"AND must your Eminence really leave us tomorrow?" said the Emperor Franz Jozef I., with polite regret, as Cardinal d'Orsay, Papal Nuncio accredited to the court of Vienna, prepared to rise for the final leave-taking.
"I am glad, indeed, to think your Eminence has found Vienna so attractive."
"Not so much Vienna, your Majesty, though the city is delightful in itself, but the Viennese--!" The Cardinal paused, for once in his diplomatic career, words failed him with which to convey his thoughts of this interesting subject.
"You will find in the grandes dames of St. Petersburg formidable rivals to those of Vienna," said the Emperor pensively.
His Eminence did not reply. He recollected one or two little perfumed breaths of scandal that had reached his ears, of how one of those grandes dames of St. Petersburg had, last winter, found in Franz Jozef's large and inflammable heart an undisputed if somewhat temporary place. There was silence for a few moments. The Emperor was evidently ill at east, his hand was toying nervously with the trifling knick-knacks that adorned his writing-table, whilst once or twice he seemed as if about to speak, then checked himself abruptly.
The Cardinal, whose long diplomatic career had taught him the science of quiet patience, leant back in his chair and waited for what, he knew, the Emperor still wished to say to him.
"Your Eminence will be seeing many of my old friends at St. Petersburg," said the Emperor at last, with evasive irrelevance.
"I will make a point of seeing all those your Majesty would wish me to see," replied the Cardinal with pointed courtesy.
"Your Eminence is most kind, and I feel sure will convey my friendly greetings to the Tsar and Tsarista in a far worthier manner than my poor pen could express. I would also wish to be kept in the bons souvenirs of the Grand Duchess Xenia and the Grand Duke, of whose last visit to Vienna I have such agreeable recollections."
The Cardinal smiled imperceptibly, and his eyes rested for an infinitesimal space of time on a dainty miniature, set in old paste, which no doubt portrayed one of those agreeable recollections.
Swift as had been the Cardinal's glance, Franz Jozef evidentlyl had caught it, for he added somewhat nervously:
"And do not forget to lay my humble respects at the feet of the Princess Marïonoff, who, I trust, will soon visit Vienna again, the scene of her last carnival's triumphs."
"Any written or verbal message your Majesty deigns to entrust me with will be safely delivered," once more assented Cardinal d'Orsay.
"Take care," said the Emperor, with a nervous laugh, "I may take your Eminence at your word, and send such voluminous messages as will encumber your overladen trunk."
"My services are at your Majesty's command."
The Emperor looked keenly for a moment or two longer at His Eminence's astute, diplomatic face, then, as if obeying a sudden impulse, he took a small key from his pocket and, opening one of the larger drawers of his writing-table, he carefully pulled out a voluminous parcel and placed it before Cardinal d'Orsay's astonished gaze.
"And if I were to ask your Eminence to let my message take this form?" said Franz Jozef at last.
Throughout his career His Eminence had never once been taken wholly by surprise, but this time, just for the space of a second, his deep-set eyes seemed to open a trifle wider than usual with astonishment.
"The message, in fact, is a souvenir," continued the Emperor, "a mere trifle, that will make the recipient remember Vienna and the Viennese, in a way I would wish her to do."
"Ah! I understand! the Grand Duchess Xenia," said His Eminence, with a thought of malice.
"No! not the Grand Duchess; she would not value works of art such as these."
"They are works of art?"
"Of the rarest kind, anad intended for a connoisseur who will know how to appreciate them."
"Will your Majesty deign to name that connoisseur?"
"The Princess Marïonoff."
"She has often admired these bibelots, and it is not always in our power to completely gratify a beautiful woman's whim. I am anxious to show your Eminence the humble gift that I will ask you to lay at the Princess' feet."
With infinite care and patience the Emperor, with his own hands, proceeded to unfold the parcel from its numerous papers and wrappings, and presently displayed before His Eminence's admiring gaze a pair of the most dainty, most valuable china candlesticks that ever adorned a marquise's boudoir.
