A STUDY IN SUPREMACY
BY MARIE CORELLI
I. THE KING'S PLEASAUNCE
II. MAJESTY CONSIDERS AND RESOLVES
III. A NATION OR A CHURCH?
IV. SEALED ORDERS
V. "IF I LOVED YOU!"
VI. SERGIUS THORD
VII. THE IDEALISTS
VIII. THE KING'S DOUBLE
IX. THE PREMIER'S SIGNET
X. THE ISLANDS
XI. "GLORIA—IN EXCELSIS!"
XII. A SEA PRINCESS
XIII. SECRET SERVICE
XIV. THE KING'S VETO
XV. "MORGANATIC" OR—?
XVI. THE PROFESSOR ADVISES
XVII. AN "HONOURABLE" STATESMAN
XVIII. ROYAL LOVERS
XIX. OF THE CORRUPTION OF THE STATE
XX. THE SCORN OF KINGS
XXI. AN INVITATION TO COURT
XXII. A FAIR DEBUTANTE
XXIII. THE KING'S DEFENDER
XXIV. A WOMAN'S REASON
XXV. "I SAY—'ROME'!"
XXVI. "ONE WAY—ONE WOMAN!"
XXVII. THE SONG OF FREEDOM
XXVIII. "FATE GIVES—THE KING!"
XXIX. THE COMRADE OF HIS FOES
XXX. KING AND SOCIALIST
XXXI. A VOTE FOR LOVE
XXXII. BETWEEN TWO PASSIONS
XXXIII. SAILING TO THE INFINITE
THE KING'S PLEASAUNCE
"In the beginning," so we are told, "God made the heavens and the earth."
The statement is simple and terse; it is evidently intended to be wholly comprehensive. Its decisive, almost abrupt tone would seem to forbid either question or argument. The old-world narrator of the sublime event thus briefly chronicled was a poet of no mean quality, though moved by the natural conceit of man to give undue importance to the earth as his own particular habitation. The perfect confidence with which he explains 'God' as making 'two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night,' is touching to the verge of pathos; and the additional remark which he throws in, as it were casually,—'He made the stars also,' cannot but move us to admiration. How childlike the simplicity of the soul which could so venture to deal with the inexplicable and tremendous problem of the Universe! How self-centred and sure the faith which could so arrange the work of Infinite and Eternal forces to suit its own limited intelligence! It is easy and natural to believe that 'God,' or an everlasting Power of Goodness and Beauty called by that name, 'created the heavens and the earth,' but one is often tempted to think that an altogether different and rival element must have been concerned in the making of Man. For the heavens and the earth are harmonious; man is a discord. And not only is he a discord in himself, but he takes pleasure in producing and multiplying discords. Often, with the least possible amount of education, and on the slightest provocation, he mentally sets Himself, and his trivial personal opinion on religion, morals, and government, in direct opposition to the immutable laws of the Universe, and the attitude he assumes towards the mysterious Cause and Original Source of Life is nearly always one of three things; contradiction, negation, or defiance. From the first to the last he torments himself with inventions to outwit or subdue Nature, and in the end dies, utterly defeated. His civilizations, his dynasties, his laws, his manners, his customs, are all doomed to destruction and oblivion as completely as an ant-hill which exists one night and is trodden down the next. Forever and forever he works and plans in vain; forever and forever Nature, the visible and active Spirit of God, rises up and crushes her puny rebel.
There must be good reason for this ceaseless waste of human life,—this constant and steady obliteration of man's attempts, since there can be no Effect without Cause. It is, as if like children at a school, we were set a certain sum to do, and because we blunder foolishly over it and add it up to a wrong total, it is again and again wiped off the blackboard, and again and again rewritten for our more careful consideration. Possibly the secret of our failure to conquer Nature lies in ourselves, and our own obstinate tendency to work in only one groove of what we term 'advancement,'—namely our material self- interest. Possibly we might be victors if we would, even to the very vanquishment of Death!
So many of us think,—and so thought one man of sovereign influence in this world's affairs as, seated on the terrace of a Royal palace fronting seaward, he pondered his own life's problem for perhaps the thousandth time.
"What is the use of thinking?" asked a wit at the court of Louis XVI. "It only intensifies the bad opinion you have of others,—or of yourself!"
He found this saying true. Thinking is a pernicious habit in which very great personages are not supposed to indulge; and in his younger days he had avoided it. He had allowed the time to take him as it found him, and had gone with it unresistingly wherever it had led. It was the best way; the wisest way; the way Solomon found most congenial, despite its end in 'vanity and vexation of spirit.' But with the passing of the years a veil had been dropped over that path of roses, hiding it altogether from his sight; and another veil rose inch by inch before him, disclosing a new and less joyous prospect on which he was not too-well-pleased to look.
The sea, stretching out in a broad shining expanse opposite to him, sparkled dancingly in the warm sunshine, and the snowy sails of many yachts and pleasure-boats dipped now and again into the glittering waves like white birds skimming over the tiny flashing foam-crests. Dazzling and well-nigh blinding to his eyes were the burning glow and exquisite radiance of colour which seemed melted like gold and sapphire into that bright half-circle of water and sky,—beautiful, and full of a dream-like evanescent quality, such as marks all the loveliest scenes and impressions of our life on earth. There was a subtle scent of violets in the air,—and a gardener, cutting sheafs of narcissi from the edges of the velvety green banks which rolled away in smooth undulations upward from the terrace to the wider extent of the palace pleasaunce beyond, scattered such perfume with his snipping shears as might have lured another Proserpine from Hell. Cluster after cluster of white blooms, carefully selected for the adornment of the Royal apartments, he laid beside him on the grass, not presuming to look in the direction where that other Workman in the ways of life sat silent and absorbed in thought. That other, in his own long-practised manner, feigned not to be aware of his dependant's proximity,—and in this fashion they twain—human beings made of the same clay and relegated, to the same dust—gave sport to the Fates by playing at Sham with Heaven and themselves. Custom, law, and all the paraphernalia of civilization, had set the division and marked the boundary between them,—had forbidden the lesser in world's rank to speak to the greater, unless the greater began conversation,—had equally forbidden the greater to speak to the lesser lest such condescension should inflate the lesser's vanity so much as to make him obnoxious to his fellows. Thus,—of two men, who, if left to nature would have been merely—men, and sincere enough at that,—man himself had made two pretenders,—the one as gardener, the other as—King! The white narcissi lying on the grass, and preparing to die sweetly, like sacrificed maiden-victims of the flower-world, could turn true faces to the God who made them,—but the men at that particular moment of time had no real features ready for God's inspection,—only masks.
"C'est mon metier d'etre Roi!" So said one of the many dead and gone martyrs on the rack of sovereignty. Alas, poor soul, thou would'st have been happier in any other 'metier' I warrant! For kingship is a profession which cannot be abandoned for a change of humour, or cast aside in light indifference and independence because a man is bored by it and would have something new. It is a routine and drudgery to which some few are born, for which they are prepared, to which they must devote their span of life, and in which they must die. "How shall we pass the day?" asked a weary Roman emperor, "I am even tired of killing my enemies!"
'Even' that! And the strangest part of it is, that there are people who would give all their freedom and peace of mind to occupy for a few years an uneasy throne, and who actually live under the delusion that a monarch is happy!
The gardener soon finished his task of cutting the narcissi, and though he might not, without audacity, look at his Sovereign-master, his Sovereign-master looked at him, furtively, from under half-closed eyelids, watching him as he bound the blossoms together carefully, with the view of giving as little trouble as possible to those whose duty it would be to arrange them for the Royal pleasure. His work done, he walked quickly, yet with a certain humble stealthiness,—thus admitting his consciousness of that greater presence than his own,— down a broad garden walk beyond the terrace towards a private entrance to the palace, and there disappeared.
The King was left alone,—or apparently so, for to speak truly, he was never alone. An equerry, a page-in-waiting,—or what was still more commonplace as well as ominous, a detective,—lurked about him, ever near, ever ready to spring on any unknown intruder, or to answer his slightest call.
But to the limited extent of the solitude allowed to kings, this man was alone,—alone for a brief space to consider, as he had informed his secretary, certain documents awaiting his particular and private perusal.
The marble pavilion in which he sat had been built by his father, the late King, for his own pleasure, when pleasure was more possible than it is now. Its slender Ionic columns, its sculptured friezes, its painted ceilings, all expressed a gaiety, grace and beauty gone from the world, perchance for ever. Open on three sides to the living picture of the ocean, crimson and white roses clambered about it, and tall plume-like mimosa shook fragrance from its golden blossoms down every breath of wind. The costly table on which this particular Majesty of a nation occasionally wrote his letters, would, if sold, have kept a little town in food for a year,—the rich furs at his feet would have bought bread for hundreds of starving families,—and every delicious rose that nodded its dainty head towards him with the breeze would have given an hour's joy to a sick child. Socialists say this kind of thing with wildly eloquent fervour, and blame all kings in passionate rhodomontade for the tables, the furs and the roses,—but they forget— it is not the sad and weary kings who care for these or any luxuries,— they would be far happier without them. It is the People who insist on having kings that should be blamed,—not the monarchs themselves. A king is merely the people's Prisoner of State,—they chain him to a throne,—they make him clothe himself in sundry fantastic forms of attire and exhibit his person thus decked out, for their pleasure,— they calculate, often with greed and grudging, how much it will cost to feed him and keep him in proper state on the national premises, that they may use him at their will,—but they seldom or never seem to remember the fact that there is a Man behind the King!
