vaguely that a person who moved so timidly in social life, appearing so diffident, from an ever-present fear of blundering against the established forms of etiquette, could judge so quickly, and with such a merciless certainty, whenever a moral question, a question of right and wrong, was at issue. And, pursuing the same train of thought, he contrasted her with himself, who moved in the highest spheres of society as in his native element, heedless of moral scruples, and conscious of no loftier motive for his actions than the immediate pleasure of the moment.
As Ralph turned the corner of a street, he heard himself hailed from the other sidewalk by a chorus of merry voices.
“Ah, my dear Baroness,” cried a young man, springing across the street and grasping Ralph’s hand (all his student friends called him the Baroness), “in the name of this illustrious company, allow me to salute you. But why the deuce—what is the matter with you? If you have the Katzenjammer * soda-water is the thing. Come along—it’s my treat!”
* Katzenjammer is the sensation a man has the morning after a carousal.
The students instantly thronged around Ralph, who stood distractedly swinging his cane and smiling idiotically.
“I am not quite well,” said he; “leave me alone.”
“No, to be sure, you don’t look well,” cried a jolly youth, against whom Bertha had frequently warned him; “but a glass of sherry will soon restore you. It would be highly immoral to leave you in this condition without taking care of you.”
Ralph again vainly tried to remonstrate; but the end was, that he reluctantly followed.
He had always been a conspicuous figure in the student world; but that night he astonished his friends by his eloquence, his reckless humor, and his capacity for drinking. He made a speech for “Woman,” which bristled with wit, cynicism, and sarcastic epigrams. One young man, named Vinter, who was engaged, undertook to protest against his sweeping condemnation, and declared that Ralph, who was a universal favorite among the ladies, ought to be the last to revile them.
“If,” he went on, “the Baroness should propose to six well-known ladies here in this city whom I could mention, I would wager six Johannisbergers, and an equal amount of champagne, that every one of them would accept him.”
The others loudly applauded this proposal, and Ralph accepted the wager. The letters were written on the spot, and immediately despatched. Toward morning, the merry carousal broke up, and Ralph was conducted in triumph to his home.