"My dear lady," he declared, "it is impossible."
A fierce answer trembled upon Marie's lips, but Nicholas held out his hand.
"Silence, Marie," he said. "Mr. Brand has made an appeal which it is very difficult for me to ignore. He is under my roof, and to some extent he is entitled to my protection. But there are limits to the obligations even of hospitality. There have been things spoken of in his presence which must not be repeated."
"The safety and welfare of Theos," Domiloff said, solemnly, "must eclipse all other considerations. Mr. Brand came here of his own accord."
Reist turned to Brand.
"Are you prepared," he said, "to keep silence as to all that has transpired since you crossed the threshold of this house? I will be content with your word of honour."
"No!" Brand answered, firmly. "I cannot make any such promise."
Marie turned upon them both with flaming cheeks.
"Let the King know all," she cried. "What does it matter now? This is my house, as well as yours, Nicholas, and I say that Mr. Brand shall leave it when and how he pleases. Baron Domiloff, I order you to withdraw, and take your soldiers with you."
But Domiloff only shook his head.
"Countess," he said, "for your brother's sake and the sake of Theos I cannot do as you ask. This man's silence for a few days at least is the one thing necessary to secure our success."
"Then my silence will be the silence of death," Brand answered, fiercely. "If you will not let me pass peaceably, I shall fight my way as far as I am able. Stand away, Domiloff. You cursed spy."
Marie sprang between them. She pushed Brand back.
"Nicholas," she said, "this is not your affair. It is between Baron Domiloff and myself. You recognize that?"
"Entirely!" he answered.
"Then will you leave it in my hands?" she begged.
He hesitated for a moment, but a glance into her face reassured him.
"I am content," he said, and left them.
She turned to Domiloff.
"Baron," she said, "if you do not let Mr. Brand pass unhurt our compact is at an end."
He held up his hands in eager expostulation.
"I wish your friend no harm, Countess," he declared, "but believe me, his reports are doing us every possible injury. Besides, he will carry word of this to the King. It is impossible to let him go. I will withdraw my men if you like, while you reason with him. It is his silence only we require."
She turned to Brand.
"My silence," he answered, "is not to be bought. The King is my friend, and his cause is mine. Apart from that it is my duty as an honest man to upset the scheming of such rogues as that," he pointed to Domiloff. "In two minutes, Countess, I shall leave this room—dead or alive."
Domiloff was very pale, but he remained calm. Marie left him and placed her hands in Brand's. She looked up into his face fondly.
"You are quite right," she said. "I honour you for your words."
Then she turned to Domiloff.
"Listen," she said. "You will permit Mr. Brand to pass uninjured, or I shall go at once to Nicholas, and tell him not only all that I know, but what I suspect. You understand me! I shall tell him—the whole truth. I go also to the King, and I tell him—the whole truth. I go also to the House of Laws, I anticipate your proclamation to them, and I announce—the whole truth. These are not empty threats. I swear to you that I will do these things."
Domiloff regarded her thoughtfully. His expression was inscrutable.
"You will not risk the success of all our plans," he said, slowly. "You will even sacrifice your country that this man may go safely. You are serious? It is in your mind that you are the Countess Marie of Reist, and he—the paid writer in an English newspaper. Forgive me that I speak of this. It is incredible."
"It is nevertheless true," she answered, firmly. "Your answer."
He bowed low.
"Mr. Walter Brand," he said, "is fortunate. He is welcome to depart."
She crossed the room, and from a cedar box on the mantelshelf drew out a small shining revolver. She stood facing Domiloff.
"My friend," she said, "so I shall remain until Mr. Brand has left the house and waves to me from the street below. And if there is treachery I give you my word that I shall fire. You have seen me use a revolver. You know that this is not play with me."
"Mr. Brand," he repeated, "is fortunate indeed."
Once more the beacons flared in a long, lurid line from the mountain-tops, rockets screamed into the night, and away from south of Solika came the heavy roll of guns plainly to be heard in the anxious city. Rumours were plentiful. The Turks were already streaming through the passes! A great battle was on hand! Solika had fallen! The streets and squares of Theos were filled with an excited and restless mob, mostly composed of old men, children, and women, with a sprinkling of foreigners. The outdoor cafes were filled, people stood about in little knots together, talking eagerly. Up at the railway station a constant stream of refugees waited patiently for trains to take them northwards.
There were no trams running, or carriages. The Government had subsidized the horses, and most of the men had gone to the front. All night long gangs of navvies in squads were working at the fortifications by searchlight. From all the country places stores were pouring in.
Towards morning the roar of distant artillery increased, and those who listened keenly fancied that they could hear the sharper rattle of Maxims and machine-guns. Trains began to crawl in from the front full of wounded. From them something of the truth was gathered. The King had made a forced march, himself had crossed the frontier, and fiercely attacked the Turkish army. So far all had gone well. The Turks were falling back, and had already lost two guns.
In the grey dawn Sara hastened to the hospital, which was already almost full. The regular nurses were out at the front, and their places were mostly taken by volunteers—the suggestion having come from Sara herself. Everywhere the news was being eagerly discussed. Solika was being turned into a military base. At Althea the position had been so strengthened as to be now impregnable. The King was the idol of his army, and the military fever burned fiercely.
At midday, news! A telegram from Solika announced that the King was returning across the frontier, having completely scattered the Turkish army, inflicted great loss upon them, and captured four guns. The Town Master caused a copy of the telegram to be posted in the market-place, and the bells of the Cathedral were rung. Later on it was whispered about that the victory had come very near being turned into total and irredeemable disaster. For the Thetians, chasing the flying Turks through a difficult country, were suddenly met by an unexpected rally, and stretching on both sides of them like a gigantic crescent was a great army of reinforcements. With great skill Ughtred had extricated his army, and regained the shelter of Solika. But the joy of their victory was damped. The enemy were in strength which seemed absolutely overwhelming.
Towards afternoon there came shouts from the railway station. Through the crowd, which gave him clear passage, cheering vigorously, Ughtred was driven towards the palace. He looked pale and dishevelled, and his uniform showed that he had not been an idle spectator of the fighting. He waved his hand affectionately to the crowd, but was clearly preoccupied. At the palace he sent for his State Secretary and Mr. Thexis, the leader of the Government party in the House of Laws. An informal Council meeting was summoned, and hastily attended by the leading members of the House.
* * * * *
An hour afterwards Sara was summoned from the midst of her work at the hospital by an urgent note. At the Villa she found Ughtred waiting for her.
"You," she cried, softly. "How dare you fetch me away from my work?"
Then, as a clearer impression of his appearance came to her, standing in the white noonday sunshine, she became anxious.
"You are not hurt?" she cried. "Nothing has gone amiss?"
He tightened his clasp upon her hands.
"Hurt, no! I took too great care of myself. We have won our first battle, too, Sara. My men fought splendidly."
"At the hospital," she said, "even the badly wounded are full of enthusiasm. Tell me! You have more news, have you not?"
"We crossed the border in pursuit," he said, "and we saw with our own eyes what the scouts who are coming in continually report. The whole of the Turkish army has been mobilized, and is being massed upon our borders. That is to say, two hundred thousand of the finest soldiers in the world are almost at our gates. All told, we number sixteen thousand."
The tears stood in her eyes. She pressed his hands silently.
"I'm afraid I don't understand these things," she said, "but an unprovoked attack like this seems like a return to ancient history. It is barbarous. Can you not appeal to the Powers?"
"That I have done," he answered, sadly, "but you must remember that this is the fruit of Russia's intrigue. Turkey is only a catspaw. She holds France, of course, and the eternal policy of Germany is to keep friends with Russia. There is only England."
"England," she cried, hopefully. "Why you are half English yourself. England will surely interfere."
"It is a great deal to ask," he answered, seriously. "My friendship can be of little account to her, and it is asking her to risk a war for the sake of an abstract principle. Diplomatically, England would be very unwise to interfere. As a great and generous country I have appealed to her. But, Sara, I have little hope."
"And if she does not?"
"If she does not I shall put the issue plainly before my people. If they prefer a glorious death to serfdom, I too, being of their mind, shall fight till this war becomes a massacre."
She smiled at him bravely.
