"Thief of the People's money! Take that!" he shouted, wildly,—and, brandishing aloft a glittering stiletto, he aimed it straight at the monarch's heart!
But the blow never reached its destination, for a woman, closely veiled in black, suddenly threw herself swiftly and adroitly between the King's body and the descending blade, shielding his breast with both her outstretched arms. The dagger struck her violently, piercing her flesh through the upper part of her right shoulder, and under the sheer force of the blow, she fell senseless.
The whole incident took place in less time than it could be breathlessly told,—and even as she who had risked her life to save the King's, sank bleeding to the ground, the police seized the assassin red-handed in his mad and criminal act, and wrenched the murderous weapon from his hand. He was a mere lad of eighteen or twenty, and seemed dazed, submitting to be bound and handcuffed without a word. The King, perfectly tranquil and unhurt, bared his head to the wild cries and hysterical cheering of the excited spectators to whom his narrow escape from death appeared a kind of miracle, moving them to frantic paroxysms of passionate enthusiasm, and then bent anxiously down over the prostrate form of his rescuer, endeavouring himself to raise her from the ground. A hundred hands at once proffered assistance;—Sir Roger de Launay, pale to the lips with the shock of sick horror he had experienced at what might so easily have been a national catastrophe, assisted the police in forming a strong cordon round the person of his beloved Royal master, in order to guard him against any further possible attack,—and Professor von Glauben, obeying the King's signal, knelt down by the unconscious woman's side to examine the extent of her injury. Gently he turned back the close folds of her enveloping veil,— then gave a little start and cry:
"Gott in Himmel!" And he hastily drew down the veil again as the King approached with the question—
"Is she dangerously hurt?"
"No, Sir!—I think not—I hope not—but—!"
And the Professor's eyes looked volumes of suggestion. Catching his expression, the King drew still nearer.
"Uncover her face,—give her air!" he commanded.
With a perplexed side-glance at Sir Roger de Launay, the Professor obeyed,—and the sunshine fell full on the white calm features and closed eyelids of "the woman known as Lotys." Her black dress was darkly stained and soaked with oozing blood—and the deep dull gold of her hair was touched here and there with the same crimson hue;—but there was a smile on her lips, and her face was as fair and placid as though it had been smoothed out of all pain and trouble by the restful touch of Death. Silently, and with a perfectly inscrutable demeanour, the King surveyed her for a moment. Then, raising his plumed hat with grave grace and courtesy, he looked on all those who stood about him, soldiery, police and spectators.
"Does anyone here present know this lady?" he demanded.
A crowd of eager heads were pushed forward, and then a low murmur began, which deepened into a steady roar of delighted acclamation.
The name was caught up quickly and repeated from mouth to mouth—till away on the extreme outskirts of the crowd it was tossed back again with shouts—"Lotys! Lotys!"
Swiftly the news ran like an electric current through the whole body of the populace, that it was Lotys, their own Lotys, their friend, their fellow-worker, the idol of the poorer classes, that had saved the life of the King! Half-incredulous, half-admiring, the mob listened to the growing rumour, and the general excitement increased in intensity among them. David Jost, from his point of observation, caught the infection, and realizing at once the value of the dramatic "copy" for his paper, to be obtained out of such a situation, jumped into the nearest vehicle and was driven straight to his offices, there to send electric messages of the news to every quarter of the world, and to endeavour by printed loyal outbursts of "gush" to turn the current of the King's displeasure against him into a more favourable direction. Meanwhile the King himself gave orders that his wounded rescuer should be conveyed in one of the Royal carriages straight to the Palace, and there attended by his own physician. Professor von Glauben was entrusted with the carrying-out of this command,—and the monarch, then entering his own State-equipage, started on his homeward progress.
Thundering cheers now greeted him at every step;—for an hour at least the populace went mad with rapture, shouting, singing and calling alternately for "The King!" and "Lotys!" with no respect of persons, or consideration as to their differing motives and opposite stations in life. Two facts only were clear to them,—first an attempt had been made to assassinate the King,—secondly, that Lotys had frustrated the attempt, and risked her own life to save that of the monarch. These were enough to set fire to the passionate sentiments of a warm-blooded, restless Southern people, and they gave full sway to their feelings accordingly. So, amid deafening plaudits, the Royal procession wended its way back to the Citadel, the State-coach moving at a snail's pace in order to allow the people to see the King for themselves, and make sure he was uninjured, as they cheered, and followed it in surging throngs to the very gates of the Palace,—while in another and reverse direction the wretched youth whose miserable effort to commit a dastard crime had so fortunately failed, was marched off, under the guard of a strong body of police to the State-Prison, there to await his trial and condemnation. A small crowd, hooting and cursing the criminal, pursued him as he went, and one personage, austere and dignified, also followed, at a distance, as though curious to see the last of the would-be murderer ere he was shut out from liberty,—and this was Monsignor Del Fortis.
A WOMAN'S REASON
When Lotys recovered from her death-like swoon, she found herself on a sofa among heaped-up soft cushions, in a small semi-darkened room hung with draperies of rose satin, which were here and there drawn aside to show exquisite groupings of Saxe china and rare miniatures on ivory;— the ceiling above her was a painted mirror, where Venus in her car of flowers, drawn by doves, was pictured floating across a crystal sea,— the floor was strewn with white bearskins,—the corners were filled with palms and flowers. As she regarded these unaccustomed surroundings wonderingly, a firm hand was laid on her wrist, and a brusque voice said in her ear:—
"Lie still, if you please! You have been seriously hurt! You must rest."
She turned feebly towards the speaker, and saw a big burly man with a bald head, seated at her side, who held a watch in one hand, and felt her pulse with the other. She could not discern his features plainly, for his back was set to the already shaded light, and her own eyes were weak and dim.
"You are very kind!" she murmured—"I do not quite remember—Ah, yes!" and a quick flash of animation passed over her face—"I know now! The King! Is—is all well?"
"All is well, thanks to you!" replied the gruff voice—"You have saved his life."
"Thank God!"—and she closed her eyes again wearily, while two slow tears trickled from under the shut white lids—"Thank God!"
Professor von Glauben, placed in charge of her by the King's command, gently relinquished the small white hand he held, and stepping noiselessly to a table near at hand, poured out from one of the various little flasks set thereon, a cordial the properties of which were alone known to himself, and held the glass to her lips.
"Drink this off at once!"—he said authoritatively, yet kindly.
She obeyed. He then, turning aside with the empty glass, sat down and watched her from a little distance. Soon a faint flush tinged her dead- white skin, and presently, with a deep sigh, she opened her eyes again. Then she became aware of a stiffness and smart in her right shoulder, and saw that it was tightly bandaged, and that the bodice of her dress was cut away from it. Lying perfectly still, she gradually brought her strong spirit of self-control to bear on the situation, and tried to collect her scattered thoughts. Very few minutes sufficed her to recollect all that had happened, and as she realised more and more vividly that she was in some strange and luxurious abode where she had no business or desire to be, she gathered all the forces of her mind to her aid, and with but a slight effort, sat upright. Professor von Glauben came towards her with an exclamation of warning—but she motioned him back with a very decided gesture.
"Please do not trouble!" she said—"I am quite able to move—to stand— see!" And she rose to her feet, trembling a little, and steadying herself by resting one hand on the edge of the sofa. "I do not know who you are, but I am sure you have been most kind to me! And if you would do me a still greater kindness, you will let me go away from here at once!"
"Impossible, Madame!" declared the Professor, firmly—"His Majesty, the King——"
"What of his Majesty, the King?" demanded Lotys with sudden hauteur— "Am I not mistress of my own actions?"
The Professor made an elaborate bow.
"Most unquestionably you are, Madame!" he replied—"But you are also for the moment, a guest in the King's Palace; and having saved his life, you will surely not withhold from him the courteous acceptance of his hospitality?"
"The King's Palace!" she echoed, and a little disdainful smile crossed her lips—"I,—Lotys,—in the King's Palace!" She moved a few steps, and drew herself proudly erect. "You, sir, are a servant of the King's?"
"I am his Majesty's resident physician, at your service!" he said, with another bow—"I have had the honour of attending to the wound you so heroically received in his defence,—and though it is not a dangerous wound, it is an exceedingly unpleasant one I assure you,—and will give you a good deal of pain and trouble. Let me advise you very earnestly to stay where you are, and rest—do not think of leaving the Palace to-night."
She sighed restlessly. "I must not think of staying in it!" she replied. "But I do not wish to seem churlish—or ungrateful for your care and kindness;—will you tell the King—" Here she broke off abruptly, and fixed her eyes searchingly on his face. "Strange!" she murmured—"I seem to have seen you before,—or someone very like you!"
The Professor was troubled with a sudden fit of coughing which made him very red in the face, and obliged him to turn away for a moment in order to recover himself. Still struggling with that obstinate catch in his throat he said:
"You were saying, Madame, that you wished me to tell the King something?"
"Yes!" said Lotys eagerly—"if you will be so good! Tell him that I thank him for his courtesy;—but that I must go away from this Palace, —that I cannot—may not—stop in it an hour longer! He does not know who it is that saved his life,—if he did, he would not wish me to remain a moment under his roof! He would be as anxious and willing for me to leave as I am to go! Will you tell him this?"
