The Emperor's Candlesticks/Chapter 1
Gay, chic Vienna was en fête. What would you? Shrove Tuesday is the very last day, allowed by our Holy Mother the Church for revelry, before the long austere forty days of Lent, and if we do not make use of her full permission to enjoy ourselves, to the full extent of out capacity, we shall have nothing left to atone for to-morrow, when the good fathers place the cross of ashes on our foreheads, and bid us remember that dust we are, to dust return.
Therefore Vienna was drinking the overflowing cup of pleasure to-day; had been drinking in it in its gaily lighted streets and boulevards, and was now enjoying its last drops at the opera ball, the climax to a carnival that had been unusually brilliant this year.
And in the hall, where but two nights ago the harmonious discords of Wagner's "Niebelungen" had enchanted and puzzled a seriously-minded audience, to-night Pierrots and Pierrettes, Fausts and Marguerites, nymphs, fairies, gnomes and what-nots chased each other with merry cries and loud laughter, to the sweet tunes of Strauss' melodious, dreamy waltzes; while the boxes, each filled with spectators eager to watch, though afraid to mingle in the giddy throng, showed mysterious dominoes and black masks, behind which gleamed eyes rendered bright with suppressed excitement at the intoxicating spectacle below.
"Come down, fair domino, I know thee," whispered a richly dressed odalisque, whose jewelled mask could not outshine the merry twinkle of her black eyes beneath. She had placed one dainty hand on the ledge of a pit tier box, in which two black dominoes had sat for some time, partially hidden by the half-drawn curtains, and had watched the gay throng beneath them for some half-hour or so, apparently unnoticed.
The taller of the two dominoes bent forward, trying to pierce the enterprising houri's disguise.
"Nay! if you know me, fair mask, come up to me, and let me renew an acquaintance that should have never been dropped!"
But she had once more disappeared as swiftly as she had come, and the black domino, whose curiosity was aroused, tried vainly to distinguish her graceful figure among the glitter of the moving crowd.
"I wonder our sober dresses succeeded in drawing that gay butterfly's attention," he said, turning to his companion, "and what her object was in speaking to me, if she did not mean to continue the causerie."
"Oh, it is the usual way with these gay Viennese bourgeoisies," replied his companion; "your Imperial Highness has been sitting too much in the shade of that curtain, and the odalisque thought your obvious desire to remain hidden an object of interest."
The taller domino now lent forward in the box, his opera-glass glued to his mask, eagerly scanning the crowd; but, though numerous Moorish and Turkish veiled figures passed backwards and forwards, he did not recognise the enterprising odalisque among them.
"Look not for the good that lies far away when the best is so close at hand," whispered a mocking voice, close to his elbow.
The black domino turned sharply round, just in time to catch hold of a little hand, which had crept round the column, that separated the box in which he was sitting, from the adjoining one.
"The best is still too far," he whispered; "is it unattainable?"
"Always try to obtain the best," replied the mocking voice, "even at the risk of scaling the inaccessible walls of an opera-box."
"I cannot get to thee, fair mask, without momentarily letting go this tiny hand, and it is never safe to let a bird, even for a moment, out of its cage."
"Black Domino, we often must risk the lesser to obtain the great," said the odalisque maliciously.
"I entreat your Imperial Highness to remain here," said the second domino imploringly; "you are here incognito: I am the only one in attendance on you Highness, and––"
"All the more reason why it should be possible, for one brief moment, for a Tsarevitch to do as he likes," retorted the taller domino laughingly.
And, before his companion had time to add another word of warning, the young man had, with the freedom which King Carnival always allows at such a time and in such places, climbed the ledge of the box, and scrambled with youthful alacrity into the one that contained his mysterious bright-eyed houri.
But alas! for the waywardness and fickleness of the daughters of the East, no sooner had the black domino safely reached terra firma once more, after his perilous climb, than the swift opening and shutting of a door told him but too plain that the will-o'-the-wisp wished to evade him yet again.
What young man is there, be him prince or peasant, who would have allowed so mocking a game to be carried on at his expense. Nicholas Alexandrovitch, son and heir to the Tsar of all Russias, remembered only that he was twenty years of age, that he had come to the opera ball, accompanied by that dry old stick Lavrovski, with the sole purpose of enjoying himself incognito for once, and … he started off in hot pursuit.
The passage behind the box was quite empty, but in the direction leading to the foyer, some fifty yards, distant, he distantly caught the sight of a swiftly disappearing figure, and the heels of the prettiest pair of Turkish slippers it had ever been his good fortune to see.
The foyer was, at that late hour of the night, a scene of the most motley, most picturesque confusion. Assyrian queens were walking arm in arm with John Bulls, Marguerites were coquetting unblushingly with gallants of some two centuries later, while Hamlets and Orthellos were indulging in the favourite Viennese pastime of hoisting their present partners on to the tallest pillars they could find, with a view to starving them out up there, into a jump some ten or twelve feet below, when they would perforce land into the outstretched arms of their delighted swains.
And very pretty these tall pillars looked, thus decorated with living, laughing, chatting figures of v Ivándières, Pierrettes–ay, and of sober Ophelias and languishing Isoldes. But the black domino heeded than not; darting hither and thither, taking no notice of cheeky sallies and rough bousculades, he pushed his way through the crowd towards one spot, close to the entrance, where a special little jewelled cap was fast disappearing through the wide open portals, that led into the gaily lighted place beyond.
The odalisque had evidently either repented of her audacious adventure, or was possessed of an exceptionally bold spirit, for without a moment's hesitation she ran down the stone steps, taking no further heed of the jesting crowd she was forced to pass through, or of the two or three idle masks who accosted her, and also started in pursuit.
Having reached the bottom of the steps she seemed to hesitate a moment, only a second perhaps–was it intentionally?–but that second gave Nicholas Alexandrovitch the chance he had for some time striven for; he overtook her, just as she laid her hand on the door of awhich has drawn up, and lifting her off the ground as if she were a feather, he placed her inside, and sat down in front of her, hot and panting, while the coachman, without apparently waiting for any directions, drove off rapidly through the ever noisier and gayer crowd.