Tales of Hearsay
"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 'Vo
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, nowadays 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 believed that we arrived at that subject through
some exchange of ideas about patriotism—a somewhat discredited sentiment,
because the delicacy of our 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 liberalized, the most distinctive and
specialized 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 19th 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