The Challenger

THE city of Basel is a place you stop at and ask for hot coffee and rolls after a long night in the train. You break Italian journeys here, or wait an hour before going on to Lucerne and Interlaken and Chur and St. Moritz. The city of Basel is the gate of Switzerland, and, like most gates, it is entered and easily forgotten. Some tourists, indeed, have strolled out of the station and ventured as far as the bridge that spans the Rhine; a few have climbed to the cathedral; and fewer still have looked at the fine Holbeins in the Museum. They carried away with them the impression of a centre, mediocre and industrious, guarding placidly its sparse mediæval monuments, and possessing the oldest and most comfortable of hotels.

It was on the verandah of this hotel, overlooking the swirl of the river and the monotony of Little Basel, that I met a man to whom the city was something more than a railway junction and a gate for tourists. He had lived there, it appeared, a good many years ago, and he roamed it like a person in a cemetery.

‘ I could n’t go through without stopping,’ he said, ‘though there’s nothing much to stop for; and so I arranged with my wife to meet me here—she’s on her way from Italy.’

He flicked a cigar-ash into the rolling Rhine, and, speaking with the drawling coolness of the Anglo-Saxon, ‘You see a ghost of yourself in every little street,’ he pursued; ‘ I was twenty when I came here — ever been twenty?’

In certain matters I was twenty still. I had got off at Basel because no one else ever gets off; I had lingered because no one else ever lingers.

‘I’ll show you the place — if you can stand my ghosts,’ he offered. ‘Things have n’t altered much; I can find my way.’

And so that afternoon we sauntered out together, and he refreshed his memory; and there were reminiscences of the factory where he had been a clerk, of the university where he had matriculated, of the prison he had escaped. He peopled the cobbled streets with faces, with the curious life that attracts and is attracted by early youth. Here dwelt the man who had swindled him over a bicycle, here the young lady who had sold him cigarettes; or we paused at favorite cafés on whose billiard-tables he had performed, at beerhalls once famous for their waitresses; and in a main thoroughfare we found his hatter, his hosier, his tailor, and the shop where he had eaten fourteen cream-tarts for a wager and felt no worse. It went on pretty much as it had gone on then, a dull and rather unimaginative life in a dull and rather unimaginative city, very puritan, very thrifty, without art or the need of art.

‘They’re a little people,’ he said, ‘and the little peoples—are little. No great height, no great depths. And yet, when one’s been young in a place, it counts; somehow one does n’t forget it. You make your own comedy, your own tragedy, and there’s no limit. It’s up to you.’

I saw nothing of him the next morning, but, later on, he reappeared.

‘ I’ve been mooning about the cathedral and the cloisters,’ he said, ‘and I’ve had a turn in the swimming-bath; let’s dine together if you’ve nothing better to do — I know a place. It’s my last day,’ he added; ‘ I’ve made the most of it.’

A second time we strolled, and beyond an ancient city gate, the slanting roof of which was decorated with green and white tiles, we came to the long road that leads to Alsace, and here, past a training college for missionaries, we drew up at a restaurant with a garden and summer-house and chairs and tables, where one could eat and drink and smoke and pass the evening.

‘This used to be our garden,’ he said, ‘and the restaurant was a villa then. I lived here with a family called Frohlich. They ’re dead and gone and the new owner made the change — You see, there’s the garden — he’s doing well, he says.’

Outdoors, in the open, we ate our meal, and Aveling’s ghosts continued. That was the name on his card —Paul Treacher Aveling.

‘There were the three students and I,’ he pursued, ‘and a cashier in a bank, and an old lady who was divorced — it’s a simple matter in Switzerland. We all lived here and boarded. Old Frohlich had been left the villa; it was too big for the family, so they started a pension in it. He was a man of some position in the university. The salaries are meagre, and he could n’t have kept up the villa without running the pension. I came there because Mrs. Fröhlich was some connection of the people for whom I worked. I was an unpaid clerk — what they call a volunteer — in that factory. My father wanted me to learn French and German and see something of the world, and he was a very good customer to those people, so they accept ed me and made an arrangement with the Frohliehs. We used to sit out here in the summer evenings, the three students with their beer, the ladies with their coffee and sewing, and me wondering what all the talk was about. For, you see, I could n’t understand, and these German Swiss have a dialect which no one can understand for quite a year. I used to sit still and listen and look at Minna Fröhlich. She was the younger of the two girls, seventeen, and just finished with school, and her hair half up and half down — beautiful glossy hair it was, a dark chestnut and very fine. I would have liked to touch it. But there, I could n’t even speak at first. I could only look and wonder, and feel I was n’t a hundredth good enough for her.’

