Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter X

Gotthold’s Revised Opinion; and the Fall Completed

THE Countess left poor Otto with a caress and buffet simultaneously administered. The welcome word about his wife and the virtuous ending of his interview should doubtless have delighted him. But for all that, as he shouldered the bag of money and set forward to rejoin his groom, he was conscious of many aching sensibilities. To have gone wrong and to have been set right makes but a double trial for man’s vanity. The discovery of his own weakness and possible unfaith had staggered him to the heart; and to hear, in the same hour, of his wife’s fidelity from one who loved her not, increased the bitterness of the surprise.

He was about half-way between the fountain and the Flying Mercury before his thoughts began to be clear; and he was surprised to find them resentful. He paused in a kind of temper, and struck with his hand a little shrub. Thence there arose instantly a cloud of awakened sparrows, which as instantly dispersed and disappeared into the thicket. He looked at them stupidly, and when they were gone continued staring at the stars. ‘I am angry. By what right? By none!’ he thought; but he was still angry. He cursed Madame von Rosen and instantly repented. Heavy was the money on his shoulders.

When he reached the fountain, he did, out of ill-humour and parade, an unpardonable act. He gave the money bodily to the dishonest groom. ‘Keep this for me,’ he said, ‘until I call for it to-morrow. It is a great sum, and by that you will judge that I have not condemned you.’ And he strode away ruffling, as if he had done something generous. It was a desperate stroke to re-enter at the point of the bayonet into his self-esteem; and, like all such, it was fruitless in the end. He got to bed with the devil, it appeared: kicked and tumbled till the grey of the morning; and then fell inopportunely into a leaden slumber, and awoke to find it ten. To miss the appointment with old Killian after all, had been too tragic a miscarriage: and he hurried with all his might, found the groom (for a wonder) faithful to his trust, and arrived only a few minutes before noon in the guest-chamber of the Morning Star. Killian was there in his Sunday’s best and looking very gaunt and rigid; a lawyer from Brandenau stood sentinel over his outspread papers; and the groom and the landlord of the inn were called to serve as witnesses. The obvious deference of that great man, the innkeeper, plainly affected the old farmer with surprise; but it was not until Otto had taken the pen and signed that the truth flashed upon him fully. Then, indeed, he was beside himself.

‘His Highness!’ he cried, ‘His Highness!’ and repeated the exclamation till his mind had grappled fairly with the facts. Then he turned to the witnesses. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you dwell in a country highly favoured by God; for of all generous gentlemen, I will say it on my conscience, this one is the king. I am an old man, and I have seen good and bad, and the year of the great famine; but a more excellent gentleman, no, never.’

‘We know that,’ cried the landlord, ‘we know that well in Grunewald. If we saw more of his Highness we should be the better pleased.’

‘It is the kindest Prince,’ began the groom, and suddenly closed his mouth upon a sob, so that every one turned to gaze upon his emotion -Otto not last; Otto struck with remorse, to see the man so grateful.

Then it was the lawyer’s turn to pay a compliment. ‘I do not know what Providence may hold in store,’ he said, ‘but this day should be a bright one in the annals of your reign. The shouts of armies could not be more eloquent than the emotion on these honest faces.’ And the Brandenau lawyer bowed, skipped, stepped back, and took snuff, with the air of a man who has found and seized an opportunity.

‘Well, young gentleman,’ said Killian, ‘if you will pardon me the plainness of calling you a gentleman, many a good day’s work you have done, I doubt not, but never a better, or one that will be better blessed; and whatever, sir, may be your happiness and triumph in that high sphere to which you have been called, it will be none the worse, sir, for an old man’s blessing!’

The scene had almost assumed the proportions of an ovation; and when the Prince escaped he had but one thought: to go wherever he was most sure of praise. His conduct at the board of council occurred to him as a fair chapter; and this evoked the memory of Gotthold. To Gotthold he would go.

Gotthold was in the library as usual, and laid down his pen, a little angrily, on Otto’s entrance. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘here you are.’

‘Well,’ returned Otto, ‘we made a revolution, I believe.’

‘It is what I fear,’ returned the Doctor.

‘How?’ said Otto. ‘Fear? Fear is the burnt child. I have learned my strength and the weakness of the others; and I now mean to govern.’

Gotthold said nothing, but he looked down and smoothed his chin.

‘You disapprove?’ cried Otto. ‘You are a weather-cock.’

‘On the contrary,’ replied the Doctor. ‘My observation has confirmed my fears. It will not do, Otto, not do.’

‘What will not do?’ demanded the Prince, with a sickening stab of pain.

