"De Launay was not far wrong when he prophesied danger for the King as the result of his beginning to think for himself;" he mused—"Yet it has come—this danger—in a different way to that in which we expected it! It is a bold move for the ruler of a country to make personal examination into the needs of his people,—but it is seldom that, while engaged in such a task, the ruler himself becomes ruled, by a stronger force than even his own temporal power!"
And now, sitting with old Rene Ronsard, by a fire which had been kindled on this somewhat chilly night for his better comfort, he was, despite the impression of sadness and disaster which hung upon his mind as darkly as the clouds were hanging in heaven, doing his best to rouse both himself and his companion to greater cheerfulness. The wind, shaking the lattice, and now and then screaming dismally under the door, did not inspire him to gaiety, but his thoughts were principally for Ronsard, who was inclined to yield to an overpowering despondency.
"This will never do, Ronsard!" he said after a pause, during which he had noticed a tear or two steal slowly down the old man's furrowed cheek; "What sort of a welcome will such a face as yours be to our Crown Princess Gloria? She will soon be here; think of it! And what a triumphant entry she will make, acclaimed by the whole nation!"
"I shall not be wanted in her life!" said Ronsard, slowly. "After all, I am nothing to her, and have no claim upon her. I found her, as a poor man may by chance find a rare jewel,—that the jewel is afterwards found worthy to be set in a king's crown, is not the business of that same poor man. He who merely hews a diamond out of the mine, is not the maker of the diamond!"
"Gloria loves you!" said the Professor; "And she will love you always!"
Ronsard smiled faintly.
"My friend, I understand, and I accept the law of change!" he said. "To me, as to all, it must come! The old must die, and the young succeed them. As for me, I shall be glad to go—the sooner the better, I truly think, for then none will taunt my Gloria with the simple manner of her bringing up;—none will remember aught, save her exceeding beauty, or blame her that the sun and sea were her only known parents. And if we credit legend, hers is not the first birth of loveliness from the bosom of the waves!"
Here the wind, tearing round the rafters, rattled and roared for a space like a demon threatening the whole construction of the house, and then went galloping away with a shriek among the pines down to the shore.
"A wild night!" said the Professor, with a slight shiver. "Alas! poor Lotys!—poor 'Soul of an Ideal' as Sergius Thord called her,—her frail mortal tenement will soon be drawn down to the depths in such a storm as this!"
"I never saw her!" said Ronsard musingly; "Thord I have seen often. Lotys was to me a name merely,—but I knew it was a name to conjure with—a name beloved of the People. Gloria longed to see her,—she had heard of her often."
"She was a psychological phenomenon," said the Professor slowly; "And I admit that her composition baffled me. No one have I ever seen at all like her. She was beautiful without any of the accepted essentials of beauty—and it is precisely such a woman as that who possesses the most dangerous fascination over men—not over boys—but over men. She had a loving, passionate, feminine heart, with a masculine brain,—the two together are bound to constitute what is called Genius. The only thing I cannot understand is the unexpected weakness she displayed in committing suicide. That I should never have thought of her. On the contrary, I should have imagined, knowing as much of her as I did, that the greater the sorrow, the greater the fight she would have made against it."
A silence fell between them, filled by the thundering noise of the wind.
"Where is Thord?" asked Ronsard presently.
"I do not know. The last I saw of him was on board the vessel that bore her coffin;—he was laying flowers on the deck. He was not, I think, in any of the smaller boats that accompanied it; he must have returned with the crowd on shore. He has his duties as Deputy for the city now, we must remember!"
Ronsard's eyes flashed with a glimmer of satire in the firelight.
"If it had not been for Lotys, he would not be a Deputy, or anything else,—save perchance a Communist or an Anarchist!" he said; "he used to be one of the fiercest malcontents in all the country when I first came here. Many and many is the time I have heard him threaten to kill the King!"
"Ah!" said the Professor meaningly, the while he bent his eyes on the flickering fire.
Again a silence fell. The wind roared and screamed around the building, and in the pauses of the gale, the minutes seemed weighted with a strange dread. Every tick of the clock sounded heavy and long, even to the equable-minded Professor. The storm outside was growing louder and even louder, and his thoughts, despite himself, turned to the ocean- wildernesses over which Prince Humphry's home-returning vessel must be now on its way—while that other solitary barque, unhelmed and unmanned, whose sail bore the name of 'Lotys' was also voyaging, but in a darker direction, down to death and oblivion, carrying with it, as he feared, all the love and heart of a King! Suddenly a loud knocking at the door startled them; and as Ronsard rose from his chair, amazed at the noise and Von Glauben did the same with more alacrity, a man with wind blown hair and excited gestures burst into the little room.
"Ronsard!" he cried; "The King—the King!"
He paused, gasping for breath. Ronsard looked at him wonderingly. His clothes were saturated with sea-water,—his face was pale—and his eyes expressed some fear that his tongue seemed incapable of uttering. He was one of the coral-fishers of the coast, and Ronsard knew him well.
"What ails you, man?" he asked; "What say you of the King?"
Holding the door of the cottage open with some difficulty, the coral- fisher pointed to the sky overhead. It was flecked with great masses of white cloud, through which the moon appeared to roll rapidly like a ball of yellow fire. The wind howled furiously, and the pines in the near distance could be seen bending to and fro like reeds in its breath, while the roar of the sea beyond the rocks was fierce and deafening.
"It is all storm!" cried the man, excitedly; "The billows are running mountains high!—there is no chance for him!"
"No chance for whom?" demanded Von Glauben, impatiently; "What would you tell us? Speak plainly!"
