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CHAPTER XVIII.


WILLIAM ADOLPHUS HITS THE MARK.


At Artenberg, whither we went when I was convalescent, the family atmosphere recalled old days. We were all in disgrace—Victoria because she had not managed her husband better, William Adolphus for behaviour confessedly scandalous, I by reason of those rumours at which I have hinted. My sister and brother-in-law were told of their faults and warned, the one against professors, the other against actresses. My delinquencies were treated with absolute silence. Princess Heinrich reminded me how I had degraded my office by a studious, though cold, deference toward it on her own part. The king was the king, be he never so unruly. His mother could only disapprove and grieve in silence. But in the hands of Princess Heinrich silence was a trenchant weapon. William Adolphus also was very sulky with me. I found some excuse for him. Toward his wife he wore a hang-dog air; from Princess Heinrich he fairly ran away whenever he could. In these relations toward one another we settled down to pass a couple of summer months at Artenberg. Now was early July. In August would come the visit of the Bartensteins.

Beside this great fact all else troubled me little. I fell victim to an engrossing selfishness. The quarrels and woes of my kindred went unnoticed, except when they served for a moment's amusement. To the fortunes of those with whom I had lately been so much concerned, of Wetter and of Coralie, I was almost indifferent. Varvilliers wrote to me, and I answered in friendly fashion, but I did not at that time desire his presence. So far as my thoughts dwelt on the past, they overleaped what was immediately behind, and took me back to my first rebellion, my first struggle against the fate of my life, my first refusal to run into the mould. I remembered my Governor's comforting assurance that I had still six years; I remembered the dedication of my early love to the Countess. Then I had cherished delusions, thinking that the fate might be avoided. Herein lay the sincerity and honesty of that first attachment, and an enduring quality which made good for it its footing in memory. In it I was not passing the time or merely yielding to a desire for enjoyment. I was struggling with necessity. The high issue had seemed to lend some dignity even to a boy's raw love-making, a dignity that shone dimly through thick folds of encircling absurdity. I had not been particularly absurd in regard to Coralie Mansoni, but neither had there been in that affair any redeeming worthiness or dignity of conception or of struggle. Now all seemed over, struggle and waywardness, the dignified and undignified, the absurdly pathetic and the recklessly impulsive. The six years were nearly gone. Princess Heinrich's steady pressure contracted their extent by some months. The coming of the Bartensteins was imminent. The era of Elsa began.

Old Prince Hammerfeldt had left a successor behind him in the person of his nephew, Baron von Bederhof, and this gentleman was now my Chancellor and my chief official adviser. He was a portly man of about fifty, with red cheeks and black hair. He was high in favour with my mother, the husband of a buxom wife, and the father of nine children. As is not unusual in cases of hereditary succession, he was adequate to his office, although he would certainly not have been selected for it unless he had been his uncle's nephew; but, being the depositary of Hammerfeldt's traditions (although not of his brains), he contrived to pass muster. He came at this time to Artenberg, and urged on me the necessity of a speedy marriage.

"The recent danger, so providentially averted," he said, "is a stronger argument than any I could use."

"It certainly is," said I politely. As a fact, it might be stronger than any he would be likely to use, and yet not be impregnable.

"For the sake of your people, sire, do not delay."

"My dear Baron," said I, "send for the young lady to-morrow. I haven't seen her since she was a child, so let her bring a letter of identification."

"You joke!" said he. "There can be no doubt. Her parents will accompany her."

"True, true!" I exclaimed, in a tone of relief. "There will be really no substantial risk of having an impostor planted on us."

"I am confident," observed Bederhof, "that the marriage will be most happy."

"You are?"

"Undoubtedly, sire."

"Then we won't lose a moment," I cried.

Bederhof looked slightly puzzled, but also rather complimented. He cleared his throat (if only he could have cleared his head as often and as thoroughly as he did his throat!) and asked, "Er—there are no complications?"

"I beg your pardon, Baron."

"I am ashamed to suggest it, but people do talk. I mean—no other attachment?"

"I have yet to learn, Baron," said I with dignity, "that such a thing, even if it existed, would be of any importance compared to the welfare of the kingdom and the dynasty."

"Not of the least!" he cried hastily.

"I never suspected you of such a paradox really," I assured him with a smile. "And if the lady should harbour such a thing that would be of equal insignificance."

"My uncle, the Prince——" he began.

"Knew all this just as well as we do, my dear Baron," I interrupted. "Come, send for Princess Elsa. I am all impatience."

