A Son of the Immortals
By LOUIS TRACY
Author of "The Stowaway," "The Message," "The Wings of the Morning," etc.
Illustrations by HOWARD CHANDLER CHRISTY
New York Edward J. Clode Publisher
Copyright, 1909, by EDWARD J. CLODE
Entered at Stationers' Hall
I. THE FORTUNE TELLER 1 II. MONSEIGNEUR 22 III. IN THE ORIENT EXPRESS 44 IV. THE WHITE CITY 64 V. FELIX SURMOUNTS A DIFFICULTY 89 VI. JOAN GOES INTO SOCIETY 112 VII. JOAN BECOMES THE VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCES 132 VIII. SHOWING HOW THE KING KEPT HIS APPOINTMENT 154 IX. MUTTERINGS OF STORM 176 X. WHEREIN THE SHADOWS DEEPEN 196 XI. JOAN DECIDES 221 XII. THE STORM BREAKS 241 XIII. WHEREIN A REASON IS GIVEN FOR JOAN'S FLIGHT 263 XIV. THE BROKEN TREATY 284 XV. THE ENVOY 310
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
The sight of Alec and his fair burden brought a cheer from the crowd Frontispiece
"Gentlemen, here stands Alexis Delgrado" 75 Beaumanoir and Felix fortified the position 153 Joan laughed at Alec's masterful methods 199 Stampoff saluted the King in silence 268 In a few minutes the three were securely bound 298 He felt the thrill that ran through her veins 306
A SON OF THE IMMORTALS
THE FORTUNE TELLER
On a day in May, not so long ago, Joan Vernon, coming out into the sunshine from her lodging in the Place de la Sorbonne, smiled a morning greeting to the statue of Auguste Comte, founder of Positivism. It would have puzzled her to explain what Positivism meant, or why it should be merely positive and not stoutly comparative or grandly superlative. As a teacher, therefore, Comte made no appeal. She just liked the bland look of the man, was pleased by the sleekness of his white marble. He seemed to be a friend, a counselor, strutting worthily on a pedestal labeled "Ordre et Progres"; for Joan was an artist, not a philosopher.
Perhaps there was an underthought that she and Comte were odd fish to be at home together in that placid backwater of the Latin Quarter. Next door to the old-fashioned house in which she rented three rooms was a cabaret, a mere wreck of a wineshop, apparently cast there by the torrent of the Boule Mich, which roared a few yards away. Its luminous sign, a foaming tankard, showed gallantly by night, but was garish by day, since gas is akin to froth, to which the sun is pitiless. But the cabaret had its customers, quiet folk who gathered in the evening to gossip and drink strange beverages, whereas its nearest neighbor on the boulevard side was an empty tenement, a despondent ghost to-day, though once it had rivaled the flaunting tankard. Its frayed finery told of gay sparks extinguished. A flamboyant legend declared, "Ici on chante, on boit, on s'amuse(?)" Joan always smirked a little at that suggestive note of interrogation, which lent a world of meaning to the half-obliterated statement that Madame Lucette would appear "tous les soirs dans ses chansons d'actualites."
Nodding to Leontine, the cabaret's amazingly small maid of all work, who was always washing and never washed, Joan saw the query for the hundredth time, and, as ever, found its answer in the blistered paint and dust covered windows: Madame Lucette's last song of real life pointed a moral.
Joan's bright face did not cloud on that account. Paul Verlaine, taking the air in the Boulevard Saint Michel, had he chanced to notice the dry husk of that Cabaret Latin, might have composed a chanson on the vanity of dead cafes; but this sprightly girl had chosen her residence there chiefly because it marched with her purse. Moreover, it was admirably suited to the needs of one who for the most part gave her days to the Louvre and her evenings to the Sorbonne.
She was rather late that morning. Lest that precious hour of white light should be lost, she sped rapidly across the place, down the boulevard, and along the busy Quai des Grands Augustins. On the Pont Neuf she glanced up at another statuesque acquaintance, this time a kingly personage on horseback. She could never quite dispel the notion that Henri Quatre was ready to flirt with her. The roguish twinkle in his bronze eye was very taking, and there were not many men in Paris who could look at her in that way and win a smile in return. To be sure, it was no new thing for a Vernon to be well disposed toward Henry of Navarre; but that is ancient history, and our pretty Joan, blithely unconscious, was hurrying that morning to take an active part in redrafting the Berlin treaty.
At the corner of the bridge, where it joins the Quai du Louvre, she met a young man. Each pretended that the meeting was accidental, though, after the first glance, the best-natured recording angel ever commissioned from Paradise would have refused to believe either of them.
"What a piece of luck!" cried the young man. "Are you going to the Louvre?"
"Yes. And you?" demanded Joan, flushing prettily.
"I am killing time till the afternoon, when I play Number One for the Wanderers. To-day's match is at Bagatelle."
She laughed. "'Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee,'" she quoted.
"I don't quite follow that, Miss Vernon."
"No? Well, I'll explain another time. I must away to my copying."
"Let me come and fix your easel. Really, I have nothing else to do."
"Worse and worse! En route, alors! You can watch me at work. That must be a real pleasure to an idler."
"I am no idler," he protested.
"What? Who spoke but now of 'killing time,' 'play,' 'Number One,' and 'Bagatelle'? Really, Mr. Delgrado!"
"Oh, is that what you are driving at? But you misunderstood. Bagatelle is near the polo ground in the Bois, and, as Number One in my team, I shall have to hustle. Four stiff chukkers at polo are downright hard work, Miss Vernon. By teatime I shall be a limp rag. I promised to play nearly a month ago, and I cannot draw back now."
"Polo is a man's game, at any rate," she admitted.
"Would you care to see to-day's tie?" he asked eagerly. "We meet Chantilly, and, if we put them out in the first round of the tournament, with any ordinary luck we ought to run right into the semi-final."
She shook her head. "You unhappy people who have to plan and scheme how best to waste your hours have no notion of their value. I must work steadily from two till five. That means a sixteenth of my picture. Divide two hundred and fifty by sixteen, and you have—dear me! I am no good at figures."
"Fifteen francs, sixty-two and a half centimes," said he promptly.
She flashed a surprised look at him. "That is rather clever of you," she said. "Well, fancy a poor artist sacrificing all that money in order to watch eight men galloping after a white ball and whacking it and each other's ponies unmercifully."
"To hit an adversary's pony is the unforgivable sin," he cried, smiling at her, and she hastily averted her eyes, having discovered an unnerving similarity between his smile and—Henri Quatre's!
They walked on in eloquent silence. The man was cudgeling his brains for an excuse whereby he might carry her off in triumph to the Bois. The girl was fighting down a new sensation that threatened her independence. Never before had she felt tonguetied in the presence of an admirer. She had dismissed dozens of them. She refrained now from sending this good-looking boy packing only because it would be cruel, and Joan Vernon could not be cruel to anyone. Nevertheless, she had to justify herself as a free lance, and it is the role of a lance to attack rather than defend.
"What do you occupy yourself with when you are not playing polo or lounging about artists' studios?" she asked suddenly.
"Not much, I am afraid. I like shooting and hunting; but these Frenchmen have no backbone for sport. Will you believe it, one has the greatest difficulty in getting a good knock at polo unless there is a crowd of ladies on the lawn?"
"Ah! I begin to see light."
"That is not the reason I asked you to come. If you honored me so greatly you would be the first woman, my mother excepted, I have ever driven to the club. To-day's players are mostly Americans or English. Of course there are some first-rate French teams; but you can take it from me that they show their real form only before the ladies."
"As in the tourneys of old?"
"Perhaps. It is the same at the chateaux. Everyone wants his best girl to watch his prowess with the gun."
He stopped, wishing he had left the best girl out of it; but Joan was kind hearted and did not hesitate an instant.
"So you are what is known as a gentleman of leisure and independent means?" she said suavely.
"Something of the sort."
"I am sorry for you, Mr. Delgrado."
"I am rather sorry for myself at times," he admitted, and if Joan had chanced to glance at him she would have seen a somewhat peculiar expression on his face. "But why do you call me Mr. Delgrado?"
She gazed at him now in blank bewilderment—just a second too late to see that expression. "Isn't Delgrado your name?" she asked.
"Yes, in a sense. People mostly call me Alec. Correctly speaking, Alec isn't mother's darling for Alexis; but it goes, anyhow."
"Sometimes I think you are an American," she vowed.
"Half," he said. "My mother is an American, my father a Kosnovian—well, just a Kosnovian."
"And pray what is that?" she cried.
"Haven't you heard of Kosnovia? It is a little Balkan State."
"Is there some mystery, then, about your name?"
"Oh, no; plain Alec."
"Am I to call you plain Alec?"
"But it follows that you would call me plain Joan."
"Let it go at Joan."
"Very well. Good morning, Alec."
"No, no, Miss Vernon. Don't be vexed. I really did not mean to be rude. And you promised, you know."
"That I might help carry your traps. Please don't send me away!"
He was so contrite that Joan weakened again. "It is rather friendly to hear one's Christian name occasionally," she declared. "I will compound on the Alec if you will tell me why the Delgrado applies only in a sense."
"Done—Joan," said he, greatly daring. He waited the merest fraction of time; but she gave no sign. "My stipulation is of the slightest," he added, "that I discourse in the Louvre. Where are you working?"
"In the Grande Galerie; on a subject that I enjoy, too. People have such odd notions as to nice pictures. They choose them to match the furniture. Now, this one is quite delightful to copy, and not very difficult. But you shall see."
They entered the Louvre from the Quai.
