"My poor house has had no such honor," he said, "since the time the Great Henry stopped for breakfast on his return from the Titian War."
"Well, my good man," said I, "you doubtless don't recollect the Great Henry's visit, but, if your supper is what we hope for, I promise you we will honor it as highly as he did that breakfast."
"Your Highness shall be served this instant."
"Give us half an hour and a place to get rid of this dust," said I.
I fancy the Inn had been changed but little since old Henry's day; and the big room, where our table was spread, certainly not at all. The oak floor was bare and worn into ruts and ridges—the great beam rafters overhead were chocolate color from smoke and age—the huge fireplace and the wall above it were black as a half-burnt back log. But the food! My mouth waters now at the thought of it. No crazy French concoctions of frothy indigestibleness; but good, sweet cooking—the supper one gets among the old families of Maryland or Virginia. It took me back more than a score of years to my young days on the dear old Eastern Shore.
And, in the midst of it, came the jolly Boniface, bearing, as carefully as a mother does her first-born, three long bottles, cobwebbed and dirty. Eighty years had they been lying in the wine-bin of the Inn, guarding their treasure of Imperial Tokay. Now, their ward was ended—and the supper was complete; though, in truth, it had been complete before.
And, when we had eaten the supper and had drunk most of the Tokay, we freshened up the glasses with what remained. Then, arising, I gave the toast which all could drink:
"To the one we love the best!"
But, even as we drained it, there came through the open window the clatter of horse's hoofs and, as the glasses smashed to bits among the chimney stones, the door swung open and my senior Aide entered, hot and dusty.
He caught my eye, halted sharply, and his hand went up in salute.
"Welcome, Colonel Bernheim," I said.
Again he saluted; then drew out an envelope and handed it to me.
"Important papers for Your Highness," he said. "They were received at Headquarters after your departure and, as they required action to-night, I thought it best to follow you."
With a word of apology, I walked over to the nearest window and slowly read the letters. There were two and they were very brief. Then I read them again—and yet again.
Those at the table had, of course, resumed their talk, but Bernheim still stood at attention. I motioned him to me.
"These are copies," I said.
"I made them, sir, from the originals—while they were en route," he added with a dry smile.
"And the originals?"
"Each was delivered promptly."
"You have no doubt of their genuineness?" I asked.
"Absolutely none—though, of course, I know only the handwriting of the answer."
"Well done," said I; "well done!" Then I read the two papers again.
"Do you think he means it?" I asked, tapping the smaller paper.
"After last night, undoubtedly. And you must be there, sir—you and a witness," said Bernheim.
I thought a bit—then I took out my watch. It was just six o'clock.
"There is ample time," said I; "and it's worth the try. Can it be arranged, do you think?"
Bernheim's face brightened. "It can, sir. If it's the room I think it is, there will be no difficulty; and we can depend on the manager—he has been well trained by the Secret Police. You will come?"
"Yes, I'll come; but they come, too," and I nodded toward the table.
"Better bring only Courtney, sir," he urged.
"No," said I; "several witnesses will be needed. And, besides, I want them out of satisfaction to myself."
"It may wreck the whole business," he persisted.
"I'll risk it," said I.
Bernheim was wise. He always seemed to know when to quit.
"Very good, sir," he said. "How soon do we start?"
I put my hand on his shoulder.
"You are a perfect treasure, Bernheim," I said. "Come, we will start at once. Is your horse good for a fast ride back?"
"Then you can give me the story on the way," I said. "Meanwhile, get some refreshment."
I went back to the table—and it was amusing how suddenly the conversation ceased and everyone looked at me. I smiled reassuringly at Dehra, for there was concern in her eyes.
"Four of you," said I—"you, Princess; and you, Lady Helen; and you, Courtney; and you, Moore, were present at—and you, Mademoiselle d'Essolde, have heard of—a certain supper party on the Hanging Garden, some weeks back, whereat a certain woman proclaimed herself my wife. That was the first act in a play which has been progressing ever since. The plot has thickened lately—as witness the duel at the Masque, last night. And now, unless I greatly err, the last act is set for this evening. If you care to see it I shall be glad for your company."—Then I laughed. "A long speech," said I; "but it sounded well."
"And promises best of all," said Courtney.
Then I ordered the horses; and, while we waited, I gave the letters to Courtney.
"Read them," I said. "The originals passed through Bernheim's hands this afternoon—'while en route,' as he puts it."
He read them carefully.
"You contemplate giving them an audience?" he asked.
