Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXVIII. Tee Crown Prince's Pilgrimage
The day when Olga Loschek should have returned to the city found her too ill to travel. No feigned sickness this, but real enough, a matter of fever and burning eyes, and of mutterings in troubled sleep.
Minna was alarmed. She was fond of her mistress, in spite of her occasional cruelties, and lately the Countess had been strangely gentle. She required little attention, wished to be alone, and lay in her great bed, looking out steadily at the bleak mountain-tops, to which spring never climbed.
"She eats nothing," Minna said despairingly to the caretaker. "And her eyes frighten me. They are always open, even in the night, but they seem to see nothing."
On the day when she should have returned, the Countess roused herself enough to send for Black Humbert, fretting in the kitchen below. He had believed that she was malingering until he saw her, but her flushed and hollow cheeks showed her condition.
"You must return and explain," she said. "I shall need more time, after all." When he hesitated, she added: "There are plenty to watch that I do not escape. I could not, if I would. I have not the strength."
"Time is passing," he said gruffly, "and we get nowhere."
"As soon as I can travel, I will come."
"If madame wishes, I can take a letter."
She pondered over that, interlacing her fingers nervously as she reflected.
"I will send no letter," she decided, "but I will give you a message, which you can deliver."
"Say to the Committee," she began, and paused. She had thought and thought until her brain burned with thinking, but she had found no way out. And yet she could not at once bring herself to speech. But at last she said it: "Say to the Committee that I have reflected and that I will do what they ask. As far," she added, "as lies in my power. I can only - "
"That is all the Committee expects," he said civilly, and with a relief that was not lost on her. "With madame's intelligence, to try is to succeed."
Nevertheless, he left her well guarded. Even Minna, slipping off for an evening hour with a village sweetheart, was stealthily shadowed. Before this, fine ladies had changed garments with their maids and escaped from divers unpleasantnesses.
Olga Loschek lay in her bed, and always there were bells. The cattle were being driven up into the mountains for the summer grazing, great, soft-eyed herds, their bells tinkling slowly as they made their deliberate, soft-footed progress along the valley; the silvery bells for mass; the clock striking the hour with its heavy, vibrating clamor of bronze.
When she sank into the light sleep of fever, they roused her, or she slept on; hearing in their tones the great bell of St. Stefan's announcing the King's death. Bells, always bells.
At the end of two days she was able to be up again. She moved languidly about her room, still too weak to plan. There were times when she contemplated suicide, but she knew herself to be too cowardly to do more than dream of it.
And on the fourth day came the Crown Prince of Livonia on a pilgrimage.
The manner of his coming was this:
There are more ways than one of reaching the hearts of an uneasy people. Remission of taxes is a bad one. It argues a mistake in the past, in exacting such tithes. Governments may make errors, but must not acknowledge them. There is the freeing of political prisoners, but that, too, is dangerous, when such prisoners breathe sedition to the very prison walls.
And there is the appeal to sentiment. The Government, pinning all its hopes to one small boy, would further endear him to the people. Wily statesman that he was, the Chancellor had hit on this to offset the rumors of Hedwig's marriage.
But the idea was not his, although he adopted it. It had had its birth in the little room with the Prie-dieu and the stand covered with bottles, had been born of the Sister's belief in the miracles of Etzel.
However, he appropriated it, and took it to the King.
"A pilgrimage!" said the King, when the mater was broached to him. "For what? My recovery? Cannot you let your servant depart in peace?"
"Pilgrimages," observed the Chancellor, "have had marvelous results, sire. I do not insist that they perform miracles, as some believe," - he smiled faintly, - "but as a matter of public feeling and a remedy for discord, they are sometimes efficacious."
"I see," said the King. And lay still, looking at the ceiling.
"Can it be done safely?" he asked at last.
"The maddest traitor would not threaten the Crown Prince on a pilgrimage. The people would tear him limb from limb."
"Nevertheless, I should take all precautions," he said dryly. "A madman might not recognize the - er - religious nature of the affair."
The same day the Chancellor visited Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and found him returned from his drive and busy over Hedwig's photograph frame.
"It is almost done," he said. "I slipped over in one or two places, but it is not very noticeable, is it?"