"It was the King!" said the coral-fisher again, trying to express himself more collectedly—"I saw his face lit up by the after-glow of the sky—white—white as the foam on the wave! Listen! When the body of the woman Lotys was borne away on that vessel, a man came to me out of the thickest of the crowd (I was on one of the furthest quays)—and offered me a purse of gold to take him out to sea—and to steer him in such a way that we should meet the funeral barque just as she was cut adrift and sent forth to be wrecked in the ocean. I did not know him then. He kept his face hidden,—he spoke low, and he was evidently in trouble. I thought he was a lover of the dead woman, and sought perhaps to comfort himself by looking at her coffin for the last time. So I consented to do what he asked. I had my sailing skiff, and we went at once. The wind was strong; we sailed swiftly—and at the appointed place—" He paused to take breath. Ronsard seized him by the arm.
"Quick! Go on—what next?"
"At the appointed place when the vessel stopped,—when her ropes were cut and she afterwards sprang out to sea, I, by his orders, ran my skiff close beside her as she came,—and before I knew how it happened, my passenger sprang aboard her—Ay!—with a spring as light and sure as the flight of a bird! 'Farewell!' he said, and flung me the promised gold; 'May all be prosperous with you and yours!' And then the wind swooped down and bore the ship a mile or more ere I could follow it; but the strong light in the west fell full upon the man's face—and I saw—I knew it was the King!"
"Gott in Himmel! May you for ever be confounded and mistaken!" exclaimed Von Glauben,—"I left the King in his own grounds but an hour before I myself started to witness this accursed sea-funeral!"
"I say it was the King!" repeated the man emphatically. "I would swear it was the King! And the vessel going out to meet the storm tonight, holds the living, as well as the dead!"
With a sudden movement, as active as it was decided, old Ronsard went to a corner in the room and drew out a thick coil of rope with an iron hook at the end, and slinging it round his waist with the alert quickness of youth, made for the open door.
"Where is your skiff?" he demanded.
"Ashore down yonder;" answered the coral-fisher; "But you—what are you going to do? You cannot sail her in such a night as this!"
"I will adventure!" said Ronsard. "If, as you say, it was the King, I will save him if he can be saved! Once a King's life was nothing to me; now it is something! The tide veers round these Islands, and the vessel on which they have placed the body of Lotys, can scarcely drift away from the circle till morning, unless the waves are too strong for it—"
"They are too strong!" cried the coral-fisher; "Ronsard, believe me! There is no rain to soften or abate the wind—and the sea grows greater with every breath of the rising gale!"
"I care nothing!" replied Ronsard; "Let be! If you are afraid, I will go alone!"
At these words, the Professor suddenly awoke to the situation.
"What would you attempt, Ronsard?" he exclaimed; "You can do nothing! You are weak and ailing!—there is no force in you to combat with the elements on such a night as this—"
"There is force!" said Ronsard; "The force of my thirst for atonement! Let me be, for God's sake! Let me do something useful in my life!—let me try to save the King! If I die, so much the better."
"Then I will go with you!" said Von Glauben, desperately.
Ronsard shook his head.
"You? No, my friend! You will not! You will remain to welcome Gloria— to tell her that I loved her to the last!—that I did my best!"
He seemed to have grown young in an instant,—his eyes flashed with alertness and vigour, and instead of an old decaying man, full of cares and despondencies, he seemed like a bold adventurer, before whom a new land of promise opens. Von Glauben looked at him, and in a moment made up his mind. He turned to the coral-fisher.
"What think you truly of the night, my friend? Is it for life or death we go?"
"Death! Certain death!" answered the man; "It is madness to set sail in such a storm as this!"
"You are married, no doubt? And little ones eat your earnings? Ach so! Then you shall not be asked to go with us. Ronsard, I am ready! I can pull an oar and manage a sail, and I am not afraid of death by drowning! For Gloria's sake, let me go with you!"
"For Gloria's sake, stay here!" cried Ronsard; and with an abrupt movement he escaped Von Glauben's hold, and ran with all the speed of a boy out of the cottage into the garden beyond.
Von Glauben rushed after him, but found himself in the thicket of pines, trapped and hemmed in by the darkness of their stems and branches. The wind was so fierce and strong, that he could scarcely keep his feet,—every now and again the moon flew out of a great cloud- pinnacle and glared on the scene, but not with sufficient clearness to show him his way. Yet he knew the place well—often had he and Gloria trodden that path down to the sea, and yet to-night it seemed all unfamiliar. How the sea roared! Like a thousand lions clamouring for prey! Against the rocks the rising billows hissed and screamed, rattling backward among stones and shells with the grinding noise of artillery wagons being hastily dragged off a lost field of battle.
"Ronsard!" he called as loudly as he could, and again "Ronsard!" but his voice, big and stentorian though it was, made but the feeblest wail in the loud shriek of the wind. Yet he stumbled on and on, and by slow and difficult degrees found his way down to the foot of the high rocks which formed a pinnacled wall between him and the sea,—the rocks he had so often climbed with Gloria, and of which she had sung in such matchless tones of triumph and tenderness.
Here, by the sea. My King crown'd me! Wild ocean sang for my Coronation, With the jubilant voice of a mighty nation!
The memory of this song came back to his ears in a ringing echo, amid the howling of the boisterous wind, which now blew harder and harder, scattering masses of blown froth from the waves in his face, with flying sand and light shells, and torn-up weed. Scarcely able to stand against it, he paused to get his breath, realising that it would be worse than useless to climb the rocks in the teeth of such a gale, or try to reach the old accustomed winding way down to the shore. He endeavoured to collect his scattered wits;—if the ceaseless onslaught of the storm would only have allowed him to think coherently, he fancied he might have found another and easier path to lead him in the direction whither Ronsard, in his mad, but heroic impulse, had gone. But the gale was so terrific, and the booming of the great waves on the other side of the rocky barrier so awful, that it seemed as if the water must be rolling in like a solid wall, bent on breaking down the coast, and grinding it to powder. His heart ached heavily;—tears rose to his eyes.
