WebNovel Joseph II. and His Court Part 159

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“Such faith that I would aid them from my heart, were they even to require the cooperation of Frederick.” [Footnote: Raumer. Contributions, etc., vol. v., p. 444.]

“I shall have no cooperation but yours,” was the reply. “Besides, I know that you owe a grudge to Turkey.”

“I do; for she has taken Belgrade, and I must retake it. The Danube is my birthright, as the Black Sea is yours. I give up Germany, to concentrate my forces upon Turkey and Italy.”

“Let us await the proper time, and when I see it, I shall call upon you to come with me and crush the intrusive Moslem.”

“Look upon me as your general, and upon my army as yours,” replied Joseph, kissing the hand which the czarina extended. “And now,”

continued he, “I must say farewell, and I fear it is for a long separation.”

“Indeed!” cried Catharine. “Must I lose you so soon?”

“My mother is sick, and yearns for my presence,” said Joseph. “The emperor parted from her in displeasure; but the son must not slight the call of a mother, who perchance is on her death-bed. I start for Vienna to-day; and before I leave, at the risk of being accused of flattery, I must express to your majesty the admiration, respect and love which I feel for the n.o.blest woman I have ever known.” [Footnote: The emperor’s own words. Raumer, vol. v., p. 552.]

The empress, overcome, put her arms around Joseph’s neck, and folded him to her heart.

“Oh, were you my son!” whispered she, “I might thank Heaven for the gift of a n.o.ble child who was soul of my soul! Were you mine, I should not be the victim of courtiers’ intrigues, but with my proud arm within yours, I might defy the world.”

As she spoke these words, Catharine raised the emperor’s hand to her lips.

Joseph uttered a cry, and sinking on his knees, kissed the hem of her robe. Then rising, as if reluctant to break the solemnity of their parting by a sound, he turned and left the room.

Catharine looked after him with tearful eyes. “O G.o.d, he has left me! I have found a n.o.ble heart, only to grieve that it can never be mine. I am alone, alone! It is so dreadful to be–“

Suddenly she ceased, for a deep, melodious voice began to sing.

Catharine knew that the voice was Potemkin’s, and that he was calling her to the secret apartments which she had fitted up, for her lover.

The song awakened bitter memories. Potemkin had written it in former years, and she had shed tears of emotion when she heard it–tears which at that time were as precious to him as were his finest diamonds to-day.

The music ceased, and two tears which had gathered in the czarina’s eyes stole down her cheeks. As if drawn by an invisible hand, she crossed the room, and, stooping down, pressed a tiny golden b.u.t.ton which was fastened to the floor. A whirr was heard, the floor opened and revealed a winding staircase which led from her cabinet to the room of her favorite.

As her foot touched the first step, she raised her eyes with a look of despair to heaven, and her trembling lips murmured these words, “Catharine once more in chains!”




Maria Theresa was no more. On the 29th day of November, of the year 1780, she went to rejoin her much-loved “Franz”–him to whom her last words on earth were addressed. In her dying moments, her pale countenance illuminated by joy, the empress would have arisen from the arm-chair in which she sat awaiting her release. The emperor, who had devoted himself to her with all the tenderness of which hid nature was capable, held her bank.

“Whither would your majesty go?” asked he, terified.

Maria Theresa opened her arms, exclaiming, “To thee, to thee, I come!”

Her head fell back, and her dying lips were parted ones more. Her son bent his head to catch the fluttering words, “Franz, my Franz–“

Maria Theresa was no more! The tolling of bells, and the roll of the m.u.f.fled drum, announced to Vienna that the body of their beloved empress was being laid in the vault of the Capuchins, and that after so many years of parting, she rested once more by the side of the emperor.

The iron doors of the crypts were closed, and the thousands and tens of thousands who had followed the empress to her grave, had returned to their saddened homes. The emperor, too, followed by his confidants Lacy and Rosenberg, had retired to his cabinet. His face was inexpressibly sad, and he paced his room with folded arms, utterly forgetful of his friends, whom nevertheless he had requested to follow him, and who, both in the embrasure of a window, were silently awaiting the awakening of the emperor from his dumb grief.

At last he remembered their presence. Directing his steps toward the window he stood before them, and looked anxiously first at one, then at the other.

