Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXXIV. The Pirate's Den
Miss Braithwaite was asleep on the couch in her sitting-room, deeply asleep, so that when Prince Ferdinand William Otto changed the cold cloth on her head, she did not even move. The Countess Loschek had brought her some medicine.
"It cured her very quickly," said the Crown Prince, shuffling the cards with clumsy fingers. He and Nikky were playing a game in which matches represented money. The Crown Prince had won nearly all of them and was quite pink with excitement. "It's my deal, it? When she goes to sleep like that, she nearly always wakens up much better. She's very sound asleep."
Nikky played absently, and lost the game. The Crown Prince triumphantly scooped up the rest of the matches. "We've had rather a nice day," he observed, "even if we didn't go out. Shall we divide them again, and start all over?"
Nikky, however, proclaimed himself hopelessly beaten and a bad loser. So the Crown Prince put away the cards, which belonged to Miss Braithwaite, and with which she played solitaire in the evenings. Then he lounged to the window, his hands in his pockets. There was something on his mind which the Chancellor's reference to Hedwig's picture had recalled. Something he wished to say to Nikky, without looking at him.
So he clearer throat, and looked out the window, and said, very casually:
"Hilda says that Hedwig is going to get married."
"So I hear, Highness."
"She doesn't seem to be very happy about it. She's crying, most of the time."
It was Nikky's turn to clear his throat. "Marriage is a serious matter," he said. "It is not to be gone into lightly."
"Once, when I asked you about marriage, you said marriage was when two people loved each other, and wanted to be together the rest of their lives."
"Well," hedged Nikky, "that is the idea, rather."
"I should think," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, slightly red, "that you would marry her yourself."
Nikky, being beyond speech for an instant and looking, had His Royal Highness but seen him, very tragic and somewhat rigid, the Crown Prince went on:
"She's a very nice girl," he said; "I think she would make a good wife."
There was something of reproach in his tone. He had confidently planned that Nikky would marry Hedwig, and that they could all live on forever in the Palace. But, the way things were going, Nikky might marry anybody, and go away to live, and he would lose him.
"Yes," said Nikky, in a strange voice, "she - I am sure she would make a good wife."
At which Prince Ferdinand William Otto turned and looked at him. "I wish you would marry her yourself," he said with his nearest approach to impatience. "I think she'd be willing. I'll ask her, if you want me to."
Half-past three, then, and Nikky trying to explain, within the limits of the boy's understanding of life, his position. Members of royal families, he said, looking far away, over the child's head, had to do many things for the good of the country. And marrying was one of them. Something of old Mettlich's creed of prosperity for the land he gave, something of his own hopelessness, too, without knowing it. He sat, bent forward, his hands swung between his knees, and tried to visualize, for Otto's understanding and his own heartache, the results of such a marriage.
Some of it the boy grasped. A navy, ships, a railroad to the sea - those he could understand. Treaties were beyond his comprehension. And, with a child's singleness of idea, he returned to the marriage.
"I'm sure she doesn't care about it," he said at last. "If I were King I would not let her do it. And" - he sat very erect and swung his short legs - "when I grow up, I shall fight for a navy, if I want one, and I shall marry whoever I like."
At a quarter to four Olga Loschek was announced. She made the curtsy inside the door that Palace ceremonial demanded and inquired for the governess. Prince Ferdinand William Otto, who had risen at her entrance, offered to see if she still slept,
"I think you are a very good doctor," he said, smiling, and went out to Miss Braithwaite's sitting room.
It was then that Olga Loschek played the last card, and won. She moved quickly to Nikky's side.
"I have a message for you," she said.
A light leaped into Nikky's eyes. "For me?"
"Do you know where my boudoir is?"
"I - yes, Countess."
"If you will go there at once and wait, some one will see you there as soon as possible." She put her hand on his arm. "Don't be foolish and proud," she said. "She is sorry about last night, and she is very unhappy."
The light faded out of Nikky's eyes. She was unhappy and he could do nothing. They had a way, in the Palace, of binding one's hands and leaving one helpless. He could not even go to her.
"I cannot go, Countess," he said. "She must understand. To-day, of all days - "
"You mean that you cannot leave the Crown Prince?" She shrugged her shoulders. "You, too! Never have I seen so many faint hearts, such rolling eyes, such shaking knees! And for what! Because a few timid souls see a danger that does not exist."