"Madame, I will tell him," replied the Professor deferentially, yet with a slight smile—"But—if it will satisfy your scruples, or ease your mind at all,—I may as well inform you that his Majesty does know who you are! The populace itself declared your name to him, with shouts of acclamation." She flushed a vivid red, then grew very pale.
"If that be so, then he must also be aware that I am his sworn enemy!" she said,—"And, that in accordance with the principles I hold, I cannot possibly remain under his roof! Therefore I trust, sir, you will have the kindness to provide me with a way of quick exit before my presence here becomes too publicly reported."
The Professor was slightly nonplussed. He considered for a moment; then rapidly made up his mind.
"Madame, I will do so!" he said—"That is, if you will permit me first of all to announce your intention of leaving the Palace, to the King. Pardon me for suggesting that his Majesty can hardly regard as an enemy a lady who has saved his life at the risk of her own."
"I did not save it because he is the King," she said curtly, "And you are at liberty to tell him so. Please make haste to inform him at once of my desire to leave the Palace,—and say also, that if he considers he owes me any gratitude, he will show it by not detaining me."
The Professor bowed and retired. Lotys, left alone, sat down for a moment in one of the luxuriously cushioned chairs, and pressed her left hand hard over her eyes to try and still their throbbing ache. Her right arm was bound up and useless,—and the pain from the wound in her shoulder caused her acute agony,—but she had a will of iron, and she had trained her mental forces to control, if not entirely to master, her physical weaknesses. She thought, not of her own suffering, but of the exciting incident in which mere impulse had led her to take so marked a share. It was by pure accident that she had joined the crowd assembled to see the King lay the foundation-stone of the proposed new Theatre. She had been as it were, entangled in the press of the people, and had got pushed towards the centre of the scene almost against her own volition. And while she had stood,—a passive and unwilling spectator of the pageant,—her attention had been singularly attracted towards the uneasy and restless movements of the youth who had afterwards attempted the assassination of the monarch. She had watched him narrowly; though she could not have explained why she did so, even to herself. He was a complete stranger to her, and yet, with her quick intuition, she had discerned a curious expression of anxiety and fear in his face, as though of the impending horror of a crime,—a look which, because it was so strained and unnatural, had aroused her suspicion. When she had sprung forward to shield the King, only one idea had inspired her,—and that idea she would not now fully own even to herself, because it was so entirely, weakly feminine. Nevertheless, from woman's weakness has often sprung a hero's strength—and so it had proved in this case. She did not, however, allow herself to dwell on the instinctive impulse which had thrown her on the King's breast, ready to receive her own death-blow rather than that he should die; she preferred to elude that question, and to consider her action solely from the standpoint of those Socialistic theories with which she was indissolubly associated.
"Had I not frustrated the attempt, the crime would have been set down to us and our Brotherhood," she said to herself, "Sergius—or Paul Zouche—or I myself—or even Pasquin—yes, even he!—might, and doubtless would, have been accused of instigating it. As it is, I think I have saved the situation." She rose and walked slowly up and down the room. "I wonder who is behind the wretched boy concerned in this business? He is too young to have determined on such a deed himself,— unless he is mad;—he must be a tool in the hands of others."
Here spying her long black cloak hanging across a chair, she took it up and threw it round her,—her face was reflected back upon her from a mirror set in the wall, round which a cluster of ivory cupids clambered,—and she looked critically at her white drawn features, and the disordered masses of her hair. Loosening these abundant locks, she shook them down and gathered them into her one uncrippled hand, preparatory to twisting them into the usual knot at the back of her head, the while she looked at the little sculptured amorini set round the mirror, with a compassionate smile.
"Such a number of mimic Loves where there is no real love!" she said half aloud,—when the opening of a door, and the swaying movement of a curtain pushed aside, startled her; and still holding her rich hair up in her hand she turned quickly,—to find herself face to face with,— the King.
There was an instant's dead silence. Dropping the silken gold weight of her tresses to fall as they would, regardless of conventional appearances, she stood erect, making all unconsciously to herself, a picture of statuesque and beauteous tragedy. Her plain black garments, —the long cloak enveloping her slight form, and the glorious tangle of her unbound hair rippling loosely about her pale face, in which her eyes shone like blue flowers, made luminous by the sunlight of the inspired soul behind them, all gave her an almost supernatural air,— and made her seem as wholly unlike any other woman as a strange leaf from an unexplored country is unlike the foliage common to one's native land. The King looked steadfastly upon her; she, meeting his gaze with equal steadfastness, felt her heart beating violently, though, as she well knew, it was not with fear. She had no thought of Court etiquette,—nor had she any reason to consider it, his Majesty having himself deliberately trespassed upon its rules by visiting her thus alone and unattended. She offered no reverence,—no salutation;—she simply stood before him, quite silent, awaiting his pleasure,—though in her eyes there shone a dangerous brilliancy that was almost feverish, and nervous tremors shook her from head to foot. The strange dumb spell between them relaxed at last. With a kind of effort which expressed itself in the extra rigidity and pallor of his fine features, the King spoke:
"Madame, I have come to thank you! Your noble act of heroism this afternoon has saved my life. I do not say it is worth saving!—but the Nation appears to think it is,—and in the name of the Nation, whose servant I am, I offer you my personal gratitude—and service!"
He bowed low as he said these words gravely and courteously. Her eyes still searched his face wistfully, with the eager plaintive expression of a child looking for some precious treasure it has lost. She strove to calm her throbbing pulses,—to quiet the hurrying blood in her veins,—to brace herself up to her usual impervious height of composure and self-control.
"I need no thanks!" she answered briefly—"I have only done my duty!"
"Nay, Madame, is it quite consistent with your duty to shield from death one so hated by your disciples and followers?" he asked, with a tinge of melancholy in his accents—"You—as the famous Lotys—should have helped to kill, not to save!"
She regarded him fearlessly.
"You mistake!" she said—"As King, you should learn to know your subjects better! We are not murderers. We do not seek your life,—we seek to make you understand the need there is of honesty and justice. We live our lives among the poor; and we see those poor crushed down into the dust by the rich, without hope and without help,—and we endeavour to rouse them to a sense of this Wrong, so that they may, by persistence, obtain Right. We do not want the death of any man! Even to a traitor we give warning and time, ere we punish his treachery. The unhappy wretch who attempted your life to-day was not of our party, or our teaching, thank God!"
"I am sure of that!" he said very gently, his face brightening with a kind smile,—then, seeing her swerve, as though about to fall, he caught her on one arm—"You are faint! You must not stand too long. I fear you are suffering from the pain of that cruel wound inflicted on you for my sake!"
"A little—" she managed to say, with white lips—"But it is nothing— it will soon pass——"
She sank helplessly into the chair he placed for her, and mutely watched him as he walked to the window and threw it open, admitting the sweet, fresh, sea-scented air, and a flood of crimson radiance from the setting sun.
"I am informed that you wish to quit the Palace at once," he said, averting his gaze from hers for a moment;—"Need I say how much I regret this decision of yours? Both I and the Queen had hoped you would have remained with us, under the care of our own physician, till you were quite recovered. But I owe you too great a debt already to make any further claim upon you—and I will not command you to stay, if you desire to go."
She lifted her head;—the faint colour was returning to her cheeks.
"I thank you!" she said simply;—"I do indeed desire to go. Every moment spent here is a moment wasted!"
"You think so?"—and, turning from the window where he stood, he confronted her again;—"May I venture to suggest that you hardly do justice to me, or to the situation? You have placed me under very great obligations—surely you should endure my company long enough to tell me at least how I can in some measure show my personal recognition of your brave and self-sacrificing action!"
She looked at him in musing silence. A strange glow came into her eyes,—a deeper crimson flushed her cheek.
"You can do nothing for me!" she said, after a long pause, "You are a King—I, a poor commoner. I would not be indebted to you for all the world! I am prouder of my 'common' estate than you are of your royalty! What are 'royal' rewards? Jewels, money, place, title! All valueless to me! If you would serve anyone, serve the People;—do something to deserve their trust! If you would show me any personal recognition, as you say, for saving your life, make that life more noble!"
He heard her without offence, holding himself mute and motionless. She rose from her seat, and approached him more closely.
"Perhaps, after all, it is well that I was,—unconsciously and against my own volition,—brought here," she said; "Perhaps it is God's will that I should speak with you! For, as a rule none of your unknown subjects can, or may speak with you!—you are so much hemmed in and ringed round with slaves and parasites! In so far as this goes, you are to be pitied; though it rests with you to shake yourself free from the toils of vulgar adulation. Your flatterers tell you nothing. They are careful to keep you shut out of your own kingdom—to hide from you things that are true,—things that you ought to know; they fool you with false assurances of national tranquillity and content,—they persuade you to play, like an over-grown child, with the toys of luxury,—they lead you, a mere puppet, round and round in the clockwork routine of a foolish and licentious society,—when you might be a Man! —up and doing man's work that should help you to regenerate and revivify the whole country! I speak boldly—yes!—because I do not fear you!—because I have no favours to gain from you,—because to me,— Lotys,—you,—the King—are nothing!"
Her voice, perfectly tranquil, even, and coldly sweet, had not a single vibration of uncertainty or hesitation in it—and her words seemed to cut through the stillness of the room with clean incisiveness like the sweep of a sword-blade. Outside, the sea murmured and the leaves rustled,—the sun had sunk, leaving behind it a bright, pearly twilight sky, flecked with pink clouds like scattered rose-petals.
