He got to his feet tottering; and then, in that first moment when a dumb agony finds a vent in words, and the tongue betrays the inmost and worst of a man, he permitted himself a retort which, for six weeks to follow, he was to repent at leisure.
'Ah,' said he, 'the Countess? Now I perceive the reason of your Highness's disorder.'
The lackey-like insolence of the words was driven home by a more insolent manner. There fell upon Seraphina one of those storm- clouds which had already blackened upon her reason; she heard herself cry out; and when the cloud dispersed, flung the blood- stained dagger on the floor, and saw Gondremark reeling back with open mouth and clapping his hand upon the wound. The next moment, with oaths that she had never heard, he leaped at her in savage passion; clutched her as she recoiled; and in the very act, stumbled and drooped. She had scarce time to fear his murderous onslaught ere he fell before her feet.
He rose upon one elbow; she still staring upon him, white with horror.
'Anna!' he cried, 'Anna! Help!'
And then his utterance failed him, and he fell back, to all appearance dead.
Seraphina ran to and fro in the room; she wrung her hands and cried aloud; within she was all one uproar of terror, and conscious of no articulate wish but to awake.
There came a knocking at the door; and she sprang to it and held it, panting like a beast, and with the strength of madness in her arms, till she had pushed the bolt. At this success a certain calm fell upon her reason. She went back and looked upon her victim, the knocking growing louder. O yes, he was dead. She had killed him. He had called upon von Rosen with his latest breath; ah! who would call on Seraphina? She had killed him. She, whose irresolute hand could scarce prick blood from her own bosom, had found strength to cast down that great colossus at a blow.
All this while the knocking was growing more uproarious and more unlike the staid career of life in such a palace. Scandal was at the door, with what a fatal following she dreaded to conceive; and at the same time among the voices that now began to summon her by name, she recognised the Chancellor's. He or another, somebody must be the first.
'Is Herr von Greisengesang without?' she called.
'Your Highness - yes!' the old gentleman answered. 'We have heard cries, a fall. Is anything amiss?'
'Nothing,' replied Seraphina 'I desire to speak with you. Send off the rest.' She panted between each phrase; but her mind was clear. She let the looped curtain down upon both sides before she drew the bolt; and, thus secure from any sudden eyeshot from without, admitted the obsequious Chancellor, and again made fast the door.
Greisengesang clumsily revolved among the wings of the curtain, so that she was clear of it as soon as he.
'My God!' he cried 'The Baron!'
'I have killed him,' she said. 'O, killed him!'
'Dear me,' said the old gentleman, 'this is most unprecedented. Lovers' quarrels,' he added ruefully, 'redintegratio - ' and then paused. 'But, my dear madam,' he broke out again, 'in the name of all that is practical, what are we to do? This is exceedingly grave; morally, madam, it is appalling. I take the liberty, your Highness, for one moment, of addressing you as a daughter, a loved although respected daughter; and I must say that I cannot conceal from you that this is morally most questionable. And, O dear me, we have a dead body!'
She had watched him closely; hope fell to contempt; she drew away her skirts from his weakness, and, in the act, her own strength returned to her.
'See if he be dead,' she said; not one word of explanation or defence; she had scorned to justify herself before so poor a creature: 'See if he be dead' was all.
With the greatest compunction, the Chancellor drew near; and as he did so the wounded Baron rolled his eyes.
'He lives,' cried the old courtier, turning effusively to Seraphina. 'Madam, he still lives.'
'Help him, then,' returned the Princess, standing fixed.