"Exactly that," said I.
"Is it feasible?"
"Bernheim says it is."
He looked at me thoughtfully, a moment. "It would be a great stroke to have the King there," he said.
"I'll make a try for him," I answered; "but the time is very short."
It was ten miles to Dornlitz, and we did it in an hour. On the way, I explained the whole situation to the Princess and read her the letters. She was amazed—and her indignation was intense. Nor did she hesitate to express it freely before Bernheim. And I saw his stern face break into a glad smile. It told him much.
At the Palace we drew rein.
"Be at the Hotel Metzen at eight forty-five," said I. "Come by the Court entrance—you will be expected."
Then they rode away, and I hastened to the King.
As good luck would have it, Frederick was in his cabinet and received me instantly. He read the letters and looked at me inquiringly.
"It means a plain talk between them," I explained; "and I propose to hear it. I am, sure it would interest Your Majesty—much happened yesterday." And I told him of the Vierle Masque.
Frederick frowned a bit—thought longer—then smiled.
"I don't much fancy eaves-dropping; but, sometimes, the end justifies the means," he said. "I'll join you."
"There will be other witnesses, Sire," I said—and named them.
"I don't like it," he said.
"I can stop them," I suggested.
He considered. "No," said he, "I understand why you want them. I'll come—they will be discreet. And the Princess would wish it so. I'll bring her, myself."
Then I rode to the Metzen. Bernheim had preceded me and, with the manager of the Hotel, awaited me at a side door. The corridor was dimly lighted but I drew my cape well over my face and, is a moment, we were in a small reception room.
"Monsieur Gerst," said I to the manager, "I need your assistance."
Gerst bowed very low.
"Your Royal Highness has but to command," he said.
I was quite sure of that, however. An Archduke of Valeria would have been quite enough, but the Governor of Dornlitz was beyond refusal. I could have closed his Hotel by a word, and there would have been no appeal.
"Thank you, monsieur," I said. "You have as a guest, a certain Madame Armand Dalberg."
"A guest by Your Highness's express permission, you will remember," he said.
"Very true," said I. "Now, this Madame Dalberg expects a visitor to-night at nine o'clock."
He gave me a quick glance.
"You know him?" I asked.
"No, Your Highness. I only know madame gave orders to admit no one to-night except a gentleman who would come at nine."
I nodded. "It's the same," said I. "And what I want, is to hear all that occurs between Madame Dalberg and this visitor."
Gerst smiled. "That will be easily arranged, Your Highness—the place is already provided."
"The concealed Gallery?" asked Bernheim, quickly?
"Yes, Colonel." Then, to me, he explained: "Madame's reception room was once a part of a small, state dining-room. Back of the end wall runs a gallery where guests sat to listen to the speeches. It is there, now—and the tapestries, with which the walls are hung, completely hide it."
"It can be reached from the floor above?" I asked.
"Yes, Your Highness; a narrow stairway admits to it."
"Can we enter without being overheard by those in the room below?"
"Very readily, sir; the gallery was so designed that its noises would not disturb those in the dining-room."
"We are in good luck, Bernheim," I said.
"We shall need all of it, sir, with eight spectators."
And he was right. It was foolish to risk success for only a sentimental reason. I knew, perfectly well, the proper course was for no one but the King and myself to be in the gallery; yet, there entered my Dalberg stubbornness. I purposed that some of those, who had seen me accused that night on the Hanging Garden, should see me exculpated to-night.
It may be, that some will question the propriety of my action, and the good taste of those who were my guests. As to the latter, it must be borne in mind that my invitation was in the nature of a command, which it would have been vastly discourteous to decline. And, besides, they were my friends. As for myself, I have no excuses to offer—and, methinks, I need none. The situation had long passed the refinement of ethics. It was war; and war not of my declaring. Neither was I responsible for the style of the campaign. Madeline Spencer deserved no consideration from me—and no more did her visitor.
THE END OF THE PLAY
I had, yet, an hour to spare, so Bernheim and I returned to the Epsau. I donned the evening uniform of the Red Huzzars, with the broad Ribbon of the Lion across my breast and the Cincinnati around my neck. I was minded to be the Dalberg Archduke to-night.
Then, having dispatched Bernheim to the Palace to escort the King and the Princess, I drove to the Metzen, where Gerst piloted me, by private corridors, to the apartments reserved for me, and which adjoined the Gallery.
The King and the Princess were the last to arrive. As I greeted them, Dehra detained me.
"Shall we be able to see as well as hear?" she asked.
