"This is the man of whom word was sent to the Committee," he said. "I ventured to ask that he be allowed to come here, because he brings information of value."
"Step forward, comrade," said the leader. "What is your name and occupation?"
"Adelbert, Excellency. As to occupation, for years I was connected with the Opera. Twenty years, Excellency. Then I grew old, and another—" His voice broke. What with excitement and terror, he was close to tears. "Now I am reduced to selling tickets for an American contrivance, a foolish thing, but I earn my bread by it."
He paused, but the silence continued unbroken. The battery of eyes behind the masks was turned squarely on him.
Old Adelbert fidgeted. "Before that, in years gone by, I was in the army," he said, feeling that more was expected of him, and being at a loss. "I fought hard, and once, when I suffered the loss you perceive, the King himself came to my bed, and decorated me. Until lately, I have been loyal. Now, I am—here." His face worked.
"What is the information that brings you here?"
Suddenly old Adelbert wept, terrible tears that forced their way from his faded eyes, and ran down his cheeks. "I cannot, Excellencies!" he cried. "I find I cannot."
He collapsed into the chair, and throwing his arms across the table bowed his head on them. His shoulders heaved under his old uniform. The Committee stirred, and the concierge caught him brutally by the wrist.
"Up with you!" he said, from clenched teeth. "What stupidity is this? Would you play with death?"
But old Adelbert was beyond fear. He shook his head. "I cannot," he muttered, his face hidden.
Then the concierge stood erect and folded his arms across his chest. "He is terrified, that is all," he said. "If the Committee wishes, I can tell them of this matter. Later, he can be interrogated."
The leader nodded.
"By chance," said the concierge, "this—this brave veteran"—he glanced contemptuously at the huddled figure in the chair, "has come across an old passage, the one which rumor has said lay under the city wall, and for which we have at different times instituted search."
He paused, to give his words weight. That they were of supreme interest could be told by the craning forward of the Committee.
"The entrance is concealed at the base of the old Gate of the Moon. Our friend here followed it, and reports it in good condition. For a mile or thereabouts it follows the line of the destroyed wall. Then it turns and goes to the Palace itself."
"Into the Palace?"
"By a flight of stairs, inside the wall, to a door in the roof. This door, which was locked, he opened, having carried keys with him. The door he describes as in the tower. As it was night, he could not see clearly, but the roof at that point is flat."
"Stand up, Adelbert," said the leader sharply. "This that our comrade tells is true?"
"It is true, Excellency."
"Shown a diagram of the Palace, could you locate this door?"
Old Adelbert stared around him hopelessly. It was done now. Nothing that he could say or refuse to say would change that. He nodded.
When, soon after, a chart of the Palace was placed on a table, he indicated the location of the door with a trembling forefinger. "It is there," he said thickly. "And may God forgive me for the thing I have done!"
CHAPTER XXX. KING KARL
"They love us dearly!" said King Karl.
The Chancellor, who sat beside him in the royal carriage, shrugged his shoulders. "They have had little reason to love, in the past, Majesty," he said briefly.
Karl laughed, and watched the crowd. He and the Chancellor rode alone, Karl's entourage, a very modest one, following in another carriage. There was no military escort, no pomp. It had been felt unwise. Karl, paying ostensibly a visit of sympathy, had come unofficially.
"But surely," he observed, as they passed between sullen lines of people, mostly silent, but now and then giving way to a muttering that sounded ominously like a snarl,—"surely I may make a visit of sympathy without exciting their wrath!"
"They are children," said Mettlich contemptuously. "Let one growl, and all growl. Let some one start a cheer, and they will cheer themselves hoarse."
"Then let some one cheer, for God's sake!" said Karl, and turned his mocking smile to the packed streets.
The Chancellor was not so calm as he appeared. He had lined the route from the station to the Palace with his men; had prepared for every contingency so far as he could without calling out the guard. As the carriage, drawn by its four chestnut horses, moved slowly along the streets, his eyes under their overhanging thatch were watching ahead, searching the crowd for symptoms of unrest.
Anger he saw in plenty, and suspicion. Scowling faces and frowning brows. But as yet there was no disorder. He sat with folded arms, magnificent in his uniform beside Karl, who wore civilian dress and looked less royal than perhaps he felt.
And Karl, too, watched the crowd, feeling its temper and feigning an indifference he did not feel. Olga Loschek had been right. He did not want trouble. More than that, he was of an age now to crave popularity. Many of the measures which had made him beloved in his own land had no higher purpose than this, the smiles of the crowd. So he watched and talked of indifferent things.
"It is ten years since I have been here," he observed, "but there are few changes."
"We have built no great buildings," said Mettlich bluntly. "Wars have left us no money, Majesty, for building!"
That being a closed road, so to speak, Karl tried another. "The Crown Prince must be quite a lad," he experimented. "He was a babe in arms, then, but frail, I thought."
"He is sturdy now." The Chancellor relapsed into watchfulness.
"Before I see the Princess Hedwig," Karl made another attempt, "it might be well to tell me how she feels about things. I would like to feel that the prospect is at least not disagreeable to her."
The Chancellor was not listening. There was trouble ahead. It had come, then, after all. He muttered something behind his gray mustache. The horses stopped, as the crowd suddenly closed in front of them.
"Drive on!" he said angrily, and the coachman touched his whip to the horses. But they only reared, to be grasped at the bridles by hostile hands ahead.
Karl half rose from his seat.
"Sit still, Majesty," said the Chancellor. "It is the students. They will talk, that is all."
But it came perilously near to being a riot. Led by some students, pushed by others, the crowd surrounded the two carriages, first muttering, then yelling. A stone was hurled, and struck one of the horses. Another dented the body of the carriage itself. A man with a handkerchief tied over the lower half of his face mounted the shoulders of two companions, and harangued the crowd. They wanted no friendship with Karnia. There were those who would sell them out to their neighbor and enemy. Were they to lose their national existence? He exhorted them madly through the handkerchief. Others, further back, also raised above the mob, shrieked treason, and called the citizens to arm against this thing. A Babel of noise, of swinging back and forth, of mounted police pushing through to surround the carriage, of cries and the dominating voices of the student-demagogues. Then at last a semblance of order, low muttering, an escort of police with drawn revolvers around the carriage, and it moved ahead.
Through it all the Chancellor had sat with folded arms. Only his livid face told of his fury. Karl, too, had sat impassive, picking at his small mustache. But, as the carriage moved on, he said: "A few moments ago I observed that there had been few changes. But there has been, I perceive, after all, a great change."
"One cannot judge the many by the few, Majesty."
But Karl only raised his eyebrows.
In his rooms, removing the dust of his journey, broken by the automobile trip across the mountains where the two railroads would some day meet, Karl reflected on the situation. His amour-propre was hurt. Things should have been better managed, for one thing. It was inexcusable that he had been subjected to such a demonstration. But, aside from the injury to his pride, was a deeper question. If this was the temper of the people now, what would it be when they found their suspicions justified? Had Ogla Loschek been right after all, and not merely jealous? And if she were, was the game worth the candle?
Pacing the drawing-room of his suite with a cigarette, and cursing the tables and bric-a-brac with which it was cluttered, Karl was of a mind to turn back, after all, Even the prospect which his Ministers had not failed to recognize, of the Crown Prince never reaching his maturity, was a less pleasing one than it had been. A dual monarchy, one portion of it restless and revolutionary, was less desirable than the present peace and prosperity of Karnia. And unrest was contagious. He might find himself in a difficult position.
He was, indeed, even now in a difficult position.
He glanced about his rooms. In one of them Prince Hubert had met his death. It was well enough for Mettlich to say the few could not speak for the many. It took but one man to do a murder, Karl reflected grimly.
But when he arrived for tea in the Archduchess's white drawing-room he was urbane and smiling. Hedwig, standing with cold hands and terrified eyes by the tea-table, disliked both his urbanity and his smile. He kissed the hand of the Archduchess and bent over Hedwig's with a flash of white teeth.
Then he saw Olga Loschek, and his smile stiffened. The Countess came forward, curtsied, and as he extended his hand to her, touched it lightly with her lips. They were quite cold. For just an instant their eyes met.
It was, on the surface, an amiable and quiet teaparty. Hilda, in a new frock, flirted openly with the King, and read his fortune in tea-leaves. Hedwig had taken up her position by a window, and was conspicuously silent. Behind her were the soft ring of silver against china; the Countess's gay tones; Karl's suave ones, assuming gravity, as he inquired for His Majesty; the Archduchess Annunciata pretending a solicitude she did not feel. And all forced, all artificial, Olga Loschek's heart burning in her, and Karl watching Hedwig with open admiration and some anxiety.
"Grandmother," Hedwig whispered from her window to the austere old bronze figure in the Place, "was it like this with you, at first? Did you shiver when he touched your hand? And doesn't it matter, after a year?"
"Very feeble," said the Archduchess's voice; behind her, "but so brave—a lesson to us all."
"He has had a long and conspicuous career," Karl observed. "It is sad, but we must all come to it. I hope he will be able to see me."
"Hedwig!" said her mother, sharply, "your tea is getting cold."
