LONG LIVE THE KING
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
I. The Crown Prince runs away
II. And sees the World
IV. The Terror
V. At the Riding-School
VI. The Chancellor pays a Visit
VII. Tea in the Schoolroom
VIII. The Letter
IX. A Fine Night
X. The Right to live and love
XI. Rather a Wild Night
XII. Two Prisoners
XIII. In the Park
XIV. Nikky does a Reckless Thin
XV. Father and Daughter
XVI. On the Mountain Road
XVII. The Fortress
XVIII. Old Adelbert
XIX. The Committee of Ten
XX. The Delegation
XXI. As a Man may love a Woman
XXII. At Etzel
XXIII. Nikky Makes a Promise
XXIV. The Birthday
XXV. The Gate of the Moon
XXVI. At the Inn
XXVII. The Little Door
XXVIII. The Crown Prince's Pilgrimage
XXIX. Old Adelbert the Traitor
XXX. King Karl
XXXI. Let Mettich guard his Treasure
XXXII. Nikky and Hedwig
XXXIII. The Day of the Carnival
XXXIV. The Pirate's Den
XXXV. The Paper Crown
XXXVI. The King is dead
XXXVII. Long live the King
XXXVIII. In the Road of the Good Children
XXXIX. The Lincoln Penny
LONG LIVE THE KING!
CHAPTER I. THE CROWN PRINCE RUNS AWAY
The Crown Prince sat in the royal box and swung his legs. This was hardly princely, but the royal legs did not quite reach the floor from the high crimson-velvet seat of his chair.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto was bored. His royal robes, consisting of a pair of blue serge trousers, a short Eton jacket, and a stiff, rolling collar of white linen, irked him.
He had been brought to the Opera House under a misapprehension. His aunt, the Archduchess Annunciata, had strongly advocated "The Flying Dutchman," and his English governess, Miss Braithwaite, had read him some inspiring literature about it. So here he was, and the Flying Dutchman was not ghostly at all, nor did it fly. It was, from the royal box, only too plainly a ship which had length and height, without thickness. And instead of flying, after dreary aeons of singing, it was moved off on creaky rollers by men whose shadows were thrown grotesquely on the sea backing.
The orchestra, assisted by a bass solo and intermittent thunder in the wings, was making a deafening din. One of the shadows on the sea backing took out its handkerchief and wiped its nose.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto looked across at the other royal box, and caught his Cousin Hedwig's eye. She also had seen the handkerchief; she took out her own scrap of linen, and mimicked the shadow. Then, Her Royal Highness the Archduchess Annunciata being occupied with the storm, she winked across at Prince Ferdinand William Otto.
In the opposite box were his two cousins, the Princesses Hedwig and Hilda, attended by Hedwig's lady in waiting. When a princess of the Court becomes seventeen, she drops governesses and takes to ladies in waiting. Hedwig was eighteen. The Crown Prince liked Hedwig better than Hilda. Although she had been introduced formally to the Court at the Christmas-Eve ball, and had been duly presented by her grandfather, the King, with the usual string of pearls and her own carriage with the spokes of the wheels gilded halfway, only the King and Prince Ferdinand William Otto had all-gold wheels,—she still ran off now and then to have tea with the Crown Prince and Miss Braithwaite in the schoolroom at the Palace; and she could eat a great deal of bread-and-butter.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto winked back at the Princess Hedwig. And just then—"Listen, Otto," said the Archduchess, leaning forward. "The 'Spinning Song'—is it not exquisite?"
"They are only pretending to spin," remarked Prince Ferdinand William Otto.
Nevertheless he listened obediently. He rather liked it. They had not fooled him at all. They were not really spinning,—any one could see that, but they were sticking very closely to their business of each outsinging the other, and collectively of drowning out the orchestra.
The spinning chorus was followed by long and tiresome solos. The Crown Prince yawned again, although it was but the middle of the afternoon. Catching Hedwig's eye, he ran his fingers up through his thick yellow hair and grinned. Hedwig blushed. She had confided to him once, while they were walking in the garden at the summer palace, that, she was thinking of being in love with a young lieutenant who was attached to the King's suite. The Prince who was called Otto, for short, by the family, because he actually had eleven names—the Prince had been much interested. For some time afterward he had bothered Miss Braithwaite to define being in love, but he had had no really satisfactory answer.
In pursuance of his quest for information, he had grown quite friendly with the young officer, whose name was Larisch, and had finally asked to have him ride with him at the royal riding-school. The grim old King had granted the request, but it had been quite fruitless so far after all. Lieutenant Larisch only grew quite red as to the ears, when love was mentioned, although he appeared not unwilling to hear Hedwig's name.
The Crown Prince had developed a strong liking for the young officer. He assured Hedwig one time when she came to tea that when he was king he would see that she married the lieutenant. But Hedwig was much distressed.
"I don't want him that way," she said. "Anyhow, I shall probably have to marry some wretch with ears that stick out and a bad temper. I dare say he's selected already. As to Lieutenant Larisch, I'm sure he's in love with Hilda. You should see the way he stares at her."
"Pish!" said Prince Ferdinand William Otto over his cup. "Hilda is not as pretty as you are. And Nikky and I talk about you frequently."
"Nikky" was the officer. The Crown Prince was very informal with the people he liked.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed the Princess Hedwig, coloring. "And what do you say?"
Miss Braithwaite having left the room, Prince Ferdinand William Otto took another lump of sugar. "Say? Oh, not much, you know. He asks how you are, and I tell him you are well, and that you ate thirteen pieces of bread at tea, or whatever it may have been. The day Miss Braithwaite had the toothache, and you and I ate the fruit-cake her sister had sent from England, he was very anxious. He said we both deserved to be ill."
The Princess Hedwig had been blushing uncomfortably, but now she paled. "He dared to say that?" she stormed. "He dared!" And she had picked up her muff and gone out in a fine temper.
Only—and this was curious—by the next day she had forgiven the lieutenant, and was angry at Ferdinand William Otto. Women are very strange.
So now Ferdinand William Otto ran his fingers through his fair hair; which was a favorite gesture of the lieutenant's, and Hedwig blushed. After that she refused to look across at him, but sat staring fixedly at the stage, where Frau Hugli, in a short skirt, a black velvet bodice, and a white apron, with two yellow braids over her shoulders, was listening with all the coyness of forty years and six children at home to the love-making of a man in a false black beard.
The Archduchess, sitting well back, was nodding. Just outside the royal box, on the red-velvet sofa, General Mettlich, who was the Chancellor, and had come because he had been invited and stayed outside because he said he liked to hear music, not see it, was sound asleep. His martial bosom, with its gold braid, was rising and falling peacefully. Beside him lay the Prince's crown, a small black derby hat.
The Princess Hilda looked across, and smiled and nodded at Ferdinand William Otto. Then she went back to the music; she held the score in her hand and followed it note by note. She was studying music, and her mother, who was the Archduchess, was watching her. But now and then, when her mother's eyes were glued to the stage, Hilda stole a glance at the upper balconies where impecunious young officers leaned over the rail and gazed at her respectfully.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto considered it all very wearisome. If one could only wander around the corridor or buy a sandwich from the stand at the foot of the great staircase—or, better still, if one could only get to the street, alone, and purchase one of the fig women that Miss Braithwaite so despised! The Crown Prince felt in his pocket, where his week's allowance of pocket-money lay comfortably untouched.
The Archduchess, shielded by the velvet hangings with the royal arms on them, was now quite comfortably asleep. From the corridor came sounds indicating that the Chancellor preferred making noises to listening to them. There were signs on the stage that Frau Hugli, braids, six children, and all, was about to go into the arms of the man with the false beard.
The Crown Prince meditated. He could go out quickly, and be back before they knew it. Even if he only wandered about the corridor, it would stretch his short legs. And outside it was a fine day. It looked already like spring.
With the trepidation of a canary who finds his cage door open, and, hopping to the threshold, surveys the world before venturing to explore it, Prince Ferdinand William Otto rose to his feet, tiptoed past the Archduchess Annunciata, who did not move, and looked around him from the doorway.
The Chancellor slept. In the royal dressing-room behind the box a lady in waiting was sitting and crocheting. She did not care for opera. A maid was spreading the royal ladies' wraps before the fire. The princesses had shed their furred carriage boots just inside the door. They were in a row, very small and dainty.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto picked up his hat and concealed it by his side. Then nonchalantly, as if to stretch his legs by walking ten feet up the corridor and back, he passed the dressing-room door. Another moment, and he was out of sight around a bend of the passageway, and before him lay liberty.
Not quite! At the top of the private staircase reserved for the royal family a guard commonly stood. He had moved a few feet from his post, however, and was watching the stage through the half-open door of a private loge. His rifle, with its fixed bayonet, leaned against the stair-rail.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto passed behind him with outward calmness. At the top of the public staircase, however, he hesitated. Here, everywhere, were brass-buttoned officials of the Opera House. A garderobe woman stared at him curiously. There was a noise from the house, too,—a sound of clapping hands and "bravos." The little Prince looked at the woman with appeal in his eyes. Then, with his heart thumping, he ran past her, down the white marble staircase, to where the great doors promised liberty.
Olga, the wardrobe woman, came out from behind her counter, and stood looking down the marble staircase after the small flying figure.
"Blessed Saints!" she said, wondering. "How much that child resembled His Royal Highness!"
The old soldier who rented opera glasses at the second landing, and who had left a leg in Bosnia, leaned over the railing. "Look at that!" he exclaimed. "He will break a leg, the young rascal! Once I could have—but there, he is safe! The good God watches over fools and children."
"It looked like the little Prince," said the wardrobe woman. "I have seen him often—he has the same bright hair."
But the opera-glass man was not listening. He had drawn a long sausage from one pocket and a roll from the other, and now, retiring to a far window, he stood placidly eating—a bite of sausage, a bite of bread. His mind was in Bosnia, with his leg. And because old Adelbert's mind was in Bosnia, and because one hears with the mind, and not with the ear, he did not hear the sharp question of the sentry who ran down the stairs and paused for a second at the cloak-room. Well for Olga, too, that old Adelbert did not hear her reply.
