He shrugged his shoulders.
"Why not? There is excitement in it. One travels everywhere, meets strange types of people, penetrates into unknown countries, carries often one's life in one's hands. Oh, it's not a bad life."
"Perhaps," she answered, "I do not quite understand. Our newspapers in Theos are different. You then are content?"
Again that curious searching gaze from the most beautiful eyes into which he had ever looked. Brand, in whose life women had played a small part, was unaccountably ill at ease. His easy nonchalance of manner had deserted him. Content! He looked for a moment into his future, and was astonished to find in it a new emptiness. She bent over towards him, and at her touch a thrill went through his veins, and set his heart beating to a new music.
"Just now," she murmured, "you told the King—that you envied him. Was it true?"
"For the moment," he answered, "I think that it was."
"You then would like to be a king?"
He laughed, and answered her with a forced lightness.
"I? Not I! It would not suit me at all."
"What did you mean, then?" she persisted.
"I think," he said, "that I was a little lonely. You see I know none of these people. I am a stranger, and I felt a little out of my element. And then—then he came by with you, and—well, I wished I were in his place."
She laughed very softly.
"So far as I am concerned," she murmured, "you very soon had your wish."
"It was very kind of you," he said, "to take pity upon me."
"I think that I wanted to talk to you again," she said. "I am tired of all these people. Tell me, Mr. Brand, how long will you stay on in Theos?"
"I am not sure," he answered, "perhaps a week, perhaps a month. It depends upon my paper. They may recall me at any time."
She frowned, and stopped fanning herself.
"Why do you go back?" she said, abruptly. "Why do you not stay in Theos?"
"There is no place here for me," he answered. "I am a stranger."
"You say," she continued, "that in your own country the limits of life are being drawn closer. Why do you not make for yourself a career in a country like this? Theos has need of such men as you."
He shook his head.
"Theos has her own sons to direct her future. I am a stranger."
"So is the King!"
"But he is a Tyrnaus. The people have chosen him for their King."
"You are his friend," she said, "and to you I may not say very much. But he is young, and he may make mistakes. He comes of a family who have done much evil here."
Brand was startled.
"I thought that you and your brother were his chief supporters," he said. "People are saying, too——"
Her fan stopped. Brand hesitated.
"Please to go on," she said, imperiously.
"It is not my affair," he continued, awkwardly. "I ought not to have alluded to it. But they are speaking of the possibilities of a marriage between you and him."
The slow waving of white feathers recommenced. He felt that she was looking at him; almost in spite of himself their eyes met. He looked away with hot cheeks and burning eyes. Was this girl a trained coquette, or——
"I do not think," she said, "that you need consider that. I do not think that I shall ever marry Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
Despite himself he spoke the thoughts which had filled his mind.
"You," he said, "are ambitious. Have you no desire to be a queen?"
"I love power," she answered, "but I am a woman—and I do not wish to marry Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
Brand told himself fiercely that he was a fool. Yet the music was suddenly sweeter, his vague antipathy to the King had vanished into thin air, the taste of life was sweeter between his teeth.
"You may think me mad," he said, "but I am—not sorry—to hear it."
There was a short silence. It was evident that if she thought him mad she was not displeased.
"Some day," she said, presently, "I should like to talk to you of Theos. I believe that before long there will be great changes here. A new order of things may come—and you are one of those whom Theos may look to for help."
"I?" he repeated. "But, indeed, Countess, you are overrating me. I am only a journalist. I know nothing of statecraft."
"You are a strong man," she answered, "and strong men are scarce. Promise me that you will not leave Theos without letting me know."
"I am not likely to do that," he said. "If ever I can help you or your country I would do it willingly. But you will remember that I am the friend of Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
"You may have other friends—is it not so?"
The significance of her speech once more filled him with new emotions—half-delightful—half-uneasy. A sudden passionate impulse came to him to seize the little white hand all ablaze with jewels which hung over the arm of her chair so near to his. He mastered it with a stupendous effort. They sat there in a silence which was to him almost ecstatic. Then Nicholas of Reist stood suddenly before them, his black eyebrows contracted into a lowering frown.
"Marie," he said, "the King is asking for you."
She shrugged her shoulders, and rose without haste.
"I think," she said, "that I have done my duty—and I am tired. I should like to go home, Nicholas."
"You must make your adieux, in any case," he answered, giving her his arm, and ignoring Brand. "No one is leaving yet, and there is to be a display of fireworks in the grounds."
She looked over her shoulder to Brand with a parting smile.
"Good-night, Mr. Brand. I have enjoyed my rest very much."
He bowed low, and remained for a moment alone in the Palm House. Through the open windows came the sound of ascending rockets hissing through the still night air—the grounds were ablaze with lights. He passed out, and mingled with the crowd of people.
Illuminations, fireworks, and the thunder of saluting cannon closed the day. The excited crowds dispersed slowly to their homes, the National Hymn ceased at last to echo through the squares and streets. Towards midnight Domiloff, who had left the palace early, knocked at the door of a large white house in the Place des Estrangers, and was at once admitted. He passed into a hall furnished after the Turkish style, and into the presence of Effenden Pascha.
The Turk was still in the uniform and jewelled turban which he had donned for the reception at the palace. He greeted Domiloff eagerly. They conversed in French.
"It is well that you have come," the Turk exclaimed. "To-morrow it will be known in Constantinople that you and I alone of the foreign Ministers failed to attend the reception of the new King. How am I to explain this, Domiloff?"
Domiloff nodded, and lit a cigarette.
"Listen, Effenden Pascha," he said, quietly. "I have within the last few minutes received a message from St. Petersburg ordering me to recognize on behalf of Russia, Ughtred of Tyrnaus. It does not suit my country just at present to be at variance with the other Powers. Accordingly I must present myself at the palace to-morrow. You, however, are outside the concert. Now, listen. I speak truth, do I not, when I say that the ancient enmity between your country and Theos is still a live thing—that but for the Powers your soldiers would long ago have pillaged Theos, and sacked the city?"
"It is true," Effenden Pascha admitted. "What then?"
"The accession of Ughtred of Tyrnaus is not approved of by my master. As I have explained, we cannot move ourselves, for the time is not yet ripe for a European war. This, however, we can undertake. If your master should refuse to recognize the new sovereign of Theos, and should think the time ripe for an effort to regain what was once a part of the Ottoman Empire, there shall be no interference. Russia will not interfere, and Russia will see that no other Power does. You follow me?"
"Perfectly," Effenden Pascha answered, quietly; "and afterwards?"
"The afterwards," Domiloff remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, "is of your own making."
The Turk shook his head slowly.
"Domiloff," he said, "so far all is well. But your price? Your master serves no one without a price. Wherein is to come your advantage?"
"We have none to gain," Domiloff answered. "Simply we object to a Tyrnaus once more upon the throne of Theos."
The Turk moved towards the door.
"There is still time," he said. "I go to pay my respects to King Ughtred."
"You are too late," Domiloff cried.
"Not so," the Turk answered, pointing through the trees. "The palace is still a blaze of light."
Domiloff swore softly between his teeth.
"Do not be so hasty, my friend," he exclaimed.
"My country," Effenden Pasha answered, "is too often the tool of yours. We are to do the work, and at the last moment—the Bear's paw. We are to conquer Theos for Russia."
"You are entirely wrong," Domiloff declared earnestly. "The eventual possession of the country may become a matter of private treaty between your Court and mine, but I will give you the word of the Czar that if for any reason we should desire to occupy it you shall have a quid pro quo. You shall have a free hand in Asia Minor and a loan."
"You will give me pledges of this nature in writing?" Effenden Pascha asked.
The Turk walked to the window with a smile.
"Allah!" he exclaimed. "It will be good to hear once more the guns roar in the Balkans. We Turks, Domiloff, are a nation of soldiers, and these long intervals of peace are ill for us."
Outside there was a sudden tramp of feet. Into the square filed a company of soldiers. They halted in front of the house. The two men exchanged rapid glances.
"What is this?" the Turk asked, quickly.
"Heaven knows," Domiloff answered. "Listen!"
A thunderous summons at the door; voices in the hall. An officer in the uniform of the Thetian Guards entered, bearing a letter.
"To Monsieur Domiloff," he announced, saluting.
Domiloff opened it without a word. As he read he grew pale to the lips.
"SIR,—I have the honour to enclose your passport and safe conduct to the frontier of Theos. I have informed the Czar, your Imperial master, of the circumstances which render your further presence in my dominions displeasing to me.
(Signed) "UGHTRED OF TYRNAUS,
Domiloff crushed the letter in his fingers.
"Well, sir?" he said to the officer. "In the morning I will seek an audience of his Majesty."
"I regret, sir," the officer answered, "that my orders allow me no latitude whatever. A special train is waiting, and my instructions are to escort you to the frontier."
Domiloff drew the Turk on one side.
"Listen," he said, "this is a bold stroke. I half expected it. Ughtred of Tyrnaus has courage at least. I go straight to St. Petersburg. I will give pledges of what I have promised to your Minister there."
Effenden Pascha bowed. He was most uncomfortable, but there was a certain pleasure in witnessing the discomfiture of the wily Russian.
"I shall await your news," he answered.
