Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter III

The Prince and the English Traveller

So far Otto read, with waxing indignation; and here his fury overflowed. He tossed the roll upon the table and stood up. ‘This man,’ he said, ‘is a devil. A filthy imagination, an ear greedy of evil, a ponderous malignity of thought and language: I grow like him by the reading! Chancellor, where is this fellow lodged?’

‘He was committed to the Flag Tower,’ replied Greisengesang, ‘in the Gamiani apartment.’

‘Lead me to him,’ said the Prince; and then, a thought striking him, ‘Was it for that,’ he asked, ‘that I found so many sentries in the garden?’

‘Your Highness, I am unaware,’ answered Greisengesang, true to his policy. ‘The disposition of the guards is a matter distinct from my functions.’

Otto turned upon the old man fiercely, but ere he had time to speak, Gotthold touched him on the arm. He swallowed his wrath with a great effort. ‘It is well,’ he said, taking the roll. ‘Follow me to the Flag Tower.’

The Chancellor gathered himself together, and the two set forward. It was a long and complicated voyage; for the library was in the wing of the new buildings, and the tower which carried the flag was in the old schloss upon the garden. By a great variety of stairs and corridors, they came out at last upon a patch of gravelled court; the garden peeped through a high grating with a flash of green; tall, old gabled buildings mounted on every side; the Flag Tower climbed, stage after stage, into the blue; and high over all, among the building daws, the yellow flag wavered in the wind. A sentinel at the foot of the tower stairs presented arms; another paced the first landing; and a third was stationed before the door of the extemporised prison.

‘We guard this mud-bag like a jewel,’ Otto sneered.

The Gamiani apartment was so called from an Italian doctor who had imposed on the credulity of a former prince. The rooms were large, airy, pleasant, and looked upon the garden; but the walls were of great thickness (for the tower was old), and the windows were heavily barred. The Prince, followed by the Chancellor, still trotting to keep up with him, brushed swiftly through the little library and the long saloon, and burst like a thunderbolt into the bedroom at the farther end. Sir John was finishing his toilet; a man of fifty, hard, uncompromising, able, with the eye and teeth of physical courage. He was unmoved by the irruption, and bowed with a sort of sneering ease.

‘To what am I to attribute the honour of this visit?’ he asked.

‘You have eaten my bread,’ replied Otto, ‘you have taken my hand, you have been received under my roof. When did I fail you in courtesy? What have you asked that was not granted as to an honoured guest? And here, sir,’ tapping fiercely on the manuscript, ‘here is your return.’

‘Your Highness has read my papers?’ said the Baronet. ‘I am honoured indeed. But the sketch is most imperfect. I shall now have much to add. I can say that the Prince, whom I had accused of idleness, is zealous in the department of police, taking upon himself those duties that are most distasteful. I shall be able to relate the burlesque incident of my arrest, and the singular interview with which you honour me at present. For the rest, I have already communicated with my Ambassador at Vienna; and unless you propose to murder me, I shall be at liberty, whether you please or not, within the week. For I hardly fancy the future empire of Grunewald is yet ripe to go to war with England. I conceive I am a little more than quits. I owe you no explanation; yours has been the wrong. You, if you have studied my writing with intelligence, owe me a large debt of gratitude. And to conclude, as I have not yet finished my toilet, I imagine the courtesy of a turnkey to a prisoner would induce you to withdraw.’

There was some paper on the table, and Otto, sitting down, wrote a passport in the name of Sir John Crabtree.

‘Affix the seal, Herr Cancellarius,’ he said, in his most princely manner, as he rose.

Greisengesang produced a red portfolio, and affixed the seal in the unpoetic guise of an adhesive stamp; nor did his perturbed and clumsy movements at all lessen the comedy of the performance. Sir John looked on with a malign enjoyment; and Otto chafed, regretting, when too late, the unnecessary royalty of his command and gesture. But at length the Chancellor had finished his piece of prestidigitation, and, without waiting for an order, had countersigned the passport. Thus regularised, he returned it to Otto with a bow.

‘You will now,’ said the Prince, ‘order one of my own carriages to be prepared; see it, with your own eyes, charged with Sir John’s effects, and have it waiting within the hour behind the Pheasant House. Sir John departs this morning for Vienna.’

The Chancellor took his elaborate departure.

‘Here, sir, is your passport,’ said Otto, turning to the Baronet. ‘I regret it from my heart that you have met inhospitable usage.’

‘Well, there will be no English war,’ returned Sir John.

‘Nay, sir,’ said Otto, ‘you surely owe me your civility. Matters are now changed, and we stand again upon the footing of two gentlemen. It was not I who ordered your arrest; I returned late last night from hunting; and as you cannot blame me for your imprisonment, you may even thank me for your freedom.’

‘And yet you read my papers,’ said the traveller shrewdly.

‘There, sir, I was wrong,’ returned Otto; ‘and for that I ask your pardon. You can scarce refuse it, for your own dignity, to one who is a plexus of weaknesses. Nor was the fault entirely mine. Had the papers been innocent, it would have been at most an indiscretion. Your own guilt is the sting of my offence.’

Sir John regarded Otto with an approving twinkle; then he bowed, but still in silence.

‘Well, sir, as you are now at your entire disposal, I have a favour to beg of your indulgence,’ continued the Prince. ‘I have to request that you will walk with me alone into the garden so soon as your convenience permits.’

‘From the moment that I am a free man,’ Sir John replied, this time with perfect courtesy, ‘I am wholly at your Highness’s command; and if you will excuse a rather summary toilet, I will even follow you, as I am.’

‘I thank you, sir,’ said Otto.