It is not easy to govern nowadays, since there is no real autocracy, and no strong soul likely to create one. But the original idea of sovereignty was grand and wise;—the strongest man and bravest, raised aloft on shields and bucklers with warrior cries of approval from the people who voluntarily chose him as their leader in battle,—their utmost Head of affairs. Progress has demolished this ideal, with many others equally fine and inspiring; and now all kings are so, by right of descent merely. Whether they be infirm or palsied, weak or wise, sane or crazed, still are they as of old elected; only no more as the Strongest, but simply as the Sign-posts of a traditional bygone authority. This King however, here written of, was not deficient in either mental or physical attributes. His outward look and bearing betokened him as far more fit to be lifted in triumph on the shoulders of his battle-heroes, a real and visible Man, than to play a more or less cautiously inactive part in the modern dumb-show of Royalty. Well- built and muscular, with a compact head regally poised on broad shoulders, and finely formed features which indicated in their firm modelling strong characteristics of pride, indomitable resolution and courage, he had an air of rare and reposeful dignity which made him much more impressive as a personality than many of his fellow- sovereigns. His expression was neither foolish nor sensual,—his clear dark grey eyes were sane and steady in their regard and had no tricks of shiftiness. As an ordinary man of the people his appearance would have been distinctive,—as a King, it was remarkable.
He had of course been called handsome in his childhood,—what heir to a Throne ever lived that was not beautiful, to his nurse at least?—and in his early youth he had been grossly flattered for his cleverness as well as his good looks. Every small attempt at witticism,—every poor joke he could invent, adapt or repeat, was laughed at approvingly in a chorus of admiration by smirking human creatures, male and female, who bowed and bobbed up and down before the lad like strange dolphins disporting themselves on dry land. Whereat he grew to despise the dolphins, and no wonder. When he was about seventeen or eighteen he began to ask odd questions of one of his preceptors, a learned and ceremonious personage who, considering the extent of his certificated wisdom, was yet so singularly servile of habit and disposition that he might have won a success on the stage as Chief Toady in a burlesque of Court life. He was a pale, thin old man, with a wizened face set well back amid wisps of white hair, and a scraggy throat which asserted its working muscles visibly whenever he spoke, laughed or took food. His way of shaking hands expressed his moral flabbiness in the general dampness, looseness and limpness of the act,—not that he often shook hands with his pupil, for though that pupil was only a boy made of ordinary flesh and blood like other boys, he was nevertheless heir to a Throne, and in strict etiquette even friendly liberties were not to be too frequently taken with such an Exalted little bit of humanity. The lad himself, however, had a certain mischievous delight in making him perform this courtesy, and being young and vigorous, would often squeeze the old gentleman's hesitating fingers in his strong clasp so energetically as to cause him the severest pain. Student of many philosophies as he was, the worthy pedagogue would have cried out, or sworn profane oaths in his agony, had it been any other than the 'Heir- Apparent' who thus made him wince with torture,—but as matters stood, he merely smiled—and bore it. The young rascal of a prince smiled too,—taking note of his obsequious hypocrisy, which served an inquiring mind with quite as good a field for logical speculation as any problem in Euclid. And he went on with his questions,—questions, which if not puzzling, were at least irritating enough to have secured him a rap on the knuckles from his tutor's cane, had he been a grocer's lad instead of the eldest son of a Royal house.
"Professor," he said on one occasion, "What is man?"
"Man," replied the professor sedately, "is an intelligent and reasoning being, evolved by natural processes of creation into his present condition of supremacy."
"What is Supremacy?"
"The state of being above, or superior to, the rest of the animal creation."
"And is he so superior?"
"He is generally so admitted."
"Is my father a man?"
"Assuredly! The question is superfluous."
"What makes him a King?"
"Royal birth and the hereditary right to his great position."
"Then if man is in a condition of supremacy over the rest of creation, a king is more than a man if he is allowed to rule men?"
"Sir, pardon me!—a king is not more than a man, but men choose him as their ruler because he is worthy."
"In what way is he worthy? Simply because he is born as I am, heir to a throne?"
"He might be an idiot or a cripple, a fool or a coward,—he would still be King?"
"So that if he were a madman, he would continue to hold supremacy over a nation, though his groom might be sane?"
"Your Royal Highness pursues the question with an unwise flippancy;"— remonstrated the professor with a pained, forced smile. "If an idiot or a madman were unfortunately born to a throne, a regency would be appointed to control state affairs, but the heir would, in spite of natural incapability, remain the lawful king."
"A strange sovereignty!" said the young prince carelessly. "And a still stranger patience in the people who would tolerate it! Yet over all men,—kings, madmen, and idiots alike,—there is another ruling force, called God?"
"There is a force," admitted the professor dubiously—"But in the present forward state of things it would not be safe to attempt to explain the nature of that force, and for the benefit of the illiterate masses we call it God. A national worship of something superior to themselves has always been proved politic and necessary for the people. I have not at any time resolved myself as to why it should be so; but so it is."
"Then man, despite his 'supremacy' must have something more supreme than himself to keep him in order, if it be only a fetish wherewith to tickle his imagination?" suggested the prince with a touch of satire,— "Even kings must bow, or pretend to bow, to the King of kings?"
"Sir, you have expressed the fact with felicity;" replied the professor gravely—"His Majesty, your august father, attends public worship with punctilious regularity, and you are accustomed to accompany him. It is a rule which you will find necessary to keep in practice, as an example to your subjects when you are called upon to reign."
The young man raised his eyebrows deprecatingly, with a slight ironical smile, and dropped the subject. But the learned professor as in duty bound, reported the conversation to his pupil's father; with the additional observation that he feared, he very humbly and respectfully feared, that the developing mind of the prince appeared undesirably disposed towards discursive philosophies, which were wholly unnecessary for the position he was destined to occupy. Whereupon the King took his son to task on the subject with a mingling of kindness and humour.
"Do not turn philosopher!" he said—"For philosophy will not so much content you with life, as with death! Philosophy will chill your best impulses and most generous enthusiasms,—it will make you over-cautious and doubtful of your friends,—it will cause you to be indifferent to women in the plural, but it will hand you over, a weak and helpless victim to the one woman,—when she comes,—as she is bound to come. There is no one so hopelessly insane as a philosopher in love! Love women, but not a woman!"
"In so doing I should follow the wisest of examples,—yours, Sir!" replied the prince with a familiarity more tender than audacious, for his father was a man of fine presence and fascinating manner, and knew well the extent of his power to charm and subjugate the fairer sex,— "But I have a fancy that love,—if it exists anywhere outside the dreams of the poets,—is unknown to kings."
The monarch bent his brows frowningly, and his eyes were full of a deep and bitter melancholy.
"You mistake!" he said slowly—"Love,—and by that name I mean a wholly different thing from Passion,—comes to kings as to commoners,—but whereas the commoner may win it if he can, the king must reject it. But it comes,—and leaves a blank in the proudest life when it goes!"
He turned away abruptly, and the conversation was not again resumed. But when he died, those who prepared his body for burial, found a gold chain round his neck, holding the small medallion portrait of a woman, and a curl of soft fair hair. Needless to say the portrait was not that of the late Queen-Consort, who had died some years before her Royal spouse, nor was the hair hers,—but when they brought the relic to the new King, he laid it back with his own hands on his father's lifeless breast, and let it go into the grave with him. For, being no longer the crowned Servant of the State, he had the right as a mere dead man, to the possession of his love-secret.
So at least thought his son and successor, who at times was given to wondering whether if, like his father, he had such a secret he would be able to keep it as closely and as well. He thought not. It would be scarcely worth while. It can only be the greatest love that is always silent,—and in the greatest,—that is, the ideal and self-renouncing love,—he did not believe; though in his own life's experience he had been given a proof that such love is possible to women, if not to men. When he was about twenty, he had loved, or had imagined he loved, a girl,—a pretty creature, who did not know him as a prince at all, but simply as a college student. He used to walk with her hand in hand through the fields by the river, and gather wild flowers for her to wear in her little white bodice. She had shy soft eyes, and a timid, yet trusting look, full of tenderness and pathos. Moved by a romantic sense of honour and chivalry, he promised to marry her, and thereupon wrote an impulsive letter to his father informing him of his intention. Of course he was summoned home from college at once,—he was reminded of his high destiny—of the Throne that would be his if he lived to occupy it,—of the great and serious responsibilities awaiting him,— and of how impossible it was that the Heir-Apparent to the Crown should marry a commoner.
