They awaited me at the gate; and, with the guard standing at attention, we rode into the grounds. I noticed that the Princess acknowledged the salute with her crop as though it were a sword. I had returned it with my hand.
"Your way is the correct one," she said.
"But yours is much the prettier," I answered.
"Maybe that's why I used it," she laughed.
"It is sufficient justification," I assured her.
"His Majesty does not think so—he insists that the Colonel of the Blue Guards should conform to the regulations."
"I salute my superior officer," I said, and used my crop as she had done.
"How delightful to be a Colonel," said Lady Helen. "I would wear the uniform all the time—if it were becoming."
"How could it be otherwise?" I exclaimed.
"No sarcasm, sir," she said sharply.
"No, Major Dalberg, no sarcasm," Dehra cautioned, "or you will be asking, presently, if I won my commission on the field of battle."
"I would rather not imagine you on the field of battle," I answered.
"Well, you needn't," she laughed. "It's an infliction of birth. It belongs to the eldest child of the King without regard to sex."
"It's a pity, in your case, the crown does not follow the Colonelcy," I thought—but I did not say it.
At one of the private entrances we drew up. The Princess was out of saddle as quickly as myself; but the Lady Helen waited.
"If you don't want to stay I can contrive some excuse," she whispered, as I lifted her down.
"I'm quite willing to risk a royal breakfast if you are," I answered.
"Brave man," she mocked, gathering up her skirt; "you wouldn't flinch at leading a forlorn hope."
"Watch me follow one," I retorted, as I brought up the rear.
"Which one?" she asked over her shoulder; but I did not answer.
The breakfast was served in a charming little room—which I assumed to be a portion of the Princess' private suite—and was of the sort to provoke more early morning rides along the Old Forge Road.
"This may be a bit unconventional," said Dehra, addressing Lady Helen, rather than me, "but, if the English Ambassador can stand it, I will answer for the King of Valeria."
"And I'll answer for the American Ambassador," I volunteered.
"Then the others don't matter," Lady Helen laughed.
"You surely have relieved us very much, Major Dalberg," the Princess added. "Lady Helen and I have been so concerned for your reputation; you risk so much, you know, in breakfasting alone with two unmarried young women."
"I'm quite sensible of my danger," I answered, and looked blandly from one to the other.
The Princess kept her eyes on her plate; but Lady Helen gazed at me in some surprise.
"If you're not better behaved, sir, I'll take you away at once," she said.
"You're only putting a premium on a continuance of it," said Dehra.
"No, I'm not, Your Highness; he hasn't finished his breakfast."
"You're very wise," the Princess laughed.
Lady Helen shook her head. "You see, I've known Major Dalberg a long time," she said.
"Oh! then you had met before the night of the Ball?"
I looked at Dehra wonderingly. Had she forgotten that I myself had told her, on the terrace, how long I had known the Radnors.
"We were old dinner and cotillon partners in Washington," Lady Helen explained. "He was very kind to me there."
"That wasn't a very difficult task, was it, Major Dalberg?" Dehra asked, fixing her blue eyes on my face.
"Please, Your Highness—please," exclaimed Lady Helen, holding up her hands.
"I think," I replied, "that Lady Helen is, in herself, the best answer to Your Highness's question."
Just then there came a step in the corridor and the King stood in the doorway.
"Good morning, Lady Helen," he said, taking her fingers and raising them to his lips in the beautiful old-fashion; "it is a pleasure to see you here again." Then he bent and kissed Dehra on the forehead, and turning to me said, extending his hand: "And, Major Dalberg, you are very welcome."
Frederick was monarch of a powerful nation, but he could, if he so wished, make those about him forget his crown and see only the quiet-mannered gentleman. With a word of excuse to us he drew the Princess aside to a window embrasure. I turned to Lady Helen.
"So," said I, "you've been here before?"
"And this is not your first breakfast with Her Highness?" I went on.
"And, doubtless, you have often met her at the Old Forge?"
Once again a smile.
"And were engaged to meet her there this morning?"
"You are too discerning, Major," she said, with a shrug. "You should have been a detective."
"Quite right," I agreed. "I am always the last to detect a plot or to find the criminal."
She looked at me through half-closed eyes.
I gave her back a look in kind. "Whatever you would."
She toyed with her rings a bit. "Why should I deliberately bring you and the Princess together?" she demanded.
"Why, indeed?" said I.
"You are of the Blood:—the Palace is open to you."
I raised my hand sharply in warning.
She glanced over my shoulder, toward the window, with a derisive smile. "True, the Princess might wonder how I knew."
I made no answer.
"And the explanation would be a trifle difficult," she appended.
"Do you think she would ask an explanation?" I inquired.
She smiled. "No; you would have to volunteer it."
"That would be easy," I said indifferently.
"Surely! Surely! it would be easy to tell the Princess Royal that you were so confidential with Lady Helen Radnor, on the terrace at the Birthday Ball, that you told her the secret of your cousinship—try it, Major Dalberg, try it—it will be so easy," and she laughed softly.
"I rather think I shall," said I, looking her in the eye. "I prefer that she hear it from me."
Her mood changed instantly. "You don't trust me?" she said.
I leaned forward and said. "I trust you entirely; surely, you know that!"
"And you will believe I had no appointment to meet the Princess?"
"If you wish it," I said.
Then the King and the Princess returned to the table.
THE LAWS OF THE DALBERGS
"Are you in haste to return?" the King asked Lady Helen.
"None whatever, sire," she replied.
"And you, Major Dalberg?" he asked.
"I am at Your Majesty's service," said I, bowing.
"Then, if the ladies will excuse you for a short while?"
"Don't make it too short, sire," said Lady Helen—and then the door closed and saved me a reply; which, doubtless, was as well, for I have not yet thought of a good one.
"Bright girl, that," said the King.
"Yes," said I, "embarrassingly bright at times."
"Was she in Washington with Radnor?"
"Yes; I knew her there."
"Then you don't need to be warned."
I was silent.
"She has incapacitated half my military household with lacerated hearts or, indirectly, with punctured bodies; there is small difference."
"Better have only married officers," I suggested.
"Lord, sir, they are the first victims. Immunes are what I want."
"Like myself, for instance," said I.
He turned and put his hand on my shoulder. "I've had plenty like you, lad," he said kindly.
I laughed. "Then I may not hope for a place at Court?" I asked—and straightway wondered why I had asked it.
We had just come to a small door, before which paced a soldier of the Guard, and the King made no reply until we were in his private library and he had motioned me to a chair and an assortment of pipes and cigars.
"It was something of that sort that I want to discuss with you, if I may," he said.
"If you may?" I echoed.
He nodded. "You are a subject of the United States and a representative of its government at my Court."
"I had forgotten their significance," I admitted.
"But, with your permission, we can lay aside our officialism and hold a family conference."
The idea of my holding a family conference with the King of Valeria! I smiled involuntarily; and Frederick saw it.
"Don't you feel quite at home in the family, yet, my lad?" he asked.
"It is not Your Majesty's fault if I don't," said I; "but royalty is a bit new and strange to me."
He laughed heartily. "You are quite too modest, Armand. You spoke of a place at Court; would you accept one?"
"Surely, sire, you knew I was only jesting!" I exclaimed.
"Of course," said he; "but I'm not. I am entirely serious."
"I suppose," said I, "I'm as ambitious as most men."
"A little more so, if you're a good Dalberg," the King interjected.
"But am I a good Dalberg?"
He waved his hand toward a mirror in the wall. "Use your eyes," he said.
"I don't mean physically," I objected.
"I am very willing to trust Nature. She didn't give you old Henry's body and then mock it with inferior abilities."
I shook my head.
"Besides," he went on, "I admit I have had a report on you from my Ambassador at Washington."
"I trust," said I, with a laugh, "it has left me a few shreds of repute."
"It didn't hurt you much, my lad."
That was the third time he had called me his "lad."
"Your Majesty then offers me a title and a place at Court?"
The King smiled. "Yes," said he; "a high title and a high place."
I pulled on my cigar and tried to think. But, on every cloud of smoke, I seemed to see the Princess; and all my brain knew was the single idea: "It will bring me within reach of her." I got up sharply and paced the room, until I threw off the foolish notion and could look at the matter in its true proportions.
"Tell me, Your Majesty," I said, "if I accept, will I be regarded as a legitimate descendant of the House of Dalberg or as of a morganatic marriage?"
The King nodded. "I had anticipated that would be your first question. You will be legitimate."
"But," said I, "if I understand the canons of royalty, my great-grandfather having married one not of royal rank his descendants are, as regards the House of Valeria, illegitimate."
"As a general proposition that is true; but it happens that your case is a peculiar exception."
"I am glad," said I; "otherwise we had reached an end of the matter."
"That, Major, is one of your American notions," said the King; "there is no disgrace in morganatic marriages."
"It's all a question of national taste," said I; "and you know, sire, 'de gustibus non'——"
He drummed with his fingers a moment on the table.
"I have some unhandy views, possibly," said I.
"Oh, you will soon outgrow them," he returned; "only, it may be a trifle awkward if you parade them."
"But, maybe, I shall not care to outgrow them." I objected. "And, then, there is another notion—American, too, doubtless—which I fear will be a final bar."