Domiloff and his escort departed. Effenden Pascha at once undressed, sent for his physician and sought his bed. Before morning Theos knew of the sudden attack of malignant fever which had most unfortunately laid hold of him at the moment of starting to attend the reception at the palace.
Ughtred slackened his reins about his horse's neck, and turning round, called to Brand, who was sitting a few yards away making some rapid sketches. The King's cheeks were flushed with colour, and his eyes were bright.
"What do you think of that, Brand?" he asked, proudly.
He pointed to where a cloud of dust hung round the last company of galloping Thetians. The roll of the drums and the shrill music of the fifes still reached them.
"They are born horsemen, and born soldiers, your Majesty," Brand answered, with enthusiasm. "I only wish that there were more of them."
"The mountains are our chief protection," he said, with a little wave of his arm. "The passes through which men could be poured into Theos are narrow, and for defensive purposes a small, perfectly-trained army is sometimes as useful as a large one. I am proud of my army, Brand."
"You have reason," Brand answered. "I am even now trying to make Europe understand what manner of men these are."
General Dartnoff came galloping up.
"If your Majesty will ride now to Pinter's Pass," he said, "you will be able to trace the progress of the attack."
The King and Brand rode off together, followed by his small bodyguard.
"Your people have said nothing yet about recalling you?" Ughtred asked.
"Nothing," Brand answered. "I think that Theos is still being watched with interest."
"And you yourself?"
Brand looked straight ahead.
"I am content here," he answered. "I shall be sorry to leave."
There was the thunder of hoofs on the turf a short distance away, and Marie of Reist in a white riding-habit and the military cap of the Thetian Guards galloped past. Her lithe, superb figure was at its best—she managed her charger with the easy confidence of a born horsewoman. Ughtred eyed her thoughtfully.
"There are not many women like that—even in England, Brand," he remarked.
"Your Majesty is quite right," Brand answered. "The Countess of Reist is the most beautiful woman whom I have ever seen."
Ughtred smiled and looked down into the valley. They reined in their horses upon a small knoll.
"I think that I know one who is more beautiful," the King said, in an undertone. "I heard this morning from our friends, the Van Dechts, Brand. They are travelling in Italy, and may come on here."
Brand shrugged his shoulders.
"Your Majesty will find their presence welcome?" he asked.
The King looked at him in surprise.
"Surely! They are friends of mine. It would give me great pleasure to have them here. Why not?"
"I wondered," he said, slowly, "if they might not find their presence here a little equivocal. Your Majesty is no longer a private individual, and Mr. and Miss Van Decht, however agreeable in themselves, are not of the rank which entitles them to a familiar footing at your Court."
Ughtred looked at his companion in some surprise.
"That speech," he remarked, "might have come from Nicholas of Reist—from you, my friend, it sounds strangely."
"I admit it," Brand answered. "For myself it is true that I am a democrat, but then I am only a journalist. I have noticed that the few nobles who remain in Theos are aristocrats to the backbone. I believe that you find their principles absolutely rock-bound."
The King frowned. His eyes had rested upon Marie of Reist, sitting upright in her saddle, and watching eagerly for the development of the sham fight.
"Well, well," he said, "we shall see! I wish to see the Van Dechts here, and it is useless to meet trouble halfway. Be so good, Brand, as to convey my regards to the Countess of Reist, and suggest that she join us. Our position is better chosen than hers."
Brand cantered over to her side and repeated the message. She rode with him towards the King.
"You have been much occupied lately, perhaps," she said to Brand. "My brother tells me that you have been invisible."
"I have been busy," he answered. "Perhaps because of my small share in events here, I have become wonderfully interested in Theos. I have been making excursions in all directions. I want to understand many things which are hard for a stranger to form a right idea of."
"Then why do you not come to me?" she said. "I can tell you very much about Theos. I can tell you about the country people, and how they live. Did I not ask you to come, Mr. Brand? You are very ungallant."
He met a glance from her dark eyes, and his pale cheeks were suddenly flushed.
"You were good enough to say that you would receive me," he answered. "If I may come, then, I will."
"My brother has shown me in the English papers some of the things which you have written about Theos," she continued. "I cannot tell you what pleasure they gave me. It is a wonderful gift, yours, Mr. Brand. When one reads one seems to see a picture of the whole place. You have written wonderfully of your adventures here."
"And yet," he said, in a low tone, "the adventure here which was most interesting to me, which I shall never forget so long as I live, I have not written about at all. It is for the memory only."
Again their eyes met. He was very bold, this Englishman. Yet though her eyebrows were slightly raised she did not rebuke him.
"I think, perhaps," she said, "that we had better obey the royal command."
She touched her horse with the whip, and they galloped up the hillside. Ughtred watched them closely as they rode up. He made room for Marie by his side. Brand had perforce to fall behind. They talked together eagerly of the manoeuvres. The girl was thoroughly well versed in the situation.
"I believe from the south," she said, "that Theos is unassailable. If only we had more heavy guns for the passes."
"You have seen the new battery?" Ughtred asked.
"Yes. The Maxims are wonderful."
"I am expecting," he said, "that the donor will be paying us a visit here soon."
She looked up inquiringly.
"An American was it not?"
"An American and his daughter, Mr. and Miss Van Decht. If they come I hope that I may count upon you, Countess, to help me make their visit an enjoyable one."
"I will do all that I can," she answered, coldly. "I have never met any Americans. They must be wonderful people. In England they are intermarrying, is it not so, with the aristocracy?"
"There have been many such marriages," Ughtred assented.
"It is the worst of England," she murmured. "A great nation, but indeed a nation of shopkeepers. Amongst the nobles, the pride of race seems to have died out. The fear of poverty is to them as the fear of death. Ah, see."
Through the pass below was a sudden movement. Little puffs of smoke burst out all over the hillside. General Dartnoff and his staff came galloping up.
"Your Majesty," he said, saluting, "I shall ask for your congratulations on behalf of Colonel Bushnieff. The attacking force have been entrapped into the pass, and are now subject to a terrible cross-fire. Bushnieff's guns are so placed that every one of them is effectual. I go to give the award. The defending force have easily triumphed."
"I will come with you," the King answered.
Brand drew back to let them pass. Marie also lingered. In a moment they were alone. He turned to her.
"You are coming?" he asked.
"I think not. I am tired. My servants are below. I shall return to Theos."
"My horse is lame," he remarked.
"I do not wonder at it," she answered. "You have been galloping about without choosing your way."
"I too am tired," he continued, thoughtfully.
Her lips parted.
"I shall be glad of your escort, Mr. Brand."
They rode slowly across the open country in the waning day. Before them on the hilltop were the grey towers and the piled-up houses of Theos, a picturesque medley with their red roofs and white fronts now fast becoming blurred in the gathering twilight. As they neared the road a sudden waft of perfume from the lavender-fields beyond filled the air, and a breath of wind came sweeping through the yellow corn-fields. Brand, with his hat in his hand, looked thoughtfully about him.
"I think," he said, "that no man could be born here who would not die for such a country as this. I believe that I am beginning to understand what patriotism might be."
Her face lit up in a moment.
"It is beautiful," she said, "to hear you say that. I wish, Mr. Brand," she added, softly, "that it were your country too. Then we should be sure of one good patriot."
"I think," he said, "that if trouble came to Theos I should be proud to reckon myself amongst her sons. I have never seen country people like yours. I have ridden into the furthest parts, and wherever I have seen men and women I have heard singing. I have been greeted like a friend. I have been offered bread and wine before I could even dismount. How they toil, too. No wonder the soil is fruitful."
"Oh, it is good to hear you talk like this," she cried, with a sudden little burst of passion. "The love of my country is in my blood—it is part of me. I could not live if Theos were dishonoured, and lately there have been so many sorrows. I seem to have found myself listening, and over the land there has been silence, no longer the whistling of the men and the singing of women. It has been as though something terrible has always been about to happen. It is a fancy, of course. Nicholas laughs at me. It is foolish! But the love of Theos is more to me than the love of life. I fear for her when for myself I have no fear. Tell me, Mr. Brand, this seems strange talk to you."
"I know Theos, and I know you," he answered. "I understand."
She did not speak again for some time, but he saw that her eyes were full of tears, and he kept his face turned from her. When at last they passed into the city she spoke to him softly.
"I am indeed very foolish," she said, "but just now I am anxious. Theos seems to have made for herself new enemies. The coming of Ughtred of Tyrnaus has provoked Russia, and it is the one country which I fear most. You will come and see me soon, Mr. Brand?"
He bowed over the hand which she held half-shyly out. It was not a form of greeting in which she often indulged.
"I will surely come," he answered.
He left her at the Reist house and rode slowly towards his own quarters. Already the streets were lined with people awaiting the return of the King and the troops. Torches were waved hither and thither. In the open space in front of the palace a huge bonfire had been lit. Everywhere was the pleasant murmur of cheerful voices. Further down the street they were singing in a low rhythmical chant the National Anthem. Now the King was in sight, and a roar of voices welcomed him. The front of the palace blazed out in a fire of illuminations, a shower of rockets shrieked upwards from the park. The King was coming. Long live the King!
Sara Van Decht leaned back in her basket-chair and looked across the cobbled street, across the trim square where the miniature fountain was playing, to where a cluster of red-roofed, white-fronted houses were huddled together in picturesque confusion.
