There was no etiquette at these small drawing-rooms. People came and went at pleasure. The window embrasures became the roost of happy couples; at the great chimney the talkers mostly congregated, each full-charged with scandal; and down at the farther end the gamblers gambled. It was towards this point that Otto moved, not ostentatiously, but with a gentle insistence, and scattering attentions as he went. Once abreast of the card-table, he placed himself opposite to Madame von Rosen, and, as soon as he had caught her eye, withdrew to the embrasure of a window. There she had speedily joined him.
`You did well to call me,' she said, a little wildly. `These cards will be my ruin.'
`Leave them,' said Otto.
`I!' she cried, and laughed; `they are my destiny. My only chance was to die of a consumption; now I must die in a garret.'
`You are bitter to-night,' said Otto.
`I have been losing,' she replied. `You do not know what greed is.'
`I have come, then, in an evil hour,' said he.
`Ah, you wish a favour!' she cried, brightening beautifully.
`Madam,' said he, `I am about to found my party, and I come to you for a recruit.'
`Done,' said the Countess. `I am a man again.'
`I may be wrong,' continued Otto, `but I believe upon my heart you wish me no ill.'
`I wish you so well,' she said, `that I dare not tell it you.'
`Then if I ask my favour?' quoth the Prince.
`Ask it, mon Prince,' she answered. `Whatever it is, it is granted.'
`I wish you,' he returned, `this very night to make the farmer of our talk.'
`Heaven knows your meaning!' she exclaimed. `I know not, neither care; there are no bounds to my desire to please you. Call him made.'
`I will put it in another way,' returned Otto. `Did you ever steal?'
`Often!' cried the Countess. `I have broken all the ten commandments; and if there were more to-morrow, I should not sleep till I had broken these.'
`This is a case of burglary: to say the truth, I thought it would amuse you,' said the Prince.
`I have no practical experience,' she replied, `but O! the good- will! I have broken a work-box in my time, and several hearts, my own included. Never a house! But it cannot be difficult; sins are so unromantically easy! What are we to break?'
`Madam, we are to break the treasury,' said Otto and he sketched to her briefly, wittily, with here and there a touch of pathos, the story of his visit to the farm, of his promise to buy it, and of the refusal with which his demand for money had been met that morning at the council; concluding with a few practical words as to the treasury windows, and the helps and hindrances of the proposed exploit.
`They refused you the money,' she said when he had done. `And you accepted the refusal? Well!'
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