Maria Felicia/Chapter 1

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Karolina Světlá3751595Maria Felicia1898Antonie Krejsa



LIKE a gigantic torch the Felsenburk Palace, brightly illuminated, rose to the dark heavens, above the sea of houses constituting the Little Side, a suburb of Prague. As many lights beamed from its massive dark walls as there were windows in it. The approach from the street which was dominated by this mansion was brightly lighted and magnificently decorated. Moving through the entrance was a double row of gallooned servants, carrying lanterns, and behind them, like two dark moving walls, were collected the inquisitive folk, greeting the nobility with loud cheers of happy surprise as they gathered in large numbers and in great splendor for a ball at the palace of Count Francis Válav Felsenburk, lord of Mokřin, Hlohov, Lužan Dobřic, Černá Skála, and other most beautiful and productive domains of Bohemia and Moravia.

The nobility of Prague had had their last reception for the winter at Prince Wildenšwert’s castle, and were now, as usual, preparing to return to their estates or to travel, when unexpectedly Count Felsenburk sent out invitations to a ball, wishing, as he said, to bid his honored friends farewell in his own home. With his invitation he not only created great excitement among the maids and chamberlains who had to unlock the chests already packed and take out and prepare the beautiful costumes and family jewels, but also surprised the nobility themselves.

The Count’s invitation and expression of warm friendship, so suddenly aroused, was a complete surprise. Among his acquaintances he was not supposed to be of an affectionate nature; and his smiling smoothness and dignified courtesy were distrusted. Privately much was being said about his ambition, his passion, and his vengeance on those who either thoughtlessly or purposely dared to vex him in any of his schemes; but publicly the greatest respect was displayed for the Count, who occupied the foremost place among the Prague nobles, not merely in wealth, but above all in being the most favored at the Emperor’s court.

Each of the gilded carriages, ornamented with a great escutcheon on its door, was preceded either by two running footmen in livery or by two mounted hunters with flaring torches. The torches, however, were not for mere show. In the year 1772 only the main streets of Prague were lighted and paved; the rest, especially in spring, looked more like rural roads full of mud-pools and stony ponds than like the public streets of the most famous city of a kingdom renowned in history, and in which, only a few decades previously, foreign princes had bought homes in order to be named its citizens and to witness for a part of each year its glory and fame.

On the back steps and driver’s seats were hosts of footmen, swinging with the motion of the carriages, and through the carriage windows, which gleamed with the lights held by the attendants, were seen those for whom the Almighty did not make the stern law that in this world man shall earn bread with his own hands and wet it with his tears. On silk cushions, cavaliers, and ladies glittering with gold and silver embroidery, were carelessly rocking. The cosmetics on their faces had to conceal only the traces of glowing passions, for those faces showed not the marks of daily care which were visible on the foreheads of those who were so good-naturedly admiring their splendor. At that time only a few dreamed about equal rights for all, discussed the pride of position and birth, complained about the unjust privileges, and compared the fate of the oppressed with the fate of those occupying higher places in life. These thoughts were not yet spreading their disquieting wings very widely; they were fretting under the heavy burdens which followed a long revolutionary struggle.

To the nobility entering the proud palace over which hundreds of wax candles poured streams of mellow light, it was not long a secret why Count Francis Václav had invited them, and what cause had so suddenly aroused his friendly feeling. Greeting his guests, he introduced to them Count Fridštejnský, a nobleman about thirty years of age, of a graceful figure, with a face full of animation, simple in dress and manners—indeed, a great contrast to the rest of the guests, so stiff and jeweled. But each one of the mighty, arrogant nobles, who turned his eyes to the count bowed deeply, and respectfully retired to the rear.

Count Fridštejnský was evidently not surprised at these respectful retirements. He himself walked to the gentlemen and began to question them, while the younger guests started to dance. He engaged them in lively and apparently important conversation, for those addressed by him quickly blushed and wiped their foreheads with batiste handkerchiefs.

These interviews were indeed trying, for the guests found the noble introduced as Count Fridštejnský to be the eldest son of Maria Theresa, Joseph II., joint-ruler of Austria.

