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   Chapter 1 THE CONFERENCE.

Joseph II. and His Court: An Historical Novel By L. Mühlbach Characters: 25598

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


In the council-chamber of the Empress Maria Theresa, the six lords, who composed her cabinet council, awaited the entrance of their imperial mistress to open the sitting.

At this sitting, a great political question was to be discussed and its gravity seemed to be reflected in the faces of the lords, as, in low tones, they whispered together in the dim, spacious apartment, whose antiquated furniture of dark velvet tapestry corresponded well with the anxious looks of its occupants.

In the centre of the room stood the Baron von Bartenstein and the Count von Uhlefeld, the two powerful statesmen who for thirteen years had been honored by the confidence of the empress. Together they stood, their consequence acknowledged by all, while with proud and lofty mien, they whispered of state secrets.

Upon the fair, smooth face of Bartenstein appeared an expression of haughty triumph, which he was at no pains to conceal; and over the delicate mouth of Von Uhlefeld fluttered a smile of ineffable complacency.

"I feel perfectly secure," whispered Von Bartenstein. "The empress will certainly renew the treaties, and continue the policy which we have hitherto pursued with such brilliant results to Austria."

"The empress is wise," returned Uhlefeld. "She can reckon upon our stanch support, and so long as she pursues this policy, we will sustain her."

While he spoke, there shot from his eyes such a glance of conscious power, that the two lords who, from the recess of a neighboring window, were watching the imperial favorites, were completely dazzled.

"See, count" murmured one to the other, "see how Count Uhlefeld smiles to-day. Doubtless he knows already what the decision of the empress is to be; and that it is in accordance with his wishes, no one can doubt who looks upon him now."

"It will be well for us," replied Count Colloredo, "if we subscribe unconditionally to the opinions of the lord chancellor. I, for my part, will do so all the more readily, that I confess to you my utter ignorance of the question which is to come before us to-day. I was really so preoccupied at our last sitting that I-I failed exactly to comprehend its nature. I think, therefore, that it will be well for us to vote with Count von Uhlefeld-that is, if the president of the Aulic Council, Count Harrach, does not entertain other opinions."

Count Harrach bowed. "As for me," sighed he, "I must, as usual, vote with Count Bartenstein. His will be, as it ever is, the decisive voice of the day; and its echo will be heard from the lips of the empress. Let us echo them both, and so be the means of helping to crush the presumption of yonder crafty and arrogant courtier."

As he spoke he glanced toward the massive table of carved oak, around which were arranged the leathern arm-chairs of the members of the Aulic Council. Count Colloredo followed the glance of his friend, which, with a supercilious expression, rested upon the person to whom he alluded. This person was seated in one of the chairs, deeply absorbed in the perusal of the papers that lay before him upon the table. He was a man of slight and elegant proportions, whose youthful face contrasted singularly with the dark, manly, and weather-beaten countenances of the other members of the council. Not a fault marred the beauty of this fair face; not the shadow of a wrinkle ruffled the polish of the brow; even the lovely mouth itself was free from those lines by which thought and care are wont to mark the passage of man through life. One thing, however, was wanting to this beautiful mask. It was devoid of expression. Those delicate features were immobile and stony, No trace of emotion stirred the compressed lips; no shadow of thought flickered over the high, marble brow; and the glance of those clear, light-blue eyes was as calm, cold, and unfeeling as that of a statue. This young man, with Medusa-like beauty, was Anthony Wenzel von Kaunitz, whom Maria Theresa had lately recalled from Paris to take his seat in her cabinet council.

The looks of Harrach and Colloredo were directed toward him, but he appeared not to observe them, and went on quietly with his examination of the state papers.

"You think, then, count," whispered Colloredo, thoughtfully, "that young

Kaunitz cherishes the absurd hope of an alliance with France?"

"I am sure of it. I know that a few days ago the French ambassador delivered to him a most affectionate missive from his friend the Marquise de Pompadour; and I know too that yesterday he replied to it in a similar strain: It is his fixed idea, and that of La Pompadour also, to drive Austria into a new line of policy, by making her the ally of France."

Count Colloredo laughed. "The best cure that I know of for fixed ideas is the madhouse," replied he, "and thither we will send little Kaunitz if-"

He ceased suddenly, for Kaunitz had slowly raised his eyes from the table, and they now rested with such an icy gaze upon the smiling face of Colloredo, that the frightened statesman shivered.

