Prince Roman

‘Events which happened seventy years ago are perhaps rather too far off to be dragged aptly into a mere conversation. Of course, the year 1831 is for us an historical date, one of these fatal years when in the presence of the world’s passive indignation and eloquent sympathies we had once more to murmur “Væ victis!”* and count the cost in sorrow. Not that we were ever very good at calculating, either in prosperity or in adversity. That’s a lesson we could never learn, to the great exasperation of our enemies, who have bestowed upon us the epithet of Incorrigible.…’

The speaker was of Polish nationality, that nationality not so much alive as surviving, which persists in thinking, breathing, speaking, hoping and suffering in its grave railed in by a million of bayonets and triple-sealed with the seals of three great empires.

The conversation was about aristocracy. How did this now-a-days discredited subject come up? It is some years ago now, and the precise recollection has faded. But I remember that it was not considered practically, as an ingredient in the social mixture; and I verily believe that we arrived at that subject through some exchange of ideas about patriotism—a somewhat discredited sentiment, because the delicacy of modern humanitarians regards it as a relic of barbarism. Yet neither the great Florentine painter* who closed his eyes in death thinking of his city, nor St Francis blessing with his last breath the town of Assisi, were barbarians. It requires a certain greatness of soul to interpret patriotism worthily—or else a sincerity of feeling denied to the vulgar refinement of modern thought which cannot understand the august simplicity of a sentiment proceeding from the very nature of things and men.

The aristocracy we were talking about was the very highest, the great families of Europe, not impoverished, not converted, not liberalised, the most distinctive and specialised class of all classes, for which even ambition itself does not exist among the usual incentives to activity and regulators of conduct.

The undisputed right of leadership having passed away from them, we judged that their great fortunes, their cosmopolitanism brought about by wide alliances, their elevated station, in which there is so little to gain and so much to lose, must make their position difficult in times of political commotion or national upheaval. No longer born to command—which is the very essence of aristocracy—it becomes difficult for them to do aught else but hold aloof from the great movements of popular passion.

We had reached that conclusion when the remark about far-off events was made and the date of 1831 mentioned. And the speaker continued:—

I don’t mean to say that I knew Prince Roman at that remote time. I begin to feel pretty ancient, but I am not so ancient as that. In fact, Prince Roman was married the very year my father was born. It was in 1828; the nineteenth century was young yet, and the prince was even younger than the century, but I don’t know exactly by how much. In any case, his was an early marriage. It was an ideal alliance from every point of view. The girl was young and beautiful, an orphan, heiress of a great name and of a great fortune. The prince, then an officer in the Guards,* distinguished amongst his fellows by something reserved and reflective in his character, had fallen headlong in love with her beauty, her charm and the serious qualities of her mind and heart. He was a silent young man; but his glances, his bearing, his whole person expressed his absolute devotion to the woman of his choice, a devotion which she returned in her own frank and fascinating manner.

The flame of this pure young passion promised to burn for ever; and for a season it lit up the dry, cynical atmosphere of the great world of St Petersburg. The Emperor Nicholas* himself, the great-grandfather of the present man,* the one who died from the Crimean War,* the last, perhaps, of the autocrats with a mystical belief in the divine character of his mission, showed some interest in this pair of married lovers. It is true that Nicholas kept a watchful eye on all the doings of the great Polish nobles.* The young people, leading the life appropriate to their station, were obviously wrapped up in each other; and society, fascinated by the sincerity of a feeling moving serenely among the artificialities of its anxious and fastidious agitation, watched them with benevolent indulgence and an amused tenderness.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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