‘None of it,’ answered Gotthold. ‘You are unfitted for a life of action; you lack the stamina, the habit, the restraint, the patience. Your wife is greatly better, vastly better; and though she is in bad hands, displays a very different aptitude. She is a woman of affairs; you are — dear boy, you are yourself. I bid you back to your amusements; like a smiling dominie, I give you holidays for life. Yes,’ he continued, ‘there is a day appointed for all when they shall turn again upon their own philosophy. I had grown to disbelieve impartially in all; and if in the atlas of the sciences there were two charts I disbelieved in more than all the rest, they were politics and morals. I had a sneaking kindness for your vices; as they were negative, they flattered my philosophy; and I called them almost virtues. Well, Otto, I was wrong; I have forsworn my sceptical philosophy; and I perceive your faults to be unpardonable. You are unfit to be a Prince, unfit to be a husband. And I give you my word, I would rather see a man capably doing evil than blundering about good.’

Otto was still silent, in extreme dudgeon.

Presently the Doctor resumed: ‘I will take the smaller matter first: your conduct to your wife. You went, I hear, and had an explanation. That may have been right or wrong; I know not; at least, you had stirred her temper. At the council she insults you; well, you insult her back — a man to a woman, a husband to his wife, in public! Next upon the back of this, you propose — the story runs like wildfire — to recall the power of signature. Can she ever forgive that? a woman — a young woman — ambitious, conscious of talents beyond yours? Never, Otto. And to sum all, at such a crisis in your married life, you get into a window corner with that ogling dame von Rosen. I do not dream that there was any harm; but I do say it was an idle disrespect to your wife. Why, man, the woman is not decent.’

‘Gotthold,’ said Otto, ‘I will hear no evil of the Countess.’

‘You will certainly hear no good of her,’ returned Gotthold; ‘and if you wish your wife to be the pink of nicety, you should clear your court of demi-reputations.’

‘The commonplace injustice of a by-word,’ Otto cried. ‘The partiality of sex. She is a demirep; what then is Gondremark? Were she a man — ’

‘It would be all one,’ retorted Gotthold roughly. ‘When I see a man, come to years of wisdom, who speaks in double-meanings and is the braggart of his vices, I spit on the other side. “You, my friend,” say I, “are not even a gentleman.” Well, she’s not even a lady.’

‘She is the best friend I have, and I choose that she shall be respected,’ Otto said.

‘If she is your friend, so much the worse,’ replied the Doctor. ‘It will not stop there.’

‘Ah!’ cried Otto, ‘there is the charity of virtue! All evil in the spotted fruit. But I can tell you, sir, that you do Madame von Rosen prodigal injustice.’

‘You can tell me!’ said the Doctor shrewdly. ‘Have you, tried? have you been riding the marches?’

The blood came into Otto’s face.

‘Ah!’ cried Gotthold, ‘look at your wife and blush! There’s a wife for a man to marry and then lose! She’s a carnation, Otto. The soul is in her eyes.’

‘You have changed your note for Seraphina, I perceive,’ said Otto.

‘Changed it!’ cried the Doctor, with a flush. ‘Why, when was it different? But I own I admired her at the council. When she sat there silent, tapping with her foot, I admired her as I might a hurricane. Were I one of those who venture upon matrimony, there had been the prize to tempt me! She invites, as Mexico invited Cortez; the enterprise is hard, the natives are unfriendly — I believe them cruel too — but the metropolis is paved with gold and the breeze blows out of paradise. Yes, I could desire to be that conqueror. But to philander with von Rosen! never! Senses? I discard them; what are they? — pruritus! Curiosity? Reach me my Anatomy!’

‘To whom do you address yourself?’ cried Otto. ‘Surely you, of all men, know that I love my wife!’

‘O, love!’ cried Gotthold; ‘love is a great word; it is in all the dictionaries. If you had loved, she would have paid you back. What does she ask? A little ardour!’

‘It is hard to love for two,’ replied the Prince.

‘Hard? Why, there’s the touchstone! O, I know my poets!’ cried the Doctor. ‘We are but dust and fire, too and to endure life’s scorching; and love, like the shadow of a great rock, should lend shelter and refreshment, not to the lover only, but to his mistress and to the children that reward them; and their very friends should seek repose in the fringes of that peace. Love is not love that cannot build a home. And you call it love to grudge and quarrel and pick faults? You call it love to thwart her to her face, and bandy insults? Love!’

‘Gotthold, you are unjust. I was then fighting for my country,’ said the Prince.