"If he should have heard me!" murmured he. "If he-" but the poor count had no further time for reflection; for at that moment the folding-doors leading to the private apartments of the empress were thrown open, and the lord high steward announced the approach of her majesty.

The councillors advanced to the table, and in respectful silence awaited the imperial entrance.

The rustling of silk was heard; and then the quick step of the Countess Fuchs, whose duty it was to accompany the empress to the threshold of her council-chamber, and to close the door behind her.

And now appeared the majestic figure of the empress. The lords laid their hands upon their swords, and inclined their heads in reverence before the imperial lady, who with light, elastic step advanced to the table, while the Countess Fuchs noiselessly closed the door and returned.

The empress smilingly acknowledged the salutation, though her smile was lost to her respectful subjects, who, in obedience to the strict Spanish etiquette which prevailed at the Austrian court, remained with their heads bent until the sovereign had taken her seat upon the throne.

One of these subjects had bent his head with the rest, but he had ventured to raise it again, and he at least met the glance of royalty. This bold subject was Kaunitz, the youngest of the councillors.

He gazed at the advancing empress, and for the first time a smile flitted over his stony features. And well might the sight of his sovereign lady stir the marble heart of Kaunitz; for Maria Theresa was one of the loveliest women of her day. Though thirty-six years of age, and the mother of thirteen children, she was still beautiful, and the Austrians were proud to excess of her beauty. Her high, thoughtful forehead was shaded by a profusion of blond hair, which lightly powdered and gathered up behind in one rich mass, was there confined by a golden net. Her large, starry eyes were of that peculiar gray which changes with every emotion of the soul; at one time seeming to be heavenly-blue, at another the darkest and most flashing brown. Her bold profile betokened great pride; but every look of haughtiness was softened away by the enchanting expression of a mouth in whose exquisite beauty no trace of the so-called "Austrian lip" could be seen. Her figure, loftier than is usual with women, was of faultless symmetry, while her graceful bust would have seemed to the eyes of Praxiteles the waking to life of his own dreams of Juno.

Those who looked upon this beautiful empress could well realize the emotions which thirteen years before had stirred the hearts of the Hungarian nobles as she stood before them; and had wrought them up to that height of enthusiasm which culminated in the well-known shout of

"MORIAMUR PRO REGE NOSTRO!"

"Our king!" cried the Hungarians, and they were right. For Maria Theresa, who with her husband, was the tender wife; toward her children, the loving mother; was in all that related to her empire, her people, and her sovereignty, a man both in the scope of her comprehension and the strength of her will. She was capable of sketching bold lines of policy, and of following them out without reference to personal predilections or prejudices, both of which she was fully competent to stifle, wherever they threatened interference with the good of her realm, or her sense of duty as a sovereign.

The energy and determination of her character were written upon the lofty brow of Maria Theresa; and now, as she approached her councillors, these characteristics beamed forth from her countenance with such power and such beauty, that Kaunitz himself was overawed, and for one moment a smile lit up his cold features.

No one saw this smile except the imperial lady, who had woke the Memnon into life; and as she took her seat upon the throne, she slightly bent her head in return.

Now, with her clear and sonorous voice, she invited her councillors also to be seated, and at once reached out her hand for the memoranda which Count Bartenstein had prepared for her examination.

She glanced quickly over the papers, and laid them aside. "My lords of the Aulic Council," said she, in tones of deep earnestness, "we have to-day a question of gravest import to discuss. I crave thereunto your attention and advice. We are at this sitting to deliberate upon the future policy of Austria, and deeply significant will be the result of this day's deliberations to Austria's welfare. Some of our old treaties are about to expire. Time, which has somewhat moderated the bitterness of our enemies, seems also to have weakened the amity of our friends. Both are dying away; and the question now before us is, whether we shall extinguish enmity, or rekindle friendship? For seventy years past England, Holland, and Sardinia have been our allies. For three hundred years France has been our hereditary enemy. Shall we renew our alliance with the former powers, or seek new relations with the latter? Let me have your views, my lords."

With these concluding words, Maria Theresa waved her hand, and pointed to Count Uhlefeld. The lord chancellor arose, and with a dignified inclination of the head, responded to the appeal.

