THE PRICE OF THE RIVER FARM;
IN WHICH VAINGLORY GOES BEFORE A FALL
The pistol had been practically fired. Under ordinary circumstances the scene at the council table would have entirely exhausted Otto's store both of energy and anger; he would have begun to examine and condemn his conduct, have remembered all that was true, forgotten all that was unjust in Seraphina's onslaught; and by half an hour after would have fallen into that state of mind in which a Catholic flees to the confessional and a sot takes refuge with the bottle. Two matters of detail preserved his spirits. For, first, he had still an infinity of business to transact; and to transact business, for a man of Otto's neglectful and procrastinating habits, is the best anodyne for conscience. All afternoon he was hard at it with the Chancellor, reading, dictating, signing, and despatching papers; and this kept him in a glow of self-approval. But, secondly, his vanity was still alarmed; he had failed to get the money; to-morrow before noon he would have to disappoint old Killian; and in the eyes of that family which counted him so little, and to which he had sought to play the part of the heroic comforter, he must sink lower than at first. To a man of Otto's temper, this was death. He could not accept the situation. And even as he worked, and worked wisely and well, over the hated details of his principality, he was secretly maturing a plan by which to turn the situation. It was a scheme as pleasing to the man as it was dishonourable in the prince; in which his frivolous nature found and took vengeance for the gravity and burthen of the afternoon. He chuckled as he thought of it: and Greisengesang heard him with wonder, and attributed his lively spirits to the skirmish of the morning.
Led by this idea, the antique courtier ventured to compliment his sovereign on his bearing. It reminded him, he said, of Otto's father.
'What?' asked the Prince, whose thoughts were miles away.
'Your Highness's authority at the board,' explained the flatterer.
'O, that! O yes,' returned Otto; but for all his carelessness, his vanity was delicately tickled, and his mind returned and dwelt approvingly over the details of his victory. 'I quelled them all,' he thought.
When the more pressing matters had been dismissed, it was already late, and Otto kept the Chancellor to dinner, and was entertained with a leash of ancient histories and modern compliments. The Chancellor's career had been based, from the first off-put, on entire subserviency; he had crawled into honours and employments; and his mind was prostitute. The instinct of the creature served him well with Otto. First, he let fall a sneering word or two upon the female intellect; thence he proceeded to a closer engagement; and before the third course he was artfully dissecting Seraphina's character to her approving husband. Of course no names were used; and of course the identity of that abstract or ideal man, with whom she was currently contrasted, remained an open secret. But this stiff old gentleman had a wonderful instinct for evil, thus to wind his way into man's citadel; thus to harp by the hour on the virtues of his hearer and not once alarm his self-respect. Otto was all roseate, in and out, with flattery and Tokay and an approving conscience. He saw himself in the most attractive colours. If even Greisengesang, he thought, could thus espy the loose stitches in Seraphina's character, and thus disloyally impart them to the opposite camp, he, the discarded husband--the dispossessed Prince-- could scarce have erred on the side of severity.
In this excellent frame he bade adieu to the old gentleman, whose voice had proved so musical, and set forth for the drawing-room. Already on the stair, he was seized with some compunction; but when he entered the great gallery and beheld his wife, the Chancellor's abstract flatteries fell from him like rain, and he re-awoke to the poetic facts of life. She stood a good way off below a shining lustre, her back turned. The bend of her waist overcame him with physical weakness. This was the girl-wife who had lain in his arms and whom he had sworn to cherish; there was she, who was better than success.
It was Seraphina who restored him from the blow. She swam forward and smiled upon her husband with a sweetness that was insultingly artificial. 'Frederic,' she lisped, 'you are late.' It was a scene of high comedy, such as is proper to unhappy marriages; and her APLOMB disgusted him.
There was no etiquette at these small drawing-rooms. People came and went at pleasure. The window embrasures became the roost of happy couples; at the great chimney the talkers mostly congregated, each full-charged with scandal; and down at the farther end the gamblers gambled. It was towards this point that Otto moved, not ostentatiously, but with a gentle insistence, and scattering attentions as he went. Once abreast of the card-table, he placed himself opposite to Madame von Rosen, and, as soon as he had caught her eye, withdrew to the embrasure of a window. There she had speedily joined him.
'You did well to call me,' she said, a little wildly. 'These cards will be my ruin.'
'Leave them,' said Otto.
'I!' she cried, and laughed; 'they are my destiny. My only chance was to die of a consumption; now I must die in a garret.'
