Domiloff's lips parted in an inscrutable smile. He remained silent.
"I might have remembered," Brand continued, "that I was travelling with two friends. What has become of them?"
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders.
"It was most unfortunate," he declared. "The train pulled up for a moment at a wayside station, and they appear to have descended—and to have been left behind."
"I might also have remembered," he continued, stroking his moustache thoughtfully, "a priest whose interest in his fellow-passengers was a little extraordinary—a cup of coffee pressed upon me, a queer taste—bah! Why waste time? I was drugged, sir, with your connivance, no doubt, and brought here. What is the meaning of it?"
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders.
"You assume too much, my dear Prince," he declared, blandly. "Let us not waste time by fruitless discussion. I will admit that I was particularly anxious to have a few minutes' quiet conversation with you before you entered the capital. The opportunity is here. Let us avail ourselves of it."
Domiloff coughed. He had expected a torrent of indignation and abuse. His guest's nonchalance was a little disquieting.
"You are entering," he said, "upon a troublesome inheritance."
"It is an inheritance," Domiloff continued, "which you can neither possess yourself of, nor hold, without powerful friends."
"My country is willing to be your friend."
"Your country," Brand remarked, quietly, "is renowned throughout the world for her generosity."
"You do us, sir," he said, "no more than justice."
"Well! Go on!"
"Theos is in a state of hopeless confusion," Domiloff remarked. "It is very doubtful whether the actual state of the country has been represented to you. The people are all clamouring for they know not what, law and order seem to be things of the past. South of the Balkans the Turks are massing; northwards, the mailed hand of Austria is slowly being extended."
"And Russia?" Brand asked. "It is not her custom to remain in the background."
"Russia," Domiloff said, "desires to be your friend. She will secure for you the throne, and she will guarantee your independence."
"At what price?"
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders.
"You are very suspicious, my dear Prince," he said. "My master does not sell his favours. He asks only for a reasonable recognition of your gratitude. I have here the copy of a treaty which will secure you against any foreign interference in the affairs of your kingdom. Its advantages to you and to Theos are so obvious that it is idle for me to waste time by enlarging upon them. Read it, my Prince."
"I shall be charmed," Brand exclaimed, stretching out his hand for it.
"You would doubtless prefer," Domiloff said, "to look it through alone. I will return in half-an-hour."
"You are very thoughtful," Brand answered. "By the bye, you will excuse my denseness, but I am not quite clear as to our exact relations at the present moment. I am, I presume, at Gallona?"
The Baron bowed.
"It is indisputable!"
"At an hotel?"
"You are," Domiloff declared, "my honoured guest."
"Is it part of your diplomacy to starve me?" Brand asked, coolly, "or may I have some breakfast?"
Domiloff touched the bell.
"My dear Prince!" he exclaimed, deprecatingly.
A servant entered with a tray—cold meats and a flask of wine. Outside the window a sentry walked up and down. Brand eyed him thoughtfully.
"I think that I should like a stroll," he remarked. "My head is still heavy."
Domiloff advanced, and laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"My dear Prince," he said, "I beg that for the present you will not think of it. It is of the utmost importance that your presence upon the soil of Theos should not be suspected. I have a special train waiting to take you to the capital. Until we start it will be far better, believe me, that you do not attempt to leave this room."
"At what hour do we start?" Brand asked.
"It depends," he said, slowly, "upon circumstances."
Brand sat down and poured himself out a glass of wine.
"That means when I have signed the treaty, I suppose?"
Domiloff was already at the door. He affected not to hear.
"If your Highness will ring when you are prepared to give me an audience," he said, "I shall be entirely at your service."
* * * * *
Brand ate and drank, threw himself into an easy-chair, and lit a cigarette. Presently he tried the handle of the door. It was locked. He moved to the window and looked out. Below was an old courtyard enclosed within high grey walls and iron gates, through which he could catch a glimpse of the town. The wide, open space, half square, half market-place, was crowded with people in strange costume, having baskets of fruit and vegetables, before which they squatted and called out their wares. Beyond were houses with vivid, whitewashed fronts, red roofs, and narrow windows. At the gates were stationed two soldiers in red tunics and broad white trousers, very baggy, and tucked into their boots. They were bareheaded, and they smoked long cigarettes, chattering meanwhile to one another and the people around in a dialect which to Brand was like a nightmare. He watched them for a while, and laughed softly to himself. This was an adventure after his own heart.
He looked at his watch. It was three o'clock.
"So Reist and the Prince were left behind," he murmured. "It was very well arranged. By now they should be on their way to the capital. I must make this last out as long as possible. What a coup!"
He lit another cigarette, and turned the treaty over in his hands. Here he met with a disappointment. There were two copies, one in Russian, the other in the Thetian language. He could not read either. After a few moments' deliberation he rang the bell.
Domiloff hurried in, expectantly.
"You are ready for me?" he asked. "You have read our proposals? You will perhaps now be disposed to admit the generosity of my master?"
Brand shrugged his shoulders.
"As yet," he said, coolly, "I am in a position to admit nothing. As a matter of fact, I cannot read this document. I cannot read Russian, and I have forgotten nearly all Thetian. You must have a copy made for me quickly either in French or English."
Domiloff started. A momentary shade of suspicion darkened his forehead.
"Forgotten your Thetian, Prince?" he exclaimed. "Your native tongue!"
"You forget that I have been an exile from Theos ever since I was a child," Brand answered. "I can understand a word or so here and there, but that is not sufficient. It is necessary that I should have an exact and precise comprehension of your proposals."
Domiloff took up the document.
"I will make a copy myself," he said. "It will not take long. I hope that you will soon find your recollection of the language revive, Prince. You will find the people sensitive about it."
Domiloff seated himself at the table, and for some time there was silence in the room except for the scratching of his pen. Brand lounged in the easy-chair—amused himself by speculating as to the end of his adventure. Presently there was a sharp tap at the door. A messenger entered, and conversed for awhile with Domiloff in Russian. He was dismissed with a few rapid orders. Domiloff turned round in his chair and faced Brand.
"Prince Ughtred," he said, "I have disturbing news from the capital. The disorder in the city is so great that the Powers must intervene at once unless some decisive step be taken. I have finished my translation. Sign it and you shall enter into your kingdom before sunset."
"I will give you my answer," he said, "in ten minutes."
"I shall await your decision, Prince," he said. "Only remember this. To-night there must be a King of Theos or a Protectorate."
The ten minutes became half-an-hour. Domiloff at last lost patience and knocked at the door. Brand, who had just finished a shorthand copy of the treaty, and had tucked it within the inner sole of his boot, realized the fact that he had reached the end of his tether.
"Come in," he called out cheerfully.
Domiloff entered and closed the door behind him.
"I cannot understand your Highness's indecision," he said, impatiently. "The document which I have had the honour to submit for your approval is one of the most simple and straightforward which was ever written. And while you hesitate, Prince, your kingdom passes away. Every moment affairs in the capital draw nearer to a crisis."
Brand leaned back in his chair. He looked no longer at the manuscript. It was evident that his decision was taken.
"It seems to me," he said, quietly, "that my kingdom passes away none the less surely when I sign this paper. Your terms, Baron Domiloff, amount to a Russian Protectorate. Our trade is to be yours, and yours only. Russian is to be taught in our schools, and Russians are to control our army and our customs. What will Theos gain in return for this?"
"Her independence will be guaranteed. Russia will be her faithful friend!"
"Her independence!" Brand smiled. "Her independence will be rather a tattered garment."
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders.
"Prince," he said, "you scarcely yet know the nature of your inheritance. Theos is a small, weak State, hemmed in with powerful nations. One of the Powers must needs to be her protector. Russia, ever generous, offers herself. Without her aid you could not hold your kingdom for an hour."
"Well," he said, slowly, "supposing I agree—will you tell me this? How can I sign a treaty before I am King?"
Domiloff touched the paper with his forefinger.
"That has been provided for," he said. "What you will sign is a promise to ratify the treaty on your accession to the throne."
Brand shook his head.
"As a private individual," he said, "my signature is worth nothing. Further, I decline to sign a paper which might at any future time be brought up against me, and cost me the respect and allegiance of my people."
Domiloff looked anxious. A moment ago the affair had seemed settled.
"What do you propose, then?" he asked.
"I will swear upon my honour," Brand said, "and before witnesses if you desire it, that I will sign the treaty whenever you require it after my accession to the throne."
Domiloff hesitated, made up his mind to yield, and yielded gracefully.
"It is sufficient," he declared. "The honour of the House of Tyrnaus has never been questioned. But there is one more promise which I must ask you to add. The Governor of the Customs, in whose house we now are, has acted as a patriot and a wise man in conjunction with me."
"I understand," Brand said, with a quiet smile. "He shall be held harmless, so far as I am concerned."
Domiloff vanished for a moment, and reappeared followed by a soldierly-looking young man in dark blue uniform of decidedly Russian appearance, and an olive-skinned, black-bearded civilian, with shifty eyes and nervous manner. They both bowed low before Brand, who drew himself up to his full height and eyed them scornfully.
"These are your witnesses, Baron?" he asked Domiloff.
"Captain Barka," he said, "who is in command of the barracks here, is one of the most gallant and faithful officers in the army of Theos. Mr. Omardine is Governor of the Customs, and a civic magistrate."