"He has not passed here," she said, with wide and honest eyes; but with an ear toward old Adelbert. "An old gentleman came a moment ago and got a sandwich, which he had left in his overcoat. Perhaps this is whom you are seeking?"
The sentry cursed, and ran down the staircase, the nails in his shoes striking sharply on the marble.
At the window, old Adelbert cut off another slice of sausage with his pocket-knife and sauntered back to his table of opera glasses at the angle of the balustrade. The hurrying figure of the sentry below caught his eye. "Another fool!" he grumbled, looking down. "One would think new legs grew in place of old ones, like the claws of the sea-creatures!"
But Olga of the cloak-room leaned over her checks, with her lips curved up in a smile. "The little one!" she thought. "And such courage! He will make a great king! Let him have his prank like the other children, and—God bless him and keep him!"
CHAPTER II. AND SEES THE WORLD
The Crown Prince was just a trifle dazzled by the brilliance of his success. He paused for one breathless moment under the porte-cochere of the opera house; then he took a long breath and turned to the left. For he knew that at the right, just around the corner; were the royal carriages, with his own drawn up before the door, and Beppo and Hans erect on the box, their haughty noses red in the wind, for the early spring air was biting.
So he turned to the left, and was at once swallowed up in the street crowd. It seemed very strange to him. Not that he was unaccustomed to crowds. Had he not, that very Christmas, gone shopping in the city, accompanied only by one of his tutors and Miss Braithwaite, and bought for his grandfather, the King, a burnt-wood box, which might hold either neckties or gloves, and for his cousins silver photograph frames?
But this was different, and for a rather peculiar reason. Prince Ferdinand William Otto had never seen the back of a crowd! The public was always lined up, facing him, smiling and bowing and God-blessing him. Small wonder he thought of most of his future subjects as being much like the ship in the opera, meant only to be viewed from the front. Also, it was surprising to see how stiff and straight their backs were. Prince Ferdinand William Otto had never known that backs could be so rigid. Those with which he was familiar had a way of drooping forward from the middle of the spine up. It was most interesting.
The next hour was full of remarkable things. For one, he dodged behind a street-car and was almost run over by a taxicab. The policeman on the corner came out, and taking Ferdinand William Otto by the shoulder, gave him a talking-to and a shaking. Ferdinand William Otto was furious, but policy kept him silent; which proves conclusively that the Crown Prince had not only initiative—witness his flight—but self-control and diplomacy. Lucky country, to have in prospect such a king!
But even royalty has its weaknesses. At the next corner Ferdinand William Otto stopped and invested part of his allowance in the forbidden fig lady, with arms and legs of dates, and eyes of cloves. He had wanted one of these ever since he could remember, but Miss Braithwaite had sternly refused to authorize the purchase. In fact, she had had one of the dates placed under a microscope, and had shown His Royal Highness a number of interesting and highly active creatures who made their homes therein.
His Royal Highness recalled all this with great distinctness, and, immediately dismissing it from his mind, ate the legs and arms of the fig woman with enjoyment. Which—not the eating of the legs and arms, of course, but to be able to dismiss what is unpleasant—is another highly desirable royal trait.
So far his movements had been swift and entirely objective. But success rather went to his head. He had never been out alone before. Even at the summer palace there were always tutors, or Miss Braithwaite, or an aide-de-camp, or something. He hesitated, took out his small handkerchief, dusted his shoes with it, and then wiped his face. Behind was the Opera, looming and gray. Ahead was—the park.
Note the long allee between rows of trees trimmed to resemble walls of green in summer, and curiously distorted skeletons in winter; note the coffee-houses, where young officers in uniforms sat under the trees, reading the papers, and rising to bow with great clanking and much ceremony as a gold-wheeled carriage or a pretty girl went by.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto had the fulfillment of a great desire in his small, active mind. This was nothing less than a ride on the American scenic railroad, which had secured a concession in a far corner of the park. Hedwig's lieutenant had described it to him—how one was taken in a small car to a dizzy height, and then turned loose on a track which dropped giddily and rose again, which hurled one through sheet-iron tunnels of incredible blackness, thrust one out over a gorge, whirled one in mad curves around corners of precipitous heights, and finally landed one, panting, breathless, shocked, and reeling; but safe, at the very platform where one had purchased one's ticket three eternities, which were only minutes, before.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto had put this proposition, like the fig woman, to Miss Braithwaite. Miss Braithwaite replied with the sad history of an English child who had clutched at his cap during a crucial moment on a similar track at the Crystal Palace in London.
"When they picked him up," she finished, "every bone in his body was broken."
"Every bone," said Miss Braithwaite solemnly.
"The little ones in his ears, and all?"
"Every one," said Miss Braithwaite, refusing to weaken.
The Crown Prince had pondered. "He must have felt like jelly," he remarked, and Miss Braithwaite had dropped the subject.
So now, with freedom and his week's allowance, except the outlay for the fig woman, in his pocket, Prince Ferdinand William Otto started for the Land of Desire. The allee was almost deserted. It was the sacred hour of coffee. The terraces were empty, but from the coffee-houses along the drive there came a cheerful rattle of cups, a hum of conversation.
As the early spring twilight fell, the gas-lamps along the allee, always burning, made a twin row of pale stars ahead. At the end, even as the wanderer gazed, he saw myriads of tiny red, white, and blue lights, rising high in the air, outlining the crags and peaks of the sheet-iron mountain which was his destination. The Land of Desire was very near!
There came to his ears, too, the occasional rumble that told of some palpitating soul being at that moment hurled and twisted and joyously thrilled, as per the lieutenant's description.
Now it is a strange thing, but true, that one does not reach the Land of Desire alone; because the half of pleasure is the sharing of it with someone else, and the Land of Desire, alone, is not the Land of Desire at all. Quite suddenly, Prince Ferdinand William Otto discovered that he was lonely. He sat down on the curb under the gas-lamp and ate the fig woman's head, taking out the cloves, because he did not like cloves. At that moment there was a soft whirring off to one side of him, and a yellow bird, rising and failing erratically on the breeze, careened suddenly and fell at his feet.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto bent down and picked it up. It was a small toy aeroplane, with yellow silk planes, guy-ropes of waxed thread, and a wooden rudder, its motive power vested in a tightly twisted rubber. One of the wings was bent. Ferdinand William Otto straightened it, and looked around for the owner.
A small boy was standing under the next gas-lamp. "Gee!" he said in English. "Did you see it go that time?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto eyed the stranger. He was about his own age, and was dressed in a short pair of corduroy trousers, much bloomed at the knee, a pair of yellow Russia-leather shoes that reached well to his calves, and, over all, a shaggy white sweater, rolling almost to his chin. On the very back of his head he had the smallest cap that Prince Ferdinand William Otto had ever seen.
Now, this was exactly the way in which the Crown Prince had always wished to dress. He was suddenly conscious of the long trousers on his own small legs, of the ignominy of his tailless Eton jacket and stiff, rolling collar, of the crowning disgrace of his derby hat. But the lonely feeling had gone from him.
"This is the best time for flying," he said, in his perfect English. "All the exhibition flights are at sundown."
The boy walked slowly over and stood looking down at him. "You ought to see it fly from the top of Pike's Peak!" he remarked. He had caught sight of the despised derby, and his eyes widened, but with instinctive good-breeding he ignored it. "That's Pike's Peak up there."
He indicated the very top of the Land of Desire. The Prince stared up.
"How does one get up?" he queried.
"Ladders. My father's the manager. He lets me up sometimes."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto stared with new awe at the boy. He found the fact much more remarkable than if the stranger had stated that his father was the King of England. Kings were, as you may say, directly in Prince Ferdinand William Otto's line, but scenic railroads—
"I had thought of taking a journey on it," he said, after a second's reflection. "Do you think your father will sell me a ticket?"
"Billy Grimm will. I'll go with you."
The Prince rose with alacrity. Then he stopped. He must, of course, ask the strange boy to be his guest. But two tickets! Perhaps his allowance was not sufficient.
"I must see first how much it costs," he said with dignity.
The other boy laughed. "Oh, gee! You come with me. It won't cost anything," he said, and led the way toward the towering lights.
For Bobby Thorpe to bring a small boy to ride with him was an everyday affair. Billy Grimm, at the ticket-window, hardly glanced at the boy who stood, trembling with anticipation, in the shadow of the booth.
The car came, and they climbed in. Perhaps, as they moved off, Prince Ferdinand William Otto had a qualm, occasioned by the remembrance of the English child who had met an untimely end; but if he did, he pluckily hid it.
"Put your lid on the floor of the car," said Bobby Thorpe' depositing his own atom there. "Father says, if you do that; you're perfectly safe."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto divined that this referred to his hat, and drew a small breath of relief. And then they were off, up an endless, clicking roadway, where at the top the car hung for a breathless second over the gulf below; then, fairly launched, out on a trestle, with the city far beneath them, and only the red, white, and blue lights for company; and into a tunnel, filled with roaring noises and swift moving shadows. Then came the end of all things a flying leap down, a heart-breaking, delirious thrill, an upward sweep just as the strain was too great for endurance.
"Isn't it bully?" shouted the American boy against the onrush of the wind.
"Fine!" shrieked His Royal Highness, and braced himself for another dip into the gulf.
Above the roaring of the wind in their ears, neither child had heard the flying feet of a dozen horses coming down the allee. They never knew that a hatless young lieutenant, white-lipped with fear, had checked his horse to its haunches at the ticket-booth, and demanded to know who was in the Land of Desire.
"Only the son of the manager, and a boy friend of his," replied Billy Grimm, in what he called the lingo of the country. "What's wrong? Lost anybody?"
But Hedwig's lieutenant had wheeled his horse without a word, and, jumping him aver the hedge of the allee, was off in a despairing search of the outskirts of the park, followed by his cavalrymen.
As the last horse leaped the hedge and disappeared, the car came to a stop at the platform. Quivering, Prince Ferdinand William Otto reached down for the despised hat.
