THE PUPPET CROWN
by Harold MacGrath
TO THE MEMORY OF THAT GOOD FRIEND AND COMRADE OF MY YOUTH MY FATHER
I. THE SCEPTER WHICH WAS A STICK II. THE COUP D'ETAT OF COUSIN JOSEF III. AN EPISODE TEN YEARS AFTER IV. AN ADVENTURE WITH ROYALTY V. BEHIND THE PUPPET BOOTH VI. MADEMOISELLE OF THE VEIL VII. SOME DIALOGUE, AN SPRAINED ANKLE, AND SOME SOLDIERS VIII. THE RED CHATEAU IX. NOTHING MORE SERIOUS THAN A HOUSE PARTY X. BEING OF LONG RIDES, MAIDS, KISSES AND MESSAGES XI. THE DENOUEMENT XII. WHOM THE GODS DESTROY AND A FEW OTHERS XIII. BEING OF COMPLICATIONS NOT RECKONED ON XIV. QUI M'AIME, AIME MON CHIEN XV. IN WHICH FORTUNE BECOMES CARELESS AND PRODIGAL XVI. WHAT HAPPENED AT THE ARCHBISHOP'S PLACE AND AFTER XVII. SOME PASSAGES AT ARMS XVIII. A MINOR CHORD AND A CHANGE OF MOVEMENT XIX. A CHANCE RIDE IN THE NIGHT XX. THE LAST STAND OF A BAD SERVANT XXI. A COURT FETE AT THE RED CHATEAU XXII. IN WHICH MAURICE RECURS TO OFFENBACH XXIII. A GAME OF POKER AND THE STAKES XXIV. THE PRISONER OF THE RED CHATEAU XXV. THE FORTUNES OF WAR XXVI. A PAGE FORM TASSO XXVII. WORMWOOD AND LEES XXVIII. INTO THE HANDS OF AUSTRIA XXIX. INTO STILL WATERS AND SILENCE
Ah Love! Could you and I with Him conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire Would not we shatter it to bits—and then Re-mold it nearer to the Heart's desire!
—Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
CHAPTER I. THE SCEPTER WHICH WAS A STICK
The king sat in his private garden in the shade of a potted orange tree, the leaves of which were splashed with brilliant yellow. It was high noon of one of those last warm sighs of passing summer which now and then lovingly steal in between the chill breaths of September. The velvet hush of the mid-day hour had fallen.
There was an endless horizon of turquoise blue, a zenith pellucid as glass. The trees stood motionless; not a shadow stirred, save that which was cast by the tremulous wings of a black and purple butterfly, which, near to his Majesty, fell, rose and sank again. From a drove of wild bees, swimming hither and thither in quest of the final sweets of the year, came a low murmurous hum, such as a man sometimes fancies he hears while standing alone in the vast auditorium of a cathedral.
The king, from where he sat, could see the ivy-clad towers of the archbishop's palace, where, in and about the narrow windows, gray and white doves fluttered and plumed themselves. The garden sloped gently downward till it merged into a beautiful lake called the Werter See, which, stretching out several miles to the west, in the heart of the thick-wooded hills, trembled like a thin sheet of silver.
Toward the south, far away, lay the dim, uneven blue line of the Thalian Alps, which separated the kingdom that was from the duchy that is, and the duke from his desires. More than once the king leveled his gaze in that direction, as if to fathom what lay behind those lordly rugged hills.
There was in the air the delicate odor of the deciduous leaves which, every little while, the king inhaled, his eyes half-closed and his nostrils distended. Save for these brief moments, however, there rested on his countenance an expression of disenchantment which came of the knowledge of a part ill-played, an expression which described a consciousness of his unfitness and inutility, of lethargy and weariness and distaste.
To be weary is the lot of kings, it is a part of their royal prerogative; but it is only a great king who can be weary gracefully. And Leopold was not a great king; indeed, he was many inches short of the ideal; but he was philosophical, and by the process of reason he escaped the pitfalls which lurk in the path of peevishness.
To know the smallness of the human atom, the limit of desire, the existence of other lives as precious as their own, is not the philosophy which makes great kings. Philosophy engenders pity; and one who possesses that can not ride roughshod over men, and that is the business of kings.
As for Leopold, he would rather have wandered the byways of Kant than studied royal etiquette. A crown had been thrust on his head and a scepter into his hand, and, willy-nilly, he must wear the one and wield the other. The confederation had determined the matter shortly before the Franco-Prussian war.
The kingdom that was, an admixture of old France and newer Austria, was a gateway which opened the road to the Orient, and a gateman must be placed there who would be obedient to the will of the great travelers, were they minded to pass that way. That is to say, the confederation wanted a puppet, and in Leopold they found a dreamer, which served as well. That glittering bait, a crown, had lured him from his peaceful Osian hills and valleys, and now he found that his crown was of straw and his scepter a stick.
He longed to turn back, for his heart lay in a tomb close to his castle keep, but the way back was closed. He had sold his birthright. So he permitted his ministers to rule his kingdom how they would, and gave himself up to dreams. He had been but a cousin of the late king, whereas the duke of the duchy that is had been a brother. But cousin Josef was possessed of red hair and a temper which was redder still, and, moreover, a superlative will, bending to none, and laughing at those who tried to bend him.
He would have been a king to the tip of his fiery hair; and it was for this very reason that his subsequent appeals for justice and his rights fell on unheeding ears. The confederation feared Josef; therefore they dispossessed him. Thus Leopold sat on the throne, while his Highness bit his nails and swore, impotent to all appearances.
Leopold leaned forward from his seat. In his hand he held a riding stick with which he drew shapeless pictures in the yellow gravel of the path. His brows were drawn over contemplative eyes, and the hint of a sour smile lifted the corners of his lips. Presently the brows relaxed, and his gaze traveled to the opposite side of the path, where the British minister sat in the full glare of the sun.
In the middle of the path, as rigid as a block of white marble, reposed a young bulldog, his moist black nose quivering under the repeated attacks of a persistent insect. It occurred to the king that there was a resemblance between the dog and his master, the Englishman. The same heavy jaws were there, the same fearless eyes, the same indomitable courage for the prosecution of a purpose.
A momentary regret passed through him that he had not been turned from a like mold. Next his gaze shifted to the end of the path, where a young Lieutenant stood idly kicking pebbles, his cuirass flaming in the dazzling sunshine. Soon the drawing in the gravel was resumed.
The British minister made little of the three-score years which were closing in on him, after the manner of an army besieging a citadel. He was full of animal exuberance, and his eyes, a trifle faded, it must be admitted, were still keenly alive and observant. He was big of bone, florid of skin, and his hair—what remained of it—was wiry and bleached. His clothes, possibly cut from an old measure, hung loosely about the girth—a sign that time had taken its tithe. For thirty-five years he had served his country by cunning speeches and bursts of fine oratory; he had wandered over the globe, lulling suspicions here and arousing them there, a prince of the art of diplomacy.
He had not been sent here to watch this kingdom. He was touching a deeper undercurrent, which began at St. Petersburg and moved toward Central Asia, Turkey and India, sullenly and irresistibly. And now his task was done, and another was to take his place, to be a puppet among puppets. He feared no man save his valet, who knew his one weakness, the love of a son on whom he had shut his door, which pride forbade him to open. This son had chosen the army, when a fine diplomatic career had been planned—a small thing, but it sufficed. Even now a word from an humbled pride would have reunited father and son, but both refused to speak this word.
The diplomat in turn watched the king as he engaged in the aimless drawing. His meditation grew retrospective, and his thoughts ran back to the days when he first befriended this lonely prince, who had come to England to learn the language and manners of the chill islanders. He had been handsome enough in those days, this Leopold of Osia, gay and eager, possessing an indefinable charm which endeared him to women and made him respected of men. To have known him then, the wildest stretch of fancy would never have placed him on this puppet throne, surrounded by enemies, menaced by his adopted people, rudderless and ignorant of statecraft.
"Fate is the cup," the diplomat mused, "and the human life the ball, and it's toss, toss, toss, till the ball slips and falls into eternity." Aloud he said, "Your Majesty seems to be well occupied."
"Yes," replied the king, smiling. "I am making crowns and scratching them out again—usurping the gentle pastime of their most Christian Majesties, the confederation. A pretty bauble is a crown, indeed—at a distance. It is a fine thing to wear one—in a dream. But to possess one in the real, and to wear it day by day with the eternal fear of laying it down and forgetting where you put it, or that others plot to steal it, or that you wear it dishonestly—Well, well, there are worse things than a beggar's crust."
"No one is honest in this world, save the brute," said the diplomat, touching the dog with his foot. "Honesty is instinctive with him, for he knows no written laws. The gold we use is stamped with dishonesty, notwithstanding the beautiful mottoes; and so long as we barter and sell for it, just so long we remain dishonest. Yes, you wear your crown dishonestly but lawfully, which is a nice distinction. But is any crown worn honestly? If it is not bought with gold, it is bought with lies and blood. Sire, your great fault, if I may speak, is that you haven't continued to be dishonest. You should have filled your private coffers, but you have not done so, which is a strange precedent to establish. You should have increased taxation, but you have diminished it; you should have forced your enemy's hand four years ago, when you ascended the throne, but you did not; and now, for all you know, his hand may be too strong. Poor, dishonest king! When you accepted this throne, which belongs to another, you fell as far as possible from moral ethics. And now you would be honest and be called dull, and dream, while your ministers profit and smile behind your back. I beg your Majesty's pardon, but you have always requested that I should speak plainly."
The king laughed; he enjoyed this frank friend. There was an essence of truth and sincerity in all he said that encouraged confidence.
"Indeed, I shall be sorry to have you go tomorrow," he said, "for I believe if you stayed here long enough you would truly make a king of me. Be frank, my friend, be always frank; for it is only on the base of frankness that true friendship can rear itself."
"You are only forty-eight," said the Englishman; "you are young."
