Chapter XVI. On the Mountain Road
 

The low gray car which carried the Chancellor was on its way through the mountains. It moved deliberately, for two reasons. First, the Chancellor was afraid of motors. He had a horseman's hatred and fear of machines. Second, he was not of a mind to rouse King Karl from a night's sleep, even to bring the hand of the Princess Hedwig. His intention was to put up at some inn in a village not far from the lodge and to reach Karl by messenger early in the morning, before the hunters left for the day.

Then, all being prepared duly and in order, Mettlich himself would arrive, and things would go forward with dignity and dispatch.

In the mean time he sat back among his furs and thought of many things. He had won a victory which was, after all, but a compromise. He had chosen the safe way, but it led over the body of a young girl, and he loathed it. Also, he thought of Nikky, and what might be. But the car was closed and comfortable. The motion soothed him. After a time he dropped asleep.

The valley of the Ar deepened. The cliff rose above them, a wall broken here and there by the offtake of narrow ravines, filled with forest trees. There was a pause while the chains on the rear wheels were supplemented by others in front, for there must be no danger of a skid. And another pause, where the road slanted perilously toward the brink of the chasm, and caution dictated that the Chancellor alight, and make a hundred feet or so of dangerous curve afoot.

It required diplomacy to get him out. But it was finally done, and his heavy figure, draped in its military cape, went on ahead, outlined by the lamps of the car behind him. The snow was hardly more than a coating, but wet and slippery. Mettlich stalked on, as one who would defy the elements, or anything else, to hinder him that night.

He was well around the curve, and the cliff was broken by a wedge of timber, when a curiously shaped object projected itself over the edge of the bank, and rolling down, lay almost at his feet. The lamps brought it into sharp relief - a man, gagged and tied, and rolled, cigar shaped, in an automobile robe.

The Chancellor turned, and called to his men. Then he bent over the bundle. The others ran up, and cut the bonds. What with cold and long inaction, and his recent drop over the bank, the man could not speak. One of the secret-service men had a flask, and held it to his lips. An amazing situation, indeed, increased by the discovery that under the robe he wore only his undergarments, with a soldier's tunic wrapped around his shoulders. They carried him into the car, where he lay with head lolling back, and his swollen tongue protruding. Half dead he was, with cold and long anxiety. The brandy cleared his mind long before he could speak, and he saw by the uniforms that he was in the hands of the enemy. He turned sulkily silent then, convinced that he had escaped one death but to meet another. Twenty-four hours now he had faced eternity, and he was ready.

He preferred, however, to die fully clothed, and when, in response to his pointing up the bank and to his inarticulate mouthings, one of the secret police examined the bit of woodland with his pocket flash, he found a pair of trousers where Nikky had left them, neatly folded and hung over the branch of a tree. The brandy being supplemented by hot coffee from a patent bottle, the man revived further, made an effort, and sat up. His tongue was still swollen, but they made out what he said. He had been there since the night before. People had passed, a few peasants, a man with a cart, but he could not cry out, and he had hesitated to risk the plunge to the road. But at last he had made it. He was of Karnia, and a King's messenger.

"I was coming back from the barrier," he said thickly, "where I had carried dispatches to the officer in charge. On my return a man hailed me from the side of, the road, near where you found me. I thought that he desired to be taken on, and stopped my car. But he attacked me. He was armed and I was not. He knocked me senseless, and when I awakened I was above the road, among trees. I gave myself up when the snow commenced. Few pass this way. But I heard your car coming and made a desperate effort."

"Then," asked one of the agents, "these are not your clothes?"

"They are his; sir."

The agent produced a flash-light and inspected the garments. Before the Chancellor's eyes, button by button, strap on the sleeve, star on the cuff, came into view the uniform of a captain of his own regiment, the Grenadiers. Then one of his own men had done this infamous thing, one of his own officers, indeed.

"Go through the pockets," he continued sternly.

Came, into view under the flash a pair of gloves, a box of matches, a silk handkerchief, a card-case. The agent said nothing, but passed a card to the Chancellor, who read it without comment.

