Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter XIV

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

OTTO.’

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 neck-cloth, 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 were 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.

Seraphina ran to the window. Pressing her face upon the pane, she could see the terrace, where the lights contended; thence, the avenue of lamps that joined the Palace and town; and overhead the hollow night and the larger stars. Presently the small procession issued from the Palace, crossed the parade, and began to thread the glittering alley: the swinging couch with its four porters, the much-pondering Chancellor behind. She watched them dwindle with strange thoughts: her eyes fixed upon the scene, her mind still glancing right and left on the overthrow of her life and hopes. There was no one left in whom she might confide; none whose hand was friendly, or on whom she dared to reckon for the barest loyalty. With the fall of Gondremark, her party, her brief popularity, had fallen. So she sat crouched upon the window-seat, her brow to the cool pane; her dress in tatters, barely shielding her; her mind revolving bitter thoughts.

Meanwhile, consequences were fast mounting; and in the deceptive quiet of the night, downfall and red revolt were brewing. The litter had passed forth between the iron gates and entered on the streets of the town. By what flying panic, by what thrill of air communicated, who shall say? but the passing bustle in the Palace had already reached and re-echoed in the region of the burghers. Rumour, with her loud whisper, hissed about the town; men left their homes without knowing why; knots formed along the boulevard; under the rare lamps and the great limes the crowd grew blacker.

And now through the midst of that expectant company, the unusual sight of a closed litter was observed approaching, and trotting hard behind it that great dignitary Cancellarius Greisengesang. Silence looked on as it went by; and as soon as it was passed, the whispering seethed over like a boiling pot. The knots were sundered; and gradually, one following another, the whole mob began to form into a procession and escort the curtained litter. Soon spokesmen, a little bolder than their mates, began to ply the Chancellor with questions. Never had he more need of that great art of falsehood, by whose exercise he had so richly lived. And yet now he stumbled, the master passion, fear, betraying him. He was pressed; he became incoherent; and then from the jolting litter came a groan. In the instant hubbub and the gathering of the crowd as to a natural signal, the clear-eyed quavering Chancellor heard the catch of the clock before it strikes the hour of doom; and for ten seconds he forgot himself. This shall atone for many sins. He plucked a bearer by the sleeve. ‘Bid the Princess flee. All is lost,’ he whispered. And the next moment he was babbling for his life among the multitude.

Five minutes later the wild-eyed servant burst into the armoury. ‘All is lost!’ he cried. ‘The Chancellor bids you flee.’ And at the same time, looking through the window, Seraphina saw the black rush of the populace begin to invade the lamplit avenue.

‘Thank you, Georg,’ she said. ‘I thank you. Go.’ And as the man still lingered, ‘I bid you go,’ she added. ‘Save yourself.’

Down by the private passage, and just some two hours later, Amalia Seraphina, the last Princess, followed Otto Johann Friedrich, the last Prince of Grunewald.

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