"I think it does exist," said Nikky obstinately.
"I am to take the word to her, then, that you will not come?"
"That I cannot."
"You are a very foolish boy," said the Countess, watching him. "And since you are so fearful, I myself will remain here. There are sentries at the doors, and a double guard everywhere. What, in the name of all that is absurd, can possibly happen?"
That was when she won. For Nikky, who has never been, in all this history, anything of a hero, and all of the romantic and loving boy, - Nikky wavered and fell.
When Prince Ferdinand William Otto returned, it was with the word that Miss Braithwaite still slept, and that she looked very comfortable, Nikky was gone, and the Countess stood by a window, holding to the sill to support her shaking body.
It was done. The boy was in her hands. There was left only to deliver him to those who, even now, were on the way. Nikky was safe. He would wait in her boudoir, and Hedwig would not come. She had sent no message. She was, indeed, at that moment a part of one of those melancholy family groups which, the world over, in palace or peasant's hut, await the coming of death.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto chatted. He got out the picture-frame for Hedwig, which was finished now, with the exception of burning his initials in the lower left-hand corner. After inquiring politely if the smell of burning would annoy her, the Crown Prince drew a rather broken-backed "F," a weak-kneed "W," and an irregular "O" in the corner and proceeded to burn them in. He sat bent over the desk, the very tip of his tongue protruding, and worked conscientiously and carefully. Between each letter he burned a dot.
Suddenly, Olga Loschek became panic-stricken. She could not stay, and see this thing out. Let them follow her and punish her. She could not. She had done her part. The governess lay in, a drugged sleep. A turn of the key, and the door to the passage beyond which Oskar waited would be closed off. Let follow what must, she would not see it.
The boy still bent over his work. She wandered about the room, casually, as if examining the pictures on the wall. She stopped, for a bitter moment, before Hedwig's photograph, and, for a shaken one, before those of Prince Hubert and his wife. Then she turned the key, and shut Oskar safely away.
"Highness," she said, "Lieutenant Larisch will be here in a moment. Will you permit me to go?"
Otto was off his chair in an instant. "Certainly," he said, his mind still on the "O" which he was shading.
Old habit was strong in the Countess. Although the boy's rank was numbered by moments, although his life was possibly to be counted by hours, she turned at the doorway and swept him a curtsy. Then she went out, and closed the door behind her.
The two sentries stood outside. They were of the Terrorists. She knew, and they knew she knew. But neither one made a sign. They stared ahead, and Olga Loschek went out between them.
Now the psychology of the small boy is a curious thing. It is, for one thing, retentive. Ideas become, given time, obsessions. And obsessions are likely to lead to action.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was only a small boy, for all his title and dignity. And suddenly he felt lonely. Left alone, he returned to his expectations for the day, and compared them with the facts. He remembered other carnivals, with his carriage moving through the streets, and people showering him with fresh flowers. He rather glowed at the memory. Then he recalled that the Chancellor had said he needed fresh air.
Something occurred to him, something which combined fresh air with action, yet kept to the letter of his promise - or was there a promise? - not to leave the Palace.
The idea pleased him. It set him to smiling, and his bright hair to quivering with excitement. It was nothing less than to go up on the roof and find the ball. Nikky would be surprised, having failed himself. He would have to be very careful, having in mind the fate of that unlucky child at the Crystal Palace. And he would have to hurry. Nikky would be sure to return soon.
He opened the door on to the great corridor, and stepped out, saluting the sentries, as he always did.
"I'll be back in a moment," he informed them. He was always on terms of great friendliness with the guard, and he knew these men by sight. "Are you going to be stationed here now?" he inquired pleasantly.
The two guards were at a loss. But one of them, who had a son of his own, and hated the whole business, saluted and replied that he knew not.
"I hope you are," said Ferdinand William Otto, and went on.
The sentries regarded one another. "Let him go!" said the one who was a father.
The other one moved uneasily. "Our orders cover no such contingency," he muttered. "And, besides, he will come back." He bore a strong resemblance to the boy, who, in the riding-school, had dusted the royal hearse. "I hope to God he does not come back," he said stonily.
Five minutes to four.
The Crown Prince hurried. The corridors were almost empty. Here and there he met servants, who stood stiff against the wall until he had passed. On the marble staircase, leading up, he met no one, nor on the upper floor. He was quite warm with running and he paused in his father's suite to mop his face. Then he opened a window and went out on the roof. It seemed very large and empty now, and the afternoon sun, sinking low, threw shadows across it.
