Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter XII

Providence Von Rosen: Act the Second
She Informs the Prince

IT was the first impulse of Madame von Rosen to return to her own villa and revise her toilette. Whatever else should come of this adventure, it was her firm design to pay a visit to the Princess. And before that woman, so little beloved, the Countess would appear at no disadvantage. It was the work of minutes. Von Rosen had the captain’s eye in matters of the toilette; she was none of those who hang in Fabian helplessness among their finery and, after hours, come forth upon the world as dowdies. A glance, a loosened curl, a studied and admired disorder in the hair, a bit of lace, a touch of colour, a yellow rose in the bosom; and the instant picture was complete.

‘That will do,’ she said. ‘Bid my carriage follow me to the palace. In half an hour it should be there in waiting.’

The night was beginning to fall and the shops to shine with lamps along the tree-beshadowed thorough-fares of Otto’s capital, when the Countess started on her high emprise. She was jocund at heart; pleasure and interest had winged her beauty, and she knew it. She paused before the glowing jeweller’s; she remarked and praised a costume in the milliner’s window; and when she reached the lime-tree walk, with its high, umbrageous arches and stir of passers-by in the dim alleys, she took her place upon a bench and began to dally with the pleasures of the hour. It was cold, but she did not feel it, being warm within; her thoughts, in that dark corner, shone like the gold and rubies at the jewellers; her ears, which heard the brushing of so many footfalls, transposed it into music.

What was she to do? She held the paper by which all depended. Otto and Gondremark and Ratafia, and the state itself, hung light in her balances, as light as dust; her little finger laid in either scale would set all flying: and she hugged herself upon her huge preponderance, and then laughed aloud to think how giddily it might be used. The vertigo of omnipotence, the disease of Caesars, shook her reason. ‘O the mad world!’ she thought, and laughed aloud in exultation.

A child, finger in mouth, had paused a little way from where she sat, and stared with cloudy interest upon this laughing lady. She called it nearer; but the child hung back. Instantly, with that curious passion which you may see any woman in the world display, on the most odd occasions, for a similar end, the Countess bent herself with singleness of mind to overcome this diffidence; and presently, sure enough, the child was seated on her knee, thumbing and glowering at her watch.

‘If you had a clay bear and a china monkey,’ asked Von Rosen, ‘which would you prefer to break?’

‘But I have neither,’ said the child.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘here is a bright florin, with which you may purchase both the one and the other; and I shall give it you at once, if you will answer my question. The clay bear or the china monkey — come?’

But the unbreeched soothsayer only stared upon the florin with big eyes; the oracle could not be persuaded to reply; and the Countess kissed him lightly, gave him the florin, set him down upon the path, and resumed her way with swinging and elastic gait.

‘Which shall I break?’ she wondered; and she passed her hand with delight among the careful disarrangement of her locks. ‘Which?’ and she consulted heaven with her bright eyes. ‘Do I love both or neither? A little — passionately — not at all? Both or neither — both, I believe; but at least I will make hay of Ratafia.’

By the time she had passed the iron gates, mounted the drive, and set her foot upon the broad flagged terrace, the night had come completely; the palace front was thick with lighted windows; and along the balustrade, the lamp on every twentieth baluster shone clear. A few withered tracks of sunset, amber and glow-worm green, still lingered in the western sky; and she paused once again to watch them fading.

‘And to think,’ she said, ‘that here am I— destiny embodied, a norn, a fate, a providence — and have no guess upon which side I shall declare myself! What other woman in my place would not be prejudiced, and think herself committed? But, thank Heaven! I was born just!’ Otto’s windows were bright among the rest, and she looked on them with rising tenderness. ‘How does it feel to be deserted?’ she thought. ‘Poor dear fool! The girl deserves that he should see this order.’

