Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XVIII. Old Adelbert
Old Adelbert of the Opera had lost his position. No longer, a sausage in his pocket for refreshment, did he leave his little room daily for the Opera. A young man, who made ogling eyes at Olga, of the garde-robe, and who was not careful to keep the lenses clean, had taken his place.
He was hurt in his soldier's soul. There was no longer a place in the kingdom for those who had fought for it. The cry was for the young. And even in the first twenty-four hours a subtle change went on in him. His loyalty, on which he had built his creed of life, turned to bitterness.
The first day of his idleness he wandered into the back room of the cobbler's shop near by, where the butter-seller from the corner, the maker of artificial flowers for graves, and the cobbler himself were gathered, and listened without protest to such talk as would have roused him once to white anger.
But the iron had not yet gone very deep, and one thing he would not permit. It was when, in the conversation, one of them attacked the King. Then indeed he was roused to fury.
"A soldier and a gentleman," he said. "For him I lost this leg of mine, and lost it without grieving. When I lay in the hospital he himself came, and - "
A burst of jeering laughter greeted this, for he had told it many times. Told it, because it was all he had instead of a leg, and although he could not walk on it, certainly it had supported him through many years.
"As for the little Crown Prince," he went on firmly, "I have seen him often. He came frequently to the Opera. He has a fine head and a bright smile. He will be a good king."
But this was met with silence.
Once upon a time a student named Haeckel had occasionally backed him up in his defense of the royal family. But for some reason or other Haeckel came no more, and old Adelbert missed him. He had inquired for him frequently.
"Where is the boy Haeckle?" he had asked one day. "I have not seen him lately."
No one had replied. But a sort of grim silence settled over the little room. Old Adelbert, however, was not discerning.
"Perhaps, as a student, he worked too hard" he had answered his own question. "They must both work and play hard, these students. A fine lot of young men. I have watched them at the Opera. Most of them preferred Italian to German music."
But, that first day of idleness, when he had left the cobbler's, he resolved not to return. They had not been unfriendly, but he had seen at once there was a difference. He was no longer old Adelbert of the Opera. He was an old man only, and out of work.
He spent hours that first free afternoon repairing his frayed linen and his shabby uniform, with his wooden leg stretched out before him and his pipe clutched firmly in his teeth. Then, freshly shaved and brushed, he started on a painful search after work. With no result. And, indeed, he was hopeless before he began. He was old and infirm. There was little that he had even the courage to apply for.
True, he had his small pension, but it came only twice a year, and was sent, intact, to take care of an invalid daughter in the country. That was not his. He never used a penny of it. And he had saved a trifle, by living on air; as the concierge declared. But misfortunes come in threes, like fires and other calamities. The afternoon of that very day brought a letter, saying that the daughter was worse and must have an operation. Old Adelbert went to church and burned a candle for her recovery, and from there to the bank, to send by registered mail the surgeon's fee.
He was bankrupt in twenty-four hours.
That evening in his extremity he did a reckless thing. He wrote a letter to the King. He spent hours over it, first composing it in pencil and then copying it with ink borrowed from the concierge. It began "Sire," as he had learned was the form, and went on to remind His Majesty, first, of the hospital incident, which, having been forty years ago, might have slipped the royal memory. Then came the facts - his lost position, his daughter, the handicap of his wooden leg. It ended with a plea for reinstatement or, failing that, for any sort of work.
He sent it, unfolded, in a large flat envelope, which also he had learned was the correct thing with kings, who for some reason or other do not like folded communications. Then he waited. He considered that a few hours should bring a return.
No answer came. No answer ever came. For the King was ill, and secretaries carefully sifted the royal mail.
He waited all of the next day, and out of the mixed emotions of his soul confided the incident of the letter to Humbert, in his bureau below.
The concierge smiled in his beard. "What does the King care?" he demanded. "He will never see that letter. And if he did - you have lived long, my friend. Have you ever known the King to give, or to do anything but take? Name me but one instance."
And that night, in the concierge's bureau, he was treated to many incidents, all alike. The Government took, but gave nothing. As well expect blood out of a stone. Instances were given, heartlessness piled on heartlessness, one sordid story on another.
