Chapter XXXII. Nikky and Hedwig
 

Nikky had gone back to his lodging, where his servant was packing his things. For Nikky was now of His Majesty's household, and must exchange his shabby old rooms for the cold magnificence of the Palace.

Toto had climbed to the chair beside him, and was inspecting his pockets, one by one. Toto was rather a problem, in the morning. But then everything was a problem now. He decided to leave the dog with the landlady, and to hope for a chance to talk the authorities over. Nikky himself considered that a small boy without a dog was as incomplete as, for instance, a buttonhole without a button.

He was very downhearted. To the Crown Prince, each day, he gave the best that was in him, played and rode, invented delightful nonsense to bring the boy's quick laughter, carried pocketfuls of bones, to the secret revolt of his soldierly soul, was boyish and tender, frivolous or thoughtful, as the occasion seemed to warrant.

And always he was watchful, his revolver always ready and in touch, his eyes keen, his body, even when it seemed most relaxed, always tense to spring. For Nikky knew the temper of the people, knew it as did Mathilde gossiping in the market, and even better; knew that a crisis was approaching, and that on this small boy in his charge hung that crisis.

The guard at the Palace had been trebled, but even in that lay weakness.

"Too many strange faces," the Chancellor had said to him, shaking his head. "Too many servants in livery, and flunkies whom no one knows. How can we prevent men, in such livery, from impersonating our own agents? One, two, a half-dozen, they could gain access to the Palace, could commit a mischief under our very eyes."

So Nikky trusted in his own right arm and in nothing else. At night the Palace guard was smaller, and could be watched. There were no servants about to complicate the situation. But in the daytime, and especially now with the procession of milliners and dressmakers, messengers and dealers, it was more difficult. Nikky watched these people, as he happened on them, with suspicion and hatred. Hatred not only of what they might be, but hatred of what they were, of the thing they typified, Hedwig's approaching marriage.

The very size of the Palace, its unused rooms, its long and rambling corridors, its rambling wings and ancient turrets, was against its safety.

Since the demonstration against Karl, the riding-school hour had been given up. There were no drives in the park. The illness of the King furnished sufficient excuse, but the truth was that the royal family was practically besieged; by it knew not what. Two police agents had been found dead the morning after Karl's departure, on the outskirts of the city, lying together in a freshly ploughed field. They bore marks of struggle, and each had been stabbed through the veins of the neck, as though they had been first subdued and then scientifically destroyed.

Nikky, summoned to the Chancellor's house that morning, had been told the facts, and had stood, rather still and tense, while Mettlich recounted them.

"Our very precautions are our danger," said the Chancellor. "And the King - " He stopped and sat, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair.

"And the King, sir?"

"Almost at the end. A day or two."

On that day came fresh news, alarming enough. More copies of the seditious paper were in circulation in the city and the surrounding country, passing from hand to hand. The town was searched for the press which had printed them, but it was not located. Which was not surprising, since it had been lowered through a trap into a sub-cellar of the house on the Road of the Good Children, and the trapdoor covered with rubbish.

Karl, with Hedwig in his thoughts, had returned to mobilize his army not far from the border for the spring maneuvers, and at a meeting of the King's Council the matter of a mobilization in Livonia was seriously considered.

Fat Friese favored it, and made an impassioned speech, with sweat thick on his heavy face.

"I am not cowardly," he finished. "I fear nothing for myself or for those belonging to me. But the duty of this Council is to preserve the throne for the Crown Prince, at any cost. And, if we cannot trust the army, in what can we trust?"

"In God," said the Chancellor grimly.

In the end nothing was done. Mobilization might precipitate the crisis, and there was always the fear that the army, in parts, was itself disloyal.

It was Marschall, always nervous and now pallid with terror, who suggested abandoning the marriage between Hedwig and Karl.

"Until this matter came up," he said, avoiding Mettlich's eyes, "there was danger, but of a small party only, the revolutionary one. One which, by increased effort on the part of the secret police, might have been suppressed. It is this new measure which is fatal. The people detest it. They cannot forget, if we can, the many scores of hatred we still owe to Karnia. We have, by our own act, alienated the better class of citizens. Why not abandon this marriage, which, gentlemen, I believe will be fatal. It has not yet been announced. We may still withdraw with honor."

He looked around the table with anxious, haunted eyes, opened wide so that the pupils appeared small and staring in their setting of blood-shot white. The Chancellor glanced around, also.