Each candlestick represented a Cupid, in that rarest of all wares known as vieux Vienne, with arms outstretched, shooting a golden arrow from a gigantic bow at an imaginary target. The feet were firmly planted upon a basis of exquistely chased gold, the figure slightly leaning against the trunk of a tree, which was pure gold, and the branches of which formed the receptacle for the candles.
"Truly a charming, an appropriate gift," said the Cardinal in admiration, though with a touch of sarcasm.
Ever since he had realised the nature of the message the Emperor wished to convey to his chère amie, His Eminence had seemed decidedly less eager to place his services at Franz Jozef's disposal. The candlesticks seemed so fragile, and yet would be so cumbersome, that Cardinal d'Orsay almost shuddered at the grave responsibility of taking about so much brittle ware with him, across some two thousand miles of country.
But the Emperor appeared wholly unconscious of the Cardinal's lack of enthusiasm. With the eagerness of a connoisseur he pointed out the exquisite modelling of the china, and the dainty chasing of the gold.
"And to add to the charm and rarity of the bibelots," he added, "these candlesticks contain a thought of mystery. Will your Eminence press very lightly on this small leaf that stands apart from the rest on this little gold twig?"
The Cardinal obeyed good-humouredly, and, to his astonishment, saw that the leaf concealed a tiny spring, which, when touched, displayed a hidden receptacle, velvet lined, in the hollow of the tree-trunk.
"This secret spring is the most interesting feature of these candlesticks," explained the Emperor; "my great-aunt, the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, succeeded in sending a most important message to her brother through the medium of these innocent-looking bibelots and the help of M. de Neuperg."
The Cardinal had often heard the story of the secret means M. de Neuperg found, of taking the unhappy queen's messages safely across the French frontier. Surely these candlesticks, then, were an heirloom, almost a relic; they had--he had heard--stood in the Hofburg chapel since the unforunate queen's death, until the day when a pair of beautiful Russian eyes had looked at them longingly; and now the treasures were gaily passing out of the martyr's family for ever.
The Cardinal was silent; he would have given a good deal had he found some remotely plausible excuse for not executing the Emperor's commission. He foresaw all kinds of eventualities, resulting in fractures to the dainty china limbs or even to the gold branches and leaves, and saw terrible visions of arriving at St. Petersburg with half a Cupid and a leafless trunk.
"I need not add, I feel sure," said His Majesty, breaking a silence that threatened to become awkward, "that I entirely rely on your Eminence's discretion in the matter. You see, both the Queen Regent of Spain and the Comtesse de Paris have perhaps a right in thinking that these candlesticks should not pass out of my hands into any but theirs; and I would prefer that my subjects should know nothing of this delicate mission, which I beg of your Eminence to accept for me."
"Your Majesty may quite rely upon me; my discretion has, I think, been often tried, and never been found wanting."
There was a want of cordiality about His Eminence's manner now, but the Emperor was too intent on once more packing up his treasures to notice a trifling detail of that sort. He had secured an emissary--the most discreet in Europe--for the conveying of his gift, and he was determined not to give him a chance of taking back his half-given word.
The candlesticks were once more safely packed up, and the Emperor seemed eager not to prolong the interview, now that he had his wish and Cardinal d'Orsay's final promise.
"I shall never cease to be grateful to your Eminence for this friendly service," he said finally, and stretched out a cordial hand towards the Cardinal with that happy mixture of dignity and bonhomie that is the characteristic feature of the Hapsburgs, and that no one yet has been able to resist.
The Cardinal bowed low over the Imperial hand, and, though his face wore the resigned expression of a martyr to duty, he contrived to take a final farewell of Franz Jozef that left a cheering impression on that much-harassed monarch's mind.
A few minutes later Cardinal d'Orsay was in his carriage on his way home, a voluminous parcel on the seat in front of him, and a look of suppressed annoyance on his usually impassive face.