The Empress Eugénie received Bart at Farnborough Hill in the small reception room where she displayed the famous Golden Rose. This was a thirty-inch-high golden rosebush "growing" from a base of blue lapis-lazuli and silver gilt.
"In this room, I feel close to my son," she explained, "for these roses of pure gold are eternally in bloom. Count them, my dear."
Bart did so. They were of varying size, each perfectly wrought, even to the thorns.
"There are twenty-three, Ma'am," he counted, then, suddenly realizing the significance of her request, he added, "one for each year of his life!"
She smiled. "I knew that was a point which would not escape you. The Golden Rose was presented to the Prince Imperial on the occasion of his infant baptism. It was a gift from his godfather, His Holiness the Pope, and as you have noted, the number of its blossoms offered an exact portent of the years my son's earthly life would endure."
She sighed, settling back in her chair. "I wonder, Doctor Bart, would it make any difference if we knew these things beforehand, and if, in knowing, we should try to change them? Oh, what mysteries exist in life!"
Bart leaned forward. "I dare not venture a guess, Ma'am, but I recall something Beth said to me at Camden Place. We were walking in the garden, and came to a bed of wood violets....."
"Ah, yes, the wood violets," the Empress interjected softly, "that she planted for my son's return from South Africa. Beth and he used to speak of wood violets as 'their' flower."
"Yes, and when she knelt to touch them, she looked up at me," Bart remembered, "and asked if I believed in signs and symbols as harbingers of the future. She mentioned to me that she and the Prince Imperial shared birthdays on the sixteenth of March. She interpreted the coincidence as the first sign their destinies might mingle."
Eugénie winced. "Yes, and the first thing I thought of when you wired me the awful news about Johnstown was the coinciding dates...and times...of...their...deaths! Oh!"
She burst into tears. Bart slid out of his chair and knelt before her.
He allowed her a moment to weep before saying: "When Annie came back to Paris with Romelle a few days ago, she told me the whole story. Annie was with Beth minutes before she died. May I tell you about it, Ma'am?"
He told her of Annie's walk in the hills with Pepper, of the dam's explosion, of the terrifying wall of water, of the crunch of houses against the bridge, of the whistle's call, of discovering Beth and Romelle, of the terrible aftermath.
When he had finished, the Empress sat back with a profound exhalation of breath, momentarily sapped of her vitality. Withdrawing her hands from Bart's, they fell limply to her lap.
Bart sat back on his heels, reached into his pocket, and withdrew the gold chain Annie had taken from Beth.
"I never knew that my wife wore this chain," he said, lifting it for Eugénie to see. "She called Annie back into the wreckage to give it her for Romelle, just before the end.
The Empress remembered Beth showing the chain to her and the Empress Elizabeth after Mayerling.
"Here is the whistle that saved our daughter's life," Bart explained, his fingers caressing its smooth wood. "I believe Beth wore it as a constant reminder of her connection to me. But here," and his voice choked a bit, "here is the coin of Mary Queen of Scots, which you returned to her in my presence that first day at Camden Place, the coin she had given your son when.....he went away. I can only suppose she wore it as a reminder that her heart had first belonged...to him."
Still on his knees, holding the chain high, he represented an inexpressibly tragic figure to Eugénie. Tears trickled from his green eyes. His gaze concentrated on the golden coin. Pity swept over the Empress at sight of the grief bespeaking his sense of betrayal by the woman he had loved.
His pained gaze drifted to her.
"I am giving this coin to you," he whispered. "Forgive me, I cannot bear to touch it. Will you take it from the chain?"
He offered it to Eugénie. She removed the coin and returned the chain.
"I am sorry you have been so dreadfully hurt, Doctor Bart," the Empress said. "I know something which may help you. Beth once showed that chain to me. I remember what she said."
She had captured his full attention.
Eugénie repeated Beth's words: "'I have found my consolation in the living world. I have married. I have allowed my husband to love me. I have borne his child. I love him as deeply as he loves me. I know our love is true because he does not possess me, as I do not possess him. I fear, though, that destiny has only lent me to him for awhile, and that, in time, I shall be taken away.'"
