Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXV. The Gate of the Moon
A curious friendship had sprung up between old Adelbert and Bobby Thorpe. In off hours, after school, the boy hung about the ticket-taker's booth, swept now to a wonderful cleanliness and adorned within with pictures cut from the illustrated papers. The small charcoal fire was Bobby's particular care. He fed and watched it, and having heard of the baleful effects of charcoal fumes, insisted on more fresh air than old Adelbert had ever breathed before.
"You see," Bobby would say earnestly, as he brushed away at the floor beneath the burner, "you don't know that you are being asphyxiated. You just feel drowsy, and then, poof! - you're dead."
Adelbert, dozing between tickets, was liable to be roused by a vigorous shaking, to a pair of anxious eyes gazing at him, and to a draft of chill spring air from the open door.
"I but dozed," he would explain, without anger. "All my life have I breathed the fumes and nothing untoward has happened."
Outwardly he was peaceful. The daughter now received his pension in full, and wrote comforting letters. But his resentment and bitterness at the loss of his position at the Opera continued, even grew.
For while he had now even a greater wage, and could eat three meals, besides second breakfast and afternoon coffee, down deep in his heart old Adelbert felt that he had lost caste. The Opera - that was a setting! Great staircases of marble, velvet hangings, the hush before the overture, and over all the magic and dignity of music. And before his stall had passed and repassed the world - royalties, the aristocracy, the army. Hoi polloi had used another entrance by which to climb to the upper galleries. He had been, then, of the elect. Aristocrats who had forgotten their own opera-glasses had requested him to give them of his best, had through long years learned to know him there, and had nodded to him as they swept by. The flash of jewels on beautiful necks, the glittering of decorations on uniformed chests, had been his life.
And now, to what had he fallen! To selling tickets for an American catch-penny scheme, patronized by butchers, by housemaids, by the common people a noisy, uproarious crowd, that nevertheless counted their change with suspicious eyes, and brought lunches in paper boxes, which they scattered about.
"Riff-raff!" he said to himself scornfully.
There was, however, a consolation. He had ordered a new uniform. Not for twenty years had he ventured the extravagance, and even now his cautious soul quailed at the price. For the last half-dozen years he had stumped through the streets, painfully aware of shabbiness, of a shiny back, of patches, when, on the anniversary of the great battle to which he had sacrificed a leg, the veterans marched between lines of cheering people.
Now, on this approaching anniversary, he could go peacefully, nay, even proudly. The uniform was of the best cloth, and on its second fitting showed already its marvel of tailoring. The news of it had gone around the neighborhood. The tailor reported visits from those who would feel of the cloth, and figure its expensiveness. In the evening - for he worked only until seven - he had his other preparations: polishing his sword, cleaning his accouterments.
On an evening a week before the parade would occur, he got out his boots. He bought always large boots with straight soles, the right not much different from the left in shape. Thus he managed thriftily to wear, on his one leg, first one of the pair, then the other. But they were both worn now, and because of the cost of the new uniform, he could not buy others.
Armed with the better of the two he visited the cobbler's shop, and there met with bitter news.
"A patch here, and a new heel, comrade," he said. "With that and a polishing, it will do well enough for marching."
The usual group was in the shop, mostly young men, a scattering of gray heads. The advocates of strange doctrines, most of them. Old Adelbert disapproved of them, regarded them with a sort of contempt.
Now he felt that they smiled behind his back. It was his clothing, he felt. He shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. He no longer felt ashamed before them. Already, although the tailor still pressed its seams and marked upon it with chalk, he was clad in the dignity of the new uniform.
He turned and nodded to them. "A fine evening," he said. "If this weather holds, we will have -a good day for the marching." He squinted a faded eye at the sky outside.
Old Adelbert turned on the speaker sharply. "Probably you have forgotten," he said scornfully, "but in a week comes an anniversary there are many who will remember. The day of a great battle. Perhaps," he added, "if you do not know of what I speak, there are some here who will tell you."
Unexpectedly the crowd laughed.
