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The King's Mirror/Chapter 20

 

CHAPTER XX.


AN INTERESTING PARALLEL.


I had a whimsical desire that somebody, no matter who, should speak the truth about the affair. That I myself should was out of the question, nor would candour be admissible from any of my family; even Victoria could do no more than kiss me. Elsa did not know the truth; her realization of it lay in the future—the future to me ever so present. Varvilliers would not tell it; his sincerity owned always the limit of politeness. I could not look to have my whim indulged; perhaps had there seemed a chance of fulfilment I should have turned coward. Yet I do not know; the love of truth has been a constant and strong passion in my mind. Hence come my laborious trackings of it through mazes of moods and feelings; painful trifling, I daresay. But my whim was accomplished; why and under what motive's spur it is hard to guess.

I sent a message to the Chamber announcing my betrothal; a debate on the answer to be returned followed. Here was a proper and solemn formality, rich in coloured phrases and time-honoured pretence. No lie was allowed place that could not prove its pedigree for five hundred years. Then when Bederhof and the rest had prated, there rose (O si audissem) a man with a pale-lined face, in which passion had almost destroyed mirth, or at least compelled it to put on the servile dress of bitterness, but with eyes bright still and a voice that rang through the Chamber. Wetter was back, back from wounding me, back from his madness of Coralie, back from his obscure wanderings and his reported bank-breakings. Somewhere and somehow he had got money enough to keep him awhile; and with money in his pocket he was again and at once a power in Forstadt. There must have been strange doings in that man's soul, worthy of record; but who would be so bold as to take up the pen? His reappearance was remarkable enough. I asked whether he did what he did in malice, in a rivalry that our quarrel and our common defeat at the hands of the paunchy impresario could not wipe out, or whether he discerned that I should join in his acid laugh, and, as I read his speech, cry to myself, "Lo, here is truth and a man who tells it!"

For he rose, there in the Chamber, when Bederhof's sticky syrup had ceased to flow. He spoke of my betrothal, sketching in a poet's mood, with the art of an orator, that perfect love whereof men dream; painting with exquisite skill the man's hot exultation and the girl's tremulous triumph, the spontaneous leap of heart to heart, the world without eclipsed and invisible; the brightness, the glory, and the unquestioning confidence in their eternity. His voice rose victorious out of falterings; his eyes gleamed with the vision that he made. Then, while still they wondered as men shown new things in their own hearts, his lips curved in a smile and his tones fell to a moderate volume. "Such," said he, "are the joys which our country shares with its King. Because they are his they are ours; because they are his they are hers. Hers and his are they till their lives' end; ours while our hearts are worthy to conceive of them."

They were silent when he sat down. He had outraged etiquette; nobody had ever said that sort of thing before on such an occasion. Bederhof searched in vain through an exhaustive memorandum prepared in the Chancellery. He consulted the clerks. Nobody had ever said anything in the least like it. They were puzzled. It was all most excellent, most loyal, calculated to impress the people in the most favourable way. But, deuce take it, why did the man smile while he talked, and why did his voice change from a ring of a trumpet to the rasp of a file? The Chamber at large was rather upset by Wetter's oration.

Ah, Wetter, but you had an audience fit though small! I read it—I read it all. I, in my study at Artenberg; I, alone. My mind leaped with yours; my lips bent to the curve of yours. Surely you spoke to please me, Wetter? To show that one man knew? To display plainest truth by the medium of a giant's lies? I could interpret. The language was known to me; the irony was after my own heart.

"It's dashed queer stuff," said William Adolphus, scratching his head. "All right in a story book, you know; but in the Chamber! Do you think he's off his head?"

"I don't think so, William Adolphus," said I.

"Victoria says it's hardly—hardly decent, you know."

"I shouldn't call it exactly indecent."

"No, not exactly indecent," he admitted. "But what the devil did he want to say it there for?"

"Ah, that I can't answer."

My brother-in-law looked discontented. Yet as a rule he resigned himself readily enough to not understanding things.

"Victoria says that Princess Heinrich requested the Duchess to manage that Elsa——"

"My dear William Adolphus, the transaction sounds complicated."

"Complicated? What do you mean? Princess Heinrich requested the Duchess not to let Elsa read it."

