Hiram Van Decht, now a privileged person at the palace, came in to him as he sat there.
"I guess you don't want to be bothered just now," he remarked, apologetically, "but Sara's bound to know how things have gone so far."
Ughtred wheeled round in his chair and welcomed his visitor.
"Cigars at your elbow," he said. "Help yourself."
Van Decht disregarded the invitation. He looked steadily at the King. Then he rang the bell.
"You'll forgive the liberty, I know," he said, "but I'm going to tell that flunkey of yours to fetch a flask of wine, and see you drink some."
"I was just going to order something," he said. "I've had a hard night. So far nothing has gone amiss. Our outposts were rushed at Solika, but our main position was easily held."
Van Decht nodded.
"That's good! Any fighting at Althea Pass?"
"We are being heavily shelled there and at Morania, but I consider that both places are almost impregnable. Solika is where we must concentrate. You see we have treachery to fear there. It is a frontier town and full of small Russian traders. Reist is garrisoning the place, and General Dartnoff is in command of the forces holding the Pass. Just now everything is quiet. I fancy they are waiting to bring up more heavy guns."
Van Decht lit a cigar meditatively.
"This is what beats me," he remarked. "I can never figure out your European politics, but I should never have thought that England and Germany would have allowed a small, unoffending country to be overrun and grabbed by a lot of heathen infidels."
"It is hard to understand," he said. "Only you must remember this. Selfishness is the keynote of international politics, as of many other things. A single Power is always afraid of moving for fear of disturbing the balance of nations. Besides, they all know that this is no war between Turkey and Theos. It is Russia who is pulling the strings."
"That's all right," Mr. Van Decht admitted, "but I should say that you've a sort of a claim on England. You're half an Englishman, anyway. You've fought her battles. She's big enough to give you a lift."
"If help comes from anywhere," Ughtred answered, "it will come from England. I have appealed to the Powers, and to England especially. Mr. Ellis has already been here, and he is representing my case strongly."
Wine was brought in, and food. Ughtred ate little, but smoked a cigar.
"What's the next move?" Mr. Van Decht asked.
"Well, I am waiting now for news from Reist," the King said. "We are in telegraphic communication with Solika, and I can get there on my engine in an hour. So long as we can hold Solika we are safe, for I do not think that we can possibly be outflanked. Our whole southern frontier only extends for forty miles, and there are only two practicable passes."
"Reist anything of a soldier?" Mr. Van Decht asked after a brief silence.
"For this sort of work—excellent!" Ughtred answered.
"You trust him?"
"As myself. I never knew a man more devoted to his country. It is his religion! Why do you ask?"
Van Decht took his cigar from his mouth and regarded it thoughtfully.
"Sara doesn't like him!"
The King laughed.
"He's no lady's man."
"Sara has instinct," her father remarked. "Can't say I take to him myself. There's a kink in the man somewhere."
"Well, it isn't in his loyalty or his bravery," Ughtred answered. "He is my best soldier, my most capable adviser, and I owe him my kingdom."
Van Decht abandoned the subject.
"I'll get along," he said, rising. "Take my advice. Lie down a bit till your message comes along. You're looking pretty bad."
"The first day of war," he said, "even on a small scale, is the most wearing. Later on we shall take things more easily. Only you must remember, sir, that it is for the liberty of an ancient kingdom we fight, not only for our own lives, but for the happiness of unborn generations. I would sooner see Theos blotted out forever from the map of Europe and the memory of man than have her exist a vassal state of Russia."
Mr. Van Decht departed in respectful silence. If tradition or sentiment appealed to him but slightly, he knew an honest man by instinct, and he was fast drifting into a very close sympathy with his future son-in-law.
There came word from Reist within the hour. Ughtred tore open the envelope and spread out the cipher-book before him.
"No signs of movement on part of enemy. Scouts report big guns being mounted on positions commanding ours. Solika restless. Have hung two spies. General Dartnoff desires council of war this afternoon."
Before the great high window, Marie of Reist watched the red fires flaring in the mountains and listened to the far-off booming of the guns. Behind her the room was in darkness, for she had turned out the lamps to see more clearly into the night. So when a voice at her elbow roused her she started with a sudden fear.
"Countess, you hear the war-note yonder! Listen again! Those guns are sounding the knell of the House of Tyrnaus."
She recovered herself—yet she was amazed.
"Baron Domiloff! What, are you still in Theos?"
"Still in Theos, Countess. I remain here to the end."
"But you were banished," she exclaimed.
He smiled inscrutably.
"Yes," he answered. "I was banished—by Ughtred of Tyrnaus. Still, as you see, I remain. To tell you the truth, Countess, it did not seem worth my while to go—for so short a time."
"You must be a master in the art of corruption," she remarked.
"Indeed no," he assured her. "There are a few of my country people in the city. There are also Thetians who understand that the Tyrnaus dynasty is only a passing thing."
"I am not so sure," she answered, "that I agree with you. They say that he is a skilful and gallant soldier, and we of Theos love brave men. An hour ago he rode back to the palace, his uniform stained with dust and blood, and the people cheered him like mad things. They say that he has driven the Turks back at all points."
"Dear lady," he said, "the successes of to-day or to-morrow are of no account. The Turks are mounting great guns in positions which must command every point where the Thetians are covering the passes. The end of it is as certain as a mathematical problem. Before a month has passed Theos must sue for peace or admit the Turks to the city."
"You are very certain."
"Warfare to-day," he answered, "can be determined on mathematical lines. Bravery is a delightful quality in the abstract, but brave men are killed as easily as cowards. Tell me, have you spoken with your brother?"
"He will not consent to this Van Decht alliance?"
"It is good," he answered. "I think that the time has come when I may approach him myself."
She shook her head.
"He is wild with the excitement of fighting," she said. "The King and he have fought together, and Nicholas speaks of him as a brave comrade and a patriot. Last night he wrote to me from Solika, and he spoke of the King as a brother. For the moment he has forgotten all about the Van Decht alliance. Take my advice—leave Nicholas alone."
Domiloff looked out into the night, frowning and thoughtful.
"When the tide of battle changes," he said, "your brother's enthusiasm will wane. He will remember the slight upon you—upon his name."
She regarded him proudly.
"It is very seldom," she remarked, "that you permit me to forget it."
He smiled. The sight of his white teeth gleaming in the twilight filled her with repulsion. The man was like a wolf.
"Countess," he said, "I am not a hypocrite. I am pledged to the deposition of the King, and you are my natural ally, for it is your brother who must take his place, and you who must prevent the sacrilege of this proposed marriage. So you see I am open with you. We are both working towards the same end. Therefore I say, let us work together."
They were silent for a few minutes listening to the distant roar of the guns, watching the lurid lights which every now and then lit up with an unholy glare that distant background. Then she turned to him.
"There is nothing," she said, "which I can do. Besides, whilst the war lasts everything else seems small. To see Theos drive back the infidels and retain her freedom I would be content even to let things remain, and end my days there in the convent."
He shook his head.
"Dear lady," he said, "you were not made for a convent any more than Sara Van Decht was made for a throne. Try and believe in me a little more. I, too, desire a free Theos. You are a woman, and you have wit and courage. Say to yourself this. It is necessary for Theos that your brother and the King should quarrel. Keep it always in your mind. Remember that your brother's anger only slumbers. The King has insulted you and your House. The whole history of your family could disclose no such affront tamely borne. Besides, there is your friend—the Englishman."
She turned swiftly upon him.
"What do you mean?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Only that I know no man whose future I would believe in more readily if he were content to settle down in Theos. Your brother could see to it that it was made worth his while. Tell me—when will you see the Duke of Reist?"
"Perhaps to-night," she answered, straining her eyes through the darkness. "If all is quiet in Solika he said that he might return for a few hours."
"Very well! Remember what I have said to you, Countess. A rupture between your brother and the King will save Theos. You understand?"
"Yes," she answered, in a low tone. "I understand."
Ughtred sprang to his feet. He was half asleep and a little dazed—wholly bewildered at the apparition which was suddenly sharing the solitude of his chamber. It was Marie of Reist who stood before him in a wonderful rose-coloured gown tied loosely around her. She was paler than he had ever seen her—her eyes bright with purpose—behind the open panel.
"You bring news," he cried. "Do you come from Nicholas?"
She shook her head.
"I know nothing of Nicholas," she answered. "I came to see you."
He was speechless. Her visit seemed to him amazing, its object an enigma.
"I wished to speak to you alone. Lately it has been impossible. Lock your door."
He obeyed, but he returned to her with a grave face.
"Marie," he said, "think for a moment. It is better that I should come to you. To-morrow——"
She interrupted him with an impatient gesture. At that moment the roar of distant artillery was distinctly audible.
"There may be no to-morrow," she answered. "It is for the sake of Theos I have come. You must hear me."
"For your own sake, Countess," he begged, earnestly, "I beg that you will leave me. At any moment we may be interrupted. Messages are brought to me continually—and the hour is late."
"I am the Countess of Reist," she answered, proudly, "and the people of Theos know me. I have come to ask you a question. You must hear me, and you must answer me."
"You are a little peremptory," he said. "Never mind! The question?"
"There have been rumours, your Majesty, of a marriage between you and the American, Miss Van Decht."
He looked across at her in displeased surprise.
"These are no times for thought or speech of such things," he answered.
She turned upon him with a sudden fierceness. A spot of angry colour burned in her cheeks.
"You are wrong," she exclaimed. "I have come to you resolved to know the truth. Listen, your Majesty. There are those who say that in your long exile you have forgotten all that is due to your birth and your country. They say that you are at heart a democrat. That it is in your mind to marry this daughter of an American tradesman, to offer her to the people of Theos as their queen."
"It is true," he answered. "What of it?"
She looked at him for a moment as though stricken with a sudden blow. To her the idea was heresy, rank and foul. A storm of indignant passion swept through her.
