"All shall be well if Love can make it so!" said Ronsard;— "Gloria—my child—!" He held out his wrinkled hands pathetically, unable to say more. She sank on her knees before him, and tenderly drawing down those hands upon her head, pressed them closely there.
"Your blessing, dearest!" she said; "Not in speech—but in thought!"
There was a moment's sacred silence;—then Gloria rose, and throwing her arms round the old man, the faithful protector of her infancy and girlhood, kissed him tenderly. After that, she seemed to throw all seriousness to the winds, and running out under the roses of the porch made two or three light dancing steps across the lawn.
"Come!" she cried, her eyes sparkling, her face radiant with the gaiety of her inward spirit; "Come, Professor! This is not what we call a poet's day of dreams,—it is a Royal day of nonsense! Come!" and here she drew herself up with a stately air—"WE are prepared to confront the King!"
The Professor caught the infection of her mirth, and quickly followed her; and within the next half-hour Rene Ronsard, climbing slowly to the summit of one of the nearest rocks on the shore adjacent to his dwelling, shaded his eyes from the dazzling sunlight on the sea, and strained them to watch the magnificent Royal yacht steaming swiftly over the tranquil blue water, with one slight figure clad in white leaning against the mast, a figure that waved its hand fondly towards The Islands, and of whom it might have been said:
"Her gaze was glad past love's own singing of, And her face lovely past desire of love!"
A FAIR DEBUTANTE
That same afternoon there was a mysterious commotion at the Palace,— whispers ran from lip to lip among the few who had seen her, that a beautiful woman,—lovelier than the Queen herself,—had, under the escort of the uncommunicative Professor von Glauben, passed into the presence of the King and Queen, to receive the honour of a private audience. Who was she? What was she? Where did she come from? How was she dressed? This last question was answered first, being easiest to deal with. She was attired all in white,—'like a picture' said some— 'like a statue' said others. No one, however, dared ask any direct question concerning her,—her reception, whoever she was, being of a strictly guarded nature, and peremptory orders having been given to admit no one to the Queen's presence-chamber, to which apartment she had been taken by the King's physician. But such dazzling beauty as hers could not go altogether unnoticed by the most casual attendant, sentinel, or lord-in-waiting, and the very fact that special commands had been issued to guard all the doors of entrance to the Royal apartments on either hand, during her visit, only served to pique and inflame the general curiosity.
Meantime,—while lesser and inferior personages were commenting on the possibility of the unknown fair one being concerned with some dramatic incident that might have to be included among the King's numerous gallantries,—the unconscious subject of their discussion was quietly seated alone in an ante-room adjoining the Queen's apartments, waiting till Professor von Glauben should announce that their Majesties were ready to receive her. She was not troubled or anxious, or in any way ill at ease. She looked curiously upon the splendid evidences of Royal state, wealth and luxury which surrounded her, with artistic appreciation but no envy. She caught sight of her own face and figure in a tall mirror opposite to her, set in a silver frame; and she studied herself quietly and critically with the calm knowledge that there was nothing to deplore or to regret in the way God and Nature had been pleased to make her. She was not in the slightest degree vain,— but she knew that a healthy and quiet mind in a healthy and unspoilt body, together form what is understood as the highest beauty,—and that these two elements were not lacking in her. Moreover, she was conscious of a great love warming her heart and strengthening her soul,—and with this great motive-force to brace her nerves and add extra charm to her natural loveliness, she had no fear. She had enjoyed the swift voyage across the sparkling sea, and the fresh air had made her eyes doubly lustrous, her complexion even more than usually fair and brilliant. She did not permit herself to be rendered unhappy or anxious as to the possible attitude of the King and Queen towards her, —she was prepared for all contingencies, and had fully made up her mind what to say. Therefore, there was no need to fret over the position, or to be timorously concerned because she was called upon to confront those who by human law alone were made superior in rank to the rest of mankind.
"In God's sight all men are equal!" she said to herself: "The King is a mere helpless babe at birth, dependant on others,—as he is a mere helpless corpse at death. It is only men's own foolish ideas and conventions of usage in life that make any difference!"
At that moment the Professor entered hurriedly, and impulsively seizing her hands in his own, kissed them and pressed them tenderly. His face was flushed—he was evidently strongly excited.
"Go in there now, Princess!" he whispered, pointing to the adjacent room, of which the door stood ajar; "And may God be on your side!"
She rose up, and releasing her hands gently from his nervous grasp, smiled.
"Do not be afraid!" she said; "You, too, are coming?"
"I follow you!" he replied.
And to himself he said: "Ach, Gott in Himmel! Will she keep her so beautiful calm? If she will—if she can—a throne would be well lost for such a woman!"
And he watched her with an admiration amounting almost to fear, as she passed before him and entered the Royal presence-chamber with a proud light step, a grace of bearing and a supreme distinction, which, had she been there on a day of diplomatic receptions, would have made half the women accustomed to attend Court, look like the merest vulgar plebeians.
The room she entered was very large and lofty. A dazzle of gold ceiling, painted walls and mirrors flashed upon her eyes, with the hue of silken curtains and embroidered hangings,—the heavy perfume of hundreds of flowers in tall crystal vases and wide gilded stands made the air drowsy and odorous, and for a moment, Gloria, just fresh from the sweet breath of the sea, felt sickened and giddy,—but she recovered quickly, and raised her eyes fearlessly to the two motionless figures, which, like idols set in a temple for worship, waited her approach. The King, stiffly upright, and arrayed in military uniform, stood near the Queen, who was seated in a throne-like chair over- canopied with gold,—her trailing robes were of a pale azure hue bordered with ermine, and touched here and there with silver, giving out reflexes of light, stolen as it seemed from the sea and sky,—and her beautiful face, with its clear-cut features and cold pallor, might have been carved out of ivory, for all the interest or emotion expressed upon it. Gloria came straight towards her, then stopped. With her erect supple form, proud head and fair features, she looked the living embodiment of sovereign womanhood,—and the Queen, meeting the full starry glance of her eyes, stirred among her Royal draperies, and raised herself with a slow graceful air of critical observation, in which there was a touch of languid wonder mingled with contempt. Still Gloria stood motionless,—neither abashed nor intimidated,—she made no curtsey or reverential salutation of any kind, and presently removing her gaze from the Queen, she turned to the King.
"You sent for me," she said; "And I have come. What do you want with me?"
The King smiled. What a dazzling Perfection was here, he thought! A second Una unarmed, and strong in the courage of innocence! But he was acting a special part, and he determined to play it well and thoroughly. So he gave her no reply, but turned with a stiff air to Von Glauben.
"Tell the girl to make her obeisance to the Queen!" he said.
The Professor very reluctantly approached the 'Glory-of-the-Sea' with this suggestion, cautiously whispered. Gloria obeyed at once. Moving swiftly to the Queen's chair, she bent low before her.
"Madam!" she said, "I am told to kneel to you, because you are the Queen,—but it is not for that I do so. I kneel, because you are my husband's mother!"
And raising the cold impassive hand covered with great gems, that rested idly on the rich velvets so near to her touch, she gently kissed it,—then rose up to her full height again.
"Is it always like this here?" she asked, gazing around her. "Do you always sit thus in a chair, dressed grandly and quite silent?"
The smile deepened on the King's face; the Queen, perforce moved at last from her inertia, half rose with an air of amazement and indignation, and Von Glauben barely saved himself from laughing outright.
"You," continued Gloria, fixing her bright glance on the King; "You have seen me before! You have spoken to me. Then why do you pretend not to know me now? Is that Court manners? If so, they are not good or kind!"
The King relaxed his formal attitude, and addressed his Consort in a low tone.
"It is no use dealing with this girl in the conventional way," he said; "She is a mere child at heart, simple and uneducated;—we must treat her as such. Perhaps you will speak to her first?"
"No, Sir, I much prefer that you should do so," she replied. "When I have heard her answers to you, it will be perhaps my turn!"
Thereupon the King advanced a step or two, and Gloria regarded him steadfastly. Meeting the pure light of those lovely eyes, he lost something of his ordinary self-possession,—he was conscious of a certain sense of embarrassment and foolishness;—his very uniform, ablaze with gold and jewelled orders, seemed a clown's costume compared with the classic simplicity of Gloria's homespun garb, which might have fitly clothed a Greek goddess. Sensible of his nervous irritation, he however overcame it by an effort, and summoning all his dignity, he 'graciously,' as the newspaper parasites put it, extended his hand. Gloria smiled archly.
"I kissed your hand the other day when you were cross!" she said; "You would like it kissed again? There!"