So without more delay, the Prince leading, the pair proceeded down through the echoing stairway of the tower, and out through the grating, into the ample air and sunshine of the morning, and among the terraces and flower-beds of the garden. They crossed the fish-pond, where the carp were leaping as thick as bees; they mounted, one after another, the various flights of stairs, snowed upon, as they went, with April blossoms, and marching in time to the great orchestra of birds. Nor did Otto pause till they had reached the highest terrace of the garden. Here was a gate into the park, and hard by, under a tuft of laurel, a marble garden seat. Hence they looked down on the green tops of many elm-trees, where the rooks were busy; and, beyond that, upon the palace roof, and the yellow banner flying in the blue. I pray you to be seated, sir,’ said Otto.

Sir John complied without a word; and for some seconds Otto walked to and fro before him, plunged in angry thought. The birds were all singing for a wager.

‘Sir,’ said the Prince at length, turning towards the Englishman, ‘you are to me, except by the conventions of society, a perfect stranger. Of your character and wishes I am ignorant. I have never wittingly disobliged you. There is a difference in station, which I desire to waive. I would, if you still think me entitled to so much consideration — I would be regarded simply as a gentleman. Now, sir, I did wrong to glance at these papers, which I here return to you; but if curiosity be undignified, as I am free to own, falsehood is both cowardly and cruel. I opened your roll; and what did I find -what did I find about my wife; Lies!’ he broke out. ‘They are lies! There are not, so help me God! four words of truth in your intolerable libel! You are a man; you are old, and might be the girl’s father; you are a gentleman; you are a scholar, and have learned refinement; and you rake together all this vulgar scandal, and propose to print it in a public book! Such is your chivalry! But, thank God, sir, she has still a husband. You say, sir, in that paper in your hand, that I am a bad fencer; I have to request from you a lesson in the art. The park is close behind; yonder is the Pheasant House, where you will find your carriage; should I fall, you know, sir — you have written it in your paper — how little my movements are regarded; I am in the custom of disappearing; it will be one more disappearance; and long before it has awakened a remark, you may be safe across the border.’

‘You will observe,’ said Sir John, ‘that what you ask is impossible.’

‘And if I struck you?’ cried the Prince, with a sudden menacing flash.

‘It would be a cowardly blow,’ returned the Baronet, unmoved, ‘for it would make no change. I cannot draw upon a reigning sovereign.’

‘And it is this man, to whom you dare not offer satisfaction, that you choose to insult!’ cried Otto.

‘Pardon me,’ said the traveller, ‘you are unjust. It is because you are a reigning sovereign that I cannot fight with you; and it is for the same reason that I have a right to criticise your action and your wife. You are in everything a public creature; you belong to the public, body and bone. You have with you the law, the muskets of the army, and the eyes of spies. We, on our side, have but one weapon — truth.’

‘Truth!’ echoed the Prince, with a gesture.

There was another silence.

‘Your Highness,’ said Sir John at last, ‘you must not expect grapes from a thistle. I am old and a cynic. Nobody cares a rush for me; and on the whole, after the present interview, I scarce know anybody that I like better than yourself. You see, I have changed my mind, and have the uncommon virtue to avow the change. I tear up this stuff before you, here in your own garden; I ask your pardon, I ask the pardon of the Princess; and I give you my word of honour as a gentleman and an old man, that when my book of travels shall appear it shall not contain so much as the name of Grunewald. And yet it was a racy chapter! But had your Highness only read about the other courts! I am a carrion crow; but it is not my fault, after all, that the world is such a nauseous kennel.’

‘Sir,’ said Otto, ‘is the eye not jaundiced?’

‘Nay,’ cried the traveller, ‘very likely. I am one who goes sniffing; I am no poet. I believe in a better future for the world; or, at all accounts, I do most potently disbelieve in the present. Rotten eggs is the burthen of my song. But indeed, your Highness, when I meet with any merit, I do not think that I am slow to recognise it. This is a day that I shall still recall with gratitude, for I have found a sovereign with some manly virtues; and for once — old courtier and old radical as I am — it is from the heart and quite sincerely that I can request the honour of kissing your Highness’s hand?’

‘Nay, sir,’ said Otto, ‘to my heart!’

And the Englishman, taken at unawares, was clasped for a moment in the Prince’s arms.

‘And now, sir,’ added Otto, ‘there is the Pheasant House; close behind it you will find my carriage, which I pray you to accept. God speed you to Vienna!’

‘In the impetuosity of youth,’ replied Sir John, ‘your Highness has overlooked one circumstance. I am still fasting.’

‘Well, sir,’ said Otto, smiling, ‘you are your own master; you may go or stay. But I warn you, your friend may prove less powerful than your enemies. The Prince, indeed, is thoroughly on your side; he has all the will to help; but to whom do I speak? — you know better than I do, he is not alone in Grunewald.’

‘There is a deal in position,’ returned the traveller, gravely nodding. ‘Gondremark loves to temporise; his policy is below ground, and he fears all open courses; and now that I have seen you act with so much spirit, I will cheerfully risk myself on your protection. Who knows? You may be yet the better man.’

‘Do you indeed believe so?’ cried the Prince. ‘You put life into my heart!’

‘I will give up sketching portraits,’ said the Baronet. ‘I am a blind owl; I had misread you strangely. And yet remember this; a sprint is one thing, and to run all day another. For I still mistrust your constitution; the short nose, the hair and eyes of several complexions; no, they are diagnostic; and I must end, I see, as I began.’

‘I am still a singing chambermaid?’ said Otto.

‘Nay, your Highness, I pray you to forget what I had written,’ said Sir John; ‘I am not like Pilate; and the chapter is no more. Bury it, if you love me.’

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