Joan was undoubtedly flurried. Here, in very truth, was that irrepressible Henri descended from his bronze horse and walking by her side. That his later name happened to be Alec did not matter at all. She knew that a spiteful Bourbon had melted down no less than two statues of Napoleon in order to produce the fine cavalier who approved of her every time she crossed the Pont Neuf, and it seemed as if some of the little Corsican's dominance was allied with a touch of Bearnais swagger in the stalwart youth whom she had met for the first time in Rudin's studio about three weeks earlier.
They were steel and magnet at once. Delgrado had none of the boulevardier's abounding self-conceit, or Joan would never have given him a second look, while Joan's frank comradeship was vastly more alluring than the skilled coquetry that left him cold. Physically, too, they were well mated, each obviously made for the other by a discriminating Providence. They were just beginning to discover the fact, and this alarmed Joan.
She could not shake off the notion that he had waylaid her this morning for a purpose wholly unconnected with the suggested visit to the polo ground. So, tall and athletic though he was, she set such a pace up the steps and through the lower galleries that further intimate talk became impossible. Atalanta well knew what she was about when she ran her suitors to death, and Meilanion showed a deep insight into human nature when he arranged that she should loiter occasionally.
Delgrado, however, had no golden apples to drop in Joan's path, could not even produce a conversational plum; but he was young enough to believe in luck, and he hoped that fortune might favor him, once the painting was in hand.
Each was so absorbed in the other that the Louvre might have been empty. Certainly, neither of them noticed that a man crossing the Pont du Carrousel in an open cab seemed to be vastly surprised when he saw them hastening through the side entrance. He carried his interest to the point of stopping the cab and following them. Young, clear skinned, black-haired, exceedingly well dressed, with the eyes and eyelashes of an Italian tenor, he moved with an air of distinction, and showed that he was no stranger to the Louvre by his rapid decision that the Salle des Moulages, with its forbidding plaster casts, was no likely resting place for Delgrado and his pretty companion.
Making straight for the nearest stairs, he almost blundered upon Alec, laden with Joan's easel and canvas; but this exquisite, having something of the spy's skill, whisked into an alcove, scrutinized an old print, and did not emerge until the chance of being recognized had passed. After that, he was safe. He appeared to be amused, even somewhat amazed, when he learned why Delgrado was patronizing the arts. Yet the discovery was evidently pleasing. He caressed a neat, black mustache with a well-manicured hand, while taking note of Joan's lithe figure and well poised head. The long, straight vista of the gallery did not permit of a near view, and he could not linger in the narrow doorway, used chiefly by artists and officials, whence he watched them for a minute or more.
So he turned on his heel and descended to the street and his waiting victoria, waving that delicate hand and smiling with the manner of one who said, "Fancy that of Alec! The young scamp!"
Joan was copying Caravaggio's "The Fortune Teller," a masterpiece that speaks in every tongue, to every age. Its keynote is simplicity. A gallant of Milan, clothed in buff-colored doublet slashed with brown velvet, a plumed cavalier hat set rakishly on his head, and a lace ruffle caught up with a string of seed pearls round his neck, is holding out his right palm to a Gypsy woman, while the fingers of his left hand rest on a swordhilt. The woman is young and pretty, her subject a mere boy, and her smug aspect of divination is happily contrasted with the youth's excitement at hearing what fate has in store.
"There!" cried Joan. "What do you think of it?"
She had almost completed the Gypsy, and there was already a suggestion of the high lights in the youngster's face and his brightly colored garb.
"I like your copy more than the original," said Delgrado.
"Your visits to Rudin have not taught you much about art, then," said she tartly.
"Not even that great master would wish me to be insincere."
"No, indeed; but he demands knowledge at the back of truth. Now, mark me! You see that speck of white fire in the corner of the woman's eye? It gives life, intelligence, subtle character. Just a little blob of paint, put there two hundred years ago, yet it conveys the whole stock in trade of the fortune teller. Countless numbers of men and women have gazed at that picture, a multitude that must have covered the whole range of human virtues and vices; but it has never failed to carry the same message to every beholder. Do you think that my poor reproduction will achieve that?"
"You have chosen the only good bit in the painting," he declared stoutly. "Look at the boy's lips. Caravaggio must have modeled them from a girl's. What business has a fellow with pouting red lips like them to wear a sword on his thigh?"
Joan laughed with joyousness that was good to hear.
"Pooh! Run away and smite that ball with a long stick!" she said.
"Hum! More than the Italian could have done."
He was ridiculously in earnest. Joan colored suddenly and busied herself with tubes of paint. She believed he was jealous of the handsome Lombard. She began to mix some pigments on the palette. Delgrado, already regretting an inexplicable outburst, turned from the picture and looked at Murillo's "woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a diadem of twelve stars."
"Now, please help me to appreciate that and you will find me a willing student," he murmured.
But Joan had recovered her self-possession. "Suppose we come off the high art ladder and talk of our uninteresting selves," she said. "What of the mystery you hinted at on the Quai? Why shouldn't I call you Mr. Delgrado? One cannot always say 'Alec,' it's too short."
Then he reddened with confusion. "Delgrado is my name, right enough," he said. "It is the prefix I object to. It implies that I am sailing under false colors, and I don't like that."
"I am not good at riddles, and I suspect prefix," she cried.
"Ah, well, I suppose I must get through with it. Have you forgotten how Rudin introduced me?"
She knitted her brows for a moment. Pretty women should cultivate the trick, unless they fear wrinkles. It gives them the semblance of looking in on themselves, and the habit is commendable. "Rudin is fond of his little joke," she announced at last.
"But—what did he say?"
"Oh, there was some absurdity. He addressed me as if I were a royal personage, and asked to be allowed to present his Serene Highness Prince Alexis Delgrado."
The man smiled constrainedly. "It sounds rather nonsensical, doesn't it?" he said.
"Rudin often invents titles. I have heard efforts much more amusing."
"That is when he is original. Unfortunately, in my case, he was merely accurate."
Joan whirled round on him. "Are you a Prince?" she gasped, each word marking a crescendo of wonder.
"But what am I to do? What am I to say? Must I drop on one knee and kiss your hand?"
"I cannot help it," he growled. "And I was obliged to tell you. You would have been angry with me if I had kept it hidden from you. Oh, dash it all, Joan, don't laugh! That is irritating."
"My poor Alec! Why did they make you a Prince?"
"I was born that way. My father is one. Do you mean to say you have lived in Paris a year and have never seen our names in the newspapers? My people gad about everywhere. The Prince and Princess Michael Delgrado, you know."
"I do not know," said Joan deliberately.
Her alert brain was slowly assimilating this truly astonishing discovery. She did not attempt to shirk its significance, and her first thought was to frame some excuse to abandon work for the day; since, no matter what the cost to herself, this friendship must go no farther. The decision caused a twinge; but she did not flinch, for Joan would always visit the dentist rather than endure toothache. She could not dismiss a Serene Highness merely because he declared his identity, nor was she minded to forget his rank because she had begun to call him Alec. But it hurt. She was conscious of a longing to be alone. If not in love, she was near it, and hard-working artists must not love Serene Highnesses.
Delgrado was watching her with a glowering anxiety that itself carried a warning. "You see, Joan, I had to tell you," he repeated. "People make such a fuss about these empty honors——"
Joan caught at a straw. She hoped that a display of sarcastic humor might rescue her. "Honors!" she broke in, and she laughed almost shrilly, for her voice was naturally sweet and harmonious. "Is it an honor, then, to be born a Prince?"
"If a man is worth his salt, the fact that he is regarded as a Prince should make him princely."
"That is well said. Try and live up to it. You will find it a task, though, to regulate your life by copybook maxims."
"The princedom is worth nothing otherwise. In its way, it is a handicap. Most young fellows of my age have some sort of career before them, while I—I really am what you said I was, an idler. I didn't like the taunt from your lips; but it was true. Well, I am going to change all that. I am tired of posturing as one of Daudet's 'Kings in Exile.' We expelled potentates all live in Paris; that is the irony of it. I want to be candid with you, Joan. I have seen you every day since we met at Rudin's; but I did not dare to meet you too often lest you should send me away. You have given me a purpose in life. You have created a sort of hunger in me, and I refuse to be satisfied any longer with the easygoing existence of the last few years. No, you must hear me out. No matter what you say now, the new order of things is irrevocable. I almost quarreled with my father last night; but I told him plainly that I meant to make a place for myself in the world. At any rate, I refuse to live the life he lives, and I am here to-day because the awakening is due to you, Joan."
A tremor ran through the girl's limbs; but she faced him bravely. Though her lips quivered, she forced herself to utter words that sounded like a jibe. "I am to play Pallas Athene to your Perseus," she said, and it seemed to him for a moment that she was in a mood to jest at heroics.
"If you mean that I regard you as my goddess, I am well content," he answered quickly.
"Ah, but wait. Pallas Athene came to Perseus in a dream, and let us make believe that we are dreaming now. She had great gray eyes, clear and piercing, and she knew all thoughts of men's hearts and the secrets of their souls. My eyes are not gray, Alec, nor can they pierce as hers; but I can borrow her beautiful words, and tell you that she turns her face from the creatures of clay. They may 'fatten at ease like sheep in the pasture, and eat what they did not sow, like oxen in the stall. They grow and spread, like the gourd along the ground; but, like the gourd, they give no shade to the traveler, and when they are ripe death gathers them, and they go down unloved into hell, and their name vanishes out of the land.' But to the souls of fire she gives more fire, and to those who are manful she gives a power more than man's. These are her heroes, the sons of the Immortals. They are blest, but not as the men who live at ease. She drives them forth 'by strange paths ... through doubt and need and danger and battle.... Some of them are slain in the flower of their youth, no man knows when or where, and some of them win noble names and a fair and green old age.' Not even the goddess herself can tell the hap that shall befall them; for each man's lot is known only to Zeus. Have you reflected well on these things, Alec? Be sure of yourself! There may be Gorgons to encounter, and monsters of the deep."