Brand regarded them coldly.
"You are here," he said, "to listen to these words of mine. On the sacred honour of the House of Tyrnaus, and before the God of Theos, I swear that whenever I may be asked after my accession to the throne of this country, I will sign the treaty which I hold now in my right hand. And further, I swear not to divest of his office or punish in any way for their treachery, Captain Barka or Mr. Omardine, your two witnesses."
The two men started. Omardine turned pale and glanced at Domiloff with furtive eyes. Barka laid his hand for a moment upon the hilt of his sword, and the deep colour dyed his cheeks. Domiloff stepped hastily forward.
"It is sufficient, your Highness," he said; "but I must protest against the word 'treachery' being used as applying to either of these gentlemen. They have simply studied the best interests of their country in recognizing that her destiny is identical with that of Russia."
Brand turned his back upon them.
"So far as their safety is concerned," he said, "I have passed my word. My opinions are my own. Will you tell me, Baron, at what time you propose to release me?"
"If your Highness will accept my escort," Domiloff said, "I propose to leave for the capital at once."
"The sooner the better," Brand declared.
"Then there remains only for your Highness to put on the uniform which I have sent for," Domiloff remarked, touching the bell.
"What uniform?" asked Brand, quickly.
"The uniform of a Colonel in the Guards of Theos," Domiloff answered. "Here it is."
A servant entered, carrying a suit of gorgeous light blue and white uniform. Barka and Omardine respectfully withdrew.
"I see no need at all for me to wear these things," Brand exclaimed, glancing in bewilderment at the many trappings and strange fastenings. "I will go as I am. There will be plenty of time afterwards for this sort of thing."
"It is impossible," Domiloff interrupted. "Your Highness seems to forget that your throne has yet to be won. The people have had enough of civilians. You must appear before them as a soldier, and they will shout you King till their throats are hoarse and the water stands in their eyes. They are a dramatic people, lovers of effect. They must be taken by storm. I cannot offer your Highness a valet, but perhaps I can be of assistance."
Brand yielded, but not without secret misgivings. With his clothes a certain part of his easy confidence departed. His share in the game was no longer to be a purely passive one. With the donning of this uniform to which he had no manner of claim he entered the lists of intrigues boldly, as an impostor and masquerader. Under certain circumstances the way out might be difficult.
Domiloff watched him make his toilet with a certain curiosity. It was odd that a military man should be so much embarrassed by buckles and straps, yet when all was completed he was bound to admit that the result was satisfactory enough. Brand was a good-looking fellow, and he looked the part.
"Your Highness will be so good now as to follow me," Domiloff directed. "A carriage is waiting to take us to the station."
A guard of honour surrounded the open landau, whose military salute Brand gravely returned. The news of his arrival had quickly spread. The country people thronged around, shouting and cheering. The air was rent with strange, barbaric cries. Their short drive to the railway station was a triumphal progress. Brand alone was wholly uncomfortable. Surely amongst all this press of people there would be some one to whom Prince Ughtred was known. They reached the station, however, without incident, and amidst ever-increasing enthusiasm. A handsome saloon was drawn up to the carpeted platform, and a cordon of soldiers kept the station clear. In less than five minutes they were off.
Brand unbuckled his sword, and threw his helmet up in the rack. Then he made himself comfortable in an easy-chair, ostensibly to sleep, in reality to think out the situation.
"How long will it take us to reach the capital?" he asked.
"Two hours," Domiloff answered. "Sleep for a time if you like. You may make yourself quite easy. My arrangements for your reception are complete. You will receive a tremendous ovation. The news of your coming has electrified the city."
Brand's gratification at the prospect was certainly not apparent. However, he closed his eyes, and relapsed into thought. Two hours! He reckoned it all out. His knowledge of the geography of the country was slight, but it seemed to him impossible that Prince Ughtred and Reist could yet have reached the capital. So far all that he had done had been good. The difficulty which confronted him now was to select the proper moment for his avowal, and, having made it, to escape. He foresaw difficulties. Domiloff was not a man to be made a fool of lightly. His one comforting reflection was that when the explosion did come he would be safer in Theos than in a frontier town which was obviously under Russian influence.
Slowly the train wound its way across a rocky and difficult country, a country of mountains, woods, and rivers, valleys rich with corn-tracts, tiny villages whose gleaming white homesteads made picturesque many a hillside. Brand sat quite still with half-closed eyes. Presently the door of the saloon opened, and closed again softly. Domiloff looked in and withdrew. Then there came the sound of voices from the next compartment. Listening intently, Bland caught a word or two here and there.
"Absolutely impossible.... I saw him in Paris after the Algerian campaign ... thinner, that is all.... Reist and the English journalist were simply left ... plante la. Hernoff planned everything."
"Mistakes.... He does not make mistakes. If I believed it I would shoot him like a dog. You have your revolver, too. Good! Oh, yes, he will sign! It will be a record reign. It may last a month. They will see that he is under the thumb of Russia. No, he is fast asleep. After Hernoff's medicine one is sleepy for days."
The voices died away. They passed through a little wayside station gay with flags, and the train began to descend a series of gradients. Below was a great fruitful plain, bounded southwards by a range of towering mountains. Far away westwards was a huge ascent to a wide-spreading table-land. Brand sat with his eyes fixed steadily upon it, and a queer little smile upon his lips. He was sufficiently aware of his surroundings to know that there was the fortress capital of Theos.
He heard footsteps, and closed his eyes again. Domiloff entered the saloon, and shook him by the arm. He awoke with a drowsy murmur.
"Wake up, your Highness! We are within a few miles of the capital."
Brand sat up.
"All right," he said. "I am ready. But how my head aches."
Domiloff smiled grimly, and thrust a sheet of paper into his hand.
"It will pass off," he said. "See, this is your speech. Learn it. It will not be wise for you to address the people in any save their own language."
Brand took the sheet of unintelligible characters into his own hand. He looked blankly at it.
"Read it to me," he said. "Let me hear how it sounds."
Domiloff declaimed and translated it. Brand listened thoughtfully. Apparently the return of Ughtred of Tyrnaus to the throne of his forefathers was solely owing to a benevolent desire on the part of Russia to bring to Theos an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Far away a gleam of white and grey towers flashed upon the hillside. Villages became more plentiful. They were nearing the capital.
Once more the men and women of Theos thronged the streets of their time-worn capital. A thousand torches flared in the open space before the palace. Lanterns and flags waved from all the principal houses and public buildings. Only the great Reist mansion was silent and gloomy, and many questioning eyes were turned towards it.
"It was the Duke himself who has brought Ughtred of Tyrnaus here," muttered one. "Yet his house is dark and empty, and no man has seen him."
"There is something strange about it," said another, "and I like not the wolf Domiloff at the shoulder of a Tyrnaus."
"Please God, the son may not be like the father!"
"Let us see him," cried another. "Come—shout!"
So the air shook with the roar of voices, and servants in the blue Tyrnaus livery came out upon the balcony of the brilliantly-lit palace and spread a carpet. But the man whom they longed to see lingered.
Domiloff argued with him in vain. He was unaccountably obstinate.
"It is the Duke of Reist who should stand by my side when first I speak to my people," he declared, coolly. "It is he who brought me from England, not you. He must be my sponsor. If he is not here I will wait."
Domiloff was naturally furious. He had been at considerable pains to insure the absence of Reist from the capital on this occasion, and his inopportune return would amount to a disaster. On the other hand, the populace were fast working themselves up into a state of frenzy. Let this man show himself, and the success of his coup was assured. It was unpardonable hesitation. He trembled with rage. In the King's palace, in his own chamber, he had lost for the moment his hold upon this man. It was the one weak spot in his carefully thought-out scheme. It was the one contingency against which he was comparatively helpless.
"You are losing a golden opportunity, Prince," he declared. "Your hesitation is a crime. The people are on fire to see you. They will shout you King with one voice. Give to Reist all the glory if you will, but, if you would win your kingdom, out on to the balcony and show yourself. Hear them!"
The roar of voices sounded like thunder from the street below. Brand smoked on stolidly.
"I shall wait one hour for the Duke of Reist," he decided. "At the end of that time, if he has not arrived, I will reconsider the matter."
Domiloff, who did not expect the Duke of Reist in an hour, was forced to acquiesce.
"I will send messengers out amongst the people," he said. "I will let them know that you are worn out with travelling, but that in an hour you will address them. Shall it be so?"
"You can do as you like," Brand answered, quietly. "I make no promises."
Domiloff withdrew, furious. Brand was left alone. He was a journalist of the modern type, and he had been in a good many tight corners. His nerves were of iron, his courage indomitable, and his sense of humour prodigious. But this was getting beyond a joke. He was in a cul-de-sac. Escape was scarcely to be hoped for, disclosure would certainly cost him his life. Nevertheless, as the roar of voices mounted again to his ears the corners of his mouth twitched and his eyes shone with laughter. He found himself longing for pen and paper, wondering how much of this he dare use as copy. Then the clock struck. He became instantly grave. After all, an hour was a short time. He concentrated his thoughts once more upon the situation.