"Why not?" he cried passionately—"If she be good and true she is as fit to be a queen as any woman royally born! She is a queen already in her own right!"
But while he was being argued with and controlled by all the authorities concerned in king's business, his little sweetheart herself put an end to the matter. Her parents told her all unpreparedly, and with no doubt unnecessary harshness, the real position of the college lad with whom she had wandered in the fields so confidingly; and in the bewilderment of her poor little broken heart and puzzled brain, she gave herself to the river by whose flowering banks she had sworn her maiden vows,—though she knew it not,—to her future King; and so, drowning her life and love together, made a piteous exit from all difficulty. Before she went forth to die, she wrote a farewell to her Royal lover, posting the letter herself on her way to the river, and, by the merest chance he received it without a spy's intervention. It was but one line, scrawled in a round youthful hand, and blotted with many tears.
"Sir—my love!—forgive me!"
It would be unwise to say what that little scrap of ill-formed writing cost the heir to a throne when he heard how she had died,—or how he raged and swore and wept. It was the first Wrong forced on him as Right, by the laws of the realm; and he was young and generous and honest, and not hardened to those laws then. Their iniquity and godlessness appeared to him in plain ugly colours undisguised. Since that time he had perforce fallen into the habit and routine of his predecessors, though he was not altogether so 'constitutional' a sovereign as his father had been. He had something of the spirit of one who had occupied his throne five hundred years before him; when strength and valour and wit and boldness, gave more kings to the world than came by heritage. He did unconventional things now and then; to the grief of flunkeys, and the alarm of Court parasites. But his kingdom was of the South, where hot blood is recognized and excused, and fiery temper more admired than censured, and where,—so far as social matters went,—his word, whether kind, cold, or capricious, was sufficient to lead in any direction that large flock of the silly sheep of fashion who only exist to eat, and to be eaten. Sometimes he longed to throw himself back into bygone centuries and stand as his earliest ancestor stood, sword in hand, on a height overlooking the battle- field, watching the swaying rush of combat,—the glitter of spears and axes—the sharp flight of arrows—the tossing banners, the grinding chariots, the flying dust and carnage of men! There was something to fight for in those days,—there was no careful binding up of wounds,— no provision for the sick or the mutilated,—nothing, nothing, but 'Victory or Death!' How much grander, how much finer the old fierce ways of war than now, when any soldier wounded, may write the details of his bayonet-scratch or bullet-hole to the cheap press, and the surgeon prys about with Rontgen-ray paraphernalia and scalpel, to discover how much or how little escape from dissolution a man's soul has had in the shock of contest with his foe! Of a truth these are paltry days!—and paltry days breed paltry men. Afraid of sickness, afraid of death, afraid of poverty, afraid of offences, afraid to think, afraid to speak, Man in the present era of his boasted 'progress' resembles nothing so much as a whipped child,—cowering under the outstretched arm of Heaven and waiting in whimpering terror for the next fall of the scourge. And it is on this point especially, that the monarch who takes part in this unhesitating chronicle of certain thoughts and movements hidden out of sight,—yet deeply felt in the under-silences of the time,—may claim to be unconventional;—he was afraid of nothing,—not even of himself as King!
MAJESTY CONSIDERS AND RESOLVES
The little episode of his first love, combined with his ungovernable fury and despair at its tragic conclusion, had of course the natural result common in such a case, to the fate of all who are destined to occupy thrones. A marriage was 'arranged' for him; and pressing reasons of state were urged for the quick enforcement and carrying out of the 'arrangement.' The daughter of a neighbouring potentate was elected to the honour of his alliance,—a beautiful girl with a pale, cold clear- cut face and brilliant eyes, whose smile penetrated the soul with an icy chill, and whose very movement, noiseless and graceful as it was, reminded one irresistibly of slowly drifting snow. She was attended to the altar, as he was, by all the ministers and plenipotentiaries of state that could possibly be gathered together from the four quarters of the globe as witnesses to the immolation of two young human lives on the grim sacrificial stone of a Dynasty; and both prince and princess accepted their fate with mutually silent and civil resignation. Their portraits, set facing each other with a silly smile, or taken in a linked arm-in-arm attitude against a palatial canvas background, appeared in every paper published throughout the world, and every scribbler on the Press took special pains to inform the easily deluded public that the Royal union thus consummated was 'a romantic love- match.' For the People still have heart and conscience,—the People, taken in the rough lump of humanity, still believe in love, in faith, in the dear sweetness of home affections. The politicians who make capital out of popular emotion, know this well enough,—and are careful to play the tune of their own personal interest upon the gamut of National Sentiment in every stump oration. For how terrible it would be if the People of any land learned to judge their preachers and teachers by the lines of fact alone! Inasmuch as fact would convincingly prove to them that their leaders prospered and grew rich, while they stayed poor; and they might take to puzzling out reasons for this inadequacy which would inevitably cause trouble. For this, and divers other motives politic, the rosy veil of sentiment is always delicately flung more or less over every new move on the national debating-ground,—and whether marriageable princes and princesses love or loathe each other, still, when they come to wed, the words 'romantic love-match' must be thrown in by an obliging Press in order to satisfy the tender scruples of a people who would certainly not abide the thought of a Royal marriage contracted in mutual aversion. Thus much soundness and right principle there is at least, in what some superfine persons call the 'common' folk,—the folk whose innermost sense of truth and straightforwardness, not even the proudest statesman dare outrage.
But with what unuttered and unutterable scorn the youthful victims of the Royal pairing accepted the newspaper-assurances of the devoted tenderness they entertained for each other! With what wearied impatience both prince and princess received the 'Wedding Odes' and 'Epithalamiums,' written by first-class and no-class versifiers for the occasion! What shoals of these were cast aside unread, to occupy the darkest dingiest corner of one of the Royal 'refuse' libraries! The writers of such things expected great honours, no doubt, each and every man-jack of them,—but apart from the fact that the greatest literature has always lived without any official recognition or endowment from kings,—being in itself the supremest sovereignty,—poets and rhymesters alike never seem to realize that no one is, or can be, so sickened by an 'Ode' as the man or woman to whom it is written!
The brilliant marriage ceremony concluded, the august bride and bridegroom took their departure, amid frantically cheering crowds, for a stately castle standing high among the mountains, a truly magnificent pile, which had been placed at their disposal for the 'honeymoon' by one of the wealthiest of the King's subjects,—and there, as soon as equerries, grooms-in-waiting, flunkeys, and every other sort of indoor and outdoor retainer would consent to leave them alone together, the Royal wife came to her Royal husband, and asked to be allowed to speak a few words on the subject of their marriage, 'for the first and last time,' said she, with a straight glance from the cold moonlight mystery of her eyes. Beautiful at all times, her beauty was doubly enhanced by the regal attitude and expression she unconsciously assumed as she made the request, and the prince, critically studying her form and features, could not but regard himself as in some respects rather particularly favoured by the political and social machinery which had succeeded in persuading so fair a creature to resign herself to the doubtful destiny of a throne. She had laid aside her magnificent bridal-robes of ivory satin and cloth-of-gold,—and appeared before him in loose draperies of floating white, with her rich hair unbound and rippling to her knees.
"May I speak?" she murmured, and her voice trembled.
"Most assuredly!"—he replied, half smiling—"You do me too much honour by requesting the permission!"
As he spoke, he bowed profoundly, but she, raising her eyes, fixed them full upon him with a strange look of mingled pride and pain.
"Do not," she said, "let us play at formalities! Let us be honest with each other for to-night at least! All our life together must from henceforth be more or less of a masquerade, but let us for to-night be as true man and true woman, and frankly face the position into which we have been thrust, not by ourselves, but by others."
Profoundly astonished, the prince was silent. He had not thought this girl of nineteen possessed any force of character or any intellectual power of reasoning. He had judged her as no doubt glad to become a great princess and a possible future queen, and he had not given her credit for any finer or higher feeling.
"You know,"—she continued—"you must surely know—" here, despite the strong restraint she put upon herself, her voice broke, and her slight figure swayed in its white draperies as if about to fall. She looked at him with a sense of rising tears in her throat,—tears of which she was ashamed,—for she was full of a passionate emotion too strong for weeping—a contempt of herself and of him, too great for mere clamour. Was he so much of a man in the slow thick density of his brain she thought, as to have no instinctive perception of her utter misery? He hastened to her and tried to take her hands, but she drew herself away from him and sank down in a chair as if exhausted.
"You are tired!" he said kindly—"The tedious ceremonial—the still more tedious congratulations,—and the fatiguing journey from the capital to this place have been too much for your strength. You must rest!"
"It is not that!"—she answered—"not that! I am not tired,—but—but— I cannot say my prayers tonight till you know my whole heart!"
A curious reverence and pity moved him. All day long he had been in a state of resentful irritation,—he had loathed himself for having consented to marry this girl without loving her,—he had branded himself inwardly as a liar and hypocrite when he had sworn his marriage vows 'before God,' whereas if he truly believed in God, such vows taken untruthfully were mere blasphemy;—and now she herself, a young thing tenderly brought up like a tropical flower in the enervating hot-house atmosphere of Court life, yet had such a pure, deep consciousness of God in her, that she actually could not pray with the slightest blur of a secret on her soul! He waited wonderingly.