Bart's sad face became transfigured. As she spoke, its expression was transmuted to gratitude. Leaning forward on his knees, he kissed the Empress Eugénie's hands.
Rising to his feet, he walked to a window and gazed dreamily at the setting sun. Rays streamed into the room through the pane, burnishing his wavy auburn hair with coppery tones.
Eugénie had always thought him romantically handsome, but never more so than in this Byronic pose.
"A wise woman once told me," he murmured, "that we know our love is true when we want only what is best for our beloved, no matter the cost to us."
He paused in reflection, then continued, "If Beth and I cannot be together, I pray now that she has again found happiness with her prince."
He and the Empress shared silence for awhile, the sun disappearing while they watched.
Evening had come.
Eugénie invited Bart to dine with her, and to stay at Farnborough Hill until the following morning.
At nine, they retired to their separate suites, but deep in the night there came a knock at Bart's door. A servant announced that the Empress requested him to attend her in the library below. He threw on a dressing gown to cover his sleeping clothes, and was surprised to find her fully dressed as if she had not yet been to bed. She was seated in a chair beside open French doors leading out to a garden brightly lighted by the moon. She did not look at him when he entered the room.
"Sit!" she commanded, sweeping her hand in a gesture toward a chair. "Do not speak. I have something to say." He sat. "Always before I sleep," she said, "I conjure up a palace of the mind. I visit there with my son. Since Beth's tragic death at Johnstown, he has not come. Tonight, when I lay with my head upon the pillow, I found myself again alone. I called to him. Again, he did not come. In frustration, I arose, dressed, and came here to seek distraction in a book."
She motioned toward shelves lined with tomes.
"Nothing moved me to read. Finally, I sat down and stared out at my garden. Did I fall asleep? Did I dream? I do not know, but what happened seemed as real as does your presence now."
Her voice became fraught with emotion.
"They came in from the garden...Beth and my son. Pepper entered with them and licked my hand. I wanted so much to talk, to ask questions, but they silenced me. 'We have come to bid you farewell,' said my son. 'Tell Bart I loved our life together, but I must begin another now,' said Beth. And then, oh, then, they turned, with smiles, and went away. I called to them, and to Pepper. The little thing came back with this in his mouth. He dropped it at my feet, and then he, too, was gone."
The Empress lifted a nosegay of wood violets from her lap for Bart to see.
"I am sorry to have disturbed you," she said, looking directly at him for the first time, "but I felt compelled to share this experience, hoping you would not think me mad."
She rose, as did he, and led the way to the library door. Saying goodnight for the second time that evening, they parted.
The next morning, the Empress sent her regrets while he sat at breakfast. She still lay abed and would not be down to say goodbye.
Before departing, Bart went into the library. He felt unsure of what had taken place. He wondered if his final, strange encounter with the Empress had been a dream.
He glanced down at the chair she had occupied.
Pepper's nosegay of wood violets reposed on the cushion.
Ah, he mused, it was she who dreamed, thank God, and not I !
He took the wood violets in hand and looked around for the vase from which they might have come. None was in evidence. The French doors were still open. He stepped outside. No bed of wood violets was in sight.
"Excuse me, milord," said a male voice, "but Her Imperial Majesty won't be likin' that at all."
A man in work clothes was weeding nearby. He removed his straw hat, and bowed. "If I may be so bold, milord," the man continued, "our Empress of the French don't permit nae violets at Farnborough Hill. No, sir, not a one on the whole estate. I'm told she don't like 'em 'cause they remind her of someone from long ago. We don't want our great lady upset, milord, so I'll take 'em, if you don't mind, and throw 'em away."
Bart looked down at the flowers in his hand and shook his head. "No, she will want these."
The gardener watched Bart enter the library and replace the nosegay on the chair.
"Leave it be," Bart instructed him, glancing back.
The words echoed in Bart's heart: Leave it be .