"Then you will not come with us, Marquis?" said the King, with an air of gaiety; "You are too much engrossed in the affairs of Government to break loose for an afternoon from politics for the sake of pleasure? Ah, well! You are a matchless worker! Renowned as you are for your studious observation of all that may tend to the advancement of the nation's interests—admired as you are for the complete sacrifice of all your own advantages to the better welfare of the country, I will not (though I might as your sovereign), command your attendance on this occasion! I know the affairs you have in hand are pressing and serious!"
"They will be more than usually so, Sir," said the Marquis in a low voice; "for if you persist in maintaining your present attitude, the foreign controversy in which we are engaged can scarcely go on. But your action will be questioned by the Government!"
The King laughed.
"Good! By all means question it, my dear Marquis! Prove me an unconstitutional monarch, if you like, and put Humphry on the throne in my place,—but ask the People first! If they condemn me, I am satisfied to be condemned! But the present political difference between ourselves and a friendly nation must be arranged without offence. There does not exist at the moment any reasonable cause for fanning the dispute into a flame of war."—He paused, then resumed—"You will not come with us?"
"Sir, if you will permit me to refuse the honour on this occasion——"
"The permission is granted!" replied the King, still smiling; "Farewell, Marquis! We are not in the habit of absenting ourselves from our own country, after the fashion of certain of our Royal neighbours, who shall be nameless; and we conceive it our duty to make ourselves acquainted with the habits and customs of all our subjects in all quarters of our realm. Hence our resolve to visit The Islands, which, to our shame be it said, we have neglected until now. We expect to derive both pleasure and instruction from the brief voyage!"
"Are the islanders aware of your intention, Sir?" enquired the Marquis.
"Nay—to prepare them would have spoilt our pleasure!" replied the King. "We will take them by surprise! We have heard of certain countries, whose villages and towns have never seen the reigning sovereign,—and though we have been but three years on the throne, we have resolved that no corner of our kingdom shall lack the sunlight of our presence!" He gave a mirthful side-glance at De Launay. Then, extending his hand cordially, he added: "May all success attend your efforts, Marquis, to smooth over this looming quarrel between ourselves and our friendly trade-rivals! I, for one, would not have it go further. I shall see you again at the Council during the week."
As the premier's hand met that of his Sovereign, the latter exclaimed suddenly:
"Ah!—I thought I missed a customary friend from my finger; I have forgotten my signet-ring! Will you lend me yours for to-day, Marquis?"
"Sir, if you will deign to wear it!" replied the Marquis readily, and at once slipping off the ring in question, he handed it to the King, who smilingly accepted it and put it on.
"A fine sapphire!" he said approvingly; "Better, I think, than my ruby!"
"Sir, your praise enhances its value," said De Lutera bowing profoundly; "I shall from henceforth esteem it priceless!"
"Well said!" returned the King, "And rightly too!—for diplomacy is wise in flattering a king to the last, even while meditating on his possible downfall! Adieu, Marquis! When we next meet, I shall expect good news!"
He descended the staircase, closely attended by De Launay, and passed at once into a larger room of audience, where some notable persons of foreign distinction were waiting to be received. On the way thither, however, he turned to Sir Roger for a moment, and held up the hand on which the Marquis de Lutera's signet flashed like a blue point of flame.
"Behold the Premier's signet!" he said with a smile; "Methinks, for once, it suits the King!"
Surrounded by a boundless width of dark blue sea at all visible points of view, The Islands, lovely tufts of wooded rock, trees, and full- flowering meadowlands, were situated in such a happy position as to be well out of all possibility of modern innovation or improvement. They were too small to contain much attraction for the curious tourist; and though they were only a two-hours' sail from the mainland, the distance was just sufficiently inconvenient to keep mere sight-seers away. For more than a hundred years they had been almost exclusively left to the coral-fishers, who had made their habitation there; and the quaint, small houses, and flowering vineyards and gardens, dotted about in the more fertile portions of the soil, had all been built and planned by a former race of these hardy folk, who had handed their properties down from father to son. They were on the whole, a peaceable community. Coral-fishing was one of the chief industries of the country, and the islanders passed all their days in obtaining the precious product, cleansing, and preparing it for the market. They were understood to be extremely jealous of strangers and intruders, and to hold certain social traditions which had never been questioned or interfered with by any form of existing government, because in themselves they gave no cause for interference, being counted among the most orderly and law- abiding subjects of the realm. Very little interest was taken in their doings by the people of the mainland,—scarcely as much interest, perhaps, as is taken by Londoners in the inhabitants of Orkney or Shetland. One or two scholars, a stray botanist here and there, or a few students fond of adventure, had visited the place now and again, and some of these had brought back enthusiastic accounts of the loveliness of the natural scenery, but where a whole country is beautiful, little heed is given to one small corner of it, particularly if that corner is difficult of access, necessitating a two hours' sail across a not always calm sea. Vague reports were current that there was a strange house on The Islands, built very curiously out of the timbers and spars of wrecked vessels. The owner of this abode was said to be a man of advanced age, whose history was unknown, but who many years ago had been cast ashore from a great shipwreck, and had been rescued and revived by the coral-fishers, since when, he had lived among them, and worked with them. No one knew anything about him beyond that since his advent The Islands had been more cultivated, and their inhabitants more prosperous; and that he was understood to be, in the language or dialect of the country, a 'life-philosopher.' Whereat, hearing these things by chance now and then, or seeing a scrappy line or two in the daily press when active reporters had no murders or suicides to enlarge upon, and wanted to 'fill up space,' the gay aristocrats or 'smart set' of the metropolis laughed at their dinner-parties and balls, and asked one another inanely, "What is a 'life-philosopher'?"
In the same way, when a small volume of poetry, burning as lava, wild as a storm-wind, came floating out on the top of the seething soup of current literature, bearing the name of Paul Zouche, and it was said that this person was a poet, they questioned smilingly, "Is he dead?" for, naturally, they could not imagine these modern days were capable of giving birth to a living specimen of the genus bard. For they, too, had their motor-cars from France and England;—they, too, had their gambling-dens secreted in private houses of high repute,— they, too, had their country-seats specially indicated as free to such house-parties as wished to indulge in low intrigue and unbridled licentiousness; they, too, weary of simple Christianity, had their own special 'religions' of palmistry, crystal-gazing, fortune-telling by cards, and Esoteric 'faith-healing.' The days were passing with them— as it passes with many of their 'set' in other countries,—in complete forgetfulness of all the nobler ambitions and emotions which lift Man above the level of his companion Beast. For the time is now upon us when what has formerly been known as 'high' is of its own accord sinking to the low, and what has been called the 'low' is rising to the high. Strange times!—strange days!—when the tradesman can scorn the duchess on account of her 'dirty mind'—when a certain nobleman can get no honest labourers to work on his estate, because they suspect him of 'rooking' young college lads;—and when a church in a seaport town stands empty every Sunday, with its bells ringing in vain, because the congregation which should fill it, know that their so-called 'holy man' is a rascal! All over the world this rebellion against Falsehood,—this movement towards Truth is felt,—all over the world the people are growing strong on their legs, and clear in their brains;—no longer cramped and stunted starvelings, they are gradually developing into full growth, and awaking to intelligent action. And wherever the dominion of priestcraft has been destroyed, there they are found at their best and bravest, with a glimmering dawn of the true Christian spirit beginning to lighten their darkness,—a spirit which has no race or sect, but is all-embracing, all-loving, and all-benevolent;—which 'thinketh no evil,' but is so nobly sufficing in its tenderness and patience, as to persuade the obstinate, govern the unruly, and recover the lost, by the patient influence of its own example. On the reverse side of the medal, wherever we see priestcraft dominant, there we see ignorance and corruption, vice and hypocrisy, and such a low standard of morals and education as is calculated to keep the soul a slave in irons, with no possibility of any intellectual escape into the 'glorious liberty of the free.'