Hedwig turned toward the room. Listlessness gave her an added dignity, a new charm. Karl's eyes flamed as he watched her. He was a connoisseur in women; he had known many who were perhaps more regularly beautiful, but none, he felt, so lovely. Her freshness and youth made Olga, beautifully dressed, superbly easy, look sophisticated and a trifle hard. Even her coldness appealed to him. He had a feeling that the coldness was only a young girl's armor, that under it was a deeply passionate woman. The thought of seeing her come to deep, vibrant life in his arms thrilled him.
When he carried her tea to her, he bent over her. "Please!" he said. "Try to like me. I—"
"I'm sorry," Hedwig said quickly. "Mother has forgotten the lemon."
Karl smiled and, shrugging his shoulders, fetched the lemon. "Right, now?" he inquired. "And aren't we going to have a talk together?"
"If you wish it, I dare say we shall."
"Majesty," said Hilda, frowning into her teacup. "I see a marriage for you." She ignored her mother's scowl, and tilted her cup to examine it.
"A marriage!" Karl joined her, and peered with mock anxiety at the tea-grounds. "Strange that my fate should be confined in so small a compass! A happy marriage? Which am I?"
"The long yellow leaf. Yes, it looks happy. But you may be rather shocked when I tell you."
"I think," said Hilda, grinning, "that you are going to marry me."
"And we are going to have—"
"Hilda!" cried the Archduchess fretfully. "Do stop that nonsense and let us talk. I was trying to recall, this morning," she said to Karl, "when you last visited us." She knew it quite well, but she preferred having Karl think she had forgotten. "It was, I believe, just before Hubert—"
"Yes," said Karl gravely, "just before."
"Otto was a baby then."
"A very small child. I remember that I was afraid to handle him."
"He is a curious boy, old beyond his years. Rather a little prig, I think. He has an English governess, and she has made him quite a little woman."
Karl laughed, but Hedwig flushed.
"He is not that sort at all," she declared stoutly. "He is lonely and—and rather pathetic. The truth is that no one really cares for him, except—"
"Except Captain Larisch!" said the Archduchess smoothly. "You and he, Hedwig, have done your best by him, surely."
The bit of byplay was not lost on Karl—the sudden stiffening of Hedwig's back, Olga's narrowed eyes. Olga had been right, then. Trust her for knowing facts when they were disagreeable. His eyes became set and watchful, hard, too, had any noticed. There were ways to deal with such a situation, of course. They were giving him this girl to secure their own safety, and she knew it. Had he not been so mad about her he might have pitied her, but he felt no pity, only a deep and resentful determination to get rid of Nikky, and then to warm her by his own fire. He might have to break her first. After that manner had many Queens of Karnia come to the throne. He smiled behind his small mustache.
When tea was almost over, the Crown Prince was announced. He came in, rather nervously, with hie hands thrust in his trousers pockets. He was very shiny with soap and water and his hair was still damp from parting. In his tailless black jacket, his long gray trousers, and his round Eton collar, he looked like a very anxious little schoolboy, and not royal at all.
Greetings over, and having requested that his tea be half milk, with four lumps of sugar, he carried his cup over beside Hedwig, and sat down on a chair. Followed a short silence, with the Archduchess busy with the tea-things, Olga Loschek watching Karl, and Karl intently surveying the Crown Prince. Ferdinand William Otto, who disliked a silence, broke it first.
"I've just taken off my winter flannels," he observed. "I feel very smooth and nice underneath."
Hilda giggled, but Hedwig reached over and stroked his arm. "Of course you do," she said gently.
"Nikky," continued Prince Ferdinand William Otto, stirring his tea, "does not wear any flannels. Miss Braithwaite thinks he is very careless."
King Karl's eyes gleamed with amusement. He saw the infuriated face of the Archduchess, and bent toward the Crown Prince with earnestness.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "since you have mentioned the subject, I do not wear any either. Your 'Nikky' and I seem most surprisingly to have the same tastes—about various things."
Annunciata was in the last stages of irritation. There was no mistaking the sneer in Karl's voice. His smile was forced. She guessed that he had heard of Nikky Larisch before, that, indeed, he knew probably more than she did. Just what, she wondered, was there to know? A great deal, if one could judge by Hedwig's face.
"I hope you are working hard at your lesson, Otto," she said, in the severe tone which Otto had learned that most people use when they refer to lessons.
"I'm afraid I'm not doing very well, Tante. But I've learned the 'Gettysburg Address.' Shall I say it?"
"Heavens, no!" she protested. She had not the faintest idea what the "Gettysburg Address" was. She suspected Mr. Gladstone.
The Countess had relapsed into silence. A little back from the family circle, she had watched the whole scene stonily, and knowing Karl as only a woman who loves sincerely and long can know a man, she knew the inner workings of his mind. She saw anger in the very turn of his head and set of his jaw. But she saw more, jealousy, and was herself half mad with it.
She knew him well. She had herself, for years, held him by holding herself dear, by the very difficulty of attaining her. And now this indifferent, white-faced girl, who might be his, indeed, for the taking, but who would offer or promise no love, was rousing him to the instinct of possession by her very indifference. He had told her the truth, that night in the mountain inn. It was Hedwig he wanted, Hedwig herself, her heart, all of her. And, if she knew Karl, he would move heaven and earth to get the thing he wanted.
She surveyed the group. How little they knew what was in store for them! She, Olga Loschek, by the lifting of a finger, could turn their smug superiority into tears and despair, could ruin them and send them flying for shelter to the very ends of the earth.
But when she looked at the little Crown Prince, legs dangling, eating his thin bread and butter as only a hungry small boy can eat, she shivered. By what means must she do all this! By what unspeakable means!
Karl saw the King that evening, a short visit marked by extreme formality, and, on the King's part, by the keen and frank scrutiny of one who is near the end and fears nothing but the final moment. Karl found the meeting depressing and the King's eyes disconcerting.
"It will not be easy going for Otto," said the King, at the end of the short interview. "I should like to feel that his interests will be looked after, not only here, but by you and yours. We have a certain element here that is troublesome."
And Karl, with Hedwig in his mind, had promised.
"His interests shall be mine, sir," he had said.
He had bent over the bed then, and raised the thin hand to his lips. The interview was over. In the anteroom the King's Master of the Horse, the Chamberlain, and a few other gentlemen stood waiting, talking together in low tones. But the Chancellor, who had gone in with Karl and then retired, stood by a window, with his arms folded over his chest, and waited. He put resolutely out of his mind the face of the dying man on his pillows, and thought only of this thing which he—Mettlich had brought about. There was no yielding in his face or in his heart, no doubt of his course. He saw, instead of the lovers loitering in the Place, a new and greater kingdom, anarchy held down by an ironshod heel, peace and the fruits thereof, until out of very prosperity the people grew fat and content.
He saw a boy king, carefully taught, growing into his responsibilities until, big with the vision of the country's welfare, he should finally ascend the throne. He saw the river filled with ships, carrying merchandise over the world and returning with the wealth of the world. Great buildings, too, lifted their heads on his horizon, a dream city, with order for disorder, and citizens instead of inhabitants.
When at last he stirred and sighed, it was because his old friend, in his bed in the next room, would see nothing of all this, and that he himself could not hope for more than the beginning, before his time came also.
The first large dinner for months was given that night at the Palace, to do King Karl all possible honor. The gold service which had been presented to the King by the Czar of Russia was used. The anticipatory gloom of the Court was laid aside, and jewels brought from vaults were worn for the first time in months. Uniforms of various sorts, but all gorgeous, touched fine shoulders, and came away, bearing white, powdery traces of the meeting. The greenhouses at the summer palace had been sacked for flowers and plants. The corridor from the great salon to the dining-hall; always a dreary passage, had suddenly become a fairy path of early-spring bloom. Even Annunciata, hung now with ropes of pearls, her hair dressed high for a tiara of diamonds, her cameos exchanged for pearls, looked royal. Proving conclusively that clutter, as to dress, is entirely a matter of value.
Miss Braithwaite, who had begun recently to think a palace the dreariest place in the world, and the most commonplace, found the preparations rather exciting. Being British she dearly loved the aristocracy, and shrugged her shoulders at any family which took up less than a page in the peerage. She resented deeply the intrusion of the commoner into British politics, and considered Lloyd George an upstart and an interloper.
That evening she took the Crown Prince to see the preparations for the festivities. The flowers appealed to him, and he asked for and secured a rose, which he held carefully. But the magnificence of the table only faintly impressed him, and when he heard that Nikky would not be present, he lost interest entirely. "Will they wheel my grandfather in a chair?" he inquired.
"He is too ill," Miss Braithwaite said.
"He'll be rather lonely, when they're all at the party. You don't suppose I could go and sit with him, do you?"
"It will be long after your bedtime."
Bedtime being the one rule which was never under any circumstances broken, he did not persist. To have insisted might have meant five off in Miss Braithwaite's book, and his record was very good that week. Together the elderly Englishwoman and the boy went back to the schoolroom.
The Countess Loschek, who had dressed with a heavy heart, was easily the most beautiful of the women that night. Her color was high with excitement and anger, her eyes flashed, her splendid shoulders gleamed over the blue and orchid shades of her gown. A little court paid tribute to her beauty, and bowed the deeper and flattered the more as she openly scorned and flouted them. She caught once a flicker of admiration in Karl's face, and although her head went high, her heart beat stormily under it.