"Nonsense, Armand," said the King, a bit sharply. "What other objection can even an American raise?"
"This, sire," said I: "When Hugo left Dornlitz his estates were forfeited, his titles were revoked and his name was stricken from the family roll. How can he now, after a century and a quarter, be rehabilitated?"
"The King, as Head of our House, has full power."
"Yes, I know; his power in the family is limitless, save that he may not change the succession to the Crown in favor of a female—more's the pity. But, while Your Majesty may make me a Duke, or even a Prince, yet that will not give back to Hugo the rights he was deprived of by his arbitrary father."
The King smiled indulgently. "For an American you have a large fund of sentiment."
"That is the Dalberg in me, doubtless," I replied.
"Then, sir. I understand that—because your great-grandfather didn't live for one hundred and forty years and so be able now to receive, in the flesh, the edict of restoration—you, his eldest male heir, refuse to accept your rights; the rights that come to you through him?"
"No, that's not exactly it; it's this: For Your Majesty, now, to restore me to the Family Roll, can be done only upon the hypothesis that all of Hugo's descendants have been debruised by the bar sinister—the very act of restoration presupposes such disqualification."
"You forget I said you were legitimate," said the King.
"By your grace; not by old Henry's," I objected.
"But, recall that Hugo himself was offered his titles and rights by his brother and that he declined them."
"Yes; that is just the point," said I: "he declined them."
Frederick took a fresh cigar and lit it carefully, blowing the smoke in tiny rings to the ceiling.
"I think I understand now," he said. "You will decline our offer because it necessitates the restoration now, of Hugo's descendants, to the Family Roll?"
I bowed in silence.
"It's a great pity," he said, sadly. "Otherwise, if Hugo had, in effect, never been disinherited and if the legitimacy of his descendants had been specifically preserved by Royal Decree, you would accept our offer?"
"Yes," said I—"or, at least, I would give it serious consideration," I added with a laugh.
The King turned slowly and, for a space, kept his eyes fixed steadily on my face, as though searching there for an answer to something about which his mind was undecided. Have you ever had a monarch or one high in authority look at you so? If you have, you are likely to remember it many days.
Then he arose abruptly and, crossing to a large vault built in a far corner, returned with a heavy black box curiously bound with brass and inlaid with silver. Placing it on the table between us, he took from his watch chain a small antique key and pushing it, with a queer side-motion, into the lock, it opened with a sharp snap, and he threw back the lid.
"I wonder," said he, as he lifted out a thick leather-covered book with heavy metal hinges, "if there are many Americans whom it would be so difficult to persuade to accept a royal title?"
"I fancy it would be much the same with all the truly representative old American families," said I.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Then, for the credit of America, it's a pity Europe does not know some of those same old families; if they are the Country's true Nobility."
"Yes, but not Nobility on European lines," said I. "They are the worthy descendants of those who founded the Nation; and the proudest patent is a commission from King or Colony or from the Continental Congress in the Revolution."
The King smiled. "Isn't that every Nation's Nobility—the descendants of the officers who helped their chief to establish a kingdom?"
"It may be so," I answered; "but the systems are wide apart. You will observe, I said the worthy descendants. In America it needs manhood as well as birthright—gentle living as well as gentle blood."
"While with us it needs only gentle blood, you mean?" said Frederick, good naturedly. "Well, we shall not argue over the matter; and, particularly, since the Dalbergs have no fault to find with their representative among the American Nobility; it's rather he who is ashamed of his Valerian relatives."
"I am quite satisfied with the two I've met," I protested.
"So well, indeed, with one of them that you kissed her instantly," the King laughed.
"And am glad, now, I did it. I shall never have another chance."
He shot a quick glance at me, as he opened the book and began to turn the heavy parchment pages, which I could see were illumined in beautiful colors and with strange, large lettering. Presently, these ended and the characters seemed to be in ancient script, which, gradually grew more modern. At one of these later pages, the King stopped and addressed me:
"You have said that, unless Hugo's rights and the Dalberg legitimacy of his descendants were preserved, by special Decree, made during Hugo's life, you would decline to return to Court." He paused a moment, then went on: "It would almost seem that old Henry had some presentiment of a certain stubborn-minded grandchild, for he provided for just such a condition as you have made. This book is the Laws of the House of Dalberg. Listen to what is written touching Hugo, son of Henry the Third."
Instinctively, I arose and stood at attention.
The King read:
"Section one-hundred twenty-first—For inasmuch as our second son, Hugo, hath, in defiance of our specific prohibition, this day left our Kingdom and gone over Sea to the North American Colonies of Great Britain, there to join the forces of one, George Washington, who is leading a revolt against his lawful sovereign, the King of England, with whom I am at peace; It is hereby decreed that the said Hugo shall forfeit all titles and emoluments heretofore conferred, and his name is hereby stricken from the Family Roll. From this day he ceaseth to be a Dalberg of Valeria.
"HENRY III, Rex.
"Ye 17th October, A.D., 1777."
Frederick glanced up. "That was the judgment," said he. "Listen, now, to the pardon:—
"Section one-hundred twenty-fifth—Whereas, we have learned that our second son, Hugo, hath served with much honour in the American Army under General Washington, and hath, since the termination of hostilities, married into a good family in one of the said American States, called Maryland, and hath assumed residence therein; and whereas he hath never sought aid from us nor sued for pardon; Now, therefore, in recognition of his valour and self-reliance and true Dalberg independence, it is decreed that Section one-hundred twenty-one, supra, be annulled; and Hugo's name is hereby reinstated on the Family Roll in its proper place, the same as though never stricken therefrom. And it is further decreed that the marriage of Hugo and the marriages of his descendants shall be deemed valid and lawful, the same as though their respective consorts were of the Blood Royal."
"Is that sufficiently definite, sir?" the King asked.
"It is very extraordinary," I said, in wonder.
"There is a bit more," he said, and resumed reading:
"The titles conferred upon Hugo shall, however, remain in abeyance until claimed anew by him or by his right heir male; nor shall the latter be eligible to the Crown unless hereinafter specifically decreed so to be—or, in event of a vacancy in the royal dignity without such decree having been so made, then, by special Act of the House of Nobles.
"HENRY III., Rex,
"Ye 7th September, A.D. 1785."
The King closed the book. "That," said he, "is the record," and motioned me to sit down.
I obeyed mechanically. Through my head was ringing those last few words that made possible the Crown of my ancestors. Under the Decree I was, de jure, the eldest male after the King; it needed only his act to make me his successor. A single line, sealed with his seal, in that big book just beside me, and plain Armand Dalberg, Major in the Army of the United States of America, would be Heir Presumptive to one of the great Kingdoms of Earth. And Dehra! I could get no further. Crown and Kingdom faded and I saw only a woman's face.——
Then the King coughed, and I came sharply back to life, and visions fled. But, even then, realities seemed almost visions, still.
I turned to the King. "Will Your Majesty permit me a few days to consider the matter?" I asked.
"As many as you wish, my boy," he said kindly.
"It is all so extraordinary. I am in no condition to look at it with even reasonable judgment."
"I think," said he, "I can quite understand."
"But there is something I can foresee, even now," said I.
The King smiled. "Trouble?"
"Yes, trouble in plenty."
"But if the price be worth it all?" he asked, studying a smoke ring as it floated lazily upward.
"The trouble does not bother me."
"Oh!" said he, "I know that."
"Then, may I ask," said I, "if the Duke of Lotzen knows of these Decrees?"
"The Heir Presumptive is always made acquainted with the Laws of his House."
"What, think you, then, Sire, would be his attitude in such an anomalous situation as would follow my presence in Valeria as Hugo's heir?"
"You mean, how would he view a rival for the Crown?"
"Well, that's a bit broader than I intended," said I.
The King laughed. "There is no need for us to mince words—the matter is perfectly evident. Under the Law, here, it needs but my Decree to make you eligible to the Crown; and that necessarily would displace Lotzen and make you Heir Presumptive. How do you think he would view it?"
"How would any man view it?" I asked.
"But what have Lotzen's views to do with the matter?" Frederick asked sharply. "I am the King; here are the Laws. What Dalberg would dispute them?"
"But, Your Majesty, Lotzen might not be alone in disputing them—the Army and the House of Nobles might join him. And, assuming that you would never intend to displace Lotzen by me, nevertheless, you would be put into the embarrassing position of seeming to be coerced by your subjects."
"Coerced! Coerced!" said Frederick, flinging his cigar savagely into the grate. "Do I hear a Dalberg fear that for his King?"
"Nay, Sire," I protested, "I did not say that."
But the anger had already passed. "Nonsense, lad, I understand you," he said; "only, I know my Kingdom better than you do—yet," and he laughed.
But I protested again. "Would it not be wiser for me to consider the question only upon the hypothesis that Lotzen shall not be displaced——?"
"Don't be a fool, Armand," Frederick cut in. "Of course, I cannot prevent your renouncing all right to the Crown, but it will be most displeasing to me and against my express wish."
"Your Majesty is very flattering."
"His Majesty is very selfish. Since he has no son, he wants the privilege of choosing his successor."
