But Virginia still sat dreaming, her happy eyes far away. The Grand Duchess had to speak twice before the girl heard, and started a little. "My daughter—have you anything to tell me?"
The Princess roused herself. "Nothing, Mother, really. Except that I'm the happiest girl on earth."
"Why—what has he said?"
"Not one word that any one mightn't have listened to. But I know now. He does care. And I think he will say something before we part."
"There's only one more day of his visit here, after to-night."
"One whole long, beautiful day—together."
"But after all, dearest," argued her mother, "what do you expect? If in truth you were only Miss Mowbray, marriage between you and the Emperor would be out of the question. You've never gone into the subject of your feelings about this, quite thoroughly with me, and I do wish I knew precisely what you hope for from him; what you will consider the—the keystone of the situation?"
"Only for him to say that he loves me," Virginia confessed. "If I'm right—if I've brought something new into his life, something which has shown him that his heart's as important as his head, then there will come a moment when he can keep silence no longer—when he'll be forced to say; 'I love you, dear, and because we can't belong to each other, day is turned into night for me.' Then, when that moment comes, the tide of my fortune will be at its flood. I shall tell him that I love him too. And I shall tell him all the truth."
"You'll tell him who we really are?"
"Yes. And why I've been masquerading. That it was because, ever since I was a little girl, he'd been the one man in the world for me; because, when our marriage was suggested through official channels, I made up my mind that I must win him first through love, or live single all my days."
"What if he should be vexed at the deception, and refuse to forgive you? You know, darling, we shall be in a rather curious position when everything comes out, as we have made all our friends here under the name of Mowbray. Of course, the excuse for what we did is, that our real position is a hundred times higher than the one we assumed, and all those to whom we've been introduced would be delighted to know us in our own characters, at the end. But Leopold is a man, not a romantic girl, as you are. He has always had a reputation for pride and austerity, for being just before he would let himself be generous; and it may be that to one of his nature, a wild whim like yours—"
"You think of him as he was before we met, not as he is now, if you fancy he could be hard with a woman he really loved," said Virginia, eagerly. "He'll forgive me, dear. I've no fear of him any more. To-night, I've no fear of anything. He loves me—and—I'm Empress of the world."
"Many women would be satisfied with Rhaetia," was the practical response which jumped into the mind of the Grand Duchess; but she would throw no more cold water upon the rose-flame of her daughter's exaltation. She kissed the girl on the forehead, breathing a few words of motherly sympathy; but when the Princess had flown off to her own room to dress, she shook her diamond-starred head doubtfully.
Virginia's plan sounded poetical, and as easy to carry out as to turn a kaleidoscope and form a charming new combination of color; or so it had seemed while the young voice pleaded. But, when the happy face and radiant eyes no longer illumined the path, the way ahead seemed dark.
To be sure the Princess had so far walked triumphantly along the high-road to success, but it was not always a good beginning which led to a good end; and the Grand Duchess felt, as she rang for Ernestine, that her nerves would be strained to breaking point until matters were definitely settled, for better or for worse.
Virginia had never been lovelier than she was that night at dinner, and Egon von Breitstein's admiration for her beauty had in it a fascinating new ingredient. Until yesterday, he had said to himself, "If she be not fair to me, what care I how fair she be?" But now, there was a vague idea that she might after all be for him, and he took enormous pleasure in the thought that he was falling in love with a girl who had captured the Emperor's heart.
Egon glanced very often at Leopold, contrasting his sovereign's appearance unfavorably with his own. The Emperor was thin and dark, with a grave cast of feature, while Egon's face kept the color and youthfulness of the early twenties. He was older than Leopold, but he looked a boy. Alma Tadema would have wreathed him with vine leaves, draped him with tiger skins, and set him down on a marble bench against a burning sapphire sky, where he would have appeared more suitably clad than in the stiff blue and silver uniform of a crack Rhaetian regiment.
Leopold, on the contrary, would never be painted except as a soldier; and it seemed to Egon that no normal girl could help thinking him a far handsomer fellow than the Emperor. For the moment, of course, Miss Mowbray did not notice him, because his Imperial Majesty loomed large in the foreground of her imagination; but the Chancellor had evidently a plan in his head for removing that stately obstacle into the dim perspective.
Egon had not heard Miss Mowbray spoken of as an heiress, therefore, even had there been no Emperor in the way, he would not have worshiped at the shrine. But now, behold the shrine, attractive before, newly and alluringly decked! Egon wondered much over his half-brother's apparently impulsive offer, and the contradictory command, which had, a little later, enjoined waiting.
He was delighted, however, that he had not been forbidden to make himself agreeable; and his idea was, as soon as dinner should be over, to find a place at Miss Mowbray's side before any other man should have time to take it. But unluckily for this plan, Baron von Lyndal detained him for a few moments with praise of a new remedy which might cure the Chancellor's gout; and when he escaped from his host to look for Miss Mowbray in the white drawing-room she was not there.
From the music room adjoining, however, came sounds which drew him toward the door. He knew Miss Mowbray's soft, coaxing touch on the piano: she was there, "playing in a whisper," as he had heard her call it. Perhaps she was going to sing, as she had once or twice before, and would need some one to turn the pages of her music. Egon thought that he would much like to be the some one, and was in the act of parting the white velvet portieres that covered the doorway, when his hostess smilingly beckoned him away.
"The Emperor has just asked Miss Mowbray to teach him some old-fashioned Scotch or English air (I'm afraid I don't quite know the difference!) called 'Annie Laurie,'" the Baroness explained. "He was charmed with it when she sang the other evening, and I've been assuring him that the song would exactly suit his voice. We mustn't disturb them while the lesson is going on. Tell me—I've hardly had a moment to ask you—how did you find the Chancellor?"
Chained to a forced allegiance, Egon mechanically answered the questions of the Baroness without making absurd mistakes, the while his ears burned to hear what was going on behind the white curtain.
Everybody knew of the music lesson, now, and chatted in tones of tactful monotony, never speaking too loudly to disturb the singers, never too cautiously, lest they should seem to listen. Once, and then again, the creamy mezzo soprano and the rich tenor that was almost a baritone, sang conscientiously through the verses of "Annie Laurie" from beginning to end; then a few desultory chords were struck on the piano; and at last there was silence behind the white curtains, in the music room.
Were the two still there? To interrupt such a tete-a-tete seemed out of the question, but not to know what was happening Egon found too hard to bear, and the arrival of a telegram for Lady Mowbray came as opportunely as if Providence had had his special needs in mind.
Evidently it was not a pleasant telegram, for, as she read it, the Dresden china lady showed plainly that she was disconcerted. Her pretty face lost its color; her eyes dilated as if she had tasted a drop of belladonna on sugar; she patted her lips with her lace handkerchief, and finally rose from her chair, looking dazed and distressed.
"I've had rather bad news," she admitted to Baroness von Lyndal, who was all solicitude. "Oh, nothing really serious, I trust, but still, disquieting. It is from a dear friend. I think I had better go to my room, and talk things over with Helen. Would you be kind enough to tell her when she comes in that she's to follow me there? Don't send for her till then; it's not necessary. But I shall want her by and by."
It was clear that Lady Mowbray did not wish her daughter to be disturbed. Still, Egon von Breitstein thought he might fairly let his anxiety run away with him. As the Baroness accompanied her guest to the door, he took it upon himself to search for Miss Mowbray, for now, if the Emperor should curse him for a spoil-sport, he would have the best of excuses. Lady Mowbray was in need of her daughter.
He lifted the white curtain and peeped through a small ante-chamber into the music room beyond. It was empty; but one of the long windows leading into the rose garden was wide open.
The month of September was dying, and away in the Rhaetian mountains winter had begun; yet in the lap of the low country summer lingered. The air was soft, and sweet with the perfume of roses, roses living, and roses dead in a potpourri of scattered petals on the grass. It was a garden for lovers, and a night for lovers.
Egon went to the open window and looked out, but dared not let his feet take the direction of his eyes, though he was sure that somewhere in the garden Miss Mowbray and the Emperor were to be found.
"They will come in again this way," he said to himself, "for they will want people to think they have never left the music room; and for that very reason they won't stop too long. They must have some regard for the conventions. If I wait—"
He did not finish the sentence in his mind; nevertheless he examined the resources of the window niche with a critical eye.
There was a deep enclosure between the window frame and the long, straight curtains of olive green satin which matched the decoration of the music room. By drawing the curtains a few inches further forward, one could make a screen which would hide one from observation by any person in the room, or outside, in the garden. So Egon did draw the curtain, and framed in his shelter like a saint in a niche, he stood peering into the silver night.
The moon was rising over the lake, and long, pale rays of level light were stealing up the paths, like the fingers of a blind child that caress gropingly the features of a beloved face.
Egon could not see the whole garden, or all the paths among the roses; but if the Emperor and his companion came back by the way they had gone, he would know presently whether they walked in the attitude of friends or lovers. It was so necessary for his plans to know this, that he thought it worth while to exercise a little patience in waiting. Of course, if they were lovers, good-by to his hopes; and he would never have so good a chance as this to make sure.
