Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXXI. Let Mettlich Guard His Treasure
Troubled times now, with the Carnival only a day or two off, and the shop windows gay with banners; with the press under the house of the concierge running day and night, and turning out vast quantities of flaming bulletins printed in red; with the Committee of Ten in almost constant session, and Olga Loschek summoned before it, to be told of the passage, and the thing she was to do; with the old King very close to the open door, and Hedwig being fitted for her bridal robe and for somber black at one fitting.
Troubled times, indeed. The city was smouldering, and from some strange source had come a new rumor. Nothing less than that the Royalists, headed by the Chancellor, despairing of crowning the boy Prince, would, on the King's death, make away with him, thus putting Hedwig on the throne Hedwig, Queen of Karnia perhaps already by secret marriage.
The city, which adored the boy, was seething. The rumor had originated with Olga Loschek, who had given it to the Committee as a useful weapon. Thus would she have her revenge on those of the Palace, and at the same time secure her own safety. Revenge, indeed, for she knew the way of such rumors, how they fly from house to house, street to street. How the innocent, proclaiming their innocence, look even the more guilty.
When she had placed the scheme before the Committee of Ten, had seen the eagerness with which they grasped it - "In this way," she had said, in her scornful, incisive tones, "the onus of the boy is not on you, but on them. Even those who have no sympathy with your movement will burn at such a rumor. The better the citizen, the more a lover of home and order, the more outraged he will be. Every man in the city with a child of his own will rise against the Palace."
"Madame," the leader had said, "you should be of the Committee."
But she had ignored the speech contemptuously, and gone on to other things.
Now everything was arranged. Black Humbert had put his niece to work on a Carnival dress for a small boy, and had stayed her curiosity by a hint that it was for the American lad.
"They are comfortable tenants," he had said. "Not lavish, perhaps, as rich Americans should be, but orderly, and pleasant. The boy has good manners. It would be well to please him."
So the niece, sewing in the back room, watched Bobby in and out, with pleasant mysteries in her eyes, and sewing sang the song the cathedral chimed:
"Draw me also, Mary mild, To adore Thee and thy Child! Mary mild, Star in desert drear and wild."
So she sang, and sewed, and measured Bobby's height as he passed by the wainscoting in the passage, and cunningly cut a pattern.
"So high," she reflected, humming, "is his shoulder. And so, to this panel, should go the little trousers. 'Star in desert drear and wild.'"
Now and then, in the evenings, when the Americans were away, and Bobby was snug in bed, with Tucker on the tiny feather comfort at his feet, the Fraulein would come downstairs and sit in Black Humbert's room. At such times the niece would be sent on an errand, and the two would talk. The niece, who, although she had no lover, was on the lookout for love, suspected a romance of the middle-aged, and smiled in the half-darkness of the street; smiled with a touch of malice, as one who has pierced the armor of the fortress, and knows its weakness.
But it was not of love that Humbert and the Fraulein talked.
Herman Spier was busy in those days and making plans. Thus, day by day, he dined in the restaurant where the little Marie, now weary of her husband, sat in idle intervals behind the cashier's desk, and watched the grass in the Place emerge from its winter hiding place. When she turned her eyes to the room, frequently she encountered those of Herman
Spier, pale yet burning, fixed on her. And at last, one day when her husband lay lame with sciatica, she left the desk and paused by Herman's table.
"You come frequently now," she observed. "It is that you like us here, or that you have risen in the shop?"
"I have left the shop," said Herman, staring at her. Flesh, in a moderate amount, suited her well. He liked plump women. They were, if you please, an armful. "And I come to see you."
"Left the shop!" Marie exclaimed. "And Peter Niburg - he has left also? I never see him."
"No," said Herman non-committally.
"He is ill, perhaps?"
"He is dead," said Herman, devouring her with his eyes.
"Dead!" She put a hand to her plump side.
"Aye. Shot as a spy." He took another piece of the excellent pigeon pie. Marie, meantime, lost all her looks, grew pasty white.
"Of the - the Terrorists?" she demanded, in a whisper.
"Terrorists! No. Of Karnia. He was no patriot."
So the little Marie went back to her desk, and to her staring out over the Place in intervals of business. And what she thought of no one can know. But that night, and thereafter, she was very tender to her spouse, and put cloths soaked in hot turpentine water on his aching thigh.
On the surface things went on as usual at the Palace. Karl's visit had been but for a day or two. He had met the Council in session, and had had, because of their growing alarm, rather his own way with them.
But although he had pointed to the King's condition and theirs - as an argument for immediate marriage - he failed. The thing would be done, but properly and in good time. They had a signed agreement to fall back upon, and were in no hurry to pay his price. Karl left them in a bad temper, well concealed, and had the pleasure of being hissed through the streets.
But he comforted himself with the thought of Hedwig. He had taken her in his arms before he left, and she had made no resistance. She had even, in view of all that was at stake, made a desperate effort to return his kiss, and found herself trembling afterward.