The afternoon was one of exceptional brilliance and freshness, when, punctually at three o'clock, the Royal yacht hoisted sail, and dipped gracefully away from the quay with their Majesties on board, amid the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd. A poet might have sung of the scene in fervid rhyme, so pretty and gay were all the surroundings,—the bright skies, the dancing sea, the flying flags and streamers, and the soft music of the Court orchestra, a band of eight players on stringed instruments, which accompanied the Royal party on their voyage of pleasure. The Queen stood on deck, leaning against the mast, her eyes fixed on the shore, as the vessel swung round, and bore away towards the west;—the people, elbowing each other, and climbing up on each other's shoulders and on the posts of the quay, merely to get a passing glimpse of her beauty, all loyally cheering and waving their hats and handkerchiefs, were as indifferent to her sight and soul as an ant-heap in a garden walk. She had accustomed her mind to dwell on things beyond life, and life itself had little interest for her. This was because she had been set among the shams of worldly state and ceremonial from her earliest years, and being of a profound and thoughtful nature, had grown up to utterly despise the hollowness and hypocrisy of her surroundings. In extenuation of the coldness of her temperament, it may be said that her rooted aversion to men arose from having studied them too closely and accurately. In her marriage she had fulfilled, or thought she had fulfilled, a mere duty to the State—no more; and the easy conduct of her husband during his apprenticeship to the throne as Heir-Apparent, had not tended in any way to show her anything particularly worthy of admiration or respect in his character. And so she had gone on her chosen way, removed and apart from his,—and the years had flown by, and now she was,—as she said to herself with a little touch of contempt,—'old—for a woman!'—while the King remained 'young,—for a man! 'This was a mortifying reflection. True, her beauty was more perfect than in her youth, and there were no signs as yet of its decay. She knew well enough the extent of her charm,—she knew how easily she could command homage wherever she went,—and knowing, she did not care. Or rather—she had not cared. Was it possible she would ever care, and perhaps at a time when it was no use caring? A certain irritability, quite foreign to her usual composure, fevered her blood, and it arose from one simple admission which she had been forced to make to herself within the last few days, and this was, that her husband was as much her kingly superior in heart and mind as he was in rank and power. She had never till now imagined him capable of performing a brave deed, or pursuing an independently noble course of action. Throughout all the days of his married life he had followed the ordinary routine of his business or pleasure with scarce a break,— in winter to his country seat on the most southern coast of his southern land,—in spring to the capital,—in full summer to some fashionable 'bath' or 'cure,'—in autumn to different great houses for the purpose of shooting other people's game by their obsequious invitation,—and in the entire round he had never shown himself capable of much more than a flirtation with the prettiest or the most pushing new beauty, or a daring ride on the latest invention for travelling at lightning speed. She had noticed a certain change in him since he had ascended the throne, but she had attributed this to the excessive boredom of having to attend to State affairs.
Now, however, all at once and without warning, this change had developed into what was evidently likely to prove a complete transformation—and he had surprised her into an involuntary, and more or less reluctant admiration of qualities which she had never hitherto suspected in him. She had consented to join him on this occasion in his trip to The Islands, in order to try and fathom the actual drift of his intentions,—for his idea that their son, Prince Humphry, had yielded to some particular feminine attraction there, piqued her curiosity even more than her interest. She turned away now from her observation of the shore, as it receded on the horizon and became a mere thin line of light which vanished in its turn as the vessel curtsied onward; and she moved to the place prepared for her accommodation—a sheltered corner of the deck, covered by silken awnings, and supplied with luxurious deck chairs and footstools. Here two of her ladies were waiting to attend upon her, but none of the rougher sex she so heartily abhorred. As she seated herself among her cushions with her usual indolent grace, she raised her eyes and saw, standing at a respectful distance from her, a distinguished personage who had but lately arrived at the Court, from England,—Sir Walter Langton, a daring traveller and explorer in far countries,—one who had earned high distinction at the point of the sword. He had been presented to her some evenings since, among a crowd of other notabilities, and she had, as was her usual custom with all men, scarcely given him a passing glance. Now as she regarded him, she suddenly decided, out of the merest whim, to call him to her side. She sent one of her ladies to him, charged with her invitation to approach and take his seat near her. He hastened to obey, with some surprise, and no little pleasure. He was a handsome man of about forty, sun-browned and keen of eye, with a grave intellectual face after the style of a Vandyk portrait, and a kindly smile; and he was happily devoid of all that unbecoming officiousness and obsequiousness which some persons affect when in the presence of Royalty. He bowed profoundly as the Queen received him, saying to him with a smile:—
"You are a stranger here, Sir Walter Langton!—I cannot allow you to feel solitary in our company!"
"Is it possible for anyone to feel solitary when you are near, Madam?" returned Sir Walter gallantly, as he obeyed the gesture with which she motioned him to be seated;—"You must be weary of hearing that even your silent presence is sufficient to fill space with melody and charm! And I am not altogether a stranger; I know this country well, though I have never till now had the honour of visiting its ruling sovereign."
"It is very unlike England," said the Queen, slowly unfurling her fan of soft white plumage and waving it to and fro.
"Very unlike, indeed!" he agreed, and a musing tenderness darkened his fine hazel eyes as he gazed out on the sparkling sea.
"You like England best?" resumed the Queen.
"Madam, I am an Englishman! To me there is no land so fair, or so much worth living and dying for, as England!"
"Yet—I suppose, like all your countrymen, you are fond of change?"
"Yes—and no, Madam!" replied Langton.—"In truth, if I am to speak frankly, it is only during the last thirty or forty years that my countrymen have blotted their historical scutcheons by this fondness for change. Where travelling is necessary for the attainment of some worthy object, then it is wise and excellent,—but where it is only for the purpose of distracting a self-satiated mind, it is of no avail, and indeed frequently does more harm than good."
"Self-satiated!" repeated the Queen,—"Is not that a strange word?"
"It is the only compound expression I can use to describe the discontented humour in which the upper classes of English society exist to-day," replied Sir Walter. "For many years the soul of England has been held in chains by men whose thoughts are all of Self,—the honour of England has been attainted by women whose lives are moulded from first to last on Self. To me, personally, England is everything,—I have no thought outside it—no wish beyond it. Yet I am as ashamed of some of its leaders of opinion to-day, as if I saw my own mother dragged in the dust and branded with infamy!"
"You speak of your Government?" began the Queen.
"No, Madam,—I have no more quarrel with my country's present Government than I could have with a child who is led into a ditch by its nurse. It is a weak and corrupted Government; and its actual rulers are vile and abandoned women."
The Queen's eyes opened in a beautiful, startled wonderment;—this man's clear, incisive manner of speech interested her.
"Women!" she echoed, then smiled; "You speak strongly, Sir Walter! I have certainly heard of the 'advanced' women who push themselves so much forward in your country, but I had no idea they were so mischievous! Are they to be admired? Or pitied?"
"Pitied, Madam,—most sincerely pitied!" returned Sir Walter;—"But such misguided simpletons as these are not the creatures who rule, or play with, or poison the minds of the various members who compose our Government. The 'advanced' women, poor souls, do nothing but talk platitudes. They are perfectly harmless. They have no power to persuade men, because in nine cases out of ten, they have neither wit nor beauty. And without either of these two charms, Madam, it is difficult to put even a clever cobbler, much less a Prime Minister, into leading strings! No,—it is the spendthrift women of a corrupt society that I mean,—the women who possess beauty, and are conscious of it,—the women who have a mordant wit and use it for dangerous purposes—the women who give up their homes, their husbands, their children and their reputations for the sake of villainous intrigue, and the feverish excitement of speculative money-making;—with these—and with the stealthy spread of Romanism,—will come the ruin of my country!"
"So grave as all that!" said the Queen lightly;—"But, surely, Sir Walter, if you see ruin and disaster threatening so great an Empire in the far distance, you and other wise men of your land are able to stave it off?"
"Madam, I have no power!" he returned bitterly. "Those who have thought and worked,—those who are able to see what is coming by the light of past experience, are seldom listened to, or if they get a hearing, they are not seldom ridiculed and 'laughed down.' Till a strong man speaks, we must all remain dumb. There is no real Government in England at present, just as there is no real Church. The Government is made up of directly self-interested speculators and financiers rather than diplomatists,—the Church, for which our forefathers fought, is yielding to the bribery of Rome. It is a time of Sham,—sham politics, and sham religion! We have fallen upon evil days,—and unless the people rise, as it is to be hoped to God they will, serious danger threatens the glory and the honour of England!"
"Would you desire revolution and bloodshed, then?" enquired the Queen, becoming more and more interested as she saw that this Englishman did not, like most of his sex, pass the moments in gazing at her in speechless admiration,—"Surely not!"
"I would have revolution, Madam, but not bloodshed," he replied;—"I think my countrymen are too well grounded in common-sense to care for any movement which could bring about internal dissension or riot,— but, at the same time, I believe their native sense of justice is great enough to resist tyranny and wrong and falsehood, even to the death. I would have a revolution—yes—but a silent and bloodless one!"
"And how would you begin?" asked the Queen.
"The People must begin, Madam!" he answered;—"All reforms must begin and end with the People only! For example, if the People would decline to attend any church where the incumbent is known to encourage practices which are disloyal to the faith of the land, such disloyalty would soon cease. If the majority of women would refuse to know, or to receive, any woman of high position who had voluntarily disgraced herself, they would soon put a stop to the lax morality of the upper classes. If our builders, artisans and mechanics would club together, and refuse to make guns or ships for our enemies in foreign countries, we should not run the risk of being one day hoisted with our own petard. In any case, the work of Revolution rests with the people, though it is quite true they need teachers to show them how to begin."