And with easy grace of gesture she pressed her lips lightly upon it. It would have needed something stronger than mere flesh and blood to resist the natural playfulness and charm of her action, combined with her unparalleled beauty, and the King, who was daily and hourly proving for himself the power and intensity of that Spirit of Man which makes clamour for higher things than Man's conventionalities, became for the moment as helplessly overwhelmed and defeated by a woman's smile, a woman's eyes, as any hero of old times, whose conquests have been reported to us in history as achieved for the sake of love and beauty. But he was compelled to disguise his thoughts, and to maintain an outward expression of formality, particularly in the presence of his Queen-Consort,—and he withdrew the hand that bore her soft kiss upon it with a well-simulated air of chill tolerance. Then he spoke gravely, in measured precise accents.
"Gloria Ronsard, we have sent for you in all kindness," he said; "out of a sincere wish to remedy any wrong which our son, the Crown Prince has, in the light folly and hot impulse of his youth, done to you in your life. We are given to understand that there is a boy-and-girl attachment between you; that he won your attachment under a disguised identity, and that you were thus innocently deceived,—and that, in order to satisfy his own honourable scruples, as well as your sense of maidenly virtue, he has, still under a disguise, gone through the ceremony of marriage with you. Therefore, it seems that you now imagine yourself to be his lawful wife. This is a very natural mistake for a girl to make who is as young and inexperienced as you are, and I am sorry,—very sorry for the false position in which my son the Crown Prince has so thoughtlessly placed you. But, after very earnest consideration, I,—and the Queen also,—think it much better for you to know the truth at once, so that you may fully realize the situation, and then, by the exercise of a little common sense, spare yourself any further delusion and pain. All we can do to repair the evil, you may rest assured shall be done. But you must thoroughly understand that the Crown Prince, as heir to the Throne, cannot marry out of his own station. If he should presume to do so, through some mad and hot-headed impulse, such a marriage is not admitted or agreed to by the nation. Thus you will see plainly that, though you have gone through the marriage ceremony with him, that counts as nothing in your case,—for, according to the law of the realm, and in the sight of the world, you are not, and cannot be his wife!"
Gloria raised her deep bright eyes and smiled.
"No?" she said, and then was silent.
The King regarded her with surprise, and a touch of anger. He had expected tears, passionate declamations, and reiterated assurances of the unalterable and indissoluble tie between herself and her lover, but this little indifferently-queried "No?" upset all his calculations.
"Have you nothing to say?" he asked, somewhat sternly.
"What should I say?" she responded, still smiling; "You are the King; it is for you to speak!"
"She does not understand you, Sir," interrupted the Queen coldly; "Your words are possibly too elaborate for her simple comprehension!"
Gloria turned a fearless beautiful glance upon her.
"Pardon me, Madam, but I do understand!" she said; "I understand that by the law of God I am your son's wife, and that by the law of the world I am no wife! I abide by the law of God!"
There was a moment's dead silence. Professor von Glauben gave a discreet cough to break it, and the King, reminded of his presence turned towards him.
"Has she no sense of the position?" he demanded.
"Sir, I have every reason to believe that she grasps it thoroughly!" replied Von Glauben with a deferential bow.
But here he was again interrupted by the Queen. She, raising herself in her chair, her beautiful head and shoulders lifted statue-like from her enshrining draperies of azure and white, stretched forth a hand and beckoned Gloria towards her.
"Come here, child!" she said; then as Gloria advanced with evident reluctance, she added; "Come closer—you must not be afraid of me!"
"Nay, Madam, trouble not yourself at all in that regard! I never was afraid of anyone!"
A shadow of annoyance darkened the Queen's fair brows.
"Since you have no fear, you may equally have no shame!" she said in icy-cold accents; "Therefore it is easy to understand why you deliberately refuse to see the harm and cruelty done to our son, the Crown Prince, by his marriage with you, if such marriage were in the least admissible, which fortunately for all concerned, it is not. He is destined to occupy the Throne, and he must wed someone who is fit to share it. Kings and princes may love where they choose,—but they can only marry where they must! You are my son's first love;—the thought and memory of that may perhaps be a consolation to you,—but do not assume that you will be his last!"
Gloria drew back from her; her face had paled a little.
"You can speak so!" she said sorrowfully; "You,—his mother! Poor Queen—poor woman! I am sorry for you!"
Without pausing to notice the crimson flush of vexation that flew over the Queen's delicate face at her words, she turned, now with some haughtiness, to the King.
"Speak plainly!" she said; "What is it you want of me?"
Her flashing eyes, her proud look startled him—he moved back a step or two. Then he replied with as much firmness and dignity as he could assume.
"Nothing is wanted of you, my child, but obedience and loyalty! Resign all claim upon the Crown Prince as his wife; promise never to see him again, or correspond with him,—and—you shall lose nothing by the sacrifice you make of your little love affair to the good of the country."
"The good of the country!" echoed Gloria in thrilling tones. "Do you know anything about it? You—who never go among your people except to hunt and shoot and amuse yourself generally? You, who permit wicked liars and spendthrifts to gamble with the people's money! The good of the country! If my life could only lift the burden of taxation from the country, I would lay it down gladly and freely! If I were Queen, do you think I could be like her?" and she stretched forth her white arm to where the Queen, amazed, had risen from her seat, and now stood erect, her rich robes trailing yards on the ground, and flashing at every point with jewels. "Do you think I could sit unmoved, clad in rich velvet and gems, while one single starving creature sought bread within my kingdom? Nay, I would sell everything I possessed and go barefoot rather! I would be a sister, not a mere 'patroness' to the poor;—I would never wear a single garment that had not been made for me by the workers of my own land;—and the 'good of the country' should be 'good' indeed, not 'bad,' as it is now!"
Breathless with the sudden rush of her thoughts into words, she stood with heaving bosom and sparkling eyes, the incarnation of eloquence and inspiration, and before the astonished monarch could speak, she went on.
"I am your son's wife! He loves me—he has wedded me honourably and lawfully. You wish me to disclaim that. I will not! From him and him alone, must come my dismissal from his heart, his life and his soul. If he desires his marriage with me dissolved, let him tell me so himself face to face, and before you and his mother! Then I shall be content to be no more his wife. But not till then! I will promise nothing without his consent. He is my husband,—and to him I owe my first obedience. I seek no honour, no rank, no wealth,—but I have won the greatest treasure in this world, his love!—and that I will keep!"
A door opened at the further end of the room—a curtain was quietly pushed aside, and the Crown Prince entered. With a composed, almost formal demeanour, he saluted the King and Queen, and then going up to Gloria, passed his arm around her waist, and held her fast.
"When you have concluded your interview with my wife, Sir,—an interview of which I had no previous knowledge," he said quietly, addressing the King; "I shall be glad to have one of my own with her!"
The King answered him calmly enough.
"Your wife,—as you call her,—is a very incorrigible young person," he said. "The sooner she returns to her companions, the fisher-folk on The Islands, the better! From her looks I imagined she might have sense; but I fear that is lacking to her composition! However, she is perfectly willing to consider her marriage with you dissolved, if you desire it. I trust you will desire it;—here, now, and at once, in my presence and that of the Queen, your mother;—and thus a very unpleasant and unfortunate incident in your career will be satisfactorily closed!"
Prince Humphry smiled.
"Dissolve the heavens and its stars into a cup of wine, and drink them all down at one gulp!" he said; "And then, perhaps, you may dissolve my marriage with this lady! If you consider it illegal, put the question to the Courts of Law;—to the Pope, who most strenuously supports the sanctity of the marriage-tie;—ask all who know anything of the sacrament, whether, when two people love each other, and are bound by holy matrimony to be as one, and are mutually resolved to so remain, any earthly power can part them! 'Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.' Is that mere lip mockery, or is it a holy bond?"
The King gave an impatient gesture.
"There is no use in argument," he said, "when argument has to be carried on with such children as yourselves. What cannot be done by persuasion, must be done by force. I wished to act kindly and reasonably by both of you—and I had hoped better things from this interview,—but as matters have turned out, it may as well be concluded."
"Wait!" said Gloria, disengaging herself gently from her husband's embrace; "I have something to say which ought to meet your wishes, even though it may not be all you desire. I will not promise to give up my husband;—I will not promise never to see him, and never to write to him—but I will swear to you one thing that should completely put your fears and doubts of me at rest!"
Both the King and Queen looked at her wonderingly;—a brighter, more delicate beauty seemed to invest her,—she stood very proudly upright, her small head lifted,—her rich hair glistening in the soft sunshine that streamed in subdued tints through the high stained-glass windows of the room,—her figure, slight and tall, was like that of the goddess dreamt of by Endymion.
