WHEN Madame von Rosen left the Prince, she hurried straight to Colonel Gordon; and not content with directing the arrangements, she had herself accompanied the soldier of fortune to the Flying Mercury. The Colonel gave her his arm, and the talk between this pair of conspirators ran high and lively. The Countess, indeed, was in a whirl of pleasure and excitement; her tongue stumbled upon laughter, her eyes shone, the colour that was usually wanting now perfected her face. It would have taken little more to bring Gordon to her feet — or so, at least, she believed, disdaining the idea.
Hidden among some lilac bushes, she enjoyed the great decorum of the arrest, and heard the dialogue of the two men die away along the path. Soon after, the rolling of a carriage and the beat of hoofs arose in the still air of the night, and passed speedily farther and fainter into silence. The Prince was gone.
Madame von Rosen consulted her watch. She had still, she thought, time enough for the tit-bit of her evening; and hurrying to the palace, winged by the fear of Gondremark’s arrival, she sent her name and a pressing request for a reception to the Princess Seraphina. As the Countess von Rosen unqualified, she was sure to be refused; but as an emissary of the Baron’s, for so she chose to style herself, she gained immediate entry.
The Princess sat alone at table, making a feint of dining. Her cheeks were mottled, her eyes heavy; she had neither slept nor eaten; even her dress had been neglected. In short, she was out of health, out of looks, out of heart, and hag-ridden by her conscience. The Countess drew a swift comparison, and shone brighter in beauty.
‘You come, madam, DE LA PART DE MONSIEUR LE BARON,’ drawled the Princess. ‘Be seated! What have you to say?’
‘To say?’ repeated Madame von Rosen, ‘O, much to say! Much to say that I would rather not, and much to leave unsaid that I would rather say. For I am like St. Paul, your Highness, and always wish to do the things I should not. Well! to be categorical — that is the word? — I took the Prince your order. He could not credit his senses. “Ah,” he cried “dear Madame von Rosen, it is not possible — it cannot be I must hear it from your lips. My wife is a poor girl misled, she is only silly, she is not cruel.” “MON PRINCE,” said I, “a girl — and therefore cruel; youth kills flies.” — He had such pain to understand it!’
‘Madame von Rosen,’ said the Princess, in most steadfast tones, but with a rose of anger in her face, ‘who sent you here, and for what purpose? Tell your errand.’
‘O, madam, I believe you understand me very well,’ returned von Rosen. ‘I have not your philosophy. I wear my heart upon my sleeve, excuse the indecency! It is a very little one,’ she laughed, ‘and I so often change the sleeve!’
‘Am I to understand the Prince has been arrested?’ asked the Princess, rising.
‘While you sat there dining!’ cried the Countess, still nonchalantly seated.
‘You have discharged your errand,’ was the reply; ‘I will not detain you.’
‘O no, madam,’ said the Countess, ‘with your permission, I have not yet done. I have borne much this evening in your service. I have suffered. I was made to suffer in your service.’ She unfolded her fan as she spoke. Quick as her pulses beat, the fan waved languidly. She betrayed her emotion only by the brightness of her eyes and face, and by the almost insolent triumph with which she looked down upon the Princess. There were old scores of rivalry between them in more than one field; so at least von Rosen felt; and now she was to have her hour of victory in them all.
‘You are no servant, Madame von Rosen, of mine,’ said Seraphina.
‘No, madam, indeed,’ returned the Countess; ‘but we both serve the same person, as you know — or if you do not, then I have the pleasure of informing you. Your conduct is so light — so light,’ she repeated, the fan wavering higher like a butterfly, ‘that perhaps you do not truly understand.’ The Countess rolled her fan together, laid it in her lap, and rose to a less languorous position. ‘Indeed,’ she continued, ‘I should be sorry to see any young woman in your situation. You began with every advantage — birth, a suitable marriage — quite pretty too — and see what you have come to! My poor girl, to think of it! But there is nothing that does so much harm,’ observed the Countess finely, ‘as giddiness of mind.’ And she once more unfurled the fan, and approvingly fanned herself.
‘I will no longer permit you to forget yourself,’ cried Seraphina. ‘I think you are mad.’
‘Not mad,’ returned von Rosen. ‘Sane enough to know you dare not break with me to-night, and to profit by the knowledge. I left my poor, pretty Prince Charming crying his eyes out for a wooden doll. My heart is soft; I love my pretty Prince; you will never understand it, but I long to give my Prince his doll, dry his poor eyes, and send him off happy. O, you immature fool!’ the Countess cried, rising to her feet, and pointing at the Princess the closed fan that now began to tremble in her hand. ‘O wooden doll!’ she cried, ‘have you a heart, or blood, of any nature? This is a man, child — a man who loves you. O, it will not happen twice! it is not common; beautiful and clever women look in vain for it. And you, you pitiful schoolgirl, tread this jewel under foot! you, stupid with your vanity! Before you try to govern kingdoms, you should first be able to behave yourself at home; home is the woman’s kingdom.’ She paused and laughed a little, strangely to hear and look upon. ‘I will tell you one of the things,’ she said, ‘that were to stay unspoken. Von Rosen is a better women than you, my Princess, though you will never have the pain of understanding it; and when I took the Prince your order, and looked upon his face, my soul was melted -O, I am frank — here, within my arms, I offered him repose!’ She advanced a step superbly as she spoke, with outstretched arms; and Seraphina shrank. ‘Do not be alarmed!’ the Countess cried; ‘I am not offering that hermitage to you; in all the world there is but one who wants to, and him you have dismissed! “If it will give her pleasure I should wear the martyr’s crown,” he cried, “I will embrace the thorns.” I tell you — I am quite frank — I put the order in his power and begged him to resist. You, who have betrayed your husband, may betray me to Gondremark; my Prince would betray no one. Understand it plainly,’ she cried, ‘‘tis of his pure forbearance that you sit there; he had the power — I gave it him — to change the parts; and he refused, and went to prison in your place.’