"And are these teachers forthcoming?"
"I think so!" said Sir Walter meditatively. "Throughout all history, as far back as we can trace it, whenever a serious reform has been needed in either society or government, there has always been found a leader to head the movement."
The Queen's beautiful eyes rested upon him with a certain curiosity.
"What of your King?" she said.
"Madam, he is my King!" he replied,—"And I serve him faithfully!"
She was silent. She began to wonder whether he had any private motive to gain, any place he sought to fill, that he should assume such a touch-me-not air at this stray allusion to his Sovereign.
"Lese-majeste is so common nowadays!" she mused;—"It is such an ordinary thing to hear vulgar parvenus talk of their king as if he were a public-house companion of theirs, that it is somewhat remarkable to find one who speaks of his monarch with loyalty and respect. I suppose, however, like everyone else, he has his own ends to serve!—Kings are the last persons in the world who can command absolute fidelity!"
She glanced dreamily over the sea, and perceiving a slight shade of weariness on her face, Sir Walter discreetly rose, craving her permission to retire to the saloon, where he had promised to join the King. When he had left her, she turned to one of her ladies, the Countess Amabil, and remarked:
"A very personable gentleman, is he not?"
"Madam," rejoined the Countess, who was very lovely in herself, and of a bright and sociable disposition;—"I have often thought it would be more pleasant and profitable for all of us if we had many such personable gentlemen with us oftener!"
A slight frown of annoyance crossed the Queen's face. The Countess was a very charming lady; very fascinating in her own way, but her decided predilection for the sterner sex often led her to touch on dangerous ground with her Royal mistress. This time, however, she escaped the chilling retort her remark might possibly, on another occasion, have called down upon her. The Queen said nothing. She sat watching the sea,—and now and again took up her field-glass to study the picturesque coast of The Islands, which was rapidly coming into view. Teresa de Launay, the second lady in attendance on her, was reading, and, seeing her quite absorbed in her book, the Queen presently asked her what it contained.
"You have smiled twice over that book, Teresa," she said kindly;—"What is it about?"
"Madam, it speaks of love!" replied Teresa, still smiling.
"And love makes you smile?"
"I would rather smile than weep over it, Madam!" replied Teresa, with a slight colour warming her fair face;—"But as concerns this book, I smile, because it is full of such foolish verses,—as light and sweet— and almost as cloying,—as French fondants!"
"Let me hear!" said the Queen; "Read me a few lines."
"This one, called 'A Canzonet' is brief enough for your Majesty's immediate consideration," replied Teresa;—"It is just such a thing as a man might scribble in his note-book after a bout of champagne, when he is in love for ten minutes! He would not mean a word of it,—but it might sound pretty by moonlight!" Whereupon she read aloud:—
My Lady is pleased to smile, And the world is glad and gay; My Lady is pleased to weep;— And it rains the livelong day!
My Lady is pleased to hate, And I lose my life and my breath; My Lady is pleased to love,— And I am the master of Death!
I know that my Lady is Love, By the magical light about her; I know that my Lady is Life, For I cannot live without her!
"And you do not think any man would truly mean as much love as this?" queried the Queen.
"Oh, Madam, you know he would not! If he had written such lines about the joys of dining, or the flavour of an excellent cigar, they might then indeed be taken as an expression of his truest and deepest feeling! But his 'Lady'! Bah! She is a mere myth,—a temporary peg to hang a stray emotion on!"
She laughed, and her laughter rippled merrily on the air.
"I do not think the men who write so easily about love can ever truly feel it," she went on;—"Those who really love must surely be quite unable to express themselves. This man who sings about his 'Lady' being pleased to do this or do that, was probably trying to obtain the good graces of some pretty housemaid or chorus girl!"
A slight contemptuous smile crossed the Queen's face; from her expression it was evident that she agreed in the main with the opinion of her vivacious lady-in-waiting. Just at that moment the King and his suite, with Sir Walter Langton and one or two other gentlemen, who had been invited to join the party, came up from the saloon, and the conversation became general.
"Have you seen Humphry at all to-day?" enquired the King aside of De Launay. "I sent him an early message asking him to join us, and was told he had gone out riding. Is that true?"
"I have not seen his Royal Highness since the morning, Sir," replied the equerry; "He then met me,—and Professor von Glauben also—in the gardens. He gave me no hint as to whether he knew of your intention to sail to The Islands this afternoon or not; he was reading, and with some slight discussion on the subject of the book he was interested in, he and the Professor strolled away together."
"But where is Von Glauben?" pursued the King; "I sent for him likewise, but he was absent."
"I understood him to say that you had not commanded his attendance again to-day, Sir," replied Sir Roger;—"He told me he had already waited upon you."
"Certainly I did not command his attendance when I saw him the first thing this morning," replied the King; "I summoned him then merely to satisfy his scruples concerning my health and safety, as he seemed last night to have doubts of both!" He smiled, and his eyes twinkled humourously. "Later on, I requested him to join us in this excursion, but his servant said he had gone out, leaving no word as to when he would return. An eccentricity! I suppose he must be humoured!"
Sir Roger was silent. The King looked at him narrowly, and saw that there was something in his thoughts which he was not inclined to utter, and with wise tact and discretion forbore to press any more questions upon him. It was not a suitable time for cross-examination, even of the most friendly kind; there were too many persons near at hand who might be disposed to listen and to form conjectures; moreover the favouring wind had so aided the Royal yacht in her swift course that The Islands were now close at hand, and the harbour visible, the run across from the mainland having been accomplished under the usual two hours.
The King scanned the coast through his glass with some interest.
"We shall obtain amusement from this unprepared trip," he said, addressing the friends who were gathered round him; "We have forbidden any announcement of our visit here, and, therefore, we shall receive no recognition, or welcome. We shall have to take the people as we find them!"
"Let us hope they will prove themselves agreeable, Sir," said one of the suite, the Marquis Montala, a somewhat effeminate elegant-looking man, with small delicate features and lazily amorous eyes,—"And that the women of the place will not be too alarmingly hideous."
"Women are always women." said the King gaily; "And you, Montala, if you cannot find a pretty one, will put up with an ugly one for the moment rather than have none at all! But beauty exists everywhere, and I daresay we shall find it in as good evidence here as in other parts of the kingdom. Our land is famous for its lovely women,"—and turning to Sir Walter Langton he added—"I think, Sir Walter, we can almost beat your England in that one particular!"
"Some years ago, Sir, I should have accepted that challenge," returned Sir Walter, "And with the deepest respect for your Majesty, I should have ventured to deny the assertion that any country in the world could surpass England for the beauty of its women. But since the rage for masculine sports and masculine manners has taken hold of English girls, I am not at all disposed to defend them. They have, unhappily, lost all the soft grace and modesty for which their grandmothers were renowned, and one begins to remark that their very shapes are no longer feminine. The beautiful full bosoms, admired by Gainsborough and Romney, are replaced by an unbecoming flatness—the feet and hands are growing large and awkward, instead of being well-shaped, white and delicate— the skin is becoming coarse and rough of texture, and there is very little complexion to boast of, if we except the artificial make-up of the women of the town. Some few pretty and natural women remain in the heart of the forest and the country, but the contamination is spreading, and English women are no longer the models of womanhood for all the world."
"Are you married, Sir Walter?" asked the King with a smile.
"To no woman, Sir! I have married England—I love her and work for her only!"
"You find that love sufficient to fill your heart?"
"Perhaps," returned Sir Walter musingly—"perhaps if I speak personally and selfishly—no! But when I argue the point logically, I find this— that if I had a wife she might probably occupy too much of my time,— certes, if I had children, I should be working for them and their future welfare;—as it is, I give all my life and all my work to my country, and my King!"
"I hope you will meet with the reward you merit," said the Queen gently; "Kings are not always well served!"
"I seek no reward," said Sir Walter simply; "The joy of work is always its own guerdon."
As he spoke the yacht ran into harbour, and with a loud warning cry the sailors flung out the first rope to a man on the pier, who stood gazing in open-mouthed wonder at their arrival. He seemed too stricken with amazement to move, for he failed to seize the rope, whereat, with an angry exclamation as the rope slipped back into the water, and the yacht bumped against the pier, a sailor sprang to land, and as it was thrown a second time, seized it and made it fast to the capstan. A few more moments and the yacht was safely alongside, the native islander remaining still motionless and staring. The captain of the Royal vessel stepped on shore and spoke to him.
"Are there any men about here?"
The individual thus addressed shook his head in the negative.
