Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter IV

In which the Prince Collects Opinions by the Way

A LITTLE before noon Otto, by a triumph of manoeuvring, effected his escape. He was quit in this way of the ponderous gratitude of Mr. Killian, and of the confidential gratitude of poor Ottilia; but of Fritz he was not quit so readily. That young politician, brimming with mysterious glances, offered to lend his convoy as far as to the high-road; and Otto, in fear of some residuary jealousy and for the girl’s sake, had not the courage to gainsay him; but he regarded his companion with uneasy glances, and devoutly wished the business at an end. For some time Fritz walked by the mare in silence; and they had already traversed more than half the proposed distance when, with something of a blush, he looked up and opened fire.

‘Are you not,’ he asked, ‘what they call a socialist?’

‘Why, no,’ returned Otto, ‘not precisely what they call so. Why do you ask?’

‘I will tell you why,’ said the young man. ‘I saw from the first that you were a red progressional, and nothing but the fear of old Killian kept you back. And there, sir, you were right: old men are always cowards. But nowadays, you see, there are so many groups: you can never tell how far the likeliest kind of man may be prepared to go; and I was never sure you were one of the strong thinkers, till you hinted about women and free love.’

‘Indeed,’ cried Otto, ‘I never said a word of such a thing.’

‘Not you!’ cried Fritz. ‘Never a word to compromise! You was sowing seed: ground-bait, our president calls it. But it’s hard to deceive me, for I know all the agitators and their ways, and all the doctrines; and between you and me,’ lowering his voice, ‘I am myself affiliated. O yes, I am a secret society man, and here is my medal.’ And drawing out a green ribbon that he wore about his neck, he held up, for Otto’s inspection, a pewter medal bearing the imprint of a Phoenix and the legend LIBERTAS. ‘And so now you see you may trust me,’ added Fritz, ‘I am none of your alehouse talkers; I am a convinced revolutionary.’ And he looked meltingly upon Otto.

‘I see,’ replied the Prince; ‘that is very gratifying. Well, sir, the great thing for the good of one’s country is, first of all, to be a good man. All springs from there. For my part, although you are right in thinking that I have to do with politics, I am unfit by intellect and temper for a leading role. I was intended, I fear, for a subaltern. Yet we have all something to command, Mr. Fritz, if it be only our own temper; and a man about to marry must look closely to himself. The husband’s, like the prince’s, is a very artificial standing; and it is hard to be kind in either. Do you follow that?’

‘O yes, I follow that,’ replied the young man, sadly chop-fallen over the nature of the information he had elicited; and then brightening up: ‘Is it,’ he ventured, ‘is it for an arsenal that you have bought the farm?’

‘We’ll see about that,’ the Prince answered, laughing. ‘You must not be too zealous. And in the meantime, if I were you, I would say nothing on the subject.’

‘O, trust me, sir, for that,’ cried Fritz, as he pocketed a crown. ‘And you’ve let nothing out; for I suspected — I might say I knew it -from the first. And mind you, when a guide is required,’ he added, ‘I know all the forest paths.’

Otto rode away, chuckling. This talk with Fritz had vastly entertained him; nor was he altogether discontented with his bearing at the farm; men, he was able to tell himself, had behaved worse under smaller provocation. And, to harmonise all, the road and the April air were both delightful to his soul.

Up and down, and to and fro, ever mounting through the wooded foothills, the broad white high-road wound onward into Grunewald. On either hand the pines stood coolly rooted — green moss prospering, springs welling forth between their knuckled spurs; and though some were broad and stalwart, and others spiry and slender, yet all stood firm in the same attitude and with the same expression, like a silent army presenting arms.

The road lay all the way apart from towns and villages, which it left on either hand. Here and there, indeed, in the bottom of green glens, the Prince could spy a few congregated roofs, or perhaps above him, on a shoulder, the solitary cabin of a woodman. But the highway was an international undertaking and with its face set for distant cities, scorned the little life of Grunewald. Hence it was exceeding solitary. Near the frontier Otto met a detachment of his own troops marching in the hot dust; and he was recognised and somewhat feebly cheered as he rode by. But from that time forth and for a long while he was alone with the great woods.

