That was about the extent of the detectives' discoveries; for Philadelphia yielded absolutely nothing, beyond the fact that she had been at one of the Broad Street hotels, for a fortnight, prior to coming to New York; and, before that, in Pittsburgh, Washington, and New York; the last corresponding, in date, to my interview with her, there, in December. At none of these places, could any traces be discovered of an emissary of Lotzen.
Nor did the investigations at this end, conducted for me by Courtney's secret agents, yield anything more satisfactory. During the period, in question, the Duke had not been away from the Capital for over three days at any one time, and none of his suite had been absent longer than a week. Nevertheless, I was none the less positive that there had been some sort of communication between Madeline Spencer, in America, and the Duke of Lotzen, in Valeria, in response to which she was here.
So, it seemed Courtney was correct, as usual. He had predicted that nothing would be found by the detectives; because, as he said, it was just a case in which all tracks would be most effectively covered by doing everything in the most ordinary way—and, apparently, that was just what had been done.
There seemed to be nothing but to cultivate patience and settle down to wait for someone to blunder, or for the lady to get tired of her enforced residence in Dornlitz, and begin to get restless, and do something which would give us a clue to work on.
She had retained her apartments at the Hotel Metzen—the management having, however, addressed me as to my pleasure, in the matter—and, at least, once every day, she had sought to pass some one of the City gates; and, when refused, would then demand exit as the wife of the Grand Duke Armand.
She drove and rode and walked about the town the cynosure of all eyes—and some of them of admiring men, who would have been very ready, doubtless, to start a flirtation; both for their own pleasure and in the hope of gaining my good will by discrediting her.
But, she would have none of them, and went her way with the serene blindness of an honest woman.
In the hotel, she bore herself with the quiet dignity and reserve suitable to her assumed position. With the guests, particularly Americans, she was frankly gracious and friendly; but, it was evident, she sought no sympathy and wanted no confidants.
All these details came to me in the reports of the Secret Police. I saw her very frequently on the street; passing her both on the sidewalk and on horseback. And if she were pining for the newly wedded husband, who had forsaken and denied her, she most assuredly did not show it. Nor did her impudence diminish. Whenever she saw me she tried to catch my eye. Several times it happened she was watching me when I first observed her; then, like a flash, she would bow and smile with the air of the most intimate camaraderie.
Of course, I pointedly ignored her, but it had no effect; for the next time her greeting was only the more effusively intimate. Naturally, the people stared. I felt sure they winked at one another knowingly, when my back was turned. The whole situation was intensely irritating and growing more so every day; and my patience, never long at best, must have been a trifle uncertain for those around me.
I think I am not an unjust man, by nature; but some provocations would make even the best tempers quick and squally. And, then, what is the good of being an Archduke, if one may not flare out occasionally!
I was a bit lonely, too. The King was in the North and the Princess was with him—and so, for a time, was Lotzen, I happened to know; though I understood he had, now, left them and was returning to Dornlitz. I wished him a long journey and a slow one.
His suave courtesy was becoming unbearable; and my sorest trial was to receive it calmly and to meet it in kind. Truly, if he had found a brilliant leading woman in Madeline Spencer, he had an equally brilliant leading man in himself.
I was no possible match for him; and I could feel the sneer behind his smile. I wanted to give him a good body beating—and I was sure he knew it, and that it only amused him. I could, now, quite understand the rage which makes a man walk up to another and smash him in the face without a word of preliminary. I would have given five years of life to do that to Lotzen.
And, instead, I had to smile—and smile—and smile. Bah! it makes me shiver.
He must have fancied I wished him a long absence, for he returned with astonishing promptness. I saw him the next afternoon in the Officers' Club—and our greeting was almost effusive. In fact, if anything were required to prove how intensely we despised each other, this demonstrative cordiality supplied it. It was so hollow it fairly resounded with derision.
"I'll ride over to Headquarters with you," he said.
"I'm walking," I answered.
"Good, I'll walk, too," he replied.
So, we set out—the orderly following with the Duke's horse.
"When did you come in?" I asked—knowing perfectly well the very hour of his arrival.
"Last night, on the Express from the North," he answered—knowing that I already knew it.
"Had a good time, of course?" I remarked.
"Delightful—we wished for you."
"It's astonishing how kind you all are to the stranger," I said.
He shot a quick glance at me.
"We don't regard you as a stranger, my dear cousin," he protested.
"I believe you," said I. "Judged by the way His Majesty and the Princess, and you have treated me, the heir of Hugo might never have lived beyond the Kingdom."
This brought another look.
"The Dalbergs don't do things by halves," he answered.
"So I have noticed, cousin. I only trust I can live up to it."
He laughed. "You promise very well, Armand, very well, indeed."
"I am glad," I answered.
When we reached Headquarters, I suggested that he come up to my office and smoke a cigar. I thought he would decline. But, there, I erred.
"Thanks," said he, "I'll join you as soon as I've registered," and he turned down the corridor toward the Adjutant General's office.
On my desk was a wire from the Princess. She and the King would reach Dornlitz the next morning and I was expected to lunch at the Palace. I dispatched an answer that would meet the Royal train en route, and thought of Lotzen with indifference—almost.
When he came, I was going through a batch of papers which had just been brought in for my signature.
"Don't let me disturb you," he said heartily. "Finish the miserable red tape."
He chose a cigar and, having lighted it, with the careful attention he seemed to give to the smallest matters, he sauntered to the window that overlooked the Avenue.
Presently, he glanced around at me.
I went on with my work.
Then he glanced again.
I signed the last of the papers, pushed them aside and arose.
"Mrs. Spencer is about to pass," he said.
"I trust so," said I. "I'm sure I've no desire for her to stop."
Then, suddenly, he frowned—and made a short bow.
"She had the impudence to speak to me," he said.
I smiled and made no comment. For the life of me, I could not determine if his surprise were natural or assumed.
He crossed to a front window and watched her out of sight.
"There is no discounting her beauty," he remarked.
I was silent.
He came over, and dropped into a chair on the other side of the table. It was just where Mrs. Spencer had sat, and, so, a very fit place for him.
"She must be a most extraordinary woman," he observed.
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Yet, what I can't understand, is what she hopes to gain by masquerading, here, as your wife."
I looked at him and waited. He was steering into strange waters, it seemed to me.
"Now, if she had done it in Paris, or Vienna, or any place outside of Valeria," he went on, "one could see the temporary profit of it. But, to come to Dornlitz and dare it under your very nose!"—he flung up his hands. "She is a bit too much for me!"
I saw his drift, now. He wanted to know if I suspected him; and, to that end, was quite willing to match his wit against mine. His contempt for my discernment was not, especially, flattering; but, sometimes, it does no harm to be taken for a fool—if one is not. And I was conceited enough to consider myself the latter. Which, however, may only have proven that Lotzen was right.
"And for me, too, at present," I answered.
"At present?" he echoed, blowing a succession of smoke rings and watching them float away.
I nodded. "She will get tired of the game, presently, and quit."
"She has stuck to it rather persistently," he observed; "and crossed the seas to play it."
"Yes," said I, "she did just that; yet she is none the less liable to quit abruptly to-morrow."
That would interest him, I thought. It did.
"You are judging from experience?" he asked, rather quickly.
"I've known the lady for a few years," I laughed, "and I've yet to find her true either to herself or to the hand that paid her."
It was characteristic of the man that, at these last words, he made no quick glance at my face. Instead, he studied the end of his cigar. When he did look at me, it was in the perfectly natural way of asking a question.
Then I got a start. He suddenly struck straight from the shoulder.
"By 'the hand that paid her,' you mean?" he asked—and now, his eyes were fairly drilling into mine.
I took on a look of surprise.
"What does it usually mean?" I answered, with a bit of a shrug.
He either had to appear to accept the inference in this answer or else ask me blankly if I meant that Mrs. Spencer was in his employ. He chose the former.
"It is very difficult to associate such a beautiful woman with the demi-monde," he said.
"Yet, Saint Anthony would stand no chance with her."
He looked at me with an amused smile.
"I assume you lay no claims to even ordinary saintship?"
"None, whatever, my dear Duke."
"Possibly, you avoided situations which might put you to the test?"
"Possibly," I laughed.
"You are more of a Saint than you imagine," he answered.
I shook my head.
"Colonel Spencer was my friend," I said.
"And his wife—and widow would have been—yours—and you would not; n'est ce pas?"
"So, that's the motive for it, is it. 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,'" he quoted. It was meant as a question, however.
I appeared to hesitate.
"Revenge, sometimes, does take queer forms," I said tentatively.
"And you, too, think this is revenge?" he asked.
"What other motive could she have?" I answered.
He closed his eyes, a moment; lest, I suppose, his amused contempt would shine out so plainly that even stupid I would see it. He was sure, now, he had been right in deeming me too heavy-witted to suspect him.
"It might be blackmail," he suggested.
"Then, she is a very long time in naming her price," I replied.
"True; but, maybe, she is enjoying Dornlitz," he laughed.
I laughed, too.
"It's none of my business, of course, Armand," he went on, "but, why don't you run her out of the Kingdom, instead of keeping her in by force."
"I'm waiting for her to get tired of the game and quit."
He thought a bit.
"Maybe, I can help you," he said.
I had not Lotzen's gift of imperturbability but I did my best not to show my surprise.
"You are very kind," I answered; "though I don't see what you can do."
"I may take it you have no particular—regard for the lady?" he asked.
"Indeed, you may!"
"So you would have no objection to someone making a—try at her?"