"Europe will never permit it, dear," she said. "It would be too terrible. See, I have faith in your destiny—and my luck. I am not even afraid."
The courtyard rang with the sound of hoofs. A messenger from the telegraph corps entered at the King's summons.
"Your Majesty," he announced, "I have to announce that an hour ago a trainload of Cossacks, numbering about five hundred, arrived at the frontier and demanded permission to continue their journey to Theos. Captain Operman, in accordance with your instructions, demanded their passport. They had none to give, but their colonel produced papers which contained their route to Theos for the protection of the Russian Embassy there. In further accordance with your Majesty's instructions, Captain Operman then replied that Theos was in a perfectly peaceful state, and the Russian Embassy was amply protected by its flag from both belligerents. The colonel in command of the Cossacks replied that his orders were absolute to proceed to Theos, and he had no alternative but to obey them. Captain Operman replied that his orders too were absolute, and he could not permit an armed body of men to cross the frontier. In reply to this the Russians were ordered to at once entrain. Captain Operman once more protested, and announced, according to your Majesty's instructions, that any further advance on the part of the Cossacks would constitute an invasion and be recognized as an act of war. There being no reply to this, your Majesty's instructions were successfully carried out to the letter."
"Tell me exactly what happened," Ughtred asked.
"The whole of the rolling-stock available was blown up and the railway line destroyed beyond the possibility of immediate repair at a dozen places. I regret to add that several of the Cossacks were slightly injured by the explosion."
"And is there any message from Captain Operman with reference to horses?" Ughtred asked.
"In this direction also," the messenger replied, "your Majesty's instructions have been carefully carried out. The country has been absolutely denuded of horses. It will be impossible for the Russians to obtain more than a dozen at the outside."
"Captain Operman has carried out my instructions faithfully and well," Ughtred replied.
The messenger bowed.
"I was further desired to report, your Majesty," he added, "that word has just arrived that a series of explosions have occurred at different points along the line on the other side of the frontier. Captain Operman makes no report to your Majesty concerning these, but he desires me to say that their effect will be to retard all communication with Russia for several days at least."
The King smiled.
"I am well served indeed," he said. "What has become of the Cossacks?"
"They are quartered at the station buildings, your Majesty. There is no stock of provisions whatever in the vicinity, and in case they should attempt to march to Theos all the farms en route have been warned to remove their cattle and stores."
"You will present my compliments and thanks to Captain Operman," the King said, "and you will congratulate him on the success and spirit with which he has carried out my orders. Further, you will request him to report himself to me at headquarters at the earliest possible opportunity."
The messenger bowed and withdrew. Ughtred rose and paced the room thoughtfully.
"I expected this move of Domiloff's," he said, looking towards Sara. "You see Theos itself is in a queer state. Every honest man who can bear arms is at the front. There remain in the city only a horde of Russian Jews, who I suspect have been drafted in a few at a time, and are only waiting a signal from Domiloff to begin rioting."
He touched a bell.
"Let me speak to Mr. Ruttens," he ordered. "He was in the ante-room a few minutes ago."
"What are you going to do?" Sara asked.
"I am going to try and arrest Domiloff," he answered. "I fear that it is quite useless, but an attempt must be made. There will be some mischief before long if he is left alone."
Sara rose up and came to his side.
"There are other traitors in the city besides Domiloff," she said, "if what they are saying is true."
A deeper shadow fell upon the King's face.
"You mean the Reists?"
"It is common report."
"Nicholas of Reist has withdrawn his allegiance to me," Ughtred said. "Yet I do not believe that he would be concerned in anything absolutely traitorous. As for the Countess—I fear that I have incurred her ill-will. She is friendly too, they say, with Domiloff. I cannot see though what mischief she can do. Ruttens," he added, turning towards the door, "are there sufficient police left in Theos to effect the arrest of one man?"
Ruttens, grey-bearded, long since a pensioner, saluted the King respectfully.
"Your Majesty," he answered, "it depends upon the man."
"The man is Baron Domiloff!"
Ruttens shook his head.
"Your Majesty," he said, "we can make the attempt. Yesterday it would have been possible enough. But last night half the veterans and weaklings who have been enrolled as special police deserted."
"Deserted!" the King exclaimed, frowning.
"Deserted in order to make their way to the front, your Majesty. Old Kennestoff, who is eighty years old, got out his rifle and went, and a dozen more well nigh his age. I myself——"
He hesitated. The King's face had cleared.
"You had my orders, Ruttens, and my special commission. A few good men we must have in Theos."
"There are rascals enough, your Majesty," Ruttens said, with grave face. "There are a good many aliens, too, whose presence here I cannot understand. They pay their way, and hang round the squares in little groups, always whispering to themselves. They call themselves farmers and shopkeepers from the frontier, but there is little of the Thetian in their faces to my mind. The city were healthier cleared of them, your Majesty."
The King smiled bitterly.
"But how, my good Ruttens?" he exclaimed. "You and your few veterans would be powerless against them."
"It is true, your Majesty," he answered. "To be frank, I have put them down in my mind as creatures of Domiloff. And though to-day I will endeavour to effect his arrest I fear very much that he is well guarded against anything of the sort."
Once more the courtyard rang with the clatter of hoofs. There was commotion below and in the palace.
"It is word from the front," the King cried.
The messenger stood before him.
"Your Majesty," he announced, "General Dartnoff has telegraphed that he is engaged. He adds that there seems to be some extensive movement preparing."
Ughtred tore himself away. Sara choked back a sob, and held out both her hands. At the moment of parting they were alone.
"Good-bye, dear," she whispered. "Do your best and have faith. I am not afraid for you or for Theos."
He kissed her and galloped away, followed by his few attendants. Her cheerfulness was inspiring. His heart swelled with pride at the thought of her. She had destroyed forever his lingering superstition as to the obligations of race—she a daughter of the democracy with the heart and courage of a queen. Ughtred had passed through his one hour of weakness. As the engine with its one solitary carriage tore across the plain to Solika a new and finer hopefulness was born in him. Her words and her steadfast optimism had fired his blood. He would fight his country's enemy so that for very shame Europe should cry "Hold!"
In his room, with heavy curtains closely drawn across the barred windows to keep from his ears the distant mutterings of the guns, Nicholas of Reist sat in torment. From below in the square he had heard the people's farewell to the King as he had hastened back to the scene of action—the echoes of the city's varying moods floated up to him from hour to hour. And whilst all was activity, ceaseless, restless, he alone of the men of Theos sat idle, his hands before him, waiting for he knew not what. It was indeed torment. The blood of his fighting forefathers was burning in his veins. To linger here in miserable inaction whilst the war music throbbed in his ears was like torture to him. Even Domiloff had found it best for the last few days to leave him alone. Besides, Domiloff was busy.
In a small room at the back of the house the Russian was receiving a visitor. Before the door were half-a-dozen soldiers, and the bolts were closely drawn. Yet even then the conversation between the two men was tense and nervous.
"To have ventured here yourself," Domiloff said, drawing the shade more closely over the lamp, "seems to me, my dear Hassen, a little like bravado. You hold the wits of this people a little too cheaply. I am not yet strong enough to protect you. If you are recognized you will be shot at sight."
"One runs risks always," the other answered carelessly, "and besides it is your fault that I am here. Your inaction is unaccountable. There has been no message from you for three days. I am afraid that you are bungling matters."
"And you—what of you?" the other answered, hotly. "What were your men doing at Solika to be driven back by a handful of half-trained farmers? I expected the Turks at Theos to-day, and all would have been well. Yet with eighty thousand men you do nothing. You too who have boasted of your soldiers and your artillery as the equal of any in Europe."
The visitor shrugged his shoulders.
"Domiloff," he said, "you are irritated and nervous. Be careful what you say. I admit that so far we have been checked, but it is not sense to talk of half-trained farmers. Ughtred of Tyrnaus is a fine soldier. Mind, I was with him in Egypt, and he had a sound training there. His dispositions against attack are excellent. He has evidently been thinking them out since first he came here. Then you told us that he had no modern artillery at all."
"He had not, then," Domiloff answered. "These batteries were a present from a rich fool of an American or his daughter."
"The fair Sara Van Decht! I heard that she was here."