"Would you like to go around again?" asked Bobby, quite casually.
His Highness gasped with joy. "If—if you would be so kind!" he said.
And at the lordly wave of Bobby's hand, the car moved on.
CHAPTER III. DISGRACED
At eight o'clock that evening the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto approached the Palace through the public square. He approached it slowly, for two reasons. First, he did not want to go back. Second, he was rather frightened. He had an idea that they would be disagreeable.
There seemed to be a great deal going on at the palace. Carriages were rolling in under the stone archway and, having discharged their contents, mostly gentlemen in uniform, were moving off with a thundering of hoofs that reechoed from the vaulted roof of the entrance. All the lights were on in the wing where his grandfather, the King, lived alone. As his grandfather hated lights, and went to bed early, Prince Ferdinand William Otto was slightly puzzled.
He stood in the square and waited for a chance to slip in unobserved.
He was very dirty. His august face was streaked with soot, and his august hands likewise. His small derby hat was carefully placed on the very back of his head at the angle of the American boy's cap. As his collar had scratched his neck, he had, at Bobby's suggestion, taken it off and rolled it up. He decided, as he waited in the square, to put it on again. Miss Braithwaite was very peculiar about collars.
Came a lull in the line of carriages. Prince Ferdinand William Otto took a long breath and started forward. As he advanced he stuck his hands in his pockets and swaggered a trifle. It was, as nearly as possible, an exact imitation of Bobby Thorpe's walk. And to keep up his courage, he quoted that young gentleman's farewell speech to himself: "What d' you care? They won't eat you, will they?"
At the entrance to the archway stood two sentries. They stood as if they were carved out of wood. Only their eyes moved. And within, in the court around which the Palace was built, were the King's bodyguards. Mostly they sat on a long bench and exchanged conversation, while one of them paced back and forth, his gun over his shoulder, in front of them. Prince Ferdinand William Otto knew them all. More than once he had secured cigarettes from Lieutenant Larisch and dropped them from one of his windows, which were just overhead. They would look straight ahead and not see them, until the officer's back was turned. Then one would be lighted and passed along the line. Each man would take one puff and pass it on behind his back. It was great fun.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto stood in the shadows and glanced across. The sentries stood like wooden men, but something was wrong in the courtyard inside. The guards were all standing, and there seemed to be a great many of them. And just as he had made up his mind to take the plunge, so to speak, a part of his own regiment of cavalry came out from the courtyard with a thundering of hoofs, wheeled at the street, and clattered off.
Very unusual, all of it.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto felt in his pocket for his handkerchief, and, moistening a corner with his tongue, wiped his face. Then he wiped his shoes. Then, with his hands in his trousers pockets, he sauntered into the light.
Now sentries are trained to be impassive. The model of a sentry is a wooden soldier. A really good sentry does not sneeze or cough on duty. Did any one ever see a sentry, for instance, wipe his nose? Or twirl his thumbs? Or buy a newspaper? Certainly not.
Therefore the two sentries made no sign when they saw Ferdinand William Otto approaching. But one of them forgot to bring his musket to salute. He crossed himself instead. And something strained around the other sentry's lower jaw suddenly relaxed into a smile as His Royal Highness drew a hand from its refuge and saluted. He glanced first at one, then at the other, rather sheepishly, hesitated between them, clapped his hat on more securely, and marched in.
"The young rascal!" said the second sentry to himself. And by turning his head slightly—for a sentry learns to see all around like a horse, without twisting his neck—he watched the runaway into the palace.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto went up the stone staircase. Here and there he passed guards who stared and saluted. Had he not been obsessed with the vision of Miss Braithwaite, he would have known that relief followed in his wake. Messengers clattered down the staircase to the courtyard. Other messengers, breathless and eager, flew to that lighted wing where the Council sat, and where the old King, propped up in bed, waited and fought terror.
The Archduchess Annunciata was with her father. Across the corridor the Council debated in low tones.
"Tell me again," said the King. "How in God's name could it have happened? In daylight, and with all of you there!"
"I have told you all I know," said the Archduchess impatiently. "One moment he was there. Hedwig and he were making gestures, and I reproved him. The next he was gone. Hedwig saw him get up and go out. She thought—"
"Send for Hedwig."
"She has retired. She was devoted to him, and—"
"Send for her," said the King shortly.
The Archduchess Annunciata went out. The old King lay back, and his eyes, weary with many years of ruling, of disappointments and bitterness, roved the room. They came to rest at last on the photograph of a young man, which stood on his bedside, table.
He was a very young man, in a uniform. He was boyish, and smiling. There was a dog beside him, and its head was on his knee. Wherever one stood in the room, the eyes of the photograph gazed at one. The King knew this, and because he was quite old, and because there were few people to whom a king dares to speak his inmost thoughts, he frequently spoke to the photograph.
The older he grew, the more he felt, sometimes, as though it knew what he said. He had begun to think that death, after all, is not the end, but only the beginning of things. This rather worried him, too, at times. What he wanted was to lay things down, not to take them up.
"If they've got him," he said to the picture, "it is out of my hands, and into yours, my boy."
Much of his life had been spent in waiting, in waiting for a son, in waiting for that son to grow to be a man, in waiting while that son in his turn loved and married and begot a man-child, in waiting, when that son had died a violent death, for the time when his tired hands could relinquish the scepter to his grandchild.
He folded his old hands and waited. From across the corridor came the low tones of the Council. A silent group of his gentlemen stood in the vestibule outside the door. The King lay on his bed and waited.
Quite suddenly the door opened. The old man turned his head. Just inside stood a very dirty small boy.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was most terribly frightened. Everything was at sixes and sevens. Miss Braithwaite had been crying her head off, and on seeing him had fallen in a faint. Not that he thought it was a real faint. He had unmistakably seen her eyelids quiver. And when she came to she had ordered him no supper, and four pages of German translation, and to go to bed at seven o'clock instead of seven-thirty for a week. All the time crying, too. And then she had sent him to his grandfather, and taken aromatic ammonia.
His grandfather said nothing, but looked at him.
"Here—here I am, sir," said the Crown Prince from the door.
The King drew a long breath. But the silence persisted. Prince Ferdinand William Otto furtively rubbed a dusty shoe against the back of a trousers leg.
"I'm afraid I'm not very neat, sir," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and took a step forward. Until his grandfather commanded him, he could not advance into the room.
"Come here," said the King.
He went to the side of the bed.
"Where have you been?"
"I'm afraid—I ran away, sir."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto considered. It was rather an awful moment. "I don't exactly know. I just thought I would."
You see, it was really extremely difficult. To say that he was tired of things as they were would sound ungrateful. Would, indeed, be most impolite. And then, exactly why had he run away?
"Suppose," said the King, "you draw up a chair and tell me about it. We'd better talk it over, I think."
His Royal Highness drew up a chair, and sat on it. His feet not reaching the floor, he hooked them around the chair-rung. This was permissible because, first, the King could not see them from his bed. Second, it kept his knees from shaking.
"Probably you are aware," said the King, "that you have alarmed a great many people."
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't think—"
"A prince's duty is to think."
"Although," observed His Royal Highness, "I don't really believe Miss Braithwaite fainted. She may have thought she fainted, but her eyelids moved."
"Where did you go?"
"To the park, sir. I—I thought I'd like to see the park by myself."
"It's very hard to enjoy things with Miss Braithwaite, sir. She does not really enjoy the things I like. Nikky and I—"
"By 'Nikky' you mean Lieutenant Larisch?"
"We like the same things, sir—the Pike's-Peak-or-Bust, and all that."
The King raised himself on his elbow. "What was that?" he demanded.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto blushed, and explained. It was Bobby's name for the peak at the top of the Scenic Railway. He had been on the railway. He had been—his enthusiasm carried him away. His cheeks flushed. He sat forward on the edge of his chair, and gesticulated. He had never had such a good time in his life.
"I was awfully happy, sir," he ended. "It feels like flying, only safer. And the lights are pretty. It's like fairyland. There were two or three times when it seemed as if we'd turn over, or leap the track. But we didn't."
The King lay back and thought. More than anything in the world he loved this boy. But the occasion demanded a strong hand. "You were happy," he said. "You were disobedient, you were causing grave anxiety and distress—and you were happy! The first duty of a prince is to his country. His first lesson is to obey laws. He must always obey certain laws. A king is but the servant of his people."
"Yes, sir," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto.
The old King's voice was stern. "Some day you will be the King. You are being trained for that high office now. And yet you would set the example of insubordination, disobedience, and reckless disregard of the feelings of others."
"Yes, sir," said prince Ferdinand William Otto, feeling very small and ashamed.
"Not only that. You slipped away. You did not go openly. You sneaked off, like a thief. Are you proud of it?"
"I shall," said the King, "require no promise from you. Promises are poor things to hold to. I leave this matter in your own hands, Otto. You will be punished by Miss Braithwaite, and for the next ten days you will not visit me. You may go now."
Otto got off his chair. He was feeling exceedingly crushed. "Good-night, sir," he said. And waited for his grandfather to extend his hand. But the old King lay looking straight ahead, with his mouth set in grim lines, and his hands folded over his breast.
At the door the Crown Prince turned and bowed. His grandfather's eyes were fixed on the two gold eagles over the door, but the photograph on the table appeared to be smiling at him.
CHAPTER IV. THE TERROR
Until late that night General Mettlich and the King talked together. The King had been lifted from his bed and sat propped in a great chair. Above his shabby dressing-gown his face showed gaunt and old. In a straight chair facing him sat his old friend and Chancellor.
"What it has shown is not entirely bad," said the King, after a pause. "The boy has initiative. And he made no attempt at evasion. He is essentially truthful."
"What it has also shown, sire, is that no protection is enough. When I, who love the lad, and would—when I could sleep, and let him get away, as I did—"
"The truth is," said the King, "we are both of us getting old." He tapped with his gnarled fingers on the blanket that lay over his knees. "The truth is also," he observed a moment later, "that the boy has very few pleasures. He is alone a great deal."