"I have plighted my faith to you before God's altar to-day," she said, speaking more steadily,—"because after long and earnest thought, I saw that there was no other way of satisfying the two nations to which we belong, and cementing the friendly relations between them. There is no woman of Royal birth,—so it has been pointed out to me—who is so suitable, from a political point of view, to be your wife as I. It is for the sake of your Throne and country that you must marry—and I ask God to forgive me if I have done wrong in His sight by wedding you simply for duty's sake. My father, your father, and all who are connected with our two families desire our union, and have assured me that, it is right and good for me to give up my life to yours. All women's lives must be martyred to the laws made by men,—or so it seems to me,—I cannot expect to escape from the general doom apportioned to my sex. I therefore accept the destiny which transfers me to you as a piece of human property for possession and command,—I accept it freely, but I will not say gladly, because that would not be true. For I do not love you,—I cannot love you! I want you to know that, and to feel it, that you may not ask from me what I cannot give."
There were no tears in her eyes; she looked at him straightly and steadfastly. He, in his turn, met her gaze fully,—his face had paled a little, and a shadow of pained regret and commiseration darkened his handsome features.
"You love someone else?" he asked, softly.
She rose from her chair and confronted him, a glow of passionate pride flushing her cheeks and brow.
"No!" she said—"I would not be a traitor to you in so much as a thought! Had I loved anyone else I would never have married you,—no!— though you had been ten times a prince and king! No! You do not understand. I come to you heartwhole and passionless, without a single love-word chronicled in my girlhood's history, or a single incident you may not know. I have never loved any man, because from my very childhood I have hated and feared all men! I loathe their presence— their looks—their voices—their manners,—if one should touch my hand in ordinary courtesy, my instincts are offended and revolted, and the sense of outrage remains with me for days. My mother knows of this, and says I am 'unnatural,'—it may be so. But unnatural or not, it is the truth; judge therefore the extent of the sacrifice I make to God and our two countries in giving myself to you!"
The prince stood amazed and confounded. Did she rave? Was she mad? He studied her with a curious, half-doubting scrutiny, and noted the composure of her attitude, the cold serenity of her expression,—there was evidently no hysteria, no sur-excitation of nerves about this calm statuesque beauty which in every line and curve of loveliness silently mutinied against him, and despised him. Puzzled, yet fascinated, he sought in his mind for some clue to her meaning.
"There are women" she went on—"to whom love, or what is called love, is necessary,—for whom marriage is the utmost good of existence. I am not one of these. Had I my own choice I would live my life away from all men,—I would let nothing of myself be theirs to claim,—I would give all I am and all I have to God, who made me what I am. For truly and honestly, without any affectation at all, I look upon marriage, not as an honour, but a degradation!"
Had she been less in earnest, he might have smiled at this, but her beauty, intensified as it was by the fervour of her feeling, seemed transfigured into something quite supernatural which for the moment dazzled him.
"Am I to understand—" he began.
She interrupted him by a swift gesture, while the rich colour swept over her face in a warm wave.
"Understand nothing"—she said,—"but this—that I do not love you, because I can love no man! For the rest I am your wife; and as your wife I give myself to you and your nation wholly and in all things— save love!"
He advanced and took her hands in his.
"This is a strange bargain!" he said, and gently kissed her.
She answered nothing,—only a faint shiver trembled through her as she endured the caress. For a moment or two he surveyed her in silence,—it was a singular and novel experience for him, as a future king, to be the lawful possessor of a woman's beauty, and yet with all his sovereignty to be unable to waken one thrill of tenderness in the frozen soul imprisoned in such exquisite flesh and blood. He was inclined to disbelieve her assertions,—surely he thought, there must be emotion, feeling, passion in this fair creature, who, though she seemed a goddess newly descended from inaccessible heights of heaven was still only a woman? And upon the whole he was not ill- pleased with the curious revelation she had made of herself. He preferred the coldness of women to their volcanic eruptions, and would take more pains to melt the snow of reserve than to add fuel to the flame of ardour.
"You have been very frank with me," he said at last, after a pause, as he loosened her hands and moved a little apart from her—"And whether your physical and mental hatred of my sex is a defect in your nature, or an exceptional virtue, I shall not quarrel with it. I am myself not without faults; and the chiefest of these is one most common to all men. I desire what I may not have, and covet what I do not possess. So! We understand each other!"
She raised her eyes—those beautiful deep eyes with the moonlight glamour in them,—and for an instant the shining Soul of her, pure and fearless, seemed to spring up and challenge to spiritual combat him who was now her body's master. Then, bending her head with a graceful yet proud submission, she retired.
From that time forth she never again spoke on this, or any other subject of an intimate or personal nature, with her Royal spouse. Cold as an iceberg, pure as a diamond, she accepted both wifehood and motherhood as martyrdom, with an evident contempt for its humiliation, and without one touch of love for either husband or children. She bore three sons, of whom the eldest, and heir to the throne was, at the time this history begins, just twenty. The passing of the years had left scarcely a trace upon her beauty, save to increase it from the sparkling luminance of a star to the glory of a full-orbed moon of loveliness,—and she had easily won a triumph over all the other women around her, in the power she possessed to command and retain the admiration of men. She was one of those brilliant creatures who, like the Egyptian Cleopatra, never grow old,—for she was utterly exempt from the wasting of the nerves through emotion. Her eyes were always bright and clear; her skin dazzling in its whiteness, save where the equably flowing blood flushed it with tenderest rose,—her figure remained svelte, lithe and graceful in all its outlines. Finely strung, yet strong as steel in her temperament, all thoughts, feelings and events seemed to sweep over her without affecting or disturbing her mind's calm equipoise. She lived her life with extreme simplicity, regularity, and directness, thus driving to despair all would-be scandal-mongers; and though many gifted and famous men fell madly in love with their great princess, and often, in the extremity of a passion which amounted to disloyalty, slew themselves for her sake, she remained unmoved and pitiless.
Her husband occasionally felt some compassion for the desperate fellows who thus immolated themselves on the High Altar of her perfections, though it must be admitted that he received the news of their deaths with tolerable equanimity, knowing them to have been fools, and as such, better out of the world than in it. During the first two or three years of his marriage he had himself been somewhat of their disposition, and as mere man, had tried by every means in his power to win the affection of his beautiful spouse, and to melt the icy barrier which she, despite their relations with each other, had resolutely kept up between herself and him. He had made the attempt, not because he actually loved her, but simply because he desired the satisfaction of conquest. Finding the task hopeless, he resigned himself to his fate, and accepted her at the costly valuation she set upon herself; though for pastime he would often pay court to certain ladies of easy virtue, with the vague idea that perhaps the spirit of jealousy might enter that cold shrine of womanhood where no other demon could force admission, and wake up the passions slumbering within. But she appeared not to be at all aware of his many and open gallantries; and only at stray moments, when her frosty flashing glance fell upon him engaged in some casual flirtation, would a sudden smarting sense of injury make him conscious of her contempt.
But he could reasonably find no fault with her, save the fault of being faultless. She was a perfect hostess, and fulfilled all the duties of her exalted position with admirable tact and foresight,—she was ever busy in the performance of good and charitable deeds,—she was an excellent mother, and took the utmost personal care that her sons should be healthily nurtured and well brought up,—she never interfered in any matter of state or ceremony,—she simply seemed to move as a star moves, shining over the earth but having no part in it. Irresponsive as she was, she nevertheless compelled admiration,—her husband himself admired her, but only as he would have admired a statue or a painting. For his was an impulsive and generous nature, and his marriage had kept his heart empty of the warmth of love, and his home devoid of the light of sympathy. Even his children had been born more as the sons of the nation than his own,—he was not conscious of any very great affection for them, or interest in their lives. And he had sought to kindle at many strange fires the heavenly love-beacon which should have flamed its living glory into his days; so it had naturally chanced that he had spent by far the larger portion of his time on the persuasion of mere Whim,—and as vastly inferior women to his wife had made him spend it.
But at this particular juncture, when the curtain is drawn up on certain scenes and incidents in his life-drama, a change had been effected in his opinions and surroundings. For eighteen years after his marriage, he had lived on the first step of the Throne as its next heir; and when he passed that step and ascended the Throne itself, he seemed to have crossed a vast abyss of distance between the Old and the New. Behind him the Past rolled away like a cloud vanishing, to be seen no more,—before him arose the dim vista of wavering and uncertain shadows, which no matter how they shifted and changed,—no matter how many flashes of sunshine flickered through them,—were bound to close in the thick gloom of the inevitable end,—Death. This is what he was chiefly thinking of, seated alone in his garden-pavilion facing the sea on that brilliant southern summer morning,—this,—and with the thought came many others no less sad and dubious,—such as whether for example, his eldest son might not already be eager for the crown?— whether even now, though he had only reigned three years, his people were not more or less dissatisfied under his rule?
