She embraced him with soft tenderness.
"No, no," whispered she, "God is merciful! He will not rob me of the only consolation of my joyless, solitary life. I had only this. To think he lives, he breathes the same air, he looks up into the same heavens--the same quiet stars greet him and me. And a day will come in which millions of men will shout and call him their king; and when I look upon his handsome face, and see him in the midst of his people, surrounded by pomp and splendor, I dare say to myself, That is my work. I loved him more than I loved myself, therefore he wears a crown--I had the courage not only to die for him, but to live without him, and therefore is he a king. Oh, my beloved, say not that you are dying!"
"If you love me truly, Laura, you will not wish me to live. Indeed I have long been dying. For sixteen years I have felt the death-worm in my heart--it gnaws and gnaws. I have tried to crush it--I wished to live, because I had promised you to bear my burden. I wished to prove myself a man. I gave the love which you laid at my feet, bathed in our tears and our blood, to my fatherland. I was told that I must marry, to promote the interest of my country, and I did so. I laid a mask over my face, and a mask over my heart. I wished to play my part in the drama of life to the end; I wished to honor my royal birth to which fate had condemned me. But it appears I was a bad actor. I was cast out from my service, my gay uniform and royal star torn from my breast. I, a prince, was sent home a humiliated, degraded, ragged beggar. I crept with my misery and my shame into this corner, and no one followed me. No one showed a spark of love for the poor, spurned cast-away. Love would have enabled me to overcome all, to defy the world, and to oppose its slanders boldly. I was left alone to bear my shame and my despair--wholly alone. I have a wife, I have children, and I am alone; they live far away from me, and at the moment of my death they will smile and be happy. I am the heir of a throne, but a poor beggar; I asked only of fate a little love, but I asked in vain. Fate had no pity--only when I am dead will I be a prince again; then they will heap honors upon my dead body. Oh, Laura! how it burns in my heart--how terrible is this hell-fire of shame! It eats up the marrow of my bones and devours my brain. Oh, my head, my head! how terrible is this pain!"
With a loud sob he sank back on the pillow; his eyes closed, great drops of sweat stood on his brow, and the breath seemed struggling in his breast.
Laura bowed over him, she wiped away the death-sweat with her hair, and hot tears fell on the poor wan face. These tears aroused him--he opened his eyes.
"I have got something to say," whispered he; "I feel that I shall soon be well. When the world says of me, 'He is dead,' I shall have just awaked from death. There above begins the true life; what is here so called is only a pitiful prologue. We live here only that we may learn to wish for death. Oh, my Laura! I shall soon live, love, and be happy."
"Oh, take me with you, my beloved," cried Laura, kneeling before him, dissolved in tears. "Leave me not alone--it is so sad, so solitary in this cold world! Take me with you, my beloved!"
He heard her not! Death had already touched him with the point of his dark wings, and spread his mantle over him. His spirit struggled with the exhausted body and panted to escape. He no longer heard when Laura called, but he still lived: his eyes were wide open and he spoke again. But they were single, disconnected words, which belonged to the dreamland and the forms of the invisible world which his almost disembodied spirit now looked upon.