General Mettlich raised his shaggy head. Many years of wearing a soldier's cap had not injured his heavy gray hair. He had bristling eyebrows, white new, and a short, fighting mustache. When he was irritated, or disagreed with any one, his eyebrows came down and the mustache went up.
Many years of association with his king had given him the right to talk to him as man to man. They even quarreled now and then. It was a brave man who would quarrel with old Ferdinand II.
So now his eyebrows came down and his mustache went up. "How—alone, sire?"
"You do not regard that bigoted Englishwoman as a companion, do you?"
"He is attached to her."
"I'm damned if I know why," observed the old King. "She doesn't appear to have a single human quality."
Human quality! General Mettlich eyed his king with concern. Since when had the reigning family demanded human qualities in their governesses? "She is a thoughtful and conscientious woman, sire," he said stiffly. It happened that he had selected her. "She does her duty. And as to the boy being lonely, he has no time to be lonely. His tutors—"
"How old is he?"
"Ten next month."
The King said nothing for a time. Then—"It is hard," he said at last, "for seventy-four to see with the eyes of ten. As for this afternoon—why in the name of a thousand devils did they take him to see the 'Flying Dutchman'? I detest it."
"Her Royal Highness—"
"Annunciata is a fool," said His Majesty. Then dismissing his daughter with a gesture, "We don't know how to raise our children here," he said impatiently. "The English do better. And even the Germans—"
It is not etiquette to lower one's eyebrows at a king, and glare. But General Mettlich did it. He was rather a poor subject. "The Germans have not our problem, sire," he said, and stuck up his mustache.
"I'm not going to raise the boy a prisoner," insisted the King stubbornly. Kings have to be very stubborn about things. So many people disapprove of the things they want to do.
Suddenly General Mettlich bent forward and placed a hand on the old man's knee. "We shall do well, sire," he said gravely, "to raise the boy at all."
There was a short silence, which the King broke. "What is new?"
"We have broken up the University meetings, but I fancy they go on, in small groups. I was gratified, however, to observe that a group of students cheered His Royal Highness yesterday as he rode past the University buildings."
"Socialism at twenty," said the King, "is only a symptom of the unrest of early adolescence. Even Hubert"—he glanced at the picture—"was touched with it. He accused me, I recall, of being merely an accident, a sort of stumbling-block in the way of advanced thought!"
He smiled faintly. Then he sighed. "And the others?" he asked.
"The outlying districts are quiet. So, too, is the city. Too quiet, sire."
"They are waiting, of course, for my death," said the King quietly. "If only, you were twenty years younger than I am, it would be better." He fixed the General with shrewd eyes. "What do those asses of doctors say about me?"
"With care, sire—"
"Come, now. This is no time for evasion."
"Even at the best, sire—" He looked very ferocious, and cleared his throat. He was terribly ashamed that his voice was breaking.. "Even at the best, but of course they can only give an opinion—"
"A year, sire."
"And at the worst!" said the King, with a grim smile. Then; following his own line of, thought: "But the people love the boy, I think."
"They do. It is for that reason, sire, that I advise particular caution." He hesitated. Then, "Sire," he said earnestly, "there is something of which I must speak. The Committee of Ten has organized again."
Involuntarily the King glanced at the photograph on the table.
"Forgive me, sire, if I waken bitter memories. But I fear—"
"You fear!" said the King. "Since when have you taken to fearing?"
"Nevertheless," maintained General Mettlich doggedly, "I fear. This quiet of the last few months alarms me. Dangerous dogs do not bark. I trust no one. The very air is full of sedition."
The King twisted his blue-veined old hands together, but his voice was quiet. "But why?" he demanded, almost fretfully. "If the people are fond of the boy, and I think they are, to—to carry him off, or injure him, would hurt the cause. Even the Terrorists, in the name of a republic, can do nothing without the people."
"The mob is a curious thing, sire. You have ruled with a strong hand. Our people know nothing but to obey the dominant voice. The boy out of the way, the prospect of the Princess Hedwig on the throne, a few demagogues in the public squares—it would be the end."
The King leaned back and closed his eyes. His thin, arched nose looked pinched. His face was gray.
"All this," he said, "means what? To make the boy a prisoner, to cut off his few pleasures, and even then, at any time—"
"Yes, sire," said Mettlich doggedly. "At any time."
Outside in the anteroom Lieutenant Nikky Larisch roused himself, yawned, and looked at his watch. It was after twelve, and he had had a hard day. He put a velvet cushion behind his head, and resolutely composed himself to slumber, a slumber in which were various rosy dreams, all centered about the Princess Hedwig. Dreams are beyond our control.
Therefore a young lieutenant running into debt on his pay may without presumption dream of a princess.
All through the Palace people were sleeping. Prince Ferdinand William Otto was asleep, and riding again the little car in the Land of Delight. So that, turning a corner sharply, he almost fell out of bed.
On the other side of the city the little American boy was asleep also. At that exact time he was being tucked up by an entirely efficient and placid-eyed American mother, who felt under his head to see that his ear was not turned forward. She liked close-fitting ears.
Nobody, naturally, was tucking up Prince Ferdinand William Otto. Or attending to his ears. But, of course, there were sentries outside his door, and a valet de chambre to be rung for, and a number of embroidered eagles scattered about on the curtains and things, and a country surrounding him which would one day be his, unless—
"At any time," said General Mettlich, and was grimly silent.
It was really no time for such a speech. But there is never a good time for bad news.
"Well?" inquired the King, after a time. "You have something to suggest, I take it."
The old soldier cleared his throat. "Sire," he began, "it is said that a chancellor should have but one passion—his King. I have two: my King and my country."
The King nodded gravely. He knew both passions, relied on both. And found them both a bit troublesome at times!
"Once, some years ago, sire, I came to you with a plan. The Princess Hedwig was a child then, and his late Royal Highness was—still with us. For that, and for other reasons, Your Majesty refused to listen. But things have changed. Between us and revolution there stand only the frail life of a boy and an army none too large, and already, perhaps, affected. There is much discontent, and the offspring of discontent is anarchy."
The King snarled. But Mettlich had taken his courage in his hands, and went on. Their neighbor and hereditary foe was Karnia. Could they any longer afford the enmity of Karnia? One cause of discontent was the expense of the army, and of the fortifications along the Karnian border. If Karnia were allied with them, there would be no need of so great an army. They had the mineral wealth, and Karnia the seaports. The old dream of the Empire, of a railway to the sea, would be realized.
He pleaded well. The idea was not new. To place the little King Otto IX on the throne and keep him there in the face of opposition would require support from outside. Karnia would furnish this support. For a price.
The price was the Princess Hedwig.
Outside, Nikky Larisch rose, stretched, and fell to pacing the floor. It was one o'clock, and the palace slept. He lighted a cigarette, and stepping out into a small balcony which overlooked the Square, faced the quiet night.
"That is my plea, sire," Mettlich finished. "Karl of Karnia is anxious to marry, and looks this way. To allay discontent and growing insurrection, to insure the boy's safety and his throne, to beat our swords into ploughshares"—here he caught the King's scowl; and added—"to a certain extent, and to make us a commercial as well as a military nation, surely, sire, it gains much for us, and loses us nothing."
"But our independence!" said the King sourly.
However, he did not dismiss the idea. The fright of the afternoon had weakened him, and if Mettlich were right—he had what the King considered a perfectly damnable habit of being right—the Royalist party would need outside help to maintain the throne.
"Karnia!" he said. "The lion and the lamb, with the lamb inside the lion! And in, the mean time the boy—"
"He should be watched always."
"The old she-dragon, the governess—I suppose she is trustworthy?"
"Perfectly. But she is a woman."
"He has Lussin." Count Lussin was the Crown Prince's aide-de-camp.
"He needs a man, sire," observed the Chancellor rather tartly.
The King cleared his throat. "This youngster he is so fond of, young Larisch, would he please you better?" he asked, with ironic deference.
"A good boy, sire. You may recall that his mother—" He stopped.
Perhaps the old King's memory was good. Perhaps there was a change in Mettlich's voice.
"A good boy?"
"None better, sire. He is devoted to His Royal Highness. He is still much of a lad himself. I have listened to them talking. It is a question which is the older! He is outside now."
"Bring him in. I'll have a look at him."
Nikky, summoned by a chamberlain, stopped inside the doorway and bowed deeply.
"Come here," said the King.
"How old are you?"
"In the Grenadiers, I believe."
"Like horses?" said the King suddenly.
"Very much, sire."
"I—some boys, sire."
"Humph! Quite right, too. Little devils, most of them." He drew himself tap in his chair. "Lieutenant Larisch," he said, "His Royal Highness the Crown Prince has taken a liking to you. I believe it is to you that our fright to-day is due."
Nikky's heart thumped. He went rather pale.
"It is my intention, Lieutenant Larisch, to place the Crown Prince in your personal charge. For reasons I need not go into, it is imperative that he take no more excursions alone. These are strange times, when sedition struts in Court garments, and kings may trust neither their armies nor their subjects. I want," he said, his tone losing its bitterness, "a real friend for the little Crown Prince. One who is both brave and loyal."
Afterward, in his small room, Nikky composed a neat, well-rounded speech, in which he expressed his loyalty, gratitude, and undying devotion to the Crown Prince. It was an elegant little speech. Unluckily, the occasion for it had gone by two hours.
"I—I am grateful, sire," was what he said. "I—" And there he stopped and choked up. It was rather dreadful.
"I depend on you, Captain Larisch," said the King gravely, and nodded his head in a gesture of dismissal. Nikky backed toward the door, struck a hassock, all but went down, bowed again at the door, and fled.
"A fine lad," said General Mettlich, "but no talker."
"All the better," replied His Majesty. "I am tired of men who talk well. And"—he smiled faintly—"I am tired of you. You talk too well. You make me think. I don't want to think. I've been thinking all my life. It is time to rest, my friend."
CHAPTER V. AT THE RIDING-SCHOOL
His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was in disgrace.