"Ah, my friend," replied the king with a tinge of sadness, "it is not the years that age us; it is how we live them. In the last four years I have lived ten. To-day I feel so very old! I am weary of being a king. I am weary of being weary, and for such there is no remedy. Truly I was not cut from the pattern of kings; no, no. I am handier with a book than with a scepter; I'd liever be a man than a puppet, and a puppet I am—a figurehead on the prow of the ship, but I do not guide it. Who care for me save those who have their ends to gain? None, save the archbishop, who yet dreams of making a king of me. And these are not my people who surround me; when I die, small care. I shall have left in the passing scarce a finger mark in the dust of time."
"Ah, Sire, if only you would be cold, unfriendly, avaricious. Be stone and rule with a rod of iron. Make the people fear you, since they refuse to love you; be stone."
"You can mold lead, but you can not sculpture it; and I am lead."
"Yes; not only the metal, but the verb intransitive. Ah, could the fires of ambition light your soul!"
"My soul is a blackened grate of burnt-out fires, of which only a coal remains."
And the king turned in his seat and looked across the crisp green lawns to the beds of flowers, where, followed by a maid at a respectful distance, a slim young girl in white was cutting the hardy geraniums, dahlias and seed poppies.
"God knows what her legacy will be!"
"It is for you to make it, Sire."
Both men continued to remark the girl. At length she came toward them, her arms laden with flowers. She was at the age of ten, with a beautiful, serious face, which some might have called prophetic. Her hair was dark, shining like coal and purple, and gossamer in its fineness; her skin had the blue-whiteness of milk; while from under long black lashes two luminous brown eyes looked thoughtfully at the world. She smiled at the king, who eyed her fondly, and gave her unengaged hand to the Englishman, who kissed it.
"And how is your Royal Highness this fine day? he asked, patting the hand before letting it go.
"Will you have a dahlia, Monsieur?" With a grave air she selected a flower and slipped it through his button-hole.
"Does your Highness know the language of the flowers?" the Englishman asked.
"Dahlias signify dignity and elegance; you are dignified, Monsieur, and dignity is elegance."
"Well!" cried the Englishman, smiling with pleasure; "that is turned as adroitly as a woman of thirty."
"And am I not to have one?" asked the king, his eyes full of paternal love and pride.
"They are for your Majesty's table," she answered.
"Your Majesty!" cried the king in mimic despair. "Was ever a father treated thus? Your Majesty! Do you not know, my dear, that to me 'father' is the grandest title in the world?"
Suddenly she crossed over and kissed the king on the cheek, and he held her to him for a moment.
The bulldog had risen, and was wagging his tail the best he knew how. If there was any young woman who could claim his unreserved admiration, it was the Princess Alexia. She never talked nonsense to him in their rambles together, but treated him as he should be treated, as an animal of enlightenment.
"And here is Bull," said the princess, tickling the dog's nose with a scarlet geranium.
"Your Highness thinks a deal of Bull?" said the dog's master.
"Yes, Monsieur, he doesn't bark, and he seems to understand all I say to him."
The dog looked up at his master as if to say: "There now, what do you think of that?"
"To-morrow I am going away," said the diplomat, "and as I can not very well take Bull with me, I give him to you."
The girl's eyes sparkled. "Thank you, Monsieur, shall I take him now?"
"No, but when I leave your father. You see, he was sent to me by my son who is in India. I wish to keep him near me as long as possible. My son, your Highness, was a bad fellow. He ran away and joined the army against my wishes, and somehow we have never got together again. Still, I've a sneaking regard for him, and I believe he hasn't lost all his filial devotion. Bull is, in a way, a connecting link."
The king turned again to the gravel pictures. These Englishmen were beyond him in the matter of analysis. Her Royal Highness smiled vaguely, and wondered what this son was like. Once more she smiled, then moved away toward the palace. The dog, seeing that she did not beckon, lay down again. An interval of silence followed her departure. The thought of the Englishman had traveled to India, the thought of the king to Osia, where the girl's mother slept. The former was first to rouse.
"Well, Sire, let us come to the business at hand, the subject of my last informal audience. It is true, then, that the consols for the loan of five millions of crowns are issued to-day, or have been, since the morning is passed?"
"Yes, it is true. I am well pleased. Jacobi and Brother have agreed to place them at face value. I intend to lay out a park for the public at the foot of the lake. That will demolish two millions and a half. The remainder is to be used in city improvements and the reconstruction of the apartments in the palace, which are too small. If only you knew what a pleasure this affords me! I wish to make my good city of Bleiberg a thing of beauty—parks, fountains, broad and well paved streets."
"The Diet was unanimous in regard to this loan?"
"In fact they suggested it, and I was much in favor."
"You have many friends there, then?"
"Friends?" The king's face grew puzzled, and its animation faded away. "None that I know. This is positively the first time we ever agreed about anything."
"And did not that strike you as rather singular?"
"Of course, the people are enthusiastic, considering the old rate of taxation will be renewed?" The diplomat reached over and pulled the dog's ears.
"So far as I can see," answered the king, who could make nothing of this interrogatory.
"Which, if your Majesty will pardon me, is not very far beyond your books."
"I have ministers."
"Who can see farther than your Majesty has any idea."
"Come, come, my friend," cried the king good-naturedly; "but a moment gone you were chiding me because I did nothing. I may not fill my coffers as you suggested, but I shall please my eye, which is something. Come; you have something to tell me."
"Will your Majesty listen?"
"And to hear?"
"I promise not only to listen, but to hear," laughing; "not only to hear, but to think. Is that sufficient?"
"For three years," began the Englishman, "I have been England's representative here. As a representative I could not meddle with your affairs, though it was possible to observe them. To-day I am an unfettered agent of self, and with your permission I shall talk to you as I have never talked before and never shall again."
The diplomat rose from his seat and walked up and down the path, his hands clasped behind his back, his chin in his collar. The bulldog yawned, stretched himself, and followed his master, soberly and thoughtfully. After a while the Englishman returned to his chair and sat down. The dog gravely imitated him. He understood, perhaps better than the king, his master's mood. This pacing backward and forward was always the forerunner of something of great importance.
During the past year he had been the repository of many a secret. Well, he knew how to keep one. Did not he carry a secret which his master would have given much to know? Some one in far away India, after putting him into the ship steward's care, had whispered: "You tell the governor that I think just as much of him as ever." He had made a desperate effort to tell it the moment he was liberated from the box, but he had not yet mastered that particular language which characterized his master's race.
"To begin with," said the diplomat, "what would your Majesty say if I should ask permission to purchase the entire loan?"
CHAPTER II. THE COUP D'ETAT OF COUSIN JOSEF
The king, who had been leaning forward, fell back heavily in his seat, his eyes full wide and his mouth agape. Then, to express his utter bewilderment, he raised his hands above his head and limply dropped them.
"Five millions of crowns?" he gasped.
"Yes; what would your Majesty say to such a proposition?" complacently.
"I should say," answered the king, with a nervous laugh, "that my friend had lost his senses, completely and totally."
"The fact is," the Englishman declared, "they were never keener nor more lucid than at this present moment."
"But five millions!"
"Five millions; a bagatelle," smiling.
"Certainly you can not be serious, and if you were, it is out of the question. Death of my life! The kingdom would be at my ears. The people would shout that I was selling out to the English, that I was putting them into the mill to grind for English sacks."
"Your Majesty will recollect that the measure authorizing this loan was rather a peculiar one. Five millions were to be borrowed indiscriminately, of any man or body of men willing to advance the money on the securities offered. First come, first served, was not written, but it was implied. It was this which roused my curiosity, or cupidity, if you will."
"I can not recollect that the bill was as you say," said the king, frowning.
"I believe you. When the bill came to you, you were not expected to recollect anything but the royal signature. Have you read half of what you have signed and made law? No. I am serious. What is it to you or to the people, who secures this public mortgage, so long as the money is forthcoming? I desire to purchase at face value the twenty certificates."
"As a representative of England?"
The diplomat smiled. The king's political ignorance was well known. "As a representative of England, Sire, I could not purchase the stubs from which these certificates are cut. And then, as I remarked, I am an unfettered agent of self. The interest at two per cent. will be a fine income on a lump of stagnant money. Even in my own country, where millionaires are so numerous as to be termed common, I am considered a rich man. My personal property, aside from my estates, is five times the amount of the loan. A mere bagatelle, if I may use that pleasantry."
"Impossible, impossible!" cried the king, starting to his feet, while a line of worry ran across his forehead. He strode about impatiently slapping his boots with the riding stick. "It is impossible."
"Why do you say impossible, Sire?"
"I can not permit you to put in jeopardy a quarter of a million pounds," forgetting for the moment that he was powerless.
"Aha!" the diplomat cried briskly. "There is, then, beneath your weariness and philosophy, a fear?"
"A fear?" With an effort the king smoothed the line from his forehead. "Why should there be fear?"
"Why indeed, when our cousin Josef—" He stopped and looked toward the mountains.
"I was thinking what a fine coup de maitre it would be for his Highness to gather in all these pretty slips of parchment given under the hand of Leopold."
"Small matter if he should. I should pay him." The king sat down. "And it is news to me that Josef can get together five millions."
"He has friends, rich and powerful friends."
"No matter, I should pay him."
"Are you quite sure?"
"What do you mean?"
"The face of the world changes in the course of ten years. Will there be five millions in your treasury ten years hence?"
"The wealth of my kingdom is not to be questioned," proudly, "nor its resources."
"But in ten years, with the ministers you have?" The Englishman shrugged doubtfully. "Why have you not formed a new cabinet of younger men? Why have you retained those of your predecessor, who are your natural enemies? You have tried and failed."
The expression of weariness returned to the king's face. He knew that all this was but a preamble to something of deeper significance. He anticipated what was forming in the other's mind, but he wished to avoid a verbal declaration. O, he knew that there was a net of intrigue enmeshing him, but it was so very fine that he could not pick up the smallest thread whereby to unravel it. Down in his soul he felt the shame of the knowledge that he dared not. A dreamer, rushing toward the precipice, would rather fall dreaming than waken and struggle futilely.