"What a grain of dust I am in this world of storm!" he ejaculated; "Here I stand,—a strong man, utterly useless! Powerless to save the life I would die to serve! But maybe the story is not true!—the man can easily have been mistaken! Surely the King would not give up all for the sake of one woman's love!"
But though he said this to himself, he knew that such things have been; indeed, that they are common enough throughout all history. He had not studied humanity to so little purpose as not to be aware that there are certain phases of the passion of love which make havoc of a man's wisest and best intentions; and that even as Marc Antony lost all for Cleopatra's smile, and Harry the Eighth upset a Church for a woman's whim, so in modern days the same old story repeats itself; and no matter how great and famous the position of a king or an emperor, he may yet court and obtain his own ruin and disaster, ay, lose his very Throne for love;—deeming it well lost!
Restless, miserable and troubled by the confusion of his thoughts, which seemed to run wild with the wild wind and the thundering sea, the unhappy Professor retraced his steps to the cottage, hoping against hope that Ronsard, physically unable to cope with the storm, would have returned, baffled in his reckless attempt to put forth a boat to sea. But the little home was silent and deserted. There was the old man's empty chair;—the clock against the wall ticked the minutes away with a comfortable persistence which was aggravating to the nerves; the fire was still bright. Before entering, Von Glauben looked up and down everywhere outside, but there was no sign of any living creature.
Nothing remained for him to do but to resign himself passively to whatsoever calamity the Omnipotent Forces above him chose to inflict,— and utterly weary, baffled and helpless, he sank into Ronsard's vacant chair, unconscious that tears were rolling down his face from the excess of his anxiety and exhaustion. The shrieking of the wind, the occasional glare of the moonlight through the rattling lattice windows, and the apparent rocking of the very rafters above him thrilled him into new and ever recurring sensations of fear—yet he was no coward, and had often prided himself on having 'nerves of steel and sinews of iron.' Presently, he began to see quaint faces and figures in the glowing embers of the fire; old scraps of song and legend haunted him; fragments of Heine, mixed up with long-winded philosophical phrases of Schopenhauer, began to make absurd contradictions and glaring contrasts in his mind, while he listened to the awful noises of the storm; and the steady ticking of the clock on the wall worried him to such an almost childish degree, that had he not thought how often he had seen Gloria winding up that clock and setting it to the right hour, he could almost have torn it down and broken it to pieces. By and by, however, tired Nature had her way, and utterly heavy and worn out in mind and body, and weary of the disturbed and incoherent thoughts in his brain, he lay back and closed his eyes. He would rest a little while, he said to himself, and 'wait.' And so he gradually fell asleep, and in his sleep wrote, so he imagined, a whole eloquent chapter of his 'Political History of Hunger' in which he described Sergius Thord as a despot, who, after proving false to the cause of the People, and grinding them down by unlimited taxation such as no Government had ever before inflicted, seized the rightful king of the country, and sent him away to be drowned in company with a woman of the People, whose body was fastened to his by ropes and iron chains, in the fashion of 'Les Noyades' of Nantes. And he thought that the King rejoiced in his doom, and said strange words like those of the poet who sang of a similar story:
"For never a man like me Shall die like me till the whole world dies, I shall drown with her, laughing for love, and she Mix with me, touching me, lips and eyes!"
Meanwhile, Ronsard, true to the instinct within him, had fulfilled his intention and had put out to sea. The fisherman who had brought the tidings which had moved him to this desperate act, was too much of a hero in himself to let the old man venture forth alone,—and so, following him down to the shore, had, despite all commands and entreaties to the contrary, insisted on going with him. The sailing skiff he owned was a strong boat, stoutly built,—and at first it seemed as if their efforts to ride the mountainous billows would be crowned with success. Old Rene had a true genius for the management of a sail; his watchfulness never flagged:—his strenuous exertions would have done credit to a man less than half his age. With delicate precision he guided the ropes, as a jockey might have guided the reins of a racehorse, and the vessel rose and fell lightly over the great waves, with such ease and rapidity, that the man who accompanied him and took the helm, an experienced sailor himself, began to feel confident that after all the voyage might not be altogether futile.
"The sea may be calmer further out from land!" he shouted to Rene, who nodded a quiet aquiescence, while he kept his eyes earnestly fixed on the horizon, which the occasional brightness of the moon showed up like a line of fretted silver. Everywhere he scanned the waves for a glimpse of the fatal vessel bearing Death—and perhaps Life—on board; but over the whole expanse of the undulating hills and valleys of wild water, there was no speck of a boat to be seen save their own. They swept on and on, the wind aiding them with savage violence—when suddenly the man at the helm shouted excitedly:
"Ronsard! See yonder! There she sails!"
With an exclamation of joy, Ronsard sprang up, and looking, saw within what seemed an apparently short distance, the drifting funeral-barque he sought. So far she seemed intact; her sails were bellying out full to the wind, and she was rising and plunging bravely over the great breakers, which rolled on in interminable array, one over the other,— with rugged foam-crests that sprang like fountains to the sky. A five or ten minutes' run with the wind would surely bring them alongside,— and Ronsard turned with an eager will to his work once more. Over the heads of the monstrous waves, rising with their hills, sinking in their valleys, he guided the few yielding planks that were between him and destruction, trimming the straining sail to the ferocious wind, and ever keeping his eyes fixed on the vessel which was the object of his search,—the sole aim and end of his reckless voyage, and which seemed now to recede, and then to almost disappear, the more earnestly he strove to reach it.
"To save the King!" he muttered—"To save—not to kill! For Gloria's sake!—to save the King!"
