Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter IV

While the Prince is in the Ante-Room . . .

GREATLY comforted by the exploits of the morning, the Prince turned towards the Princess’s ante-room, bent on a more difficult enterprise. The curtains rose before him, the usher called his name, and he entered the room with an exaggeration of his usual mincing and airy dignity. There were about a score of persons waiting, principally ladies; it was one of the few societies in Grunewald where Otto knew himself to be popular; and while a maid of honour made her exit by a side door to announce his arrival to the Princess, he moved round the apartment, collecting homage and bestowing compliments with friendly grace. Had this been the sum of his duties, he had been an admirable monarch. Lady after lady was impartially honoured by his attention.

‘Madam,’ he said to one, ‘how does this happen? I find you daily more adorable.’

‘And your Highness daily browner,’ replied the lady. ‘We began equal; O, there I will be bold: we have both beautiful complexions. But while I study mine, your Highness tans himself.’

‘A perfect negro, madam; and what so fitly — being beauty’s slave?’ said Otto. — ‘Madame Grafinski, when is our next play? I have just heard that I am a bad actor.’

‘O CIEL!’ cried Madame Grafinski. ‘Who could venture? What a bear!’

‘An excellent man, I can assure you,’ returned Otto.

‘O, never! O, is it possible!’ fluted the lady. ‘Your Highness plays like an angel.’

‘You must be right, madam; who could speak falsely and yet look so charming?’ said the Prince. ‘But this gentleman, it seems, would have preferred me playing like an actor.’

A sort of hum, a falsetto, feminine cooing, greeted the tiny sally; and Otto expanded like a peacock. This warm atmosphere of women and flattery and idle chatter pleased him to the marrow.

‘Madame von Eisenthal, your coiffure is delicious,’ he remarked.

‘Every one was saying so,’ said one.

‘If I have pleased Prince Charming?’ And Madame von Eisenthal swept him a deep curtsy with a killing glance of adoration.

‘It is new?’ he asked. ‘Vienna fashion.’

‘Mint new,’ replied the lady, ‘for your Highness’s return. I felt young this morning; it was a premonition. But why, Prince, do you ever leave us?’

‘For the pleasure of the return,’ said Otto. ‘I am like a dog; I must bury my bone, and then come back to great upon it.’

‘O, a bone! Fie, what a comparison! You have brought back the manners of the wood,’ returned the lady.

‘Madam, it is what the dog has dearest,’ said the Prince. ‘But I observe Madame von Rosen.’

And Otto, leaving the group to which he had been piping, stepped towards the embrasure of a window where a lady stood.

The Countess von Rosen had hitherto been silent, and a thought depressed, but on the approach of Otto she began to brighten. She was tall, slim as a nymph, and of a very airy carriage; and her face, which was already beautiful in repose, lightened and changed, flashed into smiles, and glowed with lovely colour at the touch of animation. She was a good vocalist; and, even in speech, her voice commanded a great range of changes, the low notes rich with tenor quality, the upper ringing, on the brink of laughter, into music. A gem of many facets and variable hues of fire; a woman who withheld the better portion of her beauty, and then, in a caressing second, flashed it like a weapon full on the beholder; now merely a tall figure and a sallow handsome face, with the evidences of a reckless temper; anon opening like a flower to life and colour, mirth and tenderness:-Madame von Rosen had always a dagger in reserve for the despatch of ill-assured admirers. She met Otto with the dart of tender gaiety.

‘You have come to me at last, Prince Cruel,’ she said. ‘Butterfly! Well, and am I not to kiss your hand?’ she added.

‘Madam, it is I who must kiss yours.’ And Otto bowed and kissed it.

‘You deny me every indulgence,’ she said, smiling.

‘And now what news in Court?’ inquired the Prince. ‘I come to you for my gazette.’

‘Ditch-water!’ she replied. ‘The world is all asleep, grown grey in slumber; I do not remember any waking movement since quite an eternity; and the last thing in the nature of a sensation was the last time my governess was allowed to box my ears. But yet I do myself and your unfortunate enchanted palace some injustice. Here is the last — O positively!’ And she told him the story from behind her fan, with many glances, many cunning strokes of the narrator’s art. The others had drawn away, for it was understood that Madame von Rosen was in favour with the Prince. None the less, however, did the Countess lower her voice at times to within a semitone of whispering; and the pair leaned together over the narrative.