He had risen at six, bathed, dressed, and gone to Mass, in disgrace. He had breakfasted at seven-thirty on fruit, cereal, and one egg, in disgrace. He had gone to his study at eight o'clock for lessons, in disgrace. A long line of tutors came and went all morning, and he worked diligently, but he was still in disgrace. All morning long and in the intervals between tutors he had tried to catch Miss Braithwaite's eye.
Except for the most ordinary civilities, she had refused to look in his direction. She was correcting an essay in English on Mr. Gladstone, with a blue pencil, and putting in blue commas every here and there. The Crown Prince was amazingly weak in commas. When she was all through, she piled the sheets together and wrote a word on the first page. It might have been "good." On the other hand, it could easily have been "poor." The motions of the hand are similar.
At last; in desperation, the Crown Prince deliberately broke off the point of his pencil, and went to the desk where Miss Braithwaite sat, monarch of the American pencil-sharpener which was the beloved of his heart.
"Again!" said Miss Braithwaite shortly. And raised her eyebrows.
"It's a very soft pencil," explained the Crown Prince. "When I press down on it, it—it busts."
"It busts—breaks." Evidently the English people were not familiar with this new and fascinating American word.
He cast a casual glance toward Mr. Gladstone. The word was certainly "poor." Suddenly a sense of injustice began to rise in him. He had worked rather hard over Mr. Gladstone. He had done so because he knew that Miss Braithwaite considered him the greatest man since Jesus Christ, and even the Christ had not written "The Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion."
The injustice went to his eyes and made him blink. He had apologized for yesterday, and explained fully. It was not fair. As to commas, anybody could put in enough commas.
The French tutor was standing near a photograph of Hedwig, and pretending not to look at it. Prince Ferdinand William Otto had a suspicion that the tutor was in love with Hedwig. On one occasion, when she had entered unexpectedly, he had certainly given out the sentence, "Ce dragon etait le vieux serpent, la princesse," instead of "Ce dragon etait le vieux serpent, le roi."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto did not like the French tutor. His being silly about Hedwig was not the reason. Even Nikky had that trouble, and once, when they were all riding together, had said, "Canter on the snaffle, trot on the curb," when he meant exactly the opposite. It was not that. Part of it was because of his legs, which were inclined to knock at the knees. Mostly it was his eyes, which protruded. "When he reads my French exercises," he complained once to Hedwig, "he waves them around like an ant's."
He and Hedwig usually spoke English together. Like most royalties, they had been raised on languages. It was as much as one's brains were worth, sometimes, to try to follow them as they leaped from grammar to grammar.
"Like an aunt's?" inquired Hedwig, mystified.
"An ant's. They have eyes on the ends of their feelers, you know."
But Miss Braithwaite, overhearing, had said that ants have no eyes at all. She had no imagination.
His taste of liberty had spoiled the Crown Prince for work. Instead of conjugating a French verb, he made a sketch of the Scenic Railway. He drew the little car, and two heads looking over the edge, with a sort of porcupine effect of hairs standing straight up.
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite sternly.
Miss Braithwaite did not say "sir" to him or "Your Royal Highness," like the tutors. She had taken him from the arms of his mother when he was a baby, and had taught a succession of nurses how to fix his bottles, and made them raise the windows when he slept—which was heresy in that country, and was brought up for discussion in the Parliament. When it came time for his first tooth, and he was wickedly fretful, and the doctors had a consultation over him, it was Miss Braithwaite who had ignored everything they said, and rubbed the tooth through with her silver thimble. Boiled first, of course.
And when one has cut a Royal Highness's first tooth, and broken him of sucking his thumb, and held a cold buttered knife against his bruises to prevent their discoloring, one does get out of the way of being very formal with him.
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite sternly.
So he went to work in earnest. He worked at a big desk, which had been his father's. As a matter of fact, everything in the room was too big for him. It had not occurred to any one to make any concessions to his size. He went through life, one may say, with his legs dangling, or standing on tiptoe to see things.
The suite had been his father's before him. Even the heavy old rug had been worn shabby by the scuffing of his father's feet. On the wall there hung a picture his father had drawn. It was of a yacht in full sail. Prince Hubert had been fifteen when he drew it, and was contemplating abandoning his princely career and running away to be a pirate. As a matter of fact, the yacht boasted the black flag, as Otto knew quite well. Nikky had discover it. But none of the grown-ups had recognized the damning fact. Nikky was not, strictly speaking a grown-up.
The sun came through the deep embrasures of the window and set Prince Ferdinand William Otto's feet to wriggling. It penetrated the gloomy fastnesses of the old room and showed its dingy furniture, its great desk, its dark velvet portieres, and the old cabinet in which the Crown Prince kept his toys on the top shelf. He had arranged them there himself, the ones he was fondest of in the front row, so he could look up and see them; a drum which he still dearly loved, but which made Miss Braithwaite's headache; a locomotive with a broken spring; a steam-engine which Hedwig had given him, but which the King considered dangerous, and which had never, therefore, had its baptism of fire; and a dilapidated and lop-eared cloth dog.
He was exceedingly fond of the dog. For quite a long time he had taken it to bed with him at night, and put its head on his pillow. It was the most comforting thing, when the lights were all out. Until he was seven he had been allowed a bit of glimmer, a tiny wick floating in a silver dish of lard-oil, for a night-light. But after his eighth birthday that had been done away with, Miss Braithwaite considering it babyish.
The sun shone in on the substantial but cheerless room; on the picture of the Duchess Hedwig, untouched by tragedy or grief; on the heavy, paneled old doors through which, once on a time, Prince Hubert had made his joyous exits into a world that had so early cast him out; on his swords, crossed over the fireplace; his light rapier, his heavy cavalry saber; on the bright head of his little son, around whom already so many plots and counterplots were centering.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto found the sun unsettling. Besides, he hated verbs. Nouns were different. One could do something with nouns, although even they had a way of having genders. Into his head popped a recollection of a delightful pastime of the day before—nothing more nor less than flipping paper wads at the guard on the Scenic Railway as the car went past him.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto tore off the corner of a piece of paper, chewed it deliberately, rounded and hardened it with his royal fingers, and aimed it at M. Puaux. It struck him in the eye.
Instantly things happened. M. Puaux yelled, and clapped a hand to his eye. Miss Braithwaite rose. His Royal Highness wrote a rather shaky French verb, with the wrong termination. And on to this scene came Nikky for the riding-lesson. Nikky, smiling and tidy, and very shiny as to riding-boots and things, and wearing white kid gloves. Every one about a palace wears white kid gloves, except the royalties themselves. It is extremely expensive.
Nikky surveyed the scene. He had, of course, bowed inside the door, and all that sort of thing. But Nikky was an informal person, and was quite apt to bow deeply before his future sovereign, and then poke him in the chest.
"Well!" said Nikky.
"Good-morning," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, in a small and nervous voice.
"Nothing wrong, is there?" demanded Nikky.
M. Puaux got out his handkerchief and said nothing violently.
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite. "What did you do?"
"Nothing." He looked about. He was quite convinced that M. Puaux was what Bobby would have termed a poor sport, and had not played the game fairly. The guard at the railway, he felt, would not have yelled and wept. "Oh, well, I threw a piece of paper. That's all. I didn't think it would hurt."
Miss Braithwaite rose and glanced at the carpet. But Nikky was quick. Quick and understanding. He put his shiny foot over the paper wad.
"Paper!" said Miss Braithwaite. "Why did you throw paper? And at M. Puaux?"
"I—just felt like throwing something," explained His Royal Highness. "I guess it's the sun, or something."
Nikky dropped his glove, and miraculously, when he had picked it up the little wad was gone.
"For throwing paper, five marks," said Miss Braithwaite, and put it down in the book she carried in her pocket. It was rather an awful book. On Saturdays the King looked it over, and demanded explanations. "For untidy nails, five marks! A gentleman never has untidy nails, Otto. For objecting to winter flannels, two marks. Humph! For pocketing sugar from the tea-tray, ten marks! Humph! For lack of attention during religious instruction, five marks. Ten off for the sugar, and only five for inattention to religious instruction! What have you to say, sir?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto looked at Nikky and Nikky looked back. Then Ferdinand William Otto's left eyelid drooped. Nikky was astounded. How was he to know the treasury of strange things that the Crown Prince had tapped the previous afternoon? But, after a glance around the room, Nikky's eyelid drooped also. He slid the paper wad into his pocket.
"I am afraid His Royal Highness has hurt your eye, M. Puaux," said Miss Braithwaite. Not with sympathy. She hated tutors.
"Not at all," said the unhappy young man, testing the eye to discover if he could see through it. "I am sure His Royal Highness meant no harm." M. Puaux went out, with his handkerchief to his eye. He turned at the door and bowed, but as no one was paying any attention to him, he made two bows. One was to Hedwig's picture.
While Oskar, his valet, put the Crown Prince into riding-clothes, Nikky and Miss Braithwaite had a talk. Nikky was the only person to whom Miss Braithwaite really unbent. Once he had written to a friend of his in China, and secured for her a large box of the best China tea. Miss Braithwaite only brewed it when the Archduchess made one of her rare visits to the Crown Prince's apartment.
But just now their talk was very serious. It began by Nikky's stating that she was likely to see him a great deal now, and he hoped she would not find him in the way. He had been made aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince, vice Count Lussin, who had resigned on account of illness, having been roused at daybreak out of a healthy sleep to do it.
Not that Nikky said just that. What he really observed was: "The King sent for me last night, Miss Braithwaite, and—and asked me to hang around."
Thus Nikky, of his sacred trust! None the less sacred to him, either, that he spoke lightly. He glanced up at the crossed swords, and his eyes were hard.
And Miss Braithwaite knew. She reached over and put a hand on his arm. "You and I," she said. "Out of all the people in this palace, only you and I! The Archduchess hates him. I see it in her eyes. She can never forgive him for keeping the throne from Hedwig. The Court? Do they ever think of the boy, except to dread his minority, with Mettlich in control? A long period of mourning, a regency, no balls, no gayety that is all they think of. And whom can we trust? The very guards down below, the sentries at our doors, how do we know they are loyal?"
