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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Dowager Countess of Kronfels

By Blanche Willis Howard (1847–1898)

[The Open Door. 1889.]

ADELHEID, Countess of Kronfels, was in the habit of rising between ten and eleven A.M. This event was accompanied by the vehement pealing of electric bells, and by the breathless hurrying up and down stairs and through long corridors of her own maid, the second maid, the first housemaid, and the corpulent butler. Although from one year’s end to another there was slight variation in the ceremonies of the Countess of Kronfels’ morning toilet, although her slaves and vassals had never failed to produce the requisite bath-tubs, the hot and cold water, the toast and tea, the morning post, and to regulate heat and ventilation, and consult thermometers, all in the desired sequence, she invariably presupposed something was about to be wrong in the matutinal rites, and began each day with a jealous suspicion that her fellow-creatures might underrate her importance.

Her methods, however open to criticism, had the advantage of securing praiseworthy speed and punctuality in her service, for none knew when her habitually cold and imperious manner would resolve itself into violence. Until her attendants were aware that she had advanced from her exclusively personal observances to the toilet of her little yellow dog, Mousey, their vigilance was unremitting, and they dared breathe freely only when she was enveloped in a voluminous wrapper, surrounded by Mousey’s ivory brushes and tortoise-shell combs; Mousey’s towels, embroidered with his own monogram; Mousey’s sponges, flannels, and rugs; Mousey’s bath of warm, scented water, and the object of her adoration snarling on his blanket stretched across her knees.

For if the countess tyrannized over her quaking household, Mousey enacted the role of god of vengeance, and for every affront which she offered harmless human beings in her power, the insolent, bad-tempered little our exacted retribution. Let philosophers determine the nature of the attachment between the old lady and her mongrel pet, whose every snap and snarl were her laws. Indeed a tradition existed to the effect that the first and only time that the countess attempted to chastise Mousey for some breach of canine etiquette, he turned fiercely and bit her. Happily his teeth were poor. But the countess grew pale with fright and remorse, and tearfully entreated the sulky little brute, who was far too clever not to recognize his crime and was guiltily backing under a chair, expectant, no doubt, of capital punishment, to “come to his mamma,” which, after a long period of coaxing, and extravagant endearment, he finally consented to do. The reconciliation was complete, but who ruled the villa after that was no secret. The second maid, who ventured to say, “Why, I thought they always killed ’em when they was nasty enough to bite their masters,” was discharged on the spot for impertinence.

Mousey was tiny, flaxen-blond, shaggy and silky, with the cleverness of a fiend peering out of his wicked black eyes. He had a pampered body, an undeniable malformation of the hind legs, and no tail. He was ugly, vicious, unfaithful, hypocritical, and of nameless race. Men were apt to raise their eyebrows with an amused expression when the countess descanted volubly upon his “points,” but if a guest was so reckless as to imply a doubt of Mousey’s pedigree, never again did he have the honor of dining at the villa. Better discover a blot on the Kronfels scutcheon than on Mousey’s. He slept in the countess’s bed. He feasted at her table. She did not love animals. To her there was but one dog, and she was his prophet.

The moment of the countess’s descent to her son’s rooms was nearly as absorbing to her retainers as were her first bells and commands. Large, corpulent, pale, with cold light eyes, a thin and severe mouth, a small straight nose with flat nostrils, and the conspicuous whiteness which, according to the erudite interpreters of this feature, denotes “cruelty,” yet altogether what is called a handsome presence, she came slowly down the marble stairway, panting slightly with a suggestion of asthma, and holding her treasure under her left arm, above which Mousey’s sagacious, diabolical eyes gleamed through his silky, overhanging yellow locks. The procession was headed by the portly butler to fling open the doors, while behind the majestic, slowly advancing figure the countess’s own maid followed with a breakfast-shawl, and a second maid with Mousey’s ball, doll, and white lamb’s-wool rug brought up the rear.

Such was the train which, heralded by occasional irrelevant yelps, approached the wing occupied by Count Hugo, and happily remote from the countess’s precincts. He was lying on his sofa, weary from his unwonted exertion, and wearier from his painful thoughts, which seemed to revolve continually in a fatal circle. The unutterable melancholy of his eyes filled Lipps’s heart with discomfort, and the poor fellow, whose strength lay not in book-lore, was blindly groping in the recesses of his memory for the name of the volume over which he had seen the count smile some days previous, when the butler’s knock announced the approach of the countess and her suite.

