Lopez turned on down the corridor, stopped at the doors of Generals Mejia and Castillo, and the Prince Salm-Salm. At each he tapped lightly, as one dazed, and announced that the enemy surrounded them. Then, remembering, he fled.
Within the thick walls that narrowed his state into a friar's cell, Maximilian rose from his iron couch. "So," he sighed, almost in relief, "Destiny means it to end in this way." He was calm, and he attired himself carefully. He chose his general's uniform, with its rich dark blue, and scarlet cordon. Nor did he forget the star of some royal order, which to common men seemed a cotillion favor. When he should step forth that morning, it was to play a world role. The prince must be serene in the moment of trial. The nations must know that Destiny had him in hand. And musing thus, he parted his golden beard with dainty precision. Within a month Europe would acclaim him reverently. He noted that his high boots glistened. Mejia and the other two, hurrying to him, fell back in admiration to behold how placid he was.
"Gentlemen," said he, "to leave here, or die! There's nothing else."
He noticed a soft heap at the door, and picked it up.
"Lopez's cloak, a disguise!" he exclaimed. "God bless the poor fellow, he left it for me."
He wrapped the garment about him, took his pistols, and led the way. In the dark corridor down stairs a Republican sentry mistook the cool, commanding figure for one of his own generals, and presented arms. Maximilian gravely saluted, and with his three companions passed out.
The Plaza was a blurred scene of confusion. Men were awakening to find their arms gone, and themselves covered by muskets. Shots had been fired. Curses abounded. Entire companies were being marched away as prisoners. Republican officers either thought that Maximilian was Lopez, from his cloak and height, or were too distracted to notice. It is possible, too, that the victors would have had him escape, that they might not have the trouble of his disposal, and that they preferred that he should not thrust it on them. At any rate, he and the three behind pushed their way undisturbed through cannon and brown stolid men in gray, and reached the spot where the Plaza narrows into a street that gently slopes down into the town. But here a guard was posted.
"Pues, hombre, they're civilians, let them pass."
Maximilian turned on him who spoke, and beheld the blackmailer, scout, deserter, Don Tiburcio. He wore now the uniform of a Republican explorador. His crossed eye gleamed so humorously up at the Emperor, it might have been insolence, but it was only the proffered sharing of a jest. His matter-of-fact tone prevailed, and the guard stood aside. The four passed on down the street. In comical melancholy Don Tiburcio looked after them, and then he perceived that a fifth had slipped by the guard and was following closely behind.
"The saints help us—help him, it's Murguia!" Tiburcio muttered in horror. He recalled the night when Maria de la Luz was found dead.
The old man, coatless, barefoot, in his pantaloons of Imperial green, limped desperately to keep pace with the great strides of the four ahead. The broad crimson stripe down each pant leg would break, straighten, break again, in bizarre accord, with every painful step. It was a lope, and he more like a starved wolf, a lean, persistent shadow, ever ready for the chance to spring.
By hastening down into the town, Maximilian thought to rally what forces were there for a last stand; or, to be more exact, for a last tableau. The end of his empire must have eclat. He found the town panic-stricken, since all could see the Republic's standard over the towers of La Cruz. Dumfounded officers had gotten to housetops, and were using their glasses. They beheld the enemy as busy as scurrying ants on the surrounding hills. Clouds of men from every point were sweeping across the llano toward the town. The advance were already in the narrow streets. Killing, looting, had begun. Clanging bells, hoof beats, yells, musketry, and in the distance deep-voiced cannon! The Emperor and his three companions, with the malignant shadow hovering ever near, quickened their course through the town. They paused only to dispatch couriers. Miramon, when found, was to come at all speed with every possible man to the Cerro de las Campanas. They gained the adobe suburbs on the western edge, leaving behind the fearsome rising tide of human sound. An officer forced the Emperor to mount his horse. Many joined their flight. They crossed broken fields, and reached the summit of the wedge-shaped rock called las Campanas. Close behind, emerging from the town, were the first pursuers, who quickly grew to a thick black fringe around the hill. Shells were falling. The heavens seemed to flower vengefully, with the Campanas knoll as the one focus. The adobe stockade crowning the top was soon packed with fugitives, until those within, like shipwrecked creatures on a raft, barred out those still coming. The whisper spread that in the town Miramon had been taken shot through the cheek after shooting many others. The panic grew. Men knew themselves at bay. They recognized the deathtrap. On the outlying heights the cannon had their range. Grenades, bombs, grape, and canister, fell as hail.
The Emperor turned to General Mejia.
"Could we cut our way out?" he asked.
Mejia put down his glasses. He paused, then shook his head.
Straightway an orderly with a white flag was sent down the hill. But the firing did not cease for that. Maximilian, seeing that he could make no terms for those around him, seeing them fall by scores instead, himself followed the orderly; and following him, was the ever faithful shadow.
From out the dark fringe a man on a white horse, a black bearded man with monstrous flapping ears, General Escobedo, rode forth to meet the Hapsburg. Then Maximilian forgot the eyes of the world, and thought of her who had suffered with him, who had suffered more than he, to hazard this, their dream.
"It is our throne, Charlotte," he murmured, and gave up his sword.
"Meagre were his looks, Sharp misery had worn him to the bones." —Romeo and Juliet.
A few days later Jacqueline and Berthe attended a performance at the Teatro de Iturbide. It was the first held there since the beginning of the siege, and to the place late foes were thronging eagerly in what seemed a most inordinate thirst for amusement. The playhouse was without a roof. Its metal covering had been widely sown in the shape of bullets, and only a canvas overhead kept out the sun. But the broiling pit was filled, as well as circling tier over tier of loges, and in the street a great crowd jostled and surged, like people who stare at the dead walls of a jail because a man is being hanged inside. If the curious cannot have both Time and Space to their liking, then the more ghoulish will gorge themselves on the coincidence of Time alone. "Now," they whisper awesomely, "his hands and feet are being strapped! What must he be thinking this very instant, and we standing here?" So those outside the Teatro de Iturbide sweated patiently. In all evidence it was not an ordinary performance scheduled for that day.
"Buzzards?" said Jacqueline, looking up and seeing their outspread wings shadowed on the canvas roof, "Fi donc, that effect is long since shabby!" But it chilled her, nevertheless.
The curtain was up. A drop, showing fields in green and a receding road in brown, filled the back. The actors seemed actors solely, and this idea persisted with the Frenchwoman, as with many another, throughout. Seven military characters arranged themselves in a kind of state on the unpainted, slanting stage. They might have been supernumeraries, like the "senators" in "Othello." At least their severe demeanor became them awkwardly. They wore uniforms, but not of appalling rank. He who presided was only a lieutenant colonel, the other six were captains. Before them, each on a square stool, sat two generals, one with a bandaged cheek. There were legal gentlemen in plain black, while guards at stiff attention here and there completed the grouping. Beyond any doubt, it was a trial scene. And to confirm the surmise, one of the legal gentlemen, a very peaceable appearing youth, arose and in the Republic's name demanded the lives of Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia—here he indicated the two generals—and with impressive cadence, also in the Republic's name, demanded likewise the life of Fernando Maximiliano de Hapsburgo. The lieutenant colonel and the captains knitted their seven tawny brows portentously, but they were not in the least astounded at such a very extraordinary request.
There was no need of a theatrical production at all. Other Imperialists had not been so unnecessarily distinguished, as for instance, General Mendez, that ancient enemy of Regules and executioner of Republicans under the Black Decree. Caught the day Queretaro fell, he was shot in the back as a traitor. Yet he met a legal death. Taken in armed defiance of the Republic, identity established, the hollow square and shooting squad, such was the routine prescribed. But the lesser official relics of the Empire, six hundred in all, escaped generally with a few months of prison. The rank and file of the betrayed army had already melted away. But for the three arch-culprits a trial was deemed requisite, and President Juarez, in San Luis Potosi, so ordered. Hence the stage setting as above described.
Maximilian was at first surprised. He had said to Escobedo, "I am ready to go whenever you can favor me with an escort to the coast, but first I require assurance that my loyal followers shall not suffer." But the Republican chief had smiled oddly, and locked him up. Later, however, Maximilian had seemed content. A trial for his life, that would add the last needed glamour to the prestige of his return to Europe. So he affably humored his captors, and was rewarded with humiliation—his judges could hardly be more obscure. So as he was genuinely sick abed, he got himself excused from playing his part in the Teatro Iturbide.
The soi-disant Emperor had four conscientious defenders, chosen from Republican jurists, two of whom were then in San Luis to do what they might before Juarez. The other two spent eloquence and acumen on the court's seven tawny brows. Their first point came from Maximilian himself. It was complacent, this point. The naivete of it was superb.
"I am no longer Emperor," so the defense ran, "nor was I during the siege; because, before leaving the capital, I drew up my abdication, which was then countersigned by my ministers. However, it was not to take effect until I should fall prisoner."
When the Republic recovered her breath, she felt in her amusement a wounded pride. This prince must think her very simple. So, she was to recognize the usurper's abdication after she had fought and suffered to take the usurper? A captured thief draws from his pockets a quit-claim deed to the plunder he has stolen, and giving it to the court, would therefore go free! The tragedy changed for a spell to comic opera. And matters were not helped greatly when next were invoked "the immunities and privileges which pertain under any and all circumstances to an archduke of Austria."