All things in the garden that were not white were gray as a dove's wings. Even the shadows were not black. And the sky was gray, with the soft gray of velvet, under a crust of diamonds which flashed as the spangles on a woman's fan flash, when it trembles in her hand.
White moths, happily ignorant that summer would come no more for them, drifted out from the shadows like rose petals blown by the soft wind. On a trellis, a crowding sisterhood of pale roses drooped their heads downward in memento mori. It was a silver night; a night of enchantment.
Leopold had meant to take Virginia out only to see the moon rise over the water, turning the great smooth sheet of jet into a silver shield; for there had been clouds or spurts of rain on other nights, and he had said to himself that never again, perhaps, would they two stand together under the white spell of the moon. He had meant to keep her for five minutes, or ten at the most, and then to bring her back; but they had walked down to the path which girdled the cliff above the lake. The moon touched her golden hair and her pure face like a benediction. He dared not look at her thus for long, and when there came a sudden quick rustling in the grass at their feet, he bent down, glad of any change in the current of his thoughts.
Some tiny, winged thing of the night sought a lodging in a bell-shaped flower whose blue color the moon had drunk, and as Leopold stooped, the same impulse made Virginia bend.
He stretched out his hand to gather the low-growing branch of blossoms, which he would give the girl as a souvenir of this hour, and their fingers met. Lake and garden swam before the eyes of the Princess as the Emperor's hand closed over hers.
Her great moment had come; yet now that it was here, womanlike she wished it away—not gone forever, oh no, but waiting just round the corner of the future.
"The flowers are yours—I give them to you," she laughed, as if she fancied it was in eagerness to grasp the disputed spray that he had pressed her fingers.
"You are the one flower I want—flower of all the world," he answered, in a choked voice, speaking words he had not meant to speak; but the ice barriers that held back the torrent of which he had told her, had melted long ago and now had been swept away. Other barriers which he had built up in their place—his convictions, his duty as a man at the head of a nation—were gone too. "I love you," he stammered, "I love you far better than my life, which you saved. I've loved you ever since our first hour together on the mountain, but every day my love has grown a thousand fold, until now it's greater and higher than any mountain. I can fight against myself no longer. I thought I was strong, but this love is stronger than I am. Say that you care for me—only say that."
"I do care," Virginia whispered. She had prayed for this, lived for this, and she was drowning in happiness. Yet she had pictured a different scene, a scene of storm and stress. She had heard in fancy broken words of sorrow and noble renunciation on his lips, and in anticipating his suffering she had felt the joy her revelation would give. "I care—so much, so much! How hard it will be to part."
"If you care, then we shall not be parted," said Leopold.
The Princess looked up at him in wonder, holding back as he would have caught her in his arms. What could he mean? What plan was in his mind that, believing her to be Helen Mowbray, yet made it possible for him to reassure her so?
"I don't understand," she faltered. "You are the Emperor, and I am no more than—"
"You are my wife, if you love me."
In the shock of her ecstatic surprise she was helpless to resist him longer, and he held her close and passionately, his lips on her hair, her face crushed against his heart. She could hear it beating, feel it throb under her cheek. His wife? Then he loved her enough for that. Yet how was it possible for him to stand ready, for her sake, to override the laws of his own land?
"My darling—my wife!" he said again. "To think that you love me."
"I have loved you from the first," the Princess confessed, "but I was afraid you would feel, even if you cared, that we must say good-by. Now—" And in an instant the whole truth would have been out; but the word "good-by" stabbed him, and he could not let it pass.
"We shall not say good-by, not for an hour," he cried. "After this I could not lose you. There's nothing to prevent my being your husband, you my wife. Would to God you were of Royal blood, and you should be my Empress—the fairest Empress that poet or historian ever saw—but we're prisoners of Fate, you and I. We must take the goods the gods provide. My goddess you will always be, but the Empress of Rhaetia, even my love isn't powerful enough to make you. If I am to you only half what you are to me, you'll be satisfied with the empire of my heart."
Suddenly the warm blood in Virginia's veins grew chill. It was as if a wind had blown up from the dark depths of the lake, to strike like ice into her soul. An instant more and he would have known that she was a Princess of the Blood, and through his whole life she could have gone on worshiping him because he had been ready to break down all barriers for her love, before he guessed there need be none to break. Now her warm impulse of gratitude was frozen by the biting blast of disillusionment; but still there was hope left. It might be that she misunderstood him. She would not judge him yet.
"The empire of your heart," she echoed. "If that were mine I should be richer than with all the treasures of the earth. If you were Leo, the chamois hunter, I would love you as I love you now, because in yourself you are the one man for me; and I'd go with you to the end of the world, as your wife. But you're not the chamois hunter; you are the man I love, yet you are the Emperor. Being the Emperor, had you talked of a hopeless love and a promise not to forget, having nothing else to give me, because of your high destiny and my humbler one, I could still have been happy. Yet you speak of more than that. You speak of something I can't understand. It seems to me that what a Royal man offers the woman he loves should be all or nothing."
"I do offer you all," said Leopold. "All myself, my life, the heart and soul of me—all that's my own to give. The rest—belongs to Rhaetia."
"Then what do you mean by—"
"Don't you understand, my sweet, that I've asked you to be my wife? What can a man ask more of a woman?"
"Your wife—but not the Empress. How can the two be apart?"
He tried to take her once more in his arms, but when he saw that she would not have it so, he held his love in check, and waited. He was sure that he would not need to wait long, for not only had he laid his love at her feet, but had pledged himself to a tremendous sacrifice on love's altar.
The step which in a moment of passion he had now resolved to take would create dissension among his people, alienate one who had been his second father, rouse England, America and Germany to anger, because of the Princess whose name rumor had already coupled with his, and raise in every direction a storm of disapproval. When this girl whom he loved realized the immensity of the concession he was making because of his reverent love for her, she would give her life to him, now and forever.
Tenderly he took her hand and lifted it to his lips; then, when she did not draw it away (because he was to have his chance of explanation) he held it between both his own, as he talked on.
"Dearest one," he said, "when I first knew I loved you—loved you as I didn't dream I could love a woman—for your sake and my own, I would have avoided meeting you too often. This I tell you frankly. I didn't see how, in honor, such a love could end except in despair for me, and sorrow even for you, if you should come to care. Had you and Lady Mowbray stayed on at the hotel in Kronburg, I think I could have held to my resolve. But when Baroness von Lyndal suggested your coming here, my heart leaped up. I said in my mind, 'At least I shall have the joy of seeing her every day, for a time, without doing anything to darken her future. Afterwards, when she has gone out of my life, I shall have that radiance to remember. And so no harm will be done in the end, except that I shall have to pay, by suffering.' Still, I had no thought of the future without a parting; I felt that inevitable. And the suffering came hand in hand with the joy, for not a night here at Lyndalberg have I slept. If I had been weak, I should have groaned aloud in the agony of renunciation.
"My rooms open on a lawn. More than once I've come out into the darkness, when all the household was sleeping. Some times I have walked to this very spot where you and I stand now—heart to heart for the first time, my darling—asking myself whether there were any way out of the labyrinth. It was not until I brought you here and saw you by my side with the moon rays for a crown, that a flash of blinding light seemed to pierce the clouds. Suddenly I saw all things clearly, and though there will be difficulties, I count them as overcome."
"Still you haven't answered my question," said Virginia in a low, strained voice.
"I'm coming to that now. It was best that you should know first all that's been troubling my heart and brain during these few, bitter-sweet days which have taught me so much. You know, men who have their place at the head of great nations can't think first of themselves, or even of those they love better than themselves. If they hope to snatch at personal happiness, they must take the one way open to them, and be thankful.
"Don't do me the horrible injustice to believe that I wouldn't be proud to show you to my subjects as their Empress; but instead, I can offer only what men of Royal blood for hundreds of years have offered to women whom they honored as well as loved. You must have heard even in England of what is called a morganatic marriage? It is that I offer you."
With a cry of pain—the cruel pain of wounded, disappointed love—the Princess tore her hand from his.
"Never!" she exclaimed. "It's an insult."
"An insult? No, a thousand times no. I see that even now you don't understand."
"I think that I understand very well, too well," said Virginia, brokenly. The beautiful fairy palace of happiness that she had watched as it grew, lay shattered, destroyed in the moment which ought to have seen its triumphant completion.
"I tell you that you cannot understand, or you wouldn't say—you wouldn't dare to say, my love—that I'd insulted you. Don't you see, don't you know, that you would be my wife in the sight of all men, as well as in the sight of God."
"Your wife, you call it!" the Princess gave a harsh little laugh which hurt as tears could not hurt. "You seem to have strange ideas of that word, which has always been sacred to me. A morganatic marriage! That is a mere pretense, an hypocrisy. I would be 'your wife,' you say. I would give you all my love, all my life. You, in return, would give me—your left hand. And you know well that, in a country which tolerates such a one-sided travesty of marriage, the laws would hold you free to marry another woman—a Royal woman, whom you could make an Empress—as free as if I had no existence."
"Great Heaven, that you should speak so!" he broke out. "What if the law did hold me free? Can you dream—do you put me so low as to dream that my heart would hold me free? My soul would be bound to you forever."