He came very near to her. Her eyes were glistening. For one glowing second they looked into each other's hearts.
"And perhaps a maiden chained to a rock to be rescued," he whispered.
Then she drew herself up proudly. "Do not forget that I am Pallas Athene," she said. "My shield of brass is an easel and my mighty spear a mahl-stick; but—I keep to my role, Alec."
He longed to clasp her in his arms; but it flashed upon him with an inspiration from topmost Olympus that, all unwittingly, she had bound herself to his fortunes.
"Then I leave it at that," he said quietly.
This sudden air of confidence was bewildering. She had been swept off her feet by emotion, and the very considerations she thought she had conquered were now tugging at her heart-strings. He must not go away as her knight errant, eager and ready to slay dragons for her sake.
"Do not misunderstand me," she faltered. "I was only quoting a passage from one of Kingsley's Greek fairy tales that has always had a peculiar fascination for me."
"I'll get that story and read it. But I am interfering with your work, and here comes your friend, the Humming Bee. If he said anything funny to me just now, I should want to strangle him. So good-by, dear Joan. I will turn up again to-morrow and tell you how I fared in each round."
And he was gone, leaving her breathless and shaken; for well she knew that he held her pledged to unspoken vows, that his eager confidences would apply alike to the day's sport and his future life. With hands that trembled she essayed a further mixing of colors; but she scarcely realized what she was doing, until a queer, cracked voice that yet was musical sang softly in German at her elbow:
If the Song should chance to wander Forth the Minstrel too must go.
It was passing strange that crooked little Felix Poluski, ex-Nihilist, the wildest firebrand ever driven out of Warsaw, and the only living artist who could put on canvas the gleam of heaven that lights the Virgin's face in the "Immaculate Conception," should justify his nickname of Le Bourdon by humming those two lines.
"I hope you are not a prophet, Felix," said Joan with a catch in her throat.
"No, ma belle, no prophet, merely an avenger, a slayer of Kings. I see you have just routed one."
She turned and looked into the deepset eyes of the old hunchback, and for the first time noted that they were gray and very bright and piercing. At the same time the fancy crossed her mind that perhaps Henri Quatre had had blue eyes, bold yet tender, like unto Alec's.
"So you too are aware that Monsieur Delgrado is a Prince?" she said, letting her thought bubble forth at random.
"Some folk call him that, and it is the worst thing I know of him so far. It may spoil him in time; but at present I find him a nice young man."
Joan swung round to her picture. "If Alec had the chance of becoming a King, he would be a very good one," she said loyally.
Poluski's wizened cheeks puckered into a grin. He glanced at the easel and thence to the picture on the wall.
"Perfectly, my dear Joan," he said. "And, by the bones of Kosciusko, you have chosen a proper subject, The Fortune Teller! Were you filling our warrior with dreams of empire? Well, well, I don't know which is more potent with monarchs, woman or dynamite. In Alec's case I fancy I should bet on the woman. Here, for example, is one that shook Heaven, and I have always thought that Eve was not given fair treatment, or she would surely have twisted the serpent's tail," and, humming the refrain of "Les Demi-Vierges," he climbed the small platform he had erected in front of the world famous Murillo.
Back to back, separated by little more than half the width of the gallery, Joan and Poluski worked steadily for twenty minutes. The Pole sang to himself incessantly, now bassooning between his thin lips the motif of some rhapsody of Lizst's, now murmuring the words of some catchy refrain from the latest review. Anybody else who so transgressed the rules would have been summarily turned out by the guards; but the men knew him, and the Grande Galerie, despite its treasures, or perhaps because of them, is the least popular part of the Louvre. Artists haunt it; but the Parisian, the provincial, the globe trotter, gape once in their lives at Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Salvator Rosa, Murillo of course, and the rest of the mighty dead, and then ask with a yawn, "Where are the Crown Jewels?"
So the Humming Bee annoyed none by his humming; but he stopped short in an improvised variation on the theme of Vulcan's song in "Philemon and Baucis" when he heard a subdued but none the less poignant cry of distress from Joan. In order to turn his head he was compelled to twist his ungainly body, and Joan, who was standing well away from her canvas, was aware of the movement. She too turned.
"I am going," she announced. "I cannot do anything right to-day. Just look at that white feather!"
"In the boy's hat, you tease! Where else would you look?"
"In your face, belle mignonne," said the Pole.
It was true. Joan was not ill; but she was undeniably low spirited, and the artist's mood has a way of expressing itself on the palette. She laughed, with a certain sense of effort.
"I like you best when you sing, Felix. Sometimes, when you speak, you are Infelix."
"By all means go home," he grinned. "One cannot both joke and copy a Caravaggio."
He began to paint with feverish industry, did not look at her again, but tossed an adieu over his humped shoulder when she hurried away. Then he gazed reproachfully, almost vindictively, at the uplifted eyes of the transfigured Virgin.
"Now, you!" he growled. "Vous etes benie entre toutes les femmes! This affair is in your line. Why don't you help? Saperlotte! The girl is worth it."
The Wanderers beat Chantilly. One minute before the close of the fourth chukkur the score stood at four all. Both teams were playing with desperation to avoid a decider on tired ponies, when the Wanderers' third man extricated the ball from a tangle of prancing hoofs and clattering sticks, and Alec Delgrado got away with it. He thought his pony was good for one last run at top speed, that and no more. Risking it, he sprinted across two hundred yards of green turf with the Chantilly Number One in hot chase. His opponent was a stone lighter and better mounted; so Alec's clear start would not save him from being overhauled and ridden off ere he came within a reasonable striking distance of the opposing goalposts. That was the Chantilly man's supreme occupation,—some experts will have it that the ideal Number One should not carry a polo stick,—and the pursuer knew his work.
A hundred, eighty, sixty, yards in front Alec saw a goal keeping centaur waiting to intercept him. In another couple of strides a lean, eager head would be straining alongside his own pony's girths. So he struck hard and clean and raced on, and the goalkeeper judged the flight of the white wooden ball correctly, and smote it back again fair and straight.
It traveled so truly that it would have passed Alec three feet from the ground to drop almost exactly on the spot whence he had driven it. But there was more in that last gallop along the smooth lawn than might be realized by any one present save Alec himself. It was his farewell to the game. From that day he would cease to be dependent on a begrudged pittance for the upkeep of his stable, and that meant the end of his polo playing. But he was not made of the stuff that yields before the twelfth hour. His mallet whirled in the air, there was a crack like a pistol shot, and the ball flew over the amazed goalkeeper's head and between the posts.
The yelling and handclapping of the few spectators almost drowned the umpire's whistle.
"By gad, that was a corker!" said he of Chantilly, as the ponies' wild gallop eased to a canter.
"I hope that flourish of mine did not come too close, Beaumanoir," said Alec.
"Don't give a tuppenny now," laughed Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir. "The match is over, and you've won it, and if you play till Doomsday you'll never score a better notch."
"It was lucky, a sheer fluke."
"Oh, that be jiggered for a yarn! A fellow flukes with his eyes shut. You meant it!"
"Yes, that is right. So would you, Berty, if it was your last knock."
"Well, time's up, anyhow," said Beaumanoir, not comprehending.
They trotted off to the group of waiting grooms. Delgrado ran the gauntlet of congratulations, for Paris likes to see Chantilly's flag lowered, and escaped to the dressing room. He gave a letter, already written and sealed, to an attendant, and drove away in his dogcart. Bowling quickly along the broad Allee de Longchamps, he turned into the Route de l'Etoile, and so to the fine avenue where all Paris takes the summer air.
He found himself eying the parade of fashion in a curiously detached mood. Yesterday he thought himself part and parcel of that gay throng. To-day he was a different being. All that had gone before was merged in "yesterday's seven thousand years."
His cob's pace did not slacken until he drew rein at the giant doorway of a block of flats in the Rue Boissiere. It was then about five o'clock, and he meant to appear at his mother's tea table. He was far from looking the "limp rag" of his phrase to Joan. Indeed, it might have taxed the resources of any crack regiment in Paris that day to produce his equal in condition. Twenty-four years old, nearly six feet in height, lean and wiry, square wristed, broad shouldered, and straight as a spear, he met the physical requirements, at least, of those classic youths beloved of Joan's favorite goddess.
Usually his clean cut face, typically American in its high cheekbones, firm chin, mobile mouth, and thoughtful eyes, wore a happy-go-lucky expression that was the despair of matchmaking mamas; but to-day Alec was serious. He was thinking of the promise that to the souls of fire would be given more fire, to the manful a might more than man's.
If he had not been so preoccupied, he would certainly have heard the raucous shouts of newsboys running frantically along the boulevards. That is to say, he heard, but did not heed, else some shadow of a strange destiny must have dimmed his bright dreams.
Their nature might be guessed from his words to Joan. The question he addressed to the concierge proved that his intent was fixed.
"Is Monseigneur at home?" he asked.
"Oui, m'sieur. His Excellency has mounted a little half-hour ago," said the man.
Alec nodded. "Now for it!" he said to himself.
His father, a born fop, a boulevardier by adoption, cultivated habits that seemed to follow the mechanical laws of those clockwork manikins that ingenious horologists contrive for the amusement of children, big and little. Whether eating, sleeping, driving, strolling, chatting or card playing, the whereabouts and occupation of Prince Michael Delgrado could be correctly diagnosed at any given hour of the day and night. Fortune delights at times in tormenting such men with great opportunities. Prince Michael, standing now with his back to the fireplace in his wife's boudoir, was fated to be an early recipient of that boon for which so many sigh in vain.
Of course he knew nothing of that. His round, plump, rosy face, at first sight absurdly disproportionate to his dapper and effeminate body, wore a frown of annoyance. In fact, he had been obliged to think, and the effort invariably distressed him. Apparently he had a big head, and big headed men of diminutive frame usually possess brains and enjoy using them. But closer inspection revealed that his Highness' skull resembled an egg, with the narrow end uppermost.