"None whatever, I assure you. As many someones and as many tries as you wish—and may they all win."
"Now, you're a trifle too generous," said he. "I've taken rather a shy at her myself and—you understand?"
I thought I did—but not as he meant me to. What he wanted was liberty to communicate, at will, directly with the lady, without arousing suspicion or seeming to side against me.
I shut one eye, and looked at him as though in sly comprehension.
"But, how will that help me?" I asked.
"In this way," said he. "You think she is tired of her game and about ready to quit. I come along; and she tosses you over and seizes the new prey. I'll tell her plainly she cannot have me so long as there is any question about her being your wife."
"But, won't it raise a nasty scandal?" I objected.
"Not a bit," he said, with a knowing smile. "We have ways to do such things, you know. I have a Chateau near the French Border—the lady leaves for Paris—and goes by way of the Chateau. Comprenez vous?"
I wanted to laugh in his face. What a charming scheme to get Mrs. Spencer out of the Kingdom!
"But, suppose," said I, "she cuts the Chateau and keeps right on to Paris?"
"Trust me, my dear Marshal, she won't cut the Chateau. I shall be with her when she leaves Dornlitz."
"I know the lady," said I. "I'm afraid to risk it."
He tossed aside his cigar and lit a fresh one. "Very well, cousin," he said, with an air of good-natured indifference. "It's your affair, of course. I only wanted to aid you in any way I could. You're the best judge, however, how to handle the matter. If you need me, I am yours to command."
"My dear Duke," I said, "I realize your friendly spirit and I want you to know I appreciate it; and I shall not hesitate to call on you if the occasion arise."
He flung his cape around him and hooked up his sword.
"And, in the meantime, do I understand that I am to keep severely away from the lady?"
I hesitated. Of course his point was to obtain from me direct authority for him to visit her. The very fact that he wanted it was a sufficient reason for refusing; but, on the other hand, so long as he thought himself unsuspected, it might not be a bad move to give him the opportunity. It would increase the chances for them to make a blunder. I determined to risk it.
"The only restriction, touching Mrs. Spencer, is the order of the Military Governor," I answered. "If you can induce her to acknowledge the falsity of that certificate, she shall be free to resume her journey to the Devil, via your Chateau, and joy go with her."
He flung back his head and laughed heartily.
"A trifle hard on my Chateau, cousin, to locate it on the road to Hell. But we will let it pass. For, between us, it is a good road and an easy; and they, who travel it, are a finer lot than the superstitious dreamers who grope, in darkness, along the bleak and stony path they fancy leads upward to the Light."
"You mistook my meaning," I said. "It's not for me to criticise another's chosen road, whether it be the rough one or the smooth. There are no hand boards at the forking, and only a blind fall at the end of each. It's all a guess; and, so far as I know, one road is as good as another."
He looked at me, rather curiously. "Which road do you travel, cousin?" he asked.
"Neither, by intention," I answered. "I am still at the Forks."
He laughed, rather sarcastically. "Well, when you leave them, if you chance to come my way, the Chateau is at your disposal. Meanwhile, I'll endeavor to steer Madame Spencer, alias Dalberg, toward it."
I could feel the deliberate sneer, but it was too well veiled to resent, openly.
"At least, don't expect me as a guest while she is there," I replied.
"I don't imagine I would want you, then," said he. He went over to the door; then returned and, leaning on the back of a chair, looked at me thoughtfully.
"What now?" I wondered—and waited.
"There is a matter, cousin," he began, "which has been on my mind lately—and this may be as good a time as any to take it up."
I nodded. "Go ahead—we are in the humor for confidences, this afternoon, it seems."
"And for plain speaking?" he asked.
"Between men I'm always for that," said I. "It's the safest in the end."
"Exactly my opinion. I am glad to have one of your experience and discretion agree with it," he answered.
It seemed to give him the keenest pleasure to sneer at me, to my very face, with compliments he thought I would take seriously. And, in truth, I think I was beginning to enjoy it as much as he.
"You are a bit old for your age, my dear Duke," I said.
"But I have much to learn," he said modestly.
"It will all come in time, cousin," I answered patronizingly.
He dropped his head an instant—to hide his smiles, I knew.
"A charming afternoon," he said. "Confidences—compliments—and plain speaking. We are making rare progress, cousin mine."
"And, why not?" I asked.
"Surely," he exclaimed, heartily, "surely—why not?" Then he paused. "And, now, for the plain speaking."
"Good," said I; "drive ahead; and make it as plain as you like."
"I'll do it," he said. "What I want to know is: First—do you intend to try to displace me in the Line of Succession? And, second—are you a suitor for the hand of the Princess Royal?"
It would have been impossible to hide my surprise, so I made no effort. Surely, this man's methods were almost beyond comprehension!
"My dear Duke," I replied, "your questions are plain, and a plain answer will do for both—it is none of your business."
He laughed. "By which I infer you decline to answer."
He tossed away his cigar and slowly lit another.
"Of course, Armand, that is your privilege; but, then, you must pardon the further inference that to decline to answer is, really, to answer in the affirmative."
"You are responsible for your inferences, not I," I replied curtly.
He leaned a bit forward. "Let us take up my first question," he said. "Have you ever considered what you were likely to encounter if you undertook to filch the Crown?"
"Filch?" I interrupted.
"Steal, then, if you prefer. I forgot we were to use plain terms."
"Very true," said I. "Proceed."
"Do you think that I, who have been the Heir Presumptive since the instant of my birth, almost, will calmly step aside and permit you to take my place?"
I looked at him, indifferently, and made no answer.
"Do you fancy, for an instant," he went on, "that the people of Valeria would have a foreigner for King?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"And even if old Frederick were to become so infatuated with you that he would restore you to Hugo's place in the Line of Succession, do you imagine, that the House of Nobles would hesitate to annul it the instant he died?"
From the written words, one might well infer that he spoke loudly and in open anger; whereas, in fact, his face was smiling and his voice was even more soft than usual. It behooved me to meet him in kind.
"As you seem to have been doing my thinking, cousin, perhaps you have also thought out my answers. If you have, I shall be glad to hear them; it will save me the labor of thinking them out for myself."
His smile broadened. "The only labor I can promise to save you, cousin, is that of being King."
"I fear it is a bit early for me to choose my Prime Minister," I said.
His smile became a laugh. "Let us pass to my second question. It, however, demands no thinking. There is ample evidence of your intention as to the Princess."
"Then, why ask it?" I inquired.
"Because, of her intention toward you, I am not so sure—but, women are queer creatures and prone to take queer crotchets. You aim to marry her; and so, having won the King and stolen my birth-right, to use her popularity to secure you on the Throne. You see, all roads lead to the Throne."
"All roads which His Highness of Lotzen travels," I observed.
He tilted back the chair; then let it drop sharply forward to the floor.
"Just so, cousin, just so," he said.
"And one of those roads passes by your Chateau?" I asked.
For an instant, he seemed to suspect my true meaning, and I regretted the word. Then the suspicion faded and he accepted them at their face value.
"Morals have nothing to do with a King," he laughed; "nor with the subject under consideration."
"Apropos of the latter," said I, "I suppose I am very stupid, but I don't quite understand why, if you feel so about the Princess, you offered to aid me in getting rid of Mrs. Spencer."
"Pure selfishness, cousin. I have taken a liking to the Lady, myself."
"Then, at least, I may thank you for your selfishness," I sneered.
He smiled; then turned and looked at the clock on the mantel behind him.
"Come, Armand," he said, "I must be going. Will you condescend to answer?"
"You won't? Well, it's not really necessary—but, have you a dice box handy?"
"I have not."
"A pack of cards, then?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Take my advice and get them—you are far, very far, out of the fashion, cousin mine. However, this will serve, though it's rather low class," and he took out a gold coin and rang it on the table. "You were an American officer and, I understand, they are as game a lot of men as wear swords. Will you bear that out and try a toss with me?"
"And the wager?" I asked.
He slowly drew the chair backward; but, instead of dropping it with a crash, he leaned far over it toward me and said, very slowly.
"Two tosses and two wagers. The first, for the Princess; the second, for the Crown."
I waited a moment until I could control my voice.
"It will give me the most intense pleasure, my dear Duke," said I, "to toss you—not with yonder coin but out of yonder window. I fancy a second toss would not be necessary; but, if it were, I could do it with as much pleasure as the first."
Lotzen's face got crimson; then, gradually paled—like red-hot iron passing to a white heat. He let the chair fall slowly into place; and so easily that I could not hear the feet strike the floor.
So, for a space, we stood at gaze. Then he spoke; and I marvelled at the continued calmness of his voice.
"You are my superior officer, so I may not strike you nor draw against you. But you will, I trust, pardon me, my dear cousin, if I tell you that you are a snivelling coward."
"Pray, don't hide behind my temporary rank," I answered hotly. "I waive it, gladly. Anything, for a chance to puncture that rotten carcass of yours or to get a good fair crack at your smooth face."
It was a foolish speech. I knew it the moment it was out. But I never had acquired self-restraint when aggravated by those I disliked—and I despised Lotzen. Possibly, he had far better ground for despising me. Had our positions been reversed, I am quite sure I would have viewed him much as he did me—a foreigner—an interloper—a scheming usurper—a thief.
My explosion seemed to calm the Duke. He looked at me, intently, for a moment; then bowed gravely.
"I beg Your Highness's pardon," he said; "you are not a coward."
