Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXXVI. The King is Dead
Now at last the old King's hour had come. Mostly he slept, as though his body, eager for its long rest, had already given up the struggle. Stimulants, given by his devoted physician, had no effect. Other physicians there were, a group of them, but it was Doctor Wiederman who stood by the bed and waited.
Father Gregory, his friend of many years, had come again from Etzel, and it was he who had administered the sacrament. The King had roused for it, and had smiled at the father.
"So!" he said, almost in a whisper, "you would send me clean! It is hard to scour an old kettle."
Doctor Wiederman bent over the bed. "Majesty," he implored, "if there is anything we can do to make you comfortable - "
"Give me Hubert's picture," said the King. When his fingers refused to hold it, Annunciata came forward swiftly and held it before him. But his heavy eyes closed. With more intuition than might have been expected of her, the Archduchess laid it on the white coverlet, and placed her father's hand on it.
The physicians consulted in an alcove. Annunciata went back to her restless, noiseless pacing of the room. Father Gregory went to a window, and stared out. He saw, not the silent crowd in the Place, but many other things; the King, as a boy, chafing under the restraint of Court ceremonial; the King, as a young man, taking a wife who did not love him. He saw the King madly in love with his wife, and turning to excesses to forget her. Then, and for this the old priest thanked the God who was so real to him, he saw the Queen bear children, and turning to her husband because he was their father. They had lived to love deeply and' truly.
Then had come the inevitable griefs. The Queen had died, and had been saved a tragedy, for Hubert had been violently done to death. And now again a tragedy had come, but one the King would never know.
The two Sisters of Mercy stood beside the bed, and looked down at the quiet figure.
"I should wish to die so," whispered the elder. "A long life, filled with many deeds, and then to sleep away!"
"A long life, full of many sorrows!" observed the younger one, her eyes full of tears. "He has outlived all that he loved."
"Except the little Otto."
Their glances met, for even here there was a question.
As if their thought had penetrated the haze which is, perhaps, the mist that hides from us the gates of heaven, the old King opened his eyes.
"Otto!" he said. "I - wish - "
Annunciata bent over him. "He is coming, father," she told him, with white lips.
She slipped to her knees beside the bed, and looked up to Doctor Wiederman with appealing eyes.
"I am afraid," she whispered. "Can you not - ?"
He shook his head. She had asked a question in her glance, and he had answered. The Crown Prince was gone. Perhaps the search would be successful. Could he not be held, then, until the boy was found? And Doctor Wiederman had answered "No."
In the antechamber the Council waited, standing and without speech. But in an armchair beside the door to the King's room the Chancellor sat, his face buried in his hands. In spite of precautions, in spite of everything, the blow had fallen. The Crown Prince, to him at once son and sovereign, the little Crown Prince, was gone. And his old friend, his comrade of many years, lay at his last hour.
Another regiment left the Palace, to break ranks beyond the crowd, and add to the searchers. They marched to a muffled drum. As the sound reached him, the old warrior stirred. He had come to this, he who had planned, not for himself, but for his country. And because he was thinking clearly, in spite of his grief, he saw that his very ambition for the boy had been his undoing. In the alliance with Karnia he had given the Terrorists a scourge to flay the people to revolt.
Now he waited for the King's death. Waited numbly. For, with the tolling of St. Stefan's bell would rise the cry for the new King.
And there was no King.
In the little room where the Sisters kept their medicines, so useless now, Hedwig knelt at the Prie-dieu and prayed.
She tried to pray for her grandfather's soul, but she could not. Her one cry was for Otto, that he be saved and brought back. In the study she had found the burntwood frame, and she held it hugged close to her with its broken-backed "F," its tottering "W," and wavering "O", with its fat Cupids in sashes, and the places where an over-earnest small hand had slipped.
Hilda stood by the stand, and fingered the bottles. Her nose was swollen with crying, but she was stealthily removing corks and sniffing at the contents of the bottles with the automatic curiosity of the young.
The King roused again. "Mettlich?" he asked.
