Chapter XIX. The Committee of Ten
 

On the evening of the annual day of mourning, the party returned from the fortress. The Archduchess slept. The Crown Prince talked, mostly to Hedwig, and even she said little. After a time the silence affected the boy's high spirits. He leaned back in his chair on the deck of the launch, and watched the flying landscape. He counted the riverside shrines to himself. There were, he discovered, just thirteen between the fortress and the city limits.

Old Father Gregory sat beside him. He had taken off his flat black hat, and it lay on his knee. The ends of his black woolen sash fluttered in the wind, and he sat, benevolent hands folded, looking out.

From guns to shrines is rather a jump, and the Crown Prince found it difficult.

"Do you consider fighting the duty of a Christian?" inquired the Crown Prince suddenly.

Father Gregory, whose mind had been far away, with his boys' school at Etzel, started.

"Fighting? That depends. To defend his home is the Christian duty of every man."

"But during the last war," persisted Otto, "we went across the mountains and killed a lot of people. Was that a Christian duty?"

Father Gregory coughed. He had himself tucked up his soutane and walked forty miles to join the army of invasion, where he had held services, cared for the wounded, and fired a rifle, all with equal spirit. He changed the subject to the big guns at the fortress.

"I think," observed the Crown Prince, forgetting his scruples, "that if you have a pencil and an old envelope to draw on, I'll invent a big gun myself."

Which he proceeded to do, putting in a great many wheels and levers, and adding, a folding-table at the side on which the gunners might have afternoon tea - this last prompted by the arrival just then of cups and saucers and a tea service.

It was almost dark when the launch arrived at the quay. The red carpet was still there, and another crowd. Had Prince Ferdinand William Otto been less taken up with finding one of his kid gloves, which he had lost, he would have noticed that there was a scuffle going on at the very edge of the red carpet, and that the beggar of the morning was being led away, between two policemen, while a third, running up the river bank, gingerly deposited a small round object in the water, and stood back. It was merely one of the small incidents of a royal outing, and was never published in the papers. But Father Gregory, whose old eyes were far-sighted, had seen it all. His hand - the hand of the Church - was on the shoulder of the Crown Prince as they landed.

The boy looked around for the little girl of the bouquet. He took an immense interest in little girls, partly because he seldom saw any. But she was gone.

When the motor which had taken them from the quay reached the Palace, Hedwig roused the Archduchess, whose head had dropped forward on her chest. "Here we are, mother," she said. "You have had a nice sleep."

But Annunciata muttered something about being glad the wretched day was over, and every one save Prince Ferdinand William Otto seemed glad to get back. The boy was depressed. He felt, somehow, that they should have enjoyed it, and that, having merely endured it, they had failed him again.

He kissed his aunt's hand dutifully when he left her, and went with a lagging step to his own apartments. His request to have Hedwig share his supper had met with a curt negative.

The Countess, having left her royal mistress in the hands of her maids, went also to her own apartment. She was not surprised, on looking into her mirror, to find herself haggard and worn. It had been a terrible day. Only a second had separated that gaping lens in her bag from the eyes of the officers about. Never, in an adventurous life, had she felt so near to death. Even now its cold breath chilled her.

However, that was over, well over. She had done well, too. A dozen pictures of the fortress, of its guns, of even its mine chart as it hung on a wall, were in the bag. Its secrets, so securely held, were hers, and would be Karl's.

It was a cunningly devised scheme. Two bags, exactly alike as to appearance, had been made. One, which she carried daily, was what it appeared to be. The other contained a camera, tiny but accurate, with a fine lens. When a knob of the fastening was pressed, the watch slid aside and the shutter snapped. The pictures when enlarged had proved themselves perfect.

Pleading fatigue, she dismissed her maid and locked the doors. Then she opened the sliding panel, and unfastened the safe. The roll of film was in her hand, ready to be deposited under the false bottom of her jewel-case.

Within the security of her room, the Countess felt at ease. The chill of the day left her, to be followed by a glow of achievement. She even sang a little, a bit of a ballad from her native mountains:

He has gone to the mountains, The far green mountains. (Hear the cattle lowing as they drive them up the hill!) When he comes down he'll love me; When he comes down he'll marry me. (But what is this that touches me with fingers dead and chill?)

Still singing, she carried the jewel-case to her table, and sat down before it. Then she put a hand to her throat.

The lock had been forced.

A glance about showed her that her code-book was gone. In the tray above, her jewels remained untouched; her pearl collar, the diamond knickknacks the Archduchess had given her on successive Christmases, even a handful of gold coins, all were safe enough. But the code-book was gone.