"Well, I think it's delightful!" she exclaimed. "I never could have imagined anything so picturesque—or so restful."
Mr. Van Decht scratched his chin thoughtfully and selected a cigar from his case.
"It is restful," he admitted. "I can't say that I'm quite accustomed to taking my meals upon the pavement, even under an awning, and there is an odour of garlic about the hotel which I don't altogether relish. I grant you that it is restful, though! There's no denying that!"
The girl laughed softly.
"Poor old dad," she exclaimed. "I guess it's selfish of me to drag you all across Europe to this little bit of a country, but I couldn't help it a bit. I positively must see Ughtred with a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand before we go back. It's too delicious. Now I wonder how we ought to let him know that we are here."
She laughed again—laughed till the tears stood in her eyes.
"Father, you must try to be more mediaeval," she exclaimed. "Fancy ringing up a king!"
"Send a boy round with a note then," he suggested, "or shall I stroll round to the palace and let them know? I'd just as soon. It's only a few minutes' walk."
"I will write," she decided, "but there is no hurry. We will go out for a walk presently and look at these dear, quaint little shops. There are heaps of things I want to buy."
Mr. Van Decht rose suddenly from his chair.
"Jehosophat!" he cried. "What's that?"
It was a horse-car, old-fashioned, rickety, with canvas awnings, drawn wearily along by an aged horse. Mr. Van Decht eyed it with vast curiosity.
"Jehosophat," he repeated. "I'd like to take that whole affair right back with us and sell it to the first dime museum that'd give the price. Look at the bonnet on the horse's head, Sara, and the bell! My, how she bumps! I must have a talk with your King, Sara. My number-three installation is what is wanted here with overhead wires and forty Cambridge wagons. With cheap labour and water transport I guess it would be a light contract. I'm going to board the next that comes along, Sara, and get the thing into my head."
"The streets look very narrow and hilly for cars, father."
"Guess the whole place wants straightening out a bit," Mr. Van Decht admitted. "If your King wants to make this place go, Sara, he's got to imbibe a few Western notions, and the sooner the better."
"You shall talk to him," Sara remarked, with a little smile at the corner of her lips. "I am sure that he will be interested."
"I guess I can give him some ideas," Mr. Van Decht remarked, puffing vigorously at his cigar. "You'd better write that note, Sara."
"In a moment, father. It's so fascinating to watch these country people with their baskets. Look! There is something you can't beat in New York, anyhow."
Up the steep, narrow road came a company of horse-soldiers—a gay sight—in flashing helmets, plumes, and the soft blue uniform of the Thetian Guards. A band up at the palace played them in. The people rushed to the right and to the left, lined the pavements and shouted a greeting. Then suddenly every head was uncovered, and a little respectful murmur rippled through the crowd.
"The King! Long live the King!"
Sara rose eagerly from her place at the table. They were virtually upon the pavement—a little extended near the hotel and dotted about with tiny round tables. It was Ughtred who rode at the head of the little troop of soldiers, and suddenly their eyes met. A sharp word of command broke from his lips. He dismounted and crossed the street towards them, drawing off his heavy white gloves as he came.
"Welcome!" he cried. "Welcome to Theos."
He took Sara's hands in his and held them tightly.
"This," he said, "is charming of you. One moment!"
He beckoned to the officer who had been riding by his side, and gave a few brief orders. The troop passed on. Reist and a younger man in dark riding-clothes remained.
"If you will allow me," Ughtred said, "I will take a cup of coffee with you. There is a garden here, I believe."
The hotel proprietor came hurrying out. Reist explained what was required. They made their way into a semi-public garden, which was instantly cleared of chance loiterers. A table was set in a shady corner.
"Mr. Van Decht," Ughtred said, "I must shake hands with you. You are most welcome. I appreciate your coming here immensely."
"My daughter," Mr. Van Decht explained, "has been set upon this trip ever since your friend Brand began his letters upon Theos in the Daily Courier. They have been very widely read, sir. We must congratulate you upon having taken hold of your kingdom so firmly."
"You are very good," Ughtred answered. "Brand has been a God-send to us. The position here has been fairly represented to England, and, in fact, Europe, through his reports. He, too, will be delighted to see you again. Miss Van Decht, you must allow me to present Captain Hartzan of the Artillery—the Duke of Reist you already know. Now, when did you arrive?"
"Last night," Sara answered. "That dear little train of yours brought us from the frontier. We scarcely expected to see you so soon."
"It is my great good-fortune," Ughtred answered. "I go every morning to the fortifications to direct the artillery practice. The Van Decht battery has been in action this morning," he added, smiling.
"I presume, sir, that this is a warlike country!" Mr. Van Decht remarked.
A shadow crept over the King's face.
"It is not our choice," he answered. "We are surrounded by dangerous enemies, and we are a very small nation. Our security depends solely upon our readiness to resist attack. For these last two months I have had to forget that I am a King, and remember only that I am Commander-in-Chief of our little army."
"I presume that you are not anticipating any immediate trouble, sir?" Mr. Van Decht asked.
The King glanced round. Already he was learning the lesson of caution.
"The history of Theos," he said, "is doubtless unknown to you. Turkey is our old and historic enemy, and her attitude towards us just now is, to say the least of it, threatening. We trust to our inoffensiveness and the good-will of the Powers to preserve our independence, but we judge it best to be prepared so far as possible to fight our own battles. Well, Crasten, what are you bringing us?"
The hotel proprietor bowed low, and filled some finely-cut glasses with liqueur from a dusty and carefully cradled bottle.
"The fin champagne, your Majesty, was brought from the cellars of Louis Philippe by my father. I trust your Majesty will approve."
Ughtred sipped it, and did approve. He accepted some coffee also, and broke a roll in his fingers.
"This is my longest fast," he explained, laughing. "We ride out at six to escape the heat. Part of my afternoon I spend at the barracks and part at the House of Laws."
"It appears to me, sir, that you find pretty considerable to do," Mr. Van Decht remarked. "I'd an idea that royalty had an easier time of it."
"A good many people share that idea, Mr. Van Decht," Ughtred answered, good-humouredly. "For myself, I never worked half so hard in all my life. But then, it is work I love, and for my country, which is very dear to me. Some day I hope, when things are more settled, to be able to drop the military part of my labours, and give all my attention to the development of my country."
Mr. Van Decht nodded. He was greatly enjoying the fin champagne.
"You're right there, sir," he declared. "Make a nation strong commercially, and she'll hold her own in time against the world. I guess you're a travelled man, sir, and you won't mind a stranger remarking that in some ways you're a little behind the times here."
Sara's eyes twinkled with amusement. The young officer, who understood a little English, glanced at Reist, and was speechless.
"You mustn't mind father," Sara exclaimed. "You know he's a terrible democrat, and utilitarian to the backbone. He's dying to introduce electric cars here and electric light."
"Why, you want them bad enough," her father admitted. "I don't suppose we've a town of half the size in the States where we haven't both, and this a capital city too."
"Mr. Van Decht is quite right," Ughtred said, gravely, "only one has always to remember that this is a very poor country, and we can't afford to pay for luxuries."
"I guess those cars would pay for themselves before long, sir," Mr. Van Decht declared.
"It is very likely," Ughtred answered. "I'm sure that if any capitalist were disposed to undertake the commercial part of it, there would be very little difficulty about the concession."
Mr. Van Decht rose up briskly.
"If you'll excuse me, sir," he said, "I guess I'll hail that bobby hutch and go the round."
The King laughed.
"You are a man of business, Mr. Van Decht," he said. "Certainly, go and help yourself to all the information you can. Sara, if you will come up with me I will show you the palace. I am afraid there is nothing there to interest your father, but he will have many opportunities of seeing it. Reist, will you see if the carriage has come?"
For a moment they were alone.
They looked into one another's eyes, and Sara laughed softly.
"Why, this is just the queerest thing in the world," she murmured. "What will happen to me at the palace if I forget to say 'your Majesty,' and ought I to curtsey when I speak to you?"
Ughtred smiled back at her.
"I believe," he said, "that you ought to kiss—my hand."
"Then I guess I won't," she answered. "I believe I'm democrat enough to expect——"
He leaned over towards her, but the sentence was never finished. Reist stood before them, and the look on his face was a forecast of coming trouble.
"The carriage is here, your Majesty!" he announced.
"What do I think of Theos?" Sara repeated. "I think it must be the lost paradise of the lotus-eaters. It does not seem possible for anything ever to happen here."
"We share the primitive passions with the rest of mankind," he assured her. "We know what it is to be excited, even to be rowdy. The wear and tear of life perhaps touches us more lightly than in your Western cities. You see we are a rural people."
"Miss Van Decht," Reist remarked dryly, "misses perhaps the clang of the electric cars and the factory sirens."
"It is the proverbial peace of the city amongst the mountains," Ughtred said. "Yet if you listen you can hear the murmur of voices in the cafes, and there is a band playing in the square."
"It is all—delightful," Sara declared. "Only I wonder that you find it possible to take life seriously here."