Bidding her son good-morning, she extended her large, well-shaped hand, which he mechanically raised to his lips, rejoining:

“Good-morning, mamma. How are you to-day?”

The butler and second maid had withdrawn. The countess’s own maid waited, in case Mousey should express a wish. Lipps, with a non-committal mien, stood with his shortness well drawn up behind his master’s sofa, prepared for offensive or defensive possibilities as circumstances should demand.

“Oh, I am sadly fatigued,” sighed the countess, “and my neuralgia scarcely allowed me to sleep an hour. My breathing is troublesome, again, too. Isn’t it, Mousey, mon bijou? Come to your own mamma. Did it want to play a little, the dear little sportive lambkin? Well, it should.” What the sportive lambkin chiefly wanted was to snarl and snort and snap at the head of the white bear skin flung over Hugo’s low, broad sofa, and it gave full vent to its inclinations.

“Do you still take a few glasses of curaçoa and some sweet biscuit before going to bed?” the count inquired coolly.

“But I feel so faint, Hugo; I require it.”

“It would make the boniest lieutenant begin to get puffy.”

“Bony! Puffy! What expressions, my son! You know very well I cannot fast. I am too sensitive.”

“I know simply this: you eat too many sweets and take too little exercise. Any doctor would tell you that. Walk regularly every day and your breathing will be all right.”

“Any doctor!” exclaimed the old lady, mounting a hobby. “No doctor here understands my constitution. In fact I never met but one physician who suited me. That dear Pressigny in Paris! What a man! What a manner! What a voice! And what broad shoulders! What insight and intuition! ‘My dear, dear madame,’ he used to say, ‘you, with your sensibilities, can never be treated according to ordinary rules!’ Is your doctor capable of that, Hugo?”

“Emphatically not.”

“I prefer then to be my own doctor, so far as possible following his footsteps. Poor dear man! So tender, so discriminating! We wept when he died, did we not. Mousey, my angel?”

The angel was up on the window-seat, barking angrily at a dog he perceived at a safe distance. For reasons which did credit to his intelligence if not to his valor, he was never known, unless protected, as in this instance, by the window-pane, to insult an animal of his own size, but greatly enjoyed snarling at the heels of some great good-natured mastiff who would regard his petulant ebullitions with dignified surprise.

“Do you feed Mousey with curaçoa and sweet biscuits, too?”

“A wee crumb of biscuit now and then, for he loved it. Didn’t you love it, pet?”

“Because he is asthmatic too. Hear how stuffed and strangled his bark sounds.”

“Hugo! How cruel you are! Do you want to frighten me?”

“Not in the least. I merely say the dog is overfed.”

“His poor little stomach was rather distended last night. I rubbed it with sweet-oil and gave him three globules of nux-vomica. But I know it is not his food. It is a little fever. He is so sensitive. He is going out with his mamma to take a little airing after lunch, and then he will feel better. Won’t he? Yes, he will, poor little suffering, sweet thing! Babette,” she called, with a sudden change of tone, “when you see that Mousey wishes to play ball, why are you not more attentive? Roll it for him nicely, Babette.”

“Give him nothing but water and a bone for two or three days, and his sensitiveness will be all right,” the count said carelessly.

“Since I find you in this unsympathetic mood, my dear Hugo,” she began rapidly in French, “I can of course leave you. I came in with the kindest intentions. For I think it is in every respect proper that a mother should sit a while every day with her invalid son. But of course, if you desire, I can go in now to my lonely lunch. Come, Mousey, my comfort, my only friend! Lipps,” she said sternly, “when Mousey’s ball rolls under the book-case near you, can’t you get it for him?”

Lipps stood as if riveted to the floor, his eyes fixed upon his master’s face.

Hugo nodded, and the man took a ruler from the writing-table and pushed the ball towards Mousey, who received it with engaging growls and gnashings.

“I had no intention of being unsympathetic,” Hugo said, without looking at his mother.

“I know—in your state”—she began.

“Kindly leave my state out of the question,” he interrupted with a quick flush.

“I know,” she persisted, “that one must make allowance for your condition. But Hugo, if you would only cultivate resignation!”

He closed his eyes and did not reply. Lipps watched him uneasily.

“Because,” she continued, always in French, “after all, what God does is well done.”

