Chapter XXII. At Etzel
 

The following morning the Countess Loschek left for a holiday. Minna, silent and wretched, had packed her things for her, moving about the room like a broken thing. And the Countess had sat in a chair by a window, and said nothing. She sent away food untasted, took no notice of the packing, and stared, hour after hour, ahead of her.

Certain things were clear enough. Karl could not now be reached by the old methods. She had, casting caution to the winds, visited the shop where Peter Niburg was employed. But he was not there, and the proprietor, bowing deeply, disclaimed all knowledge of his whereabouts. She would have to go to Karl herself, a difficult matter now. She would surely be watched. And the thousand desperate plans that she thought of for escaping from the country and hiding herself, - in America, perhaps, - those were impossible for the same reason. She was helpless.

She had the choice of but two alternatives, to do as she had been commanded, for it amounted to that, or to die. The Committee would not kill her, in case she failed them. It would be unnecessary. Enough that they place the letter and the code in the hands of the authorities, by some anonymous means. Well enough she knew the Chancellor's inflexible anger, and the Archduchess Annunciata's cold rage. They would sweep her away with a gesture, and she would die the death of all traitors.

A week! Time had been when a week of the dragging days at the Palace had seemed eternity. Now the hours flew. The gold clock on her dressing-table, a gift from the Archduchess, marked them with flying hands.

She was, for the first time, cut off from the gossip of the Palace. The Archduchess let her severely alone. She disliked having anything interfere with her own comfort, disliked having her routine disturbed. But the Countess surmised a great deal. She guessed that Hedwig would defy them, and that they would break her spirit with high words. She surmised preparations for a hasty marriage - how hasty she dared not think. And she guessed, too, the hopeless predicament of Nikky Larisch.

She sat and stared ahead.

During the afternoon came a package, rather unskillfully tied with a gilt cord. Opening it, the Countess disclosed a glove-box of wood, with a design of rather shaky violets burnt into the cover. Inside was a note:

I am very sorry you are sick. This is to put your gloves in when you travel. Please excuse the work. I have done it in a hurry.

FERDINAND WILLIAM OTTO.

Suddenly the Countess laughed, choking hysterical laughter that alarmed Minna; horrible laughter, which left her paler than ever, and gasping.

The old castle of the Loscheks looked grim and inhospitable when she reached it that, night. Built during the years when the unbeliever overran southern Europe, it stood in a commanding position over a valley, and a steep, walled road led up to it. The narrow windows of its turrets were built, in defiance of the Moslem hordes, in the shape of the cross. Its walls had been hospitable enough, however, when the crusaders had thronged by to redeem the Holy Sepulcher from the grasp of the infidel. Here, in its stone hall, they had slept in weary rows on the floor. From its battlements they had stared south and east along the road their feet must follow.

But now, its ancient glory and good repute departed, its garrison gone, its drawbridge and moat things of the past, its very hangings and furnishings mouldering from long neglect, it hung over the valley, a past menace, an empty threat.

To this dreary refuge the Countess had fled. She wanted the silence of its still rooms in which to think. Wretched herself, its wretchedness called her. As the carriage which had brought her from, the railway turned into its woods; and she breathed the pungent odor of pine and balsam, she relaxed for the first time.

Why was she so hopeless? She could escape.

She knew the woods well. None who followed her could know them so well. She would get away, and somewhere, in a new world, make a fresh start. Surely, after all, peace was the greatest thing in the world.

Peace! The word attracted her. There were religious houses where one would be safe enough, refuges high-walled and secure, into which no alien foot ever penetrated. And, as if to answer the thought, she saw at that moment across the valley the lights of Etzel, the tower of the church, with its thirteen bells, the monastery buildings behind it, and set at its feet, like pilgrims come to pray, the low houses of the peasants. For the church at Etzel contained a celebrated shrine, none other than that of Our Lady of the Angels, and here came, from all over the kingdom, long lines of footsore and weary pilgrims, seeking peace and sanctity, and some a miracle.

