WITH what a world of excellent intentions Otto entered his wife’s cabinet! how fatherly, how tender! how morally affecting were the words he had prepared! Nor was Seraphina unamiably inclined. Her usual fear of Otto as a marplot in her great designs was now swallowed up in a passing distrust of the designs themselves. For Gondremark, besides, she had conceived an angry horror. In her heart she did not like the Baron. Behind his impudent servility, behind the devotion which, with indelicate delicacy, he still forced on her attention, she divined the grossness of his nature. So a man may be proud of having tamed a bear, and yet sicken at his captive’s odour. And above all, she had certain jealous intimations that the man was false and the deception double. True, she falsely trifled with his love; but he, perhaps, was only trifling with her vanity. The insolence of his late mimicry, and the odium of her own position as she sat and watched it, lay besides like a load upon her conscience. She met Otto almost with a sense of guilt, and yet she welcomed him as a deliverer from ugly things.
But the wheels of an interview are at the mercy of a thousand ruts; and even at Otto’s entrance, the first jolt occurred. Gondremark, he saw, was gone; but there was the chair drawn close for consultation; and it pained him not only that this man had been received, but that he should depart with such an air of secrecy. Struggling with this twinge, it was somewhat sharply that he dismissed the attendant who had brought him in.
‘You make yourself at home, CHEZ MOI,’ she said, a little ruffled both by his tone of command and by the glance he had thrown upon the chair.
‘Madam,’ replied Otto, ‘I am here so seldom that I have almost the rights of a stranger.’
‘You choose your own associates, Frederic,’ she said.
‘I am here to speak of it,’ he returned. ‘It is now four years since we were married; and these four years, Seraphina, have not perhaps been happy either for you or for me. I am well aware I was unsuitable to be your husband. I was not young, I had no ambition, I was a trifler; and you despised me, I dare not say unjustly. But to do justice on both sides, you must bear in mind how I have acted. When I found it amused you to play the part of Princess on this little stage, did I not immediately resign to you my box of toys, this Grunewald? And when I found I was distasteful as a husband, could any husband have been less intrusive? You will tell me that I have no feelings, no preference, and thus no credit; that I go before the wind; that all this was in my character. And indeed, one thing is true, that it is easy, too easy, to leave things undone. But Seraphina, I begin to learn it is not always wise. If I were too old and too uncongenial for your husband, I should still have remembered that I was the Prince of that country to which you came, a visitor and a child. In that relation also there were duties, and these duties I have not performed.’
To claim the advantage of superior age is to give sure offence. ‘Duty!’ laughed Seraphina, ‘and on your lips, Frederic! You make me laugh. What fancy is this? Go, flirt with the maids and be a prince in Dresden china, as you look. Enjoy yourself, MON ENFANT, and leave duty and the state to us.’
The plural grated on the Prince. ‘I have enjoyed myself too much,’ he said, ‘since enjoyment is the word. And yet there were much to say upon the other side. You must suppose me desperately fond of hunting. But indeed there were days when I found a great deal of interest in what it was courtesy to call my government. And I have always had some claim to taste; I could tell live happiness from dull routine; and between hunting, and the throne of Austria, and your society, my choice had never wavered, had the choice been mine. You were a girl, a bud, when you were given me — ’
‘Heavens!’ she cried, ‘is this to be a love-scene?’
‘I am never ridiculous,’ he said; ‘it is my only merit; and you may be certain this shall be a scene of marriage A LA MODE. But when I remember the beginning, it is bare courtesy to speak in sorrow. Be just, madam: you would think me strangely uncivil to recall these days without the decency of a regret. Be yet a little juster, and own, if only in complaisance, that you yourself regret that past.’
‘I have nothing to regret,’ said the Princess. ‘You surprise me. I thought you were so happy.’
‘Happy and happy, there are so many hundred ways,’ said Otto. ‘A man may be happy in revolt; he may be happy in sleep; wine, change, and travel make him happy; virtue, they say, will do the like — I have not tried; and they say also that in old, quiet, and habitual marriages there is yet another happiness. Happy, yes; I am happy if you like; but I will tell you frankly, I was happier when I brought you home.’
‘Well,’ said the Princess, not without constraint, ‘it seems you changed your mind.’
‘Not I,’ returned Otto, ‘I never changed. Do you remember, Seraphina, on our way home, when you saw the roses in the lane, and I got out and plucked them? It was a narrow lane between great trees; the sunset at the end was all gold, and the rooks were flying overhead. There were nine, nine red roses; you gave me a kiss for each, and I told myself that every rose and every kiss should stand for a year of love. Well, in eighteen months there was an end. But do you fancy, Seraphina, that my heart has altered?’
