Peterborough was the only one present who bethought him of doing fireman’s duty. The risk looked greater than it was. He had but to tear the lighted curtains down and trample on them. Suddenly the baroness called out, ’The man is right! Come with me, princess; escape, your Highness, escape! And you,’ she addressed me—’you rang the bell, you!’
‘To repair your error, baroness,’ said my father.
‘I have my conscience pure; have you?’ she retorted.
He bowed and said, ’The fire will also excuse your presence on the spot, baroness.’
‘I thank my God I am not so cool as you,’ said she.
‘Your warmth’—he bent to her—’shall always be your apology, baroness.’
Seeing the curtains extinguished, Ottilia withdrew. She gave me no glance.
All this occurred before the night-porter, who was going his rounds, could reach the library. Lacqueys and maids were soon at his heels. My father met Prince Ernest with a florid story of a reckless student, either asleep or too anxious to secure a particular volume, and showed his usual consideration by not asking me to verify the narrative. With that, and with high praise of Peterborough, as to whose gallantry I heard him deliver a very circumstantial account, he, I suppose, satisfied the prince’s curiosity, and appeased him, the damage being small compared with the uproar. Prince Ernest questioned two or three times, ’What set him ringing so furiously?’ My father made some reply.
Ottilia’s cloud-pale windows were the sole greeting I had from her on my departure early next morning, far wretcheder than if I had encountered a misfortune. It was impossible for me to deny that my father had shielded the princess: she would never have run for a menace. As he remarked, the ringing of the bell would not of itself have forced her to retreat, and the nature of the baroness’s alarm demanded nothing less than a conflagration to account for it to the household. But I felt humiliated on Ottilia’s behalf, and enraged on my own. And I had, I must confess, a touch of fear of a man who could unhesitatingly go to extremities, as he had done, by summoning fire to the rescue. He assured me that moments such as those inspired him and were the pride of his life, and he was convinced that, upon reflection, ‘I should rise to his pitch.’ He deluded himself with the idea of his having foiled Baroness Turckems, nor did I choose to contest it, though it struck me that she was too conclusively the foiler. She must have intercepted the letter for the princess. I remembered acting carelessly in handing it to my father for him to consign it to one of the domestics, and he passed it on with a flourish. Her place of concealment was singularly well selected under the sofa-cover, and the little heaps of paper-bound volumes. I do not fancy she meant to rouse the household; her notion probably was to terrorize the princess, that she might compel her to quit my presence. In rushing to the bell-rope, her impetuosity sent her stumbling on it with force, and while threatening to ring, and meaning merely to threaten, she rang; and as it was not a retractable act, she continued ringing, and the more violently upon my father’s appearance. Catching sight of Peterborough at his heels, she screamed a word equivalent to a clergyman. She had lost her discretion, but not her wits.