"It is not always easy to let the people of a country know what is good for them and for it. To retreat now is to show our weakness, to make an enemy again of King Karl, and to gain us nothing, not even safety. As well abdicate, and turn the country over to the Terrorists! And, in this crisis, let me remind you of something you persistently forget. Whatever the views of the solid citizens may be as to this marriage, - and once it is effected, they will accept it without doubt, - the Crown Prince is now and will remain the idol of the country. It is on his popularity we must depend. We must capitalize it. Mobs are sentimental. Whatever the Terrorists may think, this I know: that when the bell announces His Majesty's death, when Ferdinand William Otto steps out on the balcony, a small and lonely child, they will rally to him. That figure, on the balcony, will be more potent than a thousand demagogues, haranguing in the public streets."

The Council broke up in confusion. Nothing had been done, or would be done. Mettlich of the Iron Hand had held them, would continue to hold them. The King, meanwhile, lay dying, Doctor Wiederman in constant attendance, other physicians coming and going. His apartments were silent. Rugs covered the corridors, that no footfall disturb his quiet hours. The nursing Sisters attended him, one by his bedside, one always on her knees at the Prie-dieu in the small room beyond. He wanted little - now and then a sip of water, the cooled juice of fruit.

Injections of stimulants, given by Doctor Wiederman himself, had scarred his old arms with purplish marks, and were absorbed more and more slowly as the hours went on.

He rarely slept, but lay inert and not unhappy. Now and then one of his gentlemen, given permission, tiptoed into the room, and stood looking down at his royal master. Annunciata came, and was at last stricken by conscience to a prayer at his bedside. On one of her last visits that was. She got up to find his eyes fixed on her.

"Father," she began.

He made no motion.

"Father, can you hear me?"

"Yes."

"I - I have been a bad daughter to you. I am sorry. It is late now to tell you, but I am sorry. Can I do anything?"

"Otto," he said, with difficulty.

"You want to see him?

"No."

She knew what he meant by that. He would have the boy remember him as he had seen him last.

"You are anxious about him?"

"Very - anxious."

"Listen, father," she said, stooping over him. "I have been hard and cold. Perhaps you will grant that I have had two reasons for it. But I am going to do better. I will take care of him and I will do all I can to make him happy. I promise."

Perhaps it was relief. Perhaps even then the thought of Annunciata's tardy and certain-to-be bungling efforts to make Ferdinand William Otto happy amused him. He smiled faintly.

Nikky, watching his rooms being dismantled, rescuing an old pipe now and then, or a pair of shabby but beloved boots, - Nikky, whistling to keep up his courage, received a note from Hedwig late that afternoon. It was very brief:

To-night at nine o'clock I shall go to the roof beyond Hubert's old rooms, for air.

HEDWIG.

Nikky, who in all his incurious young life had never thought of the roof of the Palace, save as a necessary shelter from the weather, a thing of tiles and gutters, vastly large, looked rather astounded.

"The roof!" he said, surveying the note. And fell to thinking, such a mixture of rapture and despair as only twenty-three, and hopeless, can know.

Somehow or other he got through the intervening hours, and before nine he was on his way. He had the run of the Palace, of course. No one noticed him as he made his way toward the empty suite which so recently had housed its royal visitor. Annunciata's anxiety had kept the doors of the suite unlocked. Knowing nothing, but fearing everything, she slept with the key to the turret door under her pillow, and an ear opened for untoward sounds.

In the faint moonlight poor Hubert's rooms, with their refurbished furnishings covered with white linen, looked cold and almost terrifying. A long window was open, and the velvet curtain swayed as though it shielded some dismal figure. But, when he had crossed the room and drawn the curtain aside, it was to see a bit of fairyland, the roof moonlit and transformed by growing things into a garden. There was, too, the fairy.

Hedwig, in a soft white wrap over her dinner dress, was at the balustrade. The moon, which had robbed the flowers of their colors and made them ghosts of blossoms, had turned Hedwig into a pale, white fairy with extremely frightened eyes. A very dignified fairy, too, although her heart thumped disgracefully. Having taken a most brazen step forward, she was now for taking two panicky ones back.

Therefore she pretended not to hear Nikky behind her, and was completely engrossed in the city lights.

So Hedwig intended to be remote, and Nikky meant to be firm and very, very loyal. Which shows how young and inexperienced they were. Because any one who knows even the beginnings of love knows that its victims suffer from an atrophy of both reason and conscience, and a hypertrophy of the heart.

