"Rule6.—In the event of any member being selected to perform any deed involving personal danger or loss to himself, the rest of the members are pledged to shelter him from the consequences of his act, and to provide him with all the necessaries of life, till his escape from harm is ensured and his safety guaranteed."
"You have heard all now," said Thord, as he laid aside the parchment scroll; "Are you still willing to take the oath?"
"Entirely so!" rejoined Pasquin Leroy cheerfully; "You have but to administer it."
Here a man, who had been sitting in a dark corner apart from the table, with his head buried in his hands, suddenly looked up, showing a thin, fine, eager face, a pair of wild eyes, and a tumbled mass of dark curly hair, plentifully sprinkled with grey.
"Ah!" he cried,—"Now comes the tragic moment, when the spectators hold their breath, and the blue flame is turned on, and the man manages the lime-light so that its radiance shall fall on the face of the chief actor—or Actress! And the bassoons and 'cellos grumble inaudible nothings to the big drum! Administer the oath, Sergius Thord!"
A smile went the round of the company.
"Have you only just wakened up from sleep, Paul Zouche?" asked Zegota.
"I never sleep," answered Zouche, pushing his hair back from his forehead;—"Unless sleep compels me, by force, to yield to its coarse and commonplace persuasion. To lie down in a shirt and snore the hours away! Faugh! Can anything be more gross or vulgar! Time flies so quickly, and life is so short, that I cannot afford to waste any moment in such stupid unconsciousness. I can drink wine, make love, and kill rascals—all these occupations are much more interesting than sleeping. Come, Sergius! Play the great trick of the evening! Administer the oath!"
A frowning line puckered Thord's brows, but the expression of vexation was but momentary. Turning to Leroy again he said:
"You are quite ready?"
"Quite," replied Leroy.
"And your friends——?"
Leroy smiled. "They are ready also!"
There followed a pause. Then Thord called in a clear low tone—
The woman sitting in the embrasure of the window rose, and turning round fully confronted all the men. Her black cloak falling back on either side, disclosed her figure robed in dead white, with a scarlet sash binding her waist. Her face, pale and serene, was not beautiful; yet beauty was suggested in every feature. Her eyes seemed to be half closed in a drooping indifference under the white lids, which were fringed heavily with dark gold lashes. A sculptor might have said, that whatever claim to beauty she had was contained in the proud poise of her throat, and the bounteous curve of her bosom, but though in a manner startled by her appearance, the three men who had chanced upon this night's adventure were singularly disappointed in it. They had somehow expected that when that mysterious cloaked feminine figure turned round, a vision of dazzling beauty would be disclosed; and at the first glance there was nothing whatever about this woman that seemed particularly worthy of note. She was not young or old—possibly between twenty-eight or thirty. She was not tall or short; she was merely of the usual medium height,—so that altogether she was one of those provoking individuals, who not seldom deceive the eye at first sight by those ordinary looks which veil an extraordinary personality.
She stood like an automatic figure, rigid and silent,—till Sergius Thord signed to his three new associates to advance. Then with a movement, rapid as a flash of lightning, she suddenly drew a dagger from her scarlet girdle, and held it out to them. Nerved as he was to meet danger, Pasquin Leroy recoiled slightly, while his two companions started as if to defend him. As she saw this, the woman raised her drooping eyelids, and a pair of wonderful eyes shone forth, dark blue as iris-flowers, while a faint scornful smile lifted the corners of her mouth. But she said nothing.
"There is no cause to fear!" said Sergius Thord, glancing with a touch of derision in his looks from one to the other, "Lotys is the witness of all our vows! Swear now after me upon this drawn dagger which she holds,—lay your right hands here upon the blade!"
Thus adjured, Pasquin Leroy approached, and placed his right hand upon the shining steel.
"I swear in the name of God, and in the presence of Lotys, that I will faithfully work for the Cause of the Revolutionary Committee,—and that I will adhere to its rules and obey its commands, till all shall be done that is destined to be done! And may the death I deserve come suddenly upon me if ever I break my vow!"
Slowly and emphatically Pasquin Leroy repeated this formula after Sergius Thord, and his two companions did the same, though perhaps less audibly. This ceremony performed, the woman called Lotys looked at them steadfastly, and the smile that played on her lips changed from scorn to sweetness. The dark blue iris-coloured eyes deepened in lustre, and flashed brilliantly from under their drowsy lids,—a rosy flush tinted the clear paleness of her skin, and like a statue warming to life she became suddenly beautiful.
"You have sworn bravely!" she said, in a low thrilling voice. "Now sign and seal!"
As she spoke she lifted her bare left arm, and pricked it with the point of the dagger. A round, full drop of blood like a great ruby welled up on the white skin. All the men had risen from their places, and were gathered about her;—this 'taking of the oath' was evidently the dramatic event of their existence as a community.
"The pen, Sergius!" she said.
Thord approached with a white unused quill, and a vellum scroll on which the names of all the members of the Society were written in ominous red. He handed these writing implements to Leroy.
"Dip your pen here," said Lotys, pointing to the crimson drop on her arm, and eyeing him still with the same half-sweet, half-doubting smile—"But when the quill is full, beware that you write no treachery!"
For one second Leroy appeared to hesitate. He was singularly unnerved by the glances of those dark blue eyes, which like searchlights seemed to penetrate into every nook and cranny of his soul. But his recklessness and love of adventure having led him so far, it was now too late to retract or to reconsider the risks he might possibly be running. He therefore took the quill and dipped it into the crimson drop that welled from that soft white flesh.
"This is the strangest ink I have ever used!" he said lightly,—"but— at your command, Madame——!"
"At my command," rejoined Lotys, "your use of it shall make your oath indelible!"
He smiled, and wrote his name boldly 'Pasquin Leroy' and held out the pen for his companions to follow his example.
"Ach Gott!" exclaimed Max Graub, as he dipped the pen anew into the vital fluid from a woman's veins—"I write my name, Madame, in words of life, thanks to your condescension!"
"True!" she answered,—"And only by your own falsehood can you change them into words of death!"
Signing his name 'Max Graub,' he looked up and met her searching gaze. Something there was in the magnetic depth of her eyes that strangely embarrassed him, for he stepped back hastily as though intimidated. Axel Regor took the pen from his hand, and wrote his name, or rather scrawled it carelessly, almost impatiently,—showing neither hesitation nor repugnance to this unusual method of subscribing a document.
"You are acting on compulsion!" said Lotys, addressing him in a low tone; "Your compliance is in obedience to some other command than ours! And—you will do well to remain obedient!"
Axel Regor gave her an amazed glance,—but she paid no heed to it, and binding her arm with her kerchief, let her long white sleeve fall over it.
"So, you are enrolled among the sons of my blood!" she said, "So are you bound to me and mine!" She moved to the further end of the table and stood there looking round upon them all. Again the slow, sweet, half-disdainful smile irradiated her features. "Well, children!—what else remains to do? What next? What next can there be but drink—smoke —talk! Man's three most cherished amusements!"
She sat down, throwing back her heavy cloak on either side of her. Her hair had come partly unbound, and noticing a tress of it falling on her shoulder, she drew out the comb and let it fall altogether in a mass of gold-brown, like the tint of a dull autumn leaf, flecked here and there with amber. Catching it dexterously in one hand, she twisted it up again in a loose knot, thrusting the comb carelessly through.
"Drink—smoke—talk, Sergius!" she repeated, still smiling; "Shall I ring?"
Sergius Thord stood looking at her irresolutely, with the half-angry, half-pleading expression of a chidden child.
"As you please, Lotys!" he answered. Whereupon she pressed an invisible spring under the table, which set a bell ringing in some lower quarter of the house.
"Pasquin Leroy, Axel Regor, Max Graub!" she said—"Take your places for to-night beside me—newcomers are always thus distinguished! And all of you sit down! You are grouped at present like hungry wolves waiting to spring. But you are not really hungry, except for something which is not food! And you are not waiting for anything except for permission to talk! I give it to you—talk, children! Talk yourselves hoarse! It will do you good! And I will personate supreme wisdom by listening to you in silence!"
A kind of shamed laugh went round the company,—then followed the scuffling of feet, and grating of chairs against the floor, and presently the table was completely surrounded, the men sitting close up together, and Sergius Thord occupying his place at their head.
When they were all seated, they formed a striking assembly of distinctly marked personalities. There were very few mean types among them, and the stupid, half-vague and languid expression of the modern loafer or 'do nothing' creature, who just for lack of useful work plots mischief, was not to be seen on any of their countenances. A certain moroseness and melancholy seemed to brood like a delayed storm among them, and to cloud the very atmosphere they breathed, but apart from this, intellectuality was the dominant spirit suggested by their outward looks and bearing. Plebeian faces and vulgar manners are, unfortunately, not rare in representative gatherings of men whose opinions are allowed to sway the destinies of nations, and it was strange to see a group of individuals who were sworn to upset existing law and government so distinguished by refined and even noble appearance. Their clothes were shabby,—their aspect certainly betokened long suffering and contention with want and poverty, but they were, taken all together, a set of men who, if they had been members of a recognized parliament or senate, would have presented a fine collection of capable heads to an observant painter. As soon as they were gathered round the table under the presidency of Sergius Thord at one end, and the tranquil tolerance of the mysterious Lotys at the other, they broke through the silence and reserve which they had carefully maintained till their three new comrades had been irrecoverably enrolled among them, and conversation went on briskly. The topic of 'The King versus the Jesuits' was one of the first they touched upon, Sergius Thord relating for the benefit of all his associates, how he had found Pasquin Leroy reading by lamplight the newspaper which reported his Majesty's refusal to grant any portion of Crown lands to the priests, and which also spoke of 'Thord's Rabble.'