"You are so unhappy already," she continued, turning to the Queen; "You have lost so much, and you need so much, that I should be sorry to add to your burden of grief! If I thought I could make you glad,—if I thought I could make you see the world through my eyes, with all the patient, loving human hearts about you, waiting for the sympathy you never give; I would come to you often, and try to find the warm pulse of you somewhere under all that splendour which you clothe yourself in, and which is as valueless to me as the dust on the common road! And if I could show you" and here she fixed her steadfast glance upon the King,—"where you might win friends instead of losing them,—if I could persuade you to look and see where the fires of Revolution are beginning to smoulder and kindle under your very Throne,—if I could bear messages from you of compassion and tenderness to all the disaffected and disloyal, I would ask you on my knees to let me be your daughter in affection, as I am by marriage; and I would unveil to you the secrets of your own kingdom, which is slowly but steadily rising against you! But you judge me wrongly—you estimate me falsely,—and where I might have given aid, your own misconception of me makes me useless! You consider me low-born and a mere peasant! How can you be sure of that?—for truly I do not know who I am, or where I came from. For aught I can tell, the storm was my father, and the sea my mother,— but my parents may as easily have been Royal! You judge me half- educated,—and wholly unworthy to be your son's wife. Will the ladies of your Court compete with me in learning? I am ready! What I hear of their attainments has not as yet commanded my respect or admiration,— and you yourself as King, do nothing to show that you care for either art or learning! I wonder, indeed, that you should even pause to consider whether your son's wife is educated or not!"
Absolutely silent, the King kept his eyes upon her. He was experiencing a novel sensation which was altogether delightful to him, and more instructive than any essay or sermon. He, the ostensible ruler of the country, was face to face with a woman who had no fear of him,—no awe for his position,—no respect for his rank, but who simply spoke to him as though he had been any ordinary person. He saw a scarcely perceptible smile on his son's handsome features,—he saw that Von Glauben's eyes twinkled, despite his carefully preserved seriousness of demeanour, and he realized the almost absurd powerlessness of his authority in such an embarrassing position. The assumption of a mute contempt, such as was vaguely expressed by the Queen, appeared to him to be the best policy;—he therefore adopted that attitude, without however producing the least visible effect. Gloria's face, softly flushed with suppressed emotion, looked earnest and impassioned, but neither abashed nor afraid.
"I have read many histories of kings," she continued slowly; "Of their treacheries and cruelties; of their neglect of their people! Seldom have they been truly great! The few who are reported as wise, lived and reigned so many ages ago, that we cannot tell whether their virtues were indeed as admirable as described,—or whether their vices were not condoned by a too-partial historian. A Throne has no attraction for me! The only sorrow I have ever known in my life, is the discovery that the man I love best in the world is a king's son! Would to God he were poor and unrenowned as I thought him to be, when I married him!—for so we should always have been happy. But now I have to think for him as well as for myself;—his position is as hard as mine,—and we accept our fate as a trial of our love. Love cannot be forced,—it must root itself, and grow where it will. It has made us two as one;—one in thought,—one in hope,—one in faith! No earthly power can part us. You would marry him to another woman, and force him to commit a great sin 'for the good of the country'? I tell you, if you do that,—if any king or prince does that,—God's curse will surely fall upon the Throne, and all that do inherit it!"
She did not raise her voice,—she spoke in low thrilling accents, without excitement, but with measured force and calm. Then she beckoned the Crown Prince to her side. He instantly obeyed her gesture. Taking him by the hand, she advanced a little, and with him confronted both the King and Queen.
"Hear me, your Majesties both!" she said in clear, firm accents; "And when you have heard, be satisfied as to 'the good of the country,' and let me depart to my own home in peace, away from all your crushing and miserable conventions. I take your son by the hand, and even as I swore my faith to him at the marriage altar, so I swear to you that he is free to follow his own inclination;—his law is mine,—his will my pleasure,—and in everything I shall obey him, save in this one decree, which I make for myself in your Majesties' sovereign presence—that never, so help me God, will I claim or share my husband's rank as Crown Prince, or set foot within this palace, which is his home, again, till a greater voice than that of any king,—the voice of the Nation itself, calls upon me to do so!"
This proud declaration was entirely unexpected; and both the King and Queen regarded the beautiful speaker in undisguised amazement. She, gently dropping the Prince's hand, met their eyes with a wistful pathos in her own.
"Will that satisfy you?" she asked, a slight tremor shaking her voice as she put the question.
The King at once advanced, and now spoke frankly, and without any ceremony.
"Assuredly! You are a brave girl! True to your love, and true to the country at one and the same time! But while I accept your vow, let me warn you not to indulge in any lurking hope or feeling that the Nation will ever recognize your marriage. Your own willingly-taken oath at this moment practically makes it null and void, so far as the State is concerned;—but perhaps it strengthens it as a bond of—youthful passion!"
An open admiration flashed in his bold fine eyes as he spoke,—and Gloria grew pale. With an involuntary movement she turned towards the Queen.
"You—Madam—you—Ah! No,—not you!—you are cruel!—you have not a woman's heart! My love—my husband!"
The Prince was at once beside her, and she clung to him trembling.
"Take me away!" she whispered; "Take me away altogether—this place stifles me!"
He caught her in his strong young arms, and was about to lead her to the door, when she suddenly appeared to remember something, and releasing herself from his clasp, put him away from her with a faint smile.
"No, dearest! You must stay here;—stay here and make your father and mother understand all that I have said. Tell them I mean to keep my vow. You know how thoroughly I mean it! The Professor will take me home!"
Then the Queen moved, and came towards her with her usual slow noiseless grace.
"Let me thank you!" she said, with an air of gracious condescension; "You are a very good girl, and I am sure you will keep your word! You are so beautiful that you are bound to do well; and I hope your future life will be a happy one!"
"I hope so, Madam!" replied Gloria slowly; "I think it will! If it is not happier than yours, I shall indeed be unfortunate!"
The Queen drew back, offended; but the King, who had been whispering aside to Von Glauben, now approached and said kindly.
"You must not go away, my child, without some token of our regard. Wear this for Our sake!"
He offered her a chain of gold bearing a simple yet exquisitely designed pendant of choice pearls. Her face crimsoned, and she pushed it disdainfully aside.
"Keep it, Sir, for those whose love and faith can be purchased with jewelled toys! Mine cannot! You mean kindly no doubt,—but a gift from you is an offence, not an honour! Fare-you-well!"
Another moment and she was gone. Von Glauben, at a sign from the King, hastily followed her. Prince Humphry, who had remained almost entirely mute during the scene, now stood with folded arms opposite his Royal parents, still silent and rigid. The King watched him for a minute or two—then laid a hand gently on his arm.
"We do not blame you over-much, Humphry!" he said; "She is a beautiful creature, and more intelligent than I had imagined. Moreover she has great calmness, as well as courage."
Still the Prince said nothing.
"You are satisfied, Madam, I presume?" went on the King addressing his Consort;—"The girl could hardly make a more earnest vow of abnegation than she has done. And when Humphry has travelled for a year and seen other lands, other manners, and other faces, we may look upon this boyish incident in his career as finally closed. I think both you and I can rest assured that there will be no further cause for anxiety?"
He put the question carelessly. The Queen bent her head in acquiescence, but her eyes were fixed upon her son, who still said nothing.
"We have not received any promise from Humphry himself," she said; "Apparently he is not disposed to take a similar oath of loyalty!"
"Truly, Madam, you judge me rightly for once!" said the Prince, quietly; "I am certainly not disposed to do anything but to be master of my own thoughts and actions."
"Remain so, Humphry, by all means!" said the King indulgently. "The present circumstances being so far favourable, we exact nothing more from you. Love will be love, and passion must have its way with boys of your age. I impose no further restriction upon you. The girl's own word is to me sufficient bond for the preservation of your high position. All young men have their little secret love-affairs; we shall not blame you for yours now, seeing, as we do, the satisfactory end of it in sight! But I fear we are detaining you!" This with elaborate politeness. "If you wish to follow your fair inamorata, the way is clear! You may retire!"
Without any haste, but with formal military stiffness the Prince saluted,—and turning slowly on his heel, left the presence-chamber. Alone, the King and his beautiful Queen-Consort looked questioningly at one another.
"What think you, Madam, of the heroine of this strange love-story?" he asked with a touch of bitterness in his voice. "Does it not strike you that even in this arid world of much deception, there may be after all such a thing as innocence?—such a treasure as true and trusting love? Were not the eyes of this girl Gloria, when lifted to your face, something like the eyes of a child who has just said its prayers to God,—who fears nothing and loves all? Yet I doubt whether you were moved!"
"Were you?" she asked indifferently, yet with a strange fluttering at her heart, which she could not herself comprehend.
"I was!" he answered. "I confess it! I was profoundly touched to see a girl of such beauty and innocence confront us here, with no other shield against our formal and ridiculous conventionalities, save the pure strength of her own love for Humphry, and her complete trust in him. It is easy to see that her life hangs on his will; it is not so much her with whom we have to deal, as with him. What he says, she will evidently obey. If he tells her he has ceased to love her, she will die quite uncomplainingly; but so long as he does love her, she will live, and expand in beauty and intelligence on that love alone; and you may be assured, Madam, that in that case, he will never wed another woman! Nor could I possibly blame him, for he is bound to find all—or most women inferior to her!"
