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   Chapter 2 THE LETTER.

Joseph II. and His Court: An Historical Novel By L. Mühlbach Characters: 17280

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


From her cabinet council the empress passed at once to her private apartments. When business was over for the, day, she loved to cast the cares of sovereignty behind, and become a woman-chatting with her ladies of honor over the "on dits" of the court and city. During the hours devoted to her toilet, Maria Theresa gave herself up unreservedly to enjoyment. But she was so impetuous, that her ladies of honor were never quite secure that some little annoyance would not ruffle the serenity of her temper. The young girl whose duty it was to read aloud to the empress and dress her hair, used to declare that she would sooner wade through three hours' worth of Latin dispatches from Hungary, than spend one half hour as imperial hair-dresser.

But today, as she entered her dressing-room, the eyes of the empress beamed with pleasure, and her mouth was wreathed with sunny smiles. The little hair-dresser was delighted, and with a responsive smile took her place, and prepared for her important duties. Maria Theresa glided into the chair, and with her own hands began to unfasten the golden net that confined her hair. She then leaned forward, and, with a pleased expression, contemplated the beautiful face that looked out from the silver-framed Venetian glass before which she sat.

"Make me very charming today, Charlotte," said she. [Footnote: Charlotte von Hieronymus was the mother of Caroline Pichler.]

"Your majesty needs no help from me to look charming," said the gentle voice of the little tire-woman. "No hair-dresser had lent you her aid on that day when your Magyar nobles swore to die for you, and yet the world says that never were eyes of loyal subjects dazzled by such beauty and such grace."

"Ah, yes, child, but that was thirteen years ago. Thirteen years! How many cares have lain upon my heart since that day! If my face is wrinkled and my hair grown gray, I may thank that hateful King of Prussia, for he is the cause of it all."

"If he has no greater sins to repent of than those two," replied Charlotte, with an admiring smile, "he may sleep soundly. Your majesty's forehead is unruffled by a wrinkle, and your hair is as glossy and as brown as ever it was."

Brighter still was the smile of the empress, as she turned quickly round and exclaimed: "Then you think I have still beauty enough to please the emperor? If you do, make good use of it today, for I have something of importance to ask of him, and I long to find favor in his eyes. To work, then, Charlotte, and be quick, for-"

At that moment, the silken hangings before the door of the dressing-room were drawn hastily aside, and the Countess Fuchs stepped forward.

"Ah, countess," continued the empress, "you are just in time for a cabinet toilet council."

But the lady of honor showed no disposition to respond to the gay greeting of her sovereign. With stiffest Spanish ceremony, she courtesied deeply. "Pardon me, your majesty, if I interrupt you," said she, solemnly, "but I have something to communicate to yourself alone."

"Oh, countess!" exclaimed Maria Theresa, anxiously, "you look as if you bare me sad tidings. But speak out-Charlotte knows as many state secrets as you do; you need not be reserved before her."

"Pardon me," again replied the ceremonious lady, with another deep courtesy, "I bring no news of state-I must speak with your majesty alone."'

The eyes of the empress dilated with fear. "No state secret," murmured she; "oh, what can it be, then? Go, Charlotte, go, child, and remain until I recall you."

The door closed behind the tired woman, and the empress cried out: "Now we are alone, be quick, and speak out what you have to say. You have come to give me pain, I feel it."

"Your majesty ordered me, some time since," began the countess in her low, unsympathizing tones, "to watch the imperial household, so that nothing might transpire within it that came not to the knowledge of your majesty. I have lately watched the movements of the emperor's valet."

"Ah!" cried the empress, clasping her hands convulsively together, "you watched him, and"

"Yes, your majesty, I watched him, and I was informed this morning that he had left the emperor's apartments with a sealed note in his hands, and had gone into the city."

"No more just yet," said the empress, with trembling lip.

"Give me air! I cannot breathe." With wild emotion she tore open her velvet bodice, and heaving a deep sigh, signed to the countess to go on.

"My spy awaited Gaspardi's return, and stopped him. He was forbidden, in the name of your majesty, to go farther. "

"Go on."

"He was brought to me, your majesty, and now awaits your orders."

"So that if there is an answer to the note, he has it," said Maria

Theresa, sharply. The countess bowed.

"Where is he?"

"In the antechamber, your majesty."

The empress bounded from her seat, and walked across the room. Her face was flushed with anger, and she trembled in every limb. She seemed undecided what to do; but at last she stopped suddenly, and blushing deeply, without looking at the countess, she said in a low voice, "Bring him hither."

The countess disappeared and returned, followed by Gaspardi. Maria Theresa strode impetuously forward, and bent her threatening eyes upon the valet. But the shrewd Italian knew better than to meet the lightning glance of an angry empress. With downcast looks and reverential obeisance he awaited her commands. "Look at me, Gaspardi," said she, in tones that sounded in the valet's ears like distant thunder. "Answer my questions, sir"

Gaspardi raised his eyes.