On one point he was resolved. He would not carry his personation any further. He would not present himself to the people of Theos as an impostor, with Domiloff for his introducer, and unable to frame a single sentence in the language of his supposed forefathers. The speech which Domiloff had written out for him was, of course, an impossibility. Some time to-night the Prince and Reist must surely arrive, and the situation then might become possible. Failing that, he could see nothing but chaos.
Half-an-hour had passed, but he was not greatly disturbed. He had a touch of that beautiful faith which is the heritage of the born adventurer. He was content to wait for something to turn up. He threw away the end of his cigar and walked slowly up and down the great vaulted room. The ceiling was of extraordinary height, and the wooden panels which covered the walls were black with age and beautifully carved. He paused before one of them to examine the design, and passed his fingers lightly over the figure of a priest who knelt by the side of a wounded man in armour. It was a rugged but wonderful representation. Suddenly he started back as though he had been shot. The priest was being split down the middle before his eyes.
He stood rigid. Even his nerves were scarcely proof against this sort of thing. The head of the wounded knight had parted from his body, and the legs of the priest were every moment drawing further apart. He approached the panel gingerly. It was not fancy. There was a long, thin crack from the floor to the tapestry border, which stood about six feet high. Whilst he watched, it widened. He slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out his revolver.
From one inch to two—to half a foot, and then wide open, the panel slid back. Brand uttered a soft cry of amazement. A woman, dark, slender, and beautiful, stood upon the threshold of what seemed to be a passage, herself almost as motionless as a painted figure. Her eyes met his with a challenging light, her pose was imperious. Diamonds flashed from her neck and bosom, and her hair was coiled upon her head coronet-like, after the manner of the women of Theos. Her black gown was cut in a manner unknown to western dressmakers—to Brand she seemed like a wonderful Italian picture of the middle ages stepped bodily from its frame. He lowered his revolver, and took a quick step backward. Then to his surprise, she spoke to him in English, haltingly, but with perfect distinctness.
"Lock the door."
The sound of his native language made a new man of Brand. His senses were no longer dazed.
"It is—already locked," he answered.
She took a step forward, and before he could divine her purpose sank gently on one knee in a wonderful courtesy. He took the slim white hand, and bowed low over it.
"You are Ughtred of Tyrnaus?" she said, eagerly. "Is it not so?"
He laughed quietly.
"It is the first time," he said, "that I have been asked the question. Personation seems to come natural to me."
She looked at him intently, and the fine, dark eyebrows were drawn a little closer together.
"I am not very quick at speaking English," she said. "You are Ughtred of Tyrnaus?"
"Well, I am supposed to be," he admitted.
"Then where is my brother?" she demanded. "Why is he not with you?"
He looked at her, puzzled.
"Forgive me," he said. "I am rather stupid. What is your brother's name, and who are you?"
Her eyes gleamed with suspicion. Was it not obvious who she was?
"I am the Countess Marie of Reist," she said. "Will you answer me quickly?"
He divined the likeness at once.
"And do you live—in the wall?" he asked.
She frowned imperiously.
"If you indeed are Ughtred of Tyrnaus," she said, "you should know that the Reist house adjoins the palace, and that this passage has been in existence since the days of King Rudolph. Tell me what you have done with my brother Nicholas, and how it happens that you have entered the city without him, and in company with Domiloff the wolf."
He smiled. His optimism was justified. Something had turned up.
"You must allow me to make a confession, Countess," he said, easily. "I am not Ughtred of Tyrnaus. The Prince is on his way to the city with your brother, and, to tell you the truth, if they do not arrive here very soon my position will become extremely uncomfortable."
She withdrew within the shelter of the panel and regarded him haughtily.
"You say that you are not Ughtred of Tyrnaus," she exclaimed. "Then who are you? An impostor! Yes! You are in the royal chamber, and even now the people call for you. You are a tool of Domiloff's. Good! The people shall know that they are being deceived!"
He was only just in time to seize her by the wrist. She wrenched herself free with a furious little cry, but he blocked her escape.
"Countess," he said, with perfect respect, but with a gleam of laughter in his eyes, "pray do not desert me, for I am a friend of your brother's, and especially of Prince Ughtred's. I am not masquerading for the fun of the thing, I can assure you, but solely to outwit Domiloff. Permit me to explain, The fact is, I need your help."
She eyed him coldly. The touch of his fingers seemed burning still upon her wrist.
"Three of us left England together," Brand said. "Your brother, Prince Ughtred, and myself—Walter Brand, a newspaper writer and a person of no importance. I won't stop to tell you how I became one of the party. It isn't of any consequence, and time is. I happen to slightly resemble Prince Ughtred, and we got scent of a plot to stop our entrance into Theos. Well, Prince Ughtred and I exchanged identities. The consequences were these. The Prince and your brother left the train secretly before we left the frontier, I was drugged, and awoke to find myself tete-a-tete with a remarkably gentlemanly personage called Domiloff."
Her eyes flashed fire. She came a little further into the room.
"He took me for granted in the kindest possible manner—waived aside the matter of my abduction—affected to consider me as an afternoon caller. He introduced politics in a casual sort of way. Russia I found was the great and generous friend of Theos. Russia was pining for the friendship of Theos."
She interrupted him with a fierce little gesture of contempt.
"The hound! Russia is our enemy! It was she who sought to buy our freedom from Metzger, the merchant, for a million pounds."
"Exactly. However, I had to listen to him. In the end he produced a treaty—Russian protection for Theos in exchange for every shred of independence she possessed. If I would swear before witnesses to sign it when I became King, I might proceed, and Domiloff himself would be my escort. If I refused—well, I think then that other things were in store for me. After a becoming show of hesitation I promised to sign—when I was King. Then Domiloff hustled me along here. I have delayed things as long as possible, but it's getting a little uncomfortable. Domiloff can't understand why I won't go and speak to the people. If I declare myself, he will shoot me on sight. What I have been praying for is a chance to escape, or that your brother and the Prince might turn up."
She regarded him with unfeigned admiration.
"I did you an injustice," she said. "I see that you are a very brave man, and we in Theos love brave men."
He bowed before her so gallantly and looked into her eyes so closely that a wave of colour flushed in her cheeks. A distant sound in the Palace, however, brought them to a swift sense of the danger which threatened him.
"You see," he explained, "I was bound to keep it up as long as I could, or Domiloff would have tried to prevent your brother and the Prince from reaching the capital. Besides, since I have read the proposed treaty they would never allow me to escape alive."
She nodded slowly.
"Yes, that is so. It would not be well that you speak first to the people with Domiloff at your elbow, but if it comes to a matter of life or death you must do it. I will send servants and horses to hasten my brother's coming, and you must continue the personation."
"There is an objection," he replied, quickly. "I do not know a single word of your language, and to speak for the first time to the people in any other would do the Prince a great injury with them."
She reflected for a moment. Then her face lit up. She pointed down the passage.
"I think," she said, "that it would be a very good time for Prince Ughtred to disappear. You shall come with me."
"But, Countess," he protested, "they will search your house. You will be accused of harbouring an impostor."
She dismissed the idea with a gesture of superb contempt.
"The Reist House," she assured him, "is secure against Domiloff or any of his creatures. I offer you its shelter, sir. I beg you to come with me."
Still he hesitated. A fresh murmur arose from the swelling crowd without—footsteps were heard in the corridor—the hour struck. She laid her fingers upon his arm, and looked upward into his face.
"Sir," she said, softly, "I beg that you will come with me."
Brand felt his heart beating with more than the mere excitement of the moment. He yielded. She pressed a spring with her finger, and the panel rolled slowly back into its place.
Up the steep ascent to the capital two men galloped their tired horses in stern silence. For twelve hours they had ridden with scant waste of breath in speech. Only at each change, and seven times since break of day, had they changed horses. Prince Ughtred had lit a fresh cigar and asked the same question and met with the same reply.
"How goes it, Nicholas?"
"We keep up with the time. Forward!"
As they neared the capital they rode through a stream of people wending their way citywards. Reist drew rein.
"Whither away, friends?"
"To the capital, sir. Prince Ughtred of Tyrnaus, our future King, is there. We go to greet him."
The two men exchanged quick glances as they rode on.
"I do not understand it," Reist admitted. "Our coming is unannounced. A certain amount of secrecy was necessary. Something strange seems to have happened."
By degrees their progress along the narrow road grew more and more difficult. The country folk thronged the thoroughfare, gay in picturesque holiday attire, many of them singing a strange national air which stirred in Ughtred's heart some faint echo of far-away recollections. He watched them eagerly, and his heart swelled with pride. A fine, stalwart race, with the free swinging walk of mountaineers, bright-eyed, clear-skinned, with cheeks as brown as berries. His dormant patriotism, already awakened by his long ride through the beautiful, dimly-familiar country, beat in his heart. He would rule these people as his children, and though he died sword in hand the yoke of the conqueror should never bow their shoulders. It was a great task—a great heritage.
A train, brilliant with lights, glided serpent-like over the high viaduct to their left. A murmur arose from amongst the people.
"The Prince," they cried. "The Prince."
"What does it mean?" Ughtred asked.
"God only knows," Reist answered, bewildered.
At the station a cordon of soldiers blocked the way. The two men spurred on into the front ranks. Amongst a thunder of acclamation they saw Domiloff and Brand in his brilliant uniform take their places in the waiting carriage. They were speechless.
