The SECRET WITNESS
BY GEORGE GIBBS
AUTHOR OF "PARADISE GARDEN," "THE YELLOW DOVE," ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY GEORGE BREHM
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK LONDON 1917
Copyright, 1917, by the Curtis Publishing Company Published in the United States of America
TO MY FRIEND MAJOR R. TAIT McKENZIE, R.A.M.C.
I. JUNE 12, 1914
II. COURT SECRETS
III. THE HABSBURG HAVEN
IV. SECRET INFORMATION
V. TWO INTRUDERS
VI. HERR WINDT
VII. THE GREEN LIMOUSINE
VIII. AN ESCAPE AND A CAPTURE
IX. CAPTAIN GORITZ
X. DIAMOND CUTS DIAMOND
XI. THE MAN IN BLACK
XIV. THE HARIM
XV. THE LIGHTED WINDOWS
XVI. THE BEG OF RATAJ
XVII. THE MAN IN ARMOR
XVIII. NUMBER 28
XX. RENWICK QUESTIONS
XXI. AN IMPERSONATION
XXII. THE NEEDLE IN THE HAYSTACK
XXIII. SCHLOSS SZOLNOK
XXIV. PRISONER AND CAPTIVE
XXV. THE RIFT IN THE ROCK
XXVI. THE DEATH GRIP
IN REGARD TO THE EVIDENCE IN THE CASE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Your veil—quick," he stammered breathlessly.
"It is too late," she murmured. "They would see us."
"Who are you?" she asked.
His Excellency rose and bowed over her hand—
"Be quiet. People are watching you," said Goritz sternly.
"Thank you," she said simply. "I believe you."
THE SECRET WITNESS
JUNE 12, 1914
The Countess Marishka was fleet of foot. She was straight and slender and she set a pace for Renwick along the tortuous paths in the rose gardens of the Archduke which soon had her pursuer gasping. She ran like a boy, her dark hair falling about her ears, her draperies like Nike's in the wind, her cheeks and eyes glowing, a pretty quarry indeed and well worthy of so arduous a pursuit. For Renwick was not to be denied and as the girl turned into the path which led to the thatched arbor, he saw that she was breathing hard and the half-timorous laugh she threw over her shoulder at him only spurred him on to new endeavor. He reached the hedge as she disappeared, but his instinct was unerring and he leaped through the swaying branches just in time to see the hem of her skirt in the foliage on the other side and plunging through caught her in his arms just as she sank, laughing breathlessly, to the spangled shadows of the turf beyond.
"Marishka," he cried joyously, "did you mean it?"
But she wouldn't reply.
"You said that if I caught you——"
"The race—isn't always—to the swift—" she protested falteringly in her pretty broken English.
"I made no promise."
"You'll make it now, the one I've waited for—for weeks—Marishka. Lift up your head."
"No, no," she stammered.
Renwick caught her in his arms again and turned her chin upward. Her eyes were closed, but as their lips met her figure relaxed in his arms and her head sank upon his shoulder.
"You run very fast, Herr Renwick," she whispered.
"You'll marry me, Marishka?"
"Who shall say?" she evaded.
"Your own lips. You've given them to me——"
"No, no. You have taken them——"
"It is all the same. They are mine." And Renwick took them again.
"Oh," she gasped, "you are so persistent—you English. You always wish to have your own way."
He laughed happily.
"Would you have me otherwise? My way and your way, Marishka, they go together. You wish it so, do you not?"
She was silent a while, the wild spirit in her slowly submissive, and at last a smile moved her lips, her dark eyes were upturned to his and she murmured a little proudly:
"It is a saying among the women of the House of Strahni that where the lips are given the heart must follow."
"Your heart, Marishka! Mine, for many weeks. I know it. It is the lips which have followed."
"What matters it now, beloved," she sighed, "since you have them both?"
"Nothing. I only wondered why you've kept me dangling so long."
She was silent a moment.
"I—I have been afraid."
"I do not know. It is the Tzigane in my blood which reads into the future——"
She paused and he laughed gayly.
"Because I am a foreigner——"
"I have not always loved the English. I have thought them cold, different from my people."
He kissed her again.
"And I could let you believe me that!"
She laughed. "Oh, no.... But you have shown me enough." And, pushing him gently away, "I am convinced, mon ami...."
"As if you couldn't have read it in my eyes——"
"Alas! One reads—and one runs——"
"You couldn't escape me. It was written."
"Yes," she said dreamily, "I believe that now." And then, "But if anything should come between us——"
"What, Marishka?" he smiled.
"I don't know. I have always thought that love would not come to me without bitterness."
"What bitterness, liebchen?"
She settled softly closer to him and shrugged lightly. "How should I know?"
He smiled at her proudly and caught her brown hand to his lips.
"You are dyed in the illusions of your race,—mystery—fatalism. They become you well. But here among the roses of Konopisht there is no room in my heart or yours for anything but happiness. See how they nod to each other in the sunlight, Marishka. Like us, they love and are loved. June comes to Bohemia but once a year—or to us. Let us bloom in the sunlight like them—happy—happy——"
"Blood red, the roses," she said pensively. "The white ones please me better. But they are so few. The Archduke likes the red ones best. What is the verse?
"I sometimes think that never blows so red The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled."
"What matter Caesar or Kaiser to us, Marishka? Our own kingdom——"
"Yes, yes," she sighed. "And I am happy in it. You know it, nicht wahr?"
Silence, except for the drowsy hum of the bees and the songs of the birds. No fatalism is long proof against the call of love and June. Marishka was content that her flight had ended in capture and sat dreamily gazing at the white clouds floating overhead while she listened to the voice at her ear, replying to it in monosyllables, the language of acquiescence and content. The moments passed. Konopisht was no longer a garden. Enchanted their bower and even the red roses forgotten.
Suddenly the girl started upright to her knees, and peered wide-eyed through an opening in the foliage.
"What is it, Marishka?"
She put a finger to her lips in token of silence, and Renwick followed her gaze down the graveled path which led toward the arbor. As under-secretary of the British Embassy in Vienna, he had been trained to guard his emotions against surprises, but the sight of the three figures which were approaching them down the path left him bereft for the moment of all initiative. In the center walked the Archduke, pulling deliberately at his heavy dark mustaches while he listened to the figure upon his right, a man of medium stature, who wore a hunting suit and a jaeger hat with a feather in it. He carried his left hand, concealing a defect of his arm, in the pocket of his shooting jacket, while with his free right hand he swung an ebony cane. His mustaches were turned straight upward from the corners of his mouth and the aggressive chin shot outward as he glanced right and left, talking meanwhile with his companions. The third figure was very tall, topping even the Archduke, who was by no means small of stature, by at least six inches; his hair, or as much of it as could be seen beneath the soft hat, was gray, and a long beard, almost white in the patches at either side of the chin, descended in two long points half of the way to his waist.
Renwick recognized the visitors at once, and turned toward his startled companion, his own mind as to the propriety of his situation at once made up.
"Marishka," he whispered, "we must go."
"It is too late," she murmured. "They would see us."
"And what does that matter?"
"I forgot," she breathed helplessly. "I was told I was not to come today into the rose garden. I wondered why. Sh——! Sit still. Crouch lower. Perhaps they will pass on and then——"
Renwick obeyed somewhat dubiously and sank, scarcely daring to breathe, beneath the thick foliage beside the arbor which concealed his companion. She seized his hand and he felt her fingers trembling in his own, but he pressed them gently—aware that the tremors of the girl's fingers as the footsteps approached the arbor were being unpleasantly communicated to his own. The breach of hospitality to the household of the Archduke, upon whose land he was, was as nothing beside the breach of etiquette to the Empire by his Chief. Renwick's nerves were good but he trembled with Marishka. The friendship of nations depended upon the security of his concealment—more than that—and less than that—his own fate and the girl's. And so Renwick crouched beside her and silently prayed in English, a language he thought more fitted to the desperate nature of his desires, that the three figures would pass on to another part of the garden, that they, the luckless lovers, might flee to the abandoned tennis court in innocence and peace.
But Renwick's prayers were not to be answered. Had he known at the moment how deeply the two of them were to be enmeshed in the skein of Europe's destiny he would have risen and faced the anger of his host, or, risking detection, incontinently fled. But Marishka's hand clasped his own, and lucklessly, he waited.
The three men reached the gate of the arbor, the smaller one entering first, the giant with the gray beard, at a gesture from their host, following, and they all sat in chairs around the small iron table. Renwick was paralyzed with fear and Marishka's chill fingers seemed frozen to his. There had been rumors in the chancellories of Europe of this visit to Konopisht to see the most wonderful rose garden in Bohemia in mid-June, but Renwick knew, as did every other diplomat in Vienna, that the visit to the roses of Konopisht was a mere subterfuge. If there had been any doubt in the Englishman's mind as to the real nature of the visit, the grave expressions upon the faces of the men in the arbor would speedily have set him right. The Archduke opened a cigarette case and offered it to his companions who helped themselves with some deliberation.
"A wonderful rose garden, truly, my friend," said the man in the jaeger hat with a smile which broke the grave lines of his face into pleasant wrinkles. "I will give your gardener twice what you offer him to come to me."
