Chapter XXVII. The Little Door
 

Hedwig had given up. She went through her days with a set face, white and drawn, but she knew now that the thing she was to do must be done. The King, in that stormy scene when the Sister prayed in the next room, had been sufficiently explicit. They had come on bad times, and could no longer trust to their own strength. Proud Livonia must ask for help, and that from beyond her border.

"We are rotten at the core," he said bitterly. "An old rot that has eaten deep. God knows, we have tried to cut it away, but it has gone too far. Times are, indeed, changed when we must ask a woman to save us!"

She had thrown her arms over the bed and buried her face in them. "And I am to be sacrificed," she had said, in a flat voice. "I am to go through my life like mother, soured and unhappy. Without any love at all."

The King was stirred. His thin, old body had sunk in the bed until it seemed no body at all. "Why without love?" he asked, almost gently. "Karl knows our condition - not all of it, but he is well aware that things are unstable here. Yet he is eager for the marriage. I am inclined to believe that he follows his inclinations, rather than a political policy."

The thought that Karl might love her had not entered her mind. That made things worse, if anything - a situation unfair to him and horrible to herself. In the silence of her own room, afterward, she pondered over that. If it were true, then a certain hope she had must be relinquished - none other than to throw herself on his mercy, and beg for a nominal marriage, one that would satisfy the political alliance, but leave both of them free. Horror filled her. She sat for long periods, dry-eyed and rigid.

The bronze statue of the late Queen, in the Place, fascinated her in those days. She, too, had been only a pawn in the game of empires; but her face, as Hedwig remembered it, had been calm and without bitterness. The King had mourned her sincerely. What lay behind that placid, rather austere old face? Dead dreams? Or were the others right, that after a time it made no difference, that one marriage was the same as another?

She had not seen Nikky save once or twice, and that in the presence of others. On these occasions he had bowed low, and passed on. But once she had caught his eyes on her, and had glowed for hours at what she saw in them. It braced her somewhat for the impending ordeal of a visit from Karl.

The days went on. Dressmakers came and went. In the mountains lace-makers were already working on the veil, and the brocade of white and gold for her wedding-gown was on the loom. She was the pale center of a riot of finery. Dressmakers stood back and raised delighted hands as, one by one; their models were adjusted to her listless figure.

In the general excitement the Crown Prince was almost forgotten. Only Nikky remained faithful; but his playing those days was mechanical, and one day he was even severe. This was when he found Prince Ferdinand William Otto hanging a cigarette out of a window overlooking the courtyard, and the line of soldiers underneath in most surprising confusion. The officer of the day was not in sight.

Nikky, entering the stone-paved court, and feeling extremely glum, had been amazed to see the line of guards, who usually sat on a bench, with a sentry or picket, or whatever they called him, parading up and down before them - Nikky was amazed to see them one by one leaping into the air, in the most undignified manner. Nikky watched the performance. Then he stalked over. They subsided sheepishly. In the air was the cause of the excitement, a cigarette dangling at the end of a silk thread, and bobbing up and down. No one was to be seen at the window above.

Nikky was very tall. He caught the offending atom on its next leap, and jerked it off. As he had suspected, it was one of his own, bearing an "N" and his coat of arms.

The Crown Prince received that day, with the cigarette as an excuse, a considerable amount of Nikky's general unhappiness and rage at the world.

"Well," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, when it was over, "I have to do something, don't I?"

It was Miss Braithwaite's conviction that this prank, and several other things, such as sauntering about with his hands in his pockets, and referring to his hat as a "lid," were all the result of his meeting that American boy.

"He is really not the same child," she finished. "Oskar found him the other day with a rolled-up piece of paper lighted at the end, pretending he was smoking."

The Chancellor came now and then, but not often. And his visits were not cheering. The Niburg affair had left its mark on him. The incident of the beggar on the quay was another scar. The most extreme precautions were being taken, but a bad time was coming, and must be got over somehow.

That bad time was Karl's visit.

No public announcement of the marriage had yet been made. It was bound to be unpopular. Certainly the revolutionary party would make capital of it. To put it through by force, if necessary, and, that accomplished, to hold the scourge of Karnia's anger over a refractory people, was his plan. To soothe them with the news of the cession of the seaport strip was his hope.

Sometimes, in the early morning, when the King lay awake, and was clearer mentally than later in the day, he wondered. He would not live to see the result of all this planning. But one contingency presented itself constantly. Suppose the Crown Prince did not live? He was sturdy enough, but it was possible. Then Hedwig, Queen of Karnia, would be Queen of Livonia. A dual kingdom then, with Karl as Hedwig's consort, in control, undoubtedly. It would be the end of many dreams.

