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CHAPTER XI.


AN ACT OF ABDICATION.


The night brought me little rest and no wisdom. As though its own strength were not enough, my passion sought and found an ally in a defiant obstinacy, which now made me desirous of doing what the Countess asked for its own sake as well as for hers. Being diffident, I sought a mask in violence. I wanted to assert myself, to show the women that I was not to be driven, and Hammerfeldt that I was not to be led. Neither their brusque insistence nor his suave and dexterous suggestions should control me or prevent me from exercising my own will. A distorted view of my position caused me to find its essence in the power of doing as I liked, and its dignity in disregarding wholesome advice because I objected to the manner in which it was tendered. This mood, ready and natural enough in youth, was an instrument of which my passion made effective use; I pictured the consternation of my advisers with hardly less pleasure than the delight of her whom I sought to serve. My sense of responsibility was dulled and deadened; I had rather do wrong than do nothing, cause harm than be the cause of nothing, that men should blame me rather than not canvass my actions or fail to attribute to me any initiative. I felt somehow that the blame would lie with my counsellors; they had undertaken to guide and control me. If they failed they, more than I, must answer for the failure. Sophistry of this kind passes well enough with one who wants excuses, and may even array itself in a cloak of plausibility; it was strong in my mind by virtue of the strong resentment from which it sprang, and the strong ally to which its forces were joined. Passion and self-assertion were at one; my conquest would be two-fold. While the Countess was brought to acknowledge my sway, those who had hitherto ruled my life would be reduced to a renunciation of their authority. The day seemed to me to promise at once emancipation and conquest; to mark the point at which I was to gain both liberty and empire, when I should become indeed a king, both in my own palace and in her heart a king.

In the morning I was occupied in routine business with one of the Ministers. This gentleman gave me a tolerably good account of Hammerfeldt, although it appeared that the Prince was suffering from a difficulty in breathing. There seemed, however, no cause for alarm, and when I had sent to make inquiries I did not deem it necessary to remain at home and await the return of my messenger. I paid my usual formal visit to my mother's apartments. The Princess did not refer to our previous conversation, but her manner toward me was even unusually stiff and distant. I think that she had expected repentance. When I in my turn ignored the matter she became curt and disagreeable. I left her, more than ever determined on my course. I was glad to escape an interview with Victoria, and was now free to keep my appointment with Wetter. I had proposed to lunch with him, saying that I had one or two matters to discuss. Even in my obstinacy and excitement I remained shrewd enough to see the advantage of being furnished with well-sounding reasons for the step that I was about to take. Wetter's forensic sharpness, ready wit, and persuasive eloquence would dress my case in better colours than I could contrive for myself. It mattered little to me how well he knew that arguments were needed, not to convince myself, but to flourish in the faces of those who opposed and criticised me. It was also my intention to obtain from him the name of two or three of his friends who, apart from their views, were decently qualified to fulfil the duties of the post in the event of their nomination.

It was no shock, but rather a piquant titillation of my bitter humour, when I disentangled from Wetter's confident and eloquent description of the Ideal Ambassador a tolerably accurate, if somewhat partial, portrait of himself. I was rather surprised at his desire for the position. Subsequently I learned that pecuniary embarrassments made him willing to abandon, for a time at least, the greater but more uncertain chances of active political warfare. However, given that he desired the Embassy, it caused me no surprise that he should ask for it. To appoint him would be open war indeed; he was the Prince's bête noire, my mother's pet aversion; that he was totally untrained in diplomacy was a minor, but possibly serious, objection; that he was extreme in his views seemed to me then no disqualification. I allowed him to perceive that I read his parable, but, remembering the case of the Greek generals and Themistocles, ventured to ask him to give me another name.

"The only name that I could give your Majesty with perfect confidence would be that of my good friend Max von Sempach," said he, with an admirable air of honesty, but, as I thought, a covert gleam of amusement in his deep-set eyes. I very nearly laughed. The only man fit for the Embassy, except himself, was Count Max! And if Count Max went, of course the Countess would go with him; equally of course the King must stay in Forstadt. I saw Wetter looking at me keenly out of the corner of his eye; it did not suit me that he should read my thoughts this time. I appeared to have no suspicion of the good faith of his suggestion, and said, with an air of surprise:

"Max von Sempach! Why, how is he suitable?"

