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"And he does not even deserve mentioning here," said the baron, smiling, "for, even though you were free already, the prebendary never could enjoy the happiness of becoming your husband, and I know that your heart is too chaste to love a man who is unable to offer you his hand. Let us, then, look for such a man among the other cavaliers. There is, for instance, Prince Charles, of Lichtenstein, the most amiable, genial, and handsome of your admirers; a young prince who is neither haughty nor proud, neither prodigal nor stingy; who neither makes love to all ladies so soon as they become fashionable as does Count Esterhazy, nor wants to learn German from you, as does the Marchese Pallafredo; a young man as beautiful as Apollo, as brave as Mars, modest notwithstanding his learning, and affable and courteous notwithstanding his high birth. Well, Fanny, you do not interrupt me? Your sharp tongue, that was able to condemn all the others, has no such sentence for the Prince von Lichtenstein. You suffer me to praise him. Then you assent to my words?"
"I can neither contradict you nor assent to your words," said Fanny, with a forced smile; "I do not know the prince sufficiently to judge him. He has been at Vienna but a very few months--"
"But he has been a daily visitor in our house during that period," said her husband, interrupting her, "and he is constantly seen at your side. All Vienna knows that the prince is deeply enamoured of you, and he does not conceal it by any means, not even from myself. A few days ago, when he was so unfortunate as not to find you at home, because you were presiding over a meeting of your benevolent society, he met me all alone in the reception-room. Suddenly, in the midst of a desultory conversation, he paused, embraced me passionately, and exclaimed: 'Be not so kind, so courteous, and gentle toward me, for I hate you, I detest you--because I hate every thing keeping me back from her; I detest every thing that prevents me from joining HER! Forgive my love for her and my hatred toward you; I feel both in spite of myself. If you were not her husband, I should love you like a friend, but that accursed word renders you a mortal enemy of mine. And still I bow to you in humility--still I implore you to be generous; do not banish me from your house, from HER, for I should die if I were not allowed to see her every day!'"
Fanny had listened to him with blushing cheeks and in breathless suspense. Her whole soul was speaking from the looks which she fixed on her husband, and with which she seemed to drink every word, like sweet nectar, from his lips.
"And what did you reply to him?" she asked, in a dry and husky voice, when the baron was silent.
"I replied to him that you alone had to decide who should appear at our parties, and that every one whom you had invited would be welcome to me. I further told him that his admiration for you did not astonish me at all, and that I would readily forgive his hatred, for--"
The baron paused all at once and looked at his wife with a surprised and inquiring glance. She had started in sudden terror; a deep blush was burning on her cheeks, and her eyes, which had assumed a rapturous and enthusiastic expression, turned toward the door.
The baron's eyes followed her glance, and he heard now a slight noise at the door.
"I believe somebody has knocked at the door," he said, fixing his piercing eyes on his wife. She raised her head and whispered, "Yes, I believe so."
"And it is the second time already," said the baron, calmly. "Will you not permit the stranger to walk in?"
"I do not know," she said, in great embarrassment, "I--"
Suddenly the door opened, and a young man appeared on the threshold.
"Ah, the Prince von Lichtenstein," said the baron, and he went with perfect calmness and politeness to meet the prince who, evidently in great surprise, remained standing in the door, and was staring gloomily at the strange and unexpected group.
"Come in, my dear sir," said the baron, quietly; "the baroness will be very grateful to you for coming here just at this moment and interrupting our conversation, for it referred to dry business matters. I laid a few old accounts, that had been running for five years, before the baroness, and she gave me a receipt for them, that was all. Our interview, moreover, was at an end, and you need not fear to have disturbed us. Permit me, therefore, to withdraw, for you know very well that, in the forenoon, I am nothing but a banker, a business man, and have to attend to the affairs of our firm."
He bowed simultaneously to the prince and to his wife, and left the room, as smiling, calm, and unconcerned as ever. Only when the door had closed behind him, when he had satisfied himself by a rapid glance through the reception-room that nobody was there, the smile disappeared from his lips, and his features assumed an air of profound melancholy.
"She loves him," he muttered; "yes, she loves him! Her hand trembled in mine when I pronounced his name, and oh! how radiant she looked when she heard him come! Yes, she loves him, and I?--I will go to my counting-house!" he said, with a smile that was to veil the tears in his eyes.
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Louisa of Prussia and Her Times -by- Louisa Muhlbach