Poor Schumann! Once again he was ensnared by what he thought was love. The "affair" advanced apace, and in the early part of the year 1834 he was definitely betrothed to her in accordance with all customary German ceremonial.
With sad, anxious eyes, however, Clara watched this infatuation as it grew. Child though she was, she loved Schumann. He was the one being who could make her life complete; she knew it. And it was very hard for her to stand and wait while another woman, whom she felt to be unworthy of him, robbed her of happiness. It dulled the keen edge of her worldly triumphs.
Of this Schumann knew nothing. He regarded Clara merely as a child, and he treated her as though he were an elder brother. But she was more to him even than a sister. His inner self betrayed its secret, and Clara knew that of which even he himself was ignorant. She knew that really he loved her. " I often think of you," he once wrote to her, " not as a brother of his sister, not merely in friendship, but rather as a pilgrim thinking of a distant shrine." Clara could read the true meaning of such words; she saw that between her heart and his there was some divine, mysterious understanding. Gradually, moreover, and quite unconsciously, Schumann selected this child as a standard by which to judge other women. By her he judged Ernestine. And for Ernestine the test was too severe. What he had thought to be her virtues he soon saw existed mainly in his own imagination. She was not an interesting girl. Her letters were illiterate and insincere. They jarred upon his senses. And for the thousand little deceptions which she practised on him he could not forgive her.
Thus as her influence began to wane, his friendship with Clara ripened into a closer bond. He kept "mental trysts" with her, and his letters - they tell their own tale. They are not the letters of a "brother."
"I long to catch butterflies to be messengers to you," he wrote on one occasion. ' I thought of getting my letters posted in Paris, so as to arouse your curiosity and make you believe I was there. In short, a great many quaint notions come into my head, and have only just been dispersed by a postilion's horn."
But it was not only her skill which fascinated him; her person also delighted him. He learned to love her very dearly. "Your letter," he wrote in reply to one of her childlike effusions, "was yourself all over. You stood before me laughing and talking; rushing from fun to earnest, as usual; diplomatically playing with your veil. In short, the letter was Clara herself, her double."
The sequel was inevitable. Nothing could prevent it, and Ernestine made no endeavour to do so. Indeed, the erstwhile lovers agreed mutually to break the engagement. Ernestine bore no malice towards Schumann; she remained always on terms of closest friendship with him. ' I always believed," she told him later, " that you could love Clara alone, and still believe it." A more gracious action no woman could have done.
But to break an engagement in Germany is a serious undertaking. There were innumerable formalities to be complied with, and it was January, 1836, before Schumann was free to seek the hand of a girl whom, if ever such things are predestined, the Fates long ago had chosen for his wife.
But the pompous tardiness of legal methods Schumann could not tolerate. His love refused to be restrained, and so early as the previous November he poured into Clara's eager ears the story of his hopes and dreams. It was November 25; he had called on the Wiecks to say farewell, for, on the following day, he was leaving Leipsic.
But all the evening he had eyes for nothing save Clara; his ears heard nothing but her voice; his senses were conscious only of her presence. And then, when he rose to go, Clara rose also, and walked with him to the door, carrying in her hand a lamp to light him down the steps. Schumann could restrain himself no longer. He seized her in his arms, and the long slumbering embers of love burst into flame.
"When you gave me that first kiss," she told him later, "then I felt myself near swooning. Before my eyes it grew black. . . . The lamp I brought to light you I could hardly hold." Indeed, she did not hold it, she dropped it. That night love almost fired a house.
For a while the lovers kept their secret to themselves. But in February, Schumann proposed formally to seek her hand.
Then the trouble began. On no conditions would the old man sanction the engagement. He was obdurate. Wieck was proud of his daughter, and also was ambitious for her. At one time, perhaps, he would have welcomed Schumann as a son-in-law, but now he could not; he was anxious to find a greater man to share his daughter's life. Schumann could not hope to earn either fame or money as a pianist, for his right hand had been crippled by constant practising; it was now almost useless to him. And his reputation as a composer was yet to be established.
Prayers, and entreaties likewise, were of no avail. Wieck was deaf to reason. "If Clara marries Schumann," he declared on more than one occasion, " I will say it even on my death-bed, she is not worthy of being my daughter." He made the girl promise, moreover, never to see again the man she loved. And Clara gave him her promise. What else could the poor child do ? In Germany the conditions of filial independence are different, very different, from those which exist in England. Besides, Clara was a dutiful daughter; she was devoted to her father.
Months of hideous anguish, therefore, followed the paternal ultimatum, months of torment. The girl strove hard to be true to the promise she had made, and her lover tried to help her. Not a word passed between them, not a message, save such as Schumann could convey in his compositions, and Clara in her playing. And messages such as these each sought devotedly. Adversity did not strangle their love; it nurtured it.