Maria Felicia/Chapter 2
THE Emperor, accompanied by the Count, walked through a long suite of brilliantly decorated rooms, passing amidst the throng of guests, who humbly stepped aside at their approach. He admired the pictures on the tapestries, specially prepared for that evening, the costly statues artistically arranged, and the stately furniture. He expressed his admiration with detail unusual for him, and the Count was unable to comprehend how a liking for things in which at other times the Emperor took little or no interest was so suddenly developed in him. Even the apparently aimless walk was contrary to the custom of the ruler, who at other times very unwillingly and very seldom allowed a half-hour to pass by unoccupied with state affairs. The Count was delighted to think that it happened because the Emperor was enraptured with the gorgeous furnishings of the palace. He did not notice that the sovereign’s eyes turned to every nook and corner, and if he did see it once or twice he thought the Emperor was looking back at the things he had most admired.
But the Emperor glanced in vain over the sofas and settees occupied by ladies, who, in spite of his incognito, rose and bowed whenever he passed them; in vain he explored all the corners and looked behind all the curtains; from no chair arose the form of the unknown; from no place sparkled the two clear blue eyes for whose sake alone he had started on the journey.
Not finding in the last room the one he was seeking, he decided, as a last resort, to do something which at other times he gladly omitted.
“Do you not intend to introduce me to your daughter?”’ he asked his pleased escort, as they turned back to the dancing hall, where the rest of the company were starting a minuet.
At that question, over the Count’s face, until then so clear, there flitted a shadow.
“I did not dare to speak of her to your majesty,” he answered evasively.
“I fear that I have failed in courtesy to you,” the Emperor kindly replied. “It might have easily happened that being taken up with state affairs, I should have left without thinking of the Prague beauties. The Countess must introduce all her friends to me, that I may see for myself whether she is, as the rumor goes, the most beautiful among them. But why are you looking so downcast?”
“I am worried,” said the Count, “lest Maria Felicia may fail to meet with grace from her noble Emperor.”
“What an idea!” said the Emperor, surprised. “Why should I dislike your daughter, a lady renowned for beauty and brought up by you?”
“I have proved that a loving father is not the person to bring up his daughter,” the Count said, with such a sad accent that the Emperor suddenly stopped, forgetting, in view of the sadness of the Count, the lady that he was seeking.
“I see that something really worries you,” he said with sympathy. “Trust it to me, dear Count; you see that I am as devoted to you and your family as you are to me. Speak frankly; do not think that you will tire me. We are left alone, where no one can overhear us. Have you really cause to complain of your daughter’s behavior?”
The Count struggled with his overwrought feelings.
“Oh, who would have foretold to me that the moment when I should stand with my only child before my gracious master, commending her to his sublime friendship, would not be the happiest of my life—that I should tremble and do all I could to postpone it? It would have grieved me to death,” he passionately added. “Yes, I linger, I tremble to introduce my daughter lest she awaken your dislike, not by her personal appearance, but by her behavior. She conducts herself in society according to rules of her own making, caring little whether or not they are approved by the world. She does not resemble the rest of the young ladies in anything. Her behavior is entirely peculiar, and I do not know what to do to prevent it. If she were nota great lover of music (on the harp she by far excels her teacher, an excellent artist, whom I sent to Italy for training) I could not say that she possesses one feminine quality. She can ride, shoot and fence much more skillfully than she can handle a needle or a brush. She acts less gracefully at a ball than at a hunt. She endures hardships on such expeditions more bravely than a man; she never complains of hunger, fatigue or lack of comfort, and she bravely sits in her saddle when others are drooping with exhaustion. She knows no fear, no danger; bodily pain has not yet caused her to shed a tear. I have often thought that if war should come upon us, she would follow me in disguise to the field, and she would return crowned with laurels.”
The Count’s eye unconsciously sparkled. He had complained to the Emperor about his daughter being an Amazon, and yet her manlike qualities flattered the old soldier. He had given them a chance to develop freely through all her youth, and not until now, when they came out too boldly, did they frighten him. He considered it impossible to introduce her to the Emperor, and for the first time really felt hard toward her.
The Emperor, noticing the hesitation, smiled.
“The Countess has inherited your blood; it is boiling over, and that is her whole offense. You are unjust in turning against her on that account,” he said, soothing the excited father. “But if you feel that your hand is really too weak to keep your daughter’s youthful spirit within proper limits, put her in hands as kind as yours, but less yielding. Marry your daughter, if she is willful.”
