“Yes, I remember the words; but between them and my reply there is a veil that separates the two.”
“The veil has been removed.”
“Ah! Then you saw the lady of the castle without her veil? Is she pretty?”
“More than pretty!”
“And who is she? What is she to Count Vavel?”
“She is not your rival, my pretty sister Katinka; she is neither wife nor betrothed to Count Vavel—nor yet his secret love.”
“Then she must be his sister—or daughter.”
“No; she is neither sister nor daughter.”
“Then what is she? Not a servant?”
“No; she is his mistress.”
“Yes, his mistress—as my queen is my mistress.”
“Ah!” There was a peculiar gleam in the lovely baroness’s eyes. Then she came nearer to Herr Bernat, and asked with womanly shyness: “And you believe the count—loves me?”
“That I do not know, baroness, for he did not tell me; but I think you know that he loves you. That he deserves your love I can swear! No one can become thoroughly acquainted with Count Vavel and not love him. I went to the castle to ask him to join the noble militia, and he let me see the lady about whom so much has been said. She had excellent reasons, baroness, for veiling her lovely face, for whoever had seen her mother’s pictures would have recognized her at once. When Count Vavel goes into battle to help defend our fatherland, he must leave the royal maid in a mother’s hands. Will you fill that office? Will you take the desolate maid to your heart? And now, Katinka hugom, give me your answer to the Count’s words.”
With sudden impulsiveness the baroness extended both hands to Herr Bernat, and said earnestly:
“With all my heart I consent to be Count Vavel’s betrothed wife!”
“And I may fly to him with this answer?”
“Yes—on condition that you take me with you.”
“What, baroness? You wish to go to the castle—now?”
“Yes, now—this very moment—in these clothes! I have no one to ask what I should or should not do, and—he needs me.”
When his emissary had departed, Count Vavel began to reflect whether he had not been rather hasty. Had he done right in giving to the world his zealously guarded secret?
But there lay the royal manifesto on the table; there was no doubting that. The venture must be made now or never. If only d’Avoncourt were free! How well he would know what to do in this emergency!
He seated himself at the table to write to his friends abroad; but he could accomplish nothing; his hand trembled so that he could hardly guide the pen. And why should he tremble? Was he afraid to hear Katharina’s answer? It is by no means a wise move for a man to make on the same day a declaration of war and one of love.
His meditations were interrupted by Marie, who came running into his study, laughing and clapping her hands. She snatched the pen from his fingers, and flung it on the floor.