'You are bitter to-night,' said Otto.
'I have been losing,' she replied. 'You do not know what greed is.'
'I have come, then, in an evil hour,' said he.
'Ah, you wish a favour!' she cried, brightening beautifully.
'Madam,' said he, 'I am about to found my party, and I come to you for a recruit.'
'Done,' said the Countess. 'I am a man again.'
'I may be wrong,' continued Otto, 'but I believe upon my heart you wish me no ill.'
'I wish you so well,' she said, 'that I dare not tell it you.'
'Then if I ask my favour?' quoth the Prince.
'Ask it, MON PRINCE,' she answered. 'Whatever it is, it is granted.'
'I wish you,' he returned, 'this very night to make the farmer of our talk.'
'Heaven knows your meaning!' she exclaimed. 'I know not, neither care; there are no bounds to my desire to please you. Call him made.'
'I will put it in another way,' returned Otto. 'Did you ever steal?'
'Often!' cried the Countess. 'I have broken all the ten commandments; and if there were more to-morrow, I should not sleep till I had broken these.'
'This is a case of burglary: to say the truth, I thought it would amuse you,' said the Prince.
'I have no practical experience,' she replied, 'but O! the good- will! I have broken a work-box in my time, and several hearts, my own included. Never a house! But it cannot be difficult; sins are so unromantically easy! What are we to break?'
'Madam, we are to break the treasury,' said Otto and he sketched to her briefly, wittily, with here and there a touch of pathos, the story of his visit to the farm, of his promise to buy it, and of the refusal with which his demand for money had been met that morning at the council; concluding with a few practical words as to the treasury windows, and the helps and hindrances of the proposed exploit.
'They refused you the money,' she said when he had done. 'And you accepted the refusal? Well!'
'They gave their reasons,' replied Otto, colouring. 'They were not such as I could combat; and I am driven to dilapidate the funds of my own country by a theft. It is not dignified; but it is fun.'
'Fun,' she said; 'yes.' And then she remained silently plunged in thought for an appreciable time. 'How much do you require?' she asked at length.
'Three thousand crowns will do,' he answered, 'for I have still some money of my own.'
'Excellent,' she said, regaining her levity. 'I am your true accomplice. And where are we to meet?'
'You know the Flying Mercury,' he answered, 'in the Park? Three pathways intersect; there they have made a seat and raised the statue. The spot is handy and the deity congenial.'
'Child,' she said, and tapped him with her fan. 'But do you know, my Prince, you are an egoist--your handy trysting-place is miles from me. You must give me ample time; I cannot, I think, possibly be there before two. But as the bell beats two, your helper shall arrive: welcome, I trust. Stay--do you bring any one?' she added. 'O, it is not for a chaperon--I am not a prude!'
'I shall bring a groom of mine,' said Otto. 'I caught him stealing corn.'
'His name?' she asked.
'I profess I know not. I am not yet intimate with my corn-stealer,' returned the Prince. 'It was in a professional capacity--'
'Like me! Flatterer!' she cried. 'But oblige me in one thing. Let me find you waiting at the seat--yes, you shall await me; for on this expedition it shall be no longer Prince and Countess, it shall be the lady and the squire--and your friend the thief shall be no nearer than the fountain. Do you promise?'
'Madam, in everything you are to command; you shall be captain, I am but supercargo,' answered Otto.
'Well, Heaven bring all safe to port!' she said. 'It is not Friday!'
Something in her manner had puzzled Otto, had possibly touched him with suspicion.
'Is it not strange,' he remarked, 'that I should choose my accomplice from the other camp?'
'Fool!' she said. 'But it is your only wisdom that you know your friends.' And suddenly, in the vantage of the deep window, she caught up his hand and kissed it with a sort of passion. 'Now go,' she added, 'go at once.'
He went, somewhat staggered, doubting in his heart that he was over- bold. For in that moment she had flashed upon him like a jewel; and even through the strong panoply of a previous love he had been conscious of a shock. Next moment he had dismissed the fear.
Both Otto and the Countess retired early from the drawing-room; and the Prince, after an elaborate feint, dismissed his valet, and went forth by the private passage and the back postern in quest of the groom.
Once more the stable was in darkness, once more Otto employed the talismanic knock, and once more the groom appeared and sickened with terror.
'Good-evening, friend,' said Otto pleasantly. 'I want you to bring a corn sack--empty this time--and to accompany me. We shall be gone all night.'
