"Would he go and fight for the country?" enquired Gloria.
"In person? No. He would not be allowed to do that. His life would be endangered——"
"Of course!" interrupted the girl with a touch of contempt; "But if he would allow himself to be ruled by others in such a matter, I do not call him brave!"
The Professor drew out his spectacles, and fixing them on his nose with much care, regarded her through them with bland and kindly interest.
"Very simple and primitive reasoning, my princess!" he said; "And from an early historic point of view, your idea is correct. In the olden times kings went themselves to battle, and led their soldiers on to victory in person. It was very fine; much finer than our modern ways of warfare. But it has perhaps never occurred to you that a king's life nowadays is always in danger? He can do nothing more completely courageous than to show himself in public!"
"Are kings then so hated?" she asked.
"They are not loved, it must be confessed," returned Von Glauben, taking off his spectacles again; "But that is quite their own fault. They seldom do anything to deserve the respect,—much less the affection of their subjects. But this king—this man you have just seen—certainly deserves both."
"Why, what has he done?" asked Gloria wonderingly. "I have heard people say he is very wicked—that he takes other men's wives away from them—"
The Professor coughed discreetly.
"My princess, let me suggest to you that he could scarcely take other men's wives away from them, unless those wives were perfectly willing to go!"
She gave an impatient gesture.
"Oh, there are weak women, no doubt; but then a king should know better than to put temptation in their way. If a man undertakes to be strong, he should also be honourable. Then,—what of the taxes the King imposes on the people? The sufferings of the poor over there on the mainland are terrible!—I know all about them! I have heard Sergius Thord!"
The Professor gave an uncomfortable start.
"You have heard Sergius Thord? Where?"
"Here!" And Gloria smiled at his expression of wonderment. "He has spoken often to our people, and he is father Rene's friend."
"And what does he talk about when he speaks here?" enquired Von Glauben. "When does he come, and how does he go?"
"Always at night," answered Gloria; "He has a sailing skiff of his own, and on many an evening when the wind sets in our quarter, he arrives quite suddenly, all alone, and in a moment, as if by magic, the Islanders all seem to know he is here. On the shore, or in the fields he assembles them round him, and tells them many things that are plain and true. I have heard him speak often of the shortness of life and its many sorrows, and he says we could all make each other happy for the little time we have to live, if we would. And I think he is right; it is only wicked and selfish people who make others unhappy!"
The Professor was silent. Gloria, watching him, wondered at his somewhat perturbed expression.
"Do you know the King very well?" she asked suddenly. "He seemed very cross with you!"
Von Glauben roused himself from a fit of momentary abstraction.
"Yes,—he was cross!" he rejoined. "I, like your husband, am in his service—and I ought to have been on duty to-day. It will be all right, however—all right! But—" He paused for a moment, then went on—"You say that only wicked and selfish people make others unhappy. Now suppose your husband were wicked and selfish enough to make you unhappy; what would you say?"
A sweet smile shone in her eyes.
"He could not make me unhappy!" she said. "He would not try! He loves me, and he will always love me!"
"But, suppose," persisted the Professor—"Just for the sake of argument —suppose he had deceived you?"
With a low cry she sprang up.
"Impossible!" she exclaimed; "He is truth itself! He could not deceive anyone!"
"Come and sit down again," said Von Glauben tranquilly; "It is disturbing to my mind to see you standing there pronouncing your faith in the integrity of man! No male creature deserves such implicit trust, and whenever a woman gives it, she invariably finds out her mistake!"
But Gloria stood still, The rich colour had faded from her cheeks—her eyes were dilated with alarm, and her breath came and went quickly.
"You must explain," she said hurriedly; "You must tell me what you mean by suggesting such a wicked thought to me as that my husband could deceive me! It is not right or kind of you,—it is cruel!"
The Professor scrambled up hastily out of his sandy nook, and approaching her, took her hand very gently and respectfully in his own and kissed it.
"My dear—my princess—I was wrong! Forgive me!" he murmured, and there was a little tremor in his voice; "But can you not understand the possibility of a man loving a woman very much, and yet deceiving her for her good?"
"It could never be for her good," said Gloria firmly; "It would not be for mine! No lie ever lasts!"
Von Glauben looked at her with a sense of reverence and something like awe. The after-glow of the sinking sun was burning low down upon the sea, and turning it to fiery crimson, and as she stood bathed in its splendour, the white rocks towering above her, and the golden sands sparkling at her feet, she appeared like some newly descended angel expressing the very truth of Heaven itself in her own presence on earth. As they stood thus, the sudden boom of a single cannon echoed clear across the waves.
"There goes the King!" said Von Glauben; "Majesty departs for the present, having so far satisfied his curiosity! That gun is the signal. Child!"—and turning towards her again, he took both her hands in his, and spoke with emphatic gravity and kindness—"Remember that I am your friend always! Whatever chances to you, do not forget that you may command my service and devotion till death! In this strange life, we never know from day to day what may happen to us, for constant change is the law of Nature and the universe,—but after all, there is something in the soul of a true man which does not change with the elements,—and that is—loyalty to a sworn faith! In my heart, I have sworn an oath of fealty to you, my beautiful little princess of the sea!—and it is a vow that shall never be broken! Do you understand? And will you remember?"
Her large dark blue eyes looked trustingly into his.
"Indeed, I will never forget!" she said, with a touch of wistfulness in her accents; "But I do not know why you should be anxious for me—there is nothing to fear for my happiness. I have all the love I care for in the world!"
"And long may you keep it!" said the Professor earnestly; "Come! It will soon be time for me to leave you, and I must see Rene before I go. If you follow my advice, you will say nothing to him of having met the King—not for the present, at any rate."
She agreed to this, though with some little hesitation,—then they ascended the cliff, and walking by way of the pine-wood through which the King had come, arrived at Ronsard's house, to find the old man quite alone, and peacefully engaged in tying up the roses and jessamine on the pillars of his verandah. His worn face lighted up with animation and tenderness as Gloria approached him and threw her arms around his neck, and to her he related the incident of the King and Queen's unexpected visit, as a sort of accidental, uninteresting, and wholly unimportant occurrence. The Queen, he said, was very beautiful; but too cold in her manner, though she had certainly taken much interest in seeing the house and garden.
"It was just as well you were absent, child," he added—"Royalty brings an atmosphere with it which is not wholesome. A king never knows what it is to be an honest man!"
"Those are your old, discarded theories, Ronsard!" said Von Glauben, shaking his head;—"You said you would never return to them!"
"Aye!" rejoined Ronsard;—"I have tried to put away all my old thoughts and dreams for her sake"—and his gaze rested lovingly on Gloria as, standing on tiptoe to reach a down-drooping rose, she gathered it and fastened it in her bosom. "There should only be peace and contentment where she dwells! But sometimes my life's long rebellion against sham and injustice stirs in my blood, and I long to pull down the ignorant people's idols of wood and straw, and set up men in place of dummies!"
"A Mumbo-Jumbo of some kind has always been necessary in the world, my friend," said the Professor calmly; "Either in the shape of a deity or a king. A wood and straw Nonentity is better than an incarnated fleshly Selfishness. Will you give me supper before I leave?"
Ronsard smiled a cheery assent, and Gloria preceding them, and singing in a low tone to herself as she went, they all entered the house together.
Meanwhile, the Royal yacht was scudding back to the mainland over crisp waters on the wings of a soft breeze, with a bright moon flying through fleecy clouds above, and silvering the foam-crests of the waves below. There was music on board,—the King and Queen dined with their guests, —and laughter and gay converse intermingled with the sound of song. They talked of their day's experience—of the beauty of The Islands—of Ronsard,—his quaint house and quainter self,—so different to the persons with whom they associated in their own exclusive and brilliant Court 'set,' and the pretty Countess Amabil flirting harmlessly with Sir Walter Langton, suggested that a 'Flower Feast' or Carnival should be held during the summer, for the surprise and benefit of the Islanders, who had never yet seen a Royal pageant of pleasure on their shores.
But Sir Roger de Launay, ever watching the Queen, saw that she was very pale, and more silent even than was her usual habit, and that her eyes every now and again rested on the King, with something of wonder, as well as fear.
In one of the ultra-fashionable quarters of the brilliant and overcrowded metropolis which formed the nucleus and centre of everything notable or progressive in the King's dominions, there stood a large and aggressively-handsome house, over-decorated both outside and in, and implying in its general appearance vulgarity, no less than wealth. These two things go together very much nowadays; in fact one scarcely ever sees them apart. The fair, southern city of the sea was not behind other modern cities in luxury and self-aggrandisement, and there were certain members of the population who made it their business to show all they were worth in their domestic and home surroundings. One of the most flagrant money-exhibitors of this kind was a certain Jew named David Jost. Jost was the sole proprietor of the most influential newspaper in the kingdom, and the largest shareholder in three other newspaper companies, all apparently differing in party views, but all in reality working into the same hands, and for the same ends. Jost and his companies virtually governed the Press; and what was euphoniously termed 'public opinion' was the opinion of Jost. Should anything by chance happen to get into his own special journal, or into any of the other journals connected with Jost, which Jost did not approve of, or which might be damaging to Jost's social or financial interests, the editor in charge was severely censured; if the fault occurred again he was promptly dismissed. 'Public opinion' had to be formed on Jost's humour; otherwise it was no opinion at all. A few other newspapers led a precarious existence in offering a daily feeble opposition to Jost; but they had not cash enough to carry on the quarrel. Jost secured all the advertisers, and as a natural consequence of this, could well afford to be the 'voice of the people' ad libitum. He was immensely wealthy, openly vicious, and utterly unscrupulous; and made brilliant speculative 'deals' in the unsuspecting natures of those who were led, by that bland and cheery demeanour which is generally associated with a large paunch, to consider him a 'good fellow' with his 'heart in the right place.' With regard to this last assertion, it may be doubted whether he had a heart at all, in any place, right or wrong. He was certainly not given to sentiment. He had married for money, and his wife had died in a mad-house. He was now anxious to marry again for position; and while looking round the market for a sufficiently perfect person of high-breeding, he patronized the theatre largely, and 'protected' several ballet-girls and actresses. Everyone knew that his life was black with villainy and intrigue of the most shameless kind, yet everyone swore that he was a good man. Such is the value of a limitless money-bag!
