Chapter XXX. King Karl
 

"They love us dearly!" said King Karl.

The Chancellor, who sat beside him in the royal carriage, shrugged his shoulders. "They have had little reason to love, in the past, Majesty," he said briefly.

Karl laughed, and watched the crowd. He and the Chancellor rode alone, Karl's entourage, a very modest one, following in another carriage. There was no military escort, no pomp. It had been felt unwise. Karl, paying ostensibly a visit of sympathy, had come unofficially.

"But surely," he observed, as they passed between sullen lines of people, mostly silent, but now and then giving way to a muttering that sounded ominously like a snarl, - "surely I may make a visit of sympathy without exciting their wrath!"

"They are children," said Mettlich contemptuously. "Let one growl, and all growl. Let some one start a cheer, and they will cheer themselves hoarse."

"Then let some one cheer, for God's sake!" said Karl, and turned his mocking smile to the packed streets.

The Chancellor was not so calm as he appeared. He had lined the route from the station to the Palace with his men; had prepared for every contingency so far as he could without calling out the guard. As the carriage, drawn by its four chestnut horses, moved slowly along the streets, his eyes under their overhanging thatch were watching ahead, searching the crowd for symptoms of unrest.

Anger he saw in plenty, and suspicion. Scowling faces and frowning brows. But as yet there was no disorder. He sat with folded arms, magnificent in his uniform beside Karl, who wore civilian dress and looked less royal than perhaps he felt.

And Karl, too, watched the crowd, feeling its temper and feigning an indifference he did not feel. Olga Loschek had been right. He did not want trouble. More than that, he was of an age now to crave popularity. Many of the measures which had made him beloved in his own land had no higher purpose than this, the smiles of the crowd. So he watched and talked of indifferent things.

"It is ten years since I have been here," he observed, "but there are few changes."

"We have built no great buildings," said Mettlich bluntly. "Wars have left us no money, Majesty, for building!"

That being a closed road, so to speak, Karl tried another. "The Crown Prince must be quite a lad," he experimented. "He was a babe in arms, then, but frail, I thought."

"He is sturdy now." The Chancellor relapsed into watchfulness.

"Before I see the Princess Hedwig," Karl made another attempt, "it might be well to tell me how she feels about things. I would like to feel that the prospect is at least not disagreeable to her."

The Chancellor was not listening. There was trouble ahead. It had come, then, after all. He muttered something behind his gray mustache. The horses stopped, as the crowd suddenly closed in front of them.

"Drive on!" he said angrily, and the coachman touched his whip to the horses. But they only reared, to be grasped at the bridles by hostile hands ahead.

Karl half rose from his seat.

"Sit still, Majesty," said the Chancellor. "It is the students. They will talk, that is all."

But it came perilously near to being a riot. Led by some students, pushed by others, the crowd surrounded the two carriages, first muttering, then yelling. A stone was hurled, and struck one of the horses. Another dented the body of the carriage itself. A man with a handkerchief tied over the lower half of his face mounted the shoulders of two companions, and harangued the crowd. They wanted no friendship with Karnia. There were those who would sell them out to their neighbor and enemy. Were they to lose their national existence? He exhorted them madly through the handkerchief. Others, further back, also raised above the mob, shrieked treason, and called the citizens to arm against this thing. A Babel of noise, of swinging back and forth, of mounted police pushing through to surround the carriage, of cries and the dominating voices of the student-demagogues. Then at last a semblance of order, low muttering, an escort of police with drawn revolvers around the carriage, and it moved ahead.

Through it all the Chancellor had sat with folded arms. Only his livid face told of his fury. Karl, too, had sat impassive, picking at his small mustache. But, as the carriage moved on, he said: "A few moments ago I observed that there had been few changes. But there has been, I perceive, after all, a great change."

"One cannot judge the many by the few, Majesty."

But Karl only raised his eyebrows.

In his rooms, removing the dust of his journey, broken by the automobile trip across the mountains where the two railroads would some day meet, Karl reflected on the situation. His amour-propre was hurt. Things should have been better managed, for one thing. It was inexcusable that he had been subjected to such a demonstration. But, aside from the injury to his pride, was a deeper question. If this was the temper of the people now, what would it be when they found their suspicions justified? Had Ogla Loschek been right after all, and not merely jealous? And if she were, was the game worth the candle?