"Here is the paper!" said Leroy, as he heard the narration; "Whoever likes to keep it can do so, as a memento of my introduction to this Society!"
And he tossed it lightly on the table.
"Good!" exclaimed Paul Zouche; "Give it to me, and I will cherish it as a kind of birthday card! What a rag it is! 'Thord's Rabble' eh! Sergius, what have you been doing that this little flea of an editor should jump out of his ink-pot and bite you? Does he hurt much?"
"Hurt!" Thord laughed aloud. "If I had money enough to pay the man ten golden coins a week where his present employer gives him five, he would dance to any tune I whistled!"
"Is that so?" asked Leroy, with interest.
"Do you not know that it is so?" rejoined Thord. "You tell me you write Socialistic works—you should know something concerning the press."
"Ah!" said Max Graub, nodding his head sagely, "He does know much, but not all! It would need more penetration than even he possesses, to know all! Alas!—my friend was never a popular writer!"
"Like myself!" exclaimed Zouche, "I am not popular, and I never shall be. But I know how to make myself reputed as a great genius, and all the very respectable literary men are beginning to recognize me as such. Do you know why?"
"Because you drink more than is good for you, my poor Zouche!" said Lotys tranquilly; "That is one reason!"
"Hear her!" cried Zouche,—"Does she not always, like the Sphinx, propound enigmas! Lotys,—little, domineering Lotys, why in the name of Heaven should I secure recognition as a poet, through drunkenness?"
"Because your vice kills your genius," said Lotys; "Therefore you are quite safe! If you were less of a scamp you would be a great man,— perhaps the greatest in the country! That would never do! Your rivals would never forgive you! But you are a hopeless rascal, incapable of winning much honour; and so you are compassionately recognized as somebody who might do something if he only would—that is all, my Zouche! You are an excellent after-dinner topic with those who are more successful than yourself; and that is the only fame you will ever win, believe me!"
"Now by all the gods and goddesses!" cried Paul—"I do protest——"
"After supper, Zouche!" interrupted Lotys, as the door of the room opened, and a man entered, bearing a tray loaded with various eatables, jugs of beer, and bottles of spirituous liquors,—"Protest as much as you like then,—but not just now!"
And with quick, deft hands she helped to set the board. None of the men offered to assist her, and Leroy watching her, felt a sudden sense of annoyance that this woman should seem, even for a moment, to be in the position of a servant to them all.
"Can I do nothing for you?" he said, in a low tone—"Why should you wait upon us?"
"Why indeed!" she answered—"Except that you are all by nature awkward, and do not know how to wait properly upon yourselves!"
Her eyes had a gleam of mischievous mockery in them; and Leroy was conscious of an irritation which he could scarcely explain to himself. Decidedly, he thought, this Lotys was an unpleasant woman. She was 'extremely plain,' so he mentally declared, in a kind of inward huff,— though he was bound to concede that now and then she had a very beautiful, almost inspired expression. After all, why should she not set out jugs and bottles, and loaves of bread, and hunks of ham and cheese before these men? She was probably in their pay! Scarcely had this idea flashed across his mind than he was ashamed of it. This Lotys, whoever she might actually be, was no paid hireling; there was something in her every look and action that set her high above any suspicion that she would accept the part of a salaried comedienne in the Socialist farce. Annoyed with himself, though he knew not why, he turned his gaze from her to the man who had brought in the supper, —a hunchback, who, notwithstanding his deformity, was powerfully built, and of a countenance which, marked as it was with the drawn pathetic look of long-continued physical suffering, was undeniably handsome. His large brown eyes, like those of a faithful dog, followed every movement of Lotys with anxious and wistful affection, and Leroy, noticing this, began to wonder whether she was his wife or daughter? Or was she related in either of these ways to Sergius Thord? His reflections were interrupted by a slight touch from Max Graub who was seated next to him.
"Will you drink with these fellows?" said Graub, in a cautious whisper —"Expect to be ill, if you do!"
"You shall prescribe for me!" answered Leroy in the same low tone—"I faithfully promise to call in your assistance! But drink with them I must, and will!"
Graub gave a short sigh and a shrug, and said no more. The hunchback was going the round of the table, filling tall glasses with light Bavarian beer.
"Where is the little Pequita?" asked Zouche, addressing him—"Have you sent her to bed already, Sholto?"
Sholto looked timorously round till he met the bright reassuring glance of Lotys, and then he replied hesitatingly—
"Yes!—no—I have not sent the little one to bed;—she returned from her work at the theatre, tired out—quite tired out, poor child! She is asleep now."
"Ha ha! A few years more, and she will not sleep!" said Zouche—"Once in her teens—"
"Once in her teens, she leaves the theatre and comes to me," said Lotys, "And you will see very little of her, Zouche, and you will know less! That will do, Sholto! Good-night!"
"Good-night!" returned the hunchback—"I thank you, Madame!—I thank you, gentlemen!"
And with a slight salutation, not devoid of grace, he left the room.
Zouche was sulky, and pushing aside his glass of beer, poured out for himself some strong spirit from a bottle instead.
"You do not favour me to-night, Lotys," he said irritably—"You interrupt and cross me in everything I say!"
"Is it not a woman's business to interrupt and cross a man?" queried Lotys, with a laugh,—"As I have told you before, Zouche, I will not have Sholto worried!"
"Who worries him?" grumbled Zouche—"Not I!"
"Yes, you!—you worry him on his most sensitive point—his daughter," said Lotys;—"Why can you not leave the child alone? Sholto is an Englishman," she explained, turning to Pasquin Leroy and his companions —"His history is a strange one enough. He is the rightful heir to a large estate in England, but he was born deformed. His father hated him, and preferred the second son, who was straight and handsome. So Sholto disappeared."
"Disappeared!" echoed Leroy—"You mean——"
"I mean that he left his father's house one morning, and never returned. The clothes he wore were found floating in the river near by, and it was concluded that he had been drowned while bathing. The second son, therefore, inherited the property; and poor Sholto was scarcely missed; certainly not mourned. Meanwhile he went away, and got on board a Spanish trading boat bound for Cadiz. At Cadiz he found work, and also something that sweetened work—love! He married a pretty Spanish girl who adored him, and—as often happens when lovers rejoice too much in their love—she died after a year's happiness. Sholto is all alone in the world with the little child his Spanish wife left him, Pequita. She is only eleven years old, but her gift of dancing is marvellous, and she gets employment at one of the cheap theatres here. If an influential manager could see her performance, she might coin money."
"The influential manager would probably cheat her," said Zouche,— "Things are best left alone. Sholto is content!"
"Are you content?" asked Johan Zegota, helping himself from the bottle that stood near him.
"I? Why, no! I should not be here if I were!"
"Discontent, then, is your chief bond of union?" said Axel Regor, beginning to take part in the conversation.
"It is the very knot that ties us all together!" said Zouche with enthusiasm.—"Discontent is the mother of progress! Adam was discontented with the garden of Eden,—and found a whole world outside its gates!"
"He took Eve with him to keep up the sickness of dissatisfaction," said Zegota; "There would certainly have been no progress without her!"
"Pardon,—Cain was the true Progressivist and Reformer," put in Graub; "Some fine sentiment of the garden of Eden was in his blood, which impelled him to offer up a vegetable sacrifice to the Deity, whereas Abel had already committed murder by slaying lambs. According to the legend, God preferred the 'savour' of the lambs, so perhaps,—who knows!—the idea that the savour of Abel might be equally agreeable to Divine senses induced Cain to kill him as a special 'youngling.' This was a Progressive act,—a step beyond mere lambs!"
Everyone laughed, except Sergius Thord. He had fallen into a heavy, brooding silence, his head sunk on his breast, his wild hair falling forward like a mane, and his right hand clenched and resting on the table.
"Sergius!" called Lotys.
He did not answer.
"He is in one of his far-away moods,"—said one of the men next to Axel Regor,—"It is best not to disturb him."
Paul Zouche, however, had no such scruples. "Sergius!" he cried,—"Come out of your cloud of meditation! Drink to the health of our three new comrades!"
All the members of the company filled their glasses, and Thord, hearing the noise and clatter, looked up with a wild stare.
"What are you doing?" he asked slowly;—"I thought some one spoke of Cain killing Abel!"
"It was I," said Graub—"I spoke of it—irreverently, I fear,—but the story itself is irreverent. The notion that 'God,' should like roast meat is the height of blasphemy!"
Zouche burst into a violent fit of laughter. But Thord went on talking in a low tone, as though to himself.
"Cain killing Abel!" he repeated—"Always the same horrible story is repeated through history—brother against brother,—blood crying out for blood—life torn from the weak and helpless body—all for what? For a little gold,—a passing trifle of power! Cain killing Abel! My God, art Thou not yet weary of the old eternal crime!"
He spoke in a semi-whisper which thrilled through the room. A momentary hush prevailed, and then Lotys called again, her voice softened to a caressing sweetness.
He started, and shook himself out of his reverie this time. Raising his hand, he passed it in a vague mechanical way across his brow as though suddenly wakened from a dream.