And as he listened there died in old Adelbert's soul his flaming love for his sovereign and his belief in him. His eyes took on a hard and haunted look. That night he walked past the Palace and shook his fist at it. He was greatly ashamed of that, however, and never repeated it. But his soul was now an open sore, ready for infection.
And Black Humbert bided his time.
On the day of the excursion to the fortress old Adelbert decided to appeal to his fellow lodger, Herman Spier. Now and then, when he was affluent, he had paid small tribute to Herman by means of the camp cookery on which he prided himself.
"A soldier's mess!" he would say, and bring in a bowl of soup, or a slice of deer meat, broiled over hot coals in his tiny stove. "Eat it, man. These restaurants know nothing of food."
To Herman now he turned for advice and help. It was difficult to find the clerk. He left early, and often came home after midnight in a curious frame of mind, a drunkenness of excitement that was worse than that of liquor.
Herman could not help him. But he eyed the old soldier appraisingly. He guessed shrewdly the growing uneasiness behind Adelbert's brave front. If now one could enlist such a man for the Cause, that would be worth doing. He had talked it over with the concierge. Among the veterans the old man was influential, and by this new policy of substituting fresh blood for stale, the Government had made many enemies among them.
"In a shop!" he said coldly. "With that leg? No, my friend. Two legs are hardly enough for what we have to do."
"Then, for any sort of work. I could sweep and clean."
"I shall inquire," said Herman Spier. But he did not intend to. He had other plans.
The old man's bitterness had been increased by two things. First, although he had been dismissed without notice, in the middle of the week, he had been paid only up to the hour of leaving. That was a grievance. Second, being slow on his feet, one of the royal motorcars had almost run him down, and the police had cursed him roundly for being in the way.
"Why be angry?" observed the concierge, on this being reported to him. "The streets are the King's. Who are the dogs of pedestrians but those that pay the taxes to build them?"
At last he determined to find Haeckel, the student. He did not know his Christian name, nor where he lodged. But he knew the corps he belonged to, by his small gray cap with a red band.
He was very nervous when he made this final effort. Corps houses were curious places, he had heard, and full of secrets. Even the great professors from the University might not enter without invitation. And his experience had been that students paid small respect to uniforms or to age. In truth, he passed the building twice before he could summon courage to touch the great brass knocker. And the arrogance of its clamor, when at last he rapped, startled him again. But here at least he need not have feared.
The student who was also doorkeeper eyed him kindly. "Well, comrade?" he said.
"I am seeking a student named Haeckel, of this corps," said old Adelbert stoutly.
And had violated all etiquette, too, had he but known it!
"Haeckle?" repeated the doorkeeper. "I think - come in, comrade. I will inquire."
For the name of Haeckel was, just then, one curiously significant.
He disappeared, and old Adelbert waited. When the doorkeeper returned, it was to tell him to follow him, and to lead the way downstairs.
There dawned on the old man's eyes a curious sight. In a long basement room were perhaps thirty students, each armed with a foil, and wearing a wire mask. A half dozen lay figures on springs stood in the center in a low row, and before these perspiring youths thrust and parried. Some of them, already much scarred, stood and watched. This, then, was where the students prepared themselves for duels. Here they fought the mimic battles that were later on to lead to the much-prized scars.
Old Adelbert stared with curious, rather scornful eyes. The rapier he detested. Give him a saber, and a free field, and he would show them. Even yet, he felt, he had not lost his cunning. And the saber requires cunning as well as strength.
Two or three students came toward him at once. "You are seeking Haeckle?" one of them asked.
"I am. I knew him, but not well. Lately, however, I have thought - is he here?"
The students exchanged glances. "He is not here," one said. "Where did you know him?"
"He came frequently to a shop I know of - a cobbler's shop, a neighborhood meeting-place. A fine lad. I liked him. But recently he has not come, and knowing his corps, I came here to find him."
They had hoped to learn something from him, and he knew nothing. "He has disappeared," they told him. "He is not at his lodging, and he has left his classes. He went away suddenly, leaving everything. That is all we know."
