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CHAPTER X.


OF A POLITICAL APPOINTMENT.


A few days later my mother informed me that Victoria and her husband had proposed to pay us a long visit. I could make no objection. Princess Heinrich observed that I should be glad to see Victoria again, and should enjoy the companionship of William Adolphus. In my mind I translated her speech into a declaration that Victoria might have some influence over me although my mother had none, and that William Adolphus would be more wholesome company than my countesses and Wetters and such riff-raff. I was unable to regard William Adolphus as an intellectual resource, and did not associate Victoria with the exercise of influence. The weakness of the Princess's new move revealed the straits to which she felt herself reduced. The result of the position which I have described was almost open strife between her and me; Hammerfeldt's powerful bridle alone held her back from declared rupture. His method of facing the danger was very different. He sought to exercise no veto, but he kept watch; he knew where I went, but made no objection to my going; any liberal notions which I betrayed in conversation with him he received with courteous attention, and affected to consider the result of my own meditations. Had my feelings been less deeply involved I think his method would have succeeded; even as it was he checked and retarded what he could not stop: The cordiality of our personal relations remained unbroken and so warm that he felt himself able to speak to me in a half-serious, half-jesting way about the Countess von Sempach.

"A most charming woman indeed," said he. "In fact, too charming a woman."

I understood him, and began to defend myself.

"I'm not in love with the Countess," I said; "but I give her my confidence, Prince."

He shook his head, smiled, and took a pinch of snuff, glancing at me humorously.

"Reverse it," he suggested. "Be in love with her, but don't give her your confidence. You'll find it safer and also more pleasant that way."

My confidence might affect high matters, my love he regarded as a passing fever. He did not belong to an age of strict morality in private life, and his bent of mind was utterly opposed to considering an intrigue with a woman of the Countess's attractions as a serious crime in a young man of my position. "Hate her," was my mother's impossible exhortation. "Love her, but don't trust her," was the Prince's subtle counsel. He passed at once from the subject, content with the seed that he had sown. There was much in him and in his teaching which one would defend to-day at some cost of reputation; but I never left him without a heightened and enhanced sense of my position and my obligations. If you will, he lowered the man to exalt the king; this was of a piece with all his wily compromises.

Victoria arrived, and her husband. William Adolphus's attitude was less apologetic than it had been before marriage; he had made Victoria mother to a fine baby, and claimed the just credit. He was jovial, familiar, and, if I may so express myself, brotherly to the last degree. Happily, however, he interpreted his more assured position as enabling him to choose his own friends and his own pursuits; these were not mine, and in consequence I was little troubled with his company. As an ally to my mother he was a passive failure; his wife was worse than inactive. Victoria's conduct displayed the height of unwisdom. She denounced the Countess to my face, and besought my mother to omit the Sempachs from her list of acquaintances. Fortunately the Princess had been dissuaded from forcing on an open scandal; my sister had to be content with matching her mother's coldness by her rudeness when the Countess came to Court. Need I say that my attentions grew the more marked, and gossip even more rife?

Wetter's Bill came up for discussion, and was hurled in vain against Hammerfeldt's solid phalanx of country gentlemen and wealthy bourgeoisie. I had kept a seal on my lips, and in common opinion was still the Prince's docile disciple. Wetter accepted my attitude with easy friendliness, but he ventured to observe that if any case arose which enabled me to show that my hostility to his party was not inveterate, the proof would be a pleasure to him and his friends, and possibly of no disadvantage to me. Not the barest reference to the Countess pointed his remark. I had not seen her or heard from her for nearly a week; on the afternoon of the day after the Bill was thrown out I decided to pay her a visit. Wetter was to take luncheon at her house, and I allowed him to drop a hint of my coming. I felt that I had done my duty as regards the Bill; I was very apprehensive of my reception by the Countess. The opposition that encircled me inflamed my passion for her; the few days' separation had served to convince me that I could not live without her.

I found her alone; her face was a little flushed and her eyes bright. The moment the door was shut she turned on me almost fiercely.

"Why did you send to say you were coming?"