"Since your majesty permits me to speak, I vote without hesitation for the renewal of our treaty with the maritime powers. For seventy years our relations with these powers have been amicable and honorable. In our days of greatest extremity-when Louis XIV. took Alsatia and the city of Strasburg, and his ally, the Turkish Sultan, besieged Vienna-when two powerful enemies threatened Austria with destruction, it was this alliance with the maritime powers and with Sardinia, which, next to the succor of the generous King of Poland, saved our capital, and Savoy held Lombardy in check, while England and Holland guarded the Netherlands, which, since the days of Philip II., have ever been the nest of rebellion and revolt. To this alliance, therefore, we owe it that your majesty still reigns over those seditious provinces. To Savoy we are indebted for Lombardy; while France, perfidious France, has not only robbed us of our territory, but to this day asserts her right to its possession! No, your majesty-so long as France retains that which belongs to Austria, Austria will neither forgive her enmity nor forget it. See, on the contrary, how the maritime powers have befriended us! It was THEIR gold which enabled us first to withstand France, and afterward Prussia-THEIR gold that filled your majesty's coffers-THEIR gold that sustained and confirmed the prosperity of your majesty's dominions. This is the alliance that I advocate, and with all my heart I vote for its renewal. It is but just that the princes and rulers of the earth should give example to the world of good faith in their dealings; for the integrity of the sovereign is a pledge to all nations of the integrity of his people."

Count Uhlefeld resumed his seat, and after him rose the powerful favorite of the empress, Count Bartenstein, who, in a long and animated address, came vehemently to the support of Uhlefeld.

Then came Counts Colloredo and Harrach, and the lord high steward, Count Khevenhuller-all unanimous for a renewal of the old treaty. Not one of these rich, proud nobles would have dared to breathe a sentiment in opposition to the two powerful statesmen that had spoken before them. Bartenstein and Uhlefeld had passed the word. The alliance must continue with those maritime powers, from whose subsidies such unexampled wealth had flowed into the coffers of Austria, and-those of the lords of the exchequer! For, up to the times of which we write, it was a fundamental doctrine of court faith, that the task of inquiry into the accounts

of the imperial treasury was one far beneath the dignity of the sovereign. The lords of the exchequer, therefore, were responsible to nobody for their administration of the funds arising from the Dutch and English subsidies.

It was natural, then, that the majority of the Aulic Council should vote for the old alliance. While they argued and voted, Kaunitz, the least important personage of them all, sat perfectly unconcerned, paying not the slightest attention to the wise deductions of his colleagues. He seemed much occupied in straightening loose papers, mending his pen, and removing with his finger-tips the tiny, specks that flecked the lustre of his velvet coat. Once, while Bartenstein was delivering his long address, Kaunitz carried his indifference so far as to draw out his repeater (on which was painted a portrait of La Pompadour, set in diamonds) and strike the hour! The musical ring of the little bell sounded a fairy accompaniment to the deep and earnest tones of Bartenstein's voice; while Kaunitz, seeming to hear nothing else, held the watch up to his ear and counted its strokes. [Footnote: Vide Kormayr, "Austrian Plutarch," vol. xii., p.352.] The empress, who was accustomed to visit the least manifestation of such inattention on the part of her councillors with open censure-the empress, so observant of form, and so exacting of its observance in others-seemed singularly indulgent to-day; for while Kaunitz was listening to the music of his watch, his imperial mistress looked on with half a smile. At last, when the fifth orator had spoken, and it became the turn of Kaunitz to vote, Maria Theresa turned her flashing eyes upon him with a glance of anxious and appealing expectation.

As her look met his, how had all coldness and unconcern vanished from his face! How glowed his eyes with the lustre of great and world-swaying thoughts, as, rising from his chair, he returned the gaze of his sovereign with one that seemed to crave forbearance!

But Kaunitz had almost preternatural control over his emotions, and he recovered himself at once.