It seemed to him in those early hours, that they were, indeed, paying a price. Preparations were making for Karl's visit. Prince Hubert's rooms were opened at last, and redecorated as well as possible in the short time at command, under the supervision of the Archduchess. The result was a crowding that was neither dignified nor cheerful. Much as she trimmed her own lean body, she decorated. But she was busy, at least, and she let Hedwig alone.

It was not unusual, those days, to find Annunciata, flushed with exertion, in the great suite on an upper floor, in the center of a chaos of furniture, shoving chairs about with her own royal arms, or standing, head on one side, to judge what she termed the composition of a corner. Indignant footmen pushed and carried, and got their wigs crooked and their dignified noses dirty, and held rancorous meetings in secluded places.

But Annunciata kept on. It gave her something to think of in place of the fear, that filled her, made her weary enough to sleep at night.

And there was something else that comforted her.

Beyond the windows of the suite was a flat roof, beneath which was the ballroom of the Palace. When the apartment was in use, the roof was made into a garden, the ugly old walls hidden with plants in tubs and boxes, the parapet edged with flowers. It was still early, so spring tulips were planted now on the parapet, early primroses and hyacinths. In the center an empty fountain was cleared, its upper basins filled with water vines, its borders a riot of color. When the water was turned on, it would be quite lovely.

But it was not the garden on the roof which cheered Annunciata. It had, indeed, rather sad memories. Here had Hubert's young wife kept her cages of birds, fed with her own hands, and here, before Otto was born, she had taken the air in a long chintz-covered chair.

Annunciata, overseeing the roof as she had overseen the apartment, watched the gardeners bringing in their great loads of plants from the summer palace, and saw that a small door, in a turret, was kept free of access. To that door, everything else failing, the Archduchess pinned her faith. She carried everywhere with her a key that would open it.

Long ago had the door been built, long ago, when attacking forces, battering in the doors below, might swarm through the lower floors, held back on staircases by fighting men who retreated, step by step, until, driven at last to the very top, they were apparently lost. More than once; in bygone times the royal family had escaped by that upper door, and the guard after them. It was known to few.

The staircase in the wall had passed into legend, and the underground passage with it. But they still existed, and had recently been put in order. The Chancellor had given the command; and because there were few to be trusted, two monks from the monastery attached to the cathedral had done the work.

So the gardeners set out their potted evergreens, and covered the primroses on the balustrade against frost, and went away. And the roof had become by magic a garden, the walls were miniature forests, but the door remained - a door.

On a desperate morning Hedwig threw caution to the winds and went to the riding-school. She wore her old habit, and was in the ring, but riding listlessly, when Nikky and Otto appeared.

"And eat." Nikky was saying. "He always eats. And when I take him for a walk in the park, he digs up bones that other dogs have buried, and carries them home with him. We look very disreputable." The Crown Prince laughed with delight, but just then Nikky saw Hedwig, and his own smile died.

"There's Hedwig!" said Prince Ferdinand William Otto. "I'm rather glad to see her. Aren't you?"

"Very glad, indeed."

"You don't look glad."

"I'm feeling very glad inside."

They rode together, around and around the long oval, with its whitewashed railing, its attendant grooms, its watchful eyes overhead. Between Nikky and Hedwig Prince Ferdinand William Otto laughed and chattered, and Hedwig talked a great deal about nothing, with bright spots of red burning in her face.

Nikky was very silent. He rode with his eyes set ahead; and had to be spoken to twice before he heard.

"You are not having a very good time, are you?" Prince Ferdinand William Otto inquired anxiously. To tell the truth, he had been worried about Nikky for some days. Nikky had been his one gleam of cheerfulness in a Palace where all was bustle and excitement and every one seemed uneasy. But Nikky's cheerfulness had been forced lately. His smile never reached his eyes. "I haven't done anything, have I?" he persisted.

"Bless you, no!" said Nikky heartily. "I - well, I didn't sleep well last night. That's all."

He met Hedwig's glance squarely over the head of the Crown Prince.

"Nor did I," Hedwig said.

Later, when the boy was jumping, they had a moment together. The Crown Prince was very absorbed. He was just a little nervous about jumping. First he examined his stirrups and thrust his feet well into them. Then he jammed his cap down on his head and settled himself, in the saddle, his small knees gripping hard.

"It's higher than usual, isn't it?" he inquired, squinting at the hurdle.