There was silence in the car.

At last the Chancellor stirred. "This man - he took your car on?"

"Yes. And he has not returned. No other machine has passed."

The secret-service men exchanged glances. There was more to this than appeared. Somewhere ahead, then, was Nikky Larisch, with a motor that did got belong to him, and wearing clothing which his victim described as a chauffeur's coat of leather, breeches and puttees, and a fur greatcoat over all.

"Had the snow commenced when this happened?"

"Not then; sir. Shortly after."

"Go out with the driver," the Chancellor ordered one of his men, "and watch the road for the tracks of another car. Go slowly."

So it was that, after an hour or so, they picked up Nikky's trail, now twenty-four hours old but still clear, and followed it. The Chancellor was awake enough by this time, and bending forward. The man they had rescued slept heavily. As the road descended into the foothills, there were other tracks in the thin snow, and more than once they roused Nikky's victim to pick out his own tire marks. He obeyed dully. When at last the trail turned from the highway toward the shooting-box at Wedeling, Mettlich fell back with something between a curse and a groan.

"The fool!" he muttered. "The young fool! It was madness."

At last they drew up at an inn in the village on the royal preserve, and the Chancellor, looking rather gray, alighted. He directed that the man they had rescued be brought in. The Chancellor was not for losing him just yet. He took a room for him at the inn, and rather cavalierly locked him in it.

The dull-eyed landlord, yawning as he lighted the party upstairs with candles, apparently neither noticed nor cared that the three of them surrounded a fourth, and that the fourth looked both sullen and ill.

The car, with one of the secret-service men, Mettlich sent on to follow Nikky's trail, and to report it to him. The other man was assigned to custody of the chauffeur. The Chancellor, more relieved than he would have acknowledged, reflected before a fire and over a glass of hot milk that he was rather unpropitiously bringing Karl a bride!

It was almost four in the morning when the police agent returned. The track he had followed apparently led into the grounds of Wedeling,, but was there lost in many others. It did not, so far as he could discover, lead beyond the lodge gates.

The Chancellor sipped his hot milk and considered. Nikky Larisch a prisoner in Karl's hands caused him less anxiety than it would have a month before. But what was behind it all?

The inn, grumbling at its broken rest, settled down to sleep again. The two secret-service agents took turns on chairs outside their prisoner's door, glancing in occasionally to see that he still slept in his built-in bed.

At a little before five the man outside the prisoner's door heard something inside the room. He glanced in. All was quiet. The prisoner slept heavily, genuine sleep. There was no mistaking it, the sleep of a man warm after long cold and exhaustion, weary after violent effort. The agent went out again, and locked the door behind him.

And as the door closed, a trap-door from the kitchen below opened softly under the sleeping man's bed. With great caution came the landlord, head first, then shoulders. The space was cramped. He crawled up, like a snake out of a hole, and ducked behind the curtains of the bed. All was still quiet, save that the man outside struck a match and lighted a pipe.

Half an hour later, the Chancellor's prisoner, still stiff and weak, was making his way toward the hunting-lodge.

Kaiser saw him first, and found the story unenlightening. Nor could Karl, roused by a terrified valet, make much more of it. When the man had gone, Karl lay back among his pillows and eyed his agent.

"So Mettlich is here!" he said. "A hasty journey. They must be eager."

"They must be in trouble," Kaiser observed dryly. And on that uncomplimentary comment King Karl slept, his face drawn into a wry smile.

But he received the Chancellor of Livonia cordially the next morning, going himself to the lodge doorstep to meet his visitor, and there shaking hands with him.

"I am greatly honored, Excellency," he said, with his twisted smile.

"And I, sire."

But the Chancellor watched him from under his shaggy brows. The messenger had escaped. By now Karl knew the story, knew of his midnight ride over the mountains; and the haste it indicated. He sheathed himself in dignity; did the Chancellor, held his head high and moved ponderously, as became one who came to talk of important matters, but not to ask a boon.

Karl himself led the way to his study, ignoring the chamberlain, and stood aside to let Mettlich enter. Then he followed and closed the door.