The Chancellor observed it judicially, and decided that the slipping over was not noticeable at all. Except during school hours Miss Braithwaite always retired during the Chancellor's visits, and so now the two were alone.
"Otto," said the Chancellor gravely, "I want to talk to you very seriously."
"Have I done anything?"
"No." He smiled. "It is about something I would like you to do. For your grandfather."
"I'll do anything for him, sir."
"We know that. This is the point. He has been ill for along time. Very ill."
The boy watched him with a troubled face. "He looks very thin," he said. "I get quite worried when I see him."
"Exactly. You have heard of Etzel?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto's religious instruction was of the best. He had, indeed, heard of Etzel. He knew the famous pilgrimages in order, and could say them rapidly, beginning, the year of Our Lord 915 - the Emperor Otto and Adelheid, his spouse; the year of Our Lord 1100, Ulrich, Count of Ruburg; and so on.
"When people are ill," he said sagely, "they go to Etzel to be cured."
"Precisely. But when they cannot go, they send some one else, to pray for them. And sometimes, if they have faith enough, the holy miracle happens, and they are cured."
The Chancellor was deeply religious, and although he had planned the pilgrimage for political reasons, for the moment he lost sight of them. What if, after all, this clear-eyed, clean-hearted child could bring this miracle of the King's recovery? It was a famous shrine, and stranger things had been brought about by less worthy agencies.
"I thought," he said, "that if you would go to Etzel, Otto, and there pray for your grandfather's recovery, it - it would be a good thing."
The meaning of such a pilgrimage dawned suddenly on the boy. His eyes filled, and because he considered it unmanly to weep, he slid from his chair and went to the window. There he got out his pocket-handkerchief and blew his nose.
"I'm afraid he's going to die," he said, in a smothered voice.
The Chancellor followed him to the window, and put an arm around his shoulders. "Even that would not be so terrible, Otto," he said. "Death, to the old, is not terrible. It is an open door, through which they go gladly, because - because those who have gone ahead are waiting just beyond it."
"Are my mother and father waiting?"
He considered. "And my grandmother?"
"He'll be very glad to see them all again."
"Very happy, indeed. But we need him here, too, for a while. You need him and - I. So we will go and pray to have him wait a little longer before he goes away. Hour about it?"
"I'll try. I'm not very good. I do a good many things, you know."
Here, strangely enough, it was the Chancellor who fumbled for his handkerchief. A vision had come to him of the two of them kneeling side by side at Etzel, the little lad who was "not very good," and he himself with his long years behind him of such things as fill a man's life. And because the open door was not so far ahead for him either, and because he believed implicitly in the great Record within the Gate, he shook his shaggy head.
So the pilgrimage was arranged. With due publicity, of course, and due precaution for safety. By train to the foot of the mountains, and then on foot for the ten miles to Etzel.
On the next day the Crown Prince fasted, taking nothing but bread and a cup of milk. On the day of the pilgrimage, however, having been duly prepared, and mass having been said at daybreak in the chapel, with all the Court present, he was given a substantial breakfast. His small legs had a toilsome journey before them.
He went through his preparation in a sort of rapt solemnity. So must the boy crusaders have looked as, starting on their long journey, they faced south and east, toward the far-distant Sepulcher of Our Lord.
The King's Council went, the Chancellor, the Mayor of the city, wearing the great gold chain of his office around his neck, and a handful of soldiers, - a simple pilgrimage and the more affecting. There were no streaming banners, no magnificent vestments. The Archbishop accompanied them; and a flag-bearer.
They went on foot to the railway station through lines of kneeling people, the boy still rapt; and looking straight ahead, the Chancellor seemingly also absorbed, but keenly alive to the crowds. As he went on, his face relaxed. It was as if the miracle had already happened. Not the miracle for which the boy would pray, but a greater one. Surely these kneeling people, gazing with moist and kindly eyes at the Crown Prince, could not, at the hot words of demagogues, turn into the mob he feared. But it had happened before. The people who had, one moment, adored the Dauphin of France on his balcony at Versailles, had lived to scream for his life.
On and on, through the silent, crowded streets. No drums; no heralds, no bugles. First the standard-bearer; then the Archbishop, walking with his head bent; then the boy, alone and bareheaded, holding his small hat in moist; excited fingers; then the others, the Chancellor and the Mayor together, the Council, the guard. So they moved along, without speech, grave, reverent, earnest.