His father, the late King, had died suddenly,—so suddenly that there was neither help nor hope for him among the hastily summoned physicians. Stricken numb and speechless, he kept his anguished eyes fixed to the last upon his son, as one who should say—"Alas, and to thee also, falls this curse of a Crown!" Once dead, he was soon forgotten,—the pomp of the Royal obsequies merely made a gala-day for the light-hearted Southern populace, who hailed the accession of their new King with as much gladness as a child, who, having broken one doll, straightway secures another as good, if not better. As Heir-Apparent the succeeding sovereign had won great popularity, and was much more generally beloved than his father had been,—so that it was on an extra high wave of jubilation and acclamation that he and his beautiful consort were borne to the Throne.
Three years had passed since then; and so far his reign had been untroubled by much difficulty. Difficulty there was, but he was kept in ignorance of it,—troubles were brooding, but he was not informed of them. Things likely to be disagreeable were not conveyed to his ears,— and matters which, had he been allowed to examine into them, might have aroused his indignation and interference, were diplomatically hushed up. He was known to possess much more than the limited intelligence usually apportioned to kings; and certainly, as his tutor had said of him in his youth, he was dangerously "disposed towards discursive philosophies." He was likewise accredited with a conscience, which many diplomats consider to be a wholly undesirable ingredient in the moral composition of a reigning monarch. Therefore, those who move a king, as in the game of chess, one square at a time and no more,—were particularly cautious as to the 'way' in which they moved him. He had shown himself difficult to manage once or twice; and interested persons could not pursue their usual course of self-aggrandisement with him, as he was not susceptible to flattery. He had a way of asking straight questions, and what was still worse, expecting straight answers, such as politicians never give.
Nevertheless he had, up to the present, ruled his conduct very much on the lines laid down by his predecessors, and during his brief reign had been more or less content to passively act in all things as his ministers advised. He had bestowed honours on fools because his ministers considered it politic,—he had given his formal consent to the imposition of certain taxes on his people, because his ministers had judged such taxes necessary,—in fact he had done everything he was expected to do, and nothing that he was not expected to do. He had not taken any close personal thought as to whether such and such a political movement was, or was not, welcome to the spirit of the nation, nor had he weighed intimately in his own mind the various private interests of the members of his Government, in passing, or moving the rejection of, any important measure affecting the well-being of the community at large. And he had lately,—perhaps through the objectionable 'discursive philosophies' before mentioned,—come to consider himself somewhat of a stuffed Dummy or figure-head; and to wonder what would be the result, if with caution and prudence, he were to act more on his own initiative, and speak as he often thought it would be wise and well to speak? He was but forty-five years old,—in the prime of life, in the plenitude of health and mental vigour,—was he to pass the rest of his days guarded by detectives, flunkeys and physicians, with never an independent word or action throughout his whole career to mark him Man as well as Monarch? Nay, surely that would be an insult to the God who made him! But the question which arose in his mind and perplexed him was, How to begin? How, after passive obedience, to commence resistance? How to break through the miserable conventionalism, the sordid commonplace of a king's surroundings? For it is only in medieval fairy-tales that kings are permitted to be kingly.
Yet, despite custom and usage, he was determined to make a new departure in the annals of modern sovereignty. Three years of continuous slavery on the treadmill of the Throne had been sufficient to make him thirst for freedom,—freedom of speech,—freedom of action. He had tacitly submitted to a certain ministry because he had been assured that the said ministry was popular,—but latterly, rumours of discontent and grievance had reached him,—albeit indistinctly and incoherently,—and he began to be doubtful as to whether it might not be the Press which supported the existing state of policy, rather than the People. The Press! He began to consider of what material this great power in his country was composed. Originally, the Press in all countries, was intended to be the most magnificent institution of the civilized world,—the voice of truth, of liberty, of justice—a voice which in its clamant utterances could neither be bribed nor biassed to cry out false news. Originally, such was meant to be its mission;—but nowadays, what, in all honesty and frankness, is the Press? What was it, for example, to this king, who from personal knowledge, was able to practically estimate and enumerate the forces which controlled it thus:—Six, or at the most a dozen men, the proprietors and editors of different newspapers sold in cheap millions to the people. Most of these newspapers were formed into 'companies'; and the managers issued 'shares' in the fashion of tea merchants and grocers. False news, if of a duly sensational character, would sometimes send up the shares in the market,—true information would equally, on occasion, send them down. These premises granted, might it not follow that for newspaper speculators, the False would often prove more lucrative than the True? And, concerning the persons who wrote for these newspapers,—of what calling and election were they? Male and female, young and old, they were generally of a semi-educated class lacking all distinctive ability,—men and women who were, on an average, desperately poor, and desperately dissatisfied. To earn daily bread they naturally had to please the editors set in authority over them; hence their expressed views and opinions on any subject could only be counted as nil, being written, not independently, but under the absolute control of their employers. Thus meditating, the King summed up the total of his own mental argument, and found that the vast sounding 'power of the Press' so far as his own dominion was concerned, resolved itself into the mere trade monopoly of the aforesaid leading dozen men. What he now proposed to himself to discover among other things, was,—how far and how truly these dozen tradesmen voiced the mind of the People over whom he was elected to reign? Here was a problem, and one not easy to solve. But what was very plain and paramount to his mind was this,—that he was thoroughly sick and tired of being no more than a 'social' figure in the world's affairs. It was an effeminate part to play. It was time, he considered, that he should intelligently try his own strength, and test the nation's quality.
"If there is corruption in the state," he said to himself, "I will find its centre! If I am fooled by my advisers then I will be fooled no longer. With whatsoever brain and heart and reason and understanding the Fates have endowed me, I will study the ways, the movements, the desires of my people, and prove myself their friend, as well as their king. Suppose they misunderstand me?—What matter!—Let the nation rise against me an' it will, so that I may, before I die, prove myself worthy of the mere gift of manhood! To-day"—and, rising from his chair, he advanced a step or two and faced the sea and sky with an unconscious gesture of invocation; "To-day shall be the first day of my real monarchy! To-day I begin to reign! The past is past,—for eighteen long years as prince and heir to the throne I trifled away my time among the follies of the hour, and laughed at the easy purchase I could make of the assumed 'honour' of men and women; and I enjoyed the liberty and license of my position. Since then, for three years I have been the prisoner of my Parliament,—but now—now, and for the rest of the time granted to me on earth, I will live my life in the belief that its riddle must surely meet with God's own explanation. To me it has become evident that the laws of Nature make for Truth and Justice; while the laws of man are framed on deception and injustice. The two sets of laws contend one against the other, and the finite, after foolish and vain struggle, succumbs to the infinite,—better therefore, to begin with the infinite Order than strive with the finite Chaos! I, a mere earthly sovereign, rank myself on the side of the Infinite,— and will work for Truth and Justice with the revolving of Its giant wheel! My people have seen me crowned,—but my real Coronation is to- day—when I crown myself with my own resolve!"
His eyes flashed in the sunshine;—a rose shook its pink petals on the ground at his feet. In one of the many pleasure-boats skimming across the sea, a man was singing; and the words he sang floated distinctly along on the landward wind.
"Let me be thine, O love, But for an hour! I yield my heart and soul Into thy power,—Let me be thine, O Love of mine, But for an hour!"
The King listened, and a faint shadow darkened the proud light on his face.
"'But for an hour!'" he said half aloud—"Yes,—it would be enough! No woman's love lasts longer!"
A NATION OR A CHURCH?
An approaching step echoing on the marble terrace warned him that he was no longer alone. He reseated himself at his writing-table, and feigned to be deeply engrossed in perusing various documents, but a ready smile greeted the intruder as soon as he perceived who it was,— one Sir Roger de Launay, his favourite equerry and intimate personal friend.
"Time's up, is it, Roger?" he queried lightly,—then as the equerry bowed in respectful silence—"And yet I have scarcely glanced at these papers! All the same, I have not been idle—I have been thinking."
Sir Roger de Launay, a tall handsome man, with an indefinable air of mingled good-nature and lassitude about him which suggested the possibility of his politely urging even Death itself not to be so much of a bore about its business, smiled doubtfully. "Is it a wise procedure, Sir?" he enquired—"Conducive to comfort I mean?"
The King laughed.
"No—I cannot say that it is! But thought is a tonic which sometimes restores a man's enfeebled self-respect. I was beginning to lose that particular condition of health and sanity, Roger!—my self-respect was becoming a flaccid muscle—a withering nerve;—but a little thought- exercise has convinced me that my mental sinews are yet on the whole strong!"
Sir Roger offered no reply. His eyes expressed a certain languid wonderment; but duty being paramount with him, and his immediate errand being to remind his sovereign of an appointment then about due, he began to collect the writing materials scattered about on the table and put them together for convenient removal. The smile on the King's face deepened as he watched him.
