"This is a case of burglary: to say the truth, I thought it would amuse you," said the Prince.
"I have no practical experience," she replied, "but O! the good-will! I have broken a work-box in my time, and several hearts, my own included. Never a house! But it cannot be difficult; sins are so unromantically easy! What are we to break?"
"Madam, we are to break the treasury," said Otto; and he sketched to her briefly, wittily, with here and there a touch of pathos, the story of his visit to the farm, of his promise to buy it, and of the refusal with which his demand for money had been met that morning at the council; concluding with a few practical words as to the treasury windows, and the helps and hindrances of the proposed exploit.
"They refused you the money," she said when he had done. "And you accepted the refusal? Well!"
"They gave their reasons," replied Otto, colouring. "They were not such as I could combat; and I am driven to dilapidate the funds of my own country by a theft. It is not dignified; but it is fun."
"Fun," she said; "yes." And then she remained silently plunged in thought for an appreciable time. "How much do you require?" she asked at length.
"Three thousand crowns will do," he answered, "for I have still some money of my own."
"Excellent," she said, regaining her levity. "I am your true accomplice. And where are we to meet?"
"You know the Flying Mercury," he answered, "in the Park? Three pathways intersect; there they have made a seat and raised the statue. The spot is handy and the deity congenial."
"Child," she said, and tapped him with her fan. "But do you know, my Prince, you are an egoist—your handy trysting-place is miles from me. You must give me ample time; I cannot, I think, possibly be there before two. But as the bell beats two, your helper shall arrive: welcome, I trust. Stay—do you bring anyone?" she added. "O, it is not for a chaperon—I am not a prude!"
"I shall bring a groom of mine," said Otto. "I caught him stealing corn."
"His name?" she asked.
"I profess I know not. I am not yet intimate with my corn-stealer," returned the Prince. "It was in a professional capacity——"
"Like me! Flatterer!" she cried. "But oblige me in one thing. Let me find you waiting at the seat—yes, you shall await me; for on this expedition it shall be no longer Prince and Countess, it shall be the lady and the squire—and your friend the thief shall be no nearer than the fountain. Do you promise?"
"Madam, in everything you are to command; you shall be captain, I am but supercargo," answered Otto.
"Well, Heaven bring all safe to port!" she said. "It is not Friday!"
Something in her manner had puzzled Otto, had possibly touched him with suspicion.
"Is it not strange," he remarked, "that I should choose my accomplice from the other camp?"
"Fool!" she said. "But it is your only wisdom that you know your friends." And suddenly, in the vantage of the deep window, she caught up his hand and kissed it with a sort of passion. "Now go," she added, "go at once."
He went, somewhat staggered, doubting in his heart that he was over-bold. For in that moment she had flashed upon him like a jewel; and even through the strong panoply of a previous love he had been conscious of a shock. Next moment he had dismissed the fear.
Both Otto and the Countess retired early from the drawing-room, and the Prince, after an elaborate feint, dismissed his valet, and went forth by the private passage and the back postern in quest of the groom.
Once more the stable was in darkness, once more Otto employed the talismanic knock, and once more the groom appeared and sickened with terror.
"Good-evening, friend," said Otto pleasantly. "I want you to bring a corn sack—empty this time—and to accompany me. We shall be gone all night."
"Your Highness," groaned the man, "I have the charge of the small stables. I am here alone."
"Come," said the Prince, "you are no such martinet in duty." And then seeing that the man was shaking from head to foot, Otto laid a hand upon his shoulder. "If I meant you harm," he said, "should I be here?"
The fellow became instantly reassured. He got the sack; and Otto led him round by several paths and avenues, conversing pleasantly by the way, and left him at last planted by a certain fountain where a goggle-eyed Triton spouted intermittently into a rippling laver. Thence he proceeded alone to where, in a round clearing, a copy of Gian Bologna's Mercury stood tiptoe in the twilight of the stars. The night was warm and windless. A shaving of new moon had lately arisen; but it was still too small and too low down in heaven to contend with the immense host of lesser luminaries; and the rough face of the earth was drenched with starlight. Down one of the alleys, which widened as it receded, he could see a part of the lamplit terrace where a sentry silently paced, and beyond that a corner of the town with interlacing street-lights. But all around him the young trees stood mystically blurred in the dim shine; and in the stock-still quietness the upleaping god appeared alive.
In this dimness and silence of the night, Otto's conscience became suddenly and staringly luminous, like the dial of a city clock. He averted the eyes of his mind, but the finger, rapidly travelling, pointed to a series of misdeeds that took his breath away. What was he doing in that place? The money had been wrongly squandered, but that was largely by his own neglect. And he now proposed to embarrass the finances of this country which he had been too idle to govern. And he now proposed to squander the money once again, and this time for a private, if a generous end. And the man whom he had reproved for stealing corn he was now to set stealing treasure. And then there was Madame von Rosen, upon whom he looked down with some of that ill-favoured contempt of the chaste male for the imperfect woman. Because he thought of her as one degraded below scruples, he had picked her out to be still more degraded, and to risk her whole irregular establishment in life by complicity in this dishonourable act. It was uglier than a seduction.
Otto had to walk very briskly and whistle very busily; and when at last he heard steps in the narrowest and darkest of the alleys, it was with a gush of relief that he sprang to meet the Countess. To wrestle alone with one's good angel is so hard! and so precious, at the proper time, is a companion certain to be less virtuous than oneself!
It was a young man who came towards him—a young man of small stature and a peculiar gait, wearing a wide flapping hat, and carrying, with great weariness, a heavy bag. Otto recoiled; but the young man held up his hand by way of signal, and coming up with a panting run, as if with the last of his endurance, laid the bag upon the ground, threw himself upon the bench, and disclosed the features of Madame von Rosen.
"You, Countess!" cried the Prince.
"No, no," she panted, "the Count von Rosen—my young brother. A capital fellow. Let him get his breath."
"Ah, madam ..." said he.
"Call me Count," she returned, "respect my incognito."
"Count be it, then," he replied. "And let me implore that gallant gentleman to set forth at once on our enterprise."
"Sit down beside me here," she returned, patting the farther corner of the bench. "I will follow you in a moment. O, I am so tired—feel how my heart leaps! Where is your thief?"
"At his post," replied Otto. "Shall I introduce him? He seems an excellent companion."
"No," she said, "do not hurry me yet. I must speak to you. Not but I adore your thief; I adore anyone who has the spirit to do wrong. I never cared for virtue till I fell in love with my Prince." She laughed musically. "And even so, it is not for your virtues," she added.
Otto was embarrassed. "And now," he asked, "if you are anyway rested?"
"Presently, presently. Let me breathe," she said, panting a little harder than before.
"And what has so wearied you?" he asked. "This bag? And why, in the name of eccentricity, a bag? For an empty one, you might have relied on my own foresight; and this one is very far from being empty. My dear Count, with what trash have you come laden? But the shortest method is to see for myself." And he put down his hand.
She stopped him at once. "Otto," she said, "no—not that way. I will tell, I will make a clean breast. It is done already. I have robbed the treasury single-handed. There are three thousand two hundred crowns. O, I trust it is enough!"
Her embarrassment was so obvious that the Prince was struck into a muse, gazing in her face, with his hand still outstretched and she still holding him by the wrist. "You!" he said at last. "How?" And then drawing himself up, "O, madam," he cried, "I understand. You must indeed think meanly of the Prince."
"Well then, it was a lie!" she cried. "The money is mine, honestly my own—now yours. This was an unworthy act that you proposed. But I love your honour, and I swore to myself that I should save it in your teeth. I beg of you to let me save it"—with a sudden lovely change of tone. "Otto, I beseech you let me save it. Take this dross from your poor friend who loves you!"
"Madam, madam," babbled Otto, in the extreme of misery, "I cannot—I must go."
And he half rose; but she was on the ground before him in an instant, clasping his knees. "No," she gasped, "you shall not go. Do you despise me so entirely? It is dross; I hate it; I should squander it at play and be no richer; it is an investment; it is to save me from ruin. Otto," she cried, as he again feebly tried to put her from him, "if you leave me alone in this disgrace I will die here!" He groaned aloud. "O," she said, "think what I suffer! If you suffer from a piece of delicacy, think what I suffer in my shame! To have my trash refused! You would rather steal, you think of me so basely! You would rather tread my heart in pieces! O unkind! O my Prince! O Otto! O pity me!" She was still clasping him; then she found his hand and covered it with kisses, and at this his head began to turn. "O," she cried again, "I see it! O what a horror! It is because I am old, because I am no longer beautiful." And she burst into a storm of sobs.
This was the coup de grace. Otto had now to comfort and compose her as he could, and before many words, the money was accepted. Between the woman and the weak man such was the inevitable end. Madame von Rosen instantly composed her sobs. She thanked him with a fluttering voice, and resumed her place upon the bench at the far end from Otto. "Now you see," she said, "why I bade you keep the thief at distance, and why I came alone. How I trembled for my treasure!"