Old Adelbert flushed a dusky red and drew himself up. "Since when," he demanded, "does such a speech bring laughter? It was no laughing matter then."
"It is the way of the old to live in the past," a student said. Then, imitating old Adelbert's majestic tone: "We, we live in the future. Eh, comrades?" He turned to the old soldier: "You have not seen the bulletins?"
"There will be no marching, my friend. The uniform now - that is a pity. Perhaps the tailor - " His eyes mocked.
"An order of the Council. It seems that the city is bored by these ancient-reminders. It is for peace, and would forget wars. And processions are costly. We grow thrifty. Bands and fireworks cost money, and money, my hero, is scarce - very scarce."
Again the group laughed.
After a time he grasped the truth. There was such an order. The cause was given as the King's illness.
"Since when," demanded old Adelbert angrily, "has the sound of his soldiers' marching disturbed the King?"
"The sound of wooden legs annoys him," observed the mocking student, lighting a cigarette. "He would hear only pleasant sounds, such as the noise of tax-money pouring into his vaults. Me - I can think of a pleasanter: the tolling of the cathedral bell, at a certain time, will be music to my ears!"
Old Adelbert stood, staring blindly ahead. At last he went out into the street, muttering. "They shame us before the people," he said thickly.
The order of the Council had indeed been issued, a painful business over which Mettlich and the Council had pondered long. For, in the state of things, it was deemed unwise to permit any gathering of the populace en masse. Mobs lead to riots, and riots again to mobs. Five thousand armed men, veterans, but many of them in their prime, were in themselves a danger. And on these days of anniversary it had been the custom of the University to march also, a guard of honor. Sedition was rife among the students.
The order was finally issued...
Old Adelbert was not keen, but he did not lack understanding. And one thing he knew, and knew well. The concierge, downstairs was no patriot. Time had been when, over coffee and bread, he had tried to instill in the old soldier his own discontent, his new theories of a land where all were equal and no man king. He had hinted of many who believed as he did. Only hints, because old Adelbert had raised a trembling hand and proclaimed treason.
Late in the evening he made his resolve, and visited the bureau of the concierge. He was away, however, and his niece spoke through the barred window.
"Two days, or perhaps three," she said. "He is inspecting a farm in the country, with a view to purchase."
The old soldier had walked by the Palace that night, and had again shaken his fist at its looming shadow. "You will see," he said, "there be other sounds more painful than the thump of a wooden leg."
He was ill that night. He tossed about in a fever. His body ached, even the leg which so long ago had mouldered in its shallow grave on a battle-field. For these things happen. By morning he was better, but he was a different man. His eyes glowed. His body twitched. He was stronger, too, for now he broke his sword across his knee, and flung the pieces out of the window. And with them went the last fragment of his old loyalty to his King.
Old Adelbert was now, potentially, a traitor.
The spring came early that year. The last of February saw the parks green. Snowdrops appeared in the borders of paths. The swans left their wooden houses and drifted about in water much colder than the air. Bobby abandoned the aeroplane for a kite and threw it aloft from Pike's Peak. At night, when he undressed, marbles spilled out of his pockets and rolled under the most difficult furniture. Although it was still cold at nights and in the early mornings, he abandoned the white sweater and took to looking for birds and nests in the trees of the park. It was, of course, much too early for nests, but nevertheless he searched, convinced that even if grown-ups talked wisely of more cold weather, he and the birds knew it was spring. And, of course, the snow-drops.
On the morning after old Adelbert had turned his back on his King, Bobby Thorpe rose early, so early, indeed, that even Pepy still slept in her narrow bed, and the milk-sellers had not started on their rounds. The early rising was a mistake, owing to a watch which had strangely gained an hour.
Somewhat disconsolately, he wandered about. Heavy quiet reigned. From a window he watched the meat-seller hang out a freshly killed deer, just brought from the mountains He went downstairs and out on the street, past the niece of the concierge, who was scrubbing the stairs.