"To the palace," Reist cried at last. "Come, Ughtred; there's some damned underhand plotting going on."
"It was Brand!" Ughtred exclaimed. "Brand in the uniform of the Theos Guards. Is the man mad?"
"I do not think that it was Brand at all," Reist answered, fiercely. "It is a plot of that accursed Russian. Way, good people, way!"
But the people, good-natured though they were, were wedged too thickly to let them pass. At last in a rush they were almost unhorsed. A direct progress to the palace was impossible. Reist turned up a side street.
"We will go to my house," he said. "It will take us some time this way, but we shall never succeed in reaching the palace."
* * * * *
The panel slid back behind them, and closed with a spring. From some place upon the wall invisible to him the Countess took a small silver lamp, and carefully lit it. Then holding it high over her head she turned towards Brand.
"You must follow me closely," she said. "The way is narrow, and there are steps. Listen!"
They both stood for a moment with bated breath. In the room behind was tumult. There were angry voices, the ringing of bells, bewildered exclamations.
"It is my friend, Domiloff," Brand whispered. "I am afraid that he has lost his temper. I might at least have left a note."
She motioned him to follow her.
"You are quite safe," she declared. "The secret passage has not been used for many years. It is unknown to any within the palace. I do not know what made me think of it to-night."
"It was," Brand remarked, "a remarkable piece of good fortune for me. I do not fancy that our friend Domiloff in a passion would be at all a pleasant companion."
Her face hardened.
"Domiloff," she said, "is a traitor and a ruffian. When I saw you alone with him and without Nicholas I knew that something must have happened. My brother would never have suffered him to have stood by your side to-night. This way."
They stepped into a large dimly-lit room, with high panelled walls and a vaulted roof. The door rolled back behind them. The girl passed her hands along the wall till even the crack was invisible. Then she moved to the table and struck a gong.
"You must need wine," she said. "Basil!"
A grey-haired old servant entered the room, and at the sight of Brand would have fallen upon one knee, but the girl stopped him.
"Basil, this is not Prince Ughtred," she said, "but a friend of his and ours who has been taking the Prince's place in order that Domiloff might be deceived. Bring us some wine."
Brand drank from the long Venetian glass, and afterwards sank gratefully into the high-backed chair to which she motioned him. At her request he told her everything which had happened since the coming of Reist to London. And from below there came to them often the murmur of the waiting crowds.
She was superbly devoid of nerves. She had no manner of apprehension.
"They will come," she said, "and the people will wait. Tell me some more of your wonderful London."
"You have never been there?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
She shook her head.
"No, nor in Paris even. No further west than Vienna."
"It is incredible," he murmured.
"And why incredible?" she asked him, with delicately upraised eyebrows. "I do not understand. Theos is my home—those places are nothing to me. Whilst I was in Vienna I was miserable. All was hurry and bustle. There was so little dignity, so little repose. I do not think that people who live in such places can understand what it is to love one's homeland. Everywhere, too, even amongst the aristocracy, one met vulgar people. Shopkeepers and merchants who had made very much money mixed freely with the nobles. They tell me that in England it is also like this. In Theos I think that we are wiser."
She spoke simply—as one who points out a grievous impropriety. Brand smiled.
"I have heard your country spoken of as one of the most aristocratic in the world," he remarked. "I think that it must be true."
"From what I have seen," she answered, "it may be so. There are very little of the old nobility left in Theos, but we are content to let them die out rather than to raise to their ranks those who have enriched themselves with commerce. We believe that our way is best."
"And you yourself?" he asked. "Tell me how you occupy yourself. You have friends—amusements?"
She shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly.
"My brother has large estates," she said, "and with them come many duties. I see that our peasant women are properly brought up, and that they retain their skill in lace work. Then there is music, and when we are at Castle Reist we hunt. It is true that I have not many friends of my own order, but that is scarcely to be expected. The care of so many of those who are dependent upon one is a very absorbing duty. We give a dowry to every girl who marries suitably amongst our own people. For many generations this has been a religion with us. Tell me, then, is it not so with the maidens of your country?—I speak, of course, of those who are of noble birth."
He shook his head.
"I think not," he answered. "You see, for them there are many diversions. They play games, hunt, shoot, and ride with their brothers and their brothers' friends when they are at their estates. Then for half the year they live in London, and every night there are dances, concerts, theatres, and parties of all sorts."
She nodded gravely.
"That is what I have heard," she said. "They take life so much more lightly than we who live in quieter places. Here there is born with us the consciousness that our rank has many obligations. There is not a peasant girl on my estates whom I do not know by name. It has been so with the women of our house for many generations."
There was a short silence. Then she raised her eyes to his.
"Your own sisters?" she asked. "Are they, too, such as you describe?"
Brand smiled faintly.
"I have only one sister," he said, "and she is married. But my own people would scarcely count—from your point of view."
She looked at him, faintly puzzled.
"You mean," she asked, "that you are not of noble birth?"
He shook his head.
"By no means! My father was a physician, and I myself write for the newspapers!"
"But you spoke of Prince Ughtred," she remarked, "as your friend."
"In England," he explained, "all these things are regarded very differently. We are a very democratic nation, and Prince Ughtred, you must remember, is half an Englishman."
She was silent. He had an absurd fancy that she was disappointed—that her momentary interest in him was gone. He was angry with himself for the idea, angry with himself also for the effort which his little speech had cost him. In England he counted himself a Radical, almost a Socialist, and would have laughed to scorn the idea that the slightest possible barrier could exist between men and women of unequal birth. But out here, in the presence of this girl who spoke her mind so simply, yet with such absolute conviction, he seemed to have come into touch with a new order! The aristocracy which was to her as a creed was a real and a live thing! He almost justified her in his mind. What was surely a fallacy in England might be truth here.
The silence was prolonged. Then he glanced up to find her watching him with a slight smile curving her lips.
"To you," she said, "I must seem very old-fashioned. Oh, yes, I can understand your point of view. If I have not travelled I have at least read, and your English books make these things clear enough. But here we are surrounded with the old customs. It is not possible to escape from them. We are almost mediaeval."
"I am looking forward to studying your country closely," he said. "What I have seen of it has charmed me. So far I have come across but one thing which I would gladly change."
"And that?" she asked.
"Is the uniform of the Thetian Guards," he answered, turning slightly in his chair. "I must confess that my body was never made for such gorgeousness."
She laughed and struck the gong.
"Basil will show you to my brother's room," she said. "Wear any of his clothes you choose."
He rose with alacrity.
"You will be safe—alone?" he asked, with a doubtful glance towards the door.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Domiloff has courage, I believe, of a sort," she answered, "but not enough to bring him uninvited across the threshold of this house in my brother's absence."
He followed the servant from the room, and was shown into a bedchamber of huge proportions. He changed his clothes as quickly as possible for those which were tendered to him, and returned to the room where he had left the Countess. She welcomed him with a smile which she tried in vain to suppress.
"You must forgive me," she said, as their eyes met. "Indeed, it is hard to avoid a smile. My brother is of slight stature, and you are very tall,—is it not so?"
"Oh, I don't mind," he answered, good-humouredly, conscious that his trousers terminated at the ankle, and that the seams of his unbuttoned coat were bursting. "I should be comfortable in anything since I have got rid of that sword and the other thing like a satchel which kept tripping me up. The management of a woman's train has always seemed to me an accomplishment, but it is nothing compared with the difficulty of walking like a soldier with those things whacking at your ankles every few moments. One thing I can promise you and myself, Countess. If Domiloff and the whole lot of them catch me nothing would induce me to put on that uniform again."
"It was very becoming," she said, smilingly.
"You are making fun of me," he declared, reproachfully.
"Indeed I meant it," she assured him. "I never doubted but that you were Ughtred of Tyrnaus!"
He felt absurdly pleased. There was a note of regret too in her tone. Then, as though with some effort she addressed him more formally.
"You need have no fear," she said, "that Domiloff will find you here. Neither he nor any of his creatures dare force their way into this house. All that we must pray for now is the speedy coming of Nicholas and the Prince."
Almost as she spoke they heard quick footsteps upon the corridor outside. The door was thrown open.
Nicholas of Reist, closely followed by Prince Ughtred, strode into the room. Marie uttered a little cry of joy—Brand drew a long sigh of relief.
"Nicholas, at last!" she cried.
He seized her hands and drew her to him. Then he turned to Ughtred.
"You will not recognize your old playmate, Prince," he said. "Marie, this is Prince Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
He bowed low before her, and she murmured a few words of greeting. Then both Nicholas of Reist and Ughtred saw Brand standing underneath the great chimneypiece.
"Brand!" the former cried. "Brand! How in God's name did you find your way here?"
Brand smiled enigmatically.
"Listen," he said, "and I will tell you."
They stood grouped around him. He told his story tersely yet fully. When he had finished there was a moment's breathless silence. He pointed to the door.
"You have not a moment to lose," he exclaimed. "The people are bewildered now, soon they will become impatient. The uniform is in the room where I changed. Let Prince Ughtred put it on and speak to the people from your balcony. It will turn Domiloff's hair grey, but he is powerless. Listen!"