It was very late in the evening of the day following that on which the King had paid his unexpected visit to The Islands,—and David Jost had just returned from a comic opera-house, where he had supped in private with two or three painted heroines of the footlights. He was in an excellent humour with himself. He had sprung a mine on the public; and a carefully-concocted rumour of war with a foreign power had sent up certain stocks and shares in which he had considerable interest. He smiled, as he thought of the general uneasiness he was creating by a few headlines in his newspaper; and he enjoyed to the full the tranquil sense of having flung a bone of discord between two nations, in order to watch them from his arm-chair fighting like dogs for it tooth and claw, till one or the other gave in.
"Lutera will have to thank me for this," he said to himself; "And he will owe me both a place and a title!"
He sat down at his desk in his warm and luxuriously-furnished study,— turned over a few letters, and then glanced up at the clock. Its hands pointed to within a few minutes of midnight. Taking up a copy of his own newspaper, he frowned slightly, as he saw that a certain leading article in favour of the Jesuit settlement in the country had not appeared.
"Crowded out, I suppose, for want of space," he said; "I must see that it goes in to-morrow. These Jesuits know a thing or two; and they are not going to plank down a thousand pounds for nothing. They have paid for their advertisement, and they must have it. They ought to have had it to-day. Lutera must warn the King that it will not do to offend the Church. There's a lot of loose cash lying idle in the Vatican,—we may as well have some of it! His Majesty has acted most unwisely in refusing to grant the religious Orders the land they want. He must be persuaded to yield it to them by degrees,—in exchange of course for plenty of cash down, without loss of dignity!"
At that moment the door-bell rang softly, as if it were pulled with extreme caution. A servant answered it, and at once came to his master's room.
"A gentleman to see you, sir, on business," he said.
Jost looked up.
"On business? At this time of night? Say I cannot see him—tell him to come again to-morrow!"
The servant withdrew, only to return again with a more urgent statement.
"The gentleman says he must see you, sir; he comes from the Premier."
"From the Premier?"
"Yes, sir; his business is urgent, he says, and private. He sent in his card, sir."
Here he handed over the card in question, a small, unobtrusive bit of pasteboard, laid in solitary grandeur on a very large silver salver.
David Jost took it up, and scanned it with some curiosity. "'Pasquin Leroy'! H'm! Don't know the name at all. 'Urgent business; bear private credentials from the Marquis de Lutera'!" He paused again, considering, —then turned to the waiting attendant. "Show him in.".
Another moment and Pasquin Leroy entered,—but it was an altogether different Pasquin Leroy to the one that had recently enrolled himself as an associate of Sergius Thord's Revolutionary Committee. That particular Pasquin had seemed somewhat of a dreamer and a visionary, with a peculiar and striking resemblance to the King; this Pasquin Leroy had all the alertness and sharpness common to a practised journalist, press-reporter or commercial traveller. Moreover, his countenance, adorned with a black mustache, and small pointed beard, wore a cold and concentrated air of business—and he confronted the Jew millionaire without the slightest embarrassment or apology for having broken in upon his seclusion at so unseasonable an hour. He used a pince-nez, and was constantly putting it to his eyes, as though troubled with short-sightedness.
"I presume your matter cannot wait, sir," said Jost, surveying him coolly, without rising from his seat,—"but if it can—"
"It cannot!" returned Leroy, bluntly.
"So! You come from the Marquis de Lutera?"
Leroy stepped close up to him, and with a sudden movement, which was somewhat startling, held up his right hand.
"This signet is, I believe, familiar to you,—and it will be enough to prove that I come on confidential business which cannot be trusted to writing!"
Jost gazed at the flashing sapphire on the stranger's hand with a sense of deadly apprehension. He recognised the Premier's ring well enough; and he also knew that it would never have been sent to him in this mysterious way unless the matter in question was almost too desperate for whispering within four walls. An uneasy sensation affected him; he pulled at his collar, looked round the room as though in search of inspiration, and then finally bringing his small, swine-like eyes to bear on the neat soldierly figure before him, he said with a careless air:
"You probably bring news for the Press affecting the present policy?"
"That remains to be seen!" replied Leroy imperturbably; "From a perfectly impartial standpoint, I should imagine that the present policy may have to alter considerably!"
"Impossible! It cannot be altered!" he said roughly,—then suddenly recollecting himself, he assumed his usual indolent equanimity, and rising slowly, went to a side door in the room and threw it open.
"Step in here," he said; "We can talk without fear of interruption. Will you smoke?"
"With pleasure!" replied Leroy, accepting a cigar from the case Jost extended—then glancing with a slight smile at the broad, squat Jewish countenance which had, in the last couple of minutes, lost something of its habitual redness, he added—"I am glad you are disposed to discuss matters with me in a friendly, as well as in a confidential way. It is possible my news may not be altogether agreeable to you;—but of course you would be more willing to suffer personally, than to jeopardise the honour of Ministers."
He uttered the last sentence more as a question than a statement.
Jost shifted one foot against the other uneasily.
"I am not so sure of that," he said after a pause, during which he had drawn himself up, and had endeavoured to look conscientious; "You see I have the public to consider! Ministers may fall; statesmen may be thrown out of office; but the Press is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever!"
"Except when a great Editor changes his opinions," said Leroy tranquilly,—"Which is, of course, always a point of reason and conscience, as well as of—advantage! In the present case I think—but —shall we not enter the sanctum of which you have so obligingly opened the door? We can scarcely be too private when the King's name is in question!"
Jost opened his furtive eyes in amazement.
"The King? What the devil has he to do with anything but his women and his amusements?"
A very close observer might have seen a curious expression flicker over Pasquin Leroy's face at these words,—an expression half of laughter, half of scorn,—but it was slight and evanescent, and his reply was frigidly courteous.
"I really cannot inform you; but I am afraid his Majesty is departing somewhat from his customary routine! He is, in fact, taking an active, instead of a passive part in national affairs."
"Then he must be warned off the ground!" said Jost irritably; "He is a Constitutional monarch, and must obey the laws of the Constitution."
"Precisely!" And Leroy looked carefully at the end of his cigar; "But at present he appears to have an idea that the laws of the Constitution are being tampered with by certain other kings;—for example,—the kings of finance!"
Jost muttered a half-inaudible oath.
"Come this way," he said impatiently;—"Bad news is best soon over!"
Leroy gave a careless nod of acquiescence,—then glancing round the room, up at the clock, and down again to Jost's desk, strewn with letters and documents of every description, he smiled a little to himself, and followed the all-powerful editor into the smaller adjoining apartment. The door closed behind them both, and Jost turned the key in the lock from within.
For a long time all was very silent. Jost's valet and confidential servant, sleepy and tired, waited in the hall to let his master's visitor out,—and hearing no sound, ventured to look into the study now and then,—but to no purpose. He knew the sanctity of that inner chamber beyond; he knew that when the Premier came to see the great Jost,—as he often did,—it was in that mysterious further room that business was transacted, and that it was as much as his place was worth to venture even to knock at the door. So, yawning heavily, he dozed on his bench in the hall,—woke with a start and dozed again,—while the clock slowly ticked away the minutes till with a dull clang the hour struck One. Then on again went the steady and wearisome tick-tick of the pendulum, for a quarter of an hour, half an hour,—and three- quarters,—till the utterly fatigued valet was about to knock down a few walking-sticks and umbrellas, and make a general noise of reminder to his master as to how the time was going, when, to his great relief, he heard the inner door open at last, and the voice of the mysterious visitor ring out in clear, precise accents.
"Nothing will be done publicly, of course,—unless Parliament insists on an enquiry!" The speaker came towards the hall, and the valet sprang up from his bench, and stood ready to show the stranger out.
Jost replied, and his accents were thick and unsteady.
"Enquiry cannot be forced! The Marquis himself can burk any such attempt."
"But—if the King should insist?"
"He would be breaking all the rules of custom and precedent," said Jost,—"And he would deserve to be dethroned!"
Pasquin Leroy laughed.
"True! Good-night, Mr. Jost! Can I do anything for you in Moscow?" The two men now came into the full light shed by the great lamp in the hall. Jost looked darkly red in the face—almost apoplectic; Leroy was as cool, imperturbable and easy of manner as a practised detective or professional spy.
