The Crown Prince slipped to the floor, and stood with his feet rather wide apart, looking steadfastly at Miss Braithwaite. "I would like very much to see that boy again," he observed. "He was a nice boy, and very kind-hearted. If we could go to the Scenic Railway when we are out in the carriage, I—I'd enjoy it." He saw refusal in her face, for he added hurriedly, "Not to ride. I just want to look at it."
Miss Braithwaite was touched, but firm. She explained that it would be better if the Crown Prince did not see the boy again; and to soften the refusal, she reminded him that the American child did not like royalties, and that even to wave from his carriage with the gold wheels would therefore be a tactical error.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto listened, and Oskar waited. And something that had been joyous and singing in a small boy's heart was suddenly still.
"I had forgotten about that," he said.
Then Miss Braithwaite rose, and the Prince put his heels together with a click, and bowed, as he had been taught to do.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night, Your Highness," replied Miss Braithwaite.
At the door Prince Ferdinand William Otto turned and bowed again. Then he went out, and the door closed behind him.
He washed himself, with Oskar standing by, holding a great soft towel. Even the towels were too large. And he brushed his teeth, and had two drinks of water, because a stiffish feeling in his throat persisted. And at last he crawled up into the high bed that was so much too big for him, and had to crawl out again, because he had forgotten his prayers.
When everything was done, and the hour of putting out the light could no longer be delayed, he said goodnight to Oskar, who bowed. There was a great deal of, bowing in Otto's world. Then, whisk! it was dark, with only the moon face of the cathedral clock for company. And as it was now twenty minutes past seven, the two hands drooped until it looked like a face with a cruel mouth and was really very poor company.
Oskar, having bowed himself into the corridor and past the two sentries, reported to a very great dignitary across the hall that His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was in bed. And the dignitary had a chance to go away and get his dinner.
But alone in his great bed, the Crown Prince was shedding a few shamefaced tears. He was extremely ashamed of them. He felt that under no circumstances would his soldier father have behaved so. He reached out and secured one of the two clean folded handkerchiefs that were always placed on the bedside stand at night, and blew his nose very loudly. But he could not sleep.
He gave Miss Braithwaite time to go to her sitting-room, and for eight o'clock to pass, because once every hour, all night, a young gentleman of the Court, appointed for this purpose and dubbed a "wet-nurse" by jealous comrades, cautiously opened his door and made a stealthy circuit of the room, to see that all was well.
The Crown Prince got up. He neglected to put on his bedroom slippers, of course, and in his bare feet be padded across the room to the study door. It was not entirely dark. A night-light burned there. It stood on a table directly under the two crossed swords. Beneath the swords, in a burnt-wood frame, were the pictures of his father and mother. Hedwig had given him a wood-burning outfit at Christmas, and he had done the work himself. It consisted of the royal arms, somewhat out of drawing and not exactly in the center of the frame, and a floral border of daisies, extremely geometrical, because he had drawn them in first with a compass.
The boy, however, gave the pictures only a hasty glance and proceeded, in a business-like manner, to carry a straight chair to the cabinet. On the top shelf sat the old cloth dog. Its shoe-button eyes looked glazed with sleep, but its ears were quite alert. Very cautiously the Crown Prince unlocked the door, stepped precariously to the lower shelf of the cabinet, hung there by one royal hand, and lifted the dog down.
At nine o'clock the wet-nurse took off his sword in another room and leaned it against a chair. Then he examined his revolver, in accordance with a formula prescribed by the old King. Then he went in and examined the room with a flashlight, and listened to the Crown Prince's breathing. He had been a croupy baby. And, at last, he turned the flashlight on to the bed. A pair of shoe-button eyes stared at him from the pillow.
"Well, I'm damned," said the wet-nurse And went out, looking thoughtful.
CHAPTER IX. A FINE NIGHT
In a shop where, that afternoon, the Countess had purchased some Lyons silks, one of the clerks, Peter Niburg, was free at last. At seven o'clock, having put away the last rolls of silk on the shelves behind him, and covered them with calico to keep off the dust; having given a final glance of disdain at the clerk in the linens, across; having reached under the counter for his stiff black hat of good quality and his silver-topped cane; having donned the hat and hung the stick to his arm with two swaggering gestures; having prepared his offensive, so to speak, he advanced.
Between Peter Niburg and Herman Spier of the linens, was a feud. Its source, in the person of a pretty cashier, had gone, but the feud remained. It was of the sort that smiles with the lips and scowls with the eyes, that speaks pleasantly quite awful things, although it was Peter Niburg who did most of the talking. Herman Spier was a moody individual, given to brooding. A man who stood behind his linens, and hated with his head down.
And he hated Peter. God, how he hated him! The cashier was gone, having married a restaurant keeper, and already she waxed fat. But Herman's hatred grew with the days. And business being bad, much of the time he stood behind his linens and thought about a certain matter, which was this:
How did Peter Niburg do it?
They were paid the same scant wage. Each Monday they stood together, Peter smiling and he frowning, and received into open palms exactly enough to live on, without extras. And each Monday Peter pocketed his cheerfully, and went back to his post, twirling his mustache as though all the money of the realm jingled in his trousers.
To accept the inevitable, to smile over one's poverty, that is one thing. But there was more to it. Peter made his money go amazingly far. It was Peter, for instance, who on name-days had been able to present the little cashier with a nosegay. Which had, by the way, availed him nothing against the delicatessen offerings of the outside rival. When, the summer before, the American Scenic Railway had opened to the public, with much crossing of flags, the national emblem and the Stars and Stripes, it was Peter who had invited the lady to an evening of thrills on that same railway at a definite sum per thrill. Nay, more, as Herman had seen with his own eyes, taken her afterward to a coffee-house, and shared with her a litre of white wine. A litre, no less.
Herman himself had been to the Scenic Railway, but only because he occupied a small room in the house where the American manager lived. The manager had given tickets to Black Humbert, the concierge, but Humbert was busy with other thing, and was, besides, chary of foreign deviltries. So he had passed the tickets on.
It was Peter, then, who made the impossible possible, who wore good clothes and did not have his boots patched, who went, rumor said, to the Opera now and then, and followed the score on his own battered copy.
Herman Spier had suspected him of many things; had secretly audited his cash slips; had watched him for surreptitious parcels of silk. Once he had thought he had him. But the package of Lyons silk, opened by the proprietor at Herman's suggestion, proved to be material for a fancy waistcoat, and paid for by Peter Niburg's own hand.
With what? Herman stood confused, even confounded, but still suspicious. And now, this very day, he had stumbled on something. A great lady from the Court had made a purchase, and had left, under a roll of silk, a letter. There was no mistake. And Peter Niburg had put away the silk, and pocketed the letter, after a swift glance over the little shop.
An intrigue, then, with Peter Niburg as the go-between, or—something else. Something vastly more important, the discovery of which would bring Herman prominence beyond his fellows in a certain secret order to which he belonged.
In a way, he was a stupid man, this pale-eyed clerk who sold the quaint red and yellow cottons of the common people side by side with the heavy linens that furnished forth the tables of the rich. But hatred gave him wits. Gave him speed, too. He was only thirty feet behind Peter Niburg when that foppish gentleman reached the corner.
Herman was skilled in certain matters. He knew, for instance, that a glance into a shop window, a halt to tie a shoe, may be a ruse for passing a paper to other hands. But Peter did not stop. He went, not more swiftly than usual, to his customary restaurant, one which faced over the Square and commanded a view of the Palace. And there he settled himself in a window and ordered his dinner.
From the outside Herman stared in. He did not dine there. It was, for one thing, a matter of bitterness to see sitting at the cashier's high desk, the little Marie, grown somewhat with flesh, it is true, but still lovely in his eyes. It made Herman wince, even now, to see through the window that her husband patted her hand as he brought her money to be changed.
He lurked in the shadows outside, and watched. Peter sat alone. He had bowed very stiffly to Marie, and had passed the desk with his chest out. She had told him once that he had a fine figure.
Peter sat alone, and stared out. Herman took shelter, and watched. But Peter Niburg did not see him. His eyes were fixed on the gloomy mass across, shot with small lights from deep windows, which was the Palace.
Peter was calm. He had carried many such letters as the one now hidden in his breast pocket. No conscience stirred in him. If he did not do this work, others would. He shrugged his shoulders. He drank his brandy, and glanced at Marie. He found her eyes on him. Pretty eyes they still were, and just now speculative. He smiled at her, but she averted her head, and colored. Many things filled Peter Niburg's mind. If now she was not happy, what then? Her husband adored her. It was fatal. A woman should not be too sure of a husband. And probably he bored her. Another six months, and perhaps she would not turn away her head.
He had until midnight. At that hour a messenger would receive the letter from him in the colonnade of the cathedral. On this night, each week, the messenger waited. Sometimes there was a letter, sometimes none. That was all. It was amazingly simple, and for it one received the difference between penury and comfort.
Seeing Peter settled, a steaming platter before him, Herman turned and hurried through the night. This which he had happened on was a big thing, too big for him alone. Two heads were better than one. He would take advice.
Off the main avenue he fell into a smart trot. The color came to his pale cheeks. A cold sweat broke out over him. He was short of wind from many cigarettes. But at last he reached the house. It was near the park. Although the season was early spring and there was more than a hint of winter in the air, the Scenic Railway, he perceived, was already open for business. Certainly the Americans were enterprising.
The double doors of the tall, gloomy house on the Road of Good Children were already closed for the evening. As he stood panting, after he had rung the bell, Herman Spier could look across to that remote and unfashionable end of the great park where the people played on pleasant evenings, and where even now, on the heels of winter, the Scenic Railway made a pretense at summer.
The sight recalled that other vision of Marie and Peter Niburg, snugly settled in a car, Marie a trifle pale and apprehensive. Herman swore softly; and opened the doors.
