Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter III

Providence Von Rosen: Act the Last
In which she Gallops off

WHEN the busy Countess came forth from her interview with Seraphina, it is not too much to say that she was beginning to be terribly afraid. She paused in the corridor and reckoned up her doings with an eye to Gondremark. The fan was in requisition in an instant; but her disquiet was beyond the reach of fanning. ‘The girl has lost her head,’ she thought; and then dismally, ‘I have gone too far.’ She instantly decided on secession. Now the MONS SACER of the Frau von Rosen was a certain rustic villa in the forest, called by herself, in a smart attack of poesy, Tannen Zauber, and by everybody else plain Kleinbrunn.

Thither, upon the thought, she furiously drove, passing Gondremark at the entrance to the Palace avenue, but feigning not to observe him; and as Kleinbrunn was seven good miles away, and in the bottom of a narrow dell, she passed the night without any rumour of the outbreak reaching her; and the glow of the conflagration was concealed by intervening hills. Frau von Rosen did not sleep well; she was seriously uneasy as to the results of her delightful evening, and saw herself condemned to quite a lengthy sojourn in her deserts and a long defensive correspondence, ere she could venture to return to Gondremark. On the other hand, she examined, by way of pastime, the deeds she had received from Otto; and even here saw cause for disappointment. In these troublous days she had no taste for landed property, and she was convinced, besides, that Otto had paid dearer than the farm was worth. Lastly, the order for the Prince’s release fairly burned her meddling fingers.

All things considered, the next day beheld an elegant and beautiful lady, in a riding-habit and a flapping hat, draw bridle at the gate of the Felsenburg, not perhaps with any clear idea of her purpose, but with her usual experimental views on life. Governor Gordon, summoned to the gate, welcomed the omnipotent Countess with his most gallant bearing, though it was wonderful how old he looked in the morning.

‘Ah, Governor,’ she said, ‘we have surprises for you, sir,’ and nodded at him meaningly.

‘Eh, madam, leave me my prisoners,’ he said; ‘and if you will but join the band, begad, I’ll be happy for life.’

‘You would spoil me, would you not?’ she asked.

‘I would try, I would try,’ returned the Governor, and he offered her his arm.

She took it, picked up her skirt, and drew him close to her. ‘I have come to see the Prince,’ she said. ‘Now, infidel! on business. A message from that stupid Gondremark, who keeps me running like a courier. Do I look like one, Herr Gordon?’ And she planted her eyes in him.

‘You look like an angel, ma’am,’ returned the Governor, with a great air of finished gallantry.

The Countess laughed. ‘An angel on horseback!’ she said. ‘Quick work.’

‘You came, you saw, you conquered,’ flourished Gordon, in high good humour with his own wit and grace. ‘We toasted you, madam, in the carriage, in an excellent good glass of wine; toasted you fathom deep; the finest woman, with, begad, the finest eyes in Grunewald. I never saw the like of them but once, in my own country, when I was a young fool at College: Thomasina Haig her name was. I give you my word of honour, she was as like you as two peas.’

‘And so you were merry in the carriage?’ asked the Countess, gracefully dissembling a yawn.

‘We were; we had a very pleasant conversation; but we took perhaps a glass more than that fine fellow of a Prince has been accustomed to,’ said the Governor; ‘and I observe this morning that he seems a little off his mettle. We’ll get him mellow again ere bedtime. This is his door.’

‘Well,’ she whispered, ‘let me get my breath. No, no; wait. Have the door ready to open.’ And the Countess, standing like one inspired, shook out her fine voice in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’; and when she had reached the proper point, and lyrically uttered forth her sighings after liberty, the door, at a sign, was flung wide open, and she swam into the Prince’s sight, bright-eyed, and with her colour somewhat freshened by the exercise of singing. It was a great dramatic entrance, and to the somewhat doleful prisoner within the sight was sunshine.

‘Ah, madam,’ he cried, running to her — ‘you here!’

She looked meaningly at Gordon; and as soon as the door was closed she fell on Otto’s neck. ‘To see you here!’ she moaned and clung to him.

But the Prince stood somewhat stiffly in that enviable situation, and the Countess instantly recovered from her outburst.

‘Poor child,’ she said, ‘poor child! Sit down beside me here, and tell me all about it. My heart really bleeds to see you. How does time go?’

‘Madam,’ replied the Prince, sitting down beside her, his gallantry recovered, ‘the time will now go all too quickly till you leave. But I must ask you for the news. I have most bitterly condemned myself for my inertia of last night. You wisely counselled me; it was my duty to resist. You wisely and nobly counselled me; I have since thought of it with wonder. You have a noble heart.’

‘Otto,’ she said, ‘spare me. Was it even right, I wonder? I have duties, too, you poor child; and when I see you they all melt — all my good resolutions fly away.’