So he meant to give me a chance to win the Crown! I shut my eyes; there was too much satisfaction in them. Yet, I felt almost ashamed. I had sneered so often at Courtney and his suggestions; had called him a fool and his words nonsense—even a short half hour ago I would have done the same again. And now!—Truly there was something strangely impressive and powerfully alluring about that big, brass-bound book, with its Royal restitution and honors and the glorious opportunity extended. Would any man—nay, would any half-man refuse?
Then I opened my eyes and met the King's kindly smile.
"Did the prospect blind you?" he asked.
"Yes," said I, "it did—maybe my eyes are too weak ever to bear the bright light of royalty."
"Never fear, lad, never fear; they will soon strengthen. Ask Courtney, if you care to make him a confidant. I am very sure of his advice in the matter."
"So am I," said I.
"Any man's would be the same—your own to one in a similar position."
I could not deny it; but I would make no decision under the present influences. I must have a season of calm thought and careful judgment.
The King waited a moment. "Well, take your own good pleasure, Armand," said he; "only, the sooner you come to Court the less time you will waste."
Of course, I saw his meaning. "I shall ask but one day, at the most."
"Good," said he. "This is Friday—dine with Dehra and me here to-morrow evening. Come by the private entrance."
Then we went back to the Princess and Lady Helen. But what a different life had opened to me in the short absence.
I was sitting alone in the library late that night when Courtney came in. He had been to some function at the French Embassy, from which I had begged off, and seemed surprised to see me.
"Taps are a bit late to-night," he remarked, pouring a measure of Scotch and shooting in the soda.
"I've been thinking," I answered.
"For Heaven's sake. Major," he began—then put down his glass and looked at me curiously.
"You were about to say?" I questioned.
He glanced at the clock. "When a man of your age sits up thinking until two in the morning it is either financial trouble or love."
"My finances are all right," I volunteered.
"Ergo," said he, and began to sip his Scotch.
"And I'm not——" then I stopped—"in the marrying class, you know," I ended.
"It's a pity to have such excellent raw material go to waste," he commented, and smiled.
"The truth is, Courtney, I waited up for you."
He put down his glass again. "Business?" he inquired, quickly. "Anything amiss?"
I shook my head; "It's nothing amiss diplomatically; but it is business in a way; only, it's my personal business. I want your advice."
He looked at me, sharply, an instant. "Drive on, old man; I'm all attention," he said.
"I've been at the Summer Palace," I began.
"And breakfasted with the Princess Royal," I went on.
"Alone! Be careful, my dear Major," he cautioned.
"Lady Helen Radnor was there; and the King also, for a bit," I explained.
"Good," said he; "you are progressing famously."
"Oh, it was all accidental."
He smiled broadly.
"I went for an early morning ride; Lady Helen happened to overtake me; we chanced upon the Princess; she asked us to breakfast; and the King came in during the meal."
Courtney was studying the point of a paper-cutter. "Very wonderful, indeed," he commented.
"What; the paper-cutter?" I asked, a trifle impatiently.
"No; the series of accidents."
"They are only preliminary."
"Preliminaries are often most important."
"Not here," said I. "What I want to consult you about is this: The King has asked me to accept the titles of old Hugo, and to take my place at Court."
Courtney laid the paper-cutter carefully on the blotter, and drawing out his cigarette case, he selected one and slowly lit it. I knew his way and waited patiently.
"And Lotzen—and the Crown?" he said presently.
"Do you care for the whole story?" I asked.
"Yes, let me have it all," and, settling back in his chair, he closed his eyes and prepared to listen.
Then I told him everything of the meeting with the King in his library, repeating, as well as I could remember, Frederick's exact language, describing his attitude toward me and his evident desire in the matter.
"That is the situation and the problem," I ended, "and the answer is due to-morrow, I am to dine at the Summer Palace."
Courtney sat up and began to polish his eye-glasses. "I assume you have made no decision?" he asked presently.
"If I had," said I, "I would have gone to bed."
He nodded and kept on at the eye-glasses. At last they seemed to suit him, and he shoved them into place and lit another cigarette.
"It seems to me," he said, at length, "the matter is wholly one of personal inclination; with no obligation upon you to decide it upon any other basis. Therefore, the first question is simply this: Which do you prefer to be—an American officer and citizen or a Valerian Archduke?"
"That is just what I don't know," said I.
"Well, would it be any easier to answer if I were to add: 'With a chance for the Crown'?"
"That complicates it even more, I think."
He looked at me hard for a moment. I knew he was thinking of the Princess and I shook my bead.
"Better look at it only on the first proposition," he said: "'an American officer or an Archduke.'"
"If I accept," said I, "I shall play for all the stakes."
"Of course," said he, "but you may lose."
"It is more than likely I shall."
"Yet, even if you do, you will still be the Archduke," he argued.
"I think I would not accept it without the other chances," I said.
"Yet you would adventure those very chances without being sure of the Archdukeship?" he insisted.
I nodded, and Courtney laughed and fingered his imperial.
"You have lost several hours of sleep to-night, my dear Major, very needlessly," he said. "You know quite well you will accept Frederick's offer."
"Do you advise me to accept?" I demanded.
"Do you fancy I would advise you to do anything else?"
"You say that as my best friend?" I persisted.
"I do—and more; I urge it."
"I think I am growing childish," I said, "I can't make a decision; I'm afraid of the Dark, as it were."
Courtney nodded. "That is precisely why I am able to see the matter more clearly than you—there is no Dark to make me fearful."
"And my commission and American citizenship?"
Courtney smiled. "You will have in exchange the Patent of an Archduke of Valeria with all its powers and privileges; and, at the very least, the commission of General of Brigade in the Valerian Army. That's a trifle more than you are giving up, don't you think?"
I made no answer.
"And then," he went on, "you can throw it all over and come back to us if you get tired of your new job."
"I may be glad enough to get back to you and my American commission."
"Bother your commission! What does a man of your age and position want in the hard-working American army?" he exclaimed.
"What does a man of your age and wealth want bothering with diplomacy?" I asked.
"Because I enjoy the business, I reckon."
"Just as someone else may enjoy being a Major of Engineers."
"Come," said he; "if that's all that bothers you, I'll engage to put you back in our Army any time within two years, if you wish it."
"You are very good, Courtney," I said. "I fear, however, the War Department would not be so gracious."
He snapped his fingers. "That, for the War Department,'" he said contemptuously.
"Besides, I'm too old to learn a new profession," I objected.
"A new profession?" he questioned.
I nodded. "The profession of being an Archduke."
"If I might judge by the Birthday Ball," he laughed, "you will have very little to learn."
"Oh, I'm not bothered about the women; I can manage them all right."
"For the love of Heaven: don't say that so loud," he exclaimed. "One of them might hear you, and then——" and he raised his hands expressively.
"We are growing frivolous," said I, "let us go to bed."
He tossed his cigarette into the grate. "Sometimes it is well to sleep over a problem," he said. He poured two measures of liquor. "Here's to a clear mind and a right decision in the morning."
We drank it standing—and I, at least, with feeling.
I cannot say if a good night's rest had anything to do with it, but, when I awoke, my mind was made up, and I was ready to give answer to the King. It chanced that Courtney and I met at breakfast—the American customs as to meals prevailed at the Embassy—and had the room to ourselves; possibly, because we were very late and the day was very charming.
"Well," said he, "I see you've made your decision; which gets it, Valeria or America?"
"Behold a prospective Archduke!" said I.
He arose and, hand over heart, bowed low. "I salute Your Royal Highness!" he said.
"Nonsense!" I exclaimed, "don't be ridiculous."
"I am quite serious. It's an unusual pleasure to have one worth saluting."
I waved the compliment aside. "If it is to terminate my old friendships or bring formality into private intercourse I shall remain American," I declared.
The diplomat smiled. "Don't you see it all rests with yourself? You can be as formal or as familiar as you please."
"I can revise my List of Friends, so to speak—drop those I don't care for and enter such new ones as I wish?"
"Well, that much of the new order will be quite to my liking," said I, and turned to my mail.
The letters lay face downward, of course, and I opened them in their order without bothering to examine the superscription. Presently, I came upon one sealed with a blurred dab of green wax. Rather curious, I turned it over; it was unstamped and was marked: "Personal and Important." I did not know the hand-writing; but, then, Lady Helen Radnor's was the only one in all Dornlitz I could have known.
"Here," said I to Courtney, "is a letter marked 'Personal and Important'; what is it; an invitation to contribute to the professionally destitute?"
"More likely an invitation to some gambling den."
I tossed it over. "Take a look at it and guess again," I said.
He glanced languidly at the envelope; then picked it up quickly and scrutinized it sharply.
"We both are wrong," he said, and he motioned for the servant to return it to me.
I knew he had recognized the writing and that it called for more respect than a careless fling across the table. I broke the seal and drew out the letter. It bore the Royal Arms over the word "Dornlitz." Beneath, it read:
"MY DEAR COUSIN:
"His Majesty has told me of the meeting in the Library this morning. I know I have no right to meddle—but, won't you please accept and come back to your own? The King wants you. We shall welcome you with all our hearts. Come, Armand!
I read it slowly a second time—and then a third time—wondering, the while, whether I should show it to Courtney.