"Madam," said Otto, with a tearful whimper in his voice, "spare me! You are too good, too noble!"
"I wonder to hear you," she returned. "You have avoided a great folly. You will be able to meet your good old peasant. You have found an excellent investment for a friend's money. You have preferred essential kindness to an empty scruple; and now you are ashamed of it! You have made your friend happy; and now you mourn as the dove! Come, cheer up. I know it is depressing to have done exactly right; but you need not make a practice of it. Forgive yourself this virtue; come now, look me in the face and smile!"
He did look at her. When a man has been embraced by a woman, he sees her in a glamour; and at such a time, in the baffling glimmer of the stars, she will look wildly well. The hair is touched with light; the eyes are constellations; the face sketched in shadows—a sketch, you might say, by passion. Otto became consoled for his defeat; he began to take an interest. "No," he said, "I am no ingrate."
"You promised me fun," she returned, with a laugh. "I have given you as good. We have had a stormy scena."
He laughed in his turn, and the sound of the laughter, in either case, was hardly reassuring.
"Come, what are you going to give me in exchange," she continued, "for my excellent declamation?"
"What you will," he said.
"Whatever I will? Upon your honour? Suppose I ask the crown?" She was flashing upon him, beautiful in triumph.
"Upon my honour," he replied.
"Shall I ask the crown?" she continued. "Nay; what should I do with it? Gruenewald is but a petty state; my ambition swells above it. I shall ask—I find I want nothing," she concluded. "I will give you something instead. I will give you leave to kiss me—once."
Otto drew near, and she put up her face; they were both smiling, both on the brink of laughter, all was so innocent and playful; and the Prince, when their lips encountered, was dumfoundered by the sudden convulsion of his being. Both drew instantly apart, and for an appreciable time sat tongue-tied. Otto was indistinctly conscious of a peril in the silence, but could find no words to utter. Suddenly the Countess seemed to awake. "As for your wife——" she began in a clear and steady voice.
The word recalled Otto, with a shudder, from his trance. "I will hear nothing against my wife," he cried wildly; and then, recovering himself and in a kindlier tone, "I will tell you my one secret," he added. "I love my wife."
"You should have let me finish," she returned, smiling. "Do you suppose I did not mention her on purpose? You know you had lost your head. Well, so had I. Come now, do not be abashed by words," she added somewhat sharply. "It is the one thing I despise. If you are not a fool, you will see that I am building fortresses about your virtue. And at any rate, I choose that you shall understand that I am not dying of love for you. It is a very smiling business; no tragedy for me! And now here is what I have to say about your wife: she is not and she never has been Gondremark's mistress. Be sure he would have boasted if she had. Good-night!"
And in a moment she was gone down the alley, and Otto was alone with the bag of money and the flying god.
GOTTHOLD'S REVISED OPINION; AND THE FALL COMPLETED
The Countess left poor Otto with a caress and buffet simultaneously administered. The welcome word about his wife and the virtuous ending of his interview should doubtless have delighted him. But for all that, as he shouldered the bag of money and set forward to rejoin his groom, he was conscious of many aching sensibilities. To have gone wrong and to have been set right makes but a double trial for man's vanity. The discovery of his own weakness and possible unfaith had staggered him to the heart; and to hear, in the same hour, of his wife's fidelity from one who loved her not, increased the bitterness of the surprise.
He was about halfway between the fountain and the Flying Mercury before his thoughts began to be clear; and he was surprised to find them resentful. He paused in a kind of temper, and struck with his hand a little shrub. Thence there arose instantly a cloud of awakened sparrows, which as instantly dispersed and disappeared into the thicket. He looked at them stupidly, and when they were gone continued staring at the stars. "I am angry. By what right? By none!" he thought; but he was still angry. He cursed Madame von Rosen and instantly repented. Heavy was the money on his shoulders.
When he reached the fountain, he did, out of ill-humour and parade, an unpardonable act. He gave the money bodily to the dishonest groom. "Keep this for me," he said, "until I call for it to-morrow. It is a great sum, and by that you will judge that I have not condemned you." And he strode away ruffling, as if he had done something generous. It was a desperate stroke to re-enter at the point of the bayonet into his self-esteem; and, like all such, it was fruitless in the end. He got to bed with the devil, it appeared: kicked and tumbled till the grey of the morning; and then fell inopportunely into a leaden slumber, and awoke to find it ten. To miss the appointment with old Killian after all had been too tragic a miscarriage: and he hurried with all his might, found the groom (for a wonder) faithful to his trust, and arrived only a few minutes before noon in the guest-chamber of the "Morning Star." Killian was there in his Sunday's best and looking very gaunt and rigid; a lawyer from Brandenau stood sentinel over his outspread papers; and the groom and the landlord of the inn were called to serve as witnesses. The obvious deference of that great man, the innkeeper, plainly affected the old farmer with surprise; but it was not until Otto had taken the pen and signed that the truth flashed upon him fully. Then, indeed, he was beside himself.
"His Highness!" he cried, "His Highness!" and repeated the exclamation till his mind had grappled fairly with the facts. Then he turned to the witnesses. "Gentlemen," he said, "you dwell in a country highly favoured by God; for of all generous gentlemen, I will say it on my conscience, this one is the king. I am an old man, and I have seen good and bad, and the year of the great famine; but a more excellent gentleman, no, never."
"We know that," cried the landlord, "we know that well in Gruenewald. If we saw more of his Highness we should be the better pleased."
"It is the kindest Prince," began the groom, and suddenly closed his mouth upon a sob, so that every one turned to gaze upon his emotion—Otto not last; Otto struck with remorse, to see the man so grateful.
Then it was the lawyer's turn to pay a compliment. "I do not know what Providence may hold in store," he said, "but this day should be a bright one in the annals of your reign. The shouts of armies could not be more eloquent than the emotion on these honest faces." And the Brandenau lawyer bowed, skipped, stepped back and took snuff, with the air of a man who has found and seized an opportunity.
"Well, young gentleman," said Killian, "if you will pardon me the plainness of calling you a gentleman, many a good day's work you have done, I doubt not, but never a better, or one that will be better blessed; and whatever, sir, may be your happiness and triumph in that high sphere to which you have been called, it will be none the worse, sir, for an old man's blessing!"
The scene had almost assumed the proportions of an ovation; and when the Prince escaped he had but one thought: to go wherever he was most sure of praise. His conduct at the board of council occurred to him as a fair chapter; and this evoked the memory of Gotthold. To Gotthold he would go.
Gotthold was in the library as usual, and laid down his pen, a little angrily, on Otto's entrance. "Well," he said, "here you are."
"Well," returned Otto, "we made a revolution, I believe."
"It is what I fear," returned the Doctor.
"How?" said Otto. "Fear? Fear is the burnt child. I have learned my strength and the weakness of the others; and I now mean to govern."
Gotthold said nothing, but he looked down and smoothed his chin.
"You disapprove?" cried Otto. "You are a weather-cock."
"On the contrary," replied the Doctor. "My observation has confirmed my fears. It will not do, Otto, not do."
"What will not do?" demanded the Prince, with a sickening stab of pain.
"None of it," answered Gotthold. "You are unfitted for a life of action; you lack the stamina, the habit, the restraint, the patience. Your wife is greatly better, vastly better; and though she is in bad hands, displays a very different aptitude. She is a woman of affairs; you are—dear boy, you are yourself. I bid you back to your amusements; like a smiling dominie, I give you holidays for life. Yes," he continued, "there is a day appointed for all when they shall turn again upon their own philosophy. I had grown to disbelieve impartially in all; and if in the atlas of the sciences there were two charts I disbelieved in more than all the rest, they were politics and morals. I had a sneaking kindness for your vices; as they were negative, they flattered my philosophy; and I called them almost virtues. Well, Otto, I was wrong; I have forsworn my sceptical philosophy; and I perceive your faults to be unpardonable. You are unfit to be a Prince, unfit to be a husband. And I give you my word, I would rather see a man capably doing evil than blundering about good."
Otto was still silent, in extreme dudgeon.
Presently the Doctor resumed: "I will take the smaller matter first: your conduct to your wife. You went, I hear, and had an explanation. That may have been right or wrong; I know not; at least, you had stirred her temper. At the council she insults you; well, you insult her back—a man to a woman, a husband to his wife, in public! Next, upon the back of this, you propose—the story runs like wildfire—to recall the power of signature. Can she ever forgive that? a woman—a young woman—ambitious, conscious of talents beyond yours? Never, Otto. And to sum all, at such a crisis in your married life, you get into a window corner with that ogling dame von Rosen. I do not dream that there was any harm; but I do say it was an idle disrespect to your wife. Why, man, the woman is not decent."
"Gotthold," said Otto, "I will hear no evil of the Countess."
"You will certainly hear no good of her," returned Gotthold; "and if you wish your wife to be the pink of nicety, you should clear your court of demi-reputations."