At the railway station a man stepped out of the crowd and proffered a paper to the Crown Prince. But he was too absorbed to see it, and a moment later the Chancellor had it, and was staring with hard eyes at the individual who had presented it. A moment later, without sound, or breach of decorum, the man was between two agents, a prisoner. The paper, which the Chancellor read on the train and carefully preserved, was a highly seditious document attacking the Government and ending with threats.
The Chancellor, who had started in an exalted frame of mind, sat scowling and thoughtful during the journey. How many of those who had knelt on the street had had similar seditious papers in their pockets? A people who could kneel, and, kneeling, plot!
The Countess, standing on her balcony and staring down into the valley, beheld the pilgrimage and had thus her first knowledge of it. She was incredulous at first, and stood gazing, gripping the stone railing with tense hands. She watched, horror-stricken. The Crown Prince, himself, come to Etzel to pray! For his grandfather, of course. Then, indeed, must things be bad with the King, as bad as they could be.
The Crown Prince was very warm. She could see the gleam of his handkerchief as he wiped his damp face. She could see the effort of his tired legs to keep step with the standard-bearer.
The bells again. How she hated them! They rang out now to welcome the pilgrims, and a procession issued from the church door, a lay brother first, carrying a banner, then the fathers, two by two; the boys from the church school in long procession. The royal party halted at the foot of the street. The fathers advanced. She could make out Father Gregory's portly figure among them. The bell tolled. The villagers stood in excited but quiet groups, and watched.
Then the two banners touched, the schoolboys turned, followed by the priests. Thus led, went the Crown Prince of Livonia to pray for his grandfather's life.
The church doors closed behind them.
Olga Loschek fell on her knees. She was shaking from head to foot. And because the religious training of her early life near the shrine had given her faith in miracles, she prayed for one. Rather, she made a bargain with God: -
If any word came to her from Karl, any, no matter, to what it pertained, she would take it for a sign, and attempt flight. If she was captured, she would kill herself.
But, if no word came from Karl by the hour of her departure the next morning, then she would do the thing she had set out to do, and let him beware! The King dead, there would be no King. Only over the dead bodies of the Livonians would they let him marry Hedwig and the throne. It would be war.
Curiously, while she was still on her knees, her bargain made, the plan came to her by which, when the time came, the Terrorists were to rouse the people to even greater fury. Still kneeling, she turned it over in her mind. It was possible. More, it could be made plausible, with her assistance. And at the vision it evoked, - Mettlich's horror and rage, Hedwig's puling tears, her own triumph, - she took a deep breath. Revenge with a vengeance, retaliation for old hurts and fresh injuries, these were what she found on her knees, while the bell in the valley commenced the mass, and a small boy; very rapt and very earnest, prayed for his grandfather's life.
Yet the bargain came very close to being made the other way that day, and by Karl himself.
Preparations were being made for his visit to Livonia. Ostensibly this visit was made because of the King's illness. Much political capital was being made of Karl's going to see, for the last time, the long-time enemy of his house. While rumor was busy, Karnia was more than satisfied. Even the Socialist Party approved, and their papers, being more frank than the others, spoke openly of the chances of a dual kingdom, the only bar being a small boy.
On the day of the pilgrimage Karl found himself strangely restless and uneasy. He had returned to his capital the day before, and had busied himself until late that night with matters of state. He had slept well, and wakened to a sense of well-being. But, during the afternoon, he became uneasy. Olga Loschek haunted him, her face when he had told her about the letter, her sagging figure when he had left her.
Something like remorse stirred in him. She had taken great risks for him. Of all the women he had known, she had most truly and unselfishly loved him. And for her years of service he had given her contempt. He reflected, too, that he had, perhaps, made an enemy where he needed a friend. How easy, by innuendo and suggestion, to turn Hedwig against him, Hedwig who already fancied herself interested elsewhere.
Very nearly did he swing the scale in which Olga Loschek had hung her bargain with God - so nearly that in the intervals of affixing his sprawling signature to various documents, he drew a sheet of note-paper toward him. Then, with a shrug, he pushed it away. So Olga Loschek lost her bargain.
At dawn the next morning the Countess, still pale with illness and burning with fever, went back to the city.