Black Humbert was not in his bureau, behind the grating. With easy familiarity Herman turned to a door beyond and entered. A dirty little room, it was littered now with the preparations for a meal. On the bare table were a loaf, a jug of beer, and a dish of fried veal. The concierge was at the stove making gravy in a frying-pan—a huge man, bearded and heavy of girth, yet stepping lightly, like a cat. A dark man and called "the Black," he yet revealed, on full glance, eyes curiously pale and flat.
No greeting passed between them. Humbert gave his visitor a quick glance. Herman closed the door, and wiped out the band of his hat. The concierge poured the gravy over the meat.
"I have discovered something, something," Herman said. "As to its value, I know nothing, or its use to us."
"Let me judge that." But the concierge was unmoved, by Herman's excitement. He dealt in sensations. His daily tools were men less clever than himself, men who constantly made worthless discoveries. And it was the dinner hour. His huge body was crying for food.
"It is a matter of a letter."
"Sit down, man, and tell it. Or do you wish me to draw the information, like bad teeth?"
"A letter from the Palace," said Herman. And explained.
Black Humbert listened. He was skeptical, but not entirely incredulous. He knew the Court—none better. The women of the Court wrote many letters. He saw a number of them, through one of his men in the post office. There were many intrigues. After all, who could blame them? The Court was dreary enough these days, and if they chose to amuse themselves as best they could—one must make allowances.
"A liaison!" he said at last, with his mouth full. "The Countess is handsome, and bored. Annunciata is driving her to wickedness, as she drove her husband. But it is worth consideration. Even the knowledge of an intrigue is often helpful. Of what size was the letter?"
"A small envelope. I saw no more."
The concierge reflected. "The Countess uses a gray paper with a coronet."
"This was white."
Black Humbert reflected. "There is, of course, a chance that he has already passed this on. But even if so, there will be others. The Countess comes often to the shop?"
"Once in a week, perhaps."
"So." The big man rose, and untied his soiled apron. "Go back," he said, "and enter the restaurant. Order a small meal, that you may have finished when he does. Leave with him and suggest the Hungaria."
"Hungaria! I have no money."
"You will need no money. Now, mark this. At a certain corner you will be attacked and robbed. A mere form," he added, as he saw Herman's pallid face go whiter. "For the real envelope will be substituted another. In his breast-pocket, you said. Well, then suggest going to his room. He may," added the concierge grimly, "require your assistance. Leave him at his lodging, but watch the house. It is important to know to whom he delivers these letters."
As the man stood, he seemed to the cowering Herman to swell until he dominated the room. He took on authority. To Herman came suddenly the memory of a hidden room, and many men, and one, huge and towering, who held the others in the hollow of his hand. Herman turned to go, but at the door the concierge stopped him.
"A moment," he said. "We will select first the shape and fashion of this envelope you saw. These matters require finesse."
He disappeared, returning shortly with a wooden box, filled to the top with old envelopes. Each had been neatly opened and its contents extracted. And on each was neatly penned in a corner the name of the sender. Herman watched while the concierge dug through it.
"Here it is," he said at last. "The Countess, to her aunt in a nunnery and relating to wool knitting. See, is this the sort of envelope?"
"That is gray," Herman Spier said sullenly.
"But in size?"
"It is similar."
"Good." He held the envelope to the light and inspected it. "It would be interesting to know," he said, "whether the Countess has an aunt in this nunnery, or whether—but go, man. And hurry."
Left alone, he got together pens, ink, and carbon paper. He worked awkwardly, his hands too large for the pen, his elbows spread wide over the table. But the result was fair. He surveyed it with satisfaction.
Meanwhile, back went Herman over his earlier route. But now he did not run. His craven knees shook beneath him. Fresh sweat, not of haste but of fear, broke out over him. He who was brave enough of tongue in the meetings, who was capable of rising to heights of cruelty that amounted to ferocity when one of a mob, was a coward alone.
However, the sight of the restaurant, and of his fellow clerk eating calmly, quieted him. Peter Niburg was still alone. Herman took a table near him, and ordered a bowl of soup. His hands shook, but the hot food revived him. After all, it was simple enough. But, of course, it hinged entirely on his fellow-clerk's agreeing to accompany him.
He glanced across. Peter Niburg was eating, but his eyes were fixed on Madame Marie, at her high desk. There was speculation in them, and something else. Triumph, perhaps.
Suddenly Herman became calm. Calm with hate.
And, after all, it was very easy. Peter Niburg was lonely. The burden of the letter oppressed him. He wanted the comfort of human conversation and the reassurance of a familiar face. When the two met at—the rack by the door which contained their hats, his expression was almost friendly. They went out together.
"A fine night," said Herman, and cast an eye at the sky.
"Too good to waste in sleep. I was thinking," observed Herman, "of an hour or two at the Hungaria."
The Hungaria! Something in Peter's pleasure-hungry heart leaped, but he mocked his fellow-clerk.
"Since when," he inquired, "have you frequented the Hungaria?
"I feel in the mood," was the somewhat sullen reply. "I work hard enough, God knows, to have a little pleasure now and then." Danger was making him shrewd. He turned away from Peter Niburg, then faced him again. "If you care to come," he suggested. "Not a supper, you understand; but a glass of wine, Italian champagne," he added.
Peter Niburg was fond of sweet champagne.
Peter Niburg pushed his hat to the back of his head, and hung his stick over his forearm. After all, why not? Marie was gone. Let the past die. If Herman could make the first move, let him, Peter, make the second. He linked arms with his old enemy.
"A fine night," he said.
CHAPTER X. THE RIGHT TO LIVE AND LOVE
Dinner was over in the dull old dining-room. The Archduchess Annunciata lighted a cigarette, and glanced across the table at Hedwig.
Hedwig had been very silent during the meal. She had replied civilly when spoken to, but that was all. Her mother, who had caught the Countess's trick of narrowing her eyes, inspected her from under lowered lids.
"Well?" she said. "Are you still sulky?"
"I? Not at all, mother." Her head went up, and she confronted her mother squarely.
"I should like to inquire, if I may," observed the Archduchess, "just how you have spent the day until the little divertissement on which I stumbled. This morning, for instance?"
Hedwig shrugged her shoulders, but her color rose. It came in a soft wave over her neck and mounted higher and higher. "Very quietly, mother," she said.
"Naturally. It is always quiet here. But how?"
"At the riding-school, with Otto."
"Only with Otto?"
"Captain Larisch was there."
"Of course! Then you have practically spent the day with him!"
"I have spent most of the day with Otto."
"This devotion to Otto—it is new, I think. You were eager to get out of the nursery. Now, it appears, you must fly back to schoolroom teas and other absurdities. I should like to know why."
"I think Otto is lonely, mother."
Hilda took advantage of her mother's preoccupation to select another peach. She was permitted only one, being of the age when fruit caused her, colloquially speaking, to "break out." She was only faintly interested in the conversation. She dreaded these family meals, with her mother's sharp voice and the Countess Loschek's almost too soft one. But now a restrained irritability in the tones of the Archduchess made her glance up. The Archduchess was in one of her sudden moods of irritation. Hedwig's remark about Otto's loneliness, the second that day, struck home. In her anger she forgot her refusal to the Chancellor.
"I have something to say that will put an end to this sentimental nonsense of yours, Hedwig. I should forbid your seeing this boy, this young Larisch, if I felt it necessary. I do not. You would probably see him anyhow, for that matter. Which, as I observed this afternoon, also reminds me unpleasantly of your father." She rose, and threw her bolt out of a clear sky. She had had, as a matter of fact, no previous intention of launching any bolt. It was wholly a result of irritation. "It is unnecessary to remind you not to make a fool of yourself. But it may not be out of place to say that your grandfather has certain plans for you that will take your mind away from this—this silly boy, soon enough."
Hedwig had risen, and was standing, very white, with her hands on the table. "What plans, mother?"
"He will tell you."
"Not—I am not to be married?"
The Archduchess Annunciata was not all hard. She could never forgive her children their father. They reminded her daily of a part of her life that she would have put behind her. But they were her children, and Hedwig was all that she was not, gentle and round and young. Suddenly something almost like regret stirred in her.
"Don't look like that, child," she said. "It is not settled. And, after all, one marriage or another what difference does it make! Men are men. If one does not care, it makes the things they do unimportant."
"But surely," Hedwig gasped, "surely I shall be consulted?"
Annunciata shook her head. They had all risen and Hilda was standing, the peach forgotten, her mouth a little open. As for Olga Loschek, she was very still, but her eyes burned. The Archduchess remembered her presence no more than that of the flowers on the table.
"Mother, you cannot look back, and—and remember your own life, and allow me to be wretched. You cannot!"
Hilda picked up her peach. It was all very exciting, but Hedwig was being rather silly. Besides, why was she so distracted when she did not know who the man was? It might be some quite handsome person. For Hilda was also at the age when men were handsome or not handsome, and nothing else.
Unexpectedly Hedwig began to cry. This Hilda considered going much too far, and bad taste into the bargain. She slipped the peach into the waist of her frock.
The Archduchess hated tears, and her softer moments were only moments. "Dry your eyes, and don't be silly," she said coldly. "You have always known that something of the sort was inevitable."
She moved toward the door. The two princesses and her lady in waiting remained still until she had left the table. Then they fell in behind her, and the little procession moved to the stuffy, boudoir, for coffee. But Hilda slipped her arm around her sister's waist, and the touch comforted Hedwig.
"He may be very nice," Hilda volunteered cautiously. "Perhaps it is Karl. I am quite mad about Karl, myself."
Hedwig, however, was beyond listening. She went slowly to a window, and stood gazing out. Looming against the sky-line, in the very center of the Place, was the heroic figure of her dead grandmother. She fell to wondering about these royal women who had preceded her. Her mother, frankly unhappy in her marriage, permanently embittered; her grandmother. Hedwig had never seen the King young. She could not picture him as a lover. To her he was a fine and lonely figure. But romantic? Had he ever been romantic?
He had made her mother's marriage, and had lived to regret it. He would make hers. But what about the time when he himself had taken a wife? Hedwig gazed at the statue. Had she too come with unwilling arms? And if she had, was it true that after all, in a year or a lifetime, it made no difference.