She regarded him wonderingly.
"Your admiration of her is keen, Sir!" she said, amazed to find herself somewhat irritated. "Perhaps if she were not morganatically your daughter-in-law, you might be your son's rival?"
He turned upon her indignantly.
"Madam, the days were, when you, as my wife, had it in your power to admit no rivals to the kingdom of your own beauty! Since then, I confess, you have had many! But they have been worthless rivals all,— crazed with their own vanity and greed, and empty of truth and honour. A month or two before I came to the Throne, I was beginning to think that women were viler than vermin,—I had grown utterly weary of their beauty,—weary—ay, sick to death of their alluring eyes, sensual lips, and too freely-offered caresses; the uncomely, hard-worked woman, earning bread for her half-starved children, seemed the only kind of feminine creature for which I could have any respect—but now—I am learning that there are good women who are fair to see,—women who have hearts to love and suffer, and who are true—ay—true as the sun in heaven to the one man they worship!"
"A man who is generally quite unworthy of them!" said the Queen with a chill laugh; "Your eloquence, Sir, is very touching, and no doubt leads further than I care to penetrate! The girl Gloria is certainly beautiful, and no doubt very innocent and true at present,—but when Humphry tires of her, as he surely will, for all men quickly tire of those that love them best,—she will no doubt sink into the ordinary ways of obtaining consolation. I know little concerning these amazingly good women you speak of; and nothing concerning good men! But I quite agree with you that many women are to be admired for their hard work. You see when once they do begin to work, men generally keep them at it!" She gathered up her rich train on one arm, and prepared to leave the apartment. "If you think," she continued, "as you now say, that Humphry will never change his present sentiments, and never marry any other woman, the girl's oath is a mere farce and of no avail!"
"On the contrary, it is of much avail," said the King, "for she has sworn before us both never to claim any right to share in Humphry's position, till the nation itself asks her to do so. Now as the nation will never know of the marriage at all, the 'call' will not be forthcoming."
The Queen paused in the act of turning away.
"If you were to die," she said; "Humphry would be King. And as King, he is quite capable of making Gloria Queen!"
He looked at her very strangely.
"Madam, in the event of my death, all things are possible!" he said; "A dying Sovereignty may give birth to a Republic!"
The Queen smiled.
"Well, it is the most popular form of government nowadays," she responded, carelessly moving slowly towards the door; "And perhaps the most satisfactory. I think if I were not a Queen, I should be a republican!"
"And I, if I were not a King," he responded, "should be a Socialist! Such are the strange contradictions of human nature! Permit me!" He opened the door of the room for her to pass out,—and as she did so, she looked up full in his face.
"Are you still interested in your new form of amusement?" she said; "And do you still expose yourself to danger and death?"
He bowed assent.
"Still am I a fool in a new course of folly, Madam!" he answered with a smile, and a half sigh. "So many of my brother monarchs are wadded round like peaches in wool, with precautions for their safety, lest they bruise at a touch, that I assure you I take the chances of danger and death as exhilarating sport, compared to their guarded condition. But it is very good of you to assume such a gracious solicitude for my safety!"
"Assume?" she said. Her voice had a slight tremor in it,—her eyes looked soft and suffused with something like tears. Then, with her usual stately grace, she saluted him, and passed out.
Struck at the unwonted expression in her face, he stood for a moment amazed. Then he gave vent to a low bitter laugh.
"How strange it would be if she should love me now!" he murmured. "But —after all these years—too late! Too late!"
That night before the King retired to rest, Professor von Glauben reported himself and his duty to his Majesty in the privacy of his own apartments. He had, he stated, accompanied Gloria back to her home in The Islands; and, he added somewhat hesitatingly, the Crown Prince had returned with her, and had there remained. He, the Professor, had left them together, being commanded by the Prince so to do.
The King received this information with perfect equanimity.
"The boy must have his way for the present," he said. "His passion will soon exhaust itself. All passion exhausts itself sooner or—later!"
"That depends very much on the depth or shallowness of its source, Sir," replied the Professor.
"True! But a boy!—a mere infant in experience! What can he know of the depths in the heart and soul! Now a man of my age——"
He broke off abruptly, seeing Von Glauben's eyes fixed steadfastly upon him, and the colour deepened in his cheek. Then he gave a slight laugh.
"I tell you, Von Glauben, this little love-affair—this absurd toy- marriage is not worth thinking about. Humphry leaves the country at the end of this month,—he will remain absent a year,—and at the expiration of that time we shall marry him in good earnest to a royally-born bride. Meanwhile, let us not trouble ourselves about this sentimental episode, which is so rapidly drawing to its close."
The Professor bowed respectfully and retired. But not to sleep. He had a glowing picture before his eyes,—a picture he could not forget, of the Crown Prince and Gloria standing with arms entwined about each other under the rose-covered porch of Ronsard's cottage saying "Good- night" to him, while Ronsard himself, his tranquillity completely restored, and his former fears at rest, warmly shook his hand, and with a curious mingling of pride and deference thanked him for all his friendship—'all his goodness!'
"And no goodness at all is mine," said the meditative Professor, "save that of being as honest as I can to both sides! But there is some change in the situation which I do not quite understand. There is some new plan on foot I would swear! The Prince was too triumphant—Gloria too happy—Ronsard too satisfied! There is something in the wind!—but I cannot make out what it is!"
He pondered uneasily for a part of the night, reflecting that when he had returned from The Islands in the King's yacht, he had met the Prince's own private vessel on her way thither, gliding over the waves, a mere ghostly bunch of white sails in the glimmering moon. He had concluded that it was under orders to embark the Prince for home again in the morning; and yet, though this was a perfectly natural and probable surmise, he had been unable to rid himself altogether of a doubtful presentiment, to which he could give no name. By degrees, he fell into an uneasy slumber, in which he had many incompleted dreams,— one of which was that he found himself all alone on the wide ocean which stretched for thousands of miles beyond The Islands,—alone in a small boat, endeavouring to row it towards the great Southern Continent that lay afar off in the invisible distance,—where few but the most adventurous travellers ever cared to wander. And as he pulled with weak, ineffectual oars against the mighty weight of the rolling billows, he thought he heard the words of an old Irish song which he remembered having listened to, when as quite a young man he had paid his first and last visit to the misty and romantic shores of Britain.
"Come o'er the sea Cushla ma chree!— Mine through sunshine, storm and snows!— Seasons may roll, But the true soul, Burns the same wherever it goes; Let fate frown on, so we love and part not, 'T is life where thou art, 't is death where thou art not! Then come o'er the sea, Cushla ma chree! Mine wherever the wild wind blows!"
Then waking with a violent start, he wondered what set of brain-cells had been stirred to reproduce rhymes that he had, or so he deemed, long ago forgotten. And still musing, he almost mechanically went on with the wild ditty.
"Was not the sea Made for the free, Land for Courts and chains alone!— Here we are slaves, But on the waves, Love and liberty are our own!"
"This will never do!" he exclaimed, leaping from his bed; "I am becoming a mere driveller with advancing age!"
He went to the window and looked out. It was about six o'clock in the morning,—the sun was shining brightly into his room. Before him lay the sea, calm as a lake, and clear-sparkling as a diamond;—not a boat was in sight;—not a single white sail on the distant horizon. And in the freshness and stillness of the breaking day, the world looked but just newly created.
"How we fret and fume in our little span of life!" he murmured. "A few years hence, and for us all the troubles which we make for ourselves will be ended! But the sun and the sea will shine on just the same—and Love, the supremest power on earth, will still govern mankind, when thrones and kings and empires are no more!"
His thoughts were destined to bear quick fruition. The morning deepened into noon—and at that hour a sealed dispatch brought by a sailor, who gave no name and who departed as soon as he had delivered his packet, was handed to the King. It was from the Crown Prince, and ran briefly thus:—
"At your command, Sir, and by my own desire, I have left the country over which you hold your sovereign dominion. Whither I travel, and how, is my own affair. I shall return no more till the Nation demands my service,—whereof I shall doubtless hear should such a contingency ever arise. I leave you to deal with the situation as seems best to your good pleasure and that of the Government,—but the life God has given me can only be lived once, and to Him alone am I responsible for it. I am resolved therefore to live it to my own liking,—in honesty, faith and freedom. In accordance with this determination, Gloria, my wife, as in her sworn marriage-duty bound, goes with me."
For one moment the King stood transfixed and astounded; a cloud of anger darkened his brows. Crumpling up the document in his hand, he was about to fling it from him in a fury. What! This mere boy and girl had baffled the authority of a king! Anon, his anger cooled—his countenance cleared. Smoothing the paper out he read its contents again,—then smiled.