The Archduke showed his white teeth in a smile. "Majestaet has but to request——"
"A jest, my friend. It would be unmannerly. It is Her Highness that I would also rob, for roses, after all, are more a woman's pleasure than a man's."
"The Duchess spends many hours here——"
"The Arch Duchess," corrected the other vehemently.
The Archduke shrugged. "She will always hold that rank in my heart," he said quietly.
"And with me and my House," said the other quickly.
"It is a pity that my own family should not be of the same mind."
"It matters nothing," said the other. "Nothing. You shall see."
The Archduke examined the ash of his cigarette, but said nothing.
"You must realize, my great and good friend," continued the man in the hunting suit, "that I did not come to Konopisht only to see your roses."
The Archduke nodded attentively.
"The fortunes of your family are linked to mine by ties deeper than those of blood,—a community of interest and of fortune which involves the welfare, happiness and progress of many millions of people. The history of civilization in Europe has reached a new page, one which must be written by those who have in keeping the Divine destiny of the Germanic race. It is not a time to falter before the graveness of our responsibility and the magnitude of our undertakings. I spoke of these things at Eckartsau. I think you understand."
The Archduke nodded gravely.
"I will not shirk any responsibility. I hesitated once. That hour has passed. Sophie—Maximilian—Ernest——"
"They must have their heritage."
The man in the jaeger hat got up and paced impatiently the length of the arbor, at one moment within three yards of the terrified lovers in the foliage.
"Are we alone, your Highness?" he asked of the Archduke.
"I gave orders that no one should enter the rose garden at any time this afternoon," replied his host.
"It is well." He sent a quick glance toward the tall man who had risen. "You understand, Admiral, nicht wahr?"
A guttural sound came from the old man's throat.
"The destinies of Europe, meine Herren," he went on.
"Majestaet may speak on," said the Archduke coolly, "without fear of eavesdroppers."
Renwick, crouched beneath the foliage, was incapable of motion. All his will power was used in the effort to control his breathing, and reduce his body to absolute inertness. But as the moments passed, and the men in the arbor gave no sign of suspicion he gained confidence, all his professional instincts aroused at the import of this secrecy and the magnificence of the impending revelations. He was England, waiting, alert, on guard, for the safety and peace of Europe. He did not dare to look at Marishka, for fear of the slightest motion or sound which might betray them. Only their hands clasped, though by this time neither of them was conscious of the contact.
"At Eckartsau, my brother," went on the smaller man, "you and I came to an understanding. Maximilian and Ernest are growing toward manhood. And what is that manhood to be? Habsburg blood flows in their veins as it flows in you, the Heir Presumptive, but the Family Law debars them. Not even the Este estates can pass to your children. They will become pensioners upon the bounty of those who hate their mother."
"Impossible!" whispered the Archduke tensely. "It must not be. I will find a way——"
"Listen, Franz, my brother. A magnificent horizon spreads before you. Look at it. Part of the Duchy of Posen, the ancient Kingdom of Poland with Lithuania and the Ukraine, the Poland of the Jagellons, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Yours. And after you, Maximilian's. For Ernest, Bohemia, Hungary, the Southern Slav lands of Austria, Serbia, the Slav coast of the Eastern Adriatic and Saloniki;—two Empires in one. And the states of those who have despised Sophie Chotek——" he paused expressively and snapped his jaws, "the Austrian Erblaender will come into the Confederated German Empire." He paused again and then went on more quietly, "Between us two a close and perpetual military and economic alliance, to be the arbiters of Europe under the Divine will, dominating the West and commanding the road to the East." He paused and took a fresh cigarette from the box on the table.
"It is what I have dreamed," murmured the deep voice of the Archduke. "And yet it is no dream, but reality. Fate plays into my hands. At no time have we been in a better position."
It was the turn of the Archduke to walk the floor of the arbor with long strides, his hands behind him, his gaze bent before him.
"Yes, civilization, progress—all material things. But the Church—you forget, Majestaet, that your people and mine are of different faiths. Some assurance I must have that there will be no question——"
"Willingly," said the other, rising. "Do not my people serve God as they choose? For you, if you like, the Holy Roman Empire reconstituted with you as its titular head, the sovereignty of central Europe intact—all the half formulated experiments of the West, at the point of the sword. This is your mission—and mine!"
The two men faced each other, eye to eye, but the smaller dominated.
"A pact, my brother," said the man in the hunting-suit, extending his hand.
The Archduke hesitated but a moment longer, and then thrust forward. The hands clasped, while beside the two, the tall man stood like a Viking, his great head bent forward, his forked beard wagging over the table.
"A pact," repeated the Archduke, "which only Death may disrupt."
They stood thus in a long moment of tension. It was he they called Majestaet who first relaxed.
"Death?" he smiled. "Who knows? God defends the Empire. It lives on in my sons and yours."
"Amen!" said the Archduke solemnly.
"For the present," continued the other quietly, "silence! I shall advise you. You can rely upon Von Hoetzendorf?"
"Utterly. In two weeks I shall attend the grand maneuvers at Savajevo."
"Oh, yes, of course. You shall hear from me." He took a few steps toward the door of the arbor. "It does not do to stay here too long. We must join the others. Berchtold, you said, is coming?"
The Archduke nodded with a frown, and followed with the Admiral into the garden. The sun had declined and the warm glow of late afternoon fell upon the roses, dyeing them with a deeper red. But along the crimson alleys the three men walked calmly, the smaller one still gesturing with his ebony cane. Presently the sound of their footsteps upon the gravel diminished and in a moment they disappeared beyond the hedge by the greenhouses.
Renwick in his place of concealment trembled again. The reaction had come. He drew a long breath, moved his stiffened limbs and glanced at his companion. Her face was like wax, pale as death and as colorless. Her fingers in his were ice-cold. Her eyes, dark with bewilderment, sought his blankly like those of a somnambulist. Renwick rose stiffly to his knees and peered through the bushes.
"They have gone," he muttered.
"The Archduke!" she gasped. "You heard?"
"Have we dreamed? I cannot believe——"
Renwick was thinking quickly. Marishka—their position—his duty—a way of escape—one thought crowded another in his mind. He glanced about through the foliage behind them and then rose to his feet.
"I must get back to Vienna, at once," he said hoarsely.
Marishka stood beside him, clinging to his arm.
"And I—I know not what to do. I could not look Her Highness in the face. But I too must go to Vienna. I am not versed in politics, but the secret that we share is terrible. It oppresses me. Austria—my country!"
She hid her face in her hands and stood silent a moment, in the throes of a struggle, still trembling violently. At the touch of Renwick's fingers upon her arm, she straightened, lowered her hands, her face now quite composed.
"I too must leave here at once," she said quietly. "I have an allegiance stronger than my duty to Sophie Chotek. I am going——"
"Where?" he asked.
"But Marishka, have you thought——?"
"I pray that you will waste no words. As you love me, Hugh, you will do what I ask and be silent."
"What can I do?"
"Go with me to Vienna tonight."
"That would be most imprudent. Your reputation——"
"I care nothing. Will you accompany me?"
Renwick shrugged. "Of course."
"Then do as I bid you. I will show you a way out to a small gate from the garden by which you can reach the public road. Go to your Inn. Make arrangements for an automobile. I will join you tonight." She peered in all directions through the foliage and then led the way through the bushes in a direction opposite to that by which they had come. Renwick followed silently, his mind turbulent. What was his duty? And where did it conflict with Marishka's mad plan? What would his Ambassador have wished him to do? And in what could he serve England best? He must have time to think. For the present at least Marishka should have her way. Indeed, had he wished, he saw no means of dissuading her. He would go with her to Vienna, make a clean breast of things to his Chief, before Marishka could carry out her plan. After that the matter would be out of his hands.
The girl descended some steps to a narrow gate in the hedge. Here Renwick paused a moment to clasp her in his arms.
"Beloved," she whispered, "not now. Go. Follow the path to the wall. You must climb it. Let no one see you descend. Au revoir. God be with you."
And she was gone.
Hugh Renwick lay flat upon the coping of the wall for a moment peering up and down the road until sure at last that the way was clear, when he let himself down and walked rapidly in the direction of the village. The events of the last hour were of a nature to disturb the equanimity of an existence less well ordered than his. The winning of the Countess Marishka, an achievement upon which he had set his whole soul for many uncertain weeks in which hope and fear had fought a daily battle in his heart—that in itself had been enough to convince him that the gods looked upon him with favor—but this other coup de foudre! Whatever the means by which his information had been obtained, the mere possession of it and the revelation of it to his Ambassador was a diplomatic achievement of the highest importance. There had long been rumors of an entente between Archduke and Kaiser, but this! He rubbed his eyes to make sure that he was awake.