Hedwig was like a flower that required the sun. Only her sun was happiness. She was in soft white chiffons, her hair and frock alike girlish and unpretentious. Her mother, coming into her dressing room, had eyed her with disfavor.
"You look like a school-girl," she said, and had sent for rouge, and with her own royal hands applied it. Hedwig stood silent, and allowed her to have her way without protest. Had submitted, too, to a diamond pin in her hair, and a string of her mother's pearls.
"There," said Annunciata, standing off and surveying her, "you look less like a baby."
She did, indeed? It took Hedwig quite five minutes to wash the rouge off her face, and there was, one might as well confess, a moment when a part of the crown jewels of the kingdom lay in a corner of the room, whence a trembling maid salvaged them, and examined them for damage.
The Princess Hedwig appeared that evening without rouge, and was the only woman in the room thus unadorned. Also she wore her coming-out string of modest pearls and a slightly defiant, somewhat frightened, expression.
The dinner was endless, which was necessary, since nothing was to follow but conversation. There could, under the circumstances, be no dancing. And the talk at the table, through course after course, was somewhat hectic, even under the constraining presence of King Karl. There were two reasons for this: Karl's presence and his purpose—as yet unannounced, but surmised, and even known—and the situation in the city.
That was bad. The papers had been ordered to make no mention of the occurrence of the afternoon, but it was well known. There were many at the table who felt the whole attempt foolhardy, the setting of a match to inflammable material. There were others who resented Karl's presence in Livonia, and all that it implied. And perhaps there were, too, among the guests, one or more who had but recently sat in less august and more awful company.
Beneath all the brilliance and chatter, the sparkle and gayety, there was, then, uneasiness, wretchedness, and even treachery. And outside the Palace, held back by the guards, there still stood a part of the sullen crowd which had watched the arrival of the carriages and automobiles, had craned forward to catch a glimpse of uniform or brilliantly shrouded figure entering the Palace, and muttered as it looked.
Dinner was over at last. The party moved back to the salon, a vast and empty place, hung with tapestries and gayly lighted. Here the semblance of gayety persisted, and Karl, affability itself, spoke a few words to each of the guests. Then it was over. The guests left, the members of the Council, each with a wife on his arm, frowsy, overdressed women most of them. The Council was chosen for ability and not for birth. At last only the suite remained, and constraint vanished.
The family withdrew shortly after—to a small salon off the large one. And there, at last, Karl cornered Hedwig and demanded speech.
"Where?" she asked, glancing around the crowded room.
"I shall have to leave that to you," he said. "Unless there is a balcony."
"But do you think it is necessary?"
"Because what I have to say does not matter."
"It matters very much to me," he replied gravely.
Hedwig went first, slipping away quietly and unnoticed. Karl asked the Archduchess's permission to follow her, and found her waiting there alone, rather desperately calm now, and with a tinge of excited color in her cheeks. Because he cared a great deal, and because, as kings go, he was neither hopelessly bad nor hard, his first words were kind and genuine, and almost brought her to tears.
"Poor little girl!" he said.
He had dropped the curtain behind him, and they stood alone.
"Don't," said Hedwig. "I want to be very calm, and I am sorry for myself already."
"Then you think it is all very terrible?"
She did not reply, and he drew a chair for her to the rail. When she was seated, he took up his position beside her, one arm against a pillar.
"I wonder, Hedwig," he said, "if it is not terrible because it is new to you, and because you do not know me very well. Not," he added hastily, "that I think your knowing me well would be an advantage! I am not so idiotic. But you do not know me at all, and for a good many years I must have stood in the light of an enemy. It is not easy to readjust such things—witness the reception I had to-day!"
"I do not think of you in that way, as—as an enemy."
"Then what is it?"
"Why must we talk about it?" Hedwig demanded, looking up at him suddenly with a flash of her old spirit. "It will not change anything."
"Perhaps not. Perhaps—yes. You see, I am not quite satisfied. I do not want you, unless you are willing. It would be a poor bargain for me, and not quite fair."
A new turn, this, with a vengeance! Hedwig stared up with startled eyes. It was not enough to be sacrificed. And as she realized all that hung on the situation, the very life of the kingdom, perhaps the safety of her family, everything, she closed her eyes for fear he might see the fright in them.
Karl bent over and took one of her cold hands between his two warm ones. "Little Hedwig," he said, "I want you to come willingly because—I care a great deal. I would like you to care, too. Don't you think you would, after a time?"
"After a time!" said Hedwig drearily. "That's what they all say. After a time it doesn't matter. Marriage is always the same—after a time."
Karl rather winced at that, and released her hands, but put them down gently. "Why should marriage be always the same, after a time?" he inquired.
"This sort of marriage, without love."
"It is hardly that, is it? I love you."
"I wonder how much you love me."
Karl smiled. He was on his own ground here. The girlish question put him at ease. "Enough for us both, at first," he said. "After that—"
"But," said Hedwig desperately, "suppose I know I shall never care for you, the way you will want me to. You talk of being fair. I want to be fair to you. You have a right—" She checked herself abruptly. After all, he might have a right to know about Nikky Larisch. But there were others who had rights, too—Otto to his throne, her mother and Hilda and all the others, to safety, her grandfather to die in peace, the only gift she could give him.
"What I think you want to tell me, is something I already know," Karl said gravely. "Suppose I am willing to take that chance? Suppose I am vain enough, or fool enough, to think that I can make you forget certain things, certain people. What then?"
"I do not forget easily."
"But you would try?"
"I would try," said Hedwig, almost in a whisper.
Karl bent over and taking her hands, raised her to her feet.
"Darling," he said, and suddenly drew her to him. He covered her with hot kisses, her neck, her face, the soft angle below her ear. Then he held her away from him triumphantly. "Now," he said, "have you forgotten?"
But Hedwig, scarlet with shame, faced him steadily. "No," she said.
Later in the evening the old King received a present, a rather wilted rose, to which was pinned a card with "Best wishes from Ferdinand William Otto" printed on it in careful letters.
It was the only flower the King had received during his illness.
When, that night, he fell asleep, it was still clasped in his old hand, and there was a look of grim tenderness on the face on the pillow, turned toward his dead son's picture.
CHAPTER XXXI. LET METTLICH GUARD HIS TREASURE
Troubled times now, with the Carnival only a day or two off, and the shop windows gay with banners; with the press under the house of the concierge running day and night, and turning out vast quantities of flaming bulletins printed in red; with the Committee of Ten in almost constant session, and Olga Loschek summoned before it, to be told of the passage, and the thing she was to do; with the old King very close to the open door, and Hedwig being fitted for her bridal robe and for somber black at one fitting.
Troubled times, indeed. The city was smouldering, and from some strange source had come a new rumor. Nothing less than that the Royalists, headed by the Chancellor, despairing of crowning the boy Prince, would, on the King's death, make away with him, thus putting Hedwig on the throne Hedwig, Queen of Karnia perhaps already by secret marriage.
The city, which adored the boy, was seething. The rumor had originated with Olga Loschek, who had given it to the Committee as a useful weapon. Thus would she have her revenge on those of the Palace, and at the same time secure her own safety. Revenge, indeed, for she knew the way of such rumors, how they fly from house to house, street to street. How the innocent, proclaiming their innocence, look even the more guilty.
When she had placed the scheme before the Committee of Ten, had seen the eagerness with which they grasped it—"In this way," she had said, in her scornful, incisive tones, "the onus of the boy is not on you, but on them. Even those who have no sympathy with your movement will burn at such a rumor. The better the citizen, the more a lover of home and order, the more outraged he will be. Every man in the city with a child of his own will rise against the Palace."
"Madame," the leader had said, "you should be of the Committee."
But she had ignored the speech contemptuously, and gone on to other things.
Now everything was arranged. Black Humbert had put his niece to work on a Carnival dress for a small boy, and had stayed her curiosity by a hint that it was for the American lad.
"They are comfortable tenants," he had said. "Not lavish, perhaps, as rich Americans should be, but orderly, and pleasant. The boy has good manners. It would be well to please him."
So the niece, sewing in the back room, watched Bobby in and out, with pleasant mysteries in her eyes, and sewing sang the song the cathedral chimed:
"Draw me also, Mary mild, To adore Thee and thy Child! Mary mild, Star in desert drear and wild."
So she sang, and sewed, and measured Bobby's height as he passed by the wainscoting in the passage, and cunningly cut a pattern.
"So high," she reflected, humming, "is his shoulder. And so, to this panel, should go the little trousers. 'Star in desert drear and wild.'"
Now and then, in the evenings, when the Americans were away, and Bobby was snug in bed, with Tucker on the tiny feather comfort at his feet, the Fraulein would come downstairs and sit in Black Humbert's room. At such times the niece would be sent on an errand, and the two would talk. The niece, who, although she had no lover, was on the lookout for love, suspected a romance of the middle-aged, and smiled in the half-darkness of the street; smiled with a touch of malice, as one who has pierced the armor of the fortress, and knows its weakness.
But it was not of love that Humbert and the Fraulein talked.
