Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter II

Treats of a Christian Virtue

WHEN Otto mounted to his rolling prison he found another occupant in a corner of the front seat; but as this person hung his head and the brightness of the carriage lamps shone outward, the Prince could only see it was a man. The Colonel followed his prisoner and clapped-to the door; and at that the four horses broke immediately into a swinging trot.

‘Gentlemen,’ said the Colonel, after some little while had passed, ‘if we are to travel in silence, we might as well be at home. I appear, of course, in an invidious character; but I am a man of taste, fond of books and solidly informing talk, and unfortunately condemned for life to the guard-room. Gentlemen, this is my chance: don’t spoil it for me. I have here the pick of the whole court, barring lovely woman; I have a great author in the person of the Doctor — ’

‘Gotthold!’ cried Otto.

‘It appears,’ said the Doctor bitterly, ‘that we must go together. Your Highness had not calculated upon that.’

‘What do you infer?’ cried Otto; ‘that I had you arrested?’

‘The inference is simple,’ said the Doctor.

‘Colonel Gordon,’ said the Prince, ‘oblige me so far, and set me right with Herr von Hohenstockwitz.’

‘Gentlemen,’ said the Colonel, ‘you are both arrested on the same warrant in the name of the Princess Seraphina, acting regent, countersigned by Prime Minister Freiherr von Gondremark, and dated the day before yesterday, the twelfth. I reveal to you the secrets of the prison-house,’ he added.

‘Otto,’ said Gotthold, ‘I ask you to pardon my suspicions.’

‘Gotthold,’ said the Prince, ‘I am not certain I can grant you that.’

‘Your Highness is, I am sure, far too magnanimous to hesitate,’ said the Colonel. ‘But allow me: we speak at home in my religion of the means of grace: and I now propose to offer them.’ So saying, the Colonel lighted a bright lamp which he attached to one side of the carriage, and from below the front seat produced a goodly basket adorned with the long necks of bottles. ‘TU SPEM REDUCIS— how does it go, Doctor?’ he asked gaily. ‘I am, in a sense, your host; and I am sure you are both far too considerate of my embarrassing position to refuse to do me honour. Gentlemen, I drink to the Prince!’

‘Colonel,’ said Otto, ‘we have a jovial entertainer. I drink to Colonel Gordon.’

Thereupon all three took their wine very pleasantly; and even as they did so, the carriage with a lurch turned into the high-road and began to make better speed.

All was bright within; the wine had coloured Gotthold’s cheek; dim forms of forest trees, dwindling and spiring, scarves of the starry sky, now wide and now narrow, raced past the windows, through one that was left open the air of the woods came in with a nocturnal raciness; and the roll of wheels and the tune of the trotting horses sounded merrily on the ear. Toast followed toast; glass after glass was bowed across and emptied by the trio; and presently there began to fall upon them a luxurious spell, under the influence of which little but the sound of quiet and confidential laughter interrupted the long intervals of meditative silence.

‘Otto,’ said Gotthold, after one of these seasons of quiet, ‘I do not ask you to forgive me. Were the parts reversed, I could not forgive you.’

‘Well,’ said Otto, ‘it is a phrase we use. I do forgive you, but your words and your suspicions rankle; and not yours alone. It is idle, Colonel Gordon, in view of the order you are carrying out, to conceal from you the dissensions of my family; they have gone so far that they are now public property. Well, gentlemen, can I forgive my wife? I can, of course, and do; but in what sense? I would certainly not stoop to any revenge; as certainly I could not think of her but as one changed beyond my recognition.’

‘Allow me,’ returned the Colonel. ‘You will permit me to hope that I am addressing Christians? We are all conscious, I trust, that we are miserable sinners.’

‘I disown the consciousness,’ said Gotthold. ‘Warmed with this good fluid, I deny your thesis.’

‘How, sir? You never did anything wrong? and I heard you asking pardon but this moment, not of your God, sir, but of a common fellow-worm!’ the Colonel cried.

‘I own you have me; you are expert in argument, Heir Oberst,’ said the Doctor.

‘Begad, sir, I am proud to hear you say so,’ said the Colonel. ‘I was well grounded indeed at Aberdeen. And as for this matter of forgiveness, it comes, sir, of loose views and (what is if anything more dangerous) a regular life. A sound creed and a bad morality, that’s the root of wisdom. You two gentlemen are too good to be forgiving.’

‘The paradox is somewhat forced,’ said Gotthold.

