Friedrich Freiherr de la Motte Fouqué: “Rosaura and her Kinsfolk” 1/4

Excerpt, “Wild Love and Other Tales from the German of De La Motte Fouqué.” London: 1844.


Gloomy, and wrapped in thought, his heart was wounded by the strange caprice of his beloved, the fair Rosaura of Haldenbach. The young captain of horse, Count Julius Wildeck, stood leaning against a window, apart from the cheerful tea-circle, which he seemed almost to have forgotten. The glorious, but disastrous, fate of his ancient house rose up before his afflicted soul. He asked himself how he – the only remaining branch of an ancient house – was to terminate his career, since a long peace had permitted him not even one deed of war, while the future gave little or no prospect of such an opportunity.
A feeling made worse, since the love which had kindled in his knightly heart reached forth to him, not the consolatory myrtle, but almost a garland of thorns. He well knew, that of all the suitors whom riches and beauty drew to Rosaura’s feet, he was the only one to whom a sweet look of her gracious eye was a sufficient reward.
Thus, the more cruelly was he pierced by the lowering harshness, the rigid reserve, which, without any imaginable cause, seemed so often to possess the mind of the maiden against him.
It had happened to him thus today; and so much the more painful was it, since he knew that Rosaura was about to leave home on the following morning, and that he now probably saw her for the last time for many long weeks. It is true she was not to travel to a great distance; she was going with her aunt to one of her estates, which lay not far off among the mountains; but it was well known that during her residence there no one might converse with her.
Every half year she was accustomed to perform this journey, spending the period of her absence in the most rigorous seclusion. It was generally believed that some sad vow or penance of her deceased parents obliged her to such a course; — the more so as she was always observed to look very thoughtful before her departure, and to return home pale, and with the marks of weeping in her eyes.
Julius felt himself only the more strangely attached to his beloved on account of this dark mystery. At one time, it seemed to him that he might be able to remove the hidden sorrow which hung over her; and this very day he had gazed upon her pale angel-form with the deepest love and emotion. But again, her repulsive, and almost hostile, mien stepped in sharply between them, and drove him back into his own deserted being.
Occupied with such thoughts, he had forgotten for the time the presence of those around him, and he whispered to himself. “To what end do we – mistaken offspring of the old heroic race – still live on, when there is no longer any renown in the world for us to earn, and scarcely even one genuine pleasure?”
“We must resort to the chase,” said a deep voice behind him. “That is, and will always be, the fittest pastime for our day.”
Julius looked round astonished. There stood close by him a tall man in antique dress, of noble, almost elegant, form, with keen bright eyes, and a countenance which bore so much of suffering that one could not look upon the heroic pride which so visibly moved over it without a feeling of sympathizing sorrow. The stranger seemed to have been addressing a councilor, who had just left him with an embarrassed smile; then, turning towards Julius, he said to him, with a confident friendly air, “You appear to be entirely of my opinion, Sir Count.”
“Oh, certainly,” replied Julius, half-surprised and half-assenting. “The chase is a kind of knightly pastime, and infinitely better than a carousing party, since some honourable and perilous adventures may be encountered in it; for, of course, the huntsman must not confine himself merely to the pursuit of hares and other timid animals.”
“Bravo! You delight me extremely,” said the old gentleman, seizing Julius’ hand. “And what say you to hunting with us for the next few weeks at my old castle of Finsterborn? This, moreover, is a time which I would not willingly pass without some brave companions. I have, I believe, the honour to address the Count Lobach?”
“With your leave,” replied Julius, “Count Lobach stands yonder.” Looking over, he observed, with painful emotion, his rival (for such the count was) holding at this moment an earnest conversation with Rosaura. Now all the more willing to accept the unexpected invitation, which appeared happily to sever him for a time from town and regiment and the whole circle of his acquaintance, he proceeded composedly.
“I am Count Wildeck; and if your kindness refers not to the name but to the person, I shall have the honour of paying a visit to your castle, if it is not at too great a distance. I do not remember to have heard the name of Finsterborn.”
