Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter II

In which the Prince Plays Haroun-Al-Raschid

THE night fell upon the Prince while he was threading green tracks in the lower valleys of the wood; and though the stars came out overhead and displayed the interminable order of the pine-tree pyramids, regular and dark like cypresses, their light was of small service to a traveller in such lonely paths, and from thenceforth he rode at random. The austere face of nature, the uncertain issue of his course, the open sky and the free air, delighted him like wine; and the hoarse chafing of a river on his left sounded in his ears agreeably.

It was past eight at night before his toil was rewarded and he issued at last out of the forest on the firm white high-road. It lay downhill before him, with a sweeping eastward trend, faintly bright between the thickets; and Otto paused and gazed upon it. So it ran, league after league, still joining others, to the farthest ends of Europe, there skirting the sea-surge, here gleaming in the lights of cities; and the innumerable army of tramps and travellers moved upon it in all lands as by a common impulse, and were now in all places drawing near to the inn door and the night’s rest. The pictures swarmed and vanished in his brain; a surge of temptation, a beat of all his blood, went over him, to set spur to the mare and to go on into the unknown for ever. And then it passed away; hunger and fatigue, and that habit of middling actions which we call common sense, resumed their empire; and in that changed mood his eye lighted upon two bright windows on his left hand, between the road and river.

He turned off by a by-road, and in a few minutes he was knocking with his whip on the door of a large farmhouse, and a chorus of dogs from the farmyard were making angry answer. A very tall, old, white-headed man came, shading a candle, at the summons. He had been of great strength in his time, and of a handsome countenance; but now he was fallen away, his teeth were quite gone, and his voice when he spoke was broken and falsetto.

‘You will pardon me,’ said Otto. ‘I am a traveller and have entirely lost my way.’

‘Sir,’ said the old man, in a very stately, shaky manner, ‘you are at the River Farm, and I am Killian Gottesheim, at your disposal. We are here, sir, at about an equal distance from Mittwalden in Grunewald and Brandenau in Gerolstein: six leagues to either, and the road excellent; but there is not a wine bush, not a carter’s alehouse, anywhere between. You will have to accept my hospitality for the night; rough hospitality, to which I make you freely welcome; for, sir,’ he added with a bow, ‘it is God who sends the guest.’

‘Amen. And I most heartily thank you,’ replied Otto, bowing in his turn.

‘Fritz,’ said the old man, turning towards the interior, ‘lead round this gentleman’s horse; and you, sir, condescend to enter.’

Otto entered a chamber occupying the greater part of the ground-floor of the building. It had probably once been divided; for the farther end was raised by a long step above the nearer, and the blazing fire and the white supper-table seemed to stand upon a dais. All around were dark, brass-mounted cabinets and cupboards; dark shelves carrying ancient country crockery; guns and antlers and broadside ballads on the wall; a tall old clock with roses on the dial; and down in one corner the comfortable promise of a wine barrel. It was homely, elegant, and quaint.

A powerful youth hurried out to attend on the grey mare; and when Mr. Killian Gottesheim had presented him to his daughter Ottilia, Otto followed to the stable as became, not perhaps the Prince, but the good horseman. When he returned, a smoking omelette and some slices of home-cured ham were waiting him; these were followed by a ragout and a cheese; and it was not until his guest had entirely satisfied his hunger, and the whole party drew about the fire over the wine jug, that Killian Gottesheim’s elaborate courtesy permitted him to address a question to the Prince.

‘You have perhaps ridden far, sir?’ he inquired.

‘I have, as you say, ridden far,’ replied Otto; ‘and, as you have seen, I was prepared to do justice to your daughters cookery.’

‘Possibly, sir, from the direction of Brandenau?’ continued Killian.

‘Precisely: and I should have slept to-night, had I not wandered, in Mittwalden,’ answered the Prince, weaving in a patch of truth, according to the habit of all liars.

‘Business leads you to Mittwalden?’ was the next question.

‘Mere curiosity,’ said Otto. ‘I have never yet visited the principality of Grunewald.’