Thus, according to Lavater, he was richly endowed with all the baser qualities that pander to self, and markedly deficient in the higher attributes of humanity. The traits of the gourmand, the cynic, the egoist, were there; but the physiognomist would look in vain for any sign of genius or true nobility. Recognition of his undoubted rank had, of course, given him the grand manner. That was unavoidable, and it was his chief asset. He liked to be addressed as "Monseigneur"; he had a certain reputation for wit; he carried himself with the ease that marks his caste; and he had shown excellent taste in choosing a wife.
The Princess did indeed look the great lady. Her undoubted beauty, aided by a touch of Western piquancy, had captivated the Paris salons of an earlier generation, and those same salons repaid their debt by conferring the repose, the dignity, the subtle aura of distinction, that constitute the aristocrat in outward bearing. For this reason, Princess Delgrado was received in poverty stricken apartments where her husband would be looked at askance, since the frayed Boulevard Saint Germain still shelters the most exclusive circle in France.
Here, then, was an amazing instance of a one-sided heredity. Alexis Delgrado evidently owed both mind and body to his mother. Looking at the Princess, one saw that such a son of such a father did not become sheerly impossible.
To-day, unhappily, neither Prince Michael nor his wife was in tune for a family conclave. Monseigneur was ruffled, distinctly so, and Madame was on the verge of tears.
When Alec entered the room he was aware of a sudden silence, accentuated by a half-repressed sob from his mother. Instantly he took the blame on his own shoulders. He expected difficulties; but he was not prepared for a scene.
"Why, mother dear," he said, bending over her with a tenderness that contrasted strongly with Prince Michael's affected indifference, "what is the matter? Surely you and dad have not been worrying about me! You can't keep me in the nest always, you know. And I only want to earn the wherewithal to live. That is not so very terrible, is it?"
The distressed woman looked up at him with a wan smile. She seemed to have aged since the morning. There was a pathetic weakness in her mouth and chin that was noticeably absent from her son's strong lineaments, and it occurred to Alec with a pang that he had never before seen his mother so deeply moved.
"I suppose one must endure the world's changes," she murmured. "It was foolish on my part to imagine that things could continue forever on the same lines; but I shall not grieve, Alec, if no cloud comes between you and me. It would break my heart——"
"Oh, come now!" he cried, simulating a lively good humor he was far from feeling. "What has dad been saying? Clouds! Where are they? Not around my head, at any rate. I have dispelled the only one that existed, the silly halo of class that stops a fellow from working because he happens to be born a Prince. It was different for dad, of course. My respected grandfather, Ferdinand VII., was really a King, and dad was a grown man when the pair of them were slung out of Kosnovia. Sorry, sir; but that is the way they talk history nowadays. It has ceased to be decorous. I am afraid Paris is largely responsible. You see, we have an Emperor in the next block, two Kings in the Avenue Victor Hugo, and a fugitive ex-President in the Hotel Metropole. I have seen the whole lot, even our noble selves, burlesqued in a Montmartre review. And I laughed! That is the worst part of it. I roared! We looked such a funny crew. And we were all jolly hard up, borrowing five-franc pieces from one another, and offering to sell scepters at a ridiculous sacrifice. That came rather near home. We haven't got what the storybooks calls an embarrassment of riches, have we? So, a cup of tea, please, mother, and I'll hear the Czar's edict. It is pending. I can see it in his eye."
Usually Prince Michael responded to that sort of airy nonsense. When sure of his audience, he had spoken much more disrespectfully of the Parisian band of Kings in exile. But to-day his chubby cheeks refused to crease in a grin. He remained morose, oracular, heavy jowled. In fact, he had set himself a very difficult task. Now that the moment had arrived for its fulfilment, he shirked it.
"May I ask, Alec, if you have any scheme in view?" he said, strutting on the hearthrug in front of a grate filled with ferns. He always stood there,—in winter because it was warm, and he was a martyr to chilblains; in summer because of the habit contracted in winter.
"Well, sir, candidly speaking, I have not. But I saw in a newspaper the other day a paragraph of advice to a young man. 'No matter how small your income may be, live within it: that is the beginning of wealth,' it said. How profound! I applied it to myself. My income is nil. There I encountered a serious obstacle at the very start of the Great Money Stakes. But——"
"This is a grave discussion, Alec. I have that to say which may pain you. Pray be serious."
"Oh, I am—quite serious. My ponies and the dogcart are in Dumont's catalogue for the next sale. I resigned my membership of the polo club to-day. To-morrow, or eke to-night, I look for a job. As you, mother o' mine, have heard men say in your beloved west, I'm going to butt in."
"I—er—suppose you—er—look to me for some assistance?" coughed Prince Michael.
His wife rose. Her face was gray-white, her eyes blazed. "Alec knows we are poor. Why torture him—and me? I refuse to allow it. I refuse!" Her voice took a tragic note, thin and shrill; there was a pitiful quivering of her lips that wrung her son's heart, and he was utterly at a loss to understand why a discussion as to his future should lead to this display of passion.
"But, mother darling," he cried, "why are you grieving so? You and dad must maintain a certain state,—one begins by assuming that,—and it is no secret that the Delgrado side of the family was not blessed with wealth. Very well. Let me try to adjust the balance—the bank balance, eh? Really, why weep?"
Alec's gallant attempt to avert the storm failed again. His Serene Highness muttered words in a foreign tongue that sounded anything but serene. The Princess did not understand; but her son did. His brows wrinkled, and the good humored gleam died out of his eyes.
"Perhaps, sir," he said stiffly, "this subject had better be discussed when my mother is not present."
Prince Michael looked at him fixedly. For some reason the little man was very angry, and he seemed to resent the implied slur on his good taste.
"I am determined to end this farce once and for all," he vowed. "Before you joined us, I told the Princess——"
The door was flung open. The young man who had followed Joan and Alec into the Louvre that morning rushed in. His pink and white face was crimson now, and his manner that of unmeasured, almost uncontrollable excitement. He gazed at them with a wildness that bordered on frenzy, yet it was clear that their own marked agitation was only what he expected to find.
"Ah, you have heard?" he snapped, biting at each syllable.
"Heard what, Julius?" demanded Monseigneur, with an instant lowering of the princely mask, since Julius dabbled in stocks and was reputed well to do.
"The news! The news from Kosnovia!"
Prince Michael affected to yawn. "Oh, is that all?" he asked.
"All! Grand Dieu, what more would you have? It means—everything."
"My good Julius, it is long since I was so disturbed. What, then, has happened? The Danube in flood is no new thing."
"The Danube!" and the newcomer's voice cracked. "So you do not know—sire?"
The little word seemed to have the explosive force of nitroglycerine. Its detonation rang through the room and left them all silent, as though their ears were stunned and their tongues paralyzed. Alec was the first to see that some event far out of the common had reduced his cousin, Count Julius Marulitch, almost to a state of hysteria.
"We are at cross purposes," he said quietly. "My father, like the rest of us, read this morning's telegram about the overflowing of the river——"
Count Marulitch waved his hands frantically. He was literally beside himself. His full red lips, not at all unlike those of the youth in Joan's picture, moved several times before sounds came.
"It is at least my good fortune to be the first to congratulate my King!" he cried at last. "Be calm, I pray you; but a tremendous change has been affected at Delgratz. Last night, while Theodore and the Queen were at dinner, the Seventh Regiment mutinied. It was on guard at the Schwarzburg. Officers and men acted together. There was no resistance. It was impossible. Theodore and Helena were killed!" This man, who appealed for calmness, was himself in a white heat of emotion.
A stifled scream, a sob, almost a groan, broke from the Princess, and she clung to her son as though she sought protection from that bloodthirsty Seventh Regiment. Prince Michael, fumbling with an eyeglass, dropped it in sheer nervousness. Alec, throwing an arm round his mother, recalled the hoarse yelling of the newsboys on the boulevards. Was it this latest doom of a monarchy that they were bawling so lustily? He glanced at his father, and the dapper little man found it incumbent on him to say something.
"But, Julius—is this true? There are so many canards. You know our proverb: 'A stone that falls in the Balkans causes an earthquake in St. Petersburg.'"
"Oh, it is true, sire. And the telegrams declare that already you have been proclaimed King."
Prince Michael's exclamation was most unkingly. Rather was it the wail of a criminal on being told that the executioner waited without. His ruddy cheeks blanched, and his hands were outstretched as if in a piteous plea for mercy. There was a tumult of objurgations in the outer passage; but this King in spite of himself paid no heed.
"I?" he gasped again, with relaxed jaws.
"You, sire," cried Marulitch. "Our line is restored. There will be fighting, of course; but what of that? One audacious week will see you enthroned once more in the Schwarzburg. Ah! Here come Stampoff and Beliani. You are quick on my heels, messieurs; but I promised my cabman a double fare."
A scared manservant, vainly endeavoring to protect his master's private apartments, was rudely thrust aside, and a fierce looking old warrior entered, followed by a man who was obviously more of a Levantine than a Serb. The older man, small, slight, gray haired, and swarthy, but surprisingly active in his movements for one of his apparent age, raced up to Prince Michael. He fell on his knees, caught that nerveless right hand, and pressed it to his lips.
"Thank Heaven, sire, that I have been spared to see this day!" he exclaimed.
The Greek, less demonstrative, nevertheless knelt by Stampoff's side. "I too am your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subject," said he.
The Prince did then make a supreme effort to regain his self possession. "Thank you, General," he murmured, "and you also, Monsieur Beliani. I have only just been told. Theodore and Helena both dead! What a thing! They were my enemies; but I am shocked, I may almost say grieved. And what am I to do? I am practically powerless,—few friends, no money. One does not merely pack a valise and go off by train to win a throne. You say I am proclaimed King, Julius. By whom? Have the representatives met? Is there an invitation from the people?"