"I'm going for a walk," he told her. "If they send Pepy down you might tell her I'll be back for breakfast."
He stood for a time surveying the deer. Then he decided to go hunting himself. The meat-seller obligingly gave him the handle of a floor-brush, and with this improvised gun Bobby went deer-stalking. He turned into the Park, going stealthily, and searching the landscape with keen hunter's eyes. Once or twice he leveled his weapon, killed a deer, cut off the head, and went on. His dog trotted, at his heels. When a particularly good shot presented itself, Bobby said, "Down, Tucker," and Tucker, who played extremely well, would lie down, ears cocked, until the quarry was secured.
Around the old city gate, still standing although the wall of which it had been a part was gone, there was excellent hunting. Here they killed and skinned a bear, took fine ivory tusks from a dead elephant, and searched for the trail of a tiger.
The gate was an excellent place for a tiger. Around it was planted an almost impenetrable screen of evergreens, so thick that the ground beneath was quite bare of grass. Here the two hunters crawled on stomachs that began to feel a trifle empty, and here they happened on the trail.
Tucker found it first. His stumpy tail grew rigid. Nose to the ground, he crawled and wriggled through the undergrowth, Bobby at his heels. And now Bobby saw the trail, footprints. It is true that they resembled those of heavy boots with nails. But on the other hand, no one could say surely that the nail-marks were not those of claws.
Tucker circled about. The trail grew more exciting. Bobby had to crawl on hands and feet under and through thickets. Branches had been broken as by the passage of some large body. The sportsman clutched his weapon and went on.
An hour later the two hunters returned for breakfast. Washing did something to restore the leader to a normal appearance, but a wondering family discovered him covered with wounds and strangely silent.
"Why, Bob, where have "you been?" his mother demanded. "Why, I never saw so many scratches!"
"I've been hunting," he replied briefly. "They don't hurt anyhow."
Then he relapsed into absorbed silence. His mother, putting cream on his cereal, placed an experienced hand on his forehead. "Are you sure you feel well, dear?" she asked. "I think your head is a little hot."
"I'm all right, mother."
She was wisely silent, but she ran over in her mind the spring treatment for children at home. The blood, she felt, should be thinned after a winter of sausages and rich cocoa. She mentally searched her medicine case.
A strange thing happened that day. A broken plate disappeared from the upper shelf of a closet, where Pepy had hidden it; also a cup with a nick in it, similarly concealed; also the heel of a loaf of bread. Nor was that the end. For three days a sort of magic reigned in Pepy's kitchen. Ten potatoes, laid out to peel, became eight. Matches and two ends of candle walked out, as it were, on their own feet. A tin pan with a hole in it left the kitchen-table and was discovered hiding in Bobby's bureau, when the Fraulein put away the washing.
On the third day Mrs. Thorpe took her husband into their room and closed the door.
"Bob," she said, "I don't want to alarm you. But there is something wrong with Bobby."
"Sick, you mean?"
"I don't know." Her voice was worried. "He's not a bit like himself. He is always away, for one thing. And he hardly eats at all."
"He looks well enough nourished!"
"And he comes home covered with mud. I have never seen his clothes in such condition. And last night, when he was bathing, I went into the bathroom. He is covered with scratches."
"Now see here, mother," the hunter's father protested, "you're the parent of a son, a perfectly hardy, healthy, and normal youngster, with an imagination. Probably he's hunting Indians. I saw him in the Park yesterday with his air-rifle. Any how, just stop worrying and let him alone. A scratch or two won't hurt him. And as to his not eating, - well, if he's not eating at home he's getting food somewhere, I'll bet you a hat."
So Bobby was undisturbed, save that the governess protested that he heard nothing she told him, and was absent-minded at his lessons. But as she was always protesting about something, no one paid any attention. Bobby drew ahead on his pocket allowance without question, and as his birthday was not far off, asked for "the dollar to grow on" in advance. He always received a dollar for each year, which went into the bank, and a dollar to grow on, which was his own to spend.