A capricious gust from the beating wings of the storm swooped down upon him sideways, as he twisted the ropes and tugged at them in a herculean effort to balance the plunging boat and keep her upright,—and in the loud serpent-like hiss of the waves around him, he did not hear his companion's wild warning cry—a cry of despair and farewell in one! A toppling dark-green mass of water, moving on shoreward, lifted itself quite suddenly, as it were, to its full height, as though to stare at the puny human creatures who thus had dared to oppose the fury of the elements, and then, leaping forward like a devouring monster, broke over their frail skiff, sweeping the sail off like a strip of ribbon, snapping the mast and rolling over and over them with a thousand heads of foam that, spouting upwards, again fell into dark cavernous deeps, covering and dragging down everything on the surface with a tumult and roar! It passed on thundering,—but left a blank behind it. Skiff and men had vanished,—and not a trace of the wreck floated on the angry waves!
For one blinding second, Ronsard, buffeting the wild waves, saw the face of Gloria,—that best-beloved fair face,—angelic, pitying, loving to the last,—shine on him like a star in the darkness!—the next he was whelmed into the silence of the million dead worlds beneath the sea! So at last he paid his life's full debt. So, at last his atonement was fulfilled. If it was true,—as he had in an unguarded moment confessed,—that he had once killed a King, then the resistless Law of Compensation had worked its way with him,—inasmuch as he had been forced to render up what he cherished most,—the love of Gloria,—to the son of a King, and had ended his days in an effort to save the life of a King! For the rest, whatever the real nature of his long-hidden secret,—whatever the extent of the torture he had suffered in his conscience, his earthly punishment was over; and the story of his past crime would never be known to the living world of men. One sinner,—one sufferer among many millions, he was but a floating straw on the vast whirlpools of Time,—and whether he prayed for pardon and obtained it, whether he had worked out his own salvation or had lost it, may not be known of him, or of any of us, till God makes up the sum of life, in which perchance none of even the smallest numerals shall be found missing!
Wilder grew the night, and more tempestuous the sea, while the sky became a mountainous landscape of black and white clouds fitfully illumined by the moon, which appeared to run over their fleecy pinnacles and sable plains like some scared white creature pursued by invisible foes: The vessel on which the corpse of Lotys lay, palled in purple, and decked with flowers, flew over the waves, to all seeming with the same hunted rapidity as the moon rushed through the heavens,— and so far, though her masts bent reed-like in the wind, and her sails strained at their cordage, she had come to no harm. Tossed about as she was, rudderless and solitary, there was something almost miraculous in the way she had weathered a storm in which many a well-guided ship must inevitably have gone down. The purple pall with its heavy fringe of gold, that shrouded the coffin she carried, was drenched through and through by the sea, and the flowers on the deck were beaten and drowned in the salt spray that dashed over them.
But amid all the ruined blossoms of earth, by the side of the dead, and full-fronted to the tempest, stood one living man, for whom life had no charm, and death no terror—the King! What had been reported of him was true—he had resigned his Throne and left his kingdom for the sake of adventuring forth on this great voyage of Discovery,—this swift and stormy sail with Lotys to the Land of the Unknown! Whether it was a madness, or a sick dream that fevered his blood, he knew not—but once the woman he loved was dead, every hope, every ambition in him died too—and he felt himself to be a mere corpse of clay, unwillingly dragged about by a passionate soul that longed, and strove, and fought in its shell for larger freedom. All his life, so to speak, save for the last few months, he had been a prisoner;—he had never, as he had himself declared, known the sweetness of liberty;—but for the sake of Lotys,—had she lived,—he would have been content to still wear the chains of monarchy, and would have endeavoured to accomplish such good as he might, and make such reforms as could possibly benefit his country. But, after all, it is only a 'possibility 'that any reforms will avail to satisfy any people long; and he was philosopher and student enough to know that whatsoever good one may endeavour to do for the wider happiness and satisfaction of the multitude, they are as likely as not to turn and cry out—"Thy good is our evil! Thy love to us is but thine own serving!"—and so turn and rend their best benefactors. With the loss of Lotys, he lost the one mainspring of faith and enthusiasm which would have helped him to match himself against his destiny and do battle with it. A great weariness seized upon him,—a longing for some wider scope of action than such futile work as that of governing, or attempting to govern, a handful of units whose momentary Order was bound, in a certain period of time to lapse into Disorder—then into Order again, and so on till the end of all.
Hence his resolve to sail the seas with Lotys to that 'other side of Death' of which she had spoken,—that 'other side' which an inward instinct told him was not Death, but Life! He could not of himself analyse the emotions which moved him. He could not take the measure of his grief; it was too wide and too painful. He might have said with Heine: "Go, prepare me a bier of strong wood, longer than the bridge at Mayence, and bring twelve giants stronger than the vigorous St. Christopher of Cologne Cathedral on the Rhine;—they will carry the coffin and fling it in the sea,—so large a coffin needs a large grave! Would you know why the bier must be so long and large? With myself, I lay there at the same time all my love and my sorrow!"