"It is impossible," she cried, fiercely. "There is not a lady of Theos who would attend your Court. Do you think that I—Marie of Reist, would kiss the hand of this Van Decht woman—I, or any of the others? Oh, it is madness."
"Countess," he said, quietly, "we will choose another time for the discussion of this matter. You must forgive me if I beg that you will leave me."
"Another time," she answered. "Oh, listen! You depend at this moment on the loyalty of Theos to defend your throne. Do you believe that you could command it if this were known? In the mountains the Turks are gathering a great army, in the city there is treachery. Ah, you start, but my words are true. If the words which you have spoken to me had been spoken from the balcony there your throne would have been lost forever."
He looked at her curiously—not altogether unimpressed. Treachery! What did she mean by that? She moved a step nearer to him. Underneath her loose gown her bosom rose and fell quickly. Her face was flushed and her eyes brilliant.
"Your Majesty," she said, "do you know that by all the traditions of Theos you are betrothed to me—that the people of Theos wait day by day for the announcement?"
He looked at her in blank amazement. He was bereft of words. Her eyes flashed fire upon him.
"It is an insult—this purpose of yours," she cried. "You and I have drunk together from the King's cup. It has been the betrothal ceremony in the royal House of Theos for generations. You a stranger, who owe your very throne to us, have dared to ignore it—you, who propose to raise to the throne of the most ancient kingdom of Europe a woman of unknown birth. It is an infamy."
"Countess," he answered, "you know quite well that I was ignorant of your custom, of the history of that cup."
"There are times," she said, fiercely, "when ignorance is worse than crime. No man yet, even a king, has lived to break faith with the House of Reist."
He had recovered himself—and he remembered. He addressed her steadily, yet with a growing coldness in his tone.
"Is it your wish then, Countess, that I fulfil the obligations which you say I have incurred?"
Her face burned, her eyes were lit with fire. He had gained an advantage. He had made her angry.
"It is a brutal question," she cried, "but quickly answered. You know quite well that if it were so I should not be here. No! I would not marry you—not even to be Queen of Theos."
"Oh, but you are blind," she interrupted, passionately. "You understand nothing. I repeat that I would not marry you to be Queen of Theos. I am willing to be your friend. I am willing to forget your broken pledge. But listen! Theos is the dearest thing on earth to me. I am jealous for my country, not for myself. I will not have this tradesman's daughter Queen of Theos. Do you think that I, Marie of Reist, would follow her from the room, would bend my knee to her, would call her Queen? It is madness inconceivable. I speak for myself, but there are others who feel as I feel. It would be an insult to every royal family in Europe. These are the things which I have come to say. You must abandon your purpose, or——"
There was a moment's deep silence. She shook her head very slowly.
"There is not a noble of Theos, your Majesty, who would not consider himself justified in rescinding his oath to a king who could stoop so low."
Ughtred eyed her gravely.
"Marie," he said, "you are a peeress of Theos in your own right, and as such you yourself have taken an oath of allegiance to me."
"It is true, your Majesty," she answered, coldly. "And I tell you now that the announcement of your betrothal to Sara Van Decht would in my opinion and before my conscience justify me in breaking that oath. And your Majesty must remember further that those who are not with you are against you."
The King sat down and leaned his head upon his hand. Was this really how the people of Theos would regard his marriage, if indeed it should ever come to pass? The girl was so terribly in earnest, and of personal feeling it seemed after all that she had none. A cloud crept over his face.
"It is a threat," he said, quietly. "Countess, I beg that you will leave me. I will think over all that you have said, and I will discuss it fully with your brother, and my other advisers. Forgive me if I add that I think it would be more fitting."
He pointed to the open panel. She held up her head as though listening, but Ughtred heard nothing. Then she looked once more at the King. Something in his face reminded her for the moment of the man whom he resembled. He was tired, and his distress touched her heart. She moved suddenly over to his side and dropped upon her knee. The heavy sleeves fell back from her wrists, her white fingers touched his arms. She remembered that they had been young together, and after all the destinies of Theos were largely in his hands. He looked into her face and was amazed at the change. Her tone no longer shook with anger. She pleaded to him.
"Your Majesty, you and I were children together. Listen to me. I have lived in Theos all my life, and the love of my country has become a religion to me. For her sake, listen. You must not think any more of Sara Van Decht. Your marriage would be impossible. The House of Laws would not permit it, the nobility of Theos, of whom alas there are but few left, would not tolerate it. I am speaking the truth to you. As for what has been between you and me it shall go for nothing. I—listen—I love another man. Wait for a few years, and then seek for a wife where the royal House of Theos has the right to seek. I, who know, tell you that this is your duty—that even now your throne is in peril that you know nothing of."
For the fraction of a second Ughtred hesitated, seeking about in his mind only how best to terminate a painful situation. And that brief period became almost a fatal interlude, for she saw what was passing in his mind. Then a low, fierce cry came to them from the shadows of the room. Nicholas of Reist stood on the threshold of the open panel, his drawn sword quivering in his hand.
It was a curiously deep silence which reigned for many moments in the King's chamber. Ughtred slowly drew a little apart from Marie and glanced sternly from one to the other. His momentary suspicion, however, died away. The look on the face of Nicholas of Reist was such as no man, even the most consummate of actors, might assume.
"What news do you bring?" the King said, quietly. "Is all well at Solika?"
Reist pointed to his sister.
"There are no fresh tidings," he answered. "I await your Majesty's explanation of my sister's presence here."
Ughtred drew himself up. The blood of an ancient race asserted itself. He eyed Reist coldly. It was the King who faced a rebellious subject.
"I have no explanation to offer to you, Duke of Reist," he answered. "Seek it instead from your sister. It is she who should afford it you, seeing that her presence here was undesired by me, and unexpected."
"Your Majesty lies!" Reist thundered.
There was a deep and awful silence. Then Ughtred turned upon him, a fierce flash of anger in his blue eyes.
"Duke of Reist," he said, "you are a privileged person at this Court, and I have called you my friend. You will unsay those words, or hand me your sword."
"I repeat," Reist said, fiercely, "that your Majesty lies."
The King pointed to the open panel.
"Countess," he ordered, "leave us. This matter is between your brother and myself. We can settle it best in your absence."
She turned to her brother.
"Nicholas," she said, "the King's word is truth. I came here without any knowledge of his. I remained here against his will. It was unwise, perhaps, but the fault was mine. I wished to hear from his own lips what truth there was in these rumours of his coming marriage."
"Was it your place to ask the King these things?" he demanded, fiercely. "Was it dignified or seemly of you—you, his affianced bride?"
"I am not his affianced bride, Nicholas," she answered. "That was an idle ceremony. It was true we drank together of the King's cup, but its history was unknown to him."
He eyed them both with a fierce scorn.
"God alone knows of what cup you have drunk together," he cried, bitterly. "How often have you found it necessary to seek him here in the solitude of his chamber? How often have you used this infernal passage?"
"To seek the King, never," she answered firmly. "I used it when I found Brand here. If I had not, Theos might to-day have been a Russian State."
He pointed with unshaking finger to the opening in the wall.
"Pass away, Marie!"
"It is the truth which I have told you, Nicholas," she said.
He thrust before her eyes a piece of paper.
"You are young, Marie, to lie so glibly even for your lover's sake. Here is the message which summoned you here, written in the King's handwriting, signed with the King's name. You left it on the table, so that even the servants might know of the shame which has come upon our House."
The King crossed the room and looked over Marie's shoulder. It was indeed his own notepaper, and the writing of those few words strangely resembled his.
"Come now, I am alone.—U."
The King looked up with grave face.
"It is a forgery!" he said.
"It is a forgery," Marie echoed, white to the lips.
Nicholas of Reist said nothing. He pointed to the open panel. A look of horror flashed into the girl's face. She understood.
"Nicholas," she cried, "that message never came from the King. Where you found it I do not know, but I never saw it before. You must believe me, Nicholas. The King was ignorant of my coming. He was unwilling that I should remain even for a moment."
"I repeat," the King said, gravely, "that the writing which you hold in your hands is a forgery, Nicholas. I have never written to your sister in my life. This is part of a plot which shall be sifted to the bottom."
Still Nicholas stood silent before the panel, and Marie passed out. He shut it carefully. Then he turned to the King, who was still standing with that half-sheet of notepaper in his hand.
"Your Majesty," he said, "I desire to know whether it is your intention to marry my sister."
The King looked him squarely in the face.
"Nicholas," he said, "have I ever in my life done or said anything to give rise to such a belief?"
"Your Majesty," Reist answered, with a bow, "has been ever most discreet. Yet before witnesses you pledged my sister in our ancient betrothal cup, well knowing its immutable record."
"That is true," the King answered, "but at the time I showed clearly that with me at least it was a jest. I plead guilty to an act of folly. I came straight here from life amongst a people to whom symbols and ceremonies have become as empty things—a practical and utilitarian people, and I did not recognize the passionate clinging of the dwellers in these more romantic countries to old customs and old ritual. I deeply regret it, Nicholas. I have no other regret."
Reist pointed to the letter which still remained in the King's fingers. Ughtred tore it through with a gesture of contempt.
"I did not write it," he said. "I did not invite your sister's presence."
Reist controlled himself with a visible effort.
"Your Majesty," he said, "I beg you for one moment to reflect. I appeal once more, less for your sake or mine, than for our country's, to your honour. Your throne you owe to me. I have been your faithful servant, and my sword is yet wet with the blood of your enemies. Our name is great throughout Europe. An alliance with us can only strengthen your hold upon the people. It ill becomes me to force these things upon you, but the issue is great. Do you seek the hand of my sister in marriage?"
"I do not," the King answered. "I never have done. Wait."
Reist paused with his hand upon the hilt of his sword. The King continued.
"For the sake of my kingdom I do not order you from my presence, Reist. We are in danger, as you know, and I can ill spare a brave man. Listen. On my honour I, Ughtred of Tyrnaus, declare to you that the letter you found is a forgery, that your sister's presence here was as much a surprise to me as to you, that I never for one single moment failed in the respect which I owe to her as the sister of my best subject."
