Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XV. Father and Daughter
With the approach of the anniversary of his son's death, the King grew increasingly restless. Each year he determined to put away this old grief, and each year, as his bodily weakness increased, he found it harder to do so. In vain he filled his weary days with the routine of his kingdom. In vain he told himself that there were worse things than to be cut off in one's prime, that the tragedy of old age is a long tragedy, with but one end. To have out-lived all that one loves, he felt, was worse by far. To have driven, in one gloomy procession after another, to the old Capuchin church and there to have left, prayerfully, some dearly beloved body - that had been his life. His son had escaped that. But it was poor comfort to him.
On other years he had had the Crown Prince with him as much as possible on this dreary day of days. But the Crown Prince was exiled, in disgrace. Not even for the comfort of his small presence could stern discipline be relaxed.
Annunciata was not much comfort to him. They had always differed, more or less, the truth being, perhaps, that she was too much like the King ever to sympathize fully with him. Both were arrogant, determined, obstinate. And those qualities, which age was beginning to soften in the King, were now, in Annunciata, in full strength and blooming.
But there was more than fundamental similarity at fault. Against her father the Archduchess held her unhappy marriage.
"You did this," she had said once, when an unusually flagrant escapade had come to the ears of the Palace. "You did it. I told you I hated him. I told you what he was, too. But you had some plan in mind. The plan never materialized, but the marriage did. And here I am." She had turned on him then, not angrily, but with cold hostility. "I shall never forgive you for it," she said.
She never had. She made her daily visit to her father, and, as he grew more feeble, she was moved now and then to pity for him. But it was pity, nothing more. The very hands with which she sometimes changed his pillows were coldly efficient. She had not kissed him in years.
And now, secretly willing that Hedwig should marry Karl, she was ready to annoy him by objecting to it.
On the day after her conversation with General Mettlich, she visited the King. It was afternoon. The King had spent the morning in his study, propped with pillows as was always the case now, working with a secretary. The secretary was gone when she entered, and he sat alone. Over his knees was spread one of the brilliant rugs that the peasants wove in winter evenings, when the snow beat about their small houses and the cattle were snug in barns. Above it his thin old face looked pinched and pale.
He had passed a trying day. Once having broken down the Chancellor's barrier of silence, the King had insisted on full knowledge; with the result that he had sat, aghast, amid the ruins of his former complacency. The country and the smaller cities were comparatively quiet, so far as demonstrations against the Government were concerned. But unquestionably they plotted. As for the capital, it was a seething riot of sedition, from the reports. A copy of a newspaper, secretly printed and more secretly circulated, had brought fire to the King's eyes. It lay on his knees as his daughter entered.
Annunciata touched her lips to his hand. Absorbed as he was in other matters, it struck him, as she bent, that Annunciata was no longer young, and that Time w as touching her with an unloving finger. He viewed her graying hair, her ugly clothes, with the detached eye of age. And he sighed.
"Well, father," she said, looking down at him, "how do you feel?"
"Sit down," he said. The question as to his health was too perfunctory to require reply. Besides, he anticipated trouble, and it was an age-long habit of his to meet it halfway.
Annunciata sat, with a jingling of chains. She chose a straight chair, and faced him, very erect.
"How old is Hedwig?" demanded the King
He knew their ages quite well. It was merely the bugle before the attack.
"Hedwig is old enough to marry. Her grandmother was not nineteen when I married her."
"It would be better," said Annunciata, "to marry her while she is young, before she knows any better."
"Any better than what?" inquired the King testily.
"Any better than to marry at all."
The King eyed her. She was not, then, even attempting to hide her claws. But he was an old bird, and not to be caught in an argumentative cage.
"There are several possibilities for Hedwig," he said. "I have gone into the matter pretty thoroughly. As you know, I have had this on my mind for some time. It is necessary to arrange things before I - go."
The King, of course, was neither asking nor expecting sympathy from her, but mentally, and somewhat grimly, he compared her unmoved face with that of his old friend and Chancellor, only a few nights before.
