'Good-evening, friend,' said Otto pleasantly. 'I want you to bring a corn sack - empty this time - and to accompany me. We shall be gone all night.'
'Your Highness,' groaned the man, 'I have the charge of the small stables. I am here alone.'
'Come,' said the Prince, 'you are no such martinet in duty.' And then seeing that the man was shaking from head to foot, Otto laid a hand upon his shoulder. 'If I meant you harm,' he said, 'should I be here?'
The fellow became instantly reassured. He got the sack; and Otto led him round by several paths and avenues, conversing pleasantly by the way, and left him at last planted by a certain fountain where a goggle-eyed Triton spouted intermittently into a rippling laver. Thence he proceeded alone to where, in a round clearing, a copy of Gian Bologna's Mercury stood tiptoe in the twilight of the stars. The night was warm and windless. A shaving of new moon had lately arisen; but it was still too small and too low down in heaven to contend with the immense host of lesser luminaries; and the rough face of the earth was drenched with starlight. Down one of the alleys, which widened as it receded, he could see a part of the lamplit terrace where a sentry silently paced, and beyond that a corner of the town with interlacing street-lights. But all around him the young trees stood mystically blurred in the dim shine; and in the stock-still quietness the upleaping god appeared alive.
In this dimness and silence of the night, Otto's conscience became suddenly and staringly luminous, like the dial of a city clock. He averted the eyes of his mind, but the finger rapidly travelling, pointed to a series of misdeeds that took his breath away. What was he doing in that place? The money had been wrongly squandered, but that was largely by his own neglect. And he now proposed to embarrass the finances of this country which he had been too idle to govern. And he now proposed to squander the money once again, and this time for a private, if a generous end. And the man whom he had reproved for stealing corn he was now to set stealing treasure. And then there was Madame von Rosen, upon whom he looked down with some of that ill-favoured contempt of the chaste male for the imperfect woman. Because he thought of her as one degraded below scruples, he had picked her out to be still more degraded, and to risk her whole irregular establishment in life by complicity in this dishonourable act. It was uglier than a seduction.
Otto had to walk very briskly and whistle very busily; and when at last he heard steps in the narrowest and darkest of the alleys, it was with a gush of relief that he sprang to meet the Countess. To wrestle alone with one's good angel is so hard! and so precious, at the proper time, is a companion certain to be less virtuous than oneself!
It was a young man who came towards him - a young man of small stature and a peculiar gait, wearing a wide flapping hat, and carrying, with great weariness, a heavy bag. Otto recoiled; but the young man held up his hand by way of signal, and coming up with a panting run, as if with the last of his endurance, laid the bag upon the ground, threw himself upon the bench, and disclosed the features of Madame von Rosen.
'You, Countess!' cried the Prince.
'No, no,' she panted, 'the Count von Rosen - my young brother. A capital fellow. Let him get his breath.'
'Ah, madam. . .' said he.
'Call me Count,' she returned, 'respect my incognito.'
'Count be it, then,' he replied. 'And let me implore that gallant gentleman to set forth at once on our enterprise.'
'Sit down beside me here,' she returned, patting the further corner of the bench. 'I will follow you in a moment. O, I am so tired - feel how my heart leaps! Where is your thief?'
'At his post,' replied Otto. 'Shall I introduce him? He seems an excellent companion.'
'No,' she said, 'do not hurry me yet. I must speak to you. Not but I adore your thief; I adore any one who has the spirit to do wrong. I never cared for virtue till I fell in love with my Prince.' She laughed musically.