"You know her?"
"She visited at Colonel Erlito's in London," Hassen answered. "So did I. But that is of no consequence. You very well know that we relied upon your help to finish this campaign quickly. So far you have done nothing. Perhaps you do not understand the reason for haste. Let me tell you this. Even now the message is before the Sultan waiting for his signature which will recall the troops and bring the invasion to an end."
"Gorteneff is in Constantinople himself," Domiloff answered. "He will not allow it to be signed."
"Gorteneff! So is Sir Henry White in Constantinople. You seem to forget that."
Domiloff's face was black.
"White! The Englishman! Bah! You will not tell me that your master fears the English any more. Their day is over. They have no longer a place amongst the Powers."
"You exaggerate," he said. "England is the only country in Europe at least who could bring our master's palace about his ears in twenty-four hours, and make beautiful Constantinople a heap of blackened ruins. No, no, Domiloff. My master is wishful to serve you. We are here—so far we have done all the work—it is for your aid now we ask. That is only fair. You do not seem to understand the real reason for haste. I know that at any moment the protest which White has already presented may be followed by an ultimatum."
"And your master would regard it?"
"I am very sure that he would," Hassen answered, promptly. "It is not worth while attempting to deceive you. If England is really no longer a country worthy of consideration, fight her yourself. I am very sure that we shall not. And you must remember this, Domiloff, the agitation throughout England in favour of Theos is fed day by day with letters from this very city. The writer must be with you all the time. Yet you permit him to continue—you with your unscrupulousness and your secret agents. England's intervention, if she does intervene, is entirely your fault."
"Damn that fellow," Domiloff muttered through his teeth.
"You know who it is!" Hassen exclaimed.
"And you permit him to continue? You have made no effort to close his mouth?"
"Oh, I have tried," Domiloff answered, hastily. "He is an Englishman, and he cannot be bought. He will not listen to reason. And so far as regards other means we have been unfortunate. He has a hat with two bullet holes in it."
Hassen caught up his hat.
"Oh, I think that it is of no use my staying here," he said. "The Domiloff I have heard of and used to know is not any more in existence. That is very certain. You have let the man write these letters day by day; you have had him within the city all this time, and all that you can tell me is that 'he has a hat with two bullet holes in,' 'you have been unfortunate.' Bah! The man who makes history is not the man who fails in a trifle like that."
Domiloff ground his teeth together, but he kept his temper.
"My friend," he said, "that is all very well. But you do not understand everything. This man is the lover of the Countess of Reist. Any hurt to him would be a mortal affront to her."
"Cannot she make him hold his tongue?" Hassen asked. "If he is her lover she should surely be able to bring him to our side. The girl is pretty enough. Surely the Englishman is not a Joseph?"
"He is English, and that is worse," Domiloff answered. "But this very day we caught him here in this house. She appealed to him—offered him every inducement, implored him to cease those letters. His obstinacy was amazing. Neither my threats nor her prayers and promises availed. I ordered him to be seized, and then what must she do but turn round and swear that if he were touched she would go to the King—and she would have done it."
"So he got away?"
"He got away."
"Domiloff," he said, "it is farewell. I do not come again. Our compact is at an end. You are getting old, Domiloff. The days at Stamboul are long past. 'He got away.' A change like this in a man is marvellous."
Domiloff stood before the door. He was very pale, and his face was not pleasant to look upon.
"Stay where you are, Hassen," he said. "You have come here, it seems, to reproach me for inaction, for not having helped you sufficiently from within the city. Well, it is possible that I have relied too much upon the result of your coming into touch with the Thetians. I expected your army here before this, Hassen. However, you did not come here only to complain, eh? You have a suggestion perhaps. Well, let me hear it. As for the Englishman, I will risk the anger of Marie of Reist. He shall not write another letter. Now what beyond that? I am ready. The city is full of my agents. If only I were to give the word, Hassen, you would never leave the city alive."
Hassen laughed scornfully.
"I have passed through the Thetian lines," he said, "and made my way alone here, so it is not likely that death could come nearer to me than this. But, Domiloff, you talk now more like a man. I will admit that what you said is truth. I have come here with a scheme in mind, and it is a good scheme."
"Then waste no more time," Domiloff said, quickly, "go on."
"There is in it," Hassen said, "a personal element. In truth my master has disappointed me in this campaign. I should have been given the entire command, and instead I have only a corps. Now I am stationed, as you know, not at Solika, but at Althea. Therefore, it is my men whom I would like to bring into Theos whilst Mellet Pascha, who has my place, is still held back at Solika."
"That is reasonable," he said, "but the Althea passes are impregnable. I do not think that they can be taken by assault at all."
"Nor I," Hassen answered, dryly. "I want a safe conduct through them."
Domiloff looked up quickly.
"I see. But Klipper, who is in command there, is incorruptible."
"Klipper must be removed then. Now what about the Duke of Reist, Domiloff? He is on our side, is he not?"
"He is on our side," Domiloff answered, slowly, "but unfortunately he has quarrelled with the King. He is in the house at this moment."
"Quarrelled? What folly. Domiloff, you seem to have bungled everything you have touched lately. What is the good of Reist to us when he sits here sulking?"
"The good of him," Domiloff repeated. "Why he is to be our puppet King—for a month or so. He is simply invaluable. Besides, his absence from the army has set people talking about the King. It has created dissatisfaction."
"That is all very well, Domiloff," Hassen said, "but have you ever considered how very much more useful Reist would be to us if he were outwardly on friendly terms with the King, near him now and at the head of his men—and all the time ours?"
"It is without doubt true, but you do not know Nicholas of Reist," Domiloff said, dryly. "He is not of the stuff from which conspirators are fashioned. This quarrel with the King has cost me endless trouble. He would never play a traitor's part, as he would call it, secretly."
Hassen smiled grimly.
"Listen, Domiloff," he said. "If Nicholas of Reist were to go to the King and hold out his hand, and beg his pardon, would the King receive him?"
"Would he give him the command at Althea if he were to ask for it?"
"Without a doubt."
"Then he must ask for it and get it. Then I will talk to him if you find him so difficult. These are not times for neutrality. He must be for the King or against the King. With the Althean passes unguarded for an hour the thing is done. Then there can be as much intervention as you like. Theos will be ours."
Domiloff stood silent, with knitted brows and downcast eyes.
"The scheme is good," he said, "but I fear very much whether Reist will consent."
"He will have to," Hassen answered, coolly. "He is your man, is he not? He has already committed himself too deeply to draw back. You can show him that it is for the salvation of Theos."
"You shall show him yourself," Domiloff answered. "I will take you to him. You will understand then the mood of the man with whom we have to deal."
Hassen held up his hand.
"You forget," he said. "The Duke of Reist and I are ancient enemies. I was in command when we raided the frontier ten years ago. Perhaps my men were a little rough to their prisoners—I forget the circumstances now, but there was trouble between us."
Domiloff shrugged his shoulders.
"So was I his enemy a short time ago," he answered. "It is barely a month since the name of a Russian was like poison to him. But those things are forgotten now. Reist is ours—absolutely. Our friends must be his friends, and our enemies his. So I shall take you to him. Believe me, it will be best."
Even then Hassen hesitated. The memory of Reist's outburst in London was still before him. But Domiloff had already opened the door.
"Come," he said, softly, "I know that Reist is alone."
It seemed to Reist that this was the supreme moment of his indignity. He stood before the two men, white-faced, hollow-eyed, speechless. And Marie, who had joined their councils, watched him anxiously.
"Nicholas," she said, "this may sound to you a terrible thing. Indeed, I myself wish that there were another way. But there are many things to be considered. It will save bloodshed, and it will end the war. With Theos lost, Ughtred and the Solika army must surrender. After that——"
"Aye, after that," Reist interrupted, fiercely. "Let me hear what Domiloff has to say. After that!"
"The rest is simplicity itself," Domiloff said, coolly. "A meeting of the House of Laws shall be called, and the Turkish army shall be withdrawn across the frontier. Sentence of banishment shall be passed upon Ughtred of Tyrnaus, and you, Nicholas of Reist, shall be proclaimed King. Then there shall be peace in Theos—peace, and I hope, prosperity. We have gone over all this before, Reist. You must trust us. Our alliance is useless if every few minutes you lose faith."
