Maria Felicia/Chapter 5
THE sun had ceased shining into the windows of the King’s Castle in Prague, which, after having been despoiled by the Prussians, had been repaired by Maria Theresa. One of the windows opened into a garden, from which sweet odors floated upward around two forms standing in a room singularly furnished. Books, maps, pamphlets, lay spread over the floor and furniture; the room was used only for work and study. The two noticed little the scent of the flowers, the peaceful view of the city spreading from the garden below them, and the beautiful fiery sunset. They were absorbed in an important discussion. Joseph II., being in Prague, had invited Countess Felsenburk for the evening to discuss state affairs. She came with her suite, who, waiting for her in the antechambers, were secretly and significantly whispering with the Emperor’s servants about the motive of her visit. The Emperor, while waiting for the Countess, had manifested much solicitude, and the young lady’s attendants had noticed in their mistress the same desire to meet the Emperor.
“Do not thank me again, Miss Felsenburk,” said the sovereign, without taking his eyes for a moment from the Countess, who was leaning against an armchair by his side. “You have no reason for doing so, but rather I am grateful to you. It was your letters that called me to Bohemia, informed me of the true state of affairs, the miserable condition of the peasants. I was not aware of the poverty of the people brought on by poor crops and the usury of their heartless masters; I did not know that the nobles had refused to sell grain to their subjects, even for high prices, in the expectation of getting a still higher price the coming year. I was so busy with the question concerning the Jesuits, which is at last settled to my satisfaction, that for the time being I laid everything else aside. You turned me just in time from my one-sided activity; and I think I have spent my time here very conscientiously in making arrangements to the best of my ability for the prosperity of your peasant friends. I have given orders that the granaries of the army be opened and the grain sold at the lowest possible price; cheap bread will be baked in the public bakeries, and that will surely put an end to absolute want. Likewise, I have provided that the nobles supply their vassals with grain for seed, and I hope to succeed in getting the Empress to grant a donation of two million florins for the Bohemians. Is Countess Felsenburk satisfied with Joseph II.?”
Maria Felicia thanked the Emperor, not only with her lips, but also with her eyes, which filled with tears.
“But let us now leave these affairs,” added the Emperor, moved by her emotion; “let us talk about you, Countess. Much has changed with you since we last met; the unexpected has happened. If I am to speak to you frankly, as we have agreed to do, then I must confess that you have changed greatly. Your cheeks have lost their blushes, your smiles their heartiness, your eyes the willfulness with which, it is said, you drove men to despair.”
The young lady faintly smiled, replying:
“To-day, at least, I shall not weary your majesty with complaints about the emptiness of my life; the cup of my life is filled and overflowing.”
“Do not yield to grief over the death of your father, Countess. We cannot, alas! change the laws of nature; our deepest grief cannot move one blade of grass. And so pluck up your courage and try to forget. What I said about the change in you was not said to the disparagement of your beauty. Your beauty, I think, has been perfected by that pale, pensive look. The loss of your father touched me deeply also; not only because in his death I lost a true counselor, but because I have been deprived of the pleasure of seeing you at the court. Count Felsenburk promised me, when we last met, to come to Vienna with you as soon as possible.”
The face of the Countess, which seemed so pale to the Emperor, became even paler at these words, and she nervously bit her lip.
“I have been looking forward with joy to your début at the court, not only because I imagined that you would be its brightest star, but for more selfish reasons. In the first moment of our acquaintance I was surprised, as you yourself must have noticed, at your vivacious spirit, the depth and meaning of which I, however, did not comprehend and value according to its merit until I received your letters. I scarcely could believe they were written by a lady—especially a lady of your age. It seemed more probable that they were written by a statesman who had all his life pondered national problems. You must, Miss Felsenburk, you must lend your beautiful, bright eyes, which can see so far and so deep, to your Emperor; otherwise you would be unjust to him and the nation. Will you grant my wish, Maria Felicia? And if you do, will it be only from the loyalty of a vassal?”
The longer the Emperor spoke the warmer became his words, and the warmer the more quiet. The last word escaped his lips in a whisper; the Countess guessed rather than heard it.
“I have decided to fulfill father’s promise as soon as I lay mourning aside,” calmly she answered, lifting her eyes to the Emperor. “Your gracious invitation to the court I accept.”