"Yes," said I, "if you wish."
"I do wish," she said. "I'm savage to-night."
I laughed. "It's very becoming, dear."
Then the great bell of the Cathedral began to chime the hour; and, with a word of caution, I led the way to the Gallery.
The floor was covered with a thick carpet and eight small chairs were placed close to the railing. The tapestry was very old and thin and, by putting one's face close to it, the room below was rather dimly, yet quite sufficiently, visible. Its dimensions were unusually ample—possibly forty feet by sixty—and its furnishings most gorgeous. The chandelier and side-lights were burning, and a huge vase lamp, pink shaded, was on the large table in the centre. At the moment, the room was untenanted.
In a little while a door opposite the Gallery opened and Madeline Spencer entered.
A woman usually knows her good points physically and how to bring them out. And Mrs. Spencer was an adept in the art—though, in truth, little art was needed. To her, Nature had been over generous.
She affected black; and that was her gown, now—cut daringly low and without a jot of color about it, save the dead white of her arms and shoulders, and a huge bunch of violets at her waist.
I thought I could guess whence the flowers came. And, though I despised her, yet, I could but admit her dazzling beauty.
She moved slowly about the room, touching an ornament here, a picture there. At length, she came to the table and, dropping languidly into a chair, rested her elbow on the arm and, with chin in hand, stared into vacancy.
Presently, there was a sharp knock at the corridor door. She glanced quickly at the clock—then, picked up a book and, sinking back in easy posture, assumed to read.
"Entrez," she called, without looking up.
The door opened instantly and a man entered. A long military cloak was over his plain evening dress; one fold was raised to hide his face. He dropped it as he closed the door.
Mrs. Spencer lowered her book—then arose with all the sinuous grace she knew so well how to assume.
"Welcome, Your Royal Highness," she said, and curtsied very low. "It was good of you to come."
The Duke of Lotzen tossed off his cloak—and, coming quickly over, took her hand and kissed it.
"It was more than good of you to let me come," he answered.
"I feared you might not get my note," she said. "I believe I am under constant surveillance."
He smiled. "Even the Secret Police would hesitate to tamper with my mail," he said.
"That was my hope," she answered.
He looked at her steadily, a moment.
"I am always ready to be a—hope to you," he said.
She dropped her eyes—then picked up a cigarette case from the table.
"Will Your Royal Highness smoke?" she asked.
"If you will light it for me."
(The Princess pressed my hand. I understood.)
Mrs. Spencer touched the cigarette to the tiny alcohol name; then offered it to the Duke.
"Someone has spoiled you," she said lightly.
Lotzen took her hand and, with it, put the cigarette between his lips.
"Unfortunately, no," he answered. "But I once saw a pretty woman do that for another man."
(Again Dehra pressed my fingers.)
"And did he hold her hand afterward?" she asked—freeing her own from the Duke's.
"They were not alone," he said—and tried to take it again.
But she put both hands behind her.
"Come, Your Highness, this is not the Masque," she said. But there was no reproof in her tones.
"Tell me," said he; "how did you know me, last night?"
"What matters it? Particularly, since it was only because you knew me that you spoke."
"You think I was searching for you?" he asked.
She blew a cloud of smoke under the lamp shade and watched it float out at the top.
"Were you?" she asked.
"If I said yes, would it please you?"
"Not unless I thought it true, monsieur—and, also, knew the reason."
He looked at her steadily a moment.
"What better reason could I have than that you are the most beautiful woman in Valeria?"
She put her fan before her face.
"Your Highness's compliment is very delicate," she laughed.
"It wasn't meant for a compliment," he answered. "If you have looked in your mirror, to-night, you know I speak the simple truth."
She got up and went over to a great glass, on the opposite wall. Lotzen followed her, and they stood there, a bit, looking in it.
"You like me in black?" she asked, smiling at him in the mirror.
"I like you in anything," he answered—and made as though to put his arm around her waist.
She swung quickly away from him—just out of reach.
"Even in a gypsy dress?" she asked.
"It was charming—but, I think I prefer this," and he nodded toward her gleaming shoulders.
She made a gesture of dissent, and they went back to the table. Lotzen drew a small chair close and sat staring at her. She studied her fan and waited.
Then he hooked his hands about his knee and leaned back.
"Do you know," he said, "it's a crying shame you are married to my dear cousin."
She looked him full in the face—and smiled.
"Why didn't you make me a widow, then, last night, when you had the chance?"
Lotzen shrugged his shoulders.