Once more brother and sister exchanged quick glances. Once more the men of Theos, as with one throat, shouted for Nicholas of Reist. Marie looked curiously towards the Prince. He was handsomer than Brand, broader and of finer presence. Yet her eyes narrowed with something which was akin to hate. In her heart she believed that her brother was making a great mistake. It was a Reist this people wanted, not one of his corrupt race.
"Brand is right!" Reist decided. "Prince, my servants will show you to my room and assist you. I will speak a few words to the people and prepare them for your coming."
From topmost storey to basement the Reist house flashed out in sudden light. The people, who were weary of shouting in front of the palace, marked the change, and a sudden rush took place. It was Reist who stood there with his hands resting lightly upon the balustrade. A roar of welcome greeted him. Now at last this mystery would be cleared up. Then there followed a silence so intense, so breathless, that the very air seemed charged with the tension of it. Reist's voice rang out like a still, clear note, perfectly audible to all.
"My country people," he said, "not many days ago you charged me with a mission. To-night I acquit myself of it. I bring you good news. The illustrious soldier who has won fame fighting another country's battles has never for one moment forgotten his name or his native land, has never forgotten his descent from that great race of Tyrnaus who, generations ago, made your country one to be feared and respected throughout Europe. He is willing to come to our aid in these evil times. He is a brave man and a just. He will rule you as a soldier King! May the God of our ancestors bless his reign, and preserve for everlasting the independence of Theos and the freedom of our sons!"
As the last word had left Reist's lips Ughtred of Tyrnaus in all the bravery of his brilliant uniform passed through the great room. Marie, who had been watching for him, shrank back at his near approach in something like awe. For indeed it seemed as though Rudolph the Great, whose picture frowned down upon them from the wainscotted wall, walked once more in their midst. The unwonted excitement had given fire to his features, seemed indeed to have added inches to his great stature. No wonder that the people who saw him come raised their voices in a great shout of welcome.
"A Tyrnaus! A Tyrnaus! God save the King!"
The band struck up the National Anthem, and from the throats of thousands came that strange, thrilling air, the song of their liberty. Prince Ughtred listened with tears in his eyes—and in the palace Domiloff held his head and walked backwards and forwards in speechless bewilderment. The last bars died away. Then Ughtred spoke to his people, and these are some of the things which he said.
"Men of Theos, that song which you have sung has followed me into many strange countries. I have ridden into battles with it in my ears, I have heard it amongst the roaring of the guns and in the silent watches of the night. To me it has always sounded like very sweet music, for it has recalled to me ever my native land.... I, too, you must remember, am a son of Theos. For long I have been an exile, but no other country has ever seemed like home to me. Always I have hoped that some day my lot might bring me back to the homeland amongst the mountains so inexpressibly dear to all of us.... I, too, though far away, have followed ever the fortunes of Theos. I have read of her sufferings and her misfortunes. I have blushed with shame to read of those, who, calling themselves her sons, would have bartered away her liberty for gold.... And now you have done away with this hateful Republic. The House of Laws is once more convoked. The Duke of Reist has sought me out and brought from you a wonderful message. Well, I know little of kingcraft, but I may at least call myself a soldier. If the House of Laws will ratify your choice, nothing in this world could make me happier than to throw in my lot with yours, to devote my life to preserving for you and Theos that ancient and God-given heritage—our freedom! This little State is surrounded, it is true, by powerful enemies. Yet God is not always with the strong. Let us be fearless, just, and slow to give offence. Then, if we are attacked, it must be war to the bitter end. We can at least live like men and die heroes. My people, if it comes to pass that I am chosen to be your King, I can promise you this. While I live, and whilst a single one of you will stand by my side, we will remain a free and independent nation. We will hand to our children their birthright untarnished and entire. This is my word to you, and if ever I fail to keep it may I forfeit my place through all eternity by the side of my forefathers who gave their lives for Theos."
The air was rent with frantic cheering. These were the words and this the man to win their hearts. So throughout the crowd swept a passionate and overwhelming wave of enthusiasm. Domiloff heard it and swore unutterable things under his breath. Reist, for all that this was his doing, felt a certain momentary anger with this people who had taken a stranger so swiftly into their heart. Marie said nothing, but her dark eyes were eloquent. Ughtred stepped back at last into the room with a glow upon his face which for a moment transformed it.
"You are an orator, my friend," Reist said, quietly. "You have won your throne. No House of Laws would refuse to confirm the choice of such an assemblage."
"I think," Brand said, quietly, "that I will go round to the telegraph office. The time has arrived when I may take a hand in the game."
From the corridor came the sound of hurried footsteps. Old Basil, the major domo, threw open the door.
"The Baron Domiloff, your Excellency," he announced.
The room was large and dimly lit. Domiloff, beside himself with anger, saw only Ughtred's tall figure in resplendent uniform, standing beneath the great carved mantelpiece. He addressed him fiercely.
"How is this?" he exclaimed. "How came you here? What is the meaning of it?"
Ughtred looked at him for a moment gravely; then turned to Reist.
"Who is this person?" he asked. "Why does he address me in this fashion?"
Reist looked from one to the other with a faint smile.
"Permit me to present to your Highness," he said, "Monsieur, the Baron Domiloff, the representative of Russia in Theos."
Domiloff was white with rage.
"But it is a farce, this!" he exclaimed, fiercely. "Prince Ughtred and I are not strangers. I demand an explanation, sir."
"An explanation of what?" Ughtred asked.
Domiloff was beside himself. His black eyes burned like live coals, his cheeks were pallid almost to ghastliness, the muscles of his face were twitching.
"Of your presence here, sir," he exclaimed. "Of your flight from the palace, of your speech to the people. It was only an hour ago that you declared yourself ignorant of the language. It seems that your statement was false!"
"Baron Domiloff is suffering, perhaps, from some hallucination," Ughtred said, quietly. "I have never, to the best of my belief, exchanged a word with him in my life. As to my flight from the palace, I have never yet entered it; nor do I propose to do so until I enter it as King of Theos."
Domiloff's senses were blinded with passion. The broader stature of the Prince, his more military bearing and different accent were things of which he took no note. He never once questioned the identity of the man whom he was addressing so fiercely.
"Your Highness will deny next," he exclaimed, "that you travelled with me from the frontier, that your word is pledged to sign a treaty with Russia."
Ughtred shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"The duties of a minister plenipotentiary," he remarked, "are, I believe, arduous. Baron Domiloff is suffering, without doubt, from overwork. It is unnecessary for me to remark that I reached here on horseback in company with my friend Reist, and that my word is pledged to sign nothing—least of all a treaty with Russia."
Domiloff was absolutely speechless with passion. Brand came out from the shadows amongst which he had been loitering, and faced the Russian.
"Do you know," he said, amiably, "I believe that I can clear up this little misunderstanding. Baron Domiloff is obviously mistaking you, Prince Ughtred, for me."
Domiloff turned upon him swiftly.
"And who, sir, are you?" he asked, harshly.
"Walter Brand, journalist—the Daily Courier, you know."
Domiloff caught up the lamp which stood on the long oaken table, and looked steadily from one to the other of the two men. When he set it down there was a queer, bitter, little smile upon his lips. The moment was one of unspeakable humiliation to him. He, a seasoned diplomatist, trusted by his master, feared and respected everywhere, had been befooled and outwitted—by an Englishman!
"I beg to offer my tardy congratulations to your Highness," he said, bowing to Ughtred. "My mistake was an unpardonable one. Yet this gentleman is, perhaps, also of the family of Tyrnaus? The resemblance is certainly remarkable."
"Mr. Brand is not connected in any way with my family," Ughtred answered. "The resemblance between us is merely a coincidence—to which it seems I owe my presence here, Baron Domiloff."
The Russian remained silent. He stood with bowed head, awaiting the storm.
"It appears," Ughtred continued, "that by proxy I was drugged and detained upon the frontier by your orders. For these doings I shall certainly, when the proper moment arrives, demand an explanation."
Domiloff raised his eyes for a moment. His expression was inscrutable.
"When the time comes, your Highness," he said, "I shall be prepared to satisfy you."
He passed from the room without any formal leave-taking. Reist looked after him thoughtfully.
"An enemy! Well, at least we are forewarned. Prince Ughtred, there will be no rest for you now, or, I fear, for many days. Domiloff has gone without doubt to the barracks. We must forestall him. I have ordered fresh horses to be brought to the door. Marie, some wine! We are thirsty! Wine from the King's cup!"
A servant, whose livery seemed but a slight modification of the native dress, brought some dust-covered bottles. Marie, with her own hand, unlocked an oaken cabinet, and produced some quaint horn cups, emblazoned in gold, with the Reist arms. One larger than the others she set before the Prince.
"They were a present," Reist said, "from Rudolph the Second to my great-grandfather. The cup you have is called the King's cup. No one who is not of Royal birth has ever drunk out of it. Permit me!"
He filled it to the brim, and Ughtred, who was thirsty, raised it gladly to his lips. Reist and Brand waited.
"To Theos and her King," Reist said, gravely. "This is our ancient toast. May her sons be ever brave, her rulers wise, and her soil fruitful! God save the King!"
They drank together. Marie stood at the head of the table, her dark eyes full of silent fires, her fingers nervously twitching. Ughtred turned towards her.
"You, too," he said, "must drink with us. Nay, I will have no refusal. You will honour me."