"The people love him," said Nikky doggedly.
"The people! Sheep. I do not trust the people. I do not trust any one. I watch, but what can I do? The very food we eat—"
"He is coming," said Nikky softly. And fell to whistling under his breath.
Together Nikky and Prince Ferdinand William Otto went out and down the great marble staircase. Sentries saluted. Two flunkies in scarlet and gold threw open the doors. A stray dog that had wandered into the courtyard watched them gravely.
"I wish," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, "that I might have a dog."
"A dog! Why?"
"Well, it would be company. Dogs are very friendly. Yesterday I met a boy who has a dog. It sleeps on his bed at night."
"You have a good many things, you know," Nikky argued. "You've got a dozen horses, for one thing."
"But a dog's different." He felt the difference, but he could not put it into words. "And I'd rather have only one horse. I'd get better acquainted with it."
Nikky looked back. Although it had been the boast of the royal family for a century that it could go about unattended, that its only danger was from the overzeal of the people in showing their loyalty, not since the death of Prince Hubert had this been true in fact. No guards or soldiers accompanied them, but the secret police were always near at hand. So Nikky looked, made sure that a man in civilian clothing was close at their heels, and led the way across the Square to the riding-school.
A small crowd lined up and watched the passing of the little Prince. As he passed, men lifted their hats and women bowed. He smiled right and left, and, took two short steps to one of Nikky's long ones.
"I have a great many friends," he said with a sigh of content, as they neared the riding-school. "I suppose I don't really need a dog."
"Look here," said Nikky, after a pause. He was not very quick in thinking things out. He placed, as a fact, more reliance on his right arm than on his brain. But once he had thought a thing out, it stuck. "Look here, Highness, you didn't treat your friends very well yesterday."
"I know;" said Prince Ferdinand William Otto meekly. But Prince Ferdinand William Otto had thought out a defense. "I got back all right, didn't I?" He considered. "It was worth it. A policeman shook me!"
"Which policeman?" demanded Nikky in a terrible tone, and in his fury quite forgot the ragging he had prepared for Otto.
"I think I'll not tell you, if you don't mind. And I bought a fig lady. I've saved the legs for you."
Fortune smiled on Nikky that day. Had, indeed, been smiling daily for some three weeks. Singularly enough, the Princess Hedwig, who had been placed on a pony at the early age of two, and who had been wont to boast that she could ride any horse in her grandfather's stables, was taking riding-lessons. From twelve to one—which was, also singularly, the time Prince Ferdinand William Otto and Nikky rode in the ring—the Princess Hedwig rode also. Rode divinely. Rode saucily. Rode, when Nikky was ahead, tenderly.
To tell the truth, Prince Ferdinand William Otto rather hoped, this morning, that Hedwig would not be there. There was a difference in Nikky when Hedwig was around. When she was not there he would do all sorts of things, like jumping on his horse while it was going, and riding backward in the saddle, and so on. He had once even tried jumping on his horse as it galloped past him, and missed, and had been awfully ashamed about it. But when Hedwig was there, there was no skylarking. They rode around, and the riding-master put up jumps and they took them. And finally Hedwig would get tired, and ask Nikky please to be amusing while she rested. And he would not be amusing at all. The Crown Prince felt that she never really saw Nikky at his best.
Hedwig was there. She had on a new habit, and a gardenia in her buttonhole, and she gave Nikky her hand to kiss, but only nodded to the Crown Prince.
"Hello, Otto!" she said. "I thought you'd have a ball and chain on your leg to-day."
"There's nothing wrong with my legs," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, staring at the nets habit. "But yours look rather queer."
Hedwig flushed. The truth was that she was wearing, for the first time, a cross-saddle habit of coat and trousers. And coat and trousers were forbidden to the royal women. She eyed Otto with defiance, and turned an appealing glance to Nikky. But her voice was very dignified.
"I bought them myself," she said. "I consider it a perfectly modest costume, and much safer than the other."
"It is quite lovely—on you, Highness," said Nikky.
In a stiff chair at the edge of the ring Hedwig's lady in waiting sat resignedly. She was an elderly woman, and did not ride. Just now she was absorbed in wondering what would happen to her when the Archduchess discovered this new freak of Hedwig's. Perhaps she would better ask permission to go into retreat for a time. The Archduchess, who had no religion herself, approved of it in others. She took a soft rubber from her pocket, and tried to erase a spot from her white kid gloves.
The discovery that Hedwig had two perfectly good legs rather astounded Prince Ferdinand William Otto. He felt something like consternation.
"I've never seen any one else dressed like that," he observed, as the horses were brought up.
Hedwig colored again. She looked like an absurdly pretty boy. "Don't be a silly," she replied, rather sharply. "Every one does it, except here, where old fossils refuse to think that anything new can be proper. If you're going to be that sort of a king when you grow up, I'll go somewhere else to live."
Nikky looked gloomy. The prospect, although remote, was dreary. But, as the horses were led out, and he helped Hedwig to her saddle, he brightened. After all, the future was the future, and now was now.
"Catch me!" said Hedwig, and dug her royal heels into her horse's flanks. The Crown Prince climbed into his saddle and followed. They were off.
The riding-school had been built for officers of the army, but was now used by the Court only. Here the King had ridden as a lad with young Mettlich, his close friend even then. The favorite mare of his later years, now old and almost blind, still had a stall in the adjacent royal stables. One of the King's last excursions abroad had been to visit her.
Overhead, up a great runway, were the state chariots, gilt coaches of inconceivable weight, traveling carriages of the post-chaise periods, sleighs in which four horses drove abreast, their panels painted by the great artists of the time; and one plain little vehicle, very shabby, in which the royal children of long ago had fled from a Karnian invasion.
In one corner, black and gold and forbidding, was the imposing hearse in which the dead sovereigns of the country were taken to their long sleep in the vaults under the cathedral. Good, bad, and indifferent, one after the other, as their hour came, they had taken this last journey in the old catafalque, and had joined their forbears. Many they had been: men of iron, men of blood, men of flesh, men of water. And now they lay in stone crypts, and of all the line only two remained.
One and all, the royal vehicles were shrouded in sheets, except on one day of each month when the sheets were removed and the public admitted. But on that morning the great hearse was uncovered, and two men were working, one at the upholstery, which he was brushing. The other was carefully oiling the wood of the body. Save for them, the wide and dusky loft was empty.
One was a boy, newly come from the country. The other was an elderly man. It was he who oiled.
"Many a king has this carried," said the man. "My father, who was here before me, oiled it for the last one."
"May it be long before it carries another!" commented the boy fervently.
"It will not be long. The old King fails hourly. And this happening of yesterday—"
"What happened yesterday?" queried the boy.
"It was a matter of the Crown Prince."
"Was he ill?"
"He ran away," said the man shortly.
"Ran away?" The boy stopped his dusting, and stared, open-mouthed.
"Aye, ran away. Grew weary of back-bending, perhaps. I do not know. I do not believe in kings."
"Not believe in kings?" The boy stopped his brushing.
"You do, of course," sneered the man. "Because a thing is, it is right. But I think. I use my brains. I reason. And I do not believe in kings."
Up the runway came sounds from the ring, the thudding of hoofs, followed by a child's shrill, joyous laughter. The man scowled.
"Listen!" he said. "We labor and they play."
"It has always been so. I do not begrudge happiness."
But the man was not listening.
"I do not believe in kings," he said sullenly.
CHAPTER VI. THE CHANCELLOR PAYS A VISIT
The Archduchess was having tea. Her boudoir was a crowded little room. Nikky had once observed confidentially to Miss Braithwaite that it was exactly like her, all hung and furnished with things that were not needed. The Archduchess liked it because it was warm. The palace rooms were mostly large and chilly. She lad a fire there on the warmest days in spring, and liked to put the coals on, herself. She wrapped them in pieces of paper so she would not soil her hands.
This afternoon she was not alone. Lounging at a window was the lady who was in waiting at the time, the Countess Loschek. Just now she was getting rather a wigging, but she was remarkably calm.
"The last three times," the Archduchess said, stirring her tea, "you have had a sore throat."
"It is such a dull book," explained the Countess.
"Not at all. It is an improving book. If you would put your mind on it when you are reading, Olga, you would enjoy it. And you would learn something, besides. In my opinion," went on the Archduchess, tasting her tea, "you smoke too many cigarettes."
The Countess yawned, but silently, at her window.
Then she consulted a thermometer. "Eighty!" she said briefly, and, coming over, sat down by the tea-table.
The Countess Loschek was thirty, and very handsome, in an insolent way. She was supposed to be the best-dressed woman at the Court, and to rule Annunciata with an iron hand, although it was known that they quarreled a great deal over small things, especially over the coal fire.
Some said that the real thing that held them together was resentment that the little Crown Prince stood between the Princess Hedwig and the throne. Annunciata was not young, but she was younger than her dead brother, Hubert. And others said it was because the Countess gathered up and brought in the news of the Court—the small intrigues and the scandals that constitute life in the restricted walls of a palace. There is a great deal of gossip in a palace where the king is old and everything rather stupid and dull.
The Countess yawned again.
"Where is Hedwig?" demanded the Archduchess.
"Her Royal Highness is in the nursery, probably."
"She goes there a great deal."
The Archduchess eyed her. "Well, out with it," she said. "There is something seething in that wicked brain of yours."
The Countess shrugged her shoulders. Not that she resented having a wicked brain. She rather fancied the idea. "She and young Lieutenant Larisch have tea quite frequently with His Royal Highness."
"Three times this last week, madame."
"Little fool!" said Annunciata. But she frowned, and sat tapping her teacup with her spoon. She was just a trifle afraid of Hedwig, and she was more anxious than she would have cared to acknowledge. "It is being talked about, of course?"
The Countess shrugged her shoulders.
"Don't do that!" commanded the Archduchess sharply. "How far do you think the thing has gone?"