“She will not listen to marriage,” the Count sighed again.
“That is the way all girls talk. It is a mere pretense. I am surprised that you can be deceived by such a protestation.”
“But Maria Felicia does nothing for a pretense, illustrious master; she has not the modest and pleasant qualities of her sex—but she also lacks its faults. She never dissembles, never lies, she is often hopelessly truthful. She has already given many proofs that she does not intend to marry. No man has ever yet interested her. The flower of our noblemen lie at her feet; when she is not in their company she does not think about them, and if they pay her attentions, she only amuses herself with them.”
“Be patient; she will soon change her mind.”
“How happy I should be if your prophecy should prove true! She treats her admirers just now worse than she has ever done before. At our last reception her willfulness really reached a serious height. Disappearing shortly before the close of the ball, she sent me a message by one of her servants that she had gone to say good-bye to one of the ladies who had become ill during the entertainment. Impatiently I waited for her in the dressing-hall, where the servants were assisting the guests about to start for home. The most sprightly among them was a maid whose dark-pitted face was so peculiarly shaded by a stiff white bonnet that her comical appearance continually tickled the young men into a spirit of waggery. They wondered that wine which she touched did not sour; they were certain that no ghosts were to be found in the palace, because she must have frightened them away. Continuing her work, she quietly listened to all their remarks; but who could describe the amazement of the gigglers when the supposed servant suddenly jerked off her bonnet, wiped her face, and Countess Felsenburk smiled at them? ‘There, gentlemen,’ she exclaimed, with her most willful laugh, ‘that is the way it goes with your hearts! It is just half an hour since I heard you say that if you were passing the house that entertained me you would know my presence by the pulsations of your hearts and the dizziness of your heads. How did it come that now, when I was so close to you, your hearts did not tell you of my presence by thumping loudly in your bosoms? Was my mask in the way? You have not once, but a thousand times sworn that you would worship me just as much if you found me in a petticoat as if I were dressed in a royal robe. How often you have declared that you were not devoted to me on account of my beauty, fame, or wealth, but because of the purity of my mind and heart! How offended you were when I considered such talk vain flattery! I have proved now that it is really no more than that, and at the same time I have given you an answer to your vows. No, my gentlemen. For affection that depends upon the unblemished fairness of my complexion, or the symmetry of my form; for devotion that a few dark marks on my face, a few wrinkles on my forehead are capable of changing into indifference, contempt, dislike, disgust—for such love Maria Felicia Felsenburk will not be a slave to any man.’”
The Emperor laughed heartily, and went forward more quickly.
“As the Countess has fared with her admirers, so should I fare if I should attempt to see how true are the vows of certain people who declare that they are devoted to me, not attracted by the glory of my crowns, but for my principles,” the Emperor quickly added. “I should really like to imitate for once the example of Maria Felicia, in order to get rid of awkward and intruding flatterers. At first I wanted to know Miss Felsenburk because she was your daughter; but now she herself interests me, and I insist on your introducing her, even though she may not succeed in making the three bows that etiquette now prescribes for such occasions, since I have forbidden kneeling before my mother and myself. Continue, dear Count; your narration interested me very much. I can see the long faces of the embarrassed admirers.”
“I should abuse your patience if I were to describe all the extremes in which she delights. She is decidedly an enemy to all the customary rules which keep a girl within the narrow limits of home and family duties. The whole world is too small and narrow for her; her philosophy soars as high as heaven and again descends and delves into the earth; nothing is too high for her to reach, nothing too deep to penetrate. Lately, to my horror, she has been revolting against the existing order of things to which every man willingly submits, knowing that it is vain to struggle against the current. But, unaided, she swims against it carelessly and bravely. Of all the ladies of her rank she is the only one that does not wear hooped skirts, and she would not for any sum of money have her hair powdered and stylishly dressed.”
The Emperor became thoughtful; it seemed to him that he had seen the blue eyes shaded by black locks, that the form lightly leaning against the pillar was marked by attractive gracefulness, that she looked strikingly different from the other ladies, who resembled walking bells. But noticing that the Count was watching him inquiringly and seemed to wonder at his sudden silence, he said: “The Countess is of a very independent mind if she dares to defy fashion. I work in vain against it at the court, and that is because we have not one lady there of sufficiently independent mind to defy it and thus set a good example to the rest. My dear Count, if you have nothing else to complain of than that your daughter will not powder and will not wear hooped skirts, that she wishes to arouse in the heart of her future husband a more permanent affection than a mere liking, I pity not you, but her.”