With great gravity he gave me many reasons, proving not that Max was very suitable, but that everybody else was profoundly unsuitable, except the unmentioned candidate whose name was so well understood between us.

"These," I observed, "would seem to be reasons for looking elsewhere—I mean to the other side—for a suitable man."

He did not trouble to argue that with me. He knew that his was not the voice to which I should listen.

"If your Majesty comes to that conclusion, my friends and I will be disappointed," he said, "but we must accept your decision."

There was much to like in Wetter. Men are not insincere merely because they are ambitious, dishonest merely because they are given to intrigue, selfish merely because they ask places for themselves. There is a grossness of moral fibre not in itself a good thing, but very different from rottenness. Wetter was a keen and convinced partisan, and an ardent believer in himself. His cause ought to win, and, if his hand could take the helm, would win; this was his attitude, and it excused some want of scruple both in promoting the cause and in insuring to it his own effective support. But he was a big man, of a well-developed nature, hearty, sympathetic, and free from cant, full of force, of wit, of unblunted emotion. He would not, however, have made at all a good ambassador; and he would not have wanted to be one had he not run into debt.

Max von Sempach, on the other hand, would fill the place respectably, although not brilliantly. Wetter knew this, and the fact gave to the mention of the Count's name a decent appearance without depriving it of its harmlessness. He named a suitable but an impossible person—a person to me impossible.

Soon after the meal I left him, telling him that I should come in again later, and had ordered my carriage to call for me at his house at five o'clock. Turning down the quiet lane that led to the Countess's, I soon reached my destination. I was now in less agitation than on the day before. My mind was made up; I came to give what she asked. Wetter should have his Embassy. More than this, I came no longer in trepidation, no longer fearing her ridicule even while I sought her love, no more op- pressed with the sense that in truth she might be laughing while she seemed to encourage. There was the dawning of triumph in my heart, an assurance of victory, and the fierce delight in a determination come to at great cost and to be held, it may be, at greater still. In all these feelings, mighty always, there were for me the freshness, the rush of youth, and the venturous joy of new experience.

On her also a crisis of feeling had come; she was not her old self, nor I to her what I had been. There was a strained, almost frightened look in her eyes; a low-voiced "Augustin" replacing her bantering "Cæsar." Save for my name she did not speak as I led her to a couch and sat down by her side. She looked slight, girlish, and pathetic in a simple gown of black; timidity renewed her youth. Well might I forget that she was not a maiden of meet age for me, and she herself for an instant cheat time's reckoning. She made of me a man, of herself a girl, and prayed love's advocacy to prove the delusion true.

"I have been with Wetter," said I. "He wants the Embassy."

I fancy that she knew his desire; her hand pressed mine, but she did not speak.

"But he recommended Max," I went on.

"Max!" For a moment her face was full of terror as she turned to me; then she broke into a smile. Wetter's advice was plain to her also.

"You see how much he wants it for himself," said I. "He knows I would sooner send a gutter-boy than Max. And you know it?"

"Do I?" she murmured.

I rose and stood before her.

"It is yours to give, not mine," said I. "Do you give it to Wetter?"

As she looked up at me her eyes filled with tears, while her lips curved in a timid smile.

"What—what trouble you'll get into!" she said.

"It's not a thousandth part of what I would do for you. Wetter shall have it then—or Max?"

"Not Max," she said; her eyes told me why it should not be Max.

"Then Wetter," and I fell on one knee by her, whispering, "The King gives it to his Queen."

"They'll blame you so; they'll say all sorts of things."

"I shan't hear them; I hear only you."

"They'll be unkind to you."

"They can't hurt me if you're kind to me."

"Perhaps they'll say I—I got it from you."

"I am not ashamed. What is it to me what they say?"

"You don't care?"

"For nothing in the world but you and to be with you."

She sat looking up at me for an instant; then she threw her arm over the end of the sofa and laid her face on the cushion; I heard her sob softly. Her other hand lay in her lap; I took it and raised it to my lips. I did not know the meaning of her tears. I was triumphant. She sobbed, not loudly or violently, but with a pitiful gentleness.