‘I am sure I cannot tell,’ she said, like an automaton.
‘It has not,’ the Prince continued. ‘There is nothing ridiculous, even from a husband, in a love that owns itself unhappy and that asks no more. I built on sand; pardon me, I do not breathe a reproach — I built, I suppose, upon my own infirmities; but I put my heart in the building, and it still lies among the ruins.’
‘How very poetical!’ she said, with a little choking laugh, unknown relentings, unfamiliar softnesses, moving within her. ‘What would you be at?’ she added, hardening her voice.
‘I would be at this,’ he answered; ‘and hard it is to say. I would be at this:-Seraphina, I am your husband after all, and a poor fool that loves you. Understand,’ he cried almost fiercely, ‘I am no suppliant husband; what your love refuses I would scorn to receive from your pity. I do not ask, I would not take it. And for jealousy, what ground have I? A dog-in-the-manger jealousy is a thing the dogs may laugh at. But at least, in the world’s eye, I am still your husband; and I ask you if you treat me fairly? I keep to myself, I leave you free, I have given you in everything your will. What do you in return? I find, Seraphina, that you have been too thoughtless. But between persons such as we are, in our conspicuous station, particular care and a particular courtesy are owing. Scandal is perhaps not easy to avoid; but it is hard to bear.’
‘Scandal!’ she cried, with a deep breath. ‘Scandal! It is for this you have been driving!’
‘I have tried to tell you how I feel,’ he replied. ‘I have told you that I love you — love you in vain — a bitter thing for a husband; I have laid myself open that I might speak without offence. And now that I have begun, I will go on and finish.’
‘I demand it,’ she said. ‘What is this about?’
Otto flushed crimson. ‘I have to say what I would fain not,’ he answered. ‘I counsel you to see less of Gondremark.’
‘Of Gondremark? And why?’ she asked.
‘Your intimacy is the ground of scandal, madam,’ said Otto, firmly enough — ‘of a scandal that is agony to me, and would be crushing to your parents if they knew it.’
‘You are the first to bring me word of it,’ said she. ‘I thank you.’
‘You have perhaps cause,’ he replied. ‘Perhaps I am the only one among your friends — ’
‘O, leave my friends alone,’ she interrupted. ‘My friends are of a different stamp. You have come to me here and made a parade of sentiment. When have I last seen you? I have governed your kingdom for you in the meanwhile, and there I got no help. At last, when I am weary with a man’s work, and you are weary of your playthings, you return to make me a scene of conjugal reproaches — the grocer and his wife! The positions are too much reversed; and you should understand, at least, that I cannot at the same time do your work of government and behave myself like a little girl. Scandal is the atmosphere in which we live, we princes; it is what a prince should know. You play an odious part. Do you believe this rumour?’
‘Madam, should I be here?’ said Otto.
‘It is what I want to know!’ she cried, the tempest of her scorn increasing. ‘Suppose you did — I say, suppose you did believe it?’
‘I should make it my business to suppose the contrary,’ he answered.
‘I thought so. O, you are made of baseness!’ said she.
‘Madam,’ he cried, roused at last, ‘enough of this. You wilfully misunderstand my attitude; you outwear my patience. In the name of your parents, in my own name, I summon you to be more circumspect.’
‘Is this a request, MONSIEUR MON MARI?’ she demanded.
‘Madam, if I chose, I might command,’ said Otto.
‘You might, sir, as the law stands, make me prisoner,’ returned Seraphina. ‘Short of that you will gain nothing.’
‘You will continue as before?’ he asked.
‘Precisely as before,’ said she. ‘As soon as this comedy is over, I shall request the Freiherr von Gondremark to visit me. Do you understand?’ she added, rising. ‘For my part, I have done.’
‘I will then ask the favour of your hand, madam,’ said Otto, palpitating in every pulse with anger. ‘I have to request that you will visit in my society another part of my poor house. And reassure yourself — it will not take long — and it is the last obligation that you shall have the chance to lay me under.’
‘The last?’ she cried. ‘Most joyfully?’
She offered her hand, and he took it; on each side with an elaborate affectation, each inwardly incandescent. He led her out by the private door, following where Gondremark had passed; they threaded a corridor or two, little frequented, looking on a court, until they came at last into the Prince’s suite. The first room was an armoury, hung all about with the weapons of various countries, and looking forth on the front terrace.