“I presume so,” he returned with a sneer.

“Hugo,” she began, rising with dignity, “one thing which I will not permit in my presence is irreverence. You know my principles.”

“Yes, yes, I think I know them. Suppose we don’t discuss them just now. What did you wish to say to me? And won’t you send off your woman, and Mousey? His bell is rather distracting when one is dead tired. Lipps can go too. I can listen better, and we are a more harmonious family party without so many spectators.”

“Of course, if you insist, although it is a mystery to me how you can be so hard-hearted to Mousey. He wears his little bell because he was out for a frolic with Röschen, and is going out with his Mumsey directly after lunch. Blessed little sweetheart, come to your Mumsey!” making a dive after him with some difficulty, as her velvet gown was tight in the waist and sleeves.

The gifted Mousey’s human contemporaries unanimously attributed to him comprehension of every word in all languages spoken in his presence, as well as a proficiency in mind-reading which would put most popular psychic experts to shame. With an undeniable snap at the countess’s persuasive hand, he dodged it easily, and retreated beneath Hugo’s sofa, snarling sotto voce, and promenading himself tantalizingly beyond her reach. Kneeling, breathing loud, she coaxed and pleaded in vain.

“Come here, you fiend!” said Hugo in a low voice.

Mousey with a bound came up over the back of the sofa and stood upon Hugo’s breast with a sardonic grin on his countenance and a plain intimation that if he had had a tail he would have wagged it.

“How he jumped!” exclaimed the countess, panting as she reseated herself; “and the roguish little love always makes me lift him.”

“You demon!” said Hugo in the same low tone, parting the silky hair falling over the dog’s eyes and looking at him attentively.

“Singular, that he lets you touch his head,” she said jealously; “why he scarcely bears my hand on it. But don’t call him names. It hurts his feelings. Do you know he would have come when I called him, only he is a little vexed with me, aren’t you, sweet pet? because I wouldn’t give him another lump of sugar; but it was for your good, you darling doggums.”

“Here, Lipps, take him out,” and Hugo put the shrinking animal into the man’s arms.

Again a striking metamorphosis took place in Mousey’s eloquent personality. Small as he was, he seemed to diminish bodily and become the most harmless of inanimate flaxen balls as soon as Lipps touched him. His expression was meek if not pious, and he subtly conveyed the impression that he was drooping the tail he had not.

“Be attentive to Mousey, Babette, and entertaining. Ask him if he would like a run in the garden. Adieu, my precious,” throwing kisses to him as Lipps with unwonted rapidity left the room.

“I am convinced that Lipps is a bad man,” the countess began when they were alone. “I frequently urged your father to discharge him.”

“But my father didn’t,” observed Hugo dryly.

“No,—your father was peculiar in some things,” she said with a sigh. “But I wish you would send the man off. Mousey’s behavior is so singular. He positively shrinks before him. And when he hears Lipps’s step, he often runs and hides. His more delicate perceptions teach him what is hidden to our duller senses.”

Hugo privately suspected that Mousey’s delicate perceptions had more than once come in contact with Lipps’s indelicate boot. For when the dog’s nervous patter and the incessant tinkling of his bell were heard too near the invalid’s quarters, Lipps would steal out, and after a somewhat excited though hushed colloquy, in which Mousey tenaciously defended his position, certain unequivocal sounds were heard, which resulted in the sudden diminuendo of the tinkling, while Mousey, as fast as his too long legs could carry his too fat body, pattered down the corridor and up the stairway, to the flesh-pots of Egypt which always awaited him in his own apartments. It was under these circumstances that the countess hearing him imperiously demand admittance was apt to cry in rapture:

“He wants his own Mumsey, yes he did, the dear faithful heart! He loved his Mumsey, and his Mumsey loved her Mousey! Yes, so she did!” whereupon she would rain showers of kisses upon him, even upon his rather warm nose.

“I think I will keep Lipps for the present,” Hugo replied with a slight smile; “Mousey is welcome to his estimate of the man’s character, but you know he happens to be in my personal service, and as Mousey did not engage him, it strikes me that it is little less than a liberty for Mousey to interfere.”

“How absurd you are, Hugo! I do not quite see how you can care to joke so much. One would think you would feel sad and dignified.”

He tugged at one of his cushions and finally pushed it violently until it fell.