He held his cup towards her. She shook her head.
"Not from the King's cup," she said. "See, I have a goblet here."
But Ughtred was insistent.
"I have the weakness of my forefathers," he declared, "and I am superstitious. It will be for my good fortune, and the good fortune of Theos. You shall drink with me from the King's cup."
A spot of colour burned in the girl's cheeks. She drew back. A swift glance passed between brother and sister. It was Reist who answered.
"Your Highness," he said, gravely, "in this little corner of the earth we hold hard to all our old traditions, and for more than a hundred years—ay, since first that cup was fashioned, none have drunk from it save only those of the royal House, and——"
He hesitated. Ughtred waited for him to continue.
"And their betrothed."
Ughtred started. Marie looked downwards, and the deep colour mounted even to her forehead. There was a moment's silence. Then the spirit of obstinacy which had been kindled in Ughtred prevailed.
"I take upon my own shoulders," he said, smiling, "all the evil that may come of it, and I pray, Countess Marie, that you will honour me by drinking from my cup."
She lifted her head, and the eyes of brother and sister met once more—a single electric moment. Ughtred was conscious of little save of a masterful desire to have his own way. His blue eyes were filled with a compelling light. Perhaps, too, a little admiration was apparent in his bronzed, handsome face. Marie took the cup, and raised it to her lips.
"I drink," she murmured, "to the welfare of Theos, and to her King!"
There was another brief but curiously intense silence. Reist was standing apart with folded arms and absorbed face—Brand, too, had set down his cup, and was watching Marie. Ughtred had an uneasy feeling that what he had regarded merely as an act of courtesy had become a sacrament. The entrance of a servant was a relief to them all.
"The horses, your Grace," he announced, "are at the side door. The people are lining the way to the barracks."
Reist roused himself quickly.
"Your Highness is ready!" he exclaimed. "There is not a moment to lose. We shall know now how deep is the corruption which Domiloff's gold has caused."
Ughtred drained his cup and stood up.
"I am ready!" he declared.
"It is not only your country's welfare," Domiloff said, "which trembles in the balance. It is her very existence. I appeal to you, General Dartnoff—to you, Bushnieff. If you accept this man, Theos as an independent country will soon be blotted from the map."
Domiloff stood leaning with his back against the long deal table. Gathered together before him were a dozen men or more in the undress uniform of the Moranian Guards. Dartnoff, his white hair brushed straight back from his forehead, a tall, soldierly figure notwithstanding his sixty years, stepped a little forward.
"My friend, Domiloff," he said, "we are gathered here, as you know, in a state of some indecision. I will frankly admit that as yet we have not made up our minds how to act. Yet it seems to me that you go a little far. We have more faith in ourselves and in the destinies of our ancient kingdom than you seem willing to give us credit for. The end might be as you say supposing we found ourselves involved with one of the great Powers. But let me assure you, Baron Domiloff, that the contest would be no bloodless one. Theos has held her own, beset though she has been by powerful enemies, for many centuries."
A little murmur of applause escaped from the lips of those gathered around him. Domiloff held up his hand.
"The past of your country," he exclaimed, "is a magnificent chapter in history. It is the more incumbent upon you to see that she has a future. Warfare to-day has become a science. Reckless bravery is no longer the surety of success. Theos is without any of the modern appliances of war. Her artillery is ancient and her guns fit for the dust-heap. General Dartnoff, a heavy responsibility rests upon your shoulders."
Dartnoff stroked his long grey moustache thoughtfully.
"Domiloff, my friend," he said, "you appear a little flurried, but you are also very much in earnest. Now speak to us exactly the words which are in your heart. You have advice to give, eh? Well, we will listen."
Domiloff moved to the high bare window, and looked downwards towards the town. As yet there was no sign of the figures which he dreaded to see. He faced once more the little assemblage.
"Here are plain words," he said, speaking rapidly, and with rising colour. "If I have seemed evasive hitherto it is because I come to persuade, not to dictate, and I know that the tempers of you men of Theos are easily kindled. Nicholas of Reist brings to-day a forgotten descendant of the Tyrnaus family, and with your consent would make him King. I say with your consent, because the House of Laws is nothing to-day but a farcical assembly, and they will do what Reist bids them. The real decision rests with you. Listen. Russia will refuse to recognize this man. If you accept him her restraining hand upon Turkey will be removed. Russia herself may not think it worth while to move against you, but even now in secret the Turks are massing upon your borders. They wait only for the signal."
Dartnoff nodded gravely.
"Well," he said, "let us hear what will happen to us supposing we accept your warning and refuse to recognize Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
"The protection of Russia," Domiloff cried, eagerly. "My master himself shall guarantee your independence. I will give you pledges. You will reserve for a friend and an ally the most generous of the Powers. But you must be quick," he added, with a sudden start. "Now is the time for you to act. Close the gates upon those who come here to-night. It shall be your answer."
Dartnoff shook his head.
"I cannot do that," he said. "Nicholas of Reist is a colonel in our army, and he has the right to enter here at any time."
There was the thunder of hoofs in the courtyard. Domiloff bit his lip and looked nervously around.
"Reist is a traitor," he exclaimed. "It is against the law to harbour a Tyrnaus."
"We will hear what our friend Nicholas of Reist has to say," Dartnoff answered, coldly. "You might perhaps find it advisable to retire, Baron Domiloff."
The door was thrown open. Nicholas and Ughtred entered. General Dartnoff stepped forward.
"General," Nicholas exclaimed, "and brother officers of the Thetian Guards. I have the honour to present you to Prince Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
Ughtred held out his hand frankly. But there was not one of them who did not bow low, after the manner of one making an obeisance rather than exchanging greetings.
"Your names are well known to me," Ughtred said. "I believe that by hereditary right I may call myself a colonel in your regiment and a brother officer."
"Your Highness is pleased to remember what is undoubtedly a fact," he said. "The brave deeds of Captain Erlito in the Soudan have been a source of pride to all of us."
Ughtred smiled with pleasure—and Nicholas, with his hand upon his sword, addressed General Dartnoff in clear tones.
"General Dartnoff," he said, "I take the liberty of addressing you as Commander-in-Chief of the Thetian army. The Republic of Theos has ceased by reason of its own misdeeds to exist. I have always, as you know, refused to recognize its legislation. I claim that its decree abolishing the ancient monarchy and establishing a republic here was invalid and worthless. We have been made the laughing-stock of Europe by the gold-bought merchants and traitors who have presumed to occupy the high places of Theos. That is all at an end. It rests with us to restore honour and dignity to our country. There is but one way, but that a sure one, General Dartnoff and brother officers. We come here alone and unattended, but had we wished it we could have stormed your walls with half the population of Theos at our backs. I call upon you all to take the oath of allegiance to Ughtred of Tyrnaus, King of Theos, by divine right and the choice of the people."
General Dartnoff hesitated for a moment.
"Duke of Reist," he said, slowly. "You ask us to take a step on the impulse of the moment from which there could be no drawing back, which for good or for evil must decide forever the destinies of our country. Whatever my own personal inclinations might be, I owe it to my brother officers, and to our deep sense of patriotism to consult with them for a few minutes."
Reist would have spoken hastily, but Ughtred checked him.
"General Dartnoff has spoken like a wise man," he said. "I am content to wait."
With folded arms, drawn to his full height, a commanding figure indeed, Ughtred of Tyrnaus stood by the window looking down upon the city and the country which he loved. General Dartnoff, surrounded by his officers, stood at the head of the table. In the further corner of the room where the shadows were deepest Domiloff lurked. He watched their faces, and he knew that the game was lost.
Only a very few minutes had gone by before Dartnoff approached the two men by the window.
"Your Highness," he said, to Ughtred, with marked respect. "There is one question which we feel constrained to ask."
"As many as you will," he answered.
"In your coronation oath you swear to maintain inviolate the independence of Theos. We would know if at all costs, though the cost should be famine, death or annihilation, will you keep this oath to the letter?"
"May God have no mercy upon me hereafter if ever I should depart from it one hair's-breadth," Ughtred answered, with a sudden note of passion surging up in his tone. "I have no fancy for ruling a tributary state, sir. My forefathers have held safely for Theos through long generations the priceless gift of her liberty, and I would sooner die a thousand times over than that mine should be the hand to part with it."
General Dartnoff dropped on his knee, and drawing his sword from his scabbard, kissed its hilt.
"Your Majesty," he said, "we are all your faithful servants."
Reist unfastened his sword. The State uniform of the Thetian Guards was cumbersome, and the day was hot.
"Let Basil bring me wine," he ordered. "The cathedral was a furnace. Everywhere the air seems hot with the shouting of the people."
"Up here," Marie said, "the clamour of voices has seemed incessant. I have never heard anything like it."
He walked up and down moodily. He was not sure whether the day had gone according to his liking. All the time her eyes questioned him.
"One thing," he declared, "is certain. Never again will a republic exist in Theos. Two generations of roues and madmen have not sickened this people of the House of Tyrnaus. Their loyalty is amazing."
"This man," she said, "is neither roue nor madman."
"It is true," he admitted.
He drank his wine, and as he set the glass down he felt her watching him. He understood the unspoken question in her deep, blue eyes.
"Of his betrothal," Reist said, slowly, "there was no word."