"Ah, my mother has always good reasons."

"But Elsa had read it already."

"How unfortunate wisdom always is! Did Elsa like it?"

"She told Victoria that it seemed great nonsense."

"Yes, she would think so."

"Well, it is, you know," said William Adolphus.

"Of course it is, my dear fellow," said I.

Yet I wanted to know more about it, and observing that Varvilliers was stated to have been present in the Diplomatic Gallery, I sent for him to come to Artenberg and describe the speech as it actually passed. When I had sent my message I went forth in search of my fiancée. She had read the report already; my mother's measures had been taken too late. What did pretty Elsa think? She thought it was all great nonsense. Poor pretty Elsa!

My heart was hungry. Wetter had broken—as surely he had meant to break—the sleep of memory and the sense of contrast. I went to her not with love, but with some vague expectation, a sort of idea that, contrary to all likelihood, I might again have in some measure what had come to me before, springing now indeed not whence I would, but whence it could, yet being still itself though grown in an alien soil. The full richness of native bloom it could not win, yet it might attain some pale grace and a fragrance of its own. For these I would compound and thank the malicious wit that gave them me. But she thought it all great nonsense; nay, that was only what she had told Victoria. My mother was wise, and my mother had requested that she should not read it.

When I came to her she was uncertain and doubtful in mood. She did not refer to the speech, but a consciousness of it showed in her embarrassment and in the distrustful mirth of her eyes. She did not know how I looked upon it, nor how I would have her take it; was she to laugh or to be solemn, to ridicule or to pretend with handsome ampleness? There were duties attached to her greatness; was it among them to swallow this? But she knew I liked to joke at some things which others found serious; might she laugh with me at this extravagance?

"Well, you've read the debate?" I asked. "They all said exactly the proper things."

"Did they? I didn't know what the proper things were."

"Oh, yes; except that mad fellow Wetter. It's a sad thing, Elsa; if only he weren't a genius he'd have a great career."

She threw a timid questioning glance at me.

"Victoria says that he talked nonsense," she remarked.

"Victoria declares that it was you who said it."

"Well, I don't know which of us said it first," she laughed. "Princess Heinrich said so too; she said he must have been reading romances and gone mad, like Don Quixote."

"You've read some?"

"Oh, yes, some. Of course, it's different in a story."

So had observed William Adolphus. I marked Victoria as the common origin.

"You see," said I tolerantly, "he's a man of very emotional nature. He's carried away by his feelings, and he thinks other people are like himself." And I laughed a little.

Elsa also laughed, but still doubtfully. She seemed ill at ease. I found her venturing a swift stealthy glance at me; there was something like fear in her eyes. I was curiously reminded of Victoria's expression when she came to Krak with only a half of her exercise written, and mistrusted the validity of her excuse. (Indeed it was always a bad one.) What, then, had Wetter done for her? Had he not set up a hopeless standard of grim duty, frowning and severe? My good sister had meant to be consolatory with her "great nonsense," remembering, perhaps, the Baron over there at Waldenweiter. Elsa was looking straight before her now, her brows puckered. I glanced down at the hand in her lap and saw that it trembled a little. Suddenly she turned and found me looking; she blushed vividly and painfully.

"My dearest little cousin," said I, taking her hand, "don't trouble your very pretty head about such matters. Men are not all Wetters; the fellow's a poet if only he knew it. Come, Elsa, you and I understand one another."

"You're very kind to me," she said. "And—and I'm very fond of you, Augustin."

"It's very charming of you, for there's little enough reason."

"Victoria says several people have been." She hazarded this remark with an obvious effort. I laughed at that. There was also a covert hint of surprise in her glance. Either she did not believe Victoria fully, or she was wondering how the thing had come about. Alas, she was so transparent! I found myself caught by a momentary wish that I had chosen (as if I could choose, though!) a woman of the world, whose accomplished skill should baffle all my scrutiny and leave me still the consolations of uncertainty; it is probable that such a one would have extorted from me a belief in her love for five minutes every day. Not for an instant could that delusion live with Elsa's openness. Yet perhaps she would learn the trick, and I watch her mastery of it in the growth. But at least she should not learn it on my requisition.