“I was never good in private theatricals, you remember. I always refused to play the role assigned to me. And you see that I am inordinately merry and full of jest.”

She sighed. It was hard to reconcile so much levity with a recumbent position.

“If I had found you in a different mood, I should have talked with you about Gabrielle.”

“What, again?” he returned in unfeigned surprise.

“I have been reconsidering”——

“Then I am sorry,” he said quickly. “I thought we had settled all that.”

“But, Hugo”——

“Mamma,” he said, raising himself upon one elbow, and speaking impetuously, “why discuss the matter? Have we not exhausted every detail? You know my opinion. I know yours. You shared mine at one time. You decided not to have her come. That you begin again is conclusive evidence that somebody has influenced you. Doubtless, the Frau Major,” and he looked at her sharply.

“She was considerate enough to think that a bright, sunny young girl would cheer me when I was low-spirited,” the countess admitted uneasily.

“And who will cheer your bright, sunny young girl when she is low-spirited?” he demanded hotly. “And have you intimated to the Frau Major what dot you intend to settle upon your sunny young girl, in case she suits your whims and Mousey’s?”

“Hugo, you forget yourself”——

“I beg your pardon,” he said, falling back wearily. “Do me the justice to remember that I tried to avoid the conversation.”

“It seems to me very proper to discuss a step of so much importance with one’s only son.”

“But if one’s only son has already declared himself unalterably opposed to the step?”

“So unreasonable,” she murmured, “so obstinate!”

“It is possible. I admit the question does not concern me materially. Your sunny young person will not disturb me. But still I protest. Why must you do it, mamma? Why add a new name to the sad old list? You never were satisfied with one of them. You suspected them of a thousand meannesses. No, I don’t intend to be rude. But remember, there was always, sooner or later, an open scene after a long smouldering quarrel; then complaints, tears, recriminations, and the rapid exit of the companion. We have tried relatives, strangers, German, French, and English girls. There was Cousin Marie, a widow—a pleasing, gentle little woman—musical—cheerful—practical”——

“Don’t talk to me of her, Hugo! Deceitful little cat!”

“Precisely. Let us for the sake of argument admit that they were all deceitful cats. In that case I don’t see what is going to prevent this Gabrielle from also being a cat, and deceitful. You will adore her and caress her and call her ‘Moonbeam’ if she is fair, and ‘Twilight’ if she is dark, and there will be peace for fourteen days—for three weeks provided she is a miracle of patience; then her fall from favor will be more rapid than her ascent.”

“One would think, Hugo, that I was a”——

“I am not analyzing the reasons of things, but merely sketching their outward sequence. You have made fifteen trials of companions, have you not? Or is it sixteen?”

“I have been singularly unfortunate, I admit. I am too trusting. Then Gabrielle will not be like a companion. A girl of good family—a baroness—a distant relative of ours,—she will be like a daughter of the house.”

“It sounds well,” Hugo returns sceptically. “But she is poor, and young, and will be in your power. Our servants have at least their Sunday out, and can ridicule us and abuse us royally down in the basement. But what vent to her feelings has the companion of a fashionable woman? Particularly if she is a poor relative. Her dignity forbids her to complain, until she grows desperate and throws up the situation. She could not, for instance, even confide to me that she found bezique a bore and hated Mousey.”

“You are complimentary—as usual, Hugo,” she retorted displeased, “and yet you know well that my ideal is the companionship of a true friend,” she continued in a curiously sentimental manner. “All my life I have longed for sympathy, and in vain. Why should my son wish to deny me the possibility of finding it?”

When the countess was sentimental she always had him at a disadvantage. For thin, empty, and transitory as her feeling was, he believed it to be not wholly insincere. He dreaded the little conscious smile so foreign to her hard features, and the school-girlish talk of the ideal woman-friend. Whether her own fault or not, it represented her sense of dissatisfaction with her life, her longing for something she had never had; it meant a note of unhappiness, which seemed real and human to him, and when he heard it he was sorry for her.

“I wish I need not offend you,” he said gently. “What I mean is that your personality is so—so—so dominant, so engrossing, I do not think you adapted to the intimacy which you always seem to desire with another woman. Friendship necessitates some kind of equality. You are used to the constant society of servants, whose smiles and lip-service you buy; and you are accustomed to superficial intercourse with women of the world, whose smiles and lip-service you also buy in a certain sense; at least you exchange yours for theirs; but in both cases thoughts are free and well-disguised, and I do not believe any other relationship would satisfy you. Above all, this child from the country. For the last time, I say let the girl stay where she is.”