He looked straight at her,—his clear dark grey eyes were filled with the glowing fire of strongly suppressed feeling. Some hasty ejaculation sprang to his lips, but he checked it, and pacing once or twice up and down, suddenly wheeled round, and again confronted her.
"If, as a king, I fall so far short of kingliness, and am nothing to you,"—he said deliberately; "Why did you shield me from the assassin's dagger a while ago? Why not have let me perish?"
She shook back her gold hair, and regarded him almost defiantly.
"I did not save you because you are the King!" she replied—"Be assured of that!"
He was vaguely astonished.
"Merely a humane sentiment then?" he said—"Just as you would have saved a dog from drowning!"
A little smile crept reluctantly round the corners of her mouth.
"There was another reason," she began in a low tone,—then paused— "But—only a woman's reason!"
Something in her changing colour,—some delicate indefinable touch of tenderness and pathos, which softened her features and made them almost ethereal, sent a curious thrill through his blood.
"A woman's reason!" he echoed; "May I not hear it?"
Again she hesitated,—then, as if despising herself for her own irresolution she spoke out bravely.
"You may!"—she said—"There is nothing to conceal—nothing of which I am ashamed! Besides, it is the true motive of the action which you are pleased to call 'heroic.' I saved your life simply because—because you resemble in form and feature, in look and manner, the only man I love!"
A curious silence followed her words. The faint far whispering of the leaves on the trees outside seemed almost intrusively loud in such a stillness,—the placid murmur of the sea against the cliff below the Palace became well-nigh suggestive of storm. Lotys was suddenly conscious of an odd strained sense of terror,—she had spoken as freely and frankly as she would have spoken to any one of her own associates, —and yet she felt that somehow she had been over-impulsive, and that in a thoughtless moment she had let slip some secret which placed her, weak and helpless, in the King's power. The King himself stood immovable as a figure of bronze,—his eyes resting upon her with a deep insistence of purpose, as though he sought to wrest some further confession from her soul. The tension between them was painful,—almost intolerable,—and though it lasted but a minute, that minute seemed weighted with the potentialities of years. Forcing herself to break the dumb spell, Lotys went on hurriedly and half desperately:—
"You may smile at this," she said—"Men always jest with a woman's heart,—a woman's folly! But folly or no, I will not have you draw any false conclusions concerning me,—or flatter yourself that it was loyalty to you, or honour for your position that made me your living shield to-day. No!—for if you were not the exact counterpart of him who is dearer to me than all the world beside, I think I should have let you die! I think so—I do not know! Because, after all, you are not like him in mind or heart; it is only your outward bearing, your physical features that resemble his! But, even so, I could not have looked idly on, and seen his merest Resemblance slain! Now you understand! It is not for you, as King, that I have turned aside a murderer's weapon,—but solely because you have the face, the eyes, the smile of one who is a thousand times greater and nobler than you,—who, though poor and uncrowned, is a true king in the grace and thought and goodness of his actions,—who, all unlike you, personally attends to the wants of the poor, instead of neglecting them,—and who recognises, and does his best to remedy, the many wrongs which afflict the people of this land!"
Her sweet voice thrilled with passion,—her cheeks glowed,— unconsciously she stretched out her uninjured hand with an eloquent gesture of pride and conviction. The King's figure, till now rigid and motionless, stirred;—advancing a step, he took that hand before she could withhold it, and raised it to his lips.
"Madame, I am twice honoured!" he said, in accents that shook ever so slightly—"To resemble a good man even outwardly is something,—to wear in any degree the lineaments of one whom a brave and true woman honours by her love is still more! You have made me very much your debtor"— here he gently relinquished the hand he had kissed—"but believe me, I shall endeavour most faithfully to meet the claim you have upon my gratitude!" Here he paused, and drawing back, bowed courteously. "The way for your departure is clear," he continued;—"I have ordered a carriage to be in waiting at one of the private entrances to the Palace. Professor von Glauben, my physician, who has just attended you, will escort you to it. You will pass out quite unnoticed,—and be,—as you desire it—again at full liberty. Let the memory of the King whose life you saved trouble you no more,—except when you look upon his better counterpart!—as then, perchance, you may think more kindly of him! For he has to suffer!—not so much for his own faults, as for the faults of a system formulated by his ancestors."
Her intense eyes glowed with a fire of enthusiasm as she lifted them to his face.
"Kingship would be a grand system," she said, "if kings were true! And Autocracy would be the best and noblest form of government in the world, if autocrats could be found who were intellectual and honest at one and the same time!"
He looked at her observantly.
"You think they are neither?"
"I think? 'I' am nothing,—my opinions count for nothing! But History gives evidence, and supplies proof of their incompetency. A great king,—good as well as great,—would be the salvation of this present time of the world!"
Still he kept his eyes upon her.
"Go on!"—he said—"There is something in your mind which you would fain express to me more openly. You have eloquent features, Madame!— and your looks are the candid mirror of your thoughts. Speak, I beg of you!"
The light of a daring inward hope flashed in her face and inspired her very attitude, as she stood before him, entirely regardless of herself.
"Then,—since you give me leave,—I will speak!" she said; "For perhaps I shall never see you again—never have the chance to ask you, as a Man whom the mere accident of birth has made a king, to have more thought, more pity, more love for your subjects! Surely you should be their guardian—their father—their protector? Surely you should not leave them to become the prey of unscrupulous financiers or intriguing Churchmen? Some say you are yourself involved in the cruel schemes which are slowly but steadily robbing this country's people of their Trades, the lawful means of their subsistence; and that you approve, in the main, of the private contracts which place our chief manufactures and lines of traffic in the hands of foreign rivals. But I do not believe this. We—and by we, I mean the Revolutionary party—try hard not to believe this! I admit to you, as faithfully as if I stood on my trial before you, that much of the work to which we, as a party have pledged ourselves, consists in moving the destruction of the Monarchy, and the formation of a Republic. But why? Only because the Monarchy has proved itself indifferent to the needs of the people, and deaf to their protestations against injustice! Thus we have conceived it likely that a Republic might help to mend matters,—if it were in power for at least some twenty or thirty years,—but at the same time we know well enough that if a King ruled over us who was indeed a King,—who would refuse to be the tool of party speculators, and who could not be moved this way or that by the tyrants of finance, the people would have far more chance of equality and right under a Republic even! Only we cannot find that king!—no country can! You, for instance, are no hero! You will not think for yourself, though you might; you only interest yourself in affairs that may redound to your personal and private credit; or in those which affect 'society,' the most dissolute portion of the community,—and you have shown so little individuality in yourself or your actions, that your unexpected refusal to grant Crown lands to the Jesuits was scarcely believed in or accepted, otherwise than as a caprice, till your own 'official' announcement. Even now we can scarcely be brought to look upon it except as an impulse inspired by fear! Herein, we do you, no doubt, a grave injustice; I, for one, honestly believe that you have refused these lands to the Priest- Politicians, out of earnest consideration for the future peace and welfare of your subjects."
"Nay, why believe even thus much of me?" he interrupted with a grave smile; "May you not be misled by that Resemblance I bear, to one who is, in your eyes, so much my superior?"
A faint expression of offence darkened her face, and her brows contracted.
"You are pleased to jest!" she said coldly; "As I said before, it is man's only way of turning aside, or concluding all argument with a woman! I am mistaken perhaps in the instinct which has led me to speak to you as openly as I have done,—and yet,—I know in my heart I can do you no harm by telling you the truth, as others would never tell it to you! Many times within this last two months the people have sent in petitions to you against the heavy taxes with which your Government is afflicting them, and they can get no answer to their desperate appeals. Is it kingly—is it worthy of your post as Head of this realm, to turn a deaf ear to the cries of those whose hard-earned money keeps you on the Throne, housed in luxury, guarded from every possible evil, and happily ignorant of the pangs of want and hunger? How can you, if you have a heart, permit such an iniquitous act on the part of your Government as the setting of a tax on bread?—the all in all of life to the very poor! Have you ever seen young children crying for bread? I have! Have you ever seen strong men reduced to the shame of stealing bread, to feed their wives and infants? I have! I think of it as I stand here, surrounded by the luxury which is your daily lot,—and knowing what I know, I would strip these satin-draped walls, and sell everything of value around me if I possessed it, rather than know that one woman or child starved within the city's precincts! Your Ministers tell you there is a deficiency in the Exchequer,—but you do not ask why, or how the deficiency arose! You do not ask whether Ministers themselves have not been trafficking and speculating with the country's money! For if deficiency there be, it has arisen out of the Government's mismanagement! The Government have had the people's money,—and have thrown it recklessly away. Therefore, they have no right to ask for more, to supply what they themselves have wilfully wasted. No right, I say!—no right to rob them of another coin! If I were a man, and a king like you, I would voluntarily resign more than half my annual kingly income to help that deficit in the National Exchequer till it had been replaced;—I would live poor,—and be content to know that by my act I had won far more than many millions—a deathless, and beloved name of honour with my people!"
She paused. He said not a word. Suddenly she became conscious that her hair was unbound and falling loosely about her; she had almost forgotten this till now. A wave of colour swept over her face,—but she mastered her embarrassment, and gathering the long tresses together in her left hand, twisted them up slowly, and with an evident painful effort. The King watched her, a little smile hovering about his mouth.
