Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter VIII

The Party of War Takes Action

HALF an hour after, Gondremark was once more closeted with Seraphina.

‘Where is he now?’ she asked, on his arrival.

‘Madam, he is with the Chancellor,’ replied the Baron. ‘Wonder of wonders, he is at work!’

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘he was born to torture me! O what a fall, what a humiliation! Such a scheme to wreck upon so small a trifle! But now all is lost.’

‘Madam,’ said Gondremark, ‘nothing is lost. Something, on the other hand, is found. You have found your senses; you see him as he is — see him as you see everything where your too-good heart is not in question — with the judicial, with the statesman’s eye. So long as he had a right to interfere, the empire that may be was still distant. I have not entered on this course without the plain foresight of its dangers; and even for this I was prepared. But, madam, I knew two things: I knew that you were born to command, that I was born to serve; I knew that by a rare conjuncture, the hand had found the tool; and from the first I was confident, as I am confident to-day, that no hereditary trifler has the power to shatter that alliance.’

‘I, born to command!’ she said. ‘Do you forget my tears?’

‘Madam, they were the tears of Alexander,’ cried the Baron. ‘They touched, they thrilled me; I, forgot myself a moment — even I! But do you suppose that I had not remarked, that I had not admired, your previous bearing? your great self-command? Ay, that was princely!’ He paused. ‘It was a thing to see. I drank confidence! I tried to imitate your calm. And I was well inspired; in my heart, I think that I was well inspired; that any man, within the reach of argument, had been convinced! But it was not to be; nor, madam, do I regret the failure. Let us be open; let me disclose my heart. I have loved two things, not unworthily: Grunewald and my sovereign!’ Here he kissed her hand. ‘Either I must resign my ministry, leave the land of my adoption and the queen whom I had chosen to obey — or -’ He paused again.

‘Alas, Herr von Gondremark, there is no “or,”’ said Seraphina.

‘Nay, madam, give me time,’ he replied. ‘When first I saw you, you were still young; not every man would have remarked your powers; but I had not been twice honoured by your conversation ere I had found my mistress. I have, madam, I believe, some genius; and I have much ambition. But the genius is of the serving kind; and to offer a career to my ambition, I had to find one born to rule. This is the base and essence of our union; each had need of the other; each recognised, master and servant, lever and fulcrum, the complement of his endowment. Marriages, they say, are made in heaven: how much more these pure, alborious, intellectual fellowships, born to found empires! Nor is this all. We found each other ripe, filled with great ideas that took shape and clarified with every word. We grew together — ay, madam, in mind we grew together like twin children. All of my life until we met was petty and groping; was it not — I will flatter myself openly — it WAS the same with you! Not till then had you those eagle surveys, that wide and hopeful sweep of intuition! Thus we had formed ourselves, and we were ready.’

‘It is true,’ she cried. ‘I feel it. Yours is the genius; your generosity confounds your insight; all I could offer you was the position, was this throne, to be a fulcrum. But I offered it without reserve; I entered at least warmly into all your thoughts; you were sure of me — sure of my support — certain of justice. Tell me, tell me again, that I have helped you.’

‘Nay, madam,’ he said, ‘you made me. In everything you were my inspiration. And as we prepared our policy, weighing every step, how often have I had to admire your perspicacity, your man-like diligence and fortitude! You know that these are not the words of flattery; your conscience echoes them; have you spared a day? have you indulged yourself in any pleasure? Young and beautiful, you have lived a life of high intellectual effort, of irksome intellectual patience with details. Well, you have your reward: with the fall of Brandenau, the throne of your Empire is founded.’

‘What thought have you in your mind?’ she asked. ‘Is not all ruined?’

‘Nay, my Princess, the same thought is in both our minds,’ he said.

‘Herr von Gondremark,’ she replied, ‘by all that I hold sacred, I have none; I do not think at all; I am crushed.’

‘You are looking at the passionate side of a rich nature, misunderstood and recently insulted,’ said the Baron. ‘Look into your intellect, and tell me.’

‘I find nothing, nothing but tumult,’ she replied.

‘You find one word branded, madam,’ returned the Baron: ‘“Abdication!”’

‘O!’ she cried. ‘The coward! He leaves me to bear all, and in the hour of trial he stabs me from behind. There is nothing in him, not respect, not love, not courage — his wife, his dignity, his throne, the honour of his father, he forgets them all!’

‘Yes,’ pursued the Baron, ‘the word Abdication. I perceive a glimmering there.’

‘I read your fancy,’ she returned. ‘It is mere madness, midsummer madness. Baron, I am more unpopular than he. You know it. They can excuse, they can love, his weakness; but me, they hate.’

‘Such is the gratitude of peoples,’ said the Baron. ‘But we trifle. Here, madam, are my plain thoughts. The man who in the hour of danger speaks of abdication is, for me, a venomous animal. I speak with the bluntness of gravity, madam; this is no hour for mincing. The coward, in a station of authority, is more dangerous than fire. We dwell on a volcano; if this man can have his way, Grunewald before a week will have been deluged with innocent blood. You know the truth of what I say; we have looked unblenching into this ever-possible catastrophe. To him it is nothing: he will abdicate! Abdicate, just God! and this unhappy country committed to his charge, and the lives of men and the honour of women . . .’ His voice appeared to fail him; in an instant he had conquered his emotion and resumed: ‘But you, madam, conceive more worthily of your responsibilities. I am with you in the thought; and in the face of the horrors that I see impending, I say, and your heart repeats it — we have gone too far to pause. Honour, duty, ay, and the care of our own lives, demand we should proceed.’