She slipped out on to the balcony and closed the curtains behind her. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness she saw that there was some one below, under the trees. Her heart beat rapidly. In a moment she was certain. It was Nikky down there, Nikky, gazing up at her as a child may look at a star. With a quick gesture Hedwig drew the curtain back. A thin ray of light fell on her, on her slim bare arms, on her light draperies, on her young face. He had wanted to see her, and he should see her. Then she dropped the curtain, and twisted her hands together lest, in spite of her, they reach out toward him.
Did she fancy it, or did the figure salute her? Then came the quick ring of heels on the old stone pavement. She knew his footsteps, even as she knew every vibrant, eager inflection of his voice. He went away, across the Square, like one who, having bent his knee to a saint, turns back to the business of the world.
In the boudoir the Archduchess had picked up some knitting to soothe her jangled nerves. "You may play now, Hilda," she said.
Into Hilda's care-free young life came two bad hours each day. One was the dinner hour, when she ate under her mother's pitiless eyes. The other was the hour after dinner, when, alone in the white drawing-room beyond the boudoir, with the sliding doors open, she sat at the grand piano, which was white and gold, like the room, and as cold, and played to her mother's pitiless ears.
She went slowly into the drawing-room. Empty, it was a dreary place. The heavy chandeliers of gold and cut glass were unlighted. The crimson and gilt chairs were covered with white linen. Only the piano, a gleaming oasis in a desert of polished floor, was lighted, and that by two tall candles in gilt candlesticks that reached from the floor. Hilda, going reluctantly to her post, was the only bit of life and color in the room.
At last Annunciata dozed, and Hilda played softly. Played now, not for her mother, but for herself. And as she played she dreamed: of Hedwig's wedding, of her own debut, of Karl, who had fed her romantic heart by treating her like a woman grown.
The Countess's opportunity had come. She put down the dreary embroidery with which she filled the drearier evenings, and moved to the window. She walked quietly, like a cat.
Her first words to Hedwig were those of Peter Niburg as he linked arms with his enemy and started down the street. "A fine night, Highness," she said.
Hedwig raised her eyes to the stars. "It is very lovely."
"A night to spend out-of-doors, instead of being shut up—" She finished her, sentence with a shrug of the shoulders.
Hedwig was not fond of the Countess. She did not know why. The truth being, of course, that between them lay the barrier of her own innocence. Hedwig could not have put this into words, would not, indeed, if she could. But when the Countess's arm touched hers, she drew aside.
"To-night," said the lady in waiting dreamily, "I should like to be in a motor, speeding over mountain roads. I come from the mountains, you know. And I miss them."
Hedwig said nothing; she wished to be alone with her trouble.
"In my home, at this time of the year," the Countess went on, still softly, "they are driving the cattle up into the mountains for the summer. At night one hears them going—a bell far off, up the mountainside, and sometimes one sees the light of a lantern."
Hedwig moved, a little impatiently, but as the Countess went on, she listened. After all, Nikky, too, came from the mountains. She saw it all—the great herds moving with deliberate eagerness already sniffing the green slopes above, and the star of the distant lantern. She could even hear the thin note of the bell. And because she was sorry for the Countess, who was homesick, and perhaps because just then she had to speak to some one, she turned to her at last with the thing that filled her mind.
"This marriage," she said bitterly. "Is it talked about? Am I the only one in the palace who has not known about it?"
"No, Highness, I had heard nothing."
"But you knew about it?"
"Only what I heard to-night. Of course, there are always rumors."
"As to the other, the matter my mother referred to," Hedwig held her head very high, "I—she was unjust. Am I never to have any friends?"
The Countess turned and, separating the curtains, surveyed the room within. Annunciata was asleep, and beyond, Hilda was playing dreamily, and very softly, as behooves one whose bedtime is long past. When the Countess dropped the curtain, she turned abruptly to Hedwig.
"Friends, Highness? One may have friends, of course. It is not friendship they fear."
"A lover," said the Countess softly. "It is impossible to see Captain Larisch in your presence, and not realize—"
"And not realize, Highness, that he is in love with you."
"How silly!" said the Princess Hedwig, with glowing eyes.
"But Highness!" implored the Countess. "If only you would use a little caution. Open defiance is its own defeat."
"I am not ashamed of what I do," said Hedwig hotly.
"Ashamed! Of course not. But things that are harmless in others, in your position—you are young. You should have friends, gayety. I am," she smiled grimly in the darkness, "not so old myself but that I can understand."
"Who told my mother that I was having tea with—with Prince Otto?"
"These things get about. Where there is no gossip, there are plenty to invent it. And—pardon, Highness—frankness, openness, are not always understood."
Hedwig stood still. The old city was preparing for sleep. In the Place a few lovers loitered, standing close, and the faint tinkling of a bell told of the Blessed Sacrament being carried through the streets to some bedside of the dying. Soon the priest came into view, walking rapidly, with his skirts flapping around his legs. Before him marched a boy, ringing a bell and carrying a lighted lamp. The priest bent his steps through the Place, and the lovers kneeled as he passed by. The Princess Hedwig bowed her head.
It seemed to her, all at once, that the world was full of wretchedness and death, and of separation, which might be worse than death. The lamp, passing behind trees, shone out fitfully. The bell tinkled—a thin, silvery sound that made her heart ache.
"I wish I could help you, Highness," said the Countess. "I should like to see you happy. But happiness does not come of itself. We must fight for it."
"Fight? What chance have I to fight?" Hedwig asked scornfully.
"One thing, of course, I could do," pursued the Countess. "On those days when you wish to have tea with—His Royal Highness, I could arrange, perhaps, to let you know if any member of the family intended going to his apartments."
It was a moment before Hedwig comprehended. Then she turned to her haughtily. "When I wish to have tea with my cousin," she said coldly, "I shall do it openly, Countess."
She left the balcony abruptly, abandoning the Countess to solitary fury, the greater because triumph had seemed so near. Alone, she went red and white, bit her lips, behaved according to all the time-honored traditions. And even swore—in a polite, lady-in-waiting fashion, to be sure—to get even.
Royalties, as she knew well, were difficult to manage. They would go along perfectly well, and act like human beings, and rage and fuss and grieve, and even weep. And then, quite unexpectedly, the royal streak would show. But royalties in love were rather rare in her experience. Love was, generally speaking, not a royal attribute. Apparently it required a new set of rules.
Altogether, the Countess Loschek worked herself to quite as great a fury as if her motives had been purely altruistic, and not both selfish and wicked.
That night, while the Prince Ferdinand William Otto hugged the woolen dog in his sleep; while the Duchess Hilda, in front of her dressing-table, was having her hair brushed; while Nikky roamed the streets and saw nothing but the vision of a girl on a balcony, a girl who was lost to him, although she had never been anything else, Hedwig on her knees at the prie-dieu in her dressing-room followed the example of the Chancellor, who, too, had felt himself in a tight corner, as one may say, and was growing tired of putting his trust in princes. So Hedwig prayed for many things: for the softening of hard hearts; for Nikky's love; and, perhaps a trifle tardily, for the welfare and recovery of her grandfather, the King. But mostly she prayed for happiness, for a bit of light and warmth in her gray days—to be allowed to live and love.
CHAPTER. XI. RATHER A WILD NIGHT
Things were going very wrong for Nikky Larisch.
Not handsome, in any exact sense, was Nikky, but tall and straight, with a thatch of bright hair not unlike that of the Crown Prince, and as unruly. Tall and straight, and occasionally truculent, with a narrow rapier scar on his left cheek to tell the story of wild student days, and with two clear young eyes that had looked out humorously at the world until lately. But Nikky was not smiling at the world these days.
Perhaps, at the very first, he had been in love with the princess, not the woman. It had been rather like him to fix on the unattainable and worship it from afar. Because, for all the friendliness of their growing intimacy, Hedwig was still a star, whose light touched him, but whose warmth was not for him. He would have died fighting for her with a smile on his lips. There had been times when he almost wished he might. He used to figure out pleasant little dramas, in which, fallen on the battlefield, his last word, uttered in all reverence, was her name. But he had no hope of living for her, unless, of course, she should happen to need him, which was most unlikely. He had no vanity whatever, although in parade dress, with white gloves, he hoped he cut a decent figure.
So she had been his star, and as cold and remote. And then, that very morning, whether it was the new cross-saddle suit or whatever it was, Hedwig had been thrown. Not badly—she was too expert for that. As a matter of fact, feeling herself going, she had flung two strong young arms around her horse's neck, and had almost succeeded in lighting on her feet. It was not at all dramatic.
But Nikky's heart had stopped beating. He had lifted her up from where she sat, half vexed and wholly ashamed, and carried her to a chair. That was all. But when it was all over, and Hedwig was only a trifle wobbly and horribly humiliated, Nikky Larisch knew the truth about himself, knew that he was in love with the granddaughter of his King, and that under no conceivable circumstances would he ever be able to tell her so. Knew, then, that happiness and he had said a long farewell, and would thereafter travel different roads.
It had stunned him. He had stood quite still and thought about it. And Prince Ferdinand William Otto had caught him in the act of thinking; and had stood before him and surveyed him anxiously.
"You needn't look so worried, you know," he protested. "She's not really hurt."
Nikky came back, but slowly. He had in a few seconds already traveled a long way along the lonely road. But he smiled down at the little Prince.
"But she might have been, you know. It—it rather alarmed me."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto was for continuing the subject. He blamed the accident on the new riding-suit, and was royally outspoken about it. "And anyhow," he finished, "I don't like her in boy's clothes. Half of her looks like a girl, and the rest doesn't."
Nikky, letting his eyes rest on her, realized that all of her to him was wonderful, and forever beyond reach.
So that night he started out to think things over. Probably never before in his life had he deliberately done such a thing. He had never, as a fact, thought much at all. It had been his comfortable habit to let the day take care of itself. Beyond minor problems of finance—minor because his income was trifling—he had considered little. In the last border war he had distinguished himself only when it was a matter of doing, not of thinking.