"A passive treason was all that I promised," Reist said. "I undertook to break with the King, to give up my command in the army, and remain here. Nothing more! Surely that is enough for my share!"
"Under ordinary circumstances it would have been enough," Hassen said, "but in one or two instances the unexpected has intervened. This Englishman, whom you all seemed to have welcomed amongst you, has been indeed a firebrand. His letters have been read everywhere. In England they have done terrible mischief. In Germany, too, they have made trouble. We have therefore to end this matter swiftly—with one coup. We cannot now wait for the inevitable end. From your point of view, Duke, surely this is better so. The prosecution of this war would simply mean a devastated and depopulated Theos. Unless Ughtred of Tyrnaus surrendered quickly the bloodshed would be terrible, the end of course certain. Surely what we propose is the better way. You, Duke of Reist, who are a Thetian and a patriot, must——"
A sudden fire burst in Reist's dark eyes, the deep colour rushed into his cheeks. There was a breathless silence in the little room.
"Not that word," he said, slowly. "For God's sake not that word. I do not know what I am, or what men will call me when these terrible days have passed away. But the patriots are those who wait with Ughtred of Tyrnaus to give their lives for their country, those whose swords are unsheathed, and whose heart is stout for battle. I, who spend my gloomy days here, striving to keep the sound of those guns from my ears, skulking in the shadows, afraid even to show my face at the window—I am no patriot."
"The Duke of Reist does himself an injustice," Domiloff said, softly. "It is physical courage which fills a man's heart with the desire to fight—a greater thing than this is the moral courage which keeps a brave man inactive when he knows in his heart that inaction is best for his country."
"Oh, you are a subtle reasoner, Domiloff," Reist said, bitterly. "I cannot argue with you. Only I know that all Theos is standing sword in hand before our ancient enemies, and I am here. The weariness of it is intolerable."
"It is the nerves, my friend," Domiloff answered, cheerfully. "You need a good gallop, a little of this stinging air. Well, what we need of you is action, is it not?—and there is danger too."
"It goes beyond our bargain," Reist answered, in an agitated tone. "Once I never dreamed that you, Hassen, would pass the threshold of my door and leave it alive. As for such a thing as you ask—oh, I am not Judas enough for that."
"Nicholas," his sister said, quickly, "can you not see that it is a great deed. Think how many lives you will save. In years to come every woman of Theos who sees her husband by her side will remember that you were his preserver. Besides, it is too late now for hesitation. We have chosen our side, and we must work for our cause."
"The Countess is right," he said. "Do as we ask, Nicholas of Reist, and in a fortnight's time there will be no war or sign of war, and the people shall know to whom they owe their deliverance."
Reist smiled bitterly.
"My people," he said, "will never overwhelm me with gratitude. You do not know them as I do. A true Thetian would love best the man who led them into the jaws of death to fight for his liberty, even though the fight were in vain, than the man who made all things smooth and happy for him by skulking within four walls and intriguing with such men as you, Domiloff."
Hassen turned impatiently away.
"My friend," he said to Domiloff, "we waste our time here. Theos must take its chance. I am not disposed to wait any longer for the Duke of Reist's answer."
"Then you shall have it now," Reist said, facing them with a momentary reassertion of his old self. "I accept. In an hour I will ride out to Solika. But I shall do this thing my own way. Tell me only how I can communicate with you at Althea."
"It is easy," Hassen exclaimed. "I will explain."
He drew Reist on one side. The Countess and Domiloff exchanged quick glances. Then there came suddenly from below the sound of a measured tramping of feet in the square, halting before the great mail-studded door. Marie moved swiftly to the window.
"It is Ruttens," she announced, hurriedly, "the temporary commander of police. He has forty or fifty men with him, and they have formed a cordon around the door."
Hassen's hand flew to his sword. He looked towards Domiloff.
"What does this mean?" he exclaimed. "Have we been betrayed, Domiloff?"
"It is not you they seek," he said. "Reist, find out what they want."
There was the sound of heavy footsteps upon the stairs. Marie sprang towards the door, but she was too late. A servant had already thrown it open.
"Colonel Ruttens," he announced.
Domiloff, already stealing to the furthermost corner of the room, which was a large one, extinguished the solitary lamp and plunged the whole place into comparative darkness. Ruttens paused a few yards from the threshold and peered around him.
"Is the Duke of Reist here?" he asked.
Nicholas struck a match and lit a solitary candle. Its feeble flame did little more than reveal his own pale face.
"Here I am, Colonel Ruttens. What do you want with me?"
Colonel Ruttens saluted.
"With you—nothing, Duke," he answered. "Nothing, save your help, that is, in arresting a miscreant."
"Who is he?" Reist asked.
"The Baron Domiloff."
"He is a Russian subject," Reist said, slowly.
"I have a warrant for his arrest signed by the King," Ruttens answered. "Russian or no Russian he has been guilty of inciting to treason, of conspiring to bring a regiment of Cossacks into the city, and of using firearms in the street. Apart from which his very presence in the city is an offence, as he was banished by the King some time ago."
"And why do you come to me?" Reist asked.
"Because Baron Domiloff is at present in this house," Ruttens answered. "My men have surrounded it, and I have come first to you, Duke. I call upon you, as a loyal Thetian, to aid me in making this arrest."
"What right have you to assume that I should give shelter to Baron Domiloff?" Reist asked, quietly.
"I regret to say that he is known to be in this house," Ruttens answered. "Further, the fact that you, Duke, were also known to be here when every loyal Thetian is under arms, compelled me to assume that your attitude towards this Russian spy was not inimical."
Reist started as though struck. Immediately afterwards Ruttens' attention was attracted by the sound of stealthy footsteps in the further corner of the apartment. He half drew his sword and peered forward.
"Who is that?" he asked. "Duke of Reist, I have spared you the indignity of filling your house with police, but I must call upon you at once to hand over my prisoner. If not I shall summon my men. I have only to——"
He was powerless to utter another syllable. A strong pair of arms were around his neck, and a handkerchief thrust into his mouth. He only looked towards Reist, but the look was such that Reist felt the shameful colour flood his cheeks.
Hassen's dagger gleamed blue in the twilight, but Reist held out his hand.
"Listen," he said, "bind and gag him, and then escape by the western entrance. But no violence. He is an old man."
Hassen shrugged his shoulders, but Domiloff hastened to assent.
"There is no need to hurt him," he said. "Keep him here quietly for a while. I will order my men into the hall in case that motley crew below try to force an entrance. Countess, will you be showing our friend the way to the western exit? Reist, you must watch this man."
They hurried away. Reist stood quite still for a moment. His heart was thumping against his side. He bent over Ruttens and lifted the gag from his mouth.
"What was the signal to your men that they should follow you?" he whispered.
Ruttens caught his breath for a moment.
Reist seized a paper-weight from his table and dashed it through the nearest pane. The glass fell with a crash into the street below. There was an answering shout and a rush of feet. Domiloff rushed breathless in.
"What has happened?" he exclaimed.
"A stone thrown from the street below," he answered. "Quick, Domiloff, and escape. They are streaming in below. Why, they are fighting already."
Domiloff was pale with fear, but he forced a smile.
"I have friends in the city," he said. "They will not see me taken. Farewell, Reist! Remember!"
He hastened from the room. Reist stooped down and cut the cords which held Ruttens.
"Listen, Ruttens," he said. "I have plans of my own for saving Theos, and unfortunately Domiloff has been concerned in them. But that is over. You know the western entrance? He leaves by that. Quick!"
Ruttens staggered from the room. Already the sound of firearms rang out from the hall below.
"This is life," Brand said, blithely, as he leaped from his steaming horse.
"And death," Ughtred answered, gravely. "God grant that Theos may not know many days such as this."
Brand fixed his field-glasses and swept the scene below.
"Enemy advancing crescent shape in loose formation," he remarked. "Your men capitally entrenched. Masked guns, too, and cavalry in reserve. Your Majesty, how long have they been shelling the trenches?"
"All day," Ughtred answered, with a faint smile. "Our losses are less than fifty wounded. This is their second advance. The first cost them a thousand men."