Elsa sat silent, but presently a slight meditative smile came on her lips and made a little dimple in her chin. Her thoughts were pleasant then; no more of that grim impossible duty. Had Wetter's wand conjured any other idea into her mind? Had his picture another side for her imagination? It seemed possible enough; it may well have seemed possible to Princess Heinrich when she requested that Elsa should not read the speech. Princess Heinrich may have preferred that such notions should not be suggested at all under the circumstances of the case. There was always a meaning in what Princess Heinrich did.

"What are you thinking of, Elsa?"

"Nothing," she answered with a little start. "Is he a young man?"

"You mean Wetter?"

"Yes."

"Oh, a few years over thirty. But he's made the most of his time in the world. The most, not the best, I mean, you know."

Her thoughts had been on Wetter and Wetter's words. Since she had smiled I concluded that my guess was not far off. Elsa turned to me with a blush and the coquettish air that now and then sat so prettily on her innocence.

"I should think he might have made love rather well," she said.

"I shouldn't wonder in the least," said I. "But he might be a little tempestuous."

"Yes," Elsa acquiesced. "And that wouldn't be nice, would it?"

"Not at all nice," said I, and laughed. Elsa joined in my laugh, but doubtfully and reluctantly, as though she had but a dim glimmer of the reason for it. Then she turned to me with a sudden radiant smile.

"Fancy!" said she. "Mother says I must have forty frocks."

"My dear," said I, "have four hundred."

"But isn't it a lot?"

"I suppose it is," I remarked. "But have anything you ought to have. You like the frocks, Elsa? "

She gave that little emphatic double nod of hers.

We talked no more of the frocks then, but during the few days which followed Elsa's perusal of Wetter's speech there was infinite talk of frocks and all the rest of the furnishings and appurtenances of Elsa's new rank. The impulse which moved women so different as my mother, the Duchess, and Victoria, to a common course of conduct was doubtless based on an universal woman's instinct. All the three seemed to set themselves to dazzle the girl with the glories and pomp that awaited her; at the same time William Adolphus became pressing in his claims on my company. Now Victoria never really supposed that I desired to spend my leisure with William Adolphus; she set him in motion when she had reason to believe that I had better not spend it with some other person. So it had been in the days of the Countess and in Coralie's epoch; so it was now. The idea was obvious; just at present it was better for Elsa to think of her glories than to be too much with me; she was to be led to the place of sacrifice with a bandage over her eyes, a bandage that obscured the contrasted visions of Wetter's imagination and of my actual self. I saw their plan and appreciated it, but seeing did not forbid yielding. I was not hoodwinked, but neither was I stirred to resistance. It seemed to me then that kindness lay in not obtruding myself upon her, in being as little with her as courtesy and appearances allowed, in asking the smallest possible amount of her thoughts and making the least possible claim on her life. They asked me to efface myself, to court oblivion, to hide behind the wardrobe. It was all done with a soothing air, as though it were a temporary necessity, as though with a little patience the mood would pass, almost as though Elsa had some little ailment which would disappear in a few days; while it lasted, men were best out of the way, and would show delicacy by asking no questions. The way in which women act, look, and speak, when they desire to create that impression, is clear and unmistakable; a wise man goes about his business or retires to his smoking-room, his papers, and his books.

The treatment seemed to answer well, and its severity was gradually relaxed. William Adolphus, sighing relief I doubt not (for I was well-nigh as tedious to him as he to me), went off to his horses. I was again encouraged to be more with Elsa, under a caution to say nothing that could excite her. She met me with a quiet gay contentment, seemed pleased to be with me, and was profuse and sincere in thanks for my kindness. Sometimes now she talked of our life after we were married, when Princess Heinrich would be gone and we alone together. She was occupied with innocent wonderings how we should get on, and professed an anxiety lest she should fail in keeping me amused. Then she would take refuge in reminding herself of her many and responsible duties. She would have nearly as much to do as I had, she said, and was not her work really almost as important as mine?

"Princess Heinrich says that the social influence I shall wield is just as important to the welfare of the country," she would say, with that grave inquiring look in her pretty blue eyes.

"All the fashionable folk in Forstadt will think it much more important," said I, laughing. "Especially the young men, Elsa."