With the dollar he made a number of purchases candles and candlestick, a toy pistol and caps, one of the masks for the Carnival, now displayed in all the windows, a kitchen-knife, wooden plates, and a piece of bacon.
Now and then he appeared at the Scenic Railway, abstracted and viewing with a calculating eye the furnishings of the engine-room and workshop. From there disappeared a broken chair, a piece of old carpet, discarded from a car, and a large padlock, but the latter he asked for and obtained.
His occasional visits to the Railway, however, found him in old Adelbert's shack. He filled his pockets with charcoal from the pail beside the stove, and made cautious inquiries as to methods of cooking potatoes. But the pall of old Adelbert's gloom penetrated at last even through the boy's abstraction.
"I hope your daughter is not worse," he said politely, during one of his visits to the ticket-booth.
"She is well. She recovers strength rapidly."
"And the new uniform - does it fit, you?"
"I do not know," said old Adelbert grimly. "I have not seen it recently."
"On the day of the procession we are all going to watch for you. I'll tell you where we twill be, so you can look for us."
"There will be no procession."
Then to the boy old Adelbert poured out the bitterness of his soul. He showed where he had torn down the King's picture, and replaced it with one of a dying stag. He reviewed his days in the hospital, and the hardships through which he had passed, to come to this. The King had forgotten his brave men.
Bobby listened. "Pretty soon there won't be any kings," he observed. "My father says so. They're out of date."
"Aye," said old Adelbert.
"It would be kind of nice if you had a president. Then, if he acted up, you could put him out."
"Aye," said old Adelbert again.
During the rest of the day Bobby considered. No less a matter than the sharing of a certain secret occupied his mind. Now; half the pleasure of a secret is sharing it, naturally, but it should be with the right person. And his old playfellow was changed. Bobby, reflecting, wondered whether old Adelbert would really care to join his pirate crew, consisting of Tucker and himself. On the next day, however, he put the matter to the test, having resolved that old Adelbert needed distraction and cheering.
"You know," he said, talking through the window of the booth, " I think when I grow up I'll be a pirate."
"There be worse trades," said old Adelbert, whose hand was now against every man.
"And hide treasure," Bobby went on. "In a - in a cave, you know. Did you ever read 'Treasure Island'?"
"I may have forgotten it. I have read many things."
"You'd hardly forget it. You know -
'Fifteen men on a dead man's chest Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.'"
Old Adelbert rather doubted the possibility of fifteen men on one dead man's chest, but he nodded gravely. "A spirited song," he observed.
Bobby edged closer to the window. "I've got the cave already."
"Here, in the Park. It is a great secret. I'd like to show it to you. Only it's rather hard to get to. I don't know whether you'd care to crawl through the bushes to it."
"A cave - here in the Park?"
"I'll take you, if you'd like to see it."
Old Adelbert was puzzled. The Park offered, so far as he knew, no place for a cave. It was a plain, the site of the old wall; and now planted in grass and flowers. He himself had seen it graded and sown. A cave!
"That's a secret. But I'll show it to you, if you won't tell."
Old Adelbert agreed to silence. In fact, he repeated after the boy, in English he did not understand, a most blood-curdling oath of secrecy, and made the pirate sign - which, as every one knows, is a skull and crossbones - in the air with his forefinger.
"This cave," he said, half smiling, "must be a most momentous matter!"
Until midday, when the Railway opened for business, the old soldier was free. So the next morning, due precautions having been taken, the two conspirators set off. Three, rather, for Tucker, too, was now of the band of the black flag, having been taken in with due formality a day or two before, and behaving well and bravely during the rather trying rites of initiation.
Outside the thicket Bobby hesitated. "I ought to blindfold you," he said. "But I guess you'll need your eyes. It's a hard place to get to."
Perhaps, had he known the difficulties ahead, old Adelbert would not have gone on. And; had he turned back then, the history of a certain kingdom of Europe would have been changed. Maps, too, and schoolbooks, and the life-story of a small Prince. But he went on. Stronger than his young guide, he did not crawl, but bent aside the stiff and ungainly branches of the firs. He battled with the thicket, and came out victorious.. He was not so old, then, or so feeble. His arm would have been strong for the King, had not -
"There it is!" cried Bobby.