Herman Spier was busy in those days and making plans. Thus, day by day, he dined in the restaurant where the little Marie, now weary of her husband, sat in idle intervals behind the cashier's desk, and watched the grass in the Place emerge from its winter hiding place. When she turned her eyes to the room, frequently she encountered those of Herman Spier, pale yet burning, fixed on her. And at last, one day when her husband lay lame with sciatica, she left the desk and paused by Herman's table.
"You come frequently now," she observed. "It is that you like us here, or that you have risen in the shop?"
"I have left the shop," said Herman, staring at her. Flesh, in a moderate amount, suited her well. He liked plump women. They were, if you please, an armful. "And I come to see you."
"Left the shop!" Marie exclaimed. "And Peter Niburg—he has left also? I never see him."
"No," said Herman non-committally.
"He is ill, perhaps?"
"He is dead," said Herman, devouring her with his eyes.
"Dead!" She put a hand to her plump side.
"Aye. Shot as a spy." He took another piece of the excellent pigeon pie. Marie, meantime, lost all her looks, grew pasty white.
"Of the—the Terrorists?" she demanded, in a whisper.
"Terrorists! No. Of Karnia. He was no patriot."
So the little Marie went back to her desk, and to her staring out over the Place in intervals of business. And what she thought of no one can know. But that night, and thereafter, she was very tender to her spouse, and put cloths soaked in hot turpentine water on his aching thigh.
On the surface things went on as usual at the Palace. Karl's visit had been but for a day or two. He had met the Council in session, and had had, because of their growing alarm, rather his own way with them.
But although he had pointed to the King's condition and theirs—as an argument for immediate marriage—he failed. The thing would be done, but properly and in good time. They had a signed agreement to fall back upon, and were in no hurry to pay his price. Karl left them in a bad temper, well concealed, and had the pleasure of being hissed through the streets.
But he comforted himself with the thought of Hedwig. He had taken her in his arms before he left, and she had made no resistance. She had even, in view of all that was at stake, made a desperate effort to return his kiss, and found herself trembling afterward.
In two weeks he was to return to her, and he whispered that to her.
On the day after the dinner-party Otto went to a hospital with Miss Braithwaite. It was the custom of the Palace to send the flowers from its spectacular functions to the hospitals, and the Crown Prince delighted in these errands.
So they went, escorted by the functionaries of the hospital, past the military wards, where soldiers in shabby uniforms sat on benches in the spring sunshine, to the general wards beyond. The Crown Prince was almost hidden behind the armful he carried. Miss Braithwaite had all she could hold. A convalescent patient, in slippers many sizes too large for him, wheeled the remainder in a barrow, and almost upset the barrow in his excitement.
Through long corridors into wards fresh-scrubbed against his arrival, with white counterpanes exactly square, and patients forbidden to move and disturb the geometrical exactness of the beds, went Prince Ferdinand William Otto. At each bed he stopped, selected a flower, and held it out. Some there were who reached out, and took it with a smile. Others lay still, and saw neither boy nor blossom.
"They sleep, Highness," the nurse would say.
"But their eyes are open."
"They are very weary, and resting."
In such cases he placed the flower on the pillow, and went on.
One such; however, lying with vacant eyes fixed on the ceiling, turned and glanced at the boy, and into his empty gaze crept a faint intelligence. It was not much. He seemed to question with his eyes. That was all. As the little procession moved on, however, he raised himself on his elbow.
"Lie down!" said the man in the next bed sharply.
"Who was that?"
The ward, which might have been interested, was busy keeping its covers straight and in following the progress of the party. For the man had not spoken before.
"The Crown Prince."
The sick man lay back and dosed his eyes. Soon he slept. His comrade in the next bed beckoned to a Sister.
"He has spoken," he said. "Either he recovers, or—he dies."
But again Haeckel did not die. He lived to do his part in the coming crisis, to prove that even the great hands of Black Humbert on his throat were not so strong as his own young spirit; lived, indeed, to confront the Terrorist as one risen from the dead. But that day he lay and slept, by curious irony the flower from Karl's banquet in a cup of water beside him.
On the day before the Carnival, Hedwig had a visitor, none other than the Countess Loschek. Hedwig, all her color gone now, her high spirit crushed, her heart torn into fragments and neatly distributed between Nikky, who had most of it, the Crown Prince, and the old King. Hedwig, having given her permission to come, greeted her politely but without enthusiasm.
"Highness!" said the Countess, surveying her. And then, "You poor child!" using Karl's words, but without the same inflection, using, indeed, the words a good many were using to Hedwig in those days.
"I am very tired," Hedwig explained. "All this fitting, and—everything."
"I know, perhaps better than you think, Highness." Also something like Karl's words. Hedwig reflected with bitterness that everybody knew, but nobody helped her. And, as if in answer to the thought, Olga Loschek came out plainly.
"Highness," she said, "may I speak to you frankly?"
"Please do," Hedwig replied. "Everybody does, anyhow. Especially when it is something disagreeable."
Olga Loschek watched her warily. She knew the family as only the outsider could know it; knew that Hedwig, who would have disclaimed the fact, was like her mother in some things, notably in a disposition to be mild until a certain moment, submissive, even acquiescent, and then suddenly to become, as it were, a royalty and grow cold, haughty. But if Hedwig was driven in those days, so was the Countess, desperate and driven to desperate methods.
"I am presuming, Highness, on your mother's kindness to me, and your own, to speak frankly."
"Well, go on," said Hedwig resignedly. But the next words brought her up in her chair.
"Are you going to allow your life to be ruined?" was what the Countess said.
Careful! Hedwig had thrown up her head and looked at her with hostile eyes. But the next moment she had forgotten she was a princess, and the granddaughter to the King, and remembered only that she was a woman, and terror-stricken. She flung out her arms, and then buried her face in them.
"How can I help it?" she said.
"How can you do it?" Olga Loschek countered. "After all, it is you who must do this thing. No one else. It is you they are offering on the altar of their ambition."
"Ambition. What else is it? Surely you do not believe these tales they tell—old wives' tales of plot and counterplot!"
"But the Chancellor—"
"Certainly the Chancellor!" mocked Olga Loschek. "Highness, for years he has had a dream. A great dream. It is not for you and me to say it is not noble. But, to fulfill his dream to bring prosperity and greatness to the country, and naturally, to him who plans it, there is a price to pay. He would have you pay it."
Hedwig raised her face and searched the other woman's eyes.
"That is all, then?" she said. "All this other, this fright, this talk of treason and danger, that is not true?"
"Not so true as he would have you believe," replied Olga Loschek steadily. "There are malcontents everywhere, in every land. A few madmen who dream dreams, like Mettlich himself, only not the same dream. It is all ambition, one dream or another."
"But my grandfather—"
"An old man, in the hands of his Ministers!"
Hedwig rose and paced the floor, her fingers twisting nervously. "But it is too late," she cried at last. "Everything is arranged. I cannot refuse now. They would—I don't know what they would do to me!"
"Do! To the granddaughter of the King. What can they do?"
That aspect of things; to do her credit, had never occurred to Hedwig. She had seen herself, hopeless and alone, surrounded by the powerful, herself friendless. But, if there was no danger to save her family from? If her very birth, which had counted so far for so little, would bring her immunity and even safety?
She paused in front of the Countess. "What can I do?" she asked pitifully.
"That I dare not presume to say. I came because I felt—I can only say what, in your place, I should do."
"I am afraid. You would not be afraid." Hedwig shivered. "What would you do?"
"If I knew, Highness, that some one, for whom I cared, himself cared deeply enough to make any sacrifice, I should demand happiness. I rather think I should lose the world, and gain something like happiness."
"Demand!" Hedwig said hopelessly. "Yes, you would demand it. I cannot demand things. I am always too frightened."
The Countess rose. "I am afraid I have done an unwise thing," she said, "If your mother knew—" She shrugged her shoulders.
"You have only been kind. I have so few who really care."
The Countess curtsied, and made for the door. "I must go," she said, "before I go further, Highness. My apology is that I saw you unhappy, and that I resented it, because—"
"Because I considered it unnecessary."
She was a very wise woman. She left then, and let the next step come from Hedwig. It followed, as a matter of record, within the hour, at least four hours sooner than she had anticipated. She was in her boudoir, not reading, not even thinking, but sitting staring ahead, as Minna had seen her do repeatedly in the past weeks. She dared not think, for that matter.
Although she was still in waiting, the Archduchess was making few demands on her. A very fever of preparation was on Annunciata. She spent hours over laces and lingerie, was having jewels reset for Hedwig, after ornate designs of her own contribution, was the center of a cyclone of boxes, tissue paper, material, furs, and fashion books, while maids scurried about and dealers and dressmakers awaited her pleasure. She was, perhaps, happier than she had been for years, visited her father, absently and with pins stuck in her bosom, and looked dowdier and busier than the lowliest of the seamstresses who, by her thrifty order, were making countless undergarments in a room on an upper floor.
Hedwig's notification that she would visit her, therefore, found the Countess at leisure and alone. She followed the announcement almost immediately, and if she had shown cowardice before, she showed none now. She disregarded the chair Olga Loschek offered, and came to the point with a directness that was like the King's.