"Are you alone to keep the pier?"
The head nodded in the affirmative. A voice, emanating from a thickly bearded mouth was understood to growl forth something about 'no strange boats being permitted to harbour there.' Whereupon the Captain walked up to the uncouth-looking figure, and said briefly.
"We are here by the King's order! That vessel is the Royal yacht, and their Majesties are on board."
For one instant the islander stared more wildly than ever, then with a cry of amazement and evident alarm, ran away as fast as his legs could carry him and disappeared. The captain returned to the yacht and related his experience to Sir Roger de Launay. The King heard and was amused.
"It seems, Madam," he said, turning to the Queen, "That we shall have The Islands to ourselves; but as our visit will be but brief, we shall no doubt find enough to interest us in the mere contemplation of the scenery without other human company than our own. Will you come?"
He extended his hand courteously to assist her across the gangway of the vessel, and in a few minutes the Royal party were landed, and the yacht was left to the stewards and servants, who soon had all hands at work preparing the dinner which was to be served during the return sail.
The King and Queen, followed by their suite and their guests, walked leisurely off the pier, and down a well-made road, sparkling with crushed sea-shells and powdered coral, towards a group of tall trees and green grass which they perceived a little way ahead of them. There was a soothing quietness everywhere,—save for the singing of birds and the soft ripple of the waves on the sandy shore, it was a silent land:
"In which it seemed always afternoon— All round the coast the languid air did swoon— Breathing like one that hath a weary dream."
The Queen paused once or twice to look around her; she was vaguely touched and charmed by the still beauty of the scene.
"It is very lovely!" she said, more to herself than to any of her companions; "The world must have looked something like this in the first days of creation,—so unspoilt and fresh and simple!"
The Countess Amabil, walking with Sir Walter Langton, glanced coquettishly at her cavalier and smiled.
"It is idyllic!" she said;—"A sort of Arcadia without Corydon or Phyllis! Do all the inhabitants go to sleep or disappear in the daytime, I wonder?"
"Not all, I imagine," replied Sir Walter; "For here comes one, though, judging from the slowness of his walk, he is in no haste to welcome his King!"
The personage he spoke of was indeed approaching, and all the members of the Royal party watched his advance with considerable curiosity. He was tall and upright in bearing, but as he came nearer he was seen to be a man of great age, with a countenance on which sorrow and suffering had left their indelible traces. There were furrows on that face which tears had hollowed out for their swifter flowing, and the high intellectual brow bore lines and wrinkles of anxiety and pain, which were the soul's pen-marks of a tragic history. He was attired in simple fisherman's garb of rough blue homespun, and when he was within a few paces of the King, he raised his cap from his curly silver hair with an old-world grace and deferential courtesy. Sir Roger de Launay went forward to meet him and to explain the situation.
"His Majesty the King," he said, "has wished to make a surprise visit to his people of The Islands,—and he is here in person with the Queen. Can you oblige him with an escort to the principal places of interest?"
The old man looked at him with a touch of amusement and derision.
"There are no places here of interest to a King," he said; "Unless a poor man's house may serve for his curious comment! I am not his Majesty's subject—but I live under his protection and his laws,—and I am willing to offer him a welcome, since there is no one else to do so!"
He spoke with a refined and cultured accent, and in his look and bearing evinced the breeding of a gentleman.
"And your name?" asked Sir Roger courteously.
"My name is Rene Ronsard," he replied. "I was shipwrecked on this coast years ago. Finding myself cast here by the will of God, here I have remained!"
As he said this, Sir Roger remembered what he had casually heard at times about the 'life-philosopher' who had built for himself a dwelling on The Islands out of the timbers of wrecked vessels. This must surely be the man! Delighted at having thus come upon the very person most likely to provide some sort of diversion for their Majesties, and requesting Ronsard to wait at a distance for a moment, he hastened back to the King and explained the position. Whereupon the monarch at once advanced with alacrity, and as he approached the venerable personage who had offered him the only hospitality he was likely to receive in this part of his realm, he extended his hand with a frank and kindly cordiality. Rene Ronsard accepted it with a slight but not over- obsequious salutation.
"We owe you our thanks," said the King, "for receiving us thus readily, and without notice; which is surely the truest form of hospitable kindness! That we are strangers here is entirely our own fault, due to our own neglect of our Island subjects; and it is for this that we have sought to know something of the place privately, before visiting it with such public ceremonial and state as it deserves. We shall be indebted to you greatly if you will lend us your aid in this intention."
"Your Majesty is welcome to my service in whatever way it can be of use to you," replied Ronsard slowly; "As you see, I am an old man and poor —I have lived here for well-nigh thirty years, making as little demand as possible upon the resources of either rough Nature or smooth civilization to provide me with sustenance. There is poor attraction for a king in such a simple home as mine!"
"More than all men living, a king has cause to love simplicity," returned the monarch, as with his swift and keen glance he noted the old man's proud figure, fine worn features, and clear, though deeply- sunken eyes;—"for the glittering shows of ceremony are chiefly irksome to those who have to suffer their daily monotony. Let me present you to the Queen—she will thank you as I do, for your kindly consent to play the part of host to us to-day."
"Nay,"—murmured Ronsard—"No thanks—no thanks!" Then, as the King said a few words to his fair Consort, and she received the old man's respectful salutation in the cold, grave way which was her custom, he raised his eyes to her face, and started back with an involuntary exclamation.
"By Heaven!" he said suddenly and bluntly, "I never thought to see any woman's beauty that could compare with that of my Gloria!"
He spoke more to himself than to any listener, but the King hearing his words, was immediately on the alert, and when the whole Royal party moved on again, he, walking in a gracious and kindly way by the old man's side, and skilfully keeping up the conversation at first on mere generalities, said presently:—
"And that name of Gloria;—may I ask you who it is that bears so strange an appellation?"
Ronsard looked at him somewhat doubtingly.
"Your Majesty considers it strange? Had you ever seen her, you would think it the only fitting name for her," he answered,—"For she is surely the most glorious thing God ever made!"
"Your wife—or daughter?" gently hinted the King.
The old man smiled bitterly.
"Sir, I have never owned wife or child! For aught I know Gloria may have been born like the goddess Aphrodite, of the sunlight and the sea! No other parents have ever claimed her."
He checked himself, and appeared disposed to change the subject. The King looked at him encouragingly.
"May I not hear more of her?" he asked.
Ronsard hesitated—then with a certain abruptness replied—
"Nay—I am sorry I spoke of her! There is nothing to tell. I have said she is beautiful—and beauty is always stimulating—even to Kings! But your Majesty will have no chance of seeing her, as she is absent from home to-day."
The King smiled;—had the rumours of his many gallantries reached The Islands then?—and was this 'life-philosopher' afraid that 'Gloria '— whoever she was—might succumb to his royal fascinations? The thought was subtly flattering, but he disguised the touch of amusement he felt, and spoke his next words with a kindly and indulgent air.
"Then, as I shall not see her, you may surely tell me of her? I am no betrayer of confidence!"
A pale red tinged Ronsard's worn features—anon he said:—
"It is no question of confidence, Sir,—and there is no secret or mystery associated with the matter. Gloria was, like myself, cast up from the sea. I found her half-drowned, a helpless infant tied to a floating spar. It was on the other side of these Islands—among the rocks where there is no landing-place. There is a little church on the heights up there, and every evening the men and boys practise their sacred singing. It was sunset, and I was wandering by myself upon the shore, and in the church above me I heard them chant 'Gloria! Gloria! Gloria in excelsis Deo!' And while they were yet practising this line I came upon the child,—lying like a strange lily, in a salt pool,— between two shafts of rock like fangs on either side of her, bound fast with rope to a bit of ship's timber. I untied her little limbs, and restored her to life; and all the time I was busy bringing her back to breath and motion, the singing in the church above me was 'Gloria!' and ever again 'Gloria!' So I gave her that name. That was nineteen years ago. She is married now."
"Married!" exclaimed the King, with a curious sense of mingled relief and disappointment. "Then she has left you?"
"Oh, no, she has not left me!" replied Ronsard; "She stays with me till her husband is ready to give her a home. He is very poor, and lives in hope of better days. Meanwhile poverty so far smiles upon them that they are happy;—and happiness, youth and beauty rarely go together. For once they have all met in the joyous life of my Gloria!"
"I should like to see her!" said the King, musingly; "You have interested me greatly in her history!"