"Well! Humphry has something of me in him after all!" he said. "He is not entirely his mother! He has a heart,—a will, and a conscience,— all three generally lacking to sons of kings! Let me be honest with myself! If he had given way to me, I should have despised him!—'but for Love's sake he has opposed me; and by my soul!—I respect him!"
THE KING'S DEFENDER
Rumour, we are told, has a million tongues, and they were soon all at work, wagging out the news of the Crown Prince's mysterious departure. Each tongue told a different story, and none of the stories tallied. No information was to be obtained at Court. There nothing was said, but that the Prince, disliking the formal ceremony of a public departure, had privately set sail in his own yacht for his projected tour round the world. Nobody believed this; and the general impression soon gained ground that the young man had fallen into disgrace with his Royal parents, and had been sent away for a time till he should recognize the enormity of his youthful indiscretions.
"Sent away—you understand!" said the society gossips; "To avoid further scandal!"
The Prince's younger brothers, Rupert and Cyprian, were often plied with questions by their intimates, but knowing nothing, and truly caring less, they could give no explanation. Neither King nor Queen spoke a word on the subject; and Sir Roger de Launay, astonished and perplexed beyond measure as he was at this turn in affairs, dared not put any questions even to his friend Professor von Glauben who, as soon as the news of the Prince's departure was known, resolutely declined to speak, so he said, "on what did not concern him." Gradually, however, this excitement partially subsided to give place to other forms of social commotion, which beginning in trifles, swiftly expanded to larger and more serious development. The first of these was the sudden rise of a newspaper which had for many years subsisted with the greatest difficulty in opposition to the many journals governed by David Jost. It happened in this manner.
Several leading articles written in favour of a Jesuit settlement in the country, had appeared constantly in Jost's largest and most widely circulated newspaper, and the last of these 'leaders,' had concluded with the assertion that though his Majesty, the King, had at first refused the portion of Crown-lands needed by the Society for building, he had now 'graciously' re-considered the situation, and had been pleased to revoke his previous decision. Whereat, the very next morning the rival 'daily' had leaped into prominence by merely two headlines:
THE JESUIT SETTLEMENT STATEMENT BY HIS MAJESTY THE KING.
And there, plainly set forth, was the Royal and authoritative refusal to grant the lands required, 'Because of the earnest petition of our loving subjects against the said grant,'—and till 'our loving subjects'' objections were removed, the lands would be withheld. This public announcement signed by the King in person, created the most extraordinary sensation throughout the whole country. It was the one topic at every social meeting; it was the one subject of every sermon. Preachers stormed and harangued in every pulpit, and Monsignor Del Fortis, lifting up his harsh raucous voice in the Cathedral itself, addressed an enormous congregation one Sunday morning on the matter, and denounced the King, the Queen, and the mysteriously-departed Crown Prince in the most orthodox Christian manner, commending them to the flames of hell, and the mercy of a loving God at one and the same moment.
Meanwhile, the newspaper that had been permitted to publish the King's statement got its circulation up by tens of thousands, the more so as certain brilliant and fiery articles on the political situation began to appear therein signed by one Pasquin Leroy, a stranger to the reading public, but in whom the spirit of a modern 'Junius' appeared to have entered for the purpose of warning, threatening and commanding. A scathing and audacious attack upon Carl Perousse, Secretary of State, in which the small darts of satire flew further than the sharpest arrows of assertion, was among the first of these, and Perousse himself, maddened like a bull at the first prick of the toreador, by the stinging truths the writer uttered, or rather suggested, lost no time in summoning General Bernhoff to a second interview.
"Did I not tell you," he said, pointing to the signature at the end of the offending article, "to 'shadow' that man, and arrest him as a common spy?"
Bernhoff bowed stiffly.
"You did! But it is difficult to arrest one who is not capable of being arrested. I must be provided first with proofs of his guilt; and I must also obtain the King's order."
"Proofs should be easy enough for you to obtain," said Perousse fiercely; "And the King will sign any warrant he is told. At least, you can surely find this rascal out?—where he lives, and what are his means of subsistence?"
"If he were here, I could," responded Bernhoff calmly; "I have made all the necessary preliminary enquiries. The man is a gentleman of considerable wealth. He writes for his own amusement, and—from a distance. I advise you—" and here the General held up an obstinate- looking finger of warning; "I advise you, I say, to let him alone! I can find no proof whatever that he is a spy."
"Proof! I can give you enough—" began Perousse hotly, then paused in confusion. For what could he truly say? If he told the Chief of Police that this Pasquin Leroy was believed to have counterfeited the Prime Minister's signet, in order to obtain an interview with David Jost, why then the Chief of Police would be informed once and for all that the Prime Minister was in confidential communication with the Jew- proprietor of a stock-jobbing newspaper! And that would never do! It would, at the least, be impolitic. Inwardly chafing with annoyance, he assumed an outward air of conscientious gravity.
"You will regret it, General, I think, if you do not follow out my suggestions respecting this man," he said coldly; "He is writing for the press in a strain which is plainly directed against the Government. Of course we statesmen pay little or no heed to modern journalism, but the King, having taken the unusual, and as I consider it, unwise step of proclaiming certain of his intentions in a newspaper which was, until his patronage, obscure and unsuccessful, the public attention has been suddenly turned towards this particular journal; and what is written therein may possibly influence the masses as it would not have done a few weeks ago."
"I quite believe that!" said Bernhoff tersely; "But I cannot arrest a man for writing clever things. Literary talent is no proof of dishonesty."
Perousse looked at him sharply. But there was no satire in Bernhoff's fixed and glassy eye, and no expression whatever in his woodenly- composed countenance.
"We entertain different opinions on the matter, it is evident!" he said; "You will at least grant that if he cannot be arrested, he can be carefully watched?"
"He is carefully watched!" replied Bernhoff; "That is to say, as far as I can watch him!"
"Good!" and Perousse smiled, somewhat relieved. "Then on the first suspicion of a treasonable act——"
"I shall arrest him—in the King's name, when the King signs the warrant," said Bernhoff; "But he is one of Sergius Thord's followers, and at the present juncture it might be unwise to touch any member of that particularly inflammable body."
"Sergius Thord ought to have been hanged or shot years ago——"
"Then why did not you hang or shoot him?" enquired Bernhoff.
"I was not in office."
"Why do you not hang or shoot him now?"
"Because," interrupted Bernhoff, again lifting his grim warning finger; "If you did, the city would be in a tumult and more than half the soldiery would be on the side of the mob! By way of warning, M. Perousse, I may as well tell you frankly, on the authority of my position as Head of the Police, that the Government are on the edge of a dangerous situation!"
Perousse looked contemptuous.
"Every Government in the world is on the edge of a dangerous situation nowadays!" he retorted;—"But any Government that yields to the mob proves itself a mere ministry of cowardice."
"Yet the mob often wins,—not only by excess of numbers, but by sheer force of—honesty!"—said Bernhoff sententiously; "It has been known to sweep away, and re-make political constitutions before now."
"It has,"—agreed Perousse, drawing pens and paper towards him, and feigning to be busily occupied in the commencement of a letter—"But it will not indulge itself in such amusements during my time!"
"Ah! I wonder how long your time will last!" muttered Bernhoff to himself as he withdrew—"Six months or six days? I would not bet on the longer period!"
In good truth there was considerable reason for the General's dubious outlook on affairs. A political storm was brewing. A heavy tidal wave of discontent was sweeping the masses of the people stormily against the rocks of existing authority, and loud and bitter and incessant were the complaints on all sides against the increased taxation levied upon every rate-payer. Fiercest of all was the clamour made by the poor at the increasing price of bread, the chief necessity of life; for the imposition of a heavy duty upon wheat and other cereals had made the common loaf of the peasant's daily fare almost an article of luxury. Stormy meetings were held in every quarter of the city,—protests were drawn up and signed by thousands,—endless petitions were handed to the King,—but no practical result came from these. His Majesty was 'graciously pleased' to seem blind, deaf and wholly indifferent to the agitated condition of his subjects. Now and then a Government orator would mount the political rostrum and talk 'patriotism' for an hour or so, to a more or less sullen audience, informing them with much high- flown eloquence that, by responding to the Governmental demands and supporting the Governmental measures, they were strengthening the resources of the country and completing the efficiency of both Army and Navy; but somehow, his hydraulic efforts at rousing the popular enthusiasm failed of effect. Whereas, whenever Sergius Thord spoke, thousands of throats roared acclamation,—and the very sight of Lotys passing quietly down the poorer thoroughfares of the city was sufficient to bring out groups of men and women to their doors, waving their hands to her, sending her wild kisses,—and almost kneeling before her in an ecstasy of trust and adoration. Thord himself perceived that the situation was rapidly reaching a climax, and quietly prepared himself to meet and cope with it. Two of the monthly business meetings of the Revolutionary Committee had been held since that on which Pasquin Leroy and his two friends had been enrolled as members of the Brotherhood, and at the last of these, Thord took Leroy into his full confidence, and gave him all the secret clues of the Revolutionary organization which honeycombed the metropolis from end to end. He had trusted the man in many ways and found him honest. One trifling proof of this was perhaps the main reason of Thord's further reliance upon him; he had fulfilled his half-suggested promise to bring the sunshine of prosperity into the hard-working, and more or less sordid life of the little dancing-girl, Pequita. She had been sent for one morning by the manager of the Royal Opera, who having seen the ease, grace, and dexterity of her performance, forthwith engaged her for the entire season at a salary which when named to the amazed child, seemed like a veritable shower of gold tumbling by rare chance out of the lap of Dame Fortune. The manager was a curt, cold business man, and she was afraid to ask him any questions, for when the words—"I am sure a kind friend has spoken to you of me—" came timidly from her lips, he had shut up her confidence at once by the brief answer—
"No. You are mistaken. We accept no personal recommendations. We only employ proved talent!"