"So you may believe, now. But the knowledge that you could change would be death to me—a death to die daily. Yes, I tell you again, it was an insult to offer a lot so miserable, so contemptible, to a woman you profess to love. How could you do it? If only you had never spoken the hateful words! If only you had left me the ideal I had of you—noble, glorious, above the whole world of men. But after all you are selfish,—cruel. If you had said 'I love you, yet we must part, for Duty stands between us.' I could—but no, I can never tell you now what I could have answered if you had said that, instead of breaking my heart."
Under the fire of her reproach he stood still, his lips tight, his shoulders braced, as if he held his breast open for the knife.
"By Heaven, it is you who are cruel," he said at last. "How can I make you see your injustice?"
"In no way. There's nothing more to be said between us two after this, except—good-by."
"It shall not be good-by."
"It must. I wish it."
He had caught her dress as she turned to go, but now he released her. "You wish it? It's not true that you love me, then?"
"It was true. Everything—everything in my whole life—is changed from this hour. It would be better if I'd never seen you. Good-by."
THE MAN WHO WAITED
She ran from him, along the moonlit path. One step he took as if to follow and keep her, but checked himself and let her go. Only his eyes went with her, and in them there was more of pain than anger, though never before in all his life, perhaps, had he been thwarted in any strong desire. Passion urged him forward, but pride held him back; for Leopold was a proud man, and to have his love thrown in his face, was to receive an icy douche with the blood at fever heat.
For this girl's sake he had in a few days changed the habits of a lifetime. Pride, reserve, self-control, the wish not only to appear, but to be a man, above the frailties of common men, the ambition to be placed, and worthily placed, on a pedestal by his subjects; all these he had thrown away for Helen Mowbray.
He was too just a man not to admit that, if one of his Royal cousins of younger branches, had contemplated such folly as this, he would have done his best to nip that folly while it was in bud. "He jests at scars who never felt a wound"; and until Leopold had learned by his own unlooked-for experience what love can mean, what men will do for love while the sweet madness is on them, he would have been utterly unable to understand the state of mind.
A cousin inclined to act as he was now bent on acting, would but a month ago have found all the Emperor's influence, even force perhaps, brought to bear in restraining him. Leopold saw the change in himself, was startled and shamed by it; nevertheless he would have persevered, trampling down every obstacle that rose in his way, if only the girl had seen things with his eyes.
She had accused him of insulting her, not stopping to consider that, even to make her morganatically his wife, he must give great cause for complaint not only to his ministers but to his people. For he was expected to marry a girl of Royal blood, that the country might have an heir. If Helen Mowbray had accepted the position he offered her, he could never have broken her heart by making another marriage.
Not only would it be difficult in these days to find a Princess willing to tolerate such a rival, but it would have been impossible for him to desecrate the bond between himself and the one adored woman.
This being the case, with Helen Mowbray as his morganatic wife, there could be no direct heir to the throne. At his death, the son of his uncle, the Archduke Joseph, would succeed; and during his life the popularity which was dear to him would be hopelessly forfeited. Rhaetia would never forgive him for selfishly preferring his own private happiness to the good of the nation.
He could fancy how old Iron Heart von Breitstein would present this point of view to him, with fierce eloquence, temples throbbing like the ticking of a watch, eyes netted with bloodshot veins. But on the other hand he could picture himself standing calmly to face the storm, steadfast in his own indomitable will, happy with love to uphold him.
But now, the will which had borne him through life in a triumphal march, had been powerless against that of this young girl. She would have none of him. A woman whose face was her fortune, whose place in life was hardly as high as the first step of a throne, had refused—an Emperor.
Hardly could Leopold believe the thing that had happened to him. He had spoken of doubting that he had won her love; and he had doubted. But he had allowed himself to hope, because he had confidence in his Star, and because, perhaps, it had scarcely been known in the annals of history that an Emperor's suit should be repulsed.
Besides, he had loved the girl so passionately, that it seemed she could not remain cold. And he hoped still that, when she had passed a long night in reflection, in thinking over the situation, perhaps taking counsel with that comparatively commonplace yet practical little lady, her mother, she might be ready to change her mind.
For the first few moments after the stinging rebuff he had endured, Leopold felt that, if she did, it would be her turn to suffer, for he could never humble himself to implore for the second time. But, as he stood in the soft stillness of the night, gazing towards the lights of the house, thoughts of Virginia—her youth, her sweetness, her beauty dimmed with grief,—overwhelmed him. Could he have reached her, he would have fallen on his knees, and kissed her gown.
By and by a vast tenderness breathed its calm over the thwarted passion in his breast, and plans to win her back came whispering in his ear. He would write a letter and send it to her room. But no; perhaps it would be wise to give her a longer interval for reflection and—it might be—regret. To-morrow he would see her and show all the depths of that great love which she had thought to throw away. She could not go on withstanding him forever; and now that he had burned his boats behind him, he would never think of turning back. He would persevere till she should yield.
Meanwhile Virginia had hurried blindly toward the house, and it was instinct rather than intention that led her to the open window of the music room, by which she had come out.
Tears burned her eyelids, but they did not fall until she stood once more in the room where she and Leopold had been happy together. There she had sat at the piano, and he had bent over her, love in his eyes—honest love, she had thought, her heart full of thanksgiving. How little she had guessed then the humiliation in store for her, and the end of all her hopes! How could she bear her pain, and how could she go on living out her life?
She paused in the window niche, looking into the room through a mist of tears, and a sob choked her. "Cruel—cruel," she whispered. "What agony—what an insult!"
Then, dashing away her tears, she pushed back the dark curtain, and would have passed on into the room, had not the quick gesture brought her arm into contact with the buttons and gold braid on a man's breast.
Instantly she realized that some one was hiding there—some one dressed in a military coat; and her first impulse was for flight—anything to escape, unrecognized. But on second thoughts she changed her mind.
Whoever it was had in all probability hidden himself for the purpose of spying, and was already aware that Miss Mowbray had rushed into the house weeping, after a tete-a-tete with the Emperor in the garden. Perhaps he had even caught a word or two of her sobbing ejaculation. No, she must not run away, and leave the outcome of this affair to chance. She must see with whom she had to deal, that she might know what was best to do.
She had taken a step into the room, but quick as light she turned, pulled away the screen of curtain and faced Captain von Breitstein.
It was a trying moment for him, and the girl's look stripped him of all his light audacity. She had come to the window by a different path from the one he had watched, therefore she had taken him unawares, before he had time to escape, as he had planned. He was caught fairly, and must save himself as best he could without preparation.
If her reproach forestalled his excuse, he was lost. He must step into the breach at whatever risk. No time to weigh words; he must let loose the first that sprang to his lips.
"I see what you think of me," he said. "I see you think I was watching you. I swear I wasn't, though I knew you were in the garden with—the Emperor. Wait—you must listen. You must hear my justification. I was sent to this room to fetch you. For your sake, how could I go back and say you had disappeared—together? I looked out into the garden and saw you—with him. I saw from your manner that—he had made you suffer. I was half mad with rage, guessing—guessing something which one word you let drop as you came in, told me had happened. He is my sovereign, but—he has insulted you. Let me be your knight, as in days of old. Let me defend you, for I love you. I waited here to tell you this, as you came, so that, if you would, we might announce an engagement—"
If Virginia's eyes had been daggers, he would have fallen at her feet, pierced to the heart. For one long second she looked at him without speaking, her face eloquent. Then she went by him with the proud bearing of a queen.
Egon was stricken dumb. Dully he watched her move across the room to a door which led into a corridor. He heard the whisper of her satin dress, and saw the changing lights and shadows on its creamy folds, under the crystal chandeliers; he saw the white reflection, like a spirit, mirrored deep under the polished surface of the floor.
Never had she been more beautiful; but she was beautiful in his eyes no longer. He had hurt her pride; but she had stabbed his vanity; and to wound Egon von Breitstein's vanity was to strike at his life. He hated the girl, hated her so sharply that his nerves ached with the intensity of his hatred; and the only relief he could have would be through reprisal.
He had not been able to deceive her. She knew that he had been spying, and it was fortunate for his future, he realized already, that she had broken with the Emperor. He must do all he could, and do it quickly, to prevent a reconciliation, lest she should work him injury.
As for his hastily stammered proposal, it was a good thing that the girl had not taken him at his word, for the Chancellor had not given him permission to speak, and if she had accepted him, he might have had to wriggle out of his engagement. Still, he could not forgive her scorn of him.
"Lorenz shall help me to pay her for this!" he said furiously to himself, too angry to mourn over lost hopes, lost opportunities. "He will know how to punish her. And between us she shall suffer."
"THE EMPEROR WILL UNDERSTAND"
It was for refuge that the Princess fled to her own room.
A boudoir shared by the Grand Duchess adjoined it, and entering there, to her dismay the girl saw her mother lying on a sofa, attended by Ernestine, the French maid.
Virginia's heart sank. She had supposed the Grand Duchess to be in the white drawing-room with the Baroness, and the other guests of the house. Now there was no hope that she might be left alone and unquestioned. And the girl had longed to be alone.
"At last!" exclaimed a faint voice from the sofa. "I thought you would never come."
The Princess stared, half-dazed, unable yet to tear her mind from her private griefs. "Are you ill, Mother?" she stammered. "Had you sent for me?"