They were sitting out on the great stone balcony behind the palace—Ughtred, Reist, and Marie, Mr. Van Decht and Sara. A servant in spotless white livery had silently arranged coffee and liqueur in strange-looking bottles upon a table already laden with fruit. Below them were the terraced lawns leading to the river, dotted with dark fir-trees and flowering shrubs—beyond the red roofs and white fronts of many villas, in the distance the blue mountains. The King and Sara Van Decht were sitting side by side. Marie, unusually taciturn, leaned back in her chair, listening and watching with half-closed eyes.
Ughtred lit a fresh cigarette, and smoked for a moment thoughtfully.
"I can assure you," he said, "that life is, in its way, as complex a thing here as in the greater cities. The people are very poor, and how to raise money enough to develop the country and pay our way without undue taxation is a very serious problem indeed. Then you must not forget that we live always in the shadow of a great danger."
Sara looked at him inquiringly. He pointed southwards to the mountains.
"Beyond there," he said, "is Turkey, and Turkey is our eternal enemy. Even now there are strained relations between us. Night and day our watchmen guard the passes. There have been rumours lately of an impending raid upon our frontier villages."
Sara listened with rapt attention.
"How fascinating. It really sounds quite mediaeval."
"We are mediaeval in more ways than one," he continued. "Our standing army consists of barely one thousand men, but in case of war the whole of our male population would take up arms. Every man must fight himself for his home and his native land. If you can spare the time here we will go to some of the more distant villages, and you will see the Saturday drill. I am rather proud of my military system."
She looked across at her father.
"He is so restless," she said. "I can never tell how long he will stand any one place. Just at present he talks as though he were disposed to settle down here for the rest of his life."
Marie leaned forward. Her face gleamed pale in the twilight, her tone was almost openly contemptuous.
"Away from the electric cars, and sirens, and all the delights of your Western cities?"
Sara nodded gravely.
"Yes! Away even from the Paris edition of the New York Herald. But then, my father, you know, is terribly mercenary. I believe he thinks that there is scope for the capitalist here."
"Your father is quite right then," Ughtred answered, smiling. "Try and persuade him to give the place a trial. It is supposed, you know, to be the healthiest spot in Europe."
"Why, I'm in no hurry to leave, and that's a fact," Mr. Van Decht admitted. "I've an appointment with the manager of your cars here to-morrow, and if we do business I guess I'll have to stop."
Sara laughed softly.
"That's just like father!" she exclaimed. "Wherever he goes and finds horse-cars he wants to either buy the company out or put in his own system of electric cars. I'm afraid you think we're very commercial, don't you, Countess?"
"Oh, no," Marie answered, coldly. "One rather expects that, you know, from your nation. It is very interesting. I must confess, though, that I do not wish to see electric cars in the streets of Theos."
"And why not, young lady?" Mr. Van Decht inquired.
"Because I love my old city too well to wish to see her modernized and made hideous," Marie answered. "It is scarcely a feeling with which one could expect strangers to sympathize; but there are many others besides myself who would feel the same way."
Mr. Van Decht nodded.
"Is that so? Well, nowadays the countries who place the picturesque before the useful are very few and far between. I guess it's as well for the community at large that it is so. You would scarcely call that broken-down old omnibus, dragged along by a lame mule, a credit to Theos or a particularly picturesque survival."
Marie shrugged her shoulders, and dismissed the subject with a little gesture of contempt. Mr. Van Decht waited for a minute, and then, as she remained silent, continued—
"A country which neglects the laws of progress is not a country which can ever hope for prosperity. Don't you agree with me, sir?" he asked the King.
"I am afraid that I do," he admitted. "Theos, with its vineyards and hand-ploughs, its simple hill-folk and its quaint village towns, is, from an artistic point of view, delightful. Yet I am bound to admit that for the sake of its children and the unborn generations, I would rather see factory chimneys in its valleys and mine shafts in the hills. The people are poor, and so long as we have to import everything we use and wear, we must get poorer and poorer. The country is productive enough. We have minerals and a wonderful soil. What we need is capital and enterprise."
"And you are a Tyrnaus!" she murmured, with a sidelong glance of reproach.
"It is my fortune," he said, "good or bad, to know more of the world outside than those who came before me. Please God, I am going to leave Theos a richer and happier country when my days here are spent. If we are spared from war I shall do it."
"In future," Marie said, "I shall dread war less. I begin to see that there are other evil things."
She rose and bowed slightly to the King.
"Your Majesty will excuse me," she said. "I find the air a little cold."
She passed down the terrace steps, her maid a few yards behind. A certain reserve fell upon the others.
"I am afraid," Sara said to Nicholas of Reist, "that your sister does not approve of me."
"Marie," he said, "is passionately faithful to all the traditions of our family and our race. This is a conservative country, and no one more so than she. I myself am in close sympathy with her. Yet my reason tells me that we are both wrong. Our peasantry are finding already the struggle for existence a severe one—a single failure in the crops would mean a famine. It has occurred to me, Mr. Van Decht, that the advice of a man of affairs such as yourself may be very useful to us."
Ughtred rose up.
"You shall talk progress together," he said, "while I show Miss Van Decht my pictures."
* * * * *
Marie held the note in her fingers, looking at it doubtfully. It was addressed to her, thrust secretly into her maid's hand by a stranger in the crush outside the palace gates. At least that was the girl's story. She tore it open.
"You are a patriot, the sister of Nicholas of Reist, and the King's friend. By you he may be warned. The American woman who with her father has come to Theos, was betrothed to him in London. She has come to claim her position. The people of Theos will never accept as their queen a woman of humble birth, the child of tradespeople. Let the King be warned."
She tore the note into a thousand pieces, and walked restlessly up and down the great room. Her eyes were lit with fire, and a scarlet spot burned in her cheeks.
"Oh, if he should dare," she murmured. "If he should dare!"
She stopped abruptly before the picture of Rudolph. The flickering light of fifty wax candles from the huge silver candelabra on the oaken table lit up the dull canvas. It was Ughtred himself who looked down at her.
"Queen of Theos!" she murmured. "Why not? We have drunk together from the King's cup."
She turned quickly round. Brand had come silently into the room.
Her surprised interjection recalled to him for the first time the hour and the strangeness of his visit. Yet he attempted little in the way of excuse.
"I may stay five minutes," he begged. "You are alone?"
"It is very late," she murmured.
He pointed out of the great window at the far end of the room.
"Your brother is attending the King. If he should return—well, mine is no idle errand. I can justify my coming, even at this hour."
Then she noticed that he was not dressed for the evening, that he was pale, and that there was trouble in his eyes. She led him into a smaller room, pushed open a window, and beckoned him to follow her down the worn grey steps into the gardens.
"This is my favourite corner," she said. "Beyond are the flower gardens, and the air here at night is always sweet. You shall sit with me, my friend, and you shall tell me what it is that brings you with this look of trouble in your face."
His eyes remained fixed upon her with a sudden passionate wistfulness. She was very sweet and gracious, and her slow speech seemed to him more musical than ever. So he sat by her side, and a little sea of white satin and lace and soft draperies covered up all the space between them, for it had been a State dinner at the palace, and he found speech very difficult.
"Now this is restful and very pleasant," she said, after a long pause. "But you must tell me why you have come. It was not by chance—to see me? But no? You spoke also of my brother."
Her eyes sought his—a spice of coquetry in their questioning gleam. But the cloud lingered upon his face.
"I would not have dared to come at such an hour," he said, "if my visit were an ordinary one."
"How very unenterprising," she murmured. "I am sure that this is much the pleasantest time of the day."
"Countess," he said, slowly, "is Baron Domiloff a friend of yours?"
"Of mine? But no. Why do you ask such a question?"
"He has been banished from Theos. Did you know that he was hiding still in the city?"
She shook her head slowly.
"I know nothing," she answered. "How strange that you should ask me."
"Is it not true, then," he continued, "that you and he and your brother are plotting against the King?"
She regarded him with uplifted eyebrows. Then she patted him gently on the arm with her fan.
"It is the moon, my friend," she declared. "A little brief frenzy, is it not?"
His tone recovered confidence. He breathed a sigh of relief.
"The man lied to me," he declared. "Now I will tell you just what has happened to me. You know that I have a room in the Theba Place. Well, to-night, as I was about to prepare for dinner, a messenger, a native Thetian he seemed to me, brought a note to my rooms. It was neither signed nor addressed. But it bade me follow the bearer without question if I would be of service to Theos."
"You went?" she asked.
"Of course," he answered, quickly. "If the summons was genuine, well and good—if it was false, I still wanted to know the meaning of it."
"And which was it?" she asked.
"Genuine enough," he answered, gravely. "I was led into a quarter of Theos where I have never been before, and which I am sure I could not find again. We arrived at a little cafe—I do not know the name—it was somewhere outside the walls. A man was waiting for me in a back room. He was disguised, but I recognized him at once. It was Domiloff!"
She started. Instinctively he felt that she was deeply interested.
"At first I thought that it was a trap—that Domiloff was preparing some revenge for my personation of the King. Soon, however, I learnt that his intention was a different one. He is concerned in a plot to dethrone the King, and he proposed that I should throw in my lot with his party."
"Did he tell you, then, that Nicholas and I were concerned in it?"
"No. From his point of view your cooperation as yet was unnecessary. Yet the whole thing is concerned with you and your brother, for Domiloff has named him as the future ruler of Theos. He offered to give me positive evidence that Russia has decided to remove Ughtred from the throne, that Theos itself is in deadly peril."