Stampoff was on his feet instantly. A man of steel springs and volcanic energy, his alertness waged constant war against his years. "The people!" he shouted. "What of them? What do they know? There is talk of a Republic. Think of that! Could folly go farther? A Republic in the Balkans, with Russia growling at one door, Austria picking the lock of another, and the Turk squatting before a third! No, Monseigneur. Start from Paris to-night, cross the Danube, reveal yourself to your supporters, and you will soon show these windbags that a man who means to rule is worth a hundred demagogues who exist only to spout."
His Serene Highness was slowly but surely recovering lost ground. He grasped the eyeglass again, and this time gouged it into its accustomed crease.
"You, Beliani, you are not one to be carried away by emotion," he said. "Count Marulitch spoke of a proclamation. Who issued it? Was there any authority behind it?"
"God's bones! what better authority is there than your Majesty's?" roared Stampoff.
But the Prince extended a protesting palm. "An excellent sentiment, my friend; but let us hear Beliani," he said.
The Greek, thus appealed to, seemed to find some slight difficulty in choosing the right words. "At present, everything is vague, Monseigneur," he said. "It is certain that a battalion of the Seventh Regiment revolted and declared for the Delgrado dynasty. Two other battalions of the same regiment in the capital followed their lead. But the Chamber met this morning, and there was an expression of opinion in favor of a democratic Government. No vote was taken; but the latest reports speak of some disorder. The approaches to the Schwarzburg are held by troops. There are barricades in the main streets."
Prince Michael's hands went under his coattails. His face had not regained its claret red color, and its present tint suggested that it had been carved out of a Camembert cheese; but he was gradually taking the measure of current events in Kosnovia.
"Barricades seem to argue decided opinions," he said, and there was a perceptible tinge of cynicism in the phrase that jarred on his hearers.
"One must be bold at times," muttered Count Julius.
General Stampoff was chewing an end of his long mustaches in impotent wrath, and Beliani merely shrugged.
"Of course, my father means that prudence must be allied with boldness," broke in Alec, who had placed his mother in a chair and was now gazing sternly at Marulitch as if he would challenge the unspoken thought.
"Exactly, my boy. Well said! One looks before one leaps, that is it! Now I am not so young, not so young, and I have not forgotten the pleasant ways of Kosnovia. Theodore thought all was well; but you see what has happened after thirty years. Just think of it. A lifetime! Why, I came to Paris twenty-four years ago, just after you were born, Alexis, and even then the Obrenovitch line seemed to be well established. And here you are, a grown man, and Theodore and his Queen are lying dead in the Black Palace. It gives one to think. Now, our good Stampoff here would have me rush off and buy a ticket for Delgratz to-night. As if Austria had not closed every frontier station and was not waiting to pounce on any Delgrado who turned up at this awkward moment on the left bank of the Danube!"
Beliani was stroking his nose; Stampoff evidently meant to shorten his mustache by inches; and Julius Marulitch was waxen, and thereby rendered more than ever like a clothier's model.
Alec was a dutiful son. There were elements in the composition of the senior Delgrado that he did not admire; but he had never before suspected his father of cowardice. His cousin Julius, whom he thoroughly disliked, was betraying a whole world of meaning in the scorn that leaped from his eyes, and there was no mistaking the thoughts that inspired the furious General and the impassive Greek. For the first time in his life, Alec despised Prince Michael. There was a quickening in his veins, a tingling at the roots of his hair, a tension of his muscles, at the repulsive notion that a Serene Highness might, after all, be molded of common clay. And in that spasm of sheer agony he remembered how Joan's sweet voice had thrilled him with the message of Pallas Athene. Was he, indeed, one of those sons of the immortals whom the goddess "drives forth by strange paths ... through doubt and need and danger and battle?" Surely some such hazardous track was opening up now before his feet! His whole nature was stirred in unknown depths. It seemed to him that there was only one man in the room whose words had the ring of truth and honest purpose. He strode forward and caught old Paul Stampoff by the shoulder.
"I'll tell you what," he said, unconsciously adopting the free and easy style of speech that came naturally to him, "you and I must carry this thing through, General! My father is glued to Paris, you know. He has lost some of his enthusiasm, and one must be enthusiastic to the point of death itself if he would snatch a Kingdom out of such a fire as is raging now in Kosnovia. Austria has never seen me, probably has never even heard of me. I can slip through her cordon, swim ten Danubes if need be. What say you, General? Will I fill the bill? If I fail, what does it matter? If I win—well, we must reverse the usual order of things, and my respected parent can step into my shoes."
"Alexis, I am proud of you——" began Prince Michael pompously; but a sigh that was blended with a groan came again from his wife, and Princess Delgrado drooped in a faint.
Alec lifted her in his arms and carried her to a bedroom. A queer silence fell on the four men in the boudoir. Even his Serene Highness was discomfited, and abandoned his position on the hearthrug to gaze out of the window. To his displeased surprise, a small crowd had gathered. A man was pointing to the Delgrado apartments. Another man, carrying a bundle of newspapers, bore one of the curious small Parisian contents bills, but its heavy black type was legible enough: "Assassination of the King and Queen of Kosnovia! King Michael in Paris!"
Alec, having given the Princess to the care of her maid, came back. He found his father looking into the street, General Stampoff standing on the hearthrug, and Count Julius whispering something in Beliani's ear.
"My mother will soon be all right," he announced cheerily. "She was a bit upset, I suppose, by our warlike talk; but we were so excited that we forgot she was present. Well, father, what say you to my proposal?"
Prince Michael turned. His face was no longer in the light. Perhaps that was his notion when he first approached the window. "I think it is an excellent one," he said. "Of course, there is a regrettable element of risk——"
"But what are we to understand?" broke in Stampoff's gruff accents. "These things are not to be settled as a shopkeeper appoints an agent. Does your Highness renounce all claim to the throne of Kosnovia in favor of your son?"
Words have a peculiar value on such occasions. The substitution of "Highness" for "Majesty" was not devoid of significance; for Stampoff, though loyal to the backbone, was no courtier.
"No!" cried Alec sharply.
"Yes," said Prince Michael, after a pause.
Count Julius Marulitch breathed heavily, and Constantine Beliani threw a wary eye over Alec.
"Good!" said Stampoff. "That clears the air. I shall be ready to accompany your Majesty by the train that leaves the Gare de l'Est at seven-thirty P.M."
Prince Michael laughed dryly. "You see," he said. "I was sure Stampoff would interfere with my dinner hour."
There was almost a touch of genius in the remark. Its very vacuity told of the man's exceeding unfitness for the role thrust upon him by certain desperadoes in the far off Balkans.
"We must have money," growled Stampoff with a most unflattering lack of recognition of the elder Delgrado's humor.
"Ah!" said Prince Michael, plunging both hands into his trousers' pockets and keeping them there.
"How much?" inquired Beliani.
"To begin with, fifty thousand francs. After that, all that can be raised."
"It is most unfortunate, but my—er—investments have been singularly unremunerative of late," said his Serene Highness.
"Why fifty thousand francs?" inquired Alec, half choked with wrath at sight of his father's obvious relief when the terrifying phantom of the Black Castle was replaced by this delectable Paris. Yet, with it all, he was aware of a consuming desire to laugh. There was a sense of utter farce in thus disposing of the affairs of nations in a flat in the Rue Boissiere. He recalled the exiled potentates of the music hall review, and the bitter wit of the dramatist was now justified. It was ludicrous, too, of Stampoff to address him as "your Majesty."
"Even Kings must give bribes occasionally," explained the impetuous General.
"Or promise them," said Count Julius.
"Or take them," said Beliani.
"If I am to be a King, I mean to dispense with these bad habits," said Alec. "We need our railway fares only, General. Once at Delgratz, our fickle Kosnovia must either maintain us or shoot us. In either event, we are provided for."
"Still, we must have sufficient funds to secure a foothold," urged Stampoff.
"I charge myself with providing ten thousand francs," said the Greek.
Alec glanced at his watch. "Give the money to Stampoff. He may want it. I do not," he said. "Dumont, though a horse dealer, is fairly honest. My four ponies are worth another ten, and he will surely pay me five, cash down. We meet at the Gare de l'Est. Who goes? You, Julius?"
"No," said the Count, "I shall follow when you have made a beginning. My presence would hamper you now. I am too well known, and secrecy is all-important until you are at the head of the army."
Alec turned on him with an air that would have delighted Joan, could she have been present.
"The army!" he cried. "I know nothing of leading armies. I mean to place myself at the head of the people."
"Nonsense, Alexis! Make for the troops. They alone can make or mar you," said Prince Michael.
"We shall settle those points at Delgratz," declared the brusk Stampoff. "You will bring the money, half in gold, to the station?" he added to Beliani.
"Yes. Gold is best. For the remainder, you will want Russian notes."
Something seemed to be troubling the august mind of Prince Michael. "By the way, my dear Beliani," he began; but the Greek awoke into a very panic of action.
"Pray forgive me, your Highness," he said. "If I have to raise such a large sum before seven o'clock I cannot lose an instant."
"I shall see you off from the Gare de l'Est," cried Marulitch hurriedly, and the two quitted the room in company. Alec went to pay a brief visit to his mother, and Prince Michael was left alone with the rugged old General. Then, for a few seconds, he became a man.
"You must forgive me, Paul," he said huskily. "I am not fitted for the work. I am broken down, a trifler, a worn out old dandy. You have got the right metal in Alexis. See to it that he does not follow my example, but keeps unstained the family name."