"In Moscow," Jost repeated—"You are going straight to Russia?"
"I think so."
"I suppose you are in the secret service?"
"Exactly! A curious line of business, too, which the outside world knows very little of. Ah!—if the excellent people—the masses as we call them—knew what rogues had the ruling of their affairs in some countries—not in this country, of course!" he added with a quizzical smile,—"but in some others, not very far away, I wonder how many revolutions would break out within six months! Good-night, Mr. Jost!"
"Good-night!" responded Jost briefly. "You will let me know any further developments?"
The servant opened the door, and Pasquin Leroy slipped a gold coin worth a sovereign into his hand, whereupon, of course, the worthy domestic considered him to be a 'real gentleman.' As soon as he had passed into the street, and the door was shut and barred for the night, Jost bade his man go to bed, a command which was gladly obeyed; and re- entering his study, passed all the time till the breaking of dawn in rummaging out letters and documents from various desks, drawers and despatch-boxes, and burning them carefully one by one in the open grate. While thus employed, he had a truly villainous aspect,—each flame he kindled with each paper seemed to show up a more unpleasing expression on his countenance, till at last,—when such matter was destroyed as he had at present determined on,—he drew himself up and stood for a moment surveying the pile of light black ashes, which was all that was left of about a hundred or more incriminating paper witnesses to certain matters in which he had more than a lawful interest.
"It will be difficult now to trace my hand in the scheme!" he said to himself, frowning heavily, as he considered various uncomfortable contingencies arising out of his conversation with his late visitor. "If the thunderbolt falls, it will crush Carl Perousse—not me. Yes! It means ruin for him—ruin and disgrace—but for me—well! I shall find it as easy to damn Perousse as it has been to support him, for he cannot involve me without adding tenfold to his own disaster! I think it will be safe enough for me—possibly not so safe for the Premier. However, I will write to him to-morrow, just to let him know I received his messenger."
In the meantime, while David Jost was thus cogitating unpleasant and even dangerous possibilities, which were perhaps on the eve of occurring to himself and certain of his associates in politics and journalism, Pasquin Leroy was hurrying along the city streets under the light of a clear, though pallid and waning moon. Few wanderers were abroad; the police walked their various rounds, and one or two miserable women passed him, like flying ghosts in the thin air of night. His mind was in a turmoil of agitation; and the thoughts that were tossing rapidly through his brain one upon the other, were such as he had never known before. He had fathomed a depth of rascality and deception, which but a short month ago, he could scarcely have believed capable of existence. The cruel injury and loss preparing for thousands of innocent persons through the self-interested plotting of a few men, was almost incalculable,—and his blood burned with passionate indignation as he realized on what a verge of misery, bloodshed, disaster and crime the unthinking people of the country stood, pushed to the very edge of a fall by the shameless and unscrupulous designs of a few financiers, playing their gambling game with the public confidence,—and cheating nations as callously as they would have cheated their partners at cards.
"Thank God, it is not too late!" he murmured; "Not quite too late to save the situation!—to rescue the people from long years of undeserved taxation, loss of trade and general distress! It is a supreme task that has been given me to accomplish!—but if there is any truth and right in the laws of the Universe, I shall surely not be misjudged while accomplishing it!"
He quickened his pace;—and to avoid going up one of the longer thoroughfares which led to the citadel and palace, he decided to cross one of the many picturesque bridges, arched over certain inlets from the sea, and forming canals, where barges and other vessels might be towed up to the very doors of the warehouses which received their cargoes. But just as he was about to turn in the necessary direction, he halted abruptly at sight of two men, standing at the first corner in the way of his advance, talking earnestly. He recognized them at once as Sergius Thord and the half-inebriated poet, Paul Zouche. With noiseless step he moved cautiously into the broad stretch of black shadow cast by the great facade of a block of buildings which occupied half the length of the street in which he stood, and so managing to slip into the denser darkness of a doorway, was able to hear what they were saying. The full, mellow, and persuasive tone of Thord's voice had something in it of reproach.
"You shame yourself, Zouche!" he said; "You shame me; you shame us all! Man, did God put a light of Genius in your soul merely to be quenched by the cravings of a bestial body? What associate are you for us? How can you help us in the fulfilment of our ideal dream? By day you mingle with litterateurs, scientists, and philosophers,—report has it that you have even managed to stumble your way into my lady's boudoir;—but by night you wander like this,—insensate, furious, warped in soul, muddled in brain, and only the heart of you alive,—the poor unsatisfied heart—hungering and crying for what itself makes impossible!"
Zouche broke into a harsh laugh. Turning up his head to the sky, he thrust back his wild hair, and showed his thin eager face and glittering eyes, outlined cameo-like by the paling radiance of the moon.
"Well spoken, my Sergius!" he exclaimed. "You always speak well! Your thoughts are of flame—your speech is of gold; the fire melts the ore! And then again you have a conscience! That is a strange possession!— quite useless in these days, like the remains of the tail we had when we were all happy apes in the primeval forest, pelting the Megatherium or other such remarkable beasts with cocoanuts! It was a much better life, Sergius, believe me! A Conscience is merely a mental Appendicitis! There should be a psychical surgeon with an airy lancet to cut it out. Not for me!—I was born perfect—without it!"
He laughed again, then with an abrupt change of manner he caught Thord violently by the arm.
"How can you speak of shame?" he said—"What shame is left in either man or woman nowadays? Naked to the very skin of foulness, they flaunt a nudity of vice in every public thoroughfare! Your sentiments, my grand Sergius, are those of an old world long passed away! You are a reformer, a lover of truth—a hater of shams—and in the days when the people loved truth,—and wanted justice,—and fought for both, you would have been great! But greatness is nowadays judged as 'madness'— truth as 'want of tact'—desire for justice is 'clamour for notoriety.' Shame? There is no shame in anything, Sergius, but honesty! That is a disgrace to the century; for an honest man is always poor, and poverty is the worst of crimes." He threw up his arms with a wild gesture,— "The worst of crimes! Do I not know it!"
Thord took him gently by the shoulder.
"You talk, Zouche, as you always talk, at random, scarcely knowing, and certainly not half meaning what you say. There is no real reason in your rages against fate and fortune. Leave the accursed drink, and you may still win the prize you covet—Fame."
"Not I!" said Zouche scornfully,—"Fame in its original sense belonged also to the growing-time of the world—when, proud of youth and the glow of life, the full-fledged man judged himself immortal. Fame now is adjudged to the biped-machine who drives a motor-car best,—or to the fortunate soap-boiler who dines with a king! Poetry is understood to be the useful rhyme which announces the virtues of pills and boot- blacking! Mark you, Sergius!—my latest volume was 'graciously accepted by the King'! Do you know what that means?"
"No," replied Thord, a trifle coldly; "And if it were not that I know your strange vagaries, I should say you wronged your election as one of us, to send any of your work to a crowned fool!"
Zouche laughed discordantly.
"You would? No, you would not, my Sergius, if you knew the spirit in which I sent it! A spirit as wild, as reckless, as ranting, as defiant as ever devil indulged in! The humility of my presentation letter to his Majesty was beautiful! The reply of the flunkey-secretary was equally beautiful in smug courtesy: 'Sir, I am commanded by the King to thank you for the book of poems you have kindly sent for his acceptance!' I say again, Thord, do you know what it means?"
"No; I only wish that instead of talking here, you would let me see you safely home."
"Home! I have no home! Since she died—" He paused, and a grey shadow crossed his face like the hue of approaching sickness or death. "I killed her, poor child! Of course you know that! I neglected her,— deserted her—left her to die! Well! She is only one more added to the list of countless women martyrs who have been tortured out of an unjust world—and now—now I write verses to her memory!" He shivered as with cold, still clinging to Thord's arm. "But I did not tell you what great good comes of sending a book to the King! It means less to a writer than to a boot-maker. For the boot-maker can put up a sign: 'Special Fitter for the ease of His Majesty's Corns'—but if a poet should say his verse is 'accepted' by a monarch, the shrewd public take it at once to be bad verse, and will have none of it! That is the case with my book to-day!"
"Why did you send it?" asked Thord, with grave patience. "Your business with kings is to warn, not to flatter!"
"Just so!" cried Zouche; "And if His Most Gracious and Glorious had been pleased to look inside the volume, he would have seen enough to startle him! It was sent in hate, my Sergius,—not in humility,—just as the flunkey-secretary's answer was penned in derision, aping courtesy! How you look, under this wan sky of night! Reproachful, yet pitying, as the eyes of Buddha are your eyes, my Sergius! You are a fine fellow—your brain is a dome decorated with glorious ideals!—and yet you are like all of us, weak in one point, as Achilles in the heel. One thing could turn you from man into beast—and that would be if Lotys loved—not you—she never will love you—but another!"—Thord started back as though suddenly stabbed, and angrily shook off his companion, who only laughed again,—a shrill, echoing laugh in which there was a note of madness and desolation. "Bah!" he exclaimed; "You are a fool after all! You work for a woman as I did—once! But mark you!—do not kill her—as I did—once! Be patient! Watch the light shine, even though it does not illumine your path; be glad that the rose blooms for itself, if not for you! It will be difficult!— meanwhile you can live on hope—a bitter fruit to eat; but gnaw it to the last rind, my Sergius! Hope that Lotys may melt in your fire, as a snowflake in the sun! Come! Now take the poor poet home,—the drunken child of inspiration—take him home to his garret in the slums—the poet whose book has been accepted by the King!"