"It is a long time since you have honored Karnia with a visit," Karl observed. "Will you sit down?"

Karl himself did not sit. He stood negligently beside the mantel, an arm stretched along it.

"Not since the battle of the Ar, sire," replied the Chancellor dryly. He had headed an army of invasion then.

Karl smiled. "I hope that now your errand is more peaceful."

For answer the Chancellor opened a portfolio he carried, and fumbled among its papers. But, having found the right one, he held it without opening it. "Before we come to that, sire, you have here, I believe, detained for some strange reason, a Captain Larisch, aide-de-camp" - he paused for effect - "to His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince of Livonia."

Karl glanced up quickly. "Perhaps, if you will describe this - gentleman - "

"Nonsense," said the Chancellor testily. "you have him. We have traced him here. Although by what authority you hold him I fail to understand. I am here to find out what you have done with him." The paper trembled in the old man's hand. He knew very well Karl's quick anger, and he feared for Nikky feared horribly.

"Done with him?" echoed Karl. "If as Captain Larisch you refer to a madman who the night before last - "

"I do, sire. Madman is the word."

Of course, it is not etiquette to interrupt a king. But kings were no novelty to the Chancellor. And quite often, for reasons of state, he had found interruptions necessary.

"He is a prisoner," Karl said, in a new tone, stern enough now. "He assaulted and robbed one of my men. He stole certain documents. That he has not suffered for it already was because - well, because I believed that the unfortunate distrust between your country and mine, Excellency, was about to end."

A threat that, undoubtedly. Let the arrangement between Karnia and Livonia be made, with Hedwig to seal the bargain, and Nikky was safe enough. But let Livonia demand too much, or not agree at all, and Nikky was lost. Thus did Nikky Larisch play his small part in the game of nations.

"Suppose," said Karl unctuously, "that we discuss first another more important matter. I confess to a certain impatience." He bowed slightly.

The Chancellor hesitated. Then he glanced thoughtfully at the paper in his hand.

Through a long luncheon, the two alone and even the servants dismissed, through a longer afternoon, negotiations went on. Mettlich fought hard on some points, only to meet defeat. Karl stood firm. The great fortresses on the border must hereafter contain only nominal garrisons. For the seaport strip he had almost doubled his price. The railroad must be completed within two years.

"Since I made my tentative proposal," Karl said, "certain things have come to my ears which must be considered. A certain amount of unrest we all have. It is a part of the times we live in. But strange stories have reached us here, that your revolutionary party is again active, and threatening. This proposal was made to avoid wars, not to marry them. And civil war - " He shrugged his shoulders.

"You have said yourself, sire, that we all have a certain discontent."

"The Princess Hedwig," Karl said suddenly. "She has been told, of course?"

"Not officially. She knows, however."

"How does she regard it?"

The Chancellor hesitated. "Like most young women, she would prefer making her own choice. But that," he added hastily, "is but a whim. She is a lovable and amiable girl. When the time comes she will be willing enough."

Karl stared out through one of the heavily curtained windows. He was not so sure. And the time had gone by when he would have enjoyed the taming of a girl. Now he wanted peace - was he not paying a price for it? - and children to inherit his well-managed kingdom. And perhaps - who knows? - a little love. His passionate young days were behind him, but he craved something that his unruly life had not brought him. Before him rose a vision of Hedwig her frank eyes, her color that rose and fell, her soft, round body.

"You have no reason to believe that she has looked elsewhere?"

"None, sire," said the Chancellor stoutly.

By late afternoon all was arranged, papers signed and witnessed, and the two signatures affixed, the. one small and cramped - a soldier's hand; the other bold and flowing - the scrawl of a king. And Hedwig, save for the ceremony, was the bride of Karl of Karnia.

It was then that the Chancellor rose and stretched his legs. "And now, sire," he said, "since we are friends and no longer enemies, you will, I know, release that mad boy of mine."

"When do you start back?"

"Within an hour."

"Before that time," said Karl, "you shall have him, Chancellor."