"The commonplace injustice of a by-word," Otto cried. "The partiality of sex. She is a demirep; what then is Gondremark? Were she a man——"
"It would be all one," retorted Gotthold roughly. "When I see a man, come to years of wisdom, who speaks in double-meanings and is the braggart of his vices, I spit on the other side. 'You, my friend,' say I, 'are not even a gentleman.' Well, she's not even a lady."
"She is the best friend I have, and I choose that she shall be respected," Otto said.
"If she is your friend, so much the worse," replied the Doctor. "It will not stop there."
"Ah!" cried Otto, "there is the charity of virtue! All evil in the spotted fruit. But I can tell you, sir, that you do Madame von Rosen prodigal injustice."
"You can tell me!" said the Doctor shrewdly. "Have you tried? have you been riding the marches?"
The blood came into Otto's face.
"Ah!" cried Gotthold, "look at your wife and blush! There's a wife for a man to marry and then lose! She's a carnation, Otto. The soul is in her eyes."
"You have changed your note for Seraphina, I perceive," said Otto.
"Changed it!" cried the Doctor, with a flush. "Why, when was it different? But I own I admired her at the council. When she sat there silent, tapping with her foot, I admired her as I might a hurricane. Were I one of those who venture upon matrimony, there had been the prize to tempt me! She invites, as Mexico invited Cortez; the enterprise is hard, the natives are unfriendly—I believe them cruel too—but the metropolis is paved with gold and the breeze blows out of paradise. Yes, I could desire to be that conqueror. But to philander with von Rosen! never! Senses? I discard them; what are they?—pruritus! Curiosity? Reach me my Anatomy!"
"To whom do you address yourself?" cried Otto. "Surely you, of all men, know that I love my wife!"
"O, love!" cried Gotthold; "love is a great word; it is in all the dictionaries. If you had loved, she would have paid you back. What does she ask? A little ardour!"
"It is hard to love for two," replied the Prince.
"Hard? Why, there's the touchstone! O, I know my poets!" cried the Doctor. "We are but dust and fire, too arid to endure life's scorching; and love, like the shadow of a great rock, should lend shelter and refreshment, not to the lover only, but to his mistress and to the children that reward them; and their very friends should seek repose in the fringes of that peace. Love is not love that cannot build a home. And you call it love to grudge and quarrel and pick faults? You call it love to thwart her to her face, and bandy insults? Love!"
"Gotthold, you are unjust. I was then fighting for my country," said the Prince.
"Ay, and there's the worst of all," returned the Doctor. "You could not even see that you were wrong; that, being where they were, retreat was ruin."
"Why, you supported me!" cried Otto.
"I did. I was a fool like you," replied Gotthold. "But now my eyes are open. If you go on as you have started, disgrace this fellow Gondremark, and publish the scandal of your divided house, there will befall a most abominable thing in Gruenewald. A revolution, friend—a revolution."
"You speak strangely for a red," said Otto.
"A red republican, but not a revolutionary," returned the Doctor. "An ugly thing is a Gruenewalder drunk! One man alone can save the country from this pass, and that is the double-dealer Gondremark, with whom I conjure you to make peace. It will not be you; it never can be you:—you, who can do nothing, as your wife said, but trade upon your station—you, who spent the hours in begging money! And in God's name, what for? Why money? What mystery of idiocy was this?"
"It was to no ill end. It was to buy a farm," quoth Otto sulkily.
"To buy a farm!" cried Gotthold. "Buy a farm!"
"Well, what then?" returned Otto. "I have bought it, if you come to that."
Gotthold fairly bounded on his seat. "And how that?" he cried.
"How?" repeated Otto, startled.
"Ay, verily, how!" returned the Doctor. "How came you by the money?"
The Prince's countenance darkened. "That is my affair," said he.
"You see you are ashamed," retorted Gotthold. "And so you bought a farm in the hour of your country's need—doubtless to be ready for the abdication; and I put it that you stole the funds. There are not three ways of getting money: there are but two: to earn and steal. And now, when you have combined Charles the Fifth and Long-fingered Tom, you come to me to fortify your vanity! But I will clear my mind upon this matter: until I know the right and wrong of the transaction, I put my hand behind my back. A man may be the pitifullest prince; he must be a spotless gentleman."
The Prince had gotten to his feet, as pale as paper. "Gotthold," he said, "you drive me beyond bounds. Beware, sir, beware!"
"Do you threaten me, friend Otto?" asked the Doctor grimly. "That would be a strange conclusion."
"When have you ever known me use my power in any private animosity?" cried Otto. "To any private man your words were an unpardonable insult, but at me you shoot in full security, and I must turn aside to compliment you on your plainness. I must do more than pardon, I must admire, because you have faced this—this formidable monarch, like a Nathan before David. You have uprooted an old kindness, sir, with an unsparing hand. You leave me very bare. My last bond is broken; and though I take Heaven to witness that I sought to do the right, I have this reward: to find myself alone. You say I am no gentleman; yet the sneers have been upon your side; and though I can very well perceive where you have lodged your sympathies, I will forbear the taunt."
"Otto, are you insane?" cried Gotthold, leaping up. "Because I ask you how you came by certain moneys, and because you refuse——"
"Herr von Hohenstockwitz, I have ceased to invite your aid in my affairs," said Otto. "I have heard all that I desire, and you have sufficiently trampled on my vanity. It may be that I cannot govern, it may be that I cannot love—you tell me so with every mark of honesty; but God has granted me one virtue, and I can still forgive. I forgive you; even in this hour of passion I can perceive my faults and your excuses; and if I desire that in future I may be spared your conversation, it is not, sir, from resentment—not resentment—but, by Heaven, because no man on earth could endure to be so rated. You have the satisfaction to see your sovereign weep; and that person whom you have so often taunted with his happiness reduced to the last pitch of solitude and misery. No,—I will hear nothing; I claim the last word, sir, as your Prince; and that last word shall be—forgiveness."
And with that Otto was gone from the apartment, and Dr. Gotthold was left alone with the most conflicting sentiments of sorrow, remorse, and merriment; walking to and fro before his table, and asking himself, with hands uplifted, which of the pair of them was most to blame for this unhappy rupture. Presently, he took from a cupboard a bottle of Rhine wine and a goblet of the deep Bohemian ruby. The first glass a little warmed and comforted his bosom; with the second he began to look down upon these troubles from a sunny mountain; yet a while, and filled with this false comfort and contemplating life through a golden medium, he owned to himself, with a flush, a smile, and a half-pleasurable sigh, that he had been somewhat over plain in dealing with his cousin. "He said the truth, too," added the penitent librarian, "for in my monkish fashion I adore the Princess." And then, with a still deepening flush and a certain stealth, although he sat all alone in that great gallery, he toasted Seraphina to the dregs.
PROVIDENCE VON ROSEN: ACT THE FIRST SHE BEGUILES THE BARON
At a sufficiently late hour, or, to be more exact, at three in the afternoon, Madame von Rosen issued on the world. She swept downstairs and out across the garden, a black mantilla thrown over her head, and the long train of her black velvet dress ruthlessly sweeping in the dirt.
At the other end of that long garden, and back to back with the villa of the Countess, stood the large mansion where the Prime Minister transacted his affairs and pleasures. This distance, which was enough for decency by the easy canons of Mittwalden, the Countess swiftly traversed, opened a little door with a key, mounted a flight of stairs, and entered unceremoniously into Gondremark's study. It was a large and very high apartment; books all about the walls, papers on the table, papers on the floor; here and there a picture, somewhat scant of drapery; a great fire glowing and flaming in the blue-tiled hearth; and the daylight streaming through a cupola above. In the midst of this sat the great Baron Gondremark in his shirt-sleeves, his business for that day fairly at an end, and the hour arrived for relaxation. His expression, his very nature, seemed to have undergone a fundamental change. Gondremark at home appeared the very antipode of Gondremark on duty. He had an air of massive jollity that well became him; grossness and geniality sat upon his features; and along with his manners, he had laid aside his sly and sinister expression. He lolled there, sunning his bulk before the fire, a noble animal.
"Hey!" he cried. "At last!"
The Countess stepped into the room in silence, threw herself on a chair, and crossed her legs. In her lace and velvet, with a good display of smooth black stocking and of snowy petticoat, and with the refined profile of her face and slender plumpness of her body, she showed in singular contrast to the big, black, intellectual satyr by the fire.
"How often do you send for me?" she cried. "It is compromising."
Gondremark laughed. "Speaking of that," said he, "what in the devil's name were you about? You were not home till morning."
"I was giving alms," she said.
The Baron again laughed loud and long, for in his shirt-sleeves he was a very mirthful creature. "It is fortunate I am not jealous," he remarked. "But you know my way: pleasure and liberty go hand in hand. I believe what I believe; it is not much, but I believe it.—But now to business. Have you not read my letter?"
"No," she said; "my head ached."