The riding-master examined it. "It is an inch lower than yesterday, Your Royal Highness."

"Perhaps we'd better have it the same as yesterday," said the boy, who was terribly afraid of being afraid.

Then, all being adjusted, and his mouth set very tight, indeed, Prince Ferdinand William Otto took the first jump, and sailed over it comfortably.

"I don't mind at all, after the first," he confided to the riding-master.

"Are you angry that I came?" asked Hedwig.

"Angry? You know better."

"You don't say anything."

"Hedwig," said Nikky desperately, "do you remember what I said to you the other day? That is in my heart now. I shall never change. That, and much more. But I cannot say it to you. I have given my word."

"Of course they would make you promise. They tried with me, but I refused." She held her chin very high. "Why did you promise? They could not have forced you. They can do many things, but they cannot control what you may say."

"There are reasons. Even those I cannot tell you. It would be easier, Hedwig, for me to die than to live on and see what I must see. But I cannot even die." He smiled faintly. "You see, I am not keeping my promise."

"I think you will not die," said Hedwig cruelly. "You are too cautious."

"Yes, I am too cautious," he agreed heavily.

"You do not know the meaning of love."

"Then God grant I may never know, if it is worse than this:"

"If I were a man, and loved a woman, I would think less of myself and more of her. When I saw her unhappy and being forced to a terrible thing, I would move heaven and earth to save her."

"How would you do it?" said Nikky in a low tone.

Hedwig shrugged her shoulders. "I would find a way. The world is large. Surely, if one really cared, it could be managed. I should consider my first duty to her."

"I am a soldier, Highness. My first duty is to my country."

"You?" said Hedwig, now very white. "I was not speaking of you. I was speaking of a man who truly loved a woman."

She rode away, and left him there. And because she was hurt and reckless, and not quite sane, she gave him a very bad half-hour. She jumped again, higher each time, silencing the protests of the riding-master with an imperious gesture. Her horse tired. His sides heaved, his delicate nostrils dilated. She beat him with her crop, and flung him again at the hurdle.

Prince Ferdinand William Otto was delighted, a trifle envious. "She jumps better than I do," he observed to Nikky, ?but she is in a very bad humor."

At last, his patience exhausted and fear in his heart, Nikky went to her. "Hedwig," he said sternly. "I want you to stop this childishness. You will kill yourself."

"I am trying very hard to."

"You will kill your horse. Look at him."

For answer she raised her crop, but Nikky bent forward and caught the reins.

"How dare you!" she said furiously.

For answer Nikky turned and, riding beside her, led her weary horse out of the ring. And long training asserted itself. Hedwig dared not make a scene before the waiting grooms. She rode in speechless rage, as white as Nikky, and trembling with fury. She gave him no time to assist her to dismount, but slipped off herself and left him, her slim, black-habited figure held very straight.

"I'm afraid she's very angry with you," said the Crown Prince, as they walked back to the Palace. "She looked more furious than she did about the fruitcake."

That afternoon Nikky went for a walk. He took Toto with him, and they made the circuit of the Park, which formed an irregular circle about the narrow streets of the old citadel where the wall had once stood. He walked, as he had done before, because he was in trouble, but with this difference, that then, he had walked in order to think, and now he walked to forget.

In that remote part where the Gate of the Moon stood, and where, outside, in mediaeval times had been the jousting-ground, the Park widened. Here was now the city playground, the lake where in winter the people held ice carnivals, and where, now that spring was on the way, they rode in the little cars of the Scenic Railway.

An old soldier with a wooden leg, and a child, were walking together by the lake, and conversing seriously. A dog was burying a bone under a near-by tree. Toto, true to his instincts, waited until the bone was covered, and then, with calm proprietorship, dug it up and carried it off. Having learned that Nikky now and then carried bones in his pockets, he sat up and presented it to him. Nikky paying no attention at first, Toto flung it up in the air, caught it on his nose, balanced it a second, and dropped it. Then followed a sudden explosion of dog-rage and a mix-up of two dogs, an old soldier, a young one, a boy, and a wooden leg. In the end the wooden leg emerged triumphant, Toto clinging to it under the impression that he had something quite different. The bone was flung into the lake, and a snarling truce established.

But there had been a casualty. Bobby had suffered a severe nip on the forearm, and was surveying it with rather dazed eyes.

"Gee, it's bleeding!" he said.

Nikky looked worried, but old Adelbert, who had seen many wounds, recommended tying it up with garlic, and then forgetting it. "It is the first quarter of the moon," he said. "No dog's bite is injurious at that time."