The carriage drove on; Minna, on the box, crossed herself at sight of the church, and chatted with the driver, a great figure who crowded her to the very edge of the seat.

"I am glad to be here," she said. "I am sick of grandeur. My home is in Etzel." She turned and inspected the man beside her. "You are a newcomer, I think?"

"I have but just come to Etzel."

"Then you cannot tell me about my people." She was disappointed.

"And you," inquired the driver, - "you will stay for a visit?"

"A week only. But better than nothing."

"After that, you return to the city?"

"Yes. Madame the Countess - you would know, if you were Etzel-born - Madame the Countess is lady-in-waiting to Her Royal Highness, the Archduchess Annunciata."

"So!" said the driver. But he was not curious, and the broken road demanded his attention. He was but newly come, so very newly that he did not know his way, and once made a wrong turning.

The Countess relaxed. She had not been followed. None but themselves had left the train. She was sure of that. And looking back, she satisfied herself that no stealthy foot-traveler dogged their slow progress. She breathed quietly, for the first time.

She slept that night. She had wired ahead of her coming, and the old caretaker and his wife had opened a few rooms, her boudoir and dressing-room, and a breakfast-room on the first floor. They had swept the hall too, and built a fire there, but it had been built for a great household, and its emptiness chilled her.

At four o'clock in the morning she roused at the ringing of a bell, telling that masses had already begun at the church. For with the approach of Lent pilgrimages had greatly increased in numbers. But she slept again, to waken to full sunlight, greatly refreshed.

When she had breakfasted and dressed, she went out on a balcony, and looked down at the valley. It was late. Already the peasants of Etzel had gone out to their fields. Children played along its single streets. A few women on the steps of the church made rosaries of beads which they strung with deft fingers. A band of pilgrims struggled up the valley, the men carrying their coats, for the sun was warm, and the women holding their skirts from the dust.

As they neared the church, however, coats were donned. The procession took on order and dignity. The sight was a familiar one to the Countess. Her eyes dropped to the old wall below, where in the sunshine the caretaker was beating a rug. Close to him, in intimate and cautious conversation, was the driver of the night before. Glancing up, they saw her and at once separated.

Gone was peace, then. The Countess knew knew certainly. "Our eyes see everywhere." Eyes, indeed, eyes that even now the caretaker raised furtively from his rug.

Nevertheless, the Countess was minded to experiment, to be certain. For none is so suspicious, she knew, as one who fears suspicion. None so guilty as the guilty. During the forenoon she walked through the woods, going briskly, with vigorous, mountainbred feet. No crackle of underbrush disturbed her. Swift turnings revealed no lurking figures skulking behind the trunks of trees. But where an ancient stone bridge crossed a mountain stream, she came on the huge driver of the night before reflectively fishing.

He saluted her gravely, and the Countess paused and looked at him. "You have caught no fish, my friend?" she said.

"No, madame. But one plays about my hook."

She turned back. Eyes everywhere, and arms, great hairy arms. And feet that, for all their size, must step lightly!

Restlessness followed her. She was a virtual Prisoner, free only in name. And the vigilance of the Terrorists obsessed her. She found a day gone, and no plan made. She had come here to think, and consecutive thought was impossible. She went to vespers at the church, and sat huddled in a corner. She suspected every eye that turned on her in frank curiosity. When, during the "Salve Regina," the fathers, followed by their pupils, went slowly down the aisle, in reverent procession between rows of Pilgrims, she saw in their habits only a grim reminder of the black disguises of the Terrorists.

On the second day she made a desperate resolve, and characteristically put it into execution at once. She sent for the caretaker. When he came, uneasy, for the Loscheks were justly feared in the country side, and even the thing of which he knew gave him small courage, she lost no time in evasion.

"Go," she said; "and bring here your accomplice - "

"My accomplice, madame! I do not - "

"You heard me," she said.

He turned, half sullen, half terrified, and paused. "Which do you refer to, madame?"