Pacing the drawing-room of his suite with a cigarette, and cursing the tables and bric-a-brac with which it was cluttered, Karl was of a mind to turn back, after all, Even the prospect which his Ministers had not failed to recognize, of the Crown Prince never reaching his maturity, was a less pleasing one than it had been. A dual monarchy, one portion of it restless and revolutionary, was less desirable than the present peace and prosperity of Karnia. And unrest was contagious. He might find himself in a difficult position.

He was, indeed, even now in a difficult position.

He glanced about his rooms. In one of them Prince Hubert had met his death. It was well enough for Mettlich to say the few could not speak for the many. It took but one man to do a murder, Karl reflected grimly.

But when he arrived for tea in the Archduchess's white drawing-room he was urbane and smiling. Hedwig, standing with cold hands and terrified eyes by the tea-table, disliked both his urbanity and his smile. He kissed the hand of the Archduchess and bent over Hedwig's with a flash of white teeth.

Then he saw Olga Loschek, and his smile stiffened. The Countess came forward, curtsied, and as he extended his hand to her, touched it lightly with her lips. They were quite cold. For just an instant their eyes met.

It was, on the surface, an amiable and quiet teaparty. Hilda, in a new frock, flirted openly with the King, and read his fortune in tea-leaves. Hedwig had taken up her position by a window, and was conspicuously silent. Behind her were the soft ring of silver against china; the Countess's gay tones; Karl's suave ones, assuming gravity, as he inquired for His Majesty; the Archduchess Annunciata pretending a solicitude she did not feel. And all forced, all artificial, Olga Loschek's heart burning in her, and Karl watching Hedwig with open admiration and some anxiety.

"Grandmother," Hedwig whispered from her window to the austere old bronze figure in the Place, "was it like this with you, at first? Did you shiver when he touched your hand? And doesn't it matter, after a year?"

"Very feeble," said the Archduchess's voice; behind her, "but so brave - a lesson to us all."

"He has had a long and conspicuous career," Karl observed. "It is sad, but we must all come to it. I hope he will be able to see me."

"Hedwig,!" said her mother, sharply, "your tea is getting cold."

Hedwig turned toward the room. Listlessness gave her an added dignity, a new charm. Karl's eyes flamed as he watched her. He was a connoisseur in women; he had known many who were perhaps more regularly beautiful, but none, he felt, so lovely. Her freshness and youth made Olga, beautifully dressed, superbly easy, look sophisticated and a trifle hard. Even her coldness appealed to him. He had a feeling that the coldness was only a young girl's armor, that under it was a deeply passionate woman. The thought of seeing her come to deep, vibrant life in his arms thrilled him.

When he carried her tea to her, he bent over her. "Please!" he said. "Try to like me. I - "

"I'm sorry," Hedwig said quickly. "Mother has forgotten the lemon."

Karl smiled and, shrugging his shoulders, fetched the lemon. "Right, now?" he inquired. "And aren't we going to have a talk together?"

"If you wish it, I dare say we shall."

"Majesty," said Hilda, frowning into her teacup. "I see a marriage for you." She ignored her mother's scowl, and tilted her cup to examine it.

"A marriage!" Karl joined her, and peered with mock anxiety at the tea-grounds. "Strange that my fate should be confined in so small a compass! A happy marriage? Which am I?"

"The long yellow leaf. Yes, it looks happy. But you may be rather shocked when I tell you."

"Shocked?"

"I think," said Hilda. grinning, "that you are going to marry me."

"Delightful!"

"And we are going to have - "

"Hilda!" cried the Archduchess fretfully. "Do stop that nonsense and let us talk. I was trying to recall, this morning," she said to Karl, "when you last visited us." She knew it quite well, but she preferred having Karl think she had forgotten. "It was, I believe, just before Hubert - "

"Yes," said Karl gravely, "just before."

"Otto was a baby then."

"A very small child. I remember that I was afraid to handle him."

"He is a curious boy, old beyond his years. Rather a little prig, I think. He has an English governess, and she has made him quite a little woman."

Karl laughed, but Hedwig flushed.

"He is not that sort at all," she declared stoutly. "He is lonely and - and rather pathetic. The truth is that no one really cares for him, except - "

"Except Captain Larisch!" said the Archduchess smoothly. "You and he, Hedwig, have done your best by him, surely."