"There is one thing," she said, "which I do not quite understand. Why did Domiloff send for you? You are not a soldier, nor are you well-known to the Thetians."
"It is very simple," he answered. "To-day the Press has an immense influence upon public opinion in England and all the Western countries. I am writing for my paper in England a series of articles upon Theos, and I am writing from a point of view friendly to Ughtred of Tyrnaus. Domiloff wants these articles stopped. He professes to need my active help. What he really desires is that I write no more, or alter the tone of my letters."
Her satin slipper traced a mystic pattern upon the smooth green turf.
"These are two things," she said, "which I do not understand. The Baron Domiloff has repute as a cunning and very shrewd diplomatist. Did he ask you for no pledge that you would not speak of these things to the King?"
Brand shook his head.
"It would have been useless," he answered. "I think that he knew quite well that I should give no such pledge. That is what makes me believe that the matter is serious. He is so sure of coming events that failing my joining with him he expressed himself as indifferent as to what my course of action might be. There was only one condition he made before I left—and that one I agreed to."
She looked at him inquiringly.
"It was that I should come to you—before I went to the King."
Their eyes met. In that single luminous moment he learned that these things came at least as no surprise to her. He seemed even to divine something of that desire which had eaten its way into her heart.
"To me!" she murmured. "Well?"
"Countess," he said, gravely, "for myself there is but one course of action possible. I came here as the friend of Ughtred of Tyrnaus. I am bound to his cause by every tie of honour, as well as my own sympathies. Before the morning I shall have told him all that I have told you."
Her fan fluttered idly in her fingers. She remained silent, but he had a fancy that a shadow had fallen between them.
"Domiloff sent me to you," he continued. "What does that mean?"
She shook her head.
"The ways of Baron Domiloff," she said, "are not easy to understand."
"Are you and your brother concerned in this—plot?" he asked, gravely.
"My brother," she said, "would, I believe, shoot you if you asked him such a question. It is only a few months ago that he himself brought Ughtred of Tyrnaus here. Nicholas has too little ambition. He is a patriot, pure and simple."
"And you—yourself?" he asked.
"I have had no dealings with Baron Domiloff," she answered, "but I think that he knows my views. I do not love the family of Tyrnaus, and I do not think that Ughtred had any claim to the throne of Theos. His father and grandfather misgoverned the country, and estranged all the nobility, who were the backbone of the State. We alone are left, and if Ughtred should marry the daughter of this American tradesman we, too, must become exiles."
"But you would not stoop," he murmured, "to plot against the King?"
"It is not necessary," she answered. "I believe that what you have been told is true. I believe that Russia will not tolerate Ughtred of Tyrnaus. My friend," she added, in a softer tone, "why do you concern yourself in these things? Leave Domiloff alone, and, believe me, your warning to the King would be wasted. Stay here, and watch for the things which may happen. Do you remember what we talked about that night at the palace? The times are coming—wait, and your opportunity may also show itself. Who knows that your own future may not become linked with the future of Theos?"
She leaned over towards him, her hand fell upon his shoulder, and its touch, though light, was like a caress. Then Brand understood that this was temptation, for his whole being quivered with the delight of her softened tone, and the unspoken things which trembled there and shone from her eyes. In truth, she, too, was thinking of the moment when she had believed him to be the King.
"Dear lady," he said, almost pleadingly, "I would be content to live all my days in Theos if——"
He hesitated. A wonderful smile curved her lips, and her eyes were full of invitation. Yet he hesitated.
"For a brave man," she murmured, "you are very—very faint-hearted."
Whereupon he took her into his arms, and kissed her.
It chanced that a brilliant autumn brought a season of great prosperity to the Thetian wine-growers and farmers, and the year of Ughtred's accession to the throne seemed likely to be marked with a white stone in their annals. Never had a ruler been more popular with all classes. His military system, while it made no undue demands upon the people, provoked the admiration of Europe, and several important and successful industrial undertakings were due entirely to his instigation. Mr. Van Decht, fascinated by the climate, the primitive but delightful life, and a firm believer in the possibilities of the country, still lingered in the capital, and already the results of his large investments were beginning to be felt. Only a few people knew of the hidden danger which was ever brooding over the land—a danger which Ughtred had realized from the first, and which from the first he had set himself steadfastly to avert. A soldier himself, he knew something of the horrors of war. Nothing seemed to him more awful than the vision of this beautiful country blackened and devastated, her corn-fields soaked with blood, her pleasant pastoral life swept away in the grim struggle against an only partially-civilized enemy. He set himself passionately to work to strive for peace.
Reist came to him one evening straight from the House of Laws with a suggestion.
"Your Majesty," he said, "the people are asking for a queen."
"I'm sorry I can't oblige them off-hand," he answered.
"Has your Majesty never thought of an alliance through marriage with one of the Powers? Not a direct alliance, perhaps, but one which might be useful to us if the worst should come."
Ughtred shook his head.
"A dream, my friend," he answered. "There is only one country in the world who could help us, and I fear an English princess would be beyond our wildest dreams. Friendship with Russia is more to be dreaded than her open enmity. France has no royal family, and is bound up with Russia. Germany and Austria are tied."
"Your marriage has been spoken of, sire," Reist said slowly. "I have promised to convey to the House your views. A queen would be very popular."
"I am not prepared at present to make any announcement upon the subject," Ughtred answered.
"I should not hesitate at any sacrifice which the safety or benefit of Theos seemed to require. At present there is no question of anything of the sort."
Reist bowed, and abandoned the subject. But late that night he sought his sister. She was sitting on the stone balcony which led from her own suite of rooms, her elbow upon the worn balustrade, her clear, beautiful face clouded with thought. For the first time Nicholas noticed a change in her. She was thinner, and there were dark lines under her eyes. A vague trouble was in her eyes.
"Marie," he said, "you have not been to the palace lately."
"Tell me why."
She turned slowly towards him.
"Need you ask! I hate that American girl. She is always there. She monopolizes everything. I wish to Heaven that she would go away."
Reist came a little closer. His voice dropped.
"Has he spoken?"
"You know that he has not."
The face of the man was stern and grey—even as the face of one musing upon evil things.
"To-night," he said, "I gave him every opportunity. By all ancient laws and customs he is your betrothed—and he knows it. Yet he persists in this uncompromising silence. The difficulty remains only with himself."
She drew nearer to him.
"It is an insult to our house," she murmured. "I am glad that you have spoken to me of this, Nicholas. It is unbearable!"
"You are right," he admitted. "You have been patient, Marie, and so have I. The time has come to end it."
She laid her slender fingers upon his arm. Slenderer than ever they seemed to him now, and unbejewelled save for one great emerald set in dull gold which burned upon her fourth finger.
"What can you do, Nicholas? You know the meaning of it all. It is the coming of Sara Van Decht."
He nodded thoughtfully.
"I myself," he said, "have watched—and seen. But, Marie, the daughter of a tradesman, though he were rich enough to buy a kingdom, can never sit upon the throne of Theos."
"He is masterful," she said, "and I think that he cares for her. He will have his own way."
Reist was wearing his uniform, for there had been a reception at the Austrian Minister's. As though by accident he touched the hilt of his sword.
"Our honour is engaged, Marie," he said. "You may safely leave all in my hands."
"He is your King!" she reminded him, with a sidelong glance, as though anxious to watch the effect of her words.
"And I," he answered, hotly, "am Nicholas, Duke of Reist. Since when, Marie, have the men of Tyrnaus reached a pinnacle when the Reists could not address them as equals? Our quarterings are more numerous, our House is more ancient than theirs. Ughtred of Tyrnaus must answer to me as would any other gentleman of his rank if the time should come when our honour demands it."
"Those are brave words, my brother!" she said.
"You do not doubt me, Marie?"
She shook her head.
"I do not doubt you, Nicholas, only——"
"There was a time when the throne was yours, when the people would have shouted you King. You let it go by. You pointed there! Tell me, Nicholas, is it forever this waiting?"
Her forefinger was raised to that carved motto. Nicholas remained for a moment lost in thought.
"Marie," he said, presently. "I will tell you the truth. I did not give Ughtred of Tyrnaus credit for such gifts as he has shown. I wanted the principle of monarchy reestablished, and it was best to revert to the royal house. Then I found that he was a better man than I had thought, and an alliance with you would have reconciled me to his reign. Now—I must admit—I am doubtful."
She remained for a moment lost in thought. Had the time come when she might speak? He detested Domiloff and all his ways—at heart, too, the good of Theos was far dearer to him than any personal ambition.
"Nicholas, you say that you are doubtful. I have a feeling that before long the King will announce his intention of marrying Sara Van Decht. Will you remain even then his faithful servant?"
The scorn in her tone first stung, then moved him to wonder.
"You do not love the King, Marie!" he exclaimed.
"Love him! Nicholas, it is better that there should be now a clear understanding of things between us. I am a Countess of Reist, and I have been slighted by an adventurer—a man who but for you would even now have been living in poverty in a foreign land. I would not marry him though he begged me with tears in his eyes, to save his throne, to save his life."
He walked restlessly up and down. His own pride had been wounded bitterly. Marie was right.