"As if I should care about that!" she cried scornfully.

Now and then, at intervals, while I talked to her, the idea of doing what my mother had meant by exciting her came into my head, the idea of satisfying her unconscious longings and of fulfilling for her the dream which had taken shape under the wand of that magician Wetter. I believed then that I could have succeeded in the task; there may be vanity in that opinion, but neither lapse of time nor later experience has brought me to renounce it. Why, then, did I yield to the women's prescription, and renounce the idea of gaining and chaining her love and her fancy for myself? Nothing in her gives the answer to that question; it must be sought in my mind and my temper. I believed and I believe that if I could have stirred myself I could have stirred her. The claim is not great; Wetter had done half the work for me, and nature was doing the better part of the rest. I should have started with such an advantage that the battle must have been mine. This is not merely perceived in retrospect; it was tolerably clear to me even at the time. But the impulse in me was wanting. I could have won, but I did not truly desire to win. I could have given what she asked, but my own heart was a niggard. It was from me more than from her that the restraint came; it was with me to move, and I could not stir. She was lovable, but I did not love her; she had love to give, but I could not ask for it. To marry her was my duty, to seem to desire the marriage my rôle. There obligation stopped; inclination refused to carry on the work. I had driven a bargain with fate; I would pay the debt to the last farthing, but I could not open my purse again for a gratuity or a bounty. I acquiesced with fair contentment in it, and in the relations which it produced between Elsa and myself. There was a tacit agreement among all of us that a calm and cousinly affection was the best thing, and fully adequate to the needs of the situation. The advice of the women chimed in with my own mood. Making love to her would have seemed to them a dangerous indiscretion, to me a rather odious taking advantage of one who was not a free agent, and a rather humiliating bit of pretence besides. We had all made up our minds that matters had better be left considerably below boiling-point.

While things stood thus I received a letter from Varvilliers (who was at Forstadt) accepting my invitation to Artenberg. His acceptance signified, he went on:


"Of course all the town is full of you and your fiancée—her portrait is everywhere, your name and hers in every mouth. There is another coupled with them, surely in a strange conjunction! When they speak of you and the Princess they speak of Wetter also. It is recalled that you and he were friends and associates, companions in amusement and sport (especially, of course, in pistol practice!). Hence springs a theory that the fellow's odd rhapsody (mad and splendid!) was directly inspired by yourself, that you chose him as your medium, desiring to add to the formal expressions usual on such occasions an unofficial declaration of your private feelings. So you are hailed as a model and most romantic lover, and every tea-table resounds with your praises. Early indiscretions (forgive a pen itself indiscreet) are forgotten, and you are booked for the part of the model husband, an example of the beauty (and the duty) of marriages of inclination in high places. Believe me, your popularity is doubled. And the strange fellow himself, having money in his pocket and that voice of his in magnificent order, is to be seen everywhere, smiling mysteriously and observing a most significant reticence when he is pressed to say that he spoke at your request and to your pattern. But for your Majesty's own letters I should not have ventured to be a dissenter from the received opinion; if you bid me, at any moment I will gladly renounce my heresy and embrace the orthodox faith. Meanwhile I am wondering what imp holds sway in Wetter's brain; and I am laughing a little at this new example of the eternal antagonism between what is the truth and what is thought to be the truth. If mankind ever stumbled on absolute naked verity, what the devil would they make of it? By the way, I hear that Coralie is to make her début in Paris in a week or two. She being now reputably impresarioed, the Sempachs have shown her some civility. I told Wetter this when I last ran against him at the club. He raised his brows, twisted his lips, scratched his chin, looked full in my face and said with a smile, 'My dear Vicomte, Madame Mansoni is passionately attached to her husband. They are ideal lovers.' Your Majesty shall interpret, if it be your pleasure. I leave the matter alone."


This fellow Wetter was very impertinent with his speeches and his parallels. But, good heavens, he had eyes to see! Madame Mansoni and her impresario were ideal lovers! Surely the world was grown young again! Elsa also made her début in a few weeks; I was her impresario. And she was passionately attached to her impresario! I lay back in my chair, laughing and wishing with all my heart that I could have a talk with Wetter.