He was very humble about himself. His young swagger was a sort of defiance. And he was not subtle. Taken suddenly, through the Chancellor's favor, into the circles of the Court, its intrigues and poisoned whispers passed him by. He did not know they existed. And he had one creed, and only one: to love God, honor the King, and live like a gentleman.
On this boy, then, with the capacity for suffering of his single-minded type, had fallen the mantle of trouble. It puzzled him. He did not exactly know what to do about it. And it hurt. It hurt horribly.
That night, following the Archduchess's confidence, he had stood under the Palace windows, in the Place, and looked up. Not that he expected to see Hedwig. He did it instinctively, turning toward her hidden presence with a sort of bewildered yearning. Across his path, as he turned away, had passed the little procession of the priest and the Sacrament. He knelt, as did the lovers and the passers-by, and when he got up he followed the small flame of the lamp with his eyes as far as he could see it.
This was life, then. One lived and suffered and yearned, and then came death. Were there barriers of rank over there? Or were all equal, so that those who had loved on earth without hope might meet face to face? The tinkle of the bell grew fainter. This weight that he carried, it would be his all his life. And then, one day, he too would hear the bell coming nearer and nearer, and he would die, without having lived.
But he was young, and the night was crisp and beautiful. He took a long breath, and looked up at the stars. After all, things might not be so bad. Hedwig might refuse this marriage. They were afraid that she would, or why have asked his help? When he thought of King Karl, he drew himself up; and his heels rang hard on the pavement. Karl! A hard man and a good king—that was Karl. And old. From the full manhood of his twenty-three years Nikky surveyed Karl's almost forty, and considered it age.
But soon he was bitter again, bitter and jealous. Back there in the palace they were plotting their own safety, and making a young girl pay for it. He swore softly.
It was typical of Nikky to decide that he needed a hard walk. He translated most of his emotions into motion. So he set off briskly, turning into the crowded part of the city. Here were narrow, winding streets; old houses that overhung above and almost touched, shutting out all but a thin line of sky; mediaeval doorways of heavy oak and iron that opened into courtyards, where once armed men had lounged, but where now broken wagons and other riffraff were stored.
And here it was that Nikky happened on the thing that was to take him far that night, and bring about many curious things. Not far ahead of him two men were talking. They went slowly, arm in arm. One was talking loquaciously, using his free arm, on which hung a cane, to gesticulate. The other walked with bent head.
Nikky, pausing to light a cigarette, fell behind. But the wind was tricky, and with his third match he stepped into a stone archway, lighted his cigarette, buttoned his tunic high against the chill, and emerged to a silent but violent struggle just ahead. The two men had been attacked by three others, and as he stared, the loquacious one went down. Instantly a huge figure of a man outlined against the light from a street-lamp, crouched over the prostrate form of the fallen man. Even in the imperceptible second before he started to run toward the group, Nikky saw that the silent one, unmolested, was looking on.
A moment later he was in the thick of things and fighting gloriously. His soldierly cap fell off. His fair hair bristled with excitement. He flung out arms that were both furious and strong, and with each blow the group assumed a new formation. Unluckily, a great deal of the fighting was done over the prostrate form of Peter Niburg.
Suddenly one of the group broke away, and ran down the street. He ran rather like a kangaroo, gathering his feet under him and proceeding by a series of leaps, almost as if he were being shamefully pricked from behind. At a corner he turned pale, terror-stricken eyes back on that sinister group, and went on into the labyrinth of small streets.
But disaster, inglorious disaster, waited for Nikky. Peter Niburg, face down on the pavement, was groaning, and Nikky had felled one man and was starting on a second with the fighting appetite of twenty-three, when something happened. One moment Nikky was smiling, with a cut lip, and hair in his eyes, and the next he was dropped like an ox, by a blow from behind. Landing between his shoulder-blades, it jerked his head back with a snap, and sent him reeling. A second followed, delivered by a huge fist.
Down went Nikky, and lay still.
The town slept on. Street brawls were not uncommon, especially in the neighborhood of the Hungaria. Those who roused grumbled about quarrelsome students, and slept again.
Perhaps two minutes later, Nikky got up. He was another minute in locating himself. His cap lay in the gutter. Beside him, on his back, lay a sprawling and stertorous figure, with, so quick the downfall, a cane still hooked to his arm.
Nikky bent over Peter Niburg. Bending over made his head ache abominably.
"Here, man!" he said. "Get up! Rouse yourself!"
Peter Niburg made an inarticulate reference to a piece of silk of certain quality, and lay still. But his eyes opened slowly, and he stared up at the stars. "A fine night," he said thickly. "A very fine—" Suddenly he raised himself to a sitting posture. Terror gave him strength. "I've been robbed," he said. "Robbed. I am ruined. I am dead."
"Tut," said Nikky, mopping his cut lip. "If you are dead, your spirit speaks with an uncommonly lusty voice! Come, get up. We present together a shameful picture of defeat."
But he raised Peter Niburg gently from the ground and, finding his knees unstable, from fright or weakness, stood him against a house wall. Peter Niburg, with rolling eyes, felt for his letter, and, the saints be praised, found it.
"Ah!" he said, and straightened up. "After all it is not so bad as I feared. They got nothing."
He made a manful effort to walk, but tottered reeled. Nikky caught him.
"Careful!" he said. "The colossus was doubtless the one who got us boxy, and we are likely to feel his weight for some time. Where do you live?"
Peter Niburg was not for saying. He would have preferred to pursue his solitary if uncertain way. But Nikky was no half Samaritan. Toward Peter Niburg's lodging, then, they made a slow progress.
"These recent gentlemen," said Nikky, as they rent along, "they are, perhaps, personal enemies?"
"I do not know. I saw nothing."
"One was very large, a giant of a man. Do you now such a man?"
Peter Niburg reflected. He thought not. "But I know why they came," he said unguardedly. "Some early morning, my friend, you will hear of man lying dead in the street, That man will be I."
"The thought has a moral," observed Nikky. "Do not trust yourself out-of-doors at night."
But he saw that Peter Niburg kept his hand over breast-pocket.
Never having dealt in mysteries, Nikky was slow recognizing one. But, he reflected, many things were going on in the old city in these troubled days.
Came to Nikky, all at once; that this man on his arm might be one of the hidden eyes of Government.
"These are difficult times," he ventured, "for those who are loyal."
Peter Niburg gave him a sidelong glance. "Difficult indeed," he said briefly.
"But," said Nikky, "perhaps we fear too much. The people love the boy Prince. And without the people revolution can accomplish nothing."
"Nothing at all," assented Peter Niburg.
"I think," Nikky observed, finding his companion unresponsive, "that, after I see you safely home, I shall report this small matter to the police. Surely there cannot be in the city many such gorillas as our friend with the beard and the huge body."
But here Peter Niburg turned even paler. "Not—not the police!" he stammered.
"But why? You and I, my friend, will carry their insignia for some days. I have a mind to pay our debts."
Peter Niburg considered. He stopped and faced Nikky. "I do not wish the police," he said. "Perhaps I have said too little. This is a private matter. An affair of jealousy."
"Naturally, not a matter for publicity."
"Very well," Nikky assented. But in his mind was rising, dark suspicion. He had stumbled on something. He cursed his stupidity that it meant, so far, nothing more than a mystery to him. He did not pride himself on his intelligence.
"You were not alone, I think?"
Peter Niburg suddenly remembered Herman, and stopped.
"Your friend must have escaped."
"He would escape," said Peter Niburg scornfully. "He is of the type that runs."
He lapsed into sullen silence. Soon he paused before a quiet house, one of the many which housed in cavernous depths uncounted clerks and other small fry of the city. "Good-night to you," said Peter Niburg. Then, rather tardily. "And my thanks. But for you I should now—" he shrugged his shoulders.
"Good-night, friend," said Nikky. "And better keep your bed to-morrow."
He had turned away, and Peter Niburg entered the house.
Nikky inspected himself in the glow of a street lamp. Save for some dust, and a swollen lip, which he could not see, he was not unpresentable. Well enough, anyhow, for the empty streets. But before he started he looked the house and the neighborhood over carefully. He might wish to return to that house.
For two hours he walked, and resumed his interrupted train of thought—past the gloomy University buildings, past the quay, where sailed the vessels that during peaceful times went along the Ar through the low lands of Karnia to the sea. At last, having almost circled the city, he came to the Cathedral. It was nearly midnight by the clock in the high tower. He stopped and consulted his watch. The fancy took him to go up the high steps, and look out over the city from the colonnade.
Once there, he stood leaning against a column, looking out. The sleeping town appealed to him. Just so had it lain in old feudal times, clustered about the church and the Palace, and looking to both for protection. It had grown since then, had extended beyond the walls which sheltered it, had now destroyed those walls and, filling in the moat, had built thereon its circling parks. And other things had changed. No longer, he reflected gloomily, did it look to the palace, save with tolerance and occasional disloyalty. The old order was changing. And, with all his hot young heart, Nikky was for the old order.
There was some one coming along the quiet streets, with a stealthy, shuffling gait that caught his attention. So, for instance, might a weary or a wounded man drag along. Exactly so, indeed, had Peter Niburg shambled into his house but two hours gone.
The footsteps paused, hesitated, commenced a painful struggle up the ascent. Nikky moved behind his column, and waited. Up and up, weary step after weary step. The shadowy figure, coming close, took a form, became a man—became Peter Niburg.
Now, indeed, Nikky roused. Beaten and sorely bruised, Peter Niburg should have been in bed. What stealthy business of the night brought him out?
Fortunately for Nikky's hiding-place, the last step or two proved too much for the spy. He groaned, and sat down painfully, near the top. His head lolled forward, and he supported it on two shaking hands. Thus he sat, huddled and miserable, for five minutes or thereabouts. The chime rang out overhead the old hymn which the little Crown Prince so often sang to it:
"Draw me also, Mary mild, To adore Thee and thy Child! Mary mild, Star in desert drear and wild."