Sovereignty,—a throne,—a kingdom,—even an Empire—seemed poor without love to grace them. Had he never known the pure ideal passion, he would still have missed it;—but having known it—having felt its power environing him day and night with a holy and spiritual tenderness, he could not but follow it when it was withdrawn—follow it, ay, even into the realms of blackest night! Like the 'Pilgrim of Love,' delineated by one of the greatest painters in the world, he recked nothing of the darkness closing in,—of the pain and bewilderment of the road, which could only lead to interminable, inexplicable mystery;—he felt the hand of the great Angel upon him— the Angel of Love whom alone he cared to serve,—and if Love's way led to Death, why then Death would be surely as sweet as Love! A great and almost divine calm had taken possession of him from the moment he had fulfilled his intention of boarding the ship which carried away from him all that was mortal of the woman he had secretly idolised. The wild turbulence of Nature around him had only intensified his perfect content. He had pleased himself by taking care of the sleeping Lotys— such tender care! He had tried to shield her coffin from the onslaughts of the fierce waves; he had protected many of the funeral flowers from destruction, and had lifted the gold fringe of the purple pall many and many a time out of the drenching spray cast over it. There was a strange delight in doing this. Lotys knew! That was his chief reflection. And 'on the other side of Death,' as she had said, they would meet—and to that 'other side' they were sailing together with all the speed Heaven's own forces could give to their journey. Oh, that 'other side'! What brightness, what peace, what glory, what mutual comprehension, what deep and perfect and undisturbed love would be found there! He smiled as he watched the swollen and angry sea,—the rising billows shouldering each other and bearing each other down;—how much grander, how much more spiritual and near to God, he thought, was this conflict of the elements, than the petty wars of men!—their desires of conquest, their greed of gold, their thirst for temporal power!
"My Lotys!" he said aloud; "You knew the world! You knew the littleness of worldly ambition! You knew that there is only one thing worth living and dying for, and that is Love! Your heart was all love, my Lotys! Deprived of love for yourself, you gave all you had to those who needed it, and when you found my love for you might do me harm in the People's honour, you sacrificed your life! Alas, my Lotys! If you could but have realised that through you, and the love of you, I a King, who had long missed my vocation, could alone be truly worthy of sovereignty!"
He laid his hand on her coffin with a tender touch, as though to soothe its quiet occupant.
"My beloved!" he said, "We shall meet very soon!—very soon now! 'on the other side of death'—and God will understand,—and be pitiful!"
The storm now seemed to be at its height. The monstrous waves, as they arose to combat the frail vessel in her swift career, made a bellowing clamour, and once or twice the ship reeled and staggered, as though about to lurch forward and go under. But the King felt no fear,—no horror of his approaching fate. He watched the wild scene with interest, even with appreciation,—as an artist or painter might watch the changes in a landscape which he purposes immortalising. His past life appeared to him like a picture in a magic crystal,—blurred and uncertain,—a mist of shapes without decided meaning or colour. He thought of the beautiful cold Queen, his wife,—and wondered whether she would weep for his loss.
"Not she!"—and he almost smiled at the idea—"Perhaps there will be a ballad written about it—and she will listen, unchanged, unmoved—as she listened that night when her minstrels sang:
'We shall drift along till we both grow old— Looking back on the days that have passed us by, When "what might have been," can no longer be,— When I lost you and you lost me!'
That was a quaint song—and a true one! She will not weep!"
Then he went over in memory the various scenes of his life—brilliant, useless, and without results—when he was Heir-Apparent;—he thought of his two young sons, Rupert and Cyprian, who were as indifferent to him as young foals to their sire,—and anon, his mind turned more tenderly to his eldest-born, Prince Humphry, and the fair girl he had so boldly wedded,—the happy twain, who, returning homeward, would find the Throne ready for their occupancy, and a whole nation waiting to welcome them.
"God bless them both!" he said aloud, lifting his calm eyes to the wild heavens—"They have the one shield and buckler against all misfortune— Love! And I thank God that I have not the sin upon my conscience of having broken that shield away from them; or of having forced their young lives asunder! Wiser than I, they took their own way and kept it!—may they so keep it always!"
Then a thought of 'the People' came to him—the People who had latterly taken to idolising him, and making of him a hero greater than any monarch whose deeds have ever been glorified since history began.
"They will forget!" he said—"Nowadays Nations have short memories! Battles and conquests, defeats and victories pass over the national mind as rapidly and changefully as the clouds are flying over the sky to-night!—the People remember neither their disgraces nor their triumphs in the life of individual Self which absorbs each little unit. Their idolatry of one monarch quickly changes to their idolatry of another! I shall perhaps be regretted for six months as my father was— and then—consigned with my ancestors to oblivion! Nothing so beautiful or so gladdening to the heart of a Monarch as the love of his People!— but—at the same time—nothing so changeable or uncertain as such love!—nothing so purely temporal! And nothing so desperately sad, so irremediably tragic as the death of kings!"
Rapidly he reviewed the situation—the new Ministry, the new Government members were elected—and business would begin again immediately after the Crown Prince's return. All the reforms he had been prepared to carry out, would be effected,—and then would come the new King's Coronation. What a dazzling picture of resplendent beauty would be seen in Gloria, robed and crowned! His heart beat rapidly at the mere contemplation of it. For himself he had no thought—save to realise that the strange manner of his disappearance from his kingdom would probably only awaken a sense of resentment in 'society,' and a vague superstition among the masses, who would for a long time cling to the belief that he was not dead, but that like King Arthur he had only gone to the 'island valley of Avillion' to "heal him of his grievous wound,"—from which deep vale of rest he would return, rejoicing in his strength again. Sergius Thord would know the truth—for to Sergius Thord he had written the truth. And the letter would reach him this very night—this night of his last earthly voyage.
"When his great sorrow has abated," he said, "he too will forget! He has all his work to do—all his career to make—and he will make it well and nobly! Even for his sake, and for his future, it is well that I am gone—for if he ever came to know,—if he were to guess even remotely, through Zouche's ravings, or some other means, the reason why Lotys killed herself, he would hate me,—and with justice! He loves the People—he will serve their Cause better than I!"
The moon stared whitely out of a cloud just then,—and to his amazement and awe, he suddenly perceived the black shadow of a man lifting itself slowly, slowly from the hold of the ship, like a massive bulk, or ghost in the gloom. Unable to imagine what this might be, or how any other human creature save himself would venture to sail with the dead on a voyage whose end could be but destruction, he advanced a step towards that looming shape, and started back with a cry, as he recognised the very man he had been thinking of—Sergius Thord!
