Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter VII

The Prince Dissolves the Council

IT was as Gotthold wrote. The liberation of Sir John, Greisengesang’s uneasy narrative, last of all, the scene between Seraphina and the Prince, had decided the conspirators to take a step of bold timidity. There had been a period of bustle, liveried messengers speeding here and there with notes; and at half-past ten in the morning, about an hour before its usual hour, the council of Grunewald sat around the board.

It was not a large body. At the instance of Gondremark, it had undergone a strict purgation, and was now composed exclusively of tools. Three secretaries sat at a side-table. Seraphina took the head; on her right was the Baron, on her left Greisengesang; below these Grafinski the treasurer, Count Eisenthal, a couple of non-combatants, and, to the surprise of all, Gotthold. He had been named a privy councillor by Otto, merely that he might profit by the salary; and as he was never known to attend a meeting, it had occurred to nobody to cancel his appointment. His present appearance was the more ominous, coming when it did. Gondremark scowled upon him; and the non-combatant on his right, intercepting this black look, edged away from one who was so clearly out of favour.

‘The hour presses, your Highness,’ said the Baron; ‘may we proceed to business?’

‘At once,’ replied Seraphina.

‘Your Highness will pardon me,’ said Gotthold; ‘but you are still, perhaps, unacquainted with the fact that Prince Otto has returned.’

‘The Prince will not attend the council,’ replied Seraphina, with a momentary blush. ‘The despatches, Herr Cancellarius? There is one for Gerolstein?’

A secretary brought a paper.

‘Here, madam,’ said Greisengesang. ‘Shall I read it?’

‘We are all familiar with its terms,’ replied Gondremark. ‘Your Highness approves?’

‘Unhesitatingly,’ said Seraphina.

‘It may then be held as read,’ concluded the Baron. ‘Will your Highness sign?’

The Princess did so; Gondremark, Eisenthal, and one of the non-combatants followed suit; and the paper was then passed across the table to the librarian. He proceeded leisurely to read.

‘We have no time to spare, Herr Doctor,’ cried the Baron brutally. ‘If you do not choose to sign on the authority of your sovereign, pass it on. Or you may leave the table,’ he added, his temper ripping out.

‘I decline your invitation, Herr von Gondremark; and my sovereign, as I continue to observe with regret, is still absent from the board,’ replied the Doctor calmly; and he resumed the perusal of the paper, the rest chafing and exchanging glances. ‘Madame and gentlemen,’ he said, at last, ‘what I hold in my hand is simply a declaration of war.’

‘Simply,’ said Seraphina, flashing defiance.

‘The sovereign of this country is under the same roof with us,’ continued Gotthold, ‘and I insist he shall be summoned. It is needless to adduce my reasons; you are all ashamed at heart of this projected treachery.’

The council waved like a sea. There were various outcries.

‘You insult the Princess,’ thundered Gondremark.

‘I maintain my protest,’ replied Gotthold.

At the height of this confusion the door was thrown open; an usher announced, ‘Gentlemen, the Prince!’ and Otto, with his most excellent bearing, entered the apartment. It was like oil upon the troubled waters; every one settled instantly into his place, and Griesengesang, to give himself a countenance, became absorbed in the arrangement of his papers; but in their eagerness to dissemble, one and all neglected to rise.

‘Gentlemen,’ said the Prince, pausing.

They all got to their feet in a moment; and this reproof still further demoralised the weaker brethren.

The Prince moved slowly towards the lower end of the table; then he paused again, and, fixing his eye on Greisengesang, ‘How comes it, Herr Cancellarius,’ he asked, ‘that I have received no notice of the change of hour?’

‘Your Highness,’ replied the Chancellor, ‘her Highness the Princess . . .’ and there paused.

‘I understood,’ said Seraphina, taking him up, ‘that you did not purpose to be present.’

Their eyes met for a second, and Seraphina’s fell; but her anger only burned the brighter for that private shame.

‘And now, gentlemen,’ said Otto, taking his chair, ‘I pray you to be seated. I have been absent: there are doubtless some arrears; but ere we proceed to business, Herr Grafinski, you will direct four thousand crowns to be sent to me at once. Make a note, if you please,’ he added, as the treasurer still stared in wonder.

‘Four thousand crowns?’ asked Seraphina. ‘Pray, for what?’

‘Madam,’ returned Otto, smiling, ‘for my own purposes.’

Gondremark spurred up Grafinski underneath the table.

‘If your Highness will indicate the destination . . . ’ began the puppet.

‘You are not here, sir, to interrogate your Prince,’ said Otto.

Grafinski looked for help to his commander; and Gondremark came to his aid, in suave and measured tones.

‘Your Highness may reasonably be surprised,’ he said; ‘and Herr Grafinski, although I am convinced he is clear of the intention of offending, would have perhaps done better to begin with an explanation. The resources of the state are at the present moment entirely swallowed up, or, as we hope to prove, wisely invested. In a month from now, I do not question we shall be able to meet any command your Highness may lay upon us; but at this hour I fear that, even in so small a matter, he must prepare himself for disappointment. Our zeal is no less, although our power may be inadequate.’