The old man did not reply, but quickening his pace, moved on a little in advance of the King and his suite, to open a gate in front of them, which guarded the approach to a long low house with carved gables and lattice windows, over which a wealth of roses and jasmine clambered in long tresses of pink and white bloom. Smooth grass surrounded the place, and tall pine trees towered in the background; and round the pillars of the broad verandah, which extended to the full length of the house front, clematis and honeysuckle twined in thick clusters, filling the air with delicate perfume. The Royal party murmured their admiration of this picturesque abode, while Ronsard, with a nimbleness remarkable for a man of his age, set chairs on the verandah and lawn for his distinguished guests. Sir Walter Langton and the Marquis Montala strolled about the garden with some of the ladies, commenting on the simple yet exquisite taste displayed in its planting and arrangement; while the King and Queen listened with considerable interest to the conversation of their venerable host. He was a man of evident culture, and his description of the coral-fishing community, their habits and traditions, was both graphic and picturesque.
"Are they all away to-day?" asked the King.
"All the men on this side of The Islands—yes, Sir," replied Ronsard; "And the women have enough to do inside their houses till their husbands return. With the evening and the moonlight, they will all be out in their fields and gardens, making merry with innocent dance and song, for they are very happy folk—much happier than their neighbours on the mainland."
"Are you acquainted with the people of the mainland, then?" enquired the King.
"Sufficiently to know that they are dissatisfied;" returned Ronsard quietly,—"And that, deep down among the tangled grass and flowers of that brilliant pleasure-ground called Society, there is a fierce and starving lion called the People, waiting for prey!"
His voice sank to a low and impressive tone, and for a moment his hearers looked astonished and disconcerted. He went on as though he had not seen the expression of their faces.
"Here in The Islands there was the same discontent when I first came. Every man was in heart a Socialist,—every young boy was a budding Anarchist. Wild ideas fired their brains. They sought Equality. No man should be richer than another, they said. Equal lots,—equal lives. They had their own secret Society, connected with another similar one across the sea yonder. They were brave, clever and desperate,—moved by a burning sense of wrong,—wrong which they had not the skill to explain, but which they felt. It was difficult to persuade or soothe such men, for they were men of Nature,—not of Shams. But fierce and obstinate as they were, they were good to me when I was cast up for dead on their seashore. And I, in turn, have tried to be good to them. That is, I have tried to make them happy. For happiness is what we all work for and seek for,—from the beginning to the end of life. We go far afield for it, when it oftener lies at our very doors. Well!—they are a peaceful community now, and have no evil intentions towards anyone. They grudge no one his wealth—I think if the truth were known, they rather pity the rich man than envy him. So, at any rate, I have taught them to do. But, formerly, they were, to say the least of it, dangerous!"
The King heard in silence, although the slightest quizzical lifting of his eyebrows appeared to imply that 'dangerous' was perhaps too strong a term by which to designate a handful of Socialistic coral-fishers.
"It is curious," went on Ronsard slowly, "how soon the sense of wrong and injustice infects a whole community. One malcontent makes a host of malcontents. This is a fact which many governments lose sight of. If I were the ruler of a country—"
Here he suddenly paused—then added with a touch of brusqueness—
"Pardon me, Sir; I have never known the formalities which apply to conversation with a king, and I am too old to learn now. No doubt I speak too boldly! To me you are no more than man; you should be more by etiquette—but by simple humanity you are not!"
The King smiled, well pleased. This independent commoner, with his rough garb and rougher simplicity of speech, was a refreshing contrast to the obsequious personages by whom he was generally surrounded; and he felt an irresistible desire to know more of the life and surroundings of one who had gained a position of evident authority among the people of his own class.
"Go on, my friend!" he said. "Honest expression of thought can offend none but knaves and fools; and though there are some who say I have a smack of both, yet I flatter myself I am wholly neither of the twain! Continue what you were saying—if you were ruler of a country, what would you do?"
Rene Ronsard considered for a moment, and his furrowed brows set in a puzzled line.
"I think," he said slowly, at last, "I should choose my friends and confidants among the leaders of the people."
"And is not that precisely what we all do?" queried the King lightly; "Surely every monarch must count his friends among the members of the Government?"
"But the Government does not represent the actual people, Sir!" said Ronsard quietly.
"No? Then what does it represent?" enquired the King, becoming amused and interested in the discussion, and holding up his hand to warn back De Launay, and the other members of his suite who were just coming towards him from their tour of inspection through the garden—"Every member of the Government is elected by the people, and returned by the popular vote. What else would you have?"
"Ministers have not always the popular vote," said Ronsard; "They are selected by the Premier. And if the Premier should happen to be shifty, treacherous or self-interested, he chooses such men as are most likely to serve his own ends. And it can hardly be said, Sir, that the People truly return the members of Government. For when the time comes for one such man to be elected, each candidate secures his own agent to bribe the people, and to work upon them as though they were so much soft dough, to be kneaded into a political loaf for his private and particular eating. Poor People! Poor hard-working millions! In the main they are all too busy earning the wherewithal to Live, to have any time left to Think—they are the easy prey of the party agent, except— except when they gather to the voice of a real leader, one who though not in Government, governs!"
"And is there such an one?" enquired the King, while as he spoke his glance fell suddenly, and with an unpleasant memory, on the flashing blue of the sapphire in the Premier's signet he wore; "Here, or anywhere?"
"Over there!" said Ronsard impressively, pointing across the landscape seawards; "On the mainland there is not only one, but many! Women,—as well as men. Writers,—as well as speakers. These are they whom Courts neglect or ignore,—these are the consuming fire of thrones!" His old eyes flashed, and as he turned them on the statuesque beauty of the Queen, she started, for they seemed to pierce into the very recesses of her soul. "When Court and Fashion played their pranks once upon a time in France, there was a pen at work on the 'Contrat Social'—the pen of one Rousseau! Who among the idle pleasure-loving aristocrats ever thought that a mere Book would have helped to send them to the scaffold!" He clenched his hand almost unconsciously—then he spoke more quietly. "That is what I mean, when I say that if I were ruler of a country, I should take special care to make friends with the people's chosen thinkers. Someone in authority"—and here he smiled quizzically —"should have given Rousseau an estate, and made him a marquis—in time! The leaders of an advancing Thought,—and not the leaders of a fixed Government are the real representatives of the People!"
Something in this last sentence appeared to strike the King very forcibly.
"You are a philosopher, Rene Ronsard," he said rising from his chair, and laying a hand kindly on his shoulder. "And so, in another way am I! If I understand you rightly, you would maintain that in many cases discontent and disorder are the fermentation in the mind of one man, who for some hidden personal motive works his thought through a whole kingdom; and you suggest that if that man once obtained what he wanted there would be an end of trouble—at any rate for a time till the next malcontent turned up! Is not that so?"
"It is so, Sir," replied Ronsard; "and I think it has always been so. In every era of strife and revolution, we shall find one dissatisfied Soul—often a soul of genius and ambition—at the centre of the trouble."
"Probably you are right," said the monarch indulgently; "But evidently the dissatisfied soul is not in your body! You are no Don Quixote fighting a windmill of imaginary wrongs, are you?"
A dark red flush mounted to the old man's brow, and as it passed away, left him pale as death.
"Sir, I have fought against wrongs in my time; but they were not imaginary. I might have still continued the combat but for Gloria!"
"Ah! She is your peace-offering to an unjust world?"
"No Sir; she is God's gift to a broken heart," replied Ronsard gently. "The sea cast her up like a pearl into my life; and so for her sake I resolved to live. For her only I made this little home—for her I managed to gain some control over the rough inhabitants of these Islands, and encouraged in them the spirit of peace, mirth and gladness. I soothed their discontent, and tried to instil into them something of the Greek love of beauty and pleasure. But after all, my work sprang from a personal, I may as well say a selfish motive—merely to make the child I loved, happy!"
"Then do you not regret that she is married, and no longer yours to cherish entirely?"
"No, I regret nothing!" answered Ronsard; "For I am old and must soon die. I shall leave her in good and safe hands."
The King looked at him thoughtfully, and seemed about to ask another question, then suddenly changing his mind, he turned to his Consort and said a few words to her in a low tone, whereupon as if in obedience to a command, she rose, and with all the gracious charm which she could always exert if she so pleased, she enquired of Ronsard if he would permit them to see something of the interior of his house.
"Madam," replied Ronsard, with some embarrassment; "All I have is at your service, but it is only a poor place."
"No place is poor that has peace in it," returned the Queen, with one of those rare smiles of hers, which so swiftly subjugated the hearts of men. "Will you lead the way?"
Thus persuaded, Rene Ronsard could only bow a respectful assent, and obey the request, which from Royalty was tantamount to a command. Signing to the other members of the party, who had stood till now at a little distance, the Queen bade them all accompany her.
"The King will stay here till we return," she said, "And Sir Roger will stay with him!"