An A. D. C. galloped up the hill with a report. Ughtred gave a few rapid orders and retired for a few minutes to consult with his officers. Below, the din of battle grew louder. Through the films of smoke multitudes of grey uniformed men could be seen creeping across the plain like ants, now hesitating and dropping, now running on from shelter to shelter. To Brand they seemed as numberless as the pebbles on the seashore. His face grew grave as he saw how near they were to the long zigzag line of entrenchments. The Thetian firing, too, had certainly slackened. A horrible idea flashed into his brain. If the weakening fire were due to lack of ammunition Theos was doomed.
He looked around. Ughtred and his staff were specks in the distance. They were hastening down to be nearer the scene of action. Brand caught his horse, and galloped after them. The battle fever seemed to be in the atmosphere. The afternoon heat was rendered more oppressive by a murky vapour rising from the valley. Below, it was difficult to see anything save the swarm of Turks creeping steadily on across the plain. Above their heads screamed the shells which were to pave the way for their advance. Brand hastened on, filled with misgivings.
At last he reached a spur of the hill from which an easy descent led down into the valley. From here he could see into the trenches, and his spirits revived. They were swarming with men, there were no signs of any panic. The King and his staff had halted almost within shouting distance, and protected from the enemy's fire only by a little clump of trees. Then Brand knew that there was method in this silence.
A long, clarion-like bugle-call, and then—a sudden upheaval of all the forces of destruction. From the heights above the pom-poms and Maxims sent down a murderous rain, the trenches from end to end belched forth red fire. Brand held his breath, it was an epoch—for a looker-on a marvellous experience—a page in the chapter of his life. The firing-line of the Turks was within four hundred yards of the trenches, and in thirty seconds they were wiped out of existence. The next line and the next shared the same fate. The Turkish officers galloped to the front with drawn sabres, the Mohammedan battle-cry, solemn and inspiring, rang fiercely out. It was useless. No living thing could face that zone of destruction. A dust rose from the bullet-riven ground. It was like a hail-storm upon an ocean. The Turks wavered and broke, and the Thetian cavalry rode them through and through, passing out of their broken ranks with blood-stained sabres and hearts aflame.
Ughtred, watching, saw the first signs of danger, and signalled for their withdrawal. But the lust of blood was awake in them, and they were drunk with the joy of fighting. They followed and followed till the Turks, out of that awful avalanche of death, became conscious that a thousand Thetian horsemen were not an invincible force. Their fight was checked, they were almost immediately surrounded, their leader fell shot through the heart, and a miracle was required to save the flower of the Thetian army.
A miracle which happened. For of a sudden a horseman, who had ridden in the ranks, his face shaded by a helmet, leaped to the front.
"A Reist! A Reist!" he cried, "for God and Theos," and once more the fear of numbers passed away. They fought like heroes, and in the melee without serious loss. They fought their way almost to the open, and their path was an avenue of blood. But how it might have gone with them no man could tell, for at the critical moment the whole cavalry reserve, with Ughtred himself at their head, fell upon the enemy's right flank, and the triumph of the day was assured. The Turks fled, and no further pursuit was attempted.
The man who had led that wonderful rally rode slowly back to his place in the ranks. But Ughtred, from whose left temple the blood was streaming, and whose arm was helpless, put his horse to the gallop and intercepted him.
"It was well done, Duke of Reist," he said. "Will you shake hands with me?"
For a moment Reist hesitated, and in that moment the King, stung by his indecision, withdrew his appeal.
"I will not have a grudging reconciliation," he said. "As we are, so we will remain until your apology is ready. But I am glad at least to see that you are still a patriot. I cannot have you fighting in the ranks, Duke of Reist. What post will you have?"
Reist stood very still for a moment, and the pallor on his cheeks was more than the pallor of exhaustion.
"Your Majesty," he said, "there is a report that General Kolashin is wounded. Send me to Althea."
The King turned his horse.
"As you will," he answered. "Captain Hartzan, ride with the Duke of Reist to Althea, and take this ring to General Kolashin, whose command the Duke of Reist will take over."
Then the King, flushed with fighting, the blood indeed still upon his face from a wound on the temple, rode slowly down the lines of his army. From far and near the men of Theos greeted him lustily. This was indeed a born leader, whose dispositions had prevailed against the wily Turkish generals, and whose personal valour they had, with their own eyes, beheld. Even from Solika, far in the background, came an answering echo to that strange thunder of men's rapturous voices.
Brand touched him on the arm.
"Your Majesty," he said, "you have won a victory to-day which will amaze all Europe. Be careful that you do not lose what you have gained by treachery!"
The King looked into Brand's grave face, and beckoned him on one side.
"Domiloff has got hold of Reist," he said. "He is a traitor. There is something going on in the city even now, which I do not understand."
The King shook his head gravely.
"Reist is my personal enemy," he said, "but Theos has no more faithful son. It is he who has just saved our victory from being turned into disaster."
"Nevertheless," Brand answered, "he is Domiloff's man, and there is treachery afoot. I will tell you what happened to me in the city."
The King listened with darkening face. But when Brand had finished his story he shook his head again.
"Domiloff is my enemy," he said, "and it may be the Countess of Reist. But of Reist himself I will believe no such thing."
"Your Majesty will regret it," Brand remarked, dryly.
"If you are right, I certainly shall," the King answered, "for I have appointed Reist to the command at Althea."
Brand wheeled his horse round.
"I wish you good fortune—and good-bye," he said.
The King looked at him in amazement.
"Where are you going, Brand?" he asked.
"The war is over," Brand answered. "The Turks will occupy Theos to-morrow."
"You are talking nonsense," Ughtred declared, hotly.
Brand shook his head.
"Your Majesty," he said, "you will admit that a traitor at Althea can let the Turks into Theos."
The King frowned.
"It is true," he admitted, "but Reist is no traitor."
"If you will come with me to the city," Brand answered, "I will prove to you that he is!"
"Baron Domiloff! It is I, Marie of Reist. Let me in."
She stepped into the darkened room, and closed the door behind her. Domiloff, who was looking white and scared, turned the key in the lock and faced her nervously.
"Why have you come here, Countess?" he exclaimed. "Do you not understand that I am in hiding? It is not a fit place for you—and you may have been followed."
She held her handkerchief to her face and looked around her in disgust.
"You are right," she answered. "It is not a fit place for any one. It is abominable. What are you doing here?"
"The King and this Englishman Brand are in the city together, and they have scent of how things are going," he answered. "My house in the avenue was surrounded by soldiers this morning, but I managed to give them the slip and reach here safely. Have you brought me word from Nicholas?"
She shook her head.
"Then why are you here? This place is of evil repute. Besides, it is not safe. You may have been followed."
"I believe that I was," she answered. "It is not of any consequence. There is not any one in Theos who would harm a Reist."
His face was unnaturally white. She looked at him in wonder. Was the man a coward?
"But it was madness!" he exclaimed, angrily. "There are spies everywhere. Your brother and I were overheard talking together at this very place. I may be arrested at any moment."
She glanced at him contemptuously.
"I suppose that when one conspires," she said, "there is always danger. Baron Domiloff, I have followed you here because since noon yesterday there have been two attempts upon the life of the Englishman, Walter Brand."
"Both bungled," he remarked. "One is ill served, so far from home."
She turned upon him fiercely.
"Have you forgotten what I told you only a few days ago?"
"One does not remember too long," he answered, lightly, "the words of an angry woman."
Her eyes flashed upon him wrathfully. The odour of the violets at her bosom seemed to fill the dark, stuffy room. He remarked suddenly how beautiful she was.
"If you do not know when a woman is in earnest," she declared, "you are a fool. I have come to tell you this. That the moment evil happens to him I go at once to the King. I tell him everything. Mind, this is no idle threat. I swear to you that I will do this."
A cloud of evil passions swept up from the man's heart. He drew a little closer to her and took up his stand nearer the door.
"It is folly," he said, in a low tone, "the man is working up all Europe with his accursed letters. He must be removed."
"If evil comes to him," she said, steadily, "the King shall know all."
He drew a little closer to her. An ugly smile curved his lips.
"It cannot be, Countess, that your interest in this fellow is personal. He is not of your order. You would not be so cruel as to bestow upon him a consideration which you deny to your equals!"