"You know who wrote this?" I asked.
"I know who wrote the address."
"Then know the note, also," said I, and read it to him.
His face was quite expressionless as I read; but, at the end, he gave the faintest nod of approval. "If that does not hold you to the task, you are——" he stopped. "God, Sir! You ought to be proud to be her cousin," he ended.
I spent the balance of the day arranging the affairs of my office, to the end that I could instantly sever all official relations with the American Government, and, so assume my new rank with the least possible embarrassment to Courtney. He would, doubtless, find it unfortunate enough to have, as a Royal Archduke, one who but lately was his Military Attache, and familiar with much of his policy and purpose. I said as much to him that evening, as we rode toward the Summer Palace, but he laughed it off.
"Embarrass me!" he exclaimed. "I shall be the most envied of the Ambassadors; sought after by all the Court for a word to my friend, the new Archduke—'that may be King hereafter.'"
"Don't," said I; "it's likely to be quite bad enough without calling on Macbeth's Witches."
He leaned over and put his hand on my arm. "Brace up, old chap," he said; "there's no boiling caldron and no witches."
"There are troubles of sorts other than those the caldron brewed," I remarked.
We turned a bend in the road. "And witches of other sorts than those of Fores' Heath," he laughed. "Behold!"
A hundred yards ahead, rode the Princess and Lady Helen Radnor.
"Here's your opportunity, Courtney," I observed.
He stared at me.
"To escort Lady Helen back to town." I explained.
"Thank you," he said, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't be a bear," said I; "most men would be glad enough for the chance."
Then we reined aside and saluted.
"Will you join us?" said the Princess.
"We shall be delighted," I said and swung over beside her.
"I don't know what to do with Lady Helen," she whispered hurriedly.
"Courtney will look after her," I volunteered.
But she did not seem to hear. "I came alone to meet you," she went on, "and overtook her on the way."
"You came to meet me?" I asked.
She nodded. "I fear you will think me very forward, but I—well, I wanted to know your decision."
"Have you any doubt of it after the note—and now?"
"Then you will accept?" she exclaimed, so loudly I raised my hand in warning.
"Yes," said I. "I shall accept—are you glad?"
She plucked at her horse's mane and glanced at me covertly; then she turned and smiled—one of those overpowering smiles that had clung to me through the years.
"Yes, Armand, I am glad. You are a—dear."
I reined over closer. "Sometime," I began——
She stopped me. "A dear cousin, I mean," she cut in.
I went back to my side of the road; but I took another smile with me.
Then Lady Helen pressed forward. "It is growing late, Your Royal Highness. I shall have to turn toward town," she said.
I glanced at Courtney and he nodded that he would ride back with her. And the Princess saw and understood; and would not have it so.
"No, my dear Helen," said she, "you and Mr. Courtney and Major Dalberg shall dine with His Majesty and me this evening."
"But, Your Highness,"——Lady Helen began.
"But me no buts," said Dehra; "it will be en famille; come along."
Courtney gave me an amused smile and shook his head; but, like a good courtier, he made no protest. For my part, I was very glad for his company on this particular evening.
We entered the Park by a narrow gate opening on a bridle path leading to one of the private doors of the Palace. As I lifted the Princess down, she whispered:
"I think you should see the King at once."
"I am in your hands," I answered.
"The others would scarcely think so," she smiled.
Then I realized I was holding her as tightly as when I had swung her out of saddle. I stepped back with a quick apology.
"Oh, they didn't see it," she said, and ran up the steps.
I smiled. She, too, like Lady Helen, had not forgotten to look about her. Women, it would seem, are rather prudent at such times.
"Well," said Courtney, a bit later, when we were alone, "this is a queer go, sure enough. What did the Princess mean by bringing Lady Helen and me to a family party, and at such a time?"
"I think she meant to be considerate to you and good to me. She thought, doubtless, we might be glad to be in together, at the death, so to speak."
"She is very kind," said he; "but, why Lady Helen?"
"It was all a sudden inspiration and she had to take her to get you."
"I suppose the Princess will explain my presence to the King."
"Oh, he will be glad to see you; he counted on your aiding him in this matter."
"Then, it's well I didn't fail him—or my usefulness as the American Ambassador would be ended."
"Surely, he would not have held that against you?"
Courtney smiled rather grimly. "Presently, my dear Major, you will know a bit more of Courts and Monarchs."
Then the summons came from the King. Instinctively I held out my hand to Courtney. He gripped it hard.
"Good-bye, old man, and God bless you," he said.
Then I followed the flunkey.
THE COLONEL OF THE RED HUZZARS
When I entered the library, Frederick came forward and kissed me on both cheeks.
"My dear Armand," he said, "I am pleased beyond expression."
"It's a pity," thought I, "kissing isn't an expression."
"Dehra has told you?" I asked.
He nodded. "But I felt sure of you—so sure, indeed, I have all these ready for you." He picked up a roll of parchments. "Here is your Patent as an Archduke of Valeria; here are the title deeds to your ancestral estates—they have been held as Crown lands since Hugo's time; here is your commission as Colonel of the Red Huzzars; and here (and this may please you most) is your commission as Lieutenant-General in my Army."
I took them mechanically. There, were the seals, the flowing ribbons, the heavy signature of the King. The sheets rustled and twisted in my fingers, curling back and forth like things alive. I saw them dimly as though through a haze; my senses were dulled with sudden wonder and emotion. And, yet, I had thought of it all many times since yesterday; Courtney had predicted for me some of these very honors; I, myself, had even anticipated them—indeed, they had been the powerful inducement for my decision. And, now, when I had them in my very hands, put there by the King himself, I was simply overpowered. To some scoffer I may seem sentimental or childish; and to him I say: "wait until you are in similar circumstances."
Presently I got my senses and, I trust, thanked His Majesty in proper words. But he, would have none of it.
"They are yours by right of birth, you have simply come to your own," he said.
"But only by your gracious favor," I protested.
"Then, do me a small return: wear the Huzzar uniform this evening."
I must have looked my surprise.
"We are pretty much of a size and I think mine will fit you," he observed.
"It is very little you ask, Sire." I answered.
"Then my valet will squire you," and he rang for the servant.
And it was well he did; for I was not used to fancy uniforms, with their peculiar fastenings and adornments, and I might have spent the entire evening in solving them. But Adolph attired me with astonishing celerity, and then, swinging a cheval glass before me, he inquired:
"Are you satisfied, sir?"
"You are a wonderful valet, Adolph," I said, ignoring the mirror.
I did not need it to know that I was clad in scarlet and gold, with a black, fur-bound dohlman over one shoulder and a tall black busby on my head. I hung the Eagle of the Cincinnati about my neck and went back to the King.
He looked me over critically and nodded. "You'll do, my boy," he said. Then he raised the Eagle and examined it. "It is a great Order," he said; "one of the greatest in the world, but a Prince of Valeria must wear his country's also," and he pinned the Star of the Lion on my tunic. "And now, come, I want to show you to your cousin."
At the door of the Princess's apartments he waved aside the footman and, himself, announced:
"His Royal Highness, the Grand Duke Armand!"
It was so unexpected and sounded so queer, withal, that, for a moment, I hesitated; then I took a fresh grip on my busby and followed the King. The next instant, I was bending over the Princess's hand and listening to her words of welcome and congratulation. When I turned to Lady Helen she curtsied deeply, even as she would have done for one of her own Princes.
"God save Your Royal Highness," she said.
And, as I raised her hand and kissed it, I tried, in vain, to read in her eyes whether she meant it or was only mocking me.
Then, we went in to dinner—and, here, was a surprise for me, also.
It was the same room we had breakfasted in the previous day, but now, upon the wall, fronting us as we entered, hung a full-length portrait of an officer in the uniform of the Red Huzzars. It was the Great Henry; but it could just as well have been myself. Surely, outwardly, at least, he was my alter ego.
Even Courtney's astonishment pierced his heavy equanimity; and Lady Helen stopped sharply and gazed at the painting and, then, at me, and, then, at the painting, again, in silent wonder. For although they both knew, generally, of the resemblance, it needed the uniform to bring it out in full effect.
"Your Majesty has given us a series of surprises to-night," said Courtney.
"It is surely wonderful—almost beyond belief," said Lady Helen.
"Now, you know something of my sensations when I first met him," said Frederick, "though, then, I had not the benefit of the Huzzar attire."
"And you, Princess?" asked Lady Helen.
The King laughed aloud; Courtney became absorbed in the picture; I tugged at my sword-knot—we all were thinking of the kiss before the Ball. But Dehra, naturally, thought of the meeting in the forest six years before.
"It was a long time ago, but I think I did notice the resemblance in a casual way," she said.
The King stared at her in surprise; Courtney smiled slightly and glanced at me, and Lady Helen's eyes shot from Dehra to me and back again in a vain attempt to understand. Frederick, however, was on the point of asking an explanation when the Princess gave him a glance, and he instantly dropped the matter and motioned us to our seats.
Mine was on Dehra's right; Courtney's on her left. Presently, I heard the King say to Lady Helen:
"Come, confess you are curious how the American military attache becomes a Valerian Archduke?"