Though handicapped by their client's arrogance, counsel yet did their utmost. They argued law and humanity, with tremulo effects. They prayed that "the greatest of victories be crowned by the greatest of pardons." But it was of no use. The bloodthirsty stripling persisted in the Republic's name. This Maximiliano was a Mexican. In many beautiful speeches the said Maximiliano had said so. Hence he could not evade responsibility to the laws of his adopted country. And there was, for instance, the law of 1862 concerning treason.
Well, in a word, the three accused were straightway sentenced to death; and Escobedo, approving, named Sunday, June 16th, for the execution. It might be mentioned of this Escobedo that on two former occasions, when the circumstances were exactly reversed, Mejia had each time saved his life. Since Queretaro, there have been comments on the vigor of Escobedo's memory.
"Poor pliant Prince Max," sighed Jacqueline, "he is still being influenced to stay in Mexico! Come, Berthe, we must make all speed to San Luis and see the Presidente."
* * * * *
In the long hall of the Palacio Municipal at San Luis Potosi, before the old-fashioned desk there, sat an Indian. He was low and squat and pock-marked, and there was an ugly scar, livid against yellow, across the upper lip. He had a large mouth, high cheek-bones, and swarthy skin with a copperish tinge. He was a pure-blooded Indian. At twelve he did not know a word of Spanish. His race, the Zapotecas of Oaxaca, had all but been extinguished by the Conquest. Except for the ungainly black he wore—excepting, too, his character—he might have been a peon, or still the servant he once had been. But the homely, heavy features of his round head did not, in any sense, repel. On the contrary, the countenance was frank, though yet inscrutable. The piercing black eyes were good eyes, and indomitable, like his muscled jaw. The flat, square forehead made one aware of intellect, and of force. So short and thick, he looked a sluggish man, but it was the phlegm of a rock, the calm of strength, and whatever the peril, almost inanimate. His country called him Benemerito de America, a title the noblest and rarest in its Spartan hint of civic virtue.
The Indian's desk was littered with messages from the princes of the earth. Like his expiring race, he had fought their order, and they had made of him a wandering fugitive. But now they were imploring him for one of their number, whose surrendered sword that moment lay across their petitions. Two of the letters, but not from princes, he had read with deep consideration. One was from the President of the United States, the other from Victor Hugo. But these also he shoved from him, though regretfully, and now he was gazing out over the Plaza, the line of his jaw as inflexible as ever.
But they were not many, the moments this man had to himself, and it was not long before a gendarme in coarse blue, serving as an orderly, disturbed him.
"Well, show her in then," he said, frowning at the card laid on his desk, nor did he rise when an unusually beautiful but very grave young woman entered the room.
"At your orders, Senorita de—d'Aumerle. You come, I suppose, to save him?—But," he added with the austerity of a parent, "it is not difficult to imagine why you are interested."
"No, Senor Presidente," he heard himself quietly contradicted, "Your Excellency can not imagine."
He looked up, into a pair of honest gray eyes. But her tone had already told him enough. He rose to his feet in rugged courtesy. The Indian was a wise man, and he knew now that other men had whispered falsely about one exquisite Parisienne.
"Pardon me, child," he said gently. "No, I cannot imagine."
Impulsively Jacqueline leaned over the desk and gave him her hand. "Thank you," she said, in a voice that trembled unexpectedly. From that moment, too, she abandoned tactics. The wiles of courts would avail nothing against the primitive straightforwardness of the man before her. It seemed, moreover, good and homely, to cast them aside. She took a seat near the window, since he remained standing until she did, and waited. He should speak first, and afterward, she would accept. For there was nothing, she felt, that she could say. O rare tongue of woman, to so respect the leash of intuitions!
As for Don Benito Juarez, he had not meant to speak at all. But knowing her now to be not what he had thought, he spoke as he had not to any plenipotentiary of any crowned head.
"You are a Frenchwoman, senorita," he began. "Tell me, your coming must be explained by that?"
"Now," said Jacqueline, smiling on him cordially, "Your Excellency's imagination is getting better."
"And you wish to save Maximilian," the Presidente stated, rather than questioned, "because he is a victim of France."
"Because he will be considered so."
The old Roman smiled. "My dear young lady," he said, "an answer to France is the least of my obligations. Yet you expect it, and ask for clemency, though I deny all the great nations?"
"Oh senor, what's the use? Let him go!"
The keen black eyes regarded her quizzically. "Do you know," he said, "this is the second time I've heard that question to-day? One of our American officers had himself put in command of the escort for Maximilian's two lawyers here, and now I believe he did it simply because he too wanted to know, 'What's the use?' It was anti-climax, and a wet blanket over the fervid eloquence of the two lawyers. But nevertheless, he hit the one argument."
"In a word, why not brush aside our archduke? He's harmless, now, he's insignificant? Why not take from him the only dignity left, that of dying?"
"Of course, Senor Juarez! Of course!"
"And at the same time win bright renown for ourselves, instead of what will be called harsh cruelty?"
The smile vanished. The large mouth closed tightly.
"No," spoke the judge of iron. "He dies! That is the truest mercy, a mercy to those who might otherwise follow him here. And we, senorita, we have already suffered enough from Europe."
"But the other two?" pleaded Jacqueline. "They are Mexicans."
"They are that, por Dios, and they make me proud of my race. Miramon, Mejia, they are the leaven. They redeem Lopez, they redeem Marquez, they redeem the deserters who now so largely form my armies, who before had deserted me for the French invasion. By the signal example of these two men to die to-morrow, the world shall know that Mexicans are not all traitors. And as we grow, we Mexicans, we may grow beyond the empty loyalty of glowing Spanish words. Remembering such an example, we may come to be, in our very hearts, breathing things of honor. We have been shackled because of infamy during the last centuries. Can you wonder, then, that we use the treacherous weapon of the Conquistadores?—But that's apart. The loyalty of Miramon and Mejia has been loyalty to an invader, a wrong their country will not forgive. But our cultured gentleman of Europe, our vain fool who would regenerate the poor Indito, he will perhaps not feel so ashamed of us, not when he has two such companions in death, and not when he learns, though painfully, that the rod of Mexican justice respects neither immunity nor privilege of birth. There, senorita, I've had to talk more about this one individual than about the hundreds of others who have been punished for much less than he."
"But it must be terrible to die, senor. And he doesn't realize, while a delay of only a few days——"
"Would suffice for his escape?"
Jacqueline reddened guiltily. "No, to prepare for his end," she said.
The Presidente smiled tolerantly. "Never fear," he answered first her confusion, "our justice stands committed, and to wink at escape now would be cowardly. Yet, whether you meant it or not, you are right, and the execution stands postponed until the nineteenth. A doomed man may learn much in three days to comfort him—on his way. But the criminal of all is lacking."
"Marquez, you mean?"
"U'm, him also. But I was thinking of Louis Napoleon, and his wife."
The order of postponement, being openly telegraphed to Escobedo at Queretaro, was known at once in San Luis, and caused a fury of excitement. For none doubted but that it meant eventual pardon. The tender hearted rejoiced. The rabid ones muttered. The wise shook dubious heads. And even as Jacqueline and Berthe were hurrying back to Queretaro in the canvas-covered coach, another caller was admitted roundly on the president's privacy, without so much as being announced. Juarez wondered if his orderly had gone crazy, for the newcomer thus obsequiously presented looked to be a species of ancient vagabond.
"Well, what is it?" the President asked, frowning heavily. He was curiously irritated. "Stay," he interposed, "those dusty, muddy rags you have on, that green and red, that's not a Republican uniform?"
"It's of the Batallon del Emperador," replied the stranger, unabashed.
"Bless me the saints! Well, well, well, I suppose you, too, want to save your Maximilian. But how does it happen that you're not under guard yourself?"
For answer the old man came nearer. He limped feebly, and the while he unbuttoned his coarse red jacket. Juarez watched him sluggishly, but with a hand upon a revolver under the papers on his desk. The stranger, however, drew forth nothing more sensational than five or six square bits of parchment. Yet these aroused the President more than a weapon could have done. They were blank, except at the bottom, and there the President read his own signature, "Benito Juarez, Libertad y Reforma."
"Your—Your Excellency remembers?"
"How well!" The admission came involuntarily. Juarez was laboring under an emotion that he could not at first control. He stared at his visitor in a new wonder. So gaunt, so hollow, so utterly insignificant! The President's wonder grew.
"You—you gained entrance here by one of these slips?" he questioned sharply. The old man nodded. "And it was countersigned by——"
"Si senor, by El Chaparrito. The slip said, 'Admit bearer at once.'"
"Then I cannot blame my orderly! But who are you?"
"Anastasio Murguia, to serve Your Mercy."
"Bien, Senor Murguia, and now will you explain what no other messenger from our unknown friend has done? Who—who is El Chaparrito?"
But, like the wretched messengers who had gone before, Anastasio Murguia only shrugged his shoulders blankly. "Your Excellency does not know El Chaparrito?" he asked. "And yet you trusted him, a stranger, with your signature?"
There was a crafty stress on his words.
"Ah, senor," Juarez placidly inquired, "what if a chief magistrate did not know when to trust? You are to be informed, then, that one year ago last October, at Chihuahua, I was saved from a French flying column by an Indito. The poor wretch had run across the desert with his warning. But he could prove nothing. He couldn't even tell who sent him, except that it was a short gentleman, a senor chaparro. Yet it was well for the Republic that I took his word and fled. Later, when I reached the Rio Grande, and he wanted my signature to some blank squares of parchment, which he was to take back to his senor chaparro—well, senor, I trusted again. That Indito in breech-clout obtained my autograph some twenty times over."