"I am willing," she continued, "to endure this affront if it seems to you that your duty to Theos still bids you hold by the King! But there is one thing to which I will not submit. I will not bow the knee to this American girl if he should make her Queen. Nor in that case will I suffer you, Nicholas, to remain the King's counsellor."
"Nor will I!" he answered.
"Promise me one thing more, my brother!" she begged. "If again we should hear that cry ringing through the squares, promise me that you will not fail them. We have had enough of strangers in Theos. It is those who have lived here all their lives, to whom every stone of the place is dear, who should control her destinies."
"I am the faithful servant of Ughtred of Tyrnaus," he answered, slowly, "while he serves the State wisely and well. But if that should come to pass which we have spoken of, the evil must fall upon his own head. Listen!"
There was some commotion without. A servant threw open the door.
"His Majesty the King!"
The King followed hard upon the footsteps of his seneschal, and neither Reist nor Marie was wholly at ease in the first moments of greeting. It was the latter to whom the King addressed himself.
"My visit, Countess," he said, "is to you. I am fortunate in finding you at home."
"Your Majesty is very kind!" Marie answered.
"I have come," he continued, "to demand an explanation from you—or rather to beg for it. You have been absent from all our gatherings at the palace lately. I came to assure myself that we had not unwittingly offended you, or to ask you how we can render them sufficiently attractive to insure your presence."
Marie was taken unawares both by the King's visit and by the directness of his questioning. It was Nicholas who answered for her.
"Your Majesty," he said, "my sister does not enjoy the best of health. I was even now endeavouring to persuade her to spend a few weeks at the castle. The mountain air is always good for her."
"Your sister's appearance, then," the King replied, "much belies her condition. I have never seen her looking better."
"Nevertheless, my brother is right, your Majesty," Marie said. "I have decided to leave Theos for a while."
The King bowed.
"It is not amongst my prerogatives to question the movements of my subjects," he said, gravely, "but you must forgive me if I remember that you and your brother are my earliest and best friends here. I shall venture to ask you therefore if ill-health is your only reason for desiring to absent yourself from the Court?"
Nicholas intervened. He rose and held back the curtains which led into another suite of rooms. Marie understood, and with a quick courtesy rose from her seat.
"Your Majesty," Nicholas said, "with your permission I will return your candour. The subject is one which we can best discuss in my sister's absence."
Marie passed out. Nicholas let fall the curtains.
"Your Majesty," he said, "only a short while ago, as your counsellor, and as one who has the interests of Theos greatly at heart, I ventured to allude to a somewhat delicate subject—to your marriage."
The King nodded.
"I must take the liberty of reminding your Majesty of your first visit here on your arrival at Theos. We drank wine together in this room, the Royal betrothal cup was filled for you, and notwithstanding my remonstrances, at your particular desire my sister drank with you from that cup. Its history and associations were known to you."
The King rose up.
"Your Majesty will permit me," Reist interrupted. "It was doubtless an act of thoughtless good-nature on your part, but we Thetians hold fast by our old traditions, and regard them as sacred things. The news of this leaked out, and the marriage of your Majesty and the Countess of Reist has been freely talked of throughout the State. Your Majesty will perceive, therefore, that my sister's position at Court naturally became a trying one, especially as her rank entitles her always to the place by your side."
Ughtred was silent for several moments. A frown of perplexity spread itself over his face.
"Reist," he said slowly, "your sister is very charming, and I have a great admiration for her. Yet I must admit this. The idea which you have suggested is an altogether new one to me. I did not, for one moment, imagine that she or you or any one would attach any significance to what I looked upon at the time as a harmless little ceremony."
Reist bowed low.
"To the people of Theos," he said, "these ancient customs are sacred. Your Majesty will permit me to proceed. There is a further development which has also a bearing upon the situation. I refer to the advent of Mr. and Miss Van Decht."
The King raised his eyebrows.
"And how does this matter concern," he asked, "my very good friends, the Van Dechts?"
"Your Majesty," Nicholas answered, "has admitted them, considering their position, or I should say their lack of position, to a somewhat surprising familiarity. This too has given rise to much comment in the city. Miss Van Decht is a very beautiful young woman, and your Majesty has treated her publicly with great consideration, almost as an equal. Your Majesty must bear with our prejudices. This is not a democratic country. We hold by our rank and its obligations, and we do not consider an American retired tradesman and his daughter people whom we can meet habitually on terms of equality—even at the Court of the King."
Ughtred rose from his chair, and his mouth was set and grim.
"I am obliged to you for your frankness, Nicholas," he said. "I will endeavour to return it. Mr. Van Decht and his daughter are my very good friends, and their position at my Court is that of valued and welcome associates. It seems to me that whom the King can treat as equals his nobles may endure as companions. But in any case I desire to say this to you and to the aristocracy of Theos, whose opinions you doubtless express. In the matter of my friends, as in the matter of taking a wife when the time may come, I do not permit any interference, and if any be offered I shall resent it. Further, if any stay away from my Court for such reasons as you have hinted at I shall esteem their absence a personal affront. Am I understood?"
Reist bowed in cold silence. The King took a quick step towards him and laid his hand upon his arm.
"Nicholas," he said, "don't let me lose a good friend—you to whom I owe my kingdom. Remember that I am a man as well as a King. I did not promise to become a machine when I took the coronation oaths. I have my likes and my dislikes—as you have. Bear with me a little."
Reist hesitated. There entered a messenger for the King.
"Your Majesty," he announced, "the Englishman Brand, is at the palace. He desires an immediate audience."
Ughtred took up his cloak.
"I fear that it is ill news," he said. "Follow me, Reist."
The King waved his hand.
"You can leave that out, Brand. Speak to me plainly. You look as though you had something important to say."
"I have indeed!" Brand answered.
He glanced around cautiously. They were in the chamber used for meetings of the Privy Council—a great room with stained glass windows, fluted pillars supporting a vaulted roof, stone walls, with here and there a covering of tapestry. A collection of ancient arms was hung over the great chimneypiece. In the centre of the floor stood a round table of solid oak. A bad room for confidences this, in which the slightest whisper awoke curious echoes. The King noticed Brand's hesitation, and divined its cause.
"Come this way, Brand," he directed. "Reist is close behind. He will keep out all intruders."
They passed into the King's private study, a small octagonal room on the ground floor of one of the towers. The King threw himself into an easy-chair, and pointed towards another, but Brand remained standing.
"Your Majesty, the kingdom of Theos is in danger!"
"I know it," the King answered, calmly. "There are traitors in the city itself. I have felt sure of it for some time."
"The danger is urgent!"
"I have acquired a good deal of information during the last few days," Brand said. "Some of it has come through a source which I may not reveal—piecemeal, and in disconnected fragments. You will have to take a good deal on trust."
"I believe in you, Brand."
"First of all, then," Brand said, "you are aware of what has been going on in the Press all over Europe, in Russia, Germany, and France?"
The King nodded.
"A widespread conspiracy," he said, "to vilify me and my methods and my government. I have been represented to Europe as a harebrained, scheming, military adventurer, idle, worthless, a drunkard, and heaps of other things. I know it, Brand. I know another thing, too. I know that one paper in England, through thick and thin, has been my friend. I do not deserve all the good which it has spoken of me. On the other hand, I shall always regard as one of my best friends the man who had the pluck to try and stem the tide."
The slender fingers of the journalist found themselves suddenly within the brown, sinewy hand of the King. There was an instant's silence—a man's silence. Then Brand continued—
"Mr. Ellis, our Minister there, is your friend, but he is a weak, colourless creature, and he gives no weight or point to his reports. He tries hard to be honest, but he is wofully under the influence of the others. And the others——"
"I know," the King interrupted. "Austria, Germany, and Russia have come to a secret understanding, and somehow I fancy that Turkey is involved in it. But what pretext they can find for movement against me, or from what quarter I am to expect the aggression I cannot say."
"It is what I have just discovered," Brand said.
The King's eyes flashed. He was a brave man, but the cloud of doubt had been stupefying. It was this knowledge for which he craved.
"It is Russia who is the moving spirit," Brand continued.
"Russia, of course," the King exclaimed, bitterly. "An independent Theos has always been against her policy. She debauched the Republic, she tried—as you well know, Brand—to make my accession a virtual Russian protectorate."
"And, further," Brand said, "she has actually in London stooped to this. Our paper has been approached by an agent of the Russian government with a view to purchasing a cessation of our support of you. I myself, your Majesty, feel myself deeply to blame. Weeks ago I could have warned you that Domiloff was still in the capital plotting against you. I kept silent. I beg that you will not ask me why. The news which has brought me here now has come by cipher telegram from my chief. A secret treaty has been signed between Russia and Turkey. The terms I do not know, but Turkey is left free to attack you at once, and she is already moving troops and guns to the frontier."
"Germany?" Ughtred asked, quickly.
"Is pledged to neutrality—also Austria. The only European country which has not come to terms with Russia is England."
The King rose from his chair, and walked restlessly up and down the room. His eyes were flashing, and the lines about his mouth were hard and bitter.
"It's a brave game—politics," he cried. "To-day we read our ancient history, and thank the gods for civilization. It's a huge fraud, Brand. What they did in those days with fire and the sword they do to-day by craft and secret treaties, by falsehood and deceit. It's a world of rapine still. It is only the methods which have changed—and changed for the worse."