All the same Pequita felt sure that she owed the sudden lifting of her own and her father's daily burden of life, to the unforgetting care and intercession of Leroy. Lotys was equally convinced of the same, and both she and Sergius Thord highly appreciated their new associate's unobtrusive way of doing good, as it were, by stealth. Pequita's exquisite grace and agility had made her at once the fashion; the Opera was crowded nightly to see the 'wonderful child-dancer'; and valuable gifts and costly jewels were showered upon her, all of which she brought to Lotys, who advised her how to dispose of them best, and put by the money for the comfort and care of her father in the event of sickness, or the advance of age. Flattered and petted by the great world as she now was, Pequita never lost her head in the whirl of gay splendour, but remained the same child-like, loving little creature,— her one idol her father,—her only confidante, Lotys, whose gentle admonitions and constant watchfulness saved her from many a dangerous pitfall. As yet, she had not attained the wish she had expressed, to dance before the King,—but she was told that at any time his Majesty might visit the Opera, and that steps would be taken to induce him to do so for the special purpose of witnessing her performance. So with this half promise she was fain to be content, and to bear with the laughing taunts of her 'Revolutionary' friends, who constantly teased her and called her 'little traitor' because she sought the Royal favour.
Another event, which was correctly or incorrectly traced to Leroy's silently working influence, was the sudden meteoric blaze of Paul Zouche into fame. How it happened, no one knew;—and why it happened was still more of a mystery, because by all its own tenets and traditions the social world ought to have set itself dead against the 'Psalm of Revolution,'—the title of the book of poems which created such an amazing stir. But somehow, it got whispered about that the King had attempted to 'patronise' the poet, and that the poet had very indignantly resented the offered Royal condescension. Whereat, by degrees, there arose in society circles a murmur of wonder at the poet's 'pluck,' wonder that deepened into admiration, with incessant demand for his book,—and admiration soon expanded, with the aid of the book, into a complete "craze." Zouche's name was on every lip; invitations to great houses reached him every week;—his poems began to sell by thousands; yet with all this, the obstinacy of his erratic nature asserted itself as usual, undiminished, and Zouche withdrew from the shower of praise like a snail into its shell,—answered none of the flattering requests for 'the pleasure of his company,' and handed whatever money he made by his poems over to the funds of the Revolutionary Committee, only accepting as much out of it as would pay for his clothes, food, lodging, and—drink! But the more he turned his back on Fame, the more hotly it pursued him;—his very churlishness was talked about as something remarkable and admirable,—and when it was suggested that he was fonder of strong liquor than was altogether seemly, people smiled and nodded at each other pleasantly, tapped their foreheads meaningly and murmured: 'Genius! Genius!' as though that were a quality allied of divine necessity to alcoholism.
These two things,—the advent of a new dancer at the Opera, and the fame of Paul Zouche, were the chief topics of 'Society' outside its own tawdry personal concern; but under all the light froth and spume of the pleasure-seeking, pleasure-loving whirl of fashion, a fierce tempest was rising, and the first whistlings of the wind of revolt were already beginning to pierce through the keyholes and crannies of the stately building allotted to the business of Government;—so much so indeed that one terrible night, all unexpectedly, a huge mob, some twenty thousand strong, surrounded it, armed with every conceivable weapon from muskets to pickaxes, and shouted with horrid din for 'Bread and Justice!'—these being considered co-equal in the bewildered mind of the excited multitude. Likewise did they scream with protrusive energy: 'Give us back our lost Trades!' being fully aware, despite their delirium, that these said 'lost Trades' were being sold off into 'Trusts,' wherein Ministers themselves held considerable shares, A two- sided clamour was also made for 'The King! The King!' one side appealing, the other menacing,—the latter under the belief that his Majesty equally had 'shares' in the bartered Trades,—the former in the hope that the country's Honour might still be saved with the help of their visible Head.
Much difficulty was experienced in clearing this surging throng of indignant humanity, for though the soldiery were called out to effect the work, they were more than half-hearted in their business, having considerable grievances of their own to avenge,—and when ordered to fire on the people, flatly refused to do so. Two persons however succeeded at last in calming and quelling the tumult. One was Sergius Thord,—the other Lotys. Carl Perousse, seized with an access of 'nerves' within the cushioned luxury of his own private room in the recesses of the Government buildings, from whence he had watched the demonstration, peered from one of the windows, and saw one half of the huge mob melt swiftly away under the command of a tall, majestic- looking creature, whose massive form and leonine head appeared Ajax- like above the throng; and he watched the other half turn round in brisk order, like a well-drilled army, and march off, singing loudly and lustily, headed by a woman carried shoulder-high before them, whose white robes gleamed like a flag of truce in the glare of the torches blazing around her;—and to his utter amazement, fear and disgust, he heard the very soldiers shouting her name: "Lotys! Lotys!" with ever- increasing and thunderous plaudits of admiration and homage. Often and often had he heard that name,—often and often had he dismissed it from his thoughts with light masculine contempt. Often, too, had it come to the ears of his colleague the Premier, who as has been shown, even in intimate converse with his own private secretary, feigned complete ignorance of it. But it is well understood that politicians generally, and diplomatists always, assume to have no knowledge whatever concerning those persons of whom they are most afraid. Yet just now it was unpleasantly possible that "the stone which the builders rejected" might indirectly be the means of crushing the Ministry, and reorganizing the affairs of the country. His meditations on this occasion were interrupted by a touch on the shoulder from behind, and, looking up, he saw the Marquis de Lutera.
"Almost a riot!" he said, forcing a pale smile,—"But not quite!"
"Say, rather, almost a revolution!" retorted the Marquis brusquely;— "Jesting is out of place. We are on the brink of a very serious disaster! The people are roused. To-night they threatened to burn down these buildings over our heads,—to sack and destroy the King's Palace. The Socialist leader, Thord, alone saved the situation."
"With the aid of his mistress?" suggested Perousse with a sneer.
"You mean the woman they call Lotys? I am not aware that she is his mistress. I should rather doubt it. The people would not make such a saint of her if she were. At any rate, whatever else she may be, she is certainly dangerous;—and in a country less free than ours would be placed under arrest. I must confess I never believed in her 'vogue' with the masses, until to-night."
Perousse was silent. The great square in front of the Government buildings was now deserted,—save for the police and soldiery on guard; but away in the distance could still be heard faint echoes of singing and cheering from the broken-up sections of the crowd that had lately disturbed the peace.
"Have you seen the King lately?" enquired Lutera presently.
"By his absolute 'veto' against our propositions at the last Cabinet Council, the impending war which would have been so useful to us, has been quashed in embryo," went on the Premier with a frown;—"This of course you know! And he has the right to exercise his veto if he likes. But I scarcely expected you after all you said, to take the matter so easily!"
Perousse smiled, and shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly.
"However," continued the Marquis with latent contempt in his tone;—"I now quite understand your complacent attitude! You have simply turned your 'Army Supplies Contract' into a 'Trust' Combine with other nations,—so you will not lose, but rather gain by the transaction!"
"I never intended to lose!" said Perousse calmly; "I am not troubled with scruples. One form of trade is as good as another. The prime object of life nowadays is to make money!"
Lutera looked at him, but said nothing.
"To amalgamate all the steel industries into one international Union, and get as many shares myself in the combine is not at all an unwise project," went on Perousse,—"For if our country is not to fight, other countries will;—and they will require guns and swords and all such accoutrements of war. Why should we not satisfy the demand and pocket the cash?"
Still the Marquis looked at him steadily.
"Are you aware,"—he asked at last, "that Jost, to save his 'press' prestige, has turned informer against you?"
Perousse sprang up, white with fury.