I might not be outdone, so I bowed back at him. "Thank you," said I; "and I also beg your pardon and withdraw my adjectives."
"Merci, Your Highness," he answered. "Let us consider the matter closed?"
"With pleasure," said I.
"And I shall hope to have the honor of crossing swords—foils, I mean, with you, some day," he said meaningly.
"The hope is intensely mutual, my dear Duke," I answered.
He drew himself up to attention and saluted stiffly. I returned it in kind.
"And, with Your Highness's permission," I said, "I shall ask you to refrain from communicating with Mrs. Spencer. I appreciate your offer but, upon second thought, I doubt the wisdom of it."
"As you wish, monsieur," said he; "as you wish."
A TRICK OF FENCE
After Lotzen had gone, and I was able to do a bit of reflecting, I was pretty well convinced that he had got about as much out of me as I had out of him. Of course, our mutual distrust and dislike were now openly avowed; but we had known it quite as well before—just as he had been aware of my designs on the Crown and my partiality for the Princess, and, I, of his purpose to defeat me for both. He had, to use a military term, made a reconnoissance in force; and I had tried to meet him in kind and to prevent him uncovering my exact position. How well I had succeeded, however, was very problematical; for I could not know what particular information he sought. I was satisfied, however, his main purpose was to discover whether I had any knowledge or suspicion of him being back of Madeline Spencer. And I was not so sure I had bluffed him. I began to fancy he had seen through me, at once, and had played me off against myself, so to speak. And, the longer I meditated, the more the fancy gripped me. Finally, in disgust, I summoned Bernheim and Moore.
"Which of you," said I, "will do me the favor of a few passes with the foils?"
Of course, they both offered.
"Good," said I; "I'll take you, in turn. Send an orderly to the armory for the paraphernalia."
I fell to divesting myself of my upper garments, and Bernheim and Moore followed suit.
"By the way," I said, "what sort of a fencer is Lotzen?"
Bernheim turned and looked at me, sharply. Moore stopped with his shirt half off and did the same.
"There is only one better in Valeria," said Bernheim.
"So!" said I. "And he?"
The grey eyes twinkled and he actually smiled as he answered.
"Colonel Moore, of Your Highness's Personal Staff."
It was my turn to be surprised. "Then, he is a very modest gentleman," I said.
"Like master like man," was the ready Irish reply.
"You're a sad blarneyer," I laughed. "You will be letting me disarm you, next."
"No I won't, sir, voluntarily," he answered. "You are not the Lotzen sort."
"You have fenced with him?"
"And disarmed him?"
I saw Bernheim smile.
"Yes, once—the first time we engaged. He has disliked me ever since."
"I am rather astonished at you," I said; "where was your finesse?"
"It was quite unintentional. He tried to work a coup that is very little known. Instead of the regular defence I used one I had myself developed—and which ends in a wrench. I gave it a bit too vigorously and the Duke dropped his foil."
Bernheim gave a gruff laugh. "Dropped it!" he exclaimed. "Aye, and so lightly it flew twenty feet and hit the wall near the roof."
"I think," said I, "I would like to know that coup and its defences."
"They are yours, sir," he said. "But I am at a loss where Lotzen got the attack. It isn't known to six persons in Europe—even among the maitres."
"And your own defence?"
"Is, I am sure, known to me, alone. The man, with whom I worked it out, died a week after it was perfected."
"But, you have fenced with Lotzen frequently since then, you say?"
"Many times, sir."
"Hasn't he invariably used that particular attack?"
"And been met always by the regular defence. I took no chances on his discovering the secret. I am confident he thinks, now, I disarmed him by a mere accident."
"I suppose you let him score on you occasionally?" I said.
Moore shook his head. "Never, unless it were the very limit of his reach. I don't trust him—sometimes, buttons are lost from foils. I try to be very diplomatic by touching him very infrequently. Though I rather think it is pearls before swine; for he is too good a fencer not to see I am sparing him, and too jealously vindictive to appreciate my courtesy."
I picked up a foil and made it whistle through the air.
"Come, Colonel Bernheim," I said, "I am at your service. Shall we use the masks?"
"For Your Highness's sake, yes," he answered. "I'm apt to be a trifle wild at times."
There was nothing especially graceful about my senior Aide; and, besides being past the prime of life, he was of a rather bulky tallness, stolid and phlegmatic. I could readily imagine his style, and a very few passes confirmed it. He was of the ordinary type and I could have run him through without the least effort. As it was, I touched him, presently, once on each arm—then disengaged and saluted.
"I thank Your Highness," he said; "it could just as well have been my heart and throat a dozen times."
"I am younger and more active," I explained.
But he smiled it down. "I am not sensitive, sir. Besides, it gives me joy."
I supposed he was thinking of Lotzen.
After a short rest, Moore and I faced each other.
"Let us cut the parades," I said—and Bernheim gave the word to engage.
Without conceit I can say that I am more than moderately skillful with the sword. It is, possibly, the one hobby of my life. My father and grandfather before me were strong fencers, and one of my earliest recollections is being given a toy foil and put through the parades. There is a saying that "a swordsman is born not made," and it is a true one. But, unless there is hard study and training from childhood, the birth gift is wasted and there is only a made-fencer in the end. My good sire had appreciated this fact, and not only gave me the best instructors obtainable in America, but, in my second year's vacation from "The Point," he took me to Paris and kept me hard at work under the best French maitres. From that time on, I had practiced assiduously, and spending all my leaves in Europe and fencing in all the best schools of the Continent.
Our blades had little more than crossed when I knew that it would take all my skill to hold my own, even for a short time. Moore was, far and away, the best fencer I had ever encountered; and I thought I had faced about all the famous ones of first force. His agility was amazing; his wrist like steel; his anticipation masterly. For every time I touched him, he touched me twice; though none, on either side, would have been more than a scratch. Then, in the midst of a fierce rally, I forced a pretty opening and I thrust. No guard seemed possible—it was a sure coeur. The next instant, there came a wrench, that almost tore off my fingers, and my foil flew across the room. Moore had led me into the final position of Lotzen's attack, and had disarmed me exactly as he had the Duke.
I held out my left hand to him—the right still tingled.
"Beautiful!" I said. "It's a marvellous defence and marvellously done."
Moore bowed very low over my hand. "It is a pleasure to serve under Your Highness," he said.
"Aye! that it is," said Bernheim.
He would be a very queer individual who would not be affected by such sincerity; and I told them so, and feelingly.
Then Moore showed me the attack and its two defences; and I practiced them with him until I had them perfectly at command.
"What would be my chances against Lotzen?" I asked.
"You could kill him easily," said Moore. "Only, be careful of his play in tierce; he is very strong in that."
"I don't know that I want to kill him," I said. "Yet, neither do I care for him to kill me."
Both looked at me in quick interrogation. I motioned for them to sit down.
"I've had a visit from the Duke, this afternoon," I said. And I told them the entire interview.
Bernheim smiled sourly, when I had ended.
"You may have good use, sir, for that trick of fence," he said. "Lotzen means mischief and that promptly."
"Evidently, his visit with His Majesty and the Princess was not to his satisfaction," Moore remarked; "and, if Your Highness can ascertain just what did occur there, I'll wager it will account for his conduct to-day."
"And it would be just as well for Your Highness to wear a steel vest," said Bernheim; "it's very handy to turn a knife or a revolver bullet."
I laughed, "Of course, steel vests are such ordinary articles of attire they can be purchased in any shop."
"I'll supply the vest," he answered, "if Your Highness will use it."
"It seems absurd," I declared.
"It's a wise precaution, sir," Moore urged.
"One might suppose we were back in the days or the Guises," I said. "However, bring your coat of mail around to-night and I'll look it over. But, I warn you, it will have to be a very snug fit."
"I will answer for that, also," said Bernheim.
Later in the afternoon, I rode over to the Field of Mars—a huge piece of ground on the Lake front—for the evening parade of the Cuirassiers of the Guard. This was their one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, and on every one of them it had been the unbroken custom for the then governor of Dornlitz to be present and pass the Regiment in Review—saving, of course, in war-time, when it chanced to be in active service in the field.
The crowd of spectators was enormous. The Valerians seem to have a genuine love for their Army—largely, I fancy, because the Army is not permitted to tyrannize over the citizen. Because a man wore the King's uniform gave him no privilege to insult or to maltreat those who did not; and conferred no immunity from proper and adequate punishment if he did. The Dalberg principle is similar to the American; that the Army is the guardian of the civilian, not his oppressor; and that its business is to protect not to browbeat. For generations, it has been instilled into the Valerian soldier that his uniform could be smirched only by himself—and stern, indeed, was the judgment of him who ventured to think and do otherwise. For an officer to strike a civilian without just cause meant to be cashiered; and to kill one, save as justified by the civil law, meant to be hung as a common felon. I had seen enough of the other Continental Armies to be very proud of the Army of Valeria.
It was a pretty sight—the long line of white uniformed Cuirassiers in burnished corselets and black-plumed helmets; with the Lake for a background, and rank on rank of spectators on either side. In front, were the carriages of the Aristocracy of the Capital; and, as I galloped down to take post after the review, I could not but wonder how many of all that crowd regarded me with a friendly eye. Behind me clattered a brilliant Staff, and in my hand was the Baton of a Marshal, yet, never in my life, had I felt so utterly alone as at that moment. And Lotzen's recent sneer, that I could hope to hold the Crown only if the Princess Dehra were my Queen, struck me in all its truth. Surely, it was the climax of absurdity for me to aspire to rule this people, to whom I was a stranger and in whose eyes I would be, in effect, a pure usurper.