"The chance was all right, but the end was bad—though you didn't stay to see it."
She laughed. "Didn't I? I stayed long enough to see your sword sticking in the turf. I took that to be the end—was there more of it, later?"
"No; that was the end—for that time."
"And for that particular method, I fancy," said she. "He wields a pretty blade."
"Had you known it?" he asked.
"He was the best swordsman in the American Army," she answered.
"Ordinarily, that does not mean much," said Lotzen. "But, as a matter of fact, so far as I know, he has got only one superior in Europe."
"Then why not get that chap to fight him?"
The Duke laughed.
"I would be very willing to; only, the chap happens to be that infernal Irish adventurer, Moore, who is on his Staff."
"Why don't you try it again, yourself?" she asked.
He tapped his cigarette carefully against the ash receiver.
"Because I'm not yet tired of life," he said. "I know when I have met my master."
"But, one of your thrusts might go home," she insisted.
He looked at her with an amused smile.
"Yes—it might," he said. "But, you see, my dear girl, what troubles me are the many thrusts he has, any one of which would be sure to go home in me."
"You seem to have escaped, last night," she observed.
"Purely by his favor—even luck hadn't a finger in it."
"But discretion had," she remarked. "He would not dare kill you."
Lotzen shook his head.
"You don't seem to know this husband of yours. A Dalberg will dare anything."
"Some Dalbergs," she scoffed.
The Duke flushed.
"I'm doing badly—you think me a coward," he said.
"Oh, no, Prince—only carefully discreet;" and she leaned back and slowly fanned herself.
He looked at her for a bit.
"Are you aware, my dear, that you are conniving at—some might call it instigating—the death of your husband?" he asked.
She smiled. "Am I?"
"It is a very extraordinary situation," he said, blowing a ring of smoke and watching it circle away. "You are so tired of him you want him killed; he seems equally tired of you, and, moreover, he is determined to marry another woman. Yet, neither of you gets a divorce—and you actually follow him here—and he, then, actually refuses to let you depart."
The fan kept moving slowly.
"A very extraordinary situation, indeed, Your Highness,—as you state it," she said.
"As I state it?" he echoed.
She nodded. "You have omitted the one material fact in the case."
"And what is that?" he asked.
The fan stopped, and she laughed lightly.
"Simply this: I am not Armand Dalberg's wife."
(Dehra reached over and took my hand. The King looked at us both and nodded; then clapped me on the knee.)
For a space, Lotzen stared at Mrs. Spencer—and she smiled sweetly back at him.
"Not his wife!" he ejaculated, presently.
Her smile became a laugh.
"No, monsieur; not his wife."
This time, Lotzen's stare was even longer. Then, suddenly, he laughed.
"I thought, for a moment, you actually meant it," he said.
She put both elbows on the table and leaned forward.
"Come, monsieur, let us be frank with each other," she said. "Not only am I not Armand Dalberg's wife, but you have always known it."
He frowned. "My dear girl," he said, "I've been sorrowfully accepting your own word that you are his wife; how should I know that you've been——" he hesitated.
She finished it for him—
"Lying, Duke, lying," she laughed.
He held up his hands, protestingly.
"Not at all, my dear; teasing is the word I wanted."
She lay back in the chair and laughed softly to herself.
"Do you fancy the Grand Duke Armand would call it teasing?" she asked.
He joined in the laugh.
"The victim never sees the joke," he said.
She sat up sharply.
"So, then, it was intended only as a joke?" she exclaimed. "I thought it had another object."
He frowned again.
"I don't quite follow you," he said.
She looked at him with a queer smile.
"My being brought to Valeria to pose as his wife," she explained.
"You don't mean you came here from America expressly for that purpose?" he asked.
Her smile grew broader.
"Really, Duke, you are most delicious," she said. "Armand Dalberg told me, the other day, that I played my part beautifully—he should see you. You are a premier artiste."
"Madame flatters me," Lotzen answered with soft irony; then tried for her hand—and failed.
"Well, you may take it so," said she; "but, believe me, your cousin didn't mean it so, to me."
He moved over and sat on the edge of the table near her.
She leaned far back and put her hands behind her.
"Come, my dear, don't be so mysterious," he said.
"Let us be frank, as you suggest. You say you are not Armand's wife—that, I am only too glad to believe; I am delighted. You say I have always known it—that, of course, is a mistake. You say I am playing a part, now—that, I don't understand."