“You will come, then, really will come? Will you at last subdue your dislike for court life?” the Emperor exclaimed, with youthful joy. “Come, come soon; there is a task waiting for you already. Since I learned the relation of the peasants to their masters, I have been thinking about making a law to lighten the tenure service. You supplied the first motive to this undertaking; it has ripened through your influence; and with your assistance I will put it in force. I cannot see what miracle led you to learn so thoroughly the condition of those people. Who could advise me better than you? I shall not be deterred by the threats of the nobles; they will rise against me and defend their rights and privileges more determinedly than ever. But I shall gladly endure the struggle awaiting me; gladly, not only because justice will for once prevail, but because I shall please you by lightening the burdens of those whose condition so greatly grieves you.”
That noble promise, so sincerely spoken, filled Maria Felicia with earnest joy, and imparted to her countenance an expression incomparably sublime. She was magnificent. The Emperor watched her in mute ecstacy. He thought he knew her, but lo! suddenly she was altogether different, a hundred times more beautiful and charming. Leaning toward her, he grasped her hand.
“Yes, your will shall be fulfilled, your wish shall be a command,” he whispered passionately. “You shall be the mistress of the court, you shall be supreme. You shall rule everywhere, even where no one yet has ever ruled—in my heart!”
“I take you at your word, illustrious master,” the young lady exclaimed. “But I do not wish to rule, I only ask to be allowed to speak the truth to you, to be allowed to advise, and to be heard and regarded. In return for such favor I promise the most profound and unlimited devotion.”
And the Countess pressed the Emperor’s hand, which still held hers, not, however, rapturously, as he had wished and expected, but sincerely and respectfully. It was a queenly form standing before him in the purple evening light, dressed in a gown of violet velvet; and the head, from which hung a long black veil fastened here and there to her curls with pearl pins, was indeed worthy of a crown.
The Emperor’s eyes were still resting on Maria Felicia’s face, but she continued in the same earnestness, heeding not his feeling, and considering not the footing on which she closed the agreement with him.
“I will at once proceed according to your majesty’s promise. Time is fleeting, and the wrongs of the people appeal to heaven more pitifully day by day. Look, illustrious master, down below!”
The Countess pointed to the city, so quickly that the Emperor unconsciously turned his eyes away from her face and followed the direction of her hand.
“It is, I suppose, the Towers of Týn, that you are pointing to,” he replied absently, and again turned his eyes to hers.
“Yes, your majesty, those are the Towers of Týn, reaching to the heavens, and below them is the market place veiled in the first shadows of the evening; and on it are the dark scaffold, the block, the gallows, the pillory—pools of blood and a pile of white heads. And do you remember the twenty-first day of June, 1621?”
Pale as death the Countess gazed at the towers. She had neither feeling nor hearing for anything else at that moment; it seemed that she had entirely forgotten who was near and where she was standing.
“In such a moment as this you recall that dark scene?” the Emperor said reproachfully.
“I am not recalling it; it is always present in my mind. I see it, I hear the heart-rending wails of the mothers, the wives, and the daughters of the beheaded; their despairing forms haunt my bed and frighten away my sleep and rest.”
“You weaken your health by yielding to such illusions,” the Emperor said with anxiety. She trembled by his side like an aspen leaf; he tried to lead her away from the window, but in vain; she did not yield to his wish.
“Try to control those fantasies which so dreadfully agitate you; you are strong and valiant in other things. Turn your mind away from crimes committed so many ages ago.”
“How can I forget that there, among the judges at whose command the headsman raised his sword, the jailer prepared his hot iron, sat my forefather? How can I forget that the wealth which was taken from one of those ill-fated victims was presented to him by your grandfather; that what I have is not mine? That it is stolen—worse than stolen—saturated with innocent blood? How can I help wishing, at any sacrifice, to atone for that crime?”
And weeping, the young lady covered her face.
“Your sympathy carries you too far!” exclaimed the Emperor. “The blood flowing at that time was not innocent. The rebels of whom you speak suffered a deserved punishment for their revolt, and your ancestor was justly rewarded by my grandfather for his loyalty.”
The Countess sadly shook her head.