"It seems to me," she said, calmly, "that you are trying to be impertinent. The nature of my interest in Mr. Brand can be no concern of yours. It is sufficient that what I have said I mean!"
"I do not find it sufficient," he answered, quietly.
She turned upon him haughtily. Her delicate eyebrows were drawn together. Her eyes were aglow with anger. Domiloff watched her stealthily. Why had he never realized how handsome she was? He drew a little nearer to her.
"What do you mean?" she demanded. "Insolent!"
"Countess," he answered, "it is very strange to me that you should so long have been ignorant of the truth. Do you think that it is for the sake of Theos I have planned for the overthrow of Ughtred of Tyrnaus? Do you think that it is for your brother's sake that I have smoothed his way to the throne? No! My reward has always been clear before me. I have looked for it always at your hands."
"At my hands?"
He winced before the amazed scorn of her words. Yet he continued steadily.
"If you are surprised, Countess," he said, "well, I have been the victim of that time-worn fallacy which ascribes to any woman at any time the knowledge of being loved. You have always been the object of my respectful admiration. You are now——"
She threw out her hands—a silencing gesture.
"Enough!" she exclaimed. "I do not know what you are going to say. I do not wish to hear it."
"You must!" he declared. "You shall hear me!"
She turned her back upon him, but he was between her and the door. He turned the key in the lock, and faced her—a new Domiloff, wolf-like, with evil things in his white face and black eyes.
"You shall promise to be my wife," he said, "or——"
She did not quail. His eyes fell before hers. But the key slipped into his pocket.
"Or you do not leave this house," he answered. "I am master here. The whole quarter is Russian. Be reasonable, Countess. The alliance is worthy of your consideration."
She leaned suddenly forward, and struck him across the cheek.
"You cur," she cried. "I would as soon marry one of my servants."
She beat upon the door and called out. Domiloff drew out his handkerchief and held it to his cheek. He made no effort to silence her. There was a dull red mark across his face. If she could have seen his expression she would have been frightened.
There came no answer to her calling. She rushed across to the window. There were men on the place below, but they only answered her frantic gestures with dull indifference—at most with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile. They were Russian Jews. It was as Domiloff had said. They were his creatures. It was the one evil spot in Theos. Domiloff stood with his back to her, still with his handkerchief to his face.
She turned upon him fiercely.
"If you do not let me out," she cried, "Nicholas shall shoot you like a dog."
"It may be," he answered, coolly, "that I shall shoot Nicholas. At least there will be something to be wiped out between us. I shall not fear his vengeance."
"What do you mean?" she asked, suddenly cold with the first sensations of fear. The man's quietness was ominous, and she could see his face now. He put his handkerchief away and came over to her, catching her wrists with a sudden catlike movement.
"It is your own fault," he said. "You will remember that blow to your dying day."
* * * * *
They stood side by side at the window of one of the great reception rooms of the palace, the King and Brand. A driving storm of rain was beating against the glass, and the thunder rattled amongst the distant hills from peak to peak. Ughtred was looking more pale and harassed than when he had ridden, sword in hand, in front of his tiny army and watched the Turks closing in around them.
"What is the meaning of it, Brand?" he asked, sadly. "There is something astir which I cannot understand. See how the people throng the Square in front of the Reist house, and scarcely even glance this way. What are they waiting for?"
Brand shook his head.
"The true meaning of it I do not know," he answered, "but there is treason abroad. I am sure of that, and I am sure that Nicholas of Reist is concerned in it."
The King bit his lip. If Nicholas of Reist were a traitor, what hope was there for Theos?
"I do not know these people," he said. "My men are all in the field, or under arms at the barracks. These are not native Thetians."
"They look to me," Brand said, dryly, "like a horde of Russian Jews from across the frontier."
"I am going to ride once more through the city," the King said. "Come with me, Brand."
They left the palace by a side door, and passed cautiously along the street, the King with his military cloak wrapped closely about him. All around was a constant muttering. The people talked together excitedly enough, but without elation. There were no signs that this was a day of victory. The King's face grew stern.
"I do not know this rabble," he said. "They are not my own people."
"They are the tools of Domiloff," Brand answered. "It is he who is at the root of all this trouble. It is he who has corrupted Nicholas of Reist."
They rode across the Square, and the people scattered before them with muttered imprecations. Brand suddenly turned into a side street and motioned the King to follow him.
"Our police," he said, "have failed to catch Domiloff. Let us try ourselves. I believe I know where he may be found."
The King's face lightened, and he touched his horse with the spur. But Brand hesitated.
"The place is in a bad quarter," he said. "There will be risk."
But Ughtred laughed.
"With a guard," he said, "we should have no chance. You and I alone will take Domiloff."
The storm had driven away the crowd of loiterers from in front of the Cafe Metropolitan. The King and Brand stood under one of the small lime trees which bordered the road, watching the place. The lower room, unshuttered, and lit with several flaring gas jets, was filled with a crowd of men drinking and singing songs. From the upper windows came no sign of life.
"That is where I believe that Domiloff is hiding," Brand declared. "Do you see what a rabble that is inside the cafe?"
The King nodded.
"Russian Jews, every one of them," he said. "Anyhow, there are too many of them for us to enter the place single-handed.
"Brand, take one of the horses, and ride to the barracks. Bring down a guard of twenty-five men. I will wait here."
Brand nodded, and hurried away to the corner of the street, where they had left the horses. The King lit a cigar, shielding the light as much as possible with his hand, and leaned against the trunk of the tree.
Five minutes passed, ten, a quarter of an hour. The King, whose thoughts were none of the pleasantest, grew impatient. Suddenly, the cigar dropped from his fingers. He sprang forward with beating heart, bewildered, incredulous. For he had seen a strange thing.
Up at that dark, unlit window had flashed for a moment the pale, terror-stricken face of a woman, drawn back almost at once by an unseen hand. The echoes of her passionate cry for help rang still in his ears. And, strangest thing of all, the face was the face of Marie of Reist.
Ughtred forgot then that he was a King, and that his life was a pledge to his country. He remembered only that he was a man of more than ordinary strength, and that from that dreary little room a woman was calling to him for help. In the passage the few loiterers who disputed his way were brushed on one side like flies. He sprang up the little staircase, which creaked under his weight, in half-a-dozen bounds. The girl's cries were plainly to be heard now. He thundered upon the door.
There came for a moment no answer. The girl's cry was stifled, as though by a rough hand.
"Let me in," Ughtred cried. "At once."
There came no answer save a man's muttered curse and the sound of footsteps. Ughtred was wearing his military riding boots, and the door was crazy and old. A single charge, and it went crashing into the room. Ughtred stumbled, and saved his life, for a bullet whistled just over his head as Domiloff sprang to the window.
Marie, breathless and dishevelled, recognized Ughtred with a cry of wonder.
"The King!" she exclaimed, and Domiloff, who might have escaped, looked round and hesitated. Ughtred, who was as quick as lightning upon his feet, snatched him back from the window-sill and threw him heavily upon the floor.
There was no time for explanations. Through the debris of the door there sprang into the room half-a-dozen of the loiterers from the room below. They faced the King, standing like a giant in the centre of the floor with his long military sword flashing grey in the dim light.
"Be off," he cried. "This is not your affair. I do not wish to hurt any of you, but I will kill the first man who comes a yard further."
They hung back, but one remained looking about him with crafty, peering eyes, his long upper teeth gleaming like yellow fangs. His hand lurked about his tunic.
"Little master," he said, "tell us what has happened here? There is a man hurt. What have you done to him?"
Ughtred's sword was within an inch of the man's chest.
"The man is unhurt and my prisoner," Ughtred said.
"Your prisoner, little master. My eyes are bad, and the light is dim. Who are you to come here and make prisoners?"
"I am the King," Ughtred answered, rashly.
There were those who knew him. There was a murmur which was like a growl, and Ughtred hesitated no longer, but ran his sword through the man whose knife was already stealing from his tunic. He fell back with a shriek of horror, and the King himself in grievous danger, wrenched his sword free. There were half-a-dozen knives raised, and one must have struck into his chest. But Marie, stooping down, had seized Domiloff's revolver, and, leaning over, shot the man through the heart. The King, who had recovered his balance, sprang amongst them, and they scattered like rabbits. Then came a great cry from down-stairs.