Not a cave, it appeared at first. A low doorway, barred with an iron grating, and padlocked. A doorway in the base of a side wall of the gate, and so heaped with leaves that its lower half was covered.
Bobby produced a key. "I broke the padlock that was on it," he explained. "I smashed it with a stone. But I got another. I always lock it."
Prolonged search produced the key. Old Adelbert's face was set hard. On what dungeon had this boy stumbled? He himself had lived there many years, and of no such aperture had he heard mention. It was strange.
Bobby was removing the leaf-mould with his hands. "It was almost all covered when I found it," he said, industriously scraping. "I generally close it up like this when I leave. It's a good place for pirates, don't you think?"
"I've brought some things already. The lock's rusty. There it goes. There are rats. I hope you don't mind rats."
The door swung in, silently, as though the hinges had been recently oiled; as indeed they had, but not by the boy.
"It's rather dirty," he explained. "You go down steps first. Be very careful."
He extended an earthy hand and led the old man down. "It's dark here, but there's a room below; quite a good room. And I have candles."
Truly a room. Built of old brick, and damp, but with a free circulation of air. Old Adelbert stared about him. It was not entirely dark. A bit of light entered from the aperture at the head of the steps. By it, even before Bobby had lighted his candle, he saw the broken chair, the piece of old carpet, and the odds and ends the child had brought.
"I cook down here sometimes," said Bobby, struggling with matches that had felt the damp. "But it is very smoky. I should like to have a stove. You don't know where I can get a secondhand stove, do you? with a long pipe?"
Old Adelbert felt curiously shaken. "None have visited this place since you have been here?" he asked.
"I don't suppose any one knows about it. Do you?"
"Those who built it, perhaps. But it is old, very old. It is possible - "
He stopped, lost in speculation. There had been a story once of a passageway under the wall, but he recollected nothing clearly. A passageway leading out beyond the wall, through which, in a great siege, a messenger had been sent for help. But that was of a passage; while this was a dungeon.
The candle was at last lighted. It burned fitfully, illuminating only a tiny zone in the darkness.
"I need a lantern," Bobby observed. "There's a draft here. It comes from the other grating. Sometime, when you have time, I'd like to see what's beyond it. I was kind of nervous about going alone."
It was the old passage, then, of course. Old Adelbert stared as Bobby took the candle and held it toward a second grated door, like the first, but taller.
"There are rats there," he said. "I can hear them; about a million, I guess. They ate all the bread and bacon I left. Tucker can get through. He must have killed a lot of them."
"Lend me your candle."
A close examination revealed to old Adelbert two things: First, that a brick-lined passage, apparently in good repair, led beyond the grating. Second, that it had been recently put in order. A spade and wheelbarrow, both unmistakably of recent make, stood just beyond, the barrow full of bricks, as though fallen ones had been gathered up. Further, the padlock had been freshly oiled, and the hinges of the grating. No unused passage this, but one kept in order and repair. For what?
Bobby had adjusted the mask and thrust the knife through the belt of his Norfolk jacket. Now, folding his arms, he recited fiercely,
"'Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!'"
"A spirited song," observed old Adelbert, as before. But his eyes were on the grating.
That evening Adelbert called to see his friend, the locksmith in the University Place. He possessed, he said, a padlock of which he had lost the key, and which, being fastened to a chest, he was unable to bring with him. A large and heavy padlock, perhaps the size of his palm.
When he left, he carried with him a bundle of keys, tied in a brown paper.
But he did not go back to his chest. He went instead to the thicket around the old gate, which was still termed the "Gate of the Moon," and there, armed with a lantern, pursued his investigations during a portion of the night.
When he had finished, old Adelbert, veteran of many wars, one-time patriot and newly turned traitor, held in his shaking hands the fate of the kingdom.