"Ah, well! then I have news indeed!" cried Gondremark. "I was mad to see you all last night and all this morning: for yesterday afternoon I brought my long business to a head; the ship has come home; one more dead lift, and I shall cease to fetch and carry for the Princess Ratafia. Yes, 'tis done. I have the order all in Ratafia's hand; I carry it on my heart. At the hour of twelve to-night, Prince Featherhead is to be taken in his bed, and, like the bambino, whipped into a chariot; and by next morning he will command a most romantic prospect from the donjon of the Felsenburg. Farewell, Featherhead! The war goes on, the girl is in my hand; I have long been indispensable, but now I shall be sole. I have long," he added exultingly, "long carried this intrigue upon my shoulders, like Samson with the gates of Gaza; now I discharge that burthen."
She had sprung to her feet a little paler. "Is this true?" she cried.
"I tell you a fact," he asseverated. "The trick is played."
"I will never believe it," she said. "An order? In her own hand? I will never believe it, Heinrich."
"I swear to you," said he.
"O, what do you care for oaths—or I either? What would you swear by? Wine, women, and song? It is not binding," she said. She had come quite close up to him and laid her hand upon his arm. "As for the order—no, Heinrich, never! I will never believe it. I will die ere I believe it. You have some secret purpose—what, I cannot guess—but not one word of it is true."
"Shall I show it you?" he asked.
"You cannot," she answered. "There is no such thing."
"Incorrigible Sadducee!" he cried. "Well, I will convert you; you shall see the order." He moved to a chair where he had thrown his coat, and then drawing forth and holding out a paper, "Read," said he.
She took it greedily, and her eye flashed as she perused it.
"Hey!" cried the Baron, "there falls a dynasty, and it was I that felled it; and I and you inherit!" He seemed to swell in stature; and next moment, with a laugh, he put his hand forward. "Give me the dagger," said he.
But she whisked the paper suddenly behind her back and faced him, lowering. "No, no," she said. "You and I have first a point to settle. Do you suppose me blind? She could never have given that paper but to one man, and that man her lover. Here you stand—her lover, her accomplice, her master—O, I well believe it, for I know your power. But what am I?" she cried; "I, whom you deceive?"
"Jealousy!" cried Gondremark. "Anna, I would never have believed it! But I declare to you by all that's credible that I am not her lover. I might be, I suppose; but I never yet durst risk the declaration. The chit is so unreal; a mincing doll; she will and she will not; there is no counting on her, by God! And hitherto I have had my own way without, and keep the lover in reserve. And I say, Anna," he added with severity, "you must break yourself of this new fit, my girl; there must be no combustion. I keep the creature under the belief that I adore her; and if she caught a breath of you and me, she is such a fool, prude, and dog in the manger, that she is capable of spoiling all."
"All very fine," returned the lady. "With whom do you pass your days? and which am I to believe, your words or your actions?"
"Anna, the devil take you, are you blind?" cried Gondremark. "You know me. Am I likely to care for such a preciosa? 'Tis hard that we should have been together for so long, and you should still take me for a troubadour. But if there is one thing that I despise and deprecate, it is all such figures in Berlin wool. Give me a human woman—like yourself. You are my mate; you were made for me; you amuse me like the play. And what have I to gain that I should pretend to you? If I do not love you, what use are you to me? Why, none. It is as clear as noonday."
"Do you love me, Heinrich?" she asked, languishing. "Do you truly?"
"I tell you," he cried, "I love you next after myself. I should be all abroad if I had lost you."
"Well, then," said she, folding up the paper and putting it calmly in her pocket, "I will believe you, and I join the plot. Count upon me. At midnight, did you say? It is Gordon, I see, that you have charged with it. Excellent; he will stick at nothing."
Gondremark watched her suspiciously. "Why do you take the paper?" he demanded. "Give it here."
"No," she returned; "I mean to keep it. It is I who must prepare the stroke; you cannot manage it without me; and to do my best I must possess the paper. Where shall I find Gordon? In his rooms?" She spoke with a rather feverish self-possession.
"Anna," he said sternly, the black, bilious countenance of his palace role taking the place of the more open favour of his hours at home, "I ask you for that paper. Once, twice, and thrice."
"Heinrich," she returned, looking him in the face, "take care. I will put up with no dictation."
Both looked dangerous; and the silence lasted for a measurable interval of time. Then she made haste to have the first word; and with a laugh that rang clear and honest, "Do not be a child," she said. "I wonder at you. If your assurances are true, you can have no reason to mistrust me, nor I to play you false. The difficulty is to get the Prince out of the palace without scandal. His valets are devoted; his chamberlain a slave; and yet one cry might ruin all."
"They must be overpowered," he said, following her to the new ground, "and disappear along with him."
"And your whole scheme along with them!" she cried. "He does not take his servants when he goes a-hunting: a child could read the truth. No, no; the plan is idiotic; it must be Ratafia's. But hear me. You know the Prince worships me?"
"I know," he said. "Poor Featherhead, I cross his destiny!"
"Well now," she continued, "what if I bring him alone out of the palace, to some quiet corner of the Park—the Flying Mercury, for instance? Gordon can be posted in the thicket; the carriage wait behind the temple; not a cry, not a scuffle, not a footfall; simply, the Prince vanishes!—What do you say? Am I an able ally? Are my beaux yeux of service? Ah, Heinrich, do not lose your Anna!—she has power!"
He struck with his open hand upon the chimney. "Witch!" he said, "there is not your match for devilry in Europe. Service! the thing runs on wheels."
"Kiss me, then, and let me go. I must not miss my Featherhead," she said.
"Stay, stay," said the Baron; "not so fast. I wish, upon my soul, that I could trust you; but you are, out and in, so whimsical a devil that I dare not. Hang it, Anna, no; it's not possible!"
"You doubt me, Heinrich?" she cried.
"Doubt is not the word," said he. "I know you. Once you were clear of me with that paper in your pocket, who knows what you would do with it?—not you, at least—nor I. You see," he added, shaking his head paternally upon the Countess, "you are as vicious as a monkey."
"I swear to you," she cried, "by my salvation...."
"I have no curiosity to hear you swearing," said the Baron.
"You think that I have no religion? You suppose me destitute of honour. Well," she said, "see here: I will not argue, but I tell you once for all: leave me this order, and the Prince shall be arrested—take it from me, and, as certain as I speak, I will upset the coach. Trust me, or fear me; take your choice." And she offered him the paper.
The Baron, in a great contention of mind, stood irresolute, weighing the two dangers. Once his hand advanced, then dropped. "Well," he said, "since trust is what you call it...."
"No more," she interrupted. "Do not spoil your attitude. And now since you have behaved like a good sort of fellow in the dark, I will condescend to tell you why. I go to the palace to arrange with Gordon; but how is Gordon to obey me? And how can I foresee the hours? It may be midnight; ay, and it may be nightfall; all's a chance; and to act, I must be free and hold the strings of the adventure. And now," she cried, "your Vivien goes. Dub me your knight!" And she held out her arms and smiled upon him radiant.
"Well," he said, when he had kissed her, "every man must have his folly; I thank God mine is no worse. Off with you! I have given a child a squib."
PROVIDENCE VON ROSEN: ACT THE SECOND SHE INFORMS THE PRINCE
It was the first impulse of Madame von Rosen to return to her own villa and revise her toilette. Whatever else should come of this adventure it was her firm design to pay a visit to the Princess. And before that woman, so little beloved, the Countess would appear at no disadvantage. It was the work of minutes. Von Rosen had the captain's eye in matters of the toilette; she was none of those who hang in Fabian helplessness among their finery, and, after hours, come forth upon the world as dowdies. A glance, a loosened curl, a studied and admired disorder in the hair, a bit of lace, a touch of colour, a yellow rose in the bosom; and the instant picture was complete.
"That will do," she said. "Bid my carriage follow me to the palace. In half an hour it should be there in waiting."
The night was beginning to fall and the shops to shine with lamps along the tree-beshadowed thoroughfares of Otto's capital, when the Countess started on her high emprise. She was jocund at heart; pleasure and interest had winged her beauty, and she knew it. She paused before the glowing jeweller's; she remarked and praised a costume in the milliner's window; and when she reached the lime-tree walk, with its high, umbrageous arches and stir of passers-by in the dim alleys, she took her place upon a bench and began to dally with the pleasures of the hour. It was cold, but she did not feel it, being warm within; her thoughts, in that dark corner, shone like the gold and rubies at the jeweller's; her ears, which heard the brushing of so many footfalls, transposed it into music.
What was she to do? She held the paper by which all depended. Otto and Gondremark and Ratafia, and the state itself, hung light in her balances, as light as dust; her little finger laid in either scale would set all flying: and she hugged herself upon her huge preponderance, and then laughed aloud to think how giddily it might be used. The vertigo of omnipotence, the disease of Caesars, shook her reason. "O, the mad world!" she thought, and laughed aloud in exultation.
