Prince Otto, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter V

. . . Gondremark is in My Lady’s Chamber

THE Countess von Rosen spoke the truth. The great Prime Minister of Grunewald was already closeted with Seraphina. The toilet was over; and the Princess, tastefully arrayed, sat face to face with a tall mirror. Sir John’s description was unkindly true, true in terms and yet a libel, a misogynistic masterpiece. Her forehead was perhaps too high, but it became her; her figure somewhat stooped, but every detail was formed and finished like a gem; her hand, her foot, her ear, the set of her comely head, were all dainty and accordant; if she was not beautiful, she was vivid, changeful, coloured, and pretty with a thousand various prettinesses; and her eyes, if they indeed rolled too consciously, yet rolled to purpose. They were her most attractive feature, yet they continually bore eloquent false witness to her thoughts; for while she herself, in the depths of her immature, unsoftened heart, was given altogether to manlike ambition and the desire of power, the eyes were by turns bold, inviting, fiery, melting, and artful, like the eyes of a rapacious siren. And artful, in a sense, she was. Chafing that she was not a man, and could not shine by action, she had conceived a woman’s part, of answerable domination; she sought to subjugate for by-ends, to rain influence and be fancy free; and, while she loved not man, loved to see man obey her. It is a common girl’s ambition. Such was perhaps that lady of the glove, who sent her lover to the lions. But the snare is laid alike for male and female, and the world most artfully contrived.

Near her, in a low chair, Gondremark had arranged his limbs into a cat-like attitude, high-shouldered, stooping, and submiss. The formidable blue jowl of the man, and the dull bilious eye, set perhaps a higher value on his evident desire to please. His face was marked by capacity, temper, and a kind of bold, piratical dishonesty which it would be calumnious to call deceit. His manners, as he smiled upon the Princess, were over-fine, yet hardly elegant.

‘Possibly,’ said the Baron, ‘I should now proceed to take my leave. I must not keep my sovereign in the ante-room. Let us come at once to a decision.’

‘It cannot, cannot be put off?’ she asked.

‘It is impossible,’ answered Gondremark. ‘Your Highness sees it for herself. In the earlier stages, we might imitate the serpent; but for the ultimatum, there is no choice but to be bold like lions. Had the Prince chosen to remain away, it had been better; but we have gone too far forward to delay.’

‘What can have brought him?’ she cried. ‘To-day of all days?’

‘The marplot, madam, has the instinct of his nature,’ returned Gondremark. ‘But you exaggerate the peril. Think, madam, how far we have prospered, and against what odds! Shall a Featherhead? — but no!’ And he blew upon his fingers lightly with a laugh.

‘Featherhead,’ she replied, ‘is still the Prince of Grunewald.’

‘On your sufferance only, and so long as you shall please to be indulgent,’ said the Baron. ‘There are rights of nature; power to the powerful is the law. If he shall think to cross your destiny — well, you have heard of the brazen and the earthen pot.’

‘Do you call me pot? You are ungallant, Baron,’ laughed the Princess.

‘Before we are done with your glory, I shall have called you by many different titles,’ he replied.

The girl flushed with pleasure. ‘But Frederic is still the Prince, MONSIEUR LE FLATTEUR,’ she said. ‘You do not propose a revolution? -you of all men?’

‘Dear madam, when it is already made!’ he cried. ‘The Prince reigns indeed in the almanac; but my Princess reigns and rules.’ And he looked at her with a fond admiration that made the heart of Seraphina swell. Looking on her huge slave, she drank the intoxicating joys of power. Meanwhile he continued, with that sort of massive archness that so ill became him, ‘She has but one fault; there is but one danger in the great career that I foresee for her. May I name it? may I be so irreverent? It is in herself — her heart is soft.’

‘Her courage is faint, Baron,’ said the Princess. ‘Suppose we have judged ill, suppose we were defeated?’

‘Defeated, madam?’ returned the Baron, with a touch of ill-humour. ‘Is the dog defeated by the hare? Our troops are all cantoned along the frontier; in five hours the vanguard of five thousand bayonets shall be hammering on the gates of Brandenau; and in all Gerolstein there are not fifteen hundred men who can manoeuvre. It is as simple as a sum. There can be no resistance.’

‘It is no great exploit,’ she said. ‘Is that what you call glory? It is like beating a child.’

‘The courage, madam, is diplomatic,’ he replied. ‘We take a grave step; we fix the eyes of Europe, for the first time, on Grunewald; and in the negotiations of the next three months, mark me, we stand or fall. It is there, madam, that I shall have to depend upon your counsels,’ he added, almost gloomily. ‘If I had not seen you at work, if I did not know the fertility of your mind, I own I should tremble for the consequence. But it is in this field that men must recognise their inability. All the great negotiators, when they have not been women, have had women at their elbows. Madame de Pompadour was ill served; she had not found her Gondremark; but what a mighty politician! Catherine de’ Medici, too, what justice of sight, what readiness of means, what elasticity against defeat! But alas! madam, her Featherheads were her own children; and she had that one touch of vulgarity, that one trait of the good-wife, that she suffered family ties and affections to confine her liberty.’

These singular views of history, strictly AD USUM SERAPHINAE, did not weave their usual soothing spell over the Princess. It was plain that she had taken a momentary distaste to her own resolutions; for she continued to oppose her counsellor, looking upon him out of half-closed eyes and with the shadow of a sneer upon her lips. ‘What boys men are!’ she said; ‘what lovers of big words! Courage, indeed! If you had to scour pans, Herr Von Gondremark, you would call it, I suppose, Domestic Courage?’