"Yes, yes! Let us drink to our three new comrades," he said, and rose to his feet. "To your health, friends! And may you all stand firm in the hour of trial!"
All the company sprang up and drained their glasses, and when the toast was drunk and they were again seated, Pasquin Leroy asked if he might be allowed to return thanks.
"I do not know," he said with a courteous air, "whether it is permissible for a newly-enrolled associate of this Brotherhood to make a speech on the first night of his membership,—but after the cordial welcome I and my comrades, strangers as we are, have received at your hands, I should like to say a few words—if, without breaking any rules of the Order, I may do so."
"Hear, hear!" shouted Zouche, who had been steadily drinking for the last few moments,—"Speak on, man! Whoever heard of a dumb Socialist! Rant—rant! Rant and rave!—as I do, when the fit is on me! Do I not, Thord? Do I not move you even to tears?"
"And laughter!" put in Zegota. "Hold your tongue, Zouche! No other man can talk at all, if you once begin!"
Zouche laughed, and drained his glass.
"True!—my genius is of an absorbing quality! Silence, gentlemen! Silence for our new comrade! 'Pasquin' stands for the beginning of a jest—so we may hope he will be amusing,—'Leroy' stands for the king, and so we may expect him to be non-political!"
THE KING'S DOUBLE
As Leroy rose to speak, there was a little commotion. Max Graub upset his glass, and seemed to be having a struggle under the table with Axel Regor.
"What ails you?" said Leroy, glancing at his friends with an amazed air—"Are you quarrelling?"
"Quarrelling!" echoed Max Graub, "Why, no—but what man will have his beer upset without complaint? Tell me that!"
"You upset it!" said Regor angrily—"I did not."
"You did!" retorted Graub, "and because I pushed you for it, you showed me a pistol in your pocket! I object to be shown a pistol. So I have taken it away. Here it is!" and he laid the weapon on the table in front of him.
A look of anger darkened Leroy's brows.
"I was not aware you carried arms," he said coldly.
Sergius Thord noticed his annoyance.
"There is nothing remarkable in that, my friend!" he interposed—"We all carry arms,—there is not one of us at this table who has not a loaded pistol,—even Lotys is no exception to this rule."
"Now by my word!" said Graub, "I have no loaded pistol,—and I will swear Leroy is equally unarmed!"
"Entirely so!" said Leroy quietly—"I never suspect any man of evil intentions towards me."
As he said this, Lotys leaned forward impulsively and stretched out her hand,—a beautiful hand, well-shaped and white as a white rose petal.
"I like you for that!"—she said—"It is the natural attitude of a brave man!"
A slight colour warmed his bronzed skin as he took her hand, pressed it gently, and let it go again. Axel Regor looked up defiantly.
"Well, I do suspect every man of evil intentions!" he said, "So you may all just as well know the worst of me at once! My experience of life has perhaps been exceptionally unpleasant; but it has taught me that as a rule no man is your friend till you have made it worth his while!"
"By favours bestowed, or favours to come?" queried Thord, smiling,— "However, without any argument, Axel Regor, I am inclined to think you are right!"
"Then a weapon is permissible here?" asked Graub.
"Not only permissible, but necessary," replied Thord. "As members of this Brotherhood we live always prepared for some disaster,—always on our guard against treachery. Comrades!" and raising his voice he addressed the whole party. "Lay down your arms, all at once and together!"
In one instant, as if in obedience to a military order, the table was lined on either side with pistols. Beside these weapons, there was a goodly number of daggers, chiefly of the small kind such as are used in Corsica, encased in leather sheaths. Pasquin Leroy smiled as he saw Lotys lay down one of those tiny but deadly weapons, together with a small silver-mounted pistol.
"Forewarned is forearmed!" he said gaily;—"Madame, if I ever offend, I shall look to you for a happy dispatch! Gentlemen, I have still to make my speech, and if you permit it, I will speak now,—unarmed as I am,— with all these little metal mouths ready to deal death upon me if I happen to make any observation which may displease you!"
"By Heaven! A brave man!" cried Zouche; "Thord, you have picked up a trump card! Speak, Pasquin Leroy! We will forgive you, even if you praise the King!"
Leroy stood silent for a moment, as if thinking. His two companions looked up at him once or twice in unquestionable alarm and wonderment, but he did not appear to be conscious of their observation. On the contrary, some very deeply seated feeling seemed to be absorbing his soul,—and it was perhaps this suppressed emotion which gave such a rich vibrating force to his accents when he at last spoke.
"Friends and Brothers!" he said;—"It is difficult for one who has never experienced the three-fold sense of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity until to-night, to express in the right manner the sense of gratitude which I, a complete stranger to you, feel for the readiness and cordiality of the welcome you have extended to me and my companions, accepting us without hesitation, as members of your Committee, and as associates in the work of the Cause you have determined to maintain. It is an Ideal Cause,—I need not tell you that! To rescue and protect the poor from the tyranny of the rich and strong, was the mission of Christ when He visited this earth; and it would perhaps be unwise on my part, and discouraging to yourselves, to remind you that even He has failed! The strong, the selfish, and the cruel, still delight in oppressing their more helpless fellows, despite the theories of Christianity. And it is perfectly natural that it should be so, seeing that the Christian Church itself has become a mere system of money-making and self-advancement."
A burst of applause interrupted him. Eyes lightened with eager enthusiasm, and every face was turned towards him. He went on:—
"To think of the great Founder of a great Creed, and then to consider what his pretended followers have made of Him and His teaching, is sufficient to fill the soul with the sickness of despair and humiliation! To remember that Christ came to teach all men the Gospel of love,—and to find them after eighteen hundred years still preferring the Gospel of hate,—is enough to make one doubt the truth of religion altogether! The Divine Socialist preached a creed too good and pure for this world; and when we try to follow it, we are beaten back on all sides by the false conventionalities and customs of a sacerdotal system grown old in self-seeking, not in self-sacrifice. Were Christ to come again, the first thing He would probably do would be to destroy all the churches, saying: 'I never knew you: depart from me ye that work iniquity!' But till He does come again, it rests with the thinkers of the time to protest against wrongs and abuses, even if they cannot destroy them,—to expose falsehood, even if they cannot utterly undo its vicious work. Seeing, however, that the greater majority of men are banded on the side of wealth and material self- interest, it is unfortunately only a few who remain to work for the cause of the poor, and for such equal rights of justice as you—as we— in our present Association claim to be most worthy of man's best efforts. It may be asked by those outside such a Fraternity as ours,— 'What do they want? What would they have that they cannot obtain?' I would answer that we want to see the end of a political system full of bribery and corruption,—that we desire the disgrace and exposure of such men as those, who, under the pretence of serving the country, merely line their own coffers out of the taxes they inflict upon the people;—and that if we see a king inclined to favour the overbearing dominance of a political party governed by financial considerations alone,—a party which has no consideration for the wider needs of the whole nation, we from our very hearts and souls desire the downfall of that king!"
A low, deep murmur responded to his words,—a sound like the snarl of wolves, deep, fierce, and passionate. A close observer might perhaps have detected a sudden pallor on Leroy's face as he heard this ominous growl, and an involuntary clenching of the hand on the part of Axel Regor. Max Graub looked up.
"Ah so, my friends! You hate the King?"
No answer was vouchsafed to this query. The interruption was evidently unwelcome, all eyes being still fixed on Leroy. He went on tranquilly:
"I repeat—that wherever and whenever a king—any king—voluntarily and knowingly, supports iniquity and false dealing in his ministers, he lays himself open to suspicion, attack, and dethronement! I speak with particular feeling on this point, because, apart from whatever may be the thoughts and opinions of these who are assembled here to-night, I have a special reason of my own for hating the King! That reason is marked on my countenance! I bear an extraordinary resemblance to him, —so great indeed, that I might be taken for his twin brother if he had one! And I beg of you, my friends, to look at me long and well, that you make no error concerning me, for, being now your comrade, I do not wish to be mistaken for your enemy!"
He drew himself up, lifting his head with an air of indomitable pride and grace which well became him. An exclamation of surprise broke from all present, and Sergius Thord bent forward to examine his features with close attention. Every man at the table did the same, but none regarded him more earnestly or more searchingly than Lotys. Her wonderful eyes seemed to glow and burn with strange interior fires, as she kept them steadily fixed upon his face.
"Yes—you are strangely like the King!" she said—"That is,—so far as I am able to judge by his portraits and coins. I have never seen him."
"I have seen him,"—said Sergius Thord, "though only at a distance. And I wonder I did not notice the strange resemblance you bear to him before you called my attention to it. Are you in any way related to him?"
"Related to him!" Leroy laughed aloud. "No! If the late King had any bastard sons, I am not one of them! But I pray you again all to carefully note this hateful resemblance,—a resemblance I would fain rid me of—for it makes me seem a living copy of the man I most despise!"
There was a pause,—during which he stood quietly, submitting himself to the fire of a hundred wondering, questioning, and inquisitorial eyes without flinching.
"You are all satisfied?" he then asked; "You, Sergius Thord,—my chief and commander,—you, and all here present are satisfied?"
"Satisfied?—Yes!" replied Thord; "But sorry that your personality resembles that of a fool and a knave!"
A strange grimace distorted the countenance of Max Graub, but he quickly buried his nose and his expression together in a foaming glass of beer.