She had seen only the one. Then there were others. Who could tell how many others?

"The one who drove here."

So he went, leaving her to desperate reflection. When he returned, it was to usher in the heavy figure of the spy.

"Which of you is in authority?" she demanded.

"I, madame." It was the spy who spoke.

She dismissed the caretaker with a gesture.

"Have you any discretion over me? Or must you refer matters to those who sent you?"

"I must refer to them."

"How long will it take to send a message and receive a reply?"

He considered. "Until to-morrow night, madame."

Another day gone, then, and nothing determined!

"Now, listen," she said, "and listen carefully. I have come here to decide a certain question. Whether you know what that question is or not, does not matter. But before I decide it I must take a certain journey. I wish to make that journey. It is into Karnia."

She watched him. "It is impossible. My instructions - "

"I am not asking your permission. I wish to send a letter to the Committee. They, and they alone, will determine this thing. Will you send the letter?"

When he hesitated, perplexed, she got up and moved to her writing-table.

"I shall write the letter," she said haughtily. "See that it is sent. When I report at the end of the time that I have sent such a letter, you can judge better than I the result if it has not been received."

He was still dubious, but she wrote the letter and gave it to him, her face proud and scornful. But she was not easy, for all that, and she watched from her balcony to see if any messenger left the castle and descended the mountain road. She was rewarded, an hour later, by seeing a figure leave the old gateway and start afoot toward the village, a pale-faced man with colorless hair. A part of the hidden guard that surrounded her, she knew, and somehow familiar. But, although she racked her brains, she could not remember where she had seen him.

For the next twenty-four hours she waited. Life became one long endurance. She hated the forest, since she might not visit it alone. She hated the castle, because it was her prison. She stood for hours that first day on her balcony, surveying with scornful eyes the procession of the devout, weary women, perspiring men, lines of children going to something they did not comprehend, and carrying clenched in small, warm hands drooping bunches of early mountain flowers.

And always, calling her to something she scorned, rang the bells for mass or for vespers. The very tower below beckoned her to peace - her, for whom there would never again be peace. She cursed the bell savagely, put her fingers in her ears, to be wakened at dawn the next morning to its insistent call.

There was no more sleep for her. She lay there in her bare room and gave herself to bitter reflection. Here, in this very castle, she had met Karl. That was eleven years before. Prince Hubert was living. During a period of peace between the two countries a truce had been arranged, treaties signed, with every prospect of permanence. During that time Karl and Hubert, glad of peace, had come here for the hunting. She remembered the stir about their coming, her father's hurried efforts to get things in order, the cleaning and refurbishing, the peasants called in to serve the royal guests, and stripped of their quaint costumes to be put into ill-fitting livery.

They had bought her a new frock for evening wear, the father who was now dead, and the old aunt who had raised her - an ugly black satin, too mature for her. She had put it on in that very room, and wept in very despair.

Then came the arrival, her father on the doorstep, she and her aunt behind him, and in the hall, lines of uneasy and shuffling peasants. How awkward and ill at ease they must have seemed! Then came the carriage, Hubert alighting first, then Karl. Karl had seen her instantly, over her father's bent back.

Lying there, seeing things with the clear vision of the dawn, she wondered whether, had she met Karl later, in her sophisticated maturity, she would have fallen in love with him. There was no way to know. He had dawned on her then, almost the first man of rank she had ever seen. She saw him, not only with fresh eyes, but through the halo of his position. He was the Crown Prince of Karnia then, more dashing than Hubert, who was already married and had always been a serious youth, handsomer, a blond in a country of few blond men. His joyous smile had not taken on the mocking twist it acquired later. His blue eyes were gay and joyous.

When she had bowed and would have kissed his hand, it had been Karl who kissed hers, and straightened to smile down at her.

"This is a very happy day, Countess," he had said.

Then the old aunt had hustled forward, and the peasants had bowed nervously, and bustle and noise had filled the old place.