She drew herself up haughtily, a slim, stately figure in her magnificent white dress, caught up with jewels, and the curious bejewelled head-dress which in Theos was the symbol of her rank. Yet Nicholas, who watched her closely, caught the gleam of something in her eyes which surprised him. It was more like relief than anger.
"Was our ancient usage explained to him?" she asked.
"Yes! I told him that an unmarried king was contrary to the time-sanctioned custom of our country. I told him that the announcement of his betrothal should be made at the moment of his coronation. The people expected it, and it would add immensely to his popularity."
"You told him that?"
"And he answered?"
"He answered me with a jest. As yet he was not prepared to marry or to think of marriage. He preferred to retain his liberty."
She bit her lip, and the colour mantled in her cheeks.
"It was after the words of the ceremony. He was my king. Between a Reist and a Tyrnaus the difference is purely accidental. The Reists are, indeed, the older and the nobler family. But between a Reist and his king there is a gulf. I cannot point my sword against him."
She walked restlessly up and down the room. Her thoughts were in confusion. For some vague, unacknowledged cause, her first impulse had been one of relief. She had expected a formal offer for her hand, and she would scarcely admit even to herself that that expectation had been a dread. Yet to be ignored touched her pride keenly. She stopped by her brother's chair.
"What, then?" she asked. "Am I, the Countess Marie of Reist, to be flouted and passed over by a beggarly soldier, whose life has been spent as an adventurer, because the blood of the House of Tyrnaus is in his veins and chance has brought him to the throne? Nicholas, am I to look to you in vain to avenge this insult?"
The man's eyes flashed fire.
"Be patient, Marie," he answered. "Ughtred of Tyrnaus has lived in strange countries all his life, and imbibed the hateful modernisms of the West. Let us wait for a little. Perhaps he does not understand. Perhaps the time would seem to him too short even for a royal wooing. We will watch and wait. Meanwhile, listen. This is certain. If Ughtred of Tyrnaus lives out his reign, you and no other shall be his queen. That at least I can answer for."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It may be," she said, "that when he is ready he may find his opportunity gone. The throne of Theos will be no bed of roses. In the meantime, I at least shall not go to the palace."
Reist looked doubtful.
"It was arranged," he reminded her, "that you should receive the wives of the Ministers. It is your right of birth."
"I renounce it then for the present," she answered. "Let him see how the fat old Kolashin woman will look on his left hand."
Her brother watched her thoughtfully. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
"Women are all alike," he said to himself, bitterly, on his way to the palace. "She is in love with Ughtred of Tyrnaus. She has drunk with him from the King's cup. It is enough!"
* * * * *
She rose to her feet perplexed—a little annoyed. It was a visit which she did not understand. He came swiftly across the lawn to her, unattended and unannounced.
"I do not understand," she said, as he bowed low before her. "My servants have no authority to send you here. I am not receiving this afternoon—and you—you surely should be at the palace."
"I offer my most profound apologies, Countess," he said respectfully. "Your servants are not at fault. It was my persistence which prevailed."
"You have some message for me?" she asked, doubtfully.
"None," he answered. "I have come here on my own initiative. You will permit me the honour of a few minutes' interview. As to my absence from the palace, is that more likely to be remarked upon than yours, Countess?"
She waived the question.
"It is at least more surprising," she answered. "Do you wish your Austrian friends to have it all their own way with the King?"
"The Countess of Reist's sympathies are, I fear," he murmured, "with my rival."
"My sympathies," she answered, "are with neither of you. You each seek aggrandizement at our expense. I am a Thetian, and I believe that the less we have to do with foreigners the better. But I do not see, Baron Domiloff, what profit there can be in a discussion of this sort between you and me. I am still waiting for an explanation of your presence here. Which of my servants has proved faithless?"
"None," he answered. "I made my way here unknown to anybody. I came, Countess, to ask you a question."
He did not immediately reply. There was a good deal at stake, and her manner was not encouraging. In the end it came, however.
"Is it true what they are whispering in the city—that you have drunk with Ughtred of Tyrnaus from the King's cup?"
The Countess rose from her seat with flashing eyes. The Russian stood his ground, however, respectful, insistent, having well calculated the effect of his words.
"What an infamy—that you should dare to come here and ask me such a question. If you will not leave me at once, sir, I myself must return to the house. Your presence here is an insult."
Domiloff stood in the centre of the path, and his manner was the manner of a man who has something to say, and will surely say it.
"Countess," he exclaimed, "I can claim no more with you, it is true, than the merest acquaintance, but I beg of you to consider whether I have the reputation of doing foolish things or asking foolish questions. You may not believe it, but I have the good of your country at heart. We in Russia desire an independent Theos. When I see her, therefore, drifting gradually towards certain destruction, I brave all things to save her."
She regarded him steadfastly, still angry, but a trifle curious.
"Explain yourself, sir—if any explanation is possible."
"Countess," he answered, "for the sake of your country, answer my question."
She hesitated. Her cheeks were flushed. She drew herself up proudly.
"You are well served, Baron," she said. "Your spies, it seems, can penetrate even within the walls of the Reist house. Yet the matter is no secret. I have drunk with Ughtred of Tyrnaus from the King's cup."
He inclined his head slowly.
"Yes," he said, "I was sure of it. Yet you have done well to tell me. Now I will tell you this. Ughtred of Tyrnaus before he had been King an hour sent to London to summon here an American woman with whom he had been—on the best terms in London."
She was thoughtful for a moment.
"You are sure of this?"
"I am sure of it," he answered.
"Is she of noble birth?"
Domiloff, who had been in New York, smiled faintly.
"She is an American," he answered. "Her father was a shopkeeper, her grandfather a labourer. He intends to marry her!"
"That is impossible," she answered, curtly. "The people of Theos would not permit it."
"When did a Tyrnaus," he asked, "ever consider the welfare or opinion of his subjects when the gratification of a caprice was concerned."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"And why," she asked, "do you bring this news to me?"
"To give you an opportunity of saving your country," he answered, promptly. "See, I will risk everything—I tell you the whole truth. Ughtred of Tyrnaus is not acceptable to my master as King of Theos. We know the race too well. They are not to be trusted—the integrity of the State is not safe in their hands. There is only one man who is the Heaven-designed ruler of Theos!"
"It is your brother!"
Now, indeed, she was interested. A rush of colour warmed her cheeks. The frigidity of her manner vanished as though by magic.
"I myself have told him so," she exclaimed. "When the people rose against the republic they called for him. It was the golden opportunity which he failed to seize."
"It will come again," he assured her, earnestly. "I give you my word that it will come again. That shall be my care. Yours is to see that next time he is prepared."
"Why do you not yourself speak to him?" she asked.
"You know your brother. The knowledge should answer that question. He has sworn loyalty to Ughtred of Tyrnaus, and for good or for evil he will keep his vow. We must wait till the thing is inevitable."
"And I," she murmured, "I, too, am a Reist, and he is my king."
"You are the first lady in Theos," he answered, "and you will not be content to bend your knee day by day before a plebeian. I will prove to you that I am sincere. If the King seeks your hand in marriage, I will not raise a little finger against him. But we will not support another Tyrnaus in another reign of folly. We will not recognize a king who places by his side upon the throne the daughter of tradespeople."
"It would be infamous," she murmured.
"Dear lady," he said softly, "try to forget that I am a Russian, or that Russia was ever your fancied enemy. An independent Theos is my policy, it is your religion. Let us work hand in hand."
The old distrust was hard to smother. She gave him the tips of her fingers.
"You can speak with me again," she said. "I make no promises. I will watch."
Ughtred, with a deep sigh of relief, sank into an easy-chair, and mopped his forehead in most unkingly fashion. He had escaped for a moment into the royal ante-room.
"Nicholas," he exclaimed, "if I am to be preserved for the service of the State order me a whisky-and-soda. This is harder work than our ride from Castle Reist."
Reist touched the bell and smiled.
"It is not yet concluded," he said. "I have many yet upon my list who have not been presented to your Majesty. There must be no heartburnings to-night. We must make no enemies."
Ughtred sat up with a sudden sense of injury.
"Nicholas," he demanded, "where is your sister?"
Reist's face was imperturbable.
"My sister," he said, "regretted exceedingly her inability to be present. She will pay her respects to your Majesty later."
The King frowned. His manner was impatient.
"It is now that I require her help," he said. "The Baroness is an utter impossibility. Her French is unrecognizable, she remembers no one, and the woman herself with her dyed hair and feathers is a caricature. Your sister must really make an effort, Reist. She must come and help me out."
"I will see that your Majesty's wishes," Reist answered quietly, "are conveyed to her."
The King eyed him keenly. Reist then was concealing something. His sister's absence was not motiveless.
"On reflection," he said, "I desire to emphasize my wishes. Your sister's absence is significant, and might possibly be commented upon. You will go yourself and fetch her, Nicholas. Say that I desire her immediate presence."
"Your Majesty," Reist protested, "my sister may have to make her toilette. Her immediate return with me will doubtless be impossible."
"The Countess will use her own discretion as to the time she keeps me waiting," Ughtred answered coolly. "I have told you that I shall await your return."
Reist turned away with immovable face. Ughtred remained in the ante-room alone. He lit a cigarette, and took a pile of telegrams from the table by his side. Selecting the topmost he read it thoughtfully to himself.