Even the stupidest of men may puzzle a careful observer on one point—as to the extent of his stupidity. I did not always know whether Bederhof was so superlatively dull as to believe a thing, or merely so permissibly dull as to consider that he ought to pretend to believe it. Perhaps he had come himself not to know the difference between the two attitudes; certain ecclesiastics would furnish an illustration of what I mean. Princess Heinrich's was quite another complexion of mind. She assumed a belief with as much conscious art as a bonnet or a mantle; just as you knew that the natural woman beneath was different from the garment which covered her, so you were aware that my mother's real opinion was absolutely diverse from the view she professed. In both cases propriety forbade any reference to the natural naked substratum. The Princess, with an art that scorned concealment, congratulated me upon my approaching happiness, declared that the marriage was one of inclination, and, having paid it this seemly tribute, at once fell to discussing how the public would receive it. I believe, however, that she detected in me a certain depression of spirits, for she rallied me (again with a superb ignoring of what we were both aware of) on being moped at the moment when I should have been exultant.

"I am looking at it from Elsa's point of view," I explained.

"Elsa's? Really I don't see that Elsa has anything to complain of. The position's beyond what she had any right to expect."

All was well with Elsa; that seemed evident enough; it was a better position than Elsa had any right to expect. Poor dear, child, I seemed to see her rolling down the bank again, expecting and desiring no other position than to be on her back, with her little legs twinkling about in the air.

"I think," said I meditatively, "that it would be a good thing if, in providing wives, they reverted to the original plan and took out a rib. One wouldn't feel that one's rib had any .particular right to complain at having its fortunes mixed up with one's own."

My mother remained silent. I looked across the terrace and saw Victoria's three-year-old girl playing about.

"The child's so like William Adolphus," said I, sighing.

My mother rose with deliberate carelessness and walked away.

It may be wondered why I did not rebel. I must answer, first, from the binding force of familiarity; I hated the thing, but it had made good its place in the map of my life; secondly, from the impossibility of inflicting a slight; thirdly, because I rather chose to bear the ills I had than fly to others that I knew not of. Who revolts save in the glowing hope of bettering his lot? I must marry; who was there to be preferred before Elsa? It did not occur to me that I might remain single; I should have shared the general opinion that such an act was little removed from treason. It would not only be to end my own line, it would be to install the children of William Adolphus. I did not grant even a moment's hospitality to such an idea. Bederhof was right, the marriage was urgent; I must marry—just as occasionally I was compelled to review the troops. I had as little aptitude for one duty as for the other, but both were among my obligations. I was so rooted in this attitude that I turned to Victoria with a start of surprise when she said to me one day:

"She's very pretty; I daresay you'll fall in love with her."

She was pretty, if her last portrait spoke truth; she was a slim girl, of very graceful figure, with small features and large blue eyes, which were merry in the picture, but looked as if they could be sad also. I had studied this attractive shape attentively; yet Victoria's suggestion seemed preposterous, incongruous—I had nearly said improper. A moment later it set me laughing.

"Perhaps I shall," I said with a chuckle.

"I don't see anything amusing in the idea," observed Victoria. "I think you're being given a much better chance than I ever had."

The old grudge was working in her mind; by covert allusion she was recalling the part I had taken in the arrangement of her future. Yet she had contrived to be jealous of her husband; that old puzzle recurs.

"I suppose," I mused, "that I'm having a very good chance." I looked inquiringly at my sister.

"If you use it properly. You can be very pleasant to women when you like. She's sure to come ready to fall in love with you. She's such a child."

"You mean that she'll have no standard of comparison?"

"She can't have had any experience at all."

"Not even a baron over at Waldenweiter?"

"What a fool I was!" reflected Victoria. "Mother was horrid, though," she added a moment later. She never allowed the perception of her own folly to plead on behalf of Princess Heinrich. "I expect you'll go mad about her," she resumed. "You see, any woman can manage you, Augustin. Think of——"

"Thanks, dear, I remember them all," I interposed.

"The question is, how will mother treat her," pronounced Victoria.

It was not the question at all; that Victoria thought it was merely illustrated the Princess's persistent dominance over her daughter's imagination. I allow, however, that it was an interesting, although subordinate speculation.