"Sergius!" he cried aghast.
"King!" and Thord looked scarcely human in the pale fleeting moonbeams, as he too stared in half-maddened wonder at the face and form of a companion on this dread journey such as he had never expected to see. "What do you here in the midst of the sea and the storm? You should be at home!—playing the fool in your Palace!—giving audiences on your throne!—you—you have no right to die with Lotys, whom I loved!"
"With Lotys whom you loved!" echoed the King; "You loved her—true! But I loved her more!"
"You lie!" said Thord, furiously; "No man—no King,—no Emperor of all the world, could ever have loved Lotys as I loved her! These great waves waiting to devour us—dead and living together—are not more insatiate in their passion for us than I in my passion for Lotys! I loved her!—and when she scorned me—when she rejected me,—when she openly confessed that she loved you—the King—what remained for her but death! Death, rather than dishonour at your Royal hands, Sir!" And he laughed fiercely—a laugh with the ring of madness in it. "I rescued her as a child from starvation and misery—and so I may say I gave her her life. What I gave, I took again—I had the right to take it! I would not see her shamed by you—dishonoured by you—branded by you!—I did the only thing left to me to save her from you—I killed her!"
With a loud cry the King, no longer so much king as man, with every passion roused, sprang at him.
"You killed her? Oh, treacherous devil! They said she killed herself!"
"Hands off!" cried Thord, suddenly pointing a pistol at him; "I will shoot you as readily as I shot her if you touch me! She killed herself you think? Oh, yes—in a strange way! Her last words were: 'Say I did it myself! Tell the King I did it myself!' A lie! All women are fond of lying. But her lie was to protect Me! Her last thought was for my defence,—not yours! Her last wish was to save Me, not you!—King though you are—lover though you craved to be! I say I murdered her! This is my Day of Fate,—the day on which it seems that Heaven itself has drawn lots with me to kill a King! Why did I ever relax my hate of you? It was inborn in me—a part of me,—my very life, the utmost portion of my work! I called you friend;—I curse myself that I ever did so!—for from the first you were my enemy—my rival in the love of Lotys! What did I care for the People? What did you? We were both at one in the love of the same woman! And now I am here to die with her alone! Alone, I say—do you hear me? I will be alone with her to the last—you shall not share with us in our sea burial! I will die beside her,—all, all alone!—and drift out with her to the darkness of the grave, to meet my fate with her—always with her,—whether her spirit lead me to Hell or to Heaven!"
His insensate frenzy was so desperate, so terrible, that by its very force the strange mental composure of the King became intensified. Quietly folding his arms, he took his stand by the coffin of the dead in silence. The dashing spray that leaped at the masts of the vessel,— the wind that scooped up the billows into higher and higher pinnacles of emerald green, might have been soundless and powerless, for all he seemed to hear or to heed.
"Why are you with us?" cried Thord again—"How came you on this ship, where I thought I had hidden myself alone with her, voyaging to Death? Could you not have left her to me?—you who have a throne and kingdom —I, to whom she was all my life!"
"I came—as you have come"—answered the King—"to die with her—or rather not to die, but to find Life with her! She loved me!"
With a savage curse, Thord raised the pistol he held. The King looked him full in the eyes.
"Take good aim, Sergius!" he said tranquilly—"For here between us lies Lotys—the silent witness of your deed! Go hence, if you must, with two murders on your soul! There is no escape from death for either you or me, take it how we may;—and I care not at all how I meet it, whether at your hands or in the waves of the sea! Give me the same death you gave to Lotys! I ask no better end! For so at least shall we meet more quickly!"
Half choked with his fury, Thord looked at him with fixed and glassy eyes. He was jealous of death!—jealous that death should of itself seem to reunite Lotys and the man she had loved more closely together! Standing erect by the purple pall that covered the one woman of the world to them both, the King looked 'every inch a king,'—the incarnation of pride, love, resolve and courage. With a sudden wild- beast cry, Thord sprang at him and caught his arm with one hand, the pistol grasped in the other.
"Too near!" he gasped; "You shall not stand too near her!—you shall not die so close to her!—you shall not have the barest chance of resting where she sleeps!"
He fell back, as the King's calm eyes regarded him steadfastly, imperiously, almost commandingly, without a trace of fear. He trembled.
"Do not look so!" he muttered; "I cannot kill you!—not if you look so!—"
Raising the pistol, he took apparent aim. The King stood unmoved, only murmuring softly to himself: 'On the other side of Death, my Lotys!— On the other side!'
There was a loud report, a crash in his ears—then—as he staggered back, stunned by the shock, he saw that he was untouched, unhurt. Thord had turned the pistol against his own breast, and reeling backward, with a last supreme effort, dragged his sinking body to the vessel's edge.
"God save your Majesty!" he cried wildly; "Tell Lotys I did it myself! God knows that is true!"
The wild waves, clambering up over the deck rushed at him, and an enormous foam-crested billow, higher and stronger than all the rest, beat at the mast of the vessel and snapped it in twain. It came down, dragging the sail with it in a tangle of cordage, and with that sail the name of 'Lotys' inscribed upon it was whirled furiously out to sea. The body of the vessel, now netted in a mass of ropes and rigging, began to roll helplessly in the trough of the waves, and the corpse of Thord, sinking under it as it plunged, was swept away like a leaf in the storm! Gone, his wild heart and wilder brain!—gone his restless ambition,—gone his unsatisfied love—his fierce passions, his glimmerings of a noble nature which if trained and guided, might have worked to noblest ends. Like many would-be leaders of men, he could not lead himself—like many who seek to control law, and revolutionise the world, he had been unable to master his own desperate soul. He was not the first,—he will not be the last,—who for purely personal ends has sought to 'serve the People'! The disinterested, the impersonal and unselfish Leader has yet to come,—and if he ever does come, it is more than probable that those for whom he gives his life, will be the first to crucify his soul, and cry 'Thou hast a devil!'