"You cannot be so sorry for me as I am for myself!" said Leroy, "And now to finish the few words I have been trying to say. I thank you from my heart for your welcome, and for the trust you have reposed in me and my companions. I am proud to be one of you; and I promise that you shall all have reason to be glad that I am associated with your Cause! And to prove my good faith, I undertake to set about working for you without a day's delay; and towards this object, I give you my word that before our next meeting something shall be done to shake the political stronghold of Carl Perousse!"
Sergius Thord sprang up excitedly.
"Do that," he said, "and were you a thousand times more like the King than you are, you shall be the first to command our service and honour!"
Loud acclamation followed his words, and all the men gathered close up about Leroy. He looked round upon them, half-smiling, half-serious.
"But you must tell me what to do!" he said. "You must explain to me why you consider Perousse a traitor, and how you think it best his treachery should be proved. For, remember, I am a stranger to this part of the country, and my accidental resemblance to the King does not make me his subject!"
"True!" said Paul Zouche,—his eyes were feverishly bright and his cheeks flushed—"To be personally like a liar does not oblige one to tell lies! To call oneself a poet does not enable one to write poetry! And to build a cathedral does not make one a saint! To know all the highways and byways of the Perousse policy, you must penetrate into the depths and gutter-slushes of the great newspaper which is subsidised by the party to that policy! And this is difficult—exceedingly difficult, let me assure you, my bold Pasquin! And if you can perform such a 'pasquinade' as shall take you into these Holy of Holy purlieus of mischief and money-making, you will deserve to be chief of the Committee, instead of Sergius! Sergius talks—he will talk your head off!—but he does nothing!"
"I do what I can,"—said Thord, patiently. "It is true I have no access to the centres of diplomacy or journalism. But I hold the People in the hollow of my hand!"
He spoke with deep and concentrated feeling, and the power of his soul looked out eloquently from the darkening flash of his eyes. Leroy studied his features with undisguised interest.
"If you thus hold the People," he said,—"Why not bid them rise against the evil and tyranny of which they have cause to complain?"
Thord shook his head.
"To rouse the People," he replied, "would be worse than to rouse a herd of starving lions from their forest dens, and give them freedom to slay and devour! Nay!—the time is not yet! All gentle means must be tried; and if these fail—why then—!"
He broke off, but his clenched hand and expressive glance said the rest.
"Why do you not use the most powerful of all the weapons ever invented for the destruction of one's enemies—the Pen?" asked Max Graub. "Start a newspaper, for example, and gibbet your particular favourite Carl Perousse therein!"
"Bah! He would get up a libel case, and advertise himself a little more by that method!" said Zegota contemptuously; "And besides, a newspaper needs unlimited capital behind it. We have no rich friends."
"Rich friends!" exclaimed Lotys suddenly; "Who speaks of them—who needs them? Rich friends expect you to toady to them; to lick the ground under their feet; to fawn and flatter and lie, and be anything but honest men! The rich are the vulgar of this world;—no one who has heart, or soul, or sense, would condescend to seek friendships among those whose only claim to precedence is the possession of a little more yellow metal than their neighbours."
"Nevertheless, they and their yellow metal are the raw material, which Genius may as well use to pave its way through life," said Zegota. "Lotys, you are too much of an idealist!"
"Idealist! And you call yourself a realist, poor child!" said Lotys with a laugh; "I tell you I would sooner starve than accept favour or assistance from the merely rich!"
"Of course you would!" said Zouche, "And is not that precisely the reason why you are set in dominion over us all? We men are not sure of ourselves—but—Heaven knows why!—we are sure of You! I suppose it is because you are sure of yourself! For example, we men are such wretched creatures that we cannot go long without our food,—but you, woman, can fast all day, and scorn the very idea of hunger. We men cannot bear much pain,—but you,—woman,—can endure suffering of your own without complaint, while attending to our various lesser hurts and scratches. Wherefore, just because we feel you are above us in this and many other things, we have set you amongst us as a warning Figurehead, which cries shame upon us if we falter, and reminds us that you, a woman, can do, and probably will do, what we men cannot. Imagine it! You would bear all things for love's sake!—and, frankly speaking, we would bear nothing at all, except for our own immediate and particular pleasure. For that, of course, we would endure everything till we got it, and then—pouf!—we would let it go again in sheer weariness and desire for something else! Is it not so, Sergius?"
"I am glad you know yourself so well!" said Thord gloomily. "Personally, I am not prepared to accept your theory."
"Men are children!" said Lotys, still smiling; "And should be treated as children always, by women! Come, little ones! To bed, all of you! It is growing late, and the rain has ceased."
She went to the window, and unbarring the shutters, opened it. The streets were wet and glistening below, but the clouds had cleared, and a pale watery moon shone out fitfully from the misty sky.
"Say good-night, and part;" she continued. "It is time! This day month we will meet here again,—and our new comrades will then report what progress they have made in the matter of Carl Perousse."
"Tell me," said Leroy, approaching her, "What would you do, Madame, if you had determined, on proving the corruption and falsehood of this at present highly-honoured servant of the State?"
"I should gain access to his chief tool, David Jost, by means of the Prime Minister's signet," said Lotys,—"If I could get the signet!— which I cannot! Nor can you! But if I could, I should persuade Jost to talk freely, and so betray himself. He and Carl Perousse move the Premier and the King whichever way they please."
"Is that so—?" began Leroy, when he was answered by a dozen voices at once:—
"The King is a fool!"
"The King is a slave!"
"The King accepts everything that is set before him as being rightly and wisely ordained,—and never enquires into the justice of what is done!"
"The King assumes to be the friend of the People, but if you ask him to do anything for the People, you only get the secretary's usual answer— 'His Majesty regrets that it is impossible to take any action in the matter'!"
"Wait!—wait!—" said Leroy, with a gesture which called for a moment's silence; "The question is,—Could the King do anything if he would?"
"I will answer that!" said Lotys, her eyes flashing, her bosom heaving, and her whole figure instinct with pride and passion; "The King could do everything! The King could be a man if he chose, instead of a dummy! The King could cease to waste his time on fools and light women!—and though he is, and must be a constitutional Monarch, he could so rule all social matters as to make them the better,—not the worse for his influence! There is nothing to prevent the King from doing his most kingly duty!"
Leroy looked at her for a moment in silence.
"Madame, if the King heard your words he might perhaps regret his many follies!" he said courteously;—"But where Society is proved worse, instead of better for a king's influence, is it not somewhat too late to remedy the evil? What of the Queen?"
"The Queen is queen from necessity, not from choice!" said Lotys;—"She has never loved her husband. If she had loved him, perhaps he might,— through her,—have loved his people more!"
There was a note of pathos in her voice that was singularly tender and touching. Anon, as if impatient with herself, she turned to Sergius Thord.
"We must disperse!" she said abruptly; "Daybreak will be upon us before we know it, and we have done no business at all this evening. To enrol three new associates is a matter of fifteen minutes; the rest of our time has been wasted!"
"Do not say so, Madame!" interposed Max Graub, "You have three new friends—three new 'sons of your blood,' as you so poetically call them,—though, truly, I for one am more fit to be your grandfather! And do you consider the time wasted that has been spent in improving and instructing your newly-born children?"
Lotys turned upon him with a look of disdain.
"You are a would-be jester;" she said coldly; "Old men love a jest, I know, but they should take care to make it at the right time, and in the right place. They should not play with edge-tools such as I am, though I suppose, being a German, you think little or nothing of women?"
"Madame!" protested Graub, "I think so much of women that I have never married! Behold me, an unhappy bachelor! I have spared any one of your beautiful sex from the cruel martyrdom of having to endure my life-long company!"
She laughed—a pretty low laugh, and extended her hand with an air of queenly condescension.
"You are amusing!" she said,—"And so I will not quarrel with you! Good-night!"
"Auf wiedersehn!" and Graub kissed the white hand he held. "I shall hope you will command me to be of service to you and yours, ere long!"
"In what way, I wonder," she asked dubiously; "What can you do best? Write? Speak? Or organize meetings?"
"I think," said Graub, speaking very deliberately, "that of all my various accomplishments, which are many—as I shall one day prove to you—I can poison best!"
The exclamation broke simultaneously from all the company. Graub looked about him with a triumphant air.
"Ah so,—I know I shall be useful," he said; "I can poison so very beautifully and well! One little drop—one, little microbe of mischief—and I can make all your enemies die of cholera, typhoid, bubonic plague, or what you please! I am what is called a Christian scientific poisoner—that is a doctor! You will find me a most invaluable member of this Brotherhood!"
He nodded his head wisely, and smiled. Sergius Thord laid one hand heavily on his shoulder.
"We shall find you useful, no doubt!" he said, "But mark me well, friend! Our mission is not to kill, but to save!—not to poison, but to heal! If we find that by the death of one traitor we can save the lives of thousands, why then that traitor must die. If we know that by killing a king we destroy a country's abuses, that king is sent to his account. But never without warning!—never without earnest pleading that he whom the laws of Truth condemn, may turn from the error of his ways and repent before it is too late. We are not murderers;—we are merely the servants of justice."
"Exactly!" put in Paul Zouche; "You understand? We try to be what God is not,—just!"
"Blaspheme not, Zouche!" said Thord; "Justice is the very eye of God!— the very centre and foundation of the universe."
Zouche laughed discordantly.