Hugh Renwick was merely the average Englishman of good family and wealth, who because of his education in a German university had found the offer of the post of Vienna singularly attractive. He had filled his position with circumspection, if not with brilliancy, and had made himself sufficiently popular in court circles to be sure that if not a triumphant success in the drudgery of the office, he was at least not altogether a social failure. Good looking, wealthy, talented though he was, it was something indeed to have won Marishka Strahni, who, apart from her high position in Vienna and the success of a season, was, as he well knew, the finest girl in all Austria. Even yet he doubted his good fortune. He had come to Konopisht, where the girl was visiting the Duchess of Hohenberg, who had been a childhood friend of her mother's. As everyone in Vienna knew, Sophie Chotek was ineligible for the high position she occupied as consort of the Heir Presumptive. Though a member of an ancient Bohemian family, that of Chotek and Wognin, the law of the Habsburg's that archdukes may marry only those of equal rank, forbade that the Duchess of Hohenberg and her children should share the position of husband and father. She had been snubbed upon all the occasions of her appearance at court functions, and had at last retired to the Archduke's estates at Konopisht, where she led the secluded life of the ebenburtige, still chafing, rumor had it, and more than ever jealous and ambitious for the future of the children.
Upon the occasion of a previous visit of the Countess Marishka to Konopisht, Renwick had spent a week end at the castle, but he thanked his stars that he was now stopping at the village inn. It would have been difficult to go through the formality of leave-taking with the shadow of this impending tragedy to Europe hanging over him. He pitied Marishka from the bottom of his heart for he had seen the beginnings of the struggle between her devotion to the Duchess and her duty to her sovereign. But he knew enough of her quality to be sure that she would carry out her plan at whatever the cost to her own feelings.
As Renwick approached the gates which led into the Castle grounds, he had an actual sense of the consequence of the Archduke's guests in the appearance of soldiery and police which were to be seen in every direction, and while he waited in the village road two automobiles came out of the gate and dashed past him in the direction of the railroad station, in the foremost of which he recognized Archduke Franz and his guests of the rose garden.
"The roses of Konopisht," he muttered, thinking of Marishka's fatalism. "Were they symbols, those innocent red blossoms?" And then with an inward smile, "Marishka! What bitterness could the roses of Konopisht bring between Marishka and him?"
A sense of the grave importance of his mission came over Renwick with a rush. He looked at his watch. Six o'clock. It would have been hazardous to use the wire to reach the Embassy even had he possessed a code. He knew enough of the activities of the Austrian secret service to be sure that in spite of his entree at the Castle, his presence at Konopisht at this time might be marked. He sauntered down the street with an air of composure he was far from feeling. There was nothing for it but to obey Marishka's injunctions and wait, upon his guard against surprises, but ready to go to any extreme to reach Vienna and the Embassy with a sound skin. He found the owner of a motor car, and telling the man that he was traveling by night, he paid its owner in advance and engaged it to be at a certain place by nightfall, promising a further payment if the matter were kept secret. Then he went to the inn, took supper, and lighting his pipe, paced the cobbles and waited.
As the summer dusk fell slowly upon the streets of the little village, Renwick found himself a prey to renewed apprehensions as to Marishka. Had her presence and his in the rose garden been discovered by one of the Archduke's retainers? And was she now a prisoner in the castle where a few hours ago she had been so free a guest? She was clever, as he knew, but the burden of her secret had marked its shadows upon her face. What excuse would she offer the Duchess for her sudden departure? The girl was dear to him, dearer than anything in the world but England, and the thought of making a choice between her safety and the performance of his duty was bitterly painful to him. Eight o'clock passed—nine. He had gone inside the house again, for the actions of any stranger in Konopisht were sure to be conspicuous and he felt himself already an object of notice. But at last unable to bear the suspense inactive, he went out, crossed the road and stood, his teeth clenched upon his extinguished pipe, his gaze upon the road which led to the gates of the Park.
There she came to him, out of the darkness. At the touch of her fingers he started, for he had not been expecting her from this direction, but the sound of her voice fell like the balm of her presence upon his spirit.
"Thank God," he gasped. "Marishka, I was afraid——"
"I came as soon as I could," she whispered rapidly in English. "It was difficult. I could make no excuses for leaving. I pleaded fatigue and went to my room. And when the opportunity offered, stole out through the garden."
"And your absence will not be discovered——?"
"Not until tomorrow—when, please the Holy Virgin, I shall be at Schoenbrunn."
He took her in his arms and kissed her warmly, but he felt the restraint in her caress.
"Hugh, beloved, let us wait upon duty for our own happiness. I cannot rest until I have told our dreadful secret. You have a motor car?"
"Come," he said. And taking her small valise with his own, he led the way to the spot where the machine was awaiting them. Marishka gave directions and in a few moments they were off. The danger of detection, once beyond the village, was slight, and their purpose to reach the railroad at Budweis and take a late train to Vienna was not difficult of accomplishment. The machine was none too good, but the road for the main part was excellent. Renwick's arm was about the girl, and they sat discussing their plans for the immediate future.
"You have no fear for what you are about to do?" he asked.
"What should I fear?" she said lightly. "I am only doing my duty."
"There will be difficulties, will there not?"
"Perhaps. But I shall succeed. Prince Montenuovo, the High Chamberlain of the Court will listen to me."
"But you will not tell him all."
"Not unless it is necessary. You, Hugh, will take me to him."
Renwick was silent for a moment.
"Marishka," he said at last, "we share a terrible duty, yours to Austria, and mine to England——"
"But mine—is it not the greater?" she pleaded. "You must not speak, Hugh, until I have given you permission."
Renwick folded his arms and gazed stolidly into the darkness.
"I must tell what I know to Sir Herbert," he said firmly. "You must not ask me to be silent."
He noticed the change in her voice as she replied, "Is my happiness so slight a thing that you can refuse the first request I make of you?"
He caught her hand to his lips.
"Marishka, you know——"
"My first request——"
"There is nothing in the world that I would not do for you. You would think little of me if I did not do my duty."
"And of your duty to me——? Is that nothing?"
Renwick smiled into the darkness. Had he been told six months ago that he would be bandying the interests of England against the plans of a pretty woman he would have laughed the idea to scorn.
"What do you wish me to do, Marishka?" he asked gently.
With a swift impulse, she threw her arms about his neck, whispering in his ear.
"O Hugh, I cannot bear that there should be a difference between us, today, the first of our fiancailles. It will perhaps make no great difference that you should tell what we have heard, for your country, thank the Holy Virgin, is at friendship with mine. If you would but wait until I give you permission."
"And if something happened to me in the meanwhile——?"
"Nothing can happen. No one at Konopisht can know. I am sure of that—sure."
Perhaps the moment of danger that had threatened their happiness had made each more considerate, and the two great secrets that they possessed, their own and the other more terrible one had strengthened the bond between them.
"I will wait until you have been to Schoenbrunn," he decided.
"Until I give you permission," she insisted.
He kissed her. She believed it to be a promise and the tight pressure of her hand rewarded him. In that moment of rapprochement, the destinies of nations seemed a matter of little moment to them.
"You will marry me soon, Marishka?" he murmured.
"Perhaps," she whispered gently.
Morning brought the pair in a fiacre into the Schottenring, Marishka weary but resolute, Renwick somewhat dubious as to their appearance at this early hour alone in the streets of Vienna. But at his suggestion that they drive first to the house of Marishka's aunt and guardian, Baroness Racowitz, where some excuse could be made for the girl's unexpected visit, Marishka only shook her head and gave the town address of Prince Montenuovo, who, as she knew, was still in residence, the Emperor not being expected at Ischl until the middle of July. Nor would she permit Renwick to accompany her within the house, and so he sat alone in the humble fiacre for what seemed an interminable time, until a man in livery came down the steps and gave him a note in Marishka's hand.
"I have succeeded in getting an audience. Go to the Embassy and await word from me. Silence."
And so at last he drove away to his hotel, sure at least that for the present he had done his duty to Marishka. But this was no boy-and-girl matter. The lives of nations, perhaps, hung upon his decision. In a weak moment he had promised Marishka an impossible thing. He did not know what danger hung over him. If anything happened to him England might never know until it was too late. The vision of Marishka's pale face haunted him, but he decided to take no further chances, and locking himself in his own rooms, he wrote a long statement, in which he accurately recounted his experience in the garden the day before. This letter written, sealed, addressed, and given to a trusted servant to be delivered into the hands of the Ambassador at a given time, Renwick breathed a sigh of relief, then bathed, dressed, and waited.
It was not until some days later that he heard in detail of Marishka's visit to the Emperor. The High Chamberlain, aware of the visit of the Countess Strahni to Konopisht, and convinced of her earnestness and anxiety, had acted immediately. The Emperor fortunately was not ailing and the audience was obtained without difficulty. Franz Joseph at eighty-four, and burdened with more sorrows than those that fall to the lot of the average man, still found interest in the complaints and petitions of his subjects and had audience on certain days at Schoenbrunn. It was this intimate touch with his people, kept through many years, which endeared him to his subjects, and stories of his paternal kindness were thus continually sent the length and breadth of the nation.
Marishka was shown into an antechamber in the Emperor's private suite where for what seemed an interminable time she sat and waited. At length her sponsor appeared and conducted her along a short corridor past several rooms to a white door which the Prince opened, and then stood aside as Marishka entered.
"The Countess Strahni," he announced.
