«Published: 1897 Categorie(s): Fiction, Mystery & Detective Source: About Allen: Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen ...»
I approved Césarine's choice; and I was particularly glad she had pronounced for an hotel, where all is plain sailing, instead of advising a furnished villa, the arrangements for which would naturally have fallen in large part upon the shoulders of the wretched secretary. As in any case I have to do three hours' work a day, I feel that such additions to my normal burden may well be spared me. I tipped Césarine half a sovereign, in fact, for her judicious choice.
Césarine glanced at it on her palm in her mysterious, curious, half-smiling way, and pocketed it at once with a "Merci, monsieur!" that had a touch of contempt in it. I always fancy Césarine has large ideas of her own on the subject of tipping, and thinks very small beer of the modest sums a mere secretary can alone afford to bestow upon her.
The great peculiarity of Meran is the number of schlosses (I believe my plural is strictly irregular, but very convenient to English ears) which you can see in every direction from its outskirts. A statistical eye, it is supposed, can count no fewer than forty of these picturesque, ramshackled old castles from a point on the Küchelberg. For myself, I hate statistics (except as an element in financial prospectuses), and I really don't know how many ruinous piles Isabel and Amelia counted under Césarine's guidance; but I remember that most of them were quaint and beautiful, and that their variety of architecture seemed positively bewildering. One would be square, with funny little turrets stuck out at each angle; while another would rejoice in a big round keep, and spread on either side long, ivy-clad walls and delightful bastions. Charles was immensely taken with them. He loves the picturesque, and has a poet hidden in that financial soul of his. (Very effectually hidden, though, I am ready to grant you.) From the moment he came he felt at once he would love to possess a castle of his own among these romantic mountains. "Seldon!" he exclaimed contemptuously. "They call Seldon a castle! But you and I know very well, Sey, it was built in 1860, with sham antique stones, for Macpherson of Seldon, at market rates, by Cubitt and Co., worshipful contractors of London.
Macpherson charged me for that sham antiquity a preposterous price, at which one ought to procure a real ancestral mansion. Now, these castles are real. They are hoary with antiquity. Schloss Tyrol is Romanesque—tenth or eleventh century." (He had been reading it up in Baedeker.) "That's the sort of place for me!—tenth or eleventh century. I could live here, remote from stocks and shares, for ever; and in these sequestered glens, recollect, Sey, my boy, there are no Colonel Clays, and no arch Madame Picardets!" As a matter of fact, he could have lived there six weeks, and then tired for Park Lane, Monte Carlo, Brighton.
As for Amelia, strange to say, she was equally taken with this new fad of Charles's. As a rule she hates everywhere on earth save London, except during the time when no respectable person can be seen in town, and when modest blinds shade the scandalised face of Mayfair and Belgravia. She bores herself to death even at Seldon Castle, Ross-shire, and yawns all day long in Paris or Vienna. She is a confirmed Cockney. Y for some occult et, reason, my amiable sister-in-law fell in love with South Tyrol. She wanted to vegetate in that lush vegetation. The grapes were being picked; pumpkins hung over the walls;
Virginia creeper draped the quaint gray schlosses with crimson cloaks; and everything was as beautiful as a dream of Burne-Jones's. (I know I am quite right in mentioning Burne-Jones, especially in connection with Romanesque architecture, because I heard him highly praised on that very ground by our friend and enemy, Dr.
Edward Polperro.) So perhaps it was excusable that Amelia should fall in love with it all, under the circumstances; besides, she is largely influenced by what Césarine says, and Césarine declares there is no climate in Europe like Meran in winter. I do not agree with her. The sun sets behind the hills at three in the afternoon, and a nasty warm wind blows moist over the snow in January and February.
However, Amelia set Césarine to inquire of the people at the hotel about the market price of tumbledown ruins, and the number of such eligible family mausoleums just then for sale in the immediate neighbourhood. Césarine returned with a full, true, and particular list, adorned with flowers of rhetoric which would have delighted the soul of good old John Robins. They were all picturesque, all Romanesque, all richly ivy-clad, all commodious, all historical, and all the property of high well-born Grafs and very honourable Freiherrs. Most of them had been the scene of celebrated tournaments; several of them had witnessed the gorgeous marriages of Holy Roman Emperors; and every one of them was provided with some choice and selected firstclass murders. Ghosts could be arranged for or not, as desired; and armorial bearings could be thrown in with the moat for a moderate extra remuneration.