"Premier artiste, surely," she laughed. Then, suddenly, grew sober. "By all means, let us have a frank talk," she said. "It was for that I asked you here to-night—But, first, light me a cigarette, and then go and sit down in that chair."
"Buy me with a smile," he said.
She bought him—then he did her bidding.
"I was silly enough to hope it was only I that you wanted to see," he said.
"My note gave no ground for such hopes, Your Highness," she said. "I told you exactly what I wanted—to discuss a matter of immediate importance."
"Oh, yes, I know—but then I was still thinking of the Masque."
She looked at him naively. "Surely, Duke, you are old enough to know that, of all follies, a Masque is chiefest and dies with the break of day."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I am learning it, now, at any rate."
"And, don't forget, it was you who ended the pleasant promenade, to pick a quarrel with the—Masque in Black."
"But with full purpose to resume it in a moment."
"After you had killed him? Very likely! Your sole thought would have been to get away."
"And to take you with me," he added.
She laughed. "Nonsense, Duke; besides, I would not have gone."
"And the promenade?" he asked.
"With the Black Masque dead the promenade would have been no longer necessary."
"Oh," said he: "I'm beginning to understand. You met me last night for a particular purpose; and that, being frustrated by the duel, is the reason for the appointment here this evening."
She was leaning idly back, and the fan had resumed its languid motions.
"Your Highness has stated it with charming exactness," she said.
His face grew stern; and I saw the hand, that hung beside his chair, clench sharply. Mrs. Spencer saw it, too.
"Don't be angry, Duke," she laughed. "Be grateful for the privilege it gives you of being here to-night."
Lotzen got up sharply and took a step toward the door.
"Going, Your Highness?" asked that softly-caressing voice.
He swung around. "No, I'm not going," he said—and sat down. "A man would be a fool to leave you just because you treated him heartlessly."
This time, she lit the cigarette, voluntarily, and, leaning over, put it between his lips.
"Is that the way you saw it done?" she asked.
He seized her hand and held it for a moment; but, when he bent over it, she whisked it quickly away.
"Now, for the frank talk," she laughed.
"By all means," he said—and settled back to listen.
She toyed with her cigarette; blowing the smoke at the shade and watching it rush out at the top. It seemed to be a favorite trick of hers.
"Of course, Your Highness is aware that, by order of the Governor of Dornlitz, I am kept a prisoner within the walls of the inner city."
Lotzen bowed. "So, I have been informed."
"I have tried every possible means to escape: disguise, bribes, flattery—and all of no avail. My every motion is watched. I am dogged by half the Secret Police of the Capital. I'm not even sure of the fidelity of my own maid."
"You poor child," said Lotzen.
"I am sick of this sort of life. It's worse than a prison cell. And it's got to end—and that, promptly. I sought you, last night, at the Masque to tell you that you must get me away and out of this miserable Country. I have completed my bargain; it is now for you to complete yours."
The Duke's face took on a look of perplexity.
"My dear girl," he said, "I haven't the remotest notion what you mean by your bargain and mine; but, I'm very ready to aid you to escape. The difficulty is, I have absolutely no power over a single soldier or official in Dornlitz. The Governor's orders are absolute—none but the King can reverse them. And, alas! at this moment, I have very little influence with His Majesty."
"Then, you decline to aid me?" she asked, very quietly—the smoke was again going through the lamp shade.
"On the contrary, I am ready to do anything I can; but, I fear, I'm powerless. Indeed, if you're under the close surveillance you indicate, it would be about impossible. And I know whereof I speak. You would be no more immune in my carriage than in a public cab. Even if I were beside you, you could not pass the gates. It might, however, be effected in some way I cannot scheme, on the instant. I will investigate and, if I can devise any method, I shall do my utmost to release you."
She straightened up—and the fan quit its beating.
"That sounds well—and may mean well; but, it's short of the mark," said she. "I am determined not to remain in this town another day. You must get me away before to-morrow night."
"Impossible!" Lotzen exclaimed. "You know not what you ask."
She looked at him coldly.
"Very good, Your Highness," she said. "I have given you your chance. I have played fair with you. Now, we are quits."
"And you don't want my aid?" he asked.
"Not unless it's given before noon to-morrow."
He raised his hands.
"There are only two people in the world who could get you out of Dornlitz by noon to-morrow—the King and the Governor."
"Exactly," said she. "And, to one of them, I shall go in the morning."
"Better try Frederick," Lotzen laughed. "He has a weak side for a pretty woman."
(I did not look at the King—but I heard him sniff angrily.)