Marishka, a little bewildered and frightened, advanced uncertainly, her eyes dazzled by the brilliant sunlight which streamed in at the south. As she hesitated, a voice near the furthest window spoke reassuringly.
"Come in, child," it said. "I am here."
She advanced with trembling knees, aware of an old man in a military blouse sitting in a large chair beyond a desk. The infirmities of age and suffering had bowed his shoulders and to Marishka the Emperor seemed smaller than when she had seen him last, smaller and very much older. There was a stillness about his person, a quality of resignation and quiescence that was almost statuesque. But his whiskers and mustache, carefully groomed, were brushed upward and outward from the rather heavy lip and chin, and had a military cut which comported well with the dignity of his appearance. His eyes, the right one much smaller than the left, were light gray in color, and as her own gaze caught them, very grave and kindly, like his voice, which as he spoke gave her every encouragement to be at her ease.
"You will pardon the infirmities of an old man and forgive me for not rising," he said gently. "Will you be seated, here, before me, where I may look at you?"
There was a pathetic touch of his old gallantry in the gesture which accompanied the words, and a bright flash of his eyes as Marishka came forward into the light and stood before him. Even today the Emperor was not immune from the charms of feminine beauty. Marishka did as she was bidden, sitting upon the edge of her chair before the old man, gazing at him again, without words to begin.
"His Highness has told me that you have something of importance to communicate," said the Emperor with a smile. "Your grandfather once did me a service. If there is anything that I may do——"
The quiet voice paused and she was conscious of the gaze of the gray eyes upon her in gentle inquiry.
"It is nothing that I want, Sire," she murmured haltingly. "It is something of the utmost importance that has occurred—at Konopisht—which I thought it necessary that you should know—something of the gravest moment to the State—to Austria—and to—to Your Majesty."
She paused breathless, finding speech difficult.
She saw his eyebrows upraised slightly and then contracted, while his gaze upon her grew concentrated.
"You may speak freely, child. There is no one here who hasn't the interests of my country at heart."
Marishka glanced around swiftly, her pulses throbbing. Prince Montenuovo stood beside the desk, immovable.
"Your Majesty," she almost whispered, "my information is of such a character——"
She paused again and felt the old man's gaze upon her in deeper interest and curiosity. There was a silence, but if he had had a momentary doubt of her, it was speedily dispelled, for his rather weary lips parted in a smile, as he turned to his Chamberlain. "If Your Highness will be pleased to await my call——"
Prince Montenuovo with a bow withdrew.
"Now, child," said the Emperor, bending slightly forward in his chair, "will you not tell me freely what has bothered you?"
"Your Majesty," said Marishka, plunging breathlessly into her subject, "I was stopping at Konopisht at the castle of the Archduke Franz. The Duchess of Hohenberg, formerly the Countess Chotek, was a friend of my mother's, and for many years our families have been intimate."
She saw the slight contraction of the heavy brows at the mention of Sophie Chotek's name, but she went on rapidly:
"Sire, when you know how long our families have been friendly, how kind Her Highness has been to me since the death of my father and mother, you will understand that what I am about to say—to reveal—is very painful to me. I could not speak, Sire, even now, unless the welfare of Austria and of Your Majesty were not more important to me than any personal considerations whatever."
As she paused painfully again, he encouraged her with a smile.
"Go on, child," he said.
"I was at the tennis court, playing with"—she paused and blushed prettily—"with a friend. The game finished, we—we went into the garden and sat upon the lawn in the shade of some foliage where it was cool. I did not know, Sire, nor did my companion, of the presence of royalty at Konopisht, and did not remember that I had been told not to go into the rose garden until it was too late."
"Too late?" he asked keenly.
"We were interested, talking, and not until the sound of footsteps upon the graveled walk near the arbor, did I realize how grave a violation of the hospitality of the Archduke had been committed. I should have fled, but, Sire, I could not. I was frightened. And so we stayed, hidden in the foliage by the arbor."
"So!" he broke in, his voice speaking the word with a rising inflection of intense interest. "It is well that you have come. I, too, know something of the visitors to the roses of Konopisht. The talk was not all of roses, nicht wahr?" he said quietly, with a little bitterness.
"No, Sire. The talk was not all of roses," said Marishka.
"Go on, then," he continued. "Spare me no word of what you heard or saw. Nothing."
And Marishka, composing herself with an effort, obeyed the command.
THE HABSBURG RAVEN
The Emperor heard her through until the end, with a word here, a sudden question there, the gravity of the girl's disclosures searing more painfully the deeply bitten lines at eye and brow. But he did not flinch. It seemed that grief and pain had already done their worst to that frail body. For whatever this Habsburg's failings, fear was not one of them. There was resolution too in the clenching of the freckled fist upon the chair arm and in his footsteps as he started up from his chair and walked the length of the room. Bowed though his shoulders were with the weight of his years, he was still a figure to respect—a personality. Marishka watched furtively, waiting for him to speak again as he strode back and forth, but his brows were deeply tangled in thought and his shoulders were more bent than ever. It almost seemed that he had forgotten her presence.
But at last he turned toward where Marishka, who had risen and was still standing, was awaiting his pleasure. He came straight toward her and extended his fingers. She sank to her knees to kiss them, but he caught her by the hand and restrained her.
"You have done well, Countess Strahni," he said quietly. "The men of your House have always been brave soldiers and good citizens, the women comely and loyal, and you, my child, have today done much to continue the honorable traditions of your family. Austria is, for you, as she is for us all, the Mother, whom God blesses in the loyalty of her children. As for those"—and his brows clouded—"who follow the devices of their own hearts, those who consider neither the family law nor the human law——" He paused, turned and sank into his chair, leaning forward again intently as the new thought struck him. "Who was your companion, Countess?"
Marishka flushed a little but said quietly,
"A gentleman—an Englishman——"
"So!" again the rising inflection, followed this time by a slight frown. "An Englishman!"
"A friend of mine, Sire," she went on with an access of dignity. "Herr Renwick, an attache of the British Embassy——"
"Ah, I understand. He has told?"
"He has given me his promise to reveal nothing until I had been at Schoenbrunn and then only with my permission."
"I see," said the Emperor with a frown. "He is discreet?"
"He has a reputation for discretion, Sire; I think he may be trusted."
"So," said the Emperor. "Where is he now?"
"I was to communicate with him later."
"Giving him permission to speak?"
"It is a pity," he muttered, as though meditating aloud. "We have washed enough linen in public. And this——" He turned abruptly toward her. "You have influence with this Herr Renwick?" he asked keenly.
Marishka was painfully embarrassed.
"A little, Sire, I think."
"You have served Austria well today, Countess Strahni. You can serve her again if you can prevent this Herr Renwick from communicating with Sir Herbert Southgate.... This is no concern of England's."
"I will do what I can, Sire. But the matter, it seemed, was of grave importance to Herr Renwick. He is an able diplomat and most intelligent."
The Emperor regarded her almost wistfully.
"It would be a pity," he said, "if Herr Renwick should be discredited at the Austrian court——"
"It would ruin him, Sire," said Marishka apprehensively; "if he tells what he knows, he would only be doing his duty."
"He must not tell, child," said the Emperor gravely. "This is Austria's secret and her sorrow. You realize that, do you not?"
Marishka bowed her head, painfully.
"You will promise me to do what you can?"
She looked into the face of this tired old man and a great pity for him swept over her.
"I will, Sire. I will ask him not to tell—demand it of him even if——"
She paused and hid her face in her hands, unable to say more, trying to hide the true nature of the sacrifice he was asking of her.
The Emperor understood and laid a kindly hand upon her shoulder.
"I understand, my daughter. I pray that no bitterness may come between you, on account of this. Responsibility comes to you early, and yet you cannot—must not shirk it."
"And if he refuses——?" she pleaded.
The wrinkled face broke into a smile, the gray eyes were bright in admiration.
"I am sure," he said gallantly, "that Herr Renwick could refuse you nothing. Were I younger——" He paused with a sigh and smiled again. "I am not sure even now that I am not a trifle jealous of this discreet Englishman of yours." And, then, aware of her intense embarrassment, "But I am sure that you will succeed."
"I shall try, Sire," she murmured.
And still he seemed loath to let her go, walking toward the window where he stood in the sunlight looking down upon the lovely gardens beneath him.
"Perhaps you did not know, Countess, that this visit to the roses of Konopisht has caused us some concern here in Vienna. Berchtold, who went yesterday to Konopisht, will, of course, discover nothing. The Duchess of Hohenberg is a very clever woman. You know her as a friend. If her loyalty to her friends is as sincere as her ambitions for her children, then you can surely have no cause for complaint. Friendship begets friendship, but those who love Austria may not serve other gods—or goddesses. You have considered these things, and however difficult the task—have chosen?"
"It has been bitter, Sire. I can never go back to Konopisht."
"I am sorry. A terrible lesson awaits Sophie Chotek. I have been sorely tried. As for the Archduke Franz—a reckoning—a reckoning——"
She saw the old man pause and start a pace back from the window, toward which he stared, wide-eyed and immovable. There, upon the sill of the window, a black bird had suddenly appeared and hopped awkwardly to and fro. It seemed perfectly at home, and not in the least frightened, peering into the room with its head cocked upon one side, a baleful purplish glitter in its eye.
