The King's Mirror/Chapter 12
KING AT A PRICE.
The death of Prince von Hammerfeldt furnished the subject of a picture exhibited at Forstadt with great success a few years ago. The old man's simple room, its plain furniture, the large window facing the garden, were faithfully given; the bed was his bed and no other bed; the nurses were portraits, the doctors were portraits, the Prince's features were exactly mapped; I myself was represented sitting in an armchair by his side, with a strong light on my face as I leaned forward to catch his faint words. The artist's performance was, in fact, a singularly competent reproduction of every external object, human or other, in the room; and with the necessary alteration of features and title the picture would have served to commemorate the death-bed of any aged statesman who had a young prince for his pupil. Hammerfeldt is evidently giving a brief summary of his principles, providing me with a vade mecum of kingship, a manual on the management of men. I listen with an expression of deep attention and respectful grief. By a touch which no doubt is dramatic, the other figures are gazing intently at me, on whom the future depends, not at the dying man whose course is run. Looking at the work as a whole, I am not in the least surprised that I was recommended to bestow the Cross of St. Paul on the painter. I consented without demur. In mere matters of taste I have always considered myself bound to reflect public opinion.
Now for reality. An old man struggling hard for breath; gasps now quicker, now slower; a few words half-formed, choked, unintelligible; eyes that were full of an impotent desire to speak; these came first. Then the doctors gathered round, looked, whispered, went away. I rose and walked twice across the room; coming back, I stood and looked at him. Still he knew me. Suddenly his hand moved toward me. I bent my head till my ear was within three inches of his lips; I could hear nothing. I saw a doctor standing by, watch in hand; he was timing the breath that grew slower and slower. "Will he speak?" I asked in a whisper; a shake of the head answered me. I looked again into his eyes; now he seemed to speak to me. My face grew hot and red; but I did not speak to him. Yet I stroked his hand, and there was a gleam of understanding in his eyes. A moment later his eyes closed; the gasps became slower and slower. I raised my head and looked across at the doctor. His watch had a gold front protecting the glass; he shut the front on the face with a click.
Very likely there were no proper materials for a picture here; the sentiment, the historical interest, the situation would all have been defective. Men die in so very much the same way, and in so very much the same way men watch them dying. Death is the triumph of the physical. I must not complain that the painter imported some sentiment.
In twenty minutes I was back again in my carriage, being driven home rapidly. My dinner was ready and Baptiste in attendance. "Ah, he is dead?" said Baptiste, as he fashioned my napkin into a more perfect shape.
"Yes, Baptiste, he's dead," said I. "Bring me some slippers."
"Your Majesty will not dress?"
"A smoking jacket," said I.
While I ate my dinner Baptiste chattered about the Prince. There was a kindly humanity in the man that gave a whimsical tenderness to what he said.
"Ah, now, M. le Prince knew the world well. And where is he gone? Well, at least he will not be disappointed! To die at eighty! It is only to go to bed when one is tired. What use would there be in sitting up with heavy eyes? That is to bore yourself and the company."
"Has the Princess expressed a wish to see me?" I asked.
"Certainly, sire, at your leisure. I said, 'But his Majesty must dine.' The Princess is much upset it seems. She was greatly attached to the Prince." He looked at me shrewdly. "She valued the Prince very highly," he added, as though in correction of his previous statement.
"I'll go directly I've done dinner. Send and say so."
I was not surprised that consternation reigned in the heart of my mother and extended its sway to Victoria. Victoria was crying, Princess Heinrich's eyes were dry, but her lips set in a despairing closeness. Both invited me to kiss them.
"What will you do without him?" asked Victoria, dabbing her eyes.
"You have lost your best, your only guide," said my mother.
I told them what I had to tell about Hammerfeldt's death. Victoria broke into compassionate comments, my mother listened in silence.
"Poor old Hammerfeldt!" I ended reflectively.
"Where were you when you got the news?" asked Victoria.
I looked at her. Then I answered quietly:
"I was calling on the Countess von Sempach. I lunched with Wetter and went on there."
There was a pause. I believe that my candour was a surprise; perhaps it seemed a defiance.
"Did you tell the Prince that?" my mother asked.
"The Prince," I answered, "was not in a state to listen to anything that I might have said, not even to anything of importance."
"Fancy if he'd known! On his death-bed!" was Victoria's very audible whisper.