"Why do you cry so, darling?" I whispered.

She turned her face to me; the tears were running down her cheeks. "Why do I cry?" she moaned softly. "Because I'm wicked—I suppose I'm wicked—and so foolish. And—and you are good, and noble, and—and you'll be great. And"—the sobs choked her voice, and she turned her face half away—"and I'm old, Augustin."

I could not enter into her mood; joy pervaded me; but neither did I scorn her nor grow impatient. I perceived dimly that she struggled with a conflict of emotions beyond my understanding. Words were unsafe, likely to be wrong, to make worse what they sought to cure. I caressed her, but trusted my tongue no further than to murmur endearments. She grew calmer, sat up, and dried her eyes.

"But it's so absurd," she protested. "Augustin, lots of boys are just as absurd as you; but was any woman ever as absurd as I am?"

"Why do you call it absurd?"

"Oh, because, because"—she moved near me suddenly—"because, although I've tried so hard, I can't feel it the least absurd. I do love you."

Here was her prepossession all the while—that the thing would seem absurd, not that there was sin in it. I can see now why her mind fixed on this point; she was, in truth, speaking not to me who was there by her, me as I was, but to the man who should be; she pleaded not only with herself, but with my future self, praying the mature man to think of her with tenderness and not with a laugh, interceding with what should one day be my memory of her. Ah, my dear, that prayer of yours is answered! I do not laugh as I write. At you I could never have laughed; and if I set out to force a laugh even at myself I fall to thinking of what you were, and again I do not laugh. Then what is it that the world outside must have laughed with a very self-conscious wisdom? Its laughter was nothing to us then, and to-day is to me as nothing. Is it not always ready to weep at a farce and laugh at a tragedy?

"But you've nobody else," she went on softly. "I shouldn't have dared if you'd had anybody else. Long ago—do you remember?—you had nobody, and you liked me to kiss you. I believe I began to love you then; I mean I began to think how much some woman would love you some day. But I didn't think I should be the woman. Oh, don't look at me so hard, or—or you'll see——"

"How much you love me?"

"No, no. You'll see my wrinkles. See, if I do this you can't look at my face." And putting her arms round my neck she hid her face.

I was strangely tongue-tied, or, perhaps, not strangely; for there comes a time when the eyes say all that there is desire or need to say. Her pleadings were in answer to my eyes.

"Oh, I know you think so now!" she murmured. "But you won't go on thinking so—and I shall." She raised her head and looked at me; now a smile of triumph came on her face. "Oh, but you do think so now!" she whispered in a voice still lower, but full of delight. "You do think so now," and again she hid her face from me. But I knew that the triumph had entered into her soul also, and that the shadows could no longer altogether dim its sunshine for her.

The afternoon became full, and waned to dusk as we sat together. We said little; there were no arrangements made; we seemed in a way cut off from the world outside, and from the consideration of it. The life which we must each lead, lives in the main apart from one another, had receded into distance, and went unnoticed; we had nothing to do save to be together; when we were together there was little that we cared to say, no protestations that we had need to make. There was between us so absolute a sympathy, so full an agreement in all that we gave, all that we accepted, all that we abandoned. Doubts and struggles were as though they had never been. There is a temptation to think sometimes that things so perfectly justify themselves that conscience is not discrowned by violence, but signs a willing abdication, herself convinced. For passion can simulate right, even as in some natures the love of right becomes a turbulent passion in the end, like most of such, destructive of itself.

"Then I am yours, and you are mine? And the Embassy is Wetter's?"

"The Embassy is whose you like," she cried, "if the rest is true."

"It is Wetter's. Do you know why? That everybody may know how I am yours."

She did not refuse even the perilous fame I offered.

"I should be proud of it," she said, with head erect.

"No, no; nobody shall breathe a letter of your name," I exclaimed in a sudden turn of feeling. "I will swear that you had nothing to do with it, that you hate him, that you never mentioned it."

"Say what you like," she whispered.

"If I did that, I should say to all Forstadt that there's no woman in the world like you."

"You needn't say it to all Forstadt. You haven't even said it to me yet."

We had been sitting together. Again I fell on one knee, prepared to offer her formal homage in a sweet extravagance. On a sudden she raised her hand; her face grew alarmed.