It sounded sinister. Old Adelbert, heavy-hearted, turned away and climbed again to the street. That gateway was closed, too. And he felt a pang of uneasiness. What could have happened to the boy? Was the world, after all, only a place of trouble?
But now came good fortune, and, like evil, it came not singly. The operation was over, and his daughter on the mend. The fee was paid also. And the second followed on the heels of the first.
He did not like Americans. Too often, in better days, had he heard the merits of the American republic compared with the shortcomings of his own government. When, as happened now and then, he met the American family on the staircase, he drew sharply aside that no touch of republicanism might contaminate his uniform.
On that day, however, things changed.
First of all, he met the American lad in the hallway, and was pleased to see him doff his bit of a cap. Not many, nowadays, uncovered a head to him. The American lad was going down; Adelbert was climbing, one step at a time, and carrying a small basket of provisions.
The American boy, having passed, turned, hesitated, went back. "I'd like to carry that for you, if you don't mind."
"I am very strong," said the American boy stoutly.
So Adelbert gave up his basket, and the two went up. Four long flights of stone stairs led to Adelbert's room. The ascent took time and patience.
At the door Adelbert paused. Then, loneliness overcoming prejudice, "Come in," he said.
The bare little room appealed to the boy. "It's very nice, it?" he said. "There's nothing to fall over."
"And but little to sit on," old Adelbert added dryly. "However, two people require but two chairs. Here is one."
But the boy would not sit down. He ranged the room, frankly curious, exclaimed at the pair of ring doves who lived in a box tied to the window-sill, and asked for crumbs for them. Adelbert brought bread from his small store.
The boy cheered him. His interest in the old saber, the intentness with which he listened to its history, the politeness with which he ignored his host's infirmity, all won the old man's heart.
These Americans downstairs were not all bad, then. They were too rich, of course. No one should have meat three times a day, as the meat-seller reported they did. And they were paying double rent for the apartment below. But that, of course, they could not avoid, not knowing the real charge.
The boy was frankly delighted. And when old Adelbert brought forth from his basket a sausage and, boiling it lightly, served him a slice between two pieces of bread, an odd friendship was begun that was to have unforeseen consequences. They had broken bread together.
Between the very old and the very young come sometimes these strong affections. Perhaps it is that age harkens back to the days of its youth, and by being very old, becomes young again. Or is it that children are born old, with the withered, small faces of all the past, and must, year by year, until their maturity, shed this mantle of age?
Gradually, over the meal, and the pigeons, and what not, old Adelbert unburdened his heart. He told of his years at the Opera, where he had kept his glasses clean and listened to the music until he knew by heart even the most difficult passages. He told of the Crown Prince, who always wished opera-glasses, not because he needed them, but because he liked to turn them wrong end before, and thus make the audience appear at a great distance. And then he told of the loss of his position.
The American lad listened politely, but his mind was on the Crown Prince. "Does he wear a crown?" he demanded. "I saw him once in a carriage, but I think he had a hat."
"At the coronation he will wear a crown."
"Do people do exactly what he tells them?"
Old Adelbert was not certain. He hedged, rather. "Probably, whenever it is good for him."
"Huh! What's the use of being a prince?" observed the boy, who had heard of privileges being given that way before. "When will he be a king?"
"When the old King dies. He is very old now. I was in a hospital once, after a battle. And he came in. He put his hand on my shoulder, like this" he illustrated it on the child's small one - " and said - " Considering that old Adelbert no longer loved his King, it is strange to record that his voice broke.
"Will he die soon?" Bobby put in. He found kings as much of a novelty as to Prince Ferdinand William Otto they were the usual thing. Bobby's idea of kings, however, was of the "off with his head" order.
"Who knows? But when he does, the city will learn at once. The great bell of the Cathedral, which never rings save at such times, will toll. They say it is a sound never to be forgotten. I, of course, have never heard it. When it tolls, all in the city will fall on their knees and pray. It is the custom." Bobby, reared to strict Presbyterianism and accustomed to kneeling but once a day, and that at night beside his bed, in the strict privacy of his own apartment, looked rather startled. "What will they pray for?" he said.
And old Adelbert, with a new bitterness, replied that the sons of kings needed much prayer. Sometimes they were hard and did cruel things.