The President, however, might have added that every Republican officer was advised first to test any warning on any bit of parchment signed "Benito Juarez." Yet, as a matter of fact, there came to be such magic in the name of El Chaparrito that the name of Juarez thereto was only needed as a guarantee that the lesser name was genuine.
"Now, then, Senor Emissary," said the President, "what danger hangs over our Republic this time?"
"None, senor. I return the parchment squares left over. El—El Chaparrito has no more thoughts for the Republic. He thinks," and Murguia ground his knuckles into the desk top, "he thinks of no one, of no one—except Maximilian! And he has never thought of aught else. The Republic? Bah, the Republic was only his tool, Senor Presidente. Only his tool, but the tool needed sharpening. They say that's the way with the guillotine, eh, Senor Presidente?"
"But hombre—No, our unseen friend of the Republic, our Chaparrito, would not ask for Maximilian's pardon?"
"Pardon!"—It was fairly a cry of rage—"Yet you, Senor Presidente, you postpone the execution! You mean to pardon him!"
"Yes, I—I think so. But you shall not, Senor Presidente. I come to, to——"
"Now that's curious. Possibly I, too, am to be sharpened into a kind of guillotine, eh, senor?"
"All the others were," Murguia returned stubbornly. "That is, all except one."
"Ha, then El Chaparrito found one man who was incorruptible?"
"Yes. But still Your Excellency is mistaken. El Chaparrito did not use money to win his agents. That, senor, is the unsafest way of all."
"You would tell me, senor, that El Chaparrito had a safe way?"
"Yes, and it was absolute. He awakened memory, the memory, Senor Presidente, of wrongs. For example, there was Your Excellency's savior in breech-clout. He once lived in a forest village down in the Huasteca. One night Dupin came and burned the huts, and the Indito's family perished with other women and children there. That village alone gave the Chaparrito many another messenger or spy, but memories left by the Empire were plentiful enough everywhere, and cheap. The Chaparrito simply drafted them, that was all. But once his system failed. Yet—well the man in that case was an American, and they are liable to be exceptions to any rule, to any passion. But in the end he was safe enough too, though something else, that I can't understand, made him so."
"And what did he do, this American?"
"He took me to Escobedo."
"I took Lopez. That same night Queretaro fell."
"You? Now—now to what particular wrong in your case, senor, does the Republic stand thus indebted?"
Juarez put the question lightly, even patronizingly. But his steadfast gaze had not once left his gaunt and battered visitor. By design, too, he had not asked a second time who the Chaparrito was, because he saw, or felt, that the old man knew, though former emissaries from that mysterious source had not known. And Juarez meant to possess the secret. But with his casual irony he never looked for any such kindling of memory as then flashed deep in the cavernous sockets opposite him. The eyes of the aged man glowed and darkened, glowed and darkened, and seemed the very breathing of some famished beast. It was a thing to startle even Benito Juarez, who during many, many years had learned the meaning of civil war. The President leaped to his feet, pointing a finger.
"You are," he cried, "yes, you are the Chaparrito!—No?—Yes! Ha, I've struck, I've struck!"
He had indeed. The colossal guile and intellect and will, the giant whom men in awe called El Chaparrito, was only old, withered Anastasio Murguia. But the astute Juarez knew that he was right. He knew it in that one look of consuming, conquering hate. He knew the giant in that hate. The feeble flesh, Anastasio Murguia, was an incident. Yet even so, only the President's tenacity held him to where his instinct had leapt. For under discovery Murguia was changed to a huddled, abject creature, stammering denial. Yet it must be true, it must. The strangest, the most weird of contrasts in the same soul and body—yet it must, it was true!
And Murguia? He might have asked for reward, and had it. But his was rankest despair. His work was not finished, his goal not attained. And now his most potent instrument of all, the Chaparrito, was miserably identified in his own self, was taken from him.
Juarez rose and touched his shoulder, "Come," he said, "there's much too much tension here. Now then, sit down, so. Let me see, you said your name was—yes, Murguia. But—why, Dios mio, that's the Huasteca miser! Well, well, well, and so you are that rich old hacendado who never gave even a fanega of corn to Republic or French either, unless frightened into it? But hombre, we've had big sums from the Chaparrito, and all unasked!"
And yet must it still be true, yet must even this contrast accord. El Chaparrito had indeed given munificently. But in each case it was to bridge a crisis. As the shrewdest general he knew a vital campaign, and aided, if need be. But on a useless one the Republic's soldiers might starve, might freeze, might bleed and die, without ever the most niggardly solace ever reaching them from El Chaparrito. Economy was applied to vengeance, and made it unspeakably grim.
"Once though," Juarez pursued, "you all but lost your Maximilian? I mean last fall when he started for the coast. He could have escaped to Europe."
"I know," said Murguia quietly, "but I was near him. If he had not turned back, I would have done it myself."
"The justice which Your Excellency has just postponed three days."
"Dios mio, but our Chaparrito is a dangerous person! He'd have to be locked up if Maximilian were pardoned."
"But—but Your Excellency will not pardon him!"
"To be sure, I had forgotten. I am to be given a memory. Well?"
"Your Excellency remembers, he remembers Zacatecas?"
"Last February? Certainly I do. Miramon came, but a warning from El Chaparrito, from you, came first, and a last time I escaped. As it was, I was reported captured, and I sometimes wonder what Maximilian would have done had that report been true."
"If I should tell you, senor?"
"Ah, that is beyond even you, since Maximilian has never had the chance to decide my fate."
"But he did decide, senor. He got word that you were taken at Zacatecas, and at once he sent orders to Miramon as to your treatment. But Miramon was already defeated, already fleeing to Queretaro."
"And the orders, the orders from Maximilian?"
"They never arrived. They were intercepted. They—yes, here they are, but before reading them, will Your Excellency promise to imagine himself in Miramon's power?"
"I would, naturally. Come, senor, hand them over."
It made curious reading, that weather-blotched dispatch. For Don Benito Juarez it was reading as curious as a man may ever expect to come by. In the handwriting of his prisoner, he read his own death sentence.
"Your—Your Excellency sees?" Murguia stammered hungrily.
"H'm, what, for example?"
"Why, that—that Maximilian would not have pardoned?"
"On the contrary, senor mio, that is precisely what the generous Maximilian did intend. Listen—Miramon was 'to delay execution until His Majesty should pass upon it.'"
"No—no, Your Excellency, he would not have——"
"O ho, so you think you've missed your last stroke! You think that there is no memory for me in this dispatch! But don't whine so, because, man, there is, there is! It may not be the memory of my intended death, but it is the memory of—intended insult. Oh, what a patriot he must have thought me, this good, regenerating prince! He had already offered to make me chief justice. But this time he would have saved me from his own Black Decree. And I would have been touched by his clemency? I would have accepted, the grateful tears streaming from my eyes? And thus I would be regenerated? It sounds beautiful. It sounds like the chivalrous Middle Ages, when there were Black Princes along with the Black Decrees. My liege lord he would have been, but my liege Patria, what of her?—Well, well, well, he has three days in which to understand me better, and to think of his own regeneration a little."
"Then," cried Murgia, limping gleefully toward him, "then there will be no pardon?"
"I see," said Juarez, suddenly cold and very calm, "I am now corrupted. I am now safe, like the others. Take that chair, wait!"
Saying which the Presidente left his desk, clapped his hands for the orderly, and seated himself near the window. To the orderly he said, "Go to the diligence office across the Plaza. Ask for Colonel Driscoll, the American officer who commands the escort of the two lawyers. Say that I wish to see him here at once."
When Driscoll appeared, Juarez put to him this question, "Colonel—I'll say 'General' whenever you decide to be a citizen among us—Colonel, can you reach Queretaro early to-morrow morning by riding all night?"
"Not with my own horse, sir. He's getting old, and deserves better."
"Then it's all right, senor. You will take any horse you want. I have telegraphed to stop the execution, but there's been no reply. You must therefore see General Escobedo yourself. Look on my desk. Do you find a packet there?"
"Sealed? Well, break it open. Now read the contents to my visitor here."
Driscoll unfolded a long sheet of foolscap, and began to read. Murguia the while fidgeted in an agony, but listening further, his limbs grew tense, and a hideous joy overspread his face.
"'But at sunrise of the nineteenth you will execute the sentence already approved.'"
The prisoners were not to be deceived by false hopes. There would be no further appeal. The last, the final decision, had been made.
"I have signed it, I believe, Colonel Driscoll?"
"Then seal it again, and hurry! Good-bye, sir, good-bye."
When Driscoll was gone, the Benemerito of America turned to the grinning hyena-like old man who was his visitor. His own dark features were passionless, impenetrable.
"You observe, senor," he said, "that Justice does not require corrupting, nor even a memory. So let El Chaparrito add this to his philosophy, that he need not boast again of an infallible spur to civic loyalty, for he will never find it, nor I. And yet—there is patriotism."
IN ARTICULO MORTIS
"The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.... Man cannot be happy and strong until he lives in the present."—Emerson.