"No—I shall try the Governor," she returned. "He told me, one day, in his office, that, when I acknowledged that I was not his wife and that the marriage certificate was false, I would be permitted to leave the Kingdom." She paused, a moment. "Does Your Highness wish me to go to the Governor?"
I thought the Duke would weaken—but, as usual, I got a surprise.
"My dear girl," said he, "I shall be heartbroken if you leave Valeria—but, if that is all you need to do to be free to go—and you are not, in fact, Armand Dalberg's wife—then I am surprised that you have not done it long ago."
She smiled, rather sadly.
"Yes, I fancy you are. I'm rather surprised myself. It would sound queer, to some people in America, but I have actually tried, for once in my life, to keep faith to the end. But it is as I always thought—not worth the while. I'll know better again."
Then, she got up and, going behind her chair, leaned over the back.
"Does Your Highness realize what my going to the Governor means to you?" she asked.
"I don't seem to be able to follow your argument," he said; "and I'm a poor guesser of riddles."
"It means that I shall have to tell the whole ugly story of how I chanced to come to Dornlitz to pose as the wife of the Grand Duke Armand."
He took a fresh cigarette and carefully lit it. "But, my dear girl," he said, "I don't see how that would affect me?"
"Still the premier artiste! Well, play it out. If you want to hear what you already know it's no trouble to tell you. Shall I begin at the very beginning?"
"By all means!" said he. "Maybe, then, I can catch the point."
"Listen," said she. "For many years I have known Armand Dalberg. One day, several months ago, there came a man to me, in the City of New York. How he happened to find me is no matter. He spoke English perfectly—though I thought he was a Frenchman. The name on his card was Herbert Wilkes; but, I knew that was assumed, and I have learned, lately, who he is. Since you, too, know, it is quite unnecessary to repeat it. His offer to me was this: If I would go immediately to Dornlitz and publicly claim the American, Armand Dalberg—who had just been restored to his rightful place as a Grand Duke of Valeria—as my husband, I was to receive an enormous sum of money (the amount Your Highness also knows) and all expenses. I accepted instantly, mainly for the money; but, also, to satisfy a personal grudge I had against Major Dalberg. I made the one condition, however, that a marriage certificate must be procured—the date for which I gave; choosing one on which I happened to know Major Dalberg was in New York. And it was done. How, I neither knew nor cared. One-half the money was given me in advance—the balance to be paid the day I executed my mission. I received it the morning following that scene at the Grand Duke's supper party at the Hanging Garden. And, God knows, I earned every cent of it! I was guaranteed protection while in Valeria, and to be at liberty to depart one week after I had made the public assertion of the marriage and had exhibited the certificate."
"Now, perchance, Your Highness understands the matter," she added, and smiled sweetly.
He flecked the ash from his cigarette and shook his head.
"I understand no more than I did at first, how this plot against the Grand Duke Armand affects me," he said.
"Of course, it may not occur to Your Highness—but it doubtless would to the King—who, of all living creatures, would be most benefited and who most injured by my marriage story. However, if you are not my employer, then, it will not hurt you. And, as I cannot imagine who else it could be, I shall simply fling the whole business overboard; go to the Governor to-morrow; tell the truth; endorse on the marriage certificate the fact of its falseness; give it to him—and take the first train for Paris—And, I fancy, I shall read the betrothal notice of the Princess Royal of Valeria and the Grand Duke Armand before I've been there a week."
Lotzen got up and went over to her.
"Do you know you are a very clever woman?" he said.
She looked archly up at him.
"You will enable me to escape?" she asked.
He took her hand—and, this time, it was not withdrawn.
"I will do my best," he said; "but, it's a fierce risk for me. If detected, it would mean, at the very least, a year's banishment."
"It would mean something more than that if I told my story," she said.
"I'm doing it for you; not from fear of the story," he said softly.
"It's nicer, that way, isn't it?" she asked.
He put his arm around her—and she let him kiss her, once. Then, she drew away.
"Sit down and let us talk it over," she said.
The King got up suddenly.
"Come along, Armand," he said, and hurried from the Gallery.
I followed him, without a word—for none was needed. The end of Lotzen's game was very near, indeed.
In the lower corridor, we met a servant.
"Show us to the apartments of Madame Dalberg," Frederick ordered.
A dozen steps brought us to a large double door.
"This is the entrance, Your Majesty," said the man.
The King rapped sharply. There was no prompt answer and he rapped again.
In a moment, the door was opened by Mrs. Spencer's maid.