Brand nodded slowly.
"Listen," he said. "My chief has had an interview with one of our Cabinet Ministers. He has listened to all he had to say, and I believe that the state of affairs here will be fairly represented to the English Government. But, to be frank, I am afraid there will be no intervention from England. She may sympathize, but she will not deem her interests sufficiently involved to interfere."
"Have you any idea," Ughtred asked, "when there will be any movement on the part of Turkey, and what the casus belli will be?"
"The blow may be struck at any moment," Brand answered. "I am afraid my warning comes too late to afford you time for preparations."
The King smiled.
"I am not a child, my dear Brand," he said. "Sooner or later I felt that the thing must come, and instinct seemed to tell me from what quarter. I will let you into a secret, my friend. If the Turks raid my three frontier villages they may possibly find themselves a little surprised."
A smile illumined Brand's serious face.
"You'll make a fight for it, then?" he asked, eagerly.
Ughtred rose up. His eyes were lit with inward fire, and in his tone there trembled a note of splendid passion.
"A fight for it! Ay, we shall fight in such a way, my friend, that all Europe shall hide her face, and feel the shame of the carnage and misery for which her miserable selfishness is responsible. There is one thing about my people, Brand, which is divine, and, thank God, it is in my own blood, too, notwithstanding my years of exile. We love our country, our hills and mountains, our corn-fields and vineyards, our villages and our queer old towns. It's a wonderful love, Brand, and I don't believe you highly-civilized people in your rich, smoke-stained Western countries know what it means. I tell you it's a passion here. We Thetians love our country as we love our womenkind. The footstep of the invader is seduction—when it comes there will be lit such a fire of passionate hate from the Balkans to the northern frontier that only death or victory will quench. You will see them come to arms, Brand, these children of mine, whom God protect, young and old, boys and their grandfathers! A fight for it, did you say? I promise you, man, that if this blow falls, and we are conquered, you shall come here afterwards, and you shall find an empty country, a blackened chaos of ruins."
An answering flash of enthusiasm lit up Brand's face for a moment. But the man was practical to the core.
"What number of trained men can you rely upon?" he asked.
"Fifteen thousand," the King answered. "I know every village company. Every regiment I have drilled myself. They have old Martinis, but they are born shots, and born horsemen. Lately, too, we have gone through a course of carbine instruction. I could put five thousand mounted infantry into the field who could surprise you."
The King groaned.
"We have done what we could," he answered, "but as for heavy guns, we have none. Listen, I will give you a sketch of my idea for defending the Balkans."
The King talked quickly and clearly. There was no more trace of the enthusiast, nor, indeed, did he betray again during all the anxious days to come that more passionate side of the man which Brand's few words seemed to have quickened into life. He talked now as the cool and skilful strategist. Brand, who was something of an amateur soldier himself, listened with keen interest.
"And you?" the King asked at last.
"I am here to see that the things which are coming are fairly reported from one quarter, at least," he answered. "I am going to stay, and if the trouble comes I am correspondent for the New York Herald, as well as the Daily Courier."
"That is very good news," the King said. "England and America are the champions of freedom throughout the world. I have fought for England, and if this wrong is done to me I shall appeal to her for justice."
A knock at the door. A young officer on the King's staff saluted.
"His Excellency the Turkish Ambassador craves the privilege of an immediate audience," he announced.
Effenden Pascha was breathless, and for such a phlegmatic individual seemed to be much disturbed.
"Your Majesty," he said, "I am here on a serious errand."
The King bowed.
"Proceed, Effenden Pascha."
"Your Majesty has heard the news from Bekal?"
Ughtred shook his head.
"I have heard nothing!"
The Turk raised his hands. It was incredible!
"Yesterday," he announced, "a party of my Turks riding harmlessly along the frontier were attacked without warning by a large company of mounted Thetians, and cut to pieces."
"It is amazing," the King declared. "Was no provocation given? Were the Turks unarmed?"
Effenden Pascha was clear on both points. They were simply a party of surveyors accompanied by a few soldiers. They were set upon without the slightest warning.
"It is strange," the King remarked, "that I should have heard nothing of this. It is stranger still, Effenden Pascha, that in my own capital you should first have received tidings of such gravity."
The yellow-skinned Turk did not flinch. He bore the thrust without the least sign of disquietude.
"I myself," he announced, "heard only by telegrams from Bekal ten minutes ago. One of the survivors galloped post-haste thither immediately after the affair. I have hastened to present the demands of my master the Sultan."
"You lose no time," Ughtred remarked, quietly.
The Turk shrugged his shoulders.
"The affair is of great importance," he said. "My master will demand the execution of capital punishment upon all the leaders, and an indemnity of ten million piastres."
"Your august master," Ughtred remarked, "has lost no time in formulating his demands. My reply to you is this. Immediately I learn the details of the affair I will consider your proposal."
The Ambassador, who had remained standing, bowed.
"That is to say," he remarked, softly, "that at present you decline to offer me my satisfaction or to discuss the matter with me."
"Exactly," Ughtred answered. "If the affair turns out according to your telegram I shall at once offer to you my profound regrets, and such reparation as is within my power. I will communicate with you directly I hear."
The Ambassador bowed once more, and there was a steely glint in his eyes.
"I fear," he said, "that the delay will not be pleasing to my august master!"
"It is unavoidable," the King answered. "You agree with me, Brand?"
Brand, who had been sitting in the alcove before a writing-table hidden by a curtain, looked out and assented gravely.
"Most certainly, your Majesty."
The Turk started. His eyes flashed.
"So!" he exclaimed. "We have been overheard."
"Mr. Brand is an Englishman of distinction," the King said, softly. "I have appointed him for the present my private secretary. All affairs of State, therefore, are known to him."
The Turk bowed low. It was no fool, after all, then, with whom he had to do. He went out thoughtfully. The presence of the Englishman had impressed him. In the council room he passed the Duke of Reist hurrying through to the presence of the King.
"Effenden Pascha," he said, "will you wait for a moment. A dispatch has arrived concerning which the King will desire to see you at once."
Effenden Pascha smiled, and took a chair in the ante-room beyond. He smoked a cigarette thoughtfully, and drank the coffee which a groom of the chambers hastened to bring him. In ten minutes Reist reappeared.
"Will you come with me?" he said.
Effenden Pascha threw down his cigarette, and followed.
The King had moved into the Council Chamber, and sat at the table with an open telegraph dispatch before him. Baron Doxis, the President of the House of Laws, was on one side of him, and Brand on the other. Effenden Pascha knew very well what was coming. The King looked at him, and there was an added sense of power in the grave, soldierly face.
"Effenden Pascha, we too have received a telegram from Bekal. Its contents are briefly these. Bekal, an unfortified village of Theos, was last night attacked by a large armed body of Turks, who proceeded to rob, murder, and outrage in the most barbarous fashion. My regard, however, for the safety of my frontier towns has led me lately to station bodies of mounted troops within signalling distance of Bekal, and my dispatch informs me that in the fight which followed your troops were driven across the frontier with heavy losses. You will see, Effenden Pascha, that my report and yours differ."
The Turk smiled incredulously. The reports most certainly did differ.
"Now," the King continued, "if your report is the true one, I will hold myself responsible for all the evil that has been done. If, on the other hand, mine is true, I shall at once formulate demands which I shall request you to lay before your august master. Now, I invite you, in order that the truth may be placed beyond doubt, to accompany an envoy from this court to Bekal by special train to-day, and there agree as to what has really happened."
Effenden Pascha shrugged his shoulders.
"I must await the instructions of my master, your Majesty," he answered, calmly.
"You decline his Majesty's proposal, then?" Reist asked quietly.
The Turk was silent. The meddlesome Englishman's pen was in the ink. His presence was disastrous.
"I do not decline—no," he answered. "I await only a dispatch from Constantinople. I fear that your intelligence department is at fault. There has been no foray on the part of the Turks. My master desires peace above all things."
"You say that your master desires peace above all things," he said. "Let me see what our intelligence department has to say. Since the day of my accession to the throne you have concentrated within twenty miles of my frontier nearly thirty thousand men. Day by day this work of moving up troops has been going on. Last week trains were running all night to Bekal with war material and arms. What does this mean, Effenden Pascha?"
The Turk was dumfounded. The King's gaze was keen and close. He visibly faltered.
"Your Majesty's intelligence department has magnified a few harmless movements of troops," he said. "We have internal troubles in the northern provinces which require strong garrisons."
"But not thirty thousand men, Effenden Pascha," the King said.
The Turk bowed.
"With your permission," he said, "I will now go and lay before the Sultan, my master, your explanation of the Bekal incident."
"We shall ourselves," the King answered, "be requiring an explanation of that unprovoked attack upon our territory."
The Turk bowed and withdrew. The three men were left alone.
"The situation is fairly clear, I think," the King said. "Turkey is to be Russia's catspaw—we are to be the chestnuts. One great point is in our favour. The onus of an unprovoked invasion must rest with Turkey. Brand will see the facts correctly stated in the English and American papers. We had better send to the barracks at once, Reist, for the General, and hold a council of war."
