with a book in her hand, which, however, she did not read. However much effort she made, she was unable to force her thoughts to occupy themselves with what was read and not their[ 57 ]to follow your own path; with exasperating obstinacy they kept returning to a point, to the past which she thought dead and buried for good, and which now suddenly forced itself alive and vigorous in her mind again.
In vain she occupied herself with other things, trying to distract herself with thoughts of her household, of her husband, of little Albert, of the approaching war; no matter how hard she tried, they always turned to Robert again and again. It was Robert, now standing before her like an unfathomable riddle, now threatening her with his glowing eyes or dissolving himself in a haze.
Would the sight of that evening, by the dancing light of the torches, and the silver gleam of the moon, have been but a vision! Oh, if it were so! but then she pressed her hand to her heart and shuddered; could it be that this heart beat gladly and gaily only at the thought that the friend of her youth dwelt near her? She thought back to Amsterdam and relived those hours full of unspeakable happiness when she walked with him through the garden of Amstelvreugd, and he once prayed for her forgiveness when he had done something wrong or assured her that she was his good angel, the joy and happiness, hope and support of his life. How could his eyes rest upon her with glow, that memory alone made her tremble with a feeling of bliss and happiness!
And she was married and she could still think of such memories with pleasure; oh shame! How deep she had fallen and again she picked up the book, the Sea and Land Voyages of Nieuwhoff, who had visited Java twenty years ago; recently she took pleasure in comparing his remarks with reality, why did she now find them so insignificant and unimportant?[ 58 ]
She was alone at home; her husband had to attend a party, Albert had not returned yet, she regretted not having brought Petronella van Hoorn with her; her insignificant talk might perhaps provide a distraction from that agonizing struggle, and at the same time she found herself feeling a sense of joy at being alone, not having to endure the torment of being forced to listen to puny conversations, because she could now be silent. and thinking. Think, no, she was not allowed to do that, and it was the only thing that enlightened her and also tormented her, for there were two persons in Digna’s soul, the one who only thought of the past and lived through the days of the past again, the other who swore a life-and-death struggle on these memories.
Wearily she leaned back with closed eyes, the delicate hands holding the book that rested on her lap only a little longer; her lips moved gently, almost imperceptibly.
“My God! assist me! Help me to conquer my thoughts, the battle is so hard, I want to be Mark’s faithful wife in word and deed, not only in thought, but also in thought. Give me the strength to break the bond that still clings me to the past.”
“Digna,” said a muffled, half-whispering voice.
With a violent jolt the young woman rose to her feet, her eyes looking horrified, where they perceived a well-known figure; Robert was wearing the Company’s soldier’s clothes, but neater and more orderly than those he wore the last time.
“Do you still recognize me?” he asked, lowering his eyes.
“You have not done well to come here, Robert,” she replied, “you know that I am married and that the past no longer exists for me.”[ 59 ]
“You didn’t need to remember me, madam! I know what wide gulf separates the wife of the chief of justice from the common soldier, whose name she still deigns to remember.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, trembling and looking for support at the table.
“Are you still asking? To see you, to hear your voice, to delight me in the sight of your beauty, your high rank, to lament or despise myself more afterwards, I know not what more I deserve.”
“You owe contempt to your own work; complaint thou hast voluntarily thrust from thee, if thou confessest deserving contempt.”
“Do you know all that you dare to speak like that?”
“I know much, and it was not through you that I came to know it, as it was my right.”
“Yes, your betrothed had a right to know why she was abandoned by you.”
“Yea, thou hast forsaken me, me who yet partook of thy sorrow, after hearing from strangers what blow had befallen thee; you have given me no opportunity to comfort you and to….”
“Make hope, is that what you mean, Digna?”
“Let us be silent about what could have been, Robert. Now all is over; we have both chosen our way, nothing remains for us but to follow it wherever God may lead it. We are dead to each other, you willed it, not I.”
“O Digna, do not make me more miserable!”
He took her hand, she withdrew it with a movement full of terror, and said :[ 60 ]
“Do not come near me, do not forget for a moment what abyss divides us; on that condition I will hear you, otherwise I call my slaves to have you removed.”
“Oh God, has it come to this with me!” and he threw himself on one of the chairs and let his head fall on the table in despair, ‘spurred away like a thief, a vagabond, a dog! Who could have predicted it to me when we last saw each other, and we had almost set our wedding day?”
