Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter IV. The Terror
Until late that night General Mettlich and the King talked together. The King had been lifted from his bed and sat propped in a great chair. Above his shabby dressing-gown his face showed gaunt and old. In a straight chair facing him sat his old friend and Chancellor.
"What it has shown is not entirely bad," said the King, after a pause. "The boy has initiative. And he made no attempt at evasion. He is essentially truthful."
"What it has also shown, sire, is that no protection is enough. When I, who love the lad, and would - when I could sleep, and let him get away, as I did - "
"The truth is," said the King, "we are both of us getting old." He tapped with his gnarled fingers on the blanket that lay over his knees. "The truth is also," he observed a moment later, "that the boy has very few pleasures. He is alone a great deal."
General Mettlich raised his shaggy head. Many years of wearing a soldier's cap had not injured his heavy gray hair. He had bristling eyebrows, white new, and a short, fighting mustache. When he was irritated, or disagreed with any one, his eyebrows came down and the mustache went up.
Many years of association with his king had given him the right to talk to him as man to man. They even quarreled now and then. It was a brave man who would quarrel with old Ferdinand II.
So now his eyebrows came down and his mustache went up. "How - alone, sire?"
"You do not regard that bigoted Englishwoman as a companion, do you?"
"He is attached to her."
"I'm damned if I know why," observed the old King. "She doesn't appear to have a single human quality."
Human quality! General Mettlich eyed his king with concern. Since when had the reigning family demanded human qualities in their governesses? "She is a thoughtful and conscientious woman, sire," he said stiffly. It happened that he had selected her. "She does her duty. And as to the boy being lonely, he has no time to be lonely. His tutors - "
"How old is he?"
"Ten next month."
The King said nothing for a time. Then - "It is hard," he said at last, "for seventy-four to see with the eyes of ten. As for this afternoon - why in the name of a thousand devils did they take him to see the 'Flying Dutchman'? I detest it."
"Her Royal Highness - "
"Annunciata is a fool," said His Majesty. Then dismissing his daughter with a gesture, "We don't know how to raise our children here," he said impatiently. "The English do better. And even the Germans - "
It is not etiquette to lower one's eyebrows at a king, and glare. But General Mettlich did it. He was rather a poor subject. "The Germans have not our problem, sire," he said, and stuck up his mustache.
"I'm not going to raise the boy a prisoner," insisted the King stubbornly. Kings have to be very stubborn about things. So many people disapprove of the things they want to do.
Suddenly General Mettlich bent forward and placed a hand on the old man's knee. "We shall do well, sire," he said gravely, "to raise the boy at all."
There was a short silence, which the King broke. "What is new?"
"We have broken up the University meetings, but I fancy they go on, in small groups. I was gratified, however, to observe that a group of students cheered His Royal Highness yesterday as he rode past the University buildings."
"Socialism at twenty," said the King, "is only a symptom of the unrest of early adolescence. Even Hubert" - he glanced at the picture - "was touched with it. He accused me, I recall, of being merely an accident, a sort of stumbling-block in the way of advanced thought!"
He smiled faintly. Then he sighed. "And the others?" he asked.
"The outlying districts are quiet. So, too, is the city. Too quiet, sire."
"They are waiting, of course, for my death," said the King quietly. "If only, you were twenty years younger than I am, it would be better." He fixed the General with shrewd eyes. "What do those asses of doctors say about me?"
"With care, sire - "
"Come, now. This is no time for evasion."
"Even at the best, sire - " He looked very ferocious, and cleared his throat. He was terribly ashamed that his voice was breaking.. "Even at the best, but of course they can only give an opinion - "
"A year, sire."
"And at the worst!" said the King, with a grim smile. Then; following his own line of, thought: "But the people love the boy, I think."
"They do. It is for that reason, sire, that I advise particular caution." He hesitated. Then, "Sire," he said earnestly, "there is something of which I must speak. The Committee of Ten has organized again."
Involuntarily the King glanced at the photograph on the table.
"Forgive me, sire, if I waken bitter memories. But I fear - "
"You fear!" said the King. "Since when have you taken to fearing?"
"Nevertheless,"maintained General Mettlich doggedly, "I fear. This quiet of the last few months alarms me. Dangerous dogs do not bark. I trust no one. The very air is full of sedition."
The King twisted his blue-veined old hands together, but his voice was quiet. "But why?" he demanded, almost fretfully. "If the people are fond of the boy, and I think they are, to - to carry him off, or injure him, would hurt the cause. Even the Terrorists, in the name of a republic, can do nothing without the people."
"The mob is a curious thing, sire. You have ruled with a strong hand. Our people know nothing but to obey the dominant voice. The boy out of the way, the prospect of the Princess Hedwig on the throne, a few demagogues in the public squares - it would be the end."
The King leaned back and closed his eyes. His thin, arched nose looked pinched. His face was gray.
"All this," he said, "means what? To make the boy a prisoner, to cut off his few pleasures, and even then, at any time - "
"Yes, sire," said Mettlich doggedly. "At any time."
Outside in the anteroom Lieutenant Nikky Larisch roused himself, yawned, and looked at his watch. It was after twelve, and he had had a hard day. He put a velvet cushion behind his head, and resolutely composed himself to slumber, a slumber in which were various rosy dreams, all centered about the Princess Hedwig. Dreams are beyond our control.