There followed an hour's anxious consultation. Then the King, without any attendant, as was his custom, left the Palace by the side entrance, and amidst the respectful salutations of the passers by walked across to the villa which Mr. Van Decht had rented. Mr. Van Decht and Sara were sitting in the garden. He accepted the chair they offered him, and lit a cigar mechanically.
"Mr. Van Decht," he said, abruptly, "I regret exceedingly that I have encouraged you to make investments in my country. I did it for the best. It was for the advantage of my people, and I hoped for yours. I told you of the one risk. I fear that it has come to pass."
Mr. Van Decht was unmoved. Sara turned upon him breathlessly.
"Do you mean war?" she exclaimed.
"It seems that our great neighbours," he said, "resent our independence. Our chief enemy is Russia. In pursuance, I am convinced, of a secret understanding with her, Turkey is on the point of declaring war upon us."
"Then all I can say is that it is a darned shame," Mr. Van Decht declared, hotly. "Don't you trouble yourself about my investments. If the Turks disturb my property I guess my country will know how to make them pay. Your Majesty, those Turks must be whipped."
"While we've a yard to stand upon or a man to fight we shall do our best. I have been a soldier, as you know, all my life, and I have no sentimental hatred of war. But my country—ah well, it is so different when it is your own people who are going to die upon their homesteads, your own womenkind who must go sorrowing through life widowed and orphaned. I don't suppose there is anything particularly beautiful about Theos," the King continued, thoughtfully, "yet to me her quiet country places, her vineyards and farms, her whole rural life has seemed so simple and charming. I have seen my people at their play and at their daily tasks, a cheerful, honest people, light-hearted and fond of pleasure perhaps—why not? The thought of a blackened country, her vineyards and corn-fields red with blood, the homesteads in flames, my poor peasants fighting to the death against cruel odds—it is hideous! I do not dare to think of it or it will unman me. Only I pray to the God of our fathers that this thing will not seem just to the great liberty-loving nations and that they will not see us wiped out from the face of the earth."
There was a moment's silence. Mr. Van Decht was smoking vigorously. Sara was silent, because she did not dare to speak. But her eyes were eloquent. Ughtred threw away his cigar which had gone out, and lit another.
"Come," he said, "I am getting an old woman. We must take the more cheerful view of things. I came to you at once, because I wanted to give you as much notice as possible."
"What do you mean?" Sara asked, softly.
"I mean that of course you must go away," Ughtred answered. "I cannot tell how long the railway communication will remain uninterrupted. Mr. Van Decht——"
He turned round and broke off in his speech. Mr. Van Decht had disappeared. Sara and he were alone.
Ughtred was, on the whole, a man ill versed in women's ways. Yet even he was conscious of a subtle change in the girl who sat by his side. The frank friendliness of her manner towards him, which had been a constant barrier against any suggestion of more sentimental relations, was for the moment gone. Her eyes were soft and her face was eloquent with beautiful and unspoken sympathy. The change was indefinable, but apparent. Ughtred felt it, and sighed.
"This may be the last talk we shall have together for a long time," he said, gravely; "perhaps forever. I wonder if I might be permitted—to say something, which has come very near my heart lately."
"You may say anything you choose," she murmured.
"You know that lately I have been travelling about my country—trying to get to know my people and to understand them. I will tell you, Sara, what has made the greatest impression upon me. It is their beautiful domesticity. I think that it has taught me to understand a little how much fuller and sweeter life may be when one has a wife to care for, and to help one. And, Sara, I think that I too have been often lonely, and I too have needed a wife."
It was no more than a whisper, but it thrilled the man. He touched her fingers—warm and soft, they seemed almost to invite his caress.
"Sara, I have been dreaming since then, and I thought that when my people got to understand me a little more, to trust me and believe in me, I would go to them and say 'I am going to give you a Queen. Only I am a man as you are men, and I must choose as you have chosen, the one woman who has my heart.' And, Sara, there might have been difficulties, but I think that we should have smoothed them away——"
"If!" she echoed.
"If the woman I love, Sara, cared a little for me."
It was dusk, and Ughtred scarcely knew how it happened, but she was in his arms and they were very happy. It was dusk then, but the stars were shining when the cathedral clock reminded him that his love-making must be brief.
"Dear," she murmured, "if you must go, at least remember that you have made me very happy."
"And I," he answered, cheerfully, "am afraid no longer of anything. I have become a raving optimist. I feel that if the war comes we shall sweep the Turks from the face of the earth."
She held out her hand and drew him to her.
"You will not repent?" she murmured. "You ought to marry a princess."
He kissed her on the lips.
"Every woman in the world," he answered, "is a princess to the man who loves her. You are my princess. There will never be any other!"
She walked with him towards the house.
"I ought to have been discussing your departure with Mr. Van Decht, and instead I have been discussing other things with you."
She laughed softly.
"Do you think that we are going away?"
"You must," he answered, sadly. "Theos may be no safe place for you in forty-eight hours even."
She pressed his arm lightly.
"Dear," she said, "you are foolish. If ever I am to be anything to you and these people what would they think of me if I ran away when evil times came? But wait! You must hear what father says. He knows nothing of this."
They found him in the room he called his study. He looked up from his desk as they entered.
"Father," Sara said, "the King wants us to leave to-morrow morning. In forty-eight hours he says the city may be in danger."
Mr. Van Decht wheeled round in his recently imported American chair, and puffed vigorously at his cigar.
"I wasn't reckoning upon leaving just yet," he remarked, quietly. "Were you, Sara?"
Ughtred looked from one to the other.
"I am afraid you don't quite understand the situation, Mr. Van Decht. I do not think it probable of course, but it is possible that the city may be surrounded in less than a week."
Mr. Van Decht nodded.
"I guess it isn't quite so bad as that," he answered. "In any case, I'd like you to understand this. We've had a pretty good time here, and we haven't any idea of scuttling out just because things aren't exactly booming. I've a tidy idea of engineering, and I think I can show you a wrinkle or two in trench-making. Then there's another thing—you'll allow a man's a right to do what he pleases with his own money?"
"Why, I suppose so," Ughtred answered.
"Well, I'm not given to bragging," Mr. Van Decht continued, "but I reckon I'm one of the richest men in the States. Accordingly, as I'm sort of a resident here I claim the right to help the war fund. I've put a million to your credit at the Credit Lyonnaise, and if more's wanted—there's plenty. I don't want any thanks; I don't mind telling you that I'd give a lot more to see those low-down skunks get the whipping they deserve."
Ughtred was for a moment speechless. It was Sara who replied for him.
"We are very much obliged, father," she said, smiling at him. "You don't mind, do you?"
He looked from one to the other. He did not affect any surprise, but his face was grave.
"Sara has promised that some day if we are spared she will be my wife," Ughtred said, simply. "I hope that you will consent."
Mr. Van Decht nodded thoughtfully.
"I had an idea," he said, hesitatingly, "that you would be not exactly a free agent in such a matter."
"My kingdom is a tiny one," he answered, "and I do not think after a while that there will be any difficulty at all."
Mr. Van Decht rose from his chair and shook hands solemnly with the young man.
"I wasn't reckoning upon having a King for a son-in-law," he said, "but I know a man when I see him, and if it works out to be possible you can take my consent for granted. Sara is the daughter of plain people with no family to boast of, but I tell you this, sir, I am a man with few wants, and I will give Sara the largest dowry that has ever been given by prince or commoner. I reckon I'm worth five million pounds, and I'll settle four and a half upon her. Theos wants money, and that may take things a bit smoother in case of trouble."
"You are magnificently generous, sir!" Ughtred answered. "I am afraid that nowadays a bride with such a dowry would rank above princesses."
The cathedral clock chimed again. Ughtred tore himself away. Reist met him at the door, his eyes blazing with excitement.
"Effenden Pascha has left the city!" he exclaimed. "The Turks are streaming over the frontier—Bushnieff has wired for reinforcements."
"The supply trains are waiting?" Ughtred asked, quickly.
"With steam up!"
"Your carriage quickly. To the barracks!" Ughtred exclaimed.
All night long the war-beacons of Theos reddened the sky and the thunder of artillery woke strange echoes amongst the mountains. There were three passes only through which the Turks could force their way into the fertile plain which stretched from Theos southwards, and each one, to their surprise, was found well guarded and fortified. A simultaneous advance was repulsed with heavy loss. At Solika only, on the far east, where the veteran General Kolashin was in command, the first position was carried, but this temporary success was counterbalanced by the immense losses inflicted on the advancing columns from the second and more secure line of fortifications. Across the plain a light railway from Theos all night long brought reinforcements and stores to the different positions. Ughtred himself, by means of an engine and fast horses, visited before daybreak the three points of attack. He was present and himself directed the successful resistance at Solika. He returned to Theos at daybreak hopeful, and even with a certain sense of relief that the worst had now come to pass.
Still in his uniform, stained with blood and dust, the King sat at a small writing-table in his retiring-room reading the day's letters and telegrams. Already he had been busy with tongue and pen. His appeal for intervention, couched in dignified and measured terms, had been written, signed, and dispatched by special messenger to England, France, and Germany. For Ughtred had a very keen sense of proportion. Courageous though he was, and confident in the bravery of his people, he knew that his resistance unaided could only be a matter of time.