Without more delay, she passed into the palace and asked for an audience of Prince Otto. The Prince, she was told, was in his own apartment, and desired to be private. She sent her name. A man presently returned with word that the Prince tendered his apologies, but could see no one. ‘Then I will write,’ she said, and scribbled a few lines alleging urgency of life and death. ‘Help me, my Prince,’ she added; ‘none but you can help me.’ This time the messenger returned more speedily, and begged the Countess to follow him: the Prince was graciously pleased to receive the Frau Grafin von Rosen.

Otto sat by the fire in his large armoury, weapons faintly glittering all about him in the changeful light. His face was disfigured by the marks of weeping; he looked sour and sad; nor did he rise to greet his visitor, but bowed, and bade the man begone. That kind of general tenderness which served the Countess for both heart and conscience, sharply smote her at this spectacle of grief and weakness; she began immediately to enter into the spirit of her part; and as soon as they were alone, taking one step forward and with a magnificent gesture — ‘Up!’ she cried.

‘Madame von Rosen,’ replied Otto dully, ‘you have used strong words. You speak of life and death. Pray, madam, who is threatened? Who is there,’ he added bitterly, ‘so destitute that even Otto of Grunewald can assist him?’

‘First learn,’ said she, ‘the names of the conspirators; the Princess and the Baron Gondremark. Can you not guess the rest?’ And then, as he maintained his silence — ‘You!’ she cried, pointing at him with her finger. “Tis you they threaten! Your rascal and mine have laid their heads together and condemned you. But they reckoned without you and me. We make a PARTIE CARREE, Prince, in love and politics. They lead an ace, but we shall trump it. Come, partner, shall I draw my card?’

‘Madam,’ he said, ‘explain yourself. Indeed I fail to comprehend.’

‘See, then,’ said she; and handed him the order.

He took it, looked upon it with a start; and then, still without speech, he put his hand before his face. She waited for a word in vain.

‘What!’ she cried, ‘do you take the thing down-heartedly? As well seek wine in a milk-pail as love in that girl’s heart! Be done with this, and be a man. After the league of the lions, let us have a conspiracy of mice, and pull this piece of machinery to ground. You were brisk enough last night when nothing was at stake and all was frolic. Well, here is better sport; here is life indeed.’

He got to his feet with some alacrity, and his face, which was a little flushed, bore the marks of resolution.

‘Madame von Rosen,’ said he, ‘I am neither unconscious nor ungrateful; this is the true continuation of your friendship; but I see that I must disappoint your expectations. You seem to expect from me some effort of resistance; but why should I resist? I have not much to gain; and now that I have read this paper, and the last of a fool’s paradise is shattered, it would be hyperbolical to speak of loss in the same breath with Otto of Grunewald. I have no party, no policy; no pride, nor anything to be proud of. For what benefit or principle under Heaven do you expect me to contend? Or would you have me bite and scratch like a trapped weasel? No, madam; signify to those who sent you my readiness to go. I would at least avoid a scandal.’

‘You go? — of your own will, you go?’ she cried.

‘I cannot say so much, perhaps,’ he answered; ‘but I go with good alacrity. I have desired a change some time; behold one offered me! Shall I refuse? Thank God, I am not so destitute of humour as to make a tragedy of such a farce.’ He flicked the order on the table. ‘You may signify my readiness,’ he added grandly.

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘you are more angry than you own.’

‘I, madam? angry?’ he cried. ‘You rave! I have no cause for anger. In every way I have been taught my weakness, my instability, and my unfitness for the world. I am a plexus of weaknesses, an impotent Prince, a doubtful gentleman; and you yourself, indulgent as you are, have twice reproved my levity. And shall I be angry? I may feel the unkindness, but I have sufficient honesty of mind to see the reasons of this COUP D’ETAT.’

‘From whom have you got this?’ she cried in wonder. ‘You think you have not behaved well? My Prince, were you not young and handsome, I should detest you for your virtues. You push them to the verge of commonplace. And this ingratitude — ’

‘Understand me, Madame von Rosen,’ returned the Prince, flushing a little darker, ‘there can be here no talk of gratitude, none of pride. You are here, by what circumstance I know not, but doubtless led by your kindness, mixed up in what regards my family alone. You have no knowledge what my wife, your sovereign, may have suffered; it is not for you — no, nor for me — to judge. I own myself in fault; and were it otherwise, a man were a very empty boaster who should talk of love and start before a small humiliation. It is in all the copybooks that one should die to please his lady-love; and shall a man not go to prison?’

