Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter III

In which the Prince Comforts Age and Beauty and Delivers a Lecture on Discretion in Love

THE Prince was early abroad: in the time of the first chorus of birds, of the pure and quiet air, of the slanting sunlight and the mile-long shadows. To one who had passed a miserable night, the freshness of that hour was tonic and reviving; to steal a march upon his slumbering fellows, to be the Adam of the coming day, composed and fortified his spirits; and the Prince, breathing deep and pausing as he went, walked in the wet fields beside his shadow, and was glad.

A trellised path led down into the valley of the brook, and he turned to follow it. The stream was a break-neck, boiling Highland river. Hard by the farm, it leaped a little precipice in a thick grey-mare’s tail of twisted filaments, and then lay and worked and bubbled in a lynn. Into the middle of this quaking pool a rock protruded, shelving to a cape; and thither Otto scrambled and sat down to ponder.

Soon the sun struck through the screen of branches and thin early leaves that made a hanging bower above the fall; and the golden lights and flitting shadows fell upon and marbled the surface of that so seething pot; and rays plunged deep among the turning waters; and a spark, as bright as a diamond, lit upon the swaying eddy. It began to grow warm where Otto lingered, warm and heady; the lights swam, weaving their maze across the shaken pool; on the impending rock, reflections danced like butterflies; and the air was fanned by the waterfall as by a swinging curtain.

Otto, who was weary with tossing and beset with horrid phantoms of remorse and jealousy, instantly fell dead in love with that sun-chequered, echoing corner. Holding his feet, he stared out of a drowsy trance, wondering, admiring, musing, losing his way among uncertain thoughts. There is nothing that so apes the external bearing of free will as that unconscious bustle, obscurely following liquid laws, with which a river contends among obstructions. It seems the very play of man and destiny, and as Otto pored on these recurrent changes, he grew, by equal steps, the sleepier and the more profound. Eddy and Prince were alike jostled in their purpose, alike anchored by intangible influences in one corner of the world. Eddy and Prince were alike useless, starkly useless, in the cosmology of men. Eddy and Prince — Prince and Eddy.

It is probable he had been some while asleep when a voice recalled him from oblivion. ‘Sir,’ it was saying; and looking round, he saw Mr. Killian’s daughter, terrified by her boldness and making bashful signals from the shore. She was a plain, honest lass, healthy and happy and good, and with that sort of beauty that comes of happiness and health. But her confusion lent her for the moment an additional charm.

‘Good-morning,’ said Otto, rising and moving towards her. ‘I arose early and was in a dream.’

‘O, sir!’ she cried, ‘I wish to beg of you to spare my father; for I assure your Highness, if he had known who you was, he would have bitten his tongue out sooner. And Fritz, too — how he went on! But I had a notion; and this morning I went straight down into the stable, and there was your Highness’s crown upon the stirrup-irons! But, O, sir, I made certain you would spare them; for they were as innocent as lambs.’

‘My dear,’ said Otto, both amused and gratified, ‘you do not understand. It is I who am in the wrong; for I had no business to conceal my name and lead on these gentleman to speak of me. And it is I who have to beg of you that you will keep my secret and not betray the discourtesy of which I was guilty. As for any fear of me, your friends are safe in Gerolstein; and even in my own territory, you must be well aware I have no power.’

‘O, sir,’ she said, curtsying, ‘I would not say that: the huntsmen would all die for you.’

‘Happy Prince!’ said Otto. ‘But although you are too courteous to avow the knowledge, you have had many opportunities of learning that I am a vain show. Only last night we heard it very clearly stated. You see the shadow flitting on this hard rock? Prince Otto, I am afraid, is but the moving shadow, and the name of the rock is Gondremark. Ah! if your friends had fallen foul of Gondremark! But happily the younger of the two admires him. And as for the old gentleman your father, he is a wise man and an excellent talker, and I would take a long wager he is honest.’

‘O, for honest, your Highness, that he is!’ exclaimed the girl. ‘And Fritz is as honest as he. And as for all they said, it was just talk and nonsense. When countryfolk get gossiping, they go on, I do assure you, for the fun; they don’t as much as think of what they say. If you went to the next farm, it’s my belief you would hear as much against my father.’

‘Nay, nay,’ said Otto, ‘there you go too fast. For all that was said against Prince Otto — ’

‘O, it was shameful!’ cried the girl.

