'I know not, neither care; there are no bounds to my desire to please you. Call him made.'
'I will put it in another way,' returned Otto. 'Did you ever steal?'
'Often!' cried the Countess. 'I have broken all the ten commandments; and if there were more to-morrow, I should not sleep till I had broken these.'
'This is a case of burglary: to say the truth, I thought it would amuse you,' said the Prince.
'I have no practical experience,' she replied, 'but O! the good- will! I have broken a work-box in my time, and several hearts, my own included. Never a house! But it cannot be difficult; sins are so unromantically easy! What are we to break?'
'Madam, we are to break the treasury,' said Otto and he sketched to her briefly, wittily, with here and there a touch of pathos, the story of his visit to the farm, of his promise to buy it, and of the refusal with which his demand for money had been met that morning at the council; concluding with a few practical words as to the treasury windows, and the helps and hindrances of the proposed exploit.
'They refused you the money,' she said when he had done. 'And you accepted the refusal? Well!'
'They gave their reasons,' replied Otto, colouring. 'They were not such as I could combat; and I am driven to dilapidate the funds of my own country by a theft. It is not dignified; but it is fun.'
'Fun,' she said; 'yes.' And then she remained silently plunged in thought for an appreciable time. 'How much do you require?' she asked at length.
'Three thousand crowns will do,' he answered, 'for I have still some money of my own.'
'Excellent,' she said, regaining her levity. 'I am your true accomplice. And where are we to meet?'
'You know the Flying Mercury,' he answered, 'in the Park? Three pathways intersect; there they have made a seat and raised the statue. The spot is handy and the deity congenial.'
'Child,' she said, and tapped him with her fan. 'But do you know, my Prince, you are an egoist - your handy trysting-place is miles from me. You must give me ample time; I cannot, I think, possibly be there before two. But as the bell beats two, your helper shall arrive: welcome, I trust. Stay - do you bring any one?' she added. 'O, it is not for a chaperon - I am not a prude!'
'I shall bring a groom of mine,' said Otto. 'I caught him stealing corn.'
'His name?' she asked.
'I profess I know not. I am not yet intimate with my corn-stealer,' returned the Prince. 'It was in a professional capacity - '
'Like me! Flatterer!' she cried. 'But oblige me in one thing. Let me find you waiting at the seat - yes, you shall await me; for on this expedition it shall be no longer Prince and Countess, it shall be the lady and the squire - and your friend the thief shall be no nearer than the fountain. Do you promise?'
'Madam, in everything you are to command; you shall be captain, I am but supercargo,' answered Otto.
'Well, Heaven bring all safe to port!' she said. 'It is not Friday!'
Something in her manner had puzzled Otto, had possibly touched him with suspicion.
'Is it not strange,' he remarked, 'that I should choose my accomplice from the other camp?'
'Fool!' she said. 'But it is your only wisdom that you know your friends.' And suddenly, in the vantage of the deep window, she caught up his hand and kissed it with a sort of passion. 'Now go,' she added, 'go at once.'
He went, somewhat staggered, doubting in his heart that he was over- bold. For in that moment she had flashed upon him like a jewel; and even through the strong panoply of a previous love he had been conscious of a shock. Next moment he had dismissed the fear.
Both Otto and the Countess retired early from the drawing-room; and the Prince, after an elaborate feint, dismissed his valet, and went forth by the private passage and the back postern in quest of the groom.
Once more the stable was in darkness, once more Otto employed the talismanic knock, and once more the groom appeared and sickened with terror.