Then indeed did the Countess look death in the face and found it terrible. For a moment she could not so much as stand without support. It was then that she saw a paper folded under her jewels and took it out with shaking fingers. In fine, copperplate script she read:.

MADAME, -To-night at one o'clock a closed fiacre will await you in the Street of the Wise Virgins, near the church. You will go in it, without fail, to wherever it takes you.

(Signed)THE COMMITTEE OF TEN

The Committee of Ten! This thing had happened to her. Then it was true that the half-mythical Committee of Ten existed, that this terror of Livonia was a real terror, which had her by the throat. For there was no escape. None. Now indeed she knew that rumor spoke the truth, and that the Terrorists were everywhere. In daylight they had entered her room. They had known of the safe, known of the code. Known how much else?

Wild ideas of flight crossed her mind, to be as instantly abandoned for their futility. Where could she go that they would not follow her? When she had reacted from her first shock she fell to pondering the matter, pro and con. What could they want of her? If she was an enemy to the country, so were they. But even that led nowhere, for after all, the Terrorists were not enemies to Livonia. They claimed indeed to be its friends, to hold in their hands its future and its betterment. Enemies of the royal house they were, of course.

She was nearly distracted by that time. She was a brave woman, physically and mentally of hard fiber, but the very name signed to the paper set her nerves to twitching. It was the Committee of Ten which had murdered Prince Hubert and his young wife; the Committee of Ten which had exploded a bomb in the very Palace itself, and killed old Breidau, of the King's Council; the Committee of Ten which had burned the Government House, and had led the mob in the student riots a year or so before.

Led them, themselves hidden. For none knew their identity. It was said that they did not even know each other, wearing masks and long cloaks at their meetings, and being designated by numbers only.

In this dread presence, then, she would find herself that night! For she would go. There was no way out.

She sent a request to be excused from dinner on the ground of illness, and was, as a result, visited by her royal mistress at nine o'clock. The honor was unexpected. Not often did the Archduchess Annunciata so favor any one. The Countess, lying across her bed in a perfect agony of apprehension, staggered into her sitting-room and knelt to kiss her lady's hand.

But the Archduchess, who had come to scoff, believing not at all in the illness, took one shrewd glance at her, and put her hands behind her.

"It may be, as you say, contagious, Olga," she said. "You would better go to bed and stay there. I shall send Doctor Wiederman to you."

When she had gone the Countess rang for her maid. She was cool enough now, and white, with a cruel line about her mouth that Minna knew well. She went to the door into the corridor, and locked it.

Then she turned on the maid. "I am ready for you, now."

"Madame will retire?"

"You little fool! You know what I am ready for!"

The maid stood still. Her wide, bovine eyes, filled with alarm, watched the Countess as she moved swiftly across the room to her wardrobe. When she turned about again, she held in her hand a thin black riding-crop. Minna's ruddy color faded. She knew the Loscheks, knew their furies. Strange stories of unbridled passion had oozed from the old ruined castle where for so long they had held feudal sway over the countryside.

"Madame!" she cried, and fell on her knees. "What have I done? Oh, what have I done?"

"That is what you will tell me," said the Countess, and brought down the crop. A livid stripe across the girl's face turned slowly to red.

"I have done nothing, I swear it. Mother of Pity, help me! I have done nothing."

The crop descended again, this time on one of the great sleeves of her peasant costume. So thin it was, so brutal the blow, that it cut into the muslin. Groaning, the girl fell forward on her face. The Countess continued to strike pitiless blows into which she put all her fury, her terror, her frayed and ragged nerves.

The girl on the floor, from whimpering, fell to crying hard, with great noiseless sobs of pain and bewilderment. When at last the blows ceased, she lay still.

The Countess prodded her with her foot. "Get up," she commanded.

But she was startled when she saw the girl's face. It was she who was the fool. The welt would tell its own story, and the other servants would talk. It was already a deep purple, and swollen. Both women were trembling. The Countess, still holding the crop, sat down.

"Now!" she said. "You will tell me to whom you gave a certain small book of which you know."

"I, madame?"

"You."

"But what book? I have given nothing, madame. I swear it."

"Then you admitted some one to this room?"

"No one, madame, except - " She hesitated.

"Well?"

"There came this afternoon the men who clean madame's windows. No one else, madame."

