He hurriedly crushed it into bits, and, unfolding the letter, read:
AND GOOD LADY: I want you to love my Ludwig.
him happy. He is a good man. I am nothing at all to him.
When he had read the touching epistle, he buried his face in his hands, and a bitter sob burst from his tortured heart.
Marie looked sorrowfully at his quivering frame, and sighed heavily.
“Oh, Marie! To think you should write this! Nothing at all to me!” murmured the young man, in a choking voice.
“‘Nothing at all,’” in a low tone repeated Marie.
Vavel moved swiftly to her side, and, looking down upon her with his burning eyes still filled with tears, asked in an unsteady voice:
“What do you want, Marie? Tell me what you wish me to do.”
Marie softly took his hand in both her own, and said tremulously:
“I want you to give me a companion—a mother. I want some one to love,—a woman that I can love,—one who will love me and command me. I will be an obedient and dutiful daughter to such a woman. I will never grieve her, never disobey her. I am so very, very lonely!”
“And am not I, too, alone and lonely, Marie?” sadly responded Vavel.
“Yes, yes. I know that, Ludwig. It is your pale, melancholy face that oppresses me and makes me sad. Day after day I see the pale face which my cruel, curse-laden destiny has buried here with me. I know that you are unhappy, and that I am the cause of it.”
“For heaven’s sake, Marie! who has given you such fancies?”
“The long, weary nights! Oh, how much I have learned from the darkness! It was not merely caprice that prompted me to ask you once what death meant. Had you questioned me more fully then, I should have confessed something to you. That time, when you rescued me from death, you gave my name to Sophie Botta, who also took upon herself my fate. I don’t know what became of her. If she died in my stead, may God comfort her! If she still lives, may God bless and help her to reign in my stead! But give me the name of Sophie Botta; give me the clothes of a working-girl; give me God’s free world, which she enjoyed. Let me become Sophie Botta in reality, and let me wash clothes with the washerwomen at the brook. If Sophie and I exchanged lives, let the exchange become real. Let me learn what it is to live, or—let me learn what it is to die.”
In speechless astonishment Count Vavel had listened to this passionate outburst. It was the first time he had ever heard the gentle girl speak so excitedly.
“Madame,” he said with peculiar intonation, when she had ceased speaking, “I am now convinced that I am the guardian of the most precious treasure on this terrestrial ball. Henceforward I shall watch over you with redoubled care.”
“That will be unnecessary,” proudly returned the young girl. “If you wish to feel certain that I will patiently continue to abide in this Nameless Castle, then make a home here for me—bring some happiness into these rooms. If I see that you are happy I shall be content.”