With these words, and a flashing glance at De Launay, she stepped across the lawn, followed by her ladies-in-waiting, with Sir Walter Langton and the other gentlemen; and in another moment the brilliant little group had disappeared behind the trailing roses and clematis, which hung in profusion from the oaken projections of the wide verandah round Ronsard's picturesque dwelling. Standing still for a moment, with Sir Roger a pace behind him, the King watched them enter the house— then quickly turning round on his heel, faced his equerry with a broad smile.
"Now, De Launay," he said, "let us find Von Glauben!"
Sir Roger started with surprise, and not a little apprehension.
"Von Glauben, Sir?"
"Yes—Von Glauben! He is here! I saw his face two minutes ago, peering through those trees!" And he pointed down a shadowy path, dark with the intertwisted gloom of untrained pine-boughs. "I am not dreaming, nor am I accustomed to imagine spectres! I am on the track of a mystery, Roger! There is a beautiful girl here named Gloria. The beautiful girl is married—possibly to a jealous husband, for she is apparently hidden away from all likely admirers, including myself! Now suppose Von Glauben is that husband!"
He broke off and laughed. Sir Roger de Launay laughed with him; the idea was too irresistibly droll. But the King was bent on mischief, and determined to lose no time in compassing it.
"Come along!" he said. "If this tangled path holds a secret, it shall be discovered before we are many minutes older! I am confident I saw Von Glauben; and what he can be doing here passes my comprehension! Follow me, Roger! If our worthy Professor has a wife, and his wife is beautiful, we will pardon him for keeping her existence a secret from us so long!"
He laughed again; and turning into the path he had previously indicated, began walking down it rapidly, Sir Roger following closely, and revolving in his own perplexed mind the scene of the morning, when Von Glauben had expressed such a strong desire to get away to The Islands, and had admitted that there was "a lady in the case."
"Really, it is most extraordinary!" he thought. "The King no sooner decides to break through conventional forms, than all things seem loosened from their moorings! A week ago, we were all apparently fixed in our orbits of exact routine and work—the King most fixed of all— but now, who can say what may happen next!"
At that moment the monarch turned round.
"This path seems interminable, Roger," he said; "It gets darker, closer and narrower. It thickens, in fact, like, the mystery we are probing!"
Sir Roger glanced about him. A straight band of trees hemmed them in on either side, and the daylight filtered through their stems pallidly, while, as the King had said, there seemed to be no end to the path they were following. They walked on swiftly, however, exchanging no further word, when suddenly an unexpected sound came sweeping up through the heavy branches. It was the rush and roar of the sea,—a surging, natural psalmody that filled the air, and quivered through the trees with the measured beat of an almost human chorus.
"This must be another way to the shore," said the King, coming to a standstill; "And there must be rocks or caverns near. Hark how the waves thunder and reverberate through some deep hollow!"
Sir Roger listened, and heard the boom of water rolling in and rolling out again, with the regularity and rhythm of an organ swell, but he caught an echo of something else besides, which piqued his curiosity and provoked him to a touch of unusual excitement,—it was the sweet and apparently quickly suppressed sound of a woman's laughter. He glanced at his Royal master, and saw at once that he, too, had sharp ears for that silvery cadence of mirth, for his eyes flashed into a smile.
"On, Roger," he said softly; "We are close on the heels of the problem!"
But they had only pressed forward a few steps when they were again brought to a sudden pause. A voice, whose gruffly mellow accents were familiar to both of them, was speaking within evidently close range, and the King, with a warning look, motioned De Launay back a pace or two, himself withdrawing a little into the shadow of the trees.
"Ach! Do not sing, my princess!" said the voice; "For if you open your rosy mouth of music, all the birds of the air, and all the little fishes of the sea will come to listen! And, who knows! Someone more dangerous than either a bird or a fish may listen also!"
The King grasped De Launay by the arm.
"Was I not right?" he whispered. "There is no mistaking Von Glauben's accent!"
Sir Roger looked, as he felt, utterly bewildered. In his own mind he felt it very difficult to associate the Professor with a love affair. Yet things certainly seemed pointing to some entanglement of the sort. Suddenly the King held up an admonitory finger.
"Listen!" he said.
Another voice spoke, rich and clear, and sweet as honey.
"Why should I not sing?" and there was a thrill of merriment in the delicious accents. "You are so afraid of everything to-day! Why? Why should I stay here with nothing to do? Because you tell me the King is visiting The Islands. What does that matter? What do I care for the King? He is nothing to me!"
"You would be something, perhaps, to him if he saw you," replied the guttural voice of Von Glauben. "It is safer to be out of his way. You are a very wilful princess this afternoon! You must remember your husband is jealous!"
The King started.
"Her husband! What the devil does Von Glauben know about her husband!"
De Launay was dumb. A nameless fear and dismay began to possess him.
"My husband!" And the sweet voice laughed out again. "It would be strange indeed for a poor sailor to be jealous of a king!"
"If the poor sailor had a beautiful wife he worshipped, and the King should admire the wife, he might have cause to be jealous!" replied Von Glauben; "And with some ladies, a poor sailor would stand no chance against a king! Why are you so rebellious, my princess, to-day? Have I not brought a letter from your beloved which plainly asks you to keep out of the sight of the King? Have I not been an hour with you here, reading the most beautiful poetry of Heine?"
"That is why I want to sing," said the sweet voice, with a touch of wilfulness in its tone. "Listen! I will give you a reading of Heine in music!" And suddenly, rich and clear as a bell, a golden cadence of notes rang out with the words:
"Ah, Hast thou forgotten, That I possessed thy heart?"
The King sprang lightly out of his hiding-place, and with De Launay moved on slowly and cautiously through the trees.
"Ach, mein Gott!" they heard Von Glauben exclaim—"That is a bird-call which will float on wings to the ears of the King!"
A soft laugh rippled on the air.
"Dear friend and master, why are you so afraid?" asked the caressing woman's voice again;—"We are quite hidden away from the Royal visitors,—and though you have been peeping at the King through the trees, and though you know he is actually in our garden, he will never find his way here! This is quite a secret little study and schoolroom, where you have taught me so much!—yes—so much!—and I am very grateful! And whenever you come to see me you teach me something more— you are always good and kind!—and I would not anger you for the world! But what is the good of knowing and feeling beautiful things, if I may not express them?"
"You do express them,—in yourself,—in your own existence and appearance!" said the Professor gruffly; "but that is a physiological accident which I do not expect you to understand!"
There was a moment's silence. Then came a slight movement, as of quick feet clambering among loose pebbles, and the voice rang out again.
"There! Now I am in my rocky throne! Do you remember—Ah, no!—you know nothing about it,—but I will tell you the story! It was here, in this very place, that my husband first saw me!"
"Ach so!" murmured Von Glauben. "It is an excellent place to make a first appearance! Eve herself could not have chosen more picturesque surroundings to make a conquest of Adam!"
Apparently his mild sarcasm fell on unheeding ears.
"He was walking slowly all alone on the shore," went on the voice, dropping into a more plaintive and tender tone; "The sun had sunk, and one little star was sparkling in the sky. He looked up at the star— and—"
"Then he saw a woman's eye," interpolated Von Glauben; "Which is always more attractive to weak man than an impossible-to-visit planet! What does Shakespeare say of women's eyes?
'Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, Having some business, do entreat her eyes To twinkle in their spheres till they return. What if her eyes were there, they in her head? The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars, As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven Would through the airy regions stream so bright, That birds would sing and think it were not night!'
Ach! That is so!"
As the final words left his lips, a rich note of melody stirred the air, and a song in which words and music seemed thoroughly welded together, rose vibratingly up to the quiet sky:
"Here by the sea, My Love found me! Seagulls over the waves were swinging; Mermaids down in their caves were singing,— And one little star in the rosy sky Sparkled above like an angel's eye! My Love found me, And I and he Plighted our troth eternally! Oh day of splendour, And self-surrender! The day when my Love found me!
Here, by the sea, My King crown'd me! Wild ocean sang for my Coronation, With the jubilant voice of a mighty nation!— 'Mid the towering rocks he set my throne, And made me forever and ever his own! My King crown'd me, And I and he Are one till the world shall cease to be! Oh sweet love story! Oh night of glory! The night when my King crown'd me!"
No language could ever describe the marvellous sweetness of the voice that sung these lines; it was so full of exquisite triumph, tenderness and passion, that it seemed more supernatural than human. When the song ceased, a great wave dashed on the shore, like a closing organ chord, and Von Glauben spoke.
"There! You wanted your own way, my princess, and you have had it! You have sung like one of the seraphim;—do not be surprised if mortals are drawn to listen. Sst! What is that?"