Pulling himself up from his semi-crouching position, he seized Thord's arm again more tightly, and began to walk along unsteadily. Presently he paused, smiling vacantly up at the gradually vanishing stars.
"Lotys speaks to our followers on Saturday," he said; "You know that?"
Thord bent his head in acquiescence.
"You will be there, of course. I shall be there! What a voice she has! Whether we believe what she says or not, we must hear,—and hearing, we must follow. Where shall we drink in the sweet Oracle this time?"
"At the People's Assembly Rooms," responded Thord; "But remember, Zouche, she does not speak till nine o'clock. That means that you will be unfit to listen!"
"You think so?" responded Zouche airily, and leaning on Thord he stumbled onward, the two passing close in front of the doorway where Pasquin Leroy stood concealed. "But I am more ready to understand wisdom when drunk, than when sober, my Sergius! You do not understand. I am a human eccentricity—the result of an amour between a fiend and an angel! Believe me! I will listen to Lotys with all my devil-saintly soul,—you will listen to her with all your loving, longing heart—and with us two thus attentive, the opinions of the rest of the audience will scarcely matter! How the street reels! How the old moon dances! So did she whirl pallidly when Antony clasped his Egyptian Queen, and lost Actium! Remember the fate of Antony, Sergius! Kingdoms would have been seized and controlled by men such as you are, long before now—if there had not always been a woman in the case—a Cleopatra—or a Lotys!"
Still laughing foolishly, he reeled onwards, Sergius Thord half- supporting, half-leading him, with grave carefulness and brotherly compassion. They were soon out of sight; and Pasquin Leroy, leaving his dark hiding-place, crossed the bridge with an alert step, and mounted a steep street leading to the citadel. From gaps between the tall leaning houses a glimpse of the sea, silvered by the dying moonlight, flashed now and again; and in the silence of the night the low ripple of small waves against the breakwater could be distinctly heard. A sense of holy calm impressed him as he paused a moment; and the words of an old monkish verse came back to him from some far-off depth of memory:
Lord Christ, I would my soul were clear as air, With only Thy pure radiance falling through!
He caught his breath hard—there was a smarting sense as of tears in his eyes.
"So proudly throned, and so unloved!" he muttered. "Yet,—has not the misprisal and miscomprehension been merited? Whose is the blame? Not with the People, who, despite the prophet's warning, 'still put their trust in princes'—but with the falsity and hollowness of the system! Sovereignty is like an old ship stuck fast in the docks, and unfit for sailing the wide seas—crusted with barnacles of custom and prejudice, —and in every gale of wind pulling and straining at a rusty chain anchor. But the spirit of Change is in the world; a hurrying movement that has wings of fire, and might possibly be called Revolution! It is better that the torch should be lighted from the Throne than from the slums!"
He went on his way quickly,—till reaching the outer wall of the citadel, he was challenged by a sentinel, to whom he gave the password in a low tone. The man drew back, satisfied, and Leroy went on, mounting from point to point of the cliff, till he reached a private gate leading into the wide park-lands which skirted the King's palace. Here stood a muffled and cloaked figure evidently watching for him; for as soon as he appeared the gate was noiselessly opened for his admittance, and he passed in at once. Then he and the person who had awaited his coming, walked together through the scented woods of pine and rhododendrons, and talking in low and confidential voices, slowly disappeared.
THE KING'S VETO
The Marquis de Lutera was a heavy sleeper, and for some time had been growing stouter than was advisable for the dignity of a Prime Minister. He had been defeated of late years in one or two important measures; and his colleague, Carl Perousse, had by gradual degrees succeeded in worming himself into such close connection with the rest of the members of the Cabinet, that he, Lutera, felt himself being edged out, not only from political 'deals,' but from the profits appertaining thereto. So, growing somewhat indifferent, as well as disgusted at the course affairs were taking, he had made up his mind to retire from office, as soon as he had carried through a certain Bill which, in its results, would have the effect of crippling the people of the country, while helping on his own interests to a considerable degree. At the immediate moment he had a chance of looming large on the political horizon. Carl Perousse could not do anything of very great importance without him; they were both too deeply involved together in the same schemes. In point of fact, if Perousse could bring the Premier to a fall, the Premier could do the same by Perousse. The two depended on each other; and Lutera, conscious that if Perousse gained any fresh accession of power, it would be to his, Lutera's, advantage, was gradually preparing to gracefully resign his position in the younger and more ambitious man's favour. But he was not altogether comfortable in his mind since his last interview with the King. The King had shown unusual signs of self-will and obstinacy. He had presumed to give a command affecting the national policy; and, moreover, he had threatened, if his command were not obeyed, to address Parliament himself on the subject in hand, from the Throne. Such an unaccustomed, unconstitutional idea was very upsetting to the Premier's mind. It had cost him a sleepless night; and when he woke to a new day's work, he was in an extremely irritable humour. He was doubtful how to act;—for to complain of the King would not do; and to enlighten the members of the Cabinet as to his Majesty's declared determination to dispose amicably of certain difficulties with a foreign power, which the Ministry had fully purposed fanning up into a flame of war, might possibly awaken a storm of dissension and discussion.
"We all want money!" said the Marquis gloomily, as he rose from his tumbled bed to take his first breakfast, and read his early morning letters—"And to crush a small and insolent race, whose country is rich in mineral product, is simply the act of squeezing an orange for the necessary juice. Life would be lost, of course, but we are over- populated; and a good war would rid the country of many scamps and vagabonds. Widows and orphans could be provided for by national subscriptions, invested as the Ministry think fit, and paid to applicants after about twenty years' waiting!" He smiled sardonically. "The gain to ourselves would be incalculable; new wealth, new schemes, new openings for commerce and speculation in every way! And now the King sets himself up as an obstacle to progress! If he were fond of money, we could explain the whole big combine, and offer him a share;— but with a character such as he possesses, I doubt if it would work! With some monarchs whom I could name, it would be perfectly easy. And yet,—for the three years he has been on the throne, he has been passive enough,—asking no questions,—signing such documents as he has been told to sign,—uttering such speeches as have been written for him,—and I was never more shocked and taken aback in my life than yesterday morning, when he declared he had decided to think and act for himself! Simply preposterous! An ordinary man who presumes to think and act for himself is always a danger to the community—but a king! Good Heavens! We should have the old feudal system back again."
He sipped his coffee leisurely, and opened a few letters; there were none of very pressing importance. He was just about to glance through the morning's newspaper, when his man-servant entered bearing a note marked 'Private and Immediate.' He recognized the handwriting of David Jost.
"Anyone waiting for an answer?" he enquired.
The man retired. The Marquis broke the large splotchy seal bearing the coat-of-arms which Jost affected, but to which he had no more right than the man in the moon, and read what seemed to him more inexplicable than the most confusing conundrum ever invented.
"MY DEAR MARQUIS,—I received your confidential messenger last night, and explained the entire situation. He left for Moscow this morning, but will warn us of any further developments. Sorry matters look so grave for you. Should like a few minutes private chat when you can spare the time.—
"Yours truly, DAVID JOST."
Over and over again the Marquis read this brief note, staring at its every word and utterly unable to understand its meaning.
"What in the world is the fellow driving at!" he exclaimed angrily— "'My messenger'! 'Explained the entire situation'! The devil! 'Left for Moscow'! Upon my soul, this is maddening!" And he rang the bell sharply.
"Who brought this note?" he asked, as his servant entered.
"Mr. Jost's own man, Excellency."
"Has he gone?"
"Wait!" And sitting down he wrote hastily the following lines:
"DEAR SIR,—Your letter is inexplicable. I sent no messenger to you last night. If you have any explanation to offer, I shall be disengaged and alone till 11.30 this morning.
"Yours truly,—DE LUTERA."
Folding, sealing, and addressing this, he marked it 'Private' and gave it to his man.
"Take this yourself," he said, "and put it into Mr. Jost's own hands. Trust no one to deliver it. Ask to see him personally, and then give it to him. You understand?"
His note thus despatched, the Marquis threw himself down in his arm- chair, and again read Jost's mysterious communication.
"Whatever messenger has passed himself off as coming from me, Jost must have been crazy to receive him without credentials," he said. "There must be a mistake somewhere!"
A vague alarm troubled him; he was not moved by conscientious scruples, but the idea that any of his secret moves should be 'explained' to a stranger was, to say the least of it, annoying, and not conducive to the tranquillity of his mind. A thousand awkward possibilities suggested themselves at once to his brain, and as he carried a somewhat excitable disposition under his heavy and phlegmatic exterior, he fumed and fretted himself for the next half hour into an impatience which only found vent in the prosaic and everyday performance of dressing himself. Ah!—if those who consider a Prime Minister great and exalted, could only see him as he pulls on his trousers, and fastens his shirt collar, what a disillusion would be promptly effected! Especially if, like the Marquis de Lutera, he happened to be over-stout, and difficult to clothe! This particular example of Premiership was an ungainly man; his proud position could not make him handsome, nor lend true dignity to his deportment. Old Mother Nature has a way of marking her specimens, if we will learn to recognize the signs she sets on certain particular 'makes' of man. The Marquis de Lutera was 'made' to be a stock-jobber, not a statesman. His bent was towards the material gain and good of himself, more than the advantage of his country. His reasoning was a slight variation of Falstaff's logical misprisal of honour. He argued; "If I am poor, then what is it to me that others are rich? If I am neglected, what do I care that the people are prosperous? Let me but secure and keep those certain millions of money which shall ensure to me and my heritage a handsome endowment, not only for my life, but for all lives connected with mine which come after me,—and my 'patriotism' is satisfied!"