"By Heaven, if he has dared!—"
"There is no 'if' in the case"—said Lutera very coldly—"He has, as he himself says, 'done his duty.' You must be pretty well cognisant of what a Jew's notions of 'duty' are! They can be summed up in one sentence;—'to save his own pocket.' Jost is driven to fury and desperation by the sudden success of the rival newspaper, which has been so prominently favoured by the King. The shares in his own journalistic concerns are going down rapidly, and he is determined— naturally enough—to take care of himself before anyone else. He has sold out of every company with which you have been, or are associated— and has—so I understand,—sent a complete list of your proposed financial 'deals,' investments and other 'stock' to—"
"Well!" exclaimed Perousse irascibly—"To whom?"
"To those whom it may concern,"—replied Lutera evasively—"I really can give you no exact information. I have said enough by way of warning!"
Perousse looked at him heedfully, and what he saw in that dark brooding face was not of a quieting or satisfactory nature.
"You are as deeply involved as I am—" he began.
"Pardon!" and the Marquis drew himself up with some dignity—"I was involved;—I am not now. I have also taken care of myself! I may have been misled, but I shall let no one suffer for my errors. I have sent in my resignation."
"Fool!" ejaculated Perousse, forgetting all courtesy in the sudden access of rage that took possession of him at these words;—"Fool, I say! At the very moment when you ought to stick to the ship, you desert it!"
"Are you not ready to run to the helm?" enquired Lutera with a satiric smile; "Surely you can have no doubt but that his Majesty will command you to take office!"
With this, he turned on his heel, and left his colleague to a space of very disagreeable meditation. For the first time in his bold and unscrupulous career, Perousse found himself in an awkward position. If it were indeed true that Jost and Lutera had thrown up the game, especially Jost, then he, Perousse, was lost. He had made of Jost, not only a tool, but a confidant. He had used him, and his great leading newspaper for his own political and financial purposes. He had entrusted him with State secrets, in order to speculate thereon in all the money-markets of the world. He had induced him to approach the Premier with crafty promises of support, and to inveigle him by insidious degrees into the same dishonourable financial 'deal.' So that if this one man,—this fat, unscrupulous turncoat of a Jew,—chose to speak out, he, Carl Perousse, Secretary of State, would be the most disgraced and ruined Minister that ever attempted to defraud a nation! His brows grew moist with fever-heat, and his tongue parched, with the dry thirst of fear, as the gravity of the situation was gradually borne in upon him. He began to calculate contingencies and possibilities of escape from the toils that seemed closing around him,—and much to his irritation and embarrassment, he found that most of the ways leading out of difficulty pointed first of all to,—the King.
The King! The very personage whom he had called a Dummy, only bound to do as he was told! And now, if he could only persuade the King that he,—the poor Secretary of State,—was a deeply-injured man, whose life's effort had been solely directed towards 'the good of the country,' yet who nevertheless was cruelly wronged and calumniated by his enemies, all might yet be well.
"Were he only like other monarchs whom I know," he reflected. "I could have easily involved him in the Trades deal! Then the press could have been silenced, and the public fooled. With five or six hundred thousand shares in the biggest concerns, he would have been compelled to work under me for the amalgamation of our Trades with the financial forces of other countries, regardless of the rubbish talked by 'patriots' on the loss of our position and prestige. But he is not fond of money,— he is not fond of money! Would that he were!—for so I should be virtually king of the King!"
Cogitating various problems on his return to his own house that evening, he remembered that despite numerous protests and petitions, the King had, up to the present, paid no attention to the appeals of his people against the increasing inroads of taxation. The only two measures he had carried with a high and imperative hand, were first,— the 'vetoing' of an intended declaration of war,—and the refusal of extensive lands to the Jesuits. The first was the more important action, as, while it had won the gratitude and friendship of a previously hostile State, it had lost several 'noble' gamblers in the griefs of nations, some millions of money. The check to the Jesuits was comparatively trivial, yet it had already produced far-reaching effects, and had offended the powers at the Vatican. But, beyond this, things remained apparently as they were; true, the Socialists were growing stronger;—but there was no evidence that the Government was growing weaker.
"After all," thought Perousse, as a result of his meditations; "there is no immediate cause for anxiety. If Lutera has sent in his resignation, it may not be accepted. That rests—like other things— with the King." And a vague surprise affected him at this fact. "Curious!" he muttered,—"Very curious that he, who was a Nothing, should now be a Something! The change has taken place very rapidly,— and very strangely! I wonder what—or who—is moving him?"
But to this inward query he received no satisfactory reply. The mysterious upshot of the whole position was the same,—namely, that somehow, in the most unaccountable, inexplicable manner, the wind and weather of affairs had so veered round, that the security of Ministers and the stability of Government rested, not with themselves or the nature of their quarrels and discussions, but solely on one whom they were accustomed to consider as a mere ornamental figure-head,—the King.
Some few days after the unexpected turbulent rising of the mob, it was judged advisable to give the people something in the way of a 'gala,' or spectacle, in order to distract their attention from their own grievances, and to draw them away from their Socialistic clubs and conventions, to the contemplation of a parade of Royal state and splendour. The careful student of History cannot fail to note that whenever the rottenness and inadequacy of a Government are most apparent, great 'shows' and Royal ceremonials are always resorted to, in order to divert the minds of the people from the bitter consideration of a deficient Exchequer and a diminishing National Honour. The authorities who organize these State masquerades are wise in their generation. They know that the working-classes very seldom have the leisure to think for themselves, and that they often lack the intelligent ability to foresee the difficulties and dangers menacing their country's welfare;—but that they are always ready, with the strangest fatuity, patience, and good-nature, to take their wives and families to see any new variation of a world's 'Punch and Judy' play, particularly if there is a savour of Royalty about it, accompanied by a brass band, well-equipped soldiers, and gilded coaches. Though they take no part in the pageant, beyond consenting to be hustled and rudely driven back by the police like intrusive sheep, out of the sacred way of a Royal progress, they nevertheless have an instinctive (and very correct) idea that somehow or other it is all part of the 'fun' for which they have paid their money. There is no more actual reverence or respect for the positive Person of Royalty in such a parade, than there is for the Wonderful Performing Pig who takes part in a circus- procession through a country town. The public impression is simple,— That having to pay for the up-keep of a Throne, its splendours should be occasionally 'trotted out' to see whether they are worth the nation's annual expenditure.
Moved entirely by this plain and practical sentiment, the popular breast was thrilled with some amount of interest and animation when it was announced that his Majesty the King would, on a certain afternoon, go in state to lay the foundation-stone of the Grand National Theatre, which was the very latest pet project of various cogitating Jews and cautious millionaires. The Grand National Theatre was intended to 'supply,' according to a stock newspaper phrase, 'a long-felt want.' It was to be a 'philanthropic' scheme, by which the 'Philanthropists' would receive excellent interest for their money. Ostensibly, it was to provide the 'masses' with the highest form of dramatic entertainment at the lowest cost;—but there were many intricate wheels within wheels in the elaborate piece of stock-jobbing mechanism, by which the public would be caught and fooled—as usual—and the speculators therein rendered triumphant. Sufficient funds were at hand to start the building of the necessary edifice, and the King's 'gracious' consent to lay the first stone, with full state and ceremony, was hailed by the promoters of the plan as of the happiest augury. For with such approval and support openly given, all the Snob-world would follow the Royal 'lead'—quite as infallibly as it did in the case of another monarch who, persuaded to drink of a certain mineral spring, and likewise to 'take shares' in its bottled waters, turned the said spring into a 'paying concern' at once, thereby causing much rejoicing among the Semites. The 'mob' might certainly decline to imitate the Snob-world,— but, considering the recent riotous outbreak, it might be as well that the overbold and unwashen populace should be awed by the panoply and glory of earthly Majesty passing by in earthly splendour.
Alas, poor Snob-world! How often has it thought the same thing! How often has it fancied that with show and glitter and brazen ostentation of mere purse-power, it can quell the rage for Justice, which, like a spark of God's own eternal Being, burns for ever in the soul of a People! Ah, that rage for Justice!—that divine fury and fever which with strong sweating and delirium shakes the body politic and cleanses it from accumulated sickly humours and pestilence! What would the nations be without its periodical and merciful visitations! Tearing down old hypocrisies,—rooting up weedy abuses,—rending asunder rotten conventions,—what wonder if thrones and sceptres, and even the heads of kings get sometimes mixed into the general swift clearance of long- accumulated dirt and disorder! And vainly at such times does the Snob- world anxiously proffer golden pieces for the price of its life! There shall not then be millions enough in all the earth, to purchase the safety of one proved Liar who has wilfully robbed his neighbour!