For four days the royal hunters had stayed. On the third day Karl had pleaded fatigue, and they had walked through the pine woods. On that very devil's bridge he had kissed her. They had had serious talks, too. Karl was ambitious, even then. The two countries were at peace, but for how long? Contrary to opinion, he said, it was not rulers who led their people into war. It was the people who forced those wars. He spoke of long antagonisms, old jealousies, trade relations.

She had listened, flattered, had been an intelligent audience. Even now, she felt that it was her intelligence as much as her beauty that had ensnared Karl. For ensnared he had been. She had dreamed wild dreams that night after he kissed her, dreams of being his wife. She was not too young to know passion in a man's eyes, and Karl's had burned with it.

Then, the next day, while the hunters were away, her aunt had come to her, ugly, dowdy, and alarmed. "Little fool!" she had said. "They play, these princes. But they are evil with women, and dangerous. I have seen your eyes on him, sick with love. And Karl will amuse himself - it is the blood - and go away, laughing."

She had been working with the satin dress, trying to make it lovely for him. Over it her eyes had met her aunt's, small and twitching with anxiety. "But suppose he cares for me?" she had asked. "Sometimes I think - Why should you say he is evil?"

"Bah!"

She had grown angry then and, flinging the dress on the floor, had risen haughtily. "I think he will marry me," she had announced, to be met with blank surprise, followed by cackling old laughter.

Karl had gone away, kissing her passionately, before he left her, in the dark hall. And many things had followed. A cousin, married into Karnia became lady-in-waiting to the old Queen. Olga Loschek had visited her. No accident all this, but a carefully thought-out plan of Karl's. She had met Karl again. She was no longer the ill-dressed, awkward girl of the mountains, and his passion grew, rather than died.

He had made further love to her then, urged her to go away with him on a journey to the eastern end of the kingdom, would, indeed, have compromised her hopelessly. But, young as she was, she had had courage and strength; perhaps shrewdness too. Few women could have resisted him. He was gentleness itself with her, kindly, considerate, passionate. But she had kept her head.

And because she had kept her head, she had kept him. Through his many lapses, his occasional mad adventures, he had always come back to her. Having never possessed her, he had always wanted her. But not enough, she said drearily to herself, to pay the price of marriage.

She was fair enough to him. Nothing but a morganatic marriage would be possible, and this would deprive his children of the throne. But less than marriage she would not have.

The old Queen died. Her cousin retired to the country, and raised pheasants for gayety. Olga Loschek's visits to Karnia ceased. In time a place was made for her at the Court of Livonia and a brilliant marriage for her was predicted. But she did not marry. Now and then she retired to the castle near the border, and Karl visited her there. And, at last, after years, the inevitable happened.

She was deeply in love, and the years were passing. The burden of resistance had always been on her, and marriage was out of the question. She was alone now. Her father had died, and the old aunt was in seclusion in a nunnery, where she pottered around a garden and knitted endless garments for the poor.

For a time Olga had been very happy. Karl's motor crossed the mountains, and he came on foot through the woods. No breath of scandal touched her. And, outwardly, Karl did not change. He was still her ardent lover. But the times when they could meet were few.

And the Court of Livonia heard rumors - a gamekeeper's daughter, an actress in his own capital, these were but two of the many. Olga Loschek was clever. She never reproached him or brought him to task. She had felt that, whatever his lapses, the years had made her necessary to him.

The war that followed the truce had seen her Karl's spy in Livonia. She had undertaken it that the burden of gratitude should be on him - a false step, for men chafe under the necessity for gratitude.

Then had come another peace, and his visit to the summer palace. There he had seen Hedwig, grown since his last visit to lovely girlhood, and having what Olga Loschek could never again possess, youth.

And now he would marry her, and Olga Loschek, his tool and spy, was in danger of her life.

That day, toward evening, the huge man presented himself. He brought no letter, but an oral message. "Permission is given, madame," he said. "I myself shall accompany you."