"If I might help you!" he said softly—"but—that is a task for my Resemblance!"
She appeared not to hear him. A sudden determination moved her, and she uttered her thought boldly and at all hazards.
"If you do not, as the public report, approve of the financial schemes out of which your Ministers make their fortunes, to the utter ruin of the people in general," she said slowly; "Dismiss Carl Perousse from office! So may you perchance avert a great national disaster!"
He permitted himself to smile indulgently.
"Madame, you may ask much!—and however great your demands, I will do my utmost to meet and comply with them;—but like all your charming sex, you forget that a king can seldom or never interfere with a political situation! It would be very unwise policy on my part to dismiss M. Perousse, seeing that he is already nominated as the next Premier."
"The next Premier!" Lotys echoed the words with a passionate scorn; "If that is so, I give you an honest warning! The people will revolt,—no force can hold them back or keep them in check! And if you should command your soldiery to fire on the populace, there must be bloodshed and crime!—on your head be the result! Oh, are you not, can you not be something higher than even a king?—an honest man? Will you not open the eyes of your mind to see the wickedness, falsehood and treachery of this vile Minister, who ministers only to his own ends?—who feigns incorruptibility in order to more easily corrupt others?—who assumes the defence of outlying states, merely to hide the depredations he is making on home power? Nay, if you will not, you are not worth a beggar's blessing!—and I shall wonder to myself why God made of you so exact a copy of one whom I know to be a good man!"
Her breath came and went quickly,—her cheeks were flushed, and great tears stood in her eyes. But he seemed altogether unmoved.
"I' faith, I shall wonder too!" he said very tranquilly; "Good men are scarce!—and to be the copy of one is excellent, though it may in some cases be misleading! Madame, I have heard you with patience, and—if you will permit me to say so—admiration! I honour your courage—your frankness—and—still more—your absolute independence. You speak of wrongs to the People. If such wrongs indeed exist——"
"If!" interrupted Lotys with a whole world of meaning in the expression.
"I say, if they indeed exist, I will, as far as I may,—endeavour to remedy them. I, personally, have no hesitation in declaring to you that I am not involved in the financial schemes to which you allude—though I know two or three of my fellow-sovereigns who are! But I do not care sufficiently for money to indulge in speculation. Nevertheless, let me tell you, speculation is good, and even necessary in matters affecting national finance, and I am confident—" here he smiled enigmatically, "that the country's honour is safe in the hands of M. Perousse!"
At this she lifted her head proudly and looked at him, with eyes that expressed so magnificent a disdain, that had he been any other than the man he was, he might have quailed beneath the lightning flash of such utter contempt.
"You are confident that the country's honour is safe!" she repeated bitterly; "I am confident that it is betrayed and shamed! And History will set a curse against the King who helped in its downfall!"
He regarded her with a vague, lingering gentleness.
"You are harsh, Madame!" he said softly; "But you could not offend me if you tried! I quarrel with none of your sex! And you will, I hope, think better of me some day,—and not be sorry—as perhaps you are now —for having saved a life so worthless! Farewell!"
She offered no response. The silken portiere rustled and swayed,—the door opened and shut again quietly—he was gone. Left alone, Lotys dropped wearily on the sofa, and burying her head in the soft cushions, gave way to an outburst of tears and sobbed like a tired and exhausted child. In this condition Professor von Glauben, entering presently, found her. But his sympathy, if he felt any, was outwardly very chill and formal. Another dose of his 'cordial,'—a careful examination and re-strapping of the wounded shoulder,—these summed up the whole of his consolation; and his precise cold manner did much to restore her to her self-possession. She thanked him in a few words for his professional attention, without raising her eyes to his face, and quietly followed him down a long narrow passage which terminated in a small private door giving egress to the Royal pleasure-grounds,—and here a hired close carriage was waiting. Putting her carefully into this vehicle, the Professor then delivered himself of his last instructions.
"The driver has no orders beyond the citadel, Madame," he explained. "His Majesty begged me to say that he has no desire to seem inquisitive as to your place of residence. You will therefore please inform the coachman yourself as to where you wish to be driven. And take care of that so-much-wounded shoulder!" he added, relapsing into a kinder and less formal tone;—"It will pain you,—but there will be no inflammation, not now I have treated it!—and it will heal quickly, that I will guarantee—I, who have had first care of it!"
She thanked him again in a low voice,—there was an uncomfortable lump in her throat, and tears still trembled on her lashes.
"Remember well," said the Professor cheerily; "how very grateful we are to you! What we shall do for you some day, we do not yet know! A monument in the public square, or a bust in the Cathedral? Ha, ha! Goodbye! You have the blessing of the nation with you!"
She shook her head deprecatingly,—she tried to smile, but she could not trust herself to speak. The carriage rolled swiftly down the broad avenue and soon disappeared, and the Professor, having watched the last flash of its wheels vanish between the arching trees, executed a slow and somewhat solemn pas-seul on the doorstep where it had left him.
"Ach so!" he exclaimed, almost audibly; "The King's Comedy progresses! But it had nearly taken the form of Tragedy to-day—and now Tragedy itself has melted into sentiment, and tears, and passion! And with this very difficult kind of human mixture, the worst may happen!"
He re-entered the Palace and returned with some haste to the apartments of the King, whither he had been bidden.
But on arriving there he was met by an attendant in the ante-room who informed him that his Majesty had retired to his private library and desired to be left alone.
The State prison was a gloomy fortress built on a wedge of rock that jutted far out into the ocean. It stood full-fronted to the north, and had opposed its massive walls and huge battlements to every sort of storm for many centuries. It was a relic of mediaeval days, when torture no less than death, was the daily practice of the law, and when persons were punished as cruelly for light offences as for the greatest crimes. It was completely honeycombed with dungeons and subterranean passages, which led to the sea,—and in one of the darkest and deepest of these underground cells, the wretched youth who had attempted the life of the King, was placed under the charge of two armed warders, who marched up and down outside the heavily-barred door, keeping close watch and guard. Neither they nor anyone else had exchanged a word with the prisoner since his arrest. He had given them no trouble. He had been carefully searched, but nothing of an incriminating nature had been found upon him,—nothing to point to any possible instigator of his dastard crime. He had entered the dungeon allotted to him with almost a cheerful air,—he had muttered half-inaudible thanks for the bread and water which had been passed to him through the grating; and he had seated himself upon the cold bench, hewn out of the stone wall, with a resignation that might have easily passed for pleasure. As the time wore on, however, and the reality of his position began to press more consciously upon his senses, the warders heard him sigh deeply, and move restlessly, and once he gave a cry like that of a wounded animal, exclaiming:—
"For Thy sake, Lord Christ! For Thy sake I strove—for Thy sake, and in Thy service! Thou wilt not leave me here to perish!"
He had been brought to the prison immediately after his murderous attack, and the time had then been about four in the afternoon. It was now night; and all over the city the joy-bells were clashing out music from the Cathedral towers, to express the popular thanksgiving for the miraculous escape and safety of the King. The echo of the chimes which had been ringing ever since sunset, was caught by the sea and thrown back again upon the air, so that it partially drowned the melancholy clang of the prison bell, which in its turn, tolled forth the dreary passing of the time for those to whom liberty had become the merest shadow of a dream. As it struck nine, a priest presented himself to the Superintendent of the prison, bearing a 'permit' from General Bernhoff, Head of the Police, to visit and 'confess' the prisoner. He was led to the cell and admitted at once. At the noise of a stranger's entrance, the criminal raised himself from the sunken attitude into which he had fallen on his stone bench, and watched, by the light of the dim lamp set in the wall, the approach of his tall, gaunt, black-garmented visitor with evident horror and fear. When,—with the removal of the shovel hat and thick muffler which had helped to disguise that visitor's personality,—the features of Monsignor Del Fortis were disclosed, he sprang forward and threw himself on his knees.
"Mercy!—Mercy!" he moaned—"Have pity on me, in the name of God!"
Del Fortis looked down upon him with contempt, as though he were some loathsome reptile writhing at his feet. "Silence!" he said, in a harsh whisper—"Remember, we are watched here! Get up!—why do you kneel to me? I have nothing to do with you, beyond such office as the Church enjoins!" And a cold smile darkened, rather than lightened his features. "I am sent to administer 'spiritual consolation' to you!"
Slowly the prisoner struggled up to a standing posture, and pressing both hands to his head, he stared wildly before him.
"'Spiritual consolation'!" he muttered-"'Spiritual'?" A faint dull vacuous smile flickered over his face, and he shuddered. "I understand! You come to prepare my soul for Heaven!"
Del Fortis gave him a sinister look.
"That depends on yourself!" he replied curtly—"The Church can speed you either way,—to Heaven, or—Hell!"
The prisoner's hands clenched involuntarily with a gesture of despair.
"I know that!" he said sullenly—"The Church can save or kill! What of it? I am now beyond even the power of the Church!"
Del Fortis seated himself on the stone bench.
"Come here!" he said—"Sit down beside me!"
The prisoner obeyed.
