Baron's Gloves; or, Amy's Romance

by Louisa May Alcott


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IV. A Polish Exile


"Room for one here, sir," said the guard, as the train stopped at Carlsruhe next day, on its way from Heidelberg to Baden.

The major put down his guide-book, Amy opened her eyes, and Helen removed her shawl from the opposite seat, as a young man, wrapped in a cloak, with a green shade over his eyes, and a general air of feebleness, got in and sank back with a sigh of weariness or pain. Evidently an invalid, for his face was thin and pale, his dark hair cropped short, and the ungloved hand attenuated and delicate as a woman's. A sidelong glance from under the deep shade seemed to satisfy him regarding his neighbors, and drawing his cloak about him with a slight shiver, he leaned into the corner and seemed to forget that he was not alone.

Helen and Amy exchanged glances of compassionate interest, for women always pity invalids, especially if young, comely and of the opposite sex. The major took one look, shrugged his shoulders, and returned to his book. Presently a hollow cough gave Helen a pretext for discovering the nationality of the newcomer.

"Do the open windows inconvenience you, sir?" she asked, in English.

No answer; the question evidently unintelligible.

She repeated it in French, lightly touching his cloak to arrest his attention.

Instantly a smile broke over the handsome mouth, and in the purest French he assured her that the fresh air was most agreeable, and begged pardon for annoying them with his troublesome cough.

"Not an invalid, I hope, sir?" said the major, in his bluff yet kindly voice.

"They tell me I can have no other fate; that my malady is fatal; but I still hope and fight for my life; it is all I have to give my country now."

A stifled sigh and a sad emphasis on the last word roused the sympathy of the girls, the interest of the major.

He took another survey, and said, with a tone of satisfaction, as he marked the martial carriage of the young man, and caught a fiery glance of the half-hidden eyes,--

"You are a soldier, sir?"

"I was; I am nothing now but an exile, for Poland is in chains."

The words "Poland" and "exile" brought up all the pathetic stories of that unhappy country which the three listeners had ever heard, and won their interest at once.

"You were in the late revolution, perhaps?" asked the major, giving the unhappy outbreak the most respectful name he could use.

"From beginning to end."

"Oh, tell us about it; we felt much sympathy for you, and longed to have you win," cried Amy, with such genuine interest and pity in her tone, it was impossible to resist.

Pressing both hands upon his breast, the young man bent low, with a flush of feeling on his pale cheek, and answered eagerly,--

"Ah, you are kind; it is balm to my sore heart to hear words like these. I thank you, and tell you what you will. It is but little that I do, yet I give my life, and die a long death, instead of a quick, brave one with my comrades."

"You are young to have borne a part in a revolution, sir," said the major, who pricked up his ears like an old war-horse at the sound of battle.

"My friends and myself left the University at Varsovie, as volunteers; we did our part, and now all lie in their graves but three."

"You were wounded, it seems?"

"Many times. Exposure, privation, and sorrow will finish what the Russian bullets began. But it is well. I have no wish to see my country enslaved, and I can no longer help her."

"Let us hope that a happier future waits for you both. Poland loves liberty too well, and has suffered too much for it, to be kept long in captivity."

Helen spoke warmly, and the young man listened with a brightening face.

"It is a kind prophecy; I accept it, and take courage. God knows I need it," he added, low to himself.

"Are you bound for Italy?" said the major, in a most un-English fit of curiosity.

"For Geneva first, Italy later, unless Montreaux is mild enough for me to winter in. I go to satisfy my friends, but doubt if it avails."

"Where is Montreaux?" asked Amy.

"Near Clarens, where Rousseau wrote his Heloise, and Vevay, where so many English go to enjoy Chillon. The climate is divine for unfortunates like myself, and life more cheap there than in Italy."

Here the train stopped again, and Hoffman came to ask if the ladies desired anything.

At the sound of his voice the young Pole started, looked up, and exclaimed, with the vivacity of a foreigner, in German,--

"By my life, it is Karl! Behold me, old friend, and satisfy me that it is thyself by a handshake."

"Casimer! What wind blows thee hither, my boy, in such sad plight?" replied Hoffman, grasping the slender hand outstretched to him.

"I fly from an enemy for the first time in my life, and, like all cowards, shall be conquered in the end. I wrote thee I was better, but the wound in the breast reopened, and nothing but a miracle will save me. I go to Switzerland; and thou?"

"Where my master commands. I serve this gentleman, now."

"Hard changes for both, but with health thou art king of circumstances, while I?--Ah well, the good God knows best. Karl, go thou and buy me two of those pretty baskets of grapes; I will please myself by giving them to these pitying angels. Speak they German?"

"One, the elder; but they understand not this rattle of ours."

Karl disappeared, and Helen, who had understood the rapid dialogue, tried to seem as unconscious as Amy.

"Say a friendly word to me at times; I am so homesick and faint-hearted, my Hoffman. Thanks; they are almost worthy the lips that shall taste them."

Taking the two little osier baskets, laden with yellow and purple clusters, Casimer offered them, with a charming mixture of timidity and grace, to the girls, saying, like a grateful boy,--

"You give me kind words and good hopes; permit that I thank you in this poor way."

"I drink success to Poland." cried Helen, lifting a great, juicy grape to her lips, like a little purple goblet, hoping to hide her confusion under a playful air.

The grapes went round, and healths were drunk with much merriment, for in travelling on the Continent it is impossible for the gruffest, primmest person to long resist the frank courtesy and vivacious chat of foreigners.