He paused, and I could see them in the evening light, seated round the tables brought out from the summerhouse: the students with their beer; the girls, their mother, and the old lady, each with some small piece of needlework; and this young man who wondered and looked at Minna Fröhlich.

‘I thought those students fine fellows,’ he resumed, ‘especially the two in the white caps and striped badges. They wore colors, they carried ivoryhandled canes carved with the cipher of their corps; they seemed to lead a high and gallant life apart from ours, rising when they pleased, working or not working, and free of a clubhouse where they reveled, swung broadswords, and sang and sat up late. The third student, who was reading divinity, had none of this glamour. It was impossible to figure him as a duelist and carouser. He was poor, he wore an ordinary hat, and even a beard to save the cost of shaving; but he was a kindhearted fellow, and sometimes spoke to me in English or helped me with my attempts at German.

‘When I had been there three months I discovered that the two students were perpetually making fun of me in their atrocious dialect. I don’t quite know how it was I understood, but one evening, sitting in the garden, I fancied they were making fun of me to my face; criticizing my nationality, my personal appearance, my struggles with the language and my accent. They gave imitations and they laughed; perhaps a long impunity had made them overbold. Something of the kind had puzzled me for weeks, and, maybe, I had progressed more than they were aware, or I. It amused the elder girl; I caught the eye of the younger, and there was a look in her face that made a certainty of what I had suspected. In that moment I understood. I could prove nothing; I had no evidence to pin them down on; but I understood. And as it all came clear, a kind of wild joy possessed me. I had always wanted to be a hero waving a sword, to fight blazing duels, to lead a charge of cavalry, to know the glitter and the ring of steel; and here at last I had found my opportunity.

‘I don’t know whether other young men are the same. I am sorry for them if they are not. But a duel at twenty is irresistible. It is one of the few possible adventures left, and there is a glamour in the enterprise, a something fascinating and romantic; and, at that age, I had romance written all over me. I read romantic books, I loved Minna Fröhlich romantically, and, although in the factory I kept a daybook, journal, and ledger, and wrote letters in English, I felt that life would not end there and that one day I should do something brilliant and noble that would put my name on every tongue. What, exactly, I could not say. The aspiration was there, the vast desire. Adolescence, no doubt, nothing but adolescence — and some of my blood is Irish and works loose. Time kills these visions, real enough, all too real, while they endure. Though my cavalry charge was still to seek, here, at length, had come my coveted duel. If those silly students showing off there had but known! I don’t think it ever occurred to them that the silent and harmless young man on yonder side of the table was a hot romantic, ripe for the assault, eager for steel and the clash of it; as much in love with a duel as he was with Minna Fröhlich, and hereby given his opportunity.

‘ My chivalry was equal to the occasion. I chose the larger and the wittier one. Yes, I would challenge him, and, though I had never handled a broadsword in my life, I would fight him with that, his own weapon.

‘“Herr Grieder, may I have a word with you—alone?” I interrupted them.

‘He understood me. “Certainly,” he answered, and came with me to the end of the garden — just there,’ said Aveling, pointing with his stick to a place where the graveled path skirted the villa and gave on to the street.

‘That’s the very spot. He leaned against the house, and we were on that path. I explained matters as best I could, and he neither denied nor admitted that he had insulted me openly, before those ladies.

‘“At home I would thrash you with a whip,” I ended, “ but in this country I am willing to fight a duel.” I was superbly courteous.

‘He grasped my meaning. “You are a clerk,” he answered; “a student does not fight a duel with a clerk.” He bowed and left me.

‘I was speechless. I had never expected this. A moment later I heard a shout of laughter from the garden. He had returned to the others and had revealed to them my insolent challenge, that I, a clerk, had ventured to call him out.