Then the great band of the Regiment blared out, and I settled myself for the march-by.
When it was over, and the last troop had broken into column and had trotted away, I dismissed my Staff, except Moore, and rode across to where I had noticed Lady Helen Radnor.
"If you were not a Prince I would not speak to you," she said, as I dismounted.
"Then," said I, as I bowed over her hand, "there is some compensation in being a Prince."
"I have not seen you for ages," she complained.
"I've been very busy."
"That is no excuse among friends, sir; besides, the Princess has been away for weeks."
"I did not imagine you would miss me," I said—and glanced at her left hand.
She laughed, and held it up. "The finger is quite bare," she said; "but, I'll take off the glove, if you wish."
"I'm sorry," I said. "He is such a good chap."
She raised her eyebrows.
I leaned a bit closer. "You won't refuse him when he does offer?" I asked.
"I suppose an Archduke cannot be impertinent," she said.
"Not when he doesn't mean to be," said I.
"Do you know," said she slowly, and looking at me hard, the while, "I was foolish enough to think, very long ago, that you rather liked me, yourself."
"And it's just because I do—that I hoped the finger wasn't bare," I answered.
"How deliciously unselfish!" she exclaimed. "You will next be resigning the Princess to His Grace of Lotzen."
"Quite between ourselves, I'll be doing nothing of the sort," I said, with mock confidentialness.
"Nevertheless, I think I'll tell the Duke he has only to wait," said she.
"And I'll confide to Courtney he has only to ask to be taken," I returned.
She laughed. "You might do it right now—here he is."
I turned just as Courtney dismounted.
"May I intrude, Your Royal Highness?" he asked.
"Come along," said I; "Lady Helen wants to hear some gossip and I don't know any."
A bit of a smile came into his eyes. "And that, though you are, yourself, the most gossiped about individual in Dornlitz," he answered.
"Another penalty of my new estate," said I; "the butt of all and the confidant of none."
Courtney tapped my Baton. "Have you noticed, Lady Helen, what a steady run of hard luck our friend, here, has had ever since he came to Valeria?" he asked.
"Indeed I have," said she; "and I've been so sorry for him."
Then she nodded most pleasantly to someone, and Courtney and I turned and bowed. It was the Marquise de Vierle, wife of the French Ambassador.
"How about her Masque to-night?" I asked; "will it be worth while?"
"It's very evident you are new to Dornlitz," Courtney observed—and Lady Helen laughed.
"The Vierle Balls outrival even the Court functions," she explained.
"Are you going?" I asked her.
"I am, indeed."
"And you, Courtney?"
"I shall look in late."
I motioned to Moore. "Who is on duty to-night?" I asked.
"I am, sir."
"Could you manage two costumes for the Vierle Masque?"
"Quite readily, sir."
"Very good," I said. "And let them be as near alike as possible," I added.
By this time the Field was almost deserted, and, at Lady Helen's suggestion, Courtney and I turned our horses over to my orderly and drove back with her.
"I suppose," said I, "that fancy dress is required to-night."
"It is absolutely de rigueur," said Courtney; "and there is no unmasking."
"Really!" said I. "It promises very well."
"And it realizes all it promises—maybe, a bit more," Lady Helen laughed.
"How shall I recognize you?" I asked.
She considered a moment. "I am to stay the night with the Marquise, and we shall both wear white silk court gowns of the period of Henry of Navarre. I'll also put a red rose in my hair."
"And I," said Courtney, "will be caparisoned in a plum velvet court suit, a la Louis Quinze. You will know me easily by the awkward way I handle the high red heels."
"As I don't know what Moore will provide for me," said I, "I will adopt Lady Helen's rose; and, as I can't fasten it in my hair, I'll carry it in my mouth."
"A good idea," said Courtney; "and I'll put one in my button hole."
THE BAL MASQUE
When Moore and I entered the French Embassy, that night, my own valet could not have distinguished which was the Aide and which the Archduke. By some means, which I did not bother to inquire, Moore had secured two suits of black velvet, of the time of the Thirteenth Louis, which were marvels in fit and style. We were of one height and very similar in frame—there being but a few pounds difference in our weights—and, with the long curls under the big hats with their flowing plumes, and the black silk masks, we were as alike as twins. Even our swords were similar—long, leather-sheathed rapiers with dead gold hilts.
Under my doublet I laced the steel vest Bernheim brought me. It and one other were made by a famous Milan armorer three hundred years ago, Bernheim said; and the two had been in his family ever since. And, so far as he knew, there were no others like them in all Europe; not even in the Museums. It was a wonderful piece of work, truly. The links were small and yielding and so cunningly joined that it was as pliable as knitted wool, and much less bulky. Indeed, when rolled into a ball, it was no bigger than a man's fist. It looked quite too flimsy to afford any protection; yet, when I saw it proof against a bullet fired from a revolver and also turn repeated sword thrusts, I was, perforce, convinced. And I was completely won when I donned it; it was like a vest of silk. And I was well pleased it was so; for I was wearing it simply to oblige good old Bernheim, who seemed so earnest about it. I had no notion it would be of any service to me that night.
As everyone came masked, admission was, of course, only by card, after which all were conducted singly to a small room where the mask was removed and identification satisfactorily established by the Ambassador's Secretary.
It chanced, when my turn came, that the Marquis de Vierle, himself, was in the room; and, when he saw my face, his welcome was intensely ardent. He apologized effusively that I had been received at the regular entrance and, so, had been compelled to wait my turn for identification—but, surely, my regrets had been noted.
I told him he was quite right—that I had regretted, and that the apology was, really, due from me for coming, and that I had enjoyed being pushed and jostled, once again, like an ordinary mortal. He wanted to treat me with all the deference due me and I very firmly declined. I told him, frankly, I was there to see and enjoy and not to be seen nor to receive special attentions. I asked him, as a particular favor, to tell no one of my presence and to permit me to remain absolutely incog.; that, for this night, I was plain Armand Dalberg and not a Royal Highness nor an Archduke.
The house was one of the largest in the Capital, standing in a park of its own, on the edge of the inner town, and had been the residence of the French Legation for a century. It had been improved and added to, at various periods, until it had taken on about every known style of architecture. And, as a result, there were queer passages and many unexpected recesses. The furniture was as varied as the building; and the tapestries and pictures and frescoes were rather famous. The grounds, however, were the main attraction; they covered twenty acres and were maintained exactly as originally laid out by a famous Italian landscape artist—with immense trees and huge hedges and narrow walks and wonderful vistas.
The Marquise de Vierle welcomed her guests alone in one of the small reception rooms; everyone entering singly and unmasking—she, herself, being as yet, in ordinary evening dress. She was a very handsome woman, much younger than the Marquis, and of the very oldest French Aristocracy—a grande dame in bearing as well as in birth.
"Your Royal Highness does us great honor," she said, as I bowed over her hand.
I answered her in suit, and we tossed the usual number of compliments back and forth.
"Whom shall we bid join you at supper?" she asked.
"My dear Marquise," I protested, "you have your personal party selected—doubtless invited; and my unexpected coming must not break your arrangements. Let me wander about, and pay no more regard to me than to your most ordinary guest."
But she declined to excuse me; insisting that she had made no choice, except Lady Helen Radnor, who happened to be staying the night with her. So, without being churlish, I could decline no longer.
"If your Ladyship will make the list very small, and, then, engage to give me all your smiles I shall accept with pleasure," I said.
"I will promise both," she said. "Who attends you to-night?"
"My Aide, Colonel Moore."
"Suppose, then, we make it a party of eight and ask Lady Helen, the Countess de Relde, Mademoiselle d'Essolde and the American Ambassador."
"Charming!" I exclaimed; "charming!"
"And what hour will Your Highness be served?" she asked.
"At whatever hour Madame la Marquise fixes."
"Say, one o'clock, then—in the blue breakfast room; it is quiet and retired."
I bowed again over her hand and was withdrawing, when the Marquise stopped me.
"Would not Your Highness like to know some of the Masques?" she asked.
"Very much, indeed," said I.
"Then you will find a chair in the recess behind the curtains, yonder—and, when you are tired, there is a door, which slides without noise, opening into a private corridor leading to the Garden. Comprenez vous, Monsieur le Prince?"
I laughed. "Perfectly," said I. "And I may have Colonel Moore with me? There will be many faces I shall not know."
"He is without?" she asked.
"Yes—and costumed somewhat like myself."
She touched a bell; I held up my mask.
"Admit the gentleman in black velvet, like Monsieur," she ordered.
"Goodness!" she exclaimed, when Moore entered.
"Puzzle," said I. "Pick the Archduke."
"Impossible—and, if you two go around together, some of my guests will think they are getting double vision very early in the evening."
From the recess, we could see all that entered and hear every word said. And it struck me how very eloquent it was of the character of the Marquise de Vierle that she should, deliberately, provide a concealed audience while she greeted—alone—every man and woman of Dornlitz Society. I must admit I rather enjoyed the experience—though I very rarely guessed the face behind the mask. It is astonishing how effectively an unusual costume disguises even those we know well.
Suddenly, the Marquis entered hurriedly.
"Do you know, Claire," he said, "that the American Archduke is here to-night?"
Instantly I laid my hand on the sliding door. It was time for us to be going. And the door refused to move. I looked at Moore, who shrugged his shoulders. I could imagine the smile his mask concealed. But the Marquise met the situation with a laugh.
