The King's Mirror/Chapter 9
JUST WHAT WOULD HAPPEN.
Soon after my return my mother and I went into residence at Forstadt. My time was divided between mastering my public duties under Hammerfeldt's tuition, and playing a prominent part in the gaieties of the capital. Just now I was on cordial, if not exactly intimate, terms with the Princess. She appeared to have resigned herself to Hammerfeldt's preponderating influence in political affairs, and to accept in compensation the office of mentor and guide in all social matters. I was happy in the establishment of a modus vivendi which left me tolerably free from the harassing trifles of ceremonial and etiquette. To Hammerfeldt's instructions I listened with avidity and showed a deference which did not forbid secret criticism. He worked me hard; the truth is (and it was not then hidden either from him or from me) that his strength was failing; age had not bent, but it threatened to break him; the time was short in which he could hope to be by my side, binding his principles and rivetting his methods on me. He was too shrewd not to detect in me a curiosity of intellect that only the strongest and deepest prepossessions could restrain; these it was his untiring effort to create in my mind and to buttress till they were impregnable. To some extent he attained his object, but his success was limited; and his teaching affected by what I can only call a modernness of temperament in me, which no force of tradition wholly destroyed or stifled. That many things must be treated as beyond question was the fruit of his maxims; it is a position which I have never been able to adopt; with me the acid of doubt bit into every axiom. I took pleasure in the society and arguments of the liberal politicians and journalists who began to frequent the court as soon as a rumour of my inclinations spread. I became the centre and object of a contention between the Right and the Left, between Conservative and Liberal forces—or, if I apply to each party the nickname accorded to it by the enemy, between the Reaction and the Revolution.
Doubtless all this will find an accomplished, and possibly an impartial, historian. Its significance for these personal memoirs is due chiefly to the accidental fact that, whereas my mother was the social centre of the orthodox party and in that capacity gave solid aid to Hammerfeldt, the unorthodox gathered round the Countess von Sempach. Her husband was considered no more than a good soldier, a man of high rank, and a devoted husband; by her own talents and charm this remarkable woman, although a foreigner, had achieved for herself a position of great influence. She renewed the glories of the political salon in Forstadt; but she never talked politics. Eminent men discussed deep secrets with one another in her rooms. She was content to please their taste without straining their intellects or seeking to rival them in argument. By the abdication of a doubtful claim she reigned absolute in her own dominion. It was from studying her that I first learned both how far-reaching is the inspiration of a woman's personality, and how it gathers and conserves strength by remaining within its own boundaries and refusing alien conquests. The men of the Princess's party, from Hammerfeldt downward, were sometimes impatient of her suggestions and attempted control; the Countess's friends were never aware that they received suggestions, and imagined themselves to exercise control. I think that the old Prince was almost alone in penetrating the secret of the real power his charming enemy exercised and the extent of it. They were very cordial to one another.
"Madame," he said to her once, "you might convince me of anything if I were not too old."
"Why, Prince," she cried, "you are not going to pretend that your mind has grown old?"
"No, Countess, my feelings," he replied with a smile. Her answer was a blush.
This was told to me by Wetter, a young and very brilliant journalist who had once given me lessons in philosophy, and with whom I maintained a friendship in spite of his ultra-radical politics. He reminded me now and then of Geoffrey Owen, but his enthusiasm was of a dryer sort; not humanity, but the abstract idea of progress inspired him; not the abolition of individual suffering, but the perfecting of his logical conceptions in the sphere of politics was his stimulating hope. And there was in him a strong alloy of personal ambition and a stronger of personal passion. Rather to my surprise Hammerfeldt showed no uneasiness at my friendship with him; I joked once on the subject and he answered:
"Wetter only appeals to your intellect, sire. There I am not afraid now."