"I have come," she said simply, "to find out what to do."
The Countess was as direct.
"I cannot tell you what to do, Highness. I can only tell you what I would do."
"Very well." Hedwig showed a touch of impatience. This was quibbling, and it annoyed her.
"I should go away, now, with the person I cared about."
"Where would you go?"
"The world is wide, Highness."
"Not wide enough to hide in, I am afraid."
"For myself," said the Countess, "the problem would not be difficult. I should go to my place in the mountains. An old priest, who knows me well, would perform the marriage. After that they might find me if they liked. It would be too late."
Emergency had given Hedwig insight. She saw that the woman before her, voicing dangerous doctrine, would protect herself by letting the initiative come from her.
"This priest—he might be difficult."
"Not to a young couple, come to him, perhaps, in peasant costume. They are glad to marry, these fathers. There is much irregularity. I fancy," she added, still with her carefully detached manner, "that a marriage could be easily arranged."
But, before long, she had dropped her pretense of aloofness, and was taking the lead. Hedwig, weary with the struggle, and now trembling with nervousness, put herself in her hands, listening while she planned, agreed eagerly to everything. Something of grim amusement came into Olga Loschek's face after a time. By doing this thing she would lose everything. It would be impossible to conceal her connivance. No one, knowing Hedwig, would for a moment imagine the plan hers. Or Nikky's, either, for that matter.
She, then, would lose everything, even Karl, who was already lost to her. But—and her face grew set and her eyes hard—she would let those plotters in their grisly catacombs do their own filthy work. Her hands would be clean of that. Hence her amusement that at this late day she, Olga Loschek, should be saving her own soul.
So it was arranged, to the last detail. For it must be done at once. Hedwig, a trifle terrified, would have postponed it a day or so, but the Countess was insistent. Only she knew how the very hours counted, had them numbered, indeed, and watched them flying by with a sinking heart.
She made a few plans herself, in those moments when Hedwig relapsed into rapturous if somewhat frightened dreams. She had some money and her jewels. She would go to England, and there live quietly until things settled down. Then, perhaps, she would go some day to Karl, and with this madness for Hedwig dead, of her marriage, perhaps—! She planned no further.
If she gave a fleeting thought to the Palace, to the Crown Prince and his impending fate, she dismissed it quickly. She had no affection for Annunciata, and as to the boy, let them look out for him. Let Mettlich guard his treasure, or lose it to his peril. The passage under the gate was not of her discovery or informing.
CHAPTER XXXII. NIKKY AND HEDWIG
Nikky had gone back to his lodging, where his servant was packing his things. For Nikky was now of His Majesty's household, and must exchange his shabby old rooms for the cold magnificence of the Palace.
Toto had climbed to the chair beside him, and was inspecting his pockets, one by one. Toto was rather a problem, in the morning. But then everything was a problem now. He decided to leave the dog with the landlady, and to hope for a chance to talk the authorities over. Nikky himself considered that a small boy without a dog was as incomplete as, for instance, a buttonhole without a button.
He was very downhearted. To the Crown Prince, each day, he gave the best that was in him, played and rode, invented delightful nonsense to bring the boy's quick laughter, carried pocketfuls of bones, to the secret revolt of his soldierly soul, was boyish and tender, frivolous or thoughtful, as the occasion seemed to warrant.
And always he was watchful, his revolver always ready and in touch, his eyes keen, his body, even when it seemed most relaxed, always tense to spring. For Nikky knew the temper of the people, knew it as did Mathilde gossiping in the market, and even better; knew that a crisis was approaching, and that on this small boy in his charge hung that crisis.
The guard at the Palace had been trebled, but even in that lay weakness.
"Too many strange faces," the Chancellor had said to him, shaking his head. "Too many servants in livery, and flunkies whom no one knows. How can we prevent men, in such livery, from impersonating our own agents? One, two, a half-dozen, they could gain access to the Palace, could commit a mischief under our very eyes."
So Nikky trusted in his own right arm and in nothing else. At night the Palace guard was smaller, and could be watched. There were no servants about to complicate the situation. But in the daytime, and especially now with the procession of milliners and dressmakers, messengers and dealers, it was more difficult. Nikky watched these people, as he happened on them, with suspicion and hatred. Hatred not only of what they might be, but hatred of what they were, of the thing they typified, Hedwig's approaching marriage.
The very size of the Palace, its unused rooms, its long and rambling corridors, its rambling wings and ancient turrets, was against its safety.
Since the demonstration against Karl, the riding-school hour had been given up. There were no drives in the park. The illness of the King furnished sufficient excuse, but the truth was that the royal family was practically besieged; by it knew not what. Two police agents had been found dead the morning after Karl's departure, on the outskirts of the city, lying together in a freshly ploughed field. They bore marks of struggle, and each had been stabbed through the veins of the neck, as though they had been first subdued and then scientifically destroyed.
Nikky, summoned to the Chancellor's house that morning, had been told the facts, and had stood, rather still and tense, while Mettlich recounted them.
"Our very precautions are our danger," said the Chancellor. "And the King—" He stopped and sat, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair.
"And the King, sir?"
"Almost at the end. A day or two."
On that day came fresh news, alarming enough. More copies of the seditious paper were in circulation in the city and the surrounding country, passing from hand to hand. The town was searched for the press which had printed them, but it was not located. Which was not surprising, since it had been lowered through a trap into a sub-cellar of the house on the Road of the Good Children, and the trapdoor covered with rubbish.
Karl, with Hedwig in his thoughts, had returned to mobilize his army not far from the border for the spring maneuvers, and at a meeting of the King's Council the matter of a mobilization in Livonia was seriously considered.
Fat Friese favored it, and made an impassioned speech, with sweat thick on his heavy face.
"I am not cowardly," he finished. "I fear nothing for myself or for those belonging to me. But the duty of this Council is to preserve the throne for the Crown Prince, at any cost. And, if we cannot trust the army, in what can we trust?"
"In God," said the Chancellor grimly.
In the end nothing was done. Mobilization might precipitate the crisis, and there was always the fear that the army, in parts, was itself disloyal.
It was Marschall, always nervous and now pallid with terror, who suggested abandoning the marriage between Hedwig and Karl.
"Until this matter came up," he said, avoiding Mettlich's eyes, "there was danger, but of a small party only, the revolutionary one. One which, by increased effort on the part of the secret police, might have been suppressed. It is this new measure which is fatal. The people detest it. They cannot forget, if we can, the many scores of hatred we still owe to Karnia. We have, by our own act, alienated the better class of citizens. Why not abandon this marriage, which, gentlemen, I believe will be fatal. It has not yet been announced. We may still withdraw with honor."
He looked around the table with anxious, haunted eyes, opened wide so that the pupils appeared small and staring in their setting of blood-shot white. The Chancellor glanced around, also.
"It is not always easy to let the people of a country know what is good for them and for it. To retreat now is to show our weakness, to make an enemy again of King Karl, and to gain us nothing, not even safety. As well abdicate, and turn the country over to the Terrorists! And, in this crisis, let me remind you of something you persistently forget. Whatever the views of the solid citizens may be as to this marriage,—and once it is effected, they will accept it without doubt,—the Crown Prince is now and will remain the idol of the country. It is on his popularity we must depend. We must capitalize it. Mobs are sentimental. Whatever the Terrorists may think, this I know: that when the bell announces His Majesty's death, when Ferdinand William Otto steps out on the balcony, a small and lonely child, they will rally to him. That figure, on the balcony, will be more potent than a thousand demagogues, haranguing in the public streets."
The Council broke up in confusion. Nothing had been done, or would be done. Mettlich of the Iron Hand had held them, would continue to hold them. The King, meanwhile, lay dying, Doctor Wiederman in constant attendance, other physicians coming and going. His apartments were silent. Rugs covered the corridors, that no footfall disturb his quiet hours. The nursing Sisters attended him, one by his bedside, one always on her knees at the Prie-dieu in the small room beyond. He wanted little—now and then a sip of water, the cooled juice of fruit.
Injections of stimulants, given by Doctor Wiederman himself, had scarred his old arms with purplish marks, and were absorbed more and more slowly as the hours went on.
He rarely slept, but lay inert and not unhappy. Now and then one of his gentlemen, given permission, tiptoed into the room, and stood looking down at his royal master. Annunciata came, and was at last stricken by conscience to a prayer at his bedside. On one of her last visits that was. She got up to find his eyes fixed on her.
"Father," she began.
He made no motion.
"Father, can you hear me?"
"I—I have been a bad daughter to you. I am sorry. It is late now to tell you, but I am sorry. Can I do anything?"
"Otto," he said, with difficulty.
"You want to see him?
She knew what he meant by that. He would have the boy remember him as he had seen him last.
"You are anxious about him?"
"Listen, father," she said, stooping over him. "I have been hard and cold. Perhaps you will grant that I have had two reasons for it. But I am going to do better. I will take care of him and I will do all I can to make him happy. I promise."
Perhaps it was relief. Perhaps even then the thought of Annunciata's tardy and certain-to-be bungling efforts to make Ferdinand William Otto happy amused him. He smiled faintly.