"It is a regrettable fact," he went on, "that I must leave, as I shall, a sadly troubled country. But for that - " he paused. But for that, he meant, he would go gladly. He needed rest. His spirit, still so alive, chafed daily more and more against its worn body. He believed in another life, did the old King. He wanted the hearty handclasp of his boy again. Even the wife who had married him against her will had grown close to him in later years. He needed her too. A little rest, then, and after that a new life, with those who had gone ahead.
"A sadly troubled country," he repeated.
"All countries are troubled. We are no worse than others."
"Perhaps not. But things are changing. The old order is changing. The spirit of unrest - I shall not live to see it. You may, Annunciata. But the day is coming when all thrones will totter. Like this one."
Now at last he had pierced her armor. "Like this one!"
"That is what I said. Rouse yourself, Annunciata. Leave that little boudoir of yours, with its accursed clocks and its heat and its flub-dubbery, and see what is about you! Discontent! Revolution! We are hardly safe from day to day. Do you think that what happened nine years ago was a flash that died as it came? Nonsense. Read this!"
He held out the paper and she put on her pince-nez and read its headings, a trifle disdainfully. But the next moment she rose, and stood in front of him, almost as pale as he was. "You allow this sort of thing to be published?"
"No. But it is published."
"And they dare to say things like this? Why, it - it is - "
"Exactly. It is, undoubtedly." He was very calm. "I would not have troubled you with it. But the situation is bad. We are rather helpless."
"Not - the army too?"
"What can we tell? These things spread like fires. Nothing may happen for years. On the other hand, tomorrow -!"
The Archduchess was terrified. She had known that there was disaffection about. She knew that in the last few years precautions at the Palace had been increased. Sentries were doubled. Men in the uniforms of lackeys, but doing no labor, were everywhere. But with time and safety she had felt secure.
"Of course," the King resumed, "things are not as bad as that paper indicates. It is the voice of the few, rather than the many. Still, it is a voice."
Annunciata looked more than her age now. She glanced around the room as though, already, she heard the mob at the doors.
"It is not safe to stay here, is it?" she asked. "We could go to the summer palace. That, at least, is isolated."
"Too isolated," sail the King dryly. ."And flight! The very spark, perhaps, to start a blaze. Besides," he remind her, "I could not make the journey. If you would like to go, however, probably it can be arranged."
But Annunciata was not minded to go without the Court. And she reflected, not unwisely, that if things were really as bad as they appeared, to isolate herself, helpless in the mountains, would be but to play into the enemy's hand.
"To return to the mater of Hedwig's marriage," said the King. "I - "
"Marriage! When our very lives are threatened!"
"I would be greatly honored," said the King, "if I might be permitted to finish what I was saying."
She had the grace to flush.
"Under the circumstances," the King resumed, "Hedwig's marriage takes on great significance - great political significance."
For a half-hour then, he talked to her. More than for years, he unbosomed himself. He had tried. His ministers had tried. Taxes had been lightened; the representation of the people increased, until; as he said, he was only nominally a ruler. But discontent remained. Some who had gone to America and returned with savings enough to set themselves up in business, had brought back with them the American idea.
He spoke without bitterness. They refused to allow for the difference between a new country and an old land, tilled for many generations. They forgot their struggles across the sea and brought back only stories of prosperity. Emigration had increased, and those who remained whispered of a new order, where each man was the government, and no man a king.
Annunciata listened to the end. She felt no pity for those who would better themselves by discontent and its product, revolt. She felt only resentment that her peace was being threatened, her position assailed. And in her resentment she included the King himself. He should have done better. These things, taken early enough, could have been arranged.
And something of this she did not hesitate to say. "Karnia is quiet enough," she finished, a final thrust.
"Karnia is better off. A lowland, most of it, and fertile." But a spot of color showed in his old cheeks. "I am glad you spoke of Karnia. Whatever plans we make, Karnia must be considered."
"Why? Karnia does not consider us."
He raised his hand. "You are wrong. Just now, Karnia is doing us the honor of asking an alliance with us. A matrimonial alliance."