"He is quite mad about her."
"And Hedwig—but she is silly enough for anything. Do they meet anywhere else?"
"At the riding-school, I believe. At least, I—"
Here a maid entered and stood waiting at the end of the screen. The Archduchess Annunciata would have none of the palace flunkies about her when she could help it. She had had enough of men, she maintained, in the person of her late husband, whom she had detested. So except at dinner she was attended by tidy little maids, in gray Quaker costumes, who could carry tea-trays into her crowded boudoir without breaking things.
"His Excellency, General Mettlich," said the maid.
The Archduchess nodded her august head, and the maid retired. "Go away, Olga," said the Archduchess. "And you might," she suggested grimly, "gargle your throat."
The Chancellor had passed a troubled night. Being old, like the King, he required little sleep. And for most of the time between one o'clock and his rising hour of five he had lain in his narrow camp-bed and thought. He had not confided all his worries to the King.
Evidences of renewed activity on the part of the Terrorists were many. In the past month two of his best secret agents had disappeared. One had been found the day before, stabbed in the back. The Chancellor had seen the body—an unpleasant sight. But it was not of the dead man that General Mettlich thought. It was of the other. The dead tell nothing. But the living, under torture, tell many things. And this man Haeckel, young as he was, knew much that was vital. Knew the working of the Secret Service, the names of the outer circle of twelve, knew the codes and passwords, knew, too the ways of the palace, the hidden room always ready for emergency, even the passage that led by devious ways, underground, to a distant part of the great park.
At five General Mettlich had risen, exercised before an open window with an old pair of iron dumbbells, had followed this with a cold bath and hot coffee, and had gone to early Mass at the Cathedral.
And there, on his knees, he had prayed for a little help. He was, he said, getting old and infirm, and he had been too apt all his life to rely on his own right arm. But things were getting rather difficult. He prayed to Our Lady for intercession for the little Prince. He felt, in his old heart, that the Mother would understand the situation, and how he felt about it. And he asked in a general supplication, and very humbly, for a few years more of life. Not that life meant anything to him personally. He had outlived most of those he loved. But that he might serve the King, and after him the boy who would be Otto IX. He added, for fear they might not understand, having a great deal to look after, that he had earned all this by many years of loyalty, and besides, that he knew the situation better than any one else.
He felt much better after that. Especially as, at the moment he rose from his knees, the cathedral clock had chimed and then struck seven. He had found seven a very lucky number, So now he entered the boudoir of the Archduchess Annunciata, and the Countess went out another door, and closed it behind her, immediately opening it about an inch.
The Chancellor strode around the screen, scratching two tables with his sword as he advanced, and kissed the hand of the Princess Annunciata. They were old enemies and therefore always very polite to each other. The Archduchess offered him a cup of tea, which he took, although she always made very bad tea. And for a few moments they discussed things. Thus: the King's condition; the replanting of the Place with trees; and the date of bringing out the Princess Hilda, who was still in the schoolroom.
But the Archduchess suddenly came to business. She was an abrupt person. "And now, General," she said, "what is it?"
"I am in trouble, Highness," replied the Chancellor simply.
"We are most of us in that condition at all times. I suppose you mean this absurd affair of yesterday. Why such a turmoil about it? The boy ran away. When he was ready he returned. It was absurd, and I dare say you and I both are being held for our sins. But he is here now, and safe."
"I am afraid he is not as safe as you think, madame."
He sat forward on the edge of his chair, and told her of the students at the University, who were being fired by some powerful voice; of the disappearance of the two spies; of the evidence that the Committee of Ten was meeting again, and the failure to discover their meeting-place; of disaffection among the people, according to the reports of his agents. And then to the real purpose of his visit. Karl of Karnia had, unofficially, proposed for the Princess Hedwig. He had himself broached the matter to the King, who had at least taken it under advisement. The Archduchess listened, rather pale. There was no mistaking the urgency in the Chancellor's voice.
"Madame after centuries of independence we now face a crisis which we cannot meet alone. Believe me, I know of what I speak. United, we could stand against the world. But a divided kingdom, a disloyal and discontented people, spells the end."
And at last he convinced her. But, because she was built of a contrary mould, she voiced an objection, not to the scheme, but to Karl himself. "I dislike him. He is arrogant and stupid."
"But powerful, madame. And—what else is there to do?"
There was nothing else, and she knew it. But she refused to broach the matter to Hedwig.
She stated, and perhaps not without reason, that such a move was to damn the whole thing at once. She did not use exactly these words, but their royal equivalent. And it ended with the Chancellor, looking most ferocious but inwardly uneasy, undertaking to put, as one may say, a flea into the Princess Hedwig's small ear.
As he strode out, the door into the next room closed quietly.
CHAPTER VII. TEA IN THE SCHOOLROOM
Tea at the Palace, until the old King had taken to his bed, had been the one cheerful hour of the day. The entire suite gathered in one of the salons, and remained standing until the King's entrance. After that, formality ceased. Groups formed, footmen in plush with white wigs passed trays of cakes and sandwiches and tiny gilt cups of exquisite tea. The Court, so to speak, removed its white gloves, and was noisy and informal. True, at dinner again ceremony and etiquette would reign. The march into the dining-hall between rows of bowing servants, the set conversation, led by the King, the long and tedious courses, the careful watch for precedence that was dinner at the Palace.
But now all that was changed. The King did not leave his apartment. Annunciata occasionally took tea with the suite, but glad for an excuse, left the Court to dine without her. Sometimes for a half-hour she lent her royal if somewhat indifferently attired presence to the salon afterward, where for thirty minutes or so she moved from group to group, exchanging a few more or less gracious words. But such times were rare. The Archduchess, according to Court gossip, had "slumped."
To Hedwig the change had been a relief. The entourage, with its gossip, its small talk, its liaisons, excited in her only indifference and occasional loathing. Not that her short life had been without its affairs. She was too lovely for that. But they had touched her only faintly.
On the day of the Chancellor's visit to her mother she went to tea in the schoolroom. She came in glowing from a walk, with the jacket of her dark velvet suit thrown open, and a bunch of lilies-of-the-valley tucked in her belt.
Tea had already come, and Captain Larisch, holding his cup, was standing by the table. The Crown Prince, who was allowed only one cup, was having a second of hot water and milk, equal parts, and sweetened.
Hedwig slipped out of her jacket and drew off her gloves. She had hardly glanced at Nikky, although she knew quite well every motion he had made since she entered. "I am famished!" she said, and proceeded to eat very little and barely touch the tea. "Please don't go, Miss Braithwaite. And now, how is everything?"
Followed a long half-hour, in which the Crown Prince talked mostly of the Land of Desire and the American boy. Miss Braithwaite, much indulged by long years of service, crocheted, and Nikky Larisch, from the embrasure of a window, watched the little group. In reality he watched Hedwig, all his humble, boyish heart in his eyes.
After a time Hedwig slipped the lilies out of her belt and placed them in a glass of water.
"They are thirsty, poor things," she said to Otto. Only—and here was a strange thing, if she were really sorry for them—one of the stalks fell to the floor, and she did not trouble to pick it up. Nikky retrieved it, and pretended to place it with the others. But in reality he had palmed it quite neatly, and a little later he pocketed it. Still later, he placed it in his prayer-book.
The tea-table became rather noisy. The room echoed with laughter. Even Miss Braithwaite was compelled to wipe her eyes over some of Nikky's sallies, and the Crown Prince was left quite gasping. Nikky was really in his best form, being most unreasonably happy, and Hedwig, looking much taller than in her boyish riding-clothes—Hedwig was fairly palpitating with excitement.
Nikky was a born mimic. First he took off the King's Council, one by one. Then in an instant he was Napoleon, which was easy, of course; and the next second, with one of the fur tails which had come unfastened from Hedwig's muff, he had become a pirate, with the tail for a great mustache. One of the very best things he did, however, was to make a widow's cap out of a tea-napkin, and surmount it with a tiny coronet, which was really Hedwig's bracelet. He put it on, drew down his upper lip, and puffed his cheeks, and there was Queen Victoria of England to the life.
Hedwig was so delighted with this, that she made him sit down, and draped one of Miss Braithwaite's shawls about his shoulders. It was difficult to look like Queen Victoria under the circumstances, with her small hands deftly draping and smoothing. But Nikky did very well.
It was just as Hedwig was tucking the shawl about his neck to hide the collar of his tunic, and Miss Braithwaite was looking a trifle offended, because she considered the memory of Queen Victoria not to be trifled with, and just as Nikky took a fresh breath and puffed out leis cheeks again, that the Archduchess came in.
She entered unannounced, save by a jingle of chains, and surveyed the room with a single furious glance. Queen Victoria's cheeks collapsed and the coronet slid slightly to one side. Then Nikky rose and jerked off the shawl and bowed. Every one looked rather frightened, except the Crown Prince. In a sort of horrible silence he advanced and kissed Annunciata's hand.
"So—this is what you are doing," observed Her Royal Highness to Hedwig. "In this—this undignified manner you spend your time!"
"It is very innocent fun, mother."
For that matter, there was nothing very dignified in the scene that followed. The Archduchess dismissed the governess and the Crown Prince, quite as if he had been an ordinary child, and naughty at that. Miss Braithwaite looked truculent. After all, the heir to the throne is the heir to the throne and should have the privilege of his own study. But Hedwig gave her an appealing glance, and she went out, closing the door with what came dangerously near being a slam.
The Archduchess surveyed the two remaining culprits with a terrible gaze. "Now," she said, "how long have these ridiculous performances been going on?"
"Mother!" said Hedwig.
"The question is absurd. There was no harm in what we were doing. It amused Otto. He has few enough pleasures. Thanks to all of us, he is very lonely."
"And since when have you assumed the responsibility for his upbringing?"
"I remember my own dreary childhood," said Hedwig stiffly.
The Archduchess turned on her furiously. "More and more," she said, "as you grow up, Hedwig, you remind me of your unfortunate father. You have the same lack of dignity, the same"—she glanced at Nikky—"the same common tastes, the same habit of choosing strange society, of forgetting your rank."