For Maximilian it was the eve of execution. The soul feels that there is much to decide at such a time, but under the nettling merciless load the soul will either flounder pitifully and decide nothing, else lie numb and in a half death vaingloriously believe that it has decided everything. So may the condemned be open-eyed or blind. Or, according to the police reporter, be either coward or stoic. But it really depends in large measure on whether realization be dulled, or no.
Maximilian had too late come to understand that his anointed flesh was violable at all. He learned it only when the death watch was actually set on his each remaining breath. And now he was en capilla, in the chapel of the doomed; he, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Archduke of Austria, Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, Count of Hapsburg, Prince of Lorraine, Emperor of Mexico, even He!
They had given him the tower room of Queretaro's old Capuchin church, and against the wall was an improvised altar. But the sacrament waited. The tapers on the snow-white cloth were as yet unlighted. Instead the Most Serene Archduke—Emperor no longer—read from a battered volume of Universal History, which, with a book's queer vagaries, had strayed into his cell. He read how Charles of England had died, then he paused, blinking at the two candles on the rough table. They were vague shapes, they were horrors, which he now began to see, as the visions of Truth so often are when hazily perceived.
He bitterly envied that unhappy Stuart, who, before his palace window, among Cavaliers and Roundheads, had died in majesty, the bright central figure in a tragedy of august magnitude. But for the Hapsburg how sordid, how mean, it all would be! He could see already the gaping, yellow faces, sympathetic in their stupidity. They would not really know that a prince was dying. The very guard with shouldered bayonet outside his door was a deserter, and it was this man, more than aught else, that gave him to chafe against his ignoble lot. The fellow never uttered a word, indeed; but he had a heavy, malignant eye, and each time he passed the large inner window that opened on the corridor he would look into the cell, as though to locate his prisoner. Then Maximilian could feel the insolent, mocking gleam upon himself, until for rage he clenched his fist.
Thus the Most Serene Archduke's first perception of calamity was not that royal blood was to flow, but that it was to flow obscurely. Even the ancient raven curse, the curse of the Habicht which had given his House its very name, was now fulfilled by unclean buzzards. He saw them each day, perched on the neighboring roofs.
He sighed and turned to his book. Universal History? Yes, but for hundreds and hundreds of years that history of millions and millions of people was no more than the record of his own little family group. Such a course of reading for such a man held a terrible grandeur, and it must have been a unique sensation of pride that touched the golden-bearded, ultra-refined viking prince. A spoilt child he was, and though so cruelly reproved by Life, he yet could learn no lesson in the passing footnote that he would add to that family record. He could not see that the light which made the printed characters so dazzling, yet distorted them. He could not know that the commonest man of the millions and millions might read that Universal History by quite a different and a calmer light. But he was aware of the sentinel's tread back of him, and aware too of the fellow's coarse, familiar leer.
One consolation he felt he might have had, and this was the dignity of martyrdom. But no one, alas, seemed to regard him as a martyr at all. He had begged that he alone should suffer. But the play at knightly generosity was too shallow. For at the time Maximilian believed that he would not suffer in any case. Later, though, when he knew that he must die, then with simple earnestness he had pleaded for Miramon and Mejia, and forgot himself altogether. But Juarez had hardly more than acknowledged the telegram, and now in the cell next him Miramon was confessing, and in the cell on his other side Mejia waited. Each of these two men would leave a wife and child.
Someone knocked. "No, father, not yet," Maximilian answered gently, although his mood was impatience. The confessor sighed in protest against the waste of precious time, but he did not move away, as he had already twice before during the night. Instead he came and stood at the corridor window. His lip trembled pityingly. There was news, he said.
Maximilian pushed back the book, and was on his feet. The priest meeting his eager look, shook his head sadly.
"It comes from—from Miramar."
Maximilian fell back. One hand groped out involuntarily, as in appeal before a blow. "News of Charlotte?" he asked faintly.
Charlotte was dead, the priest told him.
During a long time, after the priest had gone, his head lay on his arms, between the two candles. He heard no more the sentry challenges, nor sensed the menace in every slightest sound of the dark night outside. There was something else. "Death?" At first he did not consciously strive for an answer. But the question kept falling, and falling again, as a lash. The vulgar hands which plied the scourge, the stupid yellow faces, these no longer mattered. He felt the blows themselves, only the blows.
She had died, the poor maniac! She had died, a thing for the lowliest pity. And this was true of the haughty child of Orleans because she had wanted a throne. Slowly her husband raised his head; and staring at the wall, his tear-dimmed eyes opened wider and wider. Because she had wanted a throne? Because she had wanted a dais above the meek and lowly, above those who now pitied her! His eyes fell on the Universal History—the family record, and there grew in his eyes a look of detestation. Groaning suddenly, he buried his head again in his arms.
At dawn he too was to die, and because he too had craved a sceptre. Yet, and yet, he had meant to be an instrument of good. Born of kings, anointed by the Vicar of Christ, he had come as agent from the Almighty. But God had failed to sustain him, God had—again the blue eyes raised, but dry now, and stark in terror. "Yes, yes, yes," so his reeling soul cried to him, "there is a God! There is, there is!" One sharp breath, and the mortal fear passed. In ghastly panic he crept back from the brink, either of the atheist's despair or of the madman's chaos. But the cost was heavy. Since God did exist, and God yet had failed him, then it was the man's Divine Right that must be false. He, only a man, had mistaken his Destiny. Nay, had he a Destiny? Or why, more than another man? Here, then, was the cost. To keep his hope of Heaven, he stepped down among the millions and millions. His Divine Right, crumbling under the grandeur of partition among the millions, became for himself the most infinitesimal of shares, neither greater nor less than that of any other human being. But glorified now by the holy alchemy of Charity, the tiny grain became divine indeed, and he beheld it as a glowing spark, his own inalienable share in the rights of man. So, for a moment, the poet prince knew again his old-time exultation. Even Truth, he now perceived, had her sublimities.
But the pall of horror fell again. To-morrow he was to die. He was to die because his life long he had sought to rob others of the tiny grain, of their God-given dignity as men, and that too, even as they were awaking to its possession. The vanity, the presumptuous, inconsistent vanity of it all! Under the dark mediaeval cloak he had planned enlightenment, he, who had tried to rule without parliament, without constitution! He would have made a people believe in God's injustice, in God's choice of a man like them to be a demigod over them. Hence the blasphemous demigod had now to answer to human law. And it was meet and right. Purgatory was beginning on the eve of his death.
He, the torch of Progress! Maximilian smiled scornfully on himself. He was only a clod of grit caught in the world's great wheels. The foreign substance had wrought a discordant screech for a moment, and then was mercilessly ground into powder and thrust out of the bearings. He pondered on the first days of the Family Group, when there was extenuation; more, when there was necessity, for a king. At any rate the monarch then earned, or could earn, his pomp and state by services actually rendered. And now? The Hapsburg decided that there was not a more contemptible parasite on the body politic. The crowned head was simply the first among paupers. He had his bowl of porridge, which was the civil list.
The doomed prince sank to a depth of shame that may not be conceived. He was humanity's puny infant. He had dawdled among men centuries older than himself. His whole being was out of harmony with the universe. Fate had held his soul fast during those Dark Ages when he might have striven nobly, and now had cast it forth, an anachronism. It was a soul misplaced in eternity. The dire realization grew and grew, and with it the tragic agony, until with a sudden and the bitterest of cries he flung up his arms and fell heavily across the table.
"My life!" he moaned in piteous begging for something he might not have. "My life, to live my life over again!"
In the first light of morning Escobedo came. The Republican general unfolded a paper, and began to read. But instead of the death sentence, it was reprieve. President Juarez had postponed execution for three days.
"Three days?" Maximilian repeated, wearily shaking his head. "If your Republic could give me as many centuries, but three days!—Three days, in which to live my life!"
KNIGHTHOOD'S BELATED FLOWER
"Trusting to shew, in wordes few, That men have an ill use (To their own shame) women to blame, And causeless them accuse." —The Nut-Brown Maid.
Later the same morning there sounded the ineffable swish of silken petticoats along the corridor and the clinking of high heels on the tiles. La Senorita Marquesa d'Aumerle had obtained permission to visit His Most Serene Highness. The sentinel of the evening before was again on duty, and his evil crossed eye seemed to lighten with vast humor as he presented arms for the lady to pass. She met his insolence with a searching, level gaze.
Maximilian hastened to the door of his bare cell, and took both her hands in his. "I am beginning to recognize my friends," he said simply. "I know, I know," he added, "you come to tell me that you failed to get the pardon. But you do bring reprieve."
He would have her believe that he valued that.
Jacqueline regarded steadily the tall, slight figure in black, with the pinioned sheep of the Golden Fleece about his neck, and she sighed. She was disappointed in him. She had thought that pride of race, if nothing more, would give him character during these last moments. She allowed, too, for the grief, and the remorse, in the blow of Charlotte's death. But she was not prepared for the roving eyes, the disordered mind, the feverish unrest of the condemned prince. Had his soul, then, been a cringing one throughout the night just past? It was the first time she had seen him, except at a distance, since the day she arrived in Queretaro, for she had chosen, and perhaps maliciously, to disconcert the tongue of slander. Hence she could not picture the ravages of sickness and anxiety, until now when she beheld his haggard face. It was one to bring a pang. The cheeks were hollow, the lines sharply drawn, and the skin was white, so very white, with never a fleck of pink remaining. And staring from the wasted flesh were the eyes, large and round and faded blue, and in them an appealing, a haunted look. But they softened at sight of her, as though comforted already.