‘To-day, perhaps, I would have used other weapons and swallowed my craving for romance. But I was twenty, and with those ladies in the garden, and especially Minna, I was determined to do nothing that was not chivalrous and fine. No, I would not hit him, though I ached to do so; though it was human nature and the way I had been trained. Instead, I walked the streets and thought it out. At lust I had it. I would become a student, too. I too would wear a colored cap and badge and carry an ivory-handled cane of ebony, and sport a ribbon round my chest and quaff beer and belong to a corps. I would fight him on his own ground and in his own manner. Nothing should be wanting. My chivalry carried me along, my quixotism; it was a search for the ideal, and I reveled in it. Romance, of course — sheer unadulterated romance. This duel had come, eluded me, but now I had it fast. I roamed the streets and worked it out.

‘The garden was all dark on my return, and, instead of going indoors, I went toward the summer-house. Some instinct led me there; or perhaps it was because I wanted to smoke a last cigarette. I lit my match, and discovered Minna. The light showed me her face, her eyes. The light went out.

“’I do not wish you to think too badly of us,” she said, “that we are all like that. I have waited here to say it to you.”

‘She spoke so slowly, so firmly; and I understood. I found her hand, and she let me kiss it, let it rest in mine.

‘“If you leave us,” she said, “you will not think too badly of us.”

‘“I will not leave you; I will never leave you,” I answered.

‘“But, after that,” she began.

“‘I am going to join the other students’ corps—the red Helvetians.”

‘I had made my effect. I had taken her breath away. I was magnanimous and splendid. Does it matter whether she gave me her hand once more or whether she did n’t? It all happened in this garden — in that summer-house — out here — twenty or more years ago. I have never known a freshness such as hers, youth like hers. It was like holding flowers; it was the stuff of radiant dreams. I get the scent of the summer night over again, and she moving away from me like a spirit and leaving me out there to wonder whether it is true — whether it is really I—whether it was really she. Seventeen — little girls should be looked after more carefully when they are seventeen.

‘I had a good allowance, enough to keep me in comfort as a student. I had to win my father’s consent to the change, and I suppose I lied a little. He was a plain, straightforward man, easy-going as a rule, but unforgiving when deceived. I deceived him. I had lost all taste for business, I wrote home, and I wished to study medicine, here in Basel. I made it medicine because I had to make it something, and doctoring attracted me more than the rest. The divinity student helped me in all these matters. He was on my side; he told me so at the first opportunity; and a divinity studezit is the last person to shrink from a little purposeful casuistry. I obtained my father’s consent after he had challenged my seriousness. As I wrote to him then, I had never been more serious in my life. He must put up with it, he answered, if I really felt that way, although he had rather counted on me in the business, which would be a soft thing, a ready-made thing, for me — most young fellows would jump at my chances. He warned me, he put it clearly, so that there could be no mistake. He, good fellow, was not a romantic, and I knew it. He would have had no sympathy with my duel; but he would have been entirely with me if I had taken a horsewhip and applied it there and then. I had to deceive him, and I did. I have always tried to feel sorry for that part of the game; but these things are beyond us; they lie in one’s nature, in one’s destiny, in that part of one’s life that is shaped for us, that makes itself.

‘Six months later I matriculated. It was evidence of hard work; and now, I fancy, my father really became interested. The divinity student had coached me and was proud of me. So were the older Fröhlichs. The University was a shining light to them, and all t hat escaped its rays inferior metal. From pewter I had turned to silver, from brass to sovereign gold. These academic people have a snobbery of their own, more comic than vulgar. For, inside of me, I was the same. But outside I wore the bright red cap of the corps Helvetia, its stripes, its ribbons, its badges. I had become a personage. The white caps were the Zofingia, and hardly ranked with us. We were such notorious blood-letters! With the white caps a duel was optional; with us enforced. We were a small corps but famous,and even took our broadswords into Germany and met the fiercest blades of Heidelberg or Munich, of all the south.

‘I had the whole apparatus of revenge: the smartest colors, a fightingground, and equal or superior rank. No one except Minna and the divinity student suspected me. The two white caps had forgotten their offense and treated me now with an ironic respect. The older girl thought me a little mad; and perhaps she was right. There was a salt in the air in those days, a savor; you catch it now in a moment of sudden zest; a passing resurgence, that mocks you with some afterglow of youth, that sets you wondering whether it is forever gone. After a hard hour’s sport, for instance; or a something in a woman’s face — you have your moment of illusion. Then it was reality, permanent, and as though invulnerably secure. You were rich beyond dreams.