He had just finished insinuating himself by degrees into his morning coat, when his servant entered.
"Well!" he asked impatiently.
"Mr. Jost is coming round at once, Excellency. He ordered his carriage directly he read your note."
"He sent no answer?"
"When he arrives, show him into the library."
The Marquis thereupon left his sleeping apartment, and descended to the library himself. The sun was streaming brilliantly into the room, and the windows, thrown wide open, showed a cheerful display of lawn and flower-garden, filled with palms and other semi-tropical shrubs, for though the Premier's house was in the centre of the fashionable quarter of the city, it had the advantage of extensive and well-shaded grounds. A law had been passed in the late King's time against the felling of trees, it having been scientifically proved that trees in a certain quantity, not only purify the air from disease germs affecting the human organization, but also save the crops from many noxious insect- pests and poisonous fungi. Having learned the lesson at last, that the Almighty may be trusted to know His own business, and that trees are intended for wider purposes than mere timber, the regulations were strict concerning them. No one could fell a tree on his own ground without, first of all, making a statement at the National Office of Aboriculture as to the causes for its removal; and only if these causes were found satisfactory, could a stamped permission be obtained for cutting it down or 'lifting' it to other ground. The result of this sensible regulation was that in the hottest days of summer the city was kept cool and shady by the rich foliage branching out everywhere, and in some parts running into broad avenues and groves of great thickness and beauty. The Marquis de Lutera's garden had an additional charm in a beautiful alley of orange trees, and the fragrance wafted into his room from the delicious blossoms would have refreshed and charmed anyone less troubled, worried and feverish, than he was at the time. But this morning the very sunshine annoyed him;—never a great lover of Nature, the trees and flowers forming the outlook on which his heavy eyes rested were almost an affront. The tranquil beauty of an ever renewed and renewing Nature is always particularly offensive to an uneasy conscience and an exhausted mind.
The sound of wheels grinding along the outer drive brought a faint gleam of satisfaction on his brooding features, and he turned sharply round, as the door of the library was thrown open to admit Jost, whose appearance, despite his jaunty manner, betokened evident confusion and alarm.
"Good-morning, Mr. Jost!" said the Marquis stiffly, as his confidential man ushered in the visitor,—then when the servant had retired and closed the door, he added quickly—"Now what does this mean?"
Jost dropped into a chair, and pulling out a handkerchief wiped the perspiration from his brow.
"I don't know!" he said helplessly; "I don't know what it means! I have told you the truth! A man came to see me late last night, saying he was sent by you on urgent business. He said you wished me to explain the position we held, and the amount of the interests we had at stake, as there were grave discoveries pending, and complexities likely to ensue. He gave his name—there is his card!"
And with a semi-groan, he threw down the bit of pasteboard in question.
The Marquis snatched it up.
"'Pasquin Leroy'! I never heard the name in my life," he said fiercely. "Jost, you have been done! You mean to tell me you were such a fool as to trust an entire stranger with the whole financial plan of campaign, and that you were credulous enough to believe that he came from me—me —De Lutera,—without any credentials?"
"Credentials!" exclaimed Jost; "Do you suppose I would have received him at all had credentials been lacking? Not I! He brought me the most sure and confidential sign of your trust that could be produced—your own signet-ring!"
The Marquis staggered back, as though Jost's words had been so many direct blows on the chest,—his countenance turned a livid white.
"My signet-ring!" he repeated,—and almost unconsciously he looked at the hand from which the great jewel was missing; "My signet!"—Then he forced a smile—"Jost, I repeat, you have been done!—doubly fooled!— no one could possibly have obtained my signet,—for at this very moment it is on the hand of the King!"
Jost rose slowly out of his chair, his eyes protruding out of his head, his jaw almost dropping in the extremity of his amazement.
"The King!"—he gasped—"The King!"
"Yes, man, the King!" repeated De Lutera impatiently,—"Only yesterday morning his Majesty, having mislaid his own ring for the moment, borrowed mine just before starting on his yachting cruise. How you stare! You have been fooled!—that is perfectly plain and evident!"
"The King!" repeated Jost stupidly—"Then the man who came to me last night—" He broke off, unable to find any words for the expression of the thoughts which began to terrify him.
"Well!—the man who came to you last night," echoed the Marquis,—"He was not the King, I suppose, was he?" And he laughed derisively.
"No—he was not the King," said Jost slowly; "I know him well enough! But it might have been someone in the King's service! For he knew, or said he knew, the King's intentions in a certain matter affecting both you and Carl Perousse,—and in a more distant way, myself—and warned me of a coming change in the policy. Ah!—it is now your turn to stare, Marquis! You had best be on your guard, for if the person who came to me last night was not your messenger, he was the King's spy! And, in that case, we are lost!"
The Marquis paced the room with long uneven strides,—his mind was greatly agitated, but he had no wish to show his perturbation too openly to one whom he considered as a mere tool in his service.
"I know," went on Jost emphatically, "that the ring he wore was yours! I noticed it particularly while I was talking to him. It would take a long time and exceptional skill to make any imitation of that sapphire. There is no doubt that it was your signet!"
The Premier halted suddenly in his nervous walk.
"You told him the whole scheme, you say?"
"And his reply?"
"Was, that the King had discovered it, and proposed insisting on an enquiry."
"Well! Then he warned me to look out for myself,—as anyone connected with Carl Perousse's financial deal would inevitably be ruined during the next few weeks."
"Who is going to work the ruin?" asked the Marquis with a sneer; "Do you not know that if the King dared to give an opinion on a national crisis, he would be dethroned?"
"There are the People—" began Jost.
"The People! Human emmets—born for crushing under the heel of power! A couple of 'leaders' in your paper, Jost, can guide the fool-mob any way!"
"That depends!" said Jost hesitatingly; "If what the fellow said last night be true—"
"It is not true!" said the Premier authoritatively. "We are going on in precisely the same course as originally arranged. Neither King nor People can interfere! Go home, and write an article about love of country, Jost! You look in the humour for it!"
The Jew's expression was anything but amiable.
"What is to be done about last night?" he asked sullenly.
"Nothing at present. I am going to the palace at two o'clock—I shall see the King, and find out whether my signet is lost, stolen or strayed. Meanwhile, keep your own counsel! If you have been betrayed into giving your confidence to a spy in the foreign service, as I imagine—(for the King has never employed a spy, and is not likely to do so), and he makes known his information, it can be officially denied. The official denial of a Government, Jost, like charity, has before now covered a multitude of sins!"
An instinctive disinclination for further conversation brought the interview between them abruptly to a close, and Jost, full of a suspicious alarm, which he was ashamed to confess, drove off to his newspaper offices. The Premier, meantime, though harassed by secret anxiety, managed to display his usual frigid equanimity, when, after Jost's departure, his private secretary arrived at the customary time, to transact under his orders the correspondence and business of the day. This secretary, Eugene Silvano by name, was a quiet self-contained young man, highly ambitious, and keenly interested in the political situation, and, though in the Premier's service, not altogether of his way of thinking. He called the Marquis's attention now to a letter that had missed careful reading on the previous day. It was from the Vicar- General of the Society of Jesus, expressing surprise and indignation that the King should have refused the Society's request for such land as was required to be devoted to religious and educational purposes, and begging that the Premier would exert his influence with the monarch to persuade him to withdraw or mitigate his refusal.
"I can do nothing;" said the Marquis irritably,—"the lands they want belong to the Crown. The King can dispose of them as he thinks best."
The secretary set the letter aside.
"Shall I reply to that effect?" he enquired.
The Marquis nodded.
"I know," said Silvano presently with a slight hesitation, "that you never pay any attention to anonymous communications. Otherwise, there is one here which might merit consideration."
"What does it concern?"
"A revolutionary meeting," replied Silvano, "where it appears the woman, Lotys, is to speak."
The Premier shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "You must enlighten me! Who is the woman Lotys?"
"Ah, that no one exactly knows!" replied the secretary. "A strange character, without doubt, but—" He paused and spoke more emphatically—"She has power!"
Lutera gave a gesture of irritation.
"Bah! Over whom does she exercise it. Over one man or many?"
"Over one half the population at least," responded Silvano, quietly, turning over a few papers without looking up.
The Marquis stared at him, slightly amused.
"Have you taken statistics of the lady's followers," he asked; "Are you one of them yourself?"
Silvano raised his eyes,—clear dark eyes, deep-set and steady in their glance.
"Were I so, I should not be here;" he replied—"But I know how she speaks; I know what she does! and from a purely political point of view I think it unwise to ignore her."
"What is this anonymous communication you speak of?" asked the Premier, after a pause.
"Oh, it is brief enough," answered Silvano unfolding a paper, and he read aloud:
"To the Marquis de Lutera, Premier.
