She was jocund at heart; pleasure and interest had winged her beauty, and she knew it. She paused before the glowing jeweller's; she remarked and praised a costume in the milliner's window; and when she reached the lime-tree walk, with its high, umbrageous arches and stir of passers-by in the dim alleys, she took her place upon a bench and began to dally with the pleasures of the hour. It was cold, but she did not feel it, being warm within; her thoughts, in that dark corner, shone like the gold and rubies at the jewellers; her ears, which heard the brushing of so many footfalls, transposed it into music.
What was she to do? She held the paper by which all depended. Otto and Gondremark and Ratafia, and the state itself, hung light in her balances, as light as dust; her little finger laid in either scale would set all flying: and she hugged herself upon her huge preponderance, and then laughed aloud to think how giddily it might be used. The vertigo of omnipotence, the disease of Caesars, shook her reason. 'O the mad world!' she thought, and laughed aloud in exultation.
A child, finger in mouth, had paused a little way from where she sat, and stared with cloudy interest upon this laughing lady. She called it nearer; but the child hung back. Instantly, with that curious passion which you may see any woman in the world display, on the most odd occasions, for a similar end, the Countess bent herself with singleness of mind to overcome this diffidence; and presently, sure enough, the child was seated on her knee, thumbing and glowering at her watch.
'If you had a clay bear and a china monkey,' asked Von Rosen, 'which would you prefer to break?'
'But I have neither,' said the child.
'Well,' she said, 'here is a bright florin, with which you may purchase both the one and the other; and I shall give it you at once, if you will answer my question. The clay bear or the china monkey - come?'
But the unbreeched soothsayer only stared upon the florin with big eyes; the oracle could not be persuaded to reply; and the Countess kissed him lightly, gave him the florin, set him down upon the path, and resumed her way with swinging and elastic gait.
'Which shall I break?' she wondered; and she passed her hand with delight among the careful disarrangement of her locks. 'Which?' and she consulted heaven with her bright eyes. 'Do I love both or neither? A little - passionately - not at all? Both or neither - both, I believe; but at least I will make hay of Ratafia.'
By the time she had passed the iron gates, mounted the drive, and set her foot upon the broad flagged terrace, the night had come completely; the palace front was thick with lighted windows; and along the balustrade, the lamp on every twentieth baluster shone clear. A few withered tracks of sunset, amber and glow-worm green, still lingered in the western sky; and she paused once again to watch them fading.
'And to think,' she said, 'that here am I - destiny embodied, a norn, a fate, a providence - and have no guess upon which side I shall declare myself! What other woman in my place would not be prejudiced, and think herself committed? But, thank Heaven! I was born just!' Otto's windows were bright among the rest, and she looked on them with rising tenderness. 'How does it feel to be deserted?' she thought. 'Poor dear fool! The girl deserves that he should see this order.'
Without more delay, she passed into the palace and asked for an audience of Prince Otto. The Prince, she was told, was in his own apartment, and desired to be private. She sent her name. A man presently returned with word that the Prince tendered his apologies, but could see no one. 'Then I will write,' she said, and scribbled a few lines alleging urgency of life and death. 'Help me, my Prince,' she added; 'none but you can help me.' This time the messenger returned more speedily, and begged the Countess to follow him: the Prince was graciously pleased to receive the Frau Grafin von Rosen.
Otto sat by the fire in his large armoury, weapons faintly glittering all about him in the changeful light.