Also, from the balustrade, it looked extremely far to the ground.
Nevertheless, although his heart beat a trifle fast, he was still determined. A climb which Nikky with his long legs had achieved in a leap, took him up to a chimney. Below - it seemed a long way below was the gutter. There was a very considerable slant. If one sat down, like Nikky, and slid, and did not slide over the edge, one should fetch up in the gutter.
He felt a trifle dizzy. But Nikky's theory was, that if one is afraid to do a thing, better to do it and get over being afraid.
"I was terribly afraid of a bayonet attack," Nikky had observed, "until I was in one. The next one I rather enjoyed!"
So the Crown Prince sat down on the sloping roof behind the chimney, and gathered his legs under him for a slide.
Then he heard a door open, and footsteps. Very careful footsteps. He was quite certain Nikky had followed him. But there were cautious voices, too, and neither was Nikky's. It occurred to Prince Ferdinand William Otto that a good many people, certainly including Miss Braithwaite, would not approve of either his situation or his position. Miss Braithwaite was particularly particular about positions.
So he sat still beside the chimney, well shielded by the evergreens in tubs, until the voices and the footsteps were gone. Then he took all his courage in his hands, and slid. Well for him that the ancient builders of the Palace had been reckless with lead, that the gutter was both wide and deep. Well for Nikky, too, waiting in the boudoir below and hard- driven between love and anxiety.
The Crown Prince, unaccustomed to tiles, turned over halfway down, and rolled. He brought up with a jerk in the gutter, quite safe, but extremely frightened. And the horrid memory of the Crystal Palace child filled his mind, to the exclusion of everything else. He sat there for quite a few minutes. There was no ball in sight, and the roof looked even steeper from this point.
Being completely self-engrossed, therefore, he did not see that the roof had another visitor. Had two visitors, as a matter of fact. One of them wore a blanket with a white "O" over a white "X" on it, and the other wore a mask, and considerable kitchen cutlery fastened to his belt. They had come out of a small door in the turret and were very much at ease. They leaned over the parapet and admired the view. They strutted about the flat roof, and sang, at least one of them sang a very strange refrain, which was something about
"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest; Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum."
And then they climbed on one of the garden chairs and looked over the expanse of the roof, which was when they saw Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and gazed at him.
"Gee whiz!" said the larger pirate, through his mask. "What are you doing there?"
The Crown Prince started, and stared. "I am sitting here," explained the Crown Prince, trying to look as though he usually sat in lead gutters. "I am looking for a ball."
"You're looking for a fall, I guess," observed the pirate. "You don't remember me, kid, do you?"
"I can't see your face, but I know your voice." His voice trembled with excitement.
"Lemme give you a hand," said the pirate, whipping off his mask. "You make me nervous, sitting there. You've got a nerve, you have."
The Crown Prince looked gratified. "I don't need any assistance, thank you," he said. "Perhaps, now I'm here, I'd better look for the ball."
"I wouldn't bother about the old ball," said the pirate, rather nervously for an old sea-dog. "Yon better get back to a safe place. Say, what made you pretend that our Railway made you nervous?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto climbed up the tiles, trying to look as though tiles were his native habitat. The pirates both regarded him with admiration, as he dropped beside them.
"How did you happen to come here?" asked the Crown Prince. "Did you lose your aeroplane up here?"
"We came on business," said the pirate importantly. "Two of the enemy entered our cave. We were guarding it from the underbrush, and saw them go in. We trailed them. They must die!"
"Really - die?"
"Of course. Death to those who defy us."
"Death to those who defy us!" repeated the Crown Prince, enjoying himself hugely, and quite ready for bloodshed.
"Look here, Dick Deadeye," said the larger pirate to the smaller, who stood gravely at attention, "I think he belongs to our crew. What say, old pal?"
Dick Deadeye wagged his tail.
Some two minutes later, the Crown Prince of Livonia, having sworn the pirate oath of no quarter, except to women and children, was on his way to the pirate cave.
He was not running away. He was not disobedient. He was breaking no promises. Because, from the moment he saw the two confederates, and particularly from the moment he swore the delightful oath, his past was wiped away. There was, in his consciousness, no Palace, no grandfather, no Miss Braithwaite, even no Nikky. There was only a boy and a dog, and a pirate den awaiting him.