No hint of the underworkings of the people's thought, or the movement of the times was, however, apparent in the aspect of the gay multitudes that poured along the principal thoroughfares of the metropolis on the day appointed for the ceremony in which the King had consented to take the leading part. Poor and rich together, vied with one another to secure the various best points of view from whence the Royal pageant could be seen, winding down in glittering length from the Palace and Citadel, past the Cathedral, and so on to the great open square, where, surrounded by fluttering flags and streamers, a huge block of stone hung suspended by ropes from a crane, ready to be lowered at the Royal touch, and fixed in its place by the Royal trowel, as the visible and solid beginning of the stately fabric, which, according to pictorial models was to rise from this, its first foundation, into a temple of art and architecture, devoted to Melpomene and Thalia.
It was a glorious day,—the sun shone with vigorous heat and lustre from a cloudless sky,—the sea was calm as an inland pool—and people wore their lightest, brightest and most festive attire. Fair "society" dames, clad in the last capricious mode of ever-changing Fashion, and shading their delicate, and not always natural, complexions with airy parasols, filmy and finely-coloured as the petals of flowers, queened it over the flocking crowds of pedestrians, as they were driven past in their softly-cushioned carriages drawn by high-stepping horses;—all the boudoirs and drawing-rooms of the most exclusive houses seemed to have emptied their luxury-loving occupants into the streets,—and the whole town was, for a few hours at any rate, apparently given over to holiday. As the long line of soldiery preceding the King's carriage, wound down from the Citadel, groups of people cheered, and waved hats and handkerchiefs,—then, when his Majesty's own escort came into view, the cheering was redoubled,—and at last when the cumbrous, over- gilded, over-painted "Cinderella" State-coach appeared, and the familiar, but somewhat sternly-composed features of the King himself were perceived through the glass windows, a roar of acclamation, like the thundering of a long wave on an extensive stretch of rock-bound coast, echoed far and near, and again and again was repeated with increased and ever-increasing clamour. Who,—hearing such an enthusiastic greeting—would or could have imagined for one moment that the King, who was the object and centre of these tremendous plaudits, was at the same time judged as an enemy and an obstruction to justice by more than one half of the population! Yet it was so,—and so has often been. The populace will shout itself hoarse for any cause; whether it be a king going to be crowned, or a king going to be executed, the stimulus is the same, and the enthusiasm as passionate. It is merely the contagious hysteria of a moment that tickles their lungs to expansion in noise;—but the real sentiment of admiration for a fine character which might perhaps have moved the subjects of Richard Coeur de Lion to cries of exultation, is generally non-existent. And why? For no cause truly!—save that Lion-Hearts in kings no more pulsate through nations.
By the time the Royal procession reached its destination the crowd had largely increased, and the press of people round the scene of the forthcoming function was great enough to be seriously embarrassing to both the soldiery and the police. Slowly the gorgeous State-coach lumbered up to the entrance of the ground railed off for the ceremony, —and between a line of armed guards, the King alighted. Vociferous cheering again broke out on all sides, which his Majesty acknowledged in the usual formal manner by a monotonous military salute performed at regular intervals. Received with obsequious deference by all the persons concerned in the Grand National Theatre project, he conversed with one or two, shook hands with others, and was just on the point of addressing a few of his usual suave compliments to some pretty women who had been invited to adorn the scene, when David Jost advanced smilingly, evidently sure of a friendly recognition. For had not the King, when Crown Prince and Heir-Apparent, hunted game in his preserves?—yea, had he not even dined with him?—and had not he, Jost, written whole columns of vapid twaddle about the 'Royal smile' and the 'Royal favour' till the outside public had sickened at every stroke of his flunkey pen? How came it, then, that his Majesty seemed on this occasion to have no recollection of him, and looked over and beyond him in the airiest way, as though he were a far-off Jew in Jerusalem, instead of being the assumptive-Orthodox proprietor of several European newspapers published for the general misinformation and plunder of gullible Christians? Dismayed at the Royal coldness of eye, Jost stepped back with an uncomfortably crimson face; and one of the ladies present, personally knowing him, and seeing his discomfiture, ventured to call the King's attention to his presence and to make way for his approach, by murmuring gently, "Mr. Jost, Sir!"
"Ah, indeed!" said the monarch, with calm grey eyes still fixed on vacancy,—"I do not know anyone of that name! Permit me to admire that exquisite arrangement of flowers!" and, smiling affably on the astonished and embarrassed lady, he led her aside, altogether away from Jost's vicinity.
Stricken to the very dust of abasement by this direct "cut" so publicly administered, the crestfallen editor and proprietor of many journals stood aghast for a moment,—then as various unbidden thoughts began to chase one another through his bewildered head, he was seized with a violent trembling. He remembered every foolish, imprudent and disloyal remark he had made to the stranger named Pasquin Leroy who had called upon him bearing the Premier's signet,—and reflecting that this very Pasquin Leroy was now, by some odd chance, a contributor of political leaders and other articles to the rival daily newspaper which had published the King's official refusal of a grant of land to the Jesuits, he writhed inwardly with impotent fury. For might not this unknown man, Leroy,—if he were,—as he possibly was,—a friend of the King's—go to the full length of declaring all he knew and all he had learned from Jost's own lips, concerning certain 'financial secrets,' which if fully disclosed, would utterly dismember the Government and put the nation itself in peril? Might he not already even have informed the King? With his little, swine-like eyes retreating under the crinkling fat of his lowering brows, Jost, hot and cold by turns, wandered confusedly out of the 'exclusive' set of persons connected with the 'Grand National Theatre' scheme, who were now gathered round the suspended foundation-stone to which the King was approaching. He pretended not to see the curious eyes that stared at him, or the sneering mouths that smiled at the open slight he had received. Pushing his way through the crowd, he jostled against the thin black-garmented figure of a priest,—no other than Monsignor Del Fortis, who, with an affable word of recognition, drew aside to allow him passage. Affecting his usual 'company-manner' of tolerant good-nature, he forced himself to speak to this 'holy' man, who, at any rate, had paid him good money in round sums for so-called 'articles' or rather puff-advertisements in his paper concerning Church matters.
"Good-day, Monsignor!" he said—"You are not often seen at a Royal pageant! How comes it that you, of all persons in the world have brought yourself to witness the laying of the foundation-stone of a Theatre? Does not your calling forbid any patronage of the mimic Art?"
The priest's thin lips parted, showing a glimmer of wolfish teeth behind the pale stretched line of flesh.
"Not by any means!" he replied suavely—"In the present levelling and amalgamation of social interests, the Church and Stage are drawing very closely together."
"True!" said Jost, with a grin—"One might very well be taken for the other!"
Del Fortis looked at him meditatively.
"This," he said, waving his lean hand towards the centre of the brilliant crowd where now the King stood, "is a kind of drama in its way. And you, Mr. Jost, have just played one little scene in it!"
Jost reddened, and bit his lip.
"I am also another actor on the boards," continued Del Fortis smiling darkly;—"if only as a spectator in the 'super' crowd. And other comedians and tragedians are doubtless present, of whom we may hear anon!"
"The King has nasty humours sometimes," said Jost shortly, looking down at the flower in his buttonhole, and absently flicking off one of its petals with his fat forefinger—"He ought to be made to pay for them!"
"Ha, ha! Very good! Certainly!" and Del Fortis gave a piously- deprecating nod—"He ought to be made to pay! Especially when he hurts the feelings of his old friends! Are you going, Mr. Jost? Yes? What a pity! But you no doubt have your reporters present?"
"Oh, there are plenty of them about,"—said Jost carelessly, "But I shall condense all the account of these proceedings into a few lines."
"Ha,—ha!" laughed Del Fortis,—"I understand! Revenge—revenge! But— in certain cases—the briefest description is sometimes the most graphic—and startling! Good-day!"
Jost returned the salute curtly, and went,—not to leave the scene altogether, but merely to take up a position of vantage immediately above and behind the surging crowd, where from a distance he could watch all that was going on. He saw the King lift his hand towards the ropes and pulleys of the crane above him,—and as it was touched by the Royal finger, the foundation stone was slowly lowered into the deep socket prepared for it, where gold and silver coins of the year's currency had already been strewn. Then, with the aid of a silver trowel set in a handle of gold, and obsequiously presented by the managing director of the scheme, his Majesty dabbed in a little mortar, and declared in a loud voice that the stone was 'well and truly laid.' A burst of cheering greeted the announcement, and the band struck up the country's National Hymn, this being the usual sign that the ceremony was at an end. Whereupon the King, shaking hands again cordially with the various parties concerned, and again shedding the lustre of his smile upon the various ladies with whom he had been conversing, made his way very leisurely to his State equipage, which, with its six magnificently caparisoned horses, stood prepared for his departure, the door being already held open for him by one of the attendant powdered and gold-laced flunkeys. Sir Roger de Launay walked immediately behind his Sovereign, and Professor von Glauben was close at hand, companioned by two of the gentlemen of the Royal Household. All at once a young man pushed himself out of the crowd nearest to the enclosure,—paused a moment irresolute, and then, with a single determined bound reached the King's side.