‘Not shameful — true,’ returned Otto. ‘O, yes — true. I am all they said of me — all that and worse.’

‘I never!’ cried ‘Ottilia. ‘Is that how you do? Well, you would never be a soldier. Now if any one accuses me, I get up and give it them. O, I defend myself. I wouldn’t take a fault at another person’s hands, no, not if I had it on my forehead. And that’s what you must do, if you mean to live it out. But, indeed, I never heard such nonsense. I should think you was ashamed of yourself! You’re bald, then, I suppose?’

‘O no,’ said Otto, fairly laughing. ‘There I acquit myself: not bald!’

‘Well, and good?’ pursued the girl. ‘Come now, you know you are good, and I’ll make you say so. . . . Your Highness, I beg your humble pardon. But there’s no disrespect intended. And anyhow, you know you are.’

‘Why, now, what am I to say?’ replied Otto. ‘You are a cook, and excellently well you do it; I embrace the chance of thanking you for the ragout. Well now, have you not seen good food so bedevilled by unskilful cookery that no one could be brought to eat the pudding? That is me, my dear. I am full of good ingredients, but the dish is worthless. I am — I give it you in one word — sugar in the salad.’

‘Well, I don’t care, you’re good,’ reiterated Ottilia, a little flushed by having failed to understand.

‘I will tell you one thing,’ replied Otto: ‘You are!’

‘Ah, well, that’s what they all said of you,’ moralised the girl; ‘such a tongue to come round — such a flattering tongue!’

‘O, you forget, I am a man of middle age,’ the Prince chuckled.

‘Well, to speak to you, I should think you was a boy; and Prince or no Prince, if you came worrying where I was cooking, I would pin a napkin to your tails. . . . And, O Lord, I declare I hope your Highness will forgive me,’ the girl added. ‘I can’t keep it in my mind.’

‘No more can I,’ cried Otto. ‘That is just what they complain of!’

They made a loverly-looking couple; only the heavy pouring of that horse-tail of water made them raise their voices above lovers’ pitch. But to a jealous onlooker from above, their mirth and close proximity might easily give umbrage; and a rough voice out of a tuft of brambles began calling on Ottilia by name. She changed colour at that. ‘It is Fritz,’ she said. ‘I must go.’

‘Go, my dear, and I need not bid you go in peace, for I think you have discovered that I am not formidable at close quarters,’ said the Prince, and made her a fine gesture of dismissal.

So Ottilia skipped up the bank, and disappeared into the thicket, stopping once for a single blushing bob — blushing, because she had in the interval once more forgotten and remembered the stranger’s quality.

Otto returned to his rock promontory; but his humour had in the meantime changed. The sun now shone more fairly on the pool; and over its brown, welling surface, the blue of heaven and the golden green of the spring foliage danced in fleeting arabesque. The eddies laughed and brightened with essential colour. And the beauty of the dell began to rankle in the Prince’s mind; it was so near to his own borders, yet without. He had never had much of the joy of possessorship in any of the thousand and one beautiful and curious things that were his; and now he was conscious of envy for what was another’s. It was, indeed, a smiling, dilettante sort of envy; but yet there it was: the passion of Ahab for the vineyard, done in little; and he was relieved when Mr. Killian appeared upon the scene.

‘I hope, sir, that you have slept well under my plain roof,’ said the old farmer.

‘I am admiring this sweet spot that you are privileged to dwell in,’ replied Otto, evading the inquiry.

‘It is rustic,’ returned Mr. Gottesheim, looking around him with complacency, ‘a very rustic corner; and some of the land to the west is most excellent fat land, excellent deep soil. You should see my wheat in the ten-acre field. There is not a farm in Grunewald, no, nor many in Gerolstein, to match the River Farm. Some sixty — I keep thinking when I sow — some sixty, and some seventy, and some an hundredfold; and my own place, six score! But that, sir, is partly the farming.’

‘And the stream has fish?’ asked Otto.

‘A fishpond,’ said the farmer. ‘Ay, it is a pleasant bit. It is pleasant even here, if one had time, with the brook drumming in that black pool, and the green things hanging all about the rocks, and, dear heart, to see the very pebbles! all turned to gold and precious stones! But you have come to that time of life, sir, when, if you will excuse me, you must look to have the rheumatism set in. Thirty to forty is, as one may say, their seed-time. And this is a damp cold corner for the early morning and an empty stomach. If I might humbly advise you, sir, I would be moving.’