"I didn't send; I told Wetter. Besides, I always send before I go anywhere."

"Not always before you come to me," she retorted. "You're not to hide behind your throne, Cæsar. I was going out if you hadn't prevented me."

"The hindrance need not last a moment," said I, bowing.

She looked at me for an instant, then broke into a reluctant smile.

"You haven't sent to say you were coming for a week," she said.

"No; nor come either."

"Yes, of course, that's it. Sit down; so will I. No, in your old place, over there. Max has been giving me a beautiful bracelet."

"That's very kind of Max."

She glanced at me with challenging witchery.

"And I've promised to wear it every day—never to be without it. Doesn't it look well?" She held up her arm where the gold and jewels sparkled on the white skin as the sleeve of her gown fell back.

I paid to Max's bracelet and the arm which wore it the meed of looks, not of words.

"I've been afraid to come," I said.

"Is there anything to be afraid of here?" she asked with a smile, and a wave of her hands.

"Because of Wetter's Bill."

"Oh, the Bill! You were very cowardly, Cæsar."

"I could do nothing."

"You never can, it seems to me." She fixed on me eyes that she had made quite grave and invested with a critically discriminating regard. "But I'm very pleased to see you. Oh, and I forgot—of course I'm very much honoured too. I'm always forgetting what you are."

On an impulse of chagrin at the style of her reception, or of curiosity, or of bitterness, I spoke the thought of my mind.

"You never forget it for a moment," I said. "I forget it, not you."

She covered a start of surprise by a hasty and pretty little yawn, but her eyes were inquisitive, almost apprehensive. After a moment she picked up her old weapon, the firescreen, and hid her face from the eyes downward. But the eyes were set on me, and now, it seemed, in reproach.

"If you think that, I wonder you come at all," she murmured.

"I don't want you to forget it. But I'm something besides."

"Yes, a poor boy with a cruel mother—and a rude sister—and—— She sprang suddenly to her feet. "And," she went on, "a charming old adviser. Cæsar, I met Prince von Hammerfeldt. Shall I tell you what he said to me?"

"Yes."

"He bowed over my hand and kissed it and smiled, and twinkled with his old eyes, and then he said, 'Madame, I am growing vain of my influence over his Majesty.'"

"The Prince was complimenting you," I remarked, although I was not so dull as to miss either Hammerfeldt's mockery or her understanding of it.

"Complimenting me? Yes, I suppose he was—on not having done you any harm. Why? Because I couldn't!"

"You wouldn't wish to, Countess?"

"No; but I might wish to be able to, Cæsar."

She stood there the embodiment of a power the greater because it feigned distrust of its own might.

"No, I don't mean that," she continued a moment later. "But I should——" She drew near to me and, catching up a little chair, sat down on it, close to my elbow. "Ah, how I should like the Prince to think I had a little power!" Then in a low coaxing whisper she added, "You need only to pretend—pretend a little just to please me, Cæsar."

"And what will you do just to please me, Countess?" My whisper was low also, but full where hers had been delicate; rough, not gentle, urging rather than imploring. I was no match for her in the science of which she was mistress, but I did not despair. She seemed nervous, as though she distrusted even her keen thrusts and ready parries. I was but a boy still, but sometimes nature betrays the secrets of experience. Suddenly she broke out in a new attack, or a new line of the general attack.

"Wouldn't you like to show a little independence?" she asked. "The Prince would like you all the better for it." She looked in my face. "And people would think more of you. They say that Hammerfeldt is the real king now or he and Princess Heinrich between them."

"I thought they said that you——"

"I! Do they? Perhaps! They know so little. If they knew anything they couldn't say that."

To be told they gossiped of her influence seemed to have no terror for her; her regret was that the talk should be all untrue and she in fact impotent. She stirred me to declare that power was hers and I her servant. It seemed to me that to accept her leading was to secure perennial inspiration and a boundless reward. Was Hammerfeldt my schoolmaster? I was not blind to the share that vanity had in her mood nor to ambition's part in it, but I saw also and exulted in her tenderness. All these impulses in her I was now ready to use, for I also had my vanity—a boy's vanity in a tribute wrung from a woman. And, beyond this, passion was strong in me.