‘Have you brought me here to slay me?’ she inquired.
‘I have brought you, madam, only to pass on,’ replied Otto.
Next they came to a library, where an old chamberlain sat half asleep. He rose and bowed before the princely couple, asking for orders.
‘You will attend us here,’ said Otto.
The next stage was a gallery of pictures, where Seraphina’s portrait hung conspicuous, dressed for the chase, red roses in her hair, as Otto, in the first months of marriage, had directed. He pointed to it without a word; she raised her eyebrows in silence; and they passed still forward into a matted corridor where four doors opened. One led to Otto’s bedroom; one was the private door to Seraphina’s. And here, for the first time, Otto left her hand, and stepping forward, shot the bolt.
‘It is long, madam,’ said he, ‘since it was bolted on the other side.’
‘One was effectual,’ returned the Princess. ‘Is this all?’
‘Shall I reconduct you?’ he asking, bowing.
‘I should prefer,’ she asked, in ringing tones, ‘the conduct of the Freiherr von Gondremark.’
Otto summoned the chamberlain. ‘If the Freiherr von Gondremark is in the palace,’ he said, ‘bid him attend the Princess here.’ And when the official had departed, ‘Can I do more to serve you, madam?’ the Prince asked.
‘Thank you, no. I have been much amused,’ she answered.
‘I have now,’ continued Otto, ‘given you your liberty complete. This has been for you a miserable marriage.’
‘Miserable!’ said she.
‘It has been made light to you; it shall be lighter still,’ continued the Prince. ‘But one thing, madam, you must still continue to bear — my father’s name, which is now yours. I leave it in your hands. Let me see you, since you will have no advice of mine, apply the more attention of your own to bear it worthily.’
‘Herr von Gondremark is long in coming,’ she remarked.
‘O Seraphina, Seraphina!’ he cried. And that was the end of their interview.
She tripped to a window and looked out; and a little after, the chamberlain announced the Freiherr von Gondremark, who entered with something of a wild eye and changed complexion, confounded, as he was, at this unusual summons. The Princess faced round from the window with a pearly smile; nothing but her heightened colour spoke of discomposure.
Otto was pale, but he was otherwise master of himself.
‘Herr von Gondremark,’ said he, ‘oblige me so far: reconduct the Princess to her own apartment.’
The Baron, still all at sea, offered his hand, which was smilingly accepted, and the pair sailed forth through the picture-gallery.
As soon as they were gone, and Otto knew the length and breadth of his miscarriage, and how he had done the contrary of all that he intended, he stood stupefied. A fiasco so complete and sweeping was laughable, even to himself; and he laughed aloud in his wrath. Upon this mood there followed the sharpest violence of remorse; and to that again, as he recalled his provocation, anger succeeded afresh. So he was tossed in spirit; now bewailing his inconsequence and lack of temper, now flaming up in white-hot indignation and a noble pity for himself.
He paced his apartment like a leopard. There was danger in Otto, for a flash. Like a pistol, he could kill at one moment, and the next he might he kicked aside. But just then, as he walked the long floors in his alternate humours, tearing his handkerchief between his hands, he was strung to his top note, every nerve attent. The pistol, you might say, was charged. And when jealousy from time to time fetched him a lash across the tenderest of his feeling, and sent a string of her fire-pictures glancing before his mind’s eye, the contraction of his face was even dangerous. He disregarded jealousy’s inventions, yet they stung. In this height of anger, he still preserved his faith in Seraphina’s innocence; but the thought of her possible misconduct was the bitterest ingredient in his pot of sorrow.
There came a knock at the door, and the chamberlain brought him a note. He took it and ground it in his hand, continuing his march, continuing his bewildered thoughts; and some minutes had gone by before the circumstance came clearly to his mind. Then he paused and opened it. It was a pencil scratch from Gotthold, thus conceived:
‘The council is privately summoned at once.
G. v. H.’
If the council was thus called before the hour, and that privately, it was plain they feared his interference. Feared: here was a sweet thought. Gotthold, too — Gotthold, who had always used and regarded him as a mere peasant lad, had now been at the pains to warn him; Gotthold looked for something at his hands. Well, none should be disappointed; the Prince, too long beshadowed by the uxorious lover, should now return and shine. He summoned his valet, repaired the disorder of his appearance with elaborate care; and then, curled and scented and adorned, Prince Charming in every line, but with a twitching nostril, he set forth unattended for the council.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00