In two weeks he was to return to her, and he whispered that to her.
On the day after the dinner-party Otto went to a hospital with Miss Braithwaite. It was the custom of the Palace to send the flowers from its spectacular functions to the hospitals, and the Crown Prince delighted in these errands.
So they went, escorted by the functionaries of the hospital, past the military wards, where soldiers in shabby uniforms sat on benches in the spring sunshine, to the general wards beyond. The Crown Prince was almost hidden behind the armful he carried. Miss Braithwaite had all she could hold. A convalescent patient, in slippers many sizes too large for him, wheeled the remainder in a barrow, and almost upset the barrow in his excitement.
Through long corridors into wards fresh-scrubbed against his arrival, with white counterpanes exactly square, and patients forbidden to move and disturb the geometrical exactness of the beds, went Prince Ferdinand William Otto. At each bed he stopped, selected a flower, and held it out. Some there were who reached out, and took it with a smile. Others lay still, and saw neither boy nor blossom.
"They sleep, Highness," the nurse would say.
"But their eyes are open."
"They are very weary, and resting."
In such cases he placed the flower on the pillow, and went on.
One such; however, lying with vacant eyes fixed on the ceiling, turned and glanced at the boy, and into his empty gaze crept a faint intelligence. It was not much. He seemed to question with his eyes. That was all. As the little procession moved on, however, he raised himself on his elbow.
"Lie down!" said the man in the next bed sharply.
"Who was that?"
The ward, which might have been interested, was busy keeping its covers straight and in following the progress of the party. For the man had not spoken before.
"The Crown Prince."
The sick man lay back and dosed his eyes. Soon he slept. His comrade in the next bed beckoned to a Sister.
"He has spoken," he said. "Either he recovers, or - he dies."
But again Haeckel did not die. He lived to do his part in the coming crisis, to prove that even the great hands of Black Humbert on his throat were not so strong as his own young spirit; lived, indeed, to confront the Terrorist as one risen from the dead. But that day he lay and slept, by curious irony the flower from Karl's banquet in a cup of water beside him.
On the day before the Carnival, Hedwig had a visitor, none other than the Countess Loschek. Hedwig, all her color gone now, her high spirit crushed, her heart torn into fragments and neatly distributed between Nikky, who had most of it, the Crown Prince, and the old King. Hedwig, having given her permission to come, greeted her politely but without enthusiasm.
"Highness!" said the Countess, surveying her. And then, "You poor child!" using Karl's words, but without the same inflection, using, indeed, the words a good many were using to Hedwig in those days.
"I am very tired," Hedwig explained. "All this fitting, and - everything."
"I know, perhaps better than you think, Highness." Also something like Karl's words. Hedwig reflected with bitterness that everybody knew, but nobody helped her. And, as if in answer to the thought, Olga Loschek came out plainly.
"Highness," she said, "may I speak to you frankly?"
"Please do," Hedwig replied. "Everybody does, anyhow. Especially when it is something disagreeable."
Olga Loschek watched her warily. She knew the family as only the outsider could know it; knew that Hedwig, who would have disclaimed the fact, was like her mother in some things, notably in a disposition to be mild until a certain moment, submissive, even acquiescent, and then suddenly to become, as it were, a royalty and grow cold, haughty. But if Hedwig was driven in those days, so was the Countess, desperate and driven to desperate methods.
"I am presuming, Highness, on your mother's kindness to me, and your own, to speak frankly."
"Well, go on," said Hedwig resignedly. But the next words brought her up in her chair.
"Are you going to allow your life to be ruined?" was what the Countess said.
Careful! Hedwig had thrown up her head and looked at her with hostile eyes. But the next moment she had forgotten she was a princess, and the granddaughter to the King, and remembered only that she was a woman, and terror-stricken. She flung out her arms, and then buried her face in them.
"How can I help it?" she said.
"How can you do it?" Olga Loschek countered. "After all, it is you who must do this thing. No one else. It is you they are offering on the altar of their ambition."
"Ambition. What else is it? Surely you do not believe these tales they tell - old wives' tales of plot and counterplot!"
"But the Chancellor - "
"Certainly the Chancellor!" mocked Olga Loschek. "Highness, for years he has had a dream. A great dream. It is not for you and me to say it is not noble. But, to fulfill his dream to bring prosperity and greatness to the country, and naturally, to him who plans it, there is a price to pay. He would have you pay it."
Hedwig raised her face and searched the other woman's eyes.
"That is all, then?" she said. "All this other, this fright, this talk of treason and danger, that is not true?"
"Not so true as he would have you believe," replied Olga Loschek steadily. "There are malcontents everywhere, in every land. A few madmen who dream dreams, like Mettlich himself, only not the same dream. It is all ambition, one dream or another."
"But my grandfather -"
"An old man, in the hands of his Ministers!"