She went on in real or affected petulance:

"Can they point to anything I have done? Are any appointments made to please me? Are my friends ever favoured? They are all out in the cold, and likely to stay there, aren't they, Cæsar? Oh, you're very wise. You take what I give you; nobody need know of that. But you give nothing, because that would make talk and gossip. The Prince has taught you well. Yes, you're very prudent." She paused, and stood looking at me with a contemptuous smile on her lips; then she broke into a pitying little laugh. "Poor boy!" said she. "It's a shame to scold you. You can't help it."

It is easy enough now to say that all this was cunningly thought of and cunningly phrased. Yet it was not all cunning; or rather it was the primitive, unmeditated cunning that nature gives to us, the instinctive weapon to which the woman flew in her need, a cunning of heart, not of brain. However inspired, however shaped, it did its work.

"What do you ask?" said I. In my agitation I was brief and blunt.

"Ask? Must I ask? Well, I ask that you should show somehow, how you will, that you trust us, that we are not outcasts, riff-raff, as Princess Heinrich calls us, lepers. Do it how you like, choose anybody you like from among us—I don't ask for any special person. Show that some one of us has your confidence. Why shouldn't you? The King should be above prejudice, and we're honest, some of us."

I tried to speak lightly, and smiled at her.

"You are all I love in the world, some of you," I said.

She sat down again in the little chair, and turned her face upward toward me.

"Then do it, Cæsar," she said very softly.

It had been announced a few days before that our ambassador at Paris had asked to be relieved of his post; there was already talk about his successor. Remembering this, I said, more in jest than seriousness:

"The Paris Embassy? Would that satisfy you?"

Her face became suddenly radiant, merry, and triumphant; she clapped her hands, and then held them clasped toward me.

"You suggested it yourself!" she cried.

"In joke!"

"Joke? I won't be joked with. I choose that you should be serious. You said the Paris Embassy! Are you afraid it'll make Hammerfeldt too angry? Fancy the Princess and your sister! How I shall love to see them!" She dropped her voice as she added, "Do it for me, Cæsar."

"Who should have it?"

"I don't care. Anybody, so long as he's one of us. Choose somebody good, and then you can defy them all."

She saw the seriousness that had now fallen on me; what I had idly suggested, and she caught up with so fervent a welcome, was no small thing. If I did it, it would be at the cost of Hammerfeldt's confidence, perhaps of his services; he might refuse to endure such an open rebuff. And I knew in my heart that the specious justifications were unsound; I should not act because of them, they were the merest pretext. I should give what she asked to her. Should I not be giving her my honour also, that public honour which I had learned to hold so high?

"I can't promise to-day; you must let me think," I pleaded.

I was prepared for another outburst of petulance, for accusations of timidity, of indifference, again of willingness to take, and unwillingness to give. But she sat still, looking at me intently, and presently laid her hand in mine.

"Yes, think," she said with a sigh.

I bent down and kissed the hand that lay in mine. Then she raised it, and held her arm up before him.

"Max's bracelet!" she said, sighing again and smiling. Then she rose to her feet, and walking to the hearth, stood looking down into the fire. I did not join her, but sat in my chair. For a long while neither of us spoke. At last I rose slowly. She heard the movement and turned her head.

"I will come again to-morrow," I said.

She stood still for a moment, regarding me intently. Then she walked quickly across to me, holding out her hands. As I took them she laughed nervously. I did not speak, but I looked into her eyes, and then, as I pressed her hands, I kissed her cheek. The nervous laugh came again, but she said nothing. I left her standing there and went out.

I walked home alone through the lighted streets. It has always been, and is still, my custom to walk about freely and unattended. This evening the friendly greetings of those who chanced to recognise me in the glare of the lamps were pleasant to me. I remember thinking that all these good folk would be grieved if they knew what was going on in the young King's mind, how he was torn hither and thither, his only joy a crime, and the guarding of his honour become a sacrifice that seemed too great for his strength. There was one kind-faced fellow in particular, whom I noticed drinking a glass at a café. He took off his hat to me with a cheery "God bless your Majesty!" I should have liked to sit down by him and tell him all about it. He had been young, and he looked shrewd and friendly. I had nobody whom I could tell about it. I don't remember ever seeing this man again, but I think of him still as one who might have been a friend. By his dress he appeared to be a clerk or shopkeeper.

