‘And she to you?’
Lieschen answered: ‘Forgive me, your Highness, dearest lady!’
‘You offered yourself here unasked?’
‘Have you written to others besides your sister?’
‘Seldom, princess; I do not remember.’
‘You know the obligation of signatures to letters?’
‘You have been remiss in not writing to me, child.’
‘Oh, princess! I did not dare to.’
‘You have not written to me?’
‘Ah! princess, how dared I?’
‘Are you speaking truthfully?’
The unhappy girls stood trembling. Ottilia spared them the leap into the gulfs of confession. Her intuitive glance, assisted by a combination of minor facts, had read the story of their misdeeds in a minute. She sent them down to the carriage, suffering her culprits to kiss her fingers; while she said to one: ‘This might be a fable of a pair of mice.’
When she was gone, after many fits of musing, the signification of it was revealed to my slower brain. I felt that it could not but be an additional shock to the regal pride of such a woman that these little maidens should have been permitted to act forcibly on her destiny. The mystery of the letters was easily explained as soon as a direct suspicion fell on one of the girls who lived in my neighbourhood and the other who was near the princess’s person. Doubtless the revelation of their effective mouse plot had its humiliating bitterness for her on a day of heavy oppression, smile at it as she subsequently might. The torture of heart with which I twisted the meaning of her words about the pair of mice to imply that the pair had conspired to make a net for an eagle and had enmeshed her, may have struck a vein of the truth. I could see no other antithesis to the laudable performance of the single mouse of fable. Lieschen, when she next appeared in the character of nurse, met my inquiries by supplicating me to imitate her sister’s generous mistress, and be merciful.
She remarked by-and-by, of her own accord: ’Princess Ottilia does not regret that she had us educated.’
A tender warmth crept round me in thinking that a mind thus lofty would surely be, however severe in its insight, above regrets and recantations.
I GAIN A PERCEPTION OF PRINCELY STATE
I had a visit from Prince Ernest, nominally one of congratulation on my escape. I was never in my life so much at any man’s mercy: he might have fevered me to death with reproaches, and I expected them on hearing his name pronounced at the door. I had forgotten the ways of the world. For some minutes I listened guardedly to his affable talk. My thanks for the honour done me were awkward, as if they came upon reflection. The prince was particularly civil and cheerful. His relative, he said, had written of me in high terms—the very highest, declaring that I was blameless in the matter, and that, though he had sent the horse back to my stables, he fully believed in the fine qualities of the animal, and acknowledged his fault in making it a cause of provocation. To all of which I assented with easy nods.