And, through Dehra's talk, I detected the laughing answer, pitched high enough to reach me:
"'Curious' is quite too mild a word, Sire."
Then, as the King began the story, she glanced over at me and I nodded my thanks. It would have been a bit awkward, just then, if she had shown she already knew my history. To-morrow it mattered not to me if it were known the Kingdom over; aye, and farther, too. But to-morrow was the future; to-night was mine. I was in favor; a King across the table; a beautiful woman beside me. What more could any man wish?
And, when Dehra whispered: "Do you know, Armand, you are very handsome to-night?" I tossed all discretion overboard and made violent love to her before them all. Nor heeded Courtney's warning looks, nor Lady Helen's curious glances. It was Dehra, herself, who brought me up sharply, after a space.
"I am afraid, Armand," said she, "if you flirt so strenuously with me to-night, you will have no cards left for the balance of our game."
"Our game?" I echoed blankly, forgetting for the moment the compact of the Ball.
She smiled. "You see, you play it better than I ever can. I don't even know enough to forget it is a game."
I turned and looked her in the eyes. "Then, in all you have done lately, you have been only playing the game?" I asked.
"Is that quite a fair question?" she answered.
"Yes—under the circumstances."
"But I thought you called it a game?"
"And, yet, you ask me to spread my cards on the table?"
"Not exactly; I ask to see only the tricks that are turned," said I.
She shook her head. "It's all the same—we must play fair."
"Was it quite fair to write me that note unless you were sincere?" I asked.
She looked me straight. "Tell me," she demanded, "tell me, on your honor; had you not already made decision when my note reached you?"
I hesitated. "It clinched the matter," I said, lamely.
The Princess smiled.
"And, had the decision been otherwise, the note would have reversed it," I added.
The smile broadened. "But, since the note was in no way responsible, nor even persuasive, its sincerity does not matter," she said.
"But, if I were to change my mind?" I replied.
She glanced at my uniform and at the gleaming Star of the Lion.
"They can be removed," I said; "they are only borrowed."
"No, Your Royal Highness," said she, "they cannot be removed—not in the way you mean; your word is passed to your King."
Your King! It was the first reminder I was no longer a free American, and it gave me something of a shock. And Dehra understood, and showed no mercy.
"And, as an Archduke of Valeria, and almost the Heir Presumptive, you must know what it means to give your word to your King," she said.
"I trust I know what it means to give my word to anyone," I returned.
"Now, don't get on your dignity, Armand," she laughed. "You understand me perfectly."
I raised my hands in protest. "Understand you perfectly!" I exclaimed. "I wish I understood you even a little."
"You're not as nice as you were during the first part of the dinner."
"Did you ever hear the slang Americanism 'there are others'?" I asked.
She took a cigarette and lighted it—and passed it to me; then lighted another for herself.
"What was it you asked about that note?" she said, and gave me one of those subduing smiles.
I dropped my hand below the table and found her fingers. "You meant it, Dehra; truly?" I asked.
Sue released her fingers and placed both hands on the cloth. "Of course I meant it—when I wrote it," she said.
"That's quite as much as I've any right to expect," I answered.
"That's the proper frame of mind, cousin," said she.
"And the sort you prefer in your admirers?"
She raised her eyebrows—"In my relatives—undoubtedly."
"Come," said I, "we must not quarrel."
"It would be the regular thing; I fight with all my relatives."
A footman handed the King a card, received a message, and withdrew.
"Then let me prove an exception," I cut in.
"I am quite willing; squabbles are so stupid."
"Speaking of cousins; have you quarrelled with Lotzen?"
"Scores of times; we are in the distant bowing stage now."
"Good," said I. "I trust it will continue indefinitely."
"We always make up and get very chummy after he has been absent for any time," she returned.
"I wonder how he will view his new cousin?" I said.
The Princess laughed. "With considerable surprise, I fancy; particularly if he meet you in that uniform in a dimly-lighted corridor of the palace, at night."
"Have the Dalbergs no ghost such as is appurtenant to all well-regulated royal families?"
"Alas! We have not; but you could give us a fine one."
"Well, I won't," I said.
"And yet, who knows?" she reflected with sudden seriousness; "your very resemblance to yonder picture may, sometime, be of service to you."
"Then, I shall not hesitate to use it."
"At any rate, I hope I shall be by when my cousin of Lotzen gets his first look at you."
"As the family spectre or in propria persona?"
"As both; but in persona, first," she said.
Just then, the corridor door swung back, and a voice announced:
"His Royal Highness, the Duke of Lotzen!"
The Princess caught her breath, in surprise, and glanced quickly at the King.
"Does His Highness always grant your wishes so promptly?" I asked.
But she did not hear me. She was watching the Duke as he advanced to the King and bent knee.
And I, too, watched him; and with interest—this man, with whom I proposed to make a contest for the throne.
He had the grace of one reared in Courts and the ease of one born to high command. He made me feel awkward even as I sat. His height was not above the medium, but his figure was so well proportioned he seemed almost my own size—and, yet, I knew I would top him by three inches. He wore the full dress uniform of a Lieutenant-General of Cavalry; and, with his black hair and moustache and well-cut face, he looked, in every line, the dashing beau sabreur.
When he had greeted the King, and spoken to Lady Helen, he turned and, with eyes on Dehra, came toward us. Courtney and I arose and stepped back. The Princess swung around in her chair and gave him her hand, but without a word of welcome—and he spoke none. Then, as he unbent, his eyes rested on me for the first time.
I have never ceased to admire the self-control Lotzen showed then. He gave me an instant's glance; flung another at the portrait behind me; and, then, clicking his heels sharply together, he raised his hand in salute—but, whether to me or to the portrait, I could not know. My own hand went up with his and remained a moment longer; for I was the junior in actual rank, though he could not know it, for my present uniform was no guide.
"Since no one has presented the Colonel of the Red Huzzars, will he not do the service for himself?" he said, very courteously.
"I cry your pardon, gentlemen," exclaimed the King; "and I herewith present, to the Duke of Lotzen, his cousin, the Grand Duke Armand."
Lotzen extended his hand in frank greeting. "You are a Dalberg—any one could see—but whence?"
"From America," I answered.
He knew his family records well. "Then, you are the heir of Hugo," he said instantly. "And you come in good time, cousin; there have been few enough Dalbergs in Valeria this generation."
"Your cousin will appreciate your welcome," said the King, before I could make reply. Then he raised his glass. "I give you: The New Archduke," he said.
I bowed low; yet, not so low, but that I caught the smile Dehra gave me, over her glass, and the sharp glance with which Lotzen noted it.
"Is he friend or foe?" I wondered—though the answer was evident. Plainly, he was no fool and, therefore, why should he be my friend?
And such was the view of another; for, a bit later, as I swung the Lady Helen into saddle, she whispered:
"Lotzen will bear watching."
"I shall need friends," I answered, slowly, arranging her skirt.
"Sometimes, a woman's wit is helpful."
"And I may count on yours?"
"Surely—mine, and another's, too, I fancy," she smiled.
Then she and Courtney rode away—but halted almost instantly, and he called back to me to stop at the Embassy on the morrow and sign some papers.
For, of course, now, I could not live, even for a night, at the American Legation; and, already, a suite had been prepared for me in the Palace.
The four of us went to the King's library; and, after a while, Lotzen withdrew on the plea of an official appointment. But His Majesty and the Princess and I sat until late in the night discussing the modus vivendi for me. Many matters were determined by them; and, in all, I acquiesced instantly; for they knew what was proper and I did not.
It was decided that, for the present, I was to reside in the Palace. I did not care for a separate establishment until I had more experience in the dignities of an Archduke. Neither did I desire, now, a full military staff; and so I was to have only two aides—whom Frederick selected after much thought.
The senior was Colonel Bernheim—who had brought the invitation to the Birthday Ball, and the commands of the Princess to dance with her that night. His tour of duty with the Royal Aides was about ended, and, being an officer of much experience in the Court, he would be able to keep me straight, so to speak.
The other aide was a Major Moore—an Irish soldier of fortune, who had been in the Valerian Army some ten years, and, by his efficiency, had become attached to the General Staff. He was of noble birth—the younger son of a younger son of an Irish Earl—and "as an Irishman is more than half an American he will, doubtless, be congenial," the King said.
I had liked Bernheim's manner, and I was willing to risk an Irishman's faith to his chief. I asked, only, whether either was an intimate of the Duke of Lotzen.
"That is a perfectly reasonable question," said Frederick instantly. "I know that Bernheim has never liked the Heir Presumptive and that Moore is not a favorite with the Prince."
"Then, I am quite content with them," said I.
"And you may also feel content," said he, "in that I appreciate your position here and its difficulties, and I shall stand behind you. But a King's favorite, even though of the Royal Family, is rarely popular, so I shall obtrude no more than is necessary to show you have my good will. When you want more, ask for it."
THE FATALITY OF MOONLIGHT
The following morning I was formally presented to the Royal Council and took my place at the Board, on the left of the King, the Duke of Lotzen being on his right. His Majesty stated briefly my descent, the law of the case as laid down by the Great Henry, and that I had accepted a restitution of the rights and privileges due to the eldest male heir of Hugo.
