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Joseph II. and His Court: An Historical Novel By L. Mühlbach Characters: 6766

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

SO dark and gloomy was the face of the empress, that poor Charlotte's heart misgave her, as with a suppressed sigh she resumed her place, and once more took down the rich masses of her sovereign lady's hair. Maria Theresa looked sternly at the reflection of her little maid of honor's face in the glass. She saw how Charlotte's hands trembled and this increased her ill-humor. Again she raised her eyes to her own image, and saw plainly that anger was unbecoming to her. The flush on her face was not rosy, but purple; and the scowl upon her brow was fast deepening into a wrinkle. Her bosom heaved with a heavy, heavy sigh.

"Ah," thought she, "if I am ever again to find favor in his eyes, I must always smile; for smiles are the last glowing tints of beauty's sunset. And yet, how can I smile, when my heart is breaking? He said that the Riccardo was the loveliest woman he had ever seen. Alas! I remember the day when he knelt at my feet, and spoke thus of me. Oh, my Franz! Am I indeed old, and no longer lovable?"

In her anxiety to scrutinize her own features, the empress bent suddenly forward, and the heavy mass of puffs and braids that formed the coiffure she had selected for the day, gave way. She felt the sharp points of the hair-pins in her head, and, miserable and nervous as she was, they seemed to wound her cruelly. Starting from her chair, she poured forth a torrent of reproaches upon Charlotte's head, who, pale and trembling more than ever, repaired the damage, and placed among the braids a bouquet of white roses. These white roses deepened the unbecoming redness of the empress's face. She perceived this at once, and losing all self-control, tore the flowers from her hair, and dashed them on the floor.

"You are all leagued against me." cried she, indignantly. "You are trying your best to disfigure me, and to make me look old before my time. Who ever saw such a ridiculous structure as this headdress, that makes me look like a perambulating castle on a chessboard? Come, another coiffure, and let it not be such a ridiculous one as this."

Charlotte, of course, did not remind her mistress that the coiffure and roses had been her own selection. She had nothing to do but to obey in silence, and begin her work again.

At last the painful task was at an end. The empress looked keenly at herself in the glass, and convinced that she really looked well, she called imperatively for her tire-women. In came the procession, bearing pooped-skirt rich-embroidered train, golden-flowered petticoat, and bodice flashing with diamonds. But the empress, usually so affable at her toilet, surveyed both maids and apparel with gloomy indifference. In moody silence she reached out her feet, while her slippers were exchanged for high-heeled shoes. Not a look had she to bestow upon the magnificent dress which enhanced a thousandfold her mature beauty. Without a word she dismissed the maids of honor, all except Charlotte, whose crowning labor it was to give the last touch to the imperial head when the rest of the toilet had been declared to be complete.

Again Maria Theresa stood before that high Venetian glass, and certainly it did give back the image of a regal beauty. For a while she examined her costume from head to foot; and at last--at last, her beautiful blue eyes beamed bright with satisfaction, and a smile rippled the corners of h

er mouth.

"No," said she, aloud. "No, it is not so. I am neither old nor ugly. The light of youth has not yet fled from my brow. My beauty's sun has not yet set forever. My Franz will love me still; and however charming younger women may be, he will remember the beloved of his boyhood, and we will yet be happy in reciprocal affection, come what may to us as emperor and empress. I do not believe that he said he had never seen so lovely a woman as Riccardo. Poor, dear Franz! He has a tedious life as husband of the reigning sovereign. From sheer ennui he sometimes wanders from his wife's heart, but oh! he must, he must return to me; for if I were to lose him, earthly splendor would be valueless to me forever!"

Charlotte, who stood behind her mistress with the comb in her hand, was dismayed at all that she heard; and the plaintive tones of this magnificent empress, at whose feet lay a world of might, touched her heart's core. But she sickened as she thought that her presence had been unheeded, and that the empress had fancied herself alone, while the secrets of her heart were thus struggling into words. The ample train completely screened little Charlotte from view, and a deadly paleness overspread her countenance as she awaited discovery.

Suddenly the empress turned, and putting her hand tenderly on Charlotte's head, she said, in a voice of indescribable melancholy "Be warned, Charlotte, and if you marry, never marry a man who has nothing to do. Men will grow inconstant from sheer ennui." [Footnote: Maria Theresa's words. See Caroline Pichler. "Memoirs of My Life."]

"I never expect to marry, beloved mistress," said the young girl, deeply touched by this confidence. "I wish to live and die in your majesty's service."

"Do you? And can you bear for a lifetime with my impatience, dear child?" asked the empress, kissing the little devotee on the forehead. "You know now, my little Charlotte, why I have been so unkind to-day; you know that my heart was bleeding with such anguish, that had I not broken out in anger, I must have stifled with agony. You have seen into the depths of my heart, and why should I not confide in you, who know every secret of my state-council? No one suspects what misery lies under the regal mantle. And I care not to exhibit myself to the world's pity. When Maria Theresa weeps, let her God and those who love her be the witnesses of her sorrow. Go, now, good little Charlotte, and forget every thing except your sovereign's love for you. Tell the governess of the Archduke Ferdinand to bring him hither. Let the other imperial children await me in my reception-room; and tell the page in the anteroom to announce to his majesty that I request the honor of a visit from him."

Charlotte, once more happy, left the room, her heart filled with joy for herself, and gentle sorrow for her sovereign.

Meanwhile the empress thought over the coming interview. "I will try to recall him to me by love," murmured she, softly. "I will not reproach him, and although as his empress I have a double claim upon his loyalty, I will not appeal to any thing but his own dear heart; and when he hears how he has made his poor Theresa suffer, I know-"

Here her voice failed her, and tears filled her eyes. But she dashed them quickly away, for steps approached, and the governess entered, with the infant prince in her arms.

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