"That," Reist said, coldly, "is your Majesty's last word?"
Reist drew his sword from his scabbard and bent it upon the ground till the blade snapped. The pieces he threw before the King.
"I resign my position in the army," he said, "and I withdraw my oath of allegiance. We are on equal terms now, Ughtred of Tyrnaus, and I demand satisfaction from you for this affront upon my House."
Ughtred eyed him sternly for a moment, but without anger.
"First, sir," he said, "discharge yourself of your duty. Report to me of the position at Solika."
"We have withstood a fierce attack," Reist answered, coldly, "and driven the Turks off with heavy losses. I regret to add, however, that Solika is a hotbed of Russian intrigue, and what we gain in the field we shall doubtless lose through treachery. My force are encamped outside the city, and there are scouts duly posted to warn us of any fresh attack. I desire your answer, Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
The King's eyes flashed with anger.
"Be careful, sir," he exclaimed, "or my answer will be a file of soldiers and the prison."
There was a brief pause. An angry spot burned on Reist's cheeks, but he kept silent.
"My answer to you is this, sir," the King said. "All duties which I owe as a private individual are secondary to those I owe my country. So long as the war lasts I decline your challenge. The day it is over I will meet you under any condition you choose to name. Now go!"
"Sir," the King thundered, "I do not bandy words with my subjects. Go!"
Reist passed out in silence. The panel rolled heavily back. The King was alone! He sank heavily on to his couch and buried his face in his hands.
Once more brother and sister stood face to face in the great shadowy audience-room of the Reist palace. Again, too, there was the clamour of many voices in the streets below, for a messenger had just galloped in with news from the front, and a sad procession of ambulance wagons had arrived for the hospital. Only it seemed to them both that that other day, of which both for a moment thought, lay far back in some uncertain past. Events had marched so rapidly during the last few months that all sense of proportion and distance was lost. They looked at one another with white, haggard faces. Marie saw that her brother no longer wore his sword.
"What has happened?" she asked, faintly.
The fires of hell were smouldering in his dark eyes. Yet he answered with some attempt at calmness.
"I challenged him. I had the right! He did not deny it, but he will not fight until the war is over. I have broken my sword. I am an outcast from my people—and he is still their king. Marie, you have brought great trouble upon our House."
"It was not I who brought him here," she answered. "I was against it always. The trouble is of your making—and his. He drank with me from the King's cup."
"Ay! And to-night he refused absolutely to marry you, Marie. I suffered the everlasting humiliation of offering your hand—to have it refused."
She drew a short, quick breath. It was humiliation indeed. A sudden wild anger seized her. She locked and interlocked her fingers nervously.
"They are an accursed race, these men of Tyrnaus," she cried. "They make vows only to break them. Their honour is a broken reed."
Then Nicholas, his face gleaming white through the darkness, leaned over to her.
"Marie," he said, "those written words—which summoned you to him—were his?"
She hesitated. He raised his hand.
"Marie," he said, solemnly, "answer me as though your foot were upon the threshold of eternity. Remember that the name of Reist will become a name of shame for ever if you speak falsely. He is young, and he came here a stranger to us and our traditions. With our country in peril I might forgive for the while his broken troth—if that were all. But if he has dared to hold you lightly—that I cannot forgive. Tell me the truth! Was that message, indeed, from him which summoned you to a clandestine meeting?"
She met his fixed gaze with beating heart. Her bosom rose and fell quickly. She was torn with a hundred emotions. At last she answered.
"Nicholas," she said, "I know nothing of that note. I sought the king of my own free will."
Reist paced the room with quick, uneven footsteps. Marie sat at the table, her head buried in her hands. He did not approach her. Through the open window came the dull booming of guns. The sound was a torture to him.
"What are you going to do?" she asked, at last.
"God only knows!" he answered, bitterly. "I have no King and no country. Yet if I stay here I shall go mad."
She removed her hands from her face and looked at him stealthily.
"If there were a way," she whispered, "to save Theos, and to be avenged on Ughtred of Tyrnaus."
He stopped short.
"What do you mean?"
"If there were still a way," she whispered, "by which our old dream might come true. If it were still possible that you might become the saviour of our country, might even now rescue it from the Turks——"
"Plain words," he cried. "Let there be no enigmas between you and me. What do you mean?"
She looked at him more boldly.
"If a great Power should say 'I will not help Theos in her trouble because I do not recognize Ughtred of Tyrnaus, but if the right man is willing to accept the throne—so—I will stretch out my hand—the war shall cease—Theos shall be free.' What do you think of that, Nicholas?"
He looked at her with new eyes.
"Whose thoughts are these?" he asked, slowly.
"He has spoken to you?"
"It is treason," he cried, hoarsely. "I will have none of it."
"Who," she asked, "is a greater traitor than Ughtred of Tyrnaus?"
He was silent.
"Who," she cried, "is better beloved in Theos?—who could rule the people more wisely than you, Nicholas? It would save our country from conquest and pillage. It is—the only way. Is it not what we have spoken of before—have not you yourself pointed upwards to that motto, whose writing is surely no less clear to-day? Oh, Nicholas, you cannot hesitate."
He walked to the window and looked out towards the hills, where the red lights still flared and the guns made sullen music. Her words were like poison to him.
"Listen, Nicholas," she said. "While Ughtred of Tyrnaus is king no help will come to us from any other nation, and without help how can Theos hold out against a hundred thousand Turks? We have few soldiers and fewer guns. Our population will be decimated, our country laid waste, and the end will be slavery. It is for you to save us all. It is you who can save Theos."
He looked at her with cold, stern eyes.
"How long have you been the confidante of Domiloff?"
"It is only lately," she answered, "that he has spoken to me of these things. I think, Nicholas, that he is afraid of you."
"Perhaps," Reist remarked, bitterly, "he mistook me for an honest man."
"It is freedom for Theos," she said, softly, "and revenge upon the King. Whatever may befall him from our hands he has deserved."
"Is Domiloff still in Theos?" he asked.
"You will find him at the Cafe Metropolitan," she said, "only he is now a Frenchman. You must ask for Monsieur Abouyat."
Reist moved restlessly up and down the room. Often his fingers sought the place where his sword should have been.
"Something I must do," he muttered. "I might disguise myself as a peasant and fight in the ranks. To be here idle is horrible; to go to Domiloff—I cannot!"
He looked gloomily out into the darkness. The inaction was unendurable. She crossed the room to his side and laid her hand upon his arm.
"It is not by standing still, Nicholas, or by indecision that you can preserve your country or avenge your honour," she said. "Go to Domiloff. Hear what he has to say. Then ask yourself what is best for Theos."
"Domiloff has the tongue of a fiend," he answered, "or a serpent. I do not dare to trust myself with him. Russia would play us false in the end. Our freedom would be undermined. I myself should be a puppet, a doll, at the beck and call of a master. Oh, I know how these Russians treat an independent State if once their fingers are upon her throat."
"You talk as though Theos were not already doomed," she cried. "What hope have we as it is? Nicholas, have you ever thought what must happen when the Turks have crossed the frontier. You know their way—it is blood and fire and desolation. Have you considered the women and children, Nicholas?"
He groaned. The recollection of former raids was lurid and terrible enough. It was hard for him to see clearly. And his scabbard was empty.
"I will go to Domiloff," he said at last, "I will hear what he has to say."
It was very dark, very stuffy, and a strong, malodorous suggestion of garlic pervaded the little cafe. The ordinary customers of the place preferred always the round tables outside, and very few passed through the worn swing doors which led to the gloomy interior. The two men who occupied one of the small partitions had the place to themselves.
"It is not the time, this, for any weak scruples, my dear Reist," Domiloff was saying. "Theos in a week's time will be either a Russian State forever, or once more a free country with a ruler who is one of her own sons, and in whom my master can repose every confidence. You see I am very frank with you. I admit that this attack upon your country is the will and the decree of Russia. It was broached in London, confirmed in St. Petersburg, and planned in Constantinople. Yet, believe me, it was conceived in no spirit of enmity to Theos. It is simply this. We will not have a Tyrnaus upon the throne of Theos."
"Your country," Reist answered, hoarsely, "has no great reputation for generosity. What are we to pay for our freedom? You would not have me believe that there is no price."
"There is none," was the quiet answer, "which you, as a patriot and a Thetian, need hesitate to pay. We should require the abolition of the present edict prohibiting Russians from holding public offices, and a few more such unimportant concessions. They are nothing. They will serve only to knit our countries more closely together in friendship."
Reist laughed hardly.
"Yet I think," he said, "that the freedom of Theos would become somewhat of a jest were I to accept your terms."
"The alternative," Domiloff remarked, "may seem more pleasing to you. Yet I have heard people say unpleasant things of the Turkish yoke."
"Theos is not yet conquered," Reist answered. "Ughtred, to do him justice, is a soldier, and my people have the love of fighting born in their hearts."
"The odds are too great—and you know it," was the quiet reply. "Besides, the Turkish army is led by Russians and supplied with Russian artillery. The result is certain."
"There may be intervention!"
"From whom?" Domiloff asked, smiling. "France is the monkey who dances to my master's music—Austria is bound to us, Germany is geographically powerless."
"There is England."
Domiloff laughed outright.
"England as a European Power," he declared, "has ceased to exist. A few Dutch farmers have pricked the bubble of her military reputation. If she should have the sublime impudence to lift her voice we should treat her with the contempt she has earned. No, Reist, there will be no intervention. Your brave Thetians will be cut to pieces, your country will be pillaged and burned, your women will become the consorts of the Turkish soldiery, your ladies will go to grace a Turkish harem. These things must be unless you have the courage to hold out your hand. You call yourself a patriot. Prove it! The issue is plain enough."
The words bit into Reist's heart. He sat in gloomy silence. From afar off he seemed to hear the battle-cry of his beloved soldiers, the thunder of hoofs, the flashing steel, the glory of the charge thrilled his blood. There was patriotism indeed—there, where the lances dripped red and the bullets flew. And he, Nicholas of Reist, sat skulking in the back room of a doubtful cafe, safely out of harm's reach, talking treason with one who had ever been the foremost of his country's enemies.