"I came very near fainting in the drawing-room," the Grand Duchess answered. "Ernestine, you may leave us now."
The French woman went out noiselessly.
Still Virginia did not speak. Could it be that there had been another spy, beside Egon von Breitstein, and that her mother already knew how the castle of cards had fallen? Was it the news of defeat which had prostrated her?
"Have you—did any one tell you?" the girl faltered.
"I've had a telegram—a horrible telegram. Oh, Virginia, I am not young, as you are. I am too old to endure all this. I think you should not have subjected me to it."
The Grand Duchess's voice was plaintive, and pried among the girl's sick nerves, like hot wire.
"What do you mean, dear? I don't understand," she said, dully. "I'm so sorry you are ill. If it's my fault in any way, I—"
Her mother pointed toward a writing table. "The telegram is there," she murmured. "It is too distressing—too humiliating."
Virginia picked up a crumpled telegraph form and began to read the message, which was dated London and written in English. "Some one making inquiries here about the Mowbrays. Beg to advise you to explain all at once, or leave Kronburg, to avoid almost certain complications. Lambert."
Lady Lambert was the wife of the ex-Ambassador to the Court of Rhaetia from Great Britain.
The Princess finished in silence.
"Isn't it hideous?" asked the Grand Duchess. "To think that you and I should have deliberately placed ourselves in such a position! We are to run away, like detected adventuresses, unless—unless you are now ready to tell the Emperor all."
"No," said Virginia, hopelessly.
"What! Not yet? Oh, my dear, then you must bring matters to a crisis—instantly—to-night even. It's evident that some enemy—perhaps some jealous person—has been at work behind our backs. It is for you to turn the tables upon him, and there isn't an hour to waste. From the first, you meant to make some dramatic revelation. Now, the time has come."
"Ah, I meant—I meant!" echoed Virginia, with a sob breaking the ice in her voice. "Nothing has turned out as I meant. You were right, dear; I was wrong. We ought never to have come to Rhaetia."
The Grand Duchess grew paler than before. She had been vaguely distressed. Now, she was sharply alarmed. If Virginia admitted that this great adventure should never have been undertaken, then indeed the earth must be quaking under their feet.
"Ought not—to have come?" she repeated, piteously. "What dreadful thing has happened?"
The Princess stood with bent head. "It's hard to tell," she said, "harder, almost, than anything I ever had to do. But it must be done. Everything's at an end, dear."
"What—you've told him, and he has refused to forgive?"
"He knows nothing."
"For Heaven's sake, don't keep me in suspense."
Virginia's lips were dry. "He asked me to be his wife," she said. "Oh, wait—wait! Don't look happy. You don't understand, and I didn't, at first. He had to explain and—he put the thing as little offensively as he could. Oh, Mother, he thinks me only good enough to be his morganatic wife!"
The storm had burst at last, and the Princess fell on her knees by the sofa where, burying her face in her mother's lap, she sobbed as if parting with her youth.
There had always been mental and temperamental barriers between the Dresden china lady and her daughter; but they loved each other, and never had the girl been so dear to her mother as now. The Grand Duchess thought of the summer day when Virginia had knelt beside her, saying, "We are going to have an adventure, you and I."
Alas, the adventure was over, and summer and hope were dead. Tears trembled in the mother's eyes. Poor little Virginia, so young, so inexperienced, and, in spite of her self-will and recklessness, so sweet and loving withal!
"But, dear, but, you are making the worst of things," the Grand Duchess said soothingly, her hand on the girl's bright hair. "Why, instead of crying you ought to be smiling, I think. Leopold must love you desperately, or he would never have proposed marriage—even morganatic marriage. Just at first, the idea must have shocked you—knowing who you are. But remember, if you were Miss Mowbray, it would have been a triumph. Many women of high position have married Royalty morganatically, and every one has respected them. You seem to forget that the Emperor knows you only as Helen Mowbray."
"He ought to have known that Helen Mowbray was not the girl to consent—no, not more easily than Virginia of Baumenburg-Drippe. He should have understood without telling, that to a girl with Anglo-Saxon blood in her veins such an offer would be like a blow over the heart."
"How should he understand? He is Rhaetian. His point of view—"
"His point of view to me is terrible. Oh, Mother, it's useless to argue. Everything is spoiled. Of course if he knew I was Princess Virginia, he would be sorry for what he had proposed, even if he thought I'd brought it on myself. But then, it would be too late. Don't you understand, I valued his love because it was given to me, not the Princess? If he said, 'Now I know you, I can offer my right hand instead of my left, to you as my wife,' that would not be the same thing at all. No, there's nothing left but to go home; and the Emperor of Rhaetia must be told that Virginia of Baumenburg-Drippe has decided not to marry. That will be our one revenge—but a pitiful one, since he'll never know that the Princess who refuses his right hand and the Helen Mowbray who wouldn't take his left, are one and the same. Oh Mother, I did love him so! Let us get out of this hateful house as soon as we can."
The Grand Duchess knew her daughter, and abandoned hope. "Yes, if you will not forgive him; we must go at once, and save our dignity if we can," she said. "The telegram will give us our excuse. I told the Baroness I had received bad news, and she asked permission to knock at my door before going to bed, and inquire how I was feeling. She may come at any moment. We must say that the telegram recalls us immediately to England."
"Listen!" whispered Virginia. "I think there's some one at the door now."
Baroness von Lyndal stood aghast on hearing that she was to be deserted early in the morning by the bright, particular star of her house party—after the Emperor. She begged that Lady Mowbray would reconsider; that she would wire to England, instead of going, or at all events that she would wait for one day more, until Leopold's visit to Schloss Lyndalberg should be over.
In her anxiety, she even failed in tact, when she found arguments useless. "But the Emperor?" she objected. "If you go off early in the morning, before he or any one comes down, what will he think, what will he say at being cheated out of his au revoir?"
The Grand Duchess hesitated; but Virginia answered firmly "I said good-by to him to-night. The Emperor—will understand."
THE MAGIC CITRON
Breakfast at Schloss Lyndalberg was an informal meal, under the reign of Mechtilde. Those who were sociably inclined, appeared. Those who loved not their species until the day was older, ate in their rooms.
Leopold had shown himself at the table each morning, however, and set the fashion. And the day after the parting in the garden, he was earlier even than usual. It was easy to be early, as he had not been to bed that night; but he had an extra incentive. He could scarcely wait to see how Helen Mowbray would meet him; whether she would still be cold, or whether sound advice from her mother would have made her kind.
This was his last day at Lyndalberg. By his special request no program of entertainment had been arranged; and before coming down to breakfast Leopold had been turning over in his mind plan after plan for another chance of meeting the girl alone. He had even written a letter, but had torn it up, because he was unable to say on paper what was really in his heart.
Breakfast passed, however, and when she did not appear, Leopold grew restless. He did not ask for her before the others; but when he and the Baroness had strolled out together on the terrace, where white peacocks spread their jeweled tails, the Emperor sought some opportunity of bringing in the name that filled his thoughts.
"I see the red October lilies are opening," he said. "Miss Mowbray will be interested. She tells me there's nothing like them in England."
"Ah, she has gone just too soon!" sighed the Baroness.
The Emperor glanced quickly from the mass of crimson flowers, to his hostess's face. "Gone?" he repeated.
"Yes," the Baroness answered. "They must have reached Kronburg before this. You know, they left their companion there. Perhaps your Majesty did not realize that they were leaving here quite so early?"
He turned so white under the brown tan the mountains had given, that the Baroness was alarmed. She had taken Virginia's words as Virginia had meant her to take them, and therefore supposed that a formal farewell of some sort had been spoken. This impression did not prevent her from guessing that there must have been a misunderstanding, and she was tingling with a lively curiosity which she was obliged carefully to hide.
The romance which had been enacted under her eyes she believed to be largely of her own making; and, not being a bad-hearted woman, she had grown fond of Virginia. She had even had pangs of conscience; and though she could not see the way for a happy ending to the pretty drama, it distressed her that the curtain should go down on sadness.
"I did not know they were going at all," Leopold answered frankly, willing to sacrifice his pride for the sake of coming quickly at the truth.
"Oh!" exclaimed the Baroness. "I am distressed! Miss Mowbray distinctly said, when I begged that they would wait, 'the Emperor will understand.'"
"I do understand—now I know they have gone," he admitted. "But—Miss Mowbray thinks she has some cause of complaint against me, and she's mistaken. I can't let such a mistake go uncorrected. You say they must be at Kronburg before this. Are they staying on there?"
"I'm afraid not, your Majesty. They leave Kronburg for England to-day by the Orient Express."
"Do you happen to remember at what hour the train starts?"
"I believe at twelve."
Leopold pulled out his watch. It was twenty minutes past eleven. Forty times sixty seconds, and the girl would be gone.
The blood rushed to his face. Barring accidents, he could catch her if he ordered his motor-car, and left at once. But to cut short his visit at Schloss Lyndalberg, would be virtually to take the world into his secret. Let him allege important state business at the capital, if he chose, gossip would still say that the girl had fled, that he had pursued her. The Baroness knew already; others would chatter as if they knew; that was inevitable—if he went.
