Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter VII. Tea in the Schoolroom
Tea at the Palace, until the old King had taken to his bed, had been the one cheerful hour of the day. The entire suite gathered in one of the salons, and remained standing until the King's entrance. After that, formality ceased. Groups formed, footmen in plush with white wigs passed trays of cakes and sandwiches and tiny gilt cups of exquisite tea. The Court, so to speak, removed its white gloves, and was noisy and informal. True, at dinner again ceremony and etiquette would reign. The march into the dining-hall between rows of bowing servants, the set conversation, led by the King, the long and tedious courses, the careful watch for precedence that was dinner at the Palace.
But now all that was changed. The King did not leave his apartment. Annunciata occasionally took tea with the suite, but glad for an excuse, left the Court to dine without her. Sometimes for a half-hour she lent her royal if somewhat indifferently attired presence to the salon afterward, where for thirty minutes or so she moved from group to group, exchanging a few more or less gracious words. But such times were rare. The Archduchess, according to Court gossip, had "slumped."
To Hedwig the change had been a relief. The entourage, with its gossip, its small talk, its liaisons, excited in her only indifference and occasional loathing. Not that her short life had been without its affairs. She was too lovely for that. But they had touched her only faintly.
On the day of the Chancellor's visit to her mother she went to tea in the schoolroom. She came in glowing from a walk, with the jacket of her dark velvet suit thrown open, and a bunch of lilies-of-the-valley tucked in her belt.
Tea had already come, and Captain Larisch, holding his cup, was standing by the table. The Crown Prince, who was allowed only one cup, was having a second of hot water and milk, equal parts, and sweetened.
Hedwig slipped out of her jacket and drew off her gloves. She had hardly glanced at Nikky, although she knew quite well every motion he had made since she entered. "I am famished!" she said, and proceeded to eat very little and barely touch the tea. "Please don't go, Miss Braithwaite. And now, how is everything?"
Followed a long half-hour, in which the Crown Prince talked mostly of the Land of Desire and the American boy. Miss Braithwaite, much indulged by long years of service, crocheted, and Nikky Larisch, from the embrasure of a window, watched the little group. In reality he watched Hedwig, all his humble, boyish heart in his eyes.
After a time Hedwig slipped the lilies out of her belt and placed them in a glass of water.
"They are thirsty, poor things," she said to Otto. Only - and here was a strange thing, if she were really sorry for them - one of the stalks fell to the floor, and she did not trouble to pick it up. Nikky retrieved it, and pretended to place it with the others. But in reality he had palmed it quite neatly, and a little later he pocketed it. Still later, he placed it in his prayer-book.
The tea-table became rather noisy. The room echoed with laughter. Even Miss Braithwaite was compelled to wipe her eyes over some of Nikky's sallies, and the Crown Prince was left quite gasping. Nikky was really in his best form, being most unreasonably happy, and Hedwig, looking much taller than in her boyish riding-clothes - Hedwig was fairly palpitating with excitement.
Nikky was a born mimic. First he took off the King's Council, one by one. Then in an instant he was Napoleon, which was easy, of course; and the next second, with one of the fur tails which had come unfastened from Hedwig's muff, he had become a pirate, with the tail for a great mustache. One of the very best things he did, however, was to make a widow's cap out of a tea-napkin, and surmount it with a tiny coronet, which was really Hedwig's bracelet. He put it on, drew down his upper lip, and puffed his cheeks, and there was Queen Victoria of England to the life.
Hedwig was so delighted with this, that she made him sit down, and draped one of Miss Braithwaite's shawls about his shoulders. It was difficult to look like Queen Victoria under the circumstances, with her small hands deftly draping and smoothing. But Nikky did very well.
It was just as Hedwig was tucking the shawl about his neck to hide the collar of his tunic, and Miss Braithwaite was looking a trifle offended, because she considered the memory of Queen Victoria not to be trifled with, and just as Nikky took a fresh breath and puffed out leis cheeks again, that the Archduchess came in.
She entered unannounced, save by a jingle of chains, and surveyed the room with a single furious glance. Queen Victoria's cheeks collapsed and the coronet slid slightly to one side. Then Nikky rose and jerked off the shawl and bowed. Every one looked rather frightened, except the Crown Prince. In a sort of horrible silence he advanced and kissed Annunciata's hand.