It was not the first time that Joseph II. had come to Prague unexpectedly and incognito, strictly forbidding any recognition of his rank and wishing to be treated as the one whom he assumed to be. On such visits, planning some important change in the empire, he first examined the state of affairs, discussed the question with those who understood it, listened to the various sides of public opinion, and then—did according to his own best judgment and his conscience, disregarding all objections, even those of his mother, the Empress of Austria. The most serious thing about it was that no one guessed his aims. He carefully concealed them that they might not be thwarted at their very inception by those whom they unpleasantly touched. It was not strange, then, that the gentlemen who were honored with Count Fridštejnský’s conversation were puzzled instead of being flattered, and that they tremblingly asked their souls, “Why does the Emperor ask about this, and why about that?) What does he intend to do, or what does he intend to undo?” And those who valued themselves because of their elevated position in the public estimation thoughtfully asked themselves: “How shall I answer without touching the important point and without falling in the opinion of our future despotic ruler? What shall I say to express some advanced opinion in conformity with his views?”

It was but a short time since the Emperor, against his mother’s wish and the desire of the nobility, had diminished the number of monks, and also the rights and privileges of the monastic order. It was reported that the Emperor would continue such changes and that, as he found the Jesuits to be the strongest opponents of all attempts to promote the nation’s progress, he intended to make this order powerless. Rumors were also circulated that Joseph II. considered monastic life idleness, and that he had been planning for the destruction of these societies in his empire, and that the Pope was inclined to favor his design. What, then, if his present inquiries were in some way connected with this unhappy affair? What if his questions, though seemingly touching other subjects, were in some mysterious way leading up to this step? Might not a person by a most innocent answer, on which the Emperor might choose to found his decision, plunge himself into everlasting confusion? It was also said that the Jesuits knew all about the scheme, that not a word was spoken secretly enough to escape their ears, and that they were using their knowledge with great effect. If they did not see through the walls or hear through the doors, they must have had in each house at least one clever, reliable confidant. There were doubtless many present that evening who noted everything that was said, but particularly there were persons whom the Emperor noted.

Most of the guests would have refused Count Felsenburk’s invitation for that evening, excusing themselves either on account of sickness or some family affair, or would have left Prague on any pretext whatever, had they anticipated his design to surprise them. How the Count laughed in his sleeve and delighted in their confusion! He knew well how to preserve a placid appearance at other times, but that evening, malice poured from every line of his face. His countenance had once been rarely beautiful, but now was deeply red and bloated, proving that the Count was a stronger lover of sweet wines and rich diet than was profitable to his health. What malignity to collect, under the cloak of friendship, into such a dangerous trap, people suspecting no evil! Which of them could do something to frustrate his designs and so punish him? But such questions were banished as quickly as they had sprung up. How could they take revenge on a man who was not only a favorite of the Empress, but, as became evident that evening, also a trusted friend of her son?

But by what charm had the Count retained the favor of the Empress and at the same time gained that of her son? The mother and her son formed two antagonistic forces which were always, both secretly and publicly, opposing each other. It was a struggle between antiquated conservatism and modern liberalism. The charm with which Felsenburk pleased both sides did not arise from his courtier-like manners, but simply from his knowing nothing about the questions on which they differed. He was not interested in religious and social questions; he was worldly, and above all he was a soldier—an Austrian soldier. He had formerly filled one of the highest positions in the army, which he gave up only during time of peace, and which at the first shout of war he intended to resume. The triumph of the Austrian army, the glory of his ruler’s court, and under its protection, the progress of his own family and the increase of his own wealth and might—these were the centers around which his thoughts circled, the forces that actuated him, and to achieve these objects he was ready to make sacrifices. Everything else he viewed with indifference, ridicule or scorn.

But just because the progress of the imperial family concerned him as much as his own glory, he admitted that things could not remain as they were, that everywhere in public life a spirit of discontent was manifesting itself, that changes were absolutely necessary; and in all this he agreed with Joseph. He did nothing, however, to further the designs of the son; on his own estates he left everything according to the old ways; and in that he pleased the mother. Joseph II. saw that the deeds of the Count were not always in harmony with his words, but Francis Václav gave him to understand that he remained inactive only through respect for the Empress, that he wished not to displease her who had always favored him so greatly. And to the Empress he explained his inclination to her son’s ideas as a result of his undying devotion to her, which caused him to favor her son even in matters on which they differed. He said that he could not, as her old servant, but love Joseph as much as he worshiped Maria Theresa.