Hedwig rose and paced the floor, her fingers twisting nervously. "But it is too late," she cried at last. "Everything is arranged. I cannot refuse now. They would - I don't know what they would do to me!"
"Do! To the granddaughter of the King. What can they do?"
That aspect of things; to do her credit, had never occurred to Hedwig. She had seen herself, hopeless and alone, surrounded by the powerful, herself friendless. But, if there was no danger to save her family from? If her very birth, which had counted so far for so little, would bring her immunity and even safety?
She paused in front of the Countess. "What can I do?" she asked pitifully.
"That I dare not presume to say. I came because I felt - I can only say what, in your place, I should do."
"I am afraid. You would not be afraid." Hedwig shivered. "What would you do? "
"If I knew, Highness, that some one, for whom I cared, himself cared deeply enough to make any sacrifice, I should demand happiness. I rather think I should lose the world, and gain something like happiness."
"Demand!" Hedwig said hopelessly. "Yes, you would demand it. I cannot demand things. I am always too frightened."
The Countess rose. "I am afraid I have done an unwise thing," she said., "If your mother knew -" She shrugged her shoulders.
"You have only been kind. I have so few who really care."
The Countess curtsied, and made for the door. "I must go," she said, "before I go further, Highness. My apology is that I saw you unhappy, and that I resented it, because - "
"Because I considered it unnecessary."
She was a very wise woman. She left then, and let the next step come from Hedwig. It followed, as a matter of record, within the hour, at least four hours sooner than she had anticipated. She was in her boudoir, not reading, not even thinking, but sitting staring ahead, as Minna had seen her do repeatedly in the past weeks. She dared not think, for that matter.
Although she was still in waiting, the Archduchess was making few demands on her. A very fever of preparation was on Annunciata. She spent hours over laces and lingerie, was having jewels reset for Hedwig, after ornate designs of her own contribution, was the center of a cyclone of boxes, tissue paper, material, furs, and fashion books, while maids scurried about and dealers and dressmakers awaited her pleasure. She was, perhaps, happier than she had been for years, visited her father, absently and with pins stuck in her bosom, and looked dowdier and busier than the lowliest of the seamstresses who, by her thrifty order, were making countless undergarments in a room on an upper floor.
Hedwig's notification that she would visit her, therefore, found the Countess at leisure and alone. She followed the announcement almost immediately, and if she had shown cowardice before, she showed none now. She disregarded the chair Olga Loschek offered, and came to the point with a directness that was like the King's.
"I have come," she said simply, "to find out what to do."
The Countess was as direct.
"I cannot tell you what to do, Highness. I can only tell you what I would do."
"Very well." Hedwig showed a touch of impatience. This was quibbling, and it annoyed her.
"I should go away, now, with the person I cared about."
"Where would you go?"
"The world is wide, Highness."
"Not wide enough to hide in, I am afraid."
"For myself," said the Countess, "the problem would not be difficult. I should go to my place in the mountains. An old priest, who knows me well, would perform the marriage. After that they might find me if they liked. It would be too late."
Emergency had given Hedwig insight. She saw that the woman before her, voicing dangerous doctrine, would protect herself by letting the initiative come from her.
"This priest - he might be difficult."
"Not to a young couple, come to him, perhaps, in peasant costume. They are glad to marry, these fathers. There is much irregularity. I fancy," she added, still with her carefully detached manner, "that a marriage could be easily arranged."
But, before long, she had dropped her pretense of aloofness, and was taking the lead. Hedwig, weary with the struggle, and now trembling with nervousness, put herself in her hands, listening while she planned, agreed eagerly to everything. Something of grim amusement came into Olga Loschek's face after a time. By doing this thing she would lose everything. It would be impossible to conceal her connivance. No one, knowing Hedwig, would for a moment imagine the plan hers. Or Nikky's, either, for that matter.
She, then, would lose everything, even Karl, who was already lost to her. But - and her face grew set and her eyes hard - she would let those plotters in their grisly catacombs do their own filthy work. Her hands would be clean of that. Hence her amusement that at this late day she, Olga Loschek, should be saving her own soul.
So it was arranged, to the last detail. For it must be done at once. Hedwig, a trifle terrified, would have postponed it a day or so, but the Countess was insistent. Only she knew how the very hours counted, had them numbered, indeed, and watched them flying by with a sinking heart.
She made a few plans herself, in those moments when Hedwig relapsed into rapturous if somewhat frightened dreams. She had some money and her jewels. She would go to England, and there live quietly until things settled down. Then, perhaps, she would go some day to Karl, and with this madness for Hedwig dead, of her marriage, perhaps - ! She planned no further.
If she gave a fleeting thought to the Palace, to the Crown Prince and his impending fate, she dismissed it quickly. She had no affection for Annunciata, and as to the boy, let them look out for him. Let Mettlich guard his treasure, or lose it to his peril. The passage under the gate was not of her discovery or informing.