"The soldiers! Quick! Save yourself."
They fled without waiting for a parting stroke. Ughtred lowered his sword and let them pass. There were three dead and wounded in the room, and Domiloff lay on his back where the King had thrown him. The King turned to Marie.
"You are a brave woman," he said. "You have saved both our lives."
But she held out both her hands to him, and her eyes were streaming.
"Your Majesty has saved more than my life," she faltered, "and I have not deserved it. I have been your enemy."
He took her hands gently.
"We have fought together," he said. "Henceforth we should be comrades."
* * * * *
Eleven men sat around a long table in one of the rooms of the Reist house. They talked only in whispers, and a general air of uneasiness was apparent. It was rumoured that the King was in the city, and these men felt themselves to be conspirators. Domiloff was strangely absent. The Countess of Reist in her own house had omitted to offer them a welcome.
Their suspense was temporarily ended, however. The door opened, and Baron Doxis entered, followed by a foreigner, whom most of them recognized. They rose to their feet. Baron Doxis presented the guest.
"My colleagues," he announced, "this is Monsieur Gourdolis, the accredited envoy of the Czar to us. He has certain proposals to submit upon which we will at once debate."
A Counsellor rose up.
"Has the Countess of Reist any message to us from her brother?"
"The Countess of Reist," Baron Doxis answered, "is unaccountably absent."
"And Domiloff?" another asked. "It is chiefly owing to his representations that we are assembled here to-day. Is he too absent?"
There was a moment's silence. Then Gourdolis spoke.
"Gentlemen," he said, "my friend Domiloff will be with us doubtless before this meeting is dissolved. In the meantime, I will, with your permission, lay before you the terms on which my august master the Czar is willing to stay the hand of Turkey, by force if necessary, and guarantee your independence."
Some heavy curtains at the end of the room were suddenly thrown aside. The King stood there, and by his side Marie of Reist.
"My arrival, it would appear, is opportune," the King said, grimly. "Address yourself to me, and proceed, Monsieur Gourdolis."
One by one the members of the Council staggered to their feet. The coming of the King was like a bombshell thrown amongst them. They were met in secret conclave, a proceeding to the last degree unconstitutional. They were receiving, too, an emissary from a foreign country which amounted to high treason. Doxis was perhaps the first to recover himself.
"Your Majesty's coming is unexpected," he said. "I trust that there is no ill news from the seat of war."
"There is no news, save good news," the King answered, having handed a chair to Marie. "Yesterday's battle you all know about. I will tell you the prospects later. Meanwhile, I see that you have a stranger here. What has Monsieur Gourdolis to say to us?"
Gourdolis rose slowly to his feet. He was a man of resource, a shrewd and ready diplomatist. Already he was scheming how to turn to his own advantage the King's unexpected presence. He played a bold card.
"Your Majesty," he said, respectfully, "it was painful to me to put forward my master's propositions to the Council of the House of Laws in your absence, it is still more painful to do so in your presence. I speak, however, to the representatives of a nation whose liberty and whose very existence is threatened, and I offer them—in a word—salvation. That is my excuse for my presence here to-day."
"What your offer really amounts to is no doubt the Russian yoke instead of the Turkish," Ughtred remarked, bitterly. "My forefathers have tasted more than once of Muscovite generosity."
Gourdolis shook his head gravely.
"Your Majesty," he said, "you wrong my country, and my master. Our demands are very simple, and I lay the terms of them here upon the table. The only conditions upon which I regret to say that my master is immovable is the immediate abdication of your Majesty."
The King sat with unchanged face.
"In favour of whom?" he asked.
"Nicholas, Duke of Reist!"
"Is the Duke of Reist cognizant of this, and willing to accept the throne?" the King asked.
"He is, your Majesty," Baron Doxis answered.
Marie rose to her feet.
"It is false," she declared. "My brother is a patriot, and he has taken the oath of allegiance to the King. I pledge my word for his that he will keep that oath."
A murmur of blank amazement was followed by a dead silence. Gourdolis was speechless. The King looked around him, sternly.
"Have I by chance stumbled upon a conspiracy?" he asked. "What do you say, Taverner, and you, Valgrosse? Did you come here prepared to listen to such a proposition as this?"
"Indeed, your Majesty," Taverner answered, hastily, "I did not."
"Nor I!" Valgrosse echoed.
"What about you, Doxis?" the King asked.
The old Baron, who, for many years had been chairman of the House of Laws, rose slowly to his feet.
"Your Majesty," he said, "I will admit that I alone of those present here had some knowledge of this proposal. I hope that your Majesty will not look upon my presence here as disloyal or unseemly. Only in my heart is deep engraven the love of my country and her people, and the one dread of my life has been the coming of the Turk. Your Majesty, no one has been a more sincere admirer than myself of the wise and careful manner in which you have ruled this country. Young though you are, you have more than fulfilled our most sanguine expectations. Only I fear that unaided we may as well hope to stem the tide of the mighty Danube as repel this Turkish invasion."
"You have spoken like a true man, Doxis," the King said. "Yet I must remind you that your presence here is akin to treason. What of the oath of loyalty which you swore to me only a few months ago?"
"Your Majesty," Doxis answered, "I have not broken that oath. I am here only to listen to what these proposals may be. That, I take it, is the position also of my colleagues."
A murmur of assent. Gourdolis remained standing, his papers in his hands.
"Your Majesty will forgive me if I assert that there is no treason involved in the presence of any one here. I summoned those to meet me whom I knew to be real and true patriots—who would not hesitate at a small thing to secure their country's freedom."
The King faced him scornfully.
"We have heard, Monsieur Gourdolis," he said, "of the freedom of those countries whom your beneficent master has taken under his wing. Councillors, I think more highly of your intelligence than to imagine that you are to be suborned by such clumsy intriguing as this. Freedom is one thing, the yoke of Russia another. I will tell you some of the considerations which Monsieur Gourdolis has presently to propose to you. The custom-houses are to be controlled by Russia. The appointment of all government officials is to be sanctioned by her. Our foreign policy is to be her foreign policy. The army is to be officered by Russians, and Russian is to be taught in the schools. These things are amongst your conditions. Is it not so, Monsieur Gourdolis?"
Gourdolis hesitated, and his chance was gone.
"You have employed spies," he muttered.
"Not I!" the King answered. "Yet I know your terms as they were proposed to Nicholas of Reist, and it amazes me only that you should have expected men in whose hands remain the destinies of their country to give you even a patient hearing. My Councillors, give this man the answer his insolent mission deserves, and let him be shown across the frontier. We will before long show Europe how we deal with our enemies. The Turks are not yet at the gates of the city."
There was a murmur of respectful enthusiasm. Gourdolis smiled a very evil smile.
"Not yet," he murmured, "but the end is not far off."
Baron Doxis rose up.
"Your Majesty," he announced, "our answer is unanimous. We have been misled by Baron Domiloff, both as to the nature of Monsieur Gourdolis's mission and the attitude of the Duke of Reist. We reject his terms. We decline once and for all to treat with him. We trust to God and to you to keep the enemy from our gates."
The King smiled upon them.
"I thank you all," he said, "for your confidence. Let me add that I believe the day will come when you will be heartily thankful that you gave this man the answer he deserved. The importance of our victory yesterday has, I find, been wilfully minimized in the city, but I can assure you that with only a very trifling loss we withstood an attack on the part of the whole Turkish forces. I have, however, better news than that for you. The greatest nation in the world would seem to have espoused our cause. Yesterday afternoon the English Ambassador at Constantinople presented an ultimatum to the Sultan, demanding the withdrawal of his forces from the frontier of Theos. The Press throughout Europe have announced the fact this morning."
Baron Doxis rose hurriedly to his feet.
"Your Majesty," he exclaimed, in broken tones, "permit me, on the part of your Councillors and myself, to express our unbounded confidence both in your military skill and in your diplomacy. Theos has found a second Rudolph."
The King smiled faintly.