Count Fridštejnský gave no chance for rest or recreation to those with whom he chose to converse. He ate sparingly of the midnight refreshments, which, for his special convenience, were served for the gentlemen in one of the side halls. The rest of the nobles had to conform their behavior to his; and dainties which Count Felsenburk, as if purposely, had piled up higher that day than ever before, were left with longing eyes before they had been well tasted.

By this arrangement the gentlemen were dissatisfied, and the ladies were offended because the Emperor was kept away from them. He had, during the whole evening, favored none of them with the least attention. Joseph II. proved to the Prague beauties that the rumor about his indifference to women was not groundless; but he did not succeed during the whole night in defying their charms. For he was, with all his stern principles and his experience of two marriages—by no means happy ones—only thirty years of age. He was not yet the grave Cato that he considered himself.

Coming out of the dining-hall, the Emperor stood in the midst of a row of pillars supporting a beautiful arch of the ball-room; and while the whole company, with Count Felsenburk and Princess Wildenšwert at the head, were gayly circling in a polonaise, he was talking with some fat, curly-wigged councilman, who, under the sovereign’s perplexing questions, was sweating even more than his predecessors. Wishing to penetrate more deeply into the subject he had just taken for discussion, and being annoyed by the whirling figures before him, the Emperor, in the course of the discussion, had moved back into an alcove which he thought was entirely vacant.

Not far away in the arch the Emperor saw a lady standing alone and leaning against one of the pillars wreathed with flowers. It was evident that she was not there by chance, for she was leaning against the wreathed support as comfortably as if she had selected the place a long time before. With arms folded she was gazing at him serenely and gravely with her clear blue eyes.

The Emperor was startled. He was accustomed to regard others in that way, but it was a novel experience to be thus studied himself. He knew that she was not looking at him with admiration, confusion, enthusiasm or with any other feeling that a ruler generally awakens, but that she was judging him calmly and without prejudice, just as he judged others when he wished to form a just opinion of them.

Seeing that the Emperor caught her in the look so inquiringly centered upon him, she showed no confusion, but turned, perfectly calm, on the heel of her satin silver-embroidered slipper and disappeared.

The Emperor continued his discussion with the fat councilman, but could not regain his interest in the subject. The scene at the pillar disturbed him. Who was that lady, the only one that did not dance, the only one in the noisy hall who sought solitude, and while others were gliding about, laughing and trying to bring their beauty into the most favorable light for the conquest of men’s hearts, turned aside from the noisy whirl, quietly observing and thinking? This question gravely spoken within, caused the Emperor to forget his former one, spoken out loud to the councilman. He felt again the inquisitive eyes resting on his face as though they would penetrate to the core of his soul and without hesitation tell him if they found anything there that displeased them. He was not able to catch the thread of his important discussion; it had gotten away and become tangled.

The Emperor, though renowned for his liberal principles, was after all strangely moved because some one had dared coolly to watch him without the reverential homage due to a sovereign. He continually looked about him to see if the brave lady would emerge from the moving wave of dancers, and thus became more and more perplexed. The last measure of the polonaise had just ceased, the guests were walking around, the arch was filled again. Charming dancers moved about him; he was now carefully watching the dangerous lines of beauty and grace, but the lady of his thoughts was nowhere to be seen. Was she in one of the side halls, seeking an atmosphere more in keeping with her nature?

The Emperor was at last convinced that for the time being his investigation of state affairs was at an end, and that for the remainder of the night it would be more interesting to find the proud, questioning eyes, and discover, if possible, by what power they penetrated to the depths of human hearts. So, very graciously dimissing the fat councilman, who heaved a sigh of relief, he motioned to his host. The Count quickly came to see what service he could render his illustrious master.