Nikky, watching his rooms being dismantled, rescuing an old pipe now and then, or a pair of shabby but beloved boots,—Nikky, whistling to keep up his courage, received a note from Hedwig late that afternoon. It was very brief:
To-night at nine o'clock I shall go to the roof beyond Hubert's old rooms, for air. HEDWIG.
Nikky, who in all his incurious young life had never thought of the roof of the Palace, save as a necessary shelter from the weather, a thing of tiles and gutters, vastly large, looked rather astounded.
"The roof!" he said, surveying the note. And fell to thinking, such a mixture of rapture and despair as only twenty-three, and hopeless, can know.
Somehow or other he got through the intervening hours, and before nine he was on his way. He had the run of the Palace, of course. No one noticed him as he made his way toward the empty suite which so recently had housed its royal visitor. Annunciata's anxiety had kept the doors of the suite unlocked. Knowing nothing, but fearing everything, she slept with the key to the turret door under her pillow, and an ear opened for untoward sounds.
In the faint moonlight poor Hubert's rooms, with their refurbished furnishings covered with white linen, looked cold and almost terrifying. A long window was open, and the velvet curtain swayed as though it shielded some dismal figure. But, when he had crossed the room and drawn the curtain aside, it was to see a bit of fairyland, the roof moonlit and transformed by growing things into a garden. There was, too, the fairy.
Hedwig, in a soft white wrap over her dinner dress, was at the balustrade. The moon, which had robbed the flowers of their colors and made them ghosts of blossoms, had turned Hedwig into a pale, white fairy with extremely frightened eyes. A very dignified fairy, too, although her heart thumped disgracefully. Having taken a most brazen step forward, she was now for taking two panicky ones back.
Therefore she pretended not to hear Nikky behind her, and was completely engrossed in the city lights.
So Hedwig intended to be remote, and Nikky meant to be firm and very, very loyal. Which shows how young and inexperienced they were. Because any one who knows even the beginnings of love knows that its victims suffer from an atrophy of both reason and conscience, and a hypertrophy of the heart.
Whatever Nikky had intended—of obeying his promise to the letter, of putting his country before love, and love out of his life—failed him instantly. The Nikky, ardent-eyed and tender-armed, who crossed the roof and took her almost fiercely in his arms, was all lover—and twenty-three.
"Sweetheart!" he said. "Sweetest heart!"
When, having kissed her, he drew back a trifle for the sheer joy of again catching her to him, it was Hedwig who held out her arms to him.
"I couldn't bear it," she said simply. "I love you. I had to see you again. Just once."
If he had not entirely lost his head before, he lost it then. He stopped thinking, was content for a time that her arms were about his neck, and his arms about her, holding her close. They were tense, those arms of his, as though he would defy the world to take her away.
But, although he had stopped thinking, Hedwig had not. It is, at such times, always the woman who thinks. Hedwig, plotting against his honor and for his happiness and hers, was already, with her head on his breast, planning the attack. And, having a strategic position, she fired her first gun from there.
"Never let me go, Nikky," she whispered. "Hold me, always."
"Always!" said Nikky, valiantly and absurdly.
"Like this," said Nikky, who was, like most lovers, not particularly original. He tightened his strong arms about her.
"They are planning such terrible things." Shell number two, and high explosive. "You won't let them take me from you, will you?"
"God!" said poor Nikky, and kissed her hair. "If we could only be like this always! Your arms, Hedwig,—your sweet arms!" He kissed her arms.
Gun number three now: "Tell me how much you love me."
"I—there are no words, darling. And I couldn't live long enough to tell you, if there were." Not bad that, for inarticulate Nikky.
"More than anybody else?"
He shook her a trifle, in his arms. "How can you?" he demanded huskily. "More than anything in the world. More than life, or anything life can bring. More, God help me, than my country."
But his own words brought him up short. He released her, very gently, and drew back a step.
"You heard that?" he demanded. "And I mean it. It's incredible, Hedwig, but it is true."
"I want you to mean it," Hedwig replied, moving close to him, so that her soft draperies brushed him; the very scent of the faint perfume she used was in the air he breathed. "I want you to, because Nikky, you are going to take me away, aren't you?"
Then, because she dared not give him time to think, she made her plea,—rapid, girlish, rather incoherent, but understandable enough. They would go away together and be married. She had it all planned and some of it arranged. And then they would hide somewhere, and—"And always be together," she finished, tremulous with anxiety.
And Nikky? His pulses still beating at her nearness, his eyes on her upturned, despairing young face, turned to him for hope and comfort, what could he do? He took her in his arms again and soothed her, while she cried her heart out against his tunic. He said he would do anything to keep her from unhappiness, and that he would die before he let her go to Karl's arms. But if he had stopped thinking before, he was thinking hard enough then.
"To-night?" said Hedwig, raising a tear-stained face. "It is early. If we wait something will happen. I know it. They are so powerful, they can do anything."
After all, Nikky is poor stuff to try to make a hero of. He was so human, and so loving. And he was very, very young, which may perhaps be his excuse. As well confess his weakness and his temptation. He was tempted. Almost he felt he could not let her go, could not loosen his hold of her. Almost—not quite.
He put her away from him at last, after he had kissed her eyelids and her forehead, which was by way of renunciation. And then he folded his arms, which were treacherous and might betray him. After that, not daring to look at her, but with his eyes fixed on the irregular sky-line of the city roofs, he told her many things, of his promise to the King, of the danger, imminent now and very real, of his word of honor not to make love to her, which he had broken.
Hedwig listened, growing cold and still, and drawing away a little. She was suffering too much to be just. All she could see was that, for a matter of honor, and that debatable, she was to be sacrificed. This danger that all talked of—she had heard that for a dozen years, and nothing had come of it. Nothing, that is, but her own sacrifice.
She listened, even assented, as he pleaded against his own heart, treacherous arms still folded. And if she saw his arms and not his eyes, it was because she did not look up.
Halfway through his eager speech, however, she drew her light wrap about her and turned away. Nikky could not believe that she was going like that, without a word. But when she had disappeared through the window, he knew, and followed her. He caught her in Hubert's room, and drew her savagely into his arms.
But it was a passive, quiescent, and trembling Hedwig who submitted, and then, freeing herself, went out through the door into the lights of the corridor. Nikky flung himself, face down, on a shrouded couch and lay there, his face buried in his arms.
Olga Loschek's last hope was gone.
CHAPTER XXXIII. THE DAY OF THE CARNIVAL
On the day of the Carnival, which was the last day before the beginning of Lent, Prince Ferdinand William Otto wakened early. The Palace still slept, and only the street-sweepers were about the streets. Prince Ferdinand William Otto sat up in bed and yawned. This was a special day, he knew, but at first he was too drowsy to remember.
Then he knew—the Carnival! A delightful day, with the Place full of people in strange costumes—peasants, imps, jesters, who cut capers on the grass in the Park, little girls in procession, wearing costumes of fairies with gauze wings, students who paraded and blew noisy horns, even horses decorated, and now and then a dog dressed as a dancer or a soldier.
He would have enjoyed dressing Toto in something or other. He decided to mention it to Nikky, and with a child's faith he felt that Nikky would, so to speak, come up to the scratch.
He yawned again, and began to feel hungry. He decided to get up and take his own bath. There was nothing like getting a good start for a gala day. And, since with the Crown Prince to decide was to do, which is not always a royal trait, he took his own bath, being very particular about his ears, and not at all particular about the rest of him. Then, no Oskar having yet appeared with fresh garments he ducked back into bed again, quite bare as to his small body, and snuggled down in the sheets.
Lying there, he planned the day. There were to be no lessons except fencing, which could hardly be called a lesson at all, and as he now knew the "Gettysburg Address," he meant to ask permission to recite it to his grandfather. To be quite sure of it, he repeated it to himself as he lay there:—
"'Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'
"Free and equal," he said to himself. That rather puzzled him. Of course people were free, but they did not seem to be equal. In the summer, at the summer palace, he was only allowed to see a few children, because the others were what his Aunt Annunciata called "bourgeois." And there was in his mind also something Miss Braithwaite had said, after his escapade with the American boy.
"If you must have some child to play with," she had said severely, "you could at least choose some one approximately your equal."
"But he is my equal," he had protested from the outraged depths of his small democratic heart.
"In birth," explained Miss Braithwaite.
"His father has a fine business," he had said, still rather indignant. "It makes a great deal of money. Not everybody can build a scenic railway and get it going right. Bobby said so."
Miss Braithwaite had been silent and obviously unconvinced. Yet this Mr. Lincoln, the American, had certainly said that all men were free and equal. It was very puzzling.
But, as the morning advanced, as, clothed and fed, the Crown Prince faced the new day, he began to feel a restraint in the air. People came and went, his grandfather's Equerry, the Chancellor, the Lord Chamberlain, other gentlemen, connected with the vast and intricate machinery of the Court, and even Hedwig, in a black frock, all these people came, and talked together, and eyed him when he was not looking. When they left they all bowed rather more than usual, except Hedwig, who kissed him, much to his secret annoyance.
Every one looked grave, and spoke in a low tone. Also there was something wrong with Nikky, who appeared not only grave, but rather stern and white. Considering that it was the last day before Lent, and Carnival time, Prince Ferdinand William Otto felt vaguely defrauded, rather like the time he had seen "The Flying Dutchman," which had turned out to be only a make-believe ship and did not fly at all. To add to the complications, Miss Braithwaite had a headache.
