I need not say to you, my dear Heinrich, how greatly I love Estella. It is not alone for her beauty, although that is as perfect and as graceful as the dream of some Greek artist hewn in immortal marble. That alone would have elicited merely my admiration. But there is that in her which wins my profoundest respect and love--I had almost said my veneration. Her frame is but the crystal-clear covering of a bright and pure soul, without stain or shadow or blemish. It does not seem possible for her to be otherwise than good. And yet, within this goodness, there is an hereditary character intrenched, capable, under necessity, of all heroism--a fearless and a potent soul. And, besides all this, she is a woman, womanly; a being not harsh and angular in character, but soft and lovable--
"A countenance in which do meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears and smiles."
You may judge, my dear brother, having gone through a similar experience, how profoundly I was drawn to her; how absolute a necessity she seemed to my life. Neither was I a despairing lover; for had she not, at a time when death seemed imminent, avowed her love for me? Yes, "love"--that was the word she used; and the look which accompanied it gave the word a double emphasis. But there was a giant
difficulty in my path. If she had compromised her maiden reserve in that particular, how could I take advantage of it? And how could I still further take advantage of her lonely and friendless condition to press my suit? And yet I could not leave her alone to encounter all the dangers of the dreadful time which I know too well is approaching. If she had stood, happy and contented, in the midst of her family, under the shelter of father and mother, surrounded by brothers and sisters, with a bright and peaceful future before her, I could have found courage enough to press my suit, to throw myself at her feet, and woo her boldly, as man woos woman. But this poor, unhappy, friendless, lovely girl! What could I do? Day and night I pondered the problem, and at last an expedient occurred to me.
I called upon her. She had fled from the palace without a wardrobe. A woman may be a heroine, but she is still a woman. Joan of Arc must have given considerable thought to her cap and ribbons. Estella was busy, with a dressmaker, contriving several dresses. I asked her if I could speak with her. She started, blushed a little, and led the way into another room. I closed the door.
"My dear Estella," I said, "I have been amusing my leisure by composing a fairy story."
"Indeed," she said, smiling, "a strange occupation for a philanthropist and philosopher, to say nothing of a poet."
"It is, perhaps," I replied, in the same playful vein, "the poetical portion of my nature that has set me at this work. But I cannot satisfy myself as to the denouement of my story, and I desire your aid and counsel."
"I am all attention," she replied; "proceed with your story;--but first, wait a moment. I will get some of my work; and then I can listen to you without feeling that I am wasting precious time."
"Otherwise you would feel," I said, "that your time was wasted listening to me?"
"No," she said, laughing, "but in listening to a fairy tale." She returned in a few moments, and we took seats, I covering my real feeling by an assumed gayety, and Estella listening attentively, with her eyes on her work.
"You must know," I commenced, "that my tale is entitled:
THE STORY OF PRINCESS CHARMING AND THE KNIGHT WEAKHART.
'Once upon a time'--you know all fairy stories are dated from that eventful period of the world's history--there was a beautiful princess, who lived in a grand palace, and her name was Princess Charming; and she was every way worthy of her name; for she was as good as she was handsome. But a dreadful dwarf, who had slain many people in that country, slew her father and mother, and robbed the poor Princess of her fine house, and carried her off and delivered her to an old fairy, called Cathel, a wicked and bad old sorceress and witch, who sat all day surrounded by black cats, weaving incantations and making charms, which she sold to all who would buy of her. Now, among the customers of Cathel was a monstrous and bloody giant, whose castle was not far away. He was called The Ogre Redgore. He was a cannibal, and bought charms from Cathel, with which to entice young men, women and children into his dreadful den, which was surrounded with heaps of bones of those he had killed and devoured. Now it chanced that when he came one day to buy his charms from Cathel, the old witch asked him if he did not desire to purchase a beautiful young girl. He said he wanted one of that very kind for a banquet he was about to give to some of his fellow giants. And thereupon the wicked old woman showed him the fair and lovely Princess Charming, sitting weeping, among the ashes, on the kitchen hearth. He felt her flesh, to see if she was young and tender enough for the feast, and, being satisfied upon this important
point, he and the old witch were not long in coming to terms as to the price to be paid for her.
"And so he started home, soon after, with poor Princess Charming under his arm; she, the while, filling the air with her piteous lamentations and appeals for help.