"To whom was the note addressed that was given you by the emperor this morning?"

"Your majesty, I did not presume to look at it," replied Gaspardi, quietly. "His imperial majesty was pleased to tell me where to take it, and that sufficed me."

"And whither did you take it?"

"Imperial majesty, I have forgotten the house."

"What street, then?"

"Pardon me, imperial majesty; these dreadful German names are too hard for my Italian tongue. As soon as I had obeyed his majesty's commands, I forgot the name of the street."

"So that you are resolved not to tell me where you went with the emperor's note?"

"Indeed, imperial majesty, I have totally forgotten."

The empress looked as if she longed to annihilate a menial who defied her so successfully.

"I see," exclaimed she, "that you are crafty and deceitful, but you shall not escape me. I command you, as your sovereign, to give up the note you bear about you for the emperor. I myself will deliver it to his majesty."

Gaspardi gave a start, and unconsciously his hand sought the place where the note was concealed. He turned very pale and stammered, "Imperial majesty, I have no letter for the emperor."

"You have it there!" thundered the infuriated empress, as with threatening hand she pointed to the valet's breast. "Deliver it at once, or I will call my lackeys to search you."

"Your majesty forces me then to betray my lord and emperor?" asked

Gaspardi, trembling.

"You serve him more faithfully by relinquishing the letter than by retaining it," returned Maria Theresa, hastily. "Once more I command you to give it up."

Gaspardi heaved a sigh of anguish, and looked imploringly at the empress. But in the trembling lips, the flashing eyes, the flushed cheeks that met his entreating glance, he saw no symptoms of relenting, and he dared the strife no longer. His hand shook as he drew forth the letter.

The empress uttered a cry, and with the fury of a lioness snatched the paper and crushed it in her hand.

"Your majesty," whispered the countess, "dismiss the valet before he learns too much. He might-"

"Woe to him if he breathes a word to one human being!" cried the empress, with menacing gesture. "Woe to him if he dare breathe one word to his master!"

"Heaven forbid that I should betray the secrets of my sovereign!" cried the affrighted Gaspardi. "But, imperial majesty, what am I to say to my lord the emperor?"

"You will tell your lord that you brought no answer, and it will not be the first lie with which you have befooled his imperial ears," replied Maria Theresa coutemptuously, while she waved her hand as a signal of dismissal. The unhappy Mercury retired, and as he disappeared, the pent-up anguish of the empress burst forth.

"Ah, Margaretta," cried she, in accents of wildest grief, "what an unfortunate woman I am! In all my life I have loved but one man! My heart, my soul, my every thought are his, and he robs me, the mother of his children, of his love, and bestows it upon anothe

r!"

"Perhaps the inconstancy is but momentary," replied the countess, who burned to know the contents of the letter. "Perhaps there is no inconstancy at all. This may be nothing but an effort on the part of some frivolous coquette to draw our handsome emperor within the net of her guilty attractions. The note would show-" The empress scarcely heeded the words of her confidante. She had opened her hand, and was gazing upon the crumpled paper that held her husband's secret.

"Oh!" murmured she, plaintively. "Oh, it seems to me that a thousand daggers have sprung from this little paper, to make my heart's blood flow. Who is the foolhardy woman that would entice my husband from his loyalty to me? Woe, woe to her when I shall have learned her name! And I will learn it!" cried the unhappy wife. "I myself will take this letter to the emperor, and he shall open it in my presence. I will have justice! Adultery is a fearful crime, and fearful shall be its punishment in my realms. The name! the name! Oh, that I knew the name of the execrable woman who has dared to lift her treasonable eyes toward my husband!"

"Nothing is easier than to learn it, your majesty," whispered the countess, "squat like a toad, close to the ear of Eve"-"the letter will reveal it."

The empress frowned. Oh, for Ithuriel then!

"Dost mean that I shall open a letter which was never intended to be read by me?"

The countess pointed to the paper. "Your majesty has already broken the seal. You crushed it unintentionally. There remains but to unfold the paper, and every thing is explained. I will wage that it comes from the beautiful dancer Riccardo, whom the emperor admired so much last night in the ballet, and whom he declared to be the most bewitching creature he had ever seen."

The eyes of the empress dropped burning tears, and, covering her face with her hands, she sobbed aloud. Then she seemed ashamed of her emotion, and raised her beautiful head again.

"It is contemptible so to mourn for one who is faithless," said she. "It is for me to judge and to punish, and that will I! It is my duty as ruler of Austria to bring crime to light. I will soon learn who it is that dares to exchange letters with the husband of the reigning empress. And after all, the speediest, the simplest way to do this, lies before me. I must open the letter, for justice sake; but I swear that I will not read one word contained within its stages. I will see the name of the writer alone; and then I can be sure that curiosity and personal interest have not prompted me."

And so Maria Theresa silenced her scruples, and persuaded herself that she was compelled to do as the tempter had suggested. She tore open the note; but true to her self-imposed vow, she paused on the threshold of dishonor, and read nothing but the writer's name.