His answer, denying one apprehension, hinted another. It will cause no surprise that I had renewed an old acquaintance with the Countess, and had been present at a dinner in her house. More than this, I fell into the habit of attending her receptions on Wednesdays; on this night all parties were welcome, and the gathering was by way of being strictly non-political. Strictly non-political also were the calls that I made in the dusk of the evening, when she would recall our earlier meetings, our glances exchanged, our thoughts of one another, and lead me to talk of my boyhood. These things did not appeal only to the intellect of a youth of eighteen or nineteen when they proceeded from the lips of a beautiful and brilliant woman of twenty-eight.
I approach a very common occurrence; but in my case its progress and result were specially modified and conditioned. There was the political aspect, looming large to the alarmed Right; there was the struggle for more intimate influence over me, in which my mother fought with a grim intensity; in my own mind there was always the curious dim presence of an inexorable fate that wore the incongruous mask of Elsa's baby face. All these were present to me in their full force during the earlier period of my friendship with the Countess, when I was still concealing from myself as well as from her and all the world that I could ever desire to have more than friendship. The first stages past, there came a time when the secret was still kept from all save myself, but when I knew it with an exultation not to be conquered, with a dread and a shame that tormented while they could not prevail. But I went more and more to her house. I had no evil intent; nay, I had no intent at all in my going; I could not keep away. She alone had come to satisfy me; with her alone, all of me—thoughts, feelings, eyes, and ears—seemed to find some cause for exercise and a worthy employment of their life. The other presences in my mind grew fainter and intermittent in their visits; I gave myself up to the stream and floated down the current. Yet I was never altogether forgetful nor blind to what I did; I knew the transformation that had come over my friendship; to myself now I could not but call it love; I knew that others in the palace, in the chancellery, in drawing-rooms, in newspaper offices, ay, perhaps even in the very street, called it now, not the king's friendship nor the king's love, but the king's infatuation. Not even then could I lose altogether the external view of myself.
We were sitting by the fire one evening in the twilight; she was playing with a hand-screen, but suffering the flames to paint her face and throw into relief the sensitive merry lips and the eyes so full of varied meanings. She had told me to go, and I had not gone; she leaned back and, after one glance of reproof, fixed her regard on the polished tip of her shoe that rested on the fender. She meant that she would talk no more to me; that in her estimation, since I had no business to say, I was already gone. An impulse seized me. I do not know what I hoped nor why that moment broke the silence which I had imposed on myself. But I told her about the little, fair, chubby child at the Castle of Bartenstein. I watched her closely, but her eyes never strayed from her shoe-tip. Well, she had never said a word that showed any concern in such a matter; even I had done little more than look and hint and come.
"It's as if they meant me to marry Toté," I ended. Toté was the pet name by which we called her own eight-year-old daughter.
The Countess broke her wilful silence, but did not change the direction of her eyes.
"If Toté were of the proper station," she said ironically, "she'd be just right for you by the time you're both grown up."
"And you'd be mother-in-law?"
"I should be too old to plague you. I should just sit in my corner in the sun."
"The sun is always in your corner."
"Don't be so complimentary," she said with a sudden twitching of her lips. "I shall have to stand up and curtsey, and I don't want to. Besides, you oughtn't to know how to say things like that, ought you, Cæsar?"
Cæsar was my—shall I say—pet-name? used when we were alone or with Count Max, only in a playful satire.
A silence followed for some time. At last she glanced toward me.
"Not gone yet?" said she, raising her brows. "What will the Princess say?"
"I go when I please," said I, resenting the question as I was meant to resent it.
"Yes. Certainly not when I please."
Our eyes met now; suddenly she blushed, and then interposed the screen between herself and me. A glorious thrill of youthful triumph ran through me; she had paid her first tribute to my manhood in that blush; the offering was small, but, for its significance, frankincense and myrrh to me.
"I thought you came to talk about Wetter's Bill," she suggested presently in a voice lower than her usual tones.
"The deuce take Wetter's Bill," said I.
"I am very interested in it."
"Even just now, Cæsar." I heard a little laugh behind the screen.
"Hammerfeldt hates it," said I.
"Oh, then that settles it. You'll be against us, of course!"
"Why of course?"
"You always do as the Prince tells you, don't you?"