‘A pleasant state, sir,’ piped the old man, nodding, ‘a very pleasant state, and a fine race, both pines and people. We reckon ourselves part Grunewalders here, lying so near the borders; and the river there is all good Grunewald water, every drop of it. Yes, sir, a fine state. A man of Grunewald now will swing me an axe over his head that many a man of Gerolstein could hardly lift; and the pines, why, deary me, there must be more pines in that little state, sir, than people in this whole big world. ‘Tis twenty years now since I crossed the marshes, for we grow home-keepers in old age; but I mind it as if it was yesterday. Up and down, the road keeps right on from here to Mittwalden; and nothing all the way but the good green pine-trees, big and little, and water-power! water-power at every step, sir. We once sold a bit of forest, up there beside the high-road; and the sight of minted money that we got for it has set me ciphering ever since what all the pines in Grunewald would amount to.’

‘I suppose you see nothing of the Prince?’ inquired Otto.

‘No,’ said the young man, speaking for the first time, ‘nor want to.’

‘Why so? is he so much disliked?’ asked Otto.

‘Not what you might call disliked,’ replied the old gentleman, ‘but despised, sir.’

‘Indeed,’ said the Prince, somewhat faintly.

‘Yes, sir, despised,’ nodded Killian, filling a long pipe, ‘and, to my way of thinking, justly despised. Here is a man with great opportunities, and what does he do with them? He hunts, and he dresses very prettily — which is a thing to be ashamed of in a man — and he acts plays; and if he does aught else, the news of it has not come here.’

‘Yet these are all innocent,’ said Otto. ‘What would you have him do — make war?’

‘No, sir,’ replied the old man. ‘But here it is; I have been fifty years upon this River Farm, and wrought in it, day in, day out; I have ploughed and sowed and reaped, and risen early, and waked late; and this is the upshot: that all these years it has supported me and my family; and been the best friend that ever I had, set aside my wife; and now, when my time comes, I leave it a better farm than when I found it. So it is, if a man works hearty in the order of nature, he gets bread and he receives comfort, and whatever he touches breeds. And it humbly appears to me, if that Prince was to labour on his throne, as I have laboured and wrought in my farm, he would find both an increase and a blessing.’

‘I believe with you, sir,’ Otto said; ‘and yet the parallel is inexact. For the farmer’s life is natural and simple; but the prince’s is both artificial and complicated. It is easy to do right in the one, and exceedingly difficult not to do wrong in the other. If your crop is blighted, you can take off your bonnet and say, “God’s will be done”; but if the prince meets with a reverse, he may have to blame himself for the attempt. And perhaps, if all the kings in Europe were to confine themselves to innocent amusement, the subjects would be the better off.’

‘Ay,’ said the young man Fritz, ‘you are in the right of it there. That was a true word spoken. And I see you are like me, a good patriot and an enemy to princes.’

Otto was somewhat abashed at this deduction, and he made haste to change his ground. ‘But,’ said he, ‘you surprise me by what you say of this Prince Otto. I have heard him, I must own, more favourably painted. I was told he was, in his heart, a good fellow, and the enemy of no one but himself.’

‘And so he is, sir,’ said the girl, ‘a very handsome, pleasant prince; and we know some who would shed their blood for him.’

‘O! Kuno!’ said Fritz. ‘An ignoramus!’

‘Ay, Kuno, to be sure,’ quavered the old farmer. ‘Well, since this gentleman is a stranger to these parts, and curious about the Prince, I do believe that story might divert him. This Kuno, you must know, sir, is one of the hunt servants, and a most ignorant, intemperate man: a right Grunewalder, as we say in Gerolstein. We know him well, in this house; for he has come as far as here after his stray dogs; and I make all welcome, sir, without account of state or nation. And, indeed, between Gerolstein and Grunewald the peace has held so long that the roads stand open like my door; and a man will make no more of the frontier than the very birds themselves.’

‘Ay,’ said Otto, ‘it has been a long peace — a peace of centuries.’