There was a pause. The King had inadvertently cracked a twig on one of the pine-boughs he was holding back in an endeavour to see the speakers. But he now boldly pushed on, beckoning De Launay to follow close, and in another minute had emerged on a small sandy plateau, which led, by means of an ascending path, to a rocky eminence, encircled by huge boulders and rocky pinnacles, which somewhat resembled peaks of white coral,—and here, on a height above him,—with the afternoon sun-glow bathing her in its full mellow radiance, sat a visibly enthroned goddess of the landscape,—a girl, or rather a perfect woman, more beautiful than any he had ever seen, or even imagined. He stared up at her in dazzled wonder, half blinded by the brightness of the sun and her almost equally blinding loveliness.
"Gloria!" he exclaimed breathlessly, hardly conscious of his own utterance; "You are Gloria!"
The fair vision rose, and came swiftly forward with an astonished look in her bright deep eyes.
"Yes!" she said, "I am Gloria!"
A SEA PRINCESS
Scarcely had she thus declared herself, when the Bismarckian head and shoulders of Von Glauben appeared above the protecting boulders; and moving with deliberate caution, the rest of his body came slowly after, till he stood fully declared in an attitude of military 'attention.' He showed neither alarm nor confusion at seeing the King; on the contrary, the fixed, wooden expression of his countenance betokened some deeply- seated mental obstinacy, and he faced his Royal master with the utmost composure, lifting the slouched hat he wore with his usual stiff and soldierly dignity, though carefully avoiding the amazed stare of his friend, Sir Roger de Launay.
The King glanced him up and down with a smiling air of amused curiosity.
"So this is how you pursue your scientific studies, Professor!" he said lightly; "Well!"—and he turned his eyes, full of admiration, on the beautiful creature who stood silently confronting him with all that perfect ease which expresses a well-balanced mind,—"Wisdom is often symbolised to us as a marble goddess,—but when Pallas Athene takes so fair a shape of flesh and blood as this, who shall blame even a veteran philosopher for sitting at her feet in worship!"
"Pardon me, Sir," returned Von Glauben calmly; "There is no goddess of Wisdom here, so please you, but only a very simple and unworldly young woman. She is—" Here he hesitated a moment, then went on—"She is merely the adopted child of a fisherman living on these Islands."
"I am aware of that!" said the King still smiling. "Rene Ronsard is his name. He is my host to-day; and he has told me something of her. But, certes, he did not mention that you had adopted her also!"
Von Glauben flushed vexedly.
"Sir," he stammered, "I could explain—"
"Another time!" interrupted the King, with a touch of asperity. "Meanwhile, present your—your pupil in the poesy of Heine,—to me!"
Thus commanded, the Professor, casting a vexed glance at De Launay, who did not in the least comprehend his distress, went to the girl, who during their brief conversation had stood quietly looking from one to the other with an expression of half-amused disdain on her lovely features.
"Gloria," he began reluctantly—then whispering in her ear, he muttered—"I told you your voice would do mischief, and it has done it!" Then aloud—"Gloria,—this—this is the King!"
She smiled, but did not change her erect and easy attitude.
"The King is welcome!" she said simply.
She had evidently no intention of saluting the monarch; and Sir Roger de Launay gazed at her in mingled surprise and admiration. She was certainly wonderfully beautiful. Her complexion had the soft clear transparency of a pink sea-shell—her eyes, large and lustrous, were as densely blue as the dark azure in the depths of a wave,—and her hair, of a warm bronze chestnut, caught back with a single band of red coral, seemed to have gathered in its rich curling clusters all the deepest tints of autumn leaves flecked with a golden touch of the sun. Her figure, clad in a straight garment of rough white homespun, was the model of perfect womanhood. She stood a little above the medium height, her fair head poised proudly on regal shoulders, while the curve of the full bosom would have baffled the sculptural genius of a Phidias. The whole exquisite outline of her person was the expressed essence of beauty, from the lightest wave of her hair, down to her slender ankles and small feet; and the look that irradiated her noble features was that of child-like happiness and repose,—the untired expression of one who had never known any other life than the innocent enjoyment bestowed upon her by God and divine Nature. Beautiful as his Queen-Consort was and always had been, the King was forced to admit to himself that here was a woman far more beautiful,—and as he looked upon her critically, he saw that there was a light and splendour about her which only the happiness of Love can give. Her whole aspect was as of one uplifted into a finer atmosphere than that of earth,—she seemed to exhale purity from herself, as a rose exhales perfume, and her undisturbed serenity and dignity, when made aware of the Royal presence, were evidently not the outcome of ill-breeding or discourtesy, but of mere self-respect and independence. He approached her with a strange hesitation, which for him was quite a new experience.
"I am glad I have been fortunate enough to meet you!" he said gently;— "Some kindly fate guided my steps down the path which brought me to this part of the shore, else I might have gone away without seeing you!"
"That would have been no loss to your Majesty," answered Gloria calmly;—"For to see me, is of no use to anyone!"
"Would your husband say so?" hazarded the King with a smile.
Her eyes flashed.
"My husband would say what is right," she replied. "He would know better how to talk to you than I do!"
He had insensibly drawn nearer to her as he spoke; meanwhile Von Glauben, with a disconsolate air, had joined Sir Roger de Launay, who, by an enquiring look and anxious uplifting of his eyebrows, dumbly asked what was to be the upshot of this affair,—only to receive a dismal shake of the head in reply.
"Possibly I know your husband," went on the King, anxious to continue conversation with so beautiful a creature. "If I do, and he is in my personal service, he shall not lack promotion! Will you tell me his name?"
A startled look came into the girl's eyes, and a deep blush swept over her fair cheeks.
"I dare not!" she said;—"He has forbidden me!"
"Forbidden you!" The King recoiled a step—a vague suspicion rankled in his mind. "Then, though your King asks you a friendly question, you refuse to answer it?"
Von Glauben here gripped Sir Roger so fiercely by the arm, that the latter nearly cried out with pain.
"She must not tell," he muttered—"She must not—she will not!"
But Gloria was looking straight at her Royal questioner.
"I have no King but my husband!" she said firmly. "I have sworn before God to obey him in all things, and I will not break my vow!"
"Good girl! Wise girl!" exclaimed Von Glauben. "Ach, if all the beautiful women so guarded their tongues and obeyed their husbands, what a happy world it would be!"
The King turned upon him.
"True! But you are not bound by the confidences of marriage, Professor,—so that while in our service our will must be your law! You, therefore, can perhaps tell me the name of the fortunate man who has wedded this fair lady?"
The Professor's countenance visibly reddened.
"Sir," he stammered—"With every respect for your Majesty, I would rather lose my much-to-be-appreciated post with you than betray my friends!"
The King suddenly lost patience.
"By Heaven!" he exclaimed, "Is my command to be slighted and set aside as if it were naught? Not while I am king of this country! What mystery is here that I am not to know?"
Gloria laughed outright, and the pretty ripple of mirth, so unforced and natural, diverted the monarch's irritation.
"Oh, you are angry!" she said, her lovely eyes twinkling and sparkling like diamonds:—"So! Then your Majesty is no more than a very common man who loses temper when he cannot have his own way!" She laughed again, and the King stared at her unoffended,—being spellbound, both by her regal beauty, and her complete indifference to himself. "I will speak like the prophets do in the Bible and say, 'Lo! there is no mystery, O King!' I am only poor Gloria, a sailor's wife,—and the sailor has a place on board your son the Crown Prince's yacht, and he does not want his master to know that he is married lest he lose that place! Is not that plain and clear, O King? And why should I disobey my beloved in such a simple matter?"
The King was still in something of a fume.
"There is no reason why you should disobey," he said more quietly, but still with vexation;—"But, equally, there is no reason why your husband should be dismissed from the Crown Prince's service, because he has chosen to marry. If you tell me his name, I will make all things easy for him, for you, and your future. Can you not trust me?"
With wonderful grace and quickness Gloria suddenly sprang forward, caught the King's hand, kissed it, and then threw it lightly away from her.
"No!" she said, with a pretty defiance; "I kiss the hand of the country's King—but I have my own King to serve!"
And pausing for no more words, she turned away, sprang lightly up the rocks as swiftly as a roe-deer, and disappeared. And from some hidden corner, clear and full and sweet, her voice rang out above the peaceful plashing of the waves:
"My King crown'd me! And I and he Are one till the world shall cease to be!"
Stricken dumb and confused by the suddenness of her action, and the swiftness of her departure, the King stood for a moment inert, gazing up the rocky height with the air of one who has seen a vision of heaven withdrawn again into its native element. Some darkening doubt troubled his mind, and it was with an altogether changed and stern countenance that he confronted Von Glauben.