A month ago (when yielding to inclination meant humbling his pride as Emperor and man), such a question would have answered itself. Now, it answered itself also, the only difference being that the answer was exactly opposite to what it would have been a month earlier.
"Baroness, forgive me," he said quickly. "I must go. I can't explain."
"You need not try," she answered him, softly.
"Thank you, a hundred times. Make everything as straight for me as you can. Say what you will. I give you carte blanche, for we're old friends, and I trust you."
"It's for me to thank your Majesty. You want your motor-car?"
"I'll telephone. Your chauffeur will have it here in six minutes. And your aide-de-camp. Will you—"
"I don't want him, thanks. I'd rather go alone."
Seven minutes later the big white motor-car was at the door which was the private entrance to the Emperor's suite; and the Emperor was waiting for it, having forgotten all about the sable-lined coat which had been a present from the Czar. If it had been mid-winter, he would have forgotten, just the same; nor would he have known that it was cold.
There was plenty of time now to carry out his plan, which was to catch the Orient Express at the Kronburg station, and present himself to the Mowbrays in the train, later. As to what would happen afterwards, it was beyond planning; but Leopold knew that the girl had loved him; and he hoped that he would have Lady Mowbray on his side.
The only way of reaching Kronburg from Schloss Lyndalberg was by road; there was no railway connection between the two places. But the town and the castle were separated by a short eight miles, and until checked by traffic in the suburbs, the sixty horse-power car could cover a mile in less than two minutes.
Unfortunately, however, police regulations were strict, and of this Leopold could not complain, as he had approved them himself. Once, he was stopped, and would certainly not have been allowed to proceed, had he not revealed himself as the Emperor, the owner of the one unnumbered car in Rhaetia. As it was, he had suffered a delay of five minutes; and just as he was congratulating himself on the goodness of his tires, which had made him no trouble for many weeks, a loud report as of a pistol shot gave warning of a puncture.
But there was not a moment to waste on repairs, Leopold drove on, on the rims, only to acknowledge presently the truth of an old proverb, "the more haste the less speed."
Delayed by a torn and flapping tire, the car arrived at the big Central Station of Kronburg only five minutes before twelve. Leopold dashed in, careless whether he were recognized or no, and was surprised at the absence of the crowd which usually throngs the platform before the departure of the most important train of the day.
"Is the Orient Express late?" he asked of an inspector to whom he was but a man among other men.
"No, sir. Just on time. Went out five minutes ago."
"But it isn't due to start till twelve."
"Summer time-table, sir. Autumn time-table takes effect to-day, the first of October. Orient Express departure changed to eleven-fifty."
An unreasoning rage against fate boiled in the Emperor's breast. He ruled this country, yet everything in it seemed to conspire in a plot to wreck his dearest desires.
For a few seconds he stood speechless, feeling as if he had been dashed against a blank wall, and there were no way of getting round it. Yet the seconds were but few, for Leopold was not a man of slow decisions.
His first step was to inquire the name of the town at which the Orient Express stopped soonest. In three hours, he learnt, it would reach Felgarde, the last station on the Rhaetian side of the frontier.
His first thought on hearing this was to engage a special, and follow; but even in these days there is much red tape entangled with railway regulations in Rhaetia. It soon appeared that it would be quicker to take the next train to Felgarde, which was due to leave in half an hour, and would arrive only an hour later than the Orient Express.
Leopold's heart was chilled, but he shook off despondency and would not be discouraged. Telephoning to the hotel where the Mowbrays had been stopping, he learned that they had gone. Then he wrote out a telegram: "Miss Helen Mowbray, Traveling from Kronburg to Paris by Orient Express, Care of Station-master at Felgarde. I implore you leave the train at Felgarde and wait for me. Am following in all haste. Will arrive Felgarde one hour after you, and hope to find you at Leopoldhof." So far the wording was simple. He had signified his intention and expressed his wish, which would have been more than enough to assure the accomplishment of his purpose, had he been dealing with a subject. Unfortunately, however, Helen Mowbray was not a subject, and had exhibited no sign of subjection. It was therefore futile to prophesy whether or no she would choose to grant his request.
Revolving the pros and cons he was forced to conclude that she probably would not grant it—unless he had some new argument to bring forward. Yet what had he to urge that he had not already urged twice over? What could he say at this eleventh hour which would not only induce her to await his coming at Felgarde, but justify him in making a last appeal when he came to explain it in person?
As he stood pen in hand, suddenly he found himself recalling a fairy story which he had never tired of reading in his childhood. Under the disguise of fancy, it was a lesson against vacillation, and he had often said to himself as a boy, that when he grew up, he would not, like the Prince of the story, miss a gift of the gods through weak hesitation.
The pretty legend in his mind had for a hero a young prince who went abroad to seek his fortune, and received from one of the Fates to whom he paid a visit, three magic citrons which he must cut open by the side of a certain fountain. He obeyed his instructions; but when from the first citron sprang an exquisite fairy maiden, demanding a drink of water, the young man lost his presence of mind. While he sat staring, the lovely lady vanished; and with a second experiment it was the same. Only the third citron remained of the Fates' squandered gifts, and when the Prince cut it in half, the maiden who appeared was so much more beautiful than her sisters, that in adoring wonder he almost lost her as he had lost the others.
"My knife is on the rind of the last citron now," Leopold said to himself. "Let me not lose the one chance I have left."
Last night he had believed that there would not be room in a man's heart for more love than his held for Helen Mowbray; but realizing to the full how great was the danger of losing her, he found that his love had grown beyond reckoning.
He had thought it a sacrifice to suggest a morganatic marriage. Now, a voice seemed to say in his ear, "The price you offered was not enough. Is love worth all to you or not?" And he answered, "It is worth all. I will offer all, yet not count it a sacrifice. That is love, and nothing less is love."
A white light broke before his eyes, like a meteor bursting, and the voice in his ear spoke words that sent a flame through his veins.
"I will do it," he said. "Who is there among my people who will dare say 'no' to their Emperor's 'yes'? I will make a new law. I will be a law unto myself."
His face, that had been pale, was flushed. He tore up the unfinished telegram, and wrote another, which he signed "Leo, the Chamois Hunter." Then, when he had handed in the message, and paid, there was but just time to buy his ticket, engage a whole first-class compartment, for himself, and dash into it, before his train was due to start.
As it moved slowly out of the big station, Leopold's brain rang with the noble music of his great resolve. He could see nothing, think of nothing but that. His arms ached to clasp his love; his lips, cheated last night, already felt her kisses; for she would give them now, and she would give herself. He was treading the past of an Empire under foot, in the hope of a future with her; and every throb of the engine was taking him nearer to the threshold of that future.
But such moments of supreme exaltation come rarely in a lifetime. The heart of man or woman could not beat on for long with such wild music for accompaniment; and so it was that, as the moments passed, the song of the Emperor's blood fell to a minor key. He thought passionately of Virginia, but he thought of his country as well, and tried to weigh the effect upon others of the thing that he was prepared to do. There was no one on earth whom Leopold of Rhaetia need fear, but there was one to whom he owed much, one whom it would be grievious to offend.
In his father's day, one man—old even then—had built upon the foundations of a tragic past, a great and prosperous nation. This man had been to Leopold what his father had never been; and without the magic power of inspiring warm affection, had instilled respect and gratitude in the breast of an enthusiastic boy.
"Poor old von Breitstein!" the Emperor sighed; "The country is his idol—the country with all the old traditions. He'll feel this break sorely. I'd spare him if I could; but I can't live my life for him—"
He sighed again, and looked up frowning at a sudden sound which meant intrusion.
Like a spirit called from the deep, there stood the Chancellor at the door between Leopold's compartment and the one adjoining.
THE EMPEROR AT BAY
Iron Heart was dressed in the long, double-breasted gray overcoat and the soft gray hat in which all snapshot photographs (no others had ever been taken) showed the Chancellor of Rhaetia.
At sight of the Emperor off came the famous hat, baring the bald dome of the fine old head, fringed with hair of curiously mingled black and white.
"Good day, your Majesty," he said, with no sign of surprise in his voice or face.
The train rocked, going round a curve, and it was with difficulty that the Chancellor kept his footing; but he stood rigidly erect, supporting himself in the doorway, until the Emperor with more politeness than enthusiasm, invited him to enter and be seated.
"I'm glad you're well enough to travel, Chancellor," said Leopold. "We had none too encouraging an account of you from Captain von Breitstein."
"I travel because you travel, your Majesty," replied the old man. "It is kind of you to tolerate me here, and I appreciate it."
Now, they sat facing each other; and the young man, fighting down a sense of guilt—familiar to him in boyish days, when about to be taken to task by the Chancellor—gazed fixedly at the hard, clever face on which the afternoon sun scored the detail of each wrinkle.
"Indeed?" was the Emperor's only answer.
"Your Majesty, I have served you and your father before you, well, I hope, faithfully, I know. I think you trust me."
"No man more. But this sounds a portentous preface. Is it possible you imagine it necessary to 'lead up' to a subject, if I can please myself by doing you a favor?"
"If I have seemed to lead up to what I wish to say, your Majesty, it is only for the sake of explanation. You are wondering, no doubt, how I knew you would travel to-day, and in this train; also why I have ventured to follow. Your intention I learned by accident." (The Chancellor did not explain by what diplomacy that "accident" had been brought about.) "Wishing much to talk over with you a pressing matter that should not be delayed, I took this liberty, and seized this opportunity.