"I ask your consideration for him, my Lords, the same as though he were our own son," he ended. "I will answer for him—he is a Dalberg."
At this there was applause and the members of the Council pressed forward and welcomed me as an Archduke of the Kingdom, taking my hand and bending knee before me. It seemed a bit queer, but I got through it satisfactorily to myself—particularly so since there was no kissing in it.
Then the Council began its business and the Prime Minister, Count Epping, read a tentative proposition of peace, which, he said, he understood had already been practically accepted by Titia.
It provided that Murdol should be permitted to determine for itself, by the vote of its citizens, whether it would remain a province of Valeria or become, once more, a part of Titia. In the latter event, Titia was to pay Valeria the value of all the public buildings in Murdol erected or rebuilt by Valeria, and, further, to reimburse Valeria for her war expenses. But, if Murdol voted to remain with Valeria, then, Titia was to pay all the cost of the war.
"I need hardly say to the Council," the Prime Minister remarked, "that, thus far, the terms are entirely satisfactory to His Majesty; but there is another detail, suggested by our friend, the intermediary, which is not so agreeable. It is only a suggestion, but, I fear, has much to do with Titia's acquiescence. It is that the peace be further cemented by a marriage between the Royal Families of Valeria and Titia."
Then the Count sat down, and all faces were turned toward the King.
Frederick ran his eyes slowly around the table. I did the like. There were but three faces which did not show favor for the marriage—and, of course, the three were the King's, Lotzen's, and mine. At least, I assume mine evidenced my repugnance. I am quite sure I felt it.
"It is altogether useless, my Lords, for us to discuss the marriage matter," said Frederick. "I have given my word to Her Royal Highness that she shall not be coerced in her choice of a husband, and it shall not be broken. So long as she weds within her circle, she may marry when and where and whom she will. Save for that restriction, Valeria will make peace with Titia upon the terms specified. We refused the marriage before the war began; we refuse it now; we would refuse it were Casimir's guns thundering without the walls."
They were good courtiers—these men of the Council—for they sprang to their feet and cheered enthusiastically. And so the matter ended, for the time. Altogether, I was well pleased with the doings of the morning.
And so was Courtney, when I told him of it, over a whiskey and soda in his library, later in the day. Possibly, I violated the proprieties in disclosing the business of the Royal Council, but I knew Courtney understood I was talking to my friend and not to the Ambassador.
"I wish," said I, "you would give me your opinion of Lotzen."
Courtney smiled. "He is clever—very clever," he said.
"Even I could guess that after last evening," I cut in.
"He is ambitious, rather unscrupulous, and wholly dangerous," Courtney continued.
"A pleasant sort of rival," I commented.
"And, finally, he is infatuated with the Princess Royal."
"That may be a fatal weakness," said I.
"Truly, you seem to have gained wisdom overnight—Your Highness," said he.
"And shall need many nights and much, very much, wisdom, I fear."
He nodded. "That you will—particularly, if you make a confidant of women."
"Don't imagine Lady Helen told me," Courtney explained. "I chanced to notice her greeting, last night, to the Colonel of the Red Huzzars."
"You are too observant," said I.
"A bit more so, at that moment, than the Princess, I think."
"I trust so," said I.
"You made some rather fast going last night, my friend," he observed. "Now, it's none of my affair—only—isn't it a bit early for top speed?"
"That is exactly what the Princess suggested," said I.
He burst into an amused laugh. "Go it, my boy!" he exclaimed, "you are doing delightfully—and so is the Princess."
"Particularly the Princess," I said.
"And it's more than likely I am riding for a fall."
He shrugged his shoulders. "It's a fast race over a strange course—and they will ride you down if they can."
"I know it," said I, "but I fancy I shall rather enjoy the excitement—and Bernheim and Moore can be depended on, I think."
"Undoubtedly—you may be sure the King chose them advisedly. Consult them in everything—but, on particular occasions, consult——"
"I'll come to you," I filled in.
"And you may always count on my aid—but, I was about to say, upon particular occasions consult the Princess."
"Good," said I. "I shall riot in particular occasions."
"P. V." he amended.
"Oh! I'm her cousin," I laughed.
"And so is Lotzen."
"Damn Lotzen," said I, heartily.
"That's well enough as far as it goes, but it's the King's damn you want."
"I fear he does not swear in English," said I.
"Then, it's up to you to teach him—and the quickest method is to win the Princess. Marry her and you get the Crown for a bridal present."
"It may be the surest method; I doubt if it's the quickest," said I.
"Well, of course, my dear fellow," he said banteringly, "you know the lady better than I do."
"I doubt it," said I, "for I think I don't know her even a little bit."
"Good—you are gathering wisdom rapidly; indeed, you are growing almost over-wise."
"I have often wondered how you got your amazing knowledge of women," I observed.
He lit a cigarette and sent a cloud of smoke between us. "It was born in me, I think. At any rate, I've proved it—by letting them alone. Yet," he went on musingly, "were I a Royal Duke and cousin to the Princess of Valeria, I am not so sure—no, I am not so sure."
I looked at him a bit curiously. Surely, it could not be that Courtney—the indifferent—the blase—envied me; that he would care to be other than he was; or that even a beautiful woman could stir his blood. Then the cloud began to thin out, and he must have noticed my surprise, for he laughed and waved his hand before his face.
"I'm like the fellow in the song," said he, "I've been 'seeing pictures in the smoke.'"
"And you liked the pictures?" I asked.
"Very much, my boy, very much indeed—in smoke."
"Someone else is improving, also," said I. "Time was when you could not have seen such pictures."
He shook his head. "It's only a sign of age. I'm becoming a dreamer; soon you will find me sitting in the sun."
"You need a wife, Courtney," I exclaimed.
He laughed. "No—I need a drink, a good stiff drink. I'm getting old, and lonely for the tried friends I've lost; you are the last deserter."
"Nonsense," I began.
"No, it's true as gospel," he went on. "Our paths separated forever at the Palace, last night. You are a Royal Highness and the possible heir to the Throne. And I am an elderly American diplomat—here, to-day; gone to-morrow."
"You need several good stiff drinks," I interrupted.
He waved aside my banter. "I give you a toast," he went on, pouring a measure for each of us. "The Princess Dehra—and another like her."
"And may you find that other," I cried.
Then we drained our glasses and flung them into the grate.
I was tremendously astonished at this revelation of Courtney's feelings—feelings which I had never even suspected. And, I fear, I had the bad taste to stare at him. For he turned abruptly and walked to the window, and stood, for a moment, with his back to me. I drew on my gloves and hitched up my sword (I was wearing the undress of a general officer) and waited.
"Of course, you understood, last night, that there were no papers for you to sign," he said, as he came slowly back to the table.
"Surely," I laughed.
"What I wanted was the opportunity to tell you that our secret service will be at your command, and that I have given instructions to report to me anything that may be of use to you—particularly, touching Lotzen and his intimates."
"You are more than good, old chap," I said, and we shook hands hard—for the toast was still in mind.
"Present my compliments to Her Highness," he called after me.
I went back to the doorway. "And give mine to The Other Like Her, when she comes," I said.
"She will never come, Armand; she will never come. I am just an old fool." Then he laughed. "Your love-making at dinner tables didn't use to affect me."
"You never followed any of them by a moonlight ride with a pretty girl," I answered.
"At least, never with one as pretty as Lady Helen," he amended.
I was getting surprises with a vengeance.
"Is it possible you have just discovered she is pretty?" I exclaimed.
He smiled frankly. "No—but it may be I've just discovered how pretty."
"And she's more than pretty," said I, "she's thoroughbred."
He studied me for a moment. "I have often wondered—and now I wonder more than ever—why you—why you never—— You understand."
I nodded. "Yes," said I, "I understand and I rather reckon I would, if it had not been that, a year before I ever saw the Lady Helen, I had ridden with the Princess Dehra, alone, in the Palace forest, for an hour."
At last, I saw Courtney's cold face show genuine surprise.
"And you made no effort then to prove your cousinship?" he exclaimed.
"No," said I.
"You let her go; and—and you a Dalberg and a soldier! You don't deserve her—she ought to go to Lotzen—to Casimir—to any one but you. Why, you drivelling idiot, do you realize that, but for the chance of my having lugged—yes, that's the word, lugged you here you would now be doing childish problems in cement and stone in some miserable little Army department headquarters over in America?"
It was delicious to see Courtney roused, once in his life. Choking back my laugh, I answered:
"You have not put it half strongly enough. You may be a fool, as you say—there's no doubt that I've been a colossal one."
"You ought to be in an asylum for weak-minded instead of in that uniform," he ejaculated.
"But, thanks to you, I'm in the uniform and not in the asylum," I answered.
"Pray God you have sense enough, now, to keep in the one and out of the other," he retorted.
"Amen, Courtney, old man," said I, "Amen!"
Then I sprang away and into saddle—waving my hand to him as he came hastily to the door to stay me.