"And now it so chanced that a wandering knight, called Weakhart, from a far country, came riding along the road that very day, clad in steel armor, and with his lance in rest. And when he heard the pitiful cries of Princess Charming, and beheld her beauty, he drove the spurs into his steed and dashed forward, and would have driven the lance clear through the giant's body; but that worthy saw him coming, and, dropping the Princess and springing aside with great agility, he caught the lance and broke it in many pieces. Then they drew their swords and a terrible battle ensued; and Princess Charming knelt down, the while, by the roadside, and prayed long and earnestly for the success of the good Knight Weakhart. But if he was weak of heart he was strong of arm, and at last, with a tremendous blow, he cut the ugly ogre's head off; and the latter fell dead on the road, as an ogre naturally will when his head is taken off. And then the Knight Weakhart was more afraid of being alone with the Princess than he had been of the giant. But she rose up, and dried her tears, and thanked him. And then the Princess and the Knight were in a grave quandary; for, of course, she could not go back to the den of that wicked witch, Cathel, and she had nowhere else to go. And so Weakhart, with many tremblings, asked her to go with him to a cavern in the woods, where he had taken shelter."
Here I glanced at Estella, and her face was pale and quiet, and the smile was all gone from it. I continued:
"There was nothing else for it; and so the poor Princess mounted in front of the Knight on his horse, and they rode off together to the cavern. And there Weakhart fitted up a little room for the Princess, and made her a bed of the fragrant
boughs of trees, and placed a door to the room and showed her how she could fasten it, and brought her flowers. And every day he hunted the deer and the bear, and made a fire and cooked for her; and he treated her with as much courtesy and respect as if she had been a queen sitting upon her throne.
"And, oh! how that poor Knight Weakhart loved the Princess! He loved the very ground she walked on; and he loved all nature because it surrounded her; and he loved the very sun, moon and stars because they shone down upon her.
Nay, not only did he love her; he worshiped her, as the devotee worships his god. She was all the constellations of the sky to him. Universal nature had nothing that could displace her for a moment from his heart. Night and day she filled his soul with her ineffable image; and the birds and the breeze and the whispering trees seemed to be all forever speaking her beloved name in his ears.
"But what could he do? The Princess was poor, helpless, dependent upon him. Would it not be unmanly of him to take advantage of her misfortunes and frighten or coax her into becoming his wife? Might she not mistake gratitude for love? Could she make a free choice unless she was herself free?
"And so the poor Knight Weakhart stilled the beating of the fluttering bird in his bosom, and hushed down his emotions, and continued to hunt and cook and wait upon his beloved Princess.
"At last, one day, the Knight Weakhart heard dreadful news. A people called Vandals, rude and cruel barbarians, bloodthirsty and warlike, conquerors of nations, had arrived in immense numbers near the borders of that country, and in a few days they would pour over and ravage the land, killing the men and making slaves of the women. He must fly. One man could do nothing against such numbers. He could not leave the Princess Charming behind him: she would
fall into the hands of the savages. He knew that she had trust enough in him to go to the ends of the earth with him. He had a sort of dim belief that she loved him. What should he do? Should he overcome his scruples and ask the lady of his love to wed him; or should he invite her to accompany him as his friend and sister? Would it not be mean and contemptible to take advantage of her distresses, her solitude and the very danger that threatened the land, and thus coerce her into a marriage which might be distasteful to her?
"Now, my dear Estella," I said, with a beating heart, "thus far have I progressed with my fairy tale; but I know not how to conclude it. Can you give me any advice?"
She looked up at me, blushing, but an arch smile played about her lips.
"Let us play out the play," she said. "I will represent the Princess Charming--a very poor representative, I fear;--and you will take the part of the good Knight Weakhart--a part which I imagine you are especially well fitted to play. Now," she said, "you know the old rhyme:
"'He either fears his fate too much,
Or his desert is small,
Who fears to put it to the touch,
And win or lose it all.'
"Therefore, I would advise that you--acting the Knight Weakhart, of course--take the bolder course and propose to Princess Charming to marry you."
I began to see through her device, and fell on my knees, and grasped the Princess's hand, and poured forth my love in rapturous words, that I shall not pretend to repeat, even to you, my dear brother. When I had paused, for want of breath, Estella said:
"Now I must, I suppose, act the part of Princess Charming, and give the foolish Knight his answer."
And here she put her arms around my neck--I still kneeling--and kissed me on the forehead, and said, laughing, but her eyes glistening with emotion:
"You silly Knight Weakhart, you are well named; and really I prefer the ogre whose head you were cruel enough to cut off, or even one of those hideous Vandals you are trying to frighten me with. What kind of a weak heart or weak head have you, not to know that a woman never shrinks from dependence upon the man she loves, any more than the ivy regrets that it is clinging to the oak and cannot stand alone? A true woman must weave the tendrils of her being around some loved object; she cannot stand alone any more than the ivy. And so--speaking, of course, for the Princess Charming!--I accept the heart and hand of the poor, weak-headed Knight Weakhart."
I folded her in my arms and began to give her all the kisses I had been hoarding up for her since the first day we met. But she put up her hand playfully, and pushed me back, and cried out:
"Stop! Stop! the play is over!'
"No! no!" I replied, "it is only beginning; and it will last as long as we two live."
Her face grew serious in an instant, and she whispered:
"Yes, until death doth us part."