'Your Highness's authority at the board,' explained the flatterer.
'O, that! O yes,' returned Otto; but for all his carelessness, his vanity was delicately tickled, and his mind returned and dwelt approvingly over the details of his victory. 'I quelled them all,' he thought.
When the more pressing matters had been dismissed, it was already late, and Otto kept the Chancellor to dinner, and was entertained with a leash of ancient histories and modern compliments. The Chancellor's career had been based, from the first off-put, on entire subserviency; he had crawled into honours and employments; and his mind was prostitute. The instinct of the creature served him well with Otto. First, he let fall a sneering word or two upon the female intellect; thence he proceeded to a closer engagement; and before the third course he was artfully dissecting Seraphina's character to her approving husband. Of course no names were used; and of course the identity of that abstract or ideal man, with whom she was currently contrasted, remained an open secret. But this stiff old gentleman had a wonderful instinct for evil, thus to wind his way into man's citadel; thus to harp by the hour on the virtues of his hearer and not once alarm his self-respect. Otto was all roseate, in and out, with flattery and Tokay and an approving conscience. He saw himself in the most attractive colours. If even Greisengesang, he thought, could thus espy the loose stitches in Seraphina's character, and thus disloyally impart them to the opposite camp, he, the discarded husband - the dispossessed Prince - could scarce have erred on the side of severity.
In this excellent frame he bade adieu to the old gentleman, whose voice had proved so musical, and set forth for the drawing-room. Already on the stair, he was seized with some compunction; but when he entered the great gallery and beheld his wife, the Chancellor's abstract flatteries fell from him like rain, and he re-awoke to the poetic facts of life. She stood a good way off below a shining lustre, her back turned. The bend of her waist overcame him with physical weakness. This was the girl-wife who had lain in his arms and whom he had sworn to cherish; there was she, who was better than success.
It was Seraphina who restored him from the blow. She swam forward and smiled upon her husband with a sweetness that was insultingly artificial. 'Frederic,' she lisped, 'you are late.' It was a scene of high comedy, such as is proper to unhappy marriages; and her APLOMB disgusted him.
There was no etiquette at these small drawing-rooms. People came and went at pleasure. The window embrasures became the roost of happy couples; at the great chimney the talkers mostly congregated, each full-charged with scandal; and down at the farther end the gamblers gambled. It was towards this point that Otto moved, not ostentatiously, but with a gentle insistence, and scattering attentions as he went. Once abreast of the card-table, he placed himself opposite to Madame von Rosen, and, as soon as he had caught her eye, withdrew to the embrasure of a window. There she had speedily joined him.
'You did well to call me,' she said, a little wildly. 'These cards will be my ruin.'
'Leave them,' said Otto.
'I!' she cried, and laughed; 'they are my destiny. My only chance was to die of a consumption; now I must die in a garret.'
'You are bitter to-night,' said Otto.
'I have been losing,' she replied. 'You do not know what greed is.'
'I have come, then, in an evil hour,' said he.
'Ah, you wish a favour!' she cried, brightening beautifully.
'Madam,' said he, 'I am about to found my party, and I come to you for a recruit.'
'Done,' said the Countess. 'I am a man again.'
'I may be wrong,' continued Otto, 'but I believe upon my heart you wish me no ill.'
'I wish you so well,' she said, 'that I dare not tell it you.'
'Then if I ask my favour?' quoth the Prince.
'Ask it, MON PRINCE,' she answered. 'Whatever it is, it is granted.'
'I wish you,' he returned, 'this very night to make the farmer of our talk.'
'Heaven knows your meaning!' she exclaimed.