Hedwig was scarlet, but Nikky had gone pale. As for the Archduchesss, her cameos were rising and falling stormily. With hands that shook; Hedwig picked up her jacket and hat. Then she moved toward the door.
"Perhaps you are right, mother," she said, "but I hope I shall never have the bad taste to speak ill of the dead." Then she went out.
The scene between the Archduchess and Nikky began in a storm and ended in a sort of hopeless quiet. Miss Braithwaite had withdrawn to her sitting-room, but even there she could hear the voice of Annunciata, rasping and angry.
It was very clear to Nikky from the beginning that the Archduchess's wrath was not for that afternoon alone. And in his guilty young mind rose various memories, all infinitely dear, all infinitely, incredibly reckless—other frolics around the tea-table, rides in the park, lessons in the riding-school. Very soon he was confessing them all, in reply to sharp questions. When the tablet of his sins was finally uncovered, the Archduchess was less angry and a great deal more anxious. Hedwig free was a problem. Hedwig in love with this dashing boy was a greater one.
"Of one thing I must assure Your Highness," said Nikky. "These—these meetings have been of my seeking."
"The Princess requires no defense, Captain Larisch."
That put him back where he belonged, and Annunciata did a little thinking, while Nikky went on, in his troubled way, running his fingers through his hair until he looked rather like an uneasy but ardent-eyed porcupine. He acknowledged that these meetings had meant much to him, everything to him, he would confess, but he had never dared to hope. He had always thought of Her Royal Highness as the granddaughter of his King. He had never spoken a word that he need regret. Annunciata listened, and took his measure shrewdly. He was the sort of young fool, she told herself, who would sacrifice himself and crucify his happiness for his country. It was on just such shoulders as his that the throne was upheld. His loyalty was more to be counted on than his heart.
She changed her tactics adroitly, sat down, even softened her voice. "I have been emphatic, Captain Larisch," she said, "because, as I think you know, things are not going too well with us. To help the situation, certain plans are being made. I will be more explicit. A marriage is planned for the Princess Hedwig, which will assist us all. It is"—she hesitated imperceptibly—"the King's dearest wish."
Horror froze on Nikky's face. But he bowed.
"After what you have told me, I shall ask your cooperation," said Annunciata smoothly. "While there are some of us who deplore the necessity, still—it exists. And an alliance with Karnia—"
"Karnia!" cried Nikky, violating all ceremonial, of course. "But surely—!"
The Archduchess rose and drew herself to her full height. "I have given you confidence for confidence, Captain Larisch," she said coldly. "The Princess Hedwig has not yet been, told. We shall be glad of your assistance when that time comes. It is possible, that it will not come. In case it does, we shall count on you."
Nikky bowed deeply as she went out; bowed, with death in his eyes.
And thus it happened that Captain Nicholas Larisch aide-de-camp to his Royal Highness the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and of no other particular importance, was informed of the Princess Hedwig's projected marriage before she was. And not only informed of it, but committed to forward it, if he could!
CHAPTER VIII. THE LETTER
The Countess Loschek was alone. Alone and storming. She had sent her maid away with a sharp word, and now she was pacing the floor.
Hedwig, of all people!
She hated her. She had always hated her. For her youth, first; later, when she saw how things were going, for the accident that had made her a granddaughter to the King.
Even this last June, when Karl had made his looked-for visit to the summer palace where the Court had been in, residence, he had already had the thing in mind. Even when his arms had been about her, Olga Loschek, he had been looking over her shoulder, as it were, at Hedwig. He had had it all in his wicked head, even then. For Karl was wicked. None would know it better than she, who was risking everything, life itself, for him. Wicked; ungrateful, and unscrupulous. She loathed him while she loved him.
The thing would happen. This was the way things were done in Courts. An intimation from one side that a certain thing would be agreeable and profitable. A discussion behind closed doors. A reply that the intimation had been well received. Then the formal proposal, and its acceptance.
Hedwig would marry Karl. She might be troublesome, would indeed almost certainly be troublesome. Strangely enough, the Countess hated her the more for that. To value so lightly the thing for which Olga Loschek would have given her soul, this in itself was hateful. But there was more. The Countess saw much with her curiously wide, almost childishly bland eyes; it was only now that it occurred to her to turn what she knew of Hedwig and Nikky to account.
She stopped pacing the floor, and sat down. Suppose Hedwig and Nikky Larisch went away together? Hedwig, she felt, would have the courage even for that. That would stop things. But Hedwig did not trust her. And there was about Nikky a dog-like quality of devotion, which warned her that, the deeper his love for Hedwig, the more unlikely he would be to bring her to disgrace. Nikky might be difficult.
"The fool!" said the Countess, between her clenched teeth. To both the Archduchess Annunciata and her henchwoman, people were chiefly divided into three classes, fools, knaves, and themselves.
She must try for Hedwig's confidence, then. But Karl! How to reach him? Not with reproaches, not with anger. She knew her man well. To hold him off was the first thing. To postpone the formal proposal, and gain time. If the Chancellor had been right, and things were as bad as they appeared, the King's death would precipitate a crisis. Might, indeed, overturn the throne.
And Karl had changed. The old days when he loved trouble were gone. His thoughts, like all thoughts these days, she reflected contemptuously, were turned to peace, not to war. He was for beating his swords into ploughshares, with a vengeance.
To hold him off, then. To gain time.
The King was very feeble. This affair of yesterday had told on him. The gossip of the Court was that the day had seen a change for the worse. His heart was centered on the Crown Prince.
Ah, here was another viewpoint. Suppose the Crown Prince had not come back? What would happen, with the King dead, and no king? Chaos, of course. A free hand to revolution. Hedwig fighting for her throne, and inevitably losing it. Then what about Karl and his dreams of peace?
But that was further than she cared to go just then. She would finish certain work that she had set out to do, and then she was through. No longer would dread and terror grip her in the night hours.
But she would finish. Karl should never say she had failed him. In her new rage against him she was for cleaning the slate at once. She had in her possession papers for which he waited or pretended to wait; data secured by means she did not care to remember; plans and figures carefully compiled—a thousand deaths in one, if, they were found on her. She would get them out of her hands at once.
It was still but little after five. She brought her papers together on her small mahogany desk, from such hiding places as women know—the linings of perfumed sachets, the toes of small slippers, the secret pocket in a muff; and having locked her doors, put them in order. Her hands were trembling, but she worked skillfully. She was free until the dinner hour, but she had a great deal to do. The papers in order, she went to a panel in the wall of her dressing-room; and, sliding it aside, revealed the safe in which her jewels were kept. Not that her jewels were very valuable, but the safe was there, and she used it.
The palace, for that matter, was full of cunningly contrived hiding-places. Some, in times of stress, had held jewels. Others—rooms these, built in the stone walls and carefully mapped—had held even royal refugees themselves. The map was in the King's possession, and descended from father to son, a curious old paper, with two of the hidden rooms marked off in colored inks as closed. Closed, with strange secrets beyond, quite certainly.
The Countess took out a jewel-case, emptied it, lifted its chamois cushions, and took out a small book. It was an indifferent hiding-place, but long immunity had made her careless. Referring to the book, she wrote a letter in code. It was, to all appearances a friendly letter referring to a family in her native town, and asking that the recipient see that assistance be sent them before Thursday of the following week. The assistance was specified with much detail—at her expense to send so many blankets, so many loaves of bread, a long list. Having finished, she destroyed, by burning, a number of papers watching until the last ash had turned from dull red to smoking gray. The code-book she hesitated over, but at last, with a shrug of her shoulders, she returned it to its hiding-place in the jewel case.
Coupled with her bitterness was a sense of relief. Only when the papers were destroyed had she realized the weight they had been. She summoned Minna, her maid, and dressed for the street. Then, Minna accompanying her, she summoned her carriage and went shopping.
She reached the palace again in time to dress for dinner. Somewhere on that excursion she had left the letter, to be sent to its destination over the border by special messenger that night.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto, at the moment of her return, was preparing for bed. At a quarter to seven he had risen, bowed to Miss Braithwaite, said good-night, and disappeared toward his bedroom and his waiting valet. But a moment later he reappeared.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "but I think your watch is fast."
Miss Braithwaite consulted it. Then, rising she went to the window and compared at with the moonlike face of the cathedral clock.
"There is a difference of five minutes," she conceded. "But I have no confidence in the cathedral clock. It needs oiling, probably. Besides, there are always pigeons sitting on the hands."
"May I wait for five minutes?"
"What could you do in five minutes?"
"Well," he suggested, rather pleadingly, "we might have a little conversation, if you axe not too tired."
Miss Braithwaite sighed. It had been a long day and not a calm one, and conversation with His Highness meant questions, mostly.
"Very well," she said.
"I'm not at all sleepy," Prince Ferdinand William Otto observed, climbing on a chair. "I thought you might tell me about America. I'm awfully curious about America."
"I suppose you mean the United States."
"I'm not sure. It has New York, in it, anyhow. They don't have kings, do they?"
"No," said Miss Braithwaite, shortly. She hated republics.
"What I wondered was," said Ferdinand William Otto, swinging his legs, "how they managed without a king. Who tells them what to do? I'm interested, because I met a boy yesterday who came from there, and he talked quite a lot about it. He was a very interesting boy."
Miss Braithwaite waived the matter of yesterday. "In a republic," she said, "the people think they can govern themselves. But they do it very badly. The average intelligence among people in the mass is always rather low."
"He said," went on His Royal Highness, pursuing a line of thought, "that the greatest man in the world was a man named Lincoln. But that he is dead. And he said that kings were nuisances, and didn't earn their bread-and-butter. Of course," Otto hastened to explain, "he didn't know that my grandfather is a king. After that, I didn't exactly like to tell him. It would have made him very uncomfortable." Here he yawned, but covered it with a polite hand, and Oskar, his valet, came to the doorway and stood waiting. He was a dignified person in a plum-colored livery, because the King considered black gloomy for a child.