In a flash Marishka remembered the legend which connects every misfortune of the House of Habsburg with the appearance of this bird of ill omen: the flight of ravens at Olmuetz, the raven of the ill-fated Maximilian at Miramar, the raven of the Archduchess Maria Christina on the eve of her departure for her future kingdom of Spain, the raven which came to the Empress Elizabeth on the afternoon before the day of her assassination,—all these incidents so closely connected with the royal figure before her, passed quickly across her mind as they must have crossed that of the Emperor. He sank into his chair and she followed his gaze through the window again. The somber bird had gone.
Marishka stood in silence, not daring to move, aware of the terrible undercurrent of thought which must be racking the mind of her sovereign, this man of sorrows, who stood upon the brink of the grave and peace, and yet who must still live and suffer until the curse of the Countess Karolyi should be utterly fulfilled.
"Sire," she muttered after a moment, "can I——"
He stirred, and raised a pallid face to hers. It was quite composed now, but marked with a sadness inexpressible.
"You may leave me now, child. I am a little tired. If you will touch the bell upon the table——"
He paused as she did so, and a servant entered.
"You will tell Prince Montenuovo that the audience is concluded," he said.
Marishka fell upon her knees before him, and touched his fingers to her lips.
"May God bless Your Majesty," she murmured half-hysterically, scarcely knowing what she said, "and give you peace."
She was aware of his smile as she arose.
"Go, Countess," he said, "you have done well. Keep this secret at whatever the cost to yourself. Those who love Austria must now be prepared to suffer for her. My blessing, child."
She obeyed the gesture of his hand and followed the High Chamberlain into the outer corridor.
* * * * *
Marishka's first thought, upon emerging from the palace, was that she must find Hugh Renwick at once. A new idea of her duty had been born in her. The importance of keeping this secret of theirs from England had not seemed as obvious before her visit to Schoenbrunn. The thought of her lover's possible refusal of her request now seemed appalling. As she remembered his sober face last night in the automobile, when this topic had caused her a moment of unhappiness, it seemed that his refusal to accede to her request was more than possible. She had liked Hugh Renwick because he was strong, honest, reliable, serious,—qualities she had not found abundant among the younger men of the ancient families of her country. She loved him now because, against many obstacles, he had at last carried her heart by storm. But she realized that the very qualities she had most admired in him were the very ones that would make her present task most difficult.
He had given his word not to reveal the secret to his Ambassador without her permission. That was his promise, given, she knew, grudgingly, and only because he felt for the moment that her duty took precedence over his own. But was it, after all, merely a question of precedence? And would he, now that he had kept his promise so far, insist upon doing his manifest duty to his own country? Fears assailed her that she might not be able to prevail. His love for her was untried. How far might she rely upon it in this inevitable conflict between them? And if he refused her!
The motor car of the Prince carried her to the apartments of the Baroness Racowitz, where, after a rapidly thought-out explanation of her sudden visit which seemed satisfactory, she wrote a note to Hugh Renwick, asking him to come at once to her, addressing it to his apartments in the Strohgasse and telling the servant if he was not at home to take it to the Embassy. This note dispatched, her mind somewhat more at ease, she joined the Baroness at luncheon.
Baroness Racowitz, her father's sister, was a woman of liberal views. Educated in England, she had absorbed some of the democratic spirit of the West, and so looked with favor upon the suit of the young Englishman who had won his way into Marishka's heart. Today, however, in spite of the confession which trembled upon her lips, Marishka remained silent. And the mere fact that she did not speak added conviction of the danger which threatened her happiness and Hugh Renwick's.
As the afternoon waned she grew apprehensive, and it was not until evening that he came. His appearance did little to reassure her.
"Your note did not reach me until a few moments ago," he began soberly. "I went upon a mission to the ministry which has kept me all day."
"I have been worried," she began nervously. "I went to Schoenbrunn this morning——"
"I know it," he broke in quickly. "Otway, of the Embassy, saw you leaving in the Prince's car."
Something in his tone, in the avidity with which he had seized upon her phrase, warned her of the truth.
"Oh, Hugh," she cried, "you have already told!"
His voice sank a note lower, and its very earnestness seemed to make the barrier between them the greater. "This morning when I left you, I wrote a complete statement of what happened at Konopisht, and gave it to a servant with instructions to deliver it at the Embassy at a certain hour. When I tell you that I was bidden to the Ministry this afternoon, closely questioned and detained in violation of all precedent, you will understand that from my own point of view, I acted wisely."
"I mean that larger forces than yours and mine have taken control of the situation."
"Then your message has been delivered?"
"Oh, I cannot believe it of you——" she said, staring at him in anguish.
He smiled gently.
"I have only done my duty——"
"Your duty!" she said bitterly. "And what of your duty to me? You promised——"
"Merely," he put in quickly, "that I would wait until you had been to Schoenbrunn."
"No, no, you promised," she said, with rising anger. "It was my secret—not yours. I have never given you permission to reveal it."
"Nor having been to Schoenbrunn would have given it now, Marishka," he said firmly.
"And knowing this, you use subterfuge, an unmanly recantation—break your promised word——"
"I have broken no promise, Marishka, listen——"
"Nothing that you can say——"
She rose, her face hidden in her hands. "Oh, you have done me a damage—irreparable! I too have promised——"
"My sovereign—he asked this secrecy of me and you—the man I——"
"Marishka, I love you," he pleaded, trying to take her hand. "Anything but this! Can't you understand? I would have betrayed my trust. The situation you placed me in was impossible. Great mischief is brewing in Europe. Could I sit idly by and let my country be in ignorance of it? God knows what is to happen, but whatever comes your country and mine can have no quarrel—any more than you and I can have. England is strong. No nation in Europe can endure without her friendship. Can't you see? I have done Austria no wrong—a service, rather, Marishka; and you——"
"You can do me no further service, Herr Renwick," she said coldly, rising.
He was on his feet too, his face pale, regarding her steadily.
"I cannot believe that you are willing to blame me for doing my duty. Love can only exist in an atmosphere of respect, Marishka. Could you have cared for me if I had been willing to seek your favor at the expense of my own honor? Could you? Think."
"Those who can thrive politically upon the misfortunes of my country are my country's enemies—and mine," she said coldly.
"I have done your country no harm—nor you. Listen, Marishka," he pleaded tensely. "Look at me. I love you, dear, with all my heart and soul, I love you. You cannot forget what happened to us yesterday. I will not give you up——"
"You must—I pray that you will leave me, Herr Renwick," and she moved past him toward a door.
Renwick straightened. Whatever hopes he had had in his heart that Marishka might forgive him for acting without her consent, her action left no doubt as to her present intentions. The bitterness the girl's fatalism had predicted yesterday had fallen upon them quickly. But he would not despair. As the girl was yet to learn, Renwick was not one who despaired easily. But his years of service had given him discretion.
"I cannot believe that you are quite in earnest," he said quietly. "I will call upon you again when you have had time to weigh my action impartially——"
"I shall not be at home to you."
"Nevertheless," he said coolly, "I shall come."
Her shoulders moved disdainfully. "It should be enough that I——"
"Marishka," he broke in again and came toward her, "at least give me a chance to speak to you again—tomorrow——"
The curtains beside her parted abruptly as she fled, leaving Renwick staring helplessly at the embroidered hangings.
He stood awkwardly for a moment, like a figure suddenly frozen, and then dropping his arms to his sides turned and sought his hat and stick. For the present at least there seemed nothing else to do. He descended the stairs, a deeply puzzled frown upon his brows, and went out into the darkness of the street.
Courts and camps, they say, are the best schools, and Renwick had not lived his thirty years in vain. He had known since last night what he must do in England's service, and he had also known what havoc that service must work in Marishka's mind. He had foreseen the inquietude of the Austrian government at his possession of this state secret, and had known that his relations with Marishka must be put in jeopardy. He knew that she must request his silence, that he must refuse her, and that no woman's pride, put to the test, could brook such a refusal. Like Marishka, he had had a brief hope that this love might survive the ordeal put upon it, but he had not been long in discovering that the Emperor's request to Marishka had made his action seem unpardonable. And yet he had known as he knew now, that no other course had been open to him. Since Marishka's early visit to the Palace, an undercurrent of events had moved swiftly. The fact that he had received a note from Baron Lichteveld asking him to call at the Ministry, the interview between them full of allusions on the Baron's part which showed a complete knowledge of the situation; a veiled request, a veiled threat, to both of which Renwick had appeared oblivious. These, and an uncomfortable sense that he was being detained, had at last made Renwick open his lips. The information of which he was possessed, he had told the Baron, was in the hands of those who would at the proper time place it before the British Ambassador. The firmness of his attitude had brought the interview, apparently pleasant and quite unofficial, to a sudden ending, and Renwick had left the Ministry, aware that his own official position in Vienna had suddenly become precarious.