She put her hand to her cheek, and looked furtively to see if her fingers were stained with blood. The Countess, muttering, fell to furious pacing of the room. So that was it, of course. The girl was telling the truth. She was too stupid to lie. Then the Committee of Ten indeed knew everything - had known that she would be away, had known of the window cleaners, had known of the safe, and her possession of the code.

Cold and calculating rage filled her. Niburg had played her false, of course. But Niburg was only a go-between. He had known nothing of the codebook. He had given the Committee the letter, and by now they knew all that it told. What did it not know?

She dismissed the girl and put away the riding-crop, then she smoothed the disorder of her hair and dress. The court physician, calling a half hour later, found her reading on a chaise longue in her boudoir, looking pale and handsome; and spent what he considered a pleasant half-hour with her. He loved gossip, and there was plenty just now. Indications were that they would have a wedding soon. An unwilling bride, perhaps, eh? But a lovely one. For him, he was glad that Karnia was to be an ally, and not an enemy. He had seen enough of wars. And so on and on, while the Countess smiled and nodded, and shivered in her very heart.

At eleven o'clock he went away, kissing her hand rather more fervently than professionally, although his instinct to place his fingers over the pulse rather spoiled the effect. One thing, however, the Countess had gained by his visit. He was to urge on the Archduchess the necessity for an immediate vacation for her favorite.

"Our loss, Countess," he said, with heavy gallantry.. "But we cannot allow beauty to languish for need of mountain air."

Then at last he was gone, and she went about her heavy-hearted preparations for the night. From a corner of her wardrobe she drew a long peasant's cape, such a cape as Minna might wear. Over her head, instead of a hat, she threw a gray veil. A careless disguise, but all that was necessary. The sentries through and about the Palace were not unaccustomed to such shrouded figures slipping out from its gloom to light, and perhaps to love.

Before she left, she looked about the room. What assurance had she that this very excursion was not a trap, and that in her absence the vault would not he looted again? It contained now something infinitely valuable - valuable and incriminating - the roll of film. She glanced about, and seeing a silver vase of roses, hurriedly emptied the water out, wrapped the film in oiled paper, and dropped it down among the stems.

The Street of the Wise Virgins was not near the Palace. Even by walking briskly she was in danger of being late. The wind kept her back, too. The cloak twisted about her, the veil whipped. She turned once or twice to see if she were being followed, but the quiet streets were empty. Then, at last, the Street of the Wise Virgins and the fiacre, standing at the curb, with a driver wrapped in rugs against the cold of the February night, and his hat pulled down over his eyes. The Countess stopped beside him.

"You are expecting a passenger?"

"Yes, madame."

With her hand on the door, the Countess realized that the fiacre was already occupied. As she peered into its darkened interior, the shadow resolved itself into a cloaked and masked figure. She shrank back.

"Enter, madame," said a voice.

The figure appalled her. It was not sufficient to know that behind the horrifying mask which covered the entire face and head, there was a human figure, human pulses that beat, human eyes that appraised her. She hesitated.

"Quickly," said the voice.

She got in, shrinking into a corner of the carriage.

Her lips were dry, the roaring of terror was in her ears. The door closed.

Then commenced a drive of which afterward the Countess dared not think. The figure neither moved nor spoke. Inside the carriage reigned the most complete silence. The horse's feet clattered over rough stones, they turned through narrow, unfamiliar streets, so that she knew not even the direction they took. After a time the noise grew less. The horse padded along dirt roads, in darkness. Then the carriage stopped, and at last the shrouded figure moved and spoke.

"I regret, Countess, that my orders are to blindfold you."

She drew herself up haughtily.

"That is not necessary, I think."

"Very necessary, madame."

She submitted ungracefully, while he bound a black cloth over her eyes. He drew it very close and knotted it behind. In the act his -fingers touched her face, and she felt them cold and clammy. The contact sickened her.

"Your hand, madame."

She was led out of the carriage, and across soft earth, a devious course again, as though they avoided small obstacles. Once her foot touched something low and hard, like marble. Again, in the darkness, they stumbled over a mound. She knew where she was, then - in a graveyard. But which? There were many about the city.

An open space, the opening of a gate or door that squealed softly, a flight of steps that led downward, and a breath of musty, cold air, damp and cellar-like.

She was calmer now. Had they meant to kill her, there had been already a hundred chances. It was not death, then, that awaited her - at least, not immediate death. These precautions, too, could only mean that she was to be freed again, and must not know where she had been.

At last, still in unbroken silence, she knew that they had entered a large space. Their footsteps no longer echoed and re-echoed. Her guide walked more slowly, and at last paused, releasing her hand. She felt again the touch of his clammy fingers as he untied the knots of her bandage. He took it off.