A child, finger in mouth, had paused a little way from where she sat, and stared with cloudy interest upon this laughing lady. She called it nearer; but the child hung back. Instantly, with that curious passion which you may see any woman in the world display, on the most odd occasions, for a similar end, the Countess bent herself with singleness of mind to overcome this diffidence; and presently, sure enough, the child was seated on her knee, thumbing and glowering at her watch.
"If you had a clay bear and a china monkey," asked von Rosen, "which would you prefer to break?"
"But I have neither," said the child.
"Well," she said, "here is a bright florin, with which you may purchase both the one and the other; and I shall give it you at once, if you will answer my question. The clay bear or the china monkey—come?"
But the unbreeched soothsayer only stared upon the florin with big eyes; the oracle could not be persuaded to reply; and the Countess kissed him lightly, gave him the florin, set him down upon the path, and resumed her way with swinging and elastic gait.
"Which shall I break?" she wondered; and she passed her hand with delight among the careful disarrangement of her locks. "Which?" and she consulted heaven with her bright eyes. "Do I love both or neither? A little—passionately—not at all? Both or neither—both, I believe; but at least I will make hay of Ratafia."
By the time she had passed the iron gates, mounted the drive, and set her foot upon the broad-flagged terrace, the night had come completely; the palace front was thick with lighted windows; and along the balustrade, the lamp on every twentieth baluster shone clear. A few withered tracks of sunset, amber and glow-worm green, still lingered in the western sky; and she paused once again to watch them fading.
"And to think," she said, "that here am I—destiny embodied, a norn, a fate, a providence—and have no guess upon which side I shall declare myself! What other woman in my place would not be prejudiced, and think herself committed? But, thank Heaven! I was born just!" Otto's windows were bright among the rest, and she looked on them with rising tenderness. "How does it feel to be deserted?" she thought. "Poor dear fool! The girl deserves that he should see this order."
Without more delay, she passed into the palace and asked for an audience of Prince Otto. The Prince, she was told, was in his own apartment, and desired to be private. She sent her name. A man presently returned with word that the Prince tendered his apologies, but could see no one. "Then I will write," she said, and scribbled a few lines alleging urgency of life and death. "Help me, my Prince," she added; "none but you can help me." This time the messenger returned more speedily, and begged the Countess to follow him: the Prince was graciously pleased to receive the Frau Graefin von Rosen.
Otto sat by the fire in his large armoury, weapons faintly glittering all about him in the changeful light. His face was disfigured by the marks of weeping; he looked sour and sad; nor did he rise to greet his visitor, but bowed, and bade the man begone. That kind of general tenderness which served the Countess for both heart and conscience, sharply smote her at this spectacle of grief and weakness; she began immediately to enter into the spirit of her part; and as soon as they were alone, taking one step forward and with a magnificent gesture—"Up!" she cried.
"Madame von Rosen," replied Otto dully, "you have used strong words. You speak of life and death. Pray, madam, who is threatened? Who is there," he added bitterly, "so destitute that even Otto of Gruenewald can assist him?"
"First learn," said she, "the names of the conspirators: the Princess and the Baron Gondremark. Can you not guess the rest?" And then, as he maintained his silence—"You!" she cried, pointing at him with her finger. "'Tis you they threaten! Your rascal and mine have laid their heads together and condemned you. But they reckoned without you and me. We make a partie carree, Prince, in love and politics. They lead an ace, but we shall trump it. Come, partner, shall I draw my card?"
"Madam," he said, "explain yourself. Indeed I fail to comprehend."
"See, then," said she: and handed him the order.
He took it, looked upon it with a start; and then, still without speech, he put his hand before his face. She waited for a word in vain.
"What!" she cried, "do you take the thing down-heartedly? As well seek wine in a milk-pail as love in that girl's heart! Be done with this, and be a man. After the league of the lions, let us have a conspiracy of mice, and pull this piece of machinery to ground. You were brisk enough last night when nothing was at stake and all was frolic. Well, here is better sport; here is life indeed."
He got to his feet with some alacrity, and his face, which was a little flushed, bore the marks of resolution.
"Madame von Rosen," said he, "I am neither unconscious nor ungrateful; this is the true continuation of your friendship; but I see that I must disappoint your expectations. You seem to expect from me some effort of resistance; but why should I resist? I have not much to gain; and now that I have read this paper, and the last of a fool's paradise is shattered, it would be hyperbolical to speak of loss in the same breath with Otto of Gruenewald. I have no party, no policy; no pride, nor anything to be proud of. For what benefit or principle under Heaven do you expect me to contend? Or would you have me bite and scratch like a trapped weasel? No, madam; signify to those who sent you my readiness to go. I would at least avoid a scandal."
"You go?—of your own will, you go?" she cried.
"I cannot say so much, perhaps," he answered; "but I go with good alacrity. I have desired a change some time; behold one offered me! Shall I refuse? Thank God, I am not so destitute of humour as to make a tragedy of such a farce." He flicked the order on the table. "You may signify my readiness," he added grandly.
"Ah," she said, "you are more angry than you own."
"I, madam? angry?" he cried. "You rave! I have no cause for anger. In every way I have been taught my weakness, my instability, and my unfitness for the world. I am a plexus of weaknesses, an impotent Prince, a doubtful gentleman; and you yourself, indulgent as you are, have twice reproved my levity. And shall I be angry? I may feel the unkindness, but I have sufficient honesty of mind to see the reasons of this coup d'etat."
"From whom have you got this?" she cried in wonder. "You think you have not behaved well? My Prince, were you not young and handsome, I should detest you for your virtues. You push them to the verge of commonplace. And this ingratitude——"
"Understand me, Madame von Rosen," returned the Prince, flushing a little darker, "there can be here no talk of gratitude, none of pride. You are here, by what circumstance I know not, but doubtless led by your kindness, mixed up in what regards my family alone. You have no knowledge what my wife, your sovereign, may have suffered; it is not for you—no, nor for me—to judge. I own myself in fault; and were it otherwise, a man were a very empty boaster who should talk of love and start before a small humiliation. It is in all the copybooks that one should die to please his ladylove; and shall a man not go to prison?"
"Love? And what has love to do with being sent to gaol?" exclaimed the Countess, appealing to the walls and roof. "Heaven knows I think as much of love as any one; my life would prove it; but I admit no love, at least for a man, that is not equally returned. The rest is moonshine."
"I think of love more absolutely, madam, though I am certain no more tenderly, than a lady to whom I am indebted for such kindnesses," returned the Prince. "But this is unavailing. We are not here to hold a court of troubadours."
"Still," she replied, "there is one thing you forget. If she conspires with Gondremark against your liberty, she may conspire with him against your honour also."
"My honour?" he repeated. "For a woman, you surprise me. If I have failed to gain her love or play my part of husband, what right is left me? or what honour can remain in such a scene of defeat? No honour that I recognise. I am become a stranger. If my wife no longer loves me, I will go to prison, since she wills it; if she love another, where should I be more in place? or whose fault is it but mine? You speak, Madame von Rosen, like too many women, with a man's tongue. Had I myself fallen into temptation (as, Heaven knows, I might) I should have trembled, but still hoped and asked for her forgiveness; and yet mine had been a treason in the teeth of love. But let me tell you, madam," he pursued, with rising irritation, "where a husband by futility, facility, and ill-timed humours has outwearied his wife's patience, I will suffer neither man nor woman to misjudge her. She is free; the man has been found wanting."
"Because she loves you not?" the Countess cried. "You know she is incapable of such a feeling."
"Rather, it was I who was born incapable of inspiring it," said Otto.
Madame von Rosen broke into sudden laughter. "Fool," she cried, "I am in love with you myself!"
"Ah, madam, you are most compassionate," the Prince retorted, smiling. "But this is waste debate. I know my purpose. Perhaps, to equal you in frankness, I know and embrace my advantage. I am not without the spirit of adventure. I am in a false position—so recognised by public acclamation: do you grudge me, then, my issue?"
"If your mind is made up, why should I dissuade you?" said the Countess. "I own, with a bare face, I am the gainer. Go, you take my heart with you, or more of it than I desire; I shall not sleep at night for thinking of your misery. But do not be afraid; I would not spoil you, you are such a fool and hero."
"Alas! madam," cried the Prince, "and your unlucky money! I did amiss to take it, but you are a wonderful persuader. And I thank God, I can still offer you the fair equivalent." He took some papers from the chimney. "Here, madam, are the title-deeds," he said; "where I am going, they can certainly be of no use to me, and I have now no other hope of making up to you your kindness. You made the loan without formality, obeying your kind heart. The parts are somewhat changed; the sun of this Prince of Gruenewald is upon the point of setting; and I know you better than to doubt you will once more waive ceremony, and accept the best that he can give you. If I may look for any pleasure in the coming time, it will be to remember that the peasant is secure, and my most generous friend no loser."
"Do you not understand my odious position?" cried the Countess. "Dear Prince, it is upon your fall that I begin my fortune."