His statement was now at the Embassy, and its astounding contents had been read by his Chief. He made his way thither, somewhat dubious as to the thrill of his achievement, aware of a shadow about him, the ghost of yesterday's joy, which made all success save the intimate personal one that he most craved, flat, stale, and unprofitable. In the darkness of the street he was aware, too, that he was being observed and followed, but he went boldly toward his destination, sure that as a member of the staff of the British Embassy, his person at least partook of the official immunity of his Chief.
But there were other forces arrayed against him with which he had not reckoned. At a deserted and unlighted corner he found his progress blocked by two figures who attempted to engage him in a conversation. Now thoroughly awake to a personal danger which no official immunity could minimize, he was at once upon his guard, moving quickly into the middle of the street. The two men followed him, and another whom he had not seen came upon him from the rear. He dodged the blow of a stick which caught him a stinging blow upon the forearm, but he sprang aside, striking a furious blow full in the face of one of his antagonists and leaping out of harm's way as the third came on; and then, finding discretion the better part of valor, took to his heels, emerging into the Ringstrasse some moments later, with no greater damage than a bruised arm and the loss of his breath and hat.
The Embassy in the Metternichgasse fortunately was not far away, and he reached the building without further mishap, now fully aware of the desperateness of his enemies, whom he did not doubt were employed by those whose interests in his secret were more important even than those of the Austrian government. Who? It was obvious. There were other agencies at work, which drew their information from high sources with which they had little in common. A little bewildered by the rapid march of events, but now certain of the web of intrigue and hostility of which he was the center, Renwick entered the office of the Embassy, breathing a sigh of relief that he was again for the present safe within its familiar portals.
The Ambassador was at his desk in his private office, and Renwick went in to him immediately, the grave faces of his Chief and Captain Otway, the military attache, assuring him that his information had already been received and discussed.
"Ah, Renwick," said the Ambassador, rising, "glad you've come. We were beginning to fear that something had happened to you. Why, what's the matter? You're as white as a sheet——"
"Am I, sir? Oh, it's nothing. You got my message?"
The ambassador nodded and then quickly, "Give him a drink, Otway." And then as the other moved across the room to obey, "You were attacked—in the street?"
Renwick laughed. "Oh, don't bother, please. I'm quite all right—just a bit of a breather—that's all. You see—I ran for it. Safer, I thought. I could have done for the beggars, if I'd had a heavier stick, but I didn't want to make a rumpus. You see, I did well in putting the thing on paper."
"Are you hurt?"
"Merely a bruised arm. Little chap with a stick—behind me."
"Most extraordinary! I can hardly believe that the government would dare——"
"It isn't the government, sir, I'm afraid," he said, with conviction, as he took his whiskey and soda. "There are others who have more to lose than the Emperor's party by this revelation——"
"Yes, that may be so," replied the Ambassador judicially, pacing the floor. "Perhaps you're right, Renwick. But now that you're safe, we should only concern ourselves with the greater issue. Tell me again in your own words all that has happened since yesterday morning."
Renwick obeyed, and it was far into the night before he finished, while the faces of his auditors grew grave again. The security of this well ordered office, with the familiar tokens of distant peaceful England all about them, made a prosaic background for the visions which were flashing through the minds of these three Englishmen. Even now, to Renwick, as he related his experience again, the whole thing seemed incredible, and the reiterated questions of his Chief, who was a prudent man, might have shaken a less convincing witness. But Renwick had dreamed no dream, and the returning ache in his arm left no room to doubt the actuality of his experience.
"You have done England a service, Renwick," said the Ambassador at last, magnanimously. "It isn't often that such crumbs of information are offered us—in such a way. But we will take them—and digest them overnight. I want to sleep on this matter. And you—you will stay here tonight, Renwick. It will be safer. Until tomorrow, gentlemen——"
And so he dismissed them.
An ambassador has been wittily described as an honest man sent to "lie" abroad for the commonwealth. He is supposed to be familiar with all the scandal and intrigue of the court to which he is accredited, to be possessed of countless incriminating secrets, and to steer his way amid the maze, disturbing no ghost or skeleton of family or government, preserving the while a calm punctilio and an exterior of fathomless simplicity. The ambassador of modern Europe is at once a Chesterfield, a Machiavelli, and a Vidocq. He must be a lamb, a lion, and a ferret. He must fly upon the wing of occasion, he must condescend to act as messenger boy to his Prime Minister, he must conduct a business office and a fashionable restaurant and successfully run a detective bureau.
Something of the ambitions of Franz Ferdinand and his wife had been known to the Right Honorable Sir Herbert Southgate; the Archduke's visit with his wife to the court of St. James was significant, and their stay at Potsdam dutifully recorded at Berlin, had shown something of the nature of the rapprochement between Archduke and Kaiser. The visit of the Kaiser to the Archduke's hunting lodge at Eckartzau on the Danube, had set tongues wagging, and private information had served to warn Sir Herbert that an understanding had been brought about. The visit to the roses of Konopisht had not deceived the Ambassador, for it was known that a pact of some sort had been made, but the revelations of Mr. Renwick had been of a nature to appall.
A night of deliberation had done little to obliterate the Ambassador's grave fears for the future, and he communicated at once in code and in full with the Home Government. He lost little time upon the following day in setting in motion all the devices he possessed for obtaining secret information as to the effect of Countess Strahni's startling disclosures.
For several months the surface of the diplomatic pool had been ominously placid. Few ripples had disturbed its surface, save those occasional ones from the direction of unquiet Serbia. But the waters were seething now, stirred to their very lees by plot and counterplot. The advices received by the Ambassador were alarming. Had the attack upon Hugh Renwick failed to advise him that the military party possessed full knowledge of the Countess Strahni's disclosures, he should soon have discovered it. There was an undercurrent of intrigue in various high offices which advised him that communications of the greatest importance were passing. His own interests, of course, were best served by a studied innocence and unconcern, and his public appearances, both social and official, gave no sign of his intimate knowledge of approaching calamity.
The first surface indication of the turmoil was a polite note from the ministry, stating that his second secretary, Hugh Renwick, was persona non grata to the Austrian government, and requesting his recall. This indicated a definite purpose neither to ignore nor condone, and in itself was a surprising admission of the facts. The Ambassador by note expressed his high opinion of the abilities of his secretary and requested the Ministry's reasons for their decision. They merely repeated their former request without explanations. And so the Ambassador, with a smile, which had a world of meaning, offered Renwick his passports.
But Renwick had no desire or intention to leave Vienna. He merely removed his personal belongings to his apartment and stayed. That he had ventured into deep political currents he was now sure, for though he moved with great care, he was aware of being followed and once he was shot at in a quiet street in broad daylight. He made no complaint to the authorities, but only moved with greater discretion, sure that the interests that desired his elimination were not among the Austrians. From the point of view of the Austrian government he was merely a discredited Englishman, and therefore a person of no importance. That the Countess Marishka had apparently also reached the same conclusion was evident, for though he called several times at the apartment of the Baroness Racowitz, he was not admitted.
With theories of his own as to the probable effect of the Countess Strahni's bombshell, Renwick began some investigations which he conducted with great tact and secrecy. The forthcoming visit of the Archduke Franz to Sarajevo had assumed suddenly a vital importance. One morning after a night conference with Sir Herbert he took the train for Belgrade. When he returned a few days later he was again closeted with the British Ambassador, and when night fell, he went direct to the apartment of the Baroness Racowitz, succeeding by a handsome bribe to the servant at the door in sending a note to the Countess Marishka, which read as follows—
COUNTESS MARISHKA STRAHNI,
A friend of yours is in grave danger, chiefly through your agency. I pray that you will see me, if only for a moment. In doing so you will secure for yourself an opportunity of doing a service which you can never regret.
When the servant returned, some moments later, Renwick was shown into the drawing room, with the word that the Countess Strahni would see him. She appeared almost immediately, her face a little pallid, her manner restrained, her accents frigidly polite. But the dark eyes were luminous, the brows were drawn inward, and her voice trembled slightly as she spoke his name.
"Herr Renwick, I can hardly believe that you would impose so difficult a situation were it not that something of importance has occurred——"
"It has, Countess Strahni," he said gravely, then paused. "I beg that you will believe me."
She sank into a chair and motioned for him to be seated, but he remained standing, his eyes studying the fine line of her neck and shoulder as she bent forward, her gaze upon the rug. There was something almost childish in her imperiousness. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her there as he would have done a spoiled child, and trust the issue to his strength and her weakness, but the quick tap of her slippered toe upon the carpet warned him that his mission was delicate.
"Proceed, if you please," she said after a moment.
"You may not know, but a few days after my return from Konopisht, my connection with the British Embassy ceased——"
"I have heard," she broke in quickly, in a suppressed tone; "I am sorry."
"But my interests in the political aspect of affairs were so great that I could not leave Vienna."
"At least I am not to blame for the actions of the ministry."
"Naturally. I suppose I might attribute all my misfortunes to the roses of Konopisht," he said.
She glanced up at him quickly and a little scornfully, but she swallowed nervously and her toe accelerated its tapping upon the rug.
"I beg that you will come to the point of your visit," she said quickly.