Nikky Larisch had arrived just as Hedwig departed, and even the Crown Prince had recognized something wrong. Nikky had stopped just inside the doorway, with his eyes rather desperately and hungrily on Hedwig, and Hedwig, who should have been scolded, according to Prince Otto, had passed him with the haughtiest sort of nod.
The Crown Prince witnessed the nod with wonder and alarm.
"We are all rather worried," he explained afterward to Nikky, to soothe his wounded pride. "My grandfather is not so well to-day. Hedwig is very unhappy."
"Yes," said Nikky miserably, "she does look unhappy."
"Now, when are we going out?" briskly demanded Prince Ferdinand William Otto. "I can hardly wait. I've seen the funniest people already—and dogs. Nikky, I wonder if you could dress Toto, and let me see him somewhere."
"Out! You do not want to go out in that crowd, do you?"
"Why—am I not to go?"
His voice was suddenly quite shaky. He was, in a way, so inured to disappointments that he recognized the very tones in which they were usually announced. So he eyed Nikky with a searching glance, and saw there the thing he feared.
"Well," he said resignedly, "I suppose I can see something from the windows. Only—I should like to have a really good time occasionally." He was determined not to cry. "But there are usually a lot of people in the Place."
Then, remembering that his grandfather was very ill, he tried to forget his disappointment in a gift for him. Not burnt wood this time, but the drawing of a gun, which he explained as he worked, that he had invented. He drew behind the gun a sort of trestle, with little cars, not unlike the Scenic Railway, on which ammunition was delivered into the breech by something strongly resembling a coal-chute.
There was, after all, little to see from the windows. That part of the Place near the Palace remained empty and quiet, by order of the King's physicians. And although it was Carnival, and the streets were thronged with people, there was little of Carnival in the air. The city waited.
Some loyal subjects waited and grieved that the King lay dying. For, although the Palace had carefully repressed his condition, such things leak out, and there was the empty and silent Place to bear witness.
Others waited, too, but not in sorrow. And a certain percentage, the young and light-hearted, strutted the streets in fantastic costume, blew horns and threw confetti and fresh flowers, still dewy from the mountain slopes. The Scenic Railway was crowded with merry-makers, and long lines of people stood waiting their turn at the ticket-booth, where a surly old veteran, pinched with sleepless nights, sold them tickets and ignored their badinage. Family parties, carrying baskets and wheeling babies in perambulators, took possession of the Park and littered it with paper bags. And among them, committing horrible crimes, dispatching whole families with a wooden gun from behind near-by trees and taking innumerable prisoners, went a small pirate in a black mask and a sash of scarlet ribbon, from which hung various deadly weapons, including a bread-knife, a meat-cleaver, and a hatchet.
Attempts to make Tucker wear a mask having proved abortive, he was attired in a pirate flag of black, worn as a blanket, and having on it, in white muslin, what purported to be a skull and cross-bones but which looked like the word "ox" with the "O" superimposed over the "X."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto stood at his window and looked out. Something of resentment showed itself in the lines of his figure. There was, indeed, rebellion in his heart. This was a real day, a day of days, and no one seemed to care that he was missing it. Miss Braithwaite looked drawn about the eyes, and considered carnivals rather common, and certainly silly. And Nikky looked drawn about the mouth, and did not care to play.
Rebellion was dawning in the soul of the Crown Prince, not the impassive revolt of the "Flying Dutchman" and things which only pretended to be, like the imitation ship and the women who were not really spinning. The same rebellion, indeed, which had set old Adelbert against the King and turned him traitor, a rebellion against needless disappointment, a protest for happiness.
Old Adelbert, forbidden to march in his new uniform, the Crown Prince, forbidden his liberty and shut in a gloomy palace, were blood-brothers in revolt.
Not that Prince Ferdinand William Otto knew he was in revolt. At first it consisted only of a consideration of his promise to the Chancellor. But while there had been an understanding, there had been no actual promise, had there?
Late in the morning Nikky took him to the roof. "We can't go out, old man," Nikky said to him, rather startled to discover the unhappiness in the boy's face, "but I've found a place where we can see more than we can here. Suppose we try it."
"Why can't we go out? I've always gone before."
"Well," Nikky temporized, "they've made a rule. They make a good many rules, you know. But they said nothing about the roof."
"The roof. The thing that covers us and keeps out the weather. The roof, Highness." Nikky alternated between formality and the other extreme with the boy.
"It slants, doesn't it?" observed his Highness doubtfully.
"Part of it is quite flat. We can take a ball up there, and get some exercise while we're about it."
As a matter of fact, Nikky was not altogether unselfish. He would visit the roof again, where for terrible, wonderful moments he had held Hedwig in his arms. On a pilgrimage, indeed, like that of the Crown Prince to Etzel, Nikky would visit his shrine.
So they went to the roof. They went through silent corridors, past quiet rooms where the suite waited and spoke in whispers, past the very door of the chamber where the Council sat in session, and where reports were coming in, hour by hour, as to the condition of things outside. Past the apartment of the Archduchess Annunciata, where Hilda, released from lessons, was trying the effect of jet earrings against her white skin, and the Archduchess herself was sitting by her fire, and contemplating the necessity for flight. In her closet was a small bag, already packed in case of necessity. Indeed, more persons than the Archduchess Annunciata had so prepared. Miss Braithwaite, for instance, had spent a part of the night over a traveling-case containing a small boy's outfit, and had wept as she worked, which was the reason for her headache.
The roof proved quite wonderful. One could see the streets crowded with people, could hear the soft blare of distant horns.
"The Scenic Railway is in that direction," observed the Crown Prince, leaning on the balustrade. "If there were no buildings we could see it."
"Right here," Nikky was saying to himself. "At this very spot. She held out her arms, and I—"
"It looks very interesting," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto. "Of course we can't see the costumes, but it is better than nothing."
"I kissed her," Nikky was thinking, his heart swelling under his very best tunic. "Her head was on my breast, and I kissed her. Last of all, I kissed her eyes—her lovely eyes."
"If I fell off here," observed the Crown Prince in a meditative voice, "I would be smashed to a jelly, like the child at the Crystal Palace."
"But now she hates me," said Nikky's heart, and dropped about the distance of three buttons. "She hates me. I saw it in her eyes this morning. God!"
"We might as well play ball now."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto turned away from the parapet with a sigh. This strange quiet that filled the Palace seemed to have attacked Nikky too. Otto hated quiet.
They played ball, and the Crown Prince took a lesson in curves. But on his third attempt, he described such a compound—curve that the ball disappeared over an adjacent part of the roof, and although Nikky did some blood-curdling climbing along gutters, it could not be found.
It was then that the Majordomo, always a marvelous figure in crimson and gold, and never seen without white gloves—the Majordomo bowed in a window, and observed that if His Royal Highness pleased, His Royal Highness's luncheon was served.
In the shrouded room inside the windows, however, His Royal Highness paused and looked around.
"I've been here before," he observed. "These were my father's rooms. My mother lived here, too. When I am older, perhaps I can have them. It would be convenient on account of my practicing curves on the roof. But I should need a number of balls."
He was rather silent on his way back to the schoolroom. But once he looked up rather wistfully at Nikky.
"If they were living," he said, "I am pretty sure they would take me out to-day."
Olga Loschek had found the day one of terror. Annunciata had demanded her attendance all morning, had weakened strangely and demanded fretfully to be comforted.
"I have been a bad daughter," she would say. "It was my nature. I was warped and soured by wretchedness."
"But you have not been a bad daughter," the Countess would protest, for the thousandth time. "You have done your duty faithfully. You have stayed here when many another would have been traveling on the Riviera, or—"
"It was no sacrifice," said Annunciata, in her peevish voice. "I loathe traveling. And now I am being made to suffer for all I have done. He will die, and the rest of us—what will happen to us?" She shivered.
The Countess would take the cue, would enlarge on the precautions for safety, on the uselessness of fear, on the popularity of the Crown Prince. And Annunciata, for a time at least, would relax. In her new remorse she made frequent visits to the sickroom, passing, a long, thin figure, clad in black, through lines of bowing gentlemen, to stand by the bed and wring her hands. But the old King did not even know she was there.
The failure of her plan as to Nikky and Hedwig was known to the Countess the night before. Hedwig had sent for her and faced her in her boudoir, very white and calm.
"He refuses," she said. "There is nothing more to do."
"He has promised not to leave Otto."
Olga Loschek had been incredulous, at first. It was not possible. Men in love did not do these things. It was not possible, that, after all, she had failed. When she realized it, she would have broken out in bitter protest, but Hedwig's face warned her. "He is right, of course," Hedwig had said. "You and I were wrong, Countess. There is nothing to do—or say."
And the Countess had taken her defeat quietly, with burning eyes and a throat dry with excitement. "I am sorry, Highness," she said from the doorway. "I had only hoped to save you from unhappiness. That is all. And, as you say, there is nothing to be done." So she had gone away and faced the night, and the day which was to follow.