"It was the more like you to tempt me to resistance," returned Otto. "But this cannot alter our relations; and I must, for the last time, lay my commands upon you in the character of Prince." And with his loftiest dignity, he forced the deeds on her acceptance.
"I hate the very touch of them," she cried.
There followed upon this a little silence. "At what time," resumed Otto, "(if indeed you know) am I to be arrested?"
"Your Highness, when you please!" exclaimed the Countess. "Or, if you choose to tear that paper, never!"
"I would rather it were done quickly," said the Prince. "I shall take but time to leave a letter for the Princess."
"Well," said the Countess, "I have advised you to resist; at the same time, if you intend to be dumb before your shearers, I must say that I ought to set about arranging your arrest. I offered"—she hesitated—"I offered to manage it, intending, my dear friend—intending, upon my soul, to be of use to you. Well, if you will not profit by my goodwill, then be of use to me; and as soon as ever you feel ready, go to the Flying Mercury where we met last night. It will be none the worse for you; and to make it quite plain, it will be better for the rest of us."
"Dear madam, certainly," said Otto. "If I am prepared for the chief evil, I shall not quarrel with details. Go, then, with my best gratitude; and when I have written a few lines of leave-taking, I shall immediately hasten to keep tryst. To-night I shall not meet so dangerous a cavalier," he added, with a smiling gallantry.
As soon as Madame von Rosen was gone he made a great call upon his self-command. He was face to face with a miserable passage where, if it were possible, he desired to carry himself with dignity. As to the main fact, he never swerved or faltered; he had come so heart-sick and so cruelly humiliated from his talk with Gotthold, that he embraced the notion of imprisonment with something bordering on relief. Here was, at least, a step which he thought blameless; here was a way out of his troubles. He sat down to write to Seraphina; and his anger blazed. The tale of his forbearances mounted, in his eyes, to something monstrous; still more monstrous, the coldness, egoism, and cruelty that had required and thus requited them. The pen which he had taken shook in his hand. He was amazed to find his resignation fled, but it was gone beyond his recall. In a few white-hot words, he bade adieu, dubbing desperation by the name of love, and calling his wrath forgiveness; then he cast but one look of leave-taking on the place that had been his for so long and was now to be his no longer; and hurried forth—love's prisoner—or pride's.
He took that private passage which he had trodden so often in less momentous hours. The porter let him out: and the bountiful, cold air of the night and the pure glory of the stars received him on the threshold. He looked round him, breathing deep of earth's plain fragrance; he looked up into the great array of heaven, and was quieted. His little turgid life dwindled to its true proportions; and he saw himself (that great flame-hearted martyr!) stand like a speck under the cool cupola of the night. Thus he felt his careless injuries already soothed; the live air of out-of-doors, the quiet of the world, as if by their silent music, sobering and dwarfing his emotions.
"Well, I forgive her," he said. "If it be of any use to her, I forgive."
And with brisk steps he crossed the garden, issued upon the park, and came to the Flying Mercury. A dark figure moved forward from the shadow of the pedestal.
"I have to ask your pardon, sir," a voice observed, "but if I am right in taking you for the Prince, I was given to understand that you would be prepared to meet me."
"Herr Gordon, I believe?" said Otto.
"Herr Oberst Gordon," replied that officer. "This is rather a ticklish business for a man to be embarked in; and to find that all is to go pleasantly is a great relief to me. The carriage is at hand; shall I have the honour of following your Highness?"
"Colonel," said the Prince, "I have now come to that happy moment of my life when I have orders to receive but none to give."
"A most philosophical remark," returned the Colonel. "Begad, a very pertinent remark! it might be Plutarch. I am not a drop's blood to your Highness, or indeed to anyone in this principality; or else I should dislike my orders. But as it is, and since there is nothing unnatural or unbecoming on my side, and your Highness takes it in good part, I begin to believe we may have a capital time together, sir—a capital time. For a gaoler is only a fellow-captive."
"May I inquire, Herr Gordon," asked Otto, "what led you to accept this dangerous and I would fain hope thankless office?"
"Very natural, I am sure," replied the officer of fortune. "My pay is, in the meanwhile, doubled."
"Well, sir, I will not presume to criticise," returned the Prince. "And I perceive the carriage."
Sure enough, at the intersection of two alleys of the park, a coach and four, conspicuous by its lanterns, stood in waiting. And a little way off about a score of lancers were drawn up under the shadow of the trees.
PROVIDENCE VON ROSEN: ACT THE THIRD SHE ENLIGHTENS SERAPHINA
When Madame von Rosen left the Prince, she hurried straight to Colonel Gordon; and not content with directing the arrangements, she had herself accompanied the soldier of fortune to the Flying Mercury. The Colonel gave her his arm, and the talk between this pair of conspirators ran high and lively. The Countess, indeed, was in a whirl of pleasure and excitement; her tongue stumbled upon laughter, her eyes shone, the colour that was usually wanting now perfected her face. It would have taken little more to bring Gordon to her feet—or so, at least, she believed, disdaining the idea.
Hidden among some lilac bushes, she enjoyed the great decorum of the arrest, and heard the dialogue of the two men die away along the path. Soon after, the rolling of a carriage and the beat of hoofs arose in the still air of the night, and passed speedily farther and fainter into silence. The Prince was gone.
Madame von Rosen consulted her watch. She had still, she thought, time enough for the tit-bit of her evening; and hurrying to the palace, winged by the fear of Gondremark's arrival, she sent her name and a pressing request for a reception to the Princess Seraphina. As the Countess von Rosen unqualified, she was sure to be refused; but as an emissary of the Baron's, for so she chose to style herself, she gained immediate entry.
The Princess sat alone at table, making a feint of dining. Her cheeks were mottled, her eyes heavy; she had neither slept nor eaten; even her dress had been neglected. In short, she was out of health, out of looks, out of heart, and hag-ridden by her conscience. The Countess drew a swift comparison, and shone brighter in beauty.
"You come, madam, de la part de Monsieur le Baron," drawled the Princess. "Be seated! What have you to say?"
"To say?" repeated Madame von Rosen. "O, much to say! Much to say that I would rather not, and much to leave unsaid that I would rather say. For I am like St. Paul, your Highness, and always wish to do the things I should not. Well! to be categorical—that is the word?—I took the Prince your order. He could not credit his senses. 'Ah,' he cried, 'dear Madame von Rosen, it is not possible—it cannot be—I must hear it from your lips. My wife is a poor girl misled, she is only silly, she is not cruel.' 'Mon Prince,' said I, 'a girl—and therefore cruel; youth kills flies.'—He had such pain to understand it!"
"Madame von Rosen," said the Princess, in most steadfast tones, but with a rose of anger in her face, "who sent you here, and for what purpose? Tell your errand."
"O, madam, I believe you understand me very well," returned von Rosen. "I have not your philosophy. I wear my heart upon my sleeve, excuse the indecency! It is a very little one," she laughed, "and I so often change the sleeve!"
"Am I to understand the Prince has been arrested?" asked the Princess, rising.
"While you sat there dining!" cried the Countess, still nonchalantly seated.
"You have discharged your errand," was the reply; "I will not detain you."
"O no, madam," said the Countess, "with your permission, I have not yet done. I have borne much this evening in your service. I have suffered. I was made to suffer in your service." She unfolded her fan as she spoke. Quick as her pulses beat, the fan waved languidly. She betrayed her emotion only by the brightness of her eyes and face, and by the almost insolent triumph with which she looked down upon the Princess. There were old scores of rivalry between them in more than one field; so at least von Rosen felt; and now she was to have her hour of victory in them all.
"You are no servant, Madame von Rosen, of mine," said Seraphina.
"No, madam, indeed," returned the Countess; "but we both serve the same person, as you know—or if you do not, then I have the pleasure of informing you. Your conduct is so light—so light," she repeated, the fan wavering higher like a butterfly, "that perhaps you do not truly understand." The Countess rolled her fan together, laid it in her lap, and rose to a less languorous position. "Indeed," she continued, "I should be sorry to see any young woman in your situation. You began with every advantage—birth, a suitable marriage—quite pretty too—and see what you have come to! My poor girl! to think of it! But there is nothing that does so much harm," observed the Countess finely, "as giddiness of mind." And she once more unfurled the fan, and approvingly fanned herself.
"I will no longer permit you to forget yourself," cried Seraphina. "I think you are mad."
