Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXIII. Nikky Makes a Promise
The Chancellor lived alone, in his little house near the Palace, a house that looked strangely like him, overhanging eyebrows and all, with windows that were like his eyes, clear and concealing many secrets. A grim, gray little old house, which concealed behind it a walled garden full of unexpected charm. And that, too, was like the Chancellor.
In his study on the ground floor, overlooking the garden, the Chancellor spent his leisure ,hours. Here, on the broad, desk-like arm of his chair, where so many state documents had lain for signature, most of his meals were served. Here, free from the ghosts that haunted the upper rooms, he dreamed his dream of a greater kingdom.
Mathilde kept his house for him, mended and pressed his uniforms, washed and starched his linen, quarreled with the orderly who attended him, and drove him to bed at night.
"It is midnight," she would say firmly - or one o'clock, or even later, for the Chancellor was old, and needed little sleep. "Give me the book." Because, if she did not take it, he would carry it off to bed, and reading in bed is bad for the eyes.
"Just a moment, Mathilde," he would say, and finish a paragraph. Sometimes he went on reading, and forgot about her, to look up, a half-hour later, perhaps, and find her still standing there, immobile, firm.
Then he would sigh, and close the book.
At his elbow every evening Mathilde placed a glass of milk. If he had forgotten it, now he sipped it slowly, and the two talked - of homely things, mostly, the garden, or moths in the closed rooms which had lost, one by one, their beloved occupants, or of a loose tile on the roof. But now and then their conversation was more serious.
Mathilde, haunting the market with its gayly striped booths, its rabbits hung in pairs by the ears, its strings of dried vegetables, its lace bazaars Mathilde was in touch with the people. It was Mathilde, and not one of his agents, who had brought word of the approaching revolt of the coppersmiths' guild, and enabled him to check it almost before it began. A stoic, this Mathilde, with her tall, spare figure and glowing eyes, stoic and patriot. Once every month she burned four candles before the shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in the cathedral, because of four sons she had given to her country.
On the evening of the day Hedwig had made her futile appeal to the King, the Chancellor sat alone. His dinner, almost untasted, lay at his elbow. It was nine o'clock. At something after seven he had paid his evening visit to the King, and had found him uneasy and restless.
"Sit down;" the King had said. "I need steadying, old friend."
"I have had a visit from Hedwig. Rather a stormy one, poor child." He turned and fixed on his Chancellor his faded eyes. "In this course that you have laid out, and that I am following, as I always have," irony this, but some truth, too, - "have you no misgivings? You still think it is the best thing?"
"It is the only thing."
"But all this haste," put in the King querulously.
"Is that so necessary? Hedwig begs for time. She hardly knows the man."
"Time! But I thought - " He hesitated. How say to a dying man that time was the one thing he did not have?
"Another thing. She was incoherent, but I gathered that there was some one else. The whole interview was cyclonic. It seems, however, that this young protege of yours, Larisch, has been making love to her over Otto's head."
Mettlich's face hardened, a gradual process, as the news penetrated in all its significance.
"I should judge," the King went on relentlessly, "that this vaunted affection of his for the boy is largely assumed, a cover for other matters. But," he added, with a flicker of humor, "my granddaughter assures me that it is she who has made the advances. I believe she asked him to elope with her, and he refused!"
"A boy-and-girl affair, sire. He is loyal. And in all of this, you and I are reckoning without Karl. The Princess hardly knows him, and naturally she is terrified. But his approaching visit will make many changes. He is a fine figure of a man, and women - "
"Exactly;" said the King dryly. What the Chancellor meant was that women always had loved Karl, and the King understood.
"His wild days are over," bluntly observed the Chancellor. "He is forty, sire."
"Aye," said the King. "And at forty, a bad man changes his nature, and purifies himself in marriage! Nonsense, Karl will be as he has always been. But we have gone into this before. Only, I am sorry for Hedwig. Hilda would have stood it better. She is like her father. However" - his voice hardened "the thing is arranged, and we must carry out our contract. Get rid of this young Larisch."
The Chancellor sat reflecting, his chin dropped forward on his breast. "Otto will miss him."
"Well, out with it. I may not dismiss him. What, then?"
"It is always easy to send men away. But it is sometimes better to retain them, and force them to your will. We have here an arrangement that is satisfactory. Larisch is keen, young, and loyal. Hedwig has thrown herself at him. For that, sire, she is responsible, not he."
"Then get rid of her," growled the King.