"Some men would, in my place, pretend that business of their own had brought them, and that the train had been chosen by chance. But your Majesty knows me as a blunt man, when I serve him not as diplomat, but as friend. I'm not one to work in the dark with those who trust me, and I want your Majesty to know the truth." (Which perhaps he did, but not the whole truth.)
"You raise my curiosity," said Leopold.
"Then have I your indulgence to speak frankly, not entirely as a humble subject to his Emperor, but as an old man to a young man?"
"I'd have you speak as a friend," said Leopold. But a slight constraint hardened his voice, as he prepared himself for something disagreeable.
"I've had a letter from the Crown Prince of Hungaria. It has come to his ears that there is a certain reason for your Majesty's delay in following up the first overtures for an alliance with his family. Malicious tongues have whispered that your Majesty's attentions are otherwise engaged; and the young Adalbert has addressed me in a friendly way begging that the rumor may be contradicted or confirmed."
"I'm not sure that negotiations had gone far enough to give him the right to be inquisitive," returned Leopold, flushing.
The Chancellor spread out his old, veined hands in a gesture of appeal. "I fear," he said, "that in my anxiety for your Majesty's welfare and the good of Rhaetia, I may have exceeded my instructions. My one excuse is, that I believed your mind to be definitely made up. I still believe it to be so. I would listen to no one who should try to persuade me of the contrary, and I will write Adalbert—"
"You must get yourself and me out of the scrape as best you can, since you admit you got us into it," broke in the Emperor, with an uneasy laugh. "If Princess Virginia of Baumenburg-Drippe is as charming as she is said to be, her difficulty will be in choosing a husband, not in getting one. For once, my dear Chancellor, gossip has told the truth; and I wouldn't pay the Princess so poor a compliment as to ask for her hand, when I've no heart left to give her in exchange for it. There's some one else—"
"It is of that some one else I would venture to speak, your Majesty. Gossip has named her. May I?"
"I'll save you the trouble. For I'm not ashamed that the common fate has overtaken me—common, because every man loves once before he dies; and yet uncommon, because no man ever loved a woman so worthy. Chancellor, there's no woman in the world like Miss Helen Mowbray, the lady to whom I owe my life."
"It's natural you should be grateful, your Majesty, but—"
"It's natural I should be in love."
"Natural that a young man inexperienced in affairs of the heart, should mistake warm gratitude for love. Impossible that the mistake should be allowed to continue."
Leopold's eyes grew dark. "In such a connection," he said, "it would be better not to mention the word 'mistake.' I'm glad you are here; for now you can learn from me my intentions toward that lady—"
"Intentions, did you say, your Majesty? I fear I grow hard of hearing."
"At least you will never grow slow of understanding. I did speak of my intentions toward Miss Mowbray."
"You would give the lady some magnificent estate, some splendid acknowledgment—"
"Whether splendid or not would be a matter of opinion," laughed the Emperor. "I shall offer her a present of myself."
The old man had been sitting with his chin sunk into his short neck, peering out from under his brows in a way he had; but he lifted his head suddenly, with a look in his eyes like that of an animal who scents danger from an unexpected quarter.
"Your Majesty!" he exclaimed. "You are your father's son, you are Rhaetian, and your standard of honor—"
"I hope to marry Miss Mowbray," Leopold cut him short.
The Chancellor's jaw dropped, and he grew pale. "I had dreamed of nothing as bad as this," he blurted out, with no thought or wish to sugar the truth. "I feared a young man's rashness. I dreaded scandal. But, forgive me, your Majesty, for you a morganatic marriage would be madness—"
"A morganatic marriage I did think of at first. But on second thoughts I saw it would be ungrateful."
"Ah yes, to the country which expects so much of you."
"No, to the woman who has the right to all or nothing. I will make her Empress of Rhaetia."
With a cry the Chancellor sprang up. His eyes glared like the eyes of a bull who receives the death stroke. His working lips, and the hollow sound in his throat alarmed the Emperor.
"No, your Majesty. No!" he panted.
"But I say yes," Leopold answered, "and let no man give me nay. I've thought it all out. I will make her a Countess first. Then, she shall be made my Empress."
"Your Majesty, it is not possible."
"Take care, Chancellor."
"She has been deceiving you. She has neither the birth, the position, nor the name she claims to have, and I can prove it."
"You are mad, von Breitstein," the Emperor flung at him. "That can be your only excuse for such words."
"I am not mad, but I am old and wise, your Majesty. To-day you have made me feel that I am very old. Punish me as you will for my frankness. My work for you and yours is nearly done. Cheerfully will I submit to my dismissal if only this last effort in your service may save the ship of state from wreck. I would not make an accusation which I could not prove. And I can prove that the two English ladies who have been staying at Schloss Lyndalberg are not the persons they pretend to be."
"Who has been lying to you?" cried Leopold, who held between clenched hands the temper he vowed not to lose with this old man.
"To me, no one. To your Majesty, to society in Kronburg, two adventuresses have lied."
The Emperor caught his breath. "If you were a young man I would kill you for that," he said.
"I know you would. As it is, my life is yours. But before you take it, for God's sake, for your father's sake, hear me out."
Leopold did not speak for a moment, but stared at the vanishing landscape, which he saw through a red haze. "Very well," he said at last, "I will hear you, because I fear nothing you can say."
"When I heard of your Majesty's—admiration for a certain lady," the Chancellor began quickly, lest the Emperor should change his mind, "I looked for her name and her mother's in Burke's Peerage. There I found Lady Mowbray, widow of a dead Baron of that ilk; mother of a son, still a child, and of one daughter, a young woman with many names and twenty-eight years.
"This surprised me, as the Miss Mowbray I had seen at the birthday ball looked no more than eighteen, and—I was told—confessed to twenty. The Mowbrays, I learned by a little further research in Burke, were distantly connected by marriage with the family of Baumenburg-Drippe. This seemed an odd coincidence, in the circumstances. But acting as duty bade me act, I wired to two persons: Baron von Sark, your Majesty's ambassador to Great Britain; and the Crown Prince of Hungaria, the brother of Princess Virginia."
"What did you telegraph?" asked the Emperor, icily.
"Nothing compromising to your Majesty, you may well believe. I inquired of Adalbert if he had English relations, a Lady Mowbray and daughter Helen, traveling in Rhaetia; and I begged that, if so, he would describe their appearance by telegram. To von Sark I said that particulars by wire concerning the widow of Lord Mowbray and daughter Helen, would put me under personal obligation. Both these messages I sent off night before last. Yesterday I received Adalbert's answer; this morning, von Sark's. They are here," and the Chancellor tapped the breast of his gray coat. "Will your Majesty read them?"
"If you wish," replied Leopold at his haughtiest and coldest.
The old man unbuttoned his coat and produced a coroneted pocket-book, a souvenir of friendship on his last birthday from the Emperor. Leopold saw it, and remembered, as the Chancellor hoped he would.
"Here are the telegrams, your Majesty," he said. "The first one is from the Crown Prince of Hungaria."
"Have no idea where Lady Mowbray and daughter are traveling; may be Rhaetia or North Pole," Adalbert had written with characteristic flippancy. "Have seen neither for eight years, and scarcely know them. But Lady M. tall brown old party with nose like hobbyhorse. Helen dark, nose like mother's, wears glasses."
With no betrayal of feeling, Leopold laid the telegram on the red plush seat, and unfolded the other.
"Pardon delay," the Rhaetian ambassador's message began. "Have been making inquiries. Lady Mowbray has been widow for ten years. Not rich. During son's minority has let her town and country houses, lives much abroad. Very high church, intellectual, at present in Calcutta, where her daughter Helen, twenty-eight, not pretty, is lately engaged to marry middle-aged Judge of some distinction."
"So!" And the Emperor threw aside the second bit of paper. "It is on such slight grounds as these that a man of the world can label two ladies 'adventuresses'!"
The Chancellor was bitterly disappointed. He had counted on the impression which these telegrams must make, and unless Leopold were acting, it was now certain that love had driven him out of his senses.
But if the Emperor were mad, he must be treated accordingly, and the old statesman condescended to "bluff."
"There is still more to tell," he said, "if your Majesty has not heard enough. But I think when you have reflected you will not wish for more. It is clear that the women calling themselves Mowbrays have had the audacity to present themselves here under false colors. They have either deceived Lady Lambert, who introduced them to Rhaetian society, or—still more likely—they have cleverly forged their letters of introduction."
"Why didn't you telegraph to Lady Lambert, while your hand was in?" sneered Leopold.
"I did, your Majesty, or rather, not knowing her present address I wired a friend of mine, an acquaintance of hers, begging him to make inquiries, without using my name. But I have not yet received an answer to that telegram."
"Until you do, I should think that even a cynic like yourself might give two defenseless, inoffensive ladies the benefit of the doubt."
"Inoffensive?" echoed von Breitstein. "Inoffensive, when they came to this country to ensnare your Majesty through the girl's beauty? But, great Heaven, it is true that I am growing old! I have forgotten to ask your Majesty whether you have gone so far as to mention the word marriage to Miss Mowbray?"