And with that Mettlich was forced to be content. He trusted Karl no more now than he ever had. But he made his adieus with no hint of trouble in his face.

Karl waited until the machine drove away. He had gone to the doorstep with the Chancellor, desiring to do him all possible honor. But Mettlich unaccustomed to democratic ways, disapproved of the proceeding, and was indeed extremely uncomfortable, and drew a sigh of relief when it was all over. He was of the old order which would keep its royalties on gilded thrones and, having isolated there in grandeur, have gone about the business of the kingdom without them.

Karl stood for a moment in the open air. It was done, then, and well done. It was hard to realize. He turned to the west, where for so long behind the mountains had lurked an enemy. A new era was opening; peace, disarmament, a quiet and prosperous land. He had spent his years of war and women. That was over.

From far away in the forest he heard the baying of the hounds. The crisp air filled his lungs. And even as he watched, a young doe, with rolling eyes, leaped across the drive. Karl watched it with coolly speculative eyes.

When he returned to the study the agent Kaiser was already there. In the democracy of the lodge men came and went almost at will. But Karl, big with plans for the future, would have been alone, and eyed the agent with disfavor.

"Well?" he demanded.

"We have been able to search the Chancellor's rooms, sire," the agent said, "for the articles mentioned last night - a card-case, gloves, and a silk handkerchief, belonging to the prisoner upstairs.

He is Captain Larisch, aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince of Livonia."

He had, expected Karl to be, impressed. But Karl only looked at him. "I know that," he said coldly. "You are always just a little late with your information, Kaiser."

Something like malice showed in the agent's face. "Then you also know, sire, that it is this Captain Larisch with whom rumor couples the name of the Princess Hedwig." He stepped back a pace or two at sight of Karl's face. "You requested such information, sire."

For answer, Karl pointed to the door.

For some time after he had dismissed the agent, Karl paced his library alone. Kaiser brought no unverified information. Therefore the thing was true. Therefore he had had his enemy in his hand, and now was pledged to let him go. For a time, then, Karl paid the penalty of many misdeeds. His triumph was ashes in his mouth.

What if this boy, infatuated with Hedwig, had hidden somewhere on the road Olga Loschek's letter? What, then, if he recovered it and took it to Hedwig? What if -

But at last he sent for the prisoner upstairs, and waited for him with both jealousy and fear in his eyes.

Five minutes later Nikky Larisch was ushered into the red study, and having bowed, an insolent young bow at that, stood and eyed the King.

"I have sent for you to release you," said Karl. Nikky drew a long breath. "I am grateful, sire."

"You have been interceded for by the Chancellor of Livonia, General Mettlich, who has just gone."

Nikky bowed.

"Naturally, since you said nothing, of your identity, we could not know that you belonged to His Majesty's household. Under the circumstances, it is a pleasure to give you your freedom."

Nikky, bowed again.

Karl fixed him with cold eyes. "But before you take leave of us," he said ironically, "I should like the true story of the night before last. Somehow, somewhere, a letter intended for me was exchanged for a blank paper. I want that letter."

"I know no more than you, sire. It is not reasonable that I would have taken the risk I took for an envelope containing nothing."

"For that matter," said His Majesty, "there was nothing reasonable about anything you did!"

And now Karl played his trump card, played it with watchful eyes on Nikky's face. He would see if report spoke the truth, if this blue-eyed boy was in love with Hedwig. He was a jealous man, this Karl of the cold eyes, jealous and passionate. Not as a king, then, watching a humble soldier of Livonia, but as man to man, he gazed at Nikky.

"For fear that loyalty keeps you silent, I may say to you that the old troubles between Karnia and Livonia are over."

"I do not understand, sire."

Karl hesitated. Then, with his twisted smile, he cast the rigid etiquette of such matters to the winds. "It is very simple," he said. "There will be no more trouble between these two neighboring countries, because a marriage has to-day been arranged - a marriage between the Princess Hedwig, His Majesty's granddaughter, and myself."

For a moment Nikky Larisch closed his eyes.