"You do not answer me, De Launay,"—he resumed, "You think perhaps that I am talking in parables, and that my mind has been persuaded into a metaphysical and rambling condition by an hour's contemplation of the sunlight on the sea! But come now!—have you not yourself felt a longing to break loose from the trammels of conventional routine,—to be set free from the slavery of answering another's beck and call,—to be something more than my attendant and friend——"
"Sir, more than your friend I have never desired to be!" said Sir Roger, simply.
The King extended his hand with impulsive quickness, and Sir Roger as he clasped it, bent low and touched it with his lips. There was no parasitical homage in the act, for De Launay loved his sovereign with a love little known at courts; loyally, faithfully, and without a particle of self-seeking. He had long recognized the nobility, truth and courage which graced and tempered the disposition of the master he served, and knew him to be one, if not the only, monarch in the world likely to confer some lasting benefit on his people by his reign.
"I tell you," pursued the King, "that there is something in the mortal composition of every man which is beyond mortality, something which clamours to be heard, and seen, and proved. We may call it conscience, intellect, spirit or soul, and attribute its existence, to God, as a spark of the Divine Essence, but whatever it is, it is in every one of us; and there comes a moment in life when it must flame out, or be quenched forever. That moment has come to me, Roger,—that something in me must have its way!"
"Your Majesty no doubt desires the impossible!"—said Sir Roger with a smile, "All men do,—even kings!"
"'Even kings!'" echoed the monarch—"You may well say 'even' kings! What are kings? Simply the most wronged and miserable men on earth! I do not myself put in a special claim for pity. My realm is small, and my people are, for aught I can learn or am told of them, contented. But other sovereigns who are my friends and neighbours, live, as it were, under the dagger's point,—with dynamite at their feet and pistols at their heads,—all for no fault of their own, but for the faults of a system which they did not formulate. Conspirators on the threshold— poison in the air,—as in Russia, for example!—where is the joy or the pride of being a King nowadays?"
"Talking of poison," said Sir Roger blandly, as he placed the last document of those he had collected, neatly in a leather case and strapped it—"Your Majesty may perhaps feel inclined to defer giving the promised audience to Monsignor Del Fords of the Society of Jesus?"
"By Heaven, I had forgotten him!" and the King rose. "This is what you came to remind me of, Roger? He is here?"
De Launay bowed an assent.
"Well! We have kept a messenger of Mother Church waiting our pleasure, —and not for the first time in the annals of history! But why do you associate his name with poison?"
"Really, Sir, the connection is inexplicable,—unless it be the memory of a religious lesson-book given to me in my childhood. It was an illustrated treasure, and one picture showed me the Almighty in the character of an old gentleman seated placidly on a cloud, smiling;— while on the earth below, a priest, exactly resembling this Del Fortis, poured a spoonful of something,—poison—or it might have been boiling lead—down the throat of a heretic. I remember it impressed me very much with the goodness of God."
He maintained a whimsical gravity as he spoke, and the King laughed.
"De Launay, you are incorrigible! Come!—we will go within and see this Del Fortis, and you shall remain present during the audience. That will give you a chance to improve your present impression of him. I understand he is a very brilliant and leading member of his Order,— likely to be the next Vicar-General. I know his errand,—the papers concerning his business are there—," and he waved his hand towards the leather case Sir Roger had just fastened—"Bring them with you!"
Sir Roger obeyed, and the King, stepping forth from the pavilion, walked slowly along the terrace, watching the sparkling sea, the flowering orange-trees lifting their slender tufts of exquisitely scented bloom against the clear blue of the sky, the birds skimming lightly from point to point of foliage, and the white-sailed yachts dipping gracefully as the ocean rose and fell with every wild sweet breath of the scented wind. Pausing a moment, he presently took out a field-glass and looked through it at one of the finest and fairest of these pleasure-vessels, which, as he surveyed it, suddenly swung round, and began to scud away westward.
"The Prince is on board?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir," replied De Launay—"His Royal Highness intends sailing as far as The Islands, and remaining there till sunset."
"Alone, as usual?"
"As usual, Sir, alone, save for his captain and crew."
The King walked on in silence for a minute. Then he paused abruptly.
"I do not like it, De Launay!"—he said decisively—"I do not like his abnormal love of solitude. Books are all very well—poetry is in its way excellent,—music, as we are told 'hath charms'—but the boy broods too much, and stays away too much from Court. What woman attracts him?"
Sir Roger's eyes opened wide as the King turned suddenly round upon him with this question.
"Woman, Sir? I know of none. The Prince is but twenty——"
"At twenty," said the King,—"boys love—the wrong girl. At thirty they marry—the wrong woman. At forty they meet the only true and fitting soul's companion,—and cry for the moon till the end! My son is in the first stage, or I am much mistaken,—he loves—the wrong girl!"
He walked on,—and De Launay followed, with a vague sense of amusement and disquietude in his mind. What had come to his Royal master, he wondered? His ordinary manner had changed somewhat,—he spoke with less than the customary formality, and there was an expression of freedom and authority, combined with a touch of defiance in his face, that was altogether new to the observation of the faithful equerry.
Arrived at the palace, and passing through one of the long and spacious painted corridors, lit by richly coloured mullioned windows from end to end, the King came face to face with a lady-in-waiting carrying a large cluster of Madonna lilies. She drew aside, with a deep reverence, to allow him to pass; but he stopped a moment, looking at the great gorgeous white flowers faint with fragrance, and at the slight retiring figure of the woman who held them.
"Are these for the chapel, Madame?" he asked.
"No, Sir! For the Queen."
'For the Queen!' A quick sigh escaped him. He still stood, caught by a sudden abstraction, looking at the dazzling whiteness of the snowy blooms, and thinking how fittingly they would companion his beautiful, cold, pure Queen Consort, who had never from her marriage day uttered a word of love to him, or given him a glance of tenderness. Their rich odours crept into his warm blood, and the bitter old sense of unfulfilled longing, longing for affection, for comprehension, for all that he had not possessed in his otherwise brilliant life, vexed and sickened him. He turned away abruptly, and the lady-in-waiting, having curtsied once more profoundly, passed on with her glistening sheaf of bloom and disappeared vision-like in a gleam of azure light falling through one of the further and higher casements. The King watched her disappear, the meditative line of sadness still puckering his brow, then, followed by his equerry, he entered a small private audience chamber, where Sir Roger de Launay notified an attendant gentleman usher that his Majesty was ready to receive Monsignor Del Fortis.
During the brief interval occupied in waiting for his visitor's approach, the King selected certain papers from those which Sir Roger had brought from the garden pavilion and placed them in order on the table.
"For the past six months," he said "I have had this Jesuit's name before me, and have been in twenty minds a month about granting or refusing what his Society demands. The matter has been discussed in the Press, too, with the usual pros and cons of hesitation, but it is the People I am thinking of, the People! and I am just now in the humour to satisfy a Nation rather than a Church!"
De Launay said nothing. His opinion was not asked.
"It is a case in which the temporal overbalances the spiritual," continued the King—"Which plainly proves that the spiritual must be lacking in some essential point somewhere. For if the spiritual were always truly of God, then would it always be the strongest. The question which brings Monsignor Del Fortis here as special emissary of the Vicar-General of the Society of Jesus, is simply this: Whether or no a certain site in a particularly fertile tract of land belonging chiefly to the Crown, shall be granted to the Jesuits for the purpose of building thereon a church and monastery with schools attached. It seems a reasonable request, set forth with an apparently religious intention. Yet more than forty petitions have been sent in to me from the inhabitants of the towns and villages adjacent to the lands, imploring me to refuse the concession. By my faith, they plead as eloquently as though asking deliverance from the plague! It is a curious dilemma. If I grant the people's request I anger the priests; if I satisfy the priests I anger the people."
"You mentioned a discussion in the Press, Sir—" hinted Sir Roger.
"Oh, the Press is like a weathercock—it turns whichever way the wind of speculation blows. One day it is 'for,' another 'against.' In this particular case it is diplomatically indifferent, except in one or two cases where papal money has found its way into the newspaper offices."
At that moment the door was flung open, and Monsignor Del Fortis was ceremoniously ushered into the presence of his Majesty. At the first glance it was evident that De Launay had reasonable cause for associating the mediaeval priestly torturer pictured in his early lesson-book with the unprepossessing personage now introduced. Del Fortis was a dark, resentful-looking man of about sixty, tall and thin, with a long cadaverous face, very strongly pronounced features and small sinister eyes, over which the level brows almost met across the sharp bridge of nose. His close black garb buttoned to the chin, outlined his wiry angular limbs with an almost painful distinctness, and the lean right hand which he placed across his breast as he bowed profoundly to the King, looked more like the shrunken hand of a corpse than that of a living man. The King observed him attentively, but not with favour; while thoughts, strange, and for him as a constitutional monarch audacious, began to move in the undercurrents of his mind, stirring him to unusual speech and action. Sir Roger, retiring to the furthest end of the room stood with his back against the door, a fine upright soldierly figure, as motionless as though cast in bronze, though his eyes showed keen and sparkling life as they rested on his Royal master, watching his every gesture, as well as every slightest movement on the part of his priestly visitor.