"A reprieve is best," he said. "You cannot think that I want a pardon, now that, that she is dead!"
"'Sire'? Ah, my lady, you are a little late, by something like a few hundred years. You see our American was right after all; a letter no longer makes a king."
It was a bon mot that Maximilian had always enjoyed, it being his own, but this time he was most zealously in earnest.
"Monsieur, then," she said, in no mood for reforms of etiquette. "Only, let me talk! We have three days, three days which are to be used. Your Highness must escape!"
But now she understood him less than before, for he only smiled wearily. It was, then, something else than fear that had broken him so.
Escape? And that guard in the corridor? Passing, ever passing, the diabolical humorist seemed to chuckle inwardly, as though to stand death-watch were the most exquisite of jokes.
"That man?" whispered Jacqueline. "Why, that's Don Tiburcio. He was driven out of the Imperialist ranks by Father Fischer. But from his lips, this very night, Your Highness will hear that the road is open to Vera Cruz. Ah sire—monsieur—we have been working, we others. There will be horses ready, there will be a long ride, and then, you will safely board an Austrian ship waiting for you."
Maximilian slowly shook his head. "No," he said, "I am ready to die, as—as ready as I shall ever be."
"But the remaining years of your natural life, Your Highness counts them as nothing! Yet you might live twice your present age!"
"My life—over again," he murmured dreamily.
"Of course, why not?"
"One year to redeem each year that has gone."
"Years of Destiny!" she cried, thinking to touch him there.
"No!" he exclaimed, so harshly and quick that it startled her. "But for me they will be years of dearest mercy. Wait, tell me first, Miramon and Mejia——"
"Yes, yes, we will save them too. Only, the risk is greater."
"Bien!" He had almost accepted, but he smothered the word, and starting up, began to pace the room. At last he stopped. "The risk must be lessened, for them," he said. "I will remain."
"H'm'n," the girl ejaculated, "Hamlet declines? Then there will be no play at all, at all."
Maximilian knew how stubborn she could be; and so, reluctantly, he joined the plot.
"I have deserved Marquez and Fischer and Lopez," he sighed. "But why there should be friends, even now, that I cannot understand."
Yet she told him bluntly why she wanted his safety. It was on France's account. Still, his gratitude was no less profound. She who would give life to others, what was her life to be henceforth? The mellowing sorrow, which her vivacity could not hide, smote him again, as it had that evening in Mexico when he came to her for counsel. He remembered. Out of a useless ambition for her country she had squandered her name, blighted her future. He remembered how, looking on her saddened face, he had been exalted to a pure devotion, and had burned with knightly fervor to do her some impossible service. But what was the service? There his memory failed, and he despised the chivalrous ardor which could be quenched with feeding on itself. After the fearful vigil of the night before, he had found a suit of armor beside him. In a word, he had forgotten self. Simple compassion was enough. That service? that service? If he could only remember. But he must. And in hot anger he strode back and forth, while Jacqueline sat and gazed in wonder. Once, turning from the corridor window, he paused. The guard had stopped a man, who now was evidently waiting until the prisoner should be unoccupied. Unseen himself, Maximilian recognized in the man the American named Driscoll. And then he remembered. He remembered Jacqueline's secret, betrayed to him that evening in Mexico. He remembered that her happiness was lost in the loss of this man's respect. Here, at last, lay the impossible service!
Maximilian glanced toward her stealthily. No, from where she sat she could not see the corridor, could not see the waiting American. A moment later Maximilian stood behind her; and when he spoke, she thought it odd that he should change from French to halting English.
"Miss d'Aumerle," he began, in distinct if nervous phrasing, "yes, it was for France, all, all of which you haf done. Therefore is it that you haf come to this country, and here to Queretaro, whatever is to the contrary said."
"De grace," she laughed, rising abruptly, "there's enough to do to-day without discussing——"
But he intercepted her even as she opened the door.
"Will Your Highness kindly let me pass?"
"And I know, I alone, that nefer haf you toward myself once felt, once shown, that which——"
A sharp, indignant cry escaped her. Following her gaze he saw the American pass on down the corridor and out of hearing.
"Now who," exclaimed the chagrined prince, "would ever have imagined such delicacy of breeding!"
"And don't ever again," cried Jacqueline furiously, "imagine that I stand in need of being righted!" Wherewith she too was gone, leaving her clumsy knight staring blankly after her.
A few moments later Driscoll knocked.
It was the first meeting of these two men since the memorable afternoon at Cuernavaca, when Driscoll had surprised Jacqueline listening to royalty's shameless suit. Now he beheld Fatality's retribution for that day's bitterness. Retribution, yes. But it was not restitution. The girl he loved had just passed him in the corridor with a slight casual nod, and he would not, could not, stretch forth a hand to stop her. Instead, the smile so ironical of Fate had touched his lips.
"I was sent by Senor Juarez, sir," he addressed the archduke in the tone of military business. "The President is afraid your three days of reprieve will be misunderstood. He sent for me as I was leaving San Luis yesterday, and I—I was to tell you——"
"You need not hesitate, colonel."
"Well, that you must not hope for pardon, for the sentence will positively be carried out day after to-morrow. That—I believe that is all."
"But—" Maximilian called, staying him. "Dios mio, such news merits a longer telling. It seems to me too, Senor Americano, that you should enjoy it the more, since it was partly you who brought me to this."
"I don't know as I'd thought of that. How?"
"You ask how? Do you forget how you took the traitor Lopez to Escobedo, the night I was betrayed?"
Driscoll swung bluntly round on his questioner. "No I don't," he replied. "But you see, there was such a lot of bloodshed scheduled for the next day?"
"Isn't that rather a curious reproof from a soldier? Loyal hearts would have bled, yes, and gladly. Noble fellows, they would have saved their Emperor!"
Driscoll half snorted, and turned on his heel. But he stopped, his lips pressed to a clean, hard line. "What of those townsmen in the trenches?" he demanded. "It wasn't their fight."
Maximilian's eyes opened very wide, and slowly his expression changed. The thick lower lip drooped and quivered. Suddenly he came nearer the American, a trembling hand outstretched.
"I was saved that," he murmured earnestly.
"They were," the grim trooper corrected him.
"The townsmen, yes. But I—I was kept from murder. God in heaven, I would have murdered them! Ah, senor, if I could put to my account a night's work such as yours, that night, when you used the traitor! I could almost thank Lopez. I do thank you."
Still Driscoll failed to notice the proffered hand. He might have, had he seen his suppliant's face, and the tense anguish there.
"Those innocent non-combatants, then," Maximilian went on, "so they counted more than a prince with you?"
"Of course, there were a thousand of 'em."
The other's haggard look gave way to a smile, half sad, half amused, and taking the American by the shoulder in a grip almost affectionate, he said, "Colonel, did you ever happen to know of one Don Quixote of La Mancha? Well, lately I've begun to think that he was the truest of gentlemen, though now I believe I could name another who——"
"And," interrupted Driscoll, "did you ever try to locate the most dignified animal that walks, bipeds not excepted? Well, sir, it's the donkey. Take him impartially, and you'll say so too."
The strain was over. Maximilian laughed. "If Don Quixote had only had your sanity!" he began; "or rather," he added, charmed with the conceit, "if knighthood had had it, then the poor don would never have been needed to be born at all."
Ignoring the sincerity of the Hapsburg's new philosophy, and how tragically it was grounded, Driscoll only smiled in a very peculiar way. Knighthood? The word was supercilious cant, and irritated him. During that very moment, while listening to Chivalry's devotee, the young trooper thought of a little ivory cross in his pocket, a cross which was stained with a girl's blood. Murguia had given it to him, to give to Maximilian on the eve of execution. But Driscoll had not promised, and yet Murguia had implored him to take it, even without promising. The old man held faith in vengeance as a spring to drive all souls alike, and if Maximilian's last earthly moment could be embittered with sight of a cross, then, he firmly believed, the American needed only to be tempted with the means to do it. Moreover, in a sudden impulse, Driscoll had taken the holy symbol, "to do with as he chose." There was no message, Murguia had explained. The Senor Emperador would read the graven name, "Maria de la Luz," and that would suffice.
Looking now on the cultured gentleman caressing his beard, Driscoll thought again how hellishly distorted was the sign of salvation then in his pocket. But he left it there. He, too, had a king's pride, incapable of low spite. Charity alone, though, would have held him, if he had but known that Maximilian was ignorant of the dead girl's fate.
The archduke for his part had been amiable and conciliatory, because there was a certain delicate question he wished to ask.
"Oh by the way, mi coronel," he said abruptly, "I must extend my excuses for keeping you waiting in the corridor just now. But there was another visitor here. And as we happened to be talking of—well, of a rather personal matter, not intended for outside ears——"
"Do not worry. When you raised your voice, I turned and left."
"But perhaps," said Maximilian slowly, "it would have been better if you had overheard, either you or another knowing the cruel rumors which—which link my recent visitor's name with my own. Then the truth would have been made known. That truth, senor," he hastened to add, despite a hardening frown between the American's eyes, "means first that I have been honored, indeed, in my visitor's——"
He got no further. A broad hand closed over his mouth.
"Another word of that, and I'll—I'll——"
The threat was left unfinished. Gasping in the chair where he had fallen, Maximilian found himself alone. He was vaguely nonplussed. There had been so many revelations of late that he thought this one simply a further re-adjusting of himself to the modern world of men. The present instance had to do with the critical juncture where the woman enters. But he had learned something else, too. The American loved her, and that was important. Yet lovers were very contrary beings, he mused lugubriously.