“I have had enough of those investigations, dear Felsenburk,” he said, “they tired me out, and now I must rest. Your ball is nearing its close; for me you are giving it, and as yet I have seen almost nothing of it. You have gratified me, indeed, by inviting the nobility of Prague when you heard of my intention to come here to inquire into certain affairs. You have saved me much time. I have met all the personages here with whom it was necessary for me to speak, and I can be on my way to Vienna at eight in the morning. I have surprised the nobles completely; willing or not, they had to express their opinions. They had no time to reflect, concoct schemes, or evade my questions. I discovered here, by the help of music and dancing, more than if I had invited them to my palace for official council— but not another word about that matter. I have just noticed how artistically your halls are decorated. Lead me through the apartments which you consecrated to pleasure, that I may thoroughly appreciate your taste.”

Although the Count was accustomed to bask in the sunshine of the royal family, yet when in obedience to the Emperor’s request he walked before him, his heart swelled with pride at the thought that the whole nobility of Prague were beholding his intimate footing with the sovereign.

The Hapsburgs had long conferred favors on the Felsenburk family for its faithfulness and devotion, but they had bestowed on none of the nobles as high honors as they now heaped upon Francis Václav. Undoubtedly he deserved the distinction, for he had proved most faithful in the conflict following the death of Charles VI., the father of Maria Theresa, when nearly all the rulers of Europe denied her the right to the Bohemian throne. The young Felsenburk at that time was so enthusiastic a partisan of the twenty-three-year-old Empress that he persuaded the Bohemian nobles who had deserted her to renew their allegiance; he sacrificed so much for the cause, he decided by his strategy and valor so many battles in favor of her armies, he contributed so wonderfully to the final triumph of the Austrian army, that when peace was declared titles and ranks were showered upon him. The Count did not sacrifice blood and estates in vain; the name of Felsenburk became more powerful and glorious than ever before. But the grateful Empress, even after having covered him with stars and crosses, was not satisfied; she was thinking of another reward—a more beautiful reward.

The Empress was the guardian of a young lady, an orphan, wealthy, and of an illustrious family, who was in St. Ann’s convent in the Old Town of Prague for her education. This ward she chose for his bride. At the request of the Empress, the young lady sent her photograph to Vienna; the Count, favorably impressed by the portrait of the young beauty, willingly accepted her majesty’s offer. The young lady was brought in great splendor from Prague to Vienna, where the Empress had made such magnificent preparations for the marriage festivities that for some time they were the talk of the whole city. The Empress and her whole court graced with their presence not only the religious ceremonies at St. Stephen’s Church, but also the banquet which the young husband gave a week after the wedding.

The Empress was confident that she had well provided for the happiness of her favorite noble and her ward. But alas! she was mistaken. Maria Theresa was certainly justified in thinking that the young Countess, who had been taught obedience from earliest childhood, would yield to the Count her warm admiration and respectful love. Felsenburk was at that time one of the handsomest and most renowned of men, secret and known lover of all the court belles, any one of whom would have considered herself fortunate to become his wife. The Empress hoped that the young wife, with her modesty and loveliness, would prove attractive to her husband and turn him from the irregularities to which he had become accustomed during his loose soldier life, and that she would soon bring him to repentance. The worldliness of the Count greatly worried the religious Empress. She wanted to have him faultless. Very few men were such decided lovers of feminine beauty, whether it were found among the aristocracy or not; very few were such decided lovers of midnight revelry and gay company as was Count Felsenburk. Also few were they who acknowledged so freely as he that pleasure was their religion, luxury the only divinity which they sincerely believed and faithfully worshiped. Who could have been better fitted to turn him away from such self-indulgence and lead him into a better, holier life than the pupil of pious nuns, a beautiful, refined young lady, unyielding in principles and yet affectionate in words and deeds? Beyond the desire to reward him, she had another good purpose; the virtuous Empress wished not only to please the Count, but also to improve him.