Gradually the spell of pleasure relaxed; his own thoughts returned, like stinging insects, in a cloud; and the talk of the night before, like a shower of buffets, fell upon his memory. He looked east and west for any comforter; and presently he was aware of a cross-road coming steeply down hill, and a horseman cautiously descending. A human voice or presence, like a spring in the desert, was now welcome in itself, and Otto drew bridle to await the coming of this stranger. He proved to be a very red-faced, thick-lipped countryman, with a pair of fat saddle-bags and a stone bottle at his waist; who, as soon as the Prince hailed him, jovially, if somewhat thickly, answered. At the same time he gave a beery yaw in the saddle. It was clear his bottle was no longer full.

‘Do you ride towards Mittwalden?’ asked the Prince.

‘As far as the cross-road to Tannenbrunn,’ the man replied. ‘Will you bear company?’

‘With pleasure. I have even waited for you on the chance,’ answered Otto.

By this time they were close alongside; and the man, with the countryfolk instinct, turned his cloudy vision first of all on his companion’s mount. ‘The devil!’ he cried. ‘You ride a bonny mare, friend!’ And then, his curiosity being satisfied about the essential, he turned his attention to that merely secondary matter, his companion’s face. He started. ‘The Prince!’ he cried, saluting, with another yaw that came near dismounting him. ‘I beg your pardon, your Highness, not to have recognised you at once.’

The Prince was vexed out of his self-possession. ‘Since you know me,’ he said, ‘it is unnecessary we should ride together. I will precede you, if you please.’ And he was about to set spur to the grey mare, when the half-drunken fellow, reaching over, laid his hand upon the rein.

‘Hark you,’ he said, ‘prince or no prince, that is not how one man should conduct himself with another. What! You’ll ride with me incog. and set me talking! But if I know you, you’ll preshede me, if you please! Spy!’ And the fellow, crimson with drink and injured vanity, almost spat the word into the Prince’s face.

A horrid confusion came over Otto. He perceived that he had acted rudely, grossly presuming on his station. And perhaps a little shiver of physical alarm mingled with his remorse, for the fellow was very powerful and not more than half in the possession of his senses. ‘Take your hand from my rein,’ he said, with a sufficient assumption of command; and when the man, rather to his wonder, had obeyed: ‘You should understand, sir,’ he added, ‘that while I might be glad to ride with you as one person of sagacity with another, and so receive your true opinions, it would amuse me very little to hear the empty compliments you would address to me as Prince.’

‘You think I would lie, do you?’ cried the man with the bottle, purpling deeper.

‘I know you would,’ returned Otto, entering entirely into his self-possession. ‘You would not even show me the medal you wear about your neck.’ For he had caught a glimpse of a green ribbon at the fellow’s throat.

The change was instantaneous: the red face became mottled with yellow: a thick-fingered, tottering hand made a clutch at the tell-tale ribbon. ‘Medal!’ the man cried, wonderfully sobered. ‘I have no medal.’

‘Pardon me,’ said the Prince. ‘I will even tell you what that medal bears: a Phoenix burning, with the word LIBERTAS.’ The medallist remaining speechless, ‘You are a pretty fellow,’ continued Otto, smiling, ‘to complain of incivility from the man whom you conspire to murder.’

‘Murder!’ protested the man. ‘Nay, never that; nothing criminal for me!’

‘You are strangely misinformed,’ said Otto. ‘Conspiracy itself is criminal, and ensures the pain of death. Nay, sir, death it is; I will guarantee my accuracy. Not that you need be so deplorably affected, for I am no officer. But those who mingle with politics should look at both sides of the medal.’

‘Your Highness . . . . ’ began the knight of the bottle.