The major was unusually social and inquisitive, and while the soldiers fought their battles over again the girls listened and took notes, with feminine wits on the alert to catch any personal revelations which might fall from the interesting stranger. The wrongs and sufferings of Poland were discussed so eloquently that both young ladies were moved to declare the most undying hatred of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the most intense sympathy for "poor Pologne." All day they travelled together, and as Baden-Baden approached, they naturally fell to talking of the gay place.

"Uncle, I must try my fortune once. I've set my heart upon it, and so has Nell. We want to know how gamblers feel, and to taste the fascination of the game which draws people here from all parts of Europe," said Amy, in her half-pleading, half-imperious way.

"You may risk one napoleon each, as I foolishly promised you should, when I little thought you would ever have an opportunity to remind me of my promise. It's not an amusement for respectable Englishwomen, or men either. You will agree with me there, monsieur?" and the major glanced at the Pole, who replied, with his peculiar smile:--

"Surely, yes. It is great folly and waste of time and money; yet I have known one man who found some good in it, or, rather, brought good out of it. I have a friend who has a mania for giving. His own fortune was spent in helping needy students at the University, and poor professors. This displeased his father, and he refused supplies, except enough for his simple personal wants. Sigismund chafed at this, and being skilful at all games, as a gentleman may be in the way of amusement, he resolved to play with those whose money was wasted on frivolities, and give his winnings to his band of paupers."

"How did it succeed, this odd fancy?" asked Helen, with an interested face, while Amy pinched her arm at the word "Sigismund."

"Excellently. My friend won often, and as his purpose became known it caused no unkind feeling, this unusual success, for fortune seemed to favor his kind object."

"Wrong, nevertheless, to do evil that good may come of it," said the major, morally.

"It may be so: but it is not for me to censure my benefactor. He has done much for my countrymen and myself, and is so truly noble I can see no fault in him."

"What an odd name! Sigismund is German, is it not?" asked Amy, in the most artless tone of interest.

"Yes, mademoiselle, and Palsdorf is a true German; much courage, strength and intellect, with the gayety and simplicity of a boy. He hates slavery of all kinds, and will be free at all costs. He is a good son, but his father is tyrannical, and asks too much. Sigismund will not submit to sell himself, and so is in disgrace for a time."

"Palsdorf!--was not that the name of the count or baron we heard them talking of at Coblentz?" said Helen to Amy, with a well-feigned air of uncertainty.

"Yes; I heard something of a duel and a broken betrothal, I think. The people seemed to consider the baron a wild young man, so it could not have been your friend, sir," was Amy's demure reply, glancing at Helen with mirthful eyes, as if to say, "How our baron haunts us!"

"It is the same, doubtless. Many consider him wild, because he is original, and dares act for himself. As it is well known, I may tell you the truth of the duel and the betrothal, if you care to hear a little romance."

Casimer looked eager to defend his friend, and as the girls were longing to hear the romance, permission was given.

"In Germany, you know, the young people are often betrothed in childhood by the parents, and sometimes never meet till they are grown. Usually all goes well; but not always, for love cannot come at command. Sigismund was plighted, when a boy of fifteen, to his young cousin, and then sent away to the University till of age. On returning, he was to travel a year or two, and then marry. He gladly went away, and with increasing disquiet saw the time draw near when he must keep his troth-plight."

"Hum! loved some one else. Very unfortunate to be sure," said the major with a sigh.

"Not so; he only loved his liberty, and pretty Minna was less dear than a life of perfect freedom. He went back at the appointed time, saw his cousin, tried to do his duty and love her; found it impossible, and, discovering that Minna loved another, vowed he would never make her unhappiness as well as his own. The old baron stormed, but the young one was firm, and would not listen to a marriage without love; but pleaded for Minna, wished his rival success, and set out again on his travels."

"And the duel?" asked the major, who took less interest in love than war.

"That was as characteristic as the other act. A son of one high in office at Berlin circulated false reports of the cause of Palsdorf's refusal of the alliance--reports injurious to Minna. Sigismund settled the matter in the most effectual manner, by challenging and wounding the man. But for court influence it would have gone hardly with my friend. The storm, however, has blown over; Minna will be happy with her lover, and Sigismund with his liberty, till he tires of it."

"Is he handsome, this hero of yours?" said Amy, feeling the ring under her glove, for in spite of Helen's advice, she insisted on wearing it, that it might be at hand to return at any moment, should chance again bring the baron in their way.

"A true German of the old type; blond and blue-eyed, tall and strong. My hero in good truth--brave and loyal, tender and true," was the enthusiastic answer.

"I hate fair men," pouted Amy, under her breath, as the major asked some question about hotels.

"Take a new hero, then; nothing can be more romantic than that," whispered Helen, glancing at the pale, dark-haired figure wrapped in the military cloak opposite.

"I will, and leave the baron to you;" said Amy, with a stifled laugh.

"Hush! Here are Baden and Karl," replied Helen, thankful for the interruption.

All was bustle in a moment, and taking leave of them with an air of reluctance, the Pole walked away, leaving Amy looking after him wistfully, quite unconscious that she stood in everybody's way, and that her uncle was beckoning impatiently from the carriage door.

"Poor boy! I wish he had some one to take care of him." she sighed, half aloud.

"Mademoiselle, the major waits;" and Karl came up, hat in hand, just in time to hear her and glance after Casimer, with an odd expression.

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