My mother looked at me with a despairing expression. I am unwilling to do either her or my sister an injustice, but I wondered then how much thought they were giving to the old friend we had lost. It seemed to me that they thought little of the man we knew, the man himself; not grief, but fear was dominant in them. Wetter's saying, "You're king at last," came into my mind. Perhaps their mood was intelligible enough and did not want excuse. They had seen in Hammerfeldt my schoolmaster; his hand was gone, and could no longer guide or restrain me. To one a son, to the other a younger brother, by both I was counted incapable of standing alone or choosing my own path. Hammerfeldt was gone; Wetter remained; the Countess von Sempach remained. There was the new position. The Prince's death then might well be to them so great a calamity as to lose its rank among sorrows, regrets for the past be ousted by terror for the future, and the loss of an ally obliterate grief for a friend.
"But you know his wishes and his views," said my mother. "I hope that they will have an increased sacredness for you now."
"He may be looking down on you from heaven," added Victoria, folding her handkerchief so as to get a dry part uppermost.
I could not resist this provocation: I smiled. "If it is so, Victoria," I remarked, "nobody will be more surprised than the Prince himself."
Victoria was very much offended. She conceived herself to have added an effective touch: I ridiculed her.
"You might at least pretend to have a little decent feeling," she cried.
"Come, come, my dear, don't let's squabble over him before he's cold," said I, rising. "Have you anything else to say to me, mother?"
At this instant my brother-in-law entered. He smelt very strongly of tobacco, but wore an expression of premeditated misery. He came up to me, holding out his hand.
"Good evening," said I.
"Poor Hammerfeldt!" he murmured. "Poor Hammerfeldt! What a blow! How lost you must feel!"
He had been talking over the matter with Victoria. That was beyond doubt.
"I happen to have been thinking," I rejoined, "more of him than of myself."
"Of course, of course," muttered William adolphus in some confusion, and (as I thought) with a reproachful glance at his wife.
"We have lost the Prince," said my mother, "but we can still be guided by his example and his principles. To follow his counsels will be the best monument you can raise to his memory, Augustin."
I kissed her hand and then she gave me her cheek. Going to Victoria, I saluted her with brotherly heartiness. I never allowed myself to forget that Victoria was very fond of me, and I never lost my affection for her.
"Now don't be foolish, Augustin," she implored.
"What is being foolish?" I asked perversely.
"Oh, you know! You know very well what people say, and so do I."
"And poor old Hammerfeldt in heaven—does he know too?"
She turned away with a shocked expression. William Adolphus hid a sheepish smile with a large hand. In the lower ranges of humour William Adolphus sometimes understood one. I declined his offer of company over a cigar, but bade him good-night with a mild gratitude; he desired to be pleasant to us all, and the realization of his ambition presented difficulties.
I was very tired and fell into a deep sleep almost the moment I was in bed. At four o'clock in the morning I awoke. My fatigue seemed gone; I did not think of sleeping again. The events of the day before came back to me with an extraordinary vividness of impression, the outcome of nerves strained to an unhealthy sensitiveness. It would have needed but a little self-delusion, a little yielding to the current of my thoughts, to make me see Hammerfeldt by my bed. The Countess and Wetter were in mental image no less plain. I rose and pulled up the blinds; the night had begun to pass from black to gray; for a moment I pictured the Prince, not looking down from heaven, but wandering somewhere in such a dim cold twilight. The message that his eyes had given me became very clear to me. It had turned my cheek red; it sent an excitement through me now. It would not go easily into words, but, as I sought to frame it, that other speech came back to me—the speech of the Prince's enemy. Wetter had said, "You're king at last." What else had Hammerfeldt meant to say? Nothing else. That was his message also. From both it came, the same reminder, the same exhortation. The living man and the dead joined their voices in this brief appeal. It did not need my mother's despair or Victoria's petulance to lend it point. I was amazed to find how it came home to me. Now I perceived how, up to this time, my life had been centred in Hammerfeldt. I was obeying him or disobeying, accepting his views or questioning them, docile or rebellious; when I rebelled, I rebelled for the pleasure of it, for the excitement it gave, the spice of daring, the air of independence, for curiosity, to see how he would take it, what saying he would utter, what resource of persuasion or argument he would invoke. It was strange to think that now if I obeyed I should not gratify, if I disobeyed I could make him uneasy no more. If I went right, there was none to reap credit; if I went wrong, none who should have controlled me better; none to say, "You are wise, sire"; none to smile as he said, "We must all learn wisdom, sire." It was very strange to be without old Hammerfeldt.