How we dreamed — Minna and I! The future was one long fulfillment, I its hero, she its queen. Looking backward, I know her as she was, woman at the heart of her and asking little else than love and children and a home. That was her romance — to give herself to these. No vagueness, and little of idle sentiment. The women grow that way out here, and, in all probability, they are right. I did n’t see it then as I see it now. I saw what I looked to see. It was enough.

‘There was a brother Helvetian, one Burckhardt, who gave me my first lessons with a sword. He had a wrist of steel, and the strokes would rain down on the cage that enclosed my head. The student’s weapon, as the students use it, delivers a shower of blows. Once you have begun, there is no pause, and, if you hesitate, the fight is over, your cheek laid open or your cranium. I got the hang of it, and even some skill, before I returned to my friend the white cap and told him exactly why I had become a student.

‘One afternoon I knocked at his door knowing he was inside. He looked up blandly and quite unsuspecting. He erred on the fat side and was tall and would grow pompous.

‘I brought my heels together and made my bow. “You declined my challenge last summer,” I said, “because I was a clerk. Now I am no longer a clerk and you can accept it.”

‘“But. I thought that was all forgotten and over,” he said.

‘“I have not forgotten, and it is by no means over,” I replied.

‘“But this is too ridiculous,” he said.

‘“It is so ridiculous that I have thrown up one career and am playing with another.”

‘“Is — is that the reason you left the factory?”

‘It had dawned upon him at last.

‘ “It is the one and only reason.”

‘He had nothing more to say, apparently.

‘“And now you will meet me according to your corps rules and mine — when?” I prompted him.

“‘Is this necessary?” he asked.

‘“It is so necessary that if you do not fight I will have to treat you as I would treat — a clerk.”

‘“Good, I will let you have my answer,” he replied.

‘ “You will receive a very bad insult, in public, unless it comes promptly,” said I.

‘ “Before Miss Minna, for instance?” he sneered.

‘“Before several ladies — that is how you yourself arrange such matters.”

‘I left him, and, instead of meeting my challenge, the wretched fellow went to old Frohlich. I was a swashbuckling foreigner, he said, who wished to make trouble in the house. If I wanted a duel, why could I not seek some one outside? It was not that he was afraid, but he did not think it wise that there should be duels between t he pensionnaires. Nor did old Frohlich. He spoke to me very kindly, quite paternally. I had been insulted? It was so long ago, and, after all, the Swiss were not like the Germans, who made a great point of what they called honor.

H could not discuss the question. The fellow should fight his duel. I left the matter to my friend Bnrckhardt, who reported that the white cap had declined to fight because it was, “against his principles.”’

Aveling had paused and ordered fresh supplies of beer. Lights were shining from the villa that was now a restaurant. One heard the click of the billiard-balls and saw the players move against the open windows. The waiter began a round of illumination when he had done with us.

‘Pros’t,’ said Aveling, holding aloft his mug.

‘ What about that student ? ’ I asked.

‘I thrashed him. I beat him with his own stick, with my fists, with my open hand. I beat him till I was sick and disgusted; and when I was done with him, I started on the second white cap, who was kind enough to run away. I had just seen Burckhardt, and I came upon them hot, in this garden. They were going out together. I met them in the place where the big one had carried his despicable point last summer. He made no resistance. He seemed held down by fear. Under all the swagger and gilt of him he was the most abject coward I have ever known. And the other one, who ran away, except for that faint glimmer of reason, was just as bad. Between them, with their ivory-handled canes, they ought to have broken my head open. It was n’t very nice of me; it was neither chivalrous nor romantic, nor any of the other things upon which I had plumed and prided myself. It was sheer savagery. But after all those months, and all those visions and manipulations — to have the bottom knocked out of my scheme like that! I suppose I reverted to myself, to the natural human man in me who all this time had been obscured. Why had n’t I thrashed him at first and been done with him? It would have been wiser; it would have saved us all a deal of trouble.