“My castle is only a few miles distant from hence,” said the stranger, with evident embarrassment; “though it lies certainly somewhat wild and deep among the mountains. I will send one of my huntsmen, however, to conduct you to my little fastness. And you are Count Wildeck! A Count Wildeck still among us in these days! Now, then, Heaven will prosper us. As for me, I am the retired Colonel Haldenbach.
I talk somewhat confusedly; make allowance for me; it is too much for my head. In the morning I shall expect you. In the morning – is it not?”
He squeezed the count’s hand tightly, and with a strange hoarse laugh hastened forth from the door.
Julius remained behind in astonishment. And this was the old Colonel Haldenbach with whom he had conversed! He had heard something before of this strange hermit-like uncle of Rosaura’s. Some people took him for a deeply studious, but very unhappy philosopher; others thought him altogether crazed. His behavior was inexplicable at this time – friendly and attractive, and yet dark and forbidding.
“His fair niece has surely inherited something of this strange temper from him,” murmured Julius ill-humouredly.
Rosaura moved softly past him. “What had you to say with my uncle, Count Wildeck?” whispered she hastily, in a kind and anxious tone. “For God’s sake be quite open and candid with me for this once.”
“Alas! That I have always been,” sighed the kindling youth. “The colonel spoke nothing but what was kind and friendly to me. I am to attend him on a hunting expedition for some days at his castle of Finsterborn.”
Rosaura became deadly pale. She bent her face still nearer to him, and he felt her breath upon his cheek as she pronounced these words: “Tomorrow evening in the prince’s park, at the hermitage.”
She vanished.
Full of joy, and yet withal enveloped as it were in some fearful enigma, Julius returned home.
A warm summer evening rested with golden light over the prince’s park, while Julius, with beating heart, trotted alongside the garden fence on his slender Arabian. Longingly, he watched through the branches of the dark green firs for the appearance of the beloved form. On a sudden Rosaura stepped forth from the neighboring walk.
But, alas! Not alone, but with five or six laughing and chattering companions. In bitter vexation, Julius pulled the reins and struck spurs into his horse’s sides. Unaccustomed to such contumelious treatment, the noble animal gave sudden leaps into the air. The ladies shrieked; and Julius, courteously greeting them, sprang onwards.
“My good Abdul,” said he to his horse, pacifying him at the same time by a few kind strokes on the neck; “Good Abdul, I was a fool to make you suffer for the heartless caprice of a woman. Be not angry, my good horse; it shall not be so again.” As if he understood his rider’s words, the noble grey nickered softly, returning obediently to his light, gentle trot.
Julius, in the first moment of indignation, had thought of hastening back to the town; but recollecting that he should only increase the triumph of his fair tormentor by shewing his resentment, he proudly subdued his swelling heart. He swung himself from the saddle, gave the horse to his page, and walked on with assumed serenity around a tea-table. In a turn of the walk he encountered the merry Princess Alwina with one of her kinswomen on her arm.
After the first salutations had passed, she said to him, softly and quickly. “We have a piece of pastime in hand, in which you must assist us, Count Wildeck. That the Haldenbachs have a very strange family surname we have long known; but Rosaura could never be prevailed upon to tell us what it was.
Nay, she always seemed vexed and embarrassed when the question was put to her; and this has increased our curiosity. But my brother yesterday ascertained, by privately listening, that they call Colonel Haldenbach – when his full name is mentioned – Death-brand. Now, therefore, I beg you will bring into your conversation as many ‘death-brands,’ or again, as many ‘deaths’ and ‘brands’ separately as you possibly can; we will do the same. But Rosaura must know nothing of our plan.”
Julius bowed assent with a smile, and the ladies disappeared in order to approach by another way; so that their jesting bargain with the count might not be suspected. He found Rosaura very pale and serious. She greeted him with such indescribably moving grace – turning her large dark eyes towards him from under her long shaded eyelashes, and again casting them down to the ground with a deep sigh – that he almost repented of the part he had agreed to take in the princess’ sport.