"Satisfy yourself that those who meet on Saturday night where Lotys speaks, have already decided on your downfall!"
"Oracular!" said the Marquis carelessly;—"To decide is one thing—to fulfil the decision is another! Lotys, whoever she may be, can preach to her heart's content, for all I care! I am rather surprised, Silvano, that a man of your penetration and intelligence should attach any importance to revolutionary meetings, which are always going on more or less in every city under the sun. Why, it was but the other day, the police were sent to disperse a crowd which had gathered round the fanatic, Sergius Thord; only the people had sufficient sense to disperse themselves. A street-preacher or woman ranter is like a cheap- jack or a dispenser of quack medicines;—the mob gathers to such persons out of curiosity, not conviction."
The secretary made no reply, and went on with other matters awaiting his attention.
At a few minutes before two o'clock the Marquis entered his carriage, and was driven to the palace. There he learned that the King was receiving, more or less unofficially, certain foreign ambassadors and noblemen of repute in the Throne-room. A fine band was playing military music in the great open quadrangle in front of the palace, where pillars of rose-marble, straight as the stems of pine-trees, held up fabulous heraldic griffins, clasping between their paws the country's shield. Flags were flying,—fountains flashing,—gay costumes gleamed here and there,—and the atmosphere was full of brilliancy and gaiety, —yet the Marquis, on his way to the audience-chamber, was rendered uncomfortably aware of one of those mysterious impressions which are sometimes conveyed to us, we know not how, but which tend to prepare us for surprise and disappointment. Some extra fibre of sensitiveness in his nervous organization was acutely touched, for he actually fancied he saw slighting and indifferent looks on the faces of the various flunkeys and retainers who bowed him along the different passages, or ushered him up the state stairway, when—as a matter of fact,—all was precisely the same as usual, and it was only his own conscience that gave imaginary hints of change. Arrived at the ante-chamber to the Throne-room, he was surprised to find Prince Humphry there, talking animatedly to the King's physician, Professor Von Glauben. The Prince seemed unusually excited; his face was flushed, and his eyes extraordinarily brilliant, and as he saw the Premier, he came forward, extending his hand, and almost preventing Lutera's profound bow and deferential salutation.
"Have you business with the King, Marquis?" enquired the young man with a light laugh. "If you have, you must do as I am doing,—wait his Majesty's pleasure!"
The Premier lifted his eyebrows, smiled deprecatingly, and murmuring something about pressure of State affairs, shook hands with Von Glauben, whose countenance, as usual, presented an impenetrable mask to his thoughts.
"It is rather a new experience for me," continued the Prince, "to be treated as a kind of petitioner on the King's favour, and kept in attendance,—but no matter!—novelty is always pleasing! I have been cooling my heels here for more than an hour. Von Glauben, too, has been waiting;—contrary to custom, he has not even been permitted to enquire after his Majesty's health this morning!"
Lutera maintained his former expression of polite surprise, but said nothing. Instinct warned him to be sparing of words lest he should betray his own private anxiety.
The Prince went on carelessly.
"Majesty takes humours like other men, and must, more than other men, I suppose, be humoured! Yet there is to my mind something unnatural in a system which causes several human beings to be dependent on another's caprice!"
"You will not say so, Sir, when you yourself are King," observed the Marquis.
"Long distant be the day!" returned the Prince. "Indeed, I hope it may never be! I would rather be the simplest peasant ploughing the fields, and happy in my own way, than suffer the penalties and pains surrounding the possession of a Throne!"
"Only," put in Von Glauben sententiously, "you would have to take into consideration, Sir, whether the peasant ploughing the fields is happy in his own way. I have made 'the peasant ploughing the fields' a special form of study,—and I have always found him a remarkably discontented, often ill-fed—and therefore unhealthy individual."
"We are all discontented, if it comes to that!" said Prince Humphry with a light laugh,—"Except myself! I am perfectly contented!"
"You have reason to be, Sir," said Lutera, bowing low.
"You are quite right, Marquis!—I have! More reason than perhaps you are aware of!"
His eyes lightened and flashed; he looked unusually handsome, and the Premier's shifty glance rested on him for a moment with a certain curiosity. But he had not been accustomed to pay very much attention to the words or actions of the Heir-Apparent, considering him to be a very 'ordinary' young man, without either the brilliancy or the ambition which should mark him out as worthy of his exalted station. And before any further conversation could take place, Sir Roger de Launay entered the room and announced to the Marquis that the King was ready to receive him. Prince Humphry turning sharply round, faced the equerry.
"I am still to wait?" he enquired, with a slight touch of hauteur.
Sir Roger bowed respectfully.
"Your instant desire to see the King, your father, Sir, was communicated to his Majesty at once," he replied. "The present delay is by his Majesty's own orders. I much regret——"
"Regret nothing, my dear Sir Roger," he said. "My patience does not easily tire! Marquis, I trust your business will not take long?"
"I shall endeavour to make it as brief as possible, Sir," replied the Premier deferentially as he withdrew.
It was with a certain uneasiness, however, in his mind that he followed Sir Roger to the Throne-room. There was no possibility of exchanging so much as a word with the equerry; besides, De Launay was not a talking man. Passing between the lines of attendants, pages, lords-in-waiting and others, he was conscious of a certain loss of his usual self- possession as he found himself at last in the presence of the King,— who, attired in brilliant uniform, was conversing graciously and familiarly with a select group of distinguished individuals whose costume betokened them as envoys or visitors from foreign courts in the diplomatic service. Perceiving the Premier, however, he paused in his conversation, and standing quite still awaited his approach. Then he extended his hand, with his usual kindly condescension. Instinctively Lutera's eyes searched that hand, with the expression of a guilty soul searching for a witness to its innocence. There shone the great sapphire—his own signet—and to his excited fancy its blue glimmer emitted a witch-like glow of menace. Meanwhile the King was speaking.
"You are just a few minutes late, Marquis!" he said; "Had you come a little earlier, you would have met M. Perousse, who has matters of import to discuss with you." Here he moved aside from those immediately in hearing. "It is perhaps as well you should know I have 'vetoed' his war propositions. It will rest now with you, to call a Council to- morrow,—the next day,—or,—when you please!"
Completely taken aback, the Premier was silent for a moment, biting his lips to keep down the torrent of rage and disappointment that threatened to break out in violent and unguarded speech.
"Sir!—Your Majesty! Pardon me, but surely you cannot fail to understand that in a Constitution like ours, the course decided upon by Ministers cannot be vetoed by the King?"
The monarch smiled gravely.
"'Cannot' is a weak word, Marquis! I do not include it in my vocabulary! I fully grant you that a plan of campaign decided upon by Ministers as you say, has not been 'vetoed' by a reigning sovereign for at least a couple of centuries,—and the custom has naturally fallen into desuetude,—but if it should be found at any time,—(I do not say it has been found) that Ministers are engaged in a seriously mistaken policy, and are being misled by the doubtful propositions of private financial speculators, so much as to consider their own advantage more important and valuable than the prosperity of a country or the good of a people,—then a king who does not veto the same is a worse criminal than those he tacitly supports and encourages!"
Lutera turned a deadly white,—his eyes fell before the clear, straight gaze of his Sovereign,—but he said not a word.
"A king's 'veto' has before now brought about a king's dethronement," went on the monarch; "Should it do so in my case, I shall not greatly care,—but if things trend that way, I shall lay my thoughts openly before the People for their judgment. They seldom or never hear the Sovereign whom they pay to keep, speak to them on a matter gravely affecting their national destinies,—but they shall hear me,—if necessary!"
The Marquis moistened his dry lips, and essayed to pronounce a few words.
"Your Majesty will run considerable risk——"
"Of being judged as something more than a mere dummy," said the King— "Or a fool set on a throne to be fooled! True! But the risk can only involve life,—and life is immaterial when weighed in the balance against Honour. By the way, Marquis, permit me to return to you this valuable gem";—Here drawing off the Premier's sapphire signet, he handed it to him—"Almost I envy it! It is a fine stone!—and worthy of its high service!"
"Your Majesty has increased its value by wearing it," said Lutera, recovering a little of his strayed equanimity in his determination to probe to the bottom of the mystery which perplexed his mind. "May I ask——"
"Anything in reason, my dear Marquis," returned the King lightly, and smiling as he spoke. "A thousand questions if you like!"
"One will suffice," answered the Premier. "I had an unpleasant dream last night about this very ring——"
"Ah!" ejaculated the King; "Did you dream that I had dropped it in the sea on my way to The Islands yesterday?"
He spoke jestingly, yet with a kindly air, and Lutera gained courage to look boldly up and straight into his eyes.
"I did not dream that you had lost it, Sir," he answered—"but that it had been stolen from your hand, and used by a spy for unlawful purposes!"
A strange expression crossed the King's face,—a look of inward illumination; he smiled, but there was a quiver of strong feeling under the smile. Advancing a step, he laid his hand with a light, half- warning pressure on the Premier's shoulder.
"Dreams always go by contraries, Marquis!" he said;—"I assure you, on my honour as a king and a gentleman, that from the moment you lent it to me, till now,—when I return it to you,—that ring has never left my finger!"