LEARNING MY TRADE
The next month was the busiest of my life—not excepting those at the Point. I was learning to be Royal, and I was starting a generation and a half behind time. My hardest task was in meeting the Nobility. I had been bred a soldier and had despised the politician—secretly, however, as is necessary for the Army officer in America; but no rural candidate at a Fall election ever worked harder to ingratiate himself with the people and to secure their votes, than did I to win favor with the Lords and high officers of State. And, with it all, I could feel no assurance of success—for they were courtiers, and I had not yet learned to read behind their masks; though, here, Bernheim was invaluable. Indeed, he was a wonder. I have yet to find him miss his guess.
There were constant Cabinet meetings to attend, at which my views were expected; and this entailed a study of conditions and policies absolutely new to me. Then, I was delegated frequently by the King to represent him on occasions of ceremony; and, for them, I needed careful coaching. In fact, there were a thousand matters which occupied me to exhaustion. And, through it all, I was trying to get familiar with the organization and administration and methods of the Valerian Army, so as to be fitted to discharge the duties of my high rank. I confess this was my most congenial labor. If I might have been simply a soldier Archduke, I think I would have been entirely satisfied.
After a few weeks I had taken up my residence in the Epsau Palace—one of my recent inheritances—and there maintained my own Archducal Court. It was a bit hard for me to take myself seriously and to accept calmly the obsequious deference accorded me by everyone. I fear I smiled many times when I should have looked royally indifferent; and was royally indifferent when I should have smiled. I know there were scores of instances when I felt like kicking some of the infernally omnipresent flunkeys down the stairs. But I did not; for I knew that the poor devils were doing only their particular duty in the manner particularly proper.
Yet, there were compensations, so many and so satisfying, I never, for a moment, considered a return to my former estate. I was—I admit it—enamored of my rank and power; and, it may be, even of that very obsequiousness and flattery which I thought I despised. I know there was a supreme satisfaction when I passed through the saluting crowds in the Alta Avenue. It became almost elation when I rode upon the parade ground to take the Review and the March By.
During this month, I had seen the Duke of Lotzen very frequently. I had sat beside him at the Council table; I had dined with him formally as the new Archduke, and informally as his cousin. And, on my part, I had repaid his courtesies in kind. He had been thoughtful and considerate to me to an exceptional degree, but, at the same time, without undue effusiveness. In a word, he had treated me with every possible attention our rank and consanguinity demanded.
Even Courtney could find nothing to criticise in Lotzen's behavior; nor had his secret agents been able to detect anything sub rosa.
"However, all this proves nothing one way or the other," he remarked one day, as we sat in my inner library. "If he intend the worst sort of harm to you he would begin just as he has."
"I suppose His Majesty knows of Lotzen's courtesies to you?"
"And is immensely gratified. Bernheim tells me the Duke never was in higher favor than at this moment," I answered.
"Exactly—and, therefore, the less likely a change in the Law of Succession. He uses you to play against you."
"And I am helpless to prevent it," said I.
"I may not refuse his civilities nor appear to question their intent."
"Heaven forfend!" Courtney exclaimed, with lifted hands. "Your counter attack is at the King, too. Keep him interested in you."
"I have, I think. I am the new Military Governor of Dornlitz."
"Wonderful, Major!—Your Royal Highness, I mean."
"Drop the R. H., please," I said; "stick to Armand or Major."
"Thank you, I shall, in private; it's handier. And when were you appointed?"
"It will be in the Gazette this evening. His Majesty offered it to me this morning."
"Does Lotzen know it?"
"I think not; it was due to a sudden shifting of Corps Commanders made yesterday."
"I would like a view of the Duke's private countenance when he hears it first," Courtney laughed. "It's the most desirable post in the Army; even preferable to Chief of Staff. It makes you master in the Capital and its Military District, a temporary Field Marshal, and answerable to none but the King himself."
"It's just that which makes me question the expediency of my accepting the detail," said I. "It's a post to reward long service and soldierly merit. I have not the former and have had no chance to prove the latter. I fear it will be bad for discipline and worse for my popularity."
Courtney laughed. "That might be true of the American Army—it's nonsense in a Monarchy. You forget you are of the Blood Royal—an Archduke—of mature years—with some experience in actual war—and, for all the Army and Court know, in line for the Crown. You are, therefore, born to command. There can be no jealousies against you. On the contrary, it will bring you followers. None but Lotzen and his circle will resent it, and they, already, are your enemies. The Governorship will make them no more so. Instead, it will keep them careful; for it will give you immense power to detect and foil their plots."
"Plots!" I exclaimed. "Do you fancy Lotzen would resort to murder?"
"Not at present—not until everything else has failed."
"You seem very sure," I remarked.
"Precisely that. You don't seem to realize that you have likely both lost him his desired wife and jeopardized his succession to the Throne. He might submit to losing the Princess, but the Crown, never. He will eliminate you, by soft methods if he can, by violent ones, if need be. Believe me, Major, I know the ways of Courts a little better than you."
I took a turn up and down the room. "I don't know that Lotzen isn't justified in using every means to defeat me. I am a robber—a highwayman, if you please. I am, this instant, holding him up and trying to deprive him of his dearest inheritance. And I'm doing it with calm deliberation, while, ostensibly, I'm his friend. If I attempt to steal his watch he would be justified in shooting me on the spot—why shouldn't he do the same when I try to filch from him the Valerian Crown?"
"No reason in the world, my dear Major, except that to steal a watch is a vulgar crime—but to plot for a throne is the privilege of Princes. And Princes do not shoot their rivals."
"With their own hands," I added.
Courtney bowed low. "Your Highness has it exactly," he said.
I shrugged my shoulders. "You flatter me."
"I speak only in general terms; they do not apply to you, my dear Major. You are not plotting to dethrone a King; you are simply trying, frankly and openly, to recover what is yours by birthright. Lotzen's real claim to the Crown is, in justice, subordinate to yours—and he knows it—and so does the King, or he would not have put you on probation, so to speak, with the implied promise to give you back your own again, if you prove worthy."
"That's one way to look at it," said I, "and I reckon I shall have to accept it. In fact, I'm remitted to it or to chucking the whole thing overboard."
Courtney smiled approvingly. "That's the reasonable point of view. Now, stick to it, and give Lotzen no quarter—you may be sure he will give you none."
"I shall countenance no violence," I insisted.
"One is permitted to repel force by force."
"I shall not hesitate to do that, you may be sure."
"Good!" said he. "Now we understand the situation and each other; and I can assist you more effectively."
"I shall advise you the moment anything new develops," said I.
"And remember, Major, to either you or Lotzen the Princess means the Crown. Frederick will be only too glad to pass it so to his own descendants."
"That's the truth," said I. "But I reckon the Princess doesn't need the Crown to get Lotzen or me."
"Do you realize how lucky it is, under the circumstances, that you are unmarried?" Courtney inquired.
"Rather—only, if I had chanced to be married, I would still be your Military Attache. Frederick would never have given me the chance to be an Archduke."
"At least, it's sure he would never have given you a chance to be a King."
"And the American newspapers would have missed a great news item," I added.
"I never quite appreciated what a wonder you were until they told me," he laughed. "You seem to possess a marvellous assortment of talents—and, as for bravery, they have had you leading every charge in the Spanish War."
"It's all very tiresome," I said.
"It's one of the penalties of Royalty—to be always in the limelight and never in the shadow," he returned. "How does it feel?"
"Come around to-night to the Royal Box at the Opera and get into the glare, a bit," I said. "I am to take the King's place and escort the Princess."
"Is that a command?" he asked.
"Hang it all, Courtney——" I exclaimed.
"Because, if it isn't," he went on, "I shall have to decline. I'm dining with the Radnors and going on to the Opera with them."
I looked at him expectantly for a moment, giving him an opening to mention Lady Helen; but he only smiled and lit another cigarette. I understood he declined the opening. Indeed, he had never referred to Lady Helen since that first surprising time. But, if the gossip of the Diplomatic set, which, of course, reached the Court promptly, were at all reliable, another International marriage was not improbable. I admit I was a bit curious as to the matter—and here I saw my opportunity.
"If you will permit," said I, "I'll send an Aide to invite the Radnors and you to the Royal Box during the last act, and then, later, to be my guests at supper on the Hanging Garden."
"You're very kind, old man," said he; "and as for old Radnor you will endanger his life—he will just about explode with importance."
"I trust not," said I; "I like Lord Radnor—and then explosions are disconcerting at the Opera or a supper."
I had good reason, later, to remember this banter—for there was an explosion at the supper that night that was more than disconcerting; but Lord Radnor was in no way responsible.
IN THE ROYAL BOX
When the Princess and I entered the Royal Box that night the applause was instant and enthusiastic. I kept a bit in the rear; the greeting was for her. And she smiled that conquering smile of hers that went straight to every individual in the audience as a personal acknowledgment. I had seen it frequently in the past month; yet, every time, to marvel only the more. Small wonder, indeed, that she was the toast of the Nation and the pride of the King. A million pities the Salic Law barred her from the succession. What a Queen Regnant she would make! Aye, what a Queen Consort she would be! What a wife!
Then the last high note of the National Air blared out and the Princess, turning quickly, caught my look and straightway read my thoughts. A sudden flush swept over her face and neck and she dropped her eyes. Silently I placed a chair for her; as she took it, her bare arm rested against my hand. The effect on me, in the stress of my feelings at that moment, is indescribable. I know I gasped—and my throat got hot and my heart pounded in sharp pain.