"God's bones! he will do that at least," muttered Stampoff. "If you or your father had possessed half his spirit, there would never have been an Obrenovitch on the throne of Kosnovia! Ferdinand VII., Michael V., Alexis III.! By the patriarch! somehow you Delgrados have managed at last to breed a King!"
IN THE ORIENT EXPRESS
After some haggling, Alec wrung four thousand five hundred francs out of Dumont. Then, at five minutes past six, he jumped into a cab and was driven to the Place de la Sorbonne.
Of course he had ascertained Joan's address easily. He made no secret of the fact that he had seen her on her way to the Louvre nearly every day of the twenty that had elapsed since their first meeting. His knowledge of the route she followed advanced quickly until he found out where she lived. He would not have dared to call on her now, if it had not been for the tremendous thing that had happened in his life; for he was sure he would become King of Kosnovia. The art that conceals art is good; but the art that is unconscious of artifice is better, and never had soothsayer arranged more effective preliminaries for astounding prediction than sibyl Joan herself.
Paris, too, might well witness the rising of his star. What other city stages such memorials to inspire ambition? Behind him, as his cab sped down the Champs Elysees, rose the splendid pile of the Arch of Triumph; in front, beyond the Place de la Concorde, the setting sun gilded a smoke blackened fragment that marked the site of the Tuileries; while near at hand the statue of France, grief stricken yet defiant, gazed ever and longingly in the direction of her lost Provinces. Here, within a short mile, stood the silent records of three Empires, founded, as time counts, within a few years. Two were already crumbled to the dust. The survivor, consolidated on the ruins of France, flourished beyond the Rhine.
Perhaps, if read aright, these portents were not wholly favorable to one about to try his luck in that imperial game. But Alec, though a good deal of a democrat at heart, was cheered by the knowledge that so long as the world recognizes the divine right of Kings, no monarch by descent could lay better claim to a throne than he. And he was young, and in love, and ready to believe that youth and love can level mountains, make firm the morass, bridge the ocean.
He wondered how Joan would take his great news. He thought he could guess her attitude. At first she would urge him to forget that such a person as Joan Vernon existed. Then he would plead that she was asking that which was not only impossible but utterly unheroic. And the minutes were flying. He would remind her that time does not wait even for Kings, nor would the Orient Express delay its departure by a single second to oblige such a fledgling potentate as he.
"We must part now, my sweet," he would say. "I am going to demand my birthright. When I am admittedly a King, I shall send for you. If you do not answer, I shall become my own envoy. You will make a beautiful Queen, Joan. You and I together will raise Kosnovia from the mire of centuries."
Somewhat stilted lovemaking this; but what was a poor fellow to do who had been taken from the Rue Boissiere and plunged into empire making, all in the course of a summer's evening?
He crossed the Pont Neuf without ever a look at Henri Quatre. That was a pity. The sarcastic Bearnais grin might have revealed some of the pitfalls that lay ahead. At any rate, the King of Navarre could have given him many instances of a woman's fickleness—and fickleness was the ugly word that leaped into Alec's puzzled brain when an ancient dame at Joan's lodgings told him that Mademoiselle and her maid had gone away that afternoon.
"Gone! Gone where?" he asked blankly.
"It is necessary to write," said Madame, and shut the door in his face, since it is forbidden in the Quartier for good looking and unknown young men to make such urgent inquiries concerning the whereabouts of discreet young women like Mademoiselle Joan.
Leontine, still scrubbing, came to the rescue. Never had she seen any one so distinguished as this Monsieur. Mon Dieu! but it was a pity that the belle Americaine should have packed her boxes that very day! And diminutive Leontine was romantic to the tips of her stubby fingers.
"M'sieu'? wishes to know where he will find the young lady who lives there?" said she archly, jerking her head and a broom handle toward the neighboring house.
"But yes, my pretty one," cried Alec.
"Well, Pauline said—Pauline is her domestic, see you—said they were going to the forest to paint."
"Perhaps, m'sieu'—to the forest, that was it."
"No name? Barbizon?"
"It might be. I have no head for those big words, m'sieu'."
Alec gave her a five-franc piece. It was the first coin he found in his pocket, and the sight of it caused a frown. Confound those Montmartre playwrights! Why was their stupid travesty constantly recurring to his mind? He frowned again, this time at Auguste Comte's smugness, and looked at his watch. Twenty-five minutes to seven! It was too late now to do other than write—if he succeeded. If not—ah, well! "Some of them are slain in the flower of their youth." At least, she would remember, and those glorious eyes of hers would glisten with tears, and the belief helped to console him. Still, he was saddened, disappointed, almost dulled. Doubt came darkly with the dispelling of the dream that he might commence his Odyssey with Joan's first and farewell kiss on his lips. Love and ambition seemed to be at variance; but love had flown, whereas ambition remained.
Back, then, to the Rue Boissiere, to an uproar of visitors, sightseers, journalists. Prince Michael had become Monseigneur again. He was holding a reception. Alec, pressing through the throng, was waylaid by a servant.
"This way, monsieur," whispered the man, drawing him into a passage and thence to the room of Princess Delgrado. Alec was soothing his mother's grief when his father entered secretly on tiptoe with the hushed voice and stealthy air of a conspirator. He carried a parcel, long and narrow, wrapped in brown paper.
"I have been consumed with anxiety," said he. "Julius came and warned me that your departure from Paris ought to be incognito. This is wise; so I remain King-elect till you reach Delgratz. The newspapers are pestering me to declare a program. They all expect that I shall leave Paris to-night or early to-morrow. Indeed, an impudent fellow representing 'Le Soir' says that if I don't bestir myself I shall be christened the Sluggard King. But I shall humbug them finely. Leave that to me. Your portmanteaus have been smuggled out by way of the servants' quarters, and you must vanish unseen. Buy a ticket for Vienna, ignore Stampoff during the journey, accept my blessing, and take this." He held out the parcel.
"What is it?" inquired Alec.
"My father's sword, your grandfather's sword. I have kept it bright for you."
Alec squirmed. He knew the weapon, a curved simitar inlaid with gold, and reposing in a scabbard of gilt metal and purple velvet. In its wrapping of brown paper and twine it suspiciously resembled a child's toy, and Prince Michael's grandiloquent manner added a touch of buffoonery to a farewell scene made poignant by a woman's tears.
"I shall use it only on the skulls of eminent personages," said Alec gravely. In truth, this Parisian kingship was rapidly becoming farcical. What a line, what a situation, for that review!
But there was worse to come. Checked in his outburst of family pride, Monseigneur became practical. "What of Dumont?" said he.
"He was touched; but he knocked off five hundred francs."
"Ah, bah! I rather hoped—well, I must return to the salon and play my part. Remember, you will see no one except a servant at the Gare de l'Est. Julius has arranged passports, everything."
"He is taking an extraordinary interest in me. Of course, if I pull through, he becomes heir presumptive."
"Parbleu! That is so. But—you will marry. Bide your time, though. Choose a Queen who—" his shifty eyes fell on the trembling form of his wife, who had remained strangely silent during this somewhat strained interview,—"who will be as good a wife to you as your mother has been to me. Farewell! may God guard you!"
Twice in one day had the pompous little man been betrayed into an avowal of honest sentiment. But he soon recovered. Once reestablished on the hearthrug, with his eyeglass properly adjusted, his hands tucked under his coattails when they were not emphasizing some well turned phrase, Prince Michael enjoyed himself hugely.
And then Alec clasped his mother in his arms. She was almost incoherent with terror. Bid him remain she dare not; she lacked the force of character that such a step demanded. She had given too many years to this chimera of royalty now suddenly grown into a monster to be sated only by the sacrifice of her son! But she mourned as if he was already dead, and a lump rose in Alec's throat. He had always loved his mother; his father had ever been remote, a dignified trifler, a poser. The three held nothing in common. It could hardly be doubted that every good quality of mind and body the boy possessed was a debt to the brokenhearted woman now clinging to him in a very frenzy of lamentation. Small wonder if his eyes were misty and his voice choked. Ah! if Joan but knew of this sorrowing mother's plight, surely she would come to her!
At last he tore himself away. Grasping that ridiculous parcel, he hurriedly descended a back staircase. Owing to the paternal watchfulness that the French Government exercises over its subjects, he was obliged to pass the concierge; but none paid heed to him. If it came to that, all Paris would guffaw at the notion of dear Alec becoming a filibuster.
He hailed a passing cab. If he would catch his train, they must drive furiously, which is nothing new in Paris. Climbing the Rue La Fayette, he passed Count Julius Marulitch and Constantine Beliani coming the other way in an open victoria. They were so deeply engaged in conversation that they did not see him. Julius was talking and the Greek listening. It flashed into Alec's mind that the presence in Paris of the Greek on the very day of the Delgratz regicide offered a most remarkable coincidence. Beliani was no stranger to him, since he and General Stampoff, the one as Finance Minister and the other as Commander in Chief, were exiled from Kosnovia after an abortive revolution ten years ago.
But Beliani usually lived in Vienna, indeed, he was sometimes regarded as an active agent in Austria's steady advance on Salonica,—whereas dear old Paul Stampoff hated Austria, was a frequent visitor to the Delgrado receptions, and it was largely to his constant urging and tuition that Alec owed his familiarity with the Slav language. The Greek, it was evident, heard of the murders at the earliest possible moment; Julius too was singularly well informed, though his interest in Kosnovian affairs had long seemed dormant; even the fiery Stampoff was no laggard once the news was bruited. Alec went so far as to fix the exact time at which Julius appeared in the Rue Boissiere. He knew something of the ways of newspapers, and was well aware that no private person could hope to obtain such important intelligence before the press. He himself had unwittingly heard the first public announcement of the tragedy, and the three men had certainly lost no time in hurrying to greet their new sovereign.