"My friend," he said, finally, sighing, "proceed. I am all attention."
"I never doubted your Majesty's perspicacity. You do not know, but you suspect, what I am about to disclose to you. My hope is that, when I am done, your Majesty will throw Kant and the rest of your philosophers out of the window. The people are sullen at the mention of your name, while they cheer another. There is an astonishing looseness about your revenues. The reds and the socialists plot for revolution and a republic, which is a thin disguise for a certain restoration. Your cousin the duke visits you publicly twice each year. He has been in the city a week at a time incognito, yet your minister of police seems to know nothing." The speaker ceased, and fondled the dahlia in his button-hole.
The king, noting the action, construed it as the subtle old diplomat intended he should. "Yes, yes! I am a king only for her sake. Go on. Tell me all."
"The archbishop and the chancellor are the only friends you possess. The Marshal, from personal considerations merely, remains neutral. Your army, excepting the cuirassiers, are traitors to your house. The wisest thing you have done was to surround yourself with this mercenary body, whom you call the royal cuirassiers, only, instead of three hundred, you should have two thousand. Self-interest will make them true to you. You might find some means to pay them, for they would be a good buffer between you and your enemies. The president of the Diet and the members are passing bills which will eventually undermine you. How long it will take I can not say. But this last folly, the loan, which you could have got on without, caps the climax. The duke was in the city last week unknown to you. Your minister of finance is his intimate. This loan was a connivance of them all. Why ten years, when it could easily be liquidated in five? I shall tell you. The duke expects to force you into bankruptcy within that time, and when the creditor demands and you can not pay, you will be driven from here in disgrace.
"And where will you go? Certainly not to Osia, since you traded it for this throne. It was understood, when you assumed the reign, that the finances of the kingdom would remain unimpeachable. Bankrupt, the confederation will be forced to disavow you. They will be compelled to restore the throne to your enemy, who, believe me, is most anxious to become your creditor.
"This is an independent state,—conditionally. The confederation have formed themselves into a protectorate. Why? I can only guess. One or more of them covet these beautiful lands. What are ten years to Josef, when a crown is the goal? Your revenues are slowly to decline, there will be internal troubles to eat up what money you have in the treasury. O, it is a plot so fine, so swiftly conceived, so cunningly devised that I would I were twenty years younger, to fight it with you! But I am old. My days for acting are past. I can only advise. He was sure of his quarry, this Josef whose hair is of many colors. Had you applied to the money syndicates of Europe, the banks of England, France, Germany, or Austria, your true sponsor, the result would always be the same: your ruin. Covertly I warned you not to sign; you laughed and signed. A trap was there, your own hand opened it. How they must have laughed at you! If you attempt to repudiate your signature the Diet has power to overrule you.
"Truly, the shade of Macchiavelli masks in the garb of your cousin. I admire the man's genius. This is his throne by right of inheritance. I do not blame him. Only, I wish to save you. If you were alone, why, I do not say that I should trouble myself, for you yourself would not be troubled. But I have grown to love that child of yours. It is all for her. Do you now understand why I make the request? It appears Quixotic? Not at all. Put my money in jeopardy? Not while the kingdom exists. If you can not pay back, your kingdom will. Perhaps you ask what is the difference, whether I or the duke becomes your creditor? This: in ten years I shall be happy to renew the loan. In ten years, if I am gone, there will be my son. You wonder why I do this. I repeat it is for your daughter. And perhaps," with a dry smile, "it is because I have no love for Josef."
"I will defeat him!" cried the king, a fire at last shining in his eyes.
"You will not."
"I will appeal to the confederation and inform them of the plot."
"The resource of a child! They would laugh at you for your pains. For they are too proud of their prowess in statecraft to tolerate a suspicion that your cousin is a cleverer man than all of them put together. There remains only one thing for you to do."
"And what is that?" wearily.
"Accept my friendship at its true value."
The king made no reply. He set his elbows on the arms of the rustic seat, interlaced his fingers and rested his chin on them, while his booted legs slid out before him. His meditation lengthened into several minutes. The diplomat evinced no sign of impatience.
"Come with me," said the king, rising quickly. "I will no longer dream. I will act. Come."
The diplomat nodded approvingly; and together they marched toward the palace. The bulldog trotted on behind, his pink tongue lolling out of his black mouth, a white tusk or two gleaming on each side. The Lieutenant of the cuirassiers saluted as they passed him, and, when they had gone some distance, swung in behind. He observed with some concern that his Majesty was much agitated.
The business of the kingdom, save that performed in the Diet, was accomplished in the east wing of the palace; the king's apartments, aside from the state rooms, occupied the west wing. It was to the business section that the king conducted the diplomat. In the chamber of finance its minister was found busy at his desk. He glanced up casually, but gave an ejaculation of surprise when he perceived who his visitors were.
"O, your Majesty!" he cried, bobbing up and running out his chair. "Good afternoon, your Excellency," to the Englishman, adjusting his gold-rimmed glasses, through which his eyes shone pale and cold.
The diplomat bowed. The little man reminded him of M. Thiers, that effervescence of soda tinctured with the bitterness of iron. He understood the distrust which Count von Wallenstein entertained for him, but he was not distrustful of the count. Distrust implies uncertainty, and the Englishman was not the least uncertain as to his conception of this gentleman of finance.
There were few men whom the count could not interpret; one stood before him. He could not comprehend why England had sent so astute a diplomat and politician to a third-rate kingdom. Of that which we can not understand we are suspicious, and the guilty are distrustful. Neither the minister of police nor his subordinates could fathom the purpose of this calm, dignified old man with the difficult English name.
"Count," began the king, pleasantly, "his Excellency here has made a peculiar request."
"And what might that be, Sire?"
"He offers to purchase the entire number of certificates issued to-day for our loan."
"Five millions of crowns?" The minister's astonishment was so genuine that in jerking back his head his glasses slipped from his nose and dangled on the string.
The Englishman bowed again, the wrinkle of a smile on his face.
"I would not believe him serious at first, count," said the king, laughing easily, "but he assured me that he is. What can be done about it?"
"O, your Majesty," cried the minister, excitedly, "it would not be politic. And then the measure—"
"Is it possible that I have misconstrued its import?" the diplomat interposed with a fine air of surprise.
"You are familiar—" began the count, hesitatingly.
"Perfectly; that is, I believe so."
"Has nothing whatever to do with the matter. Something greater, which goes by the name of self-interest."
"Ah," said the count, his wrinkles relaxing; "then it is on your own responsibility?"
"But five millions of crowns—two hundred and fifty thousand pounds!" The minister could not compose himself. "This is a vast sum of money. We expected not an individual, but a syndicate, to accept our securities, to become debtors to the various banks on the continent. But a personal affair! Five millions of crowns! The possibilities of your wealth overwhelm me."
The Englishman smiled. "I dare say I have more than my share of this world's goods. I can give you a check for the amount on the bank of England."
"Your Majesty's lamented predecessor—"
"Is dead," said the king gently. He had no desire to hear the minister recount that ruler's virtues. "Peace to his ashes."
"Five millions of crowns!" The minister had lost his equipoise in the face of the Englishman's great riches, of which hitherto he had held some doubts. Suddenly a vivid thought entered his confused brain. The paper cutter in his hand trembled. In the breathing space allowed him he began to calculate rapidly. The king and the diplomat had been in the garden; something had passed between them. What? The paper cutter slowly ceased its uneven movements. The count calmly placed it behind the inkwells. .... The Englishman knew. The glitter of gold gave way to the thought of the peril. A chasm yawned at his feet. But he was an old soldier in the game of words and cross-purposes.
"We should be happy to accord you the privilege of becoming the kingdom's creditor," he said, smiling at the diplomat, whom nothing had escaped. "I am afraid, however, that your request has been submitted too late. At ten o'clock this morning the transfer of the certificates would have been a simple matter. There are twenty in all; it may not be too late to secure some of them." He looked tranquilly from the Englishman to the king.
The smiling mask fell from the king's face; he felt that he was lost. He tried to catch his friend's eye, but the diplomat was deeply interested in the console of the fireplace.
"They seem to be at a premium," the Englishman said, "which speaks well for the prosperity of the country. I am sorry to have troubled you."
"It would have been a pleasure indeed," replied the count. He stood secure within his fortress, so secure that he would have liked to laugh.
"It is too bad," said the king, pulling his thoughts together.
"Your Majesty is giving the matter too much importance," said the diplomat. "It was merely a whim. I shall have the pleasure and honor of presenting my successor this evening."
The count bent low, while the king nodded absently. He was thinking that a penful of ink, carelessly trailed over a sheet of paper, had lost him his throne. He was about to draw the arm of the diplomat through his own, when his step was arrested by the entrance of a messenger who presented a letter to the minister of finance.
"With your Majesty's permission," he said, tearing open the envelope. As he read the contents, his shoulders sank to their habitual stoop and benignity once more shone in the place of alertness. "Decidedly, fate is not with your Excellency to-day. M. Jacobi writes me that four millions have already been disposed of to M. Everard & Co., English bankers in the Konigstrasse, who are representing a French firm in this particular instance. I am very sorry."
"It is of no moment now," replied the Englishman indifferently.
The adverb which concluded this declaration caught the keen ear of the minister, who grew tall again. What would he not have given to read the subtle brain of his opponent, for opponent he knew him to be! His intense scrutiny was blocked by a pair of most innocent eyes.
"Well," said the king impatiently, "let us be gone, my friend. The talk of money always leaves a copperish taste on my tongue."
Arm in arm they passed from the chamber. When the door closed behind them, the minister of finance drew his handkerchief across his brow.
"Everard & Co.," mused the Englishman aloud. "Was it not indeed a stroke for your cousin to select them as his agents? You will in truth be accused of selling out to the English. But there is a coincidence in all this."
"I am lost!" said the king.
"On the contrary, you are saved. Everard & Co. are my bankers and attorneys; in fact, I own an interest in the firm."
"What is this you tell me?" cried the king.