‘With all my heart,’ said Otto gravely. ‘And so you have lived your life here?’ he added, as they turned to go.

‘Here I was born,’ replied the farmer, ‘and here I wish I could say I was to die. But fortune, sir, fortune turns the wheel. They say she is blind, but we will hope she only sees a little farther on. My grandfather and my father and I, we have all tilled these acres, my furrow following theirs. All the three names are on the garden bench, two Killians and one Johann. Yes, sir, good men have prepared themselves for the great change in my old garden. Well do I mind my father, in a woollen night-cap, the good soul, going round and round to see the last of it. ‘Killian,’ said he, ‘do you see the smoke of my tobacco? Why,’ said he, ‘that is man’s life.’ It was his last pipe, and I believe he knew it; and it was a strange thing, without doubt, to leave the trees that he had planted, and the son that he had begotten, ay, sir, and even the old pipe with the Turk’s head that he had smoked since he was a lad and went a-courting. But here we have no continuing city; and as for the eternal, it’s a comfortable thought that we have other merits than our own. And yet you would hardly think how sore it goes against the grain with me, to die in a strange bed.’

‘And must you do so? For what reason?’ Otto asked.

‘The reason? The place is to be sold; three thousand crowns,’ replied Mr. Gottesheim. ‘Had it been a third of that, I may say without boasting that, what with my credit and my savings, I could have met the sum. But at three thousand, unless I have singular good fortune and the new proprietor continues me in office, there is nothing left me but to budge.’

Otto’s fancy for the place redoubled at the news, and became joined with other feelings. If all he heard were true, Grunewald was growing very hot for a sovereign Prince; it might be well to have a refuge; and if so, what more delightful hermitage could man imagine? Mr. Gottesheim, besides, had touched his sympathies. Every man loves in his soul to play the part of the stage deity. And to step down to the aid of the old farmer, who had so roughly handled him in talk, was the ideal of a Fair Revenge. Otto’s thoughts brightened at the prospect, and he began to regard himself with a renewed respect.

‘I can find you, I believe, a purchaser,’ he said, ‘and one who would continue to avail himself of your skill.’

‘Can you, sir, indeed?’ said the old man. ‘Well, I shall be heartily obliged; for I begin to find a man may practise resignation all his days, as he takes physic, and not come to like it in the end.’

‘If you will have the papers drawn, you may even burthen the purchase with your interest,’ said Otto. ‘Let it be assured to you through life.’

‘Your friend, sir,’ insinuated Killian, ‘would not, perhaps, care to make the interest reversible? Fritz is a good lad.’

‘Fritz is young,’ said the Prince dryly; ‘he must earn consideration, not inherit.’

‘He has long worked upon the place, sir,’ insisted Mr. Gottesheim; ‘and at my great age, for I am seventy-eight come harvest, it would be a troublesome thought to the proprietor how to fill my shoes. It would be a care spared to assure yourself of Fritz. And I believe he might be tempted by a permanency.’

‘The young man has unsettled views,’ returned Otto.

‘Possibly the purchaser —’ began Killian.

A little spot of anger burned in Otto’s cheek. ‘I am the purchaser,’ he said.

‘It was what I might have guessed,’ replied the farmer, bowing with an aged, obsequious dignity. ‘You have made an old man very happy; and I may say, indeed, that I have entertained an angel unawares. Sir, the great people of this world — and by that I mean those who are great in station — if they had only hearts like yours, how they would make the fires burn and the poor sing!’

‘I would not judge them hardly, sir,’ said Otto. ‘We all have our frailties.’

‘Truly, sir,’ said Mr. Gottesheim, with unction. ‘And by what name, sir, am I to address my generous landlord?’

The double recollection of an English traveller, whom he had received the week before at court, and of an old English rogue called Transome, whom he had known in youth, came pertinently to the Prince’s help. ‘Transome,’ he answered, ‘is my name. I am an English traveller. It is, to-day, Tuesday. On Thursday, before noon, the money shall be ready. Let us meet, if you please, in Mittwalden, at the “Morning Star.”’

‘I am, in all things lawful, your servant to command,’ replied the farmer. ‘An Englishman! You are a great race of travellers. And has your lordship some experience of land?’

