Chapter XVII. The Fortress

The anniversary of the death of Prince Hubert dawned bright and sunny. The Place showed a thin covering of snow, which clung, wet and sticky, to the trees; but by nine o'clock most of it had disappeared, and Prince Ferdinand William Otto was informed that the excursion would take place.

Two motors took the party, by back streets, to the landing-stage. In the first were Annunciata, Hedwig, and the Countess, and at the last moment Otto had salvaged Miss Braithwaite from the second car, and begged a place for her with him. A police agent sat beside the chauffeur. Also another car, just ahead, contained other agents, by Mettlich's order before his departure - a plain black motor, without the royal arms.

In the second machine followed a part of the suite, Hedwig's lady in waiting, two gentlemen of the Court, in parade dress, and Father Gregory, come from his monastery at Etzel to visit his old friend, the King.

At the landing-stage a small crowd had gathered on seeing the red carpet laid and the gilt ropes put up, which indicated a royal visit. A small girl, with a hastily secured bouquet in her hot hands, stood nervously waiting. In deference to the anniversary, the flowers were tied with a black ribbon!

Annunciata grumbled when she saw the crowd, and the occupants of the first car looked them over carefully. It remained for Hedwig to spy the black ribbon. In the confusion, she slipped over to the little girl, who went quite white with excitement. "They are lovely," Hedwig whispered, "but please take off the black ribbon." The child eyed her anxiously. "It will come to pieces, Highness."

"Take the ribbon from your hair. It will be beautiful."

Which was done! But, as was not unnatural, the child forgot her speech, and merely thrust the bouquet, tied with a large pink bow, into the hands of Prince Ferdinand William Otto.

"Here," she said. It was, perhaps, the briefest, and therefore the most agreeable presentation speech the Crown Prince had ever heard.

Red carpet and gold ropes and white gloves these last on the waiting officers - made the scene rather gay. The spring sun shone on the gleaming river, on the white launch with its red velvet cushions, on the deck chairs, its striped awnings and glittering brass, on the Crown Prince, in uniform, on the bouquet and the ribbon. But somewhere, back of the quay, a band struck up a funeral march, and a beggar, sitting in the sun, put his hand to his ear.

"Of course," he said, to no one in particular. "It is the day. I had forgotten."

The quay receded, red carpet and all. Only the blare of the band followed them, and with the persistence of sound over water, followed them for some time. The Crown Prince put down the bouquet, and proceeded to stand near the steersman.

"When I am grown up," he observed to that embarrassed sailor, "I hope I shall be able to steer a boat."

The steersman looked about cautiously. The royal guests were settling themselves in chairs; with rugs over their knees. "It is very easy, Your Royal Highness," he said. "See, a turn like this, and what happens? And the other way the same."

Followed a five minutes during which the white launch went on a strange and devious course, and the Crown Prince grew quite hot and at least two inches taller. It was, of course, the Archduchess who discovered what was happening. She was very disagreeable about it.

The Archduchess was very disagreeable about everything that day. She was afraid to stay in the Palace, and afraid to leave it. And just when she had begun to feel calm, and the sun and fresh air were getting in their work, that wretched funeral band had brought back everything she was trying to forget.

The Countess was very gay. She said brilliant, rather heartless things that set the group to laughing, and in the intervals she eyed Hedwig with narrowed eyes and hate in her heart. Hedwig herself was very quiet. The bouquet had contained lilies-of-the-valley, for one thing.

Miss Braithwaite knitted, and watched that the Crown Prince kept his white gloves clean.

Just before they left the Palace the Archduchesss had had a moment of weakening, but the Countess had laughed away her fears.

"I really think I shall not go, after all," Annunciata had said nervously. "There are reasons."

The Countess had smiled mockingly. "Reasons!" she said. "I know that many things are being said. But I also know that General Mettlich is an alarmist;" purred the Countess. "And that the King is old and ill, and sees through gray glasses."

So the Archduchess had submitted to having a plumed and inappropriate hat set high on her head, regardless of the fashion, and had pinned on two watches and gone.

It was Hedwig who showed the most depression on the trip, after all. Early that morning she had attended mass in the royal chapel. All the household had been there, and the King had been wheeled in, and had sat in his box, high in the wall, the door of which opened from his private suite.

Looking up, Hedwig had seen his gray old face set and rigid. The Court had worn black, and the chapel was draped in crepe. She had fallen on her knees and had tried dutifully to pray for the dead Hubert. But her whole soul was crying out for help for herself.