"Still, I shall try again," he decided. "One humble success against my career of distinguished failures should not be too much to expect."
The night that followed, a black, favorable night, was the time planned for escape. Horses ready saddled waited outside the town under the aqueduct. Certain guards were bribed, among them Don Tiburcio. The humorous rascal had driven a hard bargain, but only because the money was to be had. He would have sold himself as briskly for the cream of the jest.
Late the same night there came a frantic pounding at Driscoll's door, where he was quartered in the sacristy of the old Capuchin church. "Well?" he muttered, alert already.
"Hurry, mi coronel!" a cracked voice blended with the knocking. "Hurry, you are wanted!"
"Murgie!" Driscoll exclaimed, flinging wide the door. "Back from San Luis, and prowling round here as usual, eh? Well, what's the matter?"
"Quick, senor! Maximilian is sick. Go, go to him!"
Partly dressed, bootless, unarmed, Driscoll shoved the old man aside, and sped through the church, hopping over half awakened soldiers as he went. Once in the street, he glanced up at the tower room, which was Maximilian's, and thought it odd that no light streamed through the narrow slits there. The sentinels, too, were gone. But he ran up the steps and darted along the corridor, only to strike his head against a heavy wooden door that was ajar. He rushed inside the cell, and with arms outspread quickly covered the space of it, in the utter dark smashing a chair, crashing over a table, cursing a mishap to his toe. But he found no one.
"This here's a jail-break," he mumbled under his breath. "Dam' that Murgie, he's roped me in to stop 'em!" Whereat, all unconsciously, he smiled again at Fatality.
Groping his way back to the corridor, he felt rather than saw three dim figures steal past the door. Silently, swiftly, he gave pursuit. He heard a fervent whisper just ahead.
"Hasten, dear friends, and may God——"
The next second he was grappling with someone. But his unknown captive did not resist.
"There, senor, loosen your fingers. I am not escaping. I am returning to my cell. But I had to make the other two think that I was with them."
The voice was Maximilian's.
"Hark! Ah, poor souls, they have failed!"
The prince spoke truly. A fierce "Alto ahi!" sounded below. Then there were musket shots and the confusion of many scrambling feet. Murguia had routed out the church barracks. And when torches were brought, the soldiers discovered that they had hands on Miramon and Mejia. But the false sentinels were gone! In leaving the road clear they had used it themselves, already.
"You fools!" suddenly a half crazed wail arose. "Fools, he has escaped! He——"
"Oh dry up, Murgie," said Driscoll, coming down the steps. "He's gone back to his room, I reckon."
THE TITLE OF NOBILITY
"Hear, therefore, O ye kings, and understand." —Wisdom of Solomon.
One more sunset, one more sunrise! And then?...
Maximilian again confronted the ghostly enumeration. But this time his last day should be the day of a man's work, in simple-hearted humility. He no more searched the skies to find a supernal finger there. He let Destiny alone, and did his best instead. For a man's best is Destiny's peer.
The fiery June sun was dying in its larger shell of bronze over the western sierras, and the self-same blue that vaults beautiful Tuscany was taking on its richer, darker hue, when a foreigner in the land, Din Driscoll, walked under the Alameda trees, his pipe cold in his mouth, he perplexed before his heavy spirits. For he no longer had war to distract, to engross.
Maximilian's physician, an Austrian, found him in his reverie. Would the Herr Americano at once repair to His Highness attend? The senor's presence would a favor be esteemed, in reason that a witness was greatly necessitated.
Wondering not a little, Driscoll hastened back into the town. As the physician did not follow, he arrived alone. But in the door of the archduke's cell he stopped, angry and embarrassed. For his eyes encountered a second pair, which were no less angry, which moreover, were Jacqueline's. Maximilian and Padre Soria, the father confessor, were also there, but Driscoll at first saw no one but Jacqueline. As with him, she had been vaguely summoned, without knowing why. A last testament was to be signed, she imagined, but in his choice of witnesses she thought that Maximilian might at least have shown more delicacy. As to cruelty also, she would not confess, but cruelty it was, nevertheless. To see again this American was to know memory quickened into torture, and days afterward there would still be with her, vividly, hatefully, the beloved awkwardness of his strong frame, the splendid, roguish head, now so forbidding, and more than all, the way he smiled of late. It was a smile so cold, so cheerless, a something so changed in him since the old, piquant days of their first acquaintance. Despise herself as she might, Jacqueline knew how the sight of the man halted there would leave her whole woman's being athirst and panting.
Maximilian's thin white face lighted eagerly when he perceived that Driscoll had come. The haggard despair of two days before had given way to a serene calm, like that which soothes a dying man when the pain is no longer felt. In a gentleness of command that would not be denied, he rose and brought the American into the room.
"Colonel Driscoll," he began, "you know, of course, that a witness is the world's deputy. He is named to learn a certain truth, but afterward he must champion that truth, even against the world. So you find yourself here, but first I wish to thank——"
"Please don't mention it," Driscoll interposed. "I'm willing to do anything I can."
"Then remember," said Maximilian, "that you are a witness, and a witness only. Can you bear that in mind, senor, no matter what you may hear?"
Driscoll nodded, but the very first words all but made him a violent actor as well. Maximilian had turned to Jacqueline. For a moment he paused, then with a grave dignity spoke.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "reverently, prayerfully, I ask your hand in marriage."
She gasped, and so sharp and quick that certainly she was the most dumbfounded there. Her utter stupefaction amazed Driscoll as much again as the question itself. He stiffened as though struck. If this were a revelation? If it could be—if it could be that she really knew no reason why she should marry Maximilian?
The archduke observed them both, and his eyes shone with kindliness. But making a gesture for patience, he hurried on. "Father Soria here," he said, "will come in the morning, just before the—the execution, to perform the ceremony. A judge of the Republic will come too, for the civil marriage. As to the banns——"
"But why—why, parbleu?"
Jacqueline stood before him, stung from her speechless trance by fury. Behind narrowed lids the gray eyes hardened as points of steel.
"You shall know, mademoiselle," he answered softly. "It is a boon I ask of you, the greatest, and the only one before I go——"
"Why? Tell me why!"
"Because it is the boon a true knight may crave. It is to right before the world the noblest woman a knight can ever know——"
The word was rage and supplication both. It was a hurt cry, piteous to hear. Then the glint dying from her eyes blazed to tempestuous life in those of the Missourian. But the priest's hand touched his arm, and the priest's voice, low and gentle, stayed him.
Maximilian, though, had seen the outburst. "Ah yes, senor, I remember," he said, and smiled, "one may be slapped upon the mouth, yes, yes, for even breathing my lady's name when one talks of rumor."
Jacqueline darted at them a puzzled glance. She did not understand at first. Then she divined. And then, wide and gloriously, her eyes opened on Driscoll, her defender. But in the instant they sought a safer quarter. She could not, and would not, forgive him for being there at all.
"However," the obdurate prince continued, "our witness must bear with me this time, for I will—will, I tell each of you—speak plainly. The false scandal does exist. Deny it, dear lady, if you can.—Nay, senor, you believe it, or did. So, now, as the world's deputy here, you must be armed to foil those venomous tongues. But there is only one way. You shall tell them that they talk of Maximilian's widow——"
Jacqueline, Driscoll, both spoke at once. But the girl flashed on the man an angry command for silence.
"Enough, enough!" she cried, "Let me speak, then end it. Whatever others may think, Your Highness extends me his respect? Bien, but that gives me a certain right, which is the right to consider just one thing in answering the question of Your Highness—just one lone, little thing."
"Is—is whether or not I have the honor to love Your Highness. Oh, the shame in such sacrifice, the shame you put on me! You should have known my answer already."
Her answer? Driscoll stirred uneasily. What, indeed, was her answer?
"Yet later, mademoiselle," pursued her inflexible suitor, "when others aspire to your hand, there might come one for whom your answer would be favorable. How then, if this suitor, when pausing to hear what the world says of you——"
"He'd choke it down the world's throat!" Driscoll burst forth. "He alone need know it's a lie."
Jacqueline started as she heard him speak, but the glad and unintended look she gave him changed as quick as thought to haughty resentment. After all, he was still there.
"But how else," Maximilian persisted, "can such a man know so much?"
Then, a captive absolute to his lofty idea, the poet prince pleaded for it as one inspired. All things worked, as by Heaven's own will, to sanction what he proposed. There was Charlotte's death. There was his own. Dying, he was still a Mexican, and might wed in any station he chose. While if he lived, as an archduke of Austria he could not. But he detested life. With it he had bettered no one. Yet by his death he hoped to save more than life to another. This other was the girl before him. He had wrecked her dearest ambition. For France's sake she would have lured him from peril. For that, and that alone, she had sacrificed her name. Such accounted for their interview at Cuernavaca. Such accounted for her coming to Queretaro. Yet through his own blind weakness she had failed. France had lost Mexico, he his life, and she—her happiness. But the last could yet be restored. And why not purchase it with his death, since he must have died in any case?
"Must have," Driscoll interrupted, "must have died in any case?"