Whatever Nikky had intended - of obeying his promise to the letter, of putting his country before love, and love out of his life - failed him instantly. The Nikky, ardent-eyed and tender-armed, who crossed the roof and took her almost fiercely in his arms, was all lover - and twenty-three.

"Sweetheart!" he said. "Sweetest heart!"

When, having kissed her, he drew back a trifle for the sheer joy of again catching her to him, it was Hedwig who held out her arms to him.

"I couldn't bear it," she said simply. "I love you. I had to see you again. Just once."

If he had not entirely lost his head before, he lost it then. He stopped thinking, was content for a time that her arms were about his neck, and his arms about her, holding her close. They were tense, those arms of his, as though he would defy the world to take her away.

But, although he had stopped thinking, Hedwig had not. It is, at such times, always the woman who thinks. Hedwig, plotting against his honor and for his happiness and hers, was already, with her head on his breast, planning the attack. And, having a strategic position, she fired her first gun from there.

"Never let me go, Nikky," she whispered. "Hold me, always."

"Always!" said Nikky, valiantly and absurdly.

"Like this?"

"Like this," said Nikky, who was, like most lovers, not particularly original. He tightened his strong arms about her.

"They are planning such terrible things." Shell number two, and high explosive. "You won't let them take me from you, will you?"

"God!" said poor Nikky, and kissed her hair. "If we could only be like this always! Your arms, Hedwig, - your sweet arms!" He kissed her arms.

Gun number three now: "Tell me how much you love me."

"I - there are no words, darling. And I couldn't live long enough to tell you, if there were." Not bad that, for inarticulate Nikky.

"More than anybody else?"

He shook her a trifle, in his arms. "How can you?" he demanded huskily. "More than anything in the world. More than life, or anything life can bring. More, God help me, than my country."

But his own words brought him up short. He released her, very gently, and drew back a step.

"You heard that?" he demanded. "And I mean it. It's incredible, Hedwig, but it is true."

"I want you to mean it," Hedwig replied, moving close to him, so that her soft draperies brushed him; the very scent of the faint perfume she used was in the air he breathed. "I want you to, because Nikky, you are going to take me away, aren't you?"

Then, because she dared not give him time to think, she made her plea, - rapid, girlish, rather incoherent, but understandable enough. They would go away together and be married. She had it all planned and some of it arranged. And then they would hide somewhere, and - "And always be together," she finished, tremulous with anxiety.

And Nikky? His pulses still beating at her nearness, his eyes on her upturned, despairing young face, turned to him for hope and comfort, what could he do? He took her in his arms again and soothed her, while she cried her heart out against his tunic. He said he would do anything to keep her from unhappiness, and that he would die before he let her go to Karl's arms. But if he had stopped thinking before, he was thinking hard enough then.

"To-night?" said Hedwig, raising a tear-stained face. "It is early. If we wait something will happen. I know it. They are so powerful, they can do anything."

After all, Nikky is poor stuff to try to make a hero of. He was so human, and so loving. And he was very, very young, which may perhaps be his excuse. As well confess his weakness and his temptation. He was tempted. Almost he felt he could not let her go, could not loosen his hold of her. Almost - not quite.

He put her away from him at last, after he had kissed her eyelids and her forehead, which was by way of renunciation. And then he folded his arms, which were treacherous and might betray him. After that, not daring to look at her, but with his eyes fixed on the irregular sky-line of the city roofs, he told her many things, of his promise to the King, of the danger, imminent now and very real, of his word of honor not to make love to her, which he had broken.

Hedwig listened, growing cold and still, and drawing away a little. She was suffering too much to be just. All she could see was that, for a matter of honor, and that debatable, she was to be sacrificed. This danger that all talked of - she had heard that for a dozen years, and nothing had come of it. Nothing, that is, but her own sacrifice.

She listened, even assented, as he pleaded against his own heart, treacherous arms still folded. And if she saw his arms and not his eyes, it was because she did not look up.

Halfway through his eager speech, however, she drew her light wrap about her and turned away. Nikky could not believe that she was going like that, without a word. But when she had disappeared through the window, he knew, and followed her. He caught her in Hubert's room, and drew her savagely into his arms.

But it was a passive, quiescent, and trembling Hedwig who submitted, and then, freeing herself, went out through the door into the lights of the corridor. Nikky flung himself, face down, on a shrouded couch and lay there, his face buried in his arms.

Olga Loschek's last hope was gone.