"I cannot vote for a renewal of our worn-out alliance with the maritime powers," said he, in a clear and determined voice. As he uttered these words, looks of astonishment and disapprobation were, visible upon the faces of his colleagues. The lord chancellor contented himself with a contemptuous shrug and a supercilious smile. Kaunitz perceived it, and met both shrug and smile with undisturbed composure, while calmly and slowly he repeated his offending words. For a moment he paused, as if to give time to his hearers to test the flavor of his new and startling language. Then, firm and collected, he went on:

"Our alliance with England and Holland has long been a yoke and a humiliation to Austria. If, in its earlier days, this alliance ever afforded us protection, dearly have we paid for that protection, and we have been forced to buy it with fearful sacrifices to our national pride. Never for one moment have these two powers allowed us to forget that we have been dependent upon their bounty for money and defence. Jealous of the growing power and influence of Austria, before whose youthful and vigorous career lies the glory of future greatness-jealous of our increasing wealth-jealous of the splendor of Maria Theresa's reign-these powers, whose faded laurels are buried in the grave of the past, have compassed sea and land to stop the flow of our prosperity, and sting the pride of our nationality. With their tyrannical commercial edicts, they have dealt injury to friends as well as foes. The closing of the Scheldt and Rhine, the Barrier treaty, and all the other restrictions upon trade devised by those crafty English to damage the traffic of other nations, all these compacts have been made as binding upon Austria as upon every other European power. Unmindful of their alliance with us, the maritime powers have closed their ports against our ships; and while affecting to watch the Netherlands in our behalf, they have been nothing better than spies, seeking to discover whether our flag transcended in the least the limits of our own blockaded frontiers; and whether to any but to themselves accrued the profits of trade with the Baltic and North Seas. Vraiment, such friendship lies heavily upon us, and its weight feels almost like that of enmity. At Aix-la-Chapelle I had to remind the English ambassador that his unknightly and arrogant bearing toward Austria was unseemly both to the sex and majesty of Austria's empress. And our august sovereign herself, not long since, saw fit to reprove the insolence of this same British envoy, who in her very presence spoke of the Netherlands as though they had been a boon to Austria from England's clemency. Incensed at the tone of this representative of our friends, the empress exclaimed: 'Am I not ruler in the Netherlands as well as in Vienna? Do I hold my right of empire from England and Holland?'" [Footnote: Coxe, "History of the House of Austria," vol. v., p. 51.]

"Yes," interrupted Maria Theresa, impetuously, "yes, it is true. The arrogance of these royal traders has provoked me beyond all bearing. I will no longer permit them to insinuate of my own imperial rights that I hold them as favors from the hand of any earthly power. It chafes the pride of an empress-queen to be CALLED a friend and TREATED as a vassal; and I intend that these proud allies shall feel that I resent their affronts!"

It was wonderful to see the effect of these impassioned words upon the auditors of the empress. They quaked as they thought how they had voted, and their awe-stricken faces were pallid with fright. Uhlefeld and Bartenstein exchanged glances of amazement and dismay; while the other nobles, like adroit courtiers, fixed their looks, with awakening admiration, upon Kaunitz, in whom their experienced eyes were just discovering the rising luminary of a new political firmament.

He, meanwhile, had inclined his head and smiled when the empress had interrupted him. She ceased, and after a short pause, Kaunitz resumed, with unaltered equanimity: "Your majesty has been graciously pleased to testify, in your own sovereign person, to the tyranny of our two northern allies. It remains, therefore, to speak of Sardinia alone-Sardinia, who HELD LOMBARDY IN CHECK. No sooner had Victor Amadeus put his royal signature to the treaty made by him with Austria, than he turned to his confidants and said (loud enough for us to hear him in Vienna): 'Lombardy is mine. I will take it, but I shall eat it up, leaf by leaf, like an artichoke.' And methinks his majesty of Sardinia has proved himself to be a good trencherman. He has already swallowed several leaves of his artichoke, in that he is master of several of the fairest provinces of Lombardy. It is true that this royal gourmand has laid aside his crown; and that in his place reigns Victor Emanuel, of whom Lord Chesterfield, in a burst of enthusiasm, has said, that `he never did and never will commit an act of injustice.' Concede that Victor Emanuel is the soul of honor; still," added Kaunitz with a shake of the head, and an incredulous smile "still-the Italian princes are abominable geographers-and they are inordinately fond of artichokes. [Footnote: Kaunitz's own words. Kotmayr, "Austrian Plutarch," vol. xi.] Now their fondness for this vegetable is as dangerous to Austria as the too loving grasp of her northern allies, who with their friendly hands not only close their ports against us, but lay the weight of their favors so heavily upon our heads as to force us down upon our knees before them. What have we from England and Holland but their subsidies? And Austria can now afford to relinquish them- Austria is rich, powerful, prosperous enough to be allowed to proffer her friendship where it will be honorably returned. Austria, then, must be freed from her oppressive alliance with the maritime powers. She has youth and vitality enough to shake off this bondage, and strike for the new path which shall lead her to greatness and glory. There is a moral and intangible greatness, of whose existence these trading Englishmen have no conception, but which the refined and elevated people of France are fully competent to appreciate. France extends to us her hand, and offers us alliance on terms of equality. Cooperating with France, we shall defy the enmity of all Europe. With our two-edged sword we shall turn the scales of future European strife, and make peace or war for other nations. France, too, is our natural ally, for she is our neighbor. And she is more than this, for she is our ally by the sacred unity of one faith. The Holy Father at Rome, who blesses the arms of Austria, will no longer look sorrowfully upon Austria's league with heresy. When apostolic France and we are one, the blessings of the Church will descend upon our alliance. Religion, therefore, as well as honest statesmanship, call for the treaty with France."