"Riccardo!" cried she, wildly. "You were right, Margaretta: an intrigue with the Riccardo. The emperor has written to her-the emperor, my husband!"

She folded the fatal letter, and oh, how her white hands trembled as she laid it upon the table I and how deadly pale were the cheeks that had flushed with anger when Gaspardi had been by!

The countess was not deceived by this phase of the empress's grief. She knew that the storm would burst, and she thought it better to divide its wrath. She stepped lightly out to call the confessor of her victim.

Maria Theresa was unconscious of being alone. She stood before the table staring at the letter. Gradually her paleness vanished, and the hue of anger once more deepened on her cheeks. Her eyes, which had just been drooping with tears, flamed again with indignation; and her expanded nostrils, her twitching mouth, and her heaving chest, betrayed the fury of the storm that was raging within.

"Oh, I will trample her under foot!" muttered she between her teeth, while she raised her hand as if she would fain have dealt a leach-stroke. "I will prove to the court-to the empire-to the world, how Maria Theresa hates vice, and how she punishes crime, without respect of persons. Both criminals shall feel the lash of justice. If my woman's heart break, the empress shall do her duty. It shall not be said that lust holds its revels in Vienna, as at the obscene courts of Versailles and St. Petersburg. No! Nor shall the libertines of Vienna point to the Austrian emperor as their model, nor shall their weeping wives be taunted with reports of the indulgence of the Austrian empress. Morality and decorum shall prevail in Vienna. The fire of my royal vengeance shall consume that bold harlot, and then-then for the emperor!"

"Your majesty will never consent to bring disgrace upon the father of your imperial children," said a gentle voice close by, and, turning at the sound, the empress beheld her confessor.

She advanced hastily toward Father Porhammer. "How!" exclaimed she angrily, "how!-you venture to plead for the emperor? You come hither to stay the hand of justice?"

"I do indeed," replied the father, "for to-day at least, her hand, if uplifted against the emperor, must recoil upon the empress. The honor of my august sovereigns cannot be divided. Your majesty must throw the shield of your love over the fault of your imperial husband."

"Oh, I cannot! I cannot suffer this mortal blow in silence," sobbed the empress.

"Nay," said the father, smiling, "the wife may be severe, though the empress be clement."

"But she, father-must she also be pardoned? she who has enticed my husband from his conjugal faith?"

"As for the Riccardo," replied Father Porhammer, "I have heard that she is a sinful woman, whose beauty has led many men astray. If your majesty deem her dangerous, she can be made to leave Vienna; but let retribution go no further."

"Well, be it so," sighed the empress, whose heart was already softening. "You are right, reverend father, but La Riccardo shall leave Vienna forever."

So saying, she hastened to her escritoire, and wrote and signed the order for the banishment of the danseuse.

"There." cried she, handing the order to the priest. "I pray you, dear father, remit this to Count Bartenstein, and let him see that she goes hence this very day. And when I shall have laid this evil spirit, perchance I may find peace once more. But, no, no!" continued she, her eyes filling with tears; "when she has gone, some other enchantress will come in her place to charm my husband's love away. Oh, father, if chastity is not in the heart, sin will always find entrance there."

"Yes, your majesty; and therefore should the portals of the heart be ever guarded against the enemy. As watchmen are appointed to guard the property, so are the servants of God sent on earth to extend the protection of Heaven to the hearts of your people."

"And why may I not aid them in their holy labors?" exclaimed the empress, glowing suddenly with a new interest. "Why may I not appoint a committee of good and wise men to watch over the morals of my subjects, and to warn them from temptation, ere it has time to become sin? Come, father, you must aid me in this good work. Help me to be the earthly, as the Blessed Virgin is the heavenly mother of the Austrian people. Sketch me some plan whereby I may organize my scheme. I feel sure that your suggestions will be dictated by that Heaven to which you have devoted your whole life."

"May the spirit of counsel and the spirit of wisdom enlighten my understanding," said the father, with solemn fervor, "that I may worthily accomplish the mission with which my empress has intrusted me!"

"But, your majesty," whispered the Countess Fuchs, "in your magnanimous projects for your people, you are losing sight of yourself. The Riccardo has not yet been banished; and the emperor, seeing that no answer is coming to his note, may seek an interview: Who can guess the consequences of a meeting?"

The empress shivered, as the countess probed the wounds herself had made in that poor, jealous heart.

"True, true," returned she, in an unsteady voice. "Go, father, and begin my work of reform, by casting out that wicked woman from among the unhappy wives of Vienna. I myself will announce her departure to the emperor. And now, dear friends, leave me. You, father, to Count Bartenstein. Countess, recall Charlotte, and send me my tire-women. Let the princes and princesses be regally attired to-day. I will meet the emperor in their midst."

The confessor bowed and retired, and the countess opening the door of the inner dressing-room, beckoned to Charlotte, who, in the recess of a deep bay-window, sat wearily awaiting the summons to return.

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