So now she sat very quiet, and wondered about things.

Prince Ferdinand William Otto sat by the rail and watched the green banks flying by. In one place a group of children were sailing a tiny boat from the bank. It was only a plank, with a crazy cotton sail. They shoved it off and watched while the current seized it and carried it along. Then they cheered, and called good-bye to it.

The Crown Prince leaned over the rail, and when the current caught it, he cheered too, and waved his cap. He was reproved, of course, and some officious person insisted on tucking the rug around his royal legs. But when no one was looking, he broke a flower from the bouquet and flung it overboard. He pretended that it was a boat, and was going down to Karnia, filled with soldiers ready to fight.

But the thought of soldiers brought Nikky to his mind. His face clouded. "It's very strange about Nikky," he said. "He is away somewhere. I wish he had sent word he was going."

Hedwig looked out over the river.

The Archduchess glanced at Miss Braithwaite. "There is no news?" she asked, in an undertone.

"None," said Miss Braithwaite.

A sudden suspicion rose in Hedwig's mind, and made her turn pale. What if they had sent him away? Perhaps they feared him enough for that! If that were true, she would never know. She knew the ways of the Palace well enough for that. In a sort of terror she glanced around the group, so comfortably disposed. Her mother was looking out, with her cool, impassive gaze. Miss Braithwaite knitted. The Countess, however, met her eyes, and there was something strange in them: triumph and a bit of terror, too, had she but read them. For the Countess had put in her plea for a holiday and had been refused.

The launch drew up near the fort, and the Crown Prince's salute of a certain number of guns was fired. The garrison was drawn up in line, and looked newly shaved and very, very neat. And the officers came out and stood on the usual red carpet, and bowed deeply, after which they saluted the Crown Prince and he saluted them. Then the Colonel in charge shook hands all round, and the band played. It was all very ceremonious and took a lot of tine.

The new fortress faced the highroad some five miles from the Karnian border. It stood on a bluff over the river, and was, as the Crown Prince decided, not so unlike the desk, after all, except that it had a moat around it.

Hedwig and the Countess went with the party around the fortifications. The Archduchess and Miss Braithwaite had sought a fire. Only the Countess, however, seemed really interested. Hedwig seemed more intent on the distant line of the border than on anything else. She stood on a rampart and stared out at it, looking very sad. Even the drill - when at a word all the great guns rose and peeped over the edge at the valley below, and then dropped back again as if they had seen enough - even this failed to rouse her.

"I wish you would listen, Hedwig," said the Crown Prince, almost fretfully. "It's so interesting. The enemy's soldiers would come up the river in boats, and along that road on foot. And then we would raise the guns and shoot at them. And the guns would drop back again, before the enemy had time to aim at them."

But Hedwig's interest was so evidently assumed that he turned to the Countess. The Countess professed smiling terror, and stood a little way back from the guns, looking on. But Prince Ferdinand William Otto at last coaxed her to the top of the emplacement.

"There's a fine view up there," he urged. "And the guns won't hurt you. There's nothing in them."

To get up it was necessary to climb an iron ladder. Hedwig was already there. About a dozen young officers had helped her up, and ruined as many pairs of white gloves, although Hedwig could climb like a cat, and really needed no help at all.

"You go up," said the Crown Prince eagerly. "I'll hold your bag, so you can climb."

He caught her handbag from her, and instantly something snapped in it. The Countess was climbing up the ladder. Rather dismayed, Prince Ferdinand William Otto surveyed the bag. Something had broken, he feared. And in another moment he saw what it was. The little watch which was set in one side of it had slipped away, leaving a round black hole. His heart beat a trifle faster.

"I'm awfully worried," he called up to her, as he climbed. "I'm afraid I've broken your bag. Something clicked, and the watch is gone. It is not on the ground."

It was well for the Countess that the Colonel was talking to Hedwig. Well for her, too, that the other officers were standing behind with their eyes worshipfully on the Princess. The Countess turned gray-white.

"Don't worry, Highness," she said, with stiff lips, "The watch falls back sometimes. I must have it repaired."

But long after the tour of the ramparts was over, after ammunition-rooms had been visited, with their long lines of waiting shells, after the switchboard which controlled the river mines had been inspected and explained, she was still trembling.

Prince Ferdinand William Otto, looking at the bag later on, saw the watch in place and drew a long breath of relief.