‘Ay, and there’s the worst of all,’ returned the Doctor. ‘You could not even see that you were wrong; that being where they were, retreat was ruin.’

Why, you supported me!’ cried Otto.

‘I did. I was a fool like you,’ replied Gotthold. ‘But now my eyes are open. If you go on as you have started, disgrace this fellow Gondremark, and publish the scandal of your divided house, there will befall a most abominable thing in Grunewald. A revolution, friend — a revolution.’

‘You speak strangely for a red,’ said Otto.

‘A red republican, but not a revolutionary,’ returned the Doctor. ‘An ugly thing is a Grunewalder drunk! One man alone can save the country from this pass, and that is the double-dealer Gondremark, with whom I conjure you to make peace. It will not be you; it never can be you:-you, who can do nothing, as your wife said, but trade upon your station — you, who spent the hours in begging money! And in God’s name, what for? Why money? What mystery of idiocy was this?’

‘It was to no ill end. It was to buy a farm,’ quoth Otto sulkily.

‘To buy a farm!’ cried Gotthold. ‘Buy a farm!’

‘Well, what then?’ returned Otto. ‘I have bought it, if you come to that.’

Gotthold fairly bounded on his seat. ‘And how that?’ he cried.

‘How?’ repeated Otto, startled.

‘Ay, verily, how!’ returned the Doctor. ‘How came you by the money?’

The Prince’s countenance darkened. ‘That is my affair,’ said he.

‘You see you are ashamed,’ retorted Gotthold. ‘And so you bought a farm in the hour of our country’s need — doubtless to be ready for the abdication; and I put it that you stole the funds. There are not three ways of getting money: there are but two: to earn and steal. And now, when you have combined Charles the Fifth and Long-fingered Tom, you come to me to fortify your vanity! But I will clear my mind upon this matter: until I know the right and wrong of the transaction, I put my hand behind my back. A man may be the pitifullest prince; he must be a spotless gentleman.’

The Prince had gotten to his feet, as pale as paper. Gotthold,’ he said, ‘you drive me beyond bounds. Beware, sir, beware!’

‘Do you threaten me, friend Otto?’ asked the Doctor grimly. ‘That would be a strange conclusion.’

‘When have you ever known me use my power in any private animosity?’ cried Otto. ‘To any private man your words were an unpardonable insult, but at me you shoot in full security, and I must turn aside to compliment you on your plainness. I must do more than pardon, I must admire, because you have faced this — this formidable monarch, like a Nathan before David. You have uprooted an old kindness, sir, with an unsparing hand. You leave me very bare. My last bond is broken; and though I take Heaven to witness that I sought to do the right, I have this reward: to find myself alone. You say I am no gentleman; yet the sneers have been upon your side; and though I can very well perceive where you have lodged your sympathies, I will forbear the taunt.’

‘Otto, are you insane?’ cried Gotthold, leaping up. ‘Because I ask you how you came by certain moneys, and because you refuse — ’

‘Herr von Hohenstockwitz, I have ceased to invite your aid in my affairs,’ said Otto. ‘I have heard all that I desire, and you have sufficiently trampled on my vanity. It may be that I cannot govern, it may be that I cannot love — you tell me so with every mark of honesty; but God has granted me one virtue, and I can still forgive. I forgive you; even in this hour of passion, I can perceive my faults and your excuses; and if I desire that in future I may be spared your conversation, it is not, sir, from resentment — not resentment — but, by Heaven, because no man on earth could endure to be so rated. You have the satisfaction to see your sovereign weep; and that person whom you have so often taunted with his happiness reduced to the last pitch of solitude and misery. No, — I will hear nothing; I claim the last word, sir, as your Prince; and that last word shall be — forgiveness.’

And with that Otto was gone from the apartment, and Doctor Gotthold was left alone with the most conflicting sentiments of sorrow, remorse, and merriment; walking to and fro before his table, and asking himself, with hands uplifted, which of the pair of them was most to blame for this unhappy rupture. Presently, he took from a cupboard a bottle of Rhine wine and a goblet of the deep Bohemian ruby. The first glass a little warmed and comforted his bosom; with the second he began to look down upon these troubles from a sunny mountain; yet a while, and filled with this false comfort and contemplating life throughout a golden medium, he owned to himself, with a flush, a smile, and a half-pleasurable sigh, that he had been somewhat over plain in dealing with his cousin. ‘He said the truth, too,’ added the penitent librarian, ‘for in my monkish fashion I adore the Princess.’ And then, with a still deepening flush and a certain stealth, although he sat all alone in that great gallery, he toasted Seraphina to the dregs.

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