Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter VI. The Chancellor Pays a Visit
The Archduchess was having tea. Her boudoir was a crowded little room. Nikky had once observed confidentially to Miss Braithwaite that it was exactly like her, all hung and furnished with things that were not needed. The Archduchess liked it because it was warm. The palace rooms were mostly large and chilly. She lad a fire there on the warmest days in spring, and liked to put the coals on, herself. She wrapped them in pieces of paper so she would not soil her hands.
This afternoon she was not alone. Lounging at a window was the lady who was in waiting at the time, the Countess Loschek. Just now she was getting rather a wigging, but she was remarkably calm.
"The last three times," the Archduchess said, stirring her tea, "you have had a sore throat."
"It is such a dull book," explained the Countess.
"Not at all. It is an improving book. If you would put your mind on it when you are reading, Olga, you would enjoy it. And you would learn something, besides. In my opinion," went on the Archduchess, tasting her tea, "you smoke too many cigarettes."
The Countess yawned, but silently, at her window.
Then she consulted a thermometer. "Eighty!" she said briefly, and, coming over, sat down by the tea-table.
The Countess Loschek was thirty, and very handsome, in an insolent way. She was supposed to be the best-dressed woman at the Court, and to rule Annunciata with an iron hand, although it was known that they quarreled a great deal over small things, especially over the coal fire.
Some said that the real thing that held them together was resentment that the little Crown Prince stood between the Princess Hedwig and the throne. Annunciata was not young, but she was younger than her dead brother, Hubert. And others said it was because the Countess gathered up and brought in the news of the Court - the small intrigues and the scandals that constitute life in the restricted walls of a palace. There is a great deal of gossip in a palace where the king is old and everything rather stupid and dull.
The Countess yawned again.
"Where is Hedwig?" demanded the Archduchess.
"Her Royal Highness is in the nursery, probably."
"She goes there a great deal."
The Archduchess eyed her. "Well, out with it," she said. "There is something seething in that wicked brain of yours."
The Countess shrugged her shoulders. Not that she resented having a wicked brain. She rather fancied the idea. "She and young Lieutenant Larisch have tea quite frequently with His Royal Highness."
"Three times this last week, madame."
"Little fool!" said Annunciata. But she frowned, and sat tapping her teacup with her spoon. She was just a trifle afraid of Hedwig, and she was more anxious than she would have cared to acknowledge. "It is being talked about, of course?"
The Countess shrugged her shoulders.
"Don't do that!" commanded the Archduchess sharply. "How far do you think the thing has gone?"
"He is quite mad about her."
"And Hedwig - but she is silly enough for anything. Do they meet anywhere else?"
"At the riding-school, I believe. At least, I - "
Here a maid entered and stood waiting at the end of the screen. The Archduchess Annunciata would have none of the palace flunkies about her when she could help it. She had had enough of men, she maintained, in the person of her late husband, whom she had detested. So except at dinner she was attended by tidy little maids, in gray Quaker costumes, who could carry tea-trays into her crowded boudoir without breaking things.
"His Excellency, General Mettlich," said the maid.
The Archduchess nodded her august head, and the maid retired. "Go away, Olga," said the Archduchess. "And you might," she suggested grimly, "gargle your throat."
The Chancellor had passed a troubled night. Being old, like the King, he required little sleep. And for most of the time between one o'clock and his rising hour of five he had lain in his narrow camp-bed and thought. He had not confided all his worries to the King.
Evidences of renewed activity on the part of the Terrorists were many. In the past month two of his best secret agents had disappeared. One had been found the day before, stabbed in the back. The Chancellor had seen the body - an unpleasant sight. But it was not of the dead man that General Mettlich thought. It was of the other. The dead tell nothing. But the living, under torture, tell many things. And this man Haeckel, young as he was, knew much that was vital. Knew the working of the Secret Service, the names of the outer circle of twelve, knew the codes and passwords, knew, too the ways of the palace, the hidden room always ready for emergency, even the passage that led by devious ways, underground, to a distant part of the great park.
At five General Mettlich had risen, exercised before an open window with an old pair of iron dumbbells, had followed this with a cold bath and hot coffee, and had gone to early Mass at the Cathedral.
And there, on his knees, he had prayed for a little help. He was, he said, getting old and infirm, and he had been too apt all his life to rely on his own right arm. But things were getting rather difficult. He prayed to Our Lady for intercession for the little Prince. He felt, in his old heart, that the Mother would understand the situation, and how he felt about it. And he asked in a general supplication, and very humbly, for a few years more of life. Not that life meant anything to him personally. He had outlived most of those he loved. But that he might serve the King, and after him the boy who would be Otto IX. He added, for fear they might not understand, having a great deal to look after, that he had earned all this by many years of loyalty, and besides, that he knew the situation better than any one else.
He felt much better after that. Especially as, at the moment he rose from his knees, the cathedral clock had chimed and then struck seven. He had found seven a very lucky number, So now he entered the boudoir of the Archduchess Annunciata, and the Countess went out another door, and closed it behind her, immediately opening it about an inch.
The Chancellor strode around the screen, scratching two tables with his sword as he advanced, and kissed the hand of the Princess Annunciata. They were old enemies and therefore always very polite to each other. The Archduchess offered him a cup of tea, which he took, although she always made very bad tea. And for a few moments they discussed things. Thus: the King's condition; the replanting of the Place with trees; and the date of bringing out the Princess Hilda, who was still in the schoolroom.
But the Archduchess suddenly came to business. She was an abrupt person. "And now, General," she said, "what is it?"
"I am in trouble, Highness," replied the Chancellor simply.
"We are most of us in that condition at all times. I suppose you mean this absurd affair of yesterday. Why such a turmoil about it? The boy ran away. When he was ready he returned. It was absurd, and I dare say you and I both are being held for our sins. But he is here now, and safe."
"I am afraid he is not as safe as you think, madame."
He sat forward on the edge of his chair, and told her of the students at the University, who were being fired by some powerful voice; of the disappearance of the two spies; of the evidence that the Committee of Ten was meeting again, and the failure to discover their meeting-place; of disaffection among the people, according to the reports of his agents. And then to the real purpose of his visit. Karl of Karnia had, unofficially, proposed for the Princess Hedwig. He had himself broached the matter to the King, who had at least taken it under advisement. The Archduchess listened, rather pale. There was no mistaking the urgency in the Chancellor's voice.
"Madame after centuries of independence we now face a crisis which we cannot meet alone. Believe me, I know of what I speak. United, we could stand against the world. But a divided kingdom, a disloyal and discontented people, spells the end.
And at last he convinced her. But, because she was built of a contrary mould, she voiced an objection, not to the scheme, but to Karl himself. "I dislike him. He is arrogant and stupid."
"But powerful, madame. And - what else is there to do?"
There was nothing else, and she knew it. But she refused to broach the matter to Hedwig.
She stated, and perhaps not without reason, that such a move was to damn the whole thing at once. She did not use exactly these words, but their royal equivalent. And it ended with the Chancellor, looking most ferocious but inwardly uneasy, undertaking to put, as one may say, a flea into the Princess Hedwig's small ear.
As he strode out, the door into the next room closed quietly.