"I do indeed—and I rather fancy you will find His Highness in yonder recess," she said.
I parted the curtains and stepped out—and Colonel Moore beside me.
"Madame la Marquise has taken pity on the stranger," I said; "and has given him an opportunity to recognize his friends."
If the diplomat were surprised, no one would have guessed it—except that his bow was more than usually low.
"It is a great privilege, my dear Prince, if we can be of any use to you," he said.
I took a sudden resolve. "I very much fear my unexpected presence to-night is a source of concern and inconvenience to Your Excellency," I said. "With your permission I will take my leave," and I made to go.
Vierle came quickly to me.
"It will make the Marquise and me most unhappy, if you do," he said. "And I shall tell you frankly what brought me here. The lady who styles herself your wife is among the guests—she is in the next room, now, waiting to be admitted. My purpose was to have the Marquise request her to depart at once."
I laughed, and put my hand on his shoulder.
"So far as I am concerned," I said, "I pray you do nothing of the sort. The lady does not bother me in the slightest. Besides, she will not know I'm here—and I shall not present myself to her, you may be sure."
"Yet, we owe Your Highness an explanation of her presence," the Marquise exclaimed.
"My dear Madame de Vierle, you owe me nothing of the sort," I said. "I am still enough of an American to think that a hostess is never called upon to explain a guest. And, what is more, the whole difficulty is of my own making, in coming after I had declined."
"Surely, Your Highness is very gracious; yet, I would very much prefer to explain," she said. "It was this way: Madeline Stafford and I were friends and schoolmates in Paris. We both married about the same time and, then, lost touch with each other. I had neither seen nor heard from her until I received a note some weeks ago. After Your Highness regretted for to-night, I sent her a card. I mentioned the matter to the Duke of Lotzen and he said that, under the circumstances, and as everyone would be masked, it would be entirely proper. That is my explanation."
"And one amply sufficient; even if any were required," I said.
I thought I saw my dear cousin's game.
"And you are quite sure you do not object to her remaining?"
"Quite sure," said I; "and I even hope she will enjoy herself. I shall, I know. And, at supper, I'll confide my adventures to your Ladyship." Then I took a shot in the dark. "And I know His Highness of Lotzen will be forever sorry he could not be here to-night," I added.
"He was good enough to call and tell me so," was the answer.
I was sure, now, I saw my dear cousin's game.
Then I bowed over the Marquise's hand and Moore and I went out through the sliding door—which, when the Marquis rolled it back for us, I saw was not locked. In my haste I had not seen the small brass button which released the latch.
"It's a pity Vierle didn't tell us what costume Mrs. Spencer is wearing," Moore remarked, as we reached the Garden.
I stopped short. "What a blunderer I am. It would be better if you did the thinking for me."
"Shall I go back and ask him?"
"It will keep until supper," said I. "In the meantime, let us hunt up Courtney and Lady Helen." I explained to him how to distinguish them; then, taking from my doublet a small package wrapped in foil, I selected a red rose and put it in my mouth.
"Now," said I, "let us have a look around."
For a time I was more occupied with the beauty of the Garden than with my fellow-masques, and I left it to Moore to keep a careful eye for the other two red roses. I could not but notice, however, that we were attracting much attention; by reason, I assumed, of our striking similarity; and a number of times Moore replied wittily to some pleasant banter flung at us. I should say, perhaps, that the grounds were so thoroughly lighted with electricity that they were as bright as day; the lamps being so carefully distributed that there were, practically, no shadows.
Presently, on the bank of a miniature lake near the farthest wall, we came upon three women and a man.
"The Dromios," said one of the women.
"Satan's Twins," laughed another.
"A pair of black Knaves," echoed the third.
The man laughed, but said nothing.
I put my hand through Moore's arm and swung him around.
"Why not add us to your own Knave and then give us a Queen apiece?" I asked.
She, who had spoken last, clapped her hands.
"Delicious!" she exclaimed. "Will monsieur be my Knave?"
The voice was very soft and musical, and I saw Moore glance quickly at her.
"That will I, my lady," said I; and stepped forward and kissed her hand; then drew it through my arm.
"Who chooses the other black Knave?" asked Moore, sweeping off his hat, and bowing with it held across his heart. I noted he had changed his voice.
"I do," said she who had styled us "Satan's Twins;" and she gave him her hand.
He, who had been with them, shrugged his shoulders and turned to her who had spoken first, "Mademoiselle," said he, "I am waiting to be chosen."
She laughed. "Mademoiselle will be deeply honored," she said, "if monsieur will deign to accept the only Queen that is left."
It chanced that none of these four Masques had gone through the reception room while we were behind the curtains, so, of course, I had not the slightest notion of their identity. It was quite possible Moore would be able to make a good guess; and, I fancied, he had already placed my Queen—she of the musical laugh. However, so long as they did not discover me, it mattered not at all who they were. I could trust Moore to get me away from them if he found it wise. So I devoted myself to my companion.
She was of good height and rather slender, and wore a blue gown, with powdered hair. Her face and ears were completely hidden by her mask, but, judging from the bit of neck that was visible, and other indications, she was not over twenty-five. I let her pick the way, and we led the others slowly around through the part of the Garden most removed from the house and where the Masques were fewest. I took it, that she had no desire to be prominent, and I was very well content.
She was a rare flirt, though—that, I knew, before we had gone a hundred yards; and it kept my wits very busy to hold my own even moderately well, and to keep from giving her any clue to my identity.
"Do you know, monsieur," she said, presently, "you and your friend are not the only two men here, to-night, who are dressed alike?"
"Are they black knaves, too?" I asked.
She tapped me on the arm with her fan.
"Don't be sarcastic, my dear," she said; "though, I admit, we were very forward."
"Nonsense!" I replied. "This is a Masque. Only, are you quite sure we were the first men you bantered?"
"You forget, sir; Folly has no past," she said.
"A true word, mademoiselle," I agreed. "Shall it be so with us when we part?"
She looked up at me a moment.
"Monsieur must be married," she laughed.
"Every man is married—or hopes to be," said I.
She tapped me again with her fan.
"You forget, again," she said. "Folly never—moralizes."
"True," said I, "she hasn't any morals."
"Why make Folly feminine?" she asked. "Methinks, there is usually a Knave for every Queen."
"Methinks, I know one Queen who could have Knaves as many as she listed," I answered, bending down and trying to see her eyes.
But she quickly interposed her fan.
"I am masked, monsieur," she said.
I ignored the reproof. "That," said I, "is my supreme regret."
"Merci, mon ami," she said. "You may kiss my hand when you leave me."
"Only your hand?" I asked.
"Not even that, now," she retorted—then turned and leaned against the hedge.
Two men were coming down the path toward us.
"Here are the other twin Knaves," she said.
And it was true enough—they were as alike as Moore and myself; only, they wore white satin small clothes and powdered perukes. They were in earnest conversation, but broke off as they neared us.
"Parbleu!" exclaimed the man with us. "There seems to be a plague of twins to-night."
One of the White Masques made as though to halt, but the other whispered something and tried to draw him on.
Our fellow laughed irritatingly, and waved his hand toward Moore and me.
"We've got a pair of Knaves here, also," he bantered; "perchance, the four of you are from the same pack."
The White Masque turned quickly. "Then it would be a pack, monsieur, in which you would be about equal to the deuce," he said.
"Or the joker," said the other, as they moved away, "which, in a gentleman's game, has no place."
Our man made a quick step toward them; but Moore caught him sharply by the shoulder.
"Let them go," he said curtly.
The other hesitated—then shrugged his shoulders.
"For the present be it, then," he said.
"And, look you, sir," Moore went on; "I do not know you, but, if you will take my poor advice, you will let it be for the future, too." He offered his arm to his companion. "Mademoiselle, shall we continue the stroll?"
"What a queer speech," said my Masque, "one might almost fancy they were of royal rank."
"The King, possibly," I suggested.
"Nonsense, monsieur; you know perfectly well His Majesty is not in Dornlitz."
"The Duke of Lotzen and the American Archduke, then."
She laughed. "Very likely; very likely, indeed!"
"Mademoiselle is pleased to ridicule."
"And monsieur is pleased to affect ignorance."
"Of what?" I asked.
"When did your Knaveship come to Dornlitz?"
"You must be a very stupid—diplomat."
"I am," I agreed.
"Do you know the 'American Archduke,' as you call him?"
"Very slightly," said I.
"Doubtless you would rather know his wife," she said naively.
"Then you think he is married?" I asked.
"Of course, monsieur—so does everyone—don't you?"
"No," said I. "I don't."
She laughed. "You mean you don't want to think so,——madame is very beautiful—n'est ce pas?"
"Do you know her?" I asked evasively.
"No, monsieur; do you?"
"I have met her."
"Oh! Oh!" she exclaimed. Then she looked at me quickly. "I thought she received no visitors."
I shrugged my shoulders. "The lady does not interest me," I said; "let us talk of something else."
"Of the American Archduke, then," she suggested.
"Why not of yourself?" I urged.
"I am only a Masque—the American may be a King."
"Not likely," I scoffed.
"Are you for Lotzen?" she demanded.
"Diplomats are neutral," said I; "but, entre nous, I have become rather interested in the American."
"So have I," said she. "He is very handsome."
"Thank you," I said, involuntarily.
She stopped and looked at me. I was glad, indeed, for the mask.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Would you mind repeating that last remark?" she said.
I pretended surprise.
"You said the American was very handsome and I said 'thank you.' I mean I don't agree with you."
"Oh!" she answered.