‘How much, Herr Grafinski, have we in the treasury?’ asked Otto.

‘Your Highness,’ protested the treasurer, ‘we have immediate need of every crown.’

‘I think, sir, you evade me,’ flashed the Prince; and then turning to the side-table, ‘Mr. Secretary,’ he added, ‘bring me, if you please, the treasury docket.’

Herr Grafinski became deadly pale; the Chancellor, expecting his own turn, was probably engaged in prayer; Gondremark was watching like a ponderous cat. Gotthold, on his part, looked on with wonder at his cousin; he was certainly showing spirit, but what, in such a time of gravity, was all this talk of money? and why should he waste his strength upon a personal issue?

‘I find,’ said Otto, with his finger on the docket, ‘that we have 20,000 crowns in case.’

‘That is exact, your Highness,’ replied the Baron. ‘But our liabilities, all of which are happily not liquid, amount to a far larger sum; and at the present point of time it would be morally impossible to divert a single florin. Essentially, the case is empty. We have, already presented, a large note for material of war.’

‘Material of war?’ exclaimed Otto, with an excellent assumption of surprise. ‘But if my memory serves me right, we settled these accounts in January.’

‘There have been further orders,’ the Baron explained. ‘A new park of artillery has been completed; five hundred stand of arms, seven hundred baggage mules — the details are in a special memorandum. — Mr. Secretary Holtz, the memorandum, if you please.’

‘One would think, gentlemen, that we were going to war,’ said Otto.

‘We are,’ said Seraphina.

‘War!’ cried the Prince, ‘and, gentlemen, with whom? The peace of Grunewald has endured for centuries. What aggression, what insult, have we suffered?’

‘Here, your Highness,’ said Gotthold, ‘is the ultimatum. It was in the very article of signature, when your Highness so opportunely entered.’

Otto laid the paper before him; as he read, his fingers played tattoo upon the table. ‘Was it proposed,’ he inquired, ‘to send this paper forth without a knowledge of my pleasure?’

One of the non-combatants, eager to trim, volunteered an answer. ‘The Herr Doctor von Hohenstockwitz had just entered his dissent,’ he added.

‘Give me the rest of this correspondence,’ said the Prince. It was handed to him, and he read it patiently from end to end, while the councillors sat foolishly enough looking before them on the table.

The secretaries, in the background, were exchanging glances of delight; a row at the council was for them a rare and welcome feature.

‘Gentlemen,’ said Otto, when he had finished, ‘I have read with pain. This claim upon Obermunsterol is palpably unjust; it has not a tincture, not a show, of justice. There is not in all this ground enough for after-dinner talk, and you propose to force it as a CASUS BELLI.’

‘Certainly, your Highness,’ returned Gondremark, too wise to defend the indefensible, ‘the claim on Obermunsterol is simply a pretext.’

‘It is well,’ said the Prince. ‘Herr Cancellarius, take your pen. “The council,” he began to dictate — ‘I withhold all notice of my intervention,’ he said, in parenthesis, and addressing himself more directly to his wife; ‘and I say nothing of the strange suppression by which this business has been smuggled past my knowledge. I am content to be in time — “The council,”’ he resumed, ‘“on a further examination of the facts, and enlightened by the note in the last despatch from Gerolstein, have the pleasure to announce that they are entirely at one, both as to fact and sentiment, with the Grand-Ducal Court of Gerolstein.” You have it? Upon these lines, sir, you will draw up the despatch.’

‘If your Highness will allow me,’ said the Baron, ‘your Highness is so imperfectly acquainted with the internal history of this correspondence, that any interference will be merely hurtful. Such a paper as your Highness proposes would be to stultify the whole previous policy of Grunewald.’

‘The policy of Grunewald!’ cried the Prince. ‘One would suppose you had no sense of humour! Would you fish in a coffee cup?’

‘With deference, your Highness,’ returned the Baron, ‘even in a coffee cup there may be poison. The purpose of this war is not simply territorial enlargement; still less is it a war of glory; for, as your Highness indicates, the state of Grunewald is too small to be ambitious. But the body politic is seriously diseased; republicanism, socialism, many disintegrating ideas are abroad; circle within circle, a really formidable organisation has grown up about your Highness’s throne.’

‘I have heard of it, Herr von Gondremark,’ put in the Prince; ‘but I have reason to be aware that yours is the more authoritative information.’

‘I am honoured by this expression of my Prince’s confidence’ returned Gondremark, unabashed. ‘It is, therefore, with a single eye to these disorders that our present external policy has been shaped. Something was required to divert public attention, to employ the idle, to popularise your Highness’s rule, and, if it were possible, to enable him to reduce the taxes at a blow and to a notable amount. The proposed expedition — for it cannot without hyperbole be called a war — seemed to the council to combine the various characters required; a marked improvement in the public sentiment has followed even upon our preparations; and I cannot doubt that when success shall follow, the effect will surpass even our boldest hopes.’