Time had gone since the old church stood in a desert drear and wild, but still its chimes rang the old petition, hour after hour.
At ten minutes past the hour, Nikky heard the engine of an automobile. No machine came in sight, but the throbbing kept on, from which he judged that a car had been stopped around the corner. Peter Niburg heard it, and rose. A moment later a man, with the springiness of youth, mounted the steps and confronted the messenger.
Nikky saw a great light. When Peter Niburg put his hand to his breast-pocket, there was no longer room for doubt, nor, for that matter, time for thinking. As a matter of fact, never afterward could Nikky recall thinking at all. He moved away quietly, hidden by the shadows of the colonnade. Behind him, on the steps, the two men were talking. Peter Niburg's nasal voice had taken on a whining note. Short, gruff syllables replied. Absorbed in themselves and their business, they neither heard nor saw the figure that slipped through the colonnade, and dropped, a bloodcurdling drop, from the high end of it to the street below.
Nikky's first impulse, beside the car, was to cut a tire. By getting his opponent into a stooping position; over the damaged wheel, it would be easier to overcome him. But a hasty search revealed that he had lost his knife in the melee. And second thought gave him a better plan. After all, to get the letter was not everything. To know its destination would be important. He had no time to think further. The messenger was coming down the steps, not stealthily, but clattering, with the ring of nails in the heels of heavy boots.
Nikky flung his long length into the tonneau, and there crouched. It was dark enough to conceal him, but Nikky's was a large body in a small place. However, the chauffeur only glanced at the car, kicked a tire with a practiced foot, and got in.
He headed for the open country. Very soon his passenger knew that he was in for a long ride possibly, a cold ride certainly. Within the city limits the car moved decorously, but when the suburbs were reached, the driver put on all his power. He drove carefully, too, as one who must make haste but cannot afford accident.
Nikky grew very uncomfortable. His long legs ached. The place between the shoulders where the concierge had landed his powerful blows throbbed and beat. Also he was puzzled, and he hated being puzzled. He was unarmed, too. He disliked that most of all. Generally speaking, he felt his position humiliating. He was a soldier, not a spy. His training had been to fight, not to hide and watch.
After a time he raised his head. He made out that they were going east, toward the mountains, and he cursed the luck that had left his revolver at home. Still he had no plan but to watch. Two hours' ride, at their present rate, would take them over the border and into Karnia.
Nikky, although no thinker, was not a fool, and he knew rather better than most what dangers threatened the country from outside as well. Also, in the back of his impulsive head was a sort of dogged quality that was near to obstinacy. He had started this thing and he would see it through. And as the car approached the border, he began to realize that this was not of the Terrorists at home, but something sinister, abroad.
With a squealing of brakes the machine drew up at the frontier. Here was a chain across the highway, with two sets of guards. Long before they reached it, a sentry stepped into the road and waved his lantern.
Nikky burrowed lower into the car, and attempted to look like a rug. In the silence, while the sentry evidently examined a passport and flashed a lantern over the chauffeur, Nikky cursed the ticking of his watch, the beating of his own heart.
Then came a clanking as the chain dropped in the road. The car bumped over it, and halted again. The same formalities, this time by Karnian sentries. A bit more danger, too, for the captain in charge of the guard asked for matches, and dangled a careless hand over the side, within a few inches of Nikky's head. Then the jerk following a hasty letting-in of the clutch, and they were off again.
For some time they climbed steadily. But Nikky, who knew the road, bided his time. Then at last, at two o'clock, came the steep ascent to the very crest of the mountain, and a falling-back, gear by gear, until they climbed slowly in the lowest.
Nikky unfolded his length quietly. The gears were grinding, the driver bent low over his wheel. Very deliberately, now that he knew what he was going to do, Nikky unbuttoned his tunic and slipped it off. It was a rash thing, this plan he had in mind, rash under any circumstances, in a moving car particularly rash here, where between the cliff and a precipice that fell far away below, was only a winding ribbon of uneven road.
Here, at the crucial moment, undoubtedly he should have given a last thought to Hedwig. But alas for romance! As a matter of honesty, he had completely forgotten Hedwig. This was his work, and with even the hottest of lovers, work and love are things apart.
So he waited his moment, loveless, as one may say, and then, with one singularly efficient gesture, he flung his tunic over the chauffeur's head. He drove a car himself, did Nikky—not his own, of course; he was far too poor—and he counted on one thing: an automobile driver acts from the spinal cord, and not from the brain. Therefore his brain may be seething with a thousand frenzies, but he will shove out clutch and brake feet in an emergency, and hold them out.
So it happened. The man's hands left the wheel, but he stopped his car. Not too soon. Not before it had struck the cliff, and then taken a sickening curve out toward the edge of the precipice. But stop it did, on the very edge of eternity, and the chauffeur held it there.
"Set the hand brake!" Nikky said. The lamps were near enough the edge to make him dizzy.
The chauffeur ceased struggling, and set the hand brake. His head was still covered. But having done that, he commenced a struggle more furious than forceful, for both of them were handicapped. But Nikky had steel-like young arms from which escape was impossible.
And now Nikky was forced to an unsoldier-like thing that he afterward tried to forget. For the driver developed unexpected strength, refused to submit, got the tunic off his head, and, seeing himself attacked by one man only, took courage and fell to. He picked up a wrench from the seat beside him, and made a furious pass at Nikky's head. Nikky ducked and, after a struggle, secured the weapon. All this in the car, over the seat back.
It was then that Nikky raised the wrench and stunned his man with it. It was hateful. The very dull thud of it was sickening. And there was a bad minute or two when he thought he had killed his opponent. The man had sunk down in his seat, a sodden lump of inanimate human flesh. And Nikky, whose business, in a way, was killing; was horrified.
He tried to find the pulse, but failed—which was not surprising, since he had the wrong side of the wrist. Then the unconscious man groaned. For a moment, as he stood over him, Nikky reflected that he was having rather a murderous night of it.
The chauffeur wakened, ten minutes later, to find himself securely tied with his own towing rope, and lying extremely close to the edge of death. Beside him on the ground sat a steady-eyed young man with a cut lip. The young man had lighted a cigarette, and was placing it carefully in the uninjured side of his mouth.
"Just as soon as you are up to it," said Nikky, "we shall have a little talk."
The chauffeur muttered something in the peasant patois of Karnia.
"Come, come!" Nikky observed. "Speak up. No hiding behind strange tongues. But first, I have the letter. That saves your worrying about it. You can clear your mind for action." Suddenly Nikky dropped his mocking tone. To be quite frank, now that the man was not dead, and Nikky had the letter, he rather fancied himself. But make no mistake—he was in earnest, grim and deadly earnest.
"I have a fancy, my friend," he said, "to take that letter of yours on to its destination. But what that destination is, you are to tell me."
The man on the ground grinned sardonically. "You know better than to ask that," he said. "I will never tell you."
Nikky had thought things out fairly well, for him, in that ten minutes. In a business-like fashion he turned the prostrate prisoner on his side, so that he faced toward the chasm. A late moon showed its depth, and the valley in which the Ar flowed swiftly. And having thus faced him toward the next world, Nikky, throwing away his cigarette because it hurt his lip, put a stone or two from the roadway behind his prisoner, and anchored him there. Then he sat down and waited. Except that his ears were burning, he was very calm.
"Any news?" he asked, at the end of ten minutes' unbroken silence.
His—prisoner said nothing. He was thinking, doubtless. Weighing things, too,—perhaps life against betrayal, a family against separation.
Nikky examined the letter again. It was addressed to a border town in Livonia. But the town lay far behind them. The address, then, was a false one. He whistled softly. He was not, as a fact, as calm as he looked. He had never thrown a man over a precipice before, and he disliked the idea. Fortunately, his prisoner did not know this. Besides, suppose he did push him over? Dead men are extremely useless about telling things. It would, as a fact, leave matters no better than before. Rather worse.
Half an hour.
"Come, come," said Nikky fiercely. "We are losing time." He looked fierce, too. His swollen lip did that. And he was nervous. It occurred to him that his prisoner, in desperation, might roll over the edge himself, which would be most uncomfortable.
But the precipice, and Nikky's fierce lip, and other things, had got in their work. The man on the ground stopped muttering in his patois, and turned on Nikky eyes full of hate.
"I will tell you," he said. "And you will free me. And after that—"
"Certainly," Nikky replied equably. "You will follow me to the ends of the earth—although that will not be necessary, because I don't intend to go there—and finish me off." Then, sternly: "Now, where does the letter go? I have a fancy for delivering it myself."
"If I tell you, what then?"
"This: If you tell me properly, and all goes well, I will return and release you. If I do not return, naturally you will not be released. And, for fear you meditate a treachery, I shall gag you and leave you, not here, but back a short distance, in the wood we just passed. And, because you are a brave man, and this thing may be less serious than I think it is, I give you my word of honor that, if you advise me correctly, I shall return and liberate you."
He was very proud of his plan. He had thought it out carefully. He had everything to gain and nothing to lose by it—except, perhaps, his life. The point was, that he knew he could not take a citizen of Karnia prisoner, because too many things would follow, possibly a war.
"It's a reasonable proposition," he observed. "If I come back, you are all right. If I do not, there are a number of disagreeable possibilities for you."
"I have only your word."
"And I yours," said Nikky.
The chauffeur took a final glance around; as far as he could see, and a final shuddering look at the valley of the Ar, far below. "I will tell you," he said sullenly.
CHAPTER XII. TWO PRISONERS
Herman Spier had made his escape with the letter. He ran through tortuous byways of the old city, under arches into courtyards, out again by doorway set in walls, twisted, doubled like a rabbit. And all this with no pursuit, save the pricking one of terror.
But at last he halted, looked about, perceived that only his own guilty conscience accused him, and took breath. He made his way to the house in the Road of the Good Children, the letter now buttoned inside his coat, and, finding the doors closed, lurked in the shadow of the park until, an hour later, Black Humbert himself appeared.