‘Pardon me, Colonel,’ said the Prince; ‘I readily acquit you of any design of offence, but your words bite like satire. Is this a time, do you think, when I can wish to hear myself called good, now that I am paying the penalty (and am willing like yourself to think it just) of my prolonged misconduct?’

‘O, pardon me!’ cried the Colonel. ‘You have never been expelled from the divinity hall; you have never been broke. I was: broke for a neglect of military duty. To tell you the open truth, your Highness, I was the worse of drink; it’s a thing I never do now,’ he added, taking out his glass. ‘But a man, you see, who has really tasted the defects of his own character, as I have, and has come to regard himself as a kind of blind teetotum knocking about life, begins to learn a very different view about forgiveness. I will talk of not forgiving others, sir, when I have made out to forgive myself, and not before; and the date is like to be a long one. My father, the Reverend Alexander Gordon, was a good man, and damned hard upon others. I am what they call a bad one, and that is just the difference. The man who cannot forgive any mortal thing is a green hand in life.’

‘And yet I have heard of you, Colonel, as a duellist,’ said Gotthold.

‘A different thing, sir,’ replied the soldier. ‘Professional etiquette. And I trust without unchristian feeling.’

Presently after the Colonel fell into a deep sleep and his companions looked upon each other, smiling.

‘An odd fish,’ said Gotthold.

‘And a strange guardian,’ said the Prince. ‘Yet what he said was true.’

‘Rightly looked upon,’ mused Gotthold, ‘it is ourselves that we cannot forgive, when we refuse forgiveness to our friend. Some strand of our own misdoing is involved in every quarrel.’

‘Are there not offences that disgrace the pardoner?’ asked Otto. ‘Are there not bounds of self-respect?’

‘Otto,’ said Gotthold, ‘does any man respect himself? To this poor waif of a soldier of fortune we may seem respectable gentlemen; but to ourselves, what are we unless a pasteboard portico and a deliquium of deadly weaknesses within?’

‘I? yes,’ said Otto; ‘but you, Gotthold — you, with your interminable industry, your keen mind, your books — serving mankind, scorning pleasures and temptations! You do not know how I envy you.’

‘Otto,’ said the Doctor, ‘in one word, and a bitter one to say: I am a secret tippler. Yes, I drink too much. The habit has robbed these very books, to which you praise my devotion, of the merits that they should have had. It has spoiled my temper. When I spoke to you the other day, how much of my warmth was in the cause of virtue? how much was the fever of last night’s wine? Ay, as my poor fellow-sot there said, and as I vaingloriously denied, we are all miserable sinners, put here for a moment, knowing the good, choosing the evil, standing naked and ashamed in the eye of God.’

‘Is it so?’ said Otto. ‘Why, then, what are we? Are the very best -’

‘There is no best in man,’ said Gotthold. ‘I am not better, it is likely I am not worse, than you or that poor sleeper. I was a sham, and now you know me: that is all.’

‘And yet it has not changed my love,’ returned Otto softly. ‘Our misdeeds do not change us. Gotthold, fill your glass. Let us drink to what is good in this bad business; let us drink to our old affection; and, when we have done so, forgive your too just grounds of offence, and drink with me to my wife, whom I have so misused, who has so misused me, and whom I have left, I fear, I greatly fear, in danger. What matters it how bad we are, if others can still love us, and we can still love others?’

‘Ay!’ replied the Doctor. ‘It is very well said. It is the true answer to the pessimist, and the standing miracle of mankind. So you still love me? and so you can forgive your wife? Why, then, we may bid conscience “Down, dog,” like an ill-trained puppy yapping at shadows.’

The pair fell into silence, the Doctor tapping on his empty glass.

The carriage swung forth out of the valleys on that open balcony of high-road that runs along the front of Grunewald, looking down on Gerolstein. Far below, a white waterfall was shining to the stars from the falling skirts of forest, and beyond that, the night stood naked above the plain. On the other hand, the lamp-light skimmed the face of the precipices, and the dwarf pine-trees twinkled with all their needles, and were gone again into the wake. The granite roadway thundered under wheels and hoofs; and at times, by reason of its continual winding, Otto could see the escort on the other side of a ravine, riding well together in the night. Presently the Felsenburg came plainly in view, some way above them, on a bold projection of the mountain, and planting its bulk against the starry sky.

‘See, Gotthold,’ said the Prince, ‘our destination.’

Gotthold awoke as from a trance.

‘I was thinking,’ said he, ‘if there is any danger, why did you not resist? I was told you came of your free will; but should you not be there to help her?’

The colour faded from the Prince’s cheeks.

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