Therefore a young lieutenant running into debt on his pay may without presumption dream of a princess.
All through the Palace people were sleeping. Prince Ferdinand William Otto was asleep, and riding again the little car in the Land of Delight. So that, turning a corner sharply, he almost fell out of bed.
On the other side of the city the little American boy was asleep also. At that exact time he was being tucked up by an entirely efficient and placid-eyed American mother, who felt under his head to see that his ear was not turned forward. She liked close-fitting ears.
Nobody, naturally, was tucking up Prince Ferdinand William Otto. Or attending to his ears. But, of course, there were sentries outside his door, and a valet de chambre to be rung for, and a number of embroidered eagles scattered about on the curtains and things, and a country surrounding him which would one day be his, unless -
"At any time," said General Mettlich, and was grimly silent.
It was really no time for such a speech. But there is never a good time for bad news.
"Well?" inquired the King, after a time. "You have something to suggest, I take it."
The old soldier cleared his throat. "Sire," he began, "it is said that a chancellor should have but one passion - his King. I have two: my King and my country."
The King nodded gravely. He knew both passions, relied on both. And found them both a bit troublesome at times!
"Once, some years ago, sire, I came to you with a plan. The Princess Hedwig was a child then, and his late Royal Highness was - still with us. For that, and for other reasons, Your Majesty refused to listen. But things have changed. Between us and revolution there stand only the frail life of a boy and an army none too large, and already, perhaps, affected. There is much discontent, and the offspring of discontent is anarchy."
The King snarled. But Mettlich had taken his courage in his hands, and went on. Their neighbor and hereditary foe was Karnia. Could they any longer afford the enmity of Karnia? One cause of discontent was the expense of the army, and of the fortifications along the Karnian border. If Karnia were allied with them, there would be no need of so great an army. They had the mineral wealth, and Karnia the seaports. The old dream of the Empire, of a railway to the sea, would be realized.
He pleaded well. The idea was not new. To place the little King Otto IX on the throne and keep him there in the face of opposition would require support from outside. Karnia would furnish this support. For a price.
The price was the Princess Hedwig.
Outside, Nikky Larisch rose, stretched, and fell to pacing the floor. It was one o'clock, and the palace slept. He lighted a cigarette, and stepping out into a small balcony which overlooked the Square, faced the quiet night.
"That is my plea, sire," Mettlich finished. "Karl of Karnia is anxious to marry, and looks this way. To allay discontent and growing insurrection, to insure the boy's safety and his throne, to beat our swords into ploughshares" - here he caught the King's scowl; and added - "to a certain extent, and to make us a commercial as well as a military nation, surely, sire, it gains much for us, and loses us nothing."
"But our independence!" said the King sourly.
However, he did not dismiss the idea. The fright of the afternoon had weakened him, and if Mettlich were right - he had what the King considered a perfectly damnable habit of being right - the Royalist party would need outside help to maintain the throne.
"Karnia!" he said. "The lion and the lamb, with the lamb inside the lion! And in, the mean time the boy - "
"He should be watched always."
"The old she-dragon, the governess - I suppose she is trustworthy?"
"Perfectly. But she is a woman."
"He has Lussin." Count Lussin was the Crown Prince's aide-de-camp.
"He needs a man, sire," observed the Chancellor rather tartly.
The King cleared his throat. "This youngster he is so fond of, young Larisch, would he please you better?" he asked, with ironic deference.
"A good boy, sire. You may recall that his mother - " He stopped.
Perhaps the old King's memory was good. Perhaps there was a change in Mettlich's voice.
"A good boy?"
"None better, sire. He is devoted to His Royal Highness. He is still much of a lad himself. I have listened to them talking. It is a question which is the older! He is outside now."
"Bring him in. I'll have a look at him."
Nikky, summoned by a chamberlain, stopped inside the doorway and bowed deeply.
"Come here," said the King.
"How old are you?"
"In the Grenadiers, I believe."
"Like horses?" said the King suddenly.
"Very much, sire."
"I - some boys, sire."
"Humph! Quite right, too. Little devils, most of them." He drew himself tap in his chair. "Lieutenant Larisch," he said, "His Royal Highness the Crown Prince has taken a liking to you. I believe it is to you that our fright to-day is due."
Nikky's heart thumped. He went rather pale.
"It is my intention, Lieutenant Larisch, to place the Crown Prince in your personal charge. For reasons I need not go into, it is imperative that he take no more excursions alone. These are strange times, when sedition struts in Court garments, and kings may trust neither their armies nor their subjects. I want," he said, his tone losing its bitterness, "a real friend for the little Crown Prince. One who is both brave and loyal."
Afterward, in his small room, Nikky composed a neat, well-rounded speech, in which he expressed his loyalty, gratitude, and undying devotion to the Crown Prince. It was an elegant little speech. Unluckily, the occasion for it had gone by two hours.
"I - I am grateful, sire," was what he said. "I -" And there he stopped and choked up. It was rather dreadful.
"I depend on you, Captain Larisch," said the King gravely, and nodded his head in a gesture of dismissal. Nikky backed toward the door, struck a hassock, all but went down, bowed again at the door, and fled.
"A fine lad," said General Mettlich, "but no talker."
"All the better," replied His Majesty. "I am tired of men who talk well. And" - he smiled faintly -"I am tired of you. You talk too well. You make me think. I don't want to think. I've been thinking all my life. It is time to rest, my friend."