But I would have been better satisfied if I could have seen her face.
"I wouldn't let the Valerians know it," she went on. "He is the perfect double of the great national Hero."
"So I've heard."
"And it's no small item in his popularity."
"I didn't know he was popular," I said.—This was getting interesting.
"Really, monsieur, your ignorance of the very matters, which you should know, would suggest you are an American diplomat."
"Your Ladyship is severe," I said.
"I meant to be—though there are exceptions; the present Ambassador is one. He ranks with the best of his fellows."
"Now, that," said I, "I have heard."
She laughed. "Come, monsieur, lay aside this affected ignorance and gossip a bit. Is the American to marry the Princess Royal?"
"I thought you were insisting, a moment since, that he had a wife," I observed.
"Oh, that's of no consequence. It will be very easy to divorce her."
Here, doubtless, was the popular view of this matter; and it gave me the shudders.
Then the swing of a waltz came from the house.
"Shall we dance?" I said.
She smiled. "Monsieur is bored—let us wait for my friends."
I protested; but she was firm. And, so, when the others came up, Moore and I made our adieux.
When we were out of hearing, Moore handed me a bit of paper.
"This just reached me,'" he said.
It was from the Secret Police and read:
"S. is at Vierle Masque. She wears a gypsy dress of black and red. L. is also at Masque—he and Count Bigler are dressed alike in white satin. L. came last and his presence is unknown to the Vierles for he avoided unmasking by personating Bigler."
"So, they were the White Twins," I remarked.
"You knew them?"
"I knew only Lotzen."
"Hence your advice to our quick-tempered companion—who was he?"
"I couldn't make him out," said Moore; "but he knew the women and was their escort from the house."
"He seemed to be a bit sour about something."
"My companion said it was because the Blue Masque chose you."
"She was very charming," said I. "Who was she?"
"I knew neither his nor mine," said he evasively.
"But mine?" I insisted. "She of the sweet voice—which, Colonel, I observed, you noted."
He hesitated an instant; then answered:
"Indeed!" I exclaimed. If rumor spoke truly, Mademoiselle d'Essolde carried Moore's heart in her keeping. Then I laughed. "Never mind, Colonel, we shall see her at supper, presently—she will be beside you, I think."
"Your Highness is very thoughtful," he said.
"Don't give me the credit—it was Lady Vierle's idea," I answered—and changed the subject. "What is Lotzen up to now," I asked.
"Some deviltry—either women or you."
"I think it's both," said I. "The Marquise consulted him as to sending Mrs. Spencer an invitation, and you remember how careful he was to call in person to regret he could not come to-night. He saw, at once, his opportunity for a talk with Mrs. Spencer. Depend on it, that is the explanation of the White Twins, and of Lotzen's evading identification. I dare say he already has an alibi perfected.
"He has had no chance to see her, yet," said Moore. "I'll have her ordered to her hotel."
"No, she must remain," said I; "I'm committed to the Marquise. Besides, I'm minded to play their own game for them, a bit. Do you think Lotzen knows I'm at the Masque?"
Moore thought a moment. "Lady Vierle told him you were not coming, when she asked as to Mrs. Spencer," he said. "And he may have let it go at that; but it wouldn't be his usual method. My last order, before we left the Epsau, was that you were indisposed and had retired and, on no account, were you to be disturbed without Bernheim's express permission. But, servants are purchasable and spies are plenty, and Lotzen knows how to reach the first and use the second. On the whole, it is likely he has been advised that you are here, though he may not know your costume. The long military cloaks completely hid our dress; and you will recall that, at my suggestion, we concealed our hats under them until we were in the carriage."
"I can't get used to this espionage," I said. "Suppose we take a look around for the Gypsy Lady; doubtless, we shall find her with a White Masque."
We were on a walk bordered by a hedge of boxwood, shoulder high. On the other side, was another path with several Masques on it. Suddenly, one of them, as he passed, reached over the hedge and struck me in the back with a dagger.
The blow sent me plunging forward, but did me no hurt. I owed my life to Bernheim. His steel vest had stayed the blade that, otherwise, would have found my heart.
With a cry, Moore sprang to me and caught me in his arms.
"I'm not hurt," I said, recovering my balance.
"Thank God!" he ejaculated—then took the hedge at a vault.
I caught him by the arm as he landed on the other side.
"Stay," I commanded. "Let the fellow go."
Moore looked at me a moment. "Let him go?" he exclaimed incredulously.
I nodded. "And come along—let us get away from here."
Without a word, he vaulted back and we moved off.
The whole thing had occurred so unexpectedly and so swiftly that the few Masques, who had been in the vicinity, evidently had not noticed the murderous nature of the assault; and the peculiar arrangement of the hedges and trees had enabled my assailant to disappear almost instantly. Indeed, but for Moore's vaulting the boxwood after him, it is likely no one would have suspected anything unusual.
Several men came up and inquired if they could be of any assistance, but I assured them it was a matter of no consequence—that I had, evidently, been mistaken for another—or it was only a bit of pleasantry from some friend who had recognized me.
"But that you are uninjured," remarked one, "I should almost say it was a case of attempted assassination."
I laughed. "An assassination would fit in well with the costumes and the garden—everything is mediaeval to-night."
"Except the electric lights," Moore threw in, dryly; and we bowed ourselves away.
"I suppose we may now assume that somebody knows my disguise," I observed. "Did you see my friend with the dagger?"
"Yes—as much of him as there was to see—he wore a long black cloak and was rather above medium size. If Your Highness had not stopped me I might have caught him."
"That's just why I stopped you," said I. "I didn't want to embarrass the De Vierles. Think what it would mean to them to have it known that one of their guests had attempted to stab to death an Archduke."
"Hum—I don't see why that is more important than protecting your life."
"My dear Colonel," said I, "if it were a question between my life and Lady Vierle's temporary embarrassment, I would look after my life. But my life is still safe, and in no more danger with that rogue at large than with him caught."
"It would be one less scoundrel for Lotzen to work with," Moore objected.
"I fancy he has got so many scoundrels on his pay roll that one, more or less, won't matter," I answered. "But, I've no objection to a quiet inquiry as to this assault—it may come very handy, some time—so, do you look up the Secret Service Officer, in charge here to-night, and give him such facts as you deem proper, and let a report be made to me in the morning."
"First, let me escort you to the house," he insisted.
I put my hand on his arm. "Lotzen may have his hired bravoes," I said, "but I'm blessed with two good friends in you and Bernheim."
The warm-hearted Irishman took my hand and pressed it.
"We both are Your Highness's servants until death," he said.
"I'm in no further danger to-night, I fancy," said I. "And here come Lady Helen and the American Ambassador. I'll remain with them. When you have done your errand rejoin me."
BLACK KNAVE AND WHITE
There were three women and a man in the approaching party, and it chanced I knew them all. Courtney had a red rose fastened conspicuously on his breast, and Lady Helen wore a great bunch of them in her hair—another was gowned like her and, so, must be the Marquise de Vierle herself—the fourth was Mademoiselle d'Essolde.
"If you wish," said I, barring the path and sweeping the ground with my feather, "I'll hunt another rose. I've been searching for you so long that the one I began with has gone to pieces."
"Of course, Your Highness would never think of looking in the Ball Room," said Lady Helen.
Mademoiselle d'Essolde started and, then, drew a bit back.
"Never, indeed, until I had searched the Garden," I retorted. Then I bowed to Mademoiselle d'Essolde as the Marquise presented her. I could see she was very much embarrassed, so I tried to reassure her by being extremely cordial.
The Marquise wanted to show Courtney the bridge and the lake, and, when we passed the place where Moore and I had met the Queens—as I had styled them—Mademoiselle d'Essolde found her opportunity and whispered:
"Will Your Royal Highness ever forgive me?"
"On one condition," I said.
"It's granted—name it."
"That you be nice to him who sits beside you at supper, to-night."
She looked at me a moment—masks are very annoying when one wants to see the face.
"That will be an easy penance," she said—and I understood she had been told who that man was to be.
I bent toward her. "Let him know it, then," I said earnestly.
"Your Highness likes him?" she asked.
"I do more than like him," I said.
She threw a quick glance up at me.
"Maybe I do, too," she laughed.
"Good," said I; then began to speak of something else. There is just as proper a point to quit a subject as to start it.
The grass on the bank of the lake was quite dry and Lady Helen suggested that we sit down.
"This reminds me of a garden in Florence," she said. "Someone might tell us a story from Boccaccio."
The Marquise held up her hands in affected horror.
"Helen! Helen! You're positively shocking," she said.
"Lady Helen evidently believes in living up to our costumes," I ventured.
"Why not?" she laughed, "since the masks hide our faces?"
"Very good, my dear," said Lady Vierle, "you tell the first story; we will take our cue from you."
Lady Helen removed her mask. "Then, that is your first cue," she said.
"I breathe easier," Mademoiselle d'Essolde remarked.
"We all do," said I—then, suddenly, replaced mine and arose.
"Indulge me for a moment," I said, and sauntered over to the path a little distance away; nor answered the chaffing that was flung after me. I had seen a woman in gypsy dress and a cavalier in white coming slowly down the walk. I did not doubt it was Mrs. Spencer and Lotzen, and I intended to let them know they were recognized.
As we neared each other, I halted and stared at them with the most obvious deliberation. The gypsy made some remark to her companion, to which he nodded. I had little notion they would address me; and, certainly, none that they would stop. But, there (though whether it was pure bravado or because my attitude was particularly irritating, I know not), Lotzen gave me another surprise.
