Now for three months past Bismarck had been in an impossible position, and no one could predict how he would emerge from it. Notwithstanding the important events which were being enacted from China to Mexico, it was upon him that the eyes of Europe were fixed.
Old ministers, experienced in all the wiles of diplomacy, followed him with their eyes, spyglass in hand, never doubting that the epoch-making minister had an accomplice on the throne in a policy of which they vainly sought for precedents in the world's history. If, however, there should prove to be no accomplice, they pronounced that he must be a fool without an equal.
Young diplomats, modestly aware that they did not quite rank with the Talleyrands, the Metternichs, or Nesselrodes, studied him more seriously, believing they desired the infancy of a new policy destined to carry their epoch to its zenith, whispering the question which Germany has asked for three hundred years: "Ist es der Mann?" (Can it be the Man?) To make this question comprehensible we must tell our readers that Germany awaits a liberator as the Jews awaited a Messiah. Whenever her chains gall her, she exclaims: "Wo bleibt der Mann?" (Where, then, is the Man?)
Now, some pretend that to-day in Germany a fourth party, which up to the present has been crouching in the gloom, is preparing to emerge—a horrible figure, if the poets of Germany are to be believed. Listen to Heine on the subject:
"There is thunder truly in Germany, yea, even in Germany: it comes slowly; it rolls up gradually from afar; but I doubt not it will come.
"And when you hear a crash, such a crash as the world has not heard in all history, you will know that the German thunder has done its work. At this uproar eagles will fall dead from the upper air; and lions in the pathless deserts of Africa will crouch terrified in their lairs. In Germany will be enacted a drama compared with which the French Revolution will seem but an innocent idyll."
Had Heinrich Heine been the only prophet I should not repeat his auguries, for Heine was a dreamer. But here is what Ludwig B—— says:
"In truth, Germany has accomplished nothing for three centuries, and has patiently endured all the suffering inflicted upon her. But, even so, her labours, sufferings, and joys have not subdued her virgin heart, nor her chaste spirit. She contains the reserve forces of liberty and will ensure its triumph.
"Her day will come; and to bring it about but little is necessary a flash of good-humour, a smile, a summer shower, a thaw, a fool the more, or a fool the less, a nothing; the bell of a mule is enough to bring down an avalanche. Then France, which is not easily astonished, France which accomplished in three days the work of three hundred years, and has ceased to wonder at her own work, will survey the German nation with astonishment which will not be merely surprise but admiration."
But whether it was the Man or was not the Man that the gallery watched as he weighed Europe in the scales, putting everything into one, nothing into the other, whether he belonged to the old or to the new diplomacy mattered little. The only question was—will von Bismarck demand a dissolution of the Chamber, or will the Chamber impeach the count?
The conquest of Schleswig-Holstein had carried him to the height of fortune, but the new complications arising a propos of the election of the Duke of Augustenburg, made everything seem doubtful even to the genius of von Bismarck. During a long interview with the king which took place the very day on which this story begins, he fancied that his influence was shaken, and he attributed the king's coldness to the persistent ill will of the queen.
It is true that until now the count had worked only for his own personal advancement, and, having kept entire silence as to his projects, was reserving an explanation for a favourable moment, when by the grandeur and clearness of his views he hoped to recover the goodwill of his sovereign, by an audacious coup d'etat to build up a more solid and unassailable position than ever.
He had, then, just left the king, intending to unmask his new plan as soon as possible, counting on the telegraphic despatches to create an effect favourable to himself, which, by making war inevitable, would ensure his own safety.
He left the palace accordingly, immersed in these thoughts, and so preoccupied that not only did he scarcely observe the excitement in the crowded streets, but he did not notice a young man leaning against one of the columns of the theatre, who left his place as he passed, and followed him like his shadow in and out of the groups blocking the street. Twice or thrice, however, as if warned of this close pursuit by some magnetic current, the count turned his head, but seeing only a well-dressed young man apparently belonging to his own class in life, he paid no attention to him.
It was not until he had passed the Friedrich Strasse and was crossing the road that he really noticed that the young man seemed determined to follow him. He then decided as soon as he had reached the other side to stop and ask what his pursuer meant by shadowing him.
But the shadower did not give him an opportunity. The count had hardly proceeded three or four steps on his way when he heard a report, and felt the wind of a ball which just missed his coat collar. He stopped and turned sharply round, seeing in a flash the eddying smoke, the aimed revolver, the assassin with his finger on the trigger preparing to fire again.
But, as we have said, the count was naturally brave: it did not occur to him either to fly or to call for help. He threw himself upon his enemy, who, without an instant's delay, fired the second and third shots, which whistled harmlessly by. Whether the assassin's hand trembled under stress of emotion, or whether, as some say, Providence (which nevertheless permitted the assassinations of Henri IV and Gustavus Adolphus) forbade the accomplishment of such a crime, the two balls passed right and left of von Bismarck.