"Unless somebody more powerful forbids me."
"Who is more powerful—except Cæsar himself?"
I made no answer, but I rose and, crossing the rug, stood by her. I remember the look and the feel of the room very well; she lay back in a low chair upholstered in blue; the firelight, forbidden her face, played on the hand that held the screen, flushing its white to red. I could see her hair gleaming in the fantastically varying light that the flames gave as they left and fell. I was in a tumult of excitement and timidity.
"More powerful than Cæsar?" I asked, and my voice shook.
"Don't call yourself Cæsar."
There was a momentary hesitation before the answer came low:
"Because you mustn't laugh at yourself. I may laugh at you, but you mustn't yourself."
I wondered at the words, the tone, the strange diffidence that infected even a speech so full of her gay bravery. A moment later she added a reason for her command."You're so absurd that you mustn't laugh at
The firelight played on the hand that held the screen.
To this day I do not know whether she meant to give a genuine warning, or to strike a chord that should sound back defiance.
"If ten thousand of them laugh, what is it to me? They dare laugh only behind my back," I said.
She laughed before my face; the screen fell, and she laughed, saying softly, "Cæsar, Cæsar!"
I was wonderfully happy in my perturbation. The great charm she had for me was to-day alloyed less than ever before by the sense of rawness which she, above all others, could compel me to feel. To-day she herself was not wholly calm, not mistress of herself without a struggle, without her moments of faintness. Yet now she appeared composed again, and there was nothing but merriment in her eyes. She seemed to have forgotten that I was supposed to be gone. I daresay that not to her, any more than to myself, could I seem quite like an ordinary boy; perhaps the more I forgot what was peculiar about me the more she remembered it, my oblivion serving to point her triumph.
"And the Princess?" she asked, laughing still, but now again a little nervously.
My exultation, finding vent in mischief and impelled by curiosity, drove me to a venture.
"I shall tell the Princess that I kissed you," said I.
The Countess suddenly sat upright.
"And that you kissed me—several times," I continued.
"How dare you?" she cried in a whisper; and her cheeks flamed in blushes and in firelight. My little device was a triumph. I began to laugh.
"Oh, of course, if she asks me when," I added, "I shall confess that it was ten years ago."
Many emotions mingled in my companion's glance as she sank back in her chair; she was indignant at the trap, amused at having been caught in it, not fully relieved from embarrassment, not wholly convinced that the explanation of my daring speech covered all the intent with which it had been uttered, perhaps not desirous of being convinced too thoroughly. A long pause followed. Timidity held me back from further advance. For that evening enough seemed to have passed; I had made a start—to go further might be to risk all. I was about to take my leave when she looked up again, saying:
"And about Wetter's Bill, Cæsar?"
"You know I can do nothing."
"Can Cæsar do nothing? If you were known to favour it fifty votes would be changed." Her face was eager and animated. I looked down at her and smiled. She flushed again, and cried hastily:
"No, no, never mind; at least, not to-night."
I suppose that my smile persisted, and was not a mirthful one. It stirred anger and resentment in her.
"I know why you're smiling," she exclaimed. "I suppose that when I was kind to you as a baby, I wanted something from you too, did I?"
She had detected the thought that had come so inevitably into my mind, that she should resent it so passionately almost persuaded me of its injustice. I turned from it to the pleasant memory of her earlier impulsive kindness. I put out my hands and grasped hers. She let me hold them for an instant and then drew them away. She gave rather a forced laugh.
"You're too young to be bothered about Bills," she said, "and too young for—for all sorts of other things, too. Run away; never mind me with my Bills and my wrinkles."
"Oh, if not now, in a year or two; by the time you're ready to marry Elsa."
As she spoke she rose and stood facing me. A new sense of her beauty came over me; her beauty's tragedy, already before her eyes, was to me remote and impossible. Because it was not yet very near she exaggerated its nearness; because it was inevitable I turned away from it. Indeed, who could remember, seeing her then? Who save herself, as she looked on my youth?