The Bartensteins' present visit was to be as private as possible. The arrangement was that Elsa and I should be left to roam about the woods together, to become well known to one another, and after about three weeks to fall in love. The Duke was not to be of the party on this occasion (wise Duke!) and, when I had made my proposal, mother and daughter would return home to receive the father's blessing and to wait while the business was settled. When all was finished, I should receive my bride in state at Forstadt, and the wedding would be solemnized. In reply to my questions Bederhof admitted that he could not at present fix the final event within a fortnight or so; he did not, however, consider this trifling uncertainty material.

"No more do I, my dear Baron," said I.

"Here," said he, "is the picture of your Majesty which Princess Heinrich has just sent to Bartenstein."

I looked at the lanky figure, the long face, and the pained smile which I had presented to the camera.

"Good gracious!" I murmured softly.

"I beg your pardon, sire?"

"It is very like me."

"An admirable picture."

What in the world was Elsa feeling about it? Thanks to this picture, I was roused from the mood of pure self-regard and allowed my mind to ask how the world was looking to Elsa. I did not find encouragement in the only answer that I could honestly give to my question.

Just at this time I received a letter from Varvilliers containing intelligence which was not only interesting in itself, but seemed to possess a peculiar appositeness. He had heard from Coralie Mansoni, and she announced to him her marriage with a prominent operatic impresario. "You have perhaps seen the fellow," Varvilliers wrote. "He has small black eyes and large black whiskers; his stomach is very big, but, for shame or for what reason I know not, he hides it behind a bigger gold locket. Coralie detests him, but it has been her ambition to sing in grand opera. 'It is my career, mon cher,' she writes. Behold, sentiment is sacrificed, and we shall hear her in Wagner! She thinks that she performs a duty, and she is almost sure that it need not be very onerous. She is a sensible woman, our dear Coralie. For the rest I have no news save that Wetter is said to have broken the bank at baccarat, and may be expected shortly to return home and resume his task of improving the condition and morals of the people. I hear reports of your Majesty that occasion me concern. But courage! Coralie has led the way!"

"Come," said I to myself aloud, "if Coralie, although she detests him, yet for her career's sake marries him, it little becomes me to make wry faces. Haven't I also, in my small way, a career?"

But Coralie hoped that her duty would not be very onerous. I had nothing to do with that. The difference there was in temperament, not circumstances.

I have kept the Duchess and Elsa an intolerably long while on their journey to Artenberg. In fact they came quickly and directly; we were advised of their start, and two days of uncomfortable excitement brought us to the hour of their arrival. For once in her life Princess Heinrich betrayed signs of disturbance; to my wonder I detected an undisguised look of appeal in her eyes as she watched me at my luncheon which I took with her on the fateful day. I understood that she was imploring me to treat the occasion properly, and that its importance had driven her from her wonted reserve. I endeavoured to reassure her by a light and cheerful demeanour, but my effort was not successful enough to prevent her from saying a few words to me after the meal. I assured her that Elsa should receive from me the most delicate respect.

"I'm not afraid of your being too precipitate," she said. "It's not that."

"No, I shall not be too precipitate," I agreed.

"But remember that—that she's quite a girl, and"—my mother broke off, looked at me for a moment, and then looked away—"she'll like you if you make her think you like her," she went on in a moment.

I seemed suddenly to see the true woman and to hear the true opinion. The crisis then was great; my mother had dropped the veil and thrown aside her finished art.

"I hope to like her very much," said I.

Princess Heinrich was a resolute woman; the path on which she set her foot she trod to the end.

"I know what you've persuaded yourself you feel about it," she said bluntly and rather scornfully. "Well, don't let her see that."

"She would refuse me?"

"No. She'd marry you and hate you for it. Above all, don't laugh at her."

I sat silently looking at Princess Heinrich.

"You're so strange," she said. "I don't know what's made you so. Have you no feelings?"

"Do you think that?" I asked, smiling.

"Yes, I do," she answered defiantly. "You were the same even as a boy. It was no use appealing to your affections."

I had outgrown my taste for wrangles. But I certainly did not recollect that either Krak or my mother had been in the habit of appealing to my affections; Krak's appeals, at least, had been addressed elsewhere. Yet my mother spoke in absolute sincerity.

"It's only just at first that it matters," she went on in a calmer tone. "Afterward she won't mind. You'll learn not to expect too much from one another."

"I assure you that lesson is already laid to my heart," said I, rising.

My mother ended the interview and resumed her mask. She called Victoria to her and sent her to make a personal inspection of the quarters prepared for our guests. I sat waiting on the terrace, while William Adolphus wandered about in a state of conscious and wretched superfluousness. I believe that Victoria had forbidden him to smoke.