"Sire, we English have a peculiar trait; it is asking for something after we have taken it. The human countenance is a fine picture book. I should like to read that belonging to your cousin Josef, providing I could read unobserved."
"My friend!" said the king.
"Say nothing. Here is the bulldog; take him to her Royal Highness with my compliments. There is no truer friend than an animal of his breed. He is steadfast in his love, for he makes but few friends; he is a good companion, for he is undemonstrative; he can read and draw inferences, and your enemies will be his. I shall bid you good afternoon. God be with your Majesty."
"Ah, to lose you now!" said, the king, a heaviness in his heart such as presentiment brings.
The diplomat turned and went down the grand corridor. The bulldog tugged at his chain. Animals are gifted with prescience. He knew that his master had passed forever out of his life. Presently he heard the voice of the princess calling; and the glamour of royalty encompassed him,—something a human finds hard to resist, and he was only a dog.
Meanwhile another messenger had entered the chamber of finance and had gone. On the minister's desk lay a crumpled sheet of paper on which was written:
"Treason and treachery! It has at this moment been ascertained that, while pretending to be our agents in securing the consols, M. Everard & Co. now refuse to deliver them into the custody of Baron von Rumpf, as agreed, and further, that M. Everard & Co. are bankers and attorneys to his Excellency the British minister. He must not leave this city with those consols."
With his eyes riveted on these words, the minister of finance, huddled in his chair, had fallen into a profound study.
There were terrible times in the house of Josef that night.
CHAPTER III. AN EPISODE TEN YEARS AFTER
One fine September morning in a year the date of which is of no particular importance, a man stepped out of a second-class carriage on to the canopied platform of the railway terminus in the ancient and picturesque city of Bleiberg. He yawned, shook himself, and stretched his arms and legs, relieved to find that the tedious journey from Vienna had not cramped those appendages beyond recovery.
He stood some inches above the average height, and was built up in a manner that suggested the handiwork of a British drill-master, his figure being both muscular and symmetrical. Besides, there was on his skin that rich brown shadow which is the result only of the forces of the sun and wind, a life in the open air. This color gave peculiar emphasis to the yellow hair and mustache. His face was not handsome, if one accept the Greek profile as a model of manly beauty, but it was cleanly and boldly cut, healthful, strong and purposeful, based on determined jaws and a chin which would have been obstinate but for the presence of a kindly mouth.
A guard deposited at his feet a new hatbox, a battered traveling bag and two gun cases which also gave evidence of rough usage. The luggage was literally covered with mutilated square and oblong slips of paper of many colors, on which were printed the advertisements of far-sighted hotel keepers all the way from Bombay to London and half-way back across the continent.
There was nothing to be seen, however, indicative of the traveler's name. He surveyed his surroundings with lively interest shining in his gray eyes, one of which peered through a monocle encircled by a thin rim of tortoise shell. He watched the fussy customs officials, who, by some strange mischance, overlooked his belongings. Finally he made an impatient gesture.
"Find me a cab," he said to the attentive guard, who, with an eye to the main chance, had waved off the approach of a station porter. "If the inspectors are in no hurry, I am."
"At once, my lord;" and the guard, as he stooped and lifted the luggage, did not see the start which this appellation caused the stranger to make, but who, after a moment, was convinced that the guard had given him the title merely out of politeness. The guard placed the traps inside of one of the many vehicles stationed at the street exit of the terminus. He was an intelligent and deductive servant.
The traveler was some noted English lord who had come to Bleiberg to shoot the famed golden pheasant, and had secured a second-class compartment in order to demonstrate his incognito. Persons who traveled second-class usually did so to save money; yet this tall Englishman, since the train departed from Vienna, had almost doubled in gratuities the sum paid for his ticket. The guard stood respectfully at the door of the cab, doffed his cap, into which a memento was dropped, and went along about his business.
The Englishman slammed the door, the jehu cracked his whip, and a moment later the hoarse breathings of the motionless engines became lost in the sharper noises of the city carts. The unknown leaned against the faded cushions, curled his mustache, and smiled as if well satisfied with events. It is quite certain that his sense of ease and security would have been somewhat disturbed had he known that another cab was close on the track of his, and that its occupant, an officer of the city gendarmerie, alternately smiled and frowned as one does who floats between conviction and uncertainty. At length the two vehicles turned into the Konigstrasse, the principal thoroughfare of the capital, and here the Englishman's cab came to a stand. The jehu climbed down and opened the door.
"Did Herr say the Continental?" he asked.
"No; the Grand."
The driver shrugged, remounted his box, and drove on. The Grand Hotel was clean enough and respectable, but that was all that could be said in its favor. He wondered if the Englishman would haggle over the fare. Englishmen generally did. He was agreeably disappointed, however, when, on arriving at the mean hostelry, his passenger plunged a hand into a pocket and produced three Franz-Josef florins.
"You may have these," he said, "for the trouble of having them exchanged into crowns."
As he whipped up, the philosophical cabman mused that these tourists were beyond the pale of his understanding. With a pocket full of money, and to put up at the Grand! Why not the Continental, which lay close to the Werter See, the palaces, the royal and public gardens? It was at the Continental that the fine ladies and gentlemen from Vienna, and Innsbruck, and Munich, and Belgrade, resided during the autumn months. But the Grand—ach! it was in the heart of the shops and markets, and within a stone's throw of that gloomy pile of granite designated in the various guide books as the University of Bleiberg.
The Englishman had some difficulty in finding a pen that would write, and the ink was oily, and the guest-book was not at the proper angle. At last he managed to form the letters of his name, which was John Hamilton. After some deliberation, he followed this with "England." The proprietor, who acted as his own clerk, drew the book toward him, and after some time, deciphered the cabalistic signs.
"Ah, Herr John Hamilton of England; is that right?"
"Yes; I am here for a few days' shooting. Can you find me a man to act as guide?"
"This very morning, Herr."
Then he proceeded up the stairs to the room assigned to him. The smell of garlic which pervaded the air caused him to make a grimace. Once alone in the room, he looked about. There was neither soap nor towel, but there was a card which stated that the same could be purchased at the office. He laughed. A pitcher of water and a bowl stood on a small table, which, by the presence of a mirror (that could not in truth reflect anything but light and darkness), served as a dresser. These he used to good advantage, drying his face and hands on the white counterpane of the bed, and laughing quietly as he did so. Next he lit a pipe, whose capacity for tobacco was rather less than that of a lady's thimble, sat in a chair by the window, smoked quietly, and gazed down on the busy street.
It was yet early in the morning; sellers of vegetables, men and women peasants, with bare legs and wooden shoes, driving shaggy Servian ponies attached to low, cumbersome carts, passed and repassed, to and from the markets. A gendarme, leaning the weight of his shoulder on the guard of a police saber, rested against the corner of a wine shop across the way. Students, wearing squat caps with vizors, sauntered indolently along, twirling canes and ogling all who wore petticoats. Occasionally the bright uniform of a royal cuirassier flashed by; and the Englishman would lean over the sill and gaze after him, nodding his head in approval whenever the cuirassier sat his horse well.
In the meantime the gendarme, who followed him from the station, had entered the hotel, hastily glanced at the freshly written name, and made off toward the palace.
"Well, here we are," mused the Englishman, pressing his thumb into the bowl of his pipe. "The affair promises some excitement. To-morrow will be the sixth; on the twentieth it will be a closed incident, as the diplomats would say. I don't know what brought me here so far ahead of time. I suppose I must look out for a crack on the head from some one I don't know, but who knows me so deuced well that he has hunted me in India and England, first with fine bribes, then with threats." He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the gun cases. "It was a capital idea, otherwise a certain ubiquitous customs official, who lies in wait for the unwary at the frontier, would now be an inmate of a hospital. To have lived thirty-five years, and to have ground out thirteen of them in her Majesty's, is to have acquired a certain disdain for danger, even when it is masked. I am curious to see how far these threats will go. It will take a clever man to trap me. The incognito is a fort. By the way, I wonder how the inspectors at the station came to overlook my traps? Strange, considering what I have gone through."
At this moment the knuckles of a hand beat against the door.
"Come in!" answered the Englishman, wheeling his chair, but making no effort to rise. "Come in!"
The door swung in, and there entered a short, spectacled man in dark gray clothes which fairly bristled with brass buttons. He was the chief inspector of customs. He bowed.
The Englishman, consternation widening his eyes, lowered his pipe.
"Monsieur Hamilton's pardon," the inspector began, speaking in French, "but with your permission I shall inspect your luggage and glance at your passports." He bowed again.
"Now do you know, mon ami," replied the Englishman, "that Monsieur Hamilton will not permit you to gaze even into yonder washbowl?" He rose lazily.
"But, Monsieur," cried the astonished official, to whom non-complaisance in the matter of inspection was unprecedented, "you certainly will not put any obstacle in the path of my duty!"
"Your duty, Monsieur the Spectacles, is to inspect at the station. There your assistants refused to award me their attention. You are trespassing."
"Monsieur forgets," sternly; "it is the law. Is it possible that I shall be forced to call in the gendarmes to assist me? This is extraordinary!"
"I dare say it is, on your part," admitted the Englishman, polishing the bowl of his pipe against the side of his nose. "You had best go at once. If you do not, I shall take you by the nape of your Bleibergian neck and kick you down the stairs. I have every assurance of my privileges. The law here, unless it has changed within the past hour, requires inspection at the frontier, and at the capital; but your jurisdiction does not extend beyond the stations. Bon jour, Monsieur the Spectacles; bon jour!"
"Monsieur, it is my duty; I must!"
"Good day! How will you go, by the stairs or by the window? I—but wait!" an idea coming to him which caused him to reflect on the possible outcome of violence done to a government official, who, perhaps, was discharging his peculiar duty at the orders of superiors. He walked swiftly to the door and slid the bolt, to the terror of the inspector, on whose brow drops of perspiration began to gather. "Now," opening the hat box and taking out a silk hat, "this is a hat, purchased in Paris at Cook's. There is nothing in the lining but felt. Look into the box; nothing. Take out your book and follow me closely," he continued, dividing the traveling bag into halves, and he began to enumerate the contents.