"Excellent Sergius! Impulsive Sergius!—with big heart, big head and no logic! Prove to me this eternal justice! Where does it begin? In the creation of worlds without end, all doomed to destruction, and therefore perfectly futile in their existence? In the making of man, who lives his little day with the utmost difficulty, pain and struggle, and is then extinguished, to be heard of no more? The use of it, my Sergius!—point out the use of it! No,—there is no man can answer me that! If I could see the Creator, I would ask Him the question personally—but He hides Himself behind the great big pendulum He has set swinging—tick—tock!—tick—tock! Life—Death!—Life—Death!—and never a reason why the clock is set going! And so we shall never have justice,—simply because there is none! It is not just or reasonable to propound a question to which there is no answer; it is not just or reasonable to endow man with all the thinking powers of brain, and all the imaginative movements of mind, merely to turn him into a pinch of dust afterwards. Every generation, every country strives to get justice done, but cannot,—merely for the fact that God Himself has no idea of it, and therefore it is naturally lacking in His creature, man. Our governing-forces are plainly the elements. No Divine finger stops the earthquake from engulfing a village full of harmless inhabitants, simply because of the injustice of such utter destruction! See now!— look at the eyes of Lotys reproaching me! You would think they were the eyes of an angel, gazing at a devil in the sweet hope of plucking him out of hell!"
"Such a hope would be vain in your case, Zouche," said Lotys tranquilly; "You make your own hell, and you must live in it! Nevertheless, in some of the wild things you say, there is a grain of truth. If I were God, I should be the most miserable of all beings, to look upon all the misery I had myself created! I should be so sorry for the world, that I should put an end to all hope of immortality by my own death."
She made this strange remark with a simplicity and wistfulness which were in striking contrast to the awful profundity of the suggestion, and all her auditors, including the half-tipsy Zouche, were silent.
"I should be so sorry!" she repeated; "For even as a mortal woman my pity for the suffering world almost breaks my heart;—but if I were God, I should have all the griefs of all the worlds I had made to answer for,—and such an agony would surely kill me. Oh,—the pain, the tears, the mistakes, the sins, the anguish of humanity! All these are frightful to me! I do not understand why such misery should exist! I think it must be that we have not enough love in the world; if we only loved each other faithfully, God might love us more!"
Her eyes were wet; she caught her breath hard, and smiled a little difficult smile. Something in her soul transfigured her face, and made it for the moment exquisitely lovely, and the men around her gazed at her in evidently reverential silence. Suddenly she stretched out both her hands:
One by one the would-be-fierce associates of the Revolutionary Committee bent low over those fair hands; and then quietly saluting Sergius Thord, as quietly left the room, like schoolboys retiring from a class where the lessons had been more or less badly done. Paul Zouche was not very steady on his feet, and two of his comrades assisted him to walk as he stumbled off, singing somewhat of a ribald rhyme in mezza-voce. Pasquin Leroy and his two friends were the last to go. Lotys looked at them all three meditatively.
"You will be faithful?" she said.
"Unto death!" answered Leroy.
She came close up to him, placing one hand on his arm, and glanced meaningly towards Sergius Thord, who was standing at the threshold watching Zouche stumbling down the dark stairs.
"Sergius is a good man!" she said; "One of the mistaken geniuses of this world,—savage as a lion, yet simple as a child! Whoever, and whatever you are, be true to him!"
"He is dear to you?" said Leroy on a sudden impulse, catching her hand; "He is more to you than most men?"
She snatched away her hand, and her eyes lightened first with wrath, then with laughter.
"Dear to me!" she echoed,—"to Me? No one man on earth is dearer to me than another! All are alike in my estimation,—all the same barbaric, foolish babes and children—all to be loved and pitied alike! But Sergius Thord picked me out of the streets when I was no better than a stray and starving dog,—and like a dog I serve him—faithfully! Now go!"
She stretched out her hand in an attitude of command, and there was nothing for it but to obey. They therefore repeated their farewells, and in their turn, went out, one by one, down the tortuous staircase. Sholto, the hunchback, was below, and he let them out without a word, closing and barring the door carefully behind them. Once in the street and under the misty moonlight, Pasquin Leroy nodded a careless dismissal to his companions.
"You will return alone?" enquired Max Graub.
"Quite alone!" was the reply.
"May I not follow you at a distance?" asked Axel Regor.
Leroy smiled. "You forget! One of the rules we have just sworn to conform to, is—'No member shall track, follow or enquire into the movements of any other member.' Go your ways! I will thank you both for your services to-morrow."
He turned away rapidly and disappeared. His two friends remained gazing somewhat disconsolately after him.
"Shall we go?" at last said Max Graub.
"When you please," replied Axel Regor irritably,—"The sooner the better for me! Here we are probably watched,—we had best go down to the quay, and from thence——"
He did not finish his sentence, but Graub evidently understood its conclusion—and they walked quickly away together in quite an opposite direction to that in which Leroy had gone.
Meanwhile, up in the now closed and darkened house they had left behind them, Lotys stood looking at Sergius Thord, who had thrown himself into a chair and sat with his elbows resting on the table, and his head buried in his hands.
"You make no way, poor Sergius!" she said gently. "You work, you write, you speak to the people, but you make no way!"
He looked up fiercely.
"I do make way!" he said; "How can you doubt it? A word from me, and the massed millions would rise as one man!"
"And of what use would that be?" enquired Lotys. "The soldiers would fire on the people, and there would be riot and bloodshed, but no actual redress for wrong. You work vainly, Sergius!"
"If I could but kill the King!" he muttered.
"Another king would succeed him," she said. "And after all, if you only knew it, the King may be a miserable man enough—far more miserable, perhaps, than any of us imagine ourselves to be. No, Sergius!—I repeat it, you work vainly! You have made me the soul of an Ideal which you will never realise? Tell me, what is it you yourself would have, out of all your work and striving?"
He looked at her with great, earnest, burning eyes.
"Power!" he said. "Power to change the mode of government; power to put down the tyranny of priestcraft—power to relieve the oppressed, and reward the deserving—power to make of you, Lotys, a queen among women!"
"I am a queen among men, Sergius, and that suffices me! How often must I tell you to do nothing for my sake, if it is for my sake only? I am a very simple, plain woman, past my youth, and without beauty—I deserve and demand nothing!"
He raised himself, and stretched out his arms towards her with a gesture of entreaty.
"You deserve all that a man can give you!" he said passionately. "I love you, Lotys! I have always loved you ever since I found you a little forsaken child, shivering and weeping on the cold marble steps of the Temesvar place in Buda. I love you!—you know I have always loved you!—I have told you so a hundred times,—I love you as few men love women!"
She regarded him compassionately, and with a touch of wistful sorrow in her eyes. Her black cloak fell away on either side of her in two shadowy folds, disclosing her white-robed form and full bosom, like a pearl in a dark shell.
"Good-night, Sergius!" she said simply, and turned to go.
He gave an exclamation of anger and pain.
"That is all you say—'Good-night'!" he muttered. "A man gives you his heart, and you set it aside with a cold word of farewell! And yet—and yet—you hold all my life!"
"I am sorry, Sergius," she said, in a gentle voice; "very sorry that it is so. You have told me all this before; and I have answered you often, and always in the same way. I have no love to give you, save that which is the result of duty and gratitude. I do not forget!—I know that you rescued me from starvation and death—though sometimes I question whether it would not have been better to have let me die. Life is worth very little at its utmost best; nevertheless, I admit I have had a certain natural joy in living, and for that I have to thank you. I have tried to repay you by my service—"
"Do not speak of that," he said hurriedly; "I have done nothing! You are a genius in yourself, and would have made your way anywhere,— perhaps better without me."
She smiled doubtfully.
"I am not sure! The trick of oratory does not carry one very far,—not when one is a woman! Good-night again, Sergius! Try to rest,—you look worn out. And do not think of winning power for my sake; what power I need I will win for myself!"
He made no answer, but watched her with jealous eyes, as she moved towards the door. On the threshold she turned.
"Those three new associates of yours—are they trustworthy, think you?"
He gave a gesture of indifference.
"I do not know! Who is there we can absolutely trust save ourselves? That man, Leroy, is honest,—of that I am confident,—and he has promised to be responsible for his friends."
"Ah!" She paused a moment, then with another low breathed 'good-night' she left the room.
He looked at the door as it closed behind her—at the chair she had left vacant.
"Lotys!" he whispered.
His whisper came hissing softly back to him in a fine echo on the empty space, and with a great sigh he rose, and began to turn out the flaring lamps above his head.
"Power!—Power!" he muttered—"She could not resist it! She would never be swayed by gold,—but power! Her genius would rise to it—her beauty would grow to it like a rose unfolding in the sun! 'Past youth, and without beauty' as she says of herself! My God! Compare the tame pink- and-white prettiness of youth with the face of Lotys,—and that prettiness becomes like a cheap advertisement on a hoarding or a match- box! Contrast the perfect features, eyes and hair of the newest social 'beauty,'—with the magical expression, the glamour in the eyes of Lotys,—and perfection of feature becomes the rankest ugliness! Once in a hundred centuries a woman is born like Lotys, to drive men mad with desire for the unattainable—to fire them with such ambition as should make them emperors of the world, if they had but sufficient courage to snatch their thrones—and yet,—to fill them with such sick despair at their own incompetency and failure, as to turn them into mere children crying for love—for love!—only love! No matter whether worlds are lost, kings killed, and dynasties concluded, love!—only love!—and then death!—as all sufficient for the life of a man! And only just so long as love is denied—just so long we can go on climbing towards the unreachable height of greatness,—then—once we touch love, down we fall, broken-hearted; but—we have had our day!"