"We are an instance," he said, "of an ancient nation who has benefited by the great new power of this generation. My diplomatic appeal to the English Government would have been of no avail but for the wonderful espousal of our cause by the whole British Press. That we owe to one who has been living amongst us, and who has three times within the last few days narrowly escaped assassination by the friends of Baron Domiloff. Monsieur Gourdolis, you have your answer."
Gourdolis remained imperturbable. He bowed to Baron Doxis, and moved towards the door. Then he faced the King.
"Your Majesty," he said, "has a singularly dramatic knack of turning up in unexpected places and at unexpected times. May that faculty not desert you during the next few days."
He closed the door and departed. The King rose to his feet.
"Baron Doxis," he said, "I leave the charge of the city in your hands. I return at once to the front. There is no telegraphic communication between the headquarters of the Turkish Commander-in-Chief and Constantinople, and in any case it is well to be prepared. Countess of Reist, will you favour me for one moment?"
She led him into her own little room, and placed her hands in his.
"We are friends?" he asked.
"If your Majesty can really pardon me," she answered, fervently, "—for always."
"And Brand?" the King asked.
Her cheeks burned with a sudden rush of colour.
"You may tell him," she said, "after to-morrow."
Into the black night across the level plain which stretched between Theos and the pass of Althea a woman rode as one rides a race with death. Her servants had been left far away behind—her horse's sides were streaked with foam, once or twice he had swerved and almost unseated her. She plied him with whip and spur, and passionate words. It was for the honour of a great race, for her own salvation that she rode. All was well as yet. The lights of the camp were twinkling like a band of ribbon across the hillside, and there was silence as deep as death everywhere, except when the wind came booming down the valley in fitful gusts, and bowed the tops of the lonely and stunted trees. Upwards she mounted, and the road grew rougher. Her horse's eyes were streaked with blood, his nostrils quivered. Still she urged him on. A little further now, and her goal was reached. So she rode on, white to the lips with fear—lest even now she should be too late.
At the outposts they stopped her, and the great bay horse, after staggering for a moment like a drunken man, fell over dead. She scarcely glanced at him. The officer, who knew her, rapidly transferred her saddle to his own pony.
"It is a message from the King to Nicholas," she said. "Tell me, how long will it take me?"
"The Duke is himself guarding the Beacon," the soldier answered. "Madame the Countess will reach him in ten minutes."
She galloped off, never noticing that her pony's feet were shod with felt. She looked neither to the right nor the left, and she saw nothing of the strange restlessness which seemed to pervade the camp. Everywhere the shadows of men were moving noiselessly about. Spectral guns were surrounded by little groups of whispering soldiers. There was no bivouacing, the camp-fires burned low. Every now and then, when challenged, she mechanically repeated the countersign. All the while her lips were moving in one ceaseless, passionate prayer.
They took her pony at the summit, and a silent sentry pointed to where a single dark figure stood out against the empty background. A few yards to his left was the great beacon, and a row of torches burned in a stand, ever ready for the signal. She called to him softly, and even to herself her voice seemed to come from a long way off.
He turned towards her, and she saw that his face was livid. He was horrified to see her.
"Marie! The good God! What has happened?"
"I have deceived you, Nicholas," she whispered, hoarsely. "The writing was not the writing of the King. It was Domiloff's plot, and I wanted to see you King. The King has saved my life. Forever, Nicholas, you and I must be his faithful subjects. I have given my word. I have pledged your honour."
Then into the face of Nicholas of Reist there came a transfiguring and almost holy joy. He uttered no word of reproach. The glory of life was once more hot in his pulses. He drew her to him.
"Thank God!" he sobbed. "This way, Marie! Now listen!"
She stooped with him over that awful chaos. From below came a sound like the falling of autumn rains upon dead leaves. He held her to him.
"It is the Turks," he whispered.
She sprang away in horror, but he laughed softly.
"Marie," he said, "that is well. Instead of a sleeping camp our guns will rake the Pass, our men await only the signal. Up here, where one is near God, one sees clearly. I am the faithful servant of Theos, even though the King had been my enemy. See!"
He listened for a moment, and then crossing the hill, took a torch from the stand and plunged it into the heart of the great beacon. Tongues of fire leaped up to the sky, and a hoarse murmur passed like a wind through the camp. Then the ground beneath them shook with the roar of artillery. Nicholas took her by the arm.
"Ride for Theos at once," he directed. "You will be quite safe, for no Turk will pass alive through the Pass. Tell the King that I am his faithful servant."
* * * * *
About halfway to Theos, Brand, galloping furiously out from the city, came face to face with Marie riding leisurely home on a small pony. He leaped from his horse in amazement.
"Marie," he exclaimed, "what is happening at the Pass? How came you here?"
She was very tired, but she smiled at him reassuringly.
"Nicholas has over ten thousand Turks in the defile," she said. "They must either surrender or be killed."
"Thank God!" he exclaimed.
She got off her pony and sat on a bank.
"I am very tired," she said, and, swaying suddenly towards him, fainted in his arms.
Brand was a man of resource, and in a few minutes she reopened her eyes. He poured some brandy between her lips, and she sat up.
"I am very sorry," she said. "I rode last night from Theos to Althea, and I have had no rest."
He made her drink some milk. They sat hand in hand, a wonderful dawn breaking in the east. By and by a horseman from Theos passed them at full gallop.
"The war is over," he cried. "The English fleet is at Constantinople! The Turks have sued for peace. Long live the King."
He vanished in a cloud of dust, riding furiously for the Pass. Brand took Marie into his arms and kissed her.
"Dear," he said, "I haven't much money, and I'm only an ordinary man."
She laughed softly.
"I think in Theos," she said, "we have clung a little too closely to the old ideals. Rank is very well, and money I know little about. But on the whole, I am glad that you are an ordinary man."
They rode into Theos as the King arrived from Solika. The Cathedral bells clanged out a welcome, the people lined the streets, everywhere breathless excitement prevailed. Old Baron Doxis met the King on the palace steps. He held out both hands, but his eyes were wet with tears.
"Your Majesty," he said, "this is your day of triumph, and yours alone. May God send you in the future wiser and better councillors."
But Ughtred passed his arm through the old man's, and led him into the palace.
"I am young and I was unproven," he said. "I shall be quite satisfied if God will preserve for many years my present ones."
* * * * *
Theos won for herself, as the fruits of that brief campaign, a wonderful military reputation, and every prospect of unbroken peace. She entered indeed upon that golden age which comes once in the world's history to every nation, great or small. Mr. Van Decht built a palace within the city, and invested all his vast capital in the country. Brand, whose services no one realized more thoroughly than the King, accepted a Government appointment and entered the House of Laws a naturalized Thetian. And when they asked the King what gift a grateful nation could offer him, he answered them promptly but in very few words.
"The right to depart from a constitutional principle. The right to share my throne with the woman I love."
There was no hesitation, no break in the thunderous applause which greeted his answer, and which Nicholas of Reist himself led. The marriage of Ughtred of Tyrnaus and Sara Van Decht under such conditions touched the imagination of Europe. Every capital was anxious to fete them, the Society papers lived upon their doings for years. But even they did not know that during that famous visit to London, where they were received with a consideration rarely accorded even to royalty, they stole away one evening and dined together tete-a-tete at a famous London restaurant. They were unrecognized, and they enjoyed themselves like children. Afterwards they found out a certain seat in a certain corner of the palm lounge, and spent a very delightful hour there. When at last they rose to go he took her hand for a moment softly in his.
"Tell me," he whispered, "you find it possible to be happy, although you are a queen?"
"I am your wife, dear," she answered, with a little squeeze of his hand, which seemed to satisfy him.
An amazing whisper suddenly passed from group to group of the brilliantly-dressed men and women who sat about in the Court. The band broke off in the middle of a selection and played the National air of Theos. Every one rose respectfully. He passed her hand through his arm with a little grimace.
"They have found us out, dear," he whispered.
The people gazed with breathless but well-bred interest. They saw a tall, distinguished-looking man, with the mark of a recent scar slightly disfiguring his left temple, and upon his arm the most beautiful woman in the room, her eyes wonderfully soft and brilliant, a delicate flush upon her cheeks. The King and Queen of Theos passed out to their carriage.
* * * * *
Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors; otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the author's words and intent.