"Last night, Professor, you were somewhat anxious for our health and safety," he said severely; "It is our turn now to be equally anxious for yours! We are of opinion that you, like ourselves, run some risk of danger by meddling in affairs which do not concern you! Silence!" This, as the Professor, deeply moved by his Royal master's evident displeasure, made an attempt to speak. "We will hear all you have to say to-morrow. Meanwhile—follow your fair charge!" And he pointed up in the direction whither Gloria had vanished. "Her husband"—and he emphasized the word,—"whoever he is, appears to have entrusted her safety to you;—see that you do not betray his trust, even though you have betrayed mine!"
At this remark Von Glauben was visibly overcome.
"Sir, you have never had reason to complain of any lack of loyalty in me to you and to your service," he said with an earnest dignity which became him well;—"In the matter of the poor child yonder, whose beauty would surely be a fatal snare to any man, there is much to be told,— which if told truly, will prove that I am merely the slave of circumstances which were not created by me,—and which it is possible for a faithful servant of your Majesty to regret! But a betrayer of trust I have never been, and I beseech your Majesty to believe me when I say that the acuteness of that undeserved reproach cuts me to the heart! I yield to no man in the respect and affection I entertain for your Royal person, not even to De Launay here—who knows—who knows—"
He broke off, unable through strong emotion to proceed.
"'Who knows'—What?" enquired the King, turning his steadfast eyes on Sir Roger.
"Nothing, Sir! Absolutely nothing!" replied the equerry, opening his eyes as widely as their habitual langour would permit; "I am absolutely ignorant of everything concerning Von Glauben except that he is an honest man! That I certainly do know!"
A slight smile cleared away something of the doubt and displeasure on the King's face. Approaching the disconsolate Professor, he laid one hand on his shoulder and looked him steadily in the eyes.
"By my faith, Von Glauben, if I thought positively that you could play me false in any matter, I would never believe a man again! Come! Forgive my hasty speech, and do not look so downcast! Honest I have always known you to be,—and that you will prove your honesty, I do not doubt! But—there is something in this affair which awakens grave suspicion in my mind. For to-day I press no questions—but to-morrow I must know all! You understand? All! Say this to the girl, Gloria,—say it to her husband also—as, of course, you know who her husband is. If he serves on Prince Humphry's yacht, that is enough to say that Humphry himself has probably seen her. Under all the circumstances, I confess, my dear Von Glauben, that your presence here is a riddle which needs explanation!"
"It shall be explained, Sir—" murmured the Professor.
"Naturally! It must, of course be explained. But I hope you give me credit for not being altogether a fool; and I have an idea that my son's frequent mysterious visits to The Islands have something to do with this fair Gloria of Glorias!" Von Glauben started involuntarily. "You perhaps think it too? Or know it? Well, if it is so, I can hardly blame him overmuch,—though I am sorry he should have selected a poor sailor's wife as a subject for his secret amours! I should have thought him possessed of more honour. However—to-morrow I shall look to you for a full account of the matter. For the present, I excuse your attendance, and permit you to remain with her whom you call 'princess'!"
He stepped back, and, taking De Launay's arm, turned round at once, and walked away back to Ronsard's house by the path he had followed with such eagerness and care.
Von Glauben watched the two tall figures disappear, and then with a troubled look, began to climb slowly up the rocks in the direction where Gloria had gone. His reflections were not altogether as philosophical as usual, because as he said to himself—"One can never tell how a woman is going to meet misfortune! Sometimes she takes it well; and then the men who have ruthlessly destroyed her happiness go on their way rejoicing; but more often she takes it ill, and there is the devil to pay! Yet—Gloria is not like any ordinary woman—she is a carefully selected specimen of her sex, which a kindly Nature has produced as an example of what women were intended to be when they were first created. I wonder where she has hidden herself?"
Arriving at the summit of the ascent, he peered down towards the sea. Slopes of rank grass and sea-daisies tufted the rocks on this side, divided by certain deep hollows which the action of the waves had honeycombed here and there; and below the grass was the shore, powdered thickly with sand, of a fine, light, and sparkling colour, like gold dust. Here in the full light of the sinking sun lay Gloria, her head pillowed against a rough stone, on the top of which a tall cluster of daisies, sometimes called moon-flowers, waved like white plumes.
"Gloria!" called Von Glauben.
She looked up, smiling.
"Has Majesty gone?" she asked.
"Gone for the present," replied the Professor, beginning to put one foot cautiously before the other down a roughly hewn stairway in the otherwise almost inaccessible cliff. "But, like the sun which is setting to-night, he will rise again to-morrow!"
"Shall I come and help you down?" enquired the girl, turning on her elbow as she lay, and lifting her lovely face, radiant as a flower, towards him.
"Whether down or up, you shall never help me, my princess!" he replied. "When I can neither climb nor fall without the assistance of a woman's hand, I shall take a pistol and tell it to whisper in my ear—'Good- bye, Heinrich Von Glauben! You are all up—finish—gone!'"
Here, with a somewhat elephantine jump, he alighted beside her and threw himself on the warm sand with a deep sigh of mingled exhaustion and relief.
"You would be very wicked to put a pistol to your ear," said Gloria severely;—"It is only a coward who shoots himself!"
"Ach so! And it is a brave man who shoots others! That is curious, is it not, princess? It is a little bit of man's morality; but we have no time to discuss it now. We have something more serious to consider,— your husband!"
She looked at him wonderingly.
"My husband? Do you really think he will be very angry that the King saw me?"
The Professor appeared to be considering the question; but in reality he was studying the exquisite delicacy of the face turned so wistfully upon him, and the lovely lines of the slim throat and rounded chin—"So beautiful a creature"—he was saying within himself—"And must she also suffer pain and disillusion like all the rest of her unfortunate sex!" Aloud he replied.
"My princess, it is not for me to say he will be 'angry,'—for how could he be angry with the one he loves to such adoration! He will be sorry and troubled—it will put him into a great difficulty! Ach!—a whole nest of difficulties!"
"Why?" And Gloria's eyes filled with sudden tears. "I would not grieve him for the world! I cannot understand why it should matter at all, even if the King does find out that he is married. Are the rules so strict for all the men who serve on board the Royal vessels?"
Von Glauben bit his lips to hide an involuntary smile. But he answered her with quite a martinet air.
"Yes, they are strict—very strict! Particularly so in the case of your husband. You see, my child—you do not perhaps quite understand—but he is a sort of superior officer on board; and in close personal attendance on the Crown Prince."
"He did not tell me that!" said the girl a little anxiously; "Yet surely it would not matter if he loses one place; can he not easily get another?"
Von Glauben was looking at her with a grave, almost melancholy intentness.
"Listen, my princess,—listen to your poor old friend, who means you so much good, and no harm at all! Your husband—and I too, for that matter,—wished much to prevent the King from seeing you—for—for many reasons. When I heard he was coming to The Islands, I resolved to arrive here before him, and so I did. I said nothing to Ronsard, not even to warn him of the King's impending visit. I took you just quietly, as I have often done, for a walk, with a book to read and to explain to you, because you tell me you want to study; though in my opinion you know quite enough—for a woman. I gave you a letter from your husband, and you know he asked you in that letter to avoid all possibility of meeting with the King. Good! Well, now, what happens? You sing—and lo! his Majesty, like a fish on a hook, is drawn up open- mouthed to your feet! Now, who is to blame? You or I?"
A little perplexed line appeared on the girl's fair brows. "I am, I suppose!" she said somewhat plaintively,—"But yet, even now, I do not understand. What is the King? He is nothing! He does nothing for anybody! People make petitions to him, and he never answers them—they try to point out errors and abuses, and he takes no trouble to remedy them—he is no better than a wooden idol! He is not a real man, though he looks like one."
"Oh, you think he looks like one?" murmured Von Glauben; "That is to say you are not altogether displeased with his appearance?"
Gloria's eyes darkened a moment with thought,—then flashed with laughter.
"No," she said frankly—"He is more kingly than I thought a king could be. But he should not lose temper. That spoils all dignity!"
Von Glauben smiled.
"Kings are but mortal," he said, "and never to lose temper would be impossible to any man."
"It is such a waste of time!" declared Gloria—"Why should anyone lose self-control? It is like giving up a sword to an enemy."
"That is one of Rene Ronsard's teachings,"—said the Professor—"It is excellent in theory! But in practice I have seen Rene give way to temper himself, with considerable enjoyment of his own mental thunderstorm. As for the King, he is generally a very equable personage; and he has one great virtue—that is courage. He is brave as a lion—perhaps braver than many lions!"
She raised her eyes enquiringly.
"Has he proved it?"
Rather taken aback by the question, he stared at her solemnly.
"Proved it? Well! He has had no chance. The country has been at peace for many years—but if there should ever be a war——"