I had an appointment for that evening with Hammerfeldt, but found a note in which he excused himself from coming. He had taken a chill, and was confined to his bed. The business could wait, he said, but went on to remark that no time should be lost in considering the question of the Paris Embassy. He added three or four names as possible selections; all those mentioned were well-known and decided adherents of his own. I was reading his letter when my mother and Victoria came in. They had heard of the Prince's indisposition, but on making inquiries were informed that it was not serious. I sent at once to inquire after him, and handed his note to the Princess.

"Any of those would do very well," she said when she finished it. "They have all been trained under the Prince and are thoroughly acquainted with his views."

"And with mine?" I asked, smiling.

A look of surprise appeared on my mother's face; she looked at me doubtfully.

"The Prince's views are yours, I suppose?" she said.

"I'm not sure I like any of his selections," I observed.

I do not think that my mother would have said anything more at the time; her judgment having been convinced, she would not allow temper to lead her into hostilities. Here, as so often, the unwise course was left to my dear Victoria, who embraced it with her usual readiness.

"Doesn't Wetter like any of them?" she asked ironically.

I remained silent. She came nearer and looked into my face, laughing maliciously.

"Or is it the Countess? Haven't they made enough love to the Countess, or too much, or what?"

"My dear Victoria," I said, "you must make allowances. The Countess is the prettiest woman in Forstadt."

My sister curtseyed with an ironical smile.

"I mean, of course," I added, "since William Adolphus carried you off to Gronenstahl."

My mother interrupted this little quarrel.

"I'm sure you'll be guided by the Prince's judgment," she observed.

Victoria was not to be quenched.

"And not by the beauty of the prettiest woman in Forstadt." And she added, "The creature's as plebeian as she can be."

As a rule I was ready enough to spar with my sister; to-night I had not the spirit. To-night, moreover, she, whom as a rule I could treat with good-humoured indifference, had power to wound. The least weighty of people speaking the truth can not be wholly disregarded. I prepared to go to my room, remarking:

"Of course, I shall discuss the matter with the Prince."

Again Victoria rushed to the fray.

"You mean that it's not our business?" she asked with a toss of her head.

I was goaded beyond endurance, and it was not their business. Princess Heinrich might find some excuse in her familiarity with public affairs, Victoria at least could urge no such plea.

"I am always glad of my mother's advice, Victoria," said I, and with a bow I left them. As I went out I heard Victoria cry, "It's all that hateful woman!"

Naturally the thing appeared to me then in a different light from that in which I can see it now. I can not now think that my mother and sister were wrong to be anxious, disturbed, alarmed, even angry with the lady who occasioned them such discomfort. A young man under the influence of an older woman is no doubt a legitimate occasion for the fears and efforts of his female relatives. I have recorded what they said not in protest against their feelings, but to show the singularly unfortunate manner in which they made what they felt manifest; my object is not to blame what was probably inevitable in them, but to show how they overreached themselves and became not a drag on my infatuation, as they hoped, but rather a spur that incited my passion to a quicker course.

That spur I did not need. She seemed to stand before me still as I had left her, with my kiss fresh on her cheeks, and on her lips that strange, nervous, helpless laugh, the laugh that admitted a folly she could not conquer, expressed a shame that burned her even while she braved it, and owned a love so compact of this folly and this shame that its joy seemed all one with their bitterness. But to my younger heart and hotter man's blood the folly and shame were now beaten down by the joy; it freed itself from them and soared up into my heart on a liberated and triumphant wing. I had achieved this thing—I, the boy they laughed at and tried to rule. She herself had laughed at me. She laughed thus no more. When I kissed her she had not called me Cæsar; she had found no utterance save in that laugh, and the message of that laugh was surrender.