The American had listened perplexed, now with a quick, eager start, now with crinkled brows. First of all the old mystery and its anguish had assailed him. The hideous, gloomy tangle would wound him round again. Did Jacqueline care for this prince? Surely, because he had seen the evidence. But why had she intrigued against his Empire, why had she turned Confederate aid from him?
Then, as the ruined monarch spoke, the other man saw. He saw the truth. Truth that reconciled all contradictions. That explained what even the theory of her wanton heart had only half satisfied before. Explained everything by that heart of purest gold. The lover knew now why she had delivered him to Lopez and the Tiger, two years ago, though with the act so perversely confessing her love for him. He knew why, at Boone's Cordova plantation, she had tempted him to hold her for his own, though even then she was returning to the capital, to Maximilian. No, it was not wanton sport. It was not contradiction. But it was conflict. In the contemplation of that conflict he stood unnerved. It was the conflict between a wild yet altogether French scheme of patriotic endeavor and her own good woman's love. His eyes wandered to her, half afraid, and the chill of months about his heart was gone, as some great berg of ice sinks in the warmth of sunny waters. From siren alluring flesh whose touch was woe, she was become a sceptred angel, far, far away, so tantalizingly far away!
Thus Driscoll listened on, happy in his soul of a man, yet abashed as a boy. But listening, at the last he was perplexed anew, though for another reason.
"Must have died, sir?" he repeated again. "But that wasn't what you thought last night. No sir, last night you thought you could escape. But just the same you turned back. You chose to die!"
"His Highness," spoke the gray-haired priest, "returned for the senorita's answer."
"My answer?" cried Jacqueline. "You mean, father, for my sake?"
Driscoll started violently, perplexed no longer. "By God, sir," he swore, and clapped Maximilian on the shoulder, "but you are a man!"
The prince recoiled, his instincts of breeding in arms against the savage equality. But then, slowly, a smile that was almost beatific touched his lips, and without knowing it, he straightened proudly, as majesty would.
"A man?" he murmured, breathing exaltation. "Then am I, at my last moment, come into harmony with God's own ordering of the universe. For he made man on the sixth day, not a Hapsburg. Man, and after His Own Image—Oh, but that is the title the hardest of all to win! You—you don't think, senor, that you would like to take it back?"
Driscoll reddened inexplicably. Murguia's ivory cross was still in his pocket.
"No!" he blurted out with sudden defiance. "It's the truth!"
"Then," said Maximilian solemnly, "on your word I stake my faith. To-morrow, at the judgment-seat, I shall hope to hear myself called so."
"Your Highness," questioned Jacqueline in a kind of daze, "Your Highness did not intend to escape last night?"
"No, he did not," Driscoll answered for him. "He got Miramon and Mejia started all right, and then, without knowing that your plot had failed, he turned back to this cell here, alone."
"Your Highness, you did that for—for——"
Her voice broke, and she stopped abruptly and went to the narrow window. With her back to them, she groped for the dainty bit of cambric that was her handkerchief.
"So you see, my daughter," said the priest, drawing near her, "what he would have given, what, before Heaven, he has given, to tell you what you so hotly resent. Do you resent it now?"
The beautiful head shook slowly. She was touching her eyes with her handkerchief.
"Then you will not let his sacrifice be in vain? You will marry him?"
Impetuously she turned, and faced them. There were blinding drops, clear as diamonds, on the long lashes. "Oh Your Highness, Your—Oh, there is something you can tell me that is—that is inexpressibly better?"
"Let me know what it is."
"It is if—if you can forgive me.—Mon Dieu, why did you need to heap this terrible sacrifice on me? Why could you not remember that I tried to drive you from your empire? That I plotted against you? That——"
"Hush, you would have saved me."
"Oh, only incidentally, and you knew it. Yet you must——"
"Don't! There's nothing to forgive.—But wait, we will grant that there really is, but only that I may exact my price of forgiveness."
"The price? Name it."
"That you will marry me, here, to-morrow morning, before I die."
Jacqueline raised her head. "Has Your Highness," she demanded, smiling shyly behind her tears, "has he forgotten the woman's, rather my consideration, before such a question?"
Driscoll straightened, squared his shoulders to take a blow. To his blindness her manner looked like awakening love for the other man—and for the man himself, not for the prince! His sense of loss, his agony, were extreme. But of the old bitterness he now knew nothing. His rival was putting the question. "And according to that consideration, mademoiselle?"
Driscoll did not see her swift glance toward himself. He was hurrying out lest he might hear her answer. And she let him go—till he reached the door. But there, like one frozen, he halted rigidly.
"Helas, I do not love you, sire," Jacqueline had answered, very quietly.
Maximilian, however, did not seem heart broken.
His attention was all for the mere witness. He saw the effect on that witness. In Driscoll's glad face he read his own triumph, his own purpose achieved. Jacqueline was righted at last.
"No," he agreed, "I could not hope for so much.—But another might."
Then apropos of nothing, he went and flung his arms about Driscoll. The astounded trooper could only grip his hand, just once, without a word. Then he was gone.
Maximilian watched him go. The priest turned to Jacqueline. She, too, stood poised so long as his spurs rang through the corridor. At last silence fell on them. For a moment she hesitated. Then, trembling, her eyes moist, she held out her hand. "Good-bye," she whispered. But, impulsively, she raised her arm and touched the doomed man's forehead lightly with her finger tips, making a blurred sign of the cross. And, not daring an instant longer, she too fled.
Maximilian was alone with the priest. The room was growing dark. It was the last night.
"Now, father, light the tapers, there on the altar. Yes, I am ready. Ready? Blessed Mother in Heaven, it is more than I had thought to be!"
THE ABBEY OF MOUNT REGRET
"O, here Will I set up my everlasting rest, And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars From this world-wearied flesh." —Romeo and Juliet.
It is curious and humiliating, how Nature does not vex herself in the least for the dying of a man. And yet, to the man, the event is so very important! Each breath of spaceless night, each twinkle from the firmament, though but the phantom of a ray quenched ages before, everything, he teases into anxious commentary on his own puny end. There could not be more ado if the Universe were in the throes, writhing against a reconquering Chaos. Harassed creature, what ails him is only the pathetic fallacy, which is a soothing melody and stimulating to mortal pride. But the lapses into healthier realization are very, very hard to bear.
How cold it was, when Maximilian awoke! The chill seemed creeping nearer his heart, nearer the citadel. And how black the night, before the dawn! But where, now, were his matches? He had the same monotonous trouble of any other morning in getting one to light. Then the two candles guttered fitfully, sordidly, just as they had always done. The white cloths of the last communion seemed a ghostly intrusion on what was of every day. Maximilian drew his cloak about him. The chill was simply of the plateau, of the night, not the portent of death. The world without was dark and desolate, but that had no reference to the tomb. The world was merely taking its normal sleep. The heavy cloak ought to answer—but, it did not.
He took up the snuffers, coaxing the yellow flames to brighter promise, then set the candles before him on the table. A piece of dripping tallow fell upon his hand, and the hand jerked back. The man pondered. So, even his flesh was part of Nature too, and heeded trivial pain, with no thought of the bullets to drive through it shortly.
He wrote two or three letters yet remaining, to friends, to his brother, the Emperor of Austria. He penned words of farewell, yet even as the tears welled in his eyes, he needed to stop and make sure that he had indeed not more than three hours yet to live. It was difficult, though, with the candles spluttering there, in the ordinary, every-day fashion. He signed the last letter, to his mother. He gazed at the signature, of characters squarely formed. He might have written it yesterday, or the year before. It looked the same. But the pen he had just dropped had dropped forever. No, no, that should not be! And he snatched it up again, and wrote, scribbled, covered paper, fearing to stop. But at last he did stop, with a shivering laugh. He must face this thing, he decided. And over and over again he told himself, "I have written my last. Yes, my last!" and steadfastly resisted the taunting, airy quill lying there. So, what was harder than farewell to loved ones, he nerved himself to end the small actions of his daily existence.
Maximilian had his life long been a dreamer, ever gazing wide-eyed as a child on the wonderful fantasies that came, whether entrancing or dreadful. But the child's fantasies are kindred with man's philosophies. Often, as he lay awaiting sleep, there was one particular thought that would bring him quickly, stark, staring awake. And this thought was, how certain things always came to pass. No matter how far away, nor how very slow their approach, making vague the hope or horror of them, yet the actual, present hour of their happening always struck at last. There was the eve of the day when he should be of age. Oh, but he had longed for that day! He had longed until he craftily suspected it never would arrive. And yet, despite those leaden-footed oxen, the minutes, arrive it did, in very fact. The eve of that day was a happy bed-time; but over his ardent reveries, over the vista of future achievements, there suddenly, darkly loomed another thought, a foretoken and clammy shroud, which smote the young prince with trembling. For would not the day of his death, however far away also, sometime be the present, passing moment, as surely, just as surely, as this anniversary of his birth? Here was a terrifying glimpse of mortality.
When, not fifteen years later, Maximilian opened his eyes in the black Capuchin cell, and comprehension grew on him of the present day's meaning, he recalled how the fantasy of a morning of death had first come to him. He was a boy, and he was to go on a voyage. The boy had awakened when there was scarcely light as yet, and heard his mother at the door. "It is time, dear." She spoke low, not liking to break his slumber. But in the silence of all the world her voice was clear, and very sweet, and the words stood forth against his memory ever afterward. He was to be gone from her for a time, and this was in her mind as she called him. The boy, though, could think of nothing except that his little excursion among new and strange adventures was to begin, actually to begin. But then, quite unaccountably, there fell over his eagerness a chilling gloom. The delightful sprite named Expectation, who had whispered so piquantly of this same eventful morn, had basely changed herself into a hideous vampire, and she muttered at him, in frightful, raucous tones. Yet the hag's snarls were true promises. There was to come, surely, inexorably, a certain other eventful morn, and he would awake, and without his mother's calling him, he would know—know—that it was time!