"I will," he went on easily. "The possession of State secrets has given me an interest in Austrian affairs which has created a pardonable curiosity. Fortune has favored my investigations and I have learned much here in Vienna. I have learned more in Belgrade—and in Sarajevo."
She glanced up quickly.
"You will remember that the Archduke spoke of going there to see the maneuvers of his troops on the twenty-eighth of this month."
"Yes." Her eyes stared at him widely now. "But what——?"
She paused uncertainly, expecting him to go on. Instead he waited a moment as though seeking his words carefully.
"The Archduke plans to take the Duchess of Hohenberg to Sarajevo with him. I came here to tell you that if she goes she will be in great danger——"
"Yes. There is a plot against the life of the Archduke. I thought that as a lifelong friend, you would like to know——"
"Assassination! Holy Virgin! Not that!"
She had started up from her chair and faced him, trembling violently.
"I swear to you," he said soberly, "that I have every reason for believing that in Sarajevo the lives of both will hang by a hair."
"But who——?" she stammered, her eyes wide with consternation.
She paused, the thoughts that had come first into her mind, stifled in horror.
"It is not necessary for me to say. I am merely giving my belief based on the closest study of political conditions."
A slight color had come into her cheeks.
"I am sure that you must be unduly alarmed," she said coolly. "The Archduke will be in the midst of his friends—his whole army at maneuvers!" Her lips found courage in a smile. "Why, the thing is impossible!"
Renwick leaned against the mantel, his arms folded, and went on steadily.
"The thing is not impossible, Countess Strahni. The danger to Franz Ferdinand is very real—a danger that no army of Austrian soldiers can minimize. He goes to a hostile neighborhood. He is not loved in Sarajevo. Should not this be sufficient?"
"You trouble me," she muttered, passing a hand before her eyes. "But I must know more. An Archduke must have enemies——"
"But this Archduke! Can you conceive of no reason why Franz Ferdinand should be in danger?" he asked meaningly.
She searched his face quickly, in her eyes the truth dawning.
"You should know what I mean."
"I cannot believe——" she halted again.
"Countess Strahni," he went on quickly, "were I still a member of the staff of the British Embassy, I should not speak. I do not even now accuse any group or political party of participation in this plot. The Emperor at least is guiltless. Death has already done its worst to him. The matter is out of his hands. But I do know that such a plot exists. Franz Ferdinand will not return alive from Sarajevo and if the Duchess of Hohenberg accompanies him, she, too——"
"It is horrible—and I—I will have been the cause——"
She sank into her chair and buried her face in her hands.
"Perhaps now you will understand my motive in coming to you," he said softly. "I have no desire but to serve you. England has no further concern for Archduke Ferdinand. Forewarned is forearmed. His sting is already drawn. But death, like this—sudden, violent, without a chance—England has never looked with kindness upon the killing of women, Countess Strahni."
"It is horrible," she whispered. "Horrible! I cannot believe——"
"Unfortunately I can give you none of the sources of my information. But whatever my sins in your eyes, at least you will admit that I am not given to exaggeration. You may still believe that I have taken a liberty in coming to you; but the situation admits of no delay. The telegraph lines are in the hands of the Archduke's enemies. The Archduke and Duchess leave Konopisht in the morning by special train, but there is still time to reach them."
Marishka had risen, and was now pacing the floor, her hands nervously clasped before her.
"I see. I—I—understand. I—I should be grateful that you have told me. But it is all so sudden. So terrible!"
She paused before him.
"I have betrayed her," she stammered through pallid lips.
"You could do nothing else. His fortunes are hers——"
"But not this——" she whispered. "It is too ghastly!"
There was a long pause, and then, "Will you make the effort?" he asked.
"You must leave in an hour."
She looked at Renwick and their glances met.
"I will go with you," he said coolly.
His gaze was on the dial of his watch which he had taken from his pocket and was regarding judicially. His calmness, his impudence, enraged her. She had sworn, because of his falseness, that she would never see this man again, and here he was calmly proposing a night journey into Bohemia, and she was actually listening to him.
She turned quickly toward the door and stood, one hand grasping the portiere, while she turned a white face toward him.
"Thanks, Herr Renwick," she said icily, "but I go alone——"
"That is impossible. There is danger. A night journey in a train of uncertain quality——"
"I hope that you will not waste words. I thank you for what you have done, but I—I must go at once——"
Renwick took a pace toward her.
"Countess Strahni, if you will listen to me——"
But he got no farther, for he knew that her will was as strong as his own, and that forgiveness was not to be read in her eyes.
"I beg that you will excuse me, Herr Renwick. The time is short——"
He bowed gravely.
"At least, you will permit me to order you a fiacre——"
She nodded in assent as though to be rid of him and then turned and went up the stairs leaving Renwick to find his way out into the darkness of the street.
Marishka hurried to her room and rang for her maid. In spite of the turbulence of her thoughts, she gave her orders calmly and then prepared for the journey. The imminence of the danger to Sophie Chotek should have obsessed her to the exclusion of all personal considerations, but while she dressed she could not help thinking of the imperturbable impudence of her visitor. His kindness, his thoughtfulness, the fact that he had done her a service, and was at this very moment doing her another, gave her a sense of being in a false position, which made her most uncomfortable. And yet one could not treat with contumely a person who acted in one's interests. His calmness, his assurance enraged her. She would never see him again, of course, but she seemed to feel the need of some final words to convince him of the depth of her disdain. He was so calm, so gravely cheerful, so assured, so maddeningly considerate! She wondered now why she had not led him on to a renewed plea for forgiveness, that she might the more effectually have crushed him.
But her duty to Sophie Chotek soon drove these speculations as to the unfortunate Herr Renwick from her mind. Suppose that Sophie Chotek questioned closely as to the reasons for Marishka's sudden departure. What should she say? The Duchess was not one who could easily forgive a wrong. Her placid exterior served well to conceal a strength of purpose which had already brought her many enemies in the Royal House. That she was capable of tenderness was shown in her adoration of her children and in the many kindnesses she had shown Marishka herself, but there was, too, a strain of the Czech in her nature, which harbored grievances and was not above retaliation. Marishka's cause, as a loyal Austrian's, was just, and she had not faltered in doing what she knew to be her duty, but the thought of seeking the Duchess now that she had betrayed her, required all of her courage. She had balked an ambitious woman, stultified all her efforts to advance the fortunes of her children, and had written her husband before the House of Habsburg a traitor to his Emperor and his country. What if she had heard something and suspected? Would the Duchess even listen to a plea for her own life and safety from the lips of one who had proven an enemy, a bread and salt traitor to the Houses of Austria-Este and Chotek and Wognin?
But Marishka did not falter, and when the fiacre came to the door she descended quickly. The Baroness fortunately had gone upon a visit to friends in the country, but Marishka left a note with her maid which explained her absence, and departed alone for the railroad station, feeling very helpless and forlorn, but none the less determined to see her venture through to its end.
She wore a gray traveling dress and was heavily veiled, and when she reached the station, the guard showed her immediately into an unoccupied compartment. This, it seemed, was unusual, as her watch indicated that only a few moments remained before the train should leave. But she settled herself comfortably, grateful for her seclusion, whatever its cause, and closed her eyes in an effort to sleep.
The last warning words of the guards had been given and the train was already in motion when she heard a warning "Sh——" at the open window, where a head and a pair of shoulders appeared, followed immediately by an entire body which was suddenly projected through the opening and landed head first upon the floor. Marishka had risen, a scream on her lips, but something familiar in the conformation of the figure restrained her. The tangle of legs and arms took form, and a head appeared, wearing a monocle and a smile. It was the imperturbable but persistent Herr Renwick.
Marishka was too dismayed for a moment to trust her tongue to speech. That she was angry she knew, for she felt the blood rising to her temples, and the words that hung on her lips were bitter, cruel and unreasoning.
"It is a pity, Herr Renwick," she began quite distinctly in English, "that you have neither the good taste nor the intelligence to leave me to my own devices."
Renwick gathered up his stick and straw hat, bowed politely and seated himself opposite her. Indeed, as the train was now moving rapidly, no other course was open to him. But he wore no look of recantation. His calmness was more impudent than ever, and he even took out and reset his monocle.
"Oh, I say, Countess Strahni," he said, "that's rather rough on a chap. I had to come. It was wiser, you know."
"I care nothing for your wisdom," she said scornfully. "If it is no more firmly seated than your sense of honor, it can be of little value to you or to me."
"I'm sorry. I will try not to interfere with your comfort——"
"You—you arranged this"—as the thought came to her—"this opportunity for a tete-a-tete?"
"The Countess Strahni's conception of a tete-a-tete may differ from mine," he said with a smile.
But his coolness only inflamed her the more.
"You have taken an unpardonable liberty," she said wildly. "You have already passed the bounds of decency or consideration. You have been not only impudent but ridiculous. One service you have done me tonight. I thank you. You may do me another—by getting out at the first station."
He folded his arms and regarded her gravely.
"I regret that that is impossible."
"Because I propose to go with you to Konopisht, and to accompany you upon your return."