What a madly inconsequent jumble it all was! Little more than two hours ago he was driving through the Bois with no other notion in his brain than to seek a means of earning a livelihood; yet here he was at the Gare de l'Est carrying a sword as a symbol of kingship. A sword, wrapped in brown paper, tied with string! Suppose, by some lucky chance, Joan met him now, would she sympathize, or laugh?
He found his father's valet waiting with his luggage near the ticket office. The man gave him an envelop. It contained a passport, vised by the Turkish Embassy, and a few scribbled words:
Note the name. It is the nearest to your initials B. could procure. I shall come to you on the train. Destroy this. S.
The name was that on the passport, "Alexandre George Delyanni; nationality, Greek; business, carpet merchant; destination, Constantinople."
Alec smiled. The humor of it was steeling him against the canker of Joan's untimely disappearance. "I don't look much like a Greek," he said to himself; "but the 'Alexandre' sounds well as an omen. I'm not so sorry now. This business would tickle Joan to death."
So, on the whole, it was a resigned if not light-hearted adventurer who disposed himself and his belongings in the Orient Express, after experiencing the singular good luck of securing a section in the sleeping car returned by a Viennese banker at the last moment. He went about the business of buying his ticket and passing the barrier with a careless ease that would have excited the envy of a Russian Terrorist. Sharp eyes attend the departure of every international train from Paris; but never a spy gave more than casual scrutiny to this broad shouldered youth strolling down the platform, the latest passenger to arrive, and the least flurried.
He neither saw nor looked for Stampoff. Having a minute to spare, he obtained a newspaper, took a seat voucher for the first dinner, lighted a cigarette, entered his reserved compartment, arranged his luggage, and burnt General Stampoff's scrawl just as the train moved out of the station.
Then he read an account of the Delgratz crime,—for it was only a crime, a brutal and callous murder, not worthy to be dignified by the mantle of political hate. The unhappy King and Queen of Kosnovia were dining in company with the Queen's brother and the Minister of Ways and Communications when the regiment on duty in the palace burst in on them. King Theodore was shot down while endeavoring to protect the Queen. She too fell riddled with bullets, and both corpses were flung into a courtyard. The unhappy guests were wounded, and still remained prisoners in the hands of the regicides, who vaunted that they had "saved" the country, and meant to restore the ancient sovereignty.
Beliani's summary of subsequent events was accurate; but it struck Alec at once that he had said nothing of the minister nor of Sergius Vottisch, Queen Helena's brother, who was mainly instrumental in defeating Beliani's half-forgotten revolt. Did he know of their presence? How peculiar that he should utter no word of triumph concerning Vottisch!
Alec threw aside the paper. He was sick at heart. He loathed the thought that the first step toward his throne lay across the body of a woman.
"Nice guards, the noble Seventh Regiment!" he muttered. "Now, when I am King——"
Then he realized that during the few minutes that had elapsed since the train started, the whole aspect of the adventure had changed completely. It was no longer a snatch of opera bouffe, a fantastic conceit engendered in the brain of that elderly beau whom he had left in the Rue Boissiere, a bit of stage trifling happily typified by the property sword. It had become real, grim, menacing. It reeked of blood. Its first battle was there, recorded in the newspaper. He pictured those brutal soldiers mauling the warm bodies, thrusting them through an open window and proclaiming their loyalty—to him!
The train was rushing through an estate noted for its game, and he had been one of a party of guns in its coverts last October. He remembered shooting a pheasant of glorious plumage, and saying: "Ah! What a pity! I ought to have spared him, if only on account of his coat of many colors."
"When birds are flying fast, even you, Alec, have to shoot passim," said a witty Hebrew, and Delgrado did not appreciate the mot until some one told him that passeem in Hebrew meant "patchwork," and that Jacob's offense to Joseph's brethren lay in the gift of a Prince's robe to his favorite son.
The quip came to mind now with sinister significance; he wished most heartily he had missed that pheasant. It was quite a relief when dinner was announced, and he made his way to the dining car, where a polyglot gathering showed that although the Orient Express had not quitted Paris fifteen minutes it had already crossed many frontiers. There were few French or English on board, and not one American. A couple of Turks, a Bulgarian, a sprinkling of Russians and Levantines, and a crowd of Teutons, either German or Austrian, made up the company. Stampoff remained invisible, and Alec shared a table with an Armenian, who insisted on speaking execrable English, though he understood French far better.
Then this newest of all Kings felt very lonely, and he began to understand something of the isolation that would surround him in that Black Castle of his daydream, where, if all went well with him, he alone would be the "foreigner." A longing for companionship came upon him. He wanted some one who would laugh and talk airy nonsense, some one whose mind would not be running everlastingly in the political groove, and an irresistible impulse urged him to ask for a telegraph form and write:
BEAUMANOIR, Villa Turquoise, Chantilly. Come and join in the revel. ALEC.
He gave the message to an attendant, bidding him despatch it from Chalons. He reasoned that Beaumanoir would be puzzled, would call at the Rue Boissiere, see his father, and solve the mystery. In all likelihood, Lord Adalbert, who cheerfully answered to the obvious nickname—would accept the invitation, and by the time he reached Delgratz the succession to the throne of Kosnovia would be in a fair way toward settlement. Moreover, by depriving the Chantilly team of their crack Number One, Alec would equalize matters for the Wanderers, and the love of sport is ever the ruling passion in healthy and vigorous youth.
"By gad!" he said to himself, "I'm showing craft already. That is a Machiavellian wire!"
It was, as it happened, a stroke worthy of the wily Florentine himself; but neither he nor his latest pupil could possibly have estimated its true bearing on events.
After dinner Stampoff found him. Delgrado was astounded at first. Stampoff, shorn of his immense mustache, ceased to be a General. In fact, the wizened, keen faced old man bore a striking resemblance to a certain famous actor of the Comedie Francaise; but he was not seated in Alec's compartment ten seconds with the door closed ere he showed that the loss of his warrior aspect had in no way tamed his heart.
"Yes," he said, passing a lean hand over his blue-black upper lip, "it was necessary to disguise myself. Ten years are not so long, and I am known on the Danube. You see, we must get through to Delgratz and the Schwarzburg. Once there, with three thousand bayonets behind us, we can do things. Leave the fighting to me, your——"
He stopped, and glanced at a fat Turk lumbering along the corridor.
"Exactly, my dear old friend," said Alec. "Drop titles, please, until we have a right to use them. Even then they can be left to gentlemen ushers and court chamberlains. Alec and Paul sound better, anyhow. But you were outlining a scheme. I go with you as far as Delgratz; but those bayonets in the Schwarzburg will not be behind me, I hope. Some of them may come within measurable distance of my manly chest; but even that is improbable, for I have always noticed that vulgar assassins are cowards."
Stampoff's bushy eyebrows had been spared, and they formed a hairy seam now straight across eyes and nose. "You forget, perhaps you do not know, that these men alone have actually declared for you—for a Delgrado," he growled.
"And a pretty gang of cutthroats they must be! I read the details after leaving Paris. That poor woman, Paul! She was pretty and vivacious, I have been told. Just picture the scene in the dining hall. One woman, three unarmed men, the King leaping up and endeavoring to shield her—and the gallant Seventh firing volleys at them. Then, when the last sob is uttered, the last groan stilled, husband and wife are pitched to the dogs. Oh, it makes my blood boil! By the Lord! when I am King I shall hang the whole crew!"
He spoke very quietly. Any one looking through the window in the upper half of the door would have seen a young man seemingly telling an older one something of ordinary import. But the words were crisp and hot. They came like drops of molten steel from the furnace of his heart.
Stampoff's thin face grew swarthier. He bent forward, his hands on his knees. "Will you tell me why you are going to Delgratz?" he asked with a curious huskiness in his voice.
"To occupy a throne—or a tomb. In either event, I am only copying the example of the vast majority of my revered ancestors."
"The throne is yours by right. Theodore has fallen almost precisely as your grandfather fell. Ferdinand was shot, and escaped with his life only because there was a struggle and a few faithful followers carried him into safety."
"If I depended on the fealty of the Seventh Regiment, I should not expect to find even the faithful few. Poor Theodore may have looked for them; but they did not exist."
"Then we had better leave the train at Chalons and return to Paris."
"Certainly, if the butchers of the Schwarzburg are to form my cohort."
"God's bones! never have I been so mistaken in a man! Your father, now,—one feared he might have lost his nerve,—but you, Alec! The devil take it! I thought better of you. I suppose then, it will have to be Marulitch."
"Julius! Is he a candidate—or a rival?"
Stampoff paused, irresolute. He was deeply troubled, and his fierce eyes searched Delgrado's face. "I had real hope of you," he muttered. "You would appeal to the women, and they are ever half the battle. Why are you so squeamish? You needn't embrace the men of the Seventh. You can use them, and kick them aside. That is the fate of ladders that lead to thrones. I know it. I am old enough not to care."
"I am not thinking of ladders as yet, Paul. Sufficient for the day is the foundation thereof, and I refuse to build my Kingdom on the broken vows of traitors."
"Ha! Stupid words! The ravings of cheap philosophers! By your own showing, I am a traitor."
"Yes, but an honest one. You fought fairly and were beaten. Were it otherwise, Theodore would never have tried so often to tempt you to his service."
The General flung himself back in the carriage and folded his arms. The steel spring was relaxed. He was baffled, and the weariness of life had suddenly enveloped him in its chilling fog. "Very well, then. We descend at Chalons," he said, with a sigh that was a tribute to adverse fate.
"Having paid for your ticket, you may as well come on to Vienna," said Alec with irritating composure.
"Curse Vienna! Why should I take that long journey for nothing?"
"To oblige me."
"You'll drive me crazy. How will it oblige you?"
"Because I am going to Delgratz, General, and there is a whole lot of things I want to ask you."
Stampoff bounced up again. "Will you be so kind as to explain what you mean?" he cried indignantly.