"I'll answer that question by another. Do you really believe that Miss Mowbray came to Rhaetia to 'entrap' me?"
"I do. Though I scarcely think that even her ambition flew as high as you are encouraging it to soar."
"In case you're right she would have been overjoyed with an offer of morganatic marriage."
"Overjoyed is a poor word. Overwhelmed might be nearer."
"Yet I tell you she refused me last night, and is leaving Rhaetia to-day rather than listen to further entreaties."
Leopold bent forward to launch this thunderbolt, his brown hands on his knees, his eyes eager. The memories, half bitter, half sweet, called up by his own words, caused Virginia to appear more beautiful, more desirable even than before.
He was delighted with the expression of the Chancellor's face. "Now, what arguments have you left?" he broke out in the brief silence.
"All I had before—and many new ones. For what your Majesty has said shows the lady more ambitious, more astute, therefore more dangerous than I had guessed. She staked everything on the power of her charms. And she might have won, had you not an old servant who wouldn't be fooled by the witcheries of a fair Helen."
"She has won," said Leopold. Then, quickly, "God forgive me for chiming in with your bitter humor, as if she'd played a game. By simply being herself, she has won me—such as I am. She's proved that if she cares at all, it's for the man, and not the Emperor, since she called the offer you think so magnificent, an insult. Yes, Chancellor, that was the word she used; and it was almost the last she said to me: which is the reason I'm traveling to-day. And none of your boasted 'proofs' can hold me back."
"By Heaven, your Majesty must look upon yourself from the point of view you credit to the girl. You forget the Emperor in the man."
"The two need not be separated."
"Love indeed makes men blind, and spares not the eyes of Emperors."
"I've pledged myself to bear with you, Chancellor."
"And I know you'll keep your word. I must speak, for Rhaetia, and your better self. You are following this—lady to give her your Empire for a toy."
"She must first accept the Emperor as her husband."
"A lady who has so poor a name of her own that she steals one which doesn't belong to her. The nation won't bear it."
"You speak for yourself, not for Rhaetia," said Leopold. "Though I'm not so old as you by half your years, I believe I can judge my people better than you do. The law which bids an Emperor of Rhaetia match with Royalty is an unwritten law, a law solely of customs, handed down through the generations. I'll not spoil my life by submitting to its yoke, since by breaking it the nation gains, as I do. I could go to the world's end and not find a woman as worthy to be my wife and Empress of Rhaetia as Helen Mowbray."
"You have never seen Princess Virginia."
"I've no wish to see her. There's but one woman for me, and I swear to you, if I lose her, I'll go to my grave unmarried. Let the crown fall to my uncle's son. I'll not perjure myself even for Rhaetia."
The Chancellor bowed his head and held up his hands, for by that gesture alone could he express his despair.
"If my people love me, they'll love my wife, and rejoice in my happiness," Leopold went on, sharply. "If they complain, why, we shall see who's master; whether or not the Emperor of Rhaetia is a mere figurehead. In some countries Royalty is but an ornamental survival of a picturesque past, a King or Queen is a mere puppet which the nation loads with luxury to do itself honor. That's not true of Rhaetia, though, as I'm ready to prove, if prove it I must. But I believe I shall be spared the trouble. We Rhaetians love romance; you are perhaps the one exception. While as for the story you've told me, I would not give that for it!" And the Emperor snapped his fingers.
"You still believe the ladies have a right to the name of Mowbray?"
"I believe that they are of stainless reputation, and that any seeming mystery can be explained. Miss Mowbray is herself. That's enough for me. Perhaps, Chancellor, there are two Lady Mowbrays."
"Only one is mentioned in Burke."
"Burke isn't gospel."
"Pardon me. It's the gospel of the British peerage. It can no more be guilty of error than Euclid."
"Nor can Miss Mowbray be guilty of wrong. I should still stake my life on that, even had your conclusions not been lame ones."
The old man accepted this rebuff in silence. But it was not the silence of absolute hopelessness. It was only such a pause as a prize-fighter makes between rounds.
"Your Majesty will not be in too great haste, at all events, I trust," he said at last. "At least a little reflection, a little patience, to cool the blood. I have not laid down all my cards yet."
"It's often bad policy not to lead trumps," replied Leopold.
"Often, but not always. Time, and the end of the play will show. Is your Majesty's indulgence for the old man quite exhausted?"
"Not quite, though rather strained, I confess." Leopold tempered his words with a faint smile.
"Then I have one more important question to ask, venturing to remind you first that I have acted solely in your interest. If such a step as you contemplate should be my death blow, it is because of my love for you, and Rhaetia. Tell me, your Majesty, this one thing. If it were proved to you that the lady you know as Miss Mowbray, was, not only not the person she pretends to be, but in all other respects unworthy of your love—what would you do?"
"You speak of impossibilities."
"But if they were not impossibilities?"
"In such a case I should do as other men do—spend the rest of life in trying to forget a lost ideal."
"I thank your Majesty. That is all I ask. I suppose you will continue your journey?"
"Yes, as far as Felgarde, where I hope to find Lady Mowbray and her daughter."
"Then, your Majesty, when I've expressed my gratitude for your forebearance—even though I've failed to be convincing—I'll trouble you no longer."
The Chancellor rose, painfully, with a reminiscence of gout, and Leopold stared at him in surprise. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"Only that, as I can do no further good here, with your permission, I will get out at the station we are coming into, and go back home again."
The Emperor realized, what he had not noticed until this moment, that the train was slackening speed as it approached the suburbs of a town. His conversation with the Chancellor had lasted for an hour, and he was far from regretting the prospect of being left in peace. More than once he had come perilously near to losing his temper, forgetting his gratitude and the old man's years. How much longer he could have held out under a continued strain of provocation, he did not know; so he spoke no word of dissuasion when Count von Breitstein picked up his soft hat and buttoned the gray coat for departure.
"I've passed pleasanter hours in your society, I admit," said Leopold, when the train stopped. "But I can thank you for your motives, if not your maxims; and here's my hand."
"It would be most kind of your Majesty to telephone me from Felgarde," the Chancellor exclaimed, as if on a sudden thought, while they shook hands, "merely to say whether you remain there; or whether you go further; or whether you return at once. I am too fatigued to travel back immediately to Schloss Breitstein, and shall rest for some hours at least, in my house at Kronburg, so a call will find me there."
"I will do as you ask," said the Emperor. Again he pressed the Chancellor's hand, and it was very cold.
THROUGH THE TELEPHONE
When Leopold arrived at Felgarde he went immediately to the hotel which he had designated as a place of meeting. But no ladies answering to the description he gave had been seen there. Either Miss Mowbray had failed to receive his message, or, having received, had chosen to ignore it.
The doubt, harrowing while it lasted, was solved on returning to the railway station, though certainty proved scarcely less tantalizing than uncertainty had been.
The telegram was still in the hands of the station-master, to whose care it had been addressed. This diligent person professed to have sent a man through the Orient Express, from end to end, calling for Miss Helen Mowbray, but calling in vain. He had no theory more plausible to offer than that the lady had not started from Kronburg; or else that she had left the train at Felgarde before her name had been cried. But certainly she would not have had time to go far, if she were a through passenger, for the Orient Express stopped but ten minutes at Felgarde.
It was evident throughout the short conversation that the excellent official was on pins and needles. Struck by the Emperor's features, which he had so often seen in painting and photograph, it still seemed impossible that the greatest man in Rhaetia could be traveling thus about the country, in ordinary morning dress, and unattended. Sure at one instant that he must be talking with the Emperor, sure the next that he had been deceived by a likeness, the poor fellow struggled against his confusion in a way that would have amused Leopold, in a different mood.
With a manner that essayed the difficult mean between reverence due to Royalty, and common, every-day politeness, good enough for an ordinary gentleman, the station-master volunteered to ascertain whether the ladies described had gone out and given up their tickets. A few minutes of suspense dragged on; then came the news that no such persons had passed.
Here was a stumbling-block. Since Helen Mowbray and her mother had apparently not traveled by the Orient Express, where had they gone on leaving the hotel at Kronburg? Had they after all misled Baroness von Lyndal as to their intentions, for the purpose of blinding the Emperor; or had they simply changed their minds at the last minute, as women may? Could it be possible that they had changed them so completely as to return to Schloss Lyndalberg? Or had they chosen to vanish mysteriously through some back door out of Rhaetia, leaving no trace which even a lover could find?
Leopold could not help recalling the Chancellor's "revelations," but dismissed them as soon as they had crept into his brain. No matter where the clue to the tangle might lie, he told himself that it was not in any act of which Helen Mowbray need be ashamed.
He could think of nothing more to do but to go dismally back to Kronburg, and await developments—or rather, to stir them up by every means in his power. This was the course he finally chose; and, just as he was about to act upon his decision, he remembered his carelessly given promise to Count von Breitstein.
There was a telephone in the railway station at Felgarde, and Leopold himself called up the Chancellor at Kronburg.
"My friends are not here. I'm starting for Kronburg as soon as possible, either by the next train, or by special," he announced, after a far-away squeak had signified Count von Breitstein's presence at the other end. "I don't see why you wish to know, but I would not break my promise. That's all; good-by—Eh?—What was that you said?"