The bit of byplay was not lost on Karl - the sudden stiffening of Hedwig's back, Olga's narrowed eyes. Olga had been right, then. Trust her for knowing facts when they were disagreeable. His eyes became set and watchful, hard, too, had any noticed. There were ways to deal with such a situation, of course. They were giving him this girl to secure their own safety, and she knew it. Had he not been so mad about her he might have pitied her, but he felt no pity, only a deep and resentful determination to get rid of Nikky, and then to warm her by his own fire. He might have to break her first. After that manner had many Queens of Karnia come to the throne. He smiled behind his small mustache.

When tea was almost over, the Crown Prince was announced. He came in, rather nervously, with hie hands thrust in his trousers pockets. He was very shiny with soap and water and his hair was still damp from parting. In his tailless black jacket, his long gray trousers, and his round Eton collar, he looked like a very anxious little schoolboy, and not royal at all.

Greetings over, and having requested that his tea be half milk, with four lumps of sugar, he carried his cup over beside Hedwig, and sat down on a chair. Followed a short silence, with the Archduchess busy with the tea-things, Olga Loschek watching Karl, and Karl intently surveying the Crown Prince. Ferdinand William Otto, who disliked a silence, broke it first.

"I've just taken off my winter flannels," he observed. "I feel very smooth and nice underneath."

Hilda giggled, but Hedwig reached over and stroked his arm. "Of course you do," she said gently.

"Nikky," continued Prince Ferdinand William Otto, stirring his tea, "does not wear any flannels. Miss Braithwaite thinks he is very careless."

King Karl's eyes gleamed with amusement. He saw the infuriated face of the Archduchess, and bent toward the Crown Prince with earnestness.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "since you have mentioned the subject, I do not wear any either. Your 'Nikky' and I seem most surprisingly to have the same tastes - about various things."

Annunciata was in the last stages of irritation. There was no mistaking the sneer in Karl's voice. His smile was forced. She guessed that he had heard of Nikky Larisch before, that, indeed, he knew probably more than she did. Just what, she wondered, was there to know? A great deal, if one could judge by Hedwig's face.

"I hope you are working hard at your lesson, Otto," she said, in the severe tone which Otto had learned that most people use when they refer to lessons.

"I'm afraid I'm not doing very well, Tante. But I've learned the 'Gettysburg Address.' Shall I say it?"

"Heavens, no!" she protested. She had not the faintest idea what the "Gettysburg Address" was. She suspected Mr. Gladstone.

The Countess had relapsed into silence. A little back from the family circle, she had watched the whole scene stonily, and knowing Karl as only a woman who loves sincerely and long can know a man, she knew the inner workings of his mind. She saw anger in the very turn of his head and set of his jaw. But she saw more, jealousy, and was herself half mad with it.

She knew him well. She had herself, for years, held him by holding herself dear, by the very difficulty of attaining her. And now this indifferent, white-faced girl, who might be his, indeed, for the taking, but who would offer or promise no love, was rousing him to the instinct of possession by her very indifference. He had told her the truth, that night in the mountain inn. It was Hedwig he wanted, Hedwig herself, her heart, all of her. And, if she knew Karl, he would move heaven and earth to get the thing he wanted.

She surveyed the group. How little they knew what was in store for them! She, Olga Loschek, by the lifting of a finger, could turn their smug superiority into tears and despair, could ruin them and send them flying for shelter to the very ends of the earth.

But when she looked at the little Crown Prince, legs dangling, eating his thin bread and butter as only a hungry small boy can eat, she shivered. By what means must she do all this! By what unspeakable means!

Karl saw the King that evening, a short visit marked by extreme formality, and, on the King's part, by the keen and frank scrutiny of one who is near the end and fears nothing but the final moment. Karl found the meeting depressing and the King's eyes disconcerting.

"It will not be easy going for Otto," said the King, at the end of the short interview. "I should like to feel that his interests will be looked after, not only here, but by you and yours. We have a certain element here that is troublesome."

And Karl, with Hedwig in his mind, had promised.

"His interests shall be mine, sir," he had said.

He had bent over the bed then, and raised the thin hand to his lips. The interview was over. In the anteroom the King's Master of the Horse, the Chamberlain, and a few other gentlemen stood waiting, talking together in low tones. But the Chancellor, who had gone in with Karl and then retired, stood by a window, with his arms folded over his chest, and waited. He put resolutely out of his mind the face of the dying man on his pillows, and thought only of this thing which he - Mettlich had brought about. There was no yielding in his face or in his heart, no doubt of his course. He saw, instead of the lovers loitering in the Place, a new and greater kingdom, anarchy held down by an ironshod heel, peace and the fruits thereof, until out of very prosperity the people grew fat and content.