‘Nonsense! you are a Republican,’ cried Otto; ‘what have you to do with highnesses? But let us continue to ride forward. Since you so much desire it, I cannot find it in my heart to deprive you of my company. And for that matter, I have a question to address to you. Why, being so great a body of men — for you are a great body — fifteen thousand, I have heard, but that will be understated; am I right?’

The man gurgled in his throat.

‘Why, then, being so considerable a party,’ resumed Otto, ‘do you not come before me boldly with your wants? — what do I say? with your commands? Have I the name of being passionately devoted to my throne? I can scarce suppose it. Come, then; show me your majority, and I will instantly resign. Tell this to your friends; assure them from me of my docility; assure them that, however they conceive of my deficiencies, they cannot suppose me more unfit to be a ruler than I do myself. I am one of the worst princes in Europe; will they improve on that?’

‘Far be it from me . . .’ the man began.

‘See, now, if you will not defend my government!’ cried Otto. ‘If I were you, I would leave conspiracies. You are as little fit to be a conspirator as I to be a king.’

‘One thing I will say out,’ said the man. ‘It is not so much you that we complain of, it’s your lady.’

‘Not a word, sir’ said the Prince; and then after a moment’s pause, and in tones of some anger and contempt: ‘I once more advise you to have done with politics,’ he added; ‘and when next I see you, let me see you sober. A morning drunkard is the last man to sit in judgment even upon the worst of princes.’

‘I have had a drop, but I had not been drinking,’ the man replied, triumphing in a sound distinction. ‘And if I had, what then? Nobody hangs by me. But my mill is standing idle, and I blame it on your wife. Am I alone in that? Go round and ask. Where are the mills? Where are the young men that should be working? Where is the currency? All paralysed. No, sir, it is not equal; for I suffer for your faults — I pay for them, by George, out of a poor man’s pocket. And what have you to do with mine? Drunk or sober, I can see my country going to hell, and I can see whose fault it is. And so now, I’ve said my say, and you may drag me to a stinking dungeon; what care I? I’ve spoke the truth, and so I’ll hold hard, and not intrude upon your Highness’s society.’

And the miller reined up and, clumsily enough, saluted.

‘You will observe, I have not asked your name,’ said Otto. ‘I wish you a good ride,’ and he rode on hard. But let him ride as he pleased, this interview with the miller was a chokepear, which he could not swallow. He had begun by receiving a reproof in manners, and ended by sustaining a defeat in logic, both from a man whom he despised. All his old thoughts returned with fresher venom. And by three in the afternoon, coming to the cross-roads for Beckstein, Otto decided to turn aside and dine there leisurely. Nothing at least could be worse than to go on as he was going.

In the inn at Beckstein he remarked, immediately upon his entrance, an intelligent young gentleman dining, with a book in front of him. He had his own place laid close to the reader, and with a proper apology, broke ground by asking what he read.

‘I am perusing,’ answered the young gentleman, ‘the last work of the Herr Doctor Hohenstockwitz, cousin and librarian of your Prince here in Grunewald — a man of great erudition and some lambencies of wit.’

‘I am acquainted,’ said Otto, ‘with the Herr Doctor, though not yet with his work.’

‘Two privileges that I must envy you,’ replied the young man politely: ‘an honour in hand, a pleasure in the bush.’

‘The Herr Doctor is a man much respected, I believe, for his attainments?’ asked the Prince.

‘He is, sir, a remarkable instance of the force of intellect,’ replied the reader. ‘Who of our young men know anything of his cousin, all reigning Prince although he be? Who but has heard of Doctor Gotthold? But intellectual merit, alone of all distinctions, has its base in nature.’

‘I have the gratification of addressing a student — perhaps an author?’ Otto suggested.

The young man somewhat flushed. ‘I have some claim to both distinctions, sir, as you suppose,’ said he; ‘there is my card. I am the licentiate Roederer, author of several works on the theory and practice of politics.’