"I have a—curious—piece of—news for you," came over the wire in the Chancellor's voice. "It's—about the—ladies."
"What is it?" asked Leopold.
"I hinted that I had more information which I could not give you then. But I am in a different position now. You did not find your friends in the Orient Express."
"No," said the Emperor.
"They gave out that they were leaving Rhaetia. But they haven't crossed the frontier."
"Thanks. That's exactly what I wanted to know."
"You remember a certain person whose name can't be mentioned over the telephone, buying a hunting lodge near the village of Inseleden, in the Buchenwald, last year?"
"Yes. I remember very well. But what has that to do with my friends?"
"The younger lady has gone there without her mother, who remains in Kronburg, with the companion. It seems that the present owner of the hunting lodge has been acquainted with them for some time, though he was ignorant of their masquerade. You see, he knows them only under their real name. The young lady is a singer in comic operas, a Miss Jenny Brett, whose dossier can be given you on demand. The owner of the hunting lodge arrived at his place this morning, motored into Kronburg, where the young lady had waited, evidently informed of his coming. She invited him to pay her a visit at her hotel; he accepted, and returned the invitation, which she accepted."
"You are misinformed. The lady was never an opera singer. And I'm certain she would neither receive the person you mention, nor go to visit him."
"Will you drive out to the lodge to-night, when you reach Kronburg, and honor the gentleman with an unexpected call?"
"I will, d—n you, but not for the reason you think," cried the Emperor. It was the first time in his life that he had ever used strong language to the Chancellor.
He dropped the receiver, flung down a gold coin with his own head upon it (at the moment he could have wished that he had no other) and waving away an offer of change, rushed out of the office.
Under his breath he swore again, the strongest oaths which the rich language of his fatherland provided, anathematizing not the beloved woman, maligned, but the man who maligned her.
There would be death in the thought that she could be false to herself, and her confession of love for him; but then, it was unthinkable. Let the whole world reek with foulness; his love must still shine above it, white and remote as the young moon.
This old man—whose life would scarce have been safe if, in his Emperor's present mood, the two had been together—this old man had a grudge against the one perfect girl on earth. There was no black rag of scandal he would not stoop to pick out of the mud and fly as a flag of battle, soothing his conscience—if he had one—by saying it was for "Rhaetia's good."
Telling himself that these things were truths, Leopold hurried away to inquire for the next train back to Kronburg. There would not be another for three hours, he found, and as nothing could have induced him to wait three hours, or even two, he ordered a special. There was a raging tiger in his breast, which would not cease to tear him until he had seen Helen Mowbray, laid his Empire at her feet, received her answer, and through it, punished the Chancellor.
The special, he was told, could be ready in less than an hour. The journey to Kronburg would occupy nearly three more, and it would be close upon nine before he could start with Count von Breitstein, for the hunting lodge which he had promised to visit. But the Chancellor would doubtless have his electric carriage ready for the desired expedition, and they could reach their destination in twenty minutes. This was not too long a time to give up to proving the old man wrong; for to do this, not to find Helen Mowbray, was Leopold's motive in consenting. She would not be there, and the Emperor was going because she would not. He wanted to witness von Breitstein's confusion, for humiliation was the bitterest punishment which could possibly be inflicted on the proud and opinionated old man.
TRUTH ACCORDING TO THE CHANCELLOR
"Tell the truth—when desirable; spice with prevarication—when necessary; and never part with the whole truth at one time, since waste is sinful," was one of the maxims by which the Chancellor guided his own actions, though he did not give it away for the benefit of others; and he had made the most of that prudent policy to-day.
He had told his Emperor no lies, even through the telephone, where forgetfulness may be pardonable; but he had arranged his truths as skilfully as he arranged his pawns on a chess-board.
It was said by some who pretended to know, that Count von Breitstein had had a Jesuit for a tutor; but be this as it might, it was certain that, when he had a goal to reach, he did not pick his footsteps by the way. A flower here or there was apt to be trodden down, a small life broken, a reputation stained; but what of that when Rhaetia's standard was to be planted upon the mountain top?
Supposing he had said to the Emperor, after his promise of plain speaking: "Your Majesty's journey to-day is a wild goose chase. I happen to know that those you seek are still at their hotel in Kronburg. When I heard from my brother Egon that they were leaving Schloss Lyndalberg suddenly and secretly, I went immediately to Kronburg, and called upon the ladies. My intention was to frighten them away, by telling them that the fraud was found out, and they had better disappear decently of their own accord, unless they wished to be assisted over the frontier. They actually dared refuse to see me, alleging as an excuse the sudden illness of their companion, which had prevented their leaving Kronburg as they intended. While I was awaiting this answer, I learned that some person was telegraphing from the railway station to the hotel manager, inquiring if the Mowbrays had gone. I guessed this person to be your Majesty, and ventured to use my influence strongly with the manager, so successfully that I was permitted to dictate the reply, and obtain his promise that the matter should be strictly confidential. I judged that your Majesty had meant to take the Orient Express, but had missed it; and as you telephoned from the station I had no doubt that you intended to follow, either by the next train or by a special. Soon, I learned that no special had been ordered by any one. I ascertained the time of the next train, and sought your Majesty in it. Had my eloquence then prevailed with you, I should have urged your return with me, and thus you would have been spared the useless journey to Felgarde. As you remained obstinately faithful, however, I considered myself fortunate to have you out of the way, so that I could hurry back, and, unhampered by your suspicions, set about learning still more facts to Miss Mowbray's discredit, or inventing a few if those which undoubtedly existed could not be unearthed in time."
Supposing that Count von Breitstein's boasted frankness had led him to make these statements, it is probable that Rhaetia would not long have rejoiced in a Chancellor so wise and so self-sacrificing.
It was well enough for the old man to declare his willingness to retire, if his master desired it; but he had counted (as people who risk all for great ends do count) on not being taken at his word. He loved power, because he had always had it, and without power life would not be worth the living; but it was honestly for the country's sake, and for Leopold's sake, rather than his own, that he desired to hold and keep his high position. Without his strong hand to seize the helm, should Leopold's fail for some careless instant, he conscientiously believed that the ship of state would be lost.
He had done his best to disillusion a young man tricked into love for an adventuress. Now, neither as Chancellor nor friend could he make further open protest, unless favored by fate with some striking new development. There were, nevertheless, other ways of working; and he had but taken the first step toward interference. He meant, since worst had come to worst, to go on relentlessly; and he would hardly have considered it criminal to destroy a woman of the type to which he assigned Helen Mowbray, provided no means less stringent sufficed to snatch her from the throne of Rhaetia.
There were many plans seething in the Chancellor's head, and Egon's help might be necessary. He might even have to go so far as to bribe Egon to kidnap the girl and sacrifice himself by marrying her out of hand, before she had a chance to learn that the Emperor was ready to meet her demands. Egon had been attentive to Miss Mowbray; it might well be believed even by the Emperor, that the young man had been madly enough in love to act upon his own initiative, uninfluenced by his brother.
The Chancellor's first act on parting with Leopold was to telegraph Captain von Breitstein to meet the train by which he would return to Kronburg; therefore on arriving at the station he was not surprised to see Egon's handsome face prominent among others less attractive, on the crowded platform.
"Well?" questioned the young man as the old man descended.
"I'm sorry to say it is very far from well. But between us, we shall, I hope, improve matters. You have kept yourself au courant with everything that has happened in the camp of the enemy?"
"Is anything stirring?"
"Say 'any one,' and I can answer you more easily. Who do you think has arrived at the hotel?"
"The devil, probably, to complicate matters."
"I've heard him called so; but a good-looking devil, and devilishly pleasant. I met him in his motor, in which he'd driven into town from his new toy, the hunting lodge in—"
"What! You mean the Prince—"
"Of Darkness, you've just named him." Egon gave a laugh at his own repartee, but the Chancellor heard neither. His hard face brightened. "That's well," said he grimly. "Here we have just the young man to see us through this bad pass, if he's as good looking as ever, and in his usual mood for mischief. If we can interest him in this affair, he may save me a great deal of trouble, and you a mesalliance."
"But your wedding present to me—" began Egon, blankly.
"Don't distress yourself. Do what you can to assist me, and whatever the end, you shall be my heir, I promise you. Is the Prince at the hotel now?"
"Yes. He had been to call on you at your town house, he stopped his automobile to tell me; and hearing from me that you would be back this evening, he decided to stay all night at the hotel, so that he could have a chat with you after your return, no matter at what hour it might be. I believe he has left a note at your house."
"I will go to him, and we can then discuss its contents together," said Count von Breitstein. And the chauffeur who drove his electric carriage was told to go to the Hohenlangenwald Hotel.
The Prince who would, the Chancellor hoped, become the Deus ex machina, was engaged in selecting the wines for his dinner, when Count von Breitstein's card was sent in. He was pleased to say that he would receive his visitor, and (Egon having been sent about his business) the Chancellor was shown into the purple drawing-room of the suite reserved for Royalty.
As he entered, a young man jumped up from an easy chair, scattering sheaves of illustrated papers, and held out both his hands, with a "Welcome, my dear old friend!"