He saw a boy king, carefully taught, growing into his responsibilities until, big with the vision of the country's welfare, he should finally ascend the throne. He saw the river filled with ships, carrying merchandise over the world and returning with the wealth of the world. Great buildings, too, lifted their heads on his horizon, a dream city, with order for disorder, and citizens instead of inhabitants.

When at last he stirred and sighed, it was because his old friend, in his bed in the next room, would see nothing of all this, and that he himself could not hope for more than the beginning, before his time came also.

The first large dinner for months was given that night at the Palace, to do King Karl all possible honor. The gold service which had been presented to the King by the Czar of Russia was used. The anticipatory gloom of the Court was laid aside, and jewels brought from vaults were worn for the first time in months. Uniforms of various sorts, but all gorgeous, touched fine shoulders, and came away, bearing white, powdery traces of the meeting. The greenhouses at the summer palace had been sacked for flowers and plants. The corridor from the great salon to the dining-hall; always a dreary passage, had suddenly become a fairy path of early-spring bloom. Even Annunciata, hung now with ropes of pearls, her hair dressed high for a tiara of diamonds, her cameos exchanged for pearls, looked royal. Proving conclusively that clutter, as to dress, is entirely a matter of value.

Miss Braithwaite, who had begun recently to think a palace the dreariest place in the world, and the most commonplace, found the preparations rather exciting. Being British she dearly loved the aristocracy, and shrugged her shoulders at any family which took up less than a page in the peerage. She resented deeply the intrusion of the commoner into British politics, and considered Lloyd George an upstart and an interloper.

That evening she took the Crown Prince to see the preparations for the festivities. The flowers appealed to him, and he asked for and secured a rose, which he held carefully. But the magnificence of the table only faintly impressed him, and when he heard that Nikky would not be present, he lost interest entirely. "Will they wheel my grandfather in a chair?" he inquired.

"He is too ill," Miss Braithwaite said.

"He'll be rather lonely, when they're all at the party. You don't suppose I could go and sit with him, do you?"

"It will be long after your bedtime."

Bedtime being the one rule which was never under any circumstances broken, he did not persist. To have insisted might have meant five off in Miss Braithwaite's book, and his record was very good that week. Together the elderly Englishwoman and the boy went back to the schoolroom.

The Countess Loschek, who had dressed with a heavy heart, was easily the most beautiful of the women that night. Her color was high with excitement and anger, her eyes flashed, her splendid shoulders gleamed over the blue and orchid shades of her gown. A little court paid tribute to her beauty, and bowed the deeper and flattered the more as she openly scorned and flouted them. She caught once a flicker of admiration in Karl's face, and although her head went high, her heart beat stormily under it.

Hedwig was like a flower that required the sun. Only her sun was happiness. She was in soft white chiffons, her hair and frock alike girlish and unpretentious. Her mother, coming into her dressing room, had eyed her with disfavor.

"You look like a school-girl," she said, and had sent for rouge, and with her own royal hands applied it. Hedwig stood silent, and allowed her to have her way without protest. Had submitted, too, to a diamond pin in her hair, and a string of her mother's pearls.

"There," said Annunciata, standing off and surveying her, "you look less like a baby."

She did, indeed? It took Hedwig quite five minutes to wash the rouge off her face, and there was, one might as well confess, a moment when a part of the crown jewels of the kingdom lay in a corner of the room, whence a trembling maid salvaged them, and examined them for damage.

The Princess Hedwig appeared that evening without rouge, and was the only woman in the room thus unadorned. Also she wore her coming-out string of modest pearls and a slightly defiant, somewhat frightened, expression.

The dinner was endless, which was necessary, since nothing was to follow but conversation. There could, under the circumstances, be no dancing. And the talk at the table, through course after course, was somewhat hectic, even under the constraining presence of King Karl. There were two reasons for this: Karl's presence and his purpose - as yet unannounced, but surmised, and even known - and the situation in the city.

That was bad. The papers had been ordered to make no mention of the occurrence of the afternoon, but it was well known. There were many at the table who felt the whole attempt foolhardy, the setting of a match to inflammable material. There were others who resented Karl's presence in Livonia, and all that it implied. And perhaps there were, too, among the guests, one or more who had but recently sat in less august and more awful company.

Beneath all the brilliance and chatter, the sparkle and gayety, there was, then, uneasiness, wretchedness, and even treachery. And outside the Palace, held back by the guards, there still stood a part of the sullen crowd which had watched the arrival of the carriages and automobiles, had craned forward to catch a glimpse of uniform or brilliantly shrouded figure entering the Palace, and muttered as it looked.