Nikky, who had had a sniff of the bone of contention, was not so easy in his mind. First quarter of the moon it might be, but the bone was not in its first quarter. "I could walk home with the boy," he suggested, "and get something at a chemist's on the way."

"Will it hurt?" demanded Bobby.

"We will ask for something that will not hurt."

So it happened that Bobby and Tucker, the two pirates, returned that day to their home under the escort of a tall young man who carried a bottle wrapped in pink paper in his hand, and looked serious. Old Pepy was at home. She ran about getting basins, and because Nikky had had his first-aid training, in a very short time everything was shipshape, and no one the worse.

"Do you suppose it will leave a scar?" Bobby demanded.

"Well, a little one, probably."

"I've got two pretty good ones already," Bobby boasted, "not counting my vaccination. Gee! I bet mother'll be surprised."

"The Americans," said Pepy, with admiring eyes fixed on their visitor, "are very peculiar about injuries. They speak always of small animals that crawl about in wounds and bring poison."

"Germs!" Bobby explained. "But they know about germs here, too. I , played with a boy one, afternoon at the Scenic Railway - my father is the manager, you know. If you like, I can give you some tickets. And the boy said a fig lady he had was covered with germs. We ate it anyhow."

Nikky looked down smilingly. So this was the American lad! Of course. He could understand Otto's warm feeling now. They were not unlike, the two children. This boy was more sturdy, not so fine, perhaps, but eminently likable. He was courageous, too. The iodine had not been pleasant, but he had only whistled.

"And nothing happened to the other boy, because of the germs?"

"I don't know. He never came back. He was a funny boy. He had a hat like father's. Gee!"

Nikky took his departure, followed by Pepy's eyes. As long as he was in sight she watched him from the window. "He is some great person," she said to Bobby. "Of the aristocracy. I know the manner."

"A prince, maybe?"

"Perhaps. You in America, you have no such men, I think, such fine soldiers, aristocrats, and yet gentle. The uniform is considered the handsomest in Europe."

"Humph!" said Bobby aggressively. "You ought to see my uncle dressed for a Knight Templar parade. You'd see something."

Nikky went down the stairs, with Toto at his heels, a valiant and triumphant Toto, as becomes a dog who has recently vanquished a wooden leg.

At the foot of the staircase a man was working replacing a loosened tile in the passage; a huge man, clad in a smock and with a bushy black beard tucked in his neck out of the way. Nikky nodded to him, and went out. Like a cat Black Humbert was on his feet, and peering after him from the street door. It was he, then, the blond devil who, had fallen on them that night, and had fought as one who fights for the love of it! The concierge went back to the door of his room.

Herman Spier sat inside. He had fortified his position by that trip to the mountains, and now spent his days in Black Humbert's dirty kitchen, or in errand-running. He was broiling a sausage on the end of a fork.

"Quick!" cried Black Humbert. "Along the street, with a black dog at his heels, goes one you will recognize. Follow him, and find out what you can."

Herman Spier put the sausage in his pocket - he had paid for it himself, and meant to have it - and started out. It was late when he returned.

He gave Nikky's name and position, where his lodgings were, or had been until now. He was about to remove to the Palace, having been made aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince.

"So!" said Black Humbert.

"It is also," observed Herman Spier, eating his sausage, "this same one who led the police to Niburg's room. I have the word of the woman who keeps the house."

The concierge rose, and struck the table with his fist. "And now he comes here!" he said. "The boy upstairs was a blind. He has followed us." He struck the sausage furiously out of Herman's hand. "Tonight the police will come. And what then?"

"If you had taken my advice," said the clerk, "you would have got rid of that fellow upstairs long ago." He picked up the sausage and dusted it with his hand. "But I do not believe the police will come. The child was bitten. I saw them enter."

Nevertheless, that night, while Herman Spier kept watch at the street door, the concierge labored in the little yard behind the house. He moved a rabbit hutch and, wedging his huge body behind it, loosened a board or two in the high wooden fence.

More than the Palace prepared for flight.

Still later, old Adelbert roused from sleep. There were footsteps in the passage outside, the opening of a door. He reflected that the concierge was an owl and, the sounds persisting, called out an irritable order for quiet.

Then he slept again, and while he slept the sounds recommenced. Had he glanced out into the passage, then, he would have seen two men, half supporting a third, who tottered between them. Thus was the student Haeckel, patriot and Royalist, led forth to die.

And he did not die.