Maria Felicia/Chapter 8
A COLD, heavy fog was slowly dragging itself over the boundary mountains. Now and then cold rain drizzled down, and like sharp needles pierced through the thin garments of the peasants, who were followed by an army of soldiers urging them onward.
It was in the year 1781; the Emperor Joseph II. had issued his famous “Toleration Patent,” in which he proclaimed liberty to all the religious denominations of the empire. The Bohemian Brethren, who had until then secretly conducted their services in great danger, now publicly professed their faith and desired to be registered as a religious body. The Brethren were about one hundred thousand in number, settled mostly along the banks of the Elbe. But soon they learned to their great distress that the proclaimed liberty was not extended to them, for the Emperor was not aware that such a sect existed in his empire. He supposed that the burning of the Bydžovs had exterminated the hated heretics. They regretted that they had trusted in the Emperor’s words, for they were dealt with very severely.
It was rumored that their faith was found full of heresies when preachers of other denominations examined it; that the Brethren were simply remnants of the ancient Adamites, and that their eccentric behavior must be suppressed to prevent the dissemination of the evil doctrines. The priests were directed to make efforts to bring the Brethren back into the bosom of the Holy Religion, and if they objected too strongly, to try to get them at least to accept the Augsburg Confession of Faith. From those who remained obstinate, their children were taken and placed in Catholic families to be brought up, and the parents, with the remaining Brethren who held to their faith, were exiled into Transylvania. The men were to be placed in the army, and the women kept at domestic work for the army, at the small pittance of three kreutzers a day. A part of them, conducted by soldiers, were now going into exile.
As the Brethren ascended a forest mountain over a steep pathway, they sang their old psalms, but when they reached the summit and looked back to their beloved country, lighted by one narrow, pale sunbeam resembling the faint, tearful smile of a sad mother parting with her children, the psalms died away and loud weeping followed. All fell upon the ground, took handfuls of earth and put it into their pockets and knapsacks as a sacred relic from their country. Driven by the soldiers, they had to arise long before they had finished their farewell prayers, and soon they disappeared in the forest.
The last in the procession of the exiles were an old man led by a tall, handsome young man, and a woman wrapped in a coarse cape with a capoch. These were doubtless husband and wife, and the old man the father of one of them, of which one it was impossible to guess, for both were very kind to him and very careful of him. The husband and wife must have loved each other dearly, for if they were not looking into each other’s eyes their glances at least followed one direction, as if they could not but see, feel, and think the same thing.
The old man, looking back for the last time to his mother country, sobbed more painfully than the rest. He had no hope, as they had, of returning if better days should come. He wept because he had to carry his old bones to a strange country, because he could not lay them down to rest in his native land. The young man, tenderly consoling him, led him on after the rest, that the painful moment might not be prolonged. But the wife lingered for a moment; she could not turn her eyes away from her beloved country, the country of martyrs, whose number she was increasing.
A soldier, impatient with her delay, was in the act of forcing her on with his bayonet, when a stranger suddenly appeared from behind a rock where unnoticed he had been watching the Brethren, and stopped him.
“Can I believe my eyes?” he exclaimed. “Dare I believe it is you, Countess Felsenburk?”
It was Emperor Joseph II. Being in Prague at the time on account of the building of Fort Joseph, and urged by a spirit of curiosity, he decided to go to the frontier to see the heretics moving out of Bohemia, and to have an interview with the Brethren, unrecognized by them. As they were coming from the valley, there suddenly appeared before his eyes a face long unseen but not forgotten. At first he thought it was only the result of a momentary recollection, for, seeing the Brethren, the Emperor thought of the beautiful Maria Felicia who had been such an ardent admirer of them that for them she gave up her wealth, his friendship, and her position, and had mysteriously disappeared when he made known to her his plans of centralization. It was rumored that she had fled to some foreign convent because of her hopeless love for the Emperor. Both his and her servants had overheard their loud conversation at the time of their meeting in his castle, and later had suspected that it was a love quarrel on account of which the young lady had retired from the world. But Joseph II. knew better; for a long time he did not believe that she had gone never to return; for many months he hoped that she would come back when tired of opposing him. “It is impossible that she will not return,” he thought. Well she knew his feelings; well she knew what she was to him, and that to her was tendered the first place by his side. But in vain he waited for the only woman whose mind and nature he admired, the only heart in which he had confidence, and which he intended to reward with a kingly gift for its true devotion. Perhaps it was because of this loss which the Brethren had caused that he banished them from his empire.
Clearly, yes, very clearly, Joseph II. still recalled the beautiful, intellectual Countess Felsenburk, and yet unforgotten were the pain and anger which he felt when he heard of her mysterious disappearance. But here was no illusive trick of his imagination; he really saw Maria Felicia among the Brethren. When he greeted her she stepped back, as much surprised as he.