Dinner was over at last. The party moved back to the salon, a vast and empty place, hung with tapestries and gayly lighted. Here the semblance of gayety persisted, and Karl, affability itself, spoke a few words to each of the guests. Then it was over. The guests left, the members of the Council, each with a wife on his arm, frowsy, overdressed women most of them. The Council was chosen for ability and not for birth. At last only the suite remained, and constraint vanished.

The family withdrew shortly after - to a small salon off the large one. And there, at last, Karl cornered Hedwig and demanded speech.

"Where?"she asked, glancing around the crowded room.

"I shall have to leave that to you," he said. "Unless there is a balcony."

"But do you think it is necessary?"

"Why not?"

"Because what I have to say does not matter."

"It matters very much to me," he replied gravely.

Hedwig went first, slipping away quietly and unnoticed. Karl asked the Archduchess's permission to follow her, and found her waiting there alone, rather desperately calm now, and with a tinge of excited color in her cheeks. Because he cared a great deal, and because, as kings go, he was neither hopelessly bad nor hard, his first words were kind and genuine, and almost brought her to tears.

"Poor little girl!" he said.

He had dropped the curtain behind him, and they stood alone.

"Don't," said Hedwig. "I want to be very calm, and I am sorry for myself already."

"Then you think it is all very terrible?"

She did not reply, and he drew a chair for her to the rail. When she was seated, he took up his position beside her, one arm against a pillar.

"I wonder, Hedwig," he said, "if it is not terrible because it is new to you, and because you do not know me very well. Not," he added hastily, "that I think your knowing me well would be an advantage! I am not so idiotic. But you do not know me at all, and for a good many years I must have stood in the light of an enemy. It is not easy to readjust such things - witness the reception I had to-day!"

"I do not think of you in that way, as - as an enemy."

"Then what is it?"

"Why must we talk about it?" Hedwig demanded, looking up at him suddenly with a flash of her old spirit. "It will not change anything."

"Perhaps not. Perhaps - yes. You see, I am not quite satisfied. I do not want you, unless you are willing. It would be a poor bargain for me, and not quite fair."

A new turn, this, with a vengeance! Hedwig stared up with startled eyes. It was not enough to be sacrificed. And as she realized all that hung on the situation, the very life of the kingdom, perhaps the safety of her family, everything, she closed her eyes for fear he might see the fright in them.

Karl bent over and took one of her cold hands between his two warm ones. "Little Hedwig," he said, "I want you to come willingly because - I care a great deal. I would like you to care, too. Don't you think you would, after a time?"

"After a time!" said Hedwig drearily. "That's what they all say. After a time it doesn't matter. Marriage is always the same - after a time."

Karl rather winced at that, and released her hands, but put them down gently. "Why should marriage be always the same, after a time?" he inquired.

"This sort of marriage, without love."

"It is hardly that, is it? I love you."

"I wonder how much you love me."

Karl smiled. He was on his own ground here. The girlish question put him at ease. "Enough for us both, at first," he said. "After that - "

"But," said Hedwig desperately, "suppose I know I shall never care for you, the way you will want me to. You talk of being fair. I want to be fair to you. You have a right - " She checked herself abruptly. After all, he might have a right to know about Nikky Larisch. But there were others who had rights, too - Otto to his throne, her mother and Hilda and all the others, to safety, her grandfather to die in peace, the only gift she could give him.

"What I think you want to tell me, is something I already know," Karl said gravely. "Suppose I am willing to take that chance? Suppose I am vain enough, or fool enough, to think that I can make you forget certain things, certain people. What then?"

"I do not forget easily."

"But you would try?"

"I would try," said Hedwig, almost in a whisper.

Karl bent over and taking her hands, raised her to her feet.

"Darling," he said, and suddenly drew her to him. He covered her with hot kisses, her neck, her face, the soft angle below her ear. Then he held her away from him triumphantly. "Now," he said, "have you forgotten?"

But Hedwig, scarlet with shame, faced him steadily. "No," she said.

Later in the evening the old King received a present, a rather wilted rose, to which was pinned a card with "Best wishes from Ferdinand William Otto" printed on it in careful letters.

It was the only flower the King had received during his illness.

When, that night, he fell asleep, it was still clasped in his old hand, and there was a look of grim tenderness on the face on the pillow, turned toward his dead son's picture.