He eyed his creature with cold anger. "It is a marvel," he sneered, "that such flight as yours has not brought the police in a pack at your heels."
"I had the letter," Herman replied sulkily. "It was necessary to save it."
"You were to see where Niburg took the substitute."
But here Herman was the one to sneer. "Niburg!" he said. "You know well enough that he will take no substitute to-night, or any night, You strike hard, my friend."
The concierge growled, and together they entered the house across the street.
In the absence of Humbert, his niece, daughter of a milk-seller near, kept the bureau, answered the bell, and after nine o'clock, when the doors were bolted, admitted the various occupants of the house and gave them the tiny tapers with which to light themselves upstairs. She was sewing and singing softly when they entered. Herman Spier's pale face colored. He suspected the girl of a softness for him, not entirely borne out by the facts. So he straightened his ready-made tie, which hooked to his collar button, and ogled her.
"All right, girl. You may go," said Humbert. His huge bulk seemed to fill the little room.
"Good-night to you both," the girl said, and gave Herman Spier a nod. When she was gone, the concierge locked the door behind her.
"And now," he said, "for a look at the treasure."
He rubbed his hands together as Herman produced the letter. Heads close, they examined it under the lamp. Then they glanced at each other.
"A cipher," said the concierge shortly. "It tells nothing."
It was a moment of intense disappointment. In Humbert's mind had been forming, for the past hour or two, a plan—nothing less than to go himself before the Council and, with the letter in hand, to point out certain things which would be valuable. In this way he would serve both the party and him-self. Preferment would follow. He could demand, under the corning republic, some high office. Already, of course, he was known to the Committee, and known well, but rather for brawn than brain. They used him. Now— "Code!" he said. And struck the paper with a hairy fist. "Everything goes wrong. That blond devil interferes, and now this letter speaks but of blankets and loaves!"
The bell rang, and, taking care to thrust the letter out of sight, the concierge disappeared. Then ensued, in the hall, a short colloquy, followed by a thumping on the staircase. The concierge returned.
"Old Adelbert, from the Opera," he said. "He has lost his position, and would have spent the night airing his grievance. But I sent him off!"
Herman turned his pale eyes toward the giant. "So!" he said. And after a pause, "He has some influence among the veterans."
"And is Royalist to his marrow," sneered the concierge. He took the letter out again and, bringing a lamp, went over it carefully. It was signed merely "Olga." "Blankets and loaves!" he fumed.
Now, as between the two, Black Humbert furnished evil and strength, but it was the pallid clerk who furnished the cunning. And now he made a suggestion.
"It is possible," he said, "that he—upstairs—could help."
"Adelbert? Are you mad?"
"The other. He knows codes. It was by means of one we caught him. I have heard that all these things have one basis, and a simple one."
The concierge considered. Then he rose. "It is worth trying," he observed.
He thrust the letter into his pocket, and the two conspirators went out into the gloomy hall. There, on a ledge, lay the white tapers, and one he lighted, shielding it from the draft in the hollow of his great hand. Then he led the way to the top of the house.
Here were three rooms. One, the best, was Herman Spier's, a poor thing at that. Next to it was old Adelbert's. As they passed the door they could hear him within, muttering to himself. At the extreme end of the narrow corridor, in a passage almost blocked by old furniture, was another room, a sort of attic, with a slanting roof.
Making sure that old Adelbert did not hear them, they went back to this door, which the concierge unlocked. Inside the room was dark. The taper showed little. As their eyes became accustomed to the darkness, the outlines of the attic stood revealed, a junk-room, piled high with old trunks, and in one corner a bed.
Black Humbert, taper in hand, approached the bed. Herman remained near the door. Now, with the candle near, the bed revealed a man lying on it, and tied with knotted ropes; a young man, with sunken cheeks and weary, desperate eyes. Beside him, on a chair, were the fragments of a meal, a bit of broken bread, some cold soup, on which grease had formed a firm coating.
Lying there, sleeping and waking and sleeping again, young Haeckel, one time of His Majesty's secret service and student in the University, had lost track of the days. He knew not how long he had been a prisoner, except that it had been eternities. Twice a day, morning and evening, came his jailer and loosened his bonds, brought food, of a sort, and allowed him, not out of mercy, but because it was the Committee's pleasure that for a time he should live, to move about the room and bring the blood again to his numbed limbs.
He was to live because he knew many things which the Committee would know. But, as the concierge daily reminded him, there was a limit to mercy and to patience.
In the mean time they held him, a hostage against certain contingencies. Held him and kept him barely alive. Already he tottered about the room when his bonds were removed; but his eyes did not falter, or his courage. Those whom he had served so well, he felt, would not forget him. And meanwhile, knowing what he knew, he would die before he became the tool of these workers in the dark.
So he lay and thought, and slept when thinking became unbearable, and thus went his days and the long nights.
The concierge untied him, and stood back. "Now," he said.
But the boy—he was no more—lay still. He made one effort to rise, and fell back.
"Up with you!" said the concierge, and jerked him to his feet. He caught the rail of the bed, or he would have fallen. "Now—stand like a man."
He stood then, facing his captors without defiance. He had worn all that out in the first days of his imprisonment. He was in shirt and trousers only, his feet bare, his face unshaven—the thin first beard of early manhood.
"Well?" he said at last. "I thought—you've been here once to-night."
"Right, my cuckoo. But to-night I do you double honor."
But seeing that Haeckel was swaying, he turned to Herman Spier. "Go down," he said, "and bring up some brandy. He can do nothing for us in this state."
He drank the brandy eagerly when it came, and the concierge poured him a second quantity. What with weakness and slow starvation, it did what no threat of personal danger would have done. It broke down his resistance. Not immediately. He fought hard, when the matter was first broached to him. But in the end he took the letter and, holding it close to the candle, he examined it closely. His hands shook, his eyes burned. The two Terrorists watched him narrowly.
Brandy or no brandy, however, he had not lost his wits. He glanced up suddenly. "Tell me something about this," he said. "And what will you do for me if I decode it?"
The concierge would promise anything, and did. Haeckel listened, and knew the offer of liberty was a lie. But there was something about the story of the letter itself that bore the hall-marks of truth.
"You see," finished Black Humbert cunningly, "she—this—lady of the Court—is plotting with some one, or so we suspect. If it is only a liaison—!" He spread his hands. "If, as is possible, she betrays us to Karnia, that we should find out. It is not," he added, "among our plans that Karnia should know too much of us."
"Who is it?"
"I cannot betray a lady," said Black Humbert, and leered.
The brandy was still working, but the spy's mind was clear. He asked for a pencil, and set to work. After all, if there was a spy of Karl's in the Palace, it were well to know it. He tried complicated methods first, to find that the body of the letter, after all, was simple enough. By reading every tenth word, he got a consistent message, save that certain supplies, over which the concierge had railed, were special code words for certain regiments. These he could not decipher.
"Whoever was to receive this," he said at last, "would have been in possession of complete data of the army, equipment and all, and the location of various regiments. Probably you and your band of murderers have that already."
The concierge nodded, no whit ruffled. "And for whom was it intended?"
"I cannot say. The address is fictitious, of course."
Black Humbert scowled. "So!" he said. "You tell us only a part!"
"There is nothing else to tell. Save, as I have written here, the writer ends: 'I must see you at once. Let me know where.'"
The brandy was getting in its work well by that time. He was feeling strong, his own man again, and reckless. But he was cunning, too. He yawned. "And in return for all this, what?" he demanded. "I have done you a service, friend cut-throat."
The concierge stuffed letter and translation into his pocket. "What would you have, short of liberty?"
"Air, for one thing." He stood up and stretched again. God, how strong he felt! "If you would open that accursed window for an hour—the place reeks."
Humbert was in high good humor in spite of his protests. In his pocket he held the key to favor, aye, to a plan which he meant to lay before the Committee of Ten, a plan breath-taking in its audacity and yet potential of success. He went to the window and put his great shoulder against it.
Instantly Haeckel overturned the candle and, picking up the chair, hurled it at Herman Spier. He heard the clerk go down as he leaped for the door. Herman had not locked it. He was in the passage before the concierge had stumbled past the bed.
On the stairs his lightness counted. His bare feet made no sound. He could hear behind him the great mass of Humbert, hurling itself down. Haeckel ran as he had never run before. The last flight now, with the concierge well behind, and liberty two seconds away.
He flung himself against the doors to the street. But they were fastened by a chain, and the key was not in the lock.
He crumpled up in a heap as the concierge fell on him with fists like flails.
Some time later, old Adelbert heard a sound in the corridor, and peered out. Humbert, assisted by the lodger, Spier, was carrying to the attic what appeared to be an old mattress, rolled up and covered with rags. In the morning, outside the door, there was a darkish stain, however, which might have been blood.
CHAPTER XIII. IN THE PARK
At nine o'clock the next morning the Chancellor visited the Crown Prince. He came without ceremony. Lately he had been coming often. He liked to come in quietly, and sit for an hour in the schoolroom, saying nothing. Prince Ferdinand William Otto found these occasions rather trying.
"I should think," he protested once to his governess, "that he would have something else to do. He's the Chancellor, he?"
But on this occasion the Chancellor had an errand, the product of careful thought. Early as it was, already he had read his morning mail in his study, had dictated his replies, had eaten a frugal breakfast of fruit and sausage, and in the small inner room which had heard so many secrets, had listened to the reports of his agents, and of the King's physicians. Neither had been reassuring.
The King had passed a bad night, and Haeckel was still missing. The Chancellor's heart was heavy.
The Chancellor watched the Crown Prince, as he sat at the high desk, laboriously writing. It was the hour of English composition, and Prince Ferdinand William Otto was writing a theme.
"About dogs," he explained. "I've seen a great many, you know. I could do it better with a pencil. My pen sticks in the paper."
He wrote on, and Mettlich sat and watched. From the boy his gaze wandered over the room. He knew it well. Not so many years ago he had visited in this very room another bright-haired lad, whose pen had also stuck in the paper. The Chancellor looked up at the crossed swords, and something like a mist came into his keen old eyes.