"You're king at last." By Wetter's verdict and by the Prince's own, his death made me in very truth king. So they said; what did they think? Wetter's thought was, "Here is a king, a king to be shaped and used." I read Wetter's thought well enough. But the old man's? His was a plea, a hope, a prayer. "Be king." A sudden flash of feeling came upon me—too late! For I had gone to his bedside fresh from signing my abdication. It mattered nothing at whose bidding or with what eager obedience I had taken off the crown. My sovereignty was my possession and my trust. I had laid it down. In those dim hours of the night, when men die (so they say), passion is cold, the blood chill, and we fall prey to the cruelties of truth, then I knew to what I had put my hand, why Wetter exulted, why Hammerfeldt's eyes spoke one unspoken prayer. It was not that Wetter went Ambassador, but that he went not of my will, by my act, or out of my mind; he went by another's will, that other on whose head I had put my crown.
Strange thoughts for a man not yet grown? I am not altogether of that mind. For then my trust seemed very great, almost holy, armed with majesty; I had not learned the little real power that lay in it. To-day, if I threw away my crown, I should not exaggerate the value of my sacrifice. Then it seemed that I gave a great thing, and great was my betrayal. Therefore I could not rest for the thought of what I had put my hand to, chafed at Wetter's words that sounded now like a taunt, and seemed again to see old Hammerfeldt dying and to flush red in shame before the utterance of his eyes. The Prince had served his masters, his country, and the cause that he held right. Wetter, if he served himself, served his principles also. What and whom did I serve in this thing that I was about to do? I could answer only that I served her whose image rose now before me. But when I turned to her for comfort she accused, and did not delight.
I am aware that my feelings will probably appear exaggerated to those not brought up in the habit of thought nor subjected to the influences which had ruled my mind. I give them for what they are worth. At this moment the effect of the contrast between my position and my desires was a struggle of peculiar severity—one of the battles of my life.
Irony was not to be wanting, comedy claimed her accustomed share. The interview which I have already set down might seem enough to have satisfied my sister. It was not; after I had breakfasted Victoria sent William Adolphus to me. I am inclined now and then to think that there is, after all, something mystic in the status of husbandhood, some supernatural endowment that in the wife's eyes attaches to her own man, however little she values him, at however low a rate she sets his natural qualities. How otherwise could Victoria (whose defect was more in temper than in perception) send William Adolphus to talk to me?
He came; the rôle of the man of the world was his choice. "I'm a bit older than you, you know," he began; then he laughed, and said that women were all very well in their places. I must not suppose that he was a Puritan. Heavens, I supposed nothing about him! I knew he was a fool, and rested in that sufficient knowledge. The Countess, he said, was a damned pretty woman. "We shan't quarrel about that, anyhow," he added, with the sort of laugh that I had so often seen poor old Hammerfeldt wince at. But come now, did I mean to——? Well, I knew what he meant, didn't I?
"My dear William Adolphus," said I, "I am so infinitely obliged to you. You have made me see the matter in quite a new light. It's surprising what a talk with a man of the world does for one. I am very young, of course."
"Oh, you'll learn. You're no fool," said William Adolphus.
"I suppose Victoria doesn't know you've come?"
He turned rather red, and, like a fool, lied where he need not, out of pride, not policy.
"No; I came off my own bat," he answered.
"You have done me a great service."
"My dear fellow!" beamed he with the broadest of smiles. "Now Hammerfeldt's gone, I thought a friendly word or two would not come amiss."
Hammerfeldt was dead; now came William Adolphus. Il n'y a pas d'homme nécessaire.
"Of course you can do nothing abrupt," he continued. "But I should think you might gradually——"
"I understand you absolutely," said I, rising to my feet.
"What I mean is——"
"My dear fellow, not another word is needed."
"You don't mind if I mention to Victoria that I have——?"
"Put it in the evening papers, if you like," said I.
"Ha, ha!" he laughed. "That wouldn't be a bad joke, would it?"
What a man! With his little bit of stock wisdom, "You can do nothing abruptly"! Nothing abruptly! I must not check myself abruptly on the edge of the precipice, but go quietly down half-way to the gulf, and then come up again! If I were ever to do anything, it must be done abruptly—now, to-day; while the strength was on me, while there was still a force, fresh and vigorous, to match the other great force that drew me on. And across this consiousness came a queer little remorse for not having rescued Victoria from this husband whom she sent to teach me. When Baptiste brought me lunch I was laughing.