"You bought Metzger," he said, "and the people cast him out. You may buy me, and yet the people will not accept your terms. They will not have Russians in authority over them. The hatred of your country is a religion with them."
"They believe in you as they would believe in no other man," Domiloff answered. "You can make the situation clear to them. In your heart you know that it is their only salvation."
"They may save their skins," Reist admitted, "but after all life is a short thing. It is better to die like gods than to live like slaves."
Domiloff shook his head.
"My friend," he said, "there is but one life that we know anything of, and it should not be lightly thrown away. You can save Theos if you will. Supposing, however, that you are obstinate—that you cling to your ancient prejudices—well, what will you do then? Consider your position. You have quarrelled with the King. Your place in the army has gone, you have surrendered your sword. How can you ever show yourself in Theos again, who lingered here in the hour of battle? Be wise, my friend. Before you there is but one possible course. Take it. The day will come when every man who calls himself a Thetian will bless your name."
"Or curse it!" Reist muttered.
"Curse it, indeed," Domiloff answered, "if you play the coward. It is the hour now for a strong man to rise. You are that man. Ughtred of Tyrnaus, whom you call your king, is even now forging the fetters to lead Theos into slavery. It is for you to thrust him aside and save your people."
"His is the nobler way," Reist cried, bitterly. "Domiloff, I can listen to you no longer. I am not the man you seek. My feet are not used to these tortuous ways. I will ask the King's pardon. He will give me back my sword, and I can at least find a glorious death."
"You can fight then for a King who has deprived you of your sword?" Domiloff whispered. "You can forgive him the insult he has thrust upon your sister. You can bear to think of her, slighted for the daughter of an American tradesman. Who is Ughtred of Tyrnaus that he should do this thing, and that the Duke of Reist should ask his pardon!"
Reist ground his teeth.
"I can force my way into the ranks and fight unknown," he said, hoarsely. "It would be better to die there than to live to listen to your poisonous whisperings. I do not trust you, Domiloff. I cannot. I have no pledge that you would keep your word."
A sudden change flashed into the white face of the Russian. He sat perfectly still—listening. Reist opened his lips to ask a question, but it remained unasked. He, too, heard the sound. Somewhere behind the partition a man's breathing was distinctly audible. Domiloff's hand sought his pocket, and he rose softly to his feet.
The intruder, whoever he might be, did not hesitate for a second. He leaped through the window by which he had entered, and ran down the passage. Domiloff followed him, and peering forward fired a couple of shots in rapid succession. Apparently they were fruitless, for the fugitive gained the open space in front of the cafe and mingled with the crowd. There was a rush of bystanders towards the two men, but Domiloff raised his hands and cried in Thetian—
"A Turk! A Turk! A spy! Follow him!"
There was a rush across the street. Domiloff and Reist exchanged rapid glances with one another.
"A spy indeed, but a spy from the other side," Domiloff muttered. "I wonder how much he heard."
But Reist was speechless. To him the interruption had come like the awakening from a horrible dream. There was a man then—a man of Theos who knew him for a traitor.
The hue and cry had left them alone. Suddenly Domiloff stooped down. A soft felt hat lay almost at their feet. Through the brim and crown was a small round hole.
"It is his hat," Domiloff muttered. "Why did I not aim an inch lower?"
He struck a match, and looked for the name inside the lining. It was Scott and Co., Bond Street, London.
Reist felt his cheeks burn, though the night was cool. Domiloff's voice sounded unnaturally calm.
"It was the Englishman then, Walter Brand. Good!"
"The King's friend," Reist faltered.
"I do not think," he said, "that he will ever see the King again."
Late that night a man stood motionless amongst the shrubs in the garden of the Reist house. His eyes were fixed always upon a certain window where a light was burning. He muttered often to himself, and the things which he said were not pleasant to hear. He was tired and cramped with his long waiting—yet so long as that light burned he dared not approach the house.
There came to him at last a welcome sound, a light footstep and the trailing of a skirt upon the gravel path. He leaned forward.
"Countess, I am here."
Marie stooped to pluck a flower, and slipped behind the shrub. They were now invisible from the house.
"You received my note?" he asked.
"It was more than two hours ago. I am cold and tired with waiting. Was it necessary to keep me here so long?"
"Quite," she answered. "I came as soon as it was safe."
"Who has been with your brother to-night?" he asked.
"How do you know that we have not been alone?"
He pointed to the light still burning in the window.
"That light," he said. "See, it is just extinguished. Your visitor has gone."
She laughed bitterly.
"You are well served—by my servants," she said.
"It is for all our interests! The visitor?"
"It was General Kolashin."
"The General himself?"
"Yes. He came to reason with my brother about giving up his command."
"Your brother did not waver?"
"He wavered a good deal. But for me I think that he would have returned to camp. I am sorry now that I interfered."
"You are not in a pleasant humour to-night, I fear, Countess."
"I am never in a pleasant humour when I have to do with—such as you. Treason and deceit are ugly things, to us, at least, Baron Domiloff."
"I do not agree with your terms, Countess," he answered, "but this is scarcely the place or the time for argument. Your brother?"
"He awaits you."
"He has spoken of our interview?"
"And you have told him?"
"To beware of Baron Domiloff," she answered, coolly.
He bent over to read her face, uncertain in the dim twilight.
"You are jesting," he murmured.
"It is very possible," she admitted.
She turned away from him, and looked towards the hills. The muttering of artillery still continued. Domiloff was uneasy.
"Countess," he said, "I must go in to your brother, for this evening we were overheard in the Cafe Metropolitan, and I am not safe in the city any longer. But, I pray you to tell me this. What is your brother's disposition concerning these matters of which we have talked?"
She shook her head.
"I cannot tell you. I have done what I can, but he himself is torn with doubts and fears. The sound of the guns, and the thought of the fighting goads him to madness. I have done what I promised. Through me he has broken with the King, and I have sent him to you. The rest you should have accomplished."
"And so I should," Domiloff declared, fiercely, "but for that cursed interruption. It is ill to do with men who do not know their own minds."
"Or with women in the like straits, my friend," she murmured.
He shot a quick glance at her.
"Of you," he declared, quietly, "I have no fear. You would not see this American girl Queen of Theos. I do not think that you would stand in waiting before her throne."
Marie's face was for a moment white with passion. She seemed as though she would strike him. Domiloff watched her narrowly. He liked to be sure of every one with whom he had to deal, and there were times when she eluded him.
"No," she answered at last. "It is not likely that I should do that. Baron Domiloff, I will show you the way to my brother's room."
He touched her arm. She drew it away with an angry exclamation. Domiloff was not without vanity, and his personal repugnance to her, which she was at no pains to hide, galled him. For a moment he dared not trust himself to speak.
"Will you be so good as to remember," she said, with cutting force, "that my toleration of you is on account of Theos, and Theos only. Personally, I hate all conspirators and plotters. The idea of this sort of thing and everybody connected with it is loathsome to me."
He bowed low. It was as well that she could not see his face.
"Countess," he said, "you will excuse my familiarity, but there was a matter—an urgent matter—which I had yet to mention to you. There is a man who must die unless he leaves Theos in four-and-twenty hours. I have heard him called your friend—else he were a dead man at this moment."
She looked at him doubtfully.
"You do not mean the King?"
"No! I mean Walter Brand, the English journalist."
She started. Domiloff watched her keenly.
"What has he done?" she asked.
"What has he not done. You remember his first appearance here?"
She laughed softly.
"I remember it very well," she answered. "He was bold enough to befool the wily Baron Domiloff—to play with him and beat him at his own game. Yes, his first coming I remember very well indeed."
The darkness hid Domiloff's face. His voice was under perfect control.
"I bear him no special grudge for that," Domiloff said, "but it was only the beginning. He has done his very best to oppose us throughout. He is the King's most intimate friend, he is our most dangerous enemy. His letters from here are influencing the whole European Press. In England they have created a sensation, and in Germany also. They have been translated into every language, and copied everywhere. The time has come when they must cease."
She felt the significance of his words. She was not altogether unmoved under his close scrutiny.
"He is an Englishman," she said, "and it is dangerous to interfere with Englishmen."
"Nevertheless it must be done," he declared. "To-night it has become a matter of urgency."
"Because, not content with the mischief which he has already done, he must needs play the spy upon one or both of us. To-night he was at the Cafe Metropolitan and overheard some part of my conversation with your brother."
A sudden colour flushed her cheeks. Her eyes were bright.
"He is a brave man," she cried.
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders.
"The difference between a brave man and a fool," he said, "is so slight. But listen, Countess! You wish his life spared?"
"If harm comes to him through you or any of your creatures," she cried, with a little burst of passion, "I will go to the King and have you hung in the market-place."
There was a moment's silence. Domiloff was staggered by her bold words.
"Countess," he said, "his safety lies with you. I give you this opportunity to warn him."
"To warn him? But I do not know where he is," Marie protested. "Besides, he would not heed me."
"To-morrow," Domiloff answered, "I may be able to acquaint you with his whereabouts. I must at least have him watched and his dispatches intercepted. He is absolutely our most dangerous opponent."
"But even if he were to receive a message from me, he would not come if he were at the front," Marie said.
"He comes every day to Theos to send off his cables," Domiloff answered. "I shall send you word where he is, and you must send for him. It is absolutely necessary that he come over to our side."
"He is not the kind of man to desert a losing cause," Marie said. "He would not listen to me."
Domiloff gave vent to an impatient gesture.
"He must listen to you, Countess, or die," he said.
She looked him in the face.
"You will remember my threat, Baron Domiloff," she said. "Those were no idle words."
He bowed low.
"We will go to your brother," he said.