"But, Monsieur!" remonstrated the inspector, who did not enjoy this infringement of his prerogatives; his was the part to overhaul. "This is—"
"Be still and follow me," and the Englishman went on with the inventory. "There!" when he had done, "not a dutiable thing except this German-Scotch whisky, and that is so bad that I give it to you rather than pay duty. What next? My passports? Here they are, absolutely flawless, vised by the authorities in Vienna."
The slips crackled in the fluttering fingers of the inspector. "They are as you say, Monsieur," he said, returning the permits. Then he added timidly, "And the gun cases?"
"The gun cases!" The pipe spilled its coal to the floor. "The gun cases!"
"And why do you wish to look into them?" with agitation.
"Smugglers sometimes fill them with cigars."
"Ah!" The Englishman selected two loaded shells, drew a gun from the case, threw up the breech and rammed in the shells. Then he extended the weapon to within an inch of the terrified inspector's nose. "Now, Monsieur the Spectacles, look in there and tell me what you see."
The fellow sank half-fainting into a chair. "Mon Dieu, Monsieur, would you kill me who have a family?"
"What's a customs inspector, more or less?" asked the terrible islander, laughing. "I advise you not to ask me to let you look into the other gun, out of consideration for your family. It has hair triggers, and my fingers tremble."
"Monsieur, Monsieur, you do wrong to trifle with the law. I shall be obliged to report you. You will be arrested."
"Nothing of the kind," was the retort. "I have only to inform the British minister how remiss you were in your obligations. I should go free, whereas you would be discharged. But what I demand to know is, what the devil is the meaning of this farce."
"I am simply obeying orders," answered the inspector, wiping his forehead. "It is not a farce, as Monsieur will find." Then, as if to excuse this implied threat: "Will Monsieur please point the gun the other way?"
The Englishman unloaded the gun and tossed it on the bed.
"Thanks. In coming here I simply obeyed the orders of the minister of police."
"And what in the world did you expect to find?"
"We are looking—that is, they are looking—O, Monsieur, it is impossible for me to disclose to you my government's purposes."
"What and whom were you expecting?" demanded the Englishman. "You shall not leave this room till you have fully explained this remarkable intrusion."
"We were expecting the Lord and Baronet Fitzgerald."
"The lord!" laughing. "Does the lord visit Bleiberg often, then, that you prepare this sort of a reception? And the Baronet Fitzgerald?"
"They are the same and the one person."
"And who the deuce is he; a spy, a smuggler, a villain, or what?"
"As to that, Monsieur," with a wonder why this man laughed, "I know no more than you. But I do know that for the past month every Englishman has been subjected to this surveillance, and has submitted with more grace than you," with an oblique glance.
"What! Examined his luggage at the hotel?"
"Yes, Monsieur. It is the order of the minister of police. I know not why." The natural color was returning to his cheeks.
"This is a fine country, I must say. At least the king should acquaint his visitors with the true cause of this treatment." In his turn the Englishman resorted to oblique glances.
"The king?" The inspector raised a shoulder and spread his hands. "The king is a paralytic, Monsieur, and has little to say these days."
"A paralytic? I thought he was called 'the handsome monarch'?"
"That was years ago, Monsieur. For three years he has been helpless and bedridden. The archbishop is the real king nowadays. But he meddles not with the police."
"This is very sad. I suppose it would be impossible for strangers to see him now."
"An audience?" a sparkle behind the spectacles. "Is your business with the king, Monsieur?"
"My business is mine," shortly. "I am only a tourist, and should have liked to see the king from mere curiosity. However, had you explained all this to me, I should not have caused you so many gray hairs."
"Monsieur did not give me the chance," simply.
"True," the Englishman replied soberly. He began to think that he had been over hasty in asserting his privileges. "But all this has nothing to do with me. My name is John Hamilton. See, it is engraved on the stock of the gun," catching it up and holding it under the spectacled eyes, which still observed it with some trepidation. "That is the name in my passports, in the book down stairs, in the lining of my hat. I am sorry, since you were only obeying orders, that my rough play has caused you alarm." He unbolted the door. "Good morning."
The inspector left the room as swiftly as his short legs could carry him, ignoring the ethics of common politeness. As he stumbled down the stairs he cursed the minister of police for requiring this spy work of him, and not informing him why it was done. Ah, these cursed Anglais from Angleterre! They were all alike, and this one was the worst he had ever encountered. And those ugly black orifices in the gun! Peste! He would resign! Yes, certainly he would resign.
As to the Englishman, he stood in the center of the room and scratched his head. "Hang it, I've made an ass of myself. That blockhead will have the gendarmes about my ears. If they arrest me there will be the devil to pay. The Lord and the Baronet Fitzgerald!" he repeated. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and fell to laughing again. "Confound these picture-book kingdoms! They always take themselves so seriously. Well, if the gendarmes call this afternoon I'll not be at home. No, thank you. I shall be hunting pheasants."
And thereat he set to work cleaning the gun which had all but prostrated the inspector. Soon the room smelled of oiled rags and tobacco. Some-times the worker whistled softly. Sometimes he let the gun fall against his knee, and stared dreamily through the window at the flight of the ragged clouds. Again, he would shake his head, as if there were something which he failed to understand. Half an hour passed, when again some one knocked on the door.
"Come in!" Under his breath he added: "The gendarmes, likely."
But it was only the proprietor of the hotel. "Asking Herr's pardon," he said, "for this intrusion, but I have secured a man for you. I have the honor to recommend Johann Kopf as a good guide and hunter."
"Send him up. If he pleases me, I'll use him."
The proprietor withdrew.
Johann Kopf proved to be a young German with a round, ruddy face, which was so innocent of guile as to be out of harmony with the shrewd, piercing black eyes looking out of it. The Englishman eyed him inquisitively, even suspiciously.
"Are you a good hunter?" he asked.
"There is none better hereabout," answered Johann, twirling his cap with noticeably white fingers. It was only in after days that the Englishman appreciated the full significance of this answer.
"No. Herr's German is excellent, however."
"Humph!" The Englishman gave a final glance into the shining tubes of the gun, snapped the breach, and slipped it into the case. "You'll do. Return to the office; I'll be down presently."
"Will Herr hunt this morning?"
"No; what I wish this morning is to see the city of Bleiberg."
"That is simple," said Johann. The fleeting, imperceptible smile did not convict his eyes of false keenness.
He bowed out. When the door closed the Englishman waited until the sound of retreating steps failed. Then he took the gun case which he had not yet opened, and thrust it under the mattress of the bed.
"Johann," he said, as he put on a soft hat and drew a cane from the straps of the traveling bag, "you will certainly precede me in our hunting expeditions. I do not like your eyes; they are not at home in your boyish face. Humph! what a country. Every one speaks a different tongue."
The city of Bleiberg lay on a hill and in the valleys which fell away to the east and west. It was divided into two towns, the upper and the lower. The upper town and that part which lay on the shores of the Werter See was the modern and fashionable district. It was here that the king and the archbishop had their palaces and the wealthy their brick and stone. The public park skirted the lake, and was patterned after those fine gardens which add so much to the picturesqueness of Vienna and Berlin. There were wide gravel paths and long avenues of lofty chestnuts and lindens, iron benches, fountains and winding flower beds. The park, the palaces, and the Continental Hotel enclosed a public square, paved with asphalt, called the Hohenstaufenplatz, in the center of which rose a large marble fountain of several streams, guarded by huge bronze wolves. Here, too, were iron benches which were, for the most part, the meeting-place of the nursemaids. Carriages were allowed to make the circuit, but not to obstruct the way.
The Konigstrasse began at the Platz, divided the city, and wound away southward, merging into the highway which continued to the Thalian Alps, some thirty miles distant. The palaces were at the southeast corner of the Platz, first the king's, then the archbishop's. The private gardens of each ran into the lake. Directly across from the palaces stood the cathedral, a relic of five centuries gone. On the northwest corner stood the Continental Hotel, with terrace and parapet at the water's edge, and a delightful open-air cafe facing the Platz. September and October were prosperous months in Bleiberg. Fashionable people who desired quiet made Bleiberg an objective point. The pheasants were plump, there were boars, gray wolves, and not infrequently Monsieur Fourpaws of the shaggy coat wandered across from the Carpathians.
As to the lower town, it was given over to the shops and markets, the barracks, the university, and the Rathhaus, which served as the house of the Diet. It was full of narrow streets and quaint dwellings.
Up the Konigstrasse the guide led the Englishman, who nodded whenever the voluble chatter of the German pleased him. When they began the descent of the hill, the vista which opened before them drew from the Englishman an ejaculation of delight. There lay the lake, like a bright new coin in a green purse; the light of the sun broke on the white buildings and flashed from the windows; and the lawns twinkled like emeralds.
"It makes Vienna look to her laurels, eh, Herr?" said Johann.
"But it must have cost a pretty penny."
"Aye, that it did; and the king is being impressed with that fact every day. There are few such fine palaces outside of first-class kingdoms. The cathedral there was erected at the desire of a pope, born five hundred years ago. It is full of romance. There is to be a grand wedding there on the twentieth of this month. That is why there are so many fashionable people at the hotels. The crown prince of Carnavia, which is the large kingdom just east of us, is to wed the Princess Alexia, the daughter of the king."
"On the twentieth? That is strange."
"I meant nothing," said the Englishman, jerking back his shoulders; "I had in mind another affair."
There was a flash in Johann's eyes, but he subdued it before the Englishman was aware of its presence. "However," said Johann, "there is something strange. The prince was to have arrived a week ago to complete the final arrangements for the wedding. His suite has been here a week, but no sign of his Highness. He stopped over a train at Ehrenstein to visit for a few hours a friend of the king, his father. Since then nothing has been heard from him. The king, it is said, fears that some accident has happened to him. Carnavia is also disturbed over this disappearance. Some whisper of a beautiful peasant girl. Who can say?"