“But I intend to make her happy. I have always wanted a daughter. A daughter would have understood me.” On the cold face was still the thin mask of sentimentality.

“I have heard you frequently say so. But the fact remains, this girl is not your daughter. She will have no freedom, she will have no rights. If she is animated, you will call her pert. If she is quiet and deliberate, you will find her not prévoyante. Whether pretty or ugly, she will be in your opinion coquette. Whether she will or not, she must drive with you, pay visits, go shopping, as if under military orders.”

“And is that a hardship for a young girl from the country, I should like to inquire? To go where I go and do what I do?”

“I don’t know,” he replied curtly. “It depends upon the girl. If she is a toady, she will enjoy it vastly for a time, because she will be playing her own game. But if she has an atom of honesty in her composition, she would rather go out on the road and break stones.”

He moved his hands restlessly; his cheeks were hot.

“You have a singularly unamiable way of presenting your views,” she complained, hesitated a moment, then with increasing coldness, “For my part I anticipate only agreeable experiences with Gabrielle. I have had the rose-room prepared for her.”

Hugo threw back his head, rolled up his eyes toward his frescoed ceiling, and stared at a flying swallow under a cloudy sky.

The countess was never calm under disapproval.

“Well?” she said, in peevish interrogation.

He stared persistently at the bird and did not open his lips.

“I meant it as a pleasant surprise for you. She arrives to-day.”

Still no response from Hugo.

“Have you nothing to say, Hugo? Why do you do that?” she demanded with great irritation.

“I congratulate the Frau Major,” he said at length.

“Nonsense! You do her injustice. I sometimes think she is the only faithful friend I have.”

“There is safety in your ‘sometimes.’ Should you always think so—væ victis!—And mamma, when she has decided upon your course another time, pray dispense with my superfluous reflections. I have not over-abundant vitality. Why should I waste it attacking your foregone conclusions? I suppose she means Lorenz and Egon to run? I bet you five to one on Lorenz. Just give me a hint from time to time which leads. And otherwise, mamma, leave me out of your calculations. Don’t ask me to burn incense when the girl comes, or fling brickbats when she goes. Once for all, I wash my hands in innocence.”

“Hugo,” said the countess rising, “I consider some of your remarks coarse.”

“It is the nature of man,” he returned uncompromisingly.

She was angry he saw by her increased paleness. The black lace of her coquettish French cap with its crimson rose trembled wrathfully, and so did the smooth white hands. She was a handsome woman still, he thought, with her regular features, her delicate, wonderfully preserved skin, and her gray hair of exquisite quality, and beautiful enough to frame the pure and serene countenance of a typical aged saint. He watched her with his flashing, unpleasant smile. Whatever self-command she had she was apt to use in his presence.

“I really ought to go,” she said; “I have worlds to do, and it must be nearly two o’clock.”

“I will call Lipps,” and he raised his whistle.

Her cold eyes looked uneasy and wandering. She stood by her son resenting his disapproval. Lipps came in and held the door open for her. “Oh, I saw you on the lawn, this morning. You bore it well, I hope.”

“Well enough, thanks.”

“I am glad to hear that,” she remarked formally. “And you are sleeping well?”

“Well enough, thanks,” he said again, still with the smile that made her uncomfortable, and reminded her of the late count.

“That is more than I can say. My neuralgia”—she murmured, “and Mousey is so restless—and those horrid workmen begin now before seven. You are fortunate that they are not on your side of the house.”

“Very fortunate.”

“Well, a pleasant day to you, Hugo. I am glad to be able to give so good an account of you to your friends. As you are determined not to approve of Gabrielle, I presume I need not hasten to present her.”

“No, that ceremony can be indefinitely postponed.” She extended her hand, which he again raised mechanically to his lips.

“The gracious countess is served,” announced the fat and solemn butler at the door. Presently Mousey’s bell and her voluble endearments were heard in the hall.

“I wish to be alone,” said the count to his man. “Leave me.”

An hour later Lipps stole softly in, and found the invalid asleep. Two bright spots glowed on his cheeks, and from time to time his hands twitched nervously. In a distant corner the little black book lay spread out on its face, as if flung by an impatient hand. Lipps solicitously smoothed its crumpled leaves.