AT a sufficiently late hour, or to be more exact, at three in the afternoon, Madame von Rosen issued on the world. She swept downstairs and out across the garden, a black mantilla thrown over her head, and the long train of her black velvet dress ruthlessly sweeping in the dirt.
At the other end of that long garden, and back to back with the villa of the Countess, stood the large mansion where the Prime Minister transacted his affairs and pleasures. This distance, which was enough for decency by the easy canons of Mittwalden, the Countess swiftly traversed, opened a little door with a key, mounted a flight of stairs, and entered unceremoniously into Gondremark’s study. It was a large and very high apartment; books all about the walls, papers on the table, papers on the floor; here and there a picture, somewhat scant of drapery; a great fire glowing and flaming in the blue tiled hearth; and the daylight streaming through a cupola above. In the midst of this sat the great Baron Gondremark in his shirt-sleeves, his business for that day fairly at an end, and the hour arrived for relaxation. His expression, his very nature, seemed to have undergone a fundamental change. Gondremark at home appeared the very antipode of Gondremark on duty. He had an air of massive jollity that well became him; grossness and geniality sat upon his features; and along with his manners, he had laid aside his sly and sinister expression. He lolled there, sunning his bulk before the fire, a noble animal.
‘Hey!’ he cried. ‘At last!’
The Countess stepped into the room in silence, threw herself on a chair, and crossed her legs. In her lace and velvet, with a good display of smooth black stocking and of snowy petticoat, and with the refined profile of her face and slender plumpness of her body, she showed in singular contrast to the big, black, intellectual satyr by the fire.
‘How often do you send for me?’ she cried. ‘It is compromising.’
Gondremark laughed. ‘Speaking of that,’ said he, ‘what in the devil’s name were you about? You were not home till morning.’
‘I was giving alms,’ she said.
The Baron again laughed loud and long, for in his shirt-sleeves he was a very mirthful creature. ‘It is fortunate I am not jealous,’ he remarked. ‘But you know my way: pleasure and liberty go hand in hand. I believe what I believe; it is not much, but I believe it. — But now to business. Have you not read my letter?’
‘No,’ she said; ‘my head ached.’
‘Ah, well! then I have news indeed!’ cried Gondremark. ‘I was mad to see you all last night and all this morning: for yesterday afternoon I brought my long business to a head; the ship has come home; one more dead lift, and I shall cease to fetch and carry for the Princess Ratafia. Yes, ‘tis done. I have the order all in Ratafia’s hand; I carry it on my heart. At the hour of twelve to-night, Prince Featherhead is to be taken in his bed and, like the bambino, whipped into a chariot; and by next morning he will command a most romantic prospect from the donjon of the Felsenburg. Farewell, Featherhead! The war goes on, the girl is in my hand; I have long been indispensable, but now I shall be sole. I have long,’ he added exultingly, ‘long carried this intrigue upon my shoulders, like Samson with the gates of Gaza; now I discharge that burthen.’
She had sprung to her feet a little paler. ‘Is this true?’ she cried.
‘I tell you a fact,’ he asseverated. ‘The trick is played.’
‘I will never believe it,’ she said. ‘An order in her own hand? I will never believe it, Heinrich.’
‘I swear to you,’ said he.
‘O, what do you care for oaths — or I either? What would you swear by? Wine, women, and song? It is not binding,’ she said. She had come quite close up to him and laid her hand upon his arm. ‘As for the order — no, Heinrich, never! I will never believe it. I will die ere I believe it. You have some secret purpose — what, I cannot guess — but not one word of it is true.’
‘Shall I show it you?’ he asked.
‘You cannot,’ she answered. ‘There is no such thing.’
‘Incorrigible Sadducee!’ he cried. ‘Well, I will convert you; you shall see the order.’ He moved to a chair where he had thrown his coat, and then drawing forth and holding out a paper, ‘Read,’ said he.
She took it greedily, and her eye flashed as she perused it.
‘Hey!’ cried the Baron, ‘there falls a dynasty, and it was I that felled it; and I and you inherit!’ He seemed to swell in stature; and next moment, with a laugh, he put his hand forward. Give me the dagger,’ said he.
But she whisked the paper suddenly behind her back and faced him, lowering. ‘No, no,’ she said. ‘You and I have first a point to settle. Do you suppose me blind? She could never have given that paper but to one man, and that man her lover. Here you stand — her lover, her accomplice, her master — O, I well believe it, for I know your power. But what am I?’ she cried; ‘I, whom you deceive!’
‘Jealousy!’ cried Gondremark. ‘Anna, I would never have believed it! But I declare to you by all that’s credible that I am not her lover. I might be, I suppose; but I never yet durst risk the declaration. The chit is so unreal; a mincing doll; she will and she will not; there is no counting on her, by God! And hitherto I have had my own way without, and keep the lover in reserve. And I say, Anna,’ he added with severity, ‘you must break yourself of this new fit, my girl; there must be no combustion. I keep the creature under the belief that I adore her; and if she caught a breath of you and me, she is such a fool, prude, and dog in the manger, that she is capable of spoiling all.’