The room was now in darkness, save for the glimmer of the pale moon through the window panes, and he opened the casement and looked out. There was a faint scent of the sea on the air, and he inhaled its salty odour with a sense of refreshment.
"All for Lotys!" he murmured. "Working for Lotys, plotting, planning, scheming for Lotys! The government intimidated,—the ministry cast out,—the throne in peril,—the people in arms,—the city in a blaze,— Revolution and Anarchy doing their wild work broad-cast together,— all for Lotys! Always a woman in it! Search to the very depth of every political imbroglio,—dig out the secret reason of every war that ever was begun or ended in the world,—and there we shall find the love or the hate of a woman at the very core of the business! Some such secrets history knows, and has chronicled,—and some will never be known,—but up to the present there is not even a religion in the world where a Woman is not made the beginning of a God!"
He smiled somewhat grimly at his own fanciful musings, and then, shutting the window, retired. The house was soon buried in profound silence and darkness, and over the city tuneful bells rang the half- hour after midnight. Four miles distant from the 'quarter of the poor,' and high above the clustering houses of the whole magnificent metropolis, the Royal palace towered whitely on its proud eminence in the glimmer of the moon, a stately pile of turrets and pinnacles; and on the battlements the sentries walked, pacing to and fro in regular march, with regular changes, all through the night hours. Half after midnight! 'All's well!' Three-quarters, and still 'All's well' sounded with the clash of steel and a tinkle of silvery chimes. One o'clock struck,—and the drifting clouds in heaven cleared fully, showing many brilliant stars in the western horizon,—and a sentry passing, as noiselessly as his armour and accoutrements would permit, along the walled battlement which protected and overshadowed the windows of the Queen's apartments, paused in his walk to look with an approving eye at the clearing promise of the weather. As he did so, a tall figure, wrapped in a thick rain-cloak, suddenly made its unexpected appearance through a side door in the wall, and moved rapidly towards a turret which contained a secret passage leading to the Queen's boudoir,—a private stairway which was never used save by the Royal family. The sentry gave a sharp warning cry.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
The figure paused and turned, dropping its cloak. The pale moonlight fell slantwise on the features, disclosing them fully.
"T is I! The King!"
The soldier recoiled amazed,—and quickly saluted. Before he could recover from his astonishment he was alone again. The battlement was empty, and the door to the turret-stairs,—of which only the King possessed the key,—was fast locked; and for the next hour or more the startled sentry remained staring at the skies in a sort of meditative stupefaction, with the words still ringing like the shock of an alarm- bell in his ears:
"'T is I! The King!"
THE PREMIER'S SIGNET
The next day the sun rose with joyous brightness in a sky clear as crystal. Storm, wind, and rain had vanished like the flying phantoms of an evil dream, and all the beautiful land sparkled with light and life in its enlacing girdle of turquoise blue sea. The gardens of the Royal palace, freshened by the downpour of the past night, wore their most enchanting aspect,—roses, with leaves still wet, dropped their scented petals on the grass,—great lilies, with their snowy cups brimming with rain, hung heavily on their slim green stalks, and the air was full of the deliciously penetrating odour of the mimosa and sweetbriar. Down one special alley, where the white philadelphus, or 'mock orange' grew in thick bushes on either side, intermingled with ferns and spruce firs, whose young green tips exhaled a pungent, healthy scent that entered into the blood like wine and invigorated it, Sir Roger de Launay was pacing to and fro with a swinging step which, notwithstanding its ease and soldierly regularity, suggested something of impatience, and on a rustic seat, above which great clusters of the philadelphus-flowers hung like a canopy, sat Professor von Glauben, spectacles on nose, sorting a few letters which he had just taken from his pocket for the purpose of reading them over again carefully one by one. He was a very particular man as regarded his correspondence. All letters that required answering he answered at once,—the others, as he himself declared, 'answered themselves' in silence.
"There is no end to the crop of fools in this world," he was fond of saying;—"Glorious, precious fools! I love them all! They make life worth living—but sometimes I am disposed to draw the line at letter- writing fools. These persons chance to read a book—my book for example,—that particularly clever one I wrote on the possibilities of eternal life in this world. They at once snatch their pens and write to say that they are specially deserving of this boon, and wish to live for ever—will I tell them how? And these are the very creatures I will not tell how—because their perpetual existence would be a mistake and a nuisance! The individuals whose lives are really valuable never ask anyone how to make them so."
He looked over his letters now with a leisurely indifference. The morning's post had brought him nothing of special importance. He glanced from his reading now and again at De Launay marching up and down, but said nothing till he had quite finished with his own immediate concerns. Then he removed his spectacles from his nose and put them by.
"Left—Right—Left—Right—Left—Right! Roger, you remind me of my drilling days on a certain flat and dusty ground at Coblentz! The Rhine!—the Rhine! Ah, the beautiful Rhine! So dirty—so dull—with its toy castles, and its big, ugly factory chimneys, and its atrociously bad wine! Roger, I beseech you to have mercy upon me, and leave off that marching up and down,—it gets on my nerves!"
"I thought nothing ever got on your nerves," answered Sir Roger, stopping abruptly—"You seem to take serious matters coolly enough!"
"Serious matters demand coolness," replied Von Glauben. "We should only let steam out over trifles. Have you seen his Majesty this morning?"
"Yes. I am to see him again at noon."
"When do you go off duty?"
"Not for a month, at least."
"Much may happen in that month," said the Professor sententiously; "Your hair may grow white with the strangeness of your experiences!"
Sir Roger met his eyes, and they both laughed.
"Though it is no laughing matter," resumed Von Glauben. "Upon my soul as a German,—if I have any soul of that nationality,—I think it may be a serious business!"
"You have come round to my opinion then," said De Launay. "I told you from the first that it was serious!"
"The King does not think it so," rejoined Von Glauben. "I was summoned to his presence early this morning, and found him in the fullest health and highest spirits."
"Why did he send for you then?" enquired De Launay.
"To feel his pulse and look at his tongue! To make a little game of me before he stepped out of his dressing-gown! And I enjoyed it, of course,—one must always enjoy Royal pleasantries! I think, Roger, his Majesty wishes this entire affair treated as a pleasantry,—by us at any rate, however seriously he may regard it himself."
De Launay was silent for a minute or two, then he said abruptly:
"The Premier is summoned to a private audience of the King at noon."
"Ah!" And Von Glauben drew a cluster of the overhanging philadelphus flowers down to his nose and smelt them approvingly.
"And"—went on De Launay, speaking more deliberately, "this afternoon their Majesties sail to The Islands——"
Von Glauben jumped excitedly to his feet.
Sir Roger looked at him with a dawning amusement beginning to twinkle in his clear blue eyes.
"Quite possible! So possible, that the Royal yacht is ordered to be in readiness at three o'clock. Their Majesties and suite will dine on board, in order to enjoy the return sail by moonlight."
The Professor's countenance was a study. Anxiety and vexation struggled with the shrewd kindness and humour of his natural expression, and his suppressed feelings found vent in a smothered exclamation, which sounded very much like the worst of blasphemous oaths used in dire extremity by the soldiers of the Fatherland.
"What ails you?" demanded De Launay; "You seem strangely upset for a man of cool nerve!"
"Upset? Who—what can upset me? Nothing! Roger, if I did not respect you so much, I should call you an ass!"
Sir Roger laughed.
"Call me an ass, by all means," he said, "if it will relieve your feelings;—but in justice to me, let me know why you do so! What is my offence? I give you a piece of commonplace information concerning the movements of the Court this afternoon, and you jump off your seat as if an adder had bitten you. Why?"
"I have the gout," said Von Glauben curtly.
"Oh!" And again Sir Roger laughed. "That last must have been a sharp twinge!"
"It was—it was! Believe me, my excellent Roger, it was exceedingly severe!" His brow smoothed, and he smiled. "See here, my dear friend!— you know, do you not, that boys will be boys, and men will be men?"
"Both are recognised platitudes," replied Sir Roger, his eyes still twinkling merrily; "And both are frequently quoted to cover our various follies!"
"True, true! But I wish to weigh more particularly on the fact that men will be men! I am a man, Roger,—not a boy!"
"Really! Well, upon my word, I should at this moment take you for a raw lad of about eighteen,—for you are blushing, Von Glauben!—actually blushing!"
The Professor drew out a handkerchief, and wiped his brow.
"It is a warm morning, Roger," he said, with a mildly reproachful air; "I suppose I am permitted to feel the heat?" He paused—then with a sudden burst of impatience he exclaimed: "By the Emperor's head! It is of no use denying it—I am very much put out, Roger! I must get a boat, and slip off to The Islands at once!"
Sir Roger stared at him in complete amazement.
"You? You want to slip off to The Islands? Why, Von Glauben——!"
"Yes—yes,—I know! You cannot possibly imagine what I want to go there for! You wouldn't suppose, would you, that I had any special secrets— an old man like me;—for instance, you would not suspect me of any love secrets, eh?" And he made a ludicrous attempt to appear sentimental. "The fact is, Roger,—I have got into a little scrape over at The Islands—" here he looked warmer and redder than ever;—"and I want to take precautions! You understand—I want to take care that the King does not hear of it—Gott in Himmel! What a block of a man you are to stand there staring open-mouthed at me! Were you never in love yourself?
"In love? In love!—you,—Professor? Pray pardon me—but—in love? Am I to understand that there is a lady in your case?"