"You are welcome, Monsignor Del Fortis,"—said the King, at last breaking silence.—"To save time and trouble, I may tell you that I need no explanation of the nature of your business."
The Jesuit bowed with an excessive humility.
"You wish me to grant to your Society," continued the monarch—"that portion of the Crown lands named in your petition, to be held in your undisputed possession for a long term of years,—and in order to facilitate my consent to this arrangement, your Vicar-General has sent you here to furnish the full details of your building scheme. Am I so far correct?"
The priest's dark secretive eyes glittered craftily a moment as he raised them to the open and tranquil countenance of the sovereign,— then once again he bowed profoundly.
"Your Majesty has, with your customary care and patience, fully studied the object of my errand"—he replied in a clear thin, somewhat rasping voice, which he endeavoured to make smooth and conciliatory—"But it is impossible that your Majesty, immersed every day in the affairs of state, should have found time to personally go through the various papers formally submitted to your consideration. Therefore, the Vicar- General of our Order considered that if the present interview with your Majesty could be obtained, I, as secretary and treasurer for the proposed new monastery, might be able to explain the spiritual, as well as the material advantages to be gained by the use of the lands for the purpose mentioned."
He spoke slowly, enunciating each word with careful distinctness.
"The spiritual part of the scheme is of course the most important to you!"—said the King with a slight smile,—"But material advantages are never entirely overlooked, even by holy men! Now I am merely a 'temporal' sovereign; and as such, I wish to know how your plan will affect the people of the neighbouring town and district. What are your intentions towards them? Their welfare is my chief concern; and what I have to learn from you is,—How do you propose to benefit them by maintaining a monastery, church and schools in their vicinity?"
Again Del Fortis gave a furtive glance upward. Seeing that the King's eyes were steadily fixed upon him, he quickly lowered his own, and gave answer in an evidently prepared manner.
"Sir, the people of the district in question are untaught barbarians. It is more for their sakes,—more for the love of gathering the lost sheep into the fold, than for our own satisfaction, that we seek to pitch our tents in the desert of their ignorance. They, and their children, are the prey of heathenish modern doctrines, which alas!— are too prevalent throughout the whole world at this particular time,— and, as they are at present situated, no restraint is exercised upon them for the better controlling of their natural and inherited vices. Unless the gentle hand of Mother Church is allowed to rescue these, her hapless and neglected ones; unless she has an opportunity afforded her of leading them out of the darkness of error into the light of eternal day—"
He broke off, his eloquence being interrupted by a gesture from the King.
"There is a Government school in the town,"—said the monarch, referring to one or two documents on the table before him.—"There is also a Free Public Library, and a Free School of Art. Thus it does not seem that education is quite neglected."
"Alas, Sir, such education is merely disastrous!" said Del Fortis, with a deep sigh,—"Like the fruit on the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, it brings death to the soul!"
"You condemn the Government methods?" asked the King coldly.
The Jesuit moved uneasily, and a dull flush reddened his pale skin.
"Far be it from me, Sir, as a poor servant of the Church, to condemn lawful authorities,—yet we should not forget that the Government is temporal and changeable,—the Church is spiritual and changeless. We cannot look for entire success in a scheme of popular education which is not formulated under the guidance or the blessing of God!"
The King leaned forward a little in his chair, and surveyed him fixedly.
"How do you know that it is not formulated under the guidance and blessing of God?" he asked suddenly—"Has the Almighty given you His special opinion and confidence on the matter?"
Monsignor Del Fortis started indignantly.
"Sir! Your Majesty——"
De Launay made a step forward, but the King motioned him back. Accordingly he resumed his former position, but his equable temperament was for once seriously disturbed. He saw that his Royal master was evidently bent on speaking his mind; and he knew well what a dangerous indulgence that is for all men who desire peace and quietness in their lives.
"I am aware of what you would say," pursued the King—"You would say that the Church—your Church—is the only establishment of the kind which receives direct inspiration from the Creator of Universes. But I do not feel justified in limiting the control of the Almighty to one special orbit of Creed. You tell me that a government system of education for the people is a purely temporal movement, and that, as such, it is not blessed by the guidance of God. Yet the Pope seeks 'temporal' power! It is explained to us of course that he seeks it in order that he may unite it to the spiritual in his own person,— theoretically for the good of mankind, if practically for the advancement of his own particular policy. But have you never thought, Monsignor, that the marked severance of what you call 'temporal' power, from what you equally call 'spiritual' power, is God's work? Inasmuch as nothing can be done without God's will; for even if there is a devil (which I am inclined to doubt) he owes his unhappy existence to God as much as I do!"
He smiled; but Del Fortis stood rigidly silent, his head bent, and one hand folded tight across his breast, an attitude Sir Roger de Launay always viewed in every man with suspicion, as it suggested the concealment of a weapon.
"You will admit" pursued the King, "that the action of human thought is always progressive. Unfortunately your Creed lags behind human thought in its onward march, thus causing the intelligent world to infer that there must be something wrong with its teaching. For if the Church had always been in all respects faithful to the teaching of her Divine Master, she would be at this present time the supreme Conqueror of Nations. Yet she is doing no more nowadays than she did in the middle ages,—she threatens, she intimidates, she persecutes all who dare to use for a reasonable purpose the brain God gave them,—but she does not help on or sympathize with the growing fraternity and civilization of the world. It is impossible not to recognize this. Yet I have a profound respect for each and every minister of religion who honestly endeavours to follow the counsels of Christ,"—here he paused,—then added with slow and marked emphasis—"in whose Holy Name I devoutly believe for the redemption of whatever there is in me worth redeeming; —nevertheless my first duty, even in Christ, is plainly to the people of the country over which I am elected to rule."
The flickering shadow of a smile passed over the Jesuit's dark features, but he still kept silence.
"Therefore," went on the King—"it is my unpleasant task to be compelled to inform you, Monsignor, that the inhabitants of the district your Order seeks to take under its influence, have the strongest objection to your presence among them. So strong indeed is their aversion towards your Society, that they have petitioned me in numerous ways, (and with considerable eloquence, too, for 'untaught barbarians') to defend them from your visitation. Now, to speak truly, I find they have all the advantages which modern advancement and social improvement can give them,—they attend their places of public worship in considerable numbers, and are on the whole decent, God-fearing, order-loving subjects to the Throne,—and more I do not desire for them or for myself. Criminal cases are very rare in the district,—and the poor are more inclined to help than to defraud each other. All this is so far good,—and, I should imagine,—not displeasing to God. In any case, as their merely temporal sovereign, I must decline to give your Order any control over them."
"You refuse the concession of land, Sir?" said Del Fortis, in a voice that trembled with restrained passion.
"To satisfy those of my subjects who have appealed to me, I am compelled to do so," replied the King.
"I pray your Majesty's pardon, but a portion of the land is held by private persons who are prepared to sell to us——"
A quick anger flashed in the King's eyes.
"They shall sell to me if they sell at all,"—he said,—"I repeat, Monsignor, the fact that the law-abiding people of the place have sought their King's protection from priestly interference;—and,—by Heaven!—they shall have it!"
There was a sudden silence. Sir Roger de Launay drew a sharp breath,— his habitual languor of mind was completely dissipated, and he studied the inscrutable face of Del Fortis with deepening suspicion and disfavour. Not that there was the slightest sign of wrath or dismay on the priest's well-disciplined countenance;—on the contrary, a chill smile illumined it as he spoke his next words with a serious, if somewhat forced composure.
"Your Majesty is, without doubt, all powerful in your own particular domain of society and politics," he said—"But there is another Majesty higher than yours,—that of the Church, before which dread and infallible Tribunal even kings are brought to naught——"
"Monsignor Del Fortis," interrupted the King, "We have not met this morning, I presume, to indulge in a religious polemic! My power is, as you very truly suggest, merely temporal—yours is spiritual. Yours should be the strongest! Go your way now to your Vicar-General with the straight answer I have given you,—but if by your 'spiritual' power you can persuade the people who now hate your Society, to love it,—to demand it,—to beg that you may be permitted to found a colony among them,—why, in that case, come to me again, and I will grant you the land. I am not prejudiced one way or the other, but I will not hand over any of my subjects to the influence of priestcraft, so long as they desire me to defend them from it."
Del Fortis still smiled.
"Pardon me, Sir, but we of the Society of Jesus are your subjects also, and we judge you to be a Christian and Catholic monarch——"
"As I am, most assuredly!" replied the King—"Christian and Catholic are words which, if I understand their meaning, please me well! 'Christian' expresses a believer in and follower of Christ,—'Catholic' means universal, by which, I take it, is intended wide, universal love and tolerance without sect, party, or prejudice. In this sense the Church is not Catholic—it is merely the Roman sect. Nor are you truly my subjects, since you have only one ruler, the Supreme Pontiff,—with whom I am somewhat at variance. But, as I have said, we are not here to indulge in argument. You came to proffer a request; I have given you the only answer I conceive fitting with my duty;—the matter is concluded."
