Presently, her maid came in to tell them that a carriage was ready to take them to the station, whence a train would start for Paris in a quarter of an hour. Helene begged him. with a feeling that was beginning to be one of shame. Lassalle repelled her in words that were to stamp him with a peculiar kind of cowardice.
Why should he have stopped to think of anything except the beautiful woman who was at his feet, and to whom he had pledged his love? What did he care for the petty diplomat who was her father, or the vulgar-tongued woman who was her mother? He should have hurried her and the maid into the train for Paris, and have forgotten everything in the world but his Helene, glorious among women, who had left everything for him.
What was the sudden failure, the curious weakness, the paltriness of spirit that came at the supreme moment into the heart of this hitherto strong man? Here was the girl whom he loved, driven from her parents, putting aside all question of appearances, and clinging to him with a wild and glorious desire to give herself to him and to be all his own! That was a thing worthy of a true woman. And he? He shrinks from her and cowers and acts like a simpleton. His courage seems to have dribbled through his finger-tips; he is no longer a man—he is a thing.
Out of all the multitude of Lassalle’s former admirers, there is scarcely one who has ventured to defend him, much less to laud him; and when they have done so, their voices have had a sound of mockery that dies away in their own throats.
Helene, on her side, had compromised herself, and even from the view-point of her parents it was obvious that she ought to be married immediately. Her father, however, confined her to her room until it was understood that Lassalle had left Geneva. Then her family’s supplications, the statement that her sister’s marriage and even her father’s position were in danger, led her to say that she would give up Lassalle.
It mattered very little, in one way, for whatever he might have done, Lassalle had killed, or at least had chilled, her love. His failure at the moment of her great self-sacrifice had shown him to her as he really was—no bold and gallant spirit, but a cringing, spiritless self-seeker. She wrote him a formal letter to the effect that she had become reconciled to her “betrothed bridegroom”; and they never met again.
Too late, Lassalle gave himself up to a great regret. He went about trying to explain his action to his friends, but he could say nothing that would ease his feeling and reinstate him in the eyes of the romantic girl. In a frenzy, he sought out the Wallachian student, Yanko von Racowitza, and challenged him to a mortal duel. He also challenged Helene’s father. Years before, he had on principle declined to fight a duel; but now he went raving about as if he sought the death of every one who knew him.
The duel was fought on August 28, 1864. There was some trouble about pistols, and also about seconds; but finally the combatants left a small hotel in a village near Geneva, and reached the dueling-grounds. Lassalle was almost joyous in his manner. His old confidence had come back to him; he meant to kill his man.