He paused in front of me and looked me over from head to foot.
"Monsieur seems interested," he said, making no effort to disguise his tones.
I made no answer.
"And I hope monsieur will pardon me if I tell him his manners are atrocious," he went on.
Again, no answer.
"Though, of course, no one could ever expect monsieur to understand why," he continued.
Of a sudden, it dawned on my slow brain that Lotzen did not know whether it was Moore or I that confronted him, and he wanted to hear my voice. I saw no utility in obliging him; so, I stood impassive, staring calmly at them.
Lotzen turned to his companion.
"Speak to him, mademoiselle," he said; "perchance the dulcet tones of Beauty may move the Beast to speech."
I smiled at him addressing her as "mademoiselle."
She shook her head. "Methinks it's Balaam not Beauty you need."
He laughed. "Even that does not stir him—the fellow must be deaf."
"Try signs on him." she suggested.
"Good! I'll sign to him we want to see his face."
"By pulling off his mask," he answered—and put out his hand, as though to do it. With his fingers almost on it, he paused.
I stood quite still. I felt perfectly sure he would not touch me; but, if he did, I intended to knock him down. And I was not mistaken. After a moment, he dropped his arm.
The woman laughed. "Your nerve failed—his didn't," she said dryly.
"Not at all, mademoiselle. I thought of a better way.—Observe."
He slowly drew the long narrow-bladed sword, that went with his costume, and, taking the point in his left hand, bowed over it in mock courtesy.
"Will monsieur have the extreme kindness to remove his mask," he said.
I admit I was a bit astonished. Surely, this was rushing things with a vengeance—to deliberately raise a situation that meant either a fight or a complete back-down by one of us. And, as he would scarcely imagine I would do the latter, he must have intended to force a duel.
There might have been another reason, assuming that he was interested only in my identity:—this procedure would have told him; for Moore would not have dared draw sword on the Heir Presumptive. But I have never thought such was his idea; for he must have been very well satisfied, by this time, that none but an equal in rank would have acted so toward him.
And, being convinced that it was I that fronted him, he had suddenly seen an opportunity to accomplish in open fight what his hired assassin had bungled. It is notorious that American officers know practically nothing of the art of fence; what easier than to drive me into drawing on him and, then, after a bit of play, to run me neatly through the heart. What mattered it if he were the aggressor? It would be easy to aver he had not known me—that I had chosen to insult him, and, having refused to unmask and apologize, had suffered the consequences of my own rashness and bad manners.
And, even suppose no one believed his story that he did not know me. What mattered it? One does not execute the Heir Presumptive of Valeria for murder. True, the King might rage—and a term of banishment to his mountain estates might follow; yet, what trifling penalties for the end attained. They would be only for the moment, as it were. But the American would be dead—the Crown sure—the Princess still unmarried.
Truly, it was a chance which would never come again; and not to seize it was to mock Fortune to her very face.
It takes far longer to write this than to think it. It all went through my mind in the brief space Lotzen gave me for reply.
"I am waiting, monsieur," he said.
The Gypsy laughed softly.
"You tell him so much he already knows," said she.
Lotzen looked at her—in surprise, I doubt not.
"Mademoiselle is impatient," he remarked.
She shrugged her pretty shoulders.
Then he bowed again to me.
"You see, monsieur," he said, "you tire the Lady; I must ask you to make haste."
If anyone think it easy to stand, stolidly, in one position for a considerable period, and have impertinent things said to him the while, let him try it. He will be very apt to change his notion. But, I stuck to it; and my soldier training helped me—and the mask relieved my face.
"You are stubborn, monsieur, as well as bad mannered. I shall have to spur you, I see," he went on. "I ask you, once again, monsieur, to remove your mask. If you do not, I shall give you a bit of steel in the left leg."
"And, if that be ineffective?" the lady asked.
"Then, I shall touch him in the other leg—and, if he still refuses, then, in the right arm—and, then, if necessary, in the left arm; each time a trifle deeper."
"And, then——?" she inflected, very sweetly.
"Then?" he repeated. "I think there will be no need for a 'then,' mademoiselle," he laughed sneeringly.
She nodded toward me.
"Isn't it about time to begin?" she asked.
"Your wish, my dear, is my law," he said. "You hear, monsieur; your time is up—prepare."
He stepped forward and thrust, very slowly, at my thigh. Even then, I could not think that he would actually dare to touch me with his sword; and I made no motion. I proposed to call his bluff—if it were one.
Closer and closer, inch by inch, drew the point. It reached the velvet—hesitated—passed through—and just pierced my flesh—then, was withdrawn.
And, with that cut, came the blood-lust, like unto the rage of the berserker of old. Yet, somehow, I had the sense to stand quiet and let the red passion burn itself out. I would need all my coolness to meet Lotzen's skill.
"Now, will monsieur remove his mask?" he asked.
"You scarcely touched him," scoffed the Gypsy.
Lotzen held up the sword.
"See the red upon the point?" he asked.
"Blood! You actually cut him!" she exclaimed—then pointed her finger at me, derisively. "And you wear a sword!" she sneered.
It was pretty hard to take. But I had a notion, foolish, possibly, to play the game a little longer.
"Come along, my friend," she went on. "This is poor sport. I hate a coward."
For an instant, I feared he would heed her and go—and that would have obliged me to become the aggressor; which I much preferred not to be.
"A coward!" he laughed—and looked at me. "You hear that, monsieur: a coward." Then he put his hand on her arm. "You are quite right, my dear, it is poor sport," he said. "Yet, stay a moment longer. I shall forego the other cuts and tear off his mask, instead."
"And permit him to wear a sword?" she mocked. "Surely, not! Why don't you break it?"
"A charming suggestion—thank you.—You hear my Lady's wish, Monsieur le Coquin," he said to me, and presenting his blade at my breast. "Will you yield your sword or shall I be obliged to take it from you?"
At last, Lotzen had driven me to action, in pointing his sword at my breast. If he touched it my steel vest would be disclosed, at once; and that was not to my mind. It would explain the failure of his bravo's dagger. More than that I did not care for. Doubtless, he was wearing one himself at that very moment. One usually ascribes to his enemy methods similar to one's own—and, as Lotzen dealt in assassination, he would expect me to do the same.
I waited a moment. Then, stepping quickly out of reach, I drew my own sword.
"Here it is, my Lord," I said. "Which end will you take?"
"The only end that you can give me, monsieur—the hilt," was the answer.
"Come and get it, then," I drawled.
He turned to the Gypsy.
"Will mademoiselle pardon me," he said.
"Will you be long?" she asked.
"Only a moment. I'll make it very short."
"I'll wait," she said carelessly.
He bowed to her—and then faced me.
"Has Monsieur le Coquin any particular spot in which he prefers to receive my point?" he asked.
"None, my Lord," I answered; "I shall leave that to your own good taste."
"Merci, monsieur, merci!" he said, and saluted. "Yet, I may not be outdone in generosity. Therefore, in exchange for your hilt, monsieur, you shall have the whole length of my blade in your heart."
"That, my Lord, is on the Knees of the Gods," I said.
Then our swords fell to talking and our tongues were still.
The turf was free of brush or trees; and, as I have already said, the illumination was so arranged that, practically, there were no shadows. The Garden seemed almost as bright as day; indeed, save that the light was white, we might, just as well, have been duelling at noon-tide as at midnight.
It had not been hard to gather, from Lotzen's last remarks to his companion, what sort of a fight he proposed making; and, after the usual preliminary testing of strength, I contented myself with the simplest sort of defence and awaited the main attack.
It seems hardly possible that two men could engage in a combat with rapiers, at such an occasion, and not draw a crowd. There is something peculiarly penetrating about the ring of steel on steel at night. Yet, such was the extent of the grounds and, so retired was our locality, that no strangers were attracted. Almost at the first stroke, however, I heard exclamations from the direction of my companions. In a moment, Courtney came running up, his drawn sword in hand—and the others after him.
I had plenty of use for my eyes with the immediate business in hand; but, as I chanced to be facing them, I had a vision of Courtney—his mask off—leaning forward intently watching the fight. Then, he calmly returned sword and drew back.
I heard the Marquise exclaim: "Mon Dieu! Someone is trying to kill His Highness—we must save him!"
But Courtney clapped his hand over her mouth and silenced her. Even in the press of the duel, I think, I smiled.
"Your pardon, my dear Marquise," he said, loudly—so I would hear it, I knew—"His Highness needs no saving."
Then I heard no more—for the Duke assumed the offensive fiercely and his sword began to move like lightning. And well, indeed, was it, for me, that I had learned something of this gentle game of fence, else had that night been my last on Earth.
Then, of a sudden, from out a sharp rally, came the first strokes of Moore's coup. I had been expecting it. I steadied myself to meet it, giving back just a trifle to lead Lotzen to think it was new to me. He pressed me hotly and, at length, the final position came—the way was open.
"Take it!" he said, savagely—and sent the thrust that should have made good his promise to bury the whole blade in my heart.
But his point never reached me—for, as his sword glided along mine, seemingly unopposed, I caught it exactly as Moore had shown me and wrenched with all the strength of my wrist and arm.
There was a sharp grinding of steel; and then, like a thing alive, the Duke's sword left his hand, sped through the air and settled, thirty feet away, point downward in the turf, where it stuck, quivering and swaying like a reed in the wind.
With a cry of sharp surprise, Lotzen sprang back and watched his sword as it circled and fell. I moved a step toward him. Then, he turned to me.