Digna folded her hands on her chest; she felt ashamed of her beauty, her prosperity, her standing in society, perhaps even her immaculate virtue towards the poor creature who already bore the mark of fierce passions, of sin and guilt on his youthful countenance. Yet she remained silent, not a word of pity escaped her mouth, and he continued:
“You don’t know what hell I live in, Digna, and still less can you guess what hell I carry around in myself! Yes, I have left you without a word, without a greeting, but was it not my duty, when I knew that I was no longer my father’s lawful son and heir, but an outcast without name and without money, should I not put the breadth of the earth between me and the maiden who had promised me allegiance? She would soon enough know what separated me from her, and I was spared the unspeakable baseness that I dared to think of deriving any more rights from the word once given to me. Robert van Reijn was no more, the other Robert was no longer allowed to touch the sole of Digna Tak’s foot, that only remained clear to me after that terrible night, which I may have concluded with a murder.”
“At least you’ve been spared that,” said Digna, and a shadow [ 61 ]a smile formed on her lips. “Nothing has suffered from the blow you inflicted on Cousin Hendrik, but his nasal bone, which is broken and does not embellish it. But don’t you think, Robert, of what I had to suffer when your hypocritical uncle…”
“He isn’t anymore or rather he never was.”
“When Lord Gerard van Reijn and his family piled up the lowest accusations against you and my stepfather advised thank God that I was saved in time from marrying you?”
“And you yourself, Digna, have you also thanked the Lord that he has averted that blow?”
“I prayed to Him for the poor bum.”
She added not how many bitter tears she had shed to regret that she was not already his wife, who had the right to share her wealth with him, and to accompany him wherever he wished to go, as his faithful companion.
“So you did not think of me with wrath and disgust, so you were not ashamed that you had loved a poor bastard unknowingly?”
“I am ashamed of nothing in which there is no evil.”
“And does your husband know everything?”
“I told him everything!”
“Are you happy?”
“I am doing my duty.”
“I ask if you are happy.”
“Can there be happiness other than in the performance of duty?”
“Duty, I hate nothing more than duty!”
“That’s why you’re so unhappy, Robert! You do everything to tear yourself away from the past, but first you must deal with it; do you think that I have not suffered bitterly and bitterly,[ 62 ]before I could come to choose a fate other than that in which I saw my only happiness for years?”
“Do you remember that and you are not ashamed of it?”
“Ashamed of my first, my pure love. How can you ask that, Robert! For you have forsaken me!”
“Say that word no more, Digna, I forsake you, how dare I?”
‘You doubted my love, about my loyalty, you thought that I loved the rich merchant’s son of Reijn, and I only loved Robert. When the blow struck you, it was with me that you should come first to let me decide our future.”
“O God, your love could have saved me and I gave it up, so I fell into the abyss.”
‘I can no longer give you that love, Robert. It’s almost a shame to call her, but I’m free to give you something else if you like it.”
“And what is that, Digna, everything that comes from you is worth so much, so infinitely to me.”
“My esteem, Robert.”
He turned his face away and laughed bitterly.
“Respect, what is respect, if you knew how people live, where I am now, if you knew how I wandered, before wretched soul sellers and recruiters dragged me hither, if you knew…”
“I don’t want to know anything, Robert! Nothing. I only know that there is no crime so great and abominable, but God will forgive us if we throw ourselves repentantly at his feet. Will you do that, Robert!”
“God has cast me out like my father…”
“That is a wicked blasphemy. I don’t want to hear it anymore!” her voice sounded so firm again and decidedly as before, when[ 63 ]they could subdue the savage, indomitable lad by a gesture, a word, “promise me that you will humble your heart before God, and daily pray from him the strength to conquer your evil passions.”
“It won’t help,” he sighed.
“Have you already done it? Furthermore, you must do your duty; no more sin, no more transgression of God’s law you may commit. I forbid you! Soon the war will start, you will have to fight for the honor of the Dutch flag, you will make the power of our homeland known to the inhabitants of Java, you will teach them how we can be strict but also just. A glorious task awaits you, Robert! Much you can make up for by bravery and faithfulness; do not reject that opportunity, arise from your wretched state, who knows how much fame and happiness await you, while otherwise nothing more threatens you but an early death full of dishonor and shame!”
“O Digna, could I hear your voice daily!”
“Leave now! Robert, leave! Night falls, it may be the last we’ve seen each other. Let us now return to our duty, all that remains to us from the shipwreck of our happiness. We have chosen that duty ourselves.”