He caught Miss Braithwaite's glance, and he knew what was in her mind. For nine years now had come, once a year, the painful anniversary, of the death of the late Crown Prince and his young wife. For nine years had the city mourned, with flags at half-mast and the bronze statue of the old queen draped in black. And for nine years had the day of grief passed unnoticed by the lad on whom hung the destinies of the kingdom.
Now they confronted a new situation. The next day but one was the anniversary again. The boy was older, and observant. It would not be possible to conceal from him the significance of the procession marching through the streets with muffled drums. Even the previous year he had demanded the reason for crape on his grandmother's statue, and had been put off, at the cost of Miss Braithwaite's strong feeling for the truth. Also he had not been allowed to see the morning paper, which was, on these anniversaries, bordered with black. This had annoyed him. The Crown Prince always read the morning paper—especially the weather forecast.
They could not continue to lie to the boy. Truthfulness had been one of the rules of his rigorous upbringing. And he was now of an age to remember. So the Chancellor sat and waited, and, fingered, his heavy watch-chain.
Suddenly the Crown Prince looked up. "Have you ever been on a scenic railway?", he inquired politely.
The Chancellor regretted that he had not.
"It's very remarkable," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto. "But unless you like excitement, perhaps you would not care for it."
The Chancellor observed that he had had his share of excitement, in his, time, and was now for the ways of quiet.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto had a great many things to say, but thought better of it. Miss Braithwaite disliked Americans, for instance, and it was quite possible that the Chancellor did also. It seemed strange about Americans. Either one liked them a great deal, or not at all. He put his attention to the theme, and finished it. Then, flushed with authorship, he looked up. "May I read you the last line of it?" he demanded of the Chancellor.
"I shall be honored, Highness." not often did the Chancellor say "Highness." Generally he said "Otto" or "my child."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto read aloud, with dancing eyes, his last line: "'I should like to own a dog.' I thought," he said wistfully, "that I might ask my grandfather for one."
"I see no reason why you should not have a dog," the Chancellor observed.
"Not one to be kept at the stables," Otto explained. "One to stay with me all the time. One to sleep on the foot of the bed."
But here the Chancellor threw up his hands. Instantly he visualized all the objections to dogs, from fleas to rabies. And he put the difficulties into words. No mean speaker was the Chancellor when so minded. He was a master of style, of arrangement, of logic and reasoning. He spoke at length, even, at the end, rising and pacing a few steps up and down the room. But when he had concluded, when the dog, so to speak, had fled yelping to the country of dead hopes, Prince Ferdinand William Otto merely gulped, and said:
"Well, I wish I could have a dog!"
The Chancellor changed his tactics by changing the subject. "I was wondering this morning, as I crossed the park, if you would enjoy an excursion soon. Could it be managed, Miss Braithwaite?"
"I dare say," said Miss Braithwaite dryly. "Although I must say, if there is no improvement in punctuation and capital letters—"
"What sort of excursion?" asked His Royal Highness, guardedly. He did not care for picture galleries.
"Out-of-doors, to see something interesting."
But Prince Ferdinand William Otto was cautious with the caution of one who, by hoping little, may be agreeably disappointed. "A corner-stone, I suppose," he said.
"Not a corner-stone," said the Chancellor, with eyes that began to twinkle under ferocious brows. "No, Otto. A real excursion, up the river."
"To the fort? I do want to see the new fort."
As a matter of truth, the Chancellor had not thought of the fort. But like many another before him, he accepted the suggestion and made it his own. "To the fort, of course," said he.
"And take luncheon along, and eat it there, and have Hedwig and Nikky? And see the guns?"
But this was going too fast. Nikky, of course, would go, and if the Princess cared to, she too. But luncheon! It was necessary to remind the Crown Prince that the officers at the fort would expect to have him join their mess. There was a short parley over this, and it was finally settled that the officers should serve luncheon, but that there should be no speeches. The Crown Prince had already learned that his presence was a sort of rod of Aaron, to unloose floods of speeches. Through what outpourings of oratory he had sat or stood, in his almost ten years!
"Then that's settled," he said at last. "I'm very happy. This morning I shall apologize to M. Puaux."
During the remainder of the morning the Crown Prince made various excursions to the window to see if the weather was holding good. Also he asked, during his half-hour's intermission, for the great box of lead soldiers that was locked away in the cabinet. "I shall pretend that the desk is a fort, Miss Braithwaite," he said. "Do you mind being the enemy, and pretending to be shot now and then?"
But Miss Braithwaite was correcting papers. She was willing to be a passive enemy and be potted at, but she drew the line at falling over. Prince Ferdinand William Otto did not persist. He was far too polite. But he wished in all his soul that Nikky would come. Nikky, he felt, would die often and hard.
But Nikky did not come.
Came German and French, mathematics and music and no Nikky. Came at last the riding-hour—and still no Nikky.
At twelve o'clock, Prince Ferdinand William Otto, clad in his riding-garments of tweed knickers, puttees, and a belted jacket, stood by the schoolroom window and looked out. The inner windows of his suite faced the courtyard, but the schoolroom opened over the Place—a bad arrangement surely, seeing what distractions to lessons may take place in a public square, what pigeons feeding in the sun, what bands with drums and drum-majors, what children flying kites.
"I don't understand it," the Crown Prince said plaintively. "He is generally very punctual. Perhaps—"
But he loyally refused to finish the sentence. The "perhaps" was a grievous thought, nothing less than that Nikky and Hedwig were at that moment riding in the ring together, and had both forgotten him. He was rather used to being forgotten. With the exception of Miss Braithwaite, he was nobody's business, really. His aunt forgot him frequently. On Wednesdays it was his privilege—or not; as you think of it—to take luncheon with the Archduchess; and once in so often she would forget and go out. Or be in, and not expecting him, which was as bad.
"Bless us, I forgot the child," she would say on these occasions.
But until now, Nikky had never forgotten. He had been the soul of remembering, indeed, and rather more than punctual. Prince Ferdinand William Otto consulted his watch. It was of gold, and on the inside was engraved:
"To Ferdinand William Otto from his grandfather, on the occasion of his taking his first communion."
"It's getting rather late," he observed.
Miss Braithwaite looked troubled. "No doubt something has detained him," she said, with unusual gentleness. "You might work at the frame for your Cousin Hedwig. Then, if Captain Larisch comes, you can still have a part of your lesson."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto brightened. The burntwood photograph frame for Hedwig was his delight. And yesterday, as a punishment for the escapade of the day before, it had been put away with an alarming air of finality. He had traced the design himself, from a Christmas card, and it had originally consisted of a ring and small Cupids, alternating with hearts. He liked it very much. The Cupids were engagingly fat. However, Miss Braithwaite had not approved of their state of nature, and it had been necessary to drape them with sashes tied in neat bows.
The pyrography outfit was produced, and for fifteen minutes Prince Ferdinand William Otto labored, his head on one side, his royal tongue slightly protruded. But, above the thin blue smoke of burning, his face remained wistful. He was afraid, terribly afraid, that he had been forgotten again.
"I hope Nikky is not ill," he said once. "He smokes a great many cigarettes. He says he knows they are bad for him."
"Certainly they are bad for him," said Miss Braithwaite. "They contain nicotine, which is a violent poison. A drop of nicotine on the tongue of a dog will kill it."
The reference was unfortunate.
"I wish I might have a dog," observed Prince Ferdinand William Otto.
Fortunately, at that moment, Hedwig came in. She came in a trifle defiantly, although that passed unnoticed, and she also came unannounced, as was her cousinly privilege. And she stood inside the door and stared at the Prince. "Well!" she said.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto was equal to the occasion. He hastily drew out his pocket-handkerchief and spread it over the frame. But his face was rather red. A palace is a most difficult place to have a secret in.
"Well?" she repeated; with a rising inflection. It was clear that she had not noticed the handkerchief incident. "Is there to be no riding-lesson to-day?"
"I don't know. Nikky has not come."
"Where is he?"
Here the drop of nicotine got in its deadly work. "I'm afraid he is ill," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto. "He said he smoked too many cigarettes, and—"
"Is Captain Larisch ill?" Hedwig looked at the governess, and lost some of her bright color.
Miss Braithwaite did not know, and said so. "At the very least," she went on, "he should have sent some word. I do not know what things are coming to. Since His Majesty's illness, no one seems to have any responsibility, or to take any."
"But of course he would have sent word," said Hedwig, frowning: "I don't understand it. He has never been so late before, has he?"
"He has never been late at all," Prince Ferdinand William Otto spoke up quickly.
After a time Hedwig went away, and the Crown Prince took off his riding-clothes. He ate a very small luncheon, swallowing mostly a glass of milk and a lump in his throat. And afterward he worked at the frame, for an hour, shading the hearts carefully. At three o'clock he went for his drive.
There were two variations to the daily drive: One day they went up the river—almost as far as the monastery; the next day they went through the park. There was always an excitement about the park drive, because the people who spied the gold-wheeled carriage always came as close as possible, to see if it was really the Crown Prince. And when, as sometimes happened, it was only Hedwig, or Hilda, and Ferdinand William Otto had been kept at home by a cold, they always looked disappointed.
This was the park day. The horses moved sedately. Beppo looked severe and haughty. A strange man, in the place of Hans, beside Beppo, watched the crowd with keen and vigilant eyes. On the box between them, under his hand, the new footman had placed a revolver. Beppo sat as far away from it as he dared. The crowd lined up, and smiled and cheered. And Prince Ferdinand William Otto sat very straight; and bowed right and left, smiling.
Old Adelbert, limping across the park to, the Opera, paused and looked. Then he shook his head. The country was indeed come to a strange pass, with only that boy and the feeble old King to stand between it and the things of which men whispered behind their hands. He went on, with his head down. A strange pass indeed, with revolution abroad in quiet places, and a cabal among the governors of the Opera to sell the opera-glass privilege to the highest bidder.
He went on, full of trouble.