"Any political significance in this marriage?"
"Leopold expects to strengthen his throne by the alliance. But—" Johann's mouth closed and his tongue pushed out his cheek. "There will be some fine doings in the good city of Bleiberg before the month is gone. The minister from the duchy has been given his passports. Every one concedes that trouble is likely to ensue. Baron von Rumpf—"
"Baron von Rumpf," repeated the Englishman thoughtfully.
"Yes; he is not a man to submit to accusations without making a disagreeable defense."
"What does the duke say?"
"His Highness has been dead these four years."
"Dead four years? So much for man and his futile dreams. Dead four years," absently.
"What did you say, Herr?"
"I? Nothing. How did he die?"
"He was thrown from his horse and killed. But the duchess lives, and she is worthy of her sire. Eh, Herr, there is a woman for you! She should sit on this throne; it is hers by right. These Osians are aliens and were forced on us."
"It seems to me, young man, that you are talking treason."
"That is my business, Herr." Johann laughed. "I am a socialist, and occasionally harangue for the reds. And sometimes, when I am in need of money, I find myself in the employ of the police."
The muscles of the Englishman's jaws hardened, then they relaxed. The expression on the face of his guide was free from anything but bonhomie.
"One must live," Johann added deprecatingly.
"Yes, one must live," replied the Englishman.
"O! but I could sell some fine secrets to the Osians had they money to pay. Ach! but what is the use? The king has no money; he is on the verge of bankruptcy, and this pretty bit of scenery is the cause of it."
"So you are a socialist?" said the Englishman, passing over Johann's declamatory confidences.
"Yes, Herr. All men are brothers."
"Go to!" laughed the Englishman, "you aren't even a second cousin to me. But stay, what place is this we are passing?" indicating with his cane a red-brick mansion which was fronted by broad English lawns and protected from intrusion by a high iron fence.
"That is the British legation, Herr."
The Englishman stopped and stared, unconscious of the close scrutiny of the guide. His eyes traveled up the wide flags leading to the veranda, and he drew a picture of a square-shouldered old man tramping backward and forward, the wind tangling his thin white hair, his hands behind his back, his chin in his collar and at his heels a white bulldog. Rapidly another picture came. It was an English scene. And the echo of a voice fell on his ears. "My way and the freedom of the house and the key to the purse; your way and a closed door while I live. You can go, but you can not come back. You have decided? Yes? Then good morning." Thirteen years, thirteen years! He had sacrificed the freedom of the house and the key to the purse, the kind eyes and the warm pressure of that old hand. And for what? Starvation in the deserts, plenty of scars and little of thanks, ingratitude and forgetfulness.
And now the kind eyes were closed and the warm hand cold. O, to recall the vanished face, the silent voice, the misspent years, the April days and their illusions! The Englishman took the monocle from his eye and looked at it, wondering what had caused the sudden blur.
"There was a fine old man there in the bygone days," said Johann.
"And who was he?"
"Lord Fitzgerald, the British minister. He and Leopold were close friends." Johann's investigating gaze went unrewarded. The Englishman's face had resumed its expression of mild curiosity.
"Ah; a compatriot of mine," he said. Inwardly he mused: "This guide is watching me; let him catch me if he can. His duchess? I know far too much of her!"
"He was a millionaire, too," went on Johann.
"Well, we can't all be rich. Come."
They crossed the Strasse and traversed the walk at the side of the palace enclosures. The Englishman aimlessly trailed his cane along the green pickets of the fence till they ended in a stone arch which rose high over the driveway. The gates were open, and coming toward the two wanderers as they stood at the curb rolled the royal barouche, on each side of which rode a mounted cuirassier, sashed and helmeted. The Englishman, however, had observed nothing; he was lost in some dream.
"Look, Herr!" cried Johann, rousing the other by a pull at the sleeve. "Look!" Socialist though he claimed to be, Johann touched his cap.
In the barouche, leaning back among the black velvet cushions, her face mellowed by the shade of a small parasol, was a young woman of nineteen or twenty, as beautiful as a da Vinci freshly conceived. The Englishman saw a pair of grave dark eyes which, in the passing, met his and held them. He caught his breath.
"Who is that?" he asked.
"That is her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Alexia."
Afterward the Englishman remembered seeing a white dog lying on the opposite seat.
CHAPTER IV. AN ADVENTURE WITH ROYALTY
Maurice Carewe, attached to the American legation in Vienna, leaned against the stone parapet which separated the terraced promenade of the Continental Hotel from the Werter See, and wondered what had induced him to come to Bleiberg.
He had left behind him the glory of September in Vienna, a city second only to Paris in fashion and gaiety; Vienna, with its inimitable bands, its incomparable gardens, its military maneuvers, its salons, its charming women; and all for a fool's errand. His Excellency was to blame. He had casually dropped the remark that the duchy's minister, Baron von Rumpf, had been given his passports as a persona non grata by the chancellor of the kingdom, and that a declaration of war was likely to follow. Maurice's dormant love of journalistic inquiry had become aroused, and he had asked permission to investigate the affair, a favor readily granted to him.
But here he was, on the scene, and nobody knew anything, and nobody could tell anything. The duchess had remained silent. Not unnaturally he wished himself back in Vienna. There were no court fetes in the city of Bleiberg. The king's condition was too grave to permit them. And, besides, there had been no real court in Bleiberg for the space of ten years, so he was told. Those solemn affairs of the archbishop's, given once the week for the benefit of the corps diplomatique, were dull and spiritless. Her Royal Highness was seldom seen, save when she drove through the streets. Persons who remembered the reign before told what a mad, gay court it had been. Now it was funereal. The youth and beauty of Bleiberg held a court of its own. Royalty was not included, nor did it ask to be.
A strange capital, indeed, Maurice reflected, as he gazed down into the cool, brown water. He regretted his caprice. There were pretty women in Vienna. Some of them belonged to the American colony. They danced well, they sang and played and rode. He had taught some of them how to fence, and he could not remember the times he had been "buttoned" while paying too much attention to their lips and eyes. For Maurice loved a thing of beauty, were it a woman, a horse or a Mediterranean sunset. What a difference between these two years in Vienna and that year in Calcutta! He never would forget the dingy office, with its tarnished sign, "U. S. Consul," tacked insecurely on the door, and the utter loneliness.
He cast a pebble into the lake, and watched the ripples roll away and disappear, and ruminated on a life full of color and vicissitude. He remembered the Arizona days, the endless burning sand, the dull routine of a cavalry trooper, the lithe brown bodies of the Apaches, the first skirmish and the last. From a soldier he had turned journalist, tramped the streets of Washington in rain and shine, living as a man lived who must.
One day his star had shot up from the nadir of obscurity, not very far, but enough to bring his versatility under the notice of the discerning Secretary of State, who, having been a friend of the father, offered the son a berth in the diplomatic corps. A consulate in a South American republic, during a revolutionary crisis, where he had shown consummate skill in avoiding political complications (and where, by a shrewd speculation in gold, he had feathered his nest for his declining years), proved that the continual incertitude of a journalistic career is a fine basis for diplomatic work. From South America he had gone to Calcutta, thence to Austria.
He was only twenty-nine, which age in some is youth. He possessed an old man's wisdom and a boy's exuberance of spirits. He laughed whenever he could; to him life was a panorama of vivid pictures, the world a vast theater to which somehow he had gained admission. His beardless countenance had deceived more than one finished diplomat, for it was difficult to believe that behind it lay an earnest purpose and a daring courage. If he bragged a little, quizzed graybeards, sought strange places, sported with convention, and eluded women, it was due to his restlessness. Yet, he had the secretiveness of sand; he absorbed, but he revealed nothing. He knew his friends; they thought they knew him. It was his delight to have women think him a butterfly, men write him down a fool; it covered up his real desires and left him free.
What cynicism he had was mellowed by a fanciful humor. Whether with steel or with words, he was a master of fence; and if at times some one got under his guard, that some one knew it not. To let your enemy see that he has hit you is to give him confidence. He saw humor where no one else saw it, and tragedy where it was not suspected. He was one of those rare individuals who, when the opportunity of chance refuses to come, makes one.
"Germany and Austria are great countries," he mused, lighting a cigar. "Every hundredth man is a king, one in fifty is a duke, every tenth man is a prince, and one can not take a corner without bumping into a count or a baron. Even the hotel waiters are disquieting; there is that embarrassing atmosphere about them which suggests nobility in durance vile. As for me, I prefer Kentucky, where every man is a colonel, and you never make a mistake. And these kingdoms!" He indulged in subdued laughter. "They are always like comic operas. I find myself looking around every moment for the merry villagers so happy and so gay (at fifteen dollars the week), the eternal innkeeper and the perennial soubrette his daughter, the low comedian and the self-conscious tenor. Heigho! and not a soul in Bleiberg knows me, nor cares.
"I'd rather talk five minutes to a pretty woman than eat stuffed pheasants the year around, and the stuffed pheasant is about all Bleiberg can boast of. Well, here goes for a voyage of discovery;" and he passed down the stone steps to the pier, quite unconscious of the admiring glances of the women who fluttered back and forth on the wide balconies above.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon; a fresh wind redolent of pine and resin blew across the lake. Maurice climbed into a boat and pulled away with a strong, swift stroke, enjoying the liberation of his muscles. A quarter of a mile out he let the oars drift and took his bearings. He saw the private gardens of the king and the archbishop, and, convinced that a closer view would afford him entertainment, he caught up the oars again and moved inland.
The royal gardens ran directly into the water, while those of the archbishop were protected by a wall of brick five or six feet in height, in the center of which was a gate opening on the water. Behind the gate was a small boat dock. Maurice plied the oars vigorously. He skirted the royal gardens, and the smell of newly mown lawns filled the air. Soon he was gliding along the sides of the moss-grown walls. A bird chirped in the overhanging boughs. He was about to cast loose the oars again, when the boat was brought to a violent stop. A few yards waterward from the gate there lay, hidden in the shadowed water, a sunken pier. On one of the iron piles the boat had become impaled.