The Royal 'at home' was soon over. Many of those who had the felicity of breathing in the King's presence that afternoon remarked upon his Majesty's evident good health and high spirits, while others as freely commented on the unapproachableness and irritability of the Marquis de Lutera. Sir Walter Langton, the great English traveller, who was taking his leave of the Sovereign that day, being bound on an expedition to the innermost recesses of Africa, was not altogether agreeably impressed by the Premier, whom he met on this occasion for the first and only time. They had begun their acquaintance by talking generalities,—but drifted by degrees into the dangerous circle of politics, and were skirting round the edge of various critical questions of the day, when the Marquis said abruptly:
"An autocracy would not flourish in your country, I presume, Sir Walter? The British people have been too long accustomed to sing that they 'never, never will be slaves.' Your Government is really more or less of a Republic."
"All Governments are so in these days, I imagine," replied Langton. "Autocracy on the part of a monarch is nowhere endured, save in Russia,—and what is Russia? A huge volcano, smouldering with fire, and ever threatening to break out in flame and engulf the Throne! Monarchs were not always wisdom personified in olden times,—and I venture to consider them nowadays less wise and more careless than ever. Only a return to almost barbaric ignorance and superstition would tolerate any complete monarchical authority in these present times of progress. It is only the long serfdom of Russia that hinders the triumph of Liberty there, as elsewhere."
The Marquis listened eagerly, and with evident satisfaction.
"I agree with you!" he said. "You consider, then, that in no country, under any circumstances, could the people be expected to obey their monarch blindly?"
"Certainly not! Even Rome, with its visible spiritual Head and Sovereign, has no real power. It imagines it has; but let it make any decided step to ensnare the liberties of the people at large, and the result would be somewhat astonishing! Personally—" and he smiled gravely—"I have often thought that my own country would be very much benefited by a couple of years existence under an autocrat—an autocrat like Cromwell, for example. A man strong and fierce, intelligent and candid,—who would expose shams and destroy abuses,—who would have no mercy on either religious, social, or political fraud, and who would perform the part of the necessary hard broom for sweeping the National house. But, unfortunately, we have no such man. You have,—in your Sergius Thord!"
The Premier heard this name with unconcealed amazement.
"Sergius Thord! Why he is a mere fanatic——"
"Pardon me!" interrupted Sir Walter,—"so was Cromwell!"
"But, my dear sir!" remonstrated the Marquis smilingly,—"Is it possible that you really consider Sergius Thord any sort of an influence in this country? If you do, I assure you you are greatly mistaken!"
"I think not," responded Sir Walter quietly; "With every respect for you, Marquis, I believe I am not mistaken! Books written by Sergius Thord are circulating in their thousands all over the world—his speeches are reported not only here, but in journals which probably you never hear of, in far-off countries,—in short, his propaganda is simply enormous. He is a kind of new Rousseau, without,—so far as I can learn,—Rousseau's private vices. He is a man I much wished to see during my stay here, but I have not had the opportunity of finding him out. He is an undoubted genius,—but I need not remind you, Marquis, that a man is never a prophet in his own country! The world's 'celebrity' is always eyed with more or less suspicion as a strange sort of rogue or vagabond in his own native town or village!"
At that moment, the King, having concluded a conversation with certain of his guests, who were thereupon leaving the Throne-room, approached them. He had not spoken a word to the Premier since returning him his signet-ring, but now he said:
"Marquis, I was almost forgetting a special request I have to make of you!"
"A request from you is a command, Sir!" replied Lutera with hypocritical deference and something of a covert sneer, which did not escape the quick observation of Sir Walter Langton.
"In certain cases it should be so," returned the King tranquilly; "And in this you will probably make it so! I have received a volume of poems by one Paul Zouche. His genius appears to me deserving of encouragement. A grant of a hundred golden pieces a year will not be too much for his hundred best poems. Will you see to this?"
The Marquis bowed.
"I have never heard of the man in question," he replied hesitatingly.
"Probably not," returned the King smiling;—"How often do Premiers read poetry, or notice poets? Scarcely ever, if we may credit history! But in this case——"
"I will make myself immediately acquainted with Paul Zouche, and inform him of your Majesty's gracious intention," the Marquis hastened to say.
"It is quite possible he may refuse the grant," continued the King; "Sometimes—though seldom—poets are prouder than Prime Ministers!"
With a brief nod of dismissal he turned away, inviting Sir Walter Langton to accompany him, and there was nothing more for the Marquis to do, save to return even as he had come, with two pieces of information puzzling his brain,—one, that the King's 'veto' had stopped a declaration of war,—unless,—which was a very remote contingency,—he and his party could persuade the people to go against the King,—the other, that some clever spy, with the assistance of a fraudulent imitation of his signet-ring, had become aware of the financial interests involved in a private speculation depending on the intended war, which included himself, Carl Perousse, and two or three other members of the Ministry. And, out of these two facts might possibly arise a whole train of misfortune, ruin and disgrace to those concerned.
It was considerably past three o'clock in the afternoon when the King, retiring to his own private cabinet, desired Sir Roger de Launay to inform Prince Humphry that he was now prepared to receive him. Sir Roger hesitated a moment before going to fulfil the command. The King looked at him with an indulgent smile.
"Things are moving too quickly, you think, Roger?" he queried. "Upon my soul, I am beginning to find a new zest in life! I feel some twenty years younger since I saw the face of the beautiful Gloria yesterday! We must promote her sailor husband, and bring his pearl of the sea to our Court!"
"It was on this very subject, Sir, that Von Glauben wished to see your Majesty the first thing this morning," said Sir Roger;—"But you refused him so early an audience. Yet you will remember that yesterday you told him you wished for an explanation of his acquaintance with this girl. He was ready and prepared to give it, but was prevented,— not only by your refusal to see him,—but also by the Prince."
Drawing up a chair to the open window, the King seated himself deliberately, and lit a cigar.
"Presumably the Prince knows more than the Professor!" he said calmly; "We will hear both, and give Royalty the precedence! Tell Prince Humphry I am waiting for him."
Sir Roger withdrew, and in another two or three minutes returned, throwing open the door and ushering in the Prince, who entered with a quick step, and brief, somewhat haughty salutation. Puffing leisurely at his cigar, the King glanced his son up and down smilingly, but said not a word. The Prince stood waiting for his father to speak, till at last, growing impatient and waiving ceremony, he began.
"I came, Sir, to spare Von Glauben your reproaches,—which he does not merit. You accused him yesterday, he tells me, of betraying your trust; he has neither betrayed your trust nor mine! I alone am to blame in this matter!"
"In what matter?" enquired the King quietly.
Prince Humphry coloured deeply, and then grew pale. There was a ray of defiance in the light of his fine eyes, but the tumult within his soul showed itself only in an added composure of his features.
"You wish me to speak plainly, I suppose," he said;—"though you know already what I mean. I repeat,—I, and I alone, am to blame,—for—for anything that seemed strange to you yesterday, when you met Von Glauben at The Islands."
The King's serious face lightened with a gleam of laughter.
"Nothing seemed very strange to me, Humphry," he said, "except the one fact that I found Von Glauben,—whom I supposed to be studying scientific problems,—engaged in studying a woman instead! A very beautiful woman, too, who ought to be something better than a sailor's wife. And I do not understand, as yet, what he has to do with her, unless—" Here he paused and went on more slowly—"Unless he is, as I suspect, acting for you in some way, and trying to tempt the fair creature with the prospect of a prince's admiration while the sailor husband is out of the way! Remember, I know nothing—I merely hazard a guess. You are an habitue of The Islands;—though I learned, on enquiry of the interesting old gentleman who was good enough to be my host, Rene Ronsard, that nobody had ever seen you there. They had only seen your yacht constantly cruising about the bay. This struck me as curious, I must confess. Some of your men were well known,— particularly one,—the husband of the pretty girl I saw. Her name, it seems, is Gloria,—and I must admit that it entirely suits her. I can hardly imagine that if you have visited The Islands as often as you seem to have done, you can have escaped seeing her. She is too beautiful to remain unknown to you—particularly if her husband is, as they tell me, in your service. I asked her to give me his name, but she refused it point-blank. I do not wish to accuse you of an amour, which you are perhaps quite innocent of—but certain things taken in their conjunction look suspicious,—and I would remind you that honour in princes,—as in all men,—should come before self-indulgence."
"I entirely agree with you, Sir!" said the Prince, composedly; "And in the present case honour has been my first thought, as it will be my last. Gloria is my wife!"
"Your wife!" The King rose, his tall figure looking taller, his eyes sparkling with anger from under their deep-set brows. "Your wife! Are you mad, Humphry! You!——the Heir-Apparent to the Throne! You have married her!"
"I have!" replied the Prince, and the words now came coursing rapidly from his lips in his excitement—"I love her! I love her with all my heart and soul!—and I have given her the only shield and safeguard love in this world can give! I have married her in my own name—the name of our family,—which neither she nor any of the humble folk out yonder have ever heard—but she is wedded to me as fast as Church and Law can make it,—and there is only one wrong connected with my vows to her—she does not know who I am. I have deceived her there,—but in nothing else. Had I told her of my rank, she would never have married me. But now she is mine,—and for her sake I am willing to resign all pretension to the Throne in favour of my brother Rupert. Let it be so, I implore you! Let me live my own life of love and liberty in my own way!"