"Look at this!"—and he drew an ebony and silver crucifix from his breast—"Fix your eyes upon it, and try, my son,"—here he raised his voice a little—"try to conquer your thoughts of things temporal, and lift them to the things which are eternal! For things temporal do quickly vanish and disperse, but things eternal shall endure for ever! Humble your soul before God, and beseech Him with me, to mercifully cleanse the dark stain of sin upon your soul!" Here he began mumbling a Latin prayer, and while engaged in this, he caught the prisoner's hand in a close grip. "Act—act with me!" he said firmly. "Fool!—Play a part, as I do! Bend your head close to mine—assume shame and sorrow even if you cannot feel it! And listen to me well! You have failed!"
"I know it!"
The reply came thick and low.
"Why did you make the attempt at all? Who persuaded you?"
The wretched youth lifted his head, and showed a wild white face, in which the piteous eyes, starting from their sockets, looked blind with terror.
"Who persuaded me?" he replied mechanically—"No one! No single one,— but many!"
Del Fortis gripped him firmly by the wrist.
"You lie!" he snarled—"How dare you utter such a calumny! Who were you? What were you? A miserable starveling—picked up from the streets and saved from penury,—housed and sheltered in our College,—taught and trained and given paid employment by us,—what have you to say of 'persuasion'?—you, who owe your very life to us, and to our charity!"
Roused by this attack, the prisoner, wrenching his hand away from the priest's cruel grasp, sprang upright.
"Wait—wait!" he said breathlessly—"You do not understand! You forget! All my life I have been under One great influence—all my life I have been taught to dream One great Dream! When I talk of 'persuasion,' I only mean the persuasion of that force which has surrounded me as closely as the air I breathe!—that spirit which is bound to enter into all who work for you, or with you! Oh no!—neither you nor any member of your Order ever seek openly to 'persuade' any man to any act, whether good or evil—your Rule is much wiser than that!—much more subtle! You issue no actual commands—your power comes chiefly by suggestion! And with you,—working for you—I have thought day and night, night and day, of the glory of Rome!—the dominion of Rome!—the triumph of Rome! I have learned, under you, to wish for it, to pray for it, to desire it more than my own life!—do you, can you blame me for that? You dare not call it a sin;—for your Order represents it as a virtue that condones all sin!"
Del Fortis was silent, watching him with a kind of curious contempt.
"It grew to be part of me, this Dream!" went on the lad, his eyes now shining with a feverish brilliancy—"And I began to see wonderful visions, and to hear voices calling me in the daytime,—voices that no one else heard! Once in the College chapel I saw the Blessed Virgin's picture smile! I was copying documents for the Vatican then,—and I thought of the Holy Father,—how he was imprisoned in Rome, when he should be Emperor of all the Emperors,—King of all the Kings! I remembered how it was that he had no temporal power,—though all the powers of the earth should be subservient to him!—and my heart beat almost to bursting, and my brain seemed on fire!—but the Blessed Virgin's picture still smiled;—and I knelt down before it and swore that I,—even I, would help to give the whole world back to Rome, even if I died for it!"
He caught his breath with a kind of sob, and looked appealingly at Del Fortis, who, fingering the crucifix he held, sat immovable.
"And then—and then" he went on, "I heard enough,—while at work in the monastery with you and the brethren,—to strengthen and fire my resolution. I learned that all kings are, in these days, the enemies of the Church. I learned that they were all united in one resolve; and that,—to deprive the Holy Father of temporal power! Then I set myself to study kings. Each, and all of those who sit on thrones to-day passed before my view;—all selfish, money-seeking, sensual men!—not one good, true soul among them! Demons they seemed to me,—bent on depriving God's Evangelist in Rome of his Sacred and Supreme Sovereignty! It made me mad!—and I would have killed all kings, could I have done so with a single thought! Then came a day when you preached openly in the Cathedral against this one King, who should by right have gone to his account this very afternoon!—you told the people how he had refused lands to the Church,—and how by this wicked act he had stopped the progress of religious education, and had put himself, as it were, in the way of Christ who said: 'Suffer little children to come unto Me!' And my dreams of the glory of Rome again took shape—I saw in my mind all the children,—the poor little children of the world, gathered to the knee of the Holy Father, and brought up to obey him and him only!—I remembered my oath before the Blessed Virgin's picture, and all my soul cried out: 'Death to the crowned Tyrant! Death!' For you said—and I believed it—that all who opposed the Holy Father's will, were opposed to the will of God!—and over and over again I said in my heart: 'Death to the tyrant! Death!' And the words went with me like the response of a litany,—till—till—I saw him before me to-day —a pampered fool, surrounded by women!—a blazoned liar!—and then—" He paused, smiling foolishly; and shaking his head with a slow movement to and fro, he added—"The dagger should have struck home!—it was aimed surely—aimed strongly!—but that woman came between—why did she come? They said she was Lotys!—ha ha!—Lotys, the Revolutionary sybil!—Lotys, the Socialist!—but that could not be,—Lotys is as great an enemy of kings as I am!"
"And an enemy of the Church as well!" said Del Fortis harshly—"Between the Church and Socialism, all Thrones stand on a cracking earth, devoured by fire! But make no mistake about it!—the woman was Lotys! Socialist and Revolutionary as she may be, she has saved the life of the King. This is so far fortunate—for you! And it is much to be hoped that she herself is not slain by your dagger thrust;—death is far too easy and light a punishment for her and her associates! We trust it may please a merciful God to visit her with more lingering calamity!"
As he said this, he piously kissed the crucifix he held, keeping his shallow dark eyes fixed on the prisoner with the expression of a cat watching a mouse. The half-crazed youth, absorbed in the ideas of his own dementia, still smiled to himself vaguely, and nervously plucked at his fingers, till Del Fortis, growing impatient and forgetting for the moment that they stood in a prison cell, the interior of which might possibly be seen and watched from many points of observation unknown to them, went up to him and shook him roughly by the arm.
"Attention!" he said angrily—"Rouse yourself and hear me! You talk like a fool or a madman,—yet you are neither—neither, you understand?—neither idiot-born nor suddenly crazed;—so, when on your trial do not feign to be what you are not! Such ideas as you have expressed, though they may have their foundation in a desire for good, are evil in their results—yet even out of evil good may come! The power of Rome—the glory of Rome—the dominion of Rome! Rome, supreme Mistress of the world! Would you help the Church to win this great victory? Then now is your chance! God has given you—you, His poor instrument,—the means to effectually aid His conquest,—to Him be all the praise and thanksgiving! It rests with you to accept His message and perform His work!"
The high-flown, melodramatic intensity with which he pronounced these words, had the desired effect on the stunned and bewildered, weak mind of the unfortunate lad so addressed. His eyes sparkled—his cheeks flushed,—and he looked eagerly up into the face of his priestly hypnotizer.
"Yes—yes!" he said quickly in a breathless whisper—"But how?—tell me how! I will work—oh, I will work—for Rome, for God, for the Blessed Virgin!—I will do all that I can!—but how—how? Will the Holy Father send an angel to take me out of this prison, so that I may be free to help God?"
Del Fortis surveyed him with a kind of grim derision, A slight noise like the slipping-back or slipping-to of a grating, startled him, and he looked about him on all sides, moved by a sudden nervous apprehension. But the massive walls of the cell, oozing with damp and slime, had apparently no aperture or outlet anywhere, not even a slit in the masonry for the admission of daylight. Satisfied with his hasty examination, he took his credulous victim by the arm, and led him back to the rough stone bench where they had first begun to converse.
"Kneel down here before me!"—he said—"Kneel, as if you were repeating all the sins of your life to me in your last confession! Kneel, I say!"
Feebly, and with trembling limbs, the lad obeyed.
"Now," continued Del Fortis, holding up the crucifix before him—"Try to follow my words and understand them! To-morrow, or the next day, you will be taken before a judge and tried for your attempted crime. Do you realise that?"
"I do!" The answer came hesitatingly, and with a faint moan.
"Have you thought what you intend to say when you are asked your reasons for attacking the King? Do you mean to tell judge and jury the story of what you call your 'persuasion' to dream of the dominion of Rome?"
"Yes—yes!" replied the lad, looking up with an eager light on his face—"Yes, I will tell them all,—just as I have told you! Then they will know,—they will see that it was a good thought of mine—it would have been a good sin! I will speak to them of the wicked wrongs done to you and your Holy Order,—of the cruelty which the Christian Apostle in Rome has to suffer at the hands of kings—and they will acknowledge me to be right and just;—they will know I am as a man inspired by God to work for the Church, the bride of Christ, and to make her Queen of all the world!"
He stopped suddenly, intimidated by the cruel glare of the wolfish eyes above him.
"You will say nothing of all this!" and Del Fortis shook the crucifix in his face as though it were a threatening weapon; "You will say only what I choose,—only what I command! And if you do not swear to speak as I tell you, I will kill you!—here and now—with my own hands!"
Uttering a half-smothered cry, the wretched youth recoiled in terror.
"You will kill me? You—you?" he gasped—"No—no!—you could not do that! you could not,—you are a holy man! I—I am not afraid that you will hurt me! I have done nothing to offend you,—I have always been obedient to you,—I have been your slave—your dog to fetch and carry!—and you should remember,—yes!—you should remember that my mother was rich,—and that because she too felt the call of God, she gave all her money to the Church, and left me thrown upon the streets to starve! But the Church rescued me—the Church did not forget! And I am ready to serve the Church in all and every possible way,—I have done my best, even now!"