They came; there ensued some moments of embracing. Good Cousin Elizabeth was squarer and stouter than six years ago. Her cheeks had not lost their ruddy hue. She was a favourite of mine, and I was glad to find that her manner had not lost its heartiness as she kissed me affectionately on both cheeks. At the same time there was a difference. Cousin Elizabeth was a little flurried and a little apologetic. When she turned to Elsa I saw her eye run in a rapid anxious glance over her daughter's raiment. Then she led her forward.

"She's changed since you saw her last, isn't she?" she asked in a mixture of pride and uneasiness. "But you've seen photographs, of course," she added immediately.

I bent low and kissed my cousin's hand. She was very visibly embarrassed, and her cheeks turned red. She glanced at her mother as though asking what she ought to do. In the end she shook hands and glanced again, apparently in a sudden conviction that she had done the wrong thing. There can be very little doubt that we ought to have kissed one another on the cheek. Victoria came up, and I turned away to give my arm to Cousin Elizabeth.

"She's so young," whispered Cousin Elizabeth, hugging my arm.

"She's a very pretty girl," said I, responsively pressing Cousin Elizabeth's fingers.

Cousin Elizabeth smiled, and I felt her pat my arm ever so gently. I could not help smiling, in spite of my mother's warning. I heard Victoria chattering merrily to Elsa. A gift of inconsequent chatter is by no means without its place in the world, although we may prefer that others should supply the commodity. I heard Elsa's bright sweet laugh in answer. She was much more comfortable with Victoria. A minute later the arrival of Victoria's little girl made her absolutely happy.

I had been instructed to treat the Duchess with the most distinguished courtesy and the highest tributes of respect. My mother and I put her between us and escorted her to her rooms. Elsa, it was considered, would be more at her ease without such pomp. My mother was magnificent. On such occasions she shone. Nevertheless she rather alarmed honest Cousin Elizabeth. A perfect manner alarms many people; it seems so often to exhibit an unholy remoteness from the natural. Cousin Elizabeth was, I believe, rather afraid of being left alone with my mother. For her sake I rejoiced to meet her servants hurrying up to her assistance. I returned to the garden.

Elsa had not gone in; she sat on a seat with Victoria's baby in her arms. Victoria was standing by, telling her how she ought and ought not to hold the little creature. William Adolphus also had edged near and stood hands in pockets, with a broad smile on his excellent countenance. I paused and watched. He drew quite near to Victoria; she turned her head, spoke to him, smiled and laughed merrily. Elsa tossed and tickled the baby; both Victoria and William Adolphus looked pleased and proud. It is easy to be too hard on life; one should make a habit of reflecting occasionally out of what very unpromising materials happiness can be manufactured. These four beings were at this moment, each and all of them, incontestably happy. Ah, well, I must go and disturb them!

I walked up to the group. On the sight of me Victoria suppressed her kindliness toward her husband; she did not wish me to make the mistake of supposing that she was content. William Adolphus looked supremely ashamed and uncomfortable. The child, being suddenly snatched by her mother, puckered lips and brows and threatened tears. Elsa sprang up with heightened colour and stood in an attitude of uneasiness. Why, yes, I had disturbed their happiness very effectually.

"I didn't mean to interrupt you," I pleaded.

"Nonsense; we weren't doing anything," said Victoria. "I'll show you your rooms, Elsa, shall I?"

Elsa, I believe, would have elected to be shown something much more alarming than a bedroom in order to escape from my presence. She accepted Victoria's offer with obvious thankfulness. The two went off with the baby. William Adolphus, still rather embarrassed, took out a cigar. We sat down side by side and both began to smoke. There was a silence for several moments.

"She's a pretty girl," observed my brother-in-law at last.

"Very," I agreed.

"Seems a bit shy, though," he suggested, with a sidelong glance at me.

"She seemed to be getting on very well with you and the baby."

"Oh, yes, she was all right then," said William Adolphus.

"I suppose," said I, "that I frighten her rather."

William Adolphus took a long pull at his cigar, looked at the ash carefully, and then gazed for some moments across the river toward Waldenweiter. It was a beautiful evening, and my eyes followed in the same direction. Thus we sat for quite a long time. Then William Adolphus gave a laugh.

"She's got to get used to you," he said.

"Precisely," said I.

For that was pretty Elsa's task in life.