‘I would, madam,’ said the Baron stoutly, ‘if I scoured them well. I would put a good name upon a virtue; you will not overdo it: they are not so enchanting in themselves.’

‘Well, but let me see,’ she said. ‘I wish to understand your courage. Why we asked leave, like children! Our grannie in Berlin, our uncle in Vienna, the whole family, have patted us on the head and sent us forward. Courage? I wonder when I hear you!’

‘My Princess is unlike herself,’ returned the Baron. ‘She has forgotten where the peril lies. True, we have received encouragement on every hand; but my Princess knows too well on what untenable conditions; and she knows besides how, in the publicity of the diet, these whispered conferences are forgotten and disowned. The danger is very real’ — he raged inwardly at having to blow the very coal he had been quenching — ‘none the less real in that it is not precisely military, but for that reason the easier to be faced. Had we to count upon your troops, although I share your Highness’s expectations of the conduct of Alvenau, we cannot forget that he has not been proved in chief command. But where negotiation is concerned, the conduct lies with us; and with your help, I laugh at danger.’

‘It may be so,’ said Seraphina, sighing. ‘It is elsewhere that I see danger. The people, these abominable people — suppose they should instantly rebel? What a figure we should make in the eyes of Europe to have undertaken an invasion while my own throne was tottering to its fall!’

‘Nay, madam,’ said Gondremark, smiling, ‘here you are beneath yourself. What is it that feeds their discontent? What but the taxes? Once we have seized Gerolstein, the taxes are remitted, the sons return covered with renown, the houses are adorned with pillage, each tastes his little share of military glory, and behold us once again a happy family! “Ay,” they will say, in each other’s long ears, “the Princess knew what she was about; she was in the right of it; she has a head upon her shoulders; and here we are, you see, better off than before.” But why should I say all this? It is what my Princess pointed out to me herself; it was by these reasons that she converted me to this adventure.’

‘I think, Herr von Gondremark,’ said Seraphina, somewhat tartly, ‘you often attribute your own sagacity to your Princess.’

For a second Gondremark staggered under the shrewdness of the attack; the next, he had perfectly recovered. ‘Do I?’ he said. ‘It is very possible. I have observed a similar tendency in your Highness.’

It was so openly spoken, and appeared so just, that Seraphina breathed again. Her vanity had been alarmed, and the greatness of the relief improved her spirits. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘all this is little to the purpose. We are keeping Frederic without, and I am still ignorant of our line of battle. Come, co-admiral, let us consult. . . . How am I to receive him now? And what are we to do if he should appear at the council?’

‘Now,’ he answered. ‘I shall leave him to my Princess for just now! I have seen her at work. Send him off to his theatricals! But in all gentleness,’ he added. ‘Would it, for instance, would it displease my sovereign to affect a headache?’

‘Never!’ said she. ‘The woman who can manage, like the man who can fight, must never shrink from an encounter. The knight must not disgrace his weapons.’

‘Then let me pray my BELLE DAME SANS MERCI,’ he returned, ‘to affect the only virtue that she lacks. Be pitiful to the poor young man; affect an interest in his hunting; be weary of politics; find in his society, as it were, a grateful repose from dry considerations. Does my Princess authorise the line of battle?’

‘Well, that is a trifle,’ answered Seraphina. ‘The council — there is the point.’

‘The council?’ cried Gondremark. ‘Permit me, madam.’ And he rose and proceeded to flutter about the room, counterfeiting Otto both in voice and gesture not unhappily. ‘What is there to-day, Herr von Gondremark? Ah, Herr Cancellarius, a new wig! You cannot deceive me; I know every wig in Grunewald; I have the sovereign’s eye. What are these papers about? O, I see. O, certainly. Surely, surely. I wager none of you remarked that wig. By all means. I know nothing about that. Dear me, are there as many as all that? Well, you can sign them; you have the procuration. You see, Herr Cancellarius, I knew your wig. And so,’ concluded Gondremark, resuming his own voice, ‘our sovereign, by the particular grace of God, enlightens and supports his privy councillors.’

But when the Baron turned to Seraphina for approval, he found her frozen. ‘You are pleased to be witty, Herr von Gondremark,’ she said, ‘and have perhaps forgotten where you are. But these rehearsals are apt to be misleading. Your master, the Prince of Grunewald, is sometimes more exacting.’

Gondremark cursed her in his soul. Of all injured vanities, that of the reproved buffoon is the most savage; and when grave issues are involved, these petty stabs become unbearable. But Gondremark was a man of iron; he showed nothing; he did not even, like the common trickster, retreat because he had presumed, but held to his point bravely. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘if, as you say, he prove exacting, we must take the bull by the horns.’

‘We shall see,’ she said, and she arranged her skirt like one about to rise. Temper, scorn, disgust, all the more acrid feelings, became her like jewels; and she now looked her best.

‘Pray God they quarrel,’ thought Gondremark. ‘The damned minx may fail me yet, unless they quarrel. It is time to let him in. Zz — fight, dogs!’ Consequent on these reflections, he bent a stiff knee and chivalrously kissed the Princess’s hand. ‘My Princess,’ he said, ‘must now dismiss her servant. I have much to arrange against the hour of council.’

‘Go,’ she said, and rose.

And as Gondremark tripped out of a private door, she touched a bell, and gave the order to admit the Prince.

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