"So - this is what you are doing," observed Her Royal Highness to Hedwig. "In this - this undignified manner you spend your time!"
"It is very innocent fun, mother."
For that matter, there was nothing very dignified in the scene that followed. The Archduchess dismissed the governess and the Crown Prince, quite as if he had been an ordinary child, and naughty at that. Miss Braithwaite looked truculent. After all, the heir to the throne is the heir to the throne and should have the privilege of his own study. But Hedwig gave her an appealing glance, and she went out, closing the door with what came dangerously near being a slam.
The Archduchess surveyed the two remaining culprits with a terrible gaze. "Now," she said, "how long have these ridiculous performances been going on?"
"Mother!" said Hedwig.
"The question is absurd. There was no harm in what we were doing. It amused Otto. He has few enough pleasures. Thanks to all of us, he is very lonely."
"And since when have you assumed the responsibility for his upbringing?"
"I remember my own dreary childhood," said Hedwig stiffly.
The Archduchess turned on her furiously. "More and more," she said, "as you grow up, Hedwig, you remind me of your unfortunate father. You have the same lack of dignity, the same" - she glanced at Nikky - "the same common tastes, the same habit of choosing strange society, of forgetting your rank."
Hedwig was scarlet, but Nikky had gone pale. As for the Archduchesss, her cameos were rising and falling stormily. With hands that shook; Hedwig picked up her jacket and hat. Then she moved toward the door.
"Perhaps you are right, mother," she said, "but I hope I shall never have the bad taste to speak ill of the dead." Then she went out.
The scene between the Archduchess and Nikky began in a storm and ended in a sort of hopeless quiet. Miss Braithwaite had withdrawn to her sitting-room, but even there she could hear the voice of Annunciata, rasping and angry.
It was very clear to Nikky from the beginning that the Archduchess's wrath was not for that afternoon alone. And in his guilty young mind rose various memories, all infinitely dear, all infinitely, incredibly reckless - other frolics around the tea-table, rides in the park, lessons in the riding-school. Very soon he was confessing them all, in reply to sharp questions. When the tablet of his sins was finally uncovered, the Archduchess was less angry and a great deal more anxious. Hedwig free was a problem. Hedwig in love with this dashing boy was a greater one.
"Of one thing I must assure Your Highness," said Nikky. "These - these meetings have been of my seeking."
"The Princess requires no defense, Captain Larisch,"
That put him back where he belonged, and Annunciata did a little thinking, while Nikky went on, in his troubled way, running his fingers through his hair until he looked rather like an uneasy but ardent-eyed porcupine. He acknowledged that these meetings had meant much to him, everything to him, he would confess, but he had never dared to hope. He had always thought of Her Royal Highness as the granddaughter of his King. He had never spoken a word that he need regret. Annunciata listened, and took his measure shrewdly. He was the sort of young fool, she told herself, who would sacrifice himself and crucify his happiness for his country. It was on just such shoulders as his that the throne was upheld. His loyalty was more to be counted on than his heart.
She changed her tactics adroitly, sat down, even softened her voice. "I have been emphatic, Captain Larisch," she said, "because, as I think you know, things are not going too well with us. To help the situation, certain plans are being made. I will be more explicit. A marriage is planned for the Princess Hedwig, which will assist us all. It is" - she hesitated imperceptibly - "the King's dearest wish."
Horror froze on Nikky's face. But he bowed.
"After what you have told me, I shall ask your cooperation," said Annunciata smoothly. "While there are some of us who deplore the necessity, still - it exists. And an alliance with Karnia - "
"Karnia!" cried Nikky, violating all ceremonial, of course. "But surely -!"
The Archduchess rose and drew herself to her full height. "I have given you confidence for confidence, Captain Larisch," she said coldly. "The Princess Hedwig has not yet been, told. We shall be glad of your assistance when that time comes. It is possible, that it will not come. In case it does, we shall count on you."
Nikky bowed deeply as she went out; bowed, with death in his eyes.
And thus it happened that Captain Nicholas Larisch aide-de-camp to his Royal Highness the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and of no other particular importance, was informed of the Princess Hedwig's projected marriage before she was. And not only informed of it, but committed to forward it, if he could!