At first she could see little. The silence remained unbroken, and only the center of the room was lighted. When her eyes grew accustomed, she made out the scene slowly.

A great stone vault, its walls broken into crypts which had contained caskets of the dead. But the caskets had been removed; and were piled in a corner, and in the niches were rifles. In the center was a pine table, curiously incongruous, and on it writing materials, a cheap clock, and a pile of documents. There were two candles only, and these were stuck in skulls - old brown skulls so infinitely removed from all semblance to the human that they were not even horrible. It was as if they had been used, not to inspire terror, but because they were at hand and convenient for the purpose. In the shadow, ranged in a semicircle, were nine figures, all motionless, all masked, and cloaked in black. They sat, another incongruity, on plain wooden chairs. But in spite of that they were figures of dread. The one who had brought her made the tenth.

Still the silence, broken only by the drip of water from the ceiling into a tin pail.

Had she not known the past record of the men before her, the rather opera bouffe setting with which they chose to surround themselves might have aroused her scorn. But Olga Loschek knew too much. She guessed shrewdly that, with the class of men with whom they dealt, it was not enough that their name spelled terror. They must visualize it. They had taken their cue from that very church, indeed, beneath which they hid. The church, with its shrines and images, appealed to the eye. They, too, appealed to the eye. Their masks, the carefully constructed and upheld mystery of their identity, the trappings of death about them - it was skillfully done.

Not that she was thinking consecutively just then. It was a mental flash, even as her eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness made out the white numeral, from one to ten, on the front of each shroud-like cloak.

Still no one spoke. The Countess faced them.

Only her eyes showed her nervousness; she stood haughtily, her head held high. But like most women, she could not endure silence for long, at least the silence of shrouded figures and intent eyes.

"Now that I am here," she demanded, "may I ask why I have been summoned?"

It was Number Seven who replied. It was Number Seven who, during the hour that followed, spoke for the others. None moved, or but slightly. There was no putting together of heads, no consulting. Evidently all had been carefully prearranged.

"Look on the table, Countess. You will find there some papers you will perhaps recognize."

She took a step toward the table and glanced down. The code-book lay there. Also the letter she had sent by Peter Niburg. She made no effort to disclaim them.

"I recognize them," she said clearly.

"You acknowledge, then, that they are yours?"

"I acknowledge nothing."

"They bear certain indications, madame."

"Possibly."

"Do you realize what will happen, madame, if these papers are turned over to the authorities?"

She shrugged her shoulders. And now Number Seven rose, a tall figure of mystery, and spoke at length in a cultivated, softly intoned voice. The Countess, listening, felt the voice vaguely familiar, as were the burning eyes behind the mask.

"It is our hope, madame," he said, "that you will make it unnecessary for the Committee of Ten to use those papers. We have no quarrel with women. We wish rather a friend than an enemy. There be those, many of them, who call us poor patriots, who would tear down without building up. They are wrong. The Committee of Ten, to those who know its motives, has the highest and most loyal of ideals - to the country."

His voice took on a new, almost a fanatic note. He spoke as well to the other shrouded figures as to his comrades. No mean orator this. He seldom raised his voice, he made no gestures. Almost, while she listened, the Countess understood.

They had watched the gradual decay of the country, he said. Its burden of taxation grew greater each year. The masses sweated and toiled, to carry on their backs the dead weight of the aristocracy and the throne. The iron hand of the Chancellor held everything; an old King who would die, was dying now, and after that a boy, nominal ruler only, while the Chancellor continued his hard rule. And now, as if that were not enough, there was talk of an alliance with Karnia, an alliance which, carried through, would destroy the hope of a republic.

The Countess stared.

"No wall is too thick for our ears," he continued. "Our eyes see everywhere. And as we grow in strength, they fear us. Well they may."

He grew scornful then. To gain support for the tottering throne the Chancellor would unite the two countries, that Karl's army, since he could not trust his own, might be called on for help. And here he touched the Countess's raw nerves with a brutal finger.

"The price of the alliance, madame, is the Princess Hedwig in marriage. The Committee, which knows all things, believes that you have reason to dislike this marriage."

Save that she clutched her cloak more closely, the Countess made no move. But there was a soft stir among the figures. Perhaps, after all, the Committee as a whole did not know all things.

"To prevent this alliance, madame, is our first aim. There are others to follow. But" - he bent forward - "the King will not live many days. It is our hope that that marriage will not occur before his death."

