'We began equal; O, there I will be bold: we have both beautiful complexions. But while I study mine, your Highness tans himself.'
'A perfect negro, madam; and what so fitly - being beauty's slave?' said Otto. - 'Madame Grafinski, when is our next play? I have just heard that I am a bad actor.'
'O CIEL!' cried Madame Grafinski. 'Who could venture? What a bear!'
'An excellent man, I can assure you,' returned Otto.
'O, never! O, is it possible!' fluted the lady. 'Your Highness plays like an angel.'
'You must be right, madam; who could speak falsely and yet look so charming?' said the Prince. 'But this gentleman, it seems, would have preferred me playing like an actor.'
A sort of hum, a falsetto, feminine cooing, greeted the tiny sally; and Otto expanded like a peacock. This warm atmosphere of women and flattery and idle chatter pleased him to the marrow.
'Madame von Eisenthal, your coiffure is delicious,' he remarked.
'Every one was saying so,' said one.
'If I have pleased Prince Charming?' And Madame von Eisenthal swept him a deep curtsy with a killing glance of adoration.
'It is new?' he asked. 'Vienna fashion.'
'Mint new,' replied the lady, 'for your Highness's return. I felt young this morning; it was a premonition. But why, Prince, do you ever leave us?'
'For the pleasure of the return,' said Otto. 'I am like a dog; I must bury my bone, and then come back to great upon it.'
'O, a bone! Fie, what a comparison! You have brought back the manners of the wood,' returned the lady.
'Madam, it is what the dog has dearest,' said the Prince. 'But I observe Madame von Rosen.'
And Otto, leaving the group to which he had been piping, stepped towards the embrasure of a window where a lady stood.
The Countess von Rosen had hitherto been silent, and a thought depressed, but on the approach of Otto she began to brighten. She was tall, slim as a nymph, and of a very airy carriage; and her face, which was already beautiful in repose, lightened and changed, flashed into smiles, and glowed with lovely colour at the touch of animation. She was a good vocalist; and, even in speech, her voice commanded a great range of changes, the low notes rich with tenor quality, the upper ringing, on the brink of laughter, into music. A gem of many facets and variable hues of fire; a woman who withheld the better portion of her beauty, and then, in a caressing second, flashed it like a weapon full on the beholder; now merely a tall figure and a sallow handsome face, with the evidences of a reckless temper; anon opening like a flower to life and colour, mirth and tenderness:- Madame von Rosen had always a dagger in reserve for the despatch of ill-assured admirers. She met Otto with the dart of tender gaiety.
'You have come to me at last, Prince Cruel,' she said. 'Butterfly! Well, and am I not to kiss your hand?' she added.
'Madam, it is I who must kiss yours.' And Otto bowed and kissed it.
'You deny me every indulgence,' she said, smiling.
'And now what news in Court?' inquired the Prince. 'I come to you for my gazette.'
'Ditch-water!' she replied. 'The world is all asleep, grown grey in slumber; I do not remember any waking movement since quite an eternity; and the last thing in the nature of a sensation was the last time my governess was allowed to box my ears. But yet I do myself and your unfortunate enchanted palace some injustice. Here is the last - O positively!' And she told him the story from behind her fan, with many glances, many cunning strokes of the narrator's art. The others had drawn away, for it was understood that Madame von Rosen was in favour with the Prince. None the less, however, did the Countess lower her voice at times to within a semitone of whispering; and the pair leaned together over the narrative.
'Do you know,' said Otto, laughing, 'you are the only entertaining woman on this earth!'
'O, you have found out so much,' she cried.
'Yes, madam, I grow wiser with advancing years,' he returned.