He spoke with all the passionate self-persuasion of a fanatic, and Del Fortis judged it wisest to control his own fierce inward impatience and deal with him more restrainedly.
"That is true enough!" he said in milder accents;—"You are ready to serve the Church,—I do not doubt it;—but you do not serve it in the right way. No earthly good is gained to us by the killing of kings! Their conversion and obedience is what we seek. This king you would have slain is a baptised son of the Church; but beyond attending mass regularly in his private chapel, which he does for the mere sake of appearances, he is an atheist, condemned to the fires of Hell. Nevertheless, no advantage to us could possibly be obtained by his death. Much can be done for us by you—yes, you!—and much will depend on the answers to the questions asked you at your trial. Give those answers as I shall bid you, and you will win a triumph for the cause of Rome!"
The prisoner's eyes glittered feverishly,—full of the delirium of bigotry, he caught the lean, cold hand that held the crucifix, and kissed it fervently.
"Command me!" he muttered—"Command!—and in the name of the Blessed Virgin, I will obey!"
"Hear then, and attend closely to my words," went on Del Fortis, enunciating his sentences in a low distinct voice—"When you are brought before the judge, you will be accused of an attempt to assassinate the King. Make no denial of it,—admit it at once, and express contrition. You will then be asked if any person or persons instigated you to commit the crime. To this say 'yes'!"
"Say 'yes'!" repeated the lad—"But that will not be true!"
"Fool, does it matter!" ejaculated Del Fortis, almost savagely—"Have you not sworn to speak as I command you? What is it to you whether it is true or false?"
A slight shiver passed through the prisoner's limbs—but he was silent.
"Say"—went on his pitiless instructor—"that you were enticed and persuaded to commit the wicked deed by the teachings of the Socialist, Sergius Thord, and his followers. Say that the woman Lotys knew of your intention,—and saved the life of the King at the last moment, through fear, lest her own seditious schemes should be discovered and herself punished. Say,—that because you were young and weak and impressionable, she chose you out to attempt the assassination. Do you hear?"
"I hear!" The reply came thickly and almost inaudibly. "But must I tell these lies? I have never spoken to Sergius Thord in my life!—nor to the woman Lotys;—I know nothing of them or their followers, except by the public talk;—why should I harm the innocent? Let me tell the truth, I pray of you!—let me speak as my heart dictates!—let me plead for the Holy Father—for you—for your Order—for the Church!—"
He broke off as Del Fortis caught him by both hands in an angry grip.
"Do not dare to speak one word of the Church!" he said, "Or of us,—or of our Order! Let not a single syllable escape your lips concerning your connection with us and our Society!—or we shall find means to make you regret it! Beware of betraying yourself! When you are once before the Court of Law, remember you know nothing of Us, our Work, or our Creed!"
Utterly bewildered and mystified, the unhappy youth rocked himself to and fro, clasping and unclasping his hands in a kind of nervous paroxysm.
"Oh why, why will you bid me to do this?" he moaned—"You know there are times when I cannot be answerable for myself! How can I tell what I shall do when I am brought face to face with my accusers?—when I see all the dreadful eyes of the people turned upon me? How can I deny all knowledge of those who brought me up, and nurtured and educated me? If they ask me of my home, is it not with you?—under your sufferance and charity? If they seek to know my means of subsistence, is it not through you that I receive the copying-work for which I am paid? You would not have me repudiate all this, would you? I should be worse than a dog in sheer ingratitude if I did not bear open testimony to all the Church has done for me!"
"Be, not worse than a dog, but faithful as a dog in obedience!" responded Del Fortis impressively—"And, for once, speak of the Church with the indifference of an atheist,—or with such marked coldness as a wise man speaks of the woman he secretly adores! Hold the Church and Us too sacred for any mention in a Court of criminal law! But serve the Church by involving the Socialist and Revolutionary party! Think of the magnificent results which will spring from this act,—and nerve yourself to tell a lie in order to support a truth!"
Rising unsteadily from his knees, the prisoner stood upright. By the flicker of the dim lamp, he looked deadly pale, and his limbs tottered as though shaken by an ague fit.
"What good will come of it?" he queried dully—"What good can come of it?"
"Great and lasting good will come of it!"—replied Del Fortis—"And it will come quickly too;—in this way, for by fastening the accusation of undue influence on Sergius Thord and his companions, you will obtain Government restriction, if not total suppression of the Socialist party. This is what we need! The Socialists are growing too strong—too powerful in every country,—and we are on the brink of trouble through their accursed and atheistical demonstrations. There will soon be serious disturbances in the political arena—possibly an overthrow of the Government, and a general election—and if Sergius Thord has the chance of advancing himself as a deputy, he will be elected above all others by an overpowering majority of the lower classes. You can prevent this!—you can prevent it by a single falsehood, which in this case will be more pleasing to God than a thousand mischievous veracities! Will you do it? Yes or No?"
The miserable lad looked helplessly around him, his weak frame trembling as with palsy, and his uncertain fingers plucking at each other with that involuntary movement of the muscles which indicates a disordered brain.
"Will you, or will you not?" reiterated Del Fortis in a whisper that hissed through the close precincts of the cell like the warning of a snake about to sting—"Answer me!"
"Suppose I say I will not!"—stammered the poor wretch, with trembling lips and appealing eyes—"Suppose I say I will not falsely accuse the innocent, even for the sake of the Church——?"
"Then," said Del Fortis slowly, rising and moving towards him;—"You had best accept the only alternative—this!"
And he took from his breast pocket a small phial, full of clear, colourless fluid, and showed it to him—"Take it!—and so make a quick and quiet end! For, if you betray you connection with Us by so much as a look,—a sign, or a syllable,—your mode of exit from this world may be slower, less decent, and more painful!"
The miserable boy wrung his hands in agony, and such a cry of despair broke from his lips as might have moved anyone less cruelly made of spiritual adamant than the determined servant of the cruellest 'religious' Order known. The dull harsh clang of the prison bell struck ten. The 'priest' had been an hour at the work of 'confessing' his penitent,—and his patience was well-nigh exhausted.
"Swear you will attribute your intended assassination of the King, to the influence of the Socialists!" he said with fierce imperativeness— "Or with this—end all your difficulties to-night! It is a gentle quietus!—and you ought to thank me for it! It is better than solitary imprisonment for life! I will give you absolution for taking it— provided I see you swallow it before I go!—and I will declare to the Church that I left you shrived of your sins, and clean! Half an hour after I leave you, you will sleep!—and wake—in Heaven! Make your choice!"
The last words had scarcely left his lips when the cell door was suddenly thrown open, and a blaze of light poured in. Dazzled by the strong and sudden glare, Del Fortis recoiled, and still holding the phial of poison in his hand, stumbled back against the half-fainting form of the poor crazed creature he had been terrorising, as a dozen armed men silently entered the dungeon and ranged themselves in order, six on one side and six on the other, while, in their midst one man advanced, throwing back his dark military cloak as he came, and displaying a mass of jewelled orders and insignia on his brilliant uniform. Del Fortis uttered a fierce oath.
"The King!" he muttered, under his breath—"The King!"
"Ay, the King!" and a glance of supreme scorn swept over him from head to foot, as the monarch's clear dark grey eyes flashed with the glitter of cold steel in the luminance of the torches which were carried by attendants behind him; "Monsignor Del Fortis! You stand convicted of the offence of unlawfully tampering with the conscience of a prisoner of State! We have heard your every word—and have obtained a bird's-eye view of your policy!—so that,—if necessary,—we will Ourselves bear witness against you! For the present,—you will be detained in this fortress until our further pleasure!"
For one moment Del Fortis appeared to be literally contorted in every muscle by his excess of rage. His features grew livid,—his eyes became almost blood-red, and his teeth met on his drawn-in under-lip in a smile of intense malignity. Baffled again!—and by this 'king,'—the crowned Dummy,—who had cast aside all former precedent, and instead of amusing himself with card-playing and sensual intrigue, after the accepted fashion of most modern sovereigns, had presumed to interfere, not only with the Church, but with the Government, and now, as it seemed, had acted as a spy on the very secrets of a so-called prison 'confession'! The utter impossibility of escaping from the net into which his own words had betrayed him, stood plainly before his mind and half-choked him with impotent fury,—till—all suddenly a thought crossed his brain like a flash of fire, and with a strong effort, he recovered his self-possession. Crossing his arms meekly on his breast, he bowed with a silent and profound affectation of humility, as one who is bent under the Royal displeasure, yet resigned to the Royal command,—then with a rapid movement he lifted the poison-phial he had held concealed, to his lips. His action was at once perceived. Two or three of the armed guards threw themselves upon him and, after a brief struggle, wrenched the flask from his hand, but not till he had succeeded in swallowing its contents. Breathing quickly, yet smiling imperturbably, he stood upright and calm.
"God's will and mine—not your Majesty's—be done!" he said. "In half an hour—or less—Mother Church may add to her list of martyrs the name of Andrea Del Fortis!—who died rather than sacrifice the dignity of his calling to the tyranny of a king!"
A slight convulsion passed over his features,—he staggered backward. The King, horror-stricken, signed to the prison warders standing by, to support him. He muttered a word of thanks, as they caught him by both arms.
"Take me where I can die quietly!" he said to them, "It will soon be over! I shall give you little trouble!"