"It seems, Monsieur le Coquin," he said softly, "that I was in error; and that it is the point of your sword and not the hilt I am to take. So be it."
He draw himself up to attention, and raised his hand in salute.
"I am waiting," he said calmly.
Ferdinand of Lotzen was, doubtless, a bad lot. Once that night he had given me to assassination; and, just now, he himself had deliberately tried to kill me. He deserved no consideration; and, by every law of justification, could I, then and there, have driven my sword into his throat. Maybe I wanted to do it, too. We all are something of the savage at times. And I think he fully expected to die. He had told me frankly he purposed killing me, and he would not look for mercy, himself. The dice had fallen against him. He had lost. And, like a true gambler, he was ready to pay stakes. To give the fellow his due, he was brave; with the sort of bravery that meets death—when it must—with a smiling face and a steady eye.
And, so, for a space, we stood. He, erect and ready. I, with hand on hip and point advanced.
I heard the gasps of women—a sob or two—and then, the rustle of skirts, followed instantly by Courtney's soft command.
"Stay, madame—the matter is for His Highness only to decide."
Lotzen laughed lightly.
"Strike, man," he said, "or the petticoats will steal me from you."
I stepped back and shot my sword into its sheath.
"Go," I ordered. "I do not want your life. Only, depart this house straightway, and take your bravoes with you. They will have no other opportunity to-night. And, mark you, sir, no further meeting with the Gypsy—now, nor hereafter."
He bowed low. "Monsieur is pleased to be generous," he sneered.
But I gave him my back and, removing my mask, went over to my friends.
The Marquise met me with a perfect gale of apologies. But I laughed them aside, telling her it was I who stood in need of pardon for becoming involved in such a breach of hospitality.
"Your Highness might have been killed," she insisted, woman-like.
"But I wasn't," said I, "so, pray, think no more about it."
Just then, Colonel Moore came up and, seeing us without our masks, he dropped his, also. I watched Mademoiselle d'Essolde's greeting to him. It was all even he could have wished.
"I think it is about the supper hour," said Lady Vierle. "Let us go in."
I offered her my arm and, masking again, we led the way.
"Will Your Highness tell me something?" she asked immediately. "Did you know your antagonist?"
"I didn't see his face," I evaded.
She looked at me quickly. "Would it be better for me not to know?"
"Yes," said I, "I think it would."
There was, really, no reason why I should shield Lotzen; yet, neither was there any reason to rattle a family skeleton in public, and raise a scandal, which would run the Kingdom over and be the gossip of every Court in Europe.
Then I lifted my mask so she could see my face.
"And, my dear Lady Vierle," I said earnestly, "if you would do me a great favor, you will promise to forget all about this unfortunate incident."
She, too, raised her mask and looked me frankly in the eyes.
"I promise," she said.
And I am sure she will keep her word.
I knew I could leave it to Courtney and Moore to insure the silence of Lady Helen and Mademoiselle d'Essolde.
We lingered at the table until far into the morning. And, if Moore had any fault to find with his neighbor in blue, he was, indeed, a graceless grumbler.
Lady Helen was on one side of me, and we recalled the ride we had together the morning shortly after the Birthday Ball, when we met the Princess at the Old Forge.
"We never took that other ride we planned," I said—"the one to the Inn of the Twisted Pines."
"You have never asked me," she said dryly.
"Suppose we make it to-morrow at three," I suggested.
"I ride with Mr. Courtney, then."
"We will make a party of it," said I. "The Princess returns this morning and we will add Mademoiselle d'Essolde and Colonel Moore."
"But, the chaperon!"
"Hang the chaperon—the grooms can suffice for that. Besides, we shall be back before dark."
"It will be jolly," she said. Then she gave me a shrewd smile. "But, how different from the ride as we planned it."
I looked at Courtney.
"He wasn't in it; was he?" I smiled.
She leaned a bit nearer. "Nor would you have assumed, then, to make engagements for the Princess Royal of Valeria without consulting her," she replied.
I laughed. And I did not deny her inference.
When Moore saluted and turned to leave me that night, I stopped him.
"Colonel," said I, "I trust you enjoyed the supper."
"It was the most delightful I have ever—heard," he said.
AT THE INN OF THE TWISTED PINES
I lunched with the King and the Princess Dehra as arranged. Frederick left before the coffee, and Dehra ordered it served in her library. When the footman had brought it she dismissed him.
"Now," said she, "come and tell me all about yourself."
I went over and sat on the arm of her chair. She lit a cigarette and put it between my lips—then, lit one for herself.
"Do you remember the first time you did that?" I asked.
"Yes," said she, "it was the night you flirted so outrageously with me in front of Lotzen."
"I don't care what you call it, since we are not flirting now," said I.
She took my hand between hers and smiled up at me.
"And, maybe, it was not all flirting, then," she said.
There are certain occasions which justify certain actions. I thought this was one.
Then I said: "Tell me about Lotzen's visit with you in the North."
"He was there a week."
"More's the pity," said I.
"For him?" I echoed.
She nodded. "I feel very sorry for Ferdinand." Then she blushed. "I think he does love me, Armand."
"I can't blame him for that," said I. "He's a queer sort if he doesn't."
"Foolish!" she laughed, giving me a little tap with her fan. "And you see, dear, he might have had a chance if you had not come."
I bent down until her hair brushed my face.
"And he has none now, sweetheart?" I said softly.
"You know that he has not."
"And does he know it?"
"Yes—he knows it—now. I told him the day he left."
I was beginning to understand Lotzen's sudden change of demeanor toward me.
"What did you tell him, little woman?" I asked.
She looked up with a bright smile.
"See how I've spoiled you," she said.
"Then, spoil me just a little more," I urged.
"Well—I told him it was you," she whispered.
The understanding was growing rapidly.
"And what did he say to that?"
"I know, Armand, you don't like him; and, there, you may do him an injustice. He said only the kindest things about you—that you were able, courteous, brave—a true Dalberg; and that, if it could not be he, he was glad it was you."
I smiled. "That was clever of him," I commented.
"And he, too, does not believe the Spencer woman's story."
"His cleverness grows," I laughed. "It only remains for him to renounce his right to the Crown."
"He said it was for the King to choose which was the worthier, and that, if it fell to you, he would serve you faithfully and well."
I put my hand on her head and softly stroked her hair.
"And you believed him, dear?" I asked.
She looked up quickly.
"Yes—I believed him. I wanted to believe him—Did he deceive me?"
"Listen," said I. "He reached Dornlitz two days ago. Yesterday afternoon he insulted me repeatedly in my office at Headquarters. Last night I attended the Vierle Masque. While in the Garden I was struck in the back with a dagger."
"Stabbed!" she exclaimed, and clutched my arm.
"No, dear—not even scratched, thanks to Bernheim's steel vest I was wearing. Half an hour later, our cousin of Lotzen, with Mrs. Spencer on his arm, met me, alone, in a retired part of the Garden, forced a duel, and did his level best to run me through, by a trick of fence he thought he, alone knew."
"And, again, the vest saved you?"
"No—I was fortunate enough to disarm him."
"Glorious, dear, glorious!" she exclaimed. And tears filled her eyes.
And, as it was I that had caused them, it was but fair that I should take them away.
Then she made me go over the whole story in detail.
"Of course you will tell the King," said she.
"Maybe," said I. "I've not decided yet."
She got up. "There is just time for me to get into riding dress," she said. "But, first; this is Thursday—if you do not tell His Majesty of Lotzen's perfidy by Saturday, I shall do it, myself."
And I knew she would—so I made no protest.
"Put on the green habit and the plumed hat, dear," I said, as I held back the door.
I have always liked green—the dark rich green of the forest's depth—and, if there were anything more lovely than the Princess Dehra, when she came back to me, it is quite beyond my Imagination to conceive it. He is a poor lover, indeed, who does not think his sweetheart fair; yet, he would have been a poor sort of man, who would not have been at one with me, that afternoon.
And I told her so—but she called me "Foolish!" once again, and ran from me to the private exit of her suite, where our four companions were awaiting us. But I had my reward; for she waved the groom aside and let me swing her into saddle and fix her skirt.
How easy it is for a clever woman to manage a man—if she care to try.
It was a beautiful afternoon—the road was soft and the track smooth. Much of it led through woodland and along a brawling stream. The horses were of the sort that delight the soul—I doubt if there were six better saddlers in the whole Kingdom of Valeria. I know there were no prettier women, and, I think, no happier men.
We passed many people—mainly country-men—and they all knew the Princess and loved her—bless her!—if their greetings went for aught. Me, they eyed with frank curiosity; and, more than once, I caught the drift of their comments.
"A pretty pair," said one, as Dehra and I drew near, our horses on a walk.
"It's a pity he has a wife," the other answered. And Dehra frowned.
"They match up well," said a fellow, as we paused a moment at a spring beside a small road house.
I glanced at Dehra; and got a smile in return.
"That they do. He does not look like a foreigner," was the answer.
"He is Dalberg on the outside, anyway," said a third.
"Then, he is Dalberg inside, too—it starts there, with them," said the first.
And so it went, until we reached the Inn of the Twisted Pines.
It was an old log and plaster building; of many gables and small windows; standing back a trifle from the road, with a high-walled yard on all four sides. I had taken the precaution, that morning, to dispatch an orderly to apprise the landlord of our coming; and every human being about the place was drawn up within the enclosure to greet us. Old Boniface met us at the gateway and held my stirrup as I dismounted.