She was looking at him, her brow thoughtfully knitted. ‘I feel it,’ she said. ‘But how? He has the power.’

‘The power, madam? The power is in the army,’ he replied; and then hastily, ere she could intervene, ‘we have to save ourselves,’ he went on; ‘I have to save my Princess, she has to save her minister; we have both of us to save this infatuated youth from his own madness. He in the outbreak would be the earliest victim; I see him,’ he cried, ‘torn in pieces; and Grunewald, unhappy Grunewald! Nay, madam, you who have the power must use it; it lies hard upon your conscience.’

‘Show me how!’ she cried. ‘Suppose I were to place him under some constraint, the revolution would break upon us instantly.’

The Baron feigned defeat. ‘It is true,’ he said. ‘You see more clearly than I do. Yet there should, there must be, some way.’ And he waited for his chance.

‘No,’ she said; ‘I told you from the first there is no remedy. Our hopes are lost: lost by one miserable trifler, ignorant, fretful, fitful — who will have disappeared to-morrow, who knows? to his boorish pleasures!’

Any peg would do for Gondremark. ‘The thing!’ he cried, striking his brow. ‘Fool, not to have thought of it! Madam, without perhaps knowing it, you have solved our problem.’

‘What do you mean? Speak!’ she said.

He appeared to collect himself; and then, with a smile, ‘The Prince,’ he said, ‘must go once more a-hunting.’

‘Ay, if he would!’ cried she, ‘and stay there!’

‘And stay there,’ echoed the Baron. It was so significantly said, that her face changed; and the schemer, fearful of the sinister ambiguity of his expressions, hastened to explain. ‘This time he shall go hunting in a carriage, with a good escort of our foreign lancers. His destination shall be the Felsenburg; it is healthy, the rock is high, the windows are small and barred; it might have been built on purpose. We shall intrust the captaincy to the Scotsman Gordon; he at least will have no scruple. Who will miss the sovereign? He is gone hunting; he came home on Tuesday, on Thursday he returned; all is usual in that. Meanwhile the war proceeds; our Prince will soon weary of his solitude; and about the time of our triumph, or, if he prove very obstinate, a little later, he shall be released upon a proper understanding, and I see him once more directing his theatricals.’

Seraphina sat gloomy, plunged in thought. ‘Yes,’ she said suddenly, ‘and the despatch? He is now writing it.’

‘It cannot pass the council before Friday,’ replied Gondremark; ‘and as for any private note, the messengers are all at my disposal. They are picked men, madam. I am a person of precaution.’

‘It would appear so,’ she said, with a flash of her occasional repugnance to the man; and then after a pause, ‘Herr von Gondremark,’ she added, ‘I recoil from this extremity.’

‘I share your Highness’s repugnance,’ answered he. ‘But what would you have? We are defenceless, else.’

‘I see it, but this is sudden. It is a public crime,’ she said, nodding at him with a sort of horror.

‘Look but a little deeper,’ he returned, ‘and whose is the crime?’

‘His!’ she cried. ‘His, before God! And I hold him liable. But still — ’

‘It is not as if he would be harmed,’ submitted Gondremark.

‘I know it,’ she replied, but it was still unheartily.

And then, as brave men are entitled, by prescriptive right as old as the world’s history, to the alliance and the active help of Fortune, the punctual goddess stepped down from the machine. One of the Princess’s ladies begged to enter; a man, it appeared, had brought a line for the Freiherr von Gondremark. It proved to be a pencil billet, which the crafty Greisengesang had found the means to scribble and despatch under the very guns of Otto; and the daring of the act bore testimony to the terror of the actor. For Greisengesang had but one influential motive: fear. The note ran thus: ‘At the first council, procuration to be withdrawn. — CORN. GREIS.’

So, after three years of exercise, the right of signature was to be stript from Seraphina. It was more than an insult; it was a public disgrace; and she did not pause to consider how she had earned it, but morally bounded under the attack as bounds the wounded tiger.

‘Enough,’ she said; ‘I will sign the order. When shall he leave?’

‘It will take me twelve hours to collect my men, and it had best be done at night. To-morrow midnight, if you please?’ answered the Baron.

‘Excellent,’ she said. ‘My door is always open to you, Baron. As soon as the order is prepared, bring it me to sign.’

‘Madam,’ he said, ‘alone of all of us you do not risk your head in this adventure. For that reason, and to prevent all hesitation, I venture to propose the order should be in your hand throughout.’

‘You are right,’ she replied.

He laid a form before her, and she wrote the order in a clear hand, and re-read it. Suddenly a cruel smile came on her face. ‘I had forgotten his puppet,’ said she. ‘They will keep each other company.’ And she interlined and initiated the condemnation of Doctor Gotthold.

‘Your Highness has more memory than your servant,’ said the Baron; and then he, in his turn, carefully perused the fateful paper. ‘Good!’ said he.

‘You will appear in the drawing-room, Baron?’ she asked.

‘I thought it better,’ said he, ‘to avoid the possibility of a public affront. Anything that shook my credit might hamper us in the immediate future.’

‘You are right,’ she said; and she held out her hand as to an old friend and equal.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30