‘You immensely interest me,’ said the Prince; ‘the more so as I gather that here in Grunewald we are on the brink of revolution. Pray, since these have been your special studies, would you augur hopefully of such a movement?’

‘I perceive,’ said the young author, with a certain vinegary twitch, ‘that you are unacquainted with my opuscula. I am a convinced authoritarian. I share none of those illusory, Utopian fancies with which empirics blind themselves and exasperate the ignorant. The day of these ideas is, believe me, past, or at least passing.’

‘When I look about me —’ began Otto.

‘When you look about you,’ interrupted the licentiate, ‘you behold the ignorant. But in the laboratory of opinion, beside the studious lamp, we begin already to discard these figments. We begin to return to nature’s order, to what I might call, if I were to borrow from the language of therapeutics, the expectant treatment of abuses. You will not misunderstand me,’ he continued: ‘a country in the condition in which we find Grunewald, a prince such as your Prince Otto, we must explicitly condemn; they are behind the age. But I would look for a remedy not to brute convulsions, but to the natural supervenience of a more able sovereign. I should amuse you, perhaps,’ added the licentiate, with a smile, ‘I think I should amuse you if I were to explain my notion of a prince. We who have studied in the closet, no longer, in this age, propose ourselves for active service. The paths, we have perceived, are incompatible. I would not have a student on the throne, though I would have one near by for an adviser. I would set forward as prince a man of a good, medium understanding, lively rather than deep; a man of courtly manner, possessed of the double art to ingratiate and to command; receptive, accommodating, seductive. I have been observing you since your first entrance. Well, sir, were I a subject of Grunewald I should pray heaven to set upon the seat of government just such another as yourself.’

‘The devil you would!’ exclaimed the Prince.

The licentiate Roederer laughed most heartily. ‘I thought I should astonish you,’ he said. ‘These are not the ideas of the masses.’

‘They are not, I can assure you,’ Otto said.

‘Or rather,’ distinguished the licentiate, ‘not to-day. The time will come, however, when these ideas shall prevail.’

‘You will permit me, sir, to doubt it,’ said Otto.

‘Modesty is always admirable,’ chuckled the theorist. ‘But yet I assure you, a man like you, with such a man as, say, Doctor Gotthold at your elbow, would be, for all practical issues, my ideal ruler.’

At this rate the hours sped pleasantly for Otto. But the licentiate unfortunately slept that night at Beckstein, where he was, being dainty in the saddle and given to half stages. And to find a convoy to Mittwalden, and thus mitigate the company of his own thoughts, the Prince had to make favour with a certain party of wood-merchants from various states of the empire, who had been drinking together somewhat noisily at the far end of the apartment.

The night had already fallen when they took the saddle. The merchants were very loud and mirthful; each had a face like a nor’west moon; and they played pranks with each others’ horses, and mingled songs and choruses, and alternately remembered and forgot the companion of their ride. Otto thus combined society and solitude, hearkening now to their chattering and empty talk, now to the voices of the encircling forest. The starlit dark, the faint wood airs, the clank of the horse-shoes making broken music, accorded together and attuned his mind. And he was still in a most equal temper when the party reached the top of that long hill that overlooks Mittwalden.

Down in the bottom of a bowl of forest, the lights of the little formal town glittered in a pattern, street crossing street; away by itself on the right, the palace was glowing like a factory.

Although he knew not Otto, one of the wood-merchants was a native of the state. ‘There,’ said he, pointing to the palace with his whip, ‘there is Jezebel’s inn.’

‘What, do you call it that?’ cried another, laughing.

‘Ay, that’s what they call it,’ returned the Grunewalder; and he broke into a song, which the rest, as people well acquainted with the words and air, instantly took up in chorus. Her Serene Highness Amalia Seraphina, Princess of Grunewald, was the heroine, Gondremark the hero of this ballad. Shame hissed in Otto’s ears. He reined up short and sat stunned in the saddle; and the singers continued to descend the hill without him.