"Hark!" she said. "Hark!"

"To your voice, yours only!"

"No. There is a noise. Somebody is coming. Who can it be?"

"I don't care who it is."

"Why, dearest! But you must care. Get up, get up, get up!"

I rose slowly to my feet. I was indeed in a mood when I did not care. The steps were close outside. Before they could come nearer, I kissed her again.

"Who can it be? I am denied to everybody," she said, bewildered.

There was a knock at the door.

"It is not Max," she said, with a swift glance at me. I stood where I was. "Come in," she cried.

The door opened, and to my amazement Wetter stood there. He was panting, as though he had run fast, and his air displayed agitation. The Countess ran to him instantly. His coming seemed to revive the fears which her love had laid to rest.

"What is it?" she cried. "What's the matter?"

Wetter took absolutely no notice of her. Walking on as though she were not there, he came straight up to me. He spoke in tones of intense emotion, and with the bluntness that excitement brings.

"You must come with me at once," he said in an imperious way. "They've sent for you to my house; we can get in together by the back door."

"But what's the matter, man?" I cried, divided between puzzle and anger.

"You're wanted; you must go to Hammerfeldt's."

"To Hammerfeldt's?"

"Yes. He's dying. Come along."

"Dying! My God!"

"The message is urgent. There's no time to lose. If you want to see him alive, come. I said you were lying down in my study. If you don't come quickly, it will be known where you are."

"I don't care for that."

"He's sent for you himself."

The Countess had moved to my side.

"You must go," she said now, laying her hand on my arm.

I turned to look at her. Her eyes were full of a vague alarm. I was like a man suddenly roused half-way through a vivid entrancing dream, unable still to believe that the real is true and the phantasm not the only substance.

"Come, come," repeated Wetter urgently and irritably. "You can't let him die without going to him."

"Go, Augustin," she whispered.

"Yes, I'll go. I'm going; I'm going at once," I stammered. "I'm ready, Wetter. Take me with you. Is he really dying?"

"So they say."

"Hammerfeldt dying! Yes, I'll come with you."

I turned to the Countess; Wetter was already half-way to the door. He looked back over his shoulder, and his face was impatient. My eyes met hers, I read the fear that was in hers. I was strangely fearful myself, appalled at such a breaking of our dream.

"Good-bye," I said. "I'll come again soon; to-morrow, some time to-morrow."

"Yes, yes," said she, but hardly as though she believed me.

"Good-bye." I took her hand and kissed it; Wetter looked on, saying nothing. The thought of concealment did not occur to me. I kissed her hand two or three times.

"Shall you find him alive?" she murmured, in speculation more than in question.

"I don't know. Good-bye."

She herself led me to where Wetter was standing.

"It's his breathing," said Wetter. "He can't get his breath; can't speak at all. Come along."

"I'm ready; I'll follow you."

As I reached the door I turned. She was not looking at me; she had sat down in a chair by the fire and was gazing fixedly at the flames. I have had that picture of her often in my mind.

Wetter led me downstairs and out into the street at a rapid pace. I followed him, trying to gather myself together and think coherently. Too sudden a change paralyzes; the mind must have time for readjustment. Hammerfeldt was and had always been so large a figure and a presence so important in my life; I could only whisper to myself, "He's dying; it's his breathing; he can't get his breath."

We went in by the back door as we had arranged, and gained the study.

"Quick!" whispered Wetter. "Remember you were in here. Don't make any excuses about delay. Or put it on me; say I hesitated to rouse you."

I listened little to all that he said, and paid small heed to the precautions that his wariness suggested.

"I hope he won't be dead when you get there," he added as we started for the hall. "Here's your hat."

I caught at the word "dead."

"If he's dead——" I repeated aimlessly. "If he's dead, Wetter——"

Then for an instant he turned to me, his face full of expression, his eyes keen and eager. He shrugged his shoulders.

"He's an old man," said he. "We must all die. And if he's dead——"

"Well, Wetter, well?"

"Well, then you're king at last."

With this he opened the door of my carriage and stood holding it. I looked him full in the face before I stepped in. He did not flinch; he nodded his head and smiled.

"You're king at last," he seemed to say again.