The King entered from his ante-chamber and took his place at the head of the long table amidst a profound and depressing silence. The faces of his counsellors were grave indeed. The military members were all at the front. Those who remained were the merchants and men of peace, and to them the guns whose roar seemed ever increasing spelled ruin.
Old Baron Doxis took the chair. He opened the proceedings with dim eyes and a shaking voice. Theos was dear to him, but so also were his sons and nephews, some of whom he could scarcely hope to see again. The routine business was quickly dispensed with. The King in a few sentences told them the war news of the day.
Then Baron Doxis rose again.
"Your Majesty," he said, "this meeting of our Inner Council you yourself have pronounced an wholly informal one. We are sitting here with closed doors. We are all, I believe, patriots and Thetians. Let me ask your Majesty, therefore, if every means have been tried to avoid the destruction which threatens us?"
The faces of all were turned towards the King.
"My friends," he said, slowly, "I have heard it whispered, not amongst you, perhaps, but yet amongst those who might have known me better, that this war is the outcome of my own military activity, that it is a war which might have been prevented. Let me implore you not to give credit to any such idea. It is a cruel war, an unjust war, and—we must look the worst in the face. It may mean the extinction of Theos as an independent nation. But it has been brutally thrust upon us. We have been powerless to avoid it. We have given no offence, we have striven for peace, knowing that by peace alone we can prosper. The pretext for the commencement of hostilities was a false one. An absolutely faithful account of all that passed between Effenden Pascha and ourselves has been set down on paper and forwarded to Constantinople—also to every Court in Europe. I have appealed to every reigning sovereign for intercession. What is left to us but to fight? The enemy have crossed our frontier. But for our dispositions and the bravery of our soldiers they would be even now at the gates of Theos. If I failed in my duty, tell me where. What could I have done?"
Baron Doxis rose up again.
"Your Majesty," he said, "we do not presume to doubt your word. We believe in the justice of our cause, and we will believe that these movements on the part of the Turks are movements of ruthless aggression. But, bearing in mind our hopeless inferiority in numbers, I must ask whether any steps have been taken to ascertain the terms on which peace would be granted to us."
The King's face was set and grave.
"Baron Doxis," he said, "we have not yet approached the Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish forces on this subject. But I can tell you well what the answer would be. The surrender of your army, of our city, the pillaging of our houses, the outraging of our women. Have you not yet learned how the Turks make war?"
Baron Doxis remained upon his feet. He passed his trembling hand along his snow-white beard.
"Your Majesty," he said, "these are the days of civilized warfare, and it is possible that more restraint might be exercised over the Turkish soldiery now than in the days gone by. I humbly submit that the demands of the invaders be ascertained and submitted to us."
The King remained silent for a minute. Then he looked up, and though his lips trembled his voice was firm enough.
"You can send your instructions to General Dartnoff," he said. "I shall not interfere. At the same time, I feel bound to tell you that I look upon any such appeal as hopeless. We have no hope, save in God, in our arms, and from the possible intercession of one or more of the Powers."
Tavener, a merchant, who was suspected of Jewish descent, rose timidly to his feet.
"Your Majesty has come to-night from the seat of war," he said. "May we ask of these rumours concerning the Duke of Reist? It is rumoured that the Duke has abandoned his command and returned his sword to your Majesty."
"The rumour is correct," the King answered.
There was an uneasy murmur of voices. Baron Doxis rose.
"Your Majesty, we should esteem some further particulars as to this action on the part of the Duke of Reist. We have always been accustomed to consider him one of the born leaders of this country."
"The resignation of the Duke," Ughtred said, "is due to a personal matter which I am not at liberty to explain to you. No one can regret it more than I do."
An ominous silence followed. Ughtred was conscious of it, yet there seemed to be nothing which he could do to dispel it. He knew that the loyalty of these men was being sorely taxed. In their hearts they believed him responsible for the war. This severance with Reist encouraged them in their belief. Baron Doxis rose slowly to his feet.
"Your Majesty," he said, slowly, "as the oldest member of this council, as the oldest inhabitant of Theos here present, will you permit me to say a word respecting the Duke of Reist?"
The King inclined his head.
"I am prepared to hear you, Baron Doxis," he said.
"The Duke of Reist," Doxis continued, "is the sole representative of the one family in Theos who for centuries have served their country faithfully as true patriots. The Duke of Reist it was who is solely responsible for the restoration of the monarchy. It was he who found your Majesty out and brought you here to reign over us."
Ughtred looked up.
"I am conscious," he said, "of all that Nicholas of Reist has done for Theos. I know, too, what I personally owe him. I believe him at heart to be a true and devoted patriot. Yet for all this the quarrel between us is not of my seeking. I cannot go to him and order him into the field. Seek him yourselves, if you will. He has spoken words to me which no one, not even the first noble in Christendom, has a right to use to his sovereign. I pass that over. I demand no apology. Let him resume his place in the field and his command, if he will. I would not place my own dignity before the good of Theos. The Assembly is dismissed, gentlemen."
The King retired to his own apartments. His servant was in waiting.
"Your Majesty has four hours before the time appointed for the special train," he announced. "The sleeping chamber is prepared."
Ughtred waved him away.
"I shall not retire," he said. "Leave me alone."
He leaned forward in his easy-chair and buried his face in his hands. Only a month ago life had seemed such a fair thing. He had been full of plans and dreams. He had envied no man in Europe. And now he seemed hemmed about with disaster. He was no longer the hero of the people. He had lost his best friend—between his counsellors and himself an ominous gulf was widening every hour. There were whispers of treason in the city, his isolation would soon become an accomplished fact. Almost his courage failed him.
The door was softly opened and closed. He looked up wearily, then sprang to his feet. It was Sara who was coming across the room towards him with outstretched hands.
He took her into his arms, from which she presently escaped, and carefully disengaged herself. Already he felt better at the sight of her.
"How did you come here, Sara?" he asked.
"I used your ring," she answered, showing it to him. "Father is in the next room."
"Your father has been very useful," he said. "He has been out with the engineer all day."
"He is amusing himself. But, Ughtred, I came to talk to you for a moment. They tell me that you are going back to the front directly."
"I must be there at daybreak," he answered. "Until then we have granted them an armistice—to bury their dead."
"I hear all about it. I was in the field-hospital all day, and the wounded were brought in shouting with joy. It was a great fight, Ughtred."
An answering gleam flashed in his eyes.
"You should have been a soldier's daughter, Sara."
Her face was suddenly grave. She was standing by his side with her hands loosely clasped behind her, her eyes upturned to his.
"Ughtred," she said, "I have come here to say something to you. There have been rumours of a quarrel between you and the Reists. Is that true?"
"There is something of the sort," he admitted.
"They say that the Duke of Reist has thrown up his command."
"Is it true, Ughtred, that you went through some sort of a betrothal ceremony with the Countess of Reist?"
He laughed heartily. Then he told her the story. She listened with grave face.
"You were scarcely to blame," she said, when he had finished. "But, Ughtred, I have begun to understand what should have been plain to me from the first—what you too should have thought of, perhaps. Our engagement would never be welcomed by your people. They love the old families and the old names. It would make you unpopular, and I believe it is at the bottom of your disagreement with the Reists. You must forget what you said, dear. It is best, indeed."
He turned upon her for the moment almost fiercely. He was overwrought.
"You, too!" he exclaimed. "My God, how lonely people can leave a King when the evil times come."
He saw her look of pain, and the tears fill her eyes. He turned suddenly and threw his arms about her.
"You love me, Sara. You do not want to take that back?"
"You know that I do not," she answered.
"Then put these things away from you till these troubles are past. At least let me have you to think of and fight for. Afterwards we will speak of them again."
She assented gladly.
"Only I want you to know, Ughtred," she said, "that I will never become your wife if it is to lessen your hold upon your people here. I wish they could know it. Some of these poor wounded soldiers look at me as if I were their enemy. Why, it is terrible."
He smiled reassuringly.
"When the war is over we will talk of this seriously," he answered. "Listen."
He threw up the blind. It was still dark and apparently raining, but away eastwards there was a break in the clouds, and the stars were paler. In the courtyard below a carriage was waiting. He dropped the blind hastily, picked up his cloak.
"I must go, Sara," he declared. "Wish me luck, dear."
She clung to him with suddenly swimming eyes. Her lips trembled—her face was very wistful.
"Oh, my dear! My dear," she cried, softly, "if only I could bring you luck. If only I could be your mascotte."
He laughed cheerily. His arms were around her, and she was comforted.
"There is no better mascotte for a man in this world," he declared, "than the touch of the woman he loves. Send me back to the front, dear, with your kisses upon my lips and the sound of your voice in my ears, and I promise you that you shall hear great news."
When Ughtred passed out a few minutes later a rumour went through the palace that good news had come. For the King held his head high, and his eyes were as the eyes of a man who goes forth to victory looking upon pleasant things.
Throughout the night there was little attempt at sleep in the Thetian camp. Long lines of men, relieved every two hours that they might work at the utmost speed, were busy in the valley digging entrenchments. Guns were being dragged up to the heights and signalling stations fixed. With dawn came a proclamation from the King freely issued about the camp.
"Men of Theos and Soldiers of the Thetian Army.
"The thanks of the State are due to you for your brave fight yesterday, you and your gallant leaders. I am glad to tell you that at Althea Pass and Morania the enemy were also repulsed with great loss. So far then the fighting has gone wholly in our favour. Let us thank God, who has strengthened the arm of those whose cause is just, who resist an unwarranted and iniquitous invasion of their native land.