A cold, weak, trembling hand clasped his. It was the hand of the King's wretched assassin.
"Let me go with you!" he cried—"Let me die with you! You have been cruel to me!—but you could not have meant it!—you were once kind!"
Del Fortis thrust him aside.
"Curse you!" he said thickly—"You are the cause—you—you are the cause of this damned mischief! You!—God!—to think of it!—you devil's spawn!—you cur!"
His voice failed him, and he reeled heavily against the sturdy form of one of the warders who held him—his lips were flecked with blood and foam. Shocked and appalled, no less at his words, than at the fiendish contortion of his features, the King drew near.
"Curse not a fellow-mortal, unhappy priest, in thine own passage towards the final judgment!" he said in grave accents—"The blessing of this poor misguided creature may help thee more than even a king's free pardon!"
And he extended his hand;—but with all the force of his now struggling and convulsed body, Del Fortis beat it back, and raised himself by an almost superhuman effort.
"Pardon! Who talks of pardon!" he cried, with a strong voice—"I do not need it—I do not seek it! I have worked for the Church—I die for the Church! For every one that says 'The King!'—I say, 'Rome'!"
He drew himself stiffly upright; his dark eyes glittered; his face, though deadly pale, scarcely looked like the face of a dying man.
"I say, 'Rome'!" he repeated, in a harsh whisper;—"Over all the world!—over all the kingdoms of the world, and in defiance of all kings—'Rome'!"
He fell back,—not dead,—but insensible, in the stupor which precedes death;—and was quickly borne out of the cell and carried to the prison infirmary, there to receive medical aid, though that could only now avail to soothe the approaching agonies of dissolution.
The King stood mute and motionless, lost in thought, a heavy darkness brooding on his features. How strange the impulse that had led him to be the mover and witness of this scene! By merest chance he had learned that Del Fortis had applied for permission to 'confess' the would-be destroyer of his life,—the life which Lotys had saved,—and acting—as he had lately accustomed himself to do—on a sudden first idea or instinct, he had summoned General Bernhoff to escort him to the prison, and make the way easy for him to watch and overhear the interview between priest and penitent,—himself unobserved. And from so slight an incident had sprung a tragedy,—which might have results as yet undreamed-of!
And while he yet mused upon this, General Bernhoff ventured respectfully to approach him, and ask if it was now his pleasure to return to the Palace? He roused himself,—and with a heavy sigh looked round on the damp and dismal cell in which he stood, and at the crouching, fear-stricken form of the semi-crazed and now violently weeping lad who had attempted his life.
"Take that poor wretch away from here!" he said in hushed tones—"Give him light, and warmth, and food! His evil desires spring from an unsound brain;—I would have him dealt with mercifully! Guard him with all necessary and firm restraint,—but do not brutalise his body more than Rome has brutalised his soul!"
With that he turned away,—and his armed guard and attendants followed him.
That self-same midnight a requiem mass was sung in a certain chapel before a silent gathering of black-robed stern-featured men, who prayed "For the repose of the soul of our dear brother, Andrea Del Fortis, servant of God, and martyr to the cause of truth and justice,—who departed this life suddenly, in the performance of his sacred duties." In the newspapers next day, the death of this same martyr and shining light of the Church was recorded with much paid-for regret and press- eulogy as 'due to heart-failure' and his body being claimed by the Jesuit brotherhood, it was buried with great pomp and solemn circumstance, several of the Catholic societies and congregations following it to the grave. One week after the funeral,—for no other ostensible cause whatever, save the offence of openly publishing his official refusal of a grant of Crown lands to the Jesuits,—the Holy Father, the Evangelist and Infallible Apostle enthroned in St. Peter's Chair, launched against the King who had dared to deny his wish and oppose his will, the once terrible, but now futile ban of excommunication; and the Royal son of the Church who had honestly considered the good of his people more than the advancement of priestcraft, stood outside the sacred pale,—barred by a so-called 'Christian' creed, from the mercy of God and the hope of Heaven.
"ONE WAY,—ONE WOMAN!"
For several days after the foregoing events, the editors and proprietors of newspapers had more than enough 'copy' to keep them busy. The narrow escape of the King from assassination, followed by his excommunication from the Church, worked a curious effect on the minds of the populace, who were somewhat bewildered and uncertain as to the possible undercurrent of political meaning flowing beneath the conjunction of these two events; and their feelings were intensified by the announcement that the youth who had attempted the monarch's life,— being proved as suffering from hereditary brain disease,—had received a free pardon, and was placed in a suitable home for the treatment of such cases, under careful restraint and medical supervision. The tide of popular opinion was now divided into two ways,—for, and against their Sovereign-ruler. By far the larger half were against;—but the ban pronounced upon him by the Pope had the effect of making even this disaffected portion inclined to consider him more favourably,—seeing that the Church's punishment had fallen upon him, apparently because he had done his duty, as a king, by granting the earnest petitions of thousands of his subjects. David Jost, who had always made a point of flattering Royalty in all its forms, now let his pen go with a complete passion of toadyism, such as disgraced certain writers in Great Britain during the reigns of the pernicious and vicious Georges,—and, seeing the continued success of the rival journal which the King had personally favoured, he trimmed his sails to the Court breeze, and dropped the Church party as though it had burned his fingers. But he found various channels on which he had previously relied for information, rigorously closed to him. He had written many times to the Marquis de Lutera to ask if the report of his having sent in his resignation was correct,—but he had received no answer. He had called over and over again on Carl Perousse, hoping to obtain a few minutes' conversation with him, but had been denied an interview. Cogitating upon these changes,—which imported much,—and wishing over and over again that he had been born an Englishman, so that by the insidious flattery of Royalty he might obtain a peerage,—as a certain Jew associate of his concerned in the same business in London, had recently succeeded in doing,—he decided that the wisest course to follow was to continue to 'butter' the King;—hence he laid it on with a thick brush, wherever the grease of hypocrisy could show off best. But work as he would, the 'shares' in his journalistic concerns were steadily going down,—none of his numerous magazines or 'half-penny rags,' paid so well as they had hitherto done; while the one paper which had lately been so prominently used by the King, continued to prosper, the public having now learned to accept with avidity and eagerness the brilliant articles which bore the signature of Pasquin Leroy, as though they were somewhat of a new political gospel. The charm of mystery intensified this new writer's reputation. He was never seen in 'fashionable' society,—no 'fashionable' person appeared to know him,—and the general impression was that he resided altogether out of the country. Only the members of the Revolutionary Committee were aware that he was one of them, and recognised his work as part of the carrying out of his sworn bond. He had grown to be almost the right hand of Sergius Thord; wherever Thord sought supporters, he helped to obtain them,—wherever the sick and needy, the desolate and distressed, required aid, he somehow managed to secure it,—and next to Thord,—and of course Lotys, —he was the idol of the Socialist centre. He never spoke in public,— he seldom appeared at mass meetings; but his influence was always felt; and he made himself and his work almost a necessity to the Cause. The action of Lotys in saving the life of the King, had created considerable discussion among the Revolutionists, not unmixed with anger. When she first appeared among them after the incident, with her arm in a sling, she was greeted with mingled cheers and groans, to neither of which she paid the slightest attention. She took her seat at the head of the Committee table as usual, with her customary indifference and grace, and appeared deaf to the conflicting murmurs around her,—till, as they grew louder and more complaining and insistent, she raised her head and sent the lightning flash of her blue eyes down the double line of men with a sweeping scorn that instantly silenced them.
"What do you seek from me?" she demanded;—"Why do you clamour like babes for something you cannot get,—my obedience?"
They looked shamefacedly at one another,—then at Sergius Thord and Pasquin Leroy, who sat side by side at the lower end of the table. Max Graub and Axel Regor, Leroy's two comrades, were for once absent; but they had sent suitable and satisfactory excuses. Thord's brows were heavy and lowering,—his eyes were wild and unrestful, and his attitude and expression were such as caused Leroy to watch him with a little more than his usual close attention. Seeing that his companions expected him to answer Lotys before them all, he spoke with evident effort.
"You make a difficult demand upon us, Lotys," he said slowly, "if you wish us to explain the stormy nature of our greeting to you this evening. You might surely have understood it without a question! For we are compelled to blame you;—you who have never till now deserved blame,—for the folly of your action in exposing your own life to save that of the King! The one is valuable to us—the other is nothing to us! Besides, you have trespassed against the Seventh Rule of our Order —which solemnly pledges us to 'destroy the present monarchy'!"
"Ah!" said Lotys, "And is it part of the oath that the monarchy should be destroyed by murder without warning? You know it is not! You know that there is nothing more dastardly, more cowardly, more utterly loathsome and contemptible than to kill a man defenceless and unarmed! We speak of a Monarchy, not a King;—not one single individual,—for if he were killed, he has three sons to come after him. You have called me the Soul of an Ideal—good! But I am not, and will not be the Soul of a Murder-Committee!"
"Well spoken!" said Johan Zegota, looking up from some papers which he, as secretary to the Society, had been docketing for the convenience of Thord's perusal; "But do not forget, brave Lotys, that the very next meeting we hold is the annual one, in which we draw lots for the 'happy dispatch' of traitors and false rulers; and that this year the name of the King is among them!"
Lotys grew a shade paler, but she replied at once and dauntlessly.