Death was now sole commander of the ocean that night! And the King of a mere little earth-country, realised to the full that he stood irrevocably face to face with the last great Enemy of Empires. Yet never had he looked more truly imperial,—never more superbly the incarnation of life! A mighty exultation began to stir within him—a consciousness that he, despite all the terrors of the grave, would still come forth the conqueror! The waves, leaping at him, were friends, not foes,—the moon shedding ghostly glamours on the watery wilderness, smiled as though she knew that he would soon be a partaker in the secrets of all Nature, and solve the mystery of existence,— there was a singing in his ears as of voices triumphant, which swelled with the passion of a mighty anthem,—and with the quietest mind and calmest brain he found himself musing on life and death as if he were already a witness apart, of their strange phenomena. Thord's appearance on the same ship in which he and Lotys were passengers, seemed to him quite simple and natural,—Thord's death moved him to a certain grave compassion,—but the whole swift circumstance had been so dreamlike, that he had no time to think of it, or regret it,—and the only active consciousness his mind held was that he and Lotys were journeying to 'the other side';—that 'other side' which he now felt so near and sure, that he could almost declare he saw the living presence of the woman he loved arisen from the dead and standing near him!
The ocean widened out interminably, and he saw, looking ahead, a great heap of gigantic billows, leaping, sparkling, tossing, climbing over each other in the fitful light of the moon, like huge sea-monsters waiting to devour and engulf him. He smiled as he felt the yielding craft on which he stood swirl towards those breakers, and begin to part asunder,—so would he have smiled on a battlefield facing his foes, and fronted with fiery cannon! The glory of Empire,—the splendour of Sovereignty,—the pride and panoply of Temporal Power! How infinitely trivial seemed all these compared with the mighty force of a resistless love! How slight the boasted 'supremacy' of man with his laws and creeds, matched against the wrath of the conflicting sea,—the sure and swift approach of inexorable Death! Under the depths of the ocean which this ruler of a kingdom traversed for the last time, lay a lost Continent,—fallen dynasties—forgotten civilisations, wonderful and endless—kings and queens and heroes once famous—and now as blotted out of memory as though they had never been!
"If thou could'st see a thousand fathoms down, Thou would'st behold 'mid rock and shingle brown— The shapeless wreck of temple, tower and town,— The bones of Empires sleeping their last sleep, Their names as dead as if they never bore Crown or dominion!"
With keen and watchful eyes he measured the swiftly lessening distance between him and the glittering, tumbling whirlpool of waves—he felt the weight of the wind bearing against the drifting vessel—the end was very near! Standing by the dead Lotys, he prayed silently—prayed strangely,—in words borrowed from no Church formula, but as they came, straight from his heart—prayed that God might not be a Dream—that Love might not be a Snare—and Death might not be an End! So do we all pray when the last dread moment of dissolution comes—when no priest's assurance can comfort us—and when the greatest King in the world is but a poor ordinary human soul, ignorant and forlorn, shuddering on the verge of eternal Judgment!
A mountainous billow broke over the deck, half stunning him with the shock of its cold onslaught, and sweeping the coffin of Lotys almost over the edge of the vessel. He threw himself beside that dreary casket, fastening his own body with strong rope knotted many times, to its heavy leaden mass, resolved to sink with it painlessly, and without a struggle. So,—in perfect passiveness,—he awaited his end. Suddenly,—as if a bell had chimed in the distance, or a voice had sung some old familiar song in his ears,—he saw, clearly visioned in all the flying spray of the tempest a face!—not the face of Lotys—but a soft, childish, piteous little countenance, framed in curling tendrils of hair, with trusting sweet eyes, raised to his own in holiest, simplest confidence! So pure, so fair a face!—so pathetically loving!— where had he seen it before? All at once he remembered,—and sprang up with a sharp cry of pain. Why, why had this frail ghost of the past flown out of the darkness of sea and storm to confront him now? The ghost of his first young love!—the clinging, fond, credulous creature who had gone to her death uncomplainingly for his sake—with only the one little cry of farewell—'My love! Forgive me!' Why should he think of her?—why should he see her before him at this supreme moment when Death stared him in the face, and his spirit hovered on the edge of Infinity? "Vengeance is mine!—I will repay, saith the Lord!" His first love!—so lightly won—so cruelly betrayed! Tears rushed to his eyes,— he thought of the wrong done to a perfectly pure and blameless life—a wrong he had forgotten in all these years—till now!
"Oh God!" he cried aloud—"Forgive me! Forgive my weakness, my selfishness, my many wasted years! Let not her face forever come between thy redeeming Angel, Lotys, and my soul!"
The tumultuous breakers rushing now with a great swoop at the vessel, snatched and tore at him. He nerved himself to look again,—once again, and for the last time, across the great wilderness of warring waters! The moon now shone brightly,—the clouds were parting on either side of her, rolling up in huge masses, white and glistening as Alpine peaks of snow—the wind had not lessened, and the fury of the sea was still unabated. But the fair childish face had vanished,—and only the clear salt spray dashed in his eyes and blinded them,—only the salt waves clambered round him, drawing him towards them in a cold embrace!
"'On the other side,' my Lotys!" he said—"God be merciful to us both!— 'on the other side'!"