The elder Sister tiptoed to the door and opened it. The Council turned, dread on their faces. She placed a hand on the Chancellor's shoulder.
"His Majesty has asked for you."
When he looked up, dazed, she bent down and took his hand.
"Courage!" she said quietly.
The Chancellor stood a second inside the door. Then he went to the side of the bed, and knelt, his lips to the cold, white hand on the counterpane.
"Sire!" he choked. "It is I - Mettlich."
The King looked at him, and placed his hand on the bowed gray head. Then his eyes turned to Annunciata and rested there. It was as if he saw her, not as the embittered woman of late years, but as the child of the woman he had loved.
"A good friend, and a good daughter," he said clearly. "Few men die so fortunate, and fewer sovereigns." His hand moved from Mettlich's head, and rested on the photograph.
The elder Sister leaned forward and touched his wrist. "Doctor!" she said sharply.
Doctor Wiederman came first, the others following. They grouped around the bed. Then the oldest of them, who had brought Annunciata into the world, touched her on the shoulder.
"Madame!" he said. "Madame, I - His Majesty has passed away."
Mettlich staggered to his feet, and took a long look at the face of his old sovereign and king.
In the mean time, things had been happening in the room where the Council waited. The Council, free of the restraint of the Chancellor's presence, had fallen into low-voiced consultation. What was to be done? They knew already the rumors of the streets, and were helpless before them. They had done what they could. But the boy was gone, and the city rising. Already the garrison of the fortress had been ordered to the Palace, but it could not arrive before midnight. Friese had. questioned the wisdom of it, at that, and was for flight as soon as the King died. Bayerl, on the other hand, urged a stand, in the hope that the Crown Prince would be found.
Their voices, lowered at first, rose acrimoniously; almost they penetrated to the silent room beyond. On to the discussion came Nikky Larisch, covered with dust and spotted with froth from his horse. He entered without ceremony, his boyish face drawn and white, his cap gone, his eyes staring.
"The Chancellor?" he said.
Some one pointed to the room beyond.
Nikky hesitated. Then, being young and dramatic, even in tragedy, he unbuckled his sword-belt and took it off, placing it on a table.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I have come to surrender myself."
The Council stared.
"For what reason?" demanded Marschall coldly.
"I believe it is called high treason." He closed his eyes for a moment. "It is because of my negligence that this thing has happened. He was in my charge, and I left him."
No one said anything. The Council looked at a loss, rather like a flock of sheep confronting some strange animal.
"I would have shot myself," said Nikky Larisch, "but it was too easy."
Then, rather at a loss as to the exact etiquette of arresting one's self, he bowed slightly and waited.
The door into the King's bedchamber opened.
The Chancellor came through, his face working. It closed behind him.
"Gentlemen of the Council," he said. "It is my duty my duty - to announce - " His voice broke; his grizzled chin quivered; tears rolled down his cheeks. "Friends," he said pitifully, "our good King - my old comrade - is dead!"
The birthday supper was over. It had ended with an American ice-cream, brought in carefully by Pepy, because of its expensiveness. They had cut the cake with Boby on the top, and the Crown Prince had eaten far more than was good for him.
He sat, fingering the Lincoln penny and feeling extremely full and very contented.
Then, suddenly, from a far-off church a deep-toned bell began to toll slowly.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto caught it. St. Stefan's bell! He sat up and listened. The sound was faint; one felt it rather than heard it, but the slow booming was unmistakable. He got up and pushed his chair back.
Other bells had taken it up, and now the whole city seemed alive with bells - bells that swung sadly from side to side, as if they said over and over: "Alas, alas!"
Something like panic seized Ferdinand William Otto. Some calamity had happened. Some one was perhaps his grandfather.
He turned an appealing face to Mrs. Thorpe. "I must go," he said: "I do not wish to appear rude, but something is wrong. The bells - "
Pepy had beet listening, too. Her broad face worked. "They mean but one thing," she said slowly. "I have heard it said many times. When St. Stefan's tolls life that, the King is dead!"
"No! No!" cried Ferdinand William Otto and ran madly out of the door.