"I do not forget it! But if lots are cast and traitors doomed,—it is part of our procedure to give any such doomed man six months' steady and repeated warning, that he may have time to repent of his mistakes and remedy them, so that haply he may still be spared;—and also that he may take heed to arm himself, that he do not die defenceless. Had I not saved the King, his death would have been set down to us, and our work! Any one of you might have been accused of influencing the crazy boy who attempted the deed,—and it is quite possible our meetings would have been suppressed, and all our work fatally hindered,—if not entirely stopped. Foolish children! You should thank me, not blame me! —but you are blind children all, and cannot even see where you have been faithfully served by your faithfullest friend!"
At these words a new light appeared to break on the minds of all present—a light that was reflected in their eager and animated faces. The knotted line of Thord's brooding brows smoothed itself gradually away.
"Was that indeed your thought, Lotys," he asked gently, almost tenderly—"Was it for our sakes and for us alone, that you saved the King?"
At that instant Pasquin Leroy turned his eyes, which till now had been intent on watching Thord, to the other end of the table where the fine, compact woman's head, framed in its autumn-gold hair, was silhouetted against the dark background of the wall behind her like a cameo. His gaze met hers,—and a vague look of fear and pain flashed over her face, as a faint touch of colour reddened her cheeks.
"I am not accustomed to repeat my words, Sergius Thord!" she answered coldly; "I have said my say!"
Looks were exchanged, and there was a silence.
"If we doubt Lotys, we doubt the very spirit of ourselves!" said Pasquin Leroy, his rich voice thrilling with unwonted emotion; "Sergius—and comrades all! If you will hear me, and believe me,—you may take my word for it, she has run the risk of death for Us!—and has saved Us from false accusation, and Government interference! To wrong Lotys by so much as a thought, is to wrong the truest woman God ever made!"
A wild shout answered him,—and moved by one impulse, the whole body of men rose to their feet and drank "to the health and honour of Lotys!" with acclamation, many of them afterwards coming round to where she sat, and kneeling to kiss her hand and ask her pardon for their momentary doubt of her, in the excitement and enthusiasm of their souls. But Lotys herself sat very silent,—almost as silent as Sergius Thord, who, though he drank the toast, remained moody and abstracted.
When the company dispersed that night, each man present was carefully reminded by the secretary, Johan Zegota, that unless the most serious illness or misfortune intervened, every one must attend the next meeting, as it was the yearly "Day of Fate." Pasquin Leroy was told that his two friends, Max Graub and Axel Regor must be with him, and he willingly made himself surety for their attendance.
"But," said he, as he gave the promise, "what is the Day of Fate?"
Johan Zegota pointed a thin finger delicately at his heart.
"The Day of Fate," he said, "is the day of punishment,—or Decision of Deaths. The names of several persons who have been found guilty of treachery,—or who otherwise do injury to the people by the manner of their life and conduct, are written down on slips of paper, which are folded up and put in one receptacle, together with two or three hundred blanks. They must be all men's names,—we never make war on women. Against some of these names,—a Red Cross is placed. Whosoever draws a name, and finds the red cross against it, is bound to kill, within six months after due warning, the man therein mentioned. If he fortunately draws a blank then he is free for a year at least,—in spite of the fatal sign,—from the unpleasant duty of despatching a fellow mortal to the next world"—and here Zegota smiled quite cheerfully; "But if he draws a Name,—and at the same time sees the red cross against it, then he is bound by his oath to us to—do his duty!"
Leroy nodded, and appeared in no wise dismayed at the ominous suggestion implied.
"How if our friend Zouche were to draw the fatal sign," he said; "Would he perform his allotted task, think you?"
"Most thoroughly!" replied Zegota, still smiling.
And with that, they separated.
Meanwhile, during the constant change and interchange of conflicting rumours, some of which appeared to have foundation in fact, and others which rapidly dispersed themselves as fiction, there could be no doubt whatever of the growing unpopularity of the Government in power. Little by little, drop by drop, there oozed out the secrets of the "Perousse Policy," which was merely another name for Perousse Self- aggrandisement. Little by little, certain facts were at first whispered, and then more loudly talked about, as to the nature of his financial speculations; and it was soon openly stated that in the formation of some of the larger companies, which were beginning to be run on the Gargantuan lines of the "American Trust" idea, he had enormous shares,—though these "Trusts" had been frequently denounced as a means of enslaving the country, and ruining certain trade- interests which he was in office to protect. Accusations began to be guardedly thrown out against him in the Senate, which he parried off with the cool and audacious skill of an expert fencer, knowing that for the immediate moment at least, he had a "majority" under his thumb. This majority was composed of persons who had unfortunately become involved in his toils, and were, therefore, naturally afraid of him;— yet it was evident, even to a superficial student of events, that if once the innuendoes against his probity as a statesman could be veraciously proved, this sense of intimidation among his supporters would be removed, and like the props set against a decaying house, their withdrawal would result in the ruin of the building. It was pretty well known that the Marquis de Lutera had sent in his resignation, but it was not at all certain whether the King was of a mind to accept it.
Things were in abeyance,—political and social matters whirled giddily towards chaos and confusion; and the numerous hurried Cabinet Councils that were convened, boded some perturbation among the governing heads of the State. From each and all of these meetings Ministers came away more gloomy and despondent in manner,—some shook their heads sorrowfully and spoke of "the King's folly,"—others with considerable indignation flung out sudden invectives against "the King's insolence!"—and between the two appellations, it was not easy to measure exactly the nature of the conduct which had deserved them. For the King himself made no alteration whatever in the outward character of his daily routine; he transacted business in the morning, lunched, sometimes with his family, sometimes with friends; drove in the afternoon, and showed himself punctiliously at different theatres once or twice in the evenings of the week. The only change more observant persons began to notice in his conduct was, that he had drawn the line of demarcation very strongly between those persons who by rank and worth, and nobility of life, merited his attention, and those who by mere Push and Pocket, sought to win his favour by that servile flattery and obsequiousness which are the trademarks of the plebeian and vulgarian. Quietly but firmly, he dropped the acquaintance of Jew sharks, lying in wait among the dirty pools of speculation;—with ease and absoluteness he 'let go' one by one, certain ladies of particularly elastic virtue, who fondly dreamed that they 'managed' him; and among these, to her infinite rage and despair, went Madame Vantine, wife of Vantine the winegrower, a yellow-haired, sensual "femelle d'homme," whose extravagance in clothes, and reckless indecency in conversation, combined with the King's amused notice, and the super- excellence of her husband's wines, had for a brief period made her 'the rage' among a certain set of exceedingly dissolute individuals.
In place of this kind of riff-raff of "nouveaux riches," and plutocrats, he began by degrees to form around himself a totally different entourage,—though he was careful to make his various changes slowly, so that they should not be too freely noticed and commented upon. Great nobles, whether possessed of vast wealth and estates, or altogether landless, were summoned to take their rightful positions at the Court, where Vantine the wine-grower, and Jost the Jew, no more obtained admittance;—men of science, letters and learning, were sought out and honoured in various ways, their wives and daughters receiving special marks of the Royal attention and favour; and round the icy and statuesque beauty of the Queen soon gathered a brilliant bevy of the real world of women, not the half-world of the 'femme galante' which having long held sway over the Crown Prince while Heir-Apparent to the Throne, judged itself almost as a necessary, and even becoming, appendage to his larger responsibility and state as King. These excellent changes, beneficial and elevating to the social atmosphere generally, could not of course be effected without considerable trouble and heart-burning, in the directions where certain persons had received their dismissal from such favour as they had previously held at Court. The dismissed ones thirsted with a desire for vengeance, and took every opportunity to inflame the passions of their own particular set against the King, some of them openly declaring their readiness to side with the Revolutionary party, and help it to power. But over the seething volcano of discontent, the tide of fashion moved as usual, to all outward appearances tranquil, and absorbed in trivialities of the latest description; and though many talked, few dreamed that the mind of the country, growing more compressed in thought, and inflammable in nature every day, was rapidly becoming like a huge magazine of gunpowder or dynamite, which at a spark would explode into that periodically recurring fire-of-cleansing called Revolution.
Weighted with many thoughts, Sir Roger de Launay, whose taciturn and easy temperament disinclined him for argument and kept him aloof from discussion whenever he could avoid it, sat alone one evening in his own room which adjoined the King's library, writing a few special letters for his Majesty which were of too friendly a nature to be dealt with in the curt official manner of the private secretary. Once or twice he had risen and drawn aside the dividing curtain between himself and the King's apartment to see if his Royal master had entered; but the room remained empty, though it was long past eleven at night. He looked every now and again at a small clock which ticked with a quick intrusive cheerfulness on his desk,—then with a slight sigh resumed his work. Letter after letter was written and sealed, and he was getting to the end of his correspondence, when a tap at the door disturbed him, and his sister Teresa, the Queen's lady-in-waiting, entered.
"Is the King within?" she asked softly, moving almost on tiptoe as she came.
Sir Roger shook his head.
"He has been absent for some time," he replied,—then after a pause— "But what are you here for, Teresa? This is not your department!" and he took her hand kindly, noticing with some concern that there were tears in her large dark eyes;—"Is anything wrong?"
"Nothing! That is,—nothing that I have any right to imagine—or to guess. But—" and here she seemed a little confused—"I am commanded by the Queen to summon you to her presence if,—if the King has not returned!"