"The precautions which have been taken to guard against this act of brigandage encourage us to hope for success. We are not taken unawares. Since my accession to the throne of my ancestors I have, as you know, devoted every effort to strengthening our defences, to preparing so far as preparation was possible for the position in which we find ourselves to-day. Althea Pass is almost impregnable. I do not believe that the Turks will ever pass alive through the Moranian defiles. Here it is that the final struggle must take place. It is you, my soldiers, who must bear the great burden of the fighting. The place of honour is yours, and the place of honour may be the place of death. It is meet therefore that I, your King, should be with you. I have therefore decided to take over the supreme command from your valiant and respected leader, General Dartnoff, and to lead you personally into battle. With God's help and your valour I have every trust and every hope in the future. I need not remind you that our cause is just and great. We fight for our homes—I for my palace, you for your homesteads—as brothers together. We fight for our freedom, for our womenkind, and the freedom of those who are to come after us. For my part I pledge myself to this. There shall be no submission on terms that I will ever accept save those which leave Theos as free in the future as it is to-day. For your part I ask you only to quit yourselves like the Thetians of old, to believe in me and obey, to remember always that God is with the weak, and He will surely protect us. Strike hard, obey unflinchingly, and if the whispers of treason should reach your ears scorn it as did those others who have fought before you. Do this, and I will lead you to victory."
At dawn a single horseman, attended by a small escort, galloped down from the shed where the light railway from Theos ended. General Dartnoff and a little group of officers stood in front of the former's quarters.
"It is Reist at last," one exclaimed.
But the General shook his head.
"It is the King," he declared. "See he is riding his own horse."
The old battle-cry rang like music in the King's ears as he galloped down the lines. He was fair to look upon in the faint early sunlight, bronzed and manly, a born soldier with a dash of the enthusiast. The men, fresh from reading his proclamation, welcomed him with thunderous cheers. Their shouts rose to the skies, and Ughtred breathed more freely. For these were Reist's men, and it was Reist's place which he must fill.
"Your Majesty is welcome to the camp," General Dartnoff said, saluting. "We were looking for the Duke of Reist."
The King passed into the tent, and motioned the General and the other officers to follow them. Then he turned and faced them.
"General Dartnoff," he said, "I regret to inform you that the Duke of Reist has resigned his command."
Blank astonishment was written into their faces. The thing was incredible.
"I beg your Majesty's pardon," General Dartnoff said, with some hesitation, "but do we indeed hear you rightly? The Duke of Reist has resigned his command—in time of war—at such a time as this? Nicholas of Reist!"
"It is unfortunately true," the King repeated.
"He is stricken with illness suddenly?" Dartnoff asked.
The King shook his head.
"I regret to say that the resignation of the Duke of Reist is due to a personal matter between myself and him, in which he considers himself aggrieved."
There was a moment's silence. Quick glances were exchanged amongst the officers. Dartnoff was sorely puzzled.
"It was Nicholas of Reist who brought you here," he said, slowly. "It was his word and advice—which——"
"Which made me King," Ughtred continued. "That is so. General Dartnoff and you, gentlemen, do not think that I treat this matter lightly. It has been a great blow to me—a great shock. But, listen. The Duke of Reist has no cause of offence against me whatever. He has been deceived and misled, and I have a fancy that Domiloff, who they say is still lurking about Theos, is concerned in it."
The General's face grew graver than ever.
"Nicholas of Reist," he said, "would never stoop to secret dealings with such men as Domiloff."
"I hope and believe not myself," the King answered promptly. "But such men as Domiloff work in the dark indirectly, and some one has poisoned the mind of Nicholas of Reist against me. But listen. I repeat that the matter is a personal one. For the moment it can well be left where it is. I will promise you this. After the war if Theos still exists and I am alive I will meet the Duke of Reist before you, General Dartnoff, and any three of our countrymen whom you may select, and you shall judge between us. If you find that I am in the wrong my abdication shall be at your service. If you decide in my favour the Duke of Reist's apology and his hand will be sufficient for me. But, remember, that to-day we stand before the destinies of Theos. For God's sake do not let your loyalty or your faith in me be affected by this deeply-to-be-deplored incident. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who have poisoned the mind of the Duke of Reist against me. Give me your trust a little longer, I beg of you."
General Dartnoff stood in front of his officers, and he did not hesitate. The cloud had passed from his face.
"Your Majesty," he said. "We accept. Yet with your permission I would ask you this question. No man in Theos loves his country better than Nicholas of Reist. If he should desire to recall his words——?"
The King held out his hand.
"I would offer it to him," he said, "as freely as I offer it now to you."
The cloud passed in substance away. Metterbee—a senior officer—respectfully intervened.
"Your Majesty," he said, "there is Reist's command."
The King looked around him.
"I am going to make one more demand upon your loyalty," he said gravely. "General Dartnoff, it is my wish that you take over the command of the Duke of Reist's corps. The chief command I am prepared to assume in person."
General Dartnoff smiled.
"If your Majesty makes no more serious demands upon our loyalty than this he will be well served," he answered. "There is no one more fit to command than you, sir. The present admirable disposition of our forces is yours, not mine; so far I have been no more than a figurehead. Your plan of entrenchments has been a revelation to all of us."
There arose a little murmur of approval. Reist's defection was amazing, but this was the man who alone could save Theos. Ughtred felt a glow of pride and gratitude as he shook hands with his chief officers.
"And now, General," he said, "I must ask you to transfer your staff to me in order that I may give some instructions. The Turkish lines are clearly in view from our positions, I believe?"
The General bowed.
"We have reports every twenty minutes, your Majesty," he answered. "Anything in the nature of a surprise is impossible."
"Very well," Ughtred said. "Now, General, will you let me have in the course of half-an-hour an escort of two hundred picked men. I am going to enter Solika."
Dartnoff dispatched an officer with instructions. Then he turned to the King.
"Your Majesty is aware of the state of affairs within the walls?"
"Yes. I want the help of two or three residents of the city whose loyalty is above suspicion. Can you point out such to me?"
"More than two or three, I think, your Majesty," Dartnoff answered. "I will give their names to the officer commanding your escort."
Ughtred sat down at the head of the table.
"Let them bring some coffee then at once. In an hour I wish to start for Solika. The officers of my staff, and you, General Dartnoff, will please remain."
Breakfast was brought, and Ughtred talked for a few minutes to them all. He then explained that during the campaign he desired to rank as General only, to be addressed as sir, to be treated as commanding officer, and not as King. For the most part the officers were Thetians and Austro-Thetians. Keen soldiers and well up to their work, for, in addition to their regular duties, the drilling of the armed population had also devolved upon them. Ughtred looked them over, and his heart grew lighter. They were a little rough perhaps, and somewhat uneasy at first in his presence, but honest men, and soldiers to the backbone.
Towards midday Solika awoke into a state of wild excitement. The King was at the Town Hall with many of the leading inhabitants, and extraordinary rumours were flying about. The civil populace was to be invited to bear arms, foreigners were to be expelled, a great blow was to be struck at the mixed population, whose loyalty was doubtful. Fact followed fast upon the heels of rumour. The little street cafes were thronged with eager groups, all studying a proclamation wet from the press. The station was thronged with trains. All strangers must quit Solika in twelve hours. All residents not naturalized must take the oath of allegiance and hold themselves ready to bear arms, or leave in twenty-four hours. Property would be respected as far as possible, but the war laws of Theos had known no modification for five hundred years, and on every wall appeared copies of the statute, and a schedule of treasonable practices, the penalty for which was death. Solika was in an uproar. A hasty but secret meeting of Russians was held at the house of the Consul. It was broken up by a detachment of soldiers, and every person there conducted in a guarded train to the frontier. Ughtred himself rode through the streets, and read in the faces of the angry crowds their extraction, and where their sympathy lay. There was scarcely a native Thetian there, for the men of Theos were excellent farmers and tillers of the land, but poor shopkeepers. Their wants were supplied by Jews and Russians, who robbed them regularly, and were only too ready now to welcome the coming of a richer race. Ughtred returned to the Town Hall, and knew that he had done well.
On the steps he stopped short. He was face to face with the man whom, more than any other, at that moment he desired to meet. It was Brand.
"At last," Brand exclaimed, with a gesture of relief. "I have been looking for you everywhere."
Ughtred glanced round. They were surrounded by a considerable crowd.
"You have something important to say to me, Brand?"
Ughtred motioned to an orderly.
"Procure a fresh horse for Mr. Brand," he said. "You will ride back to camp with me, Brand. We shall be away from this rabble then."
It was not until they were absolutely alone that Brand spoke.
"Your Majesty," he said, "Nicholas of Reist is a traitor."
The King turned in his saddle.
"I cannot believe that, my friend," he said. "Reist has quarrelled with me personally, and has resigned his command in the army. But that does not make him a traitor."
"Perhaps not," Brand answered, drily, "but association with Domiloff does."
Ughtred started. His face and his tone alike gave evidence of his unbelief. He even smiled.
"You are mistaken, my dear Brand," he said. "Reist is a patriot and a nobleman. He would never stoop to league himself with such scum."
"I presume that my eyes are sufficient evidence," Brand answered, quietly. "I myself saw Reist and Domiloff meet last night at a low cafe in Theos. I overheard part of their conversation."
The King's face was as the face of a man who has received a blow. For a moment or two he remained silent.
"They may have met by accident," he said, at last, looking half-fearfully towards Brand. "Domiloff may have proposed things to Reist, but he would not listen, no, he surely would not listen."
"You are mistaken," Brand declared, grimly. "He met Domiloff by appointment, and he listened with interest to all that he had to say."
"How do you know this, Brand?" the King asked.
"I have been watching the place for some time—and Domiloff. It ought to be burned. It is a hotbed of treason and Russian intrigue. I saw the meeting and heard part of the conversation. Unfortunately I was discovered."
"You were discovered?" Ughtred repeated.
"And Domiloff put a bullet through my hat," Brand continued. "I escaped, but it was a close thing. Since then I have had an opportunity of appreciating how widespread have been Domiloff's snares. My life has been attempted twice, and I have been misled by forged letters as to your whereabouts. I have been to Althea and Morania in search of you."
"And you heard some part of what passed between Domiloff and Reist?"
"Yes. Domiloff offered Reist the crown of Theos and Russian intervention in the present war."
"And Russian protection afterwards, I suppose," Ughtred remarked, bitterly.
"That is, of course, what is behind it all," Brand assented.
The face of the King grew stern and thoughtful. There was silence between the two men for some time.