‘All very fine,’ returned the lady. ‘With whom do you pass your days? and which am I to believe, your words or your actions?’
‘Anna, the devil take you, are you blind?’ cried Gondremark. ‘You know me. Am I likely to care for such a preciosa? ‘Tis hard that we should have been together for so long, and you should still take me for a troubadour. But if there is one thing that I despise and deprecate, it is all such figures in Berlin wool. Give me a human woman — like myself. You are my mate; you were made for me; you amuse me like the play. And what have I to gain that I should pretend to you? If I do not love you, what use are you to me? Why, none. It is as clear as noonday.’
‘Do you love me, Heinrich?’ she asked, languishing. ‘Do you truly?’
‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘I love you next after myself. I should be all abroad if I had lost you.’
‘Well, then,’ said she, folding up the paper and putting it calmly in her pocket, ‘I will believe you, and I join the plot. Count upon me. At midnight, did you say? It is Gordon, I see, that you have charged with it. Excellent; he will stick at nothing — ’
Gondremark watched her suspiciously. ‘Why do you take the paper?’ he demanded. ‘Give it here.’
‘No,’ she returned; ‘I mean to keep it. It is I who must prepare the stroke; you cannot manage it without me; and to do my best I must possess the paper. Where shall I find Gordon? In his rooms?’ She spoke with a rather feverish self-possession.
‘Anna,’ he said sternly, the black, bilious countenance of his palace ROLE taking the place of the more open favour of his hours at home, ‘I ask you for that paper. Once, twice, and thrice.’
‘Heinrich,’ she returned, looking him in the face, ‘take care. I will put up with no dictation.’
Both looked dangerous; and the silence lasted for a measurable interval of time. Then she made haste to have the first word; and with a laugh that rang clear and honest, ‘Do not be a child,’ she said. ‘I wonder at you. If your assurances are true, you can have no reason to mistrust me, nor I to play you false. The difficulty is to get the Prince out of the palace without scandal. His valets are devoted; his chamberlain a slave; and yet one cry might ruin all.’
‘They must be overpowered,’ he said, following her to the new ground, ‘and disappear along with him.’
‘And your whole scheme along with them!’ she cried. ‘He does not take his servants when he goes a-hunting: a child could read the truth. No, no; the plan is idiotic; it must be Ratafia’s. But hear me. You know the Prince worships me?’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Poor Featherhead, I cross his destiny!’
‘Well now,’ she continued, ‘what if I bring him alone out of the palace, to some quiet corner of the Park — the Flying Mercury, for instance? Gordon can be posted in the thicket; the carriage wait behind the temple; not a cry, not a scuffle, not a footfall; simply, the Prince vanishes! — What do you say? Am I an able ally? Are my BEAUX YUEX of service? Ah, Heinrich, do not lose your Anna! — she has power!’
He struck with his open hand upon the chimney. ‘Witch!’ he said, ‘there is not your match for devilry in Europe. Service! the thing runs on wheels.’
‘Kiss me, then, and let me go. I must not miss my Featherhead,’ she said.
‘Stay, stay,’ said the Baron; ‘not so fast. I wish, upon my soul, that I could trust you; but you are, out and in, so whimsical a devil that I dare not. Hang it, Anna, no; it’s not possible!’
‘You doubt me, Heinrich?’ she cried.
‘Doubt is not the word,’ said he. ‘I know you. Once you were clear of me with that paper in your pocket, who knows what you would do with it? — not you, at least — nor I. You see,’ he added, shaking his head paternally upon the Countess, ‘you are as vicious as a monkey.’
‘I swear to you,’ she cried, ‘by my salvation . . . ’
‘I have no curiosity to hear you swearing,’ said the Baron.
‘You think that I have no religion? You suppose me destitute of honour. Well,’ she said, ‘see here: I will not argue, but I tell you once for all: leave me this order, and the Prince shall be arrested — take it from me, and, as certain as I speak, I will upset the coach. Trust me, or fear me: take your choice.’ And she offered him the paper.
The Baron, in a great contention of mind, stood irresolute, weighing the two dangers. Once his hand advanced, then dropped. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘since trust is what you call it . . .’
‘No more,’ she interrupted, ‘Do not spoil your attitude. And now since you have behaved like a good sort of fellow in the dark, I will condescend to tell you why. I go to the palace to arrange with Gordon; but how is Gordon to obey me? And how can I foresee the hours? It may be midnight; ay, and it may be nightfall; all’s a chance; and to act, I must be free and hold the strings of the adventure. And now,’ she cried, ‘your Vivien goes. Dub me your knight!’ And she held out her arms and smiled upon him radiant.
‘Well,’ he said, when he had kissed her, ‘every man must have his folly; I thank God mine is no worse. Off with you! I have given a child a squib.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00