‘Centuries, as you say,’ returned Killian; ‘the more the pity that it should not be for ever. Well, sir, this Kuno was one day in fault, and Otto, who has a quick temper, up with his whip and thrashed him, they do say, soundly. Kuno took it as best he could, but at last he broke out, and dared the Prince to throw his whip away and wrestle like a man; for we are all great at wrestling in these parts, and it’s so that we generally settle our disputes. Well, sir, the Prince did so; and, being a weakly creature, found the tables turned; for the man whom he had just been thrashing like a negro slave, lifted him with a back grip and threw him heels overhead.’

‘He broke his bridle-arm,’ cried Fritz — ‘and some say his nose. Serve him right, say I! Man to man, which is the better at that?’

‘And then?’ asked Otto.

‘O, then Kuno carried him home; and they were the best of friends from that day forth. I don’t say it’s a discreditable story, you observe,’ continued Mr. Gottesheim; ‘but it’s droll, and that’s the fact. A man should think before he strikes; for, as my nephew says, man to man was the old valuation.’

‘Now, if you were to ask me,’ said Otto, ‘I should perhaps surprise you. I think it was the Prince that conquered.’

‘And, sir, you would be right,’ replied Killian seriously. ‘In the eyes of God, I do not question but you would be right; but men, sir, look at these things differently, and they laugh.’

‘They made a song of it,’ observed Fritz. ‘How does it go? Ta-tum-ta-ra . . .’

‘Well,’ interrupted Otto, who had no great anxiety to hear the song, ‘the Prince is young; he may yet mend.’

‘Not so young, by your leave,’ cried Fritz. ‘A man of forty.’

‘Thirty-six,’ corrected Mr. Gottesheim.

‘O,’ cried Ottilia, in obvious disillusion, ‘a man of middle age! And they said he was so handsome when he was young!’

‘And bald, too,’ added Fritz.

Otto passed his hand among his locks. At that moment he was far from happy, and even the tedious evenings at Mittwalden Palace began to smile upon him by comparison.

‘O, six-and-thirty!’ he protested. ‘A man is not yet old at six-and-thirty. I am that age myself.’

‘I should have taken you for more, sir,’ piped the old farmer. ‘But if that be so, you are of an age with Master Ottekin, as people call him; and, I would wager a crown, have done more service in your time. Though it seems young by comparison with men of a great age like me, yet it’s some way through life for all that; and the mere fools and fiddlers are beginning to grow weary and to look old. Yes, sir, by six-and-thirty, if a man be a follower of God’s laws, he should have made himself a home and a good name to live by; he should have got a wife and a blessing on his marriage; and his works, as the Word says, should begin to follow him.’

‘Ah, well, the Prince is married,’ cried Fritz, with a coarse burst of laughter.

‘That seems to entertain you, sir,’ said Otto.

‘Ay,’ said the young boor. ‘Did you not know that? I thought all Europe knew it!’ And he added a pantomime of a nature to explain his accusation to the dullest.

‘Ah, sir,’ said Mr. Gottesheim, ‘it is very plain that you are not from hereabouts! But the truth is, that the whole princely family and Court are rips and rascals, not one to mend another. They live, sir, in idleness and — what most commonly follows it — corruption. The Princess has a lover — a Baron, as he calls himself, from East Prussia; and the Prince is so little of a man, sir, that he holds the candle. Nor is that the worst of it, for this foreigner and his paramour are suffered to transact the State affairs, while the Prince takes the salary and leaves all things to go to wrack. There will follow upon this some manifest judgment which, though I am old, I may survive to see.’

‘Good man, you are in the wrong about Gondremark,’ said Fritz, showing a greatly increased animation; ‘but for all the rest, you speak the God’s truth like a good patriot. As for the Prince, if he would take and strangle his wife, I would forgive him yet.’

‘Nay, Fritz,’ said the old man, ‘that would be to add iniquity to evil. For you perceive, sir,’ he continued, once more addressing himself to the unfortunate Prince, ‘this Otto has himself to thank for these disorders. He has his young wife and his principality, and he has sworn to cherish both.’

‘Sworn at the altar!’ echoed Fritz. ‘But put your faith in princes!’

‘Well, sir, he leaves them both to an adventurer from East Prussia,’ pursued the farmer: ‘leaves the girl to be seduced and to go on from bad to worse, till her name’s become a tap-room by-word, and she not yet twenty; leaves the country to be overtaxed, and bullied with armaments, and jockied into war — ’

‘War!’ cried Otto.