Olga, the wardrobe woman, was also on her way to the Opera, which faced the park. She also saw the carriage, and at first her eyes twinkled. It was he, of course. The daring of him! But, as the carriage drew nearer, she bent forward. He looked pale, and there was a wistful droop to his mouth. "They have punished him for the little prank," she muttered. "That tight-faced Englishwoman, of course. The English are a hard race." She, too, went on.
As they drew near the end of the park, where the Land of Desire towered, Prince Ferdinand William Otto searched it with eager eyes. How wonderful it was! How steep and high, and alluring! He glanced sideways at Miss Braithwaite, but it was clear that to her it was only a monstrous heap of sheet-iron and steel, adorned with dejected greenery that had manifestly been out too soon in the chill air of very early spring.
A wonderful possibility presented itself. "If I see Bobby," he asked, "may I stop the carriage and speak to him?"
"Well, may I call to him?"
"Think it over," suggested Miss Braithwaite. "Would your grandfather like to know that you had done anything so undignified?"
He turned to her a rather desperate pair of eyes. "But I could explain to him," he said. "I was in such a hurry when I left, that I'm afraid I forgot to thank him. I ought to thank him, really. He was very polite to me."
Miss Braithwaite sat still in her seat and said nothing. The novelty of riding in a royal carriage had long since passed away, but she was aware that her position was most unusual. Not often did a governess, even of good family, as she was, ride daily in the park with a crown prince. In a way, on these occasions, she was more royal than royalty. She had, now and then, an inclination to bow right and left herself. And she guarded the dignity of these occasions with a watchful eye. So she said nothing just then. But later on something occurred to her. "You must remember, Otto," she said, "that this American child dislikes kings, and our sort of government." Shades of Mr. Gladstone—our sort of government! "It is possible, isn't it, that he would resent your being of the ruling family? Why not let things be as they are?"
"We were very friendly," said Ferdinand William Otto in a small voice. "I don't think it would make any difference."
But the seed was sown in the fertile ground of his young mind, to bear quick fruit.
It was the Crown Prince who saw Bobby first.
He was standing on a bench, peering over the shoulders of the crowd. Prince Ferdinand William Otto saw him, and bent forward. "There he is!" he said, in a tense tone. "There on the—"
"Sit up straight," commanded Miss Braithwaite.
"May I just wave once? I—"
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite, in a terrible voice.
But a dreadful thing was happening. Bobby was looking directly at him, and making no sign. His mouth was a trifle open, but that was all. Otto had a momentary glimpse of him, of the small cap set far back, of the white sweater, of two coolly critical eyes. Then the crowd closed up, and the carriage moved on.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto sat back in his seat, very pale. Clearly Bobby was through with him. First Nikky had forgotten him, and now the American boy had learned his unfortunate position as one of the detested order, and would have none of him.
"You see," said Miss Braithwaite, with an air of relief, "he did not know you."
Up on the box the man beside Beppo kept his hand on the revolver. The carriage turned back toward the Palace.
Late that afternoon the Chancellor had a visitor. Old Mathilde, his servant and housekeeper, showed some curiosity but little excitement over it. 'She was, in fact, faintly resentful. The Chancellor had eaten little all day, and now, when she had an omelet ready to turn smoking out of the pan, must come the Princess Hedwig on foot like the common people, and demand to see him.
Mathilde admitted her, and surveyed her uncompromisingly. Royalties were quite as much in her line as they were in the Crown Prince's.
"He is about to have supper, Highness."
"Please, Mathilde," begged Hedwig. "It is very important."
Mathilde sighed. "As Your Highness wishes," she agreed, and went grumblingly back to the study overlooking the walled garden.
"You may bring his supper when it is ready," Hedwig called to her.
Mathilde was mollified, but she knew what was fitting, if the Princess did not. The omelet spoiled in the pan.
The Chancellor was in his old smoking-coat and slippers. He made an effort to don his tunic, but Hedwig, on Mathilde's heels, caught him in the act. And, after a glance at her face, he relinquished the idea, bowed over her hand, and drew up a chair for her.
And that was how the Chancellor of the kingdom learned that Captain Larisch, aide-de-camp to His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, had disappeared.
"I am afraid it is serious," she said, watching him with wide, terrified eyes. "I know more than you think I do. I—we hear things, even in the Palace."
Irony here, but unconscious. "I know that there is trouble. And it is not like Captain Larisch to desert his post."
"A boyish escapade, Highness," said the Chancellor. But, in the twilight, he gripped hard at the arms of his chair. "He will turn up, very much ashamed of himself, to-night or to-morrow."
"That is what you want to believe. You know better."
He leaned back in his chair and considered her from under his heavy brows. So this was how things were; another, and an unlooked-for complication. Outside he could hear Mathilde's heavy footstep as she waited impatiently for the Princess to go. The odor of a fresh omelet filled the little house. Nikky gone, perhaps to join the others who, one by one, had felt the steel of the Terrorists. And this girl, on whom so much hung, sitting there, a figure of young tragedy.
"Highness," he said at last, "if the worst has happened,—and that I do not believe,—it will be because there is trouble, as you have said. Sooner or later, we who love our country must make sacrifices for it. Most of all, those in high places will be called upon. And among them you may be asked to help."
"I? What can I do?" But she knew, and the Chancellor saw that she knew.
"It is Karl, then?"
"It may be King Karl, Hedwig."
Hedwig rose, and the Chancellor got heavily to his feet. She was fighting for calmness, and she succeeded very well. After all, if Nikky were gone, what did it matter? Only— "There are so many of you," she said, rather pitifully. "And you are all so powerful. And against you there is only—me."
"Why against us, Highness?"
"Because," said Hedwig, "because I care for some one else, and I shall care for him all the rest of my life, even if he never comes back. You may marry me to whom you please, but I shall go on caring. I shall never forget. And I shall make Karl the worst wife in the world, because I hate him."
She opened the door and went out without ceremony, because she was hard-driven and on the edge of tears. In the corridor she almost ran over the irritated Mathilde, and she wept all the way back to the Palace, much to the dismay of her lady in waiting, who had disapproved of the excursion anyhow.
That night, the city was searched for Nikky Larisch, but without result.
CHAPTER XIV. NIKKY DOES A RECKLESS THING
Nikky Larisch had been having an exciting time. First of all, he exchanged garments with the chauffeur, and cursed his own long legs, which proved difficult to cover adequately. But the chauffeur's long fur ulster helped considerably. The exchange was rather a ticklish matter, and would have been more so had he not found a revolver in the fur coat pocket. It is always hard to remove a coat from a man whose arms are tied, and trousers are even more difficult. To remove trousers from a refractory prisoner offers problems. They must be dragged off, and a good thrust from a heavy boot, or two boots, has been known to change the fate of nations.
However, Nikky's luck stood. His prisoner kicked, but owing to Nikky's wise precaution of having straddled him, nothing untoward happened.
Behold, then, Nikky of the brave heart standing over his prostrate prisoner, and rolling him, mummy fashion, in his own tunic and a rug from the machine.
"It is cold, my friend," he said briefly; "but I am a kindly soul, and if you have told me the truth, you will not have so much as a snuffle to remind you of this to-morrow."
"I have told the truth."
"As a soldier, of course," Nikky went on, "I think you have made a mistake. You should have chosen the precipice. But as a private gentleman, I thank you."
Having examined the knots in the rope, which were very well done, indeed, and having gagged the chauffeur securely, Nikky prepared to go. In his goggles, with the low-visored cap and fur coat, he looked not unlike his late companion. But he had a jaunty step as he walked toward the car, a bit of swagger that covered, perhaps, just a trifle of uneasiness.
For Nikky now knew his destination, knew that he was bound on perilous work, and that the chances of his returning were about fifty-fifty, or rather less.
Nevertheless, he was apparently quite calm as he examined the car. He would have chosen, perhaps, a less perilous place to attempt its mysteries, but needs must. He climbed in, and released the brakes. Then, with great caution, and considerable noise, he worked it away from the brink of the chasm, and started off.
He did not know his way. Over the mountains it was plain enough, for there was but one road. After he descended into the plain of Karnia, however, it became difficult. Sign-posts were few and not explicit. But at last he found the railroad, which he knew well—that railroad without objective, save as it would serve to move troops toward the border. After that Nikky found it easier.
But, with his course assured, other difficulties presented themselves. To take the letter to those who would receive it was one thing. But to deliver it, with all that it might contain, was another. He was not brilliant, was Nikky. Only brave and simple of heart, and unversed in the ways of darkness.
If, now, he could open the letter and remove it, substituting—well, what could he substitute? There were cigarette papers in his pocket. Trust Nikky for that. But how to make the exchange?
Nikky pondered. To cut the side of the envelope presented itself. But it was not good enough. The best is none too good when one's life is at stake.
The engine was boiling hard, a dull roaring under the hood that threatened trouble. He drew up beside the road and took off the water-cap. Then he whistled. Why, of course! Had it not been done from time immemorial, this steaming of letters? He examined it. It bore no incriminating seal.
He held the envelope over the water-cap, and was boyishly pleased to feel the flap loosen. After all, things were easy enough if one used one's brains. He rather regretted using almost all of his cigarette papers, of course. He had, perhaps, never heard of the drop of nicotine on the tongue of a dog.
As for the letter itself, he put it, without even glancing at it, into his cap, under the lining. Then he sealed the envelope again and dried it against one of the lamps. It looked, he reflected, as good as new.
He was extremely pleased with himself.
Before he returned to the machine he consulted his watch. It was three o'clock. True, the long early spring night gave him four more hours of darkness. But the messenger was due at three, at the hunting-lodge in, the mountains which was his destination. He would be, at the best, late by an hour.
He pushed the car to its limit. The fine hard road, with its border of trees, stretched ahead. Nikky surveyed it with a soldier's eye. A military road, or he knew nothing—one along which motor-lorries could make express time. A marvelous road, in that sparsely settled place. Then he entered the forest, that kingly reserve in which Karl ran deer for pastime.