He knew, too, how little Rosaura was accustomed to hear such jesting as this; and the thought of wounding the heart of this pale, sorrowing beauty went to his very soul. But the impossibility of addressing one private word to her, or of receiving any explanation from her in this circle of strangers – and in the presence of so many inquisitive and almost childish faces – roused his vexation afresh.
He began the jest by asking Rosaura whether it would not prove the real death of her beauty, if she allowed so fair a countenance to be exposed to the brand (or burning) of the evening sun. Rosaura evidently connected the two fearful syllables, and looked anxiously around. Then the princess Alwina stepped up with her companions, seating herself opposite to Rosaura. “And, after all, is there not here a ‘death-branch’ among us?”
Julius rejoined in the same style. The others followed; and, as Alwina had planned, “death” and “brand” flexed back and forth so plentifully in their laughing talk that even those who were strangers to the secret found themselves involuntarily recurring to these two syllables. “Death-brand,” and “death” and “brand,” and “brand” and “death,” rang like a multiplied echo through their jesting conversation. Alwina could scarcely refrain from laughing.
But Rosaura became paler and paler; suddenly rising, her tone was serious. “Count Wildeck, two words with you.”
Thereupon, she stepped slowly down a linden avenue. The whole circle was speechless. Julius, half-shuddering, quickly followed her.
Rosaura was slow to speak. “You have truly accomplished a great feat, Sir Count, when you talked of my unhappy uncle and the fearful surname of our race. Only, so it seems, to furnish a little novelty, and to idle away the time at your liking and these agreeable companions. I thank you, Count Wildeck.
Truly I thank you; for, in some respects, I shall pursue my morning’s journey with much more satisfaction; and then I have, by this proof of your candour, considerably enlarged, or rather confirmed, my knowledge of men’s character. You were in the right last night, sure enough. You were as candid with me as I doubt not you have always been.”
The reproaches of his beloved had at first so melted the heart of the youth, that he silently walked beside her with humble, downcast look. But the charge of falsehood raised at once his indignant spirit.
“On my honour, lady,” said he firmly, “what I said to you yesternight was the pure truth. I have never heard your uncle utter a single syllable which acquainted me with the surname of your family. It was told me for the first time within the last quarter of an hour.”
At the recollection of the fearful name, Julius shuddered and stopped. Rosaura lowered her angry look before the bright knightly eye of the youth. Her voice was soft. “I am grieved to have judged you wrongly, Count Wildeck. It would have been doing you an injury, and there – O heavens! I speak distractedly! – But really, if you are indeed devoted to me, go not to my uncle, to Castle Finsterborn tomorrow. Rather, go not there at all. Your hand upon it, Julius.”
She held out to him her fair right hand. For the first time she had called him Julius: Her voice was so touching – so lovingly tender.
“O gracious Heaven!” said the youth softly, and touching the hand of his longed-for angel, “I will indeed do whatever you desire. But permit me one small request: May I pay you one visit during your absence, dear Rosaura?”
“Dear Rosaura!” replied the lady of Haldenbach loftily, while she drew back her hand, — “Dear Rosaura! Truly there is nothing in the world so bold as a young fashionable of our day! And the very little, little request! Pay your visits where you will, Sir Count – only not to me.”
With anger-glowing cheeks she turned herself away, and hastened back to her companions.
Julius followed, beseeching softly. “Only one more word. Shall I go to Finsterborn?”
“On my account,” said Rosaura to herself; and it seemed to the Count as if she spoke it seriously. “On my account to death!”
“Willingly, from my heart,” replied he, touched in the very depth of his spirit; and resolved now to give up all else in the world for the mysterious hunt of the Colonel Haldenbach, surnamed Death-brand.
Gloomy, out of tune, the company dispensed; as Julius received no farewell from his beloved. But as her open carriage, already far before the slow, dejected rider, wound round a bending of the road, it seemed to him as if she waved her handkerchief towards him as an adieu, and at the same time hid her weeping face in her snow-white veil.
To be continued…