The Archduchess was hardly surprised, as one may believe. But she was not minded to yield too easily. The old resentment against her father flamed. Indifferent mother though she was, she made capital of a fear for Hedwig's happiness. In a cold and quiet voice she reminded him of her own wretchedness, and of Karl's reputation.
At last she succeeded in irritating the King - a more difficult thing now than in earlier times, but not so hard a matter at that. He listened quietly until she had finished, and then. sent her away. When she had got part way to the door, however, he called her back. And since a king is a king, even if he is one's father and very old, she came.
"Just one word more," he said, in his thin, old, highbred voice. "Much of your unhappiness was of your own making. You, and you only, know how much. But nothing that you have said can change the situation. I am merely compelled to make the decision alone, and soon. I have not much time."
So, after all, was the matter of the Duchess Hedwig's marriage arranged, a composite outgrowth of expediency and obstinacy, of defiance and anger. And so was it hastened.
Irritation gave the King strength. That afternoon were summoned in haste the members of his Council: fat old Friese, young Marschall with the rat face, austere Bayerl with the white skin and burning eyes, and others. And to them all the King disclosed his royal will. There was some demur. Friese, who sweated with displeasure, ranted about old enemies and broken pledges. But, after all, the King's will was dominant. Friese could but voice his protest and relapse into greasy silence.
The Chancellor sat silent during the conclave, silent, but intent. On each speaker he turned his eyes, and waited until at last Karl's proposal, with its promises, was laid before them in full. Then, and only then, the Chancellor rose. His speech was short. He told them of what they all knew, their own insecurity. He spoke but a word of the Crown Prince, but that softly. And he drew for them a pictures of the future that set their hearts to glowing - a throne secure, a greater kingdom, freedom from the cost of war, a harbor by the sea.
And if, as he spoke, he saw not the rat eyes of Marschall, the greedy ones of some of the others, but instead a girl's wide and pleading ones, he resolutely went on. Life was a sacrifice. Youth would pass, and love with it, but the country must survive.
The battle, which was no battle at all, was won. He had won. The country had won. The Crown Prince had won. Only Hedwig had lost. And only Mettlich knew just how she had lost.
When the Council, bowing deep, had gone away, the Chancellor remained standing by a window. He was feeling old and very tired. All that day, until the Council met with the King, he had sat in the little office on a back street, which was the headquarters of the secret service. All that day men had come and gone, bringing false clues which led nowhere. The earth had swallowed up Nikky Larisch.
"I hope you are satisfied," said the King grimly, from behind him. "It was your arrangement."
"It was my hope, sire," replied the Chancellor dryly.
The necessity for work brought the King the strength to do it. Mettlich remained with him. Boxes were brought from vaults, unlocked and examined. Secretaries came and went. At eight o'clock a frugal dinner was spread in the study, and they ate it almost literally over state documents.
On and on, until midnight or thereabouts. Then they stopped. The thing was arranged. Nothing was left now but to carry the word to Karl.
Two things were necessary: Haste. The King, having determined it, would lose no time. And dignity. The granddaughter of the King must be offered with ceremony. No ordinary King's messenger, then, but some dignitary of the Court.
To this emergency Mettlich rose like the doughty old warrior and statesman that he was. "If you are willing, sire," he said, as he rose, "I will go myself."
"Since it must be done, the sooner the better. To-night, sire."
The King smiled. "You were always impatient!" he commented. But he looked almost wistfully at the sturdy and competent old figure before him. Thus was he, not so long ago. Cold nights and spring storms had had no terrors for him. And something else he felt, although he said nothing - the stress of a situation which would send his Chancellor out at midnight, into a driving storm, to secure Karl's support. Things must be bad indeed!
"To the capital?" he asked.
"Not so far. Karl is hunting. He is at Wedeling." He went almost immediately, and the King summoned his valets, and was got to bed. But long after the automobile containing Mettlich and two secret agents was on the road toward the mountains, he tossed on his narrow bed. To what straits had they come indeed! He closed his eyes wearily. Something had gone out of his life. He did not realize at first what it was. When he did, he smiled his old grim smile in the darkness.
He had lost a foe. More than anything perhaps, he had dearly loved a foe.