There were many people in the great room and William Martin knew only Karl. The others looked as all the others had looked to Martin during his time at Burghausen; clothed in silk and ribbons, the women with ornate, stacked coiffures, the men with carefully curated facial hair and all of them a language and world away from him.
But Countess Berta Von Suttner looked different. She wore a tiara and the same styles as her contemporaries but she carried an air of austerity and personal discipline and she looked directly at Martin as if she knew him and as if she had some active purpose, here and now. He was surprised when she spoke to him in perfect English.
She suggested that they leave the room and in a chamber off the hallway she began.
“You have met my niece Katerina.”
Now Martin knew what to expect. Here was the family’s emissary. Sent to warn him away.
“I must ask you what you feel for her, although I know very well how you feel. I am not blinded by my kinship with Katrina or even my own deep love for her, but I have traveled the world. To every capital and place of retreat and culture on this prospering continent and I have seen every debutante, every ingénue this world has to offer. I have crossed to America and then crossed over America, giving my lectures in the finest universities and in the biggest and richest cities in your country. I have seen all the young women this generation, this age, have to offer and there is no one like Katerina. No one with her fine mix of learning and grace; no one with the purity of heart that is evident in her smile and in the radiance of her face. Her beauty is ancient and new. There is no one else like her. So I know very well what you think of her. But still I must ask: What do you feel for my Katerina?”
“Nothing you have said about her is overstated. I have loved and lost before and I believed that I would spend my life content in my enterprises and in the undreamed of wealth it has brought me. But I have forgotten the past that I thought would haunt me to my grave and I know now that no success and no amount of wealth will ever satisfy me. As you said, there is no one else like her. And all of life, no matter the success, no matter the fortune, will be incomplete without her. Hopelessly incomplete. I am not sanguine about my prospects or chances with her. I think she cares for me, but I cannot remain here. If I am to keep her in the style to which she is accustomed, which she deserves and that her family ought to expect, I must attend my affairs in America. But if life has taught me anything it has taught me to venture boldly. Therefore, I will pursue my suit for her here and now, no matter the odds against me or I will live forever in regret. I will promise great things and I will press my case. What advice can you afford me?”
“You will be happy to hear that it is not the advice you are expecting. You must press your case. You must promise great things. You must take her away from us. It rends my heart to say it now, even though I have already deliberated and made up my mind.”
“Why is this? Why are you willing to see her go? And are others so willing?”
“Because, Mr. Martin, the handwriting is on these walls. Everything you see about you, all the wealth, all the ribbons and bows and the layered pastries. All is about to fall. The men here, every fancy-pants one of them, desire a war. They clamor for it and raise their voices in the streets here as if this order, this monarchy, is invincible. They are young and insulated. They do not know war and they do not know the world. They will die in bloody fields and this empire of a thousand years will cease to be. There is no other imaginable end. War is no longer the sport these men imagine.”
“I think I understand you. But how can you trust me?”
“I have known your reputation before you ever set eyes upon my niece. In fact, I can assure you that if I had not known that reputation and had not been completly assured of you, you would never have been in the same room with her. What has happened to you has not been mere coincidence.”
“How is it that you know of me?”
“We aristocrats may live in the past, but we know the value of connections. In my speaking tour of America I met men in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore who had done business with you. Because of my nephew Karl’s praise of you, I made it my business to inquire of anyone who knew you while I was there. I believe you might in America say that you have been checked out.
“And I have watched you every day here in this estate. Your wealth has not made you arrogant. You are curious and you believe that those around you may know something you do not. Something of worth. You will continue to succeed and you will have the depth to appreciate my niece. I cannot say that about any other man here.
I doubt very much my ability to convey to you what I have seen in my life and what I know my country faces. I may be wrong – I sincerely hope I am wrong – but I believe that this land is about to undergo a violence that our fathers before us could never have imagined. There is no one who understands. There is no one who can stand in the breach and stop the explosion that is coming. I may be wrong, but I am so certain that God’s judgement is upon us that I am willing to part with my precious Katerina.”