“It—is—really you!” said the Emperor once more, and his old warmth suddenly returned. “But what are you doing among these people?”
“I share their fate, imperial master; at your command I go into exile,” Maria Felicia answered with her old dignity.
The Emperor was startled.
“Surely, my decree does not extend to you,” he said in a wavering tone.
Maria Felicia smiled bitterly. That reproachful smile moved the Emperor.
“The liberty that your majesty is pleased to offer is tendered not only to certain nations, then, but also specifies certain individuals? Some are permitted to believe what others are forbidden? I thank your majesty for wishing to exclude me from the persecution that falls upon our Union. Believing as a Sister, I want to suffer with the rest. Allow me to follow my husband.”
“To follow your husband?” the Emperor asked, with amazement. “You are married, and to whom?”
“I married the one who rejected me when I was Countess Felsenburk, to whom my wealth was nothing, because I was a descendant of traitors. I married the son of one of my porters, Andrew Hlohovsky is his name. He is the descendant of the Bohemian nobles whose wealth and title were given to my ancestor. His noble character aroused in my heart the warmest and purest love of which a woman is capable.
“Scorned as a Countess, I determined that Andrew must at least honor me as a benefactress of Bohemia unknown to him. As his patriotic soul had taught me to love my nation beyond my own life, I decided to become your adviser, and in that way to work for the advancement of Bohemia. But great was my disappointment; I learned that you were not actuated by that justice for which I had honored you, and that my most ardent supplications could never move you. I severed all my connections with the world, and fled to the Castle of Hlohov, to Andrew, again in the disguise of a poor musician, as I had been there before, after my father’s death. Andrew accepted me as a friend; through his influence I became a Brother, and joined their Union. I gained his perfect confidence; he made known to me all his thoughts, aims, and deeds, never suspecting, of course, that he was bestowing his highest esteem on the hated Countess Felsenburk. Several years ago, I was elected, with him, as a leader and speaker by the Brethren. Together we led our people to Prague to speak for our rights to the nobles, as you had given us the privilege to do. Dangerously wounded by your soldiers, sent against us unarmed people who trusted in your words as though they were sacred—and thinking that I was dying, at last I revealed my name to Andrew. My blood, flowing for the rights of the Bohemian people, washed from his heart all the hatred against Countess Felsenburk. The love which he now bore Maria Felicia was even greater than the hatred with which he formerly regarded her. He lifted me from the ground, fled from the massacre, and in spite of his own severe wounds, saved my life. He carried me to the president of the Union, a dear old man, who, on account of old age, could not accompany us on our expedition. The president blessed our marriage, and accepted both of us as his children. Andrew cultivated his little farm, and I served them both, feeling that I had entered paradise. But one cloud hung over our happiness; no children smiled upon us. But now we praise God for not sending us children, for we should have had to move out without them, like the rest of the Brethren.”
And the eyes of Maria Felicia, which had lost none of their luster since they rested upon the sovereign’s face, filled with tears. Sadly she turned away from him, and looked once more toward her native country.
“How many, oh! how many times, Almighty God,” she exclaimed, “have Thy children had to move out of Bohemia because they loved Thy truth too ardently? Oh, allow us not, even now, to carry away its last germ. May its sacred seed remain concealed here in its birthplace, where so many times it has been trampled down and yet has sprouted and grown again. Oh, it will bloom here once more, and that in a short time; this hope strengthens us now, and will help us to endure life in the cold, strange land to which we are banished.
“Your punishment, O King, shall be that against your own will you shall arouse the Bohemian nation to new life. By your injustice you will awaken within the Bohemians their slumbering love for their country; with your dislike for their language you will arouse their old love for it. Being forced to give it up, they will love it the more. But, above all, know that the time is coming with urgent speed when you shall learn that only a Bohemian could have understood you, that he was the only one among your peoples who kept up with your progressive spirit; that he alone could have assured immortality to your deeds. In the place where you sowed so much love you will reap only ingratitude. Oh, I see already the Bohemian nation, slain by you, rising from its grave! Oppressors do not weaken the national spirit; they add to its strength.”
The capoch slipped off Maria Felicia’s head; her rich black hair waved loosely around her beautiful shoulders. The light of sacred prophecy illumined her face, when she lifted her hand as if to indicate to the Emperor the way in which he ought to walk.
With profound emotion the sovereign watched her. It seemed to him that on the forehead of the wife of an exile, bravely moving into a strange country for her faith and gladly enduring poverty with her loving husband, a more brilliant star sparkled than the one that adorned the head of the young Countess Felsenburk, when in the height of her beauty he met her for the first time at the ball in her father’s magnificent palace.
Without a word he let her go.
When, only a few years later, Joseph II. had to recall the greater part of his reforms as he lay on his death-bed, misunderstood, his best efforts for the empire rewarded with ingratitude, did he think of Maria Felicia, the last mistress of Hlohov?