The Chancellor rose. "If the situation is left to me, sire," he said, "I will promise two things. That Otto will keep his friend, and that the Princess Hedwig will bow to your wishes without further argument."
"Do it, and God help you!" said the King, again with the flicker of amusement.
The Chancellor had gone home, walking heavily along the darkening streets. Once again he had conquered. The reins remained in his gnarled old hands. And he was about to put the honor of the country into the keeping of the son of Maria Menrad, whom he had once loved.
So now he sat in his study, and waited. A great meerschaum pipe, a stag's head with branching antlers and colored dark with years of use, lay on his tray; and on his knee, but no longer distinguishable in the dusk, lay an old daguerreotype of Maria Menrad.
When he heard Nikky's quick step as he came along the tiled passage, he slipped the case into the pocket of his shabby house-coat, and picked up the pipe.
Nikky saluted, and made his way across the room in the twilight, with the ease of familiarity. "I am late, sir," he apologized. "We found our man and he is safely jailed. He made no resistance."
"Sit down," said the Chancellor. And, touching a bell, he asked Mathilde for coffee. "So we have him," he reflected. "The next thing is to discover if he knows who his assailants were. That, and the person for whom he acted - However, I sent for you for another reason. What is this about the Princess Hedwig?"
"The Princess Hedwig!"
"What folly, boy! A young girl who cannot know her own mind! And for such a bit of romantic trifling you would ruin yourself. It is ruin. You know that."
"I am sorry," Nikky said simply. "As far as my career goes, it does not matter. But I am thinking of her."
"A trifle late."
"But," Nikky spoke up valiantly, "it is not romantic folly, in the way you mean, sir. As long as I live, I shall - It is hopeless, of course, sir."
"Madness," commented the Chancellor. "Sheer spring madness. You would carry her off, I dare say, and hide yourselves at the end of a rainbow! Folly!"
Nikky remained silent, a little sullen.
"The Princess went to the King with her story this evening." The boy started. "A cruel proceeding, but the young are always cruel. The expected result has followed: the King wishes you sent away."
"I am at his command, sir."
The Chancellor filled his pipe from a bowl near by, working deliberately. Nikky sat still, rather rigid.
"May I ask," he said at last, "that you say to the King that the responsibility is mine? No possible blame can attach to the Princess Hedwig. I love her, and - I am not clever. I show what I feel."
He was showing it then, both hurt and terror, not for himself, but for her. His voice shook in spite of his efforts to be every inch a soldier.
"The immediate result," said the Chancellor cruelly, "will doubtless be a putting forward of the date for her marriage." Nikky's hands clenched. "A further result would be your dismissal from the army. One does not do such things as you have done, lightly."
"Lightly!" said Nikky Larisch. "God!"
"But," continued the Chancellor, "I have a better way. I have faith, for one thing, in your blood. The son of Maria Menrad must be - his mother's son. And the Crown Prince is attached to you. Not for your sake, but for his, I am inclined to be lenient. What I shall demand for that leniency is that no word of love again pass between you and the Princess Hedwig."
"It would be easier to go away."
"Aye, of course. But 'easier' is not your word nor mine." But Nikky's misery touched him. He rose and placed a heavy hand on the boy's shoulder. "It is not as simple as that. I know, boy. But you are young, and these things grow less with time. You need not see her. She will be forbidden to visit Otto or to go to the riding-school. You see, I know about the riding-school! And, in a short time now, the marriage will solve many difficulties."
Nikky closed his eyes. It was getting to be a habit, just as some people crack their knuckles.
"We need our friends about us," the Chancellor continued. "The Carnival is coming, - always a dangerous time for us. The King grows weaker day by day. A crisis is impending for all of us, and we need you."
Nikky rose, steady enough now, but white to the lips.
"I give my word, sir," he said. "I shall say no word of - of how I feel to Hedwig. Not again. She knows and I think," he added proudly, "that she knows I shall not change. That I shall always - "
"Exactly!" said the Chancellor. It was the very, pitch of the King's dry old voice. "Of course she knows, being a woman. And now, good-night."
But long after Nikky had gone he sat in the darkness. He felt old and tired and a hypocrite. The boy would not forget, as he himself had not forgotten. His hand, thrust into his pocket, rested on the faded daguerreotype there.
Peter Niburg was shot at dawn the next morning. He went, a coward, to his death, held between two guards and crying piteously. But he died a brave man. Not once in the long hours of his interrogation had he betrayed the name of the Countess Loschek.