"If any other man had told me of this," Ughtred said at last, "frankly I should not have believed them. It was Nicholas of Reist who was always warning me of Russia and Russian intrigue. He seemed to read Domiloff like a book."
"The quarrel which you spoke of between yourself and Reist," Brand said, thoughtfully—"was it serious?"
"It was forced upon me," Ughtred answered. "The Countess most unfortunately came to my room last night by the secret passage to warn me against—well, Brand, I do not see why I should not be frank with you—against an alliance with Sara Van Decht."
"She came—of her own will—without any suggestion from you?" Brand asked.
"Of course!" Ughtred answered. "I may not be a model of etiquette, but I should never dream of soliciting, of welcoming an interview from even so old a friend as the Countess of Reist under such circumstances. Well, in the midst of our conversation, which I was doing my best to curtail, her brother arrived unexpectedly from Solika and found us together. He chose to consider her presence in my room compromising, and demanded that I should marry her. After that—chaos. As I told you, Reist has given up his command and deserted me. I believe that I have promised to fight him after the war is over."
"And the Countess?" Brand asked.
The King smiled bitterly.
"She too seems to be my enemy, though why I cannot imagine. She, at any rate, can bear no ill-will to me over that unfortunate affair of the betrothal cup, for she has told me plainly that she loves another man."
Brand's horse seemed to stumble, and his face was invisible for a moment as he stooped down to pat her neck. When he looked up there was a curious gleam in his eyes.
"Your Majesty," he said, "I am very sorry that this has happened. I believe that Domiloff is working very hard to induce the Duke of Reist to join in his plot against you."
The King looked sorrowfully away.
"Nicholas was my one friend here," he said. "I have only my soldiers now. God grant that their lives may not be frittered away—that we may not lose by treason what we gain in battle."
They talked for a while of the campaign. Brand, from his brief visit to Althea and Morania, was already conversant with the plan of operations. An old war correspondent, the muttering of the guns was like music to him.
"You should be able to hold your positions for a fortnight," he declared, "and by that time Theos will be ready for a siege. I see that you are making preparations for a retreat there."
"The women and children are being sent away every hour," the King answered. "I know that my men here are staunch, and so far as they are concerned the Turks will find nothing but a heap of smoking ruins when they enter Theos. It is not the actual fighting which troubles me, Brand."
Brand looked into the King's anxious face, and found there some clue to his doubtful words. He pointed with his riding whip to the distant city.
"It is treachery which you fear?" he remarked softly.
"I will tell you," he said, "there is something going on there which I cannot understand. It is Domiloff's work. I am sure of that. At the meeting of the Council last night I seemed to be somehow conscious of a general atmosphere of intrigue. There is something going on behind my back. Doxis plainly hinted that it would be better to make terms than waste the whole country by an impossible resistance, and when I asked him 'terms with whom?' he was silent. We know that the Turks have no terms to offer save unconditional surrender. What did he mean, then?"
"I fear," Brand said, "that Domiloff's schemes are more deeply laid than we at first believed. What a pity that he was ever allowed to remain in Theos."
"I sent him to the frontier once," Ughtred said. "He came back secretly."
"But your police?"
"Theos has no police now," Ughtred answered. "They are fighting at Althea. We could not afford to leave a hundred able-bodied men in the city."
Brand reined in his horse. The two men were on a hill from which the outposts of the Turkish army were distinctly visible. Brand took out his glasses and swept the country steadily for several minutes.
"I have a proposition to make," he said, after he had finished his survey. "I do not think that there will be any fighting to-day. If you like I will return to Theos and endeavour to find out what is going on."
The King held out his hand.
"If you will do this for me," he said, simply, "it will be the service of a friend. I think that I need friends now very badly."
So Brand turned his horse's head towards Theos, and the King rode down into the camp alone.
Marie of Reist rose with a sudden swift movement from the sofa where she had been lying.
"I trust that my visit is not as unwelcome as it seems to be surprising," he remarked, crossing the room towards her. "I am taking advantage——"
She held up her hand—a quick, impulsive gesture of silence.
"Hush!" she whispered. "Do not say another word. Follow me and tread lightly."
He followed her into the circular stone wall, hung with ancient paintings, and where no light ever came save through those wonderful stained glass windows, the gift of an Emperor to Rudolph of Tyrnaus. They passed along a passage, up some stairs, and into a sitting-room. She closed the door softly, and stood for a moment with her hand still upon the handle, listening. Then, as all seemed quiet below, the fear passed from her eyes, and she smiled upon him.
"Are you mad to come here?" she asked, softly. "You ought not to show yourself in the streets. Do you not know that you are the most unpopular person in Theos?"
"I can assure you that I was not aware of it," he answered. "In any case, who in this house would be likely to wish me harm?"
"You are quite safe here, I think," she answered, ignoring his question. "My brother and some friends were in the next room down-stairs. I was afraid that they might hear your voice."
He sat down on the sofa beside her.
"I am not inclined," he said, "to quarrel with my good fortune. But as a matter of fact, it is your brother whom I wish to see. There is no reason why I should not—that I know of."
She shook her head.
"Nevertheless," she said, "be content to stay with me. It will be better for you. Oh yes, a very great deal better."
Brand moved a little nearer. It was certain that there was much which he could learn from her.
"It is very pleasant to see you again, Countess!" he remarked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
The colour flushed under his tanned cheeks. He looked away.
"Marie, then—if you will permit!"
"I do permit," she murmured, "only you must not say it very often—until I get used to it. Oh, my friend, how glad I am to see you, and yet how dangerous it is. Why do you go on filling all the newspapers in Europe with your letters from Theos, and your praises of the King? You have made enemies here. You are even now being sought for."
He smiled grimly.
"I thought that I must be becoming unpopular," he said. "People are so anxious to find me that they send bullets—mostly very badly aimed ones—after me in the street. I do not understand it."
She shuddered and glanced nervously around her. The window by which they sat was commanded by another in the eastward wing of the house. She looked at it for a moment, and her eyes were full of fear once more.
"Even now," she murmured, "I believe that we are being watched. Look, do you see anything?"
He stood by her side, but the window was empty enough. Below, the square and streets beyond were strangely empty. A sense of desolation brooded over the place.
"I see nothing," he answered. "I really don't think that we need alarm ourselves."
She drew him away to the lounge heaped with furs and drawn up to the fire. An easel was standing in one corner of the room, and behind a piano. The walls were hung with water-colours and sketches, and the air was fragrant with the odour of burning logs. Beyond was an inner apartment.
"You are the first man, except Nicholas my brother," she said, "who has ever been in here. Remember that, please, and be very obedient. You will do all that I tell you. Will you promise?"
"Blindly," he answered, "if you will ask me nothing impossible."
"I shall not do that. I am going to ask you something for your own good. You must leave off writing those letters to the English newspapers."
He was suddenly very quiet and still. But he turned and looked at her.
"Because it is for your safety, for the good of Theos, and because it is my wish."
"Your wish—and whose else?"
There was a moment's silence. She saw signs of a new sternness about the closely-drawn lips, the steel-grey eyes, from which a momentary tenderness seemed to have vanished.
"It is true, then, what I hear," he said, slowly. "Your brother has deserted the King?"
The change in her mood matched his. She drew herself up and looked at him with flashing eyes and uplifted head.
"My brother will not continue his allegiance to a sovereign who proposes to raise a tradesman's daughter to the throne of Theos, and who has offered an insult to our family."
"I am sorry to hear you talk like this," he answered. "The King has not willingly affronted you. It was your brother to whom he owes his throne. He has not forgotten it—he is never likely to forget it. He regarded you both as his best friends here. As for Sara Van Decht, the King would take no step without the sanction and consent of his people. She will be one of the richest women in Europe, and the whole of her dowry would be spent for the good of Theos. Even then if the voice of the people were against it the King would yield. The one aim of his life is the welfare of Theos and her people."
"So far in his care of them," she said, scornfully, "he has met with but little success. When before have the Turks crossed the frontier of our territory? When before have we been in such grievous straits as these?"
"For these things," he answered, "the King is blameless. This invasion of Theos is a long planned undertaking. Nothing could have stopped it. I believe that no other man in the world would have met the situation with so much skill and so resourcefully."
She was silent for a moment. Her very calmness seemed ominous. It seemed to him that underneath she was trembling with passion.
"Marie," he said, "I wonder that you are so blinded by this senseless prejudice against the King. But leave him for the moment out of the question. You love your country. For centuries the name of your family has been a great one in the history of Theos. Yet to-day both you and your brother are making a terrible mistake. You are drifting towards her enemies."
"Enough!" she cried. "I can see that you are still for the King."
"Most surely," he answered.
"You will not discontinue those letters?"
She pointed to the door.
"Find your way out—if you can," she ordered, furiously. "I do not care what becomes of you. Only leave me!"
He took a quick step towards her, and grasped her wrists.
"Marie," he said, with a sudden hoarse passion, "you can send me out to be shot if you like, but you shall kiss me first."
Her anger passed away like magic. Her slender arms drew his face down to hers. Her eyes were soft with tears.
"Dear," she murmured, "you shall not leave me like this. I thought that you had come here to join us—because you knew that I wanted you. And you speak only of the King as your friend—who is our enemy. Will you not be reasonable? There are brighter days in store for Theos. Stay with us and share them."
He shook his head sadly.
"You are being deceived," he said. "There is only one man who can save this country, and that man is Ughtred of Tyrnaus. He is honest—Domiloff is a rogue. These schemes of his have but one possible ending, and that is slavery for Theos—the total loss of her independence. Oh, it is all so plain, Marie—Domiloff's wiles are so transparent. Let me see your brother and reconcile him to the King."
"It is too late," she answered. "It is impossible."
"I have come here with a message from the King to him," he declared. "I must at least deliver it."
Her eyes gleamed with passion. Suddenly she threw her arms around his neck.