Then the murderer lost courage and turned to fly. But the count seized him by the collar with one hand and with the other clutched the barrel of the revolver. Once again a shot was fired; the count was slightly wounded, but kept his hold and grasped his adversary closely, throwing him on the ground, and finally handed him over to the Prussian officers.
Seizing the favourable occasion with the promptitude of genius, he again took his way to the palace, bent on making this event the turning point of the situation.
This time he passed through a double avenue of spectators, whereas previously in the public commotion no one had noticed him. It was now otherwise—the murderer's attempt, of which he had been the object and from which he had emerged with so much courage, attracted every one's attention, if not their sympathy, and whether loved or not loved, all made room and saluted him. Sympathy might be wanting, but the count could at all events read admiration upon every face.
Von Bismarck was at this time about fifty or fifty-two; tall, with a well-proportioned figure, slightly puffy, and almost bald except at the temples, with a thick moustache. One of his cheeks was furrowed by a scar, the legacy of a duel fought at the University of Gottingen.
The palace guard had already heard the news and turned out to receive the count, who, as colonel in the Army, was entitled to this mark of respect. He graciously responded, and went up the staircase leading to the king's audience chamber.
As prime minister, the count had the right of entry at any time. He was about to turn the door handle when the usher in waiting stopped him, saying:
"His Excellency will pardon me, but the king can see no one."
"Not even me?" asked the count.
"Not even your Excellency," replied the usher with a low bow.
The count stepped backward with a movement of the lips that might have passed for a smile, but was certainly not one. Then he began to study, but without seeing it, a large naval picture which decorated the ante-room, standing out by reason of its immense gilt frame from the official green paper which adorns all the royal apartments.
At the end of a quarter of an hour, the door opened, the count hearing the frou frou of a satin dress, turned and bowed low before a woman of forty to forty-five years of age, who had evidently possessed great beauty and was indeed still beautiful. Perhaps, if the "Almanach de Gotha" were consulted, it would be found that the lady was rather older than this, but as the proverb says: "A woman is as old as she looks," and I see no reason why queens should be excepted.
The lady was Queen Marie Louise Augusta Catherine, daughter of Charles Frederic, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and known throughout Europe as the Queen Augusta. She was of medium height—is best described by the essentially French word attrayant. She wore on her left arm the feminine Order of Queen Louise of Prussia. She passed the minister slowly and somewhat haughtily, saluting him indeed, but without her usual kindness. By the doors through which she passed the count understood she had been with the king, and was now returning to her own apartments.
The queen had left the door belonging to the king's apartment open behind her, and the usher now intimated that the minister might enter. He waited, however, until the door had closed upon the queen.
"Yes," he said, "it is true that I was not born a baron, but let us see what the future will do for me."
And then he passed forward. The various lackeys or chamberlains whom he met hastened to open the doors leading to the audience-room. Reaching it the chamberlain announced in a loud voice: "His Excellency Count von Bismarck."
The king started and turned round. He was standing before the chimney-piece, and heard the name of von Bismarck with some surprise, it being barely a quarter of an hour since the minister had left him. The count wondered if the king had already heard what had happened to him in the interval.
He bowed low before His Majesty.
"Sire," he said, "an event of great importance has recalled me to Your Majesty, but I see with regret that the moment is unfavourable—"
"Why?" enquired the king.
"Because I have just had the honour of meeting the queen in the ante-room, and not having the happiness of being in Her Majesty's good graces—"
"Well, count, I admit that she does not see eye to eye with you."
"She is wrong, sire, for my devotion belongs equally to my king and to my queen, and the one cannot become Emperor of Germany without the other becoming Empress."
"A dream, my dear count, in which Queen Augusta unfortunately believes, but which is not the dream of a reasonable being."
"Sire, the unity of Germany is as much decreed in the design of Providence as the unity of Italy."
"Excellent," said the king, laughing; "can there be a united Italy while the Italians possess neither Rome nor Venice?"
"Italy is in formation, sire. She began her march in '59 and will not stop on the way. If she looks like stopping, she is only taking breath. Indeed, have we not promised her Venice?"
"Yes, but it is not we who will give it her."
"France? who has already given her Lombardy, and has let her take the duchies and Naples. France!" said the king. "France let her take all that with quite the best will in the world."
"Is Your Majesty aware of the contents of the telegraphic despatches which arrived when I was here and which were delivered as I left?"
"Yes, I know. The Emperor Napoleon's speech at Auxerre," answered the king with some embarrassment. "You refer to that, do you not?"
"Well, sire, the emperor's speech means war—war not only against Austria but against Germany. It means Venice for Italy and the Rhine provinces for France."
"You really think so?"
"I mean that if we give France time to arm, the question without becoming desperate becomes grave, but that if we fall promptly and vigorously upon Austria, we shall be on the Moldau with three hundred thousand men before France can reach the Rhine with fifty thousand."
"Count, you do not give the Austrians their proper value; the swagger of our young men has gone to your head."