"And then the Crown Prince will be a king," Bobby reflected. "If I were a king, I'd make people stand around. And I'd have an automobile and run it myself. But has the Crown Prince only a grandfather, and no father?"
"He died - the boy's father. He was murdered, and the Princess his mother also."
Bobby's eyes opened wide. "Who did it?"
"Terrorists," said old Adelbert. And would not be persuaded to say more.
That night at dinner Bobby Thorpe delivered himself of quite a speech. He sat at the table, and now and then, when the sour-faced governess looked at her plate, he slipped a bit of food to his dog, which waited beside him.
"There's a very nice old man upstairs," he said. "He has a fine sword, and ring-doves, and a wooden leg. And he used to rent opera-glasses to the Crown Prince, only he turned them around. I'm going to try that with yours, mother. We had sausage together, and he has lost his position, and he's never been on the Scenic Railway, father. I'd like some tickets for him. He would like riding, I'm sure, because walking must be pretty hard. And what I want to know is this: Why can't you give him a job, father?"
Bobby being usually taciturn at the table, and entirely occupied with food, the family stared at him.
"What sort of a job, son? A man with one leg!"
"He doesn't need legs to chop tickets with."
The governess listened. She did not like Americans. Barbarians they were, and these were of the middle class, being in trade. For a scenic railway is trade, naturally. Except that they paid a fat salary, with an extra month at Christmas, she would not be there. She and Pepy, the maid, had many disputes about this. But Pepy was a Dalmatian, and did not matter.
"He means the old soldier upstairs," said Bobby's mother softly. She was a gentle person. Her eyes were wide and childlike, and it was a sort of religion of the family to keep them full of happiness.
This also the governess could not understand.
"So the old soldier is out of work," mused the head of the family. Head, thought the governess! When they wound him about their fingers! She liked men of sterner stuff. In her mountain country the men did as they wished, and sometimes beat their wives by way of showing their authority. Under no circumstances, she felt, would this young man ever beat his wife. He was a weakling.
The weakling smiled across the table at the wife with the soft eyes. "How about it, mother?" he asked. "Shall the firm of 'Bobby and I' offer him a job?"
"I would like it very much," said the weakling's wife, dropping her eyes to hide the pride in them.
"Suppose," said the weakling, "that you run up after dinner, Bob, and bring him down. Now sit still, young man, and finish. There's no such hurry as that."
And in this fashion did old Adelbert become ticket-chopper of the American Scenic Railway.
And in this fashion, too, commenced that odd friendship between him and the American lad that was to have so vital an effect on the very life itself of the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto of Livonia.
Late that evening, old Adelbert's problem having been solved, Pepy the maid and Bobby had a long talk. It concerned itself mainly with kings. Pepy sat in a low chair by the tiled stove in the kitchen, and knitted a stocking with a very large foot.
"What I want to know is this," said Bobby, swinging his legs on the table: "What are the Terrorists?"
Pepy dropping her knitting, and stared with open mouth. "What know you of such things?" she demanded.
"Well, Terrorists killed the Crown Prince's father, and - "
Quite suddenly Pepy leaped from her chair, and covered Bobby's mouth with her hand. "Hush!" she said, and stared about her with frightened eyes. The door into the dining-room was open, and the governess sat there with a book. Then, in a whisper: "They are everywhere. No one knows who they are, nor where they meet." The superstition of her mountains crept into her voice. "It is said that they have the assistance of the evil one, and that the reason the police cannot find them is because they take the form of cats. I myself," she went on impressively, "crossing the Place one night late, after spending the evening with a friend, saw a line of cats moving in the shadows. One of them stopped and looked at me." Pepy crossed herself. "It had a face like the Fraulein in there."
Bobby stared with interest through the doorway. The governess did look like a cat. She had staring eyes, and a short, wide face. "Maybe's she's one of them," he reflected aloud.
"Oh, for God's sake, hush!" cried Pepy, and fell to knitting rapidly. Nor could Bobby elicit anything further from her. But that night, in his sleep, he saw a Crown Prince, dressed in velvet and ermine, being surrounded and attacked by an army of cats, and went, shivering, to crawl into his mother's bed.