"Yes!—that is it," said Von Glauben, with an air of profound relief; "There is a lady in my case;—or my case, speaking professionally, is that of a lady. And I shall get any sort of a sea-tub that is available, and go over to those accursed Islands without any delay!"
"If the King should send for you while you are absent—" began De Launay doubtfully.
"He will not send. But if he should, what of it? I am known to be somewhat eccentric—particularly so in my love of hard work, fresh air and exercise—besides, he has not commanded my attendance. He will not, therefore, be surprised at my absence. I tell you, Roger,—I must go! Who would have expected the King to take it into his head to visit The Islands without a moment's warning! What a freak!"
"And here comes the reason of the freak, if I am not very much mistaken," said De Launay, lowering his voice as an approaching figure flung its lengthy shadow on the path,—"Prince Humphry!"
Von Glauben hastily drew back, De Launay also, to allow the Prince to pass. He was walking slowly, and reading as he came. Looking up from his book he saw, them, and as they saluted him profoundly, bade them good-day.
"You are up betimes, Professor," he said lightly; "I suppose your scientific wisdom teaches you the advantage of the morning air."
"Truly, Sir, it is more healthful than that of the evening," answered Von Glauben in somewhat doleful accents.—"For example, a sail across the sea with the morning breeze, is better than the same sort of excursion in the glamour of the moon!"
Prince Humphry looked steadfastly at him, and evidently read something of a warning, or a suggestion, in his face, for he coloured slightly and bit his lip.
"Do you agree with that theory, Sir Roger," he said, turning to De Launay.
"I have not tested it, Sir," replied the equerry, "But I imagine that whatever Professor von Glauben asserts must be true!"
The young man glanced quickly from one to the other, and then with a careless air turned over the pages of the book he held.
"In the earlier ages of the world," he said,—"men and women, I think, must have been happier than they are now, if this book may be believed. I find here written down—What is it, Professor? You have something to say?"
"Pardon me, Sir," said Von Glauben,—"But you said—'If this book may be believed.' I humbly venture to declare that no book may be believed!"
"Not even your own, when it is written?" queried the Prince with a smile; "You would not like the world to say so! Nay, but listen, Professor,—here is a thought very beautifully expressed—and it was written in an ancient language of the East, thousands of years before we, in our quarter of the world, ever dreamt of civilization.—'Of all the sentiments, passions or virtues which in their divers turns affect the life of a man, the influence and emotion of Love is surely the greatest and highest. We do not here speak of the base and villainous craving of bodily appetite; but of that pure desire of the unfettered soul which beholding perfection, straightway and naturally flies to the same. This love doth so elevate and instruct a man, that he seeketh nothing better than to be worthy of it, to attempt great deeds and valiantly perform them, to confront foul abuses, and most potently destroy them,—and to esteem the powers and riches of this world as dross, weighed against this rare and fiery talisman. For it is a jewel which doth light up the heart, and make it strong to support all sorrow and ill fortune with cheerfulness, knowing that it is in itself of so lasting a quality as to subjugate all things and events unto its compelling sway.' What think you of this? Sir Roger, there is a whole volume of comprehension in your face! Give some word of it utterance!"
Sir Roger looked up.
"There is nothing to say, Sir," he replied; "Your ancient writer merely expresses a truth we are all conscious of. All poets, worthy the name, and all authors, save and except the coldest logicians, deem the world well lost for love."
"More fools they!" said Von Glauben gruffly; "Love is a mere illusion, which is generally destroyed by one simple ceremony—Marriage!"
Prince Humphry smiled.
"You have never tried the cure, Professor," he said, "But I daresay you have suffered from the disease! Will you walk with me?"
Von Glauben bowed a respectful assent; and the Prince, with a kindly nod of dismissal to De Launay, went on his way, the Professor by his side. Sir Roger watched them as they disappeared, and saw, that at the furthest end of the alley, when they were well out of ear-shot, they appeared to engage in very close and confidential conversation.
"I wonder," he mused, "I wonder what it all means? Von Glauben is evidently mixed up in some affair that he wishes to keep secret from the King. Can it concern Prince Humphry? And The Islands! What can Von Glauben want over there?"
His brief meditation was interrupted by a soft voice calling.
He started, and at once advanced to meet the approaching intruder, his sister, Teresa de Launay, a pretty brunette, with dark sparkling eyes, one of the favourite ladies of honour in attendance on the Queen.
"What were you dreaming about?" she asked, as he came near, "And what is the Prince doing with old Von Glauben?"
"Two questions at once, Teresa!" he said, stooping his tall head to kiss her; "I cannot possibly answer both in a breath! But answer me just one—What are you here for?"
"To summon you!" she answered. "The Queen desires you to wait upon her immediately."
She fixed her bright eyes upon him as she spoke, and an involuntary sigh escaped her, as she noted the touch of pallor that came on his face at her words.
"Where is her Majesty?" he asked.
"Here—close at hand—in the arbour. She spied you at a distance through the trees, and sent me to fetch you."
"You had best return to her at once, and say that I am coming."
His sister looked at him again, and hesitated—he gave a slight, vexed gesture of impatience, whereupon she hurried away, with flying footsteps as light as those of a fabled sylph of the woodlands. He watched her go, and for a moment an expression came into his eyes of intense suffering—the look of a noble dog who is suddenly struck undeservedly by an unkind master.
"She sends for me!" he muttered; "What for? To amuse herself by reading every thought of my life with her cold eyes? Why can she not leave me alone?"
He walked on then, with a quiet, even pace, and presently reaching the end of the alley, came out on a soft stretch of greensward facing a small ornamental lake and fountain. Here grew tall rushes, bamboos and flag-flowers—here, too, on the quiet lake floated water-lilies, white and pink, opening their starry hearts to the glory of the morning sun. A quaintly shaped, rustic arbour covered with jasmine, faced the pool, and here sat the Queen alone and unattended, save by Teresa de Launay, who drew a little apart as her brother, Sir Roger, approached, and respectfully bent his head in the Royal presence. For quite a minute he stood thus in dumb attention, his eyes lowered, while the Queen glanced at him with a curious expression, half of doubt, half of commiseration. Suddenly, as if moved by a quick impulse, she rose—a stately, exquisite figure, looking even more beautiful in her simple morning robe of white cashmere and lace, than in all the glory of her Court attire,—and extended her hand. Humbly and reverentially he bent over it, and kissed the great jewel sparkling like a star on the central finger. As he then raised his eyes to her face she smiled;—that smile of hers, so dazzling, so sweet, and yet so cold, had sent many men to their deaths, though she knew it not.
"I see very little of you, Sir Roger," she said slowly, "notwithstanding your close attendance on my lord the King. Yet I know I can command your service!"
"Madam," murmured De Launay, "my life——"
"Oh, no," she rejoined quickly, "not your life! Your life, like mine, belongs to the King and the country. You must give all, or not at all!"
"Madam, I do give all!" he answered, with a look in his eyes of mingled pain and passion; "No man can give more!"
She surveyed him with a little meditative, almost amused air.
"You have strong feelings, Sir Roger," she said; "I wonder what it is like—to feel?"
"If I may dare to say so, Madam, I should wish you to experience the sensation," he returned somewhat bitterly; "Sometimes we awaken to emotions too late—sometimes we never awaken. But I think it is wisest to experience the nature of a storm, in order to appreciate the value of a calm!"
"You think so?" She smiled indulgently. "Storm and calm are to me alike! I am affected by neither. Life is so exceedingly trivial an affair, and is so soon over, that I have never been able to understand why people should ever trouble themselves about anything in it."
"You may not always be lacking in this comprehension, Madam," said Sir Roger, with a certain harshness in his tone, yet with the deepest respect in his manner; "I take it that life and the world are but a preparation for something greater, and that we shall be forced to learn our lessons in this preparatory school before we leave it, whether we like it or no!"
The slight smile still lingered on her beautiful mouth,—she pulled a spray of jasmine down from the trailing clusters around her, and set it carelessly among the folds of her lace. Sir Roger watched her with moody eyes. Could he have followed his own inclination, he would have snatched the flower from her dress and kissed it, in a kind of fierce defiance before her very eyes. But what would be the result of such an act? Merely a little contemptuous lifting of the delicate brows—a slight frown on the fair forehead, and a calm gesture of dismissal. No more—no more than this; for just as she could not be moved to love, neither could she be moved to anger. The words of an old song rang in his ears:—
She laughs at the thought of love— Pain she scorns, and sorrow she sets aside— My heart she values less than her broidered glove, She would smile if I died!
"You are a man, Sir Roger de Launay," she said after a pause, "And man- like, you propound any theory which at the moment happens to fit your own particular humour. I am, however, entirely of your opinion that this life is only a term of preparation, and with this conviction I desire to have as little to do with its vile and ugly side as I can. It is possible to accept with gratitude the beautiful things of Nature, and reject the rest, is it not?"
"As you ask me the question point-blank, Madam, I say it is possible,— it can be done,—and you do it. But it is wrong!"
She raised her languid eyelids, showing no offence.
"Wrong, Madam!" repeated Sir Roger bluntly; "It is wrong to shut from your sight, from your heart, from your soul the ugly side of Nature;— to shut your ears to the wants—the pains—the tortures—the screams— the tears, and groans of humanity! Oh, Madam, the ugly side has a strange beauty of its own that you dream not of! God makes ugliness as he makes beauty; God created the volcano belching forth fire and molten lava, as He created the simple stream bordered with meadow flowers! Why should you reject the ugly, the fierce, the rebellious side of things? Rather take it into your gracious thoughts and prayers, Madam, and help to make it beautiful!"