Seeing with surprise the way in which the Emperor estimated his daughter’s nature, the Count recovered his composure.
“She does not deserve these good words from your majesty,” he said, bowing to the Emperor with a grateful smile; “she is a bad and saucy child. She not only repels her admirers, but she is discourteous to everybody whom she does not like, and she is not only out of harmony with the fashion, but disagrees with every one and opposes everything. She delights in everlasting moral discussions, in which she does not spare herself or any one else. She strictly reproves faults in herself which she does not have, but those that I see in her she will not correct——”
He did not finish. The Emperor suddenly laid his hand on the Count’s shoulder and said:
“What lady is that, just leaving the ballroom with the young cavaliers?”
The Count was so angered by the sudden interruption of the confession for which the Emperor himself had asked him that he turned away. But the Emperor thought that he had turned quickly to answer his question. A few moments passed before the Count was able, with proper calmness for the occasion, to say:
“It is the one, illustrious master, whose sins I am just confessing.”
The situation suddenly dawned upon the experienced courtier. The lady whose name the Emperor, so indifferent to women, desired to know interested him,—interested him so much that he forgot to conceal his interest. It was evident that this was not the first time that evening that he had seen her. Most likely she had disappeared from his sight, and it was to look for her, and not to examine his Paintings, that he had invited the Count to take the walk just finished. It was for her he had searched in every corner, and not for his pictures and statues. He had insisted on an introduction to Maria Felicia and all her friends that he might see his daughter again; he cared nothing for her friends.
“That your daughter? That is Countess Maria Felicia? Strange I did not suspect it when you began to tell me about her; and yet I began to think so.”
The Count was now convinced. If the light that flashed from his eyes at this assurance was a reflection of his thoughts, then they were very proud, very brave, very brilliant.
Just then the young Countess, little suspecting that she was the object of the Emperor’s attention, quickly neared the main entrance to the hall, followed by a host of cavaliers with whom she was evidently carrying on a teasing conversation, for her blooming cheeks and expressive eyes overflowed with willfulness.
Maria Felicia Felsenburk was really a remarkable beauty. She was the only lady in the ball-room that was not painted and laced, and yet her complexion was the most beautiful, her form the most graceful and the bearing of her body the most dignified. A thin white dress, interwoven richly with silver, hung loosely down to her feet, and her black hair, smoothed back from her face, waved far down over her waist. Everything about her was easy, firm, resolute, determined, and yet pretty, artistic and natural. Her head was not decorated with ribbons, feathers, flowers, such as overloaded the steepled hair of the other ladies; only one diamond star glittered above her forehead. To the Emperor, watching her with animation, the star seemed to be her ensign.
At the young lady’s command the chamberlains standing at the door pushed aside the draperies, and she disappeared with her attendants as suddenly as she had done before among the pillars. A lackey came to the Count and announced that the Countess was about to start with the young nobles to take a morning ride.
“To take a morning ride!” said the astonished Count, pushing aside a curtain on the window near which he was standing. A wide stream of light, from which the frightened ladies drew back lest it might touch their pale faces and crushed dresses, poured in upon the company. At the same time the horseshoes tinkled on the pavement; the young lady and her attendants were setting out for their trip on horseback.
“Is it really daylight?” said the Emperor with surprise, and looking at his watch, quickly added: “I have just enough time left to strengthen and refresh myself also with some kind of outing. What do you say, Count—suppose we follow the Countess?”
The heavy stone rolled off the Count’s breast. He had thought he would choke with anger when, at this very decisive moment, he saw his daughter again overtaken by one of her eccentric fancies and thus defeating the ambitious plans with which his proud mind was teeming. With that anger something terrible had suddenly formed in his heart; he felt that he could never forgive Maria Felicia if Joseph II. left Prague without meeting her. He jumped up like a youth when he heard the Emperor’s proposal, and instantly gave orders to have his horses saddled.
If the guests a few moments ago looked on with ridicule and impatience when the Countess with the young nobles unconcernedly left her father’s guests, and whispered that it was really unbearable to see her trample on all the rules of etiquette, they did not know what to say when they saw that the Emperor considered the young lady’s conduct perfectly proper and that he intended to follow her.
Joseph II. left, taking with him the Count, without any ceremony whatever. The haughty nobility, astonished and angry, were left alone for the discussion of a very important question—How would it be at the court after the death of the vigilant Maria Theresa, when Joseph II. should rule alone?