'Your Highness,' groaned the man, 'I have the charge of the small stables. I am here alone.'
'Come,' said the Prince, 'you are no such martinet in duty.' And then seeing that the man was shaking from head to foot, Otto laid a hand upon his shoulder. 'If I meant you harm,' he said, 'should I be here?'
The fellow became instantly reassured. He got the sack; and Otto led him round by several paths and avenues, conversing pleasantly by the way, and left him at last planted by a certain fountain where a goggle-eyed Triton spouted intermittently into a rippling laver. Thence he proceeded alone to where, in a round clearing, a copy of Gian Bologna's Mercury stood tiptoe in the twilight of the stars. The night was warm and windless. A shaving of new moon had lately arisen; but it was still too small and too low down in heaven to contend with the immense host of lesser luminaries; and the rough face of the earth was drenched with starlight. Down one of the alleys, which widened as it receded, he could see a part of the lamplit terrace where a sentry silently paced, and beyond that a corner of the town with interlacing street-lights. But all around him the young trees stood mystically blurred in the dim shine; and in the stock-still quietness the upleaping god appeared alive.
In this dimness and silence of the night, Otto's conscience became suddenly and staringly luminous, like the dial of a city clock. He averted the eyes of his mind, but the finger rapidly travelling, pointed to a series of misdeeds that took his breath away. What was he doing in that place? The money had been wrongly squandered, but that was largely by his own neglect. And he now proposed to embarrass the finances of this country which he had been too idle to govern. And he now proposed to squander the money once again, and this time for a private, if a generous end. And the man whom he had reproved for stealing corn he was now to set stealing treasure. And then there was Madame von Rosen, upon whom he looked down with some of that ill-favoured contempt of the chaste male for the imperfect woman. Because he thought of her as one degraded below scruples, he had picked her out to be still more degraded, and to risk her whole irregular establishment in life by complicity in this dishonourable act. It was uglier than a seduction.
Otto had to walk very briskly and whistle very busily; and when at last he heard steps in the narrowest and darkest of the alleys, it was with a gush of relief that he sprang to meet the Countess. To wrestle alone with one's good angel is so hard! and so precious, at the proper time, is a companion certain to be less virtuous than oneself!
It was a young man who came towards him--a young man of small stature and a peculiar gait, wearing a wide flapping hat, and carrying, with great weariness, a heavy bag. Otto recoiled; but the young man held up his hand by way of signal, and coming up with a panting run, as if with the last of his endurance, laid the bag upon the ground, threw himself upon the bench, and disclosed the features of Madame von Rosen.
'You, Countess!' cried the Prince.
'No, no,' she panted, 'the Count von Rosen--my young brother. A capital fellow. Let him get his breath.'
'Ah, madam. . .' said he.
'Call me Count,' she returned, 'respect my incognito.'
'Count be it, then,' he replied. 'And let me implore that gallant gentleman to set forth at once on our enterprise.'
'Sit down beside me here,' she returned, patting the further corner of the bench. 'I will follow you in a moment. O, I am so tired-- feel how my heart leaps! Where is your thief?'
'At his post,' replied Otto. 'Shall I introduce him? He seems an excellent companion.'
'No,' she said, 'do not hurry me yet. I must speak to you. Not but I adore your thief; I adore any one who has the spirit to do wrong. I never cared for virtue till I fell in love with my Prince.' She laughed musically. 'And even so, it is not for your virtues,' she added.
Otto was embarrassed. 'And now,' he asked, 'if you are anyway rested?'
'Presently, presently. Let me breathe,' she said, panting a little harder than before.
'And what has so wearied you?' he asked. 'This bag? And why, in the name of eccentricity, a bag? For an empty one, you might have relied on my own foresight; and this one is very far from being empty. My dear Count, with what trash have you come laden? But the shortest method is to see for myself.' And he put down his hand.
She stopped him at once. 'Otto,' she said, 'no--not that way. I will tell, I will make a clean breast. It is done already. I have robbed the treasury single-handed. There are three thousand two hundred crowns. O, I trust it is enough!'
Her embarrassment was so obvious that the Prince was struck into a muse, gazing in her face, with his hand still outstretched, and she still holding him by the wrist. 'You!' he said at last. 'How?' And then drawing himself up, 'O madam,' he cried, 'I understand. You must indeed think meanly of the Prince.'