"Madame is not at home," she said mechanically.
Without a word Frederick brushed her aside and stepped quickly in—and I after him.
Mrs. Spencer sat facing the door and saw us enter. It is inconceivable that she should not have been surprised, and, yet, she betrayed absolutely no sign of it. Indeed, one would have thought we were expected guests. Truly, she was a very wonderful woman.
She said something, very low, to the Duke; then, came forward and curtsied to the King.
"Your Majesty honors me overmuch," she said. And then to me—"Does this really mean that Your Royal Highness has at last decided to acknowledge me?"
Meanwhile, Lotzen had arisen and was standing stiffly at attention, his eyes on the King. I thought his face was a trifle pale—and I did not wonder.
Frederick laughed, curtly, and motioned for her to rise.
"The play is over, Mrs. Spencer," he said. "We will have no more acting, if you please."
She straightened, instantly.
"Your Majesty is pleased to be discourteous—but it seems to be a Dalberg characteristic," she sneered. Then she broke out angrily: "And, as neither you nor that renegade there,"—indicating me with a nod and a look,—"was invited here, I take it I am quite justified in requesting you both to depart. You may be a King, but that gives you no privilege to force your way into a woman's apartments and insult her. You are a brave gentleman, surely, and a worthy monarch. I suppose you brought your pet to protect you lest I offer you violence. Well, I'll give him the chance."
Even as she said it, like a flash, she seized a heavy glass vase from the table and hurled it straight at the King.
It was not a woman's throw. Madeline Spencer had learned the man's swing, in her Army days, and, had the vase struck home, the chances are there would have been a new King in Dornlitz, that night.
And such was Lotzen's thought, for he smiled wickedly and glanced at me.
But, quick though she was, the King was quicker. He jerked his head aside. The vase missed him by the fraction of an inch and crashed to bits against the opposite wall.
Frederick turned and looked at the fragments, and at the cut in the hangings.
"Madame is rather muscular," he observed, dryly.
"And Your Majesty is a clever dodger," she said, with sneering indifference—then leaned back against the table, a hand on either side of her.
"Is it possible you are not going?" she asked.
The King smiled. "Presently, my dear madame, presently. Meanwhile, I pray you, have consideration for the ornaments and the wall."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"As I cannot expect the servants to forcibly eject their King, and as the Duke of Lotzen dare not, I presume I'll have to submit to your impertinent intrusion. Pray, let me know your business here—I assume it is business—and get it ended quickly. I will expedite it all I may. Anything, to be rid of you and that popinjay in red beside you."
"Your husband, madame," the King observed.
"Aye, my husband, for a time," she answered.
"Aye, Mrs. Spencer, your husband for a time—for a purpose—and for a consideration."
She opened her eyes wide.
"Indeed!" she laughed. "I thought the acting was over, Sire."
Frederick's manner changed.
"It is," he said sharply. "We will come to the point. Have you ink and pen?"
"Is that what you came for?" she sneered. "Have you none at the Palace?"
"Quite enough to sign an order within an hour for your incarceration if you continue obdurate," he answered.
"A kingly threat, truly," she mocked. "And, what if I be not obdurate?"
"Then it will be an order permitting you to leave Valeria at once."
"Now, Your Majesty interests me," she said. "I have been waiting for that a month and more. What is the price for this order?"
"Simply the truth, madame," said the King.
"Sometimes, the truth is the highest price one can pay," she answered.
"It will be very easy here," he said. "You have a paper purporting to be a certificate of marriage between you and Armand Dalberg."
She inclined her head.
"On it you will endorse that it is a false certificate; that you are not and never were his wife; that it was procured for you, in New York, long subsequent to its apparent date; and that you were paid an enormous sum of money—fill in the actual amount, please—to go immediately to Dornlitz, exhibit the certificate, there, and publicly claim the Grand Duke Armand as your husband. That, madame, is all."
I was observing Lotzen; and, even now, his nerve never failed him. He watched the King, intently, as he spoke. At the end, his face took on a smile of cynical indifference—and, dropping from the respectful position in which he had been standing, he turned and sat on the table, one leg swinging carelessly over the corner.
Mrs. Spencer shot a quick glance at him—but he gave no answer back.
"Your Majesty has omitted one little matter," she said. "By whom shall I say the money was paid?"
"Thank you—so I had. Make it—by persons to you unknown."
Mrs. Spencer smiled frankly.
"Your Majesty was quite right," she said. "The play is over."
She touched a bell—the maid entered.
"My jewel case," she said.