He spoke with a force which surprised himself—he was carried away by a passion that seemed almost outside his own identity. She looked at him curiously.
"Does the King teach you to speak thus to me?" she asked.
De Launay started,—the hot colour mounting to his cheeks and brow.
"Nay, no excuse! I understand! It is your own thought; but a thought which is no doubt suddenly inspired by the King's actions," she went on tranquilly; "You are in his confidence. He is adopting new measures of domestic policy, in which, perchance, I may or may not be included—as it suits my pleasure! Who knows!" Again the little musing smile crossed her countenance. "It is of the King I wish to speak to you."
She glanced around her, and saw that her lady-in-waiting, Teresa de Launay, had discreetly wandered by herself to the edge of the water- lily pool, and was bending over it, a graceful, pensive figure in the near distance, within call, but certainly not within hearing.
"You are in his confidence," she repeated, drawing a step nearer to him, "and—so am I! You will not disclose his movements—nor shall I! But you are his close attendant and friend,—I am merely—his wife! I make you responsible for his safety!"
"Madam, I pray you pardon me!" exclaimed De Launay; "His Majesty has a will of his own,—and his sacred life is not in my hands. I will defend him to the utmost limit of human possibility,—but if he voluntarily runs into danger, and disregards all warning, I, as his poor servant, am not to blame!"
Her eyes, brilliant and full of a compelling magnetism, dwelt upon him steadfastly.
"I repeat my command," she said deliberately, "I make you responsible! You are a strong man and a brave one. If the King is rash, it is the duty of his servants to defend him from the consequences of his rashness; particularly if that rashness leads him into danger for a noble purpose. Should any mischance befall him, let me never see your face again! Die yourself, rather than let your King die!"
As she spoke these words she motioned him away with a grand gesture of dismissal, and he retired back from her presence in a kind of stunned amazement. Never before in all the days of her social sway as Crown- Princess, had she ever condescended to speak to him on any matter of confidence,—never during her three years of sovereignty as Queen- Consort had she apparently taken note, or cared to know any of the affairs connected with the King, her husband. The mere fact that now her interest was roused, moved De Launay to speechless wonderment. He hardly dared raise his eyes to look at her, as she turned from him and went slowly, with her usual noiseless, floating grace of movement, towards the water-lily pool, there to rejoin her attendant, Teresa de Launay, who at the same time advanced to meet her Royal mistress. A moment more, and Queen and lady of honour had disappeared together, and De Launay was left alone. A little bird, swinging on a branch above his head, piped a few tender notes to the green leaves and the sunlit sky, but beyond this, and the measured plash of the fountain, no sound disturbed the stillness of the garden.
"Upon my word, Roger de Launay," he said bitterly to himself, "you are an ass sufficiently weighted with burdens! The love of a Queen, and the life of a King are enough for one man's mind to carry with any degree of safety! If it were not for the King, I think I should leave this country and seek some other service—but I owe him much,—if only by reason of my own heart's folly!"
Impatient with himself, he strode away, straight across the lawn and back to the palace. Here he noticed just the slightest atmosphere of uneasiness among some of the retainers of the Royal household,—a vague impression of flurry and confusion. Through various passages and corridors, attendants and pages were either running about with extra haste, or else strolling to and fro with extra slowness. As he turned into one of the ante-chambers, he suddenly confronted a tall, military- looking personage in plain civilian attire, whom he at once recognized as the Chief of the Police.
"Ah, Bernhoff!" he said lightly, "any storms brewing?"
"None that call for particular attention, Sir Roger," replied the individual addressed; "But I have been sent for by the King, and am here awaiting his pleasure."
Sir Roger showed no sign of surprise, and with a friendly nod passed on. He began to find the situation rather interesting.
"After all," he argued inwardly, "there is nothing to hinder the King from being a social autocrat, even if he cannot by the rules of the Constitution be a political one. And we should do well to remember that politics are governed entirely by social influence. It is the same thing all over the world—a deluded populace—a social movement which elects a parliament and ministry—and then the result,—which is, that this or that party hold the reins of government, on whichever side happens to be most advantageous to the immediate social and financial whim. The people are the grapes crushed into wine for their rulers' drinking; and the King is merely the wine-cup on the festal board. If he once begins to be something more than that cup, there will be an end of revelry!"
His ideas were not without good foundation in fact. Throughout all history, where a strong man has ruled a nation, whether for good or ill, he has left his mark; and where there has been no strong man, the annals of the time are vapid and uninteresting. Governments emanate from social influences. The social rule of the Roman Emperors bred athletes, heroes, and poets, merely because physical strength and courage, combined with heroism and poetic perception were encouraged by Roman society. The social rule of England's Elizabeth had its result in the brilliant attainments of the many great men who crowded her Court— the social rule of Victoria, until the death of the Prince Consort, bred gentle women and chivalrous men. In all these cases, the reigning monarchs governed society, and society governed politics. Politics, indeed, can scarcely be considered apart from society, because on the nature and character of society depend the nature and character of politics. If society is made up of corrupt women and unprincipled men, the spirit of political government will be as corrupt and unprincipled as they. If any King, beholding such a state of things, were to suddenly cut himself clear of the corruption, and to make a straight road for his own progress—clean and open—and elect to walk in it, society would follow his lead, and as a logical consequence politics would become honourable. But no monarchs have the courage of their opinions nowadays,—if only one sovereign of them all possessed such courage, he could move the world!
The long bright day unwound its sunny hours, crowned with blue skies and fragrant winds, and the life and movement of the fair city by the sea was gay, incessant and ever-changing. There was some popular interest and excitement going on down at the quay, for the usual idle crowd had collected to see the Royal yacht being prepared for her afternoon's cruise. Though she was always kept ready for sailing, the King's orders this time had been sudden and peremptory, and, consequently, all the men on board were exceptionally hard at work getting things in immediate readiness. The fact that the Queen was to accompany the King in the afternoon's trip to The Islands, where up to the present she had never been, was a matter of lively comment,—her extraordinary beauty never failing to attract a large number of sight- seers.
In the general excitement, no one saw Professor von Glauben quietly enter a small and common sailing skiff, manned by two ordinary fishermen of the shore, and scud away with the wind over the sea towards the west, where, in the distance on this clear day, a gleaming line of light showed where The Islands lay, glistening like emerald and pearl in the midst of the dark blue waste of water. His departure was unnoticed, though as a rule the King's private physician commanded some attention, not only by reason of his confidential post in the Royal household, but also on account of certain rumours which were circulated through the country concerning his wonderful skill in effecting complete cures where all hope of recovery had been abandoned. It was whispered, indeed, that he had discovered the 'Elixir of Life,' but that he would not allow its properties to be made known, lest as the Scripture saith, man should 'take and eat and live for ever.' It was not advisable—so the Professor was reported to have said—that all men should live for ever,—but only a chosen few; and he, at present, was apparently the privileged person who alone was fitted to make the selection of those few. For this and various other reasons, he was generally looked at with considerable interest, but this morning, owing to the hurried preparations for the embarking of their Majesties on board the Royal yacht, he managed to escape from even chance recognition,—and he was well over the sea, and more than half-way to his destination before the bells of the city struck noon.
Punctual to that hour, a close carriage drove up to the palace. It contained no less a personage than the Prime Minister, the Marquis de Lutera,—a dark, heavy man, with small furtive eyes, a ponderous jaw, and a curious air of seeming for ever on an irritable watch for offences. His aspect was intellectual, yet always threatening; and his frigid manner was profoundly discouraging to all who sought to win his attention or sympathy. He entered the palace now with an easy, not to say assertive deportment, and as he ascended the broad staircase which led to the King's private apartments, he met the Chief of the Police coming down. This latter saluted him, but he barely acknowledged the courtesy, so taken by surprise was he at the sight of this administrative functionary in the palace at so early an hour. However, it was impossible to ask any questions of him on the grand staircase, within hearing of the Royal lackeys; so he continued on his way upstairs, with as much dignity as his heavily-moulded figure would permit him to display, till he reached the upper landing known as the 'King's Corridor,' where Sir Roger de Launay was in waiting to conduct him to his sovereign's presence. To him the Marquis addressed the question:
"Bernhoff has been with the King?"
"Yes. For more than an hour."
"Any robbery in the palace?"
De Launay smiled.
"I think not! So far as I am permitted to be cognisant of events, there is nothing wrong!"
The Marquis looked slightly perplexed.
"The King is well?"
"Remarkably well—and in excellent humour! He is awaiting you, Marquis,—permit me to escort you to him!"
The carved and gilded doors of the Royal audience-chamber were thereupon flung back, and the Marquis entered, ushered in by De Launay. The doors closed again upon them both; and for some time there was profound silence in the King's corridor, no intruder venturing to approach save two gentlemen-at-arms, who paced slowly up and down at either end on guard. At the expiration of about an hour, Sir Roger came out alone, and, glancing carelessly around him, strolled to the head of the grand staircase, and waited patiently there for quite another thirty minutes. At last the doors were flung open widely again, and the King himself appeared, clad in easy yachting attire, and walking with one hand resting on the arm of the Marquis de Lutera, who, from his expression, seemed curiously perturbed.