“After all,” Count d’Avorsy said, stirring his tea with the slow movements of a prelate, “what truth was there in anything that was said at Court, almost without any restraint, and did the Empress, whose beauty has been ruined by some secret grief, who will no longer see anyone and who soothes her continual mental weariness by some journeys without an object and without a rest, in foggy and melancholy islands, and did she really forget Caesar’s wife ought not even to be suspected, did she really give herself to that strange and attractive corrupter, Ladislas Ferkoz?”
The bright night seemed to be scattering handfuls of stars into the placid sea, which was as calm as a blue pond, slumbering in the depths of a forest. Among the tall climbing roses, which hung a mantle of yellow flowers to the fretted baluster of the terrace, there stood out in the distance the illuminated fronts of the hotels and villas, and occasionally women’s laughter was heard above the dull, monotonous sound of surf and the noise of the fog-horns.
Then Captain Sigmund Oroshaz, whose sad and pensive face of a soldier who has seen too much slaughter and too many charnel houses, was marked by a large scar, raised his head and said in a grave, haughty voice:
“Nobody has lied in accusing Maria–Gloriosa of adultery, and nobody has calumniated the Empress and her minister, whom God has damned in the other world. Ladislas Ferkoz was his sovereign’s lover until he died, and made his august master ridiculous and almost odious, for the man, no matter who he be, who allows himself to be flouted by a creature who is unworthy of bearing his name and of sharing his bread; who puts up with such disgrace, who does not crush the guilty couple with all the weight of his power, is not worth pity, nor does he deserve to be spared the mockery. And if I affirm that so harshly, my dear Count — although years and years have passed since the sponge passed over that old story — the reason is that I saw the last chapter of it, quite in spite of myself, however, for I was the officer who was on duty at the palace, and obliged to obey orders, just as if I had been on the field of battle — and on that day I was on duty near Maria–Gloriosa.”
Madame de Laumières, who had begun an animated conversation on crinolines, admist the fragrant odor of Russian cigarettes, and who was making fun of the striking toilets, with which she had amused herself by scanning through her opera glass a few hours previously at the races, stopped, for even when she was talking most volubly she always kept her ears open to hear what was being said around her, and as her curiosity was aroused, she interrupted Sigmund Oroshaz.
“Ah! Monsieur,” she said, “you are not going to leave our curiosity unsatisfied. . . . A story about the Empress puts all our scandals on the beach, and all our questions of dress into the shade, and, I am sure,” she added with a smile at the corners of her mouth, “that even our friend, Madame d’Ormonde will leave off flirting with Monsieur Le Brassard to listen to you.”
Captain Oroshaz continued, with his large blue eyes full of recollections:
“It was in the middle of a grand ball that the Emperor was giving on the occasion of some family anniversary, though I forget exactly what, and where Maria–Gloriosa, who was in great grief, as she had heard that her lover was ill and his life almost despaired of, far from her, was going about with her face as pale as that of Our Lady of Sorrows, seemed to be a soul in affliction, appeared to be ashamed of her bare shoulders, as if she were being made a parade of in the light, while he, the adored of her heart, was lying on a bed of sickness, getting weaker every moment, longing for her and perhaps calling for her in his distress. About midnight, when the violins were striking up the quadrille, which the Emperor was to dance with the wife of the French Ambassador, one of the ladies of honor, Countess Szegedin, went up to the Empress, and whispered a few words to her, in a very low voice. Maria–Gloriosa grew still paler, but mastered her emotion and waited until the end of the last figure. Then, however, she could not restrain herself any longer, and even without giving any pretext for running away in such a manner, and leaning on the arm of her lady of honor, she made her way through the crowd as if she were in a dream and went to her own apartments. I told you that I was on duty that evening at the door of her rooms, and according to etiquette, I was going to salute her respectfully, but she did not give me time.
“‘Captain,’ she said excitedly and vehemently, ‘give orders for my own private coachman, Hans Hildersheim, to get a carriage ready for me immediately,’ but thinking better of it immediately she went on: ‘But no, we should only lose time, and every minute is precious; give me a cloak quickly, Madame, and a lace veil; we will go out of one of the small doors in the park, and take the first conveyance we see.”
“She wrapped herself in her furs, hid her face in her mantilla, and I accompanied her, without at first knowing what this mystery was, and where we were going to, on this mad expedition. I hailed a cab that was dawdling by the side of the pavement, and when the Empress gave me the address of Ladislas Ferkoz, the Minister of State, in a low voice, in spite of my usual phlegm, I felt a vague shiver of emotion, one of those movements of hesitation and recoil, from which the bravest are not exempt at times. But how could I get out of this unpleasant part of acting as her companion, and how show want of politeness to a sovereign who had completely lost her head? Accordingly, we started, but the Empress did not pay any more attention to me than if I had not been sitting by her side in that narrow conveyance, but stifled her sobs with her pocket handkerchief, muttered a few incoherent words, and occasionally trembled from head to foot. Her lover’s name rose to her lips as if it had been a response in a litany, and I thought that she was praying to the Virgin that she might not arrive too late to see Ladislas Ferkoz again in the possession of his faculties, and keep him alive for a few hours. Suddenly, as if in reply to herself, she said: ‘I will not cry any more; he must see me looking beautiful, so that he may remember me, even in death!’
“When we arrived, I saw that we were expected, and that they had not doubted that the Empress would come to close her lover’s eyes with a last kiss. She left me there, and hurried to Ladislas Ferkoz’s room, without even shutting the doors behind her, where his beautiful, sensual, gipsy head stood out from the whiteness of the pillows; but his face was quite bloodless, and there was no life left in it, except in his large, strange eyes, that were striated with gold, like the eyes of an astrologer or of a bearded vulture.
“The cold numbness of the death struggle had already laid hold of his robust body and paralyzed his lips and arms, and he could not reply even by a sound of tenderness to Maria–Gloriosa’s wild lamentations and amorous cries. Neither reply nor smile, alas! But his eyes dilated, and glistened like the last flame that shoots up from an expiring fire, and filled them with a world of dying thoughts, of divine recollections, of delirious love. They appeared to envelope her in kisses, they spoke to her, they thanked her, they followed her movements, and seemed delighted at her grief. And as if she were replying to their mute supplications, as if she had understood them, Maria–Gloriosa suddenly tore off her lace, threw aside her fur cloak, stood erect beside the dying man, whose eyes were radiant, desirable in her supreme beauty with her bare shoulders, her bust like marble and her fair hair, in which diamonds glistened, surrounding her proud head, like that of the Goddess Diana, the huntress, and with her arms stretched out towards him in an attitude of love, of embrace and of blessing. He looked at her in ecstacy, he feasted on her beauty, and seemed to be having a terrible struggle with death, in order that he might gaze at her, that apparition of love, a little longer, see her beyond eternal sleep and prolong this unexpected dream. And when he felt that it was all over with him, and that even his eyes were growing dim, two great tears rolled down his cheeks. . . .
“When Maria–Gloriosa saw that he was dead, she piously and devoutly kissed his lips and closed his eyes, like a priest who closes the gold tabernacle after service, on an evening after benediction, and then, without exchanging a word, we returned through the darkness to the palace where the ball was still going on.”
There was a minute’s silence, and while Madame de Laumières, who was very much touched by this story and whose nerves were rather highly strung, was drying her tears behind her open fan, suddenly the harsh and shrill voices of the fast women who were returning from the Casino, by the strange irony of fate, struck up an idiotic song which was then in vogue: “Oh! the poor, oh! the poor, oh! the poor, dear girl!”
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40