Back in that childhood hour he had lain for a while quite inconsolable, until his mother came again, and rested her hand on his head, and told him—"Why, one would think the little goose was going away forever!" It was broad daylight by now, too; and wholly comforted, he had sprung up, joyfully alive. Eternity did not worry him any more for a week.
But the awakening of this later morning, in a Mexican prison! And when he understood that the old familiar fantasy was become a fact! When he remembered how once he had been consoled in his boyhood! For a moment the sense of loss and of helplessness was stifling, and he yearned—yearned frantically, as he never had as a boy—for the touch of his mother's hand, for her voice, so low and sweet. The horrid cruelty he could not, during that moment, bear. He felt that he must cry out for her, like a very child. And though he wept, it was the man, and the man's despair that his was not now the boy's need of comfort.
But when they came in the first dawn and knocked at his door, they found him serene, untroubled, and only the wonted shade of melancholy on his brow. He greeted them courteously, and was desirous that they should have no unnecessary difficulties on his account. Being dressed already, punctiliously, and in black, he himself went to call Miramon and Mejia, and brought them to his own cell, where they received the last sacrament together.
Later the three condemned were at breakfast—bread, chicken, a little wine and a cup of coffee—when horses' hoofs rang abruptly in the street below, and as abruptly ceased under their window. There was a command, and sabres rasped against their scabbards to gain the light. Maximilian raised eyes filled with pity to his two companions. Mejia, an Indian thoroughly, made a gesture of impatience. The handsome Miramon, of French blood, shrugged his shoulders. Then both glanced timidly in their turn at Maximilian, and each finding a hand stretched forth, grasped it silently. But the priests of the condemned, who were waiting apart, felt their blood turn to icy beads. For them the quick metallic gust of strident life down in the street had the merciless quality of hammering upon a coffin lid.
Troops filed up the stairs, and along the corridor. They halted, faced the door, grounded arms. An officer stepped out, fumbled with a document, and read the death sentence. Maximilian gently released himself from one and another of those present, and turning to the Austrian physician, handed him his wedding ring. "You will give it to my mother," he said. Father Soria's eyes filled with tears, one plump fist clenched pathetically. Maximilian passed an arm over the good man's shoulder, and with him walked out among the soldiers. He nodded to them encouragingly, and so started on his little journey.
Three ramshackle public hacks, set high over wabbling wheels, and drawn by mules, waited at the door. Maximilian smiled an apology as he motioned Father Soria to precede him into the first. The troops used their spurs. A whip cracked. The springs jolted. Everywhere, on the curbs, in windows, on housetops, there were people. The archduke had the impression of breath tensely held, and of eyes, eyes strained, curious, and awed, like those of children who witness suffering and cannot understand.
Passing the convent of Santa Clara, Maximilian peered upward at the windows; and, as he hoped, he saw Jacqueline. She was leaning far out, and tremulously poised. Tender compassion was in every line of her tense body, but as their gaze met she tried to smile, bravely and cheerfully, and until the hack swung round the corner, there was her hand waving him farewell. The little journey might have been, a fete, and somehow, he was comforted.
"I wonder," he mused, "if I've done very much for her, after all. Or for that American, named Driscoll? Will she—" He shook his head, and sighed. "No, she is not the lass to have him, not after my little scene of last night. But, the choice does rest with her, now. And for a girl, that is everything.—Alas, poor young man!"
His rueful prophecies were that moment interrupted by a woman's scream. It rose piercingly over the clatter of their march. Maximilian put out his head and looked back. The woman was running beside Mejia's hack, panting, stumbling through the dust, her black hair streaming. She held a babe in her rebosa, but with her free hand she clutched weakly at the spokes. To the clumsy, pitying soldiers who would force her away, she cried again, "Mercy ... Mercy ... Mercy...." A low murmuring grew on every side. Maximilian flung open his cab door. But the same instant it was slammed against him. He sank to his seat, with a stare of dumb pain in his eyes that the priest beside him never afterward forgot. The woman back there was Mejia's wife. And Maximilian had had one glimpse of the husband's face. It was a face stretched to agony, deadened to the color of lead.
"May I, may I—pay for this!" moaned the one-time Emperor. "O God, grant Thou that I do pay for this, hereafter!"
Beyond the last hovels of the suburbs, at the foot of the Cerro de las Campanas, the condemned were told to alight. Here again there was a throng, hundreds and hundreds of swarthy faces, blank in awed pity. One gaping fellow pointed wonderingly.
"Look, there they are! There—los muertos!"
Maximilian overheard, and a cold shiver crossed his spine. To be identified already as "the dead one!"
Then he beheld his coffin, there, the longest of the three being borne up the hill. They were boxes of cheap wood, unpainted inside, smeared with black on the outside. A wavy streak of carmine simulated the drooping cord and golden tassels of richer caskets. It was the pomp and circumstance that pertains to the humblest peon clay.
Four thousand serried bayonets squared the base of the hill, and made a compact, bristling hedge to hold back the common people. Through it marched the doomed Imperialists, each with his confessor and a platoon of guards, and so toiled on up the slope. The archduke looked about him. There were many privileged spectators within the cordon, but nowhere did he see a former friend. All, all, had kept away, and in his heart he knew that it was better so. He could not ask that much of them. But stay—yes, a remembered figure caught his attention; a shriveled decrepit figure. Here, too, mid every color Republican, he beheld in the man's garb a last surviving uniform of the vanished Empire. It was, however, scarcely to be distinguished as such. The red coat was threadbare, and soiled with dust. The ragged green pantaloons, held by a knotted rope, were grotesquely faded. Yet the prince, who had once gloried in dashing regimentals and mistook them for power, was deeply touched. He recognized a lone unit of what had been none other than the Batallon del Emperador. He paused, to have a word with the miserable derelict.
"So, you would be near me, even now?" he said. "Ah, ever faithful little old man, but are you brave enough for the horror of it? Are you?"
Red eyeballs rolled upward in their sockets, and for a space met the archduke's kindly gaze. Then the steady repellant hate in them seemed disconcerted, and the withered form cowered under the touch of the pale white hand. Inaudible words rattled in the old man's throat, and he trembled, as though to turn and run. Maximilian regarded him benevolently, thinking it a crisis of emotion.
"There, there," he said, "go if you wish. It's not well, you see, to think of me so much. But you must not imagine that I am ungrateful. When you believed yourself unseen, certainly when you had no hope of reward, throughout my misfortunes, you have always hovered near me, on the battlefield, and more lately under my prison window. Yes, yes, I have seen. And now, and now I thank you." The bloodshot eyes roved the ground, but did not lift again. "As humble, as loyal as a dog," Maximilian murmured as he turned away.
They indicated to him that he should take his place before a wall of adobe blocks which had been piled together near the crest of the hill, only a little lower than those very fortifications built by the Imperialists themselves. With a gesture of assent, he complied. The priests fell sorrowfully back behind the soldiers, and he and Miramon and Mejia were alone together, three tragic isolated figures in a little oblong patch of bare rocky hillside. One end of the oblong was the adobe shield. The other three sides were walls of living men, massed shoulder to shoulder, with bayonets pointed outward against the jostling peering crowd. The three who were to die could now see no human being beyond the dense, double row of soldiery. The remainder of earth for them was the hollow square, bounded by the slouching backs clothed in blue, by the white flats of the kepis, by the line of light playing over the thorns of steel. Beyond was the early morning sun; above, the mystery of space.
Through the gap of an instant the shooting squads tramped in, nearer and nearer, until they halted opposite the condemned. Maximilian then perceived which squad was to be his own. It numbered seven tiradores and a yellow, beardless officer. The seven were low, cumbersome, tawny, and they shuffled awkwardly. Their stripling chief thrust out his stomach, and he handled his large sword with an unaccustomed flourish. The pompous severity was, after all, only insolence. He had need to keep guard on his importance; he did not wish to hear the pounding of his heart. Yet his muscles twitched unbecomingly, which jerked his mouth, and sometimes his head.
Maximilian stepped forward and addressed them. To each he gave a gold piece bearing his effigy. It was his last expenditure in that coin. He requested them earnestly, gently, to aim at his body, not at his head. He was thinking of his mother. He would not have her see him with mangled features. Then with a final reassuring word, he turned back to the wall.
They were going to place him between the other two, but with a smile and shake of the head, he would not have it so. His last act was for precedence. Affectionately he drew Miramon to the place of honor, so that Mejia was on the right, and himself on the left.
Then the fiscal of the Republic appeared, and read the military law. For any who should ask the lives of the condemned, death was prescribed. But if there was anything the condemned themselves wished to say....
Maximilian removed his hat. "Mexicans," he said, "may my blood be the last to be spilled for this country's welfare. Long live Independence! Long live Mexico!"
He spoke the words calmly, gravely, and having concluded, he carefully adjusted a large handkerchief, so that his beard might not be burned by the powder. Then he crossed his arms on his breast, and gazed steadily into the barrels of the leveled muskets, waiting.