‘Love? And what has love to do with being sent to gaol?’ exclaimed the Countess, appealing to the walls and roof. ‘Heaven knows I think as much of love as any one; my life would prove it; but I admit no love, at least for a man, that is not equally returned. The rest is moonshine.’

‘I think of love more absolutely, madam, though I am certain no more tenderly, than a lady to whom I am indebted for such kindnesses,’ returned the Prince. ‘But this is unavailing. We are not here to hold a court of troubadours.’

‘Still,’ she replied, ‘there is one thing you forget. If she conspires with Gondremark against your liberty, she may conspire with him against your honour also.’

‘My honour?’ he repeated. ‘For a woman, you surprise me. If I have failed to gain her love or play my part of husband, what right is left me? or what honour can remain in such a scene of defeat? No honour that I recognise. I am become a stranger. If my wife no longer loves me, I will go to prison, since she wills it; if she love another, where should I be more in place? or whose fault is it but mine? You speak, Madame von Rosen, like too many women, with a man’s tongue. Had I myself fallen into temptation (as, Heaven knows, I might) I should have trembled, but still hoped and asked for her forgiveness; and yet mine had been a treason in the teeth of love. But let me tell you, madam,’ he pursued, with rising irritation, ‘where a husband by futility, facility, and ill-timed humours has outwearied his wife’s patience, I will suffer neither man nor woman to misjudge her. She is free; the man has been found wanting.’

‘Because she loves you not?’ the Countess cried. ‘You know she is incapable of such a feeling.’

‘Rather, it was I who was born incapable of inspiring it,’ said Otto.

Madame von Rosen broke into sudden laughter. ‘Fool,’ she cried, ‘I am in love with you myself!’

‘Ah, madam, you are most compassionate,’ the Prince retorted, smiling. ‘But this is waste debate. I know my purpose. Perhaps, to equal you in frankness, I know and embrace my advantage. I am not without the spirit of adventure. I am in a false position — so recognised by public acclamation: do you grudge me, then, my issue?’

‘If your mind is made up, why should I dissuade you?’ said the Countess. ‘I own, with a bare face, I am the gainer. Go, you take my heart with you, or more of it than I desire; I shall not sleep at night for thinking of your misery. But do not be afraid; I would not spoil you, you are such a fool and hero.’

‘Alas! madam,’ cried the Prince, ‘and your unlucky money! I did amiss to take it, but you are a wonderful persuader. And I thank God, I can still offer you the fair equivalent.’ He took some papers from the chimney. ‘Here, madam, are the title-deeds,’ he said; ‘where I am going, they can certainly be of no use to me, and I have now no other hope of making up to you your kindness. You made the loan without formality, obeying your kind heart. The parts are somewhat changed; the sun of this Prince of Grunewald is upon the point of setting; and I know you better than to doubt you will once more waive ceremony, and accept the best that he can give you. If I may look for any pleasure in the coming time, it will be to remember that the peasant is secure, and my most generous friend no loser.’

‘Do you not understand my odious position?’ cried the Countess. ‘Dear Prince, it is upon your fall that I begin my fortune.’

‘It was the more like you to tempt me to resistance,’ returned Otto. ‘But this cannot alter our relations; and I must, for the last time, lay my commands upon you in the character of Prince.’ And with his loftiest dignity, he forced the deeds on her acceptance.

‘I hate the very touch of them,’ she cried.

There followed upon this a little silence. ‘At what time,’ resumed Otto, ‘(if indeed you know) am I to be arrested?’

‘Your Highness, when you please!’ exclaimed the Countess. ‘Or, if you choose to tear that paper, never!’

‘I would rather it were done quickly,’ said the Prince. ‘I shall take but time to leave a letter for the Princess.’