“Of course, they were rebels, but why, illustrious master, did they rebel? That they might be allowed to worship according to their conscience and best knowledge, and pray in their own tongue, which was forbidden them, although their right to it was confirmed by the Emperor’s edict.”
“Be it so or not, they, nevertheless, rebelled against their sovereign, and justly they were dealt with,” the Emperor firmly answered.
“Justly, says your majesty? Oh, do not speak thus, illustrious master; do not speak so, at least to me, whom only a few moments ago you so nobly promised access to your heart. Press your hand on your heart and appeal to your sense of justice. Which side was it that first began to violate justice? And, besides, what is justice, according to the views of that generation and this? Is it anything more than that which the majority favors? Cannot one person be right against the whole world, as has happened more than once? Have people never fought against truth that was unpleasant to them; have they never mocked and purposely misunderstood it if it was in the way of their selfishness? Was not Christ misunderstood in the same way?”
“Such views would confound the whole established order of things.”
“Supposing we should replace the new heresies with old reliable truths?” quickly the young lady exclaimed, and her eyes beamed so enchantingly that the Emperor, again overcome by her beauty, forgave her for recalling the dark scene of the past and inconsiderately marring a sweet hour for him.
“Placing both her hands on her heaving breast, the Countess began:
“I have discovered a treasure for which I have paid a great price. But I shall never regret having bought it if you will accept it from my hand, illustrious master; millions you can enrich with it, millions you can make happy, and at the same time make yourself happy. Oh, accept from me this costly gift, and brighten my life with the one beam of happiness yet possible for me in this world!”
Again the Emperor seized the hand of the ardent Countess; at last she spoke as he had been wishing, and now her enthusiasm was to him loveliness itself.
“That treasure,” Maria Felicia continued, “which suddenly appeared before me is the old reliable faith, which was established by the noblest minds; it is the old faith of the Bohemian-Moravian Brethren. You, imperial master, being always busy with other duties, have not devoted much attention to the Bohemians; you perhaps do not know that this nation was the first to become enlightened with the spirit of liberty and truth; and these are your own guiding principles. For these the Bohemians poured out their best blood; they were the first warriors of the Holy Spirit.
“Trace the history of the nation to her former greatness, and you will learn what I have learned, that the nation was your forerunner in the cause of truth and liberty; that she fought for and aimed to accomplish what you are planning; that the same enemies that worked against her are rising against you; that as you have not been comprehended, so was her aim misunderstood. But you will succeed in time, you will complete the noble work which she began. She is the root, and you will be the crown of the tree of new liberty, new virtue, new faith.”
The young lady, in her enthusiasm, did not notice how coldly the Emperor had dropped her hand.
“When we meet again, allow me, first of all, to tell you about the principles of the Bohemian Brethren and their internal management. Then you will surely admit that everything which ennobles man is embodied in them; that if human society should build on such principles it would rise to moral heights yet unheard of. My first supplication to you is to give the nation from which sprang these humane principles an opportunity to demonstrate its true worth; and if you do this, you will see in a short time great and unexpected results. You will see that no people in your empire can comprehend you as the Bohemians can when spoken to in their own language and when invested with their old rights. That the nation does not speak to you for herself, that I am doing so without her knowledge, is because she lies chained at the feet of the nobles, who deal with her in such a way that she rightfully thinks they aim at her total destruction. Oh, deliver Bohemia from these chains as soon as possible; give back her former liberty!”
The Emperor’s face was grave.
“Look at this city, Bohemian King; look at the seat of your throne. One of the earliest and greatest universities in the world was established here by Charles IV., and only a few years later the people themselves established high schools; here education and religion were taught, not only as a special privilege to those within the walls of the schools, but proclaimed publicly in the market places and churches, where the barefooted beggar sought the truth as eagerly as the scholar. Look at this city, where your crown and scepter are deposited. It has been washed a thousand times with the tears and blood of martyrs; under its every roof was born a champion of the truth and it raised ten times as many heroes as the number of gold crosses you see sparkling on its churches. In its streets raged the storms that purified the whole world. Here men fought with sword and word for all humanity; here, for the divine truth, men laid their heads on the block exultingly as princes ascending their thrones, and their mothers and sisters sacrificed their beloved ones for the sacred flame that spread light over the whole world. Here was born the motto, “Equality, Harmony and Fraternity”; here the drinking cup was first used as the emblem of universal brotherhood. Every man ought to look upon this place with revverence, for here stands the cradle of humanity.”
