Chapter XXVI. At the Inn
 

The Countess Loschek was on her way across the border. The arrangements were not of her making. Her plan, which had been to go afoot across the mountain to the town of Ar-on-ar, and there to hire a motor, had been altered by the arrival at the castle, shortly after the permission was given, of a machine. So short an interval, indeed, had elapsed that she concluded, with reason, that this car now placed at her disposal was the one which had brought that permission.

"The matter of passports for the border is arranged, madame," Black Humbert told her.

"I have my own passports," she said proudly.

"They will not be necessary."

"I will have this interview at my destination alone; or not at all."

He drew himself to his great height and regarded her with cold eyes. "As you wish," he said. "But it is probably not necessary to remind madame that, whatever is discussed at this meeting, no word must be mentioned of the Committee, or its plans."

Although he made no threat, she had shivered. No, there must be no word of the Committee, or of the terror that drove her to Karl. For, if the worst happened, if he failed her, and she must do the thing they had set her to do, Karl must never know. That card she must play alone.

So she was not even to use her own passports! Making her hasty preparations, again the Countess marveled. Was there no limit to the powers of the Committee of Ten? Apparently the whole machinery of the Government was theirs to command. Who were they, these men who had sat there immobile behind their masks? Did she meet any of them daily in the Palace? Were the eyes that had regarded her with unfriendly steadiness that night in the catacombs, eyes that smiled at her day by day, in the very halls of the King? Had any of those shrouded and menacing figures bent over her hand with mocking suavity? She wondered.

A hasty preparation at the last it was, indeed, but a careful toilet had preceded it. Now that she was about to see Karl again, after months of separation, he must find no flaw in her. She searched her mirror for the ravages of the past few days, and found them. Yet, appraising herself with cold eyes, she felt she was still beautiful. The shadows about her eyes did not dim them.

Everything hung on the result of her visit. If Karl persisted, if he would marry Hedwig in spite of the trouble it would precipitate, then indeed she was lost. If, on the other hand, he was inclined to peace, if her story of a tottering throne held his hand, she would defy the Committee of Ten. Karl himself would help her to escape, might indeed hide her. It would not be for long. Without Karl's support the King's death would bring the Terrorists into control. They would have other things to do than to hunt her out. Their end would be gained without her. Let them steal the Crown Prince, then. Let Hedwig fight for her throne and lose it. Let the streets run, deep with blood and all the pandemonium of hell break loose.

But if Karl failed her?

Even here was the possibility of further mischance. Suppose the boy gone, and the people yet did not rise? Suppose then that Hedwig, by her very agency, gained the throne and held it. Hedwig, Queen of Livonia in her own right, and Karl's wife!

She clenched her teeth.

Over country roads the machine jolted and bumped. At daybreak they had not yet reached the border. In a narrow lane they encountered a pilgrimage of mountain folk, bent for the shrine at Etzel.

The peasants drew aside to let the Machine pass, and stared at it. They had been traveling afoot all night, and yet another day and a night would elapse before they could kneel in the church.

"A great lady," said one, a man who carried a sleeping child in his arms.

"Perhaps," said a young girl, "she too has made a pilgrimage. All go to Etzel, the poor and the rich. And all receive grace."

The Countess did not sleep. She was, with every fiber of her keen brain, summoning her arguments. She would need them, for she knew - none better - how great a handicap was hers. She loved Karl, and he knew it. What had been her strength had become her weakness.

Yet she was composed enough when, before the sun was well up, the machine drew up in the village before the inn where Mettlich had spent his uneasy hours.

Her heavy veils aroused the curiosity of the landlord. When, shortly after, his daughter brought down a letter to be sent at once to the royal hunting-lodge, he shrugged his shoulders. It was not the first time a veiled woman had come to his inn under similar circumstances. After all, great people are but human. One cannot always be a king.

The Countess breakfasted in her room. The landlord served her himself, and narrowly inspected her. She was not so young as he had hoped, but she was beautiful. And haughty. A very great person, he decided, incognito.

The King was hunting, he volunteered. There were great doings at the lodge. Perhaps Her Excellency would be proceeding there.

She eyed him stonily, and then sent him off about his business.