"My best wishes to you and for the welfare of your kingdom. May my offering remain forever an ornament. May peace and happiness be the lot of your people and your own.—SARA VAN DECHT."
"A coronation present with such a wish," he said to himself, "must remain an enigma. Enter."
An attendant withdrew the curtain.
"Captain Hartzan, of the Artillery, desires a moment's audience with your Majesty," the servant announced.
The King nodded.
"Let him be shown in."
A young officer bowed low as he passed through the curtains.
"Your Majesty," he announced, "a messenger has arrived at the barracks from the English firm of Vickers, Son, and Maxim. He is in charge of a whole battery of Maxims and quick-firing pom-poms, and awaits instructions as to their delivery."
"I know nothing of them," the King answered. "I understood that the firm you mention had declined the orders of the late Government."
"It is true, your Majesty," the officer answered, "and in consequence we have scarcely a modern gun at the barracks. The battery which has arrived here was intended for the Russian Government, but was purchased, the person in charge informs me, by a private individual for cash, as a coronation present to your Majesty."
The King started.
"Are you sure that there is no mistake?" he asked.
"None, your Majesty," the officer answered. "The messenger is quite explicit. It is a princely gift. Colonel Dartnoff instructed me to make an immediate report to your Majesty."
Ughtred for a moment was puzzled.
"I know of no one," he said reflectively, "who could make such a present."
The young officer hesitated.
"The artillery man in charge, your Majesty, claims to have seen the donor's cheque. It was a draft upon Rothschilds, drawn by an American of the name of Van Decht."
Ughtred caught up the telegram by his side. His eyes were suddenly bright. He understood.
"You will inform the agent in charge," he said, "that I will receive him to-morrow, and arrange a date to inspect the battery."
The young officer bowed respectfully, and withdrew. Reist took his place. The King eyed him sternly, for at first it seemed to him that so prompt a return was significant.
Reist lifted the curtain. Marie stood there in Court dress, her long train held by pages in the Reist livery, her neck and arms ablaze with jewels, a coronet of pearls upon her forehead. She was a little pale, and she carried herself with more than ordinary dignity. The King rose, and, bowing low, raised her hands to his lips.
"You are very welcome, Countess of Reist," he said, "although you are amongst the latest of those who have come to offer their good wishes."
"I have come," she answered, "in obedience to your Majesty's commands."
"Commands!" He smiled good-humouredly. "It is very unkind of you," he said, "to have thought of deserting me on such a day as this."
"Oh, Nicholas is invaluable," the King declared, lightly. "He can tell me what to say to the men, but it is in receiving the women I need your help."
"The Baroness Kolashin is as well acquainted with our countrywomen as I," Marie answered. "I did not doubt but that her aid would be sufficient."
"The Baroness," Ughtred answered, "has done her best; but another hour by her side would rob me of the few wits I have left. I should like to know for what special sin I was committed to her charge."
Marie shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly, but she did not smile.
"I am at your Majesty's service," she said.
Ughtred was puzzled. In what manner had he offended her?
"If my message seemed to you peremptory," he said, "will you not ascribe it to my desire to taste the full measure of my powers? I know nothing of the privileges of a king save what I have read in books. But it seems to me that included amongst them must surely be the privilege of choosing one's companions—and one's friends."
"Your Majesty," Marie answered, "may find that a rash assumption. It may lead to disappointment. Friends are scarcely to be made in a day, or to order. You must send for some of those whom you have left behind in England."
He looked at her, curious to know if anything lurked behind those words.
"Mine has not been the sort of life," he said, quietly, "which leads to the making of friendships. I have been a wanderer always, and a lonely one. I had hoped to fill the empty places—here."
There was a note of appeal in his tone—dignified, yet not in a sense without pathos. He glanced at Nicholas, but he looked first at Marie. A faint touch of colour flushed her cheeks. Her manner was visibly softened.
"I trust that your Majesty may not be disappointed," she said. And her eyes fell before his for the first time.
A crash of music reminded them of those who still waited to bow before the King. So they passed out into the great ballroom, and mounting the dais, Marie stood on the King's left hand. The room was a blaze of light, of brilliant uniforms and beautiful dresses. At ten o'clock, Reist came up with a look of relief upon his face, and a gleam of excitement in his eyes.
"The English Minister and his wife, your Majesty," he murmured. "It is excellent. The others will follow."
The news spread. A little flutter of joy rippled through the room. The coming of this dignified, kindly old man, with his grey hair and single decoration, was the one thing needed. Theos had taken to herself a King, asking leave of no one, but the countenance of some at least of the Powers was a vital thing. At the informal coronation, rushed through by Reist and his friends, not one of the Ministers had been present. Domiloff, with smooth face and with many lying regrets, had presented an interdictory note from Russia, but owing to the peculiar conditions prevailing there had not been until after the coronation any properly-appointed person to receive it. The late foreign Minister had refused it with a smile and a polite word of regret, and his example had been followed by every member of the Royalist party. There was, they explained, at the moment no government, no officials, no Minister. Their various appointments were arranged for and would be confirmed immediately after the coronation. Until then they were only private persons. So Domiloff, with a suave jest and a shrug of his shoulders, shut himself up in his house, while the cathedral bells clashed and the cannon roared from the walls.
The English Minister was followed in quick succession by the representatives of France and Austria, and with their coming a certain sense of restraint passed away from the brilliant assemblage. Before there had been a certain sense of unreality in the whole thing. The tone of the rejoicings had been feverish—who could tell but that in a week this thing might not have passed away like a mirage. Now a heartier note altogether prevailed, especially amongst the men. There were no more side glances, or shrugged shoulders—the volcano no longer trembled beneath their feet. Dancing commenced, and the King stood up with Marie of Reist. At supper she remained on his right hand. Many people spoke to Reist of this.
"It is excellent, Duke," declared old Baron Kolashin, once Commander-in-Chief of the Army. "Theos needs no outside alliance. It means only entanglement. That," he inclined his head to where Marie and the King were talking, "will send Theos crazy with joy."
Reist shook his head.
"You anticipate, my dear Kolashin," he answered. "Our Court circle is, as you know, small, and Marie's rank entitles her to receive. But this is only their second meeting. I am sure that as yet no such idea has entered the King's head."
Kolashin twirled his fierce moustache, and smiled knowingly.
"Eh, but my friend, there is a report that they have drunk together from the King's cup. How about that?"
"It is true," Reist admitted, "but the King knows nothing of the history of the cup. His offer was one of gallantry—no more. They were children together."
The general chuckled.
"Marie is a beautiful girl," he said. "There is none like her in Theos. Eh, but if I were young again."
He went off smiling to himself.
Reist was touched on the arm by Brand.
"May I speak to you for a moment, Duke?"
"By all means."
"There is still one of the foreign Ministers absent besides Domiloff."
"Effenden Pascha. There is yet time, however."
"Effenden Pascha is not coming," Brand said.
Reist eyed him sharply.
"How do you know that?"
"I was at the palace gates," Brand answered, "when Effenden Pascha drove up. He was on the point of entering when he was accosted by our friend Domiloff."
Reist's face grew black as night.
"The hound!" he murmured. "Go on!"
"They stayed talking for five minutes or more. Eventually they both reentered Effenden Pascha's carriage and were driven off."
"The wolf and the dog," Reist cried, fiercely. "Let them beware how they bark at the gates of Theos."
He was white almost to the lips with anger. Brand watched him curiously.
"I do not believe that you people like the Turks," he remarked.
Reist turned upon him with a sudden violent gesture. His voice was low, but charged with passionate hate.
"Like them! To us they are as vermin, a pest upon the face of the earth. You wonder why! I tell you that it is because we know them, because their border villages are in touch with ours, we know their life and the manner of it. I could tell you things which you dare not put in print; stories which, if English people read in your paper they would brand you a liar. So, my friend, Brand, believe this. There is not a true Thetian breathing who would not rather die himself and kill his wife and children than that the Turks should enter Theos.... Pardon me!"
He moved away with a quick, expressive gesture. Brand remained in his corner, and presently the King with Marie of Reist upon his arm passed by. They paused before him.
"Come, Brand," Ughtred remarked, "why so thoughtful? You must dance, my friend."
"Your Majesty," Brand answered, "I was pondering upon the inequalities of life. Yesterday I was a King, and a most uncomfortable position it was! To-day you are King—and"—he glanced at Marie—"it is a trial to one's disposition to refrain from envy."
Marie detached her hand softly from the King's sleeve.
"So gallant a speech, sir," she said, smiling, "must be rewarded. You have not yet asked me to dance!"
"It seems to me," she said, quietly, "that all men must be ambitious, that the love of power must be a part of their very existence."
"In England," he remarked, "we are more circumscribed, our limits are more exact. Yet I suppose in our small way we all flutter our wings."
"I have a curiosity to understand things," she said, leaning back and fanning herself slowly. "Help me to understand yourself."
"Do I puzzle you then?"
She looked at him reflectively out of her dark, full eyes. He looked into them once and turned away—he scarcely knew why.
"You do not seem to me," she said, "like a man who would be content with small things. You outwitted Domiloff himself. Yet you call yourself a writer, and you are perhaps content?"