"Not mad," returned von Rosen. "Sane enough to know you dare not break with me to-night, and to profit by the knowledge. I left my poor, pretty Prince Charming crying his eyes out for a wooden doll. My heart is soft; I love my pretty Prince; you will never understand it, but I long to give my Prince his doll, dry his poor eyes, and send him off happy. O, you immature fool!" the Countess cried, rising to her feet, and pointing at the Princess the closed fan that now began to tremble in her hand. "O wooden doll!" she cried, "have you a heart, or blood, or any nature? This is a man, child—a man who loves you. O, it will not happen twice! it is not common; beautiful and clever women look in vain for it. And you, you pitiful school-girl, tread this jewel under foot! you, stupid with your vanity! Before you try to govern kingdoms you should first be able to behave yourself at home; home is the woman's kingdom." She paused and laughed a little, strangely to hear and look upon. "I will tell you one of the things," she said, "that were to stay unspoken. Von Rosen is a better woman than you, my Princess, though you will never have the pain of understanding it; and when I took the Prince your order, and looked upon his face, my soul was melted—O, I am frank—here, within my arms, I offered him repose!" She advanced a step superbly as she spoke, with outstretched arms; and Seraphina shrank. "Do not be alarmed!" the Countess cried; "I am not offering that hermitage to you; in all the world there is but one who wants to, and him you have dismissed! 'If it will give her pleasure I should wear the martyr's crown,' he cried, 'I will embrace the thorns.' I tell you—I am quite frank—I put the order in his power and begged him to resist. You, who have betrayed your husband, may betray me to Gondremark; my Prince would betray no one. Understand it plainly," she cried, "'tis of his pure forbearance you sit there; he had the power—I gave it him—to change the parts; and he refused, and went to prison in your place."
The Princess spoke with some distress. "Your violence shocks me and pains me," she began, "but I cannot be angry with what at least does honour to the mistaken kindness of your heart: it was right for me to know this. I will condescend to tell you. It was with deep regret that I was driven to this step. I admire in many ways the Prince—I admit his amiability. It was our great misfortune, it was perhaps somewhat of my fault, that we were so unsuited to each other; but I have a regard, a sincere regard, for all his qualities. As a private person I should think as you do. It is difficult, I know, to make allowances for state considerations. I have only with deep reluctance obeyed the call of a superior duty; and so soon as I dare do it for the safety of the state, I promise you the Prince shall be released. Many in my situation would have resented your freedoms. I am not"—and she looked for a moment rather piteously upon the Countess—"I am not altogether so inhuman as you think."
"And you can put these troubles of the state," the Countess cried, "to weigh with a man's love?"
"Madame von Rosen, these troubles are affairs of life and death to many; to the Prince, and perhaps even to yourself, among the number," replied the Princess, with dignity. "I have learned, madam, although still so young, in a hard school, that my own feelings must everywhere come last."
"O callow innocence!" exclaimed the other. "Is it possible you do not know, or do not suspect, the intrigue in which you move? I find it in my heart to pity you! We are both women after all—poor girl, poor girl!—and who is born a woman is born a fool. And though I hate all women—come, for the common folly, I forgive you. Your Highness"—she dropped a deep stage curtsey and resumed her fan—"I am going to insult you, to betray one who is called my lover, and, if it pleases you to use the power I now put unreservedly into your hands, to ruin my dear self. O what a French comedy! You betray, I betray, they betray. It is now my cue. The letter, yes. Behold the letter, madam, its seal unbroken as I found it by my bed this morning; for I was out of humour, and I get many, too many, of these favours. For your own sake, for the sake of my Prince Charming, for the sake of this great principality that sits so heavy on your conscience, open it and read!"
"Am I to understand," inquired the Princess, "that this letter in any way regards me?"
"You see I have not opened it," replied von Rosen; "but 'tis mine, and I beg you to experiment."
"I cannot look at it till you have," returned Seraphina, very seriously. "There may be matter there not meant for me to see; it is a private letter."
The Countess tore it open, glanced it through, and tossed it back; and the Princess, taking up the sheet, recognised the hand of Gondremark, and read with a sickening shock the following lines:—
"Dearest Anna, come at once. Ratafia has done the deed, her husband is to be packed to prison. This puts the minx entirely in my power; le tour est joue; she will now go steady in harness, or I will know the reason why. Come.
"Command yourself, madam," said the Countess, watching with some alarm the white face of Seraphina. "It is in vain for you to fight with Gondremark; he has more strings than mere court favour, and could bring you down to-morrow with a word. I would not have betrayed him otherwise; but Heinrich is a man, and plays with all of you like marionettes. And now at least you see for what you sacrificed my Prince. Madam, will you take some wine? I have been cruel."
"Not cruel, madam—salutary," said Seraphina, with a phantom smile. "No, I thank you, I require no attentions. The first surprise affected me: will you give me time a little? I must think."
She took her head between her hands and contemplated for a while the hurricane confusion of her thoughts.
"This information reaches me," she said, "when I have need of it. I would not do as you have done, but yet I thank you. I have been much deceived in Baron Gondremark."
"O, madam, leave Gondremark, and think upon the Prince!" cried von Rosen.
"You speak once more as a private person," said the Princess; "nor do I blame you. But my own thoughts are more distracted. However, as I believe you are truly a friend to my—to the——as I believe," she said, "you are a friend to Otto, I shall put the order for his release into your hands this moment. Give me the ink-dish. There!" And she wrote hastily, steadying her arm upon the table, for she trembled like a reed. "Remember, madam," she resumed, handing her the order, "this must not be used nor spoken of at present; till I have seen the Baron, any hurried step—I lose myself in thinking. The suddenness has shaken me."
"I promise you I will not use it," said the Countess, "till you give me leave, although I wish the Prince could be informed of it, to comfort his poor heart. And O, I had forgotten, he has left a letter. Suffer me, madam; I will bring it you. This is the door, I think?" And she sought to open it.
"The bolt is pushed," said Seraphina, flushing.
"O! O!" cried the Countess.
A silence fell between them.
"I will get it for myself," said Seraphina; "and in the meanwhile I beg you to leave me. I thank you, I am sure, but I shall be obliged if you will leave me."
The Countess deeply curtseyed, and withdrew.
RELATES THE CAUSE AND OUTBREAK OF THE REVOLUTION
Brave as she was, and brave by intellect, the Princess, when first she was alone, clung to the table for support. The four corners of her universe had fallen. She had never liked nor trusted Gondremark completely; she had still held it possible to find him false to friendship; but from that to finding him devoid of all those public virtues for which she had honoured him, a mere commonplace intriguer, using her for his own ends, the step was wide and the descent giddy. Light and darkness succeeded each other in her brain; now she believed, and now she could not. She turned, blindly groping for the note. But von Rosen, who had not forgotten to take the warrant from the Prince, had remembered to recover her note from the Princess: von Rosen was an old campaigner, whose most violent emotion aroused rather than clouded the vigour of her reason.
The thought recalled to Seraphina the remembrance of the other letter—Otto's. She rose and went speedily, her brain still wheeling, and burst into the Prince's armoury. The old chamberlain was there in waiting; and the sight of another face, prying (or so she felt) on her distress, struck Seraphina into childish anger.
"Go!" she cried; and then, when the old man was already half-way to the door, "Stay!" she added. "As soon as Baron Gondremark arrives, let him attend me here."
"It shall be so directed," said the chamberlain.
"There was a letter ..." she began, and paused.
"Her Highness," said the chamberlain, "will find a letter on the table. I had received no orders, or her Highness had been spared this trouble."
"No, no, no," she cried. "I thank you. I desire to be alone."
And then, when he was gone, she leaped upon the letter. Her mind was still obscured; like the moon upon a night of clouds and wind, her reason shone and was darkened, and she read the words by flashes.
"Seraphina," the Prince wrote, "I will write no syllable of reproach. I have seen your order, and I go. What else is left me? I have wasted my love, and have no more. To say that I forgive you is not needful: at least, we are now separate for ever; by your own act, you free me from my willing bondage: I go free to prison. This is the last that you will hear of me in love or anger. I have gone out of your life; you may breathe easy; you have now rid yourself of the husband who allowed you to desert him, of the Prince who gave you his rights, and of the married lover who made it his pride to defend you in your absence. How you have requited him, your own heart more loudly tells you than my words. There is a day coming when your vain dreams will roll away like clouds, and you will find yourself alone. Then you will remember
She read with a great horror on her mind; that day, of which he wrote, was come. She was alone; she had been false, she had been cruel; remorse rolled in upon her; and then with a more piercing note, vanity bounded on the stage of consciousness. She a dupe! she helpless! she to have betrayed herself in seeking to betray her husband! she to have lived these years upon flattery, grossly swallowing the bolus, like a clown with sharpers! she—Seraphina! Her swift mind drank the consequences; she foresaw the coming fall, her public shame; she saw the odium, disgrace, and folly of her story flaunt through Europe. She recalled the scandal she had so royally braved; and, alas! she had now no courage to confront it with. To be thought the mistress of that man: perhaps for that.... She closed her eyes on agonising vistas. Swift as thought she had snatched a bright dagger from the weapons that shone along the wall. Ay, she would escape. From that world-wide theatre of nodding heads and buzzing whisperers, in which she now beheld herself unpitiably martyred, one door stood open. At any cost, through any stress of suffering, that greasy laughter should be stifled. She closed her eyes, breathed a wordless prayer, and pressed the weapon to her bosom.
At the astonishing sharpness of the prick, she gave a cry and awoke to a sense of undeserved escape. A little ruby spot of blood was the reward of that great act of desperation; but the pain had braced her like a tonic, and her whole design of suicide had passed away.