‘The first effect of this castigation was that old Fröhlich kicked me out. The other student, who ran away, had alarmed the whole household. I was, so to speak, caught red-handed, and dismissed red-handed; and nobody made more fuss than the elderly divorcée. You have forgotten her? I never will. The row she made! She had watched it all from her bedroom window, and Herr Grieder was a gentleman and I was not. No gentleman would use his fists; that was good for butchers’ assistants, for common people; and if she had n’t seen it, with her own eyes! — Herr Grieder slunk off. I was left alone in this garden with that eloquent female and Professor Fröhlich who kicked me out. I remember Minna and her sister in the background, vague shapes in that blur of passion. I was heated and roused. I felt like taking all the whitecapped students in Switzerland and bashing their heads together. By the evening I had packed my trunks and was out of the villa. I went to a small hotel near here, one of those opposite, that face the Rhine. The divinity student found me out there with a note from Minna. I was to be prosecuted for assault and battery; I would be fined and sent to prison — they mixed both punishments — unless, for there was an alternative — unless I apologized to the two students, which she knew I would never do, and must not do — not even for her sake, she ended. That was impossible — unmöglich.

‘I met her secretly, behind the cathedral, in the cloisters. Go there one day, and you will find a quiet, a coolness, a remoteness from the busy world below. Sometimes a tourist comes, but nobody of Basel. You have those stone arcades to yourself, the mural tablets, with their scutcheons of the patrician families that once ruled here. Half a dozen times I met her there, and then a warrant was out for me and I had to scamper; for I had declined to apologize, and I was not going to prison, and I would not pay a fine. Those two rascally students should have no such satisfaction. I crossed the frontier into Germany and snapped my fingers at them.

‘I went to a little place called Lorrach on the edge of the Black Forest, a dull hole and a lonely, except when Minna escaped and met me on the frontier. These visits ceased; they caught her, and she was sent away to an aunt who lived in one of the French towns. I might have followed her; but now my father stepped in too, and there were ructions. I had deceived him, he began; he had heard all about my goings on from one of my former business principals, the one who was some connection of Mrs. Fröhlich. I had brawled and fought and got entangled with the Professor’s daughter, a child of seventeen; and my reason for giving up business was not that I wanted to study medicine, as I had persuaded him, but that I wanted to fight a duel. And now I had fought with my fists and the police were after me and I had cleared the country. What did I mean by it ? he asked. I had disgraced him and myself — there were several pages of it. He had his story from a Swiss source, seen their way, not mine. He was pretty hard on me and I was in no mood for argument. We quarreled. We quarreled so bitterly that over went my allowance. I think I rejected it — I was fool enough for anything. I would make my own way, I thundered. “Well, make it,” said he. I was raw from failure, from the loss of Minna Fröhlich — raw all over.

My father and I parted, and for six years we had no word. I wrote to Minna, and there was no answer. I wrote again, with the same result. They had put an effectual stopper on that. The bottom had tumbled out of my world! I had to make another.

‘I sometimes think that these things have to be. A man, in the end, will express himself and not the wishes of his father. I was never really cut out for commerce; as a student I was ridiculous. I came home. I spoke English once again; I was frightened at first, so many times I went near to utter shipwreck; but I held out; my craving for romance sustained me and upheld me. I owe it something. Your true romantic is flexible and as if made of India-rubber. I could not be broken, and so at last they let me in. I’ve made some kind of a reputation—journalism, law, politics — they lead to one another. My father was reconciled to me when he saw that I could stand without his help and had found my feet. It took me a good many years.’

Aveling had paused, and his words had obliterated the garden and all the little life of this Swiss city, roused by him into a sudden and transient animation. He had stepped out of Basel into the bigger and more passionate worlds beyond. He sat there, silent, as though looking backward on the throes and mists of a career.

‘It all came about because you had that row here,’ I suggested.

4 If it had n’t been for that row — yes, I’ve often wondered what, precisely, would have happened.’

‘And Miss Fröhlich?’ I asked.

‘She married a very good husband and lives now at Rorschach on the Lake of Constance. She wrote to me a long time afterwards, to my father’s address, when she became engaged. She was free to write then, she said, and she owed me some explanation.’

‘And you?’

‘I congratulated her. I hardly had the money to buy the stamp —I was out of a job at the time, counting on a better one which I had just missed.’