But the ward was not what the Empress thought her to be. She was quiet and reserved, not through modesty and humility, but through pride and haughtiness. The nuns of St. Ann’s convent had not educated her wisely; they had petted and fondled her. They had aimed at getting the rich heiress to grow fond of their convent and remain with them always. The young lady, readily conformed to their wishes; quiet convent life, passive meditation and religious idleness pleased her nature. Besides, the sisters promised her the abbess’s position, which her proud mind greatly desired. The command of the Empress to prepare for marriage aroused her very unpleasantly from her dreams; she tried to revolt, but there was no help; she was compelled to obey. She left her beloved convent with a thousand tears, and in the same regretful spirit was dismissed by her teachers, who pitied her because, for a sinful man, she was forced to give up the heavenly crown. What wonder, then, that full of inward grief and bitterness, she began to hate the man before she knew him. She did not conceal before him the reluctance with which she gave him her hand, which long before had been given to the heavenly Bridegroom, whose wreath already decorated her head.

At first the Count considered the cold, repulsive behavior of his young wife as convent shyness and girlish bashfulness, which she thought it her duty to assume; and on that account he endured her obstinacy quite patiently. It was something new and often even amusing for the Count, who had been petted by all the ladies, to see his young wife hasten away from him to her prayers for consolation. But seeing at length from what source the supposed shyness came, the Count ceased to smile. The Countess, after some time, felt it her duty to return to the rigorous ways of the convent and reproach her husband for his faults; and this she did with the inconsiderate stiffness and arrogance of conscious virtue which marks both the old and the young bigot. She showed no respect for him, either before strangers or servants, and regarded him more and more as a lost sheep. Such conduct a man of even less violent temper than Count Felsenburk certainly would not have endured. His attachment to his wife was no more than a mere liking, and that disappeared as quickly as he took a deeper view of her inward self. She soon became unbearable to him, and he never forgot to reveal his feelings toward her with the same openness that she did to him. Between this couple, equally unyielding, equally overbearing, hating each other with equal intensity, there was naturally a continual strife. In vain the Empress talked, warned and reprimanded when she heard of the trouble between them; in vain she begged them to become reconciled; in vain she urged that people so distinguished should not disgrace themselves by a public separation—she accomplished nothing. Both alike remained obstinate. In two years the young Countess Felsenburk returned to her dear convent, for which she had not ceased to yearn; not, however, with all her wealth, only with a small portion. The greater part of her wealth she had to leave to her husband, who was made the guardian of their only child, Maria Felicia, to whom the Empress was a godmother. After his wife’s departure, the Count obtained for his daughter a son’s privilege—to hold after his death the right to all his estates, to keep her family name, and in case of marriage to transmit it to her children. The Empress had granted him this privilege because of his family misfortune and against the wishes of the younger branch of the Felsenburks, who tried to move heaven and earth against it.

Maria Felicia Felsenburk was worshiped in her childhood, by all who saw her, as a child of angelic beauty, and now asa maiden she was known to be the most beautiful among the Prague nobility. But more than all others her father admired her. The Count fell so deeply in love with his daughter while she was yet in the cradle that he never regretted her having been born a girl instead of a boy. For whole days he would stay by her side, blindly humoring all her whims. Why, was she not a Felsenburk? Then, who could indulge their fancies, if not she? At the table his daughter always sat by his right side as his dearest guest, and he never drank his wine until she had tasted of it with her rosy lips. When he went out with her, followed by a retinue of attendants, the Prague people rushed out to see the beautiful daughter riding on a horse beside her valiant father. She was not only his love, but the love of the street youngsters. They knew from afar the tramping of her horse, and greeted her with deafening cheers before they saw her. The Countess always generously scattered change and sweets among them. She never went out without such a supply, and never failed to thank the children for their happy greeting with a gay swing of her gold whip and her most pleasant smiles. When her jealous rivals privately set down a list of the faults of the proud and bold Miss Felsenburk, who dared to outshine them with the luster of her beauty and wealth, they did not neglect to include the fact that she never smiled so pleasantly on the guests at entertainments in her father’s palace as she did on the street youngsters, and that no person of her own rank interested her in so great a measure as the bare-footed urchins.

But of late a cloud had come over the friendship of the father and the daughter; the Count did not laugh so gayly at his daughter’s willfulness as he formerly had done, nor was she as lively and happy in his company as she used to be. The brightness had faded from their brows, and they could not look each other pleasantly in the face.