‘Do you know,’ said Otto, laughing, ‘you are the only entertaining woman on this earth!’

‘O, you have found out so much,’ she cried.

‘Yes, madam, I grow wiser with advancing years,’ he returned.

‘Years,’ she repeated. ‘Do you name the traitors? I do not believe in years; the calendar is a delusion.’

‘You must be right, madam,’ replied the Prince. ‘For six years that we have been good friends, I have observed you to grow younger.’

‘Flatterer!’ cried she, and then with a change, ‘But why should I say so,’ she added, ‘when I protest I think the same? A week ago I had a council with my father director, the glass; and the glass replied, “Not yet!” I confess my face in this way once a month. O! a very solemn moment. Do you know what I shall do when the mirror answers, “Now”?’

‘I cannot guess,’ said he.

‘No more can I,’ returned the Countess. ‘There is such a choice! Suicide, gambling, a nunnery, a volume of memoirs, or politics — the last, I am afraid.’

‘It is a dull trade,’ said Otto.

‘Nay,’ she replied, ‘it is a trade I rather like. It is, after all, first cousin to gossip, which no one can deny to be amusing. For instance, if I were to tell you that the Princess and the Baron rode out together daily to inspect the cannon, it is either a piece of politics or scandal, as I turn my phrase. I am the alchemist that makes the transmutation. They have been everywhere together since you left,’ she continued, brightening as she saw Otto darken; ‘that is a poor snippet of malicious gossip — and they were everywhere cheered — and with that addition all becomes political intelligence.’

‘Let us change the subject,’ said Otto.

‘I was about to propose it,’ she replied, ‘or rather to pursue the politics. Do you know? this war is popular — popular to the length of cheering Princess Seraphina.’

‘All things, madam, are possible,’ said the Prince; and this among others, that we may be going into war, but I give you my word of honour I do not know with whom.’

‘And you put up with it?’ she cried. ‘I have no pretensions to morality; and I confess I have always abominated the lamb, and nourished a romantic feeling for the wolf. O, be done with lambiness! Let us see there is a prince, for I am weary of the distaff.’

‘Madam,’ said Otto, ‘I thought you were of that faction.’

‘I should be of yours, MON PRINCE, if you had one,’ she retorted. ‘Is it true that you have no ambition? There was a man once in England whom they call the kingmaker. Do you know,’ she added, ‘I fancy I could make a prince?’

‘Some day, madam,’ said Otto, ‘I may ask you to help make a farmer.’

‘Is that a riddle?’ asked the Countess.

‘It is,’ replied the Prince, ‘and a very good one too.’

‘Tit for tat. I will ask you another,’ she returned. ‘Where is Gondremark?’

‘The Prime Minister? In the prime-ministry, no doubt,’ said Otto.

‘Precisely,’ said the Countess; and she pointed with her fan to the door of the Princess’s apartments. ‘You and I, MON PRINCE, are in the ante-room. You think me unkind,’ she added. ‘Try me and you will see. Set me a task, put me a question; there is no enormity I am not capable of doing to oblige you, and no secret that I am not ready to betray.’

‘Nay, madam, but I respect my friend too much,’ he answered, kissing her hand. ‘I would rather remain ignorant of all. We fraternise like foemen soldiers at the outposts, but let each be true to his own army.’

‘Ah,’ she cried, ‘if all men were generous like you, it would be worth while to be a woman!’ Yet, judging by her looks, his generosity, if anything, had disappointed her; she seemed to seek a remedy, and, having found it, brightened once more. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘may I dismiss my sovereign? This is rebellion and a CAS PENDABLE; but what am I to do? My bear is jealous!’

‘Madam, enough!’ cried Otto. ‘Ahasuerus reaches you the sceptre; more, he will obey you in all points. I should have been a dog to come to whistling.’

And so the Prince departed, and fluttered round Grafinski and von Eisenthal. But the Countess knew the use of her offensive weapons, and had left a pleasant arrow in the Prince’s heart. That Gondremark was jealous — here was an agreeable revenge! And Madame von Rosen, as the occasion of the jealousy, appeared to him in a new light.

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