"You'll soon be old and ugly?" I asked, laughing.
"Yes, soon; it will seem very soon to you."
"What's the moral?" said I.
She laughed uneasily, twisting the screen in her hands. For an instant she raised her eyes to mine, and as they dropped again she whispered:
"A short life and a merry one?"
My hand flew out to her again; she took it, and, after a laughing glance, curtseyed low over it, as though in formal farewell. I had not meant that, and laughed in my turn.
"I shan't be old—well, by to-morrow," she murmured, and glanced ostentatiously at the clock.
"May I come to-morrow?"
"I never invite you."
"Shall you be here?"
"It's not one of my receiving days."
"I like a good chance better than a poor certainty. At least there will be nobody else here."
"I don't think so."
"You don't think so? What do you mean by that, Cæsar? No, I don't want to know. I believe it was impertinent. Are you going?"
"Yes," said I, "when I have kissed your hand."
She said nothing, but held it out to me. She smiled, but there seemed to me to be pain in her eyes. I pressed her hand to my lips and went out without speaking again. As I closed the door I heard her fling herself back into her chair with a curious little sound, half-cry, half-sigh.
I left the house quickly and silently; no servant was summoned to escort me. I walked a few yards along the street to where Wetter lived. My carriage was ordered to come for me at Wetter's; it had not yet arrived. To be known to visit Wetter was to accept the blame of a smaller indiscretion as the price of hiding a greater. The deputy was at home, writing in his study; he received me with an admirable unconsciousness of where I had come from. I was still in a state of excitement, and was glad to sit smoking quietly while his animated, fluent talk ran on. He was full of this Bill of his, and explained its provisions to me with the air of desiring that I should understand its spirit and aim, and of being willing then to leave it to my candid consideration. He did not attempt to blink the difficulties.
"Of course we have the Prince and all the party of Reaction against us," he said. "But your Majesty is not a member of any party."
"Not even of yours yet," said I with a laugh.
He laughed in his turn, openly and merrily.
"I'm a poor schemer," he said. "But I don't know why it should be wrong for you to hear my views any more than Hammerfeldt's."
The servant entered and announced the arrival of my carriage. Wetter escorted me to it.
"I'll promise not to mention the Bill, if you'll honour me by coming again, sire," he said as he held the brougham door.
"I shall be delighted to come again; I like to hear about it," I answered. His bow and smile conveyed absolutely nothing but a respectful gratification and a friendly pleasure. Yet he knew that the situation of his house was more responsible for my visit than the interest of his projects.
In part I saw clear enough even at this time. It was the design and hope of Wetter and his friends to break down Hammerfeldt's power and obtain a political influence over me. Hammerfeldt's political dominance seemed to them to be based on a personal ascendency; this they must contrive to match. Their instrument was not far to seek. The Countess was ready to their hand, a beautiful woman, sharpest weapon of all in such a strife. They put her forward against the Prince in the fight whereof I was the prize. All this I saw, against it all I was forewarned, and forearmed. Knowledge gave security. But there was more, and here with the failure of insight safety was compromised. What was her mind? What was her part, not as it seemed to these busy politicians, but as her own heart taught it her? Here came to me the excitement of uncertainty, the impulse of youth, the prick of vanity, the longing for that intimate love of which my life had given me so little. Was I to her also only something to be used in the game of politics, a tool that she, a defter tool, must shape and point before it could be of use? I tried to say this to myself and to make a barrier of the knowledge. But was it all the truth? Remembering her eyes and tones, her words and hesitations, I could not accept it for the whole truth. There was more, what more I knew no. Even if there had been no more I was falling so deep into the gulf of passion that it crossed my mind to take while I gave; and, if I were to be used, to exact my hire. In a tumult of these thoughts, embracing now what in the next moment I rejected, revolting in a sudden fear from the plan which just before seemed so attractive, I passed the evening and the night. For I had taken up that mixed heritage of good and evil, of pain and power, that goes by the name of manhood; and when a new heir enters on his inheritance there is a time before he can order it.