The Princess spoke with some distress. ‘Your violence shocks me and pains me,’ she began, ‘but I cannot be angry with what at least does honour to the mistaken kindness of your heart: it was right for me to know this. I will condescend to tell you. It was with deep regret that I was driven to this step. I admire in many ways the Prince — I admit his amiability. It was our great misfortune, it was perhaps somewhat of my fault, that we were so unsuited to each other; but I have a regard, a sincere regard, for all his qualities. As a private person I should think as you do. It is difficult, I know, to make allowances for state considerations. I have only with deep reluctance obeyed the call of a superior duty; and so soon as I dare do it for the safety of the state, I promise you the Prince shall be released. Many in my situation would have resented your freedoms. I am not’ — and she looked for a moment rather piteously upon the Countess — ‘I am not altogether so inhuman as you think.’
‘And you can put these troubles of the state,’ the Countess cried, ‘to weigh with a man’s love?’
‘Madame von Rosen, these troubles are affairs of life and death to many; to the Prince, and perhaps even to yourself, among the number,’ replied the Princess, with dignity. ‘I have learned, madam, although still so young, in a hard school, that my own feelings must everywhere come last.’
‘O callow innocence!’ exclaimed the other. ‘Is it possible you do not know, or do not suspect, the intrigue in which you move? I find it in my heart to pity you! We are both women after all — poor girl, poor girl! — and who is born a woman is born a fool. And though I hate all women — come, for the common folly, I forgive you. Your Highness’ — she dropped a deep stage curtsey and resumed her fan — ‘I am going to insult you, to betray one who is called my lover, and if it pleases you to use the power I now put unreservedly into your hands, to ruin my dear self. O what a French comedy! You betray, I betray, they betray. It is now my cue. The letter, yes. Behold the letter, madam, its seal unbroken as I found it by my bed this morning; for I was out of humour, and I get many, too many, of these favours. For your own sake, for the sake of my Prince Charming, for the sake of this great principality that sits so heavy on your conscience, open it and read!’
‘Am I to understand,’ inquired the Princess, ‘that this letter in any way regards me?’
‘You see I have not opened it,’ replied von Rosen; ‘but ‘tis mine, and I beg you to experiment.’
‘I cannot look at it till you have,’ returned Seraphina, very seriously. ‘There may be matter there not meant for me to see; it is a private letter.’
The Countess tore it open, glanced it through, and tossed it back; and the Princess, taking up the sheet, recognised the hand of Gondremark, and read with a sickening shock the following lines:-
‘Dearest Anna, come at once. Ratafia has done the deed, her husband is to be packed to prison. This puts the minx entirely in my power; LE TOUR EST JOUE; she will now go steady in harness, or I will know the reason why. Come.
‘Command yourself, madam,’ said the Countess, watching with some alarm the white face of Seraphina. ‘It is in vain for you to fight with Gondremark; he has more strings than mere court favour, and could bring you down to-morrow with a word. I would not have betrayed him otherwise; but Heinrich is a man, and plays with all of you like marionnettes. And now at least you see for what you sacrificed my Prince. Madam, will you take some wine? I have been cruel.’
‘Not cruel, madam — salutary,’ said Seraphina, with a phantom smile. ‘No, I thank you, I require no attentions. The first surprise affected me: will you give me time a little? I must think.’
She took her head between her hands, and contemplated for a while the hurricane confusion of her thoughts.
‘This information reaches me,’ she said, ‘when I have need of it. I would not do as you have done, but yet I thank you. I have been much deceived in Baron Gondremark.’
‘O, madam, leave Gondremark, and think upon the Prince!’ cried von Rosen.
‘You speak once more as a private person,’ said the Princess; ‘nor do I blame you. But my own thoughts are more distracted. However, as I believe you are truly a friend to my — to the — as I believe,’ she said, ‘you are a friend to Otto, I shall put the order for his release into your hands this moment. Give me the ink-dish. There!’ And she wrote hastily, steadying her arm upon the table, for she trembled like a reed. ‘Remember; madam,’ she resumed, handing her the order, ‘this must not be used nor spoken of at present; till I have seen the Baron, any hurried step — I lose myself in thinking. The suddenness has shaken me.’
‘I promise you I will not use it,’ said the Countess, ‘till you give me leave, although I wish the Prince could be informed of it, to comfort his poor heart. And O, I had forgotten, he has left a letter. Suffer me, madam, I will bring it you. This is the door, I think?’ And she sought to open it.
‘The bolt is pushed,’ said Seraphina, flushing.
‘O! O!’ cried the Countess.
A silence fell between them.
‘I will get it for myself,’ said Seraphina; ‘and in the meanwhile I beg you to leave me. I thank you, I am sure, but I shall be obliged if you will leave me.’
The Countess deeply curtseyed, and withdrew.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13