The song went to a rough, swashing, popular air; and long after the words became inaudible the swing of the music, rising and falling, echoed insult in the Prince’s brain. He fled the sounds. Hard by him on his right a road struck towards the palace, and he followed it through the thick shadows and branching alleys of the park. It was a busy place on a fine summer’s afternoon, when the court and burghers met and saluted; but at that hour of the night in the early spring it was deserted to the roosting birds. Hares rustled among the covert; here and there a statue stood glimmering, with its eternal gesture; here and there the echo of an imitation temple clattered ghostly to the trampling of the mare. Ten minutes brought him to the upper end of his own home garden, where the small stables opened, over a bridge, upon the park. The yard clock was striking the hour of ten; so was the big bell in the palace bell-tower; and, farther off, the belfries of the town. About the stable all else was silent but the stamping of stalled horses and the rattle of halters. Otto dismounted; and as he did so a memory came back to him: a whisper of dishonest grooms and stolen corn, once heard, long forgotten, and now recurring in the nick of opportunity. He crossed the bridge, and, going up to a window, knocked six or seven heavy blows in a particular cadence, and, as he did so, smiled. Presently a wicket was opened in the gate, and a man’s head appeared in the dim starlight.

‘Nothing to-night,’ said a voice.

‘Bring a lantern,’ said the Prince.

‘Dear heart a’ mercy!’ cried the groom. ‘Who’s that?’

‘It is I, the Prince,’ replied Otto. ‘Bring a lantern, take in the mare, and let me through into the garden.’

The man remained silent for a while, his head still projecting through the wicket.

‘His Highness!’ he said at last. ‘And why did your Highness knock so strange?’

‘It is a superstition in Mittwalden,’ answered Otto, ‘that it cheapens corn.’

With a sound like a sob the groom fled. He was very white when he returned, even by the light of the lantern; and his hand trembled as he undid the fastenings and took the mare.

‘Your Highness,’ he began at last, ‘for God’s sake . . . . ’ And there he paused, oppressed with guilt.

‘For God’s sake, what?’ asked Otto cheerfully. ‘For God’s sake let us have cheaper corn, say I. Good-night!’ And he strode off into the garden, leaving the groom petrified once more.

The garden descended by a succession of stone terraces to the level of the fish-pond. On the far side the ground rose again, and was crowned by the confused roofs and gables of the palace. The modern pillared front, the ball-room, the great library, the princely apartments, the busy and illuminated quarters of that great house, all faced the town. The garden side was much older; and here it was almost dark; only a few windows quietly lighted at various elevations. The great square tower rose, thinning by stages like a telescope; and on the top of all the flag hung motionless.

The garden, as it now lay in the dusk and glimmer of the starshine, breathed of April violets. Under night’s cavern arch the shrubs obscurely bustled. Through the plotted terraces and down the marble stairs the Prince rapidly descended, fleeing before uncomfortable thoughts. But, alas! from these there is no city of refuge. And now, when he was about midway of the descent, distant strains of music began to fall upon his ear from the ball-room, where the court was dancing. They reached him faint and broken, but they touched the keys of memory; and through and above them Otto heard the ranting melody of the wood-merchants’ song. Mere blackness seized upon his mind. Here he was, coming home; the wife was dancing, the husband had been playing a trick upon a lackey; and meanwhile, all about them, they were a by-word to their subjects. Such a prince, such a husband, such a man, as this Otto had become! And he sped the faster onward.

Some way below he came unexpectedly upon a sentry; yet a little farther, and he was challenged by a second; and as he crossed the bridge over the fish-pond, an officer making the rounds stopped him once more. The parade of watch was more than usual; but curiosity was dead in Otto’s mind, and he only chafed at the interruption. The porter of the back postern admitted him, and started to behold him so disordered. Thence, hasting by private stairs and passages, he came at length unseen to his own chamber, tore off his clothes, and threw himself upon his bed in the dark. The music of the ball-room still continued to a very lively measure; and still, behind that, he heard in spirit the chorus of the merchants clanking down the hill.

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