‘And mine still come too late,’ he replied, sighing. ‘O, what would I not give to have resisted? What would I not give for freedom?’

‘Well, what would you give?’ she asked; and the red fan was spread; only her eyes, as if from over battlements, brightly surveyed him.

‘I? What do you mean? Madam, you have some news for me,’ he cried.

‘O, O!’ said madam dubiously.

He was at her feet. ‘Do not trifle with my hopes,’ he pleaded. ‘Tell me, dearest Madame von Rosen, tell me! You cannot be cruel: it is not in your nature. Give? I can give nothing; I have nothing; I can only plead in mercy.’

‘Do not,’ she said; ‘it is not fair. Otto, you know my weakness. Spare me. Be generous.’

‘O, madam,’ he said, ‘it is for you to be generous, to have pity.’ He took her hand and pressed it; he plied her with caresses and appeals. The Countess had a most enjoyable sham siege, and then relented. She sprang to her feet, she tore her dress open, and, all warm from her bosom, threw the order on the floor.

‘There!’ she cried. ‘I forced it from her. Use it, and I am ruined!’ And she turned away as if to veil the force of her emotions.

Otto sprang upon the paper, read it, and cried out aloud. ‘O, God bless her!’ he said, ‘God bless her.’ And he kissed the writing.

Von Rosen was a singularly good-natured woman, but her part was now beyond her. ‘Ingrate!’ she cried; ‘I wrung it from her, I betrayed my trust to get it, and ‘tis she you thank!’

‘Can you blame me?’ said the Prince. ‘I love her.’

‘I see that,’ she said. ‘And I?’

‘You, Madame von Rosen? You are my dearest, my kindest, and most generous of friends,’ he said, approaching her. ‘You would be a perfect friend, if you were not so lovely. You have a great sense of humour, you cannot be unconscious of your charm, and you amuse yourself at times by playing on my weakness; and at times I can take pleasure in the comedy. But not to-day: to-day you will be the true, the serious, the manly friend, and you will suffer me to forget that you are lovely and that I am weak. Come, dear Countess, let me to-day repose in you entirely.’

He held out his hand, smiling, and she took it frankly. ‘I vow you have bewitched me,’ she said; and then with a laugh, ‘I break my staff!’ she added; ‘and I must pay you my best compliment. You made a difficult speech. You are as adroit, dear Prince, as I am — charming.’ And as she said the word with a great curtsey, she justified it.

‘You hardly keep the bargain, madam, when you make yourself so beautiful,’ said the Prince, bowing.

‘It was my last arrow,’ she returned. ‘I am disarmed. Blank cartridge, O MON PRINCE! And now I tell you, if you choose to leave this prison, you can, and I am ruined. Choose!’

‘Madame von Rosen,’ replied Otto, ‘I choose, and I will go. My duty points me, duty still neglected by this Featherhead. But do not fear to be a loser. I propose instead that you should take me with you, a bear in chains, to Baron Gondremark. I am become perfectly unscrupulous: to save my wife I will do all, all he can ask or fancy. He shall be filled; were he huge as leviathan and greedy as the grave, I will content him. And you, the fairy of our pantomime, shall have the credit.’

‘Done!’ she cried. ‘Admirable! Prince Charming no longer — Prince Sorcerer, Prince Solon! Let us go this moment. Stay,’ she cried, pausing. ‘I beg dear Prince, to give you back these deeds. ‘Twas you who liked the farm — I have not seen it; and it was you who wished to benefit the peasants. And, besides,’ she added, with a comical change of tone, ‘I should prefer the ready money.’

Both laughed. ‘Here I am, once more a farmer,’ said Otto, accepting the papers, ‘but overwhelmed in debt.’

The Countess touched a bell, and the Governor appeared.

‘Governor,’ she said, ‘I am going to elope with his Highness. The result of our talk has been a thorough understanding, and the COUP D’ETAT is over. Here is the order.’

Colonel Gordon adjusted silver spectacles upon his nose. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the Princess: very right. But the warrant, madam, was countersigned.’

‘By Heinrich!’ said von Rosen. ‘Well, and here am I to represent him.’

‘Well, your Highness,’ resumed the soldier of fortune, ‘I must congratulate you upon my loss. You have been cut out by beauty, and I am left lamenting. The Doctor still remains to me: PROBUS, DOCTUS, LEPIDUS, JUCUNDUS: a man of books.’

‘Ay, there is nothing about poor Gotthold,’ said the Prince.

‘The Governor’s consolation? Would you leave him bare?’ asked von Rosen.

‘And, your Highness,’ resumed Gordon, ‘may I trust that in the course of this temporary obscuration, you have found me discharge my part with suitable respect and, I may add, tact? I adopted purposely a cheerfulness of manner; mirth, it appeared to me, and a good glass of wine, were the fit alleviations.’