For one moment the breaking vessel paused shudderingly on the edge of the seething whirlpool of waves, which, meeting in a centre of tidal commotion, leaped at her, and began steadily to suck her down. For one moment the moonbeams fell purely on the calm upturned face of the King, who like others allied to him in kingship throughout history, had esteemed mere sovereignty valueless at the cost of Love! For kings,— though surrounded with flatterers and sycophants who seek to make them imagine themselves somewhat more than human,—are but men, with all men's vain sins and passions, mad weaknesses and wild dreams; and when they love, they love as foolishly as commoners,—and when they die, as die they must, there is no difference in the actual way of death than is known to a pauper. More gold and purple on the one side,—more straw and sackcloth on the other,—but the solemnity and equality of Death itself, is the same in both. And as this dying King well knew, the People care little who governs them, provided bread is cheap, and labour well paid. He is greatest who gives them most,—and he is the most applauded who allows them the most liberty of action! The personality, the complex nature, the character, the temptations, the mind-sufferings of a King, as man merely, are less than nothing to the multitude who run to follow and to cheer him. If he were once to complain, he would be condemned;—and if he asked from his crowding flatterers the bread of sympathy, they would give him but a stone!
The moon smiled—the stars flashed fitfully through the clouds,—and all through the length and breadth of ocean there seemed to come the sound of a great psalmody, rising and filling the air. It surged on the King's ears, as with hands clasped on the drenched lilies strewn over the sleeping Lotys, he welcomed the coming Unveiling of the Beyond! And then—the waters rose up, and caught living and dead together, and dragged them down with a triumphal rush and roar,—down, down to that grand Unconsciousness,—that sublime Pause in the chain of existence,— that longer Sleep, from which we shall wake refreshed and strong again,—ready to learn Where we have failed, Why we have loved, and How we have lost. But of things temporal there shall be no duration,— neither Sovereignty nor Supremacy, nor Power; only Love, which makes weak the strongest, and governs the proudest;—and of things eternal we know naught save that Love, always Love, is still the centre of the Universe, and that even to redeem the sins of the world, God Himself could find no surer way than through Love, born of Woman into Life.
* * * * *
Days passed,—and angry Ocean gradually smoothed out its frowning furrows, spreading a surface darkly-blue and peaceful, under a cloudless arch of sky. And one night,—when the moon, like a golden cup in heaven, emptied her sparkling wine of radiance over the gently heaving waves, a fair ship speeding swiftly with all the force of steam and sail, with flags fluttering from every mast, and sounds of music echoing from her lighted saloons, came flying over the billows like a glorious white-winged bird soaring to its home on an errand of joy. On her deck stood Gloria,—happily ignorant of all calamity,—watching with dreamy, thoughtful eyes the lessening lengths of sea between her and the land she loved. The Crown Prince, her husband,—now King, though he knew it not,—stood beside her;—his handsome face brightened by a smile which expressed his heart's elation, his soul's deep peace and inward content. Naught knew these wedded lovers of the strange reception awaiting them; of the half-mourning, half-rejoicing people,— of national flags suddenly veiled in crape,—of black funeral-streamers set distractedly amidst gay bridal garlands;—of a widowed Queen, broken-hearted and despairing, weeping vainly for the love she had so long misprized, and had learned too late to value,—of a Crown resigned,—of the lost Majesty and hero of a nation's idolatry;—of the death of Ronsard, and the inexplicable disappearance of the famous Socialist leader, Sergius Thord,—and of all the strange and tragic history of vanished lives, even to that of Sir Roger de Launay whom no man ever saw again,—which it fell to their faithful friend, Heinrich von Glauben to relate, with passionate grief and many tears. They knew nothing. They only saw home and the future before them, shining in bright hues of hope and promise; for Love was with them,—and through Love alone—love for the nation, love for the people, love for each other,—they purposed, God willing, to faithfully fulfil whatever destiny might be theirs, whether fortunate or disastrous! Thus minded, they could see no evil in the world,—no mischief,—no ominous crossings of Fate,—they had all earth and all heaven in each other! And the gay ship bearing them onward, danced over the smiling, singing, siren waves, as if she too had a human heart to feel and rejoice!—and in her swift course swept lightly over the very spot, now tranquil and radiant, where but a short while since, the body of Lotys had gone down, companioned by the King. Gloria leaning over the deck-rail looked dreamily into the sparkling water.
"The storm we met has left no trace!" she said; "It was but a passing hurricane!"
Her husband came to her side, and they stood together in silence. Sweet harmonies floating upwards from the saloon below, where a company of musicians and singers were stationed to charm the evenings of the Royal pair with 'sounds more dulcet than Heaven's own dulcimers' held them attentive. The tender tones of an undetermined melody rose and fell on the quiet air,—they listened, drawing closer and closer to each other, till it seemed as if but one heart beat between them,—as if but one Soul aspired,—Archangel-like,—from their two lives to Heaven! And Gloria, with a sigh of perfect happiness, murmured softly,—
"How beautiful the night! How calm the sea!"
So sped they onward,—with Love to steer them; with Love to bring them safely through the brief cloud of sorrow and wonder hanging over the kingdom to which they wended,—with Love to guide their lives through all difficulty and danger, and to give them all the good that Love alone can give! For whether the days be dark or bright,—whether tempest fills the air, or sunshine illumines the sky,—whether we are followed with fair blessing from friends, or pursued with the hate, envy and slander of injurious foes,—whether we drown by choice in tempestuous waters of passion, or float securely to the shores of peace,—whether our ships are bound for Death or for Life, we are safe in the hands of Love! And in the midst of what the world deems storm and wreckage, we can gaze into the deeper depths of God's meaning with trustful eyes, and sail on our voyage fearlessly,—on, even to the Grave and beyond it!—for with Love at the helm, how beautiful is the Night!—how calm the Sea!