But I did not withdraw my hand—nor did the Princess remove her arm. Its soft, warm flesh pressed against my fingers—the perfume of her hair enveloped my face—the beat of her bosom was just below me.
A fierce impulse seized me to take her in my arms—there, before them all, the Court and the Capital. Reason told me to step back. Yet I could not. Instead, I gripped the chair fiercely, and, by that very act, pushed my fingers only more closely against her.
Was I dreaming—or did I feel an answering pressure, not once but twice repeated. I was sure of it. I bent forward. Quickly she looked up at me with eyes half closed.
"How cold your hand is, Armand," she said.
"Does it chill you, dear?" I whispered.
She smiled. "It never could do that," she answered. "But won't you sit beside me, now?"
"Yes, I suppose so," I said reluctantly. "Only, I'm nearer you as I am."
Then I took my chair, drawing it a trifle in the rear, so, being obliged to lean forward, I would be closer to her and could speak softly in her ear.
"You're very bold, Armand; you are always doing things so publicly," she said.
"It was an accident—at first."
"And afterward, sir?"
"Afterward, I was powerless."
"My arm would not believe you."
"Powerless to remove my hand, I mean."
"Powerlessness, with you, has queer manifestations," she said.
"Yes—sometimes it's passive and sometimes active."
"It was active, I suppose, that day in the King's cabinet, when you gave me that cousinly kiss."
"If we were not so public I would——"
She looked at me with the most daring invitation. "It is because we are so public that you are permitted to sit so near."
"Then, why blame me if I take the only opportunities you give me?" I asked.
She half closed her eyes and looked at me, side-long, through her lashes.
"Have I ever blamed you?" she asked.
"Dehra," said I, "if you look at me like that I shall kiss you now."
She closed her eyes a trifle more. "Where, Armand?" she said. "You have been kissing my hair every time I let it touch your lips."
"Let it touch them again, then," I whispered.
She turned her head sharply from me and, then, slowly back again; and her perfumed tresses, dressed low on her neck, brushed full and hard across my face, from cheek to cheek.
"There, cousin," said she; "am I not good?"
"Not entirely, when you call me 'cousin,'" I said, looking her in the eyes.
"Your Highness, then," she smiled.
"Marshal would please most men," she said.
"There is only one name from you will please me, now," I answered.
She quite closed her eyes. "You are an autocrat to-night, Armand," she murmured.
"I'm your lover, sweetheart; your lover to-night and always," I said impetuously.
She opened her eyes wide and looked into mine with that calm, deep search which only a good woman has power to use. I knew, and trembling waited. What she saw in my eyes then she would see there always—in storm, in sunshine—in youth and in old age.
Then, suddenly, her glance dropped and a blush stole slowly across her cheek.
"To me, dearest," she said softly, "you have been a lover since that day in the forest when you were only Captain Smith."
I bowed my head. "You Princess of women," I said. "How near I was to losing you."
She turned and deliberately let her hair rest on my face a moment.
"There, dear," said she, "is my first kiss to you. I shall have to wait a bit for yours to me."
"And you really want my kiss, Dehra?" I asked doubtingly. Small wonder, indeed, I was slow to realize my fortune.
"You great stupid," she laughed. "Can't you understand I have wanted it for six long years?"
"I think," said I, "I'm dreaming."
"For a dreamer, you're wonderfully brave," she said. "Do you appreciate that you had the audacity to propose to the Princess Royal of Valeria while she sat in the Royal Box before all the fashion of Dornlitz?"
"My dear," said I, "I would propose to her a dozen times under like conditions if I thought, at the end, she would do as she has done to-night."
"If she had known that, she might have put you to the test."
"It would have made her wait only the longer for that kiss she wants," I said.
"Oh, I fancy, sir, she could have had your kiss without accepting you. She needed only to give you half a chance."
"I think," said I, "even less than half a chance from you, dear, would have been successful."
She studied her fan a moment. "From me, only?" she asked.
"From you, only," I said. "It would require a trifle more than half a chance from anyone else."
"Even from the Lady Helen Radnor?" she asked.
I watched her face a moment. There was, I felt, only one way to play this out.
"Well," I answered, "it might be that an even half chance would suffice from her."
"It took rather less than that at the Birthday Ball, didn't it?"
I had the grace to keep silent—or, maybe, I was too surprised to know an answer. I did not have the courage to meet her eyes. I stared into the audience, seeing no one, thinking much—hoping she would speak; but she did not.
Presently I turned, looking like a whipped child, I know, and met Dehra's smiling face.
"Tie my slipper, dear," she said, "the ribbon has come undone."
"You sweetheart!" I said. "You sweetheart!"
She drew her gown back from the footstool, and I slowly tightened the silken bands over the high-arched instep—very slowly, I confess.
"You're very naughty, Armand," she said, shaking her head in mock reproof.
"Doesn't the other shoe need fastening?" I asked.
"No, sir—and, if it did, I would have the Countess tie it."
"Bother the Countess," I said. (The Countess Giska was the Princess's chief Lady in Waiting—and she and my aide-de-camp, Moore, were in the rear of the Box, which, fortunately, was sufficiently deep to put them out of ear-shot.)
"Or, I might ask Major Moore. I think he would be glad to do it," she said.
"He would be a most extraordinary Irishman if he were not more than glad," I said. "But, when I'm around, Dehra, the pleasure is mine alone."
"Goodness, Armand, you would not be jealous?" she mocked.
"I don't know what it's called," said I, "but that's it."
"Haven't you ever been jealous, dear?" she asked.
"I never cared enough for a girl to be jealous," I said.
"I fancy you've cared for so many you had no time to entertain the Green-eyed Monster," she said.
I evaded the thrust. "Has he ever visited you?" I asked.
She ignored the question.
"Isn't Lady Helen beautiful to-night?" she said—and smiled a greeting toward the British Ambassador's Box.
Instantly, Lord Radnor and Courtney arose and bowed low. I returned the salute in kind.
"Tell me," I said. "Were you ever jealous?"
She kept her eyes on the stage. Carmen was the opera, but, thus far, I had not heard a single note.
"I am waiting for you to answer my question," she said, presently.
"I fear I missed it," I replied.
"Queer, surely—it was about Lady Helen. I asked if she were not beautiful to-night."
"She is always very handsome," I said. "And she looks particularly well in blue."
Dehra smiled slyly. "It's the same gown she wore at the Birthday Ball."
I bit my lip—then, suddenly, I got very brave.
"Tell me," I said. "How did you know I kissed her, that night?"
"I saw it."
"The Dev—! Oh!" I exclaimed. I was brave no longer. I got interested in the opera. Presently, I ventured to glance at Dehra—she was laughing behind her fan. Then I ventured again.
"I hope," said I, "I did it nicely."
"Most artistically, my dear Armand. Escamillo, yonder, could not do it more cleverly."
I winced. It is not especially flattering to an Archduke to be classed with a toreador—and Carmen's toreador, least of all. Yet, I recognized the justice of the punishment. Bravery had failed twice; it was time to be humble.
"I am sorry, Dehra," I said.
"Of course you are, sir, very sorry—that I saw you.—And so was I," she added.
"Was?" I echoed.
"It gave me un mauvais quart d'heure."
"No longer than that?" tasked.
"No; it lasted only until I had you to myself on the terrace, a little later."
"And then?" I queried.
"Then? Then I was no longer jealous of the Lady Helen. Your eyes told me there was no need."
"There never has been anyone but you, my darling," I whispered.
"And never will be, Armand?" she asked.
"Please God, never," I said; and, forgetting where we were, I made as though to take her hand.
"Not now," she smiled. "Wait until after the Opera."
"It will be a longer wait than that," I said regretfully. "I have told Courtney I would invite the Radnors and him to take supper with me on the Hanging Garden, to-night."
"Why don't you say 'take supper with us'?"
"You mean it, Dehra?" I asked in surprise. "You have always refused, hitherto; and I have asked so often."
She smiled. "Hitherto was different from now," she said.
"Thank God for the now," I added.
"We might bid them here for the last act," she suggested.
"I have presumed to hint as much to Courtney," I said; and told her how it had all come about in my talk with him that morning.
"Delightful!" she exclaimed. "And we will have a jolly party on the Garden—and let us be just like ordinary folk and have a public table—only, a little apart, of course."
"It shall be as you want," I said, and dispatched Major Moore to the Radnor Box with the invitation.
When he returned, I stepped into the corridor and gave him explicit instructions as to the supper. I had encouraged both him and Bernheim to intimate when I was about to make an Archducal faux pas, and I saw he did not approve of the public table. But I gave no heed. I knew perfectly well it was violating official etiquette for the Princess to appear there at such an hour; but it was her first request since—well, since what had occurred a few minutes before—and I was determined to gratify her. And Moore, being a good courtier, and knowing I had observed his warning, made no further protest, but saluted and departed on his mission.
When I rejoined Dehra she had moved forward and was looking over the audience.
"I have found an ex-compatriot of yours," she remarked.
"Yes?" I said, rather indifferently.
"She has just come into the third box on the right. She is wonderfully beautiful—or, at least, she looks it from here."