“Not me, I was cheated, sold without knowing it.”
“Then it is a fate that surely befell you righteously, a chastisement that you bear patiently. I must dedicate myself to my husband and his child. Thou hast the fatherland!”
“What ails me the fatherland? Are these brown men, my father’s compatriots, not much more my brothers than the white Dutchmen? What prevents me from making common cause with them?”[ 64 ]
“Your duty and your oath, Robert; let me now give you up the task which you must perform to regain my esteem? There in the east of Java reigns a usurper, a tyrant, it is he who gave death to my noble father, it is he who opposes our power over Java; he was once a slave, through a confluence of puzzling circumstances he was able to make it king. The Company will put him in a war to the death, wipe out his authority. There has never been a fairer war. Distinguish yourself in this battle, come back as a valiant warrior, with the consciousness of having avenged the death of my father on his murderer, on the oppressor of the Javanese people, on the slave-king.”
The soft, tender Digna seemed transformed into a heroine, so did her eyes twinkle, so her voice trembled with rapture; she now felt herself mistress again, she had found peace with her own mind.
“I will obey you, Digna,” he replied humbly, “may I kiss your hand?”
“Not yet, when you have returned from the war and become a different man.”
“If I fall, Digna, will you think of me in friendship and peace?”
“I shall be convinced that thou art fallen like a hero worthy of my esteem and admiration.”
“And will you pray for me, you may!”
“I promise you, and now farewell! May God grant you courage and confidence, Robert!”
A slave girl came rushing out of the house.
“Ma’am, the Noble Lord has come home sick in a palanquin.”
Without looking at the soldier again, Digna flew away [ 65 ]home, and so she did not notice how Robert was leaving the way he had come, through the bed of the river.
He crept on through the bushes until he came to a bridge that crossed the water and gave access to another estate. No trace of life was to be seen anywhere, and he knew where the gate was that led out; in the dark he thought he could find it, but to his horror he found it closed; he rattled it, and probably his powerful fingers had succeeded in yanking the lock open, when suddenly two men shot at him from behind the undergrowth and threw him to the ground.
“Now we have the thief!” said one of them, whose peculiar pronunciation of the Malay betrayed the Chinese, “I thought he would be such a wretched soldier. Grab him, coolie, we’ll transfer him to the guardhouse this evening. He has been impunity long enough, that scoundrel!”
Robert defended himself desperately; with his manpower he threw off the slender figure of the Chinese, and now wrestled with the Javanese, whom he also soon had under foot, but the Chinese let out a sharp whistle and almost immediately a dozen men rushed on the single one. who defended himself so furiously.
They threw him to the ground, gagged him, and, in spite of his fervent assurances of innocence, carried him away from the yard to the city.
Meanwhile Digna had rushed home in great terror, and found her husband lying pale and with closed eyes on a couch; when she came in he looked up at her and stretched out his hand with a smile.[ 66 ]
“It’s nothing, an attack of my disease, that’s all,” he said, “it’s much better now, but I thought it more careful to be carried home than to ride; with a little rest I shall soon be myself again. Don’t worry, dear Digna, it’s no big deal.”
Indeed, the attack was not serious. Digna tried as much as she could to give him some relief, but what he needed above all else was rest.
“I was going to tell him my meeting with Robert,” thought Digna, “but it would shock him too much now. I will wait until he is better, but then I will confess everything to him.”
She felt wonderfully light this evening; the battle in her mind had ended; she knew now that she herself had the strength to do her duty, now that she had been able to lift up the friend of her youth in his own eyes and show him the way to his moral cure.
She was so convinced that she had done her duty that she feared not to confess anything to Markus; only the thought of his sickly condition held her back.
“I’m sorry, the confession would have come so lightly to me,” she said to herself. Busy activities left her little time to think this evening. Not only that she had to take care of her husband, Albert also came home; she must hear the excited tale of his enjoyment, undress the lad and put him to bed.
When she finally lay down to rest, after having convinced herself that Markus had now gone to sleep calmly and without pain, she imagined with joy how Robert too would now rest more reconciled with himself and make the best resolutions for the future. She did not suspect how her friend, in a[ 67 ]locked up under the Batavian Town Hall, his sad fate cursed, and could only recall with a curse on her lips and rage in her heart the past afternoon, the memory of which filled her with so much sweet calm and self-satisfaction.