"You are very foolish, and I don't know why I should care for you," she cried, "but I do, I do! Listen. This is not your country. You are not a Thetian subject; the King has no claim upon you. If you will not help us, go away until it is all over. You can easily do that. Go away and wait. I will send for you when it is all over. You will see then that I was right. No! you must not kiss me any more, dear. You must do as I say. Listen!"
She sprang away from him. There were footsteps in the corridor outside. Her face was ashen, a look of terror flashed in her eyes.
"They have found you out," she cried. "It is Domiloff and his men. Heaven help us!"
But, after all, it was only Nicholas of Reist who entered. He closed the door behind him carefully, and approached them. Brand stepped forward.
"I have a message for you," he said.
"A message which it seems you found necessary to deliver to my sister," he remarked. "I have not been informed of your desire to see me."
"I should not have left the house without doing so," Brand answered. "My message is from the King."
Reist stood motionless before the window. In the clear daylight the physical change in the man was painful enough to witness. The flesh had fallen away from his cheeks, leaving great hollows underneath his eyes. His forehead was furrowed with lines, his pallor was unnatural and unwholesome. Brand saw these things, and wondered more than ever how the defection of such a man could have been brought about.
"The King bade me seek you out and remind you that in all human probability before to-morrow's sun has set the great battle will have been fought. The Turks are concentrating before Solika, and it is there that we shall fight. Your men are asking for you. At such a crisis in the history of your country the King does not believe that you will be content to sit in idleness. He bids you come, and afterwards seek for redress, if any is needed, in the matters which rest between you and him."
"I thank you," Reist said, slowly. "To the King I return no answer to his message. To you I say this. I have lost confidence in Ughtred of Tyrnaus. I regret that my hand ever raised him to the throne. I recognize him no longer as the ruler of this country."
"Then you are a rebel?" Brand exclaimed. "Is that what you mean?"
Reist's dark eyes were lit with fire.
"Be careful, sir," he said, fiercely. "Those are not the words to be used to a Duke of Reist. By inheritance and by virtue of my name I, too, am the guardian of these people of Theos. I have lived with them all my life, as did my fathers and my grandfathers before me. Their freedom and their happiness are a solemn charge to me. I have come to the conclusion that Ughtred of Tyrnaus is not able to maintain for them either."
"Then who is?" Brand asked. "This war is none of his seeking. How in God's name could he do more for Theos than stand at the head of her people with drawn sword, prepared to die rather than submit to this barbarous invasion? Is there higher patriotism than this?"
"The King is your friend," Reist answered, "and you judge him from your own standpoint. Yet I am willing to admit that he is a brave man. Few cowards have ever sprung from Thetian stock. But bravery is not everything, and in the present case it can avail him nothing. The odds are too overwhelming. If Theos is to be saved it will not be at the point of the sword."
Brand was within an ace of losing his temper. His cheeks were flushed and his voice was not so steady as usual.
"Theos will never be saved by those who plot with such rogues as Domiloff behind the city walls," he exclaimed. "Duke of Reist, I know you to be a brave man, or I would not dare to use these words to you. You are being grossly deceived. The Turks, and now you, are the catspaw of Russia. Domiloff's mission is to secure Theos for a Russian state. Oh, can't you see through his miserable scheming? I am an outsider in the game. Perhaps for that reason I am the better judge—I see the clearer. It is so simple! There will be a supposed rising of the people. You, or another of Domiloff's puppets, will be set up as King or Protector. The hand of Turkey will be stayed I grant you, but at the cost of an indemnity which you will never be able to pay. There will be a Russian loan, secured upon the customs and the receipts of the country. Every link in the chain of bondage is as clear as day. Russians will stream over your frontiers and settle in your cities. Everywhere Theos will have to give way to the new influence. In ten years at the most the thing will be complete. Theos will become a second Poland. Duke of Reist, you are at heart a patriot and a brave soldier, but you are no match for Domiloff in what he would call his modern diplomacy. Arrest him. His presence in the city is illegal. You have every justification. Out to the camp and take your place by the King's side. I know something of war, and I know that your cause is far from hopeless. At least you can hold the Turks in check, and I tell you that intervention is no longer a dream. England is at this moment hesitating, and if she moves Germany will stand by her. Don't make the mistake of your life. Take down your sword, order your horses and ride with me to Solika."
It was obvious that Reist was moved. A spot of colour burned in his cheeks, and he glanced for a moment at his sister as though for guidance. She too was agitated. Brand turned to her.
"Countess," he exclaimed, "will you not add your words to mine? I come here as your friend. The King is guiltless of all offence towards you. Plead with your brother. Beg him to ride with me to the King."
She laid her hand softly upon his.
"My friend," she said, "you have spoken like a brave man and an honest man, and both my brother and I respect you very much for it. But you are a stranger here, and we are Thetians. We know our country and her needs better than you. We do not believe that Ughtred of Tyrnaus is the man to save her. He is too, what you call in the west, democratic for an ancient kingdom. The heart of the people is not with him. As for Domiloff, we do not trust wholly to him. We are not quite so blind as you would have us believe. Yet we need friends—and, believe me—we shall know how to reward them. Stay here with us, Mr. Brand. We will try to treat you so that you shall never regret it."
The upward glance of her dark eyes was eloquent enough, but Brand only shook his head.
"I am for the King," he said.
"And I," the Duke of Reist said, with a sudden vehemence, "am for my country. Mr. Brand, you are answered. You have my permission to repeat the whole of our conversation to the King. Now as to yourself. You are a brave man, and I do not care to see harm come to such. Leave this house at once. Marie will show you an exit from this side. You are in danger from which even I am powerless to protect you."
"I thank you," Brand answered, taking up his hat. "Your friend Domiloff is, I suppose, still anxious as to my whereabouts. And in all probability—here he is."
There was a sharp tap at the door. Marie and her brother exchanged quick glances. Brand stepped forward, but Marie waved him back.
"Who is there?" she called out.
"It is I, Baron Domiloff," was the suave answer. "I regret very much to intrude, but I have urgent business with your friend Mr. Brand. Can I come in?"
She hesitated. After all, any attempt to keep him out must be futile.
"You can come in," she answered.
The door opened, and Domiloff entered. He bowed low before the Countess, but there was an evil smile upon his lips when his eyes met Brand's.
"This is a very fortunate meeting, Mr. Brand," he declared. "It saves us the trouble of searching for you. Only an hour ago, my dear sir, the Countess and I were speaking of you."
"So far as the Countess was concerned," Brand answered, dryly, "I am honoured."
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders. He turned to Nicholas with a smile which was meant to be good-humoured.
"Mr. Brand imagines perhaps that I bear him some ill-will for that previous little rencontre between us, in which, by the bye, I must admit that I had very much the worst of it. I can assure him most sincerely that it is not so."
Brand shrugged his shoulders.
"We have met since then, Baron Domiloff, I think," he said, "and even you must admit that a revolver bullet through one's hat is scarcely a message of good will."
Domiloff was bewildered. Was this a joke, or was his friend—his very good friend, Mr. Walter Brand—under some hallucination? Brand turned from him impatiently.
"The matter is not one which will repay discussion," he said. "Countess, I regret that I must offer you my adieux."
Domiloff held up his hand.
"One moment," he said, persuasively. "We are all three here together now, and the opportunity is too excellent to be lost. The Duke of Reist, the Countess, and I have something in common to say to you. You will spare us a few moments—and your best attention, my dear Mr. Brand."
"By all means," Brand answered. "'Something in common' to say to me sounds interesting. I am at your service."
"It concerns the daily letters which you cable from here to London on behalf of the newspaper to which you are attached," Domiloff said, slowly.
"Indeed," Brand answered. "I am flattered that you should have troubled to read them."
"From a literary point of view," Domiloff admitted, "they are admirable. Politically I regret to say that we find them mischievous."
Brand laughed scornfully.
"Perhaps you are not altogether an impartial judge," he remarked. "Will you proceed, please?"
"Those letters, I am afraid, must be discontinued," Domiloff said.
Brand stared at him.
"Don't talk rubbish," he exclaimed. "'Must be discontinued,' indeed! Why, I consider your objection to them the highest compliment which I could possibly receive. As if anything which you could say would make me alter my views."
Domiloff smiled. It was a very faint, but a very evil smile.
"It is not," he protested, "what I might say, but what I might do. I take it for granted that either the Duke of Reist or the Countess has spoken with you on this matter, and I will not therefore waste my breath. It is sufficient to tell you this! Your present attitude is harmful to what we consider the best interests of Theos. You must either undertake to send no more cables or remain here as our prisoner."
Brand glanced towards the Countess, and in his eyes there was a merciless inquisitive light.
"So I am in a nest of conspirators," he remarked, dryly. "There is no longer any doubt about it. I do not know, Baron Domiloff, what magic you use to pervert honest men, but your success is certainly astounding. Now let me pass."
With a quick movement his revolver flashed out, and Domiloff was covered. Perfectly self-possessed, the Russian bowed, and stood away from the door, but Brand reached it only to be confronted by half-a-dozen naked sabres. The landing was held by a small company of Russian soldiers.
"For the protection of the Russian Embassy," Baron Domiloff remarked, sardonically. "Now, Mr. Brand, will you put your revolver away, and listen to reason?"
Brand turned to Marie. He was white with rage.
"Countess," he demanded. "I entered this room at your invitation. Was this arranged for? Is this a trap of your setting?"
A little cry of pain broke from her lips. She recovered herself almost immediately.
"Did I know," she asked, "that you were coming?"
He was silent. In his heart he had already absolved her.
"Countess," he said, "forgive me. I spoke hastily. Duke of Reist, I appeal to you. This is your house, and I entered it openly and upon a legitimate errand. I remained here as your guest. I demand a safe conduct from it. Order that man to remove his soldiers."
Marie stepped forward.
"Nicholas," she cried, "he is right. We cannot have the Reist house turned into a nest of brigands. Baron Domiloff, these are my apartments. Your presence is an intrusion which I do not choose to tolerate. Be so good as to withdraw and take your men with you."