Maurice was tumbled into the bow of the boat, which began rapidly to fill. First he swore, then he laughed, for he was possessed of infinite good humor. The only thing left for him to do was to swim for the gate. With a rueful glance at his thin clothes, he dropped himself over the side of the wreck and struck out toward the gate. The water, having its source from the snowclad mountains, was icy. He was glad enough to grasp the lower bars of the gate and draw himself up. He was on the point of climbing over, when a picture presented itself to his streaming eyes.
Seated on a bench made of twisted vine was a young girl. She held in her hand a book, but she was not reading it. She was scanning the unwritten pages of some reverie; her eyes, dark, large and wistful, were holding communion with the god of dreams. A wisp of hair, glossy as coal, trembled against a cheek white as the gown she wore.
At her side, blinking in the last rays of the warm sun, sat a bulldog, toothless and old. Now and then a sear leaf, falling in a zig-zag course, rustled past his ears, and he would shake his head as if he, too, were dreaming and the leaves disturbed him. All at once he sniffed, his ears stood forward, and a low growl broke the enchantment. The girl, on discovering Maurice, closed the book and rose. The dog, still growling, jumped down and trotted to the gate. Maurice thought that it was time to speak.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "pardon this intrusion, but my boat has met with an accident."
The girl came to the gate. "Why, Monsieur," she exclaimed, "you are wet!"
"That is true," replied Maurice, his teeth beginning to knock together. "I was forced to swim. If you will kindly open the gate and guide me to the street, I shall be much obliged to you."
The gate swung outward, and in a moment Maurice was on dry land, or the next thing to it, which was the boat-dock.
"Thank you," he said.
"O! And you might have been drowned," compassion lighting her beautiful eyes. "Sit down on the bench, Monsieur, for you must be weak. And it was that sunken pier? I shall speak to Monseigneur; he must have it removed. Bull, stop growling; you are very impolite; the gentleman is in distress."
Maurice sat down, not because he was weak, but because the desire to gain the street had suddenly subsided. Who was this girl who could say "must" to the formidable prelate? His quick eye noticed that she showed no sign of embarrassment. Indeed, she impressed him as one who was superior to that petty disturbance of collected thought. Somehow it seemed to him, as she stood there looking down at him, that he, too, should be standing. But she put forth a hand with gentle insistence when he made as though to rise. What an exquisite face, he thought. Against the whiteness of her skin her lips burned like poppy petals. Innocent, inquisitive eyes smiled gently, eyes in whose tranquil depths lay the glory of the world, asleep. Presently a color, faint and fugitive, dimmed the whiteness of her cheeks. Maurice, conscious of his rudeness and of a warmth in his own cheeks, instinctively lowered his gaze.
"Pardon my rudeness," he said.
"What is your name, Monsieur," she asked calmly.
"It is Maurice Carewe. I am living in Vienna. I came to Bleiberg for pleasure, but the first day has not been propitious," with an apologetic glance at his dripping clothes.
"Maurice Carewe," slowly repeating the full name as if to imprint it on her memory. "You are English?"
He said: "No; I am one of those dreadful Yankees you have possibly read about."
Her teeth gleamed. "Yes, I have heard of them. But you do not appear so very dreadful; though at present you are truly not at your best. What is this—this Yankeeland like?"
"It would take me ever so long to tell you about it, it is such a great country."
"You are a patriot!" clapping her hands. "No other country is so fine and large and great as your own. But tell me, is it as large as Austria?"
"Austria? You will not be offended if I tell you?"
"Well," with fun in his eyes, "it is my opinion that I could hide Austria in my country so thoroughly that nobody would ever be able to find it again." He wondered how she would accept this statement.
She lifted her chin and laughed, and the bulldog wagged his tail, as he always did when mirth touched her. He jumped up beside Maurice and looked into his face. Maurice patted his broad head, and he submitted. The girl looked rather surprised.
"Are you a magician?" she asked.
"Bull never makes friends."
"But I do," said Maurice; "perhaps he understands that, and comes half-way. But it is rather strange to see a bulldog in this part of the country."
"He was given to me, years ago, by an Englishman."
"That accounts for it." He was experiencing a deal of cold, but he dared not mention it. "And may I ask your name?"
"Ah, Monsieur," shyly, "to tell you my name would be to frighten you away."
"I am sure nothing could do that," he declared earnestly. Had he been thinking of aught but her eyes he might have caught the significance of her words. But, then, the cold was numbing.
She surveyed him with critical eyes. She saw a clean-shaven face, brown, handsome and eager, merry blue eyes, a chin firm and aggressive, a mischievous mouth, a forehead which showed the man of thought, a slim athletic form which showed the man of action—all of which combined to produce that indescribable air which attaches itself to the gentleman.
"It is Alexia," she said, after some hesitation, watching him closely to observe the effect.
But he was as far away as ever. "Alexia what?"
"Only Alexia," a faint coquetry stealing into her glance.
"O, then you are probably a maid?"
"Y—es. But you are disappointed?"
"No, indeed. You have put me more at ease. I suppose you serve the princess?"
"Whenever I can," demurely.
He could not keep his eyes from hers. "They say that she is a very lonely princess."
"So lonely." And the coquetry faded from her eyes as her glance wandered waterward and became fixed on some object invisible and far away. "Poor lonely princess!"
Maurice was growing colder and colder, but he did not mind. He had wished for some woman to talk to; his wish had been granted. "I feel sorry for her, if what they say is true," having no other words.
"And what do they say, Monsieur?"
"That she and her father have been socially ostracized. I should be proud to be her friend." Once the words were gone from him, he saw their silliness. "A presumptuous statement," he added; "I am an obscure foreigner."
"Friendship, Monsieur, is a thing we all should prize, all the more so when it is disinterested."
He said rapidly, for fear she might hear his teeth chatter: "They say she is very beautiful. Tell me what she is like."
"I am no judge of what men call beauty. As to her character, I believe I may recommend that. She is good."
He was sure that merriment twitched the corners of her lips, and he grew thoughtful. "Alexia. Is that not her Highness's name also?"
"Yes, Monsieur; we have the same names." Her eyes fell, and she began to finger the pages of the book.
"I am rested now," he said, with a sudden distrust. "I thank you."
"Come, then, and I will show you the way to the gate."
"I am sorry to have troubled you," he said.
She did not reply, and together they walked up the path. The plants were dying, and the odor of decay hovered about them. Splashes of rich vermilion crowned the treetops, leaves of gold, russet and faded green rustled on the ground. The sun was gone behind the hills, the lake was tinted with salmon and dun, and Maurice (who honestly would have liked to run) was turning purple, not from atmospheric effect, but from the partly congealed state of his blood. Already he was thinking that his adventure had turned out rather well. It was but a simple task for a man of his imagination to construct a pretty romance, with a kingdom for a background. A maid of honor, perhaps; no matter, he would find means for future communication. A glamour had fallen upon him.
As to the girl, who had scarce spoken to a dozen young men in her life, she was comparing four faces; one of a visionary character of which she had dreamed for ten years, and three which had recently entered into the small circle of her affairs. It was little pleasure to her to talk to those bald diplomats, who were always saying what they did not mean, and meaning what they did not say. And the young officers in the palace never presumed to address her unless spoken to.
What a monotonous life it was! She was like a bird in a cage, ever longing for freedom, not of the air, but of impulse. To be permitted to yield to the impulses of the heart! What a delightful thought that was! But she, she seemed apart from all which was desirable to youth. Women courtesied to her, men touched their hats; but homage was not what she wanted. To be free, that was all; to come and go at will; to laugh and to sing. But ever the specter of royal dignity walked beside her and held her captive.
She was to wed a man on whom she looked with indifference, but wed him she must; it was written. A toy of ambition, she was neither more nor less. Ah, to be as her maids, not royal, but free. Of the three new faces one belonged to the man whom she was to wed; another was a tall, light-haired man whom she had seen from her carriage; the last walked by her side. And somehow, the visionary face, the faces of the man whom she was to wed and the light-haired man suddenly grew indistinct. She glanced from the corner of her eyes at Maurice, but meeting his glance, in which lay something that caused her uneasiness, her gaze dropped to the path.
"I shall be pleased to tell her Highness that a stranger, who has not met her, who does not even suspect her rebel spirit, desires to be her friend."
"O, Mademoiselle," he cried in alarm, "that desire was expressed in confidence."
"I know it. It is for that very reason I wish her to know. Have no fear, Monsieur;" and she laughed without mirth. "Her Highness will not send you to prison."
Close at hand Maurice discovered a cuirassier, who, on seeing them, saluted and stood attention. Maurice was puzzled.
"Lieutenant," said the girl, "Monsieur—Carewe?" turning to Maurice.
"Yes, that is the name."
"Well, then, Monsieur Carewe has met with an accident; please escort him to the gate. I trust you will not suffer any inconvenience from the cold. Good evening, Monsieur Carewe."
She retraced her steps down the path. The bulldog followed. Once he looked back at Maurice, and stopped as if undecided, then went on. Maurice stared at the figure of the girl until it vanished behind a clump of rose bushes.
"Well, Monsieur Carewe!" said the Lieutenant, a broad smile under his mustache.
"I beg your pardon, Lieutenant. May I ask you who she is?"
"What! You do not know?"
Maurice suddenly saw light. "Her Royal Highness?" blankly.
"Her Royal Highness, God bless her!" cried the Lieutenant heartily.
"Amen to that," replied Maurice, his agitation visible even to the officer.
They arrived at the gate in silence. The cuirassier raised the bar, touched his helmet, and said, with something like an amused twinkle in his eyes: "Would Monsieur like to borrow my helmet for a space?"
Maurice put up a hand to his water-soaked hair, and gave an ejaculation of dismay. He had forgotten all about his hat, which was by now, in-all probabilities, at the bottom of the lake.
"Curse the luck!" he said, in English.
"Curse the want of it, I should say!" was the merry rejoinder, also in English.