"One moment, please," he said quietly and with some show of spirit. "It is not necessary that you should have a further misconception of my motives or of my agility. I did not seek this—er—tete-a-tete. My servant engaged this carriage. I had not hoped to have the honor of accompanying you. Unfortunately, circumstances forced a change of plan."
"Circumstances!" she said contemptuously.
He bowed slightly. "As a discredited Englishman, I still possess, it seems, some interest for certain citizens of Austria. I only discovered the fact this evening when leaving the apartment of the Baroness."
"You were followed again?" she asked quickly, her interest in the fact mastering her animosity.
"The object of my visit to you has been guessed. I was followed—but you were followed also."
"Yes—to the station."
"Booked through to Konopisht not a foot from the back of your head in the adjoining compartment——"
And then as she straightened in alarm and regarded the cushioned seat behind her in sudden terror, "But I do not think you need be unduly alarmed. We can——"
"They are following me!" she whispered. "But why? Why?"
"Because of your friendship with the Duchess. Those who plan the death of the Archduke are in no humor to fail."
"Incredible! And they——" she halted again, breathless with apprehension.
"I fear, Countess Strahni, that your mission to Konopisht has now become a difficult one. That is why I thought it better to go with you. The men who are following you are moving with considerable insolence and confidence. They will carry out their orders unless circumvented."
"But how?" she whispered, her anger of a moment ago magically transmuted. "What can I do?"
He gazed out of the window at the blur of night and smiled.
"To begin with," he said politely, "they think you are alone. You see, I might help you, Countess Strahni, if you could manage to endure my presence for a few hours."
It was Renwick's innings and he made the most of them. Indeed, Marishka sat leaning forward looking at him appealingly, aware that after all here was the only prop she had to lean upon in this extremity. She did not speak. The wrong he had done her and Austria was great—unforgivable, but the merit of his service in this situation was unmistakable. Inimical as he might be to the sentiments in her heart, there was no disguising the relief his presence gave her or the confidence that radiated from his calm assurance.
"One of the men I have seen before," he said. "He has gained some celebrity in the Secret Service. You see, we must give them the slip before we get to Budweis. This train makes several stops. It ought not to be difficult."
The plural pronoun seemed quite inoffensive now, and she even uttered it—herself.
"Yes," breathlessly; "but suppose they tried to stop us?"
"Er—that would be most unfortunate," he muttered, as though to himself.
"You don't think they will, do you?" she appealed.
"I'm sure I don't know," he said thoughtfully.
For some moments he said nothing and Marishka, whose pride had come again to her rescue, gazed steadily out of the window away from him, trying to forget her dependence upon her companion, whose initiative and devotion were hourly growing more in importance. Whatever his private purposes in aiding her, and she had no reason to doubt his disinterestedness, for the present at least they had a common duty to humanity which must be performed at any costs to prejudice or pride.
At the next station a surprise awaited them. The door of their compartment was opened, a man entered and bowing most politely, quickly closed the door behind him. Marishka examined him with apprehension, noticing that he seemed more interested in the Englishman than in herself, for in the brief glance he gave Renwick, the suavity of his demeanor seemed for a brief moment to have changed.
He was a person of middle age, tall, stockily built, but withal rather jaunty in appearance, and when he smiled again he disclosed a gold tooth which seemed to Marishka for some reason inexpressibly reassuring. He rubbed his hands together and looked a great deal like a successful head-waiter in mufti. But he glanced from one to the other quickly and settled himself in a corner with an air of being very much at home, which removed the earlier impression. Renwick took the initiative at once.
"A pleasant evening," he said to the newcomer, in German.
"One might say so," replied the other, bowing calmly.
"But one doesn't?" asked Renwick. "The conditions are not so propitious as they were a while ago. A storm is brewing perhaps?"
The man examined him steadily, aware of the double meaning, but only smiled again. Renwick got up and with great deliberateness, moved the length of the aisle, and, while Marishka followed him with her gaze, seated himself directly opposite the intruder. The man made a movement with his right hand which he put into the side pocket of his coat, but as Renwick sat, he smiled again and shrugged.
"You are traveling to Budweis and beyond?" asked the Englishman.
"To Budweis and beyond," said the other coolly. "And I would advise Herr Renwick," he went on quickly, "that the hotels of Budweis are excellent."
"Ah!" That he had come out into the open suited Renwick's plans excellently. He removed his monocle and slipped it into a waistcoat pocket. "To be sure. Budweis. Unfortunately the lady whom I have the honor to accompany, visits friends at some distance in the country."
"The Countess Strahni must go to the Kaiser von Oesterreich Hotel at Budweis tonight," he said with precision. "It is near the station." And then quickly "I would also advise Herr Renwick to move at once to the other end of the compartment."
Renwick stared at him for a moment as though he had not understood his meaning and then shrugged and rose. Polite amenities had ceased. He turned half toward Marishka and then, without warning, threw himself furiously at the man.
There was a muffled discharge as the stranger attempted to draw the weapon from his pocket, but the bullet did no damage, and the Englishman's blow, fiercely struck, sent the other reeling sideways. He smiled no longer, but struggled upward gamely. Renwick had caught his pistol hand and forced him down to the floor, where he pinioned him with his weight.
The whole affair had happened so quickly that after one gasp of terror, Marishka had sat stupefied with horror. But as the struggle continued, the man on the floor began to shout lustily for help, and she sprang to the aid of the Englishman, who was choking the man by twisting his cravat.
"Your veil—quick," he stammered breathlessly. And after she had given it to him, "Now, take the revolver from his coat pocket."
She obeyed. Most of the fight was out of their antagonist, and the muzzle of the automatic, thrust beneath his nose, completed his subjugation. After they had gagged him, they bound his wrists and ankles with handkerchiefs, and then straightened and looked at each other, listening. Marishka's eyes were sparkling and the color was coming back into her cheeks.
"He—he might have killed you," she stammered in English.
"Or I him," said Renwick. "Thank the Lord, I didn't have to. Do you think they heard?"
They listened again, but there was no sound above the roar of the train.
"We'll have to get out of this—at the first stop—and run for it. I don't know where we are, but Budweis can't be far off. You still want to go on?"
"Yes, I must," she cried resolutely. "I must. Oh, God, if I failed now, I could never forgive myself."
"You see—they're determined——"
He paused, staring at the mummy upon the floor, who had raised his head. One eye was badly damaged, but the other was frowning at them comically. But neither Renwick nor Marishka felt like laughing. Renwick started suddenly toward the window and peered out, for the train was coasting and ahead of them in the distance he saw the lights of a station.
"Quickly!" he said to the girl. "There's nothing for it but to go out on the opposite side. The door is locked." He glanced at the prostrate figure. And then to Marishka, "You must follow me."
He did not wait for her answer, but opening the closed window he swung himself from the floor by a grip on the door jamb, put his feet out and lowered himself to the running board. The brakes were on now as the train approached the station, but still Marishka hesitated.
Renwick's face appeared in the aperture. "All clear," he whispered, "the tracks on this side are empty. Wait until the train stops and then step out—quickly, please."
There was no denying his command of her and of the situation, and, difficult as the feat appeared, in a moment she was sitting on the sill, her feet depending outside into the darkness, where Renwick without another word seized her in his arms and lowered her to the step beside them, thrilled by the danger of her flight, but ready to follow wherever he led.
With a grinding of brakes the train stopped, but they got down quickly, and in a moment had dodged behind a building, and listening for sounds of pursuit, made their way up the dimly lighted street of a small town. It was not yet midnight and there were signs of activity here and there. She hurried beside Renwick blindly, content as he was for the present to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the railroad station. They listened anxiously for the train to move, but there was no sound of bell or exhaust. The distant shouts seemed more ominous. Renwick only glanced behind them and hurried the pace. He led her around a corner, into a well-lighted street where an automobile, its engine running, was standing before a rather pretentious house. He ran up to it and examined it quickly.
"It's really too bad," he muttered, with a quick glance toward the house, "but our need is great," and got in, Marishka following without a word. "It's a Mercedes, thank God," he whispered. "I hope it will go."
It did, with a sputter and roar which brought a shouting figure to the door of the house, but Renwick was beyond stopping and turned blindly at the next turning and followed the street through the sleeping town into a well-traveled country road, which led straight onward toward the setting moon.
"I haven't the slightest notion where we're going," he said presently, "but we seem to be on our way."
Marishka found herself laughing nervously. She wasn't in the least amused, but the strain was telling on her.
"Nice chap—the owner of this car, to put it just there. I'll have to buy it, I suppose. No end of a good machine. I wonder if he thought to fill the tank."
Renwick ran the car up a long hill which it took with ease, and at the summit the moonlit summer landscape was visible for miles in all directions. There at a crossroad the Englishman stopped the stolen car in the shadow of a tree, got quickly out and investigated the tank.
"Plenty of petrol—enough for all night, I should say," he reported. "And now"—as he looked around him in all directions—"which way? Hanged if I know."
Marishka was scanning the valley below them eagerly. In the distance to their right a row of lights moved slowly into the night. "The train!" she said, "Budweis lies in that direction. I've often been over the road from Konopisht. If we can reach it——"