"Sire, if I appear to adopt the opinions of the heir-apparent and of Prince Frederic Charles, I can only say that the prince having been born on June 29th, 1801, is scarcely a young man; but the fact is, that in these matters I rely on my own opinion only, and I say deliberately in a war against Prussia, Austria will certainly be beaten."
"Really?" said the king doubtfully. "Yet I have heard you speak in high terms of both their generals and their soldiers."
"Well then, it does not seem to me so remarkably easy to conquer good soldiers commanded by good generals."
"They have good, soldiers, sire, they have good generals, but we shall beat them because our own organization and arrangement are superior to theirs. When I persuaded Your Majesty to undertake the war on Schleswig which Your Majesty did not desire to do—"
"If I had not desired to make war on Schleswig it would never have been made!"
"That is very true, sire, but Your Majesty hesitated; I had the courage to insist, and Your Majesty approved of my reasons."
"Yes, and what is the result of the war on Schleswig? War throughout Germany!"
"True, sire, in the first place I like a situation that calls for resolute action; and as I consider war in Germany inevitable, I congratulate you."
"Will you explain whence comes your confidence?"
"Your Majesty forgets that I made the campaign with the Prussian army. I did not do it for the mere pleasure of hearing cannon, of counting the dead, and of sleeping on the battlefield, where I assure you one sleeps very badly, or for the purpose of giving you what was nevertheless well worth having, two posts on the Baltic, of which Prussia stood in great need. No, I made the campaign with the object of trying the Austrians, and I repeat that they are behind us in everything—discipline, armaments, use of arms: they have bad rifles, bad artillery, and worse powder. In a war against us Austria will be beaten from the very commencement, for we have everything which she has not, and Austria once vanquished, the supremacy in Germany must inevitably fall from her hands into those of Prussia."
"And how is Prussia with a population of eighteen millions to maintain her superiority over sixty? Only look at her pitiful appearance on the map."
"That is exactly the point. I have looked at her for three years, and now is the time to mould her anew. Prussia is a great serpent whose head is at Thionville, while her tail is at Memel, and which has a lump in her stomach because she has swallowed half Saxony. She is a kingdom cut in two by another—Hanover—in such a fashion that you cannot get home without going abroad. You must understand, sire, Hanover is bound to become part of Prussia."
"But what will England say to this?"
"England is no longer in the age of Pitt and Cobourg. England is the very humble servant of the Manchester School, of Gladstone, Cobden, and their scholars; England will do no more for Hanover than she did for Denmark. Must we not take Saxony also?"
"France will never allow us to meddle with Saxony, if only in memory of the king who was faithful to her in 1813."
"Not if we took too big a mouthful; but if we only nibble she will shut both eyes, or at least one of them. And is not Hesse also very necessary?"
"The Confederation will not abandon all Hesse."
"But if it will let us take half, that is all we want. Now let us consider Frankfort-on-the-Main."
"Frankfort-on-the-Main! The free town! The seat of the Diet!"
"The moment Prussia can reckon thirty millions of men instead of eighteen the Diet is dead. Prussia will then be the Diet. Only, instead of crying a decree she will say 'decree.'"
"We shall have the whole of the Confederation against us. It will side with Austria."
"So much the better!"
"Austria once beaten, the Confederation is beaten along with her."
"We shall have a million men against us."
"Let us count them."
"There are four hundred and fifty thousand in Austria—"
"And four hundred and fifty thousand in Venetia."
"The emperor is too obstinate to recall troops from Venice before two or three battles if he is successful, before ten if he is beaten."
"Bavaria has one hundred and sixty thousand."
"I will answer for Bavaria—her king is too fond of music to love the sound of cannon."
"Hanover, twenty-five thousand men."
"Only a mouthful to swallow on our first march."
"Saxony, fifteen thousand."
"And a hundred and fifty thousand belonging to the Confederation."
"The Confederation will have no time to arm them; only we must not lose a moment, sire; therefore I now say 'War, Victory, the supremacy of Prussia—myself—or-'"
"Or my resignation, which I lay very humbly at Your Majesty's feet."
"What is that on your hand, count?"
"It looks like blood."
"Perhaps it is."
"Is it true, then, that some one attempted your life by firing at you with a revolver?"
"Five times, sire."
"Five? Good gracious!"
"He thought it none too many for me."
"And you are unwounded?"
"Only a scratch on the little finger."
"And who was your assassin?"
"I do not know who he is."
"Did he refuse to give his name?"
"No, I forgot to ask him; besides, that is the Attorney-General's affair, not mine. I do not interfere with other people's concerns. Now, my own business is my King's business, and that is here."
"I am listening," said the king.
"To-morrow the chamber is dissolved; the following day we mobilize; in eight days hostilities are declared, or else—"
"Or else what?"
"Or else, as I have the honour to repeat to Your Majesty, my resignation."
Then, without waiting for the king's answer the Count von Bismarck bowed low, and according to etiquette retired backwards from the king's presence. The king said nothing to detain his minister, but before closing the door, that gentleman heard the bell rung loudly enough to rouse the whole palace.
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