The Emperor’s face was now not only grave; it was austere, and sternly he answered the enthusiastic Countess:
“I shall not dispute with Countess Felsenburk about the fables that she has read in some chronicle, doubtless while straying, in these days of her mourning, among the dusty archives of one of her ancient castles. But I am much surprised to learn that she allowed them to affect her mind so greatly and fill it with heresy. Out of one illusion, however, as a friend I feel in duty bound to lead her, that we may avoid similar discussions when in the near future, I hope, we shall meet again. It matters not what the past of the Bohemian nation was, great or small; its task is over; it is dead; and no human power can awaken the dead. I have neither the time nor the desire to think about things that are past; I am to turn my mind elsewhere, to that people who give promise of living strength and a great future. The historical greatness among the nations of the world is destined to belong to the Germans; the Germans have certainly been chosen by Providence to govern the world; in them are centered all the principles that justify me in this belief and make them capable of attaining this great position. I have decided that it is my duty to develop and strengthen their best traits and then teach them to know themselves. From these germs I shall raise blossoms, and from the blossoms intellectual fruit which the whole world shall enjoy. Within ten years the Germans must be well advanced on their aggressive way, which will lead them to the subjugation of the remaining nations of my empire. These cannot resist the Germans; they must unite into one, just as the streamlets flow into a large stream, and in its sway lose their individual colors, tastes and names.”
The Countess stood before the Emperor in speechless amazement. She heard his every word, heard but did not comprehend—she could not. This from him whom she had esteemed so highly? Where, then, were justice and humanity, if even Joseph II. bade them farewell? Was the most enlightened philosopher and most noble philanthropist of his age such a man as this? Was this the emperor whose adviser and confidante she wanted to become, and to whose service she intended to consecrate her life? She was conscious that her aim was high, and determined that she would not swerve one inch from her path. She had armed herself against the temptations of luxury and love; she had wished bravely to be above regarding the prejudices and the insulting suspicions that would arise from her occupying such a position; but now the whole sacrifice proved to be vain and unwise.
“And the oaths with which your predecessors confirmed the rights of the Bohemian nation, assured its independence, promised to protect its rights?” she said quietly.
“I have made in my heart more sacred oaths than to guard medieval prejudice, perform legislative shows, play with manners and customs, and encourage fancies about languages, which all lead to nothing,” firmly replied the sovereign. “I intend to secure the progress of my subjects in a different way. I did not tell you about the reforms in the churches, the courts and the army that I am planning. I spoke to you only about the freedom of the press and of religion. And besides, I did not promise to protect the rights that you speak of and deem so important, and I do not intend to confirm them. I repeat that first of all I shall try to unite all the nations of my empire into one powerful nation, in which the German language, German customs, German thought and German spirit shall dominate. Only in that way will the Austrian Empire become the great European power before which all the nations will bow and tremble. Oh, just one more decade of patient work, and I shall see that I have not lived and planned in vain. Even you, Miss Felsenburk, who look at me so reproachfully now, even you will have to admit the greatness of my undertaking.”
“I shall not be where I can congratulate your majesty on such a great victory,” the young lady replied, and tears filled her eyes, as she arose to depart.
“You are weeping, Maria Felicia, and that through my fault?” the Emperor exclaimed, suddenly softened. “And you are leaving me already?”
The young lady shrugged her shoulders, as much as to say: “What can I do? There is nothing left for me to do here; I must find another way to realize my hope.”
“You are turning against me because I refuse to endorse your plans, in which, I admit, you have assigned me a grateful part. But think once more, sensibly, about what you have advised, and you will surely admit that you have planned impossible things. Compare them with my plans, and you will see that mine surprised you because of their novelty, and unfavorably impressed you because they opposed yours. I am sure that if you study my plans deeply you will like them and admit their great significance for the future. As a friend who wishes me immortality you will even become inspired with them.”
The Countess waved her hand toward the Emperor, as if she wanted to banish the faintest shadow of such a suspicion.