By this time Olga Loschek knew very well where she stood. The Committee was propitiatory. She was not in danger, save as it might develop. They were, in a measure, putting their case.

She had followed the speaker closely. When he paused, she was ready for him. "But, even without a marriage, at any time now a treaty based on the marriage may be signed. A treaty for a mutually defensive alliance. Austria encroaches daily, and has Germany behind her. We are small fry, here and in Karnia, and we stand in the way."

"King Karl has broken faith before. He will not support Livonia until he has received his price. He is determined on the marriage."

"A marriage of expediency," said the Countess, impatiently.

The speaker for the Committee shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps," he replied. "Although there are those of us who think that in this matter of expediency, Karl gives more than he receives. He is to-day better prepared than we are for war. He is more prosperous. As to the treaty, it is probably already signed, or about to be. And here, madame, is the reason for our invitation to you to come here.

"I have no access to state papers," the Countess said impatiently.

"You are too modest," said Number Seven suavely, and glanced at the letter on the table.

"The matter lies thus, madame. The Chancellor is now in Karnia. Doubtless he will return with the agreement signed. We shall learn that in a day or so. We do not approve of this alliance for various reasons, and we intend to take steps to prevent it. The paper itself is nothing. But plainly, Countess, the need a friend in the Palace, one who is in the confidence of the royal family."

"And for such friendship, I am to secure safety?"

"Yes, madame. But that is not all. Let me tell you briefly how things stand with us. We have, supporting us, certain bodies, workingmen's guilds, a part of the student body, not so much of the army as we would wish. Dissatisfied folk, madame, who would exchange the emblem of tyranny for freedom. On the announcement of the King's death, in every part of the kingdom will go up the cry of liberty. But the movement must start here. The city must rise against the throne. And against that there are two obstacles." He paused. The clock ticked, and water dripped into the tin pail with metallic splashes. "The first is this marriage. The second - is the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto."

The Countess recoiled. "No!"

"A moment, madame. You think badly of us." Under his mask the Countess divined a cold smile. "It is not necessary to contemplate violence. There are other methods. The boy could be taken over the border, and hidden until the Republic is firmly established. After that, he is unimportant."

The Countess, still pale, looked at him scornfully. "You do my intelligence small honor."

"Where peaceful methods will avail, our methods are peaceful, madame."

"It was, then, in peace that you murdered Prince Hubert?"

"he errors of the past are past." Then, with a new sternness: " Make no mistake. Whether through your agency or another, Countess, when the Cathedral bell rouses the city to the King's death, and the people wait in the Place for their new King to come out on the balcony, he will not come."

The Countess was not entirely bad. Standing swaying and white-faced before the tribunal, she saw suddenly the golden head of the little Crown Prince, saw him smiling as he had smiled that day in the sunlight, saw him troubled and forlorn as he had been when, that very evening, he had left them to go to his lonely rooms. Perhaps she reached the biggest moment of her life then, when she folded her arms and stared proudly at the shrouded figures before her.

"I will not do it," she said.

Then indeed the tribunal stirred, and sat forward. Perhaps never before had it been defied.

"I will not," repeated the Countess.

But Number Seven remained impassive. "A new idea, Countess!" he said suavely. "I can understand that your heart recoils. But this thing is inevitable, as I have said. Whether you or another but perhaps with time to think you may come to another conclusion. We make no threats. Our position is, however, one of responsibility. We are compelled to place the future of the Republic before every other consideration."

"That is a threat."

"We remember both our friends and our enemies, madame. And we have only friends and enemies. There is no middle course. If you would like time to think it over - "

"How much time?" She clutched at the words.

With time all things were possible. The King might die soon, that night, the next day. Better than any one, save his daughter Annunciata and the physicians, she knew his condition. The Revolutionists might boast, but they were not all the people. Once let the boy be crowned, and it would take more than these posing plotters in their theatrical setting to overthrow him.

"How much time may I have?"

"Women vary," said Number Seven mockingly. "Some determine quickly. Others - "

"May I have a month?"

"During which the King may die! Alas, madame, it is now you who do us too little honor!"

"A week?" begged the Countess desperately.

The leader glanced along the line. One head after another nodded slowly.

"A week it is, madame. Comrade Five!"

The one who had brought her came forward with the bandage.

"At the end of one week, madame, a fiacre will, as to-night, be waiting in the Street of the Wise Virgins."

"And these papers?"

"On the day the Republic of Livonia is established, madame, they will be returned to you."

He bowed, and returned to his chair. Save for the movements of the man who placed the bandage over her eyes; there was absolute silence in the room.