"And I," cried Maria Theresa, rising quickly from her seat, her eyes glowing with enthusiastic fire, "I vote joyfully with Count Kaunitz. I, too, vote for alliance with France. The count has spoken as it stirs my heart to hear an Austrian speak. He loves his fatherland, and in his devotion he casts far from him all thought of worldly profit or advancement. I tender him my warmest thanks, and I will take his words to heart."

Overcome with the excitement of the moment, the empress reached her hand to Kaunitz, who eagerly seized and pressed it to his lips.

Count Uhlefeld watched this extraordinary scene with astonishment and consternation. Bartenstein, so long the favorite minister of Maria Theresa, was deadly pale, and his lips were compressed as though he were trying to suppress a burst of rage. Harrach, Colloredo, and Khevenhuller hung their heads, while they turned over in their little minds how best to curry favor with the new minister.

The empress saw nothing of the dismayed faces around her. Her soul was filled with high emotions, and her countenance beamed gloriously with the fervor of her boundless patriotism.

"Everything for Austria! My heart, my soul, my life, all are for my fatherland," said Maria Theresa, with her beautiful eyes raised to heaven. "And now, my lords," added she, after a pause, "I must retire, to beg light and counsel from the Almighty. I have learned your different views on the great question of this day; and when Heaven shall have taught me what to do, I will decide."

She waved her hand in parting salutation, and with her loftiest imperial bearing left the room.

Until the doors were closed, the lords of the council remained standing with inclined heads. Then they looked from one to another with faces of wonder and inquiry. Kaunitz alone seemed unembarrassed; and gathering up his papers with as much unconcern as if nothing had happened, he slightly bent his head and left the room.

Never before had any member of the Aulic Council dared to leave that room until the lord chancellor had given the signal of departure. It was a case of unparalleled violation of court etiquette. Count Uhlefeld was aghast, and Bartenstein seemed crushed. Without exchanging a word, the two friends rose, and with eyes cast down, and faces pale with the anguish of that hour, together they left the council-chamber toward which they had repaired with hearts and bearing so triumphant.

Colloredo and Harrach followed silently to the anteroom, and bowed deferentially as their late masters passed through. But no sooner had the door closed, than the two courtiers exchanged malicious smiles.

"Fallen favorites," laughed Harrach. "Quenched lights which yesterday shone like suns, and to-day are burnt to ashes! There is to be a soiree to-night at Bartenstein's. For the first time in eleven years I shall stay away from Bartenstein's soirees."

"And I," replied Colloredo, laughing, "had invited Ulhlefeld for to-morrow. But, as the entertainment was all in his honor, I shall be taken with a sudden indisposition, and countermand my supper."

"That will be a most summary proceeding," said Harrach. "I see that you believe the sun of Uhlefeld and Bartenstein has set forever."

"I am convinced of it. They have their death-blow."

"And the rising sun? You think it will be called Kaunitz?"

"Will be? It is called Kaunitz: so take my advice. Kaunitz I know, is not a man to be bribed; but he has two weaknesses-women and horses. You are, for the present, the favorite of La Fortina; and yesterday you won from Count Esterhazy an Arabian, which Kaunitz says is the finest horse in Vienna. If I were you, I would present to him both my mistress and my horse. Who knows but what these courtesies may induce him to adopt you as a PROTEGE?"

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