“Still excited? I see that no understanding is possible between us to-day, and that I must dismiss you as you wish. Knowing of the disaster that grieved you, and the peculiarities of your nature, I do not reproach you for leaving me thus, although I had hoped for a different result from our interview. I shall leave this evening; so good-bye. I hope that when we meet again you will be reconciled to me, and that you will gladly help me with my reforms, as you promised some time ago, but mainly in the great task of strengthening my empire that in intellectual power it may dominate the rest of the world.”
The Countess was startled; the bitterness in her heart overmastered her. Wiping the tears from her cheeks and flushed with anger, she exclaimed:
“And that is what Joseph II., whom I have honored as a perfect ruler of men, calls a great task—to take from nations that have trusted their fate to him, their language, their dress, their customs—to dictate to them how they should speak and think; to tell them how to develop; to make a bat out of a nightingale, a wren out of a hawk? Oh, do not deceive yourself, great Emperor; by the amalgamation of your various peoples you will not form one mighty nation that will dominate the world in intellectual strength; your empire will always be a conglomeration of discordant parts. Oh, it is not liberty that you are showing me behind that glittering veil; it is force.”
The Emperor turned pale; only by a great effort was he able to control himself.
“Miss Felsenburk, in speaking to her Emperor, bravely takes advantage of her privilege,” he replied, with the dignity of a monarch, “I advise her, though, not to repeat elsewhere what she has said here, and to conceal her whims carefully when she comes to the court, lest they may not meet the forbearance there with which they have been treated here. By the way, I shall remind her of the fate of Count Vrtba, who dared to talk about the same subject and in the same way to my mother, recklessly speaking of Bohemia’s past and demanding for her an impossible future. The Empress wanted to excuse him as a lunatic, but when he acted obstinately and tried to get accomplices for his schemes, she was obliged to confiscate his estates and banish him from the country. He fled to Střelin, in Prussia, where a hundred years previously a settlement had been made by the Brethren who were exiled from Bohemia. As schoolmaster Vrtba, he has been teaching there and doubtless still teaches the children of those in behalf of whose principles Miss Felsenburk is dreaming.”
“And he allowed his estates to be confiscated and himself to be banished, not being able to obtain justice for his nation?” proudly the young lady asked.
With a cutting laugh, the Emperor asked: “Would you have advised him to revolt? Ought he to have attempted what he intended to attempt—that is, to raise a rebellion, as the Directors of Bohemia, whose fate moved you so deeply, had done?”
“I think it would have been shorter and pleasanter for both sides if he had done as I shall do now,” the Countess answered with cold dignity. “Knowing what your majesty intends to do, I consider it a patriotic duty to remain no longer a vassal of the throne from which sentence of death has secretly been decreed against my nation, and which in a short time will be publicly proclaimed. I am Bohemian—which, as I see, your majesty has forgotten. After your sentence of condemnation I cannot remain as your vassal, for I should become a traitor to my people, for whom I have sworn to live and to die, just as sacredly as you have sworn to elevate the Germans. I thank your majesty for the favors thus far bestowed upon my family, and request you to transfer them to my young uncle, Hypolit of Felsenburk, for whose behoof I give up my estates, my wealth, placing them, with all my titles, rights, privileges, into your hands that you may dispose of them as I have taken the liberty to request.”
The Emperor lost his self-control.
“Why are you so obstinate?” he exclaimed. “Really I did not suspect you to be like other women, who in childish ill-temper suddenly break and destroy everything that does not go according to their way. Such action is unworthy of you, Countess. I have held you in higher estimation than that.”
“Perhaps you will again place me higher than I stand in your estimation now, when you are convinced that I was performing no deceitful artifice to persuade you to adopt my plans, but that I have spoken my words in sincerity.”
And covering her face with her veil, Maria Felicia bowed and started for the door.
“Go, proud Countess, go!” the Emperor said, turning away. “But I still have hopes in your good sense. Before we meet again all the unpleasant, foolish dreams that vex you now will have disappeared and your mind will be clear once more.”
The Countess did not answer. With head erect she disappeared into the row of apartments, where all the attendants arose and bowed before her, as if through the walls they had heard Joseph’s words:
“You shall be the mistress of the court, you shall be supreme; you shall rule where no one yet has ever ruled—in my heart!”