‘I have had some interest of the kind before,’ returned the Prince; ‘not in Gerolstein, indeed. But fortune, as you say, turns the wheel, and I desire to be beforehand with her revolutions.’

‘Very right, sir, I am sure,’ said Mr. Killian.

They had been strolling with deliberation; but they were now drawing near to the farmhouse, mounting by the trellised pathway to the level of the meadow. A little before them, the sound of voices had been some while audible, and now grew louder and more distinct with every step of their advance. Presently, when they emerged upon the top of the bank, they beheld Fritz and Ottilia some way off; he, very black and bloodshot, emphasising his hoarse speech with the smacking of his fist against his palm; she, standing a little way off in blowsy, voluble distress.

‘Dear me!’ said Mr. Gottesheim, and made as if he would turn aside.

But Otto went straight towards the lovers, in whose dissension he believed himself to have a share. And, indeed, as soon as he had seen the Prince, Fritz had stood tragic, as if awaiting and defying his approach.

‘O, here you are!’ he cried, as soon as they were near enough for easy speech. ‘You are a man at least, and must reply. What were you after? Why were you two skulking in the bush? God!’ he broke out, turning again upon Ottilia, ‘to think that I should waste my heart on you!’

‘I beg your pardon,’ Otto cut in. ‘You were addressing me. In virtue of what circumstance am I to render you an account of this young lady’s conduct? Are you her father? her brother? her husband?’

‘O, sir, you know as well as I,’ returned the peasant. ‘We keep company, she and I. I love her, and she is by way of loving me; but all shall be above-board, I would have her to know. I have a good pride of my own.’

‘Why, I perceive I must explain to you what love is,’ said Otto. ‘Its measure is kindness. It is very possible that you are proud; but she, too, may have some self-esteem; I do not speak for myself. And perhaps, if your own doings were so curiously examined, you might find it inconvenient to reply.’

‘These are all set-offs,’ said the young man. ‘You know very well that a man is a man, and a woman only a woman. That holds good all over, up and down. I ask you a question, I ask it again, and here I stand.’ He drew a mark and toed it.

‘When you have studied liberal doctrines somewhat deeper,’ said the Prince, ‘you will perhaps change your note. You are a man of false weights and measures, my young friend. You have one scale for women, another for men; one for princes, and one for farmer-folk. On the prince who neglects his wife you can be most severe. But what of the lover who insults his mistress? You use the name of love. I should think this lady might very fairly ask to be delivered from love of such a nature. For if I, a stranger, had been one-tenth part so gross and so discourteous, you would most righteously have broke my head. It would have been in your part, as lover, to protect her from such insolence. Protect her first, then, from yourself.’

‘Ay,’ quoth Mr. Gottesheim, who had been looking on with his hands behind his tall old back, ‘ay, that’s Scripture truth.’

Fritz was staggered, not only by the Prince’s imperturbable superiority of manner, but by a glimmering consciousness that he himself was in the wrong. The appeal to liberal doctrines had, besides, unmanned him.

‘Well,’ said he, ‘if I was rude, I’ll own to it. I meant no ill, and did nothing out of my just rights; but I am above all these old vulgar notions too; and if I spoke sharp, I’ll ask her pardon.’

‘Freely granted, Fritz,’ said Ottilia.

‘But all this doesn’t answer me,’ cried Fritz. ‘I ask what you two spoke about. She says she promised not to tell; well, then, I mean to know. Civility is civility, but I’ll be no man’s gull. I have a right to common justice, if I DO keep company!’

‘If you will ask Mr. Gottesheim,’ replied Otto, ‘you will find I have not spent my hours in idleness. I have, since I arose this morning, agreed to buy the farm. So far I will go to satisfy a curiosity which I condemn.’

‘O, well, if there was business, that’s another matter,’ returned Fritz. ‘Though it beats me why you could not tell. But, of course, if the gentleman is to buy the farm, I suppose there would naturally be an end.’

‘To be sure,’ said Mr. Gottesheim, with a strong accent of conviction.

But Ottilia was much braver. ‘There now!’ she cried in triumph. ‘What did I tell you? I told you I was fighting your battles. Now you see! Think shame of your suspicious temper! You should go down upon your bended knees both to that gentleman and me.’

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