‘So they say, sir; those that watch their ongoings, say to war,’ asseverated Killian. ‘Well, sir, that is very sad; it is a sad thing for this poor, wicked girl to go down to hell with people’s curses; it’s a sad thing for a tight little happy country to be misconducted; but whoever may complain, I humbly conceive, sir, that this Otto cannot. What he has worked for, that he has got; and may God have pity on his soul, for a great and a silly sinner’s!’

‘He has broke his oath; then he is a perjurer. He takes the money and leaves the work; why, then plainly he’s a thief. A cuckold he was before, and a fool by birth. Better me that!’ cried Fritz, and snapped his fingers.

‘And now, sir, you will see a little,’ continued the farmer, ‘why we think so poorly of this Prince Otto. There’s such a thing as a man being pious and honest in the private way; and there is such a thing, sir, as a public virtue; but when a man has neither, the Lord lighten him! Even this Gondremark, that Fritz here thinks so much of — ’

‘Ay,’ interrupted Fritz, ‘Gondremark’s the man for me. I would we had his like in Gerolstein.’

‘He is a bad man,’ said the old farmer, shaking his head; ‘and there was never good begun by the breach of God’s commandments. But so far I will go with you; he is a man that works for what he has.’

‘I tell you he’s the hope of Grunewald,’ cried Fritz. ‘He doesn’t suit some of your high-and-dry, old, ancient ideas; but he’s a downright modern man — a man of the new lights and the progress of the age. He does some things wrong; so they all do; but he has the people’s interests next his heart; and you mark me — you, sir, who are a Liberal, and the enemy of all their governments, you please to mark my words — the day will come in Grunewald, when they take out that yellow-headed skulk of a Prince and that dough-faced Messalina of a Princess, march ‘em back foremost over the borders, and proclaim the Baron Gondremark first President. I’ve heard them say it in a speech. I was at a meeting once at Brandenau, and the Mittwalden delegates spoke up for fifteen thousand. Fifteen thousand, all brigaded, and each man with a medal round his neck to rally by. That’s all Gondremark.’

‘Ay, sir, you see what it leads to; wild talk to-day, and wilder doings to-morrow,’ said the old man. ‘For there is one thing certain: that this Gondremark has one foot in the Court backstairs, and the other in the Masons’ lodges. He gives himself out, sir, for what nowadays they call a patriot: a man from East Prussia!’

‘Give himself out!’ cried Fritz. ‘He is! He is to lay by his title as soon as the Republic is declared; I heard it in a speech.’

‘Lay by Baron to take up President?’ returned Killian. ‘King Log, King Stork. But you’ll live longer than I, and you will see the fruits of it.’

‘Father,’ whispered Ottilia, pulling at the speaker’s coat, ‘surely the gentleman is ill.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ cried the farmer, rewaking to hospitable thoughts; ‘can I offer you anything?’

‘I thank you. I am very weary,’ answered Otto. ‘I have presumed upon my strength. If you would show me to a bed, I should be grateful.’

‘Ottilia, a candle!’ said the old man. ‘Indeed, sir, you look paley. A little cordial water? No? Then follow me, I beseech you, and I will bring you to the stranger’s bed. You are not the first by many who has slept well below my roof,’ continued the old gentleman, mounting the stairs before his guest; ‘for good food, honest wine, a grateful conscience, and a little pleasant chat before a man retires, are worth all the possets and apothecary’s drugs. See, sir,’ and here he opened a door and ushered Otto into a little white-washed sleeping-room, ‘here you are in port. It is small, but it is airy, and the sheets are clean and kept in lavender. The window, too, looks out above the river, and there’s no music like a little river’s. It plays the same tune (and that’s the favourite) over and over again, and yet does not weary of it like men fiddlers. It takes the mind out of doors: and though we should be grateful for good houses, there is, after all, no house like God’s out-of-doors. And lastly, sir, it quiets a man down like saying his prayers. So here, sir, I take my kind leave of you until to-morrow; and it is my prayerful wish that you may slumber like a prince.’

And the old man, with the twentieth courteous inclination, left his guest alone.

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