The two we liked best of all these tempting piles were Schloss Planta and Schloss Lebenstein. We drove past both, and even I myself, I confess, was distinctly taken with them. (Besides, when a big purchase like this is on the stocks, a poor beggar of a secretary has always a chance of exerting his influence and earning for himself some modest commission.) Schloss Planta was the most striking externally, I should say, with its Rhine-like towers, and its great gnarled ivy-stems, that looked as if they antedated the House of Hapsburg; but Lebenstein was said to be better preserved within, and more fitted in every way for modern occupation. Its staircase has been photographed by 7000 amateurs.
We got tickets to view. The invaluable Césarine procured them for us. Armed with these, we drove off one fine afternoon, meaning to go to Planta, by Césarine's recommendation. Half-way there, however, we changed our minds, as it was such a lovely day, and went on up the long, slow hill to Lebenstein. I must say the drive through the grounds was simply charming. The castle stands perched (say rather poised, like St. Michael the archangel in Italian pictures) on a solitary stack or crag of rock, looking down on every side upon its own rich vineyards. Chestnuts line the glens; the valley of the Etsch spreads below like a picture.
The vineyards alone make a splendid estate, by the way;
they produce a delicious red wine, which is exported to Bordeaux, and there bottled and sold as a vintage claret under the name of Chateau Monnivet. Charles revelled in the idea of growing his own wines.
"Here we could sit," he cried to Amelia, "in the most literal sense, under our own vine and fig-tree. Delicious retirement! For my part, I'm sick and tired of the hubbub of Threadneedle Street."
We knocked at the door—for there was really no bell, but a ponderous, old-fashioned, wrought-iron knocker. So deliciously mediæval! The late Graf von Lebenstein had recently died, we knew; and his son, the present Count, a young man of means, having inherited from his mother's family a still more ancient and splendid schloss in the Salzburg district, desired to sell this outlying estate in order to afford himself a yacht, after the manner that is now becoming increasingly fashionable with the noblemen and gentlemen in Germany and Austria.
The door was opened for us by a high well-born menial, attired in a very ancient and honourable livery. Nice antique hall; suits of ancestral armour, trophies of Tyrolese hunters, coats of arms of ancient counts—the very thing to take Amelia's aristocratic and romantic fancy. The whole to be sold exactly as it stood; ancestors to be included at a valuation.
We went through the reception-rooms. They were lofty, charming, and with glorious views, all the more glorious for being framed by those graceful Romanesque windows, with their slender pillars and quaint, round-topped arches.
Sir Charles had made his mind up. "I must and will have it!" he cried. "This is the place for me. Seldon! Pah, Seldon is a modern abomination."
Could we see the high well-born Count? The liveried servant (somewhat haughtily) would inquire of his Serenity.
Sir Charles sent up his card, and also Lady Vandrift's.
These foreigners know title spells money in England.
He was right in his surmise. Two minutes later the Count entered with our cards in his hands. A good-looking young man, with the characteristic Tyrolese long black moustache, dressed in a gentlemanly variant on the costume of the country. His air was a jager's; the usual blackcock's plume stuck jauntily in the side of the conical hat (which he held in his hand), after the universal Austrian fashion.
He waved us to seats. We sat down. He spoke to us in French; his English, he remarked, with a pleasant smile, being a négligeable quantity. We might speak it, he went on; he could understand pretty well; but he preferred to answer, if we would allow him, in French or German.
"French," Charles replied, and the negotiation continued thenceforth in that language. It is the only one, save English and his ancestral Dutch, with which my brother-in-law possesses even a nodding acquaintance.
We praised the beautiful scene. The Count's face lighted up with patriotic pride. Y it was beautiful, beautiful, his es;
own green Tyrol. He was proud of it and attached to it. But he could endure to sell this place, the home of his fathers, because he had a finer in the Salzkammergut, and a piedà-terre near Innsbruck. For Tyrol lacked just one joy—the sea. He was a passionate yachtsman. For that he had resolved to sell this estate; after all, three country houses, a ship, and a mansion in Vienna, are more than one man can comfortably inhabit.
"Exactly," Charles answered. "If I can come to terms with you about this charming estate I shall sell my own castle in the Scotch Highlands." And he tried to look like a proud Scotch chief who harangues his clansmen.
Then they got to business. The Count was a delightful man to do business with. His manners were perfect. While we were talking to him, a surly person, a steward or bailiff, or something of the sort, came into the room unexpectedly and addressed him in German, which none of us understand. We were impressed by the singular urbanity and benignity of the nobleman's demeanour towards this sullen dependant. He evidently explained to the fellow what sort of people we were, and remonstrated with him in a very gentle way for interrupting us. The steward understood, and clearly regretted his insolent air; for after a few sentences he went out, and as he did so he bowed and made protestations of polite regard in his own language. The Count turned to us and smiled. "Our people," he said, "are like your own Scotch peasants—kind-hearted, picturesque, free, musical, poetic, but wanting, hélas, in polish to strangers." He was certainly an exception, if he described them aright; for he made us feel at home from the moment we entered.