Maurice threw back his head and laughed, and the cuirassier caught the infection.
"However, there is some compensation for the hat," said the cuirassier, straightening his helmet. "You are the first stranger who has spoken to her Highness this many a day. Did the dog take to your calves? Well, never mind; he has no teeth. It was only day before yesterday that the Marshal swore he'd have the dog shot. Poor dog! He is growing blind, too, or he'd never have risked his gums on the Marshal, who is all shins. If you will wait I will fetch you one of the archbishop's skull caps."
"Don't trouble yourself," laughed Maurice. "What I need is not a hat, but a towel, and I'll get that at the hotel. George! I feel so like an ass. What is your name, Lieutenant?"
"Von Mitter, Carl von Mitter, at your service. And you are Monsieur Carewe."
"Of the American legation in Vienna. Thanks for your trouble."
"None at all. You had better hurry along; your nails are growing black."
Maurice passed into the street. "Her Royal Highness!" he muttered. "The crown princess, and I never suspected. Her name is Alexia, and she serves the princess whenever she can! Maurice, you are an ass!"
Having arrived at this conclusion, and brushing the dank hair from his eyes, he thrust his hands into his oozing pockets, and proceeded across the square toward the Continental, wondering if there was a rear entrance. Happily the adventure absorbed all his thoughts. He was quite unobservant of the marked attention bestowed on him. Carriages filled the Strasse, and many persons moved along the walks. It was the promenade hour. The water, which still dripped from his clothes and trickled from his shoes, left a conspicuous trail behind; and this alone, without the absence of a hat, would have made him the object of amused and wondering smiles.
A gendarme stared at him, but seeing that he walked straight, said nothing. Maurice, however, was serenely unaware of what was passing around him. He did not notice even the tall, broad-shouldered man who, with a gun under his arm, brushed past him, followed by a round-faced German over whose back was slung a game-bag. The man with the gun was also oblivious of his surroundings. He bumped into several persons, who scowled at him, but offered no remonstrance after having taken his measure. The German put his pipe into his pocket and advanced a step.
"The other gun, Herr," he said, "would have meant the boar."
"So it would, perhaps," was the reply.
"We've done pretty good work these two days," went on the German; but as the other appeared not to have heard he fell to the rear again, a sardonic smile flitting over his oily face.
When Maurice reached the hotel cafe he left an order for a cognac to be sent to his room, whither he repaired at once. As he got into dry clothes he mused.
"I wonder what sort of a man that crown prince is? Now, if I were he, an army could not keep me away from Bleiberg. Either he is no judge of beauty, or the peasant girls hereabout are something extraordinary. Pshaw! a man always makes an ass of himself on his wedding eve; the crown prince is simply starting in early. I believe I'll hang on here till the wedding day; a royal marriage is one of those things which I have yet to see. I have a fortnight or more to knock around in. I should like to know what the duchess will eventually do."
He sipped the last drop of the cognac and went down the stairs.
CHAPTER V. BEHIND THE PUPPET BOOTH
While the absent-minded hunter strode down toward the lower town, and Maurice sipped his cognac, the king lay in his bed in the palace and aimlessly fingered the counterpane. There was now no beauty in his face. It was furrowed and pale, and an endless fever burned in the sunken eyes—eyes like coals, which suddenly flare before they turn to ash.
The archbishop nor the chancellor could see anything in the dim corners of the royal bed chamber, but he could. It was the mocking finger of death, and it was leveled at him. Spring had come, and summer and autumn and winter, and spring again, but he had not wandered through the green fields, except in dreams, and the byways he loved knew him no more. Ah, to sit still like a spectator and to see the world pass by! To be a part of it, and yet not of it! To see the glory of strength and vigor just beyond one's grasp, the staffs to lean on crumble to the touch, and the stars of hope fade away one by one from the firmament of one's dreams! Here was weariness for which there was no remedy.
Day by day time pressed him on toward the inevitable. No human hand could stay him. He could think, but he could not act. He could move, but he could not stand nor walk. And that philosophy which had in other days sustained him was shattered and threadbare. He was dead, yet he lived. Fate has so many delicate ironies.
He had tried to make his people love him, only to acquire their hate. He had reduced taxation, only to be scorned. He had made the city beautiful, only to be cursed. A paralytic, the theme of ribald verse, the butt of wineroom wits, the object of contumely to his people, his beneficiaries!
The ingratitude of kings bites not half so deep as the ingratitude of the people. Tears filled his eyes, and he fumbled his lips. There were only two bright spots in his futile life. The first was his daughter, who read to him, who was the first in the morning to greet him and last at night to leave him. The second was the evening hour when the archbishop and the chancellor came in to discuss the affairs of state.
"And Prince Frederick has not yet been heard from?" was his first inquiry.
"No, Sire," answered the chancellor. "The matter is altogether mysterious. The police can find no trace of him. He left Carnavia for Bleiberg; he stopped at Ehrenstein, directed his suite to proceed; there, all ends. The ambassador from Carnavia approached me to-day. He scouts the idea of a peasant girl, and hinted at other things."
"Yes," said the king, "there is something behind all this. Frederick is not a youth of peccadilloes. Something has happened to him. But God send him safe and sound to us, so much depends on him. And Alexia?"
"Says nothing," the archbishop answered, "a way with her when troubled."
"And my old friend, Lord Fitzgerald?"
The prelate shook his head sadly. "We have just been made acquainted with his death. God rest his kindly soul."
The king sank deeper into his pillows.
"But we shall hear from his son within a few days," continued the prelate, taking the king's hand in his own. "My son, cease to worry. Alexia's future is in good hands. I have confidence that the public debt will be liquidated on the twentieth."
"Or renewed," said the chancellor. "Your Majesty must not forget that Prince Frederick sacrifices his own private fortune to adjust our indebtedness. That is the wedding gift which he offers to her Highness. One way or the other, we have nothing to fear."
"O!" cried the king, "I had forgotten that magnanimity. His disappearance is no longer a mystery. He is dead."
His auditors could not repress the start which this declaration caused them to make.
"Sire," said the chancellor, quietly, "princes are not assassinated these days. Our worry is perhaps all needless. The prince is young, and sometimes youth flings off the bridle and runs away. But he loves her Highness, and the Carnavians are not fickle."
The prelate and the statesman had different ideas in regard to the peasant girl. To the prelate a woman was an unknown quantity, and he frowned. The statesman, who had once been young, knew a deal about woman, and he smiled.
"Sometimes, my friends," said the king, "I can see beyond the human glance. I hear the crumbling of walls. But for that lonely child I could die in peace. The crown I wear is of lead; God hasten the day that lifts it from my brow." When the king spoke again, he said: "And that insolent Von Rumpf is gone at last? I am easier. He should have been sent about his business ten years ago. What does Madame the duchess say?"
"So little," answered the chancellor, "that I begin to distrust her silence. But she is a wise woman, though her years are but five and twenty, and she will not make any foolish declaration of war which would only redound to her chagrin."
"What is the fascination in these crowns of straw?" said the king to the prelate. "Ah, my father, you strive for the crown to come; and yet your earnest but misguided efforts placed this earthly one on my head. You were ambitious for me."
"Nay," and the prelate bent his head. "It was self that spoke, worldly aggrandizement. I wished—God forgive me!—to administer not to the prince but to the king. I am punished. The crown has broken your life. It was the passing glory of the world; and I fell."
"And were not my eyes as dazzled by the crown as yours were by the robes? Why did we leave the green hills of Osia? What destiny writes, fate must unfold. And oh, the dreams I had of being great! I am fifty-eight and you are seventy. And look; I am a broken twig, and you tower above me like an ancient oak, and as strong." To the chancellor he said: "And what is the budget?"
"Sire, it is fairly quiet in the lower town. The native troops have been paid, and all signs of discontent abated. The duchess can do nothing but replace von Rumpf. The Marshal is a straw in the wind; von Wallenstein and Mollendorf, I hold a sword above their necks. Nearly half the Diet is with us. There has been some strange meddling in the customs. Englishmen have brought me complaints, through the British legation, regarding such inspections as were never before heard of in a country at peace. I consulted the chief inspector and he affirmed the matter. He was under orders of the minister of police. It appears to me that a certain Englishman is to be kept out of the country for reasons well known to us. I have suspended police power over the customs. Ah, Sire, if you would but agree with Monseigneur to dismiss the cabinet."
"It is too late," said the king.
"There is only one flaw," continued the chancellor. "This flaw is Colonel Beauvais, chief in command of the cuirassiers, who in authority stands between the Marshal and General Kronau. I fear him. Why? Instinct. He is too well informed of my projects for one thing; he laughs when I suggest in military affairs. Who is he? A Frenchman, if one may trust to a name; an Austrian, if one may trust from whence he came, recommended by the premier himself. He entered the cuirassiers as a Captain. You yourself, Sire, made him what he is—the real military adviser of the kingdom. But what of his past? No one knows, unless it be von Wallenstein, his intimate. I, for one, while I may be wrong, trust only those whose past I know, and even then only at intervals."
"Colonel Beauvais?" murmured the king. "I am sure that you are unjustly suspicious. How many times have I leaned on his stout arm! He taught Alexia a thousand tricks of horse, so that to-day she rides as no other woman in the kingdom rides. Would that I stood half so straight and looked at the world half so fearlessly. He is the first soldier in the kingdom."
"All men are honest in your Majesty's eyes," said the archbishop.
"All save the man within me," replied the king.
At this juncture the king's old valet came in with the evening meal; and soon after the prelate and the chancellor withdrew from the chamber.
"How long will he live?" asked the latter.
"A year; perhaps only till to-morrow. Ah, had he but listened to me several years ago, all this would not have come to pass. He would see nothing; he persisted in dreams. With the death of Josef he was convinced that his enemies had ceased to be. Had he listened, I should have dismissed the cabinet, and found enough young blood to answer my purposes; I should have surrounded him with a mercenary army two thousand strong; by now he should have stood strongly entrenched.