"Oh, yes. We are going to talk far into the night, and it is only fair that you should know my intentions. Otherwise, the valuable counsel you will give me might be misdirected, as it is, for instance, at the present moment, when you are heatedly advising me to throw in my lot with a set of rascals who, when I fail to satisfy their demands, would turn and rend me just as they have rended Theodore. Be sure that their object was selfish, Stampoff. Not one of these men has ever seen Prince Michael or myself. Even their leaders must have been mere boys when Ferdinand VII. was attacked—probably by their fathers. Well, I shall have none of them. They and their like are the curse of Kosnovia. Who will pay taxes to keep me in the state that becomes a King? Not they. Who will benefit by good government and honest administration of the laws? Assuredly not they, for they batten on corruption; they are the maggots not the bees of industry. Over whom, then, shall I reign?
"I am young, Paul; but I have read and thought,—not very deeply, perhaps, but I have looked at things in that strong, clear light of Paris, which is heady at times, like its good wine, but which enables men to view art and politics and social needs in their nakedness. And I am half an American, too, which accounts for certain elements in my composition that detract from French ideals. A Frenchman cannot understand, Paul, why some of my excellent kith and kin across the Atlantic should condemn studies of the nude. But somehow I have a glimmering sense of the moral purpose that teaches us to avoid that which is not wholly decent. So I am a blend of French realism and American level headedness, and both sides of my nature warn me that a King should trust his people. Sometimes the people are slow to learn that vital fact. Well, they must be taught, and the first lesson in a State like Kosnovia might well be given by trying those felons of the Schwarzburg before a duly constituted court of law."
"Fine talk, Alec. Fine talk! You do not know our Serbs," yet Stampoff was moved, and his Slavonic sympathies were touched.
"Well, 'A King should die standing,' said one poor monarch, who thought he did know Frenchmen. I ask only for a few hours in my boots once I reach Delgratz. I shall say things that will not be forgotten for a day or two. Come, now, my old war-horse, join me in this new campaign! It may well prove your last as it is my first; but we shall fall honorably, you and I."
There were tears in Stampoff's eyes when Alec made an end. "Perhaps you are right," he said. "I have always given my mind to the military element. It seemed to me that the common folk require to be driven, not led, into the path they should tread. I am growing old, Alec; yours is a new creed to me. I never thought to hear it from a Delgrado, and it will make a rare stir in more places than Kosnovia; but by Heaven it is worth a trial!"
So Alec had won a convert, and that is the first essential of a reformer. Long and earnestly did they discuss the men and manners of Kosnovia and its chief city, and ever the Danube drew nearer; but not a word did Alec say of his telegram to Beaumanoir until a man met him in the Western Station at Vienna, wrung his hand, and rushed away again with the words:
"Beaumanoir leaves Paris to-night. He understands. So do I. Good luck, old chap! If you have to hit, hit hard and quickly."
Stampoff did not speak English. He was greatly distressed that Alec should have been recognized the instant he alighted from the train, though Paris was then twenty-two hours distant. "Who is that?" he asked anxiously.
"A friend from the British Embassy."
"From an Embassy! Then we are lost."
"It seemed to me that I was found, rather."
"But if the Embassies know——"
"They are invariably the worst informed centers in any country. The facts of which they profess total ignorance would fill many interesting volumes. Have no fear, General. I said 'a friend.' He gave me a pleasant message."
"Ah, from a woman, of course?"
Delgrado wheeled round to face a tall burly man standing stiffly at his side as though awaiting orders. Stampoff, who had been following the vanishing figure of Beaumanoir's emissary with suspicious eyes, turned and looked at the newcomer.
"Oh, that is Bosko," he said, "my servant—yours, too, for that matter. You can trust Bosko with your life. Can't he, you dog?"
"Oui, m'sieur!" said Bosko.
THE WHITE CITY
Alec was sound asleep when the Orient Express rumbled over the Danube for the last time during its slow run to the Near East. He was aroused by an official examining passports, which he was informed would be restored in the railway station at Delgratz. He disliked the implied subterfuge; but it could not be helped. Austria, gracious to travelers within her bounds, excepts those who mean to cross her southeastern frontier. There she frowns and inquires. If it was known that a Delgrado was in the train, he would have been stopped for days, pestered by officialdom; and possibly deported.
A curious element of safety was, however, revealed by newspapers purchased at Budapest. The various factions in Delgratz had declared a truce. The Delgrado partizans had telegraphed an invitation to Prince Michael to come and occupy the throne, and the Prince, or some wiser person, had sent a gracious reply stating that his matured decision would reach Kosnovia in due course. The National Assembly was still coquetting with the republican idea; but, in the same breath, avowed its patriotic impartiality. In a word, Delgratz wanted peace. Toward that end, the Seventh Regiment continued to occupy the Black Castle, the remainder of the troops stood fast, and the citizens pulled down their barricades.
Oddly enough, the Paris correspondent of "The Budapest Gazette" pointed out that Prince Michael's son was playing polo in the Bois during the afternoon of Tuesday. The journalist little dreamed that Alec was reading his sarcastic comments on the Delgrado lack of initiative at Budapest at midnight on Wednesday.
The train was about to cross the River Tave (Delgratz stands on the junction of that stream and the Danube) when Stampoff appeared. The Albanian servant accompanied him.
"Leave everything to Bosko," said the General. "We must display no haste, and he will smooth the way through the customs."
"I suppose you don't want me to ask any questions?" laughed Alec.
"Better not. Do you still adhere to your program of last night?"
Stampoff took off his hat, pointed through the window, and said quietly, "There, then, God willing, is your Majesty's future capital. I wish to congratulate your Majesty on your first sight of it."
Beyond a level stretch of meadowland rose the spires and domes and minarets of a white city. The sun, not long risen, gilded its graceful contours and threw the rest of a wondrous picture into shadow so sharp that the whole exquisite vista might have been an intaglio cut in the sapphire of the sky. The Danube, a broad streak of silver, blended with the blue Tave to frame a glimpse of fairyland. For one thrilling moment Alec forgot its bloodstained history and looked only on the fair domain spread before his eyes. Then the black girders and crude latticework of a bridge shut out the entrancing spectacle, and he was conscious that Stampoff had caught his hand and was pressing it to his lips.
The gallant old Serb meant well, for he was a patriot to the core; but his impulsive action grated. Perhaps it was better so. Alec, bred in a society that treated such demonstrations with scant respect, was suddenly recalled to earth, and the business that lay before him seemed to be more in keeping with the modern directness of the railway bridge than with daydreams founded on a picturesque vision of Delgratz.
The city, too, lost its glamour when seen from those backdoor suburbs that every railway in every land appears to regard as the only natural avenue of approach to busy communities. The line turned sharply along the right bank of the Tave and ran past tobacco factories, breweries, powder mills, scattered hovels, and unkempt streets. Here was no sun, but plenty of bare whitewash. Even Alec, accustomed to the singularly ugly etchings of Paris viewed from its chief railways, was completely disillusioned by these drab adumbrations of commerce and squalor. The Tave was no longer blue, but dull brown with the mud of recent rain. Not even the inhabitants were attractive. They were not garbed as Serbs, but wore ungainly costumes that might have passed unnoticed in the Bowery. He was irresistibly reminded of the stage, with its sharp contrasts between the two sides of the footlights, and in the luggage net near his head reposed that melodramatic sword, still wrapped in brown paper.
The train slowed, and Stampoff went into the corridor. He came back instantly. "The station is guarded by troops," he muttered. "Some of the officers may recognize me. Perhaps we ought to separate."
"No, no," said Alec. "Let us stick to the other passengers. I am the real stranger here, and they can look at me as much as they like."
It was, indeed, easy to concede that Alexis III. was a man apart from his people. Swarthy old Stampoff, Prince Michael Delgrado, the pink and white Julius Marulitch, even the olive skinned, oval faced Beliani, might have mingled with the throng on the platform and found each his racial kith and kin; not so Alec. His stature, his carriage, his fair complexion tanned brown with an open air life, picked him out among these Balkan folk almost as distinctly as a Polar bear would show among the denizens of an Indian jungle. Moreover, every man of importance wore some sort of uniform, whereas Alec was quietly dressed in tweeds.
Thus, he drew many eyes, and evoked many a whispered comment; but never a man or woman in that crowded terminus harbored the remotest notion that he was a Delgrado. There were guesses in plenty, wherein he ranged from an English newspaper correspondent to a Greek Prince, the latter wild theory originating in the discovery of his name on the passport. Stampoff was ignored, and all went well till Bosko, laden with portmanteaus, led the way to the exit.
Alec, swayed by a desire to please his father, carried under his arm the sword of Ferdinand VII. The customs officials at the barrier allowed the party to pass; but a shrewd visaged officer standing just outside eyed Alec's package.
"What have you there?" he asked, probably more anxious to exchange a word with this distinguished looking stranger than really inquisitive.
"A sword," said Alec.
"And why are you carrying a sword?" said the other, who seemed hardly to expect this prompt reply in the vernacular.
"It is a curiosity, a veritable antique."
"Ha! I must see it."
"Come with me to Monsieur Nesimir's house and I will show it to you."
The suspicious one became apologetic, since Monsieur Nesimir was President of the National Assembly.
"I pray your pardon," he said. "Any friend of the President passes unchallenged. But these are troublous times in Kosnovia, so you understand——"
"Exactly. Brains are far more useful than swords in Delgratz to-day, and this, at the best, is but a gilded toy."
Stampoff was already inside a closed carriage, and Bosko was holding the door open for Alec, who gave the driver clear instructions before he entered. The vehicle rattled off, and Stampoff swore bluntly.
"Gods! I thought there would be a row," he growled. "That fellow is Captain Drakovitch, I remember him well; he is all nose."