'One would suppose you had no sense of humour! Would you fish in a coffee cup?'
'With deference, your Highness,' returned the Baron, 'even in a coffee cup there may be poison. The purpose of this war is not simply territorial enlargement; still less is it a war of glory; for, as your Highness indicates, the state of Grunewald is too small to be ambitious. But the body politic is seriously diseased; republicanism, socialism, many disintegrating ideas are abroad; circle within circle, a really formidable organisation has grown up about your Highness's throne.'
'I have heard of it, Herr von Gondremark,' put in the Prince; 'but I have reason to be aware that yours is the more authoritative information.'
'I am honoured by this expression of my Prince's confidence' returned Gondremark, unabashed. 'It is, therefore, with a single eye to these disorders that our present external policy has been shaped. Something was required to divert public attention, to employ the idle, to popularise your Highness's rule, and, if it were possible, to enable him to reduce the taxes at a blow and to a notable amount. The proposed expedition - for it cannot without hyperbole be called a war - seemed to the council to combine the various characters required; a marked improvement in the public sentiment has followed even upon our preparations; and I cannot doubt that when success shall follow, the effect will surpass even our boldest hopes.'
'You are very adroit, Herr von Gondremark,' said Otto. 'You fill me with admiration. I had not heretofore done justice to your qualities.'
Seraphina looked up with joy, supposing Otto conquered; but Gondremark still waited, armed at every point; he knew how very stubborn is the revolt of a weak character.
'And the territorial army scheme, to which I was persuaded to consent - was it secretly directed to the same end?' the Prince asked.
'I still believe the effect to have been good,' replied the Baron; 'discipline and mounting guard are excellent sedatives. But I will avow to your Highness, I was unaware, at the date of that decree, of the magnitude of the revolutionary movement; nor did any of us, I think, imagine that such a territorial army was a part of the republican proposals.'
'It was?' asked Otto. 'Strange! Upon what fancied grounds?'
'The grounds were indeed fanciful,' returned the Baron. 'It was conceived among the leaders that a territorial army, drawn from and returning to the people, would, in the event of any popular uprising, prove lukewarm or unfaithful to the throne.'
'I see,' said the Prince. 'I begin to understand.'
'His Highness begins to understand?' repeated Gondremark, with the sweetest politeness. 'May I beg of him to complete the phrase?'
'The history of the revolution,' replied Otto dryly. 'And now,' he added, 'what do you conclude?'
'I conclude, your Highness, with a simple reflection,' said the Baron, accepting the stab without a quiver, 'the war is popular; were the rumour contradicted to-morrow, a considerable disappointment would be felt in many classes; and in the present tension of spirits, the most lukewarm sentiment may be enough to precipitate events. There lies the danger. The revolution hangs imminent; we sit, at this council board, below the sword of Damocles.'
'We must then lay our heads together,' said the Prince, 'and devise some honourable means of safety.'
Up to this moment, since the first note of opposition fell from the librarian, Seraphina had uttered about twenty words. With a somewhat heightened colour, her eyes generally lowered, her foot sometimes nervously tapping on the floor, she had kept her own counsel and commanded her anger like a hero. But at this stage of the engagement she lost control of her impatience.
'Means!' she cried. 'They have been found and prepared before you knew the need for them. Sign the despatch, and let us be done with this delay.'
'Madam, I said "honourable,"' returned Otto, bowing. 'This war is, in my eyes, and by Herr von Gondremark's account, an inadmissible expedient.