‘You are very adroit, Herr von Gondremark,’ said Otto. ‘You fill me with admiration. I had not heretofore done justice to your qualities.’

Seraphina looked up with joy, supposing Otto conquered; but Gondremark still waited, armed at every point; he knew how very stubborn is the revolt of a weak character.

‘And the territorial army scheme, to which I was persuaded to consent — was it secretly directed to the same end?’ the Prince asked.

‘I still believe the effect to have been good,’ replied the Baron; ‘discipline and mounting guard are excellent sedatives. But I will avow to your Highness, I was unaware, at the date of that decree, of the magnitude of the revolutionary movement; nor did any of us, I think, imagine that such a territorial army was a part of the republican proposals.’

‘It was?’ asked Otto. ‘Strange! Upon what fancied grounds?’

‘The grounds were indeed fanciful,’ returned the Baron. ‘It was conceived among the leaders that a territorial army, drawn from and returning to the people, would, in the event of any popular uprising, prove lukewarm or unfaithful to the throne.’

‘I see,’ said the Prince. ‘I begin to understand.’

‘His Highness begins to understand?’ repeated Gondremark, with the sweetest politeness. ‘May I beg of him to complete the phrase?’

‘The history of the revolution,’ replied Otto dryly. ‘And now,’ he added, ‘what do you conclude?’

‘I conclude, your Highness, with a simple reflection,’ said the Baron, accepting the stab without a quiver, ‘the war is popular; were the rumour contradicted to-morrow, a considerable disappointment would be felt in many classes; and in the present tension of spirits, the most lukewarm sentiment may be enough to precipitate events. There lies the danger. The revolution hangs imminent; we sit, at this council board, below the sword of Damocles.’

‘We must then lay our heads together,’ said the Prince, ‘and devise some honourable means of safety.’

Up to this moment, since the first note of opposition fell from the librarian, Seraphina had uttered about twenty words. With a somewhat heightened colour, her eyes generally lowered, her foot sometimes nervously tapping on the floor, she had kept her own counsel and commanded her anger like a hero. But at this stage of the engagement she lost control of her impatience.

‘Means!’ she cried. ‘They have been found and prepared before you knew the need for them. Sign the despatch, and let us be done with this delay.’

‘Madam, I said “honourable,”’ returned Otto, bowing. ‘This war is, in my eyes, and by Herr von Gondremark’s account, an inadmissible expedient. If we have misgoverned here in Grunewald, are the people of Gerolstein to bleed and pay for our mis-doings? Never, madam; not while I live. But I attach so much importance to all that I have heard to-day for the first time — and why only to-day, I do not even stop to ask — that I am eager to find some plan that I can follow with credit to myself.’

‘And should you fail?’ she asked.

‘Should I fail, I will then meet the blow half-way,’ replied the Prince. ‘On the first open discontent, I shall convoke the States, and, when it pleases them to bid me, abdicate.’

Seraphina laughed angrily. ‘This is the man for whom we have been labouring!’ she cried. ‘We tell him of change; he will devise the means, he says; and his device is abdication? Sir, have you no shame to come here at the eleventh hour among those who have borne the heat and burthen of the day? Do you not wonder at yourself? I, sir, was here in my place, striving to uphold your dignity alone. I took counsel with the wisest I could find, while you were eating and hunting. I have laid my plans with foresight; they were ripe for action; and then — ‘she choked — ‘then you return — for a forenoon — to ruin all! To-morrow, you will be once more about your pleasures; you will give us leave once more to think and work for you; and again you will come back, and again you will thwart what you had not the industry or knowledge to conceive. O! it is intolerable. Be modest, sir. Do not presume upon the rank you cannot worthily uphold. I would not issue my commands with so much gusto — it is from no merit in yourself they are obeyed. What are you? What have you to do in this grave council? Go,’ she cried, ‘go among your equals? The very people in the streets mock at you for a prince.’

At this surprising outburst the whole council sat aghast.

‘Madam,’ said the Baron, alarmed out of his caution, ‘command yourself.’

‘Address yourself to me, sir!’ cried the Prince. ‘I will not bear these whisperings!’

Seraphina burst into tears.

‘Sir,’ cried the Baron, rising, ‘this lady — ’

‘Herr von Gondremark,’ said the Prince, ‘one more observation, and I place you under arrest.’

‘Your Highness is the master,’ replied Gondremark, bowing.

‘Bear it in mind more constantly,’ said Otto. ‘Herr Cancellarius, bring all the papers to my cabinet. Gentlemen, the council is dissolved.’

And he bowed and left the apartment, followed by Greisengesang and the secretaries, just at the moment when the Princess’s ladies, summoned in all haste, entered by another door to help her forth.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00