That afternoon the thought of Geoffrey Owen was much with me. Perhaps I summoned it first in a sort of appeal against Hammerfeldt. But I knew in my heart that the two could not be antagonists here. Geoffrey would wish me to show favour, or at least impartiality, toward Liberal opinions; for the sake of such a manifestation he might overlook certain objections and acquiesce in my giving the Embassy to Wetter. But with what face would he hear an honest statement of the case that Wetter was to have the Embassy because the King desired to please Countess von, Sempach? I smiled drearily as I imagined his incredulous indignation. No; everybody was against me, saints and sages, Geoffrey and Hammerfeldt, women and men; even the fools gave no countenance to my folly. William Adolphus thought that I might gradually——!
At five o'clock I sent for Wetter. He came with remarkable promptness. He was visibly excited, and could hardly force himself to spend a moment on the formal and proper expressions of regret for the Prince's death. He seemed to be watching me closely and eagerly. I made him sit down, and gave him a cigar. I had meant to approach the matter with a diplomatic deviousness. I had overrated my skill and self-control. Wetter made me feel young and awkward. I was like a schoolboy forced to confess the neglect of his task, and speaking in fear of the cane. Ignoring the reserve that had marked our former conversation, I blurted out:
"I can't send you to Paris."
The man's face went white, but he controlled himself.
"Your Majesty knows that I did not ask for it," he said with considerable dignity.
"I know; but you wanted it."
He looked straight at me; he was very pale.
"Truly, yes," he said. "I wanted it; since your Majesty is plain, I'll be plain too."
"Why did you want it? Why are you pale, Wetter?"
He put his cigar in his mouth and smoked fiercely, but did not answer.
"You must have wanted it," I said, "or you wouldn't have tried to get it in that way."
"My God, I did want it."
"If I can't have it, what matter?" He rose to his feet and bowed. "Good-bye, sire," said he. Then he gave a curious laugh. "" he added, laughing still.
"What's the matter, man?" I cried, springing up and catching him by the arm.
"I haven't a shilling in the world; my creditors are in full chase; I'm posted for a card debt at the club. If I had this I could borrow. Good God, you promised it to her!"
"Yes, I promised it to her."
"Have you seen her again?"
"No. I must."
"To whom will you give it?"
"I don't know. Not to you."
"You're not fit for it."
He took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
"I was no more fit for it yesterday," he said.
"I won't argue it."
"As you please, sire," said he with a shrug, and he seemed to pull himself together. He rose and stood before me with a smile on his lips.
I sat down, took a piece of paper, wrote a draft, leaving the amount unstated, and pushed it across to him. He looked down at it in wonder. Then his face lit up with eagerness.
"You mean—you mean——?" he stammered.
"My ransom," said I.
"Mine!" he cried.
"No, it is mine, the price of my freedom."
He lifted the piece of paper in a hand that trembled.
"It's a lot of money," he said. "Eighty or ninety thousand marks."
"My name is good for that."
He looked me in the face, opening his lips but not speaking. Then he thrust out his hand to me. I took it; I was as much moved as he.
"Don't tempt me again," I said.
He gripped my hand hard and fiercely; when he released it I waved it toward the door. I could trust myself no more. He turned to go; but I called to him again:
"My ransom," said I. "The price of my freedom."
He faced me with an agitated look.
"What for?" he asked.
I made him no answer, but lay back in my chair. He came toward me slowly and with hesitation. I looked up in his face.
"I'll pay you back," he said.
"I don't want the money."
"And I don't mean the money. In fact, I'm bad at paying money back. Why have you done it?"
"I have done it for myself, not for you. You owe me nothing. My honour was pawned, and I have redeemed it. I was bound; I am free."
His eyes were fixed intently on me with a sort of wonder, but I motioned him again to the door. He obeyed me without another word; after a bow he turned and went out. I rose, and having walked to the window, looked down into the street. I saw him crossing the roadway with a slow step and bent head. He was going toward his club, not to his house. I stood watching him till he turned round a corner and disappeared. Then I drew a long breath and returned to my chair. I had hardly seated myself when Baptiste came in with a note. It was from the Countess. "Aren't you coming to-day?" That was all.
"There is no answer," I said, and Baptiste left me.
For I must carry the answer myself; and the answer must be, "Yes, to-day, but not to-morrow."
There was doubtless some extravagance in my conception of the situation, and I have not sought to conceal or modify it. It seemed to me that I could play my part only at the cost of what was dearest to me in the world. Money had served with Wetter; it would not serve here. My heart must pay, my heart and hers. I remember that I sat in my chair murmuring again and again, "To-day, but not to-morrow."