He named his price in frank terms. His lawyers at Meran held the needful documents, and would arrange the negotiations in detail with us. It was a stiff sum, I must say— an extremely stiff sum; but no doubt he was charging us a fancy price for a fancy castle. "He will come down in time," Charles said. "The sum first named in all these transactions is invariably a feeler. They know I'm a millionaire; and people always imagine millionaires are positively made of money."
I may add that people always imagine it must be easier to squeeze money out of millionaires than out of other people—which is the reverse of the truth, or how could they ever have amassed their millions? Instead of oozing gold as a tree oozes gum, they mop it up like blotting-paper, and seldom give it out again.
We drove back from this first interview none the less very well satisfied. The price was too high; but preliminaries were arranged, and for the rest, the Count desired us to discuss all details with his lawyers in the chief street, Unter den Lauben. We inquired about these lawyers, and found they were most respectable and respected men; they had done the family business on either side for seven generations.
They showed us plans and title-deeds. Everything quite en régle. Till we came to the price there was no hitch of any sort.
As to price, however, the lawyers were obdurate. They stuck out for the Count's first sum to the uttermost florin. It was a very big estimate. We talked and shilly-shallied till Sir Charles grew angry. He lost his temper at last.
"They know I'm a millionaire, Sey," he said, "and they're playing the old game of trying to diddle me. But I won't be diddled. Except Colonel Clay, no man has ever yet succeeded in bleeding me. And shall I let myself be bled as if I were a chamois among these innocent mountains?
Perish the thought!" Then he reflected a little in silence.
"Sey," he mused on, at last, "the question is, are they innocent? Do you know, I begin to believe there is no such thing left as pristine innocence anywhere. This Tyrolese Count knows the value of a pound as distinctly as if he hung out in Capel Court or Kimberley."
Things dragged on in this way, inconclusively, for a week or two. We bid down; the lawyers stuck to it. Sir Charles grew half sick of the whole silly business. For my own part, I felt sure if the high well-born Count didn't quicken his pace, my respected relative would shortly have had enough of the Tyrol altogether, and be proof against the most lovely of crag-crowning castles. But the Count didn't see it. He came to call on us at our hotel—a rare honour for a stranger with these haughty and exclusive Tyrolese nobles—and even entered unannounced in the most friendly manner. But when it came to L. s. d., he was absolute adamant. Not one kreutzer would he abate from his original proposal.
"Y misunderstand," he said, with pride. "We Tyrolese ou gentlemen are not shopkeepers or merchants. We do not higgle. If we say a thing we stick to it. Were you an Austrian, I should feel insulted by your ill-advised attempt to beat down my price. But as you belong to a great commercial nation—" he broke off with a snort and shrugged his shoulders compassionately.
We saw him several times driving in and out of the schloss, and every time he waved his hand at us gracefully.
But when we tried to bargain, it was always the same thing:
he retired behind the shelter of his Tyrolese nobility. We might take it or leave it. 'Twas still Schloss Lebenstein.
The lawyers were as bad. We tried all we knew, and got no forrarder.
At last Charles gave up the attempt in disgust. He was tiring, as I expected. "It's the prettiest place I ever saw in my life," he said; "but, hang it all, Sey, I won't be imposed upon."
So he made up his mind, it being now December, to return to London. We met the Count next day, and stopped his carriage, and told him so. Charles thought this would have the immediate effect of bringing the man to reason.
But he only lifted his hat, with the blackcock's feather, and smiled a bland smile. "The Archduke Karl is inquiring about it," he answered, and drove on without parley.
Charles used some strong words, which I will not transcribe (I am a family man), and returned to England.
For the next two months we heard little from Amelia save her regret that the Count wouldn't sell us Schloss Lebenstein. Its pinnacles had fairly pierced her heart.
Strange to say, she was absolutely infatuated about the castle. She rather wanted the place while she was there, and thought she could get it; now she thought she couldn't, her soul (if she has one) was wildly set upon it. Moreover, Césarine further inflamed her desire by gently hinting a fact which she had picked up at the courier's table d'hôte at the hotel—that the Count had been far from anxious to sell his ancestral and historical estate to a South African diamond king. He thought the honour of the family demanded, at least, that he should secure a wealthy buyer of good ancient lineage.
One morning in February, however, Amelia returned from the Row all smiles and tremors. (She had been ordered horse-exercise to correct the increasing excessiveness of her figure.) "Who do you think I saw riding in the Park?" she inquired.
"Why, the Count of Lebenstein."
"No!" Charles exclaimed, incredulous.
"Yes," Amelia answered.
"Must be mistaken," Charles cried.