“Was I an undutiful son?” asked he, in a faltering voice. “I implore you, my friends, make me no courtier’s reply, but speak the plain, unvarnished truth, and tell me whether I was an ungrateful son to my n.o.ble mother. Lacy, by the memory of your own mother, be honest.”

“By the memory of my mother, sire,” said Lacy, solemnly, “no! You bore the burden of your filial duty with exemplary patience, and bowed your will to the will of your mother, even when you knew that she erred in judgment.”

“And you, Rosenberg?” asked Joseph, with a sad smile.

“My opinion, sire, is that you were a n.o.ble, all-enduring son, whose heart was not hardened against his mother, although from your childhood it had provocation to become so. Your majesty bore with more than any other man would have done whose lips had not been locked by filial tenderness.”

“I was silent but resentful,” said Joseph, mournfully. “I bore my burdens ungraciously, and Maria Theresa was aware of it. I have often been angered by her, but she has often wept for my sake. Oh, those tears disturb my conscience.”

“Your majesty should remember that the empress forgave and forgot all the dissensions of by-gone years, and that in her last illness she expressed herself supremely happy in your majesty’s care and tenderness.”

“You should remember also, that with the sagacity which is often vouchsafed to the dying, Maria Theresa confessed that she had unwillingly darkened your majesty’s life by her exactions, and in the magnanimity of her regret asked your forgiveness.”

“I have said all this to myself,” replied Joseph, “I have repeated it over and over in these wretched sleepless nights; but still the dagger of remorse is in my heart, and now I would gladly give years of my life, if my mother were living, that I might redeem the past by cheerful submission to her every wish.”

“Let the great empress rest in peace!” exclaimed Lacy. “She was weary of life, and died with more than willingness. Your majesty must cherish YOUR life, mindful of the vast inheritance which your mother has left you.”

“You are right, Lacy,” cried Joseph, warmly. “It is a n.o.ble inheritance, and I swear to you both to cherish it, not for my own sake, but for the sake of the millions of human beings of whose destinies I shall be the arbiter. I swear to be a good sovereign to my people. By the tears which my mother has shed for me, I will dry the tears of the unfortunate, and the blessing she left me with her dying breath, I shall bestow upon the Austrians whom she loved so well. If I should ever forget this vow, you are here to remind me of it. And now that my reign begins, I exact of you both a proof of your loyalty.”

“Speak, sire,” said Lacy, with a bright and affectionate smile.

“Put me to the test,” cried Rosenberg, “and I shall not flinch.”

The emperor laid his hands upon the shoulders of his friends, and looked at them with unmistakable affection. “Happy is the man who possesses two such friends. But hear what I exact of you. I stand upon the threshold of a new order of things. I am at last an emperor, free to carry out the designs which for so many long years I have been forced to stifle in my sorrowing heart. I am resolved to enlighten and to elevate my subjects.

But if in my zeal to do well. I should lack discretion, it is for you to check and warn me. And if I heed not your warnings, you shall persist, even if your persistence becomes offensive. Will you promise me to do so, dear friends?”

“We promise,” said both with one breath.

“G.o.d and the emperor have heard the promise. Give me your honest hands, my best and truest friends. You, at least, I shall never doubt; I feel that your friendship will be mine until the day of my death!”

“Your majesty is the youngest of us three,” said Lacy, “and you speak as if we would outlive you.”

“Age is not reckoned by years,” replied the emperor, wearily, “but by wounds; and if I count the sears that disappointment has left upon my heart, you will find that I have lived longer than either of you.

Promise, then, to be with me to the last, and to close my eyes for me.”

“Your wife and children will do that for you, sire,” said Rosenberg.

“I will never marry again. My nephew Francis shall be my heir, and I shall consider him as my son. The Empress of Russia has consented to give him her adopted daughter in marriage, and I trust that Francis may be happier in wedlock than his unfortunate uncle. My heart is no longer susceptible of love.”

“And yet it beats with such yearning love toward mankind!” exclaimed Rosenberg.

“Yes–my heart belongs to my people, and there is nothing left of it for woman. For my subjects alone I shall live. Their souls shall be free from the shackles of the church, and they shall no longer be led like children by the hands of priests or prelates! You have tranquillized my conscience, and I have received your vow of fidelity till death. With two such mentors to advise me, I may hope, at last, to do something for fame!”


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