‘Colonel,’ said Otto, holding out his hand, ‘your society was of itself enough. I do not merely thank you for your pleasant spirits; I have to thank you, besides, for some philosophy, of which I stood in need. I trust I do not see you for the last time; and in the meanwhile, as a memento of our strange acquaintance, let me offer you these verses on which I was but now engaged. I am so little of a poet, and was so ill inspired by prison bars, that they have some claim to be at least a curiosity.’

The Colonel’s countenance lighted as he took the paper; the silver spectacles were hurriedly replaced. ‘Ha!’ he said, ‘Alexandrines, the tragic metre. I shall cherish this, your Highness, like a relic; no more suitable offering, although I say it, could be made. “DIEUX DE L’IMMENSE PLAINE ET DES VASTES FORETS.” Very good,’ he said, ‘very good indeed! “ET DU GEOLIER LUI-MEME APPRENDRE DES LECONS.” Most handsome, begad!’

‘Come, Governor,’ cried the Countess, ‘you can read his poetry when we are gone. Open your grudging portals.’

‘I ask your pardon,’ said the Colonel. ‘To a man of my character and tastes, these verses, this handsome reference — most moving, I assure you. Can I offer you an escort?’

‘No, no,’ replied the Countess. ‘We go incogniti, as we arrived. We ride together; the Prince will take my servant’s horse. Hurry and privacy, Herr Oberst, that is all we seek.’ And she began impatiently to lead the way.

But Otto had still to bid farewell to Dr. Gotthold; and the Governor following, with his spectacles in one hand and the paper in the other, had still to communicate his treasured verses, piece by piece, as he succeeded in deciphering the manuscript, to all he came across; and still his enthusiasm mounted. ‘I declare,’ he cried at last, with the air of one who has at length divined a mystery, ‘they remind me of Robbie Burns!’

But there is an end to all things; and at length Otto was walking by the side of Madame von Rosen, along that mountain wall, her servant following with both the horses, and all about them sunlight, and breeze, and flying bird, and the vast regions of the air, and the capacious prospect: wildwood and climbing pinnacle, and the sound and voice of mountain torrents, at their hand: and far below them, green melting into sapphire on the plains.

They walked at first in silence; for Otto’s mind was full of the delight of liberty and nature, and still, betweenwhiles, he was preparing his interview with Gondremark. But when the first rough promontory of the rock was turned, and the Felsenburg concealed behind its bulk, the lady paused.

‘Here,’ she said, ‘I will dismount poor Karl, and you and I must ply our spurs. I love a wild ride with a good companion.’

As she spoke, a carriage came into sight round the corner next below them in the order of the road. It came heavily creaking, and a little ahead of it a traveller was soberly walking, note-book in hand.

‘It is Sir John,’ cried Otto, and he hailed him.

The Baronet pocketed his note-book, stared through an eye-glass, and then waved his stick; and he on his side, and the Countess and the Prince on theirs, advanced with somewhat quicker steps. They met at the re-entrant angle, where a thin stream sprayed across a boulder and was scattered in rain among the brush; and the Baronet saluted the Prince with much punctilio. To the Countess, on the other hand, he bowed with a kind of sneering wonder.

‘Is it possible, madam, that you have not heard the news?’ he asked.

‘What news?’ she cried.

‘News of the first order,’ returned Sir John: ‘a revolution in the State, a Republic declared, the palace burned to the ground, the Princess in flight, Gondremark wounded — ’

‘Heinrich wounded?’ she screamed.

‘Wounded and suffering acutely,’ said Sir John. ‘His groans — ’

There fell from the lady’s lips an oath so potent that, in smoother hours, it would have made her hearers jump. She ran to her horse, scrambled to the saddle, and, yet half seated, dashed down the road at full gallop. The groom, after a pause of wonder, followed her. The rush of her impetuous passage almost scared the carriage horses over the verge of the steep hill; and still she clattered further, and the crags echoed to her flight, and still the groom flogged vainly in pursuit of her. At the fourth corner, a woman trailing slowly up leaped back with a cry and escaped death by a hand’s-breadth. But the Countess wasted neither glance nor thought upon the incident. Out and in, about the bluffs of the mountain wall, she fled, loose-reined, and still the groom toiled in her pursuit.

‘A most impulsive lady!’ said Sir John. ‘Who would have thought she cared for him?’ And before the words were uttered, he was struggling in the Prince’s grasp.

‘My wife! the Princess? What of her?’

‘She is down the road,’ he gasped. ‘I left her twenty minutes back.’

And next moment, the choked author stood alone, and the Prince on foot was racing down the hill behind the Countess.

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