Rigid as a statue the King stood,—his lips were set hard and his eyes lowered. Long buried thoughts rose up from the innermost recesses of his being, and rushed upon his brain in a deluge of remembrance and regret. What!—after all these years, had the ghost of his first love, the little self-slain maiden of his boyhood's dream, risen to avenge herself in the life of his son? The strangeness of the comparison between himself as he was now, and the eager passionate youth he was then, smote him with a sense of sharp pain. Away in those far-off days he had believed in love as the chief glory of existence; he had considered it as the poets would have us consider it,—a saving, binding, holding and immortal influence, which leads to all pure and holy things, even unto God Himself, the Highest and Holiest of all. When he lost that belief, how great was his loss!—when he ceased to experience that pure idealistic emotion, how bitter became the monotony of living! Rapidly the stream of memory swept over his innermost soul and shook his nerves, and it was only through a strong effort of self- repression that at last, lifting up his eyes he fixed them on the flushed face of his son, and said in measured tones.
"This is a very unexpected and very unhappy confession of yours, Humphry! You have acted most unwisely!—you have been disloyal to me, who am not only your father, but your King! You have proved yourself unworthy of the nation's trust,—and you have deceived, more cruelly than you think, an innocent and too-confiding girl. I shall not dispute the legality of your marriage;—that would not be worth my while. You have no doubt taken every step to make it as binding as possible;— however, that is but a trifling matter in your case. You know that such a marriage is, and can only be morganatic;—and as the immediate consequence of your amazing folly, a suitable Royal alliance must be arranged for you at once. The nuptials can be celebrated with the attainment of your majority next year."
He spoke coldly and calmly, but his heart was beating with mingled wrath and pain, and even while he thus pronounced her doom, the exquisite face of Gloria floated before him like the vision of a perfect innocence ruined and betrayed. He realised that he possibly had an unusual character to reckon with in her,—and he had lately become fully aware that there was as much determination and latent force in the disposition of his son, as in the mother who had given him birth. Pale and composed, the young Prince heard him in absolute silence, and when he had finished, still waited a moment, lest any further word should fall from the lips of his parent and Sovereign. Then he spoke in quite as measured, cold and tranquil a manner as the King had done.
"I need not remind you, Sir, that the days of tyranny are over. You cannot force me into bigamy against my will!"
His father uttered a quick oath.
"Bigamy! Who talks of bigamy?"
"You do, Sir! I have married a beautiful and innocent woman,—she is my lawful wife in the sight of God and man; yet you coolly propose to give me a second wife under the 'morganatic' law, which, as I view it, is merely a Royal excuse for bigamy! Now I have no wish to excuse myself for marrying Gloria,—I consider she has honoured me far more than I have honoured her. She has given me all her youth, her life, her love, her beauty and her trust, and whatever I am worth in this world shall be hers and hers only. I am quite prepared"—and he smiled somewhat sarcastically,—"to make it a test case, and appeal to the law of the realm. If that law tolerates a crime in princes, which it would punish in commoners, then I shall ask the People to judge me!"
"Indeed!" And the King surveyed him with a touch of ironical amusement and vague admiration for his audacity. "And suppose the people fail to appreciate the romance of the situation?"
"Then I shall resign my nationality;" said the young man coolly; "Because a country that legalises a wrong done to the innocent, is not worth belonging to! Concerning the Throne,—as I told you before—I am ready to abandon it at once. I would rather lose all the kingdoms of the world than lose Gloria!"
There was a pause, during which the King took two or three slow paces up and down the room. At last he turned and faced his son; his eyes were softer—his look more kindly.
"You are very much in love just now, Humphry!" he said; "And I do not wish to be too hard on you in this matter, for there can be no question as to the extraordinary beauty of the girl you call your wife——"
"The girl who is my wife," interrupted the Prince decisively.
"Very well; so let it be!" said his father calmly; "The girl who is your wife—for the present! I will give you time—plenty of time—to consider the position reasonably!"
"I have already considered it," he declared.
"No doubt! You think you have considered it. But if you do not want to meditate any further upon your marriage problem, you must allow me the leisure to do so, as one who has seen more of life than you,—as one who takes things philosophically—and also—as one who was young— once;—who loved—once;—and who had his own private dreams of happiness—once!" He rested a hand on his son's shoulder, and looked him full and fairly in the eyes. "Let me advise you, Humphry, to go abroad! Travel round the world for a year!"
The Prince was silent,—but his eyes did not flinch from his father's steady gaze. He seemed to be thinking rapidly; but his thoughts were not betrayed by any movement or expression that could denote anxiety. He was alert, calm, and perfectly self-possessed.
"I have no objection," he said at last; "A year is soon past!"
"It is," agreed the King, with a sense of relief at his ready assent; "But by the end of that time——"
"Things will be precisely as they are now," said the Prince tranquilly; "Gloria will still be my wife, and I shall still be her husband!"
The King gave a gesture of annoyance.
"Whatever the result," he said, "she cannot, and will not be Crown Princess!"
"She will not envy that destiny in my brother Rupert's wife," said Prince Humphry quietly; "Nor shall I envy my brother Rupert!"
"You talk like a fool, Humphry!" said the King impatiently; "You cannot resign your Heir-Apparency to the Throne, without giving a reason;—and so making known your marriage."
"That is precisely what I wish to do," returned the young man. "I have no intention of keeping my marriage secret. I am proud of it! Gloria is mine—the joy of my soul—the very pulse of my life! Why should I hide my heart's light under a cloud?"
His voice vibrated with tender feeling,—his handsome features were softened into finer beauty by the passion which invigorated him, and his father looking at him, thought for a moment that so might the young gods of the fabled Parnassus have appeared in the height of their symbolic power and charm. His own eyes grew melancholy, as he studied this vigorous incarnation of ardent love and passionate resolve; and a slight sigh escaped him unconsciously.
"You forget!" he said slowly, "you have, up to the present deceived the girl. She does not know who you are. When she hears that you have played a part,—that you are no sailor in the service of the Crown Prince, as you have apparently represented yourself to be, but the Crown Prince himself, what will she say to you? Perhaps she will hate you for the deception, as much as she now loves you!"
A shadow darkened the young Prince's open countenance, but it soon passed away.
"She will never hate me!" he said,—"For when I do tell her the truth, it will be when I have resigned all the ridiculous pomp and circumstance of my position for her sake——"
"Perhaps she will not let you resign it!" said the King; "She may be as unselfish as she is beautiful!"
There was a slight, very slight note of derision in his voice, and the Prince caught it up at once.
"You wrong yourself, Sir, more than you wrong my wife by any lurking misjudgment of her," he said, with singularly masterful and expressive dignity. "As her husband, and the guardian of her honour, I also claim her obedience. What I desire is her law!"
The King laughed a little forcedly.
"Evidently you have found the miracle of the ages, Humphry!" he said; "A woman who obeys her master! Well! Let us talk no more of it. You have been guilty of an egregious folly,—but nothing can make your marriage otherwise than morganatic. And when the State considers a Royal alliance for you advisable, you will be compelled to obey the country's wish,—or else resign the Throne."
"I shall obey the country's wish most decidedly," said the Prince, "unless it asks me to commit bigamy,—as you suggest,—in which case I shall decline! Three or four Royal sinners of this class I know of, who for all their pains have not succeeded in winning the attachment of their people, either for themselves or their heirs. Their people know what they are, well enough, and despise their fraudulent position as heartily as I do! I am perfectly convinced that if it were put to the vote of the country, no people in the world would wish their future monarch to be a bigamist!"
"How you stick to a word and a phrase!" exclaimed the King irritably; "The morganatic rule does away with the very idea of bigamy!"
"How do you prove it, Sir?" queried the Prince. "Bigamy is the act of contracting a second marriage while the first partner is alive. It is punished severely in commoners;—why should Royalty escape?"
The King began to laugh. This boy was developing 'discursive philosophies' such as his own old tutor had abhorred.
"Upon my life, I do not know, Humphry!" he declared; "You must ask the departed shades of those who made themselves responsible for kingship in the first place. Personally, I do not come under the law. I have only married once myself!"
His son looked full at him;—and the intensity of that look affected and unsteadied his usual calm nerves. But he was not one to shirk an unpleasant suggestion.
"You would say, Humphry, if your filial respect permitted you, that my one marriage has been amplified in various other ways. Perfectly true! When women lie down and ask you to walk over them, you do it if you are a man and a king! When, on the contrary, women show you that they do not care whether you are royal or the reverse, and despise you more than admire you, you run after them for all you are worth! At least I do! I always have done so. And, to a certain extent, it has been amusing. But the limit is reached. I am growing old!" Here he took up the cigar he had thrown aside when his son had first startled him by the announcement of his marriage, and relighting it, began to smoke peaceably. "I am, as I say, growing old. I have never found what is called love. You have—or think you have! Enjoy your dream, Humphry— but—take my advice and go abroad! See whether travel does not work a change in you or,—in her!" He paused a moment, and while the Prince still regarded him fixedly, added; "Will you tell the Queen?"
"I will leave you to tell her, Sir, with your permission;" replied the Prince; "I cannot expect her sympathy."
"Von Glauben, then, is the only person you have trusted with your confidence?"
"Von Glauben was no party to my marriage, Sir. I was married fully three months before I told him. He was greatly vexed and troubled,— but when he saw Gloria, he was glad."