Del Fortis hesitated a moment,—then bowed low to the ground;—anon, lifting himself, raised one hand with an invocative gesture of profound solemnity.
"I commend your Majesty to the mercy of God, that He may in His wisdom, guard your life and soften your heart towards the ministers of His Holy Religion, and bring you into the ways of righteousness and peace! For the rest, I will report your Majesty's decision to the Vicar-General."
"Do so!"—rejoined the King—"And assure him that the decision is unalterable,—unless the inhabitants of the place concerned desire to have it revoked."
Again Del Fortis bowed.
"I humbly take my leave of your Majesty!"
The monarch looked at him steadfastly as he made another salutation, and backed out of the presence-chamber. Sir Roger de Launay opened the door for him with alacrity, handing him over into the charge of an usher with the whispered caution to see him well off the Royal premises; and then returning to his sovereign, stood "at attention." The King noted his somewhat troubled aspect, and laughed.
"What ails you, De Launay?" he asked—"You seem astonished that for once I have spoken my mind?"
"Sir, to speak one's mind is always dangerous!"
"Dangerous—danger!—What idle words to make cowards of men! Danger—of what? There is only one danger—death; and that is sure to come to every man, whether he be a hero or a poltroon."
"But—what? De Launay, if you love me, do not look at me with so expostulatory an air! It does not become your inches! Now listen!—when the next press reporter comes nosing round for palace news, let him be told that the King has refused permission to the Jesuits to build on any portion of the Crown lands demanded for the purpose. Let this be made known to Press and People—the sooner the better!"
"Sir," murmured De Launay—"We live in strange times——"
"Why, there you speak most truly!" said the King, with emphasis—"We do live in strange times—the very strangest perhaps, since Aeneas Sylvius wrote concerning Christendom. Do you remember the words he set down so long ago?—'It is a body without a head,—a republic without laws or magistrates. The pope or the emperor may shine as lofty titles, as splendid images,—but they are unable to command, and no one is willing to obey!' History thus repeats itself, De Launay;—and yet with all its past experience, the Roman Church does not seem to realize that it is powerless against the attacks of intellectual common sense. Faith in God,—a high, perfect, pure faith in God, and a simple following of the Divine Teacher of God's command, Christ;—these things are wise and necessary for all nations; but, to allow human beings to be coerced by superstition for political motives, under the disguise of religion, is an un-Christian business, and I for one will have no part in it!"
"You will lay yourself open to much serious misconstruction, Sir," said De Launay.
"Let us hope so, Roger!" rejoined the King with a smile—"For if I am never misunderstood, I shall know myself to be a fool! Come,—do not look so glum!—I want you to help me."
"To help you, Sir?" exclaimed De Launay eagerly,—"With my life, if you demand it!"
The King rested one hand familiarly on his shoulder.
"I would rather take my own life than yours, De Launay!" he said—"No, —whatever difficulties I get myself into, you shall not suffer! But—as I told you a while ago,—there is something in me that must have its way. I am sick to death of conventionalities,—you must help me to break through them! You are right in saying that we live in strange times;—they are strange times!—and they may perchance be all the better for a strange King!"
Some hours later on, Sir Roger de Launay, having left his Sovereign's presence, and being off duty for a time, betook himself to certain apartments in the west wing of the palace, where the next most trusted personage to himself in the confidence of the King, had his domicile,— Professor von Glauben, resident physician to the Royal Household. Heinrich von Glauben was a man of somewhat extraordinary character and individuality. In his youth he had made a sudden meteoric fame for his marvellous skill and success in surgery, as also for his equally surprising quickness and correctness in diagnosing obscure diseases and tracing them to their source. But, after creating a vast amount of discussion and opposition among his confreres, and almost reaching that brilliant point of triumph when his originality and cleverness were proved great enough to win him a host of enemies, he all at once threw up the game as it were, and, resigning the favourable opportunities of increasing distinction offered him in his native Germany, accepted the comparatively retired and private position he now occupied. Some said it was a disappointment in love which had caused his abrupt departure from the Fatherland,—others declared it was irritation at the severe manner in which his surgical successes had been handled by the medical critics,—but whatever the cause, it soon became evident that he had turned his back on the country of his birth for ever, and that he was apparently entirely satisfied with the lot he had chosen. His post was certainly an easy and pleasant one,—the members of the Royal family to which his services were attached were exceptionally healthy, as Royal families go; and he was seldom in more than merely formal attendance, so that he had ample time and opportunity to pursue those deeper forms of physiological study which had excited the wrath and ridicule of his contemporaries, as well as to continue the writing of a book which he intended should make a stir in the world, and which he had entitled "The Moral and Political History of Hunger."
"For," said he—"Hunger is the primal civilizer,—the very keystone and foundation of all progress. From the plain, prosy, earthy fact that man is a hungry animal, and must eat, has sprung all the civilization of the world! I shall demonstrate this in my book, beginning with the scriptural legend of Adam's greed for an apple. Adam was evidently hungry at the moment Eve tempted him. As soon as he had satisfied his inner man, he thought of his outer,—and his next idea was, naturally, tailoring. From this simple conjunction of suggestions, combined with what 'God' would have to say to him concerning his food-experiment and fig-leaf apron, man has drawn all his religions, manners, customs and morals. The proposition is self-evident,—but I intend to point it out with somewhat emphasised clearness for the benefit of those persons who are inclined to arrogate to themselves the possession of superior wisdom. Neither brain nor soul has placed man in a position of Supremacy,—merely Hunger and Nakedness!"
The Professor was now about fifty-five, but his exceptionally powerful build and robust constitution gave him the grace in appearance of many years younger, though perhaps the extreme composure of his temperament, and the philosophic manner in which he viewed all circumstances, whether pleasing or disastrous, may have exercised the greatest influence in keeping his eyes clear and clean, and his countenance free of unhandsome wrinkles. He was more like a soldier than a doctor, and was proud of his resemblance to the earlier portraits of Bismarck. To see him in his own particular 'sanctum' surrounded by weird-looking diagrams of sundry parts of the human frame, mysterious phials and stoppered flasks containing various liquids and crystals, and all the modern appliances for closely examining the fearful yet beautiful secrets of the living organism, was as if one should look upon a rough and burly giant engaged in some delicate manipulation of mosaics. Yet Von Glauben's large hand was gentler than a woman's in its touch and gift of healing,—no surgeon alive could probe a wound more tenderly, or with less pain to the sufferer,—and the skill of that large hand was accompanied by the penetrative quality of the large benevolent brain which guided it,—a brain that could encompass the whole circle of the world in its observant and affectionate compassion.
"Ach!—who is there that can be angry with anyone?—impatient with anyone,—offended with anyone!" he was wont to say—"Everybody suffers so much and so undeservedly, that as far as my short life goes I have only time for pity—not condemnation!"
To this individual, as a kind of human calmative and tonic combined, Sir Roger de Launay was in the habit of going whenever he felt his own customary tranquillity at all disturbed. The two were great friends;— friends in their mutual love and service of the King,—friends in their equally mutual but discreetly silent worship of the Queen,—and friends in their very differences of opinion on men and matters in general. De Launay, being younger, was more hasty of judgment and quick in action; but Von Glauben too had been known to draw his sword with unexpected rapidity on occasion, to the discomfiture of those who deemed him only at home with the scalpel. Just now, however, he was in a particularly non-combative and philosophic mood; he was watching certain animalculae wriggling in a glass tube, the while he sat in a large easy-chair with slippered feet resting on another chair opposite, puffing clouds of smoke from a big meerschaum,—and he did not stir from his indolent attitude when De Launay entered, but merely looked up and smiled placidly.
"Sit down, Roger!" he said,—then, as De Launay obeyed the invitation, he pushed over a box of cigars, and added—"You look exceedingly tired, my friend! Something has bored you more than usual? Take a lesson from those interesting creatures!" and he pointed with the stem of his pipe to the bottled animalculae—"They are never bored,—never weary of doing mischief! They are just now living under the pleasing delusion that the glass tube they are in is a man, and that they are eating him up alive. Little devils! Nothing will exhaust their vitality till they have gorged themselves to death! Just like a great many human beings!"
"I am not in the mood for studying animalculae," said De Launay irritably, as he lit a cigar.
"No? But why not? They are really quite as interesting as ourselves!"
"Look here, Von Glauben, I want you to be serious—"
"My friend, I am always serious," declared the Professor—"Even when I laugh, I laugh seriously. My laughter is as real as myself."
"What would you think,"—pursued De Launay—"of a king who freely expressed his own opinions?"
"I should say he was a brave man," answered the Professor; "He would certainly deserve my respect, and he should have it. Even if the laws of etiquette were not existent, I should feel justified in taking off my hat to him."
"Never from henceforth wear a hat at all then," said De Launay—"It will save you the trouble of continually doffing it at every glimpse of his Majesty!"
Von Glauben drew his pipe from his mouth and gazed blankly at the ceiling for a few moments in silence. "His Majesty?" he presently murmured—"Our Majesty?"