At the same instant regular feet drew near along the gallery, and she knew the tread of the big Baron, so often gladly welcome, and even now rallying her spirits like a call to battle. She concealed the dagger in the folds of her skirt; and drawing her stature up, she stood firm-footed, radiant with anger, waiting for the foe.
The Baron was announced, and entered. To him, Seraphina was a hated task: like the schoolboy with his Virgil, he had neither will nor leisure to remark her beauties; but when he now beheld her standing illuminated by her passion, new feelings flashed upon him, a frank admiration, a brief sparkle of desire. He noted both with joy; they were means. "If I have to play the lover," thought he, for that was his constant preoccupation, "I believe I can put soul into it." Meanwhile, with his usual ponderous grace, he bent before the lady.
"I propose," she said in a strange voice, not known to her till then, "that we release the Prince and do not prosecute the war."
"Ah, madam," he replied, "'tis as I knew it would be! Your heart, I knew, would wound you when we came to this distasteful but most necessary step. Ah, madam, believe me, I am not unworthy to be your ally; I know you have qualities to which I am a stranger, and count them the best weapons in the armoury of our alliance:—the girl in the queen—pity, love, tenderness, laughter; the smile that can reward. I can only command; I am the frowner. But you! And you have the fortitude to command these comely weaknesses, to tread them down at the call of reason. How often have I not admired it even to yourself! Ay, even to yourself," he added tenderly, dwelling, it seemed, in memory on hours of more private admiration. "But now, madam——"
"But now, Herr von Gondremark, the time for these declarations has gone by," she cried. "Are you true to me? are you false? Look in your heart and answer: it is your heart I want to know."
"It has come," thought Gondremark. "You, madam!" he cried, starting back—with fear, you would have said, and yet a timid joy. "You! yourself, you bid me look into my heart?"
"Do you suppose I fear?" she cried, and looked at him with such a heightened colour, such bright eyes, and a smile of so abstruse a meaning that the Baron discarded his last doubt.
"Ah, madam!" he cried, plumping on his knees. "Seraphina! Do you permit me? have you divined my secret? It is true—I put my life with joy into your power—I love you, love with ardour, as an equal, as a mistress, as a brother-in-arms, as an adored, desired, sweet-hearted woman. O Bride!" he cried, waxing dithyrambic, "bride of my reason and my senses, have pity, have pity on my love!"
She heard him with wonder, rage, and then contempt. His words offended her to sickness; his appearance, as he grovelled bulkily upon the floor, moved her to such laughter as we laugh in nightmares.
"O shame!" she cried. "Absurd and odious! What would the Countess say?"
That great Baron Gondremark, the excellent politician, remained for some little time upon his knees in a frame of mind which perhaps we are allowed to pity. His vanity, within his iron bosom, bled and raved. If he could have blotted all, if he could have withdrawn part, if he had not called her bride—with a roaring in his ears, he thus regretfully reviewed his declaration. He got to his feet tottering; and then, in that first moment when a dumb agony finds a vent in words, and the tongue betrays the inmost and worst of a man, he permitted himself a retort which, for six weeks to follow, he was to repent at leisure.
"Ah," said he, "the Countess? Now I perceive the reason of your Highness's disorder."
The lackey-like insolence of the words was driven home by a more insolent manner. There fell upon Seraphina one of those storm-clouds which had already blackened upon her reason; she heard herself cry out; and when the cloud dispersed, flung the blood-stained dagger on the floor, and saw Gondremark reeling back with open mouth and clapping his hand upon the wound. The next moment, with oaths that she had never heard, he leaped at her in savage passion; clutched her as she recoiled; and in the very act, stumbled and drooped. She had scarce time to fear his murderous onslaught ere he fell before her feet.
He rose upon one elbow; she still staring upon him, white with horror.
"Anna!" he cried, "Anna! Help!"
And then his utterance failed him, and he fell back, to all appearance dead.
Seraphina ran to and fro in the room; she wrung her hands and cried aloud; within she was all one uproar of terror, and conscious of no articulate wish but to awake.
There came a knocking at the door; and she sprang to it and held it, panting like a beast, and with the strength of madness in her arms, till she had pushed the bolt. At this success a certain calm fell upon her reason. She went back and looked upon her victim, the knocking growing louder. O yes, he was dead. She had killed him. He had called upon von Rosen with his latest breath; ah! who would call on Seraphina? She had killed him. She, whose irresolute hand could scarce prick blood from her own bosom, had found strength to cast down that great colossus at a blow.
All this while the knocking was growing more uproarious and more unlike the staid career of life in such a palace. Scandal was at the door, with what a fatal following she dreaded to conceive; and at the same time among the voices that now began to summon her by name, she recognised the Chancellor's. He or another, somebody must be the first.
"Is Herr von Greisengesang without?" she called.
"Your Highness—yes!" the old gentleman answered. "We have heard cries, a fall. Is anything amiss?"
"Nothing," replied Seraphina. "I desire to speak with you. Send off the rest." She panted between each phrase; but her mind was clear. She let the looped curtain down upon both sides before she drew the bolt; and, thus secure from any sudden eyeshot from without, admitted the obsequious Chancellor, and again made fast the door.
Greisengesang clumsily revolved among the wings of the curtain; so that she was clear of it as soon as he.
"My God!" he cried. "The Baron!"
"I have killed him," she said. "O, killed him!"
"Dear me," said the old gentleman, "this is most unprecedented. Lovers' quarrels," he added ruefully, "redintegratio——" and then paused. "But, my dear madam," he broke out again, "in the name of all that is practical, what are we to do? This is exceedingly grave; morally, madam, it is appalling. I take the liberty, your Highness, for one moment, of addressing you as a daughter, a loved although respected daughter; and I must say that I cannot conceal from you that this is morally most questionable. And, O dear me, we have a dead body."
She had watched him closely; hope fell to contempt; she drew away her skirts from his weakness, and, in the act, her own strength returned to her.
"See if he be dead," she said; not one word of explanation or defence; she had scorned to justify herself before so poor a creature: "See if he be dead" was all.
With the greatest compunction, the Chancellor drew near; and as he did so the wounded Baron rolled his eyes.
"He lives," cried the old courtier, turning effusively to Seraphina. "Madam, he still lives."
"Help him, then," returned the Princess, standing fixed. "Bind up his wound."
"Madam, I have no means," protested the Chancellor.
"Can you not take your handkerchief, your neckcloth, anything?" she cried; and at the same moment, from her light muslin gown she rent off a flounce and tossed it on the floor. "Take that," she said, and for the first time directly faced Greisengesang.
But the Chancellor held up his hands and turned away his head in agony. The grasp of the falling Baron had torn down the dainty fabric of the bodice; and—"O Highness!" cried Greisengesang, appalled, "the terrible disorder of your toilette!"
"Take up that flounce," she said; "the man may die."
Greisengesang turned in a flutter to the Baron, and attempted some innocent and bungling measures. "He still breathes," he kept saying. "All is not yet over; he is not yet gone."
"And now," said she, "if that is all you can do, begone and get some porters; he must instantly go home."
"Madam," cried the Chancellor, "if this most melancholy sight was seen in town—O dear, the state would fall!" he piped.
"There is a litter in the palace," she replied. "It is your part to see him safe. I lay commands upon you. On your life it stands."
"I see it, dear Highness," he jerked. "Clearly I see it. But how? what men? The Prince's servants—yes. They had a personal affection. They will be true, if any."
"O, not them!" she cried. "Take Sabra, my own man."
"Sabra! The grand-mason?" returned the Chancellor, aghast. "If he but saw this, he would sound the tocsin—we should all be butchered."
She measured the depth of her abasement steadily. "Take whom you must," she said, "and bring the litter here."
Once she was alone she ran to the Baron, and with a sickening heart sought to allay the flux of blood. The touch of the skin of that great charlatan revolted her to the toes; the wound, in her ignorant eyes, looked deathly; yet she contended with her shuddering, and, with more skill at least than the Chancellor's, staunched the welling injury. An eye unprejudiced with hate would have admired the Baron in his swoon; he looked so great and shapely; it was so powerful a machine that lay arrested; and his features, cleared for the moment both of temper and dissimulation, were seen to be so purely modelled. But it was not thus with Seraphina. Her victim, as he lay outspread, twitching a little, his big chest unbared, fixed her with his ugliness; and her mind flitted for a glimpse to Otto.
Rumours began to sound about the palace of feet running and of voices raised; the echoes of the great arched staircase were voluble of some confusion; and then the gallery jarred with a quick and heavy tramp. It was the Chancellor, followed by four of Otto's valets and a litter. The servants, when they were admitted, stared at the dishevelled Princess and the wounded man; speech was denied them, but their thoughts were riddled with profanity. Gondremark was bundled in; the curtains of the litter were lowered; the bearers carried it forth, and the Chancellor followed behind with a white face.