The plot was arranged, to the smallest detail. The King, living now only so long as it was decreed he should live; would, in mid-afternoon, commence to sink. The entire Court would be gathered in anterooms and salons near his apartments. In his rooms the Crown Prince would be kept, awaiting the summons to the throne-room, where, on the King's death, the regency would be declared, and the Court would swear fealty to the new King, Otto the Ninth. By arrangement with the captain of the Palace guard, who was one of the Committee of Ten, the sentries before the Crown Prince's door were to be of the revolutionary party. Mettlich would undoubtedly be with the King. Remained then to be reckoned with only the Prince's personal servants, Miss Braithwaite, and Nikky Larisch.
The servants offered little difficulty. At that hour, four o'clock, probably only the valet Oskar would be on duty, and his station was at the end of a corridor, separated by two doors from the schoolroom. It was planned that the two men who were to secure the Crown Prince were to wear the Palace livery, and to come with a message that the Crown Prince was to accompany them. Then, instead of going to the wing where the Court was gathered, they would go up to Hubert's rooms, and from there to the roof and the secret passage.
Two obstacles were left for the Countess to cope with, and this was her part of the work. She had already a plan for Miss Braithwaite. But Nikky Larisch?
Over that problem, during the long night hours, Olga Loschek worked. It would be possible to overcome Nikky, of course. There would be four men, with the sentries, against him. But that would mean struggle and an alarm. It was the plan to achieve the abduction quietly, so quietly that for perhaps an hour—they hoped for an hour—there would be no alarm. Some time they must have, enough to make the long journey through the underground passage. Otherwise the opening at the gate would be closed, and the party caught like rats in a hole.
The necessity for planning served one purpose, at least. It kept her from thinking. Possibly it saved her reason, for there were times during that last night when Olga Loschek was not far from madness. At dawn, long after Hedwig had forgotten her unhappiness in sleep, the Countess went wearily to bed. She had dismissed Minna hours before, and as she stood before her mirror, loosening her heavy hair, she saw that all that was of youth and loveliness in her had died in the night. A determined, scornful, and hard-eyed woman, she went drearily to bed.
During the early afternoon the Chancellor visited the Crown Prince. Waiting and watching had made inroads on him, too, but he assumed a sort of heavy jocularity for the boy's benefit.
"No lessons, eh?" he said. "Then there have been no paper balls for the tutors' eyes, eh?"
"I never did that but once, sir," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto gravely.
"So! Once only!"
"And I did that because he was always looking at Hedwig's picture."
The Chancellor eyed the picture. "I should be the last to condemn him for that," he said, and glanced at Nikky.
"We must get the lad out somewhere for some air," he observed. "It is not good to keep him shut up like this." He turned to the Crown Prince. "In a day or so," he said, "we shall all go to the summer palace. You would like that, eh?"
"Will my grandfather be able to go?"
The Chancellor sighed. "Yes," he said, "I—he will go to the country also. He has loved it very dearly."
He went, shortly after three o'clock. And, because he was restless and uneasy, he made a round of the Palace, and of the guards. Before he returned to his vigil outside the King's bedroom, he stood for a moment by a window and looked out. Evidently rumors of the King's condition had crept out, in spite of their caution. The Place, kept free of murmurs by the police, was filling slowly with people; people who took up positions on benches, under the trees, and even sitting on the curb of the street. An orderly and silent crowd it seemed, of the better class. Here and there he saw police agents in plain clothes, impassive but watchful, on the lookout for the first cry of treason.
An hour or two, or three—three at the most and the fate of the Palace would lie in the hands of that crowd. He could but lead the boy to the balcony, and await the result.
CHAPTER XXXIV. THE PIRATE'S DEN
Miss Braithwaite was asleep on the couch in her sitting-room, deeply asleep, so that when Prince Ferdinand William Otto changed the cold cloth on her head, she did not even move. The Countess Loschek had brought her some medicine.
"It cured her very quickly," said the Crown Prince, shuffling the cards with clumsy fingers. He and Nikky were playing a game in which matches represented money. The Crown Prince had won nearly all of them and was quite pink with excitement. "It's my deal, it? When she goes to sleep like that, she nearly always wakens up much better. She's very sound asleep."
Nikky played absently, and lost the game. The Crown Prince triumphantly scooped up the rest of the matches. "We've had rather a nice day," he observed, "even if we didn't go out. Shall we divide them again, and start all over?"
Nikky, however, proclaimed himself hopelessly beaten and a bad loser. So the Crown Prince put away the cards, which belonged to Miss Braithwaite, and with which she played solitaire in the evenings. Then he lounged to the window, his hands in his pockets. There was something on his mind which the Chancellor's reference to Hedwig's picture had recalled. Something he wished to say to Nikky, without looking at him.
So he clearer throat, and looked out the window, and said, very casually:
"Hilda says that Hedwig is going to get married."
"So I hear, Highness."
"She doesn't seem to be very happy about it. She's crying, most of the time."
It was Nikky's turn to clear his throat. "Marriage is a serious matter," he said. "It is not to be gone into lightly."
"Once, when I asked you about marriage, you said marriage was when two people loved each other, and wanted to be together the rest of their lives."
"Well," hedged Nikky, "that is the idea, rather."
"I should think," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, slightly red, "that you would marry her yourself."
Nikky, being beyond speech for an instant and looking, had His Royal Highness but seen him, very tragic and somewhat rigid, the Crown Prince went on:
"She's a very nice girl," he said; "I think she would make a good wife."
There was something of reproach in his tone. He had confidently planned that Nikky would marry Hedwig, and that they could all live on forever in the Palace. But, the way things were going, Nikky might marry anybody, and go away to live, and he would lose him.
"Yes," said Nikky, in a strange voice, "she—I am sure she would make a good wife."
At which Prince Ferdinand William Otto turned and looked at him. "I wish you would marry her yourself," he said with his nearest approach to impatience. "I think she'd be willing. I'll ask her, if you want me to."
Half-past three, then, and Nikky trying to explain, within the limits of the boy's understanding of life, his position. Members of royal families, he said, looking far away, over the child's head, had to do many things for the good of the country. And marrying was one of them. Something of old Mettlich's creed of prosperity for the land he gave, something of his own hopelessness, too, without knowing it. He sat, bent forward, his hands swung between his knees, and tried to visualize, for Otto's understanding and his own heartache, the results of such a marriage.
Some of it the boy grasped. A navy, ships, a railroad to the sea—those he could understand. Treaties were beyond his comprehension. And, with a child's singleness of idea, he returned to the marriage.
"I'm sure she doesn't care about it," he said at last. "If I were King I would not let her do it. And"—he sat very erect and swung his short legs—"when I grow up, I shall fight for a navy, if I want one, and I shall marry whoever I like."
At a quarter to four Olga Loschek was announced. She made the curtsy inside the door that Palace ceremonial demanded and inquired for the governess. Prince Ferdinand William Otto, who had risen at her entrance, offered to see if she still slept.
"I think you are a very good doctor," he said, smiling, and went out to Miss Braithwaite's sitting room.
It was then that Olga Loschek played the last card, and won. She moved quickly to Nikky's side.
"I have a message for you," she said.
A light leaped into Nikky's eyes. "For me?"
"Do you know where my boudoir is?"
"If you will go there at once and wait, some one will see you there as soon as possible." She put her hand on his arm. "Don't be foolish and proud," she said. "She is sorry about last night, and she is very unhappy."
The light faded out of Nikky's eyes. She was unhappy and he could do nothing. They had a way, in the Palace, of binding one's hands and leaving one helpless. He could not even go to her.
"I cannot go, Countess," he said. "She must understand. To-day, of all days—"
"You mean that you cannot leave the Crown Prince?" She shrugged her shoulders. "You, too! Never have I seen so many faint hearts, such rolling eyes, such shaking knees! And for what! Because a few timid souls see a danger that does not exist."
"I think it does exist," said Nikky obstinately.
"I am to take the word to her, then, that you will not come?"
"That I cannot."
"You are a very foolish boy," said the Countess, watching him. "And since you are so fearful, I myself will remain here. There are sentries at the doors, and a double guard everywhere. What, in the name of all that is absurd, can possibly happen?"
That was when she won. For Nikky, who has never been, in all this history, anything of a hero, and all of the romantic and loving boy,—Nikky wavered and fell.
When Prince Ferdinand William Otto returned, it was with the word that Miss Braithwaite still slept, and that she looked very comfortable, Nikky was gone, and the Countess stood by a window, holding to the sill to support her shaking body.
It was done. The boy was in her hands. There was left only to deliver him to those who, even now, were on the way. Nikky was safe. He would wait in her boudoir, and Hedwig would not come. She had sent no message. She was, indeed, at that moment a part of one of those melancholy family groups which, the world over, in palace or peasant's hut, await the coming of death.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto chatted. He got out the picture-frame for Hedwig, which was finished now, with the exception of burning his initials in the lower left-hand corner. After inquiring politely if the smell of burning would annoy her, the Crown Prince drew a rather broken-backed "F," a weak-kneed "W," and an irregular "O" in the corner and proceeded to burn them in. He sat bent over the desk, the very tip of his tongue protruding, and worked conscientiously and carefully. Between each letter he burned a dot.