'Well, then, it was a lie!' she cried. 'The money is mine, honestly my own--now yours. This was an unworthy act that you proposed. But I love your honour, and I swore to myself that I should save it in your teeth. I beg of you to let me save it'--with a sudden lovely change of tone. 'Otto, I beseech you let me save it. Take this dross from your poor friend who loves you!'
'Madam, madam,' babbled Otto, in the extreme of misery, 'I cannot-- I must go.'
And he half rose; but she was on the ground before him in an instant, clasping his knees. 'No,' she gasped, 'you shall not go. Do you despise me so entirely? It is dross; I hate it; I should squander it at play and be no richer; it is an investment, it is to save me from ruin. Otto,' she cried, as he again feebly tried to put her from him, 'if you leave me alone in this disgrace, I will die here!' He groaned aloud. 'O,' she said, 'think what I suffer! If you suffer from a piece of delicacy, think what I suffer in my shame! To have my trash refused! You would rather steal, you think of me so basely! You would rather tread my heart in pieces! O, unkind! O my Prince! O Otto! O pity me!' She was still clasping him; then she found his hand and covered it with kisses, and at this his head began to turn. 'O,' she cried again, 'I see it! O what a horror! It is because I am old, because I am no longer beautiful.' And she burst into a storm of sobs.
This was the COUP DE GRACE. Otto had now to comfort and compose her as he could, and before many words, the money was accepted. Between the woman and the weak man such was the inevitable end. Madame von Rosen instantly composed her sobs. She thanked him with a fluttering voice, and resumed her place upon the bench, at the far end from Otto. 'Now you see,' she said, 'why I bade you keep the thief at distance, and why I came alone. How I trembled for my treasure!'
'Madam,' said Otto, with a tearful whimper in his voice, 'spare me! You are too good, too noble!'
'I wonder to hear you,' she returned. 'You have avoided a great folly. You will be able to meet your good old peasant. You have found an excellent investment for a friend's money. You have preferred essential kindness to an empty scruple; and now you are ashamed of it! You have made your friend happy; and now you mourn as the dove! Come, cheer up. I know it is depressing to have done exactly right; but you need not make a practice of it. Forgive yourself this virtue; come now, look me in the face and smile!'
He did look at her. When a man has been embraced by a woman, he sees her in a glamour; and at such a time, in the baffling glimmer of the stars, she will look wildly well. The hair is touched with light; the eyes are constellations; the face sketched in shadows--a sketch, you might say, by passion. Otto became consoled for his defeat; he began to take an interest. 'No,' he said, 'I am no ingrate.'
'You promised me fun,' she returned, with a laugh. 'I have given you as good. We have had a stormy SCENA.'
He laughed in his turn, and the sound of the laughter, in either case, was hardly reassuring.
'Come, what are you going to give me in exchange,' she continued, 'for my excellent declamation?'
'What you will,' he said.
'Whatever I will? Upon your honour? Suppose I asked the crown?' She was flashing upon him, beautiful in triumph.
'Upon my honour,' he replied.
'Shall I ask the crown?' she continued. 'Nay; what should I do with it? Grunewald is but a petty state; my ambition swells above it. I shall ask--I find I want nothing,' she concluded. 'I will give you something instead. I will give you leave to kiss me--once.'
Otto drew near, and she put up her face; they were both smiling, both on the brink of laughter, all was so innocent and playful; and the Prince, when their lips encountered, was dumbfoundered by the sudden convulsion of his being. Both drew instantly apart, and for an appreciable time sat tongue-tied. Otto was indistinctly conscious of a peril in the silence, but could find no words to utter. Suddenly the Countess seemed to awake. 'As for your wife-- ' she began in a clear and steady voice.
The word recalled Otto, with a shudder, from his trance. 'I will hear nothing against my wife,' he cried wildly; and then, recovering himself and in a kindlier tone, 'I will tell you my one secret,' he added. 'I love my wife.'
'You should have let me finish,' she returned, smiling. 'Do you suppose I did not mention her on purpose? You know you had lost your head. Well, so had I. Come now, do not be abashed by words,' she added somewhat sharply. 'It is the one thing I despise. If you are not a fool, you will see that I am building fortresses about your virtue. And at any rate, I choose that you shall understand that I am not dying of love for you. It is a very smiling business; no tragedy for me! And now here is what I have to say about your wife; she is not and she never has been Gondremark's mistress. Be sure he would have boasted if she had. Good-night!'
And in a moment she was gone down the alley, and Otto was alone with the bag of money and the flying god.
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