So all the day she ate her heart out in her bare room. Now and then the clear sound of bugles reached her, but she saw no hunters. Karl followed the chase late that day. It was evening before she saw the tired horses straggling through the village streets. Her courage was oozing by that time. What more could she say than what he already knew? Many agencies other than hers kept him informed of the state of affairs in Livonia. A bitter thought, this, for it showed Karl actuated by love of Hedwig, and not by greed of power. She feared that more than she feared death.

She had expected to go to the lodge, but at nine o'clock that night Karl came to her, knocking at the door of her room and entering without waiting for permission.

The room was small and cozy with firelight. Her scarlet cloak, flung over a chair, made a dash of brilliant color. Two lighted candles on a high carved chest, and between them a plaster figure of the Mother and Child, a built-in bed with white curtains - that was the room.

Before the open fire Olga Loschek sat in her low chair. She wore still her dark traveling dress; and a veil, ready to be donned at the summons of a message from Karl, trailed across her knee. In the firelight she looked very young - young and weary. Karl, who had come hardened to a scene, found her appealing, almost pathetic.

She rose at his entrance and, after a moment of surprise, smiled faintly. But she said nothing, nor did Karl, until he had lifted one of her cold hands and brushed it with his lips.

"Well!" he said. "And again, Olga!"

"Once again." She looked up at him. Yes, he was changed. The old Karl would have taken her in his arms. This new Karl was urbane, smiling, uneasy.

He said nothing. He was apparently waiting for her to make the first move. But she did not help him. She sat down and he drew a small chair to the fire.

"There is nothing wrong, is there?" he said. "Your note alarmed me. Not the note, but your coming here."

"Nothing - and everything." She felt suddenly very tired. Her very voice was weary. "I sent you a letter asking you to come to the castle. There were things to discuss, and I did not care to take this risk of coming here."

"I received no letter."

"No!" She knew it, of course, but she pretended surprise, a carefully suppressed alarm.

"I have what I am afraid is bad news, Olga. The letter was taken. I received only a sheet of blank paper."

"Karl!" She leaped to her feet.

She was no mean actress. And behind it all was her real terror, greater, much greater, than he could know. Whatever design she had on Karl's pity, she was only acting at the beginning. Deadly peril was clutching her, a double peril, of the body and of the soul.

"Taken! By whom?"

"By some one you know - young Larisch."

"Larisch!" No acting there. In sheer amazement she dropped back from him, staring with wide eyes. Nikky Larisch! Then how had the Terrorists got it? Was all the world in their employ?

"But - it is impossible!"

"I'm sorry, Olga. But even then there is something to be explained. We imprisoned him - we got him in a trap, rather by accident. He maintained that he had not made away with the papers. A mystery, all of it. Only your man, Niburg, could explain, and he - "

"Yes?"

"I am afraid he will never explain, Olga."

Then indeed horror had its way with her. Niburg executed as a spy, after making who knew what confession! What then awaited her at the old castle above the church at Etzel? Karl, seeing her whitening lips, felt a stirring of pity. His passion for her was dead, but for a long time he had loved her, and now, in sheer regret, he drew her to him.

"Poor girl," he said softly. "Poor girl!" And drew his hand gently over her hair.

She shivered at his touch. "I can never go back," she said brokenly.

But at that he freed her. "That would be to confess before you are accused," he reminded her. "We do not know that Niburg told. He was doomed anyhow. To tell would help nothing. The letter, of course, was in code?"

"Yes."

She sat down again, fighting for composure.

"I am not very brave," she said. "It was unexpected. In a moment I shall be calmer. You must not think that I regret the risk. I have always been proud to do my best for you."

That touched him. In the firelight, smiling wanly at him, she was very like the girl who had attracted him years before. Her usual smiling assurance was gone. She looked sad, appealing. And she was right. She had always done her best for him. But he was cautious, too.

"I owe you more than I can tell you," he said. "It is the sort of debt that can never be paid. Your coming here was a terrible risk. Something urgent must have brought you."

She pushed back her heavy hair restlessly.

"I was anxious. And there were things I felt you should know."

"What things?"

"The truth about the King's condition, for one. He is dying. The bulletins lie. He is no better."

"Why should the bulletins lie?"

"Because there is a crisis. You know it. But you cannot know what we know - the living in fear, the precautions, everything."

"So!" said Karl uneasily. "But the Chancellor assured me - " He stopped. It was not yet time to speak of the Chancellor's visit.

"The Chancellor! He lies, of course. How bad things are you may judge when I tell you that a hidden passage from the Palace has been opened and cleared, ready for instant flight."