‘Well,’ said the Countess, ‘I have advised you to resist; at the same time, if you intend to be dumb before your shearers, I must say that I ought to set about arranging your arrest. I offered’ — she hesitated — ‘I offered to manage it, intending, my dear friend — intending, upon my soul, to be of use to you. Well, if you will not profit by my goodwill, then be of use to me; and as soon as ever you feel ready, go to the Flying Mercury where we met last night. It will be none the worse for you; and to make it quite plain, it will be better for the rest of us.’

‘Dear madam, certainly,’ said Otto. ‘If I am prepared for the chief evil, I shall not quarrel with details. Go, then, with my best gratitude; and when I have written a few lines of leave-taking, I shall immediately hasten to keep tryst. To-night I shall not meet so dangerous a cavalier,’ he added, with a smiling gallantry.

As soon as Madame von Rosen was gone, he made a great call upon his self-command. He was face to face with a miserable passage where, if it were possible, he desired to carry himself with dignity. As to the main fact, he never swerved or faltered; he had come so heart-sick and so cruelly humiliated from his talk with Gotthold, that he embraced the notion of imprisonment with something bordering on relief. Here was, at least, a step which he thought blameless; here was a way out of his troubles. He sat down to write to Seraphina; and his anger blazed. The tale of his forbearances mounted, in his eyes, to something monstrous; still more monstrous, the coldness, egoism, and cruelty that had required and thus requited them. The pen which he had taken shook in his hand. He was amazed to find his resignation fled, but it was gone beyond his recall. In a few white-hot words, he bade adieu, dubbing desperation by the name of love, and calling his wrath forgiveness; then he cast but one look of leave-taking on the place that had been his for so long and was now to be his no longer; and hurried forth — love’s prisoner — or pride’s.

He took that private passage which he had trodden so often in less momentous hours. The porter let him out; and the bountiful, cold air of the night and the pure glory of the stars received him on the threshold. He looked round him, breathing deep of earth’s plain fragrance; he looked up into the great array of heaven, and was quieted. His little turgid life dwindled to its true proportions; and he saw himself (that great flame-hearted martyr!) stand like a speck under the cool cupola of the night. Thus he felt his careless injuries already soothed; the live air of out-of-doors, the quiet of the world, as if by their silent music, sobering and dwarfing his emotions.

‘Well, I forgive her,’ he said. ‘If it be of any use to her, I forgive.’

And with brisk steps he crossed the garden, issued upon the Park, and came to the Flying Mercury. A dark figure moved forward from the shadow of the pedestal.

‘I have to ask your pardon, sir,’ a voice observed, ‘but if I am right in taking you for the Prince, I was given to understand that you would be prepared to meet me.’

‘Herr Gordon, I believe?’ said Otto.

‘Herr Oberst Gordon,’ replied that officer. ‘This is rather a ticklish business for a man to be embarked in; and to find that all is to go pleasantly is a great relief to me. The carriage is at hand; shall I have the honour of following your Highness?’

‘Colonel,’ said the Prince, ‘I have now come to that happy moment of my life when I have orders to receive but none to give.’

‘A most philosophical remark,’ returned the Colonel. ‘Begad, a very pertinent remark! it might be Plutarch. I am not a drop’s blood to your Highness, or indeed to any one in this principality; or else I should dislike my orders. But as it is, and since there is nothing unnatural or unbecoming on my side, and your Highness takes it in good part, I begin to believe we may have a capital time together, sir — a capital time. For a gaoler is only a fellow-captive.’

‘May I inquire, Herr Gordon,’ asked Otto, ‘what led you to accept this dangerous and I would fain hope thankless office?’

‘Very natural, I am sure,’ replied the officer of fortune. ‘My pay is, in the meanwhile, doubled.’

‘Well, sir, I will not presume to criticise,’ returned the Prince. ‘And I perceive the carriage.’

Sure enough, at the intersection of two alleys of the Park, a coach and four, conspicuous by its lanterns, stood in waiting. And a little way off about a score of lancers were drawn up under the shadow of the trees.

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