The King crossed to a writing desk and, taking pen and ink, placed them on the table. Then the maid brought the casket.
From the bottom tray, Mrs. Spencer took a paper and handed it to the King, who, after a glance, returned it.
"If your Majesty will dictate, I will write," she said.
Slowly, Frederick repeated the confession—and the pen scratched out line after line on the white page. When it was ended, she passed it back again to the King, and he read it carefully.
"Sign it, please," he said.
She looked up, with an amused smile.
"With what name?" she asked.
"Your lawful one," said Frederick.
"Madeline Spencer," she answered—and dashed it off.
Then, for the first time since we entered the room, the King looked at Lotzen. Hitherto, he had ignored him, utterly.
"Witness it," he said sternly.
I smiled—and so did Madeline Spencer. It was the refinement of retribution.
Without a word or a change of feature, Lotzen obeyed. Then Frederick, himself, signed it; and, folding it carefully, gave it to me.
"Will Your Majesty graciously pardon the violence I offered you?" Mrs. Spencer said.
"Readily, madame," he said. "In a way, you were justified—and, then, you missed me. Had you hit me, my pardon might not have been required."
"And will you not tell me how you discovered the truth?" she asked.
"I chanced to learn of this meeting with His Royal Highness, the Duke of Lotzen, and was a witness of all that occurred here between you."
"You cannot mean that you overheard our conversation!" she exclaimed.
"Every word," said the King.
"But where—and how?"
The Duke glanced up toward the Gallery—and a bitter smile crossed his face.
"His Grace of Lotzen has guessed it," said Frederick.
She turned to the Duke interrogatingly.
"The gallery—behind the arras, yonder," he said.
"Exactly," said the King.
"And you forgot the Gallery?" Mrs. Spencer asked, mockingly.
"Yes," said he, with a shrug and a lift of his eyebrows, "I forgot it."
She turned to the King.
"I shall be ready, Sire, to depart for Paris on the evening train, to-morrow," she said.
"You shall have the permit in the morning," he answered.
Then he turned to Lotzen—and the Duke saw and understood. He straightened up and his heels came together sharply.
Frederick looked at him, sternly for a moment.
"It is unnecessary, sir, for me to particularize," he said. "You know your crimes and their purpose—so do I. The Court has no present need of plotters and will be the better for your absence. It has been over long since you visited your titular estates, and they doubtless require your immediate attention. You are, therefore, permitted to depart to them forthwith—and to remain indefinitely."
Lotzen's hand rose in salute.
"Yes, Your Majesty," he answered.
The King bowed to Mrs. Spencer.
"Madame, I bid you good evening and good-bye," he said.
She curtsied low.
"I thank Your Majesty for your gracious consideration," she said.
Then she stepped quickly toward me and held out her hand.
"Will you not say farewell, Armand—as in the days, long past?" she asked.
I knew the Princess was looking; but I was in a generous mood. I took her hand and bowed over it.
"Captain Dalberg bids farewell to Colonel Spencer's wife," I said.
Then I followed the King.
A week has passed since the night in the Gallery. Madeline Spencer has gone—forever from my path, I trust. His Royal Highness, the Duke of Lotzen, has taken a long leave, and is sojourning on his mountain estates for the benefit of his health. There has been another supper of six at the Inn of the Twisted Pines—with four bottles of Imperial Tokay; and, afterward, a charming ride home in the moonlight.
To-night, there is to be a great State Dinner at the Palace, whereat His Majesty will formally announce the betrothal of the Princess Royal of Valeria and Field Marshal, the Grand Duke Armand.
So much I know—and, surely, it is enough; and far more than enough. Yet, having that fixed and settled, there is another matter touching which Dehra and I have a vast curiosity:
What says the great, brass-bound Laws of the Dalbergs? Has the Order of Succession been changed? Will I supplant Lotzen as the Heir Presumptive?
But, on that, His Majesty is silent; and the Book is locked. Nor does even the Princess venture to inquire. Perchance, he is reserving it for a surprise at the Dinner, to-night. Perchance, he thinks I have honor sufficient.
Yet, none the less, do I wonder; and, I confess it, none the less do I hope. Nor is the hope for myself alone—for, to be an Archduke of Valeria is rank enough for any man—but, also, for her whom I love, and the Nation loves, and who was born to wear a Crown.
And, for her dear sake, do I pray, with all humility, yet, somehow, with the confidence of Right, that, in my unworthy self, the Line of stubborn old Hugo may come to its own again.