It was Karl's turn to be startled. He rose, and stood staring down at her. "Are you certain of that?"

"Certain!" She laughed bitterly. "The Terrorists Revolutionists, they call themselves - are everywhere. They know everything, see everything. Mettlich's agents are disappearing one by one. No one knows where, but all suspect. Student meetings are prohibited. The yearly procession of veterans is forbidden, for they trust none, even their old soldiers. The Council meets day after day in secret session."

"But the army - "

"They do not trust the army."

Karl's face was grave. Something of the trouble in Livonia he had known. But this argued an immediate crisis.

"On the King's death," the Countess said, "a republic will be declared. The Republic of Livonia! The Crown Prince will never reign."

She shivered, but Karl was absorbed in the situation.

"Incredible!" he commented. "These fears are sometimes hysterias, but what you say of the preparations for flight - I thought the boy was very popular."

"With some. But when has a child stood between the mob and the thing it wants? And the thing they cry for is liberty. Down with the royal house! Down with the aristocracy!"

She was calm enough now. Karl was listening, was considering, looked uneasy. She had been right. He was not for acquiring trouble, even by marriage.

But, if she had read Karl, he also knew her. In all the years he had known her she had never been reckless. Daring enough, but with a calculating daring that took no chances. And yet she had done a reckless thing by coming to him. From under lowered eyelids he considered her. Why had she done it? The situation was serious enough, but even then -

"So you came to-day to tell me this?"

She glanced up, and catching his eyes, colored faintly. "These are things you should know."

He knew her very well. A jealous woman would go far. He knew now that she was jealous. When he spoke it was with calculating brutality. "You mean, in view of my impending marriage?"

So it was arranged! Finally arranged. Well, she had done her best. He knew the truth. She had told it fairly. If, knowing it, he persisted, it would be because her power over him was dead at last.

"Yes. I do not know how far your arrangements have gone. You have at least been warned."

But she saw, by the very way he drew himself up and smiled, that he understood. More than that, he doubted her. He questioned what she had said.

The very fact that she had told him only the truth added to her resentment.

"You will see," she said sullenly.

Because he thought he already saw, and because she had given him a bad moment, Karl chose to be deliberately cruel. "Perhaps!" he said. "But even then if this marriage were purely one of expediency, Olga, I might hesitate. Frankly, I want peace. I am tired of war, tired of bickering, tired of watching and being watched. But it is not one of expediency. Not, at least, only that. You leave out of this discussion the one element that I consider important, Hedwig herself. If the Princess Hedwig were to-morrow to be without a country, I should still hope to marry her."

She had done well up to now, had kept her courage and her temper, had taken her cue from him and been quiet and poised. But more than his words, his cruel voice, silky with friendship, drove her to the breaking point. Karl, who hated a scene, found himself the victim of one, and was none the happier that she who had so long held him off was now herself at arm's length, and struggling.

Bitterly, and with reckless passion, she flung at him Hedwig's infatuation for young Larisch, and prophesied his dishonor as a result of it. That leaving him cold and rather sneering, she reviewed their old intimacy, to be reminded that in that there had been no question of marriage, or hope of it.

"I am only human, Olga," he said, in an interval when she had fallen to quiet weeping. "I loved you very sincerely, and for a long time. Marriage between us was impossible. You always knew that."

In the end she grew quiet and sat looking into the fire with eyes full of stony despair. She had tried and failed. There was one way left, only one, and even that would not bring him back to her. Let Hedwig escape and marry Nikky Larisch - still where was she? Let the Terrorists strike their blow and steal the Crown Prince. Again - where was she?

Her emotions were deadened, all save one, and that was her hatred of Hedwig. The humiliation of that moment was due to her. Somehow, some day, she would be even with Hedwig. Karl left her there at last, huddled in her chair, left full of resentment, the ashes of his old love cold and gray. There was little reminder of the girl of the mountains in the stony-eyed woman he had left sagged low by the fire.

Once out in the open air, the King of Karnia drew a long breath. The affair was over. It had been unpleasant. It was always unpleasant to break with a woman. But it